Since starting college I have lived in a new place every year. Every year I have packed my things, placing picture frames and books into boxes, wrapping porcelain figurines and glass vases in layers of paper, sifting through my clothes to decide what will stay and what will go. Every year I have done this—every year for 8 years now. First my college dorm. Then my sorority house – one room for a year then another for 6 months. Then Chile, where I lived in a small apartment with a host family who took to calling me Brennita. Then the house in Tacoma with the porch swing out front and the bedroom I couldn’t stand up in because it was a converted attic. Then Thailand where first I lived in a small house with two broken bathrooms, one with a nonfunctional shower and the other with a nonfunctional drain. Then a lodge, that was really a guesthouse meant for only a two week stay but which I and three other foreigners lived in for 10 months. Then the split brownstone with chicken wire to divide the two sides at the top of the second-floor hallway wall. Then home to the U.S. where I lived with my Mom and sister in a house I didn’t grow up in but which held all the things I’d known since childhood. Now here in Denver, in a small house where I sleep in the basement and our entire furnishings were bought from either garage sales or Craig’s List.
Perhaps because of all this movement it struck me when during our first session as a problem based learning group, in the first month of medical school, our facilitator asked us: Where do you call home? The question surprised me because it wasn’t your typical Where are you from?, although this is how everyone else in the 8-person group decided to answer the question. Instead it was getting to something else, the place you chose as home rather than the place you were simply born or grew up.
Since I moved home from Thailand I have struggled with this question. I call Nan home. I call Wapiyapi home. But the very place I live right now – a small 3-bedroom house on Magnolia Street in Denver, Colorado – does not quintessentially feel like home. Perhaps it is this exact longing for home that has contributed to the challenging year I have just experienced. I am now on a break from school, a much-needed break I might add. Unlike many of my classmates, I intend to do nothing related to medicine during this 10-week summer vacation. In my last blog post I wrote about the subtle doubt I’ve had about choosing a career in medicine. I wish I could say I found the clarity I spoke of in that post, the clarity I knew (and still know) would come with time. However, even after finishing my first year and with a few weeks off, I still question whether being a doctor is what will fulfill me most in life. So for me, this summer is a time to reflect. To write. To come back to myself. I want this summer to be spiritual. To be uplifting and cleansing. To be rejuvenating and self -forgiving. Most of all though, I want this summer to be about finding home.
Already I have returned to one home – Camp Wapiyapi. Although camp for the first time since I started attending over 14 years ago was in a new location, I still felt at home. Driving there, I felt anxious and distracted. I had just finished with school the day before. I thought I would be overjoyed to finish my final test and head up to camp the next day, but I still had diagrams floating around in my head. Multiple choice questions haunted me at every stoplight. The overwhelming exhaustion that afflicted me this year still weighed heavily on my soul. The worst part of all was that there was a glimmer of regret that I just couldn’t shake. Why did I sign up for two weeks of camp? I kept asking myself. Camp was an exhausting endeavor where even after one week I sleep for 20 straight hours just to begin to recover. Here I was though, just having finished school and already I felt drained. How was I going to do two weeks?! I was actually dreading the very place I felt most at home in the world!
It took two days for me to forget that I was ever even in med school. Two days for me to melt into the ease and warmth of camp, to become comfortable, once again, in singing songs at the top of my lungs and cheering everywhere I went. Two days of donning rainbow tutus and candy-striped socks. Two days of laughing until my belly hurt more times in a day than I could count. Two days for me to, once again, become completely and wholly myself. What bliss, I thought, when on Thursday I realized I hadn’t thought about medical school since the first night I had arrived. I could barely even remember what it was like to be in school. Why had this past year brought me so much anguish? I thought. Now, in hand-painted overalls and tie-dye shirts, a visor decorated with rainbow swirls on my head, I couldn’t possibly imagine why I had ever been unhappy at all.
Now I am in Nan, the one other place on earth that feels most like home. It’s been two years since I left and yet it all still feels oddly familiar, as if I were only just here last week. I’ve only just come to the lodge, where I lived during my first year here and where I will stay for the next two weeks, but already I feel myself simultaneously opening and screaming in petrified fear. This is what I needed, I think briefly as the songtao taxi drives me through town to the lodge. Already I can feel my soul becoming calm, reuniting with a part of itself it thought was lost. And yet, there is another noise, a quiet, ear peeling screech at the pit of my stomach. What am I doing here? it bellows out long and slow. I don’t belong here anymore.
I have anxiously awaited this moment now for two years. With every passing day since I have left Nan I have imagined my students’ faces, dreamed of the aromas of fried rice and fish sauce in the night market, strained to hear the rain pounding against the tin roof and the peaceful bliss it brings with it when you wake to it in the morning. But what if I have forgotten all my student’s names? What if they don’t recognize me or don’t care that I’m even there? What if I’m bored? What if I have forgotten how to exist in this space, how to be the polite, quiet American who smiles when I don’t have the Thai to express what I want? Despite all these fears, I know this was something I had to do.
Within five minutes of sitting down on the porch of the lodge, waiting for my room to be ready, a young Thai woman sits next to me. She nods, sips on her tea, then looks up. “Can I ask you a few questions?”
“Sure,” I say. She is wanting to practice her English.
She asks where I am from – Colorado in America. I ask where she is from – Bangkok. She asks if I am alone. I nod yes. She then asks why I came to this province. It is not a common thing to find a foreigner in Nan traveling alone. I tell her that I lived and worked here two years ago and now I am just visiting. She reveals it is her first time in Nan.
“How do you like it?” I ask.
“It’s a quiet life.”
“Yeah,” I nod. “I came here to visit but also to find that quiet life again.”
It is only now, when she points this out that I realize this is exactly why I needed to come back to Nan. Slow, peaceful days and solitude is something I need desperately right now.
I went to the Haim concert with Maggie Rogers in May. Right before her last song, Maggie Rogers mentioned a brief documentary she had just released. I looked up the 12-minute documentary on YouTube the next day. The video starts by Maggie explaining the overwhelming year she has just completed – after graduating college she had gone on tour for a year, a tour that initiated her career in the music industry. The documentary features her final stop in Alaska, the place she named her first hit single after. In it, Maggie says that with such a chaotic year she needed to find space in order to come back to herself: “I think making space to remember who you are can be one of the most important things.” I have felt that to be so true about my year as well. Medical school is chaotic and challenging and amongst all that, there is so little time or space to come back to you. Coming to Nan is not so much about visiting this place or even the beloved students and friends I left behind here. Instead it is about creating the space I need to come back to the woman I felt I was when I was here. A woman who was confident and strong, self-assured and creative, and above all, who was happy.
Finding home then, is not really about reconnecting with the places that make me feel most myself, but learning how I can cultivate that self in any space or time.