When Home is a Place You Have Never Been

turtle
Sometimes, going home means moving on.

Last week we found our way to a small hilltop town in Oaxaca after a tiring day that ended in a big fight. Yes, and don’t tell me you’ve never had a road trip brawl.

It was the end of a week laced with beautiful experiences and some relationship tension. Anytime you travel with others for more than a few days, stuff comes up. Why? Because we are out of our routine.

If we like control, we find ourselves in new situations where we are not in control. Our ego grasps at small details to give us the illusion we are back in the driver’s seat.

Instead of noticing the birds in the trees over the patio, I pick apart how my partner makes the coffee and toast.

If you have ever been the designated driver on a trip, you know exactly what I mean. A new world passing by outside the window, and all the folks in the car can comment on is your driving.

After several countries and thousands of miles, I’ve developed an appreciation for solo travel – ha! – and also a more flexible internal response to traveling with others.

But that doesn’t mean I never have days of fatigue or annoyance, and this day was one of them.

When we finally checked into our AirBnB, which took two hours to find, instead of one, due to getting lost in translation with Google maps, we dumped our bags and went for a walk.

We are staying in San Agustin, a pueblo in the mountains outside of Oaxaca City. We walk up the only main road, and pass the tiny town plaza perched on the hillside. Mass is in progress under a huge white tent beside the old stone church, which is closed for repairs.

Some weather is moving through the valley; the tent is billowing with the wind or the Spirit or both. At the exact moment we arrive and stand at the back, the priest is transitioning to the middle of his sermon. The core of the sermon is how Jesus lived simply and didn’t worry about things.

El Padre told his flock they should use Jesus as their example – take up their walking stick (bastion, in Spanish), be grateful for their robe, and not worry about having things, because God provides all you need. 

I can’t help but reflect on how an audience full of rural people who don’t have many things to start with, and not much prospect of acquiring them, might interpret this advice. Do they find it comforting? Empowering? Frustrating as they see the world around them incessantly idolize material possessions?

I have had the luxury of a life filled with an embarrassment of material things. I have never gone hungry or not been able to pay my rent. It is easy for me to resist the pull to buy stuff because I’ve scratched that itch until it was painful and made me ill.

After drastically downsizing a couple of years ago, I am repelled by the prospect of buying anything with a shelf life.

I’m hunting something less tangible and much more profound. I got a glimpse of it the week before on a beach in Oaxaca.

My travel partner Sergio and I and a friend had the privilege of helping some newly hatched sea turtles make their way to the ocean. To be honest, the turtle experience was not on my bucket list. I’ve got nothing against sea turtles but I didn’t really see what the big deal was.

We arrive with our guide on a golden wide open deserted beach just before sunset. The turtle volunteers tell us that sea turtles are one of the oldest species on earth. Adult Leatherbacks (the most endangered) can grow to be as big as a “Volchi” – the Mexican word for Volkswagen.

They give each of us half coconut shells filled with three small turtles, the color and size of small avocados, if avocados had little flipper legs. The hatchlings hatched about 20 minutes before, and are straining and toppling over each other, trying to climb out and escape.

I kneel down and turn the coconut shell on its side so they can crawl out. Given how frantic they were just seconds before, I expect them to sprint to the ocean. Sprint being a relative term, given that they are little turtles after all.

They don’t. They suddenly all become very still, pausing at the edge of the coconut shell with their tiny flippers up by their heads, and look out at the ocean. It is adorable and arresting at the same time. Their sea turtle intensity draws me in. They are sensing the ocean and the big space outside.

Do you know why it is important to not simply dump sea turtles in the ocean? The females pause for a moment and somehow calibrate and imprint their location. They return later to the exact beach where they were born to lay their eggs. I didn’t know this before.

When we witness sea turtle hatchlings making their way to the ocean, we are observing one of the most ancient animal rituals on earth. It is like a window in time.

Can you picture the turtle’s focus as something we cannot see, but we can feel? I will try to describe it. It is like a tiny cone of primordial concentration that pierces the present moment. When dozens of them are channeling that energy, at dusk on a wide golden beach, a momentary portal to an ancient past opens as they pause, calibrate, then take action and rush to the waves.

They are tiny, unprotected, and determined. The big cold crashing ocean is home and safety for them, even as it tosses them back toward shore a couple of times before finally sweeping them out to the heart of the sea.

It is incredibly moving.

Now I see what the big deal is with little turtles.

Do you have a place that has imprinted itself on your heart and soul? It doesn’t even have to be a place you have visited. Yet.

I read once about a young girl who was fascinated with Japan from an early age, she had scrapbooks and research and trips planned years before she visited for the first time.

Like thousands of women in the mid 90’s, I read a very dangerous book – Under the Tuscan Sun, by Frances Mayes. That book cost us a few thousand dollars because it planted the seeds of a fabulous vacation to Italy a few months later. We almost missed our flight coming back because I misread the time change. Well, that is what I told everyone.

The real reason was subconsciously I wanted to stay there more than anything I had wanted in a long time, send for the kids and create a new life. I can see the magic threads of Italy in my new life now, years later.

We did not send for the kids and settle under the Tuscan sun. We continued to live in Texas and took yearly trips out to visit Northern California’s wine country. I remember one trip, we finally did miss our flight going back. My mom was taking time off from her job to watch our kids; our screw-up inconvenienced her and I felt guilty.

I thought to myself, I don’t think I can visit Northern California anymore, it’s too hard to leave. 

I felt more at home on those trips than I did back in Austin. I confessed this to a few people and they said, “Well of course, that’s why they call it vacation, you can’t really live like that!”

I tried to believe them. Finally, I was talking to an executive coach once about how I felt about travel, and she said matter-of-factly – “Oh, you should definitely listen to that”.

That one phrase was a tiny ripple that started a tidal wave. It took a few years, but I did eventually completely reinvent my life.

I finally admitted that the way I felt was a definite call. I threw out the cheery coffee cup that said, “Bloom where you are planted.” meh.

How about “go forth and conquer” instead?

Traveling to that place that haunts you is a shortcut to insights that are impossible to uncover from the comfort of your routine. You are being called to that place that is your real Home, that internal peace of mind that exists no matter where you are. 

So, if you are feeling a tug, consider giving in before it turns into a shove, especially if you are in midlife.  As a wise lady told me once – 

“You should definitely listen to that.”

Pick that spot on the globe that has always fascinated you and go. And keep us posted!

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Originally published July 30, 2018 on Thrive Global and Medium.

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