Living the questions

This morning I woke up at sunrise and drove away from Nashville, through air lush with woodsmoke and heat, fog rising from the white-fenced pastures. I ate one last perfectly ripe peach, hugged my friends goodbye, and turned north: back on the road again.

12 places. 12 months. Today I’m wrapping up month number ten — ten, already! — on the tail end of a summer that has looped its way from the Midwest (Madison, Wis.) to the East (Philadelphia, Penn.) and down south, here, to Tennessee. 

And I haven't been sure what to write, these last few months; probably because I'm not quite sure how to feel. The experience of near-constant travel and transition, living and working and learning and listening (and then trying to reflect on it all) has taken on a different tone, now that I am nearing the end. 

For one thing: I'm finding it more and more difficult to live in the moment. These days I often catch myself pulling at the reins, looking ahead; trying to get a jump on the question of what happens after October. But the truth is, I still don’t know how this is all going to end — and it's not over, yet. I still have one last leg of the drive from Nashville to Wisconsin, and then a month in Bloomer — my tiny rural hometown, perhaps the biggest wildcard of all — and then a final, victory-lap homecoming month in Kansas City, which presumably will involve a lot of reflection and planning and gear-shifting; reorienting myself and my well-traveled suitcase into a new season of rooted life, work, and relationships. And then there's the deeper question of finding and creating — or, re-creating — a more permanent sense of home, whatever and wherever that might be (I still don’t quite know how I'm going to answer that one, which feels both appropriate to the last legs of a year-long journey, and also terrifying).

I'm also beginning to reckon with my original ideas and aspirations for the year, measured against the experience of what it has become. From the beginning, I imagined — honestly, I expected — that I would encounter some grand surprises in these 12 months. I expected that profound things would happen to me; that I would encounter places and meet people who would change the course of my life. I expected that in traversing the globe, I would emerge somehow more sure of myself, more settled or self-aware, more comfortable in my own skin, and more at ease with change.

And to a certain degree, those things may all be true.

But what I’ve experienced, mostly, has been something a great deal smaller and quieter. Smaller surprises, and a quieter path. I did not find myself skateboarding down a mountain and escaping a volcano in Iceland like Walter Mitty; I did not meet my Felipe on a tropical island in Eat Pray Love fashion; I have not gotten wrapped up in a wild chain of events and sent off in a completely different life orbit. I didn’t realize a surprising new direction or career path, or have an epiphany of the hidden thing I was always “meant” to do.

What I have found, though, is this: there are still the same glowing embers in me as there have always been. The same small stones of delight and purpose that flash with magic every now and again, reminding me of what I love and giving hints about what I am made for. But they are still mostly wrapped in mystery, and hidden in the dark...and I wonder if that’s just part of the deal. Part of the pilgrimage of identity that is the whole of life. The search for self and the knowing of self, held together in one physical body, inseparable, and having a long conversation with one another.  

I also expected that I would encounter a great many stories on this pilgrimage, as I encountered the people who wore them. I imagined that I would hear these stories, see them, and capture each one like a Polaroid frame — waving it in the air until colors emerged and blurry shapes became recognizable, and then passing it around for all to see. I would take thousands of photographs and write thousands of words, and weave together something beautiful as I traced my route around the world...eating and breathing different flavors of family and community along the way. 

The reality has been rather different. I learned very early on that I didn’t have the energy (or the time) to be a full-time documentarian. My primary identity this year, therefore, had to be not as a storyteller, but as a story-liver. Just being here, being present, being with people, being alone with myself, and staying engaged…this has been more than enough to keep my days and my mind full.

And so, instead, the stories have come to me in fragments — small pebbles and shells and seeds, traces of paint on doorframes, scraps of paper — stuffed in pockets, tucked in notebooks, and carried on my back like a true pilgrim. I have very few images; instead I am collecting small unimpressive moments, stowing them away and waiting for words that feel worthy of them. I’ve found that often I don’t have much to say, at this point in the journey. I'm not sure how to answer the questions people ask about what I've seen, what I've learned, how I've been changed. Not because I haven’t seen anything or learned anything, but because the opposite is true: I have taken in so much. And my body is growing heavy with these fragments of stories, the sticks and stones of 302 days, 40,000 miles, and a thousand conversations. I am carrying them all, but, like a pregnancy, I do not know yet exactly what will be born. I don’t have language for the journey that I am still passing through.

And so, in this tentative place, I keep trying to remind myself of three words:

Live the questions.

This is a line from one of my most beloved books, Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, and it has become something of a banner over this journey of mine. Rilke writes,

“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”

Yes, indeed. These are the days for living the questions.

And the things that are the hardest to resolve — these are the questions most worth living. The tensions of life and work, home and family, career and calling, meaning and purpose, desire and disappointment. The heart-ties of love, of kinship, and the stretch of land and sea between them. The dialogue between the strong currents of practicality and provision and the equally strong, invisible forces of the soul, of destiny. The voice inside that cries: ask, seek, knock.

I am trying to remember to let these things live as the questions they are. To let them be questions. To breathe them in, and breathe them out.

Because, here's the thing: just as hope, once fulfilled, is no longer hope (for then it becomes something else: gratitude, relief, disillusionment, joy)…in the same way questions, once they are answered, lose their identity as questions. And you, then, lose the chance to dance with them. To have conversations with them. 

So: here's to the days of dancing with questions. Here's to living into a story that may not have words yet, and having conversations that are slow and generous, humble and brave, hopeful and real. 

Here's to mapping a way forward that is honest, if unknown.