Last Wednesday, I landed in Minneapolis for the first time in a year.
And the first emotion I could identify upon my return to my adopted home of eight years was “weird.”
Obviously, I was more than excited to see friends and former colleagues, for a three-week summer stint on the precipice of returning to Central America.
But as the plane from Montréal, my previous stop, descended into the Twin Cities, I could only think of the last time I was in that air space.
It was June 28, 2018, and I was leaving everything I knew, bound for everything I didn’t. I was ready for this move, I thought. Weeks earlier, I had sold all my belongings — the things acquired over 32 years of life — left my job at the Star Tribune, said a tearful goodbye to the house that claimed so many memories, bid farewells to friends of a lifetime. I did so with so many dreams, with so much motivation. I’ve never felt regret.
But in that moment, in a left-side window seat in the back of the plane, I was struggling to breathe.
These are the things I haven’t talked about as much. By now, perhaps many of you know me as an intrepid nomad, wandering solo with confidence and with inspiration, to lesser travelled places of the world. But on that flight, I was struggling. As soon as I landed in my home town of Raleigh, to briefly see family before embarking to Mexico in what would be the first chapter of this ongoing journey of a lifetime, I checked myself into a hospital.
I thought I was having a heart attack.
In fact, it was the first panic attack of my life, my physiology reacting in a way my bold mind couldn’t even wrap itself around. Even if my brain couldn’t grasp the upheaval I was charging into, my body somehow knew.
Still, as I landed in my old stomping grounds, I hadn’t realized that the first moments of my homecoming would be so emotional, too. My friend Jill picked me up from the airport and brought me back to her home in Edina, where I stayed for my first several days in town. When we walked in, I saw Avery, her daughter — a baby, when I left, now a walking, talking, long, blonde-haired little girl who understandably had no clue who I was. Over the Fourth of July, I spent time with my friend Erin, who had gotten married when I was in Honduras.
Driving into the city, it was hard to miss all that had changed there, too. My old watering hole, Hola Arepa — where I had my first dinner back — had changed their menus, and their bar stools. A new restaurant sat at the corner of Lyndale and Lake, where Hasty Tasty, and before that Falafel King, once sat. Burger Jones had a new sign. New construction, new restaurants, were everywhere. As I drove up Lake St., toward the highway, I passed Lake Bde Maka Ska, the site of walks and jogs during all seasons, of picnics and friend reunions and fish tacos at the now defunct Tin Fish at water’s edge. Drifting past evidence of a life I once had, I stretched to see the expanse in the hazy dusk. Suddenly, again without understanding all of the whys, tears poured down my face.
This city, my old home, had changed — without me. But even more that, I had changed.
In the last year, I’ve become in many ways, a new person. Always adventurous, I have, necessarily become braver, bolder and better at listening to my gut. Always very independent, I’ve found that trait stretched far beyond any previous challenge — finding ways to be wholly responsible not just for my income and safety, but also my mental health and wellbeing in a new existence that lacks the support network I was also so accustomed to in my professional and personal life. I hope I’ve learned to listen better and feel more fully. As I’ve expanded my understanding of Central America, its social-economic realities and geo-political forces and the ways in which the U.S. has negatively contributed to all that, I’ve certainly become more deeply humbled.
As much as anything, I’ve realized, anew, just how much I value the things I sacrificed for this journey: the routine, the physical and emotional support, the professional guidance, the simplicity of life.
I cried that first evening, I realized later, because my body and heart were remembering what it felt like to feel secure, safe, at ease. I’m so happy with my new existence in so many ways. But driving past remnants of my old life unloaded the flood of all the emotions I miss: Stability. Normalcy. It was a time when my heart felt too empty of change and risk and personal growth, but oh so full of love.
A few days later, I drove by the house I said goodbye to a year ago; pushing my backpack into a cab then, and feeling the physical squeeze of my whole chest as we drove away.
It was gone. My old front walk was still there, but now it led to a deep construction pit lined by cranes and concrete blockades and caution tape. I had heard it was happening, but still, turning around the corner and seeing the cavity for myself made my jaw sink and my heart pound. The rose bushes, the peonies, the white brick interior, every scrap of hardwood we’d danced on late at night; it had all been cleared away — along with our neighbor’s house and the dry cleaner, making room for new neighborhood projects and condos.
The beautiful memories still lasted, and will, forever. But as I sat parked out front, down curb from the Hello Pizza I’d so often run over to for a slice, they felt so far away.
The house had changed, and I had, too.