by Melissa Sakal
It began because I didn’t know what else to do. I had come to the end of what felt like a long and clear path through life that concluded in a degree that I did not want to use. I moved to Japan, having never been there before, not speaking the language, and away from every one I knew. I soon discovered that I had also moved away from every one who knew me. Every introduction was a fresh start, with no expectations or preconceived ideas about who I am, was, or will be. My emotions would swing from devastating loneliness to exhilarating freedom. Eventually, my sense of self settled, and I began to devour every inch and ounce of the country I was living in. I spent two years in Japan, exploring, discovering, and falling in love with the landscape and culture.
I left because I felt stuck. I, like so many expats, was an English language teacher. Although I enjoyed the job and loved living in Japan, I did not feel like I was making progress. Life in Japan felt like it could continue to run its happy course indefinitely, without ever getting any where.
I returned to California, a changed person to what I quickly realized was a changed place. My memory of home and the friends who occupied it did not match the current reality. Just as I had left everyone I knew behind, they had continued their lives without me. I tried for a couple of years to fit myself back into the place I had come from. I got a job doing work I was proud of, I moved back to a city I had fond memories in, I reconnected with old friends and made new ones. Two years of trying and I could not make it feel right. Throughout it all, there was one friend who gave me a true, deep sense of belonging. He made me feel understood and full of hope. We had corresponded through letters while I lived in Japan, and continued to send packages, letters, and mix tapes across another ocean when I returned to California and he lived in London for a while. Eventually we lived in the same state at the same time and friendship turned to romance just before he was about to move to Chicago. We decided we should continue our relationship in Chicago. A few months after he started his new job there, and I restarted life once again in Chicago.
With a home base in the center of the United States, and a fearless copilot, ramble rumbles reached a whole new level. Every time I ticked another destination off my ever growing list of places to visit in Japan while I lived there, I was struck by how little of my own country I had explored. Any time we had a three day weekend, we would visit a new state. Before moving away from America, I hadn’t given much thought to what it means to be an American. As we experienced life in far and diverse corners across our country, my understanding of that meaning became increasingly diverse, complicated, and beautiful. Living abroad, I often felt shame or embarrassment identifying as an American. I felt like saying I was an American had to come with an apology or a set of qualifiers. I’m an American, but I’m not. . .
Over the years, we have visited all but four of the United States. Through exploration of my own country, I have fallen in love with its expansive and varied landscape, as well as its rich and diverse culture. It is no longer a mystery to me that we often have a hard time making decisions and progressing in our values and how we support them. This is a country of a thousand fresh perspectives and differing opinions. In my opinion, it’s a miracle we ever come together to do anything at all.
We lived in Chicago for almost two years, and then decided to spend a year traveling. Most of that year was spent in small towns across the United States. We also drove across a big chunk of Canada, and spent a few months in Europe. Each day held the promise of something new. Each time we revisited places we had lived in was special, and people generously shuffled their schedules to catch us while we were there. But again, learning more about our world, our country, ourselves, and each other came at a cost. As we felt more and more at home on the road, and in temporary camps with kindred spirits across the globe, ties to any geographic homes were weakened and sometimes lost.
Eventually we circled back to California, and moved back to the same city I had lived in before and after Japan. We got an apartment, we got married, new degrees, certificates, jobs, and five years flew by. From our California homestead we’ve done some international rambling, including Moscow, Tuva, Addis Ababa, Gheralta, Lalibela, Oaxaca, and we spent a month in Iceland. We’ve continued our avid exploration of our own country, with a focused fervor on Southern California.
We are drawn to explore parts of the world where we think we will find models for better ways to live. We are drawn to explore places and people that are “other.” We are drawn to people who obsessively create drawings, paintings, sculpture, literature, and environments. We are drawn to places where we can experience music in new ways, like harnessing the wind or the ocean or the light to make sounds, or to people who are somehow able to separate their single voice into multiple notes at one time. We are drawn to places of worship that inspire souls across cultures. We are drawn to relics of an older america and the people who lived here before the rest of us came along and screwed things up. We are drawn to natural beauty and wonders, climbing mountains, admiring rocks, and following streams to the source from which they fall.
The more we see, the more we learn, the more we realize how much more there is to see and learn. We are the sum of our experiences. Each time we visit a new place and immerse ourselves in a new culture, some of it sticks, and we are changed. We’ve spent more time living in our current apartment than any place other than our childhood homes, but we still don’t feel settled. Knowing how possible and easy it is to pick up and go anywhere makes it so much harder to stay in one place and put down roots. Perhaps because we are the combination of so many people and places, we are no longer able to fit neatly into one location and culture.
Melissa is a teacher without a classroom, and a homemaker without a house. She is forever in pursuit of directions to pursue. Learning and unlearning as she presses onward, hand in hand with Ted by her side.