The fullness of time (a year-end reflection)

The 12 Places Project was a personal experiment, a research project, and a creative business endeavor rolled into one. Beginning in November 2015, I packed up my apartment in Kansas City, put most of my worldly possessions in storage, and hit the road to spend a year living and working in 12 different cities around the country (and a few around the world) — one city per month. I finished the year in October, and then took a few months to regroup. This was my final post, written on the eve of 2017: a reflection on a fascinating year of travel, culture-crossing, surprising connections, hard questions, and good stories…and an ever-in-progress meditation on seeking and finding home, in a dozen dots scattered across the globe.

Well hello, again! It’s been far too long, hasn’t it? My apologies. Pour yourself a cup of something warm, and let me catch you up on the last chapters of this wild, globe-trotting year of mine. There is much to tell…it’s just taken me a while to find the words to wrap around it.

My final two months of the 12 Places Project year were spent in Bloomer and Kansas City, two dear home-places planted (intentionally) at the end of the long journey: the home of my birth, in Wisconsin; and the home I’d left the previous October in order to become — for a year, at least — a sort of pilgrim.

To be honest, those last two months just kind of swallowed me up. It felt like I was moving both fast and slow, in several directions, and I couldn’t seem to catch my thoughts as they passed through me. As I inched closer to the end of something both solid and elusive, I felt shivers of accomplishment and uncertainty. But mostly, I didn’t really know what to think. I was wrapping up the year, returning home; finishing the big brave thing I’d set out to do. Now what?

The end of this journey has turned out to be harder for me than the beginning was. The beginning started with a seed of an idea that grew into a decision, a leap: flying blind into a year of unknown, charted only with a scattering of map-dots and the faces of far-flung friends, spread out across oceans and highways and deserts like stars in the blue dark. There was the rush of adrenaline and the daily summoning of courage in the face of endless new choices, landscapes, people, routes, possibilities. They were all so near, so present and palpable.

The beginning was both thrilling and terrifying. I was leaning into a full year of such evident adventure, tasting the rare gift of it — and I felt acutely, riotously alive. I didn’t know what was up ahead of the next curve, only that some rough kind of scaffolding had been put in place, and some rules established: the game board was laid out, and I was definitely playing.

The end, on the other hand, has felt somewhat fuzzy. Once I crossed the invisible finish line on day #365, there was a whole new set of questions to answer. What do I want to do next? What will I give myself to? Where is my business headed? How will this year continue to shape me — my decisions, priorities, and career path?  And…where is home now (still in Kansas City? or somewhere else?)

The very fact of the year I’ve just walked through — the choices and the experience of it — has most certainly fed my courage. I’ve found that I am now more likely to think bigger, to lift my eyes up above my current reality; to push the boundaries of what is reasonable or expected, to entertain real risk. As I waded into the final few months of this journey, though, the fresh gravity of these questions — and the freedom I’ve been given to answer them — still scared me.

People ask me how this year was. They ask what was my favorite place, or where I ate the best meal, or what was the most amazing part of it all. Every time, I falter and mumble something passable, a quick answer, something I can pin down and wrap a few simple words around. I can feel the hesitation in my voice: I don’t know how to tell this story, yet. I don’t even have a good Cliff’s Notes version. It’s too big and too deep, and I’ve just barely walked through the door of it, out onto the other side. It will need some time to settle, I think; and still more time to emerge.

There are some things I’ve gathered, though. Things I’ve noticed and picked up along the way; ideas that have grown over the past 12 months and that I can feel taking shape in me, still. I want to share them with you, because even in their half-formed state, I think there is beauty in them, and truth; a conversation worth entering into. I hope you’ll find something resonant here, too, as you navigate your way out of this vast and strange and complicated year, and into 2017 — bright and adventurous and full of possibility.

A few of the things that have fascinated me, this year:

The many shapes of home and hospitality.  Living in twelve different households around the world, I was given an insider’s look at the very different ways we live, as individuals and families, and how we co-create the space we call home. It has been such an unusual privilege, and I think it was my favorite aspect of this whole year — getting to see and be a part of so many family cultures (single and married, with children and without, urban and rural, across a spectrum of living arrangements). I was regularly impressed by how easily and generously I was welcomed into the ebb and flow of it all: daily rhythms, kid chaos, mealtime routines, parenting styles, the tapestry of career and home demands…all of the idiosyncratic norms and rhythms that every household develops. I also learned so much about hospitality; about what it means to invite someone in and truly make them feel at home, whether it’s for a day or a month. And there’s the other side of it, too: the learning how to be received as a guest, and how to contribute. At best, I think sharing your home (and being in someone else’s home) is a chance to find a kind of sweet spot together — where things aren’t perfect but they are shared, and in that sharing we connect, and our minds open a little more, and our hearts relax. And we are all made richer.

(To each of you who welcomed me in, over the course of this journey: I can’t thank you enough. You made this happen, and I am so glad and grateful to have shared it with you.)

Pilgrimage and the art of seeing. I expected that I would take a ton of photos this year; that I’d want to capture everything. I imagined the colossal trove of beautiful images I would collect, of firelight and faces and seascapes and all the small, mundane (yet lovely) details of day-to-day life. A world-spanning year in pictures. But, almost immediately after I started, I found that I didn’t want to carry my camera around. It was an almost physical reaction — the camera suddenly felt alien; too heavy in my hands. This bothered me until I came across an article about the ancient tradition of religious pilgrimage, written by a priest who leads modern pilgrims on trips to the Holy Land. “We all have cameras now, and they’re with us all the time,” he said. “But a pilgrimage asks you to be truly present. I urge people: Take a moment to look with your eyes instead of immediately grabbing your iPhone to get that picture for Facebook or Instagram, to prove that you were there. This is what everyone does now. But those pictures become the only experience you’ve had, and then you haven’t really been there. You haven't really seen it.” This made sense to me. I’m on a pilgrimage, I thought; and there’s so much to take in — new things rushing toward me and around me all the time. I want to be here, fully and completely, and not behind a camera lens. This, I want to see with my eyes.

So, I stopped trying so hard to be a photojournalist. I still carried my camera, but much less frequently. The year became less about images, and more about learning how to see. And then trying to put what I was seeing into words.

A long conversation between work and rest. In the five years that I’ve been self-employed, I have gotten rather used to managing my time and setting my own schedule (not that I’m always awesome at it). I love what I do, but with a laptop and camera as my main business tools, the lines between “on the clock” and “off the clock” have rarely been clear. This year brought another level of fluidity, and challenge, to the balancing act of work and rest. More detached than ever from a “regular” workweek and workplace, I found myself mulling over the fundamental human questions of how to find meaningful work and nourishing rest, both in the present moment and over the course of a career. Do we create our own meaningful work, or does it find us? What does work look like, in 2017 and beyond? What does rest look like? How do we define them, and how do they fit together…for ourselves, and for our families and communities? With the rise of the freelance economy and the uncertainty seeping into many traditional career paths, it’s clear that our world is changing — in ways that make these questions feel both new and necessary.

I’ve come to think of this, with a hat tip to David Whyte, as the "conversation" between work and rest. The interplay...the exchange of ideas...the give-and-take. Though the idea of work-life balance has been around for years, I don’t believe it is ever a zero-sum game. As the world (and workplace) continues to evolve, I think there will be more and more opportunities to influence the direction of this conversation and to chart this course for ourselves.

The fun (and creative force) of improv. In February I wrote about an improv comedy class I’d taken in LA, and how it mirrored (and illuminated) the just-gotta-go-with-it, figure-it-out-along-the-way nature of my year. Since then, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about this. The rules of improv turn out to be a pretty great mindset to embrace when facing any new and uncertain situation…and especially for someone (like me) with tendencies to overplan and overanalyze.

The code of improv says, don’t say "no." Don’t redirect. Don’t force things in another direction. You can’t come in with preconceived ideas of where you want to go with this, of what would be really great or really clever. You can’t architect beforehand how a scene will work. Instead, all you have is what you have in the moment. This is all you have. Use it. A few scraps of information, a bit of knowledge perhaps, and a life of experience to draw from. You get a few clues, and then you have to act — speak — respond. Do it quickly. Do it from your gut. Follow your instincts, right now. See what bounces back, and then do it again. Keep the scene alive. 

The unusual power of dislocation to stir insights and forge new connections. For much of the first few months of this project, I was reeling with doubt and insecurity. I’d known that I was embarking on a journey that would require a lot of me, but I had stepped into it with a lot of confidence and excitement. What I didn’t expect was the way that the journey seemed to call all of the major pieces of my identity into question from the get-go. I couldn’t pretend it was simply a fun adventure or a professional project; I felt suddenly like an 18-year-old again, profoundly questioning myself and my place in the world. “Well, of course you don’t know who you are right now,” my friend Linnéa said to me in January, as I confessed my rollercoaster of uncertainties. “You’ve chosen to dislocate yourself from everything you were anchored to, and everything familiar that was part of how you defined yourself.”

It suddenly made a lot of sense. And I discovered that this (initially terrifying) dislocation turned out to be an enormously fruitful doorway to creative ideas, and a way of seeing things with new eyes. It was as though, by stripping away familiar assumptions about myself and the world I occupy, a whole new level of space in my brain opened up for new passages and connections to spark (I swear, I could almost feel this happening!).

Neuroscientist Gregory Berns says that bombarding the brain with new experiences “scrambles existing categories and forges new connections.” I felt the truth of this almost daily (believe me, I was bombarded), and it was fascinating. Now that I’ve wrapped up the official project, I’m curious how to translate this idea onto regular life, and how to make the most of finding — and allowing — new experiences to make me aware, open-minded, and connective. I also need to find some time to sift through the pages and pages of notes and ideas I've scribbled down over the last year, and see if there’s anything coherent that's worth expanding on. :)

Ah, there's so much more I could say! But I'll leave it at this, for now...a few rough sketches from where I stand today, on the tail end of this adventure.

Of course, there’s still that last little question you're probably wondering about:

Now what?

Well, friends. After a wild and wonderful year of living in 12 homes, visiting 41 cities, sleeping in 46 different beds, and covering a grand total of 67,570 miles by car, bus, plane, train, subway, bicycle, taxi, and cable car {whew!}…I can say that I’m more than ready to settle down and find some kind of regular-life normalcy again.

But first, I will be making one more move — to a new place, a city that wasn’t even on the map for me a year ago.

In February, I'm packing up my belongings one last time, and moving north to Minneapolis. A Minnesota address certainly wasn’t what I expected to come out of this year, but the possibility had been fluttering around in me for a while — and the decision feels good and right. I’m eager be closer to my family, and among the lakes, in a city flush with people and art and buzz and opportunity; and in a part of the Midwest that still feels the most like home to me.

I’m looking forward to this next chapter of the journey…and to living the questions, still.

Thanks for accompanying me, all these miles. It has been a joy and a gift to share it with you.

- Erin

“And now we welcome the new year...full of things that have never been.”  - Rilke