The Return

The healing is in the return… – Sharon Salzberg

The sky is dark, but dozens of lampposts line the wide-open lot on the edge of Madrid, and their orange glow is filtering up through the windows of this borrowed apartment. I left the windows open in hopes of catching a breeze of cool September air from outside to help me sleep, but I only feel more awake. Exhausted, but awake. In the blue, almost-dark of this studio, I see the white body of my travel companion slink out from his hiding place underneath the bed, and I smile.

I’ve ridden 14 different planes in the last 2 and a half months, but I never realized just how brutal airports are to the senses until I was apologetically carrying my little familiar—my cat Hector—through his first 13 hours of beeping, clanging, jabbering, flushing, squealing air travel, feeling his heart pounding through the cage.

Having left him with a saintly foster mom when I first forayed into life abroad, I hadn’t even seen him in a year except to take him to the vet a few times this summer for pet passport purposes. He gave me the cold shoulder every time I came to pick him up, and I couldn’t blame him. This wasn’t exactly the ideal way to rekindle our friendship.

The last time I took Hector on a long trip–post-break up and chaotic apartment pack-up–my mother and I had to trap him to get him into his carrier for the 10-hour drive from New York to North Carolina. He didn’t come out of hiding for days after that one.

But he’s already checked the perimeter of our first spot together in Madrid, and now he puts his paws next to me on the edge of the bed and assesses the landscape here for a moment. I pat the space next to me and wiggle my fingers at him, wondering if he remembers our secret language. He hops up next to me and purrs.

I tear up with gratitude for being awake in this moment—to experience being forgiven. Our friendship resumes right where it left off.

Hector, as always, is one of my wisest teachers.

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I had been in a long distance relationship with myself, too, this past summer.

It was one of the most hectic seasons of my life so far. And so it isn’t jetlag alone that keeps me awake for the rest of this week and the next, it’s several months of Condensed, Unprocessed Adult Life Thoughts and Events—intensive work, unexpected death, visiting babies, visiting pregnant mommies, visiting old friends, visiting old family, visiting potential grad schools, considering career, considering debt, managing expectations, managing lots of long distance travel, oh, and getting married. Twice. The waves of what I had been surfing—barely—were now all thrumming through me.

My partner—now husband—arrives after his flight is delayed a couple days, and we slowly start to settle back into life in our own space after months of being guests hopping between the homes of others. This year couldn’t be more different from last year’s arrival in Madrid—the familiarity is comforting and lets us see how much we’ve learned in a short time. We’re cooking dinners in the evenings and buying things to take to our new apartment in a few days, and I’m almost enjoying myself.

But then something else familiar starts to happen.

I start to dread the space between eating dinner and being asleep—those quiet nighttime hours that should be the coziest and sweetest of the day when we let ourselves wind down and let go. These quiet hours are the ones most vulnerable to the drill of my anxiety, although it’s been several years since I’ve been in the throes of that. But now, here I am, going through the motions of settling in for the night, trying to ignore and avoid the baseless downward spiral opening up inside of me, the one whose walls echo “SOMETHING IS WRONG.” Which, as much as I hate it and try not to, prompts me to ask out loud, “Is everything okay? Everything is okay, right?”

And not only am I uncomfortable because I am anxious now, but I am indulging in that double-stuffed poison anyone with anxiety is sure to know and hate—Anxiety About Being Anxious.

It’s back! Oh God!

Hey, don’t worry, you have tools. You know what to do. You’ve managed this successfully before.

What if I don’t, though? What if the tools don’t work this time? What if the monster is stronger now?

In this moment, I have to just take it on faith—because it really doesn’t feel like it right now—that I can trust in the healing power of my own return to self.

Years ago, I read a passage in Edwin Bryant’s intro to Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras that blew my mind. He said something to the effect of…You are not your thoughts. You are not your anxiety. The fact that you can observe your thoughts and anxieties shows that there is a part of you—a more powerful part—that is separate and more still.

That is the part with whom I must resume friendship.

So as I lay awake, I try to turn my thoughts away from building a case for my certain failure and doom and focus instead on making a plan of return.

The next morning, I am on my yoga mat. I had tried to keep up with my practice all summer, but I often wasn’t in charge of my own routine or my own space, which means I’d slipped. Food, too, was more haphazard, and my “second brain”—my gut—had certainly suffered from the junk I had scrounged up in airports and in moments of stress. And though I sometimes sat down to meditate, my mind had been a hurricane of travel and wedding plans. At the beginning of the summer, I had decided to be gentle with myself given all I had on my plate—that was necessary—but now it is time to come back.

I thought when I left Spain to spend several months at home with my family that I’d have lots of time for reflection and writing about Home and Being Back Home. I didn’t. And while Madrid itself doesn’t feel like Home per se–while Home doesn’t feel like a place at all these days–this city is another place I am finding home.

The writer Thomas Wolfe famously says “you can’t go home again,” and while I get what he’s aiming at, I think we don’t even fully know Home until we leave and return to it.

After a week of eating the foods my body likes, moving in time with my breath each morning, and finding some time to sit quietly, after giving myself time to reflect and then giving myself time to think of nothing, I sit down one morning and feel the ground beneath me. I am able to relax my stomach and feel the ripples of my mind smooth themselves out.

Om. I think to myself. Home.

And I’m a little giddy with the surprise that it worked. Again. It’s all so deceptively obvious and simple! And yet I’m sleeping again, and I’m feeling more steady each day.

So while I could beat myself up for falling out of practice in the first place, while I could make my long absence from writing to you, dear reader, into a story about my own inadequacy, I find it’s much more reasonable to celebrate homecoming.

This is the work of our lives, isn’t it?

Change is a given. The ball doesn’t stay in the net, no. We practice again and again—watching our aim, our form, our thoughts, from every angle, at every speed, moving and standing still, watching the arc, bouncing back, trying again. Change is a given. This is the work. Coming back to what matters, coming back to focus, coming back to the arms of those who love us, coming back to balance, coming back to connection, coming back to this moment, coming back to this breath.

And home isn’t ever exactly the same—that’s the point.

The look and the feel of it changes as we do in the turning and returning. (And thank goodness it’s so!)

But maybe this is okay because the magic doesn’t lie in the destination itself.

Maybe that’s why, as Buddhist teacher Sharon Salzberg says, “The healing is in the return, not in never having wandered.”

For a little human who struggles with uncertainty and doubt in a world that feels increasingly chaotic, what a gift it is to find, again, that I can return. Is there any more essential longing or joy than to find and come Home?

Where do you find the Home you long for, dear reader? How long has it been since your last return?

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