The Beginning of the World

“You don’t know how lucky you are to live here, to grow up with all this,” my mother would say, sometimes with a theatrical gesture toward the lake, the island, and the mountains. “Don’t ever take it for granted,” she finger-wagged.

Was she crazy? If she only knew how deeply the place ran in me, and I in it. We were bound together by a primal covenant. But that was my secret, mine to own. Outwardly, I showed indifference and chafed at the constraints of small-town life. Natural beauty aside, my world felt confining, stifling. Dull as dull could be. The village couldn’t keep a secret, either. Every one of the hamlet’s 2,000 or so residents knew me, my parents, or someone in my large, raucous family—or worse, was related to me. The steady, predictable beat of “You must be Phil’s daughter” only increased my wildness to be somewhere else. Anywhere else. Of all the worlds in the world, why did this one pick me?

I scrambled for the exit as soon as I could, by then frenzied to see what life was like beyond this remote, mountainous territory in upstate New York that, geologically, was more Canadian than U.S. I wandered far—first, to college in Washington, DC and then to my first real job in San Francisco. Life became an endless field trip. Every day was a new discovery, a new experience of something curious, shocking, or wondrous.

But like any object once put in motion, I was pulled ever forward by a relentless force, accelerating toward some amorphous distant limit. My only desire was to fly further, to stretch across a mysterious boundary and tumble into spaces that were unfamiliar and obscure. I wanted to run full throttle toward a cliff, throw myself off and see where I landed.

At age 26, I announced to my parents that I was planning on backpacking around East Asia. Alone. In the days before internet and cell phones, when international communication largely took place by the pale blue aéropostales that took 30 days to reach their destination, my parents were, understandably, beside themselves with distress. But I was exhilarated by the idea of venturing off into the unknown, giddy at the idea of no one in the world even knowing where I was. I felt alive.

Fifteen countries and four years later, I stumbled back to the U.S. with a box of ratty journals detailing my exploits and an acceptance letter to graduate school. My parents were relieved that I had come through my adventures unscathed and that I would be doing something relatively conventional. Most of all, they were thrilled that I would be living within the orbit of home. Their deliverance, however, was short lived. I fell for an economics Ph.D. student from Colombia practically on the first day of the semester; within a few years, we had married and relocated to South America.  

Once again, I threw myself into my new life. I loved the strangeness and the relentless unpredictability. Even the risks of everyday life in Colombia in the early 1990s were thrilling to me. My husband and I settled down, so to speak, raising three children and pursuing careers. Now that I had my own family, I put down roots as best I could in a city of nearly 10 million people. 

The years went by. The adrenaline rush of my early days in a foreign world slowly dissipated, and after 25 years, I rounded, inevitably, that bend in the river. The children had grown and were creating their own paths through life. My work was scaling back. And in that deceleration, in that creeping internal stillness, I felt the familiar stirring of a call to move on.

But this time, the call came from home. I felt a surprising but knowing tug of the cold-blue lake and the valley, redolent of pine and moss and earth. Despite time and distance, home seeped up through the layers of my existence, insisting that it was the only place in the world that knew me and where I was fated to be. Most family and friends are gone, now. But the place is there, the lake and the mountains, just as I remember—inexplicable, unchanging, and intuitive. After a lifetime spent dreaming of nether worlds, of seeking the elusive and the unknown, my lifeforce was now redirecting me toward these original coordinates, to the fixed point at the center of my universe. Maybe I’d been rotating around this axis all this time, unaware.

Celestial mechanics put me in motion one last time, carrying me forward, through the gate, to the infinite potential of home. I end up back at the beginning, and everything seems possible.

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