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My feet will wander in distant lands, my heart drink its fill at strange fountains, until I forget all desires but the longing for home.

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Friends, Independence, and Identity

I’ve been appreciating lately the sheer numbers of people, especially my women friends and family, who I have been able to talk with for perspective, sympathy, laughter, and easing of mind and heart. The issues don't change; an insight that actually makes a concrete difference to my thinking about a situation is rare. Yet, conversation by conversation, friend by friend, I find comfort and relief in talking with people who care more about me than they do about my choices. I talk a lot about the importance of friends, family, and community; actually enjoying them is even better!

Since I use my writing as an outlet when I'm not in touch with friends, or when I have material that I feel too sensitive about to share yet, I am still learning how to use the paradox of a public journal.
I’m refraining, as a general rule, from posting private material that concerns people other than myself. If writing is a serious career option, it will be important to me to figure out how to write deeply personal stuff for publication, without damaging the relationships that make that stuff meaningful in the first place. For now, I’m sticking to what feels like my own story, and asking permission when I feel something belongs to someone else as well. I suspect there’s a way to combine discretion, candor, and permission that will suit my sense of decency and friendship, as well as produce literary merit.

I'm reproducing here, with John's permission, our recent correspondence regarding the prospect of leaving home for an extended time. After talking about the same issues with many other people, I found this particular dialogue especially comforting and insightful.

Mon, 23 Aug 2004:

[John: ]
... this time you'll be out of country for a full year, yes?

Something like a year, yes ... somewhere between eight and fifteen months.
I'm convinced I'm going to get miserably homesick.

Well, yes, but presumably that's sort of the point, right?  I mean you have to push through the homesick to the other side, and then you achieve independence.  Or something.  I tried that ... and just wound up back here, but I think the theory is still relatively sound.  ;)

...Yes! the homesickness is part of the goal.  I experienced enough of it in Massachusetts that I don't expect it to go away.  I even get homesick here [in Oregon] sometimes, for communities that I'm no longer part of here, or that don't exist anymore.

  I'm not sure if this was implied:  I'm not seeking to "graduate" into a condition of permanent independence.  Independence is a useful ability, but as a way of life I think it's overrated.  It's just that there are experiences that can only be had at the price of a little distance and homesickness.  I'm not sure why it whould be so, that I feel compelled to go away just when Corinna is back in town for a while, but I do.  I don't intend ever to become completely independent of my friends and family.  Yet I want to experience a few things on my own, if only to be a more interesting person.

Instead of leaving the nest and flying, I have an image of this journey as swinging way out on a rope (or vine) to try to see the shape of the whole tree. It's still my tree, I'm still attached to it.  Part of the experience is going to be the force of the rope pulling me back (as well as the view in all directions).  I'm a monkey, not a bird, and don't plan to fly away.  But lately I've had a hard time getting from my current branch to the next one, and gotten frustrated.  I'm hoping with some perspective, I'll catch a glimpse of where I want to make my own nest, and which branches are likely to get me there. [or maybe just some new unexplored branches I hadn’t realized existed...]

and look how happy you are "back here."  [You were able to get the job you love now because of the time spent away. In one way you’re “back,” with your college friends; in another way, you’re still gone. We miss you here in Oregon -- so many of us seem to be scattering around the world these days!]

I was commenting to another friend (who was warning against isolation as a method of self-discovery),
I think you're absolutely right about isolation not being an aide to "finding" oneself.  I know someone who did that, and essentially went crazy for a while.  We discussed the idea that being isolated from friends and family strips away who you are with them, your responses to them and their expectations, and the shared patterns of thought that develop over the course of a relationship.  I think he was hoping that when he eliminated those "affected" parts, what was left would be his "true" self.  Instead, he described a breakdown of identity and perspective that made him question his sanity; he tells it as a diverting, but not necessarily pleasant, experience.

When I thought about it, I figured it this way:  
"Who I am around other people" is a pretty important part of "Who I am," period.  If I stripped away those parts, what's left wouldn't be "me."  It would be a small, and possibly damaged, fragment of my whole self.  Perhaps it would be a central fragment, but would that mean anything without the rest?  I suspect it would flap around like an unmoored part of a complex structure, and its nature and function would be nothing like when it's safely embedded in my whole self.

So yeah, family's important, and being away from them for long enough to do what I have to do is going to be very interesting.  It will help that in most of my travels, I'm making time to spend with old friends and extended family who I see only rarely these days, reaffirming old bonds and allowing old relationships to mature.
... it will be fairly ironic if I do find something or someone out there compelling enough to keep me away for years.

... I think that there's something else you're either discounting or simply leaving implicit.  Namely, one would hope you won't spend a year in isolation.  You are not returning to the wild to seek solace in the company of the canopy, free from your modern trappings.
Rather, I would imagine you will make many new friends in your time abroad.  It is a time to travel, experience, and work, yes, but also to maybe try joining a theater company in New Zealand, or sing in a choir, or play soccer on Saturdays.  All the communities that we have, also exist on the other side of the world, just differently.  Hell, they even speak something like English.

To find your core, I think, is not to strip away everything else,
until it is what remains.  That would break you.  To find your core, I think, is instead to change everything at once, and notice the bits of you that are the same in the company of your growing circle of New Zealand friends as they are in the company of your Portland and Massachusettes friends.  And while it is always sad to leave friends behind (to say nothing of family), it need not mean isolation.


...I like your idea of watching what stays the same in different situations -- I think it will include looking at what kind of people I befriend, as well as how I behave [and what I enjoy] ....

Closing thoughts:

John's last message hit home, not only with the very sound advice about making new friends rather than being isolated, but finally! a way to put into words the reason that I want to travel among strangers.
(It may be misleading, picking glorious and exotic destinations, because people tend to want to hear about the fun, and I'm focussed on this other thing that I've had difficulty describing.)

Though I very deeply hope I will be a good person while abroad, and maybe even a useful one, my main goal is neither to evangelize, benefit, or even to understand the people and places where I go. It's more to see how I adapt, whether I enjoy a new culture, what parts feel worthwhile.  And this process that John describes, of comparing who I am at home, with who I am in other places, is how it works. Right now, I've only lived in a few contexts -- enough to make be thoroughly confused about what's important to me and what I'm just assuming is important to me because I agree with it.

I will find people to respect and admire in any community, even if I'm miserable there.  The question is, will the people I like and enjoy be the ones who share my political views, or hobbies, or interests, or ambitions? Or are there other characteristics that matter more?
I think what I am drawn to in other people, is as accurate a reflection of myself as I am likely to find. The same question can be asked about activities, or places, or work, or art: what do these things I like have in common? What things violate my own assumptions about what I like?
As in education, the discrepancies can be more valuable than the "normal" rocess: If I wouldn't expect myself to be friends with a particular kind of person, why not? What aspect of myself am I cutting off with that prejudice? Likewise, if I expect to like someone, and don't, it's fascinating to try to understand why. (From a comfortable distance!)

There's a process of comparing similar things, and different things, experientially if not scientifically, to establish which traits are important and which are trivial. I'm tempted to sit down and list what was important to me in different stages of my life, and see if I find anything out.  But maybe analyzing things too much now would bias my experience of New Zealand.
I guess, now that I've thought of it, it's already biased, so I might as well do as I please. If I get inspired to analyze my life from this angle, I can do it again at the end of the trip, and compare before and after. If I let it go and let myself enjoy things, or suffer them, without much thought, I imagine the insights will come in their own time.

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