April 7, 2016

The Day I Stepped Outside the Box.

Dariusz Sankowski/Unsplash

I get the chance to go to Nepal in about two weeks and have been thinking a lot about what it means to pack up a suitcase and make a life somewhere from scratch.

Even as I type that sentence, my stomach ruffles in the way it does when I’m onto something good.

I wonder where my wanderlust comes from—that almost primordial urge to explore, to seek out adventure wherever I am.

For me it started when I was really young. I used to wander all over whenever we would go on family trips. If we stayed in a hotel room, I would play “Mission Impossible” in the hallways, spying on guests and rappelling down staircases with a jump rope I kept in my backpack.

But the urge grew more visceral the older I got, when school—against my deepest nature—forced me to sit still and pay attention.

I was in 7th grade. I was probably wearing a snap-crotch bodysuit and a vest of some sort. 7th grade was a big vest year for me.

Until the day in question, I made a ritual of scheming the best way to stand up and move around. Earlier that year, I had co-founded the Ecology Club just so I could legally wander the halls sweeping with the giant janitor’s mop-broom and gathering recycling—anything to be free of the classroom confines, especially of the math or science variety.

You name it and I used it as a reason not to sit in my desk listening to lectures. During Science, I worked with what I had. Getting a Kleenex then throwing it away or sharpening my pencil for way too long. A bathroom pass was the holy grail of freedom—I would escape the droning lectures and see the middle school hallways with fresh eyes. I’d slip into the bathrooms which were always inexplicably cold. I’d wash my hands just because I could, feeling the slimy pink soap slither all over my stiff, icy fingers.

Then I would wander the halls, feeling like a tourist in the exotic and confusing world of middle school.

When I was outside in the halls alone, I almost didn’t recognize the other students. Every sound in the classroom was muted,so they appeared as silent movie characters, going through the motions of the school day without me.

Sometimes I would catch the eye of a student spacing out and we’d share a covert smile. But mostly as I watched them I wondered if I was missing the part of my brain that allowed me to sit still and concentrate.

Why was this not something I could do?

My nerves pulsed as I stretched the break out a little longer each time, exploring previously uncharted areas like the principal’s office or the locker rooms. One day I even made it as far as the gym, greeted by the smells of wet cement and swirling hot processed meat that could only be from the lunchroom next door.

I still remember how it felt to be out there on my own, taking chances and peeking around corners. I felt like I was really alive, really myself in those moments. I headed back to class a trailblazer with a secret.

But other days were not so liberating. One particularly antsy day in Science, my teacher and I both reached a breaking point. I was going stir crazy and she was bone-tired of my shenanigans. I was turned down for my coveted bathroom pass and my toes were tapping. She had moved me away from the window, so even daydreaming, my favorite subject was out of the question.

Twenty minutes before class was over, I cracked. I made a move for the garbage can, Kleenex in my hand.

I had to.

Her eyes were frazzled teacher-wild and they pinned my feet to the floor, forbidding me from taking another step.

She stopped the class, grabbed a roll of masking tape from her desk, and taped an outline around the linoleum tile box I stood inside.

“Don’t move from this box until the bell rings.”

I looked down at the adhesive prison taped neatly around my clumsy seventh grade feet. I was trapped.

All the energy began to pool up in my limbs.

I had it right then-the thing that people who travel seem to all have-a gentle, curious itch. Once you scratch it, it pops up in another part of your body until you are full of sensations that only you can articulate. You want to move, to test the waters.

Once you learn about a place, you hear about another until your mind is spinning with possibility.

But I couldn’t scratch this itch.

I was trapped.

My vest began to tighten around my pounding heart as I stood with every eye on me and tried not to sweat to death. I would jokingly step a toe or a foot outside the tape. All my classmates laughed and I joined in weakly, because that’s what you do in seventh grade.

But I didn’t leave the box. I thought it was because I was being respectful to my teacher. I was a teacher’s kid and that was a huge part of my upbringing.

That’s what I told myself.

What I was thinking, though, was this: If this teacher had the power to hold me in a pretend box, what would she say if I tried to leave it? I was not ready to be further humiliated for my apparent shortcomings as a human being. Angry that I allowed her this power over me. Scared to disappoint my parents, maybe, if I was rude to a teacher.

Conscious of my movements, because every eye was on me.

But mostly, I was afraid.

I think I learned from that day that the two feelings cannot co-exist peacefully in a person: the desire to explore and the fear of pushing boundaries.

It took me a long time to get the lesson. My first instinct was to view my energy and dreaminess as a deficit and try to change it.

But the urge to move around and honor those parts of myself wouldn’t go away.

The itch to travel started growing through high school and I schemed ways to see the world. I got to go to California, to parts of Appalachia and Colorado. With each trip, I could feel myself wondering what else was out there.

I pored over National Geographics at home.

In college, I fell in love for the first time with a drummer. His band got a record deal and he dropped out, I graduated and we got an apartment and a dog. A year in, he revealed that he wanted the big trifecta: Marriage, kids and to live in the suburbs.

He wanted to start our life together. I was 22 and ready to see the world.

I felt a familiar feeling of being trapped in a masking tape box that someone else had created for me—should I stay? Do I even want to get married? Is that a choice that would make me happy or am I just afraid of the alternative? The thing is, I knew deep down in my bones that we were not suited as a pair. And this time, I understood that I could leave, even if it was scary.

This time, my feet were capable of stepping away from the situation.

I moved out a month later, looking one last time at the walls I painted the most perfect sage green I have ever seen. I kissed our dog and couldn’t look back. Heartbreaking though it was,  we moved on. He got married a year later and I left the states to travel and explore. We both got to do what really makes us feel alive and at home and for that I will always be happy. I think because neither of us gave into the fear of a life without the other.

We were both being brave in entirely different ways.

That first trip out of the U.S. stirred me right up. I met selves I didn’t know I had—the isolated, “making puppets instead of friends abroad in a new home” self. The self with giardia, a staph infection, a scorpion sting. The self who rolled pandanus leaf cigarettes and snuck puffs for something to do.

The self who told an entire village “Thank you for the barking,” at a formal ceremony.

The self who still managed to find the guy who rode a motorcycle to have a crush on, even on a tiny atoll. The “I guess this is how I act when a rat gives birth in my suitcase” self.

It’s been different levels of adventure ever since. Big giant highs like my first time sailing on the ocean and the time I (gently) electrocuted myself on a flimsy hotplate while making coffee on my dry-docked sailboat home with shoddy electricity in St. Thomas (worst coffee, best buzz).

This is why I love to travel. There are always surprises. I learn the ways my mind still needs to grow—the surprising stereotypes I sometimes have about a place without meaning to. I meet people who introduce me to things I never knew were out there and even feel occasionally jealous because I didn’t hear about them sooner.

Spoken like a lifelong dabbler, I guess.

I see things that are stunning in their simplicity or maybe they are simply beautiful because I recognize them from my own life: the way kids bike recklessly on the street no matter where they live, or how people are moved to find laughter in a funeral in Panama, where the jeep carrying the body got stuck in the mud. I caught someone’s eye for just a second and we hid smiles from each other. (Once I start laughing, it’s hard to stop.)

Or the way that when I see the moon, I always have a Fievel moment, wondering who else is looking up.

There are a thousand things I love about leaving, and they usually involve finding bits of home.

Mostly travel is a way to keep that “kid wandering the halls” feeling in my life—to know that no one can trap me as long as my curiosity outweighs my fear and my feet know when to stay planted and when to step away.





Author: Erin Johnson

Editor: Renée Picard

Image: Dariusz Sankowski/Unsplash 


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