The smell of sweet maple syrup brushes my nostrils. A molasses-like sip of coffee touches my lips. I am staring out from my screened-in porch at a towering Live Oak who’s Spanish moss drapes like a spontaneous work of modern art.
In the background Ray Charles is banging on the piano. Cardinals flirt with the introduction to spring.”Y’all” twangs off the tongues of people below me.
And I am home, mostly. Back in the south, near nature and the people I love.
A year ago, my view couldn’t have been more different. And while I miss that place in many ways, there are things that have validated the choices that led me here, as well as the choices I have made for my future. But there are also experiences and emotions that have validated my choice to live there.
When I lived in D.C., a step onto my balcony would amplify the sound of sirens. With a wipe of my finger I could remove the soot that settled on my plants from the cars below. My view across the street was a busy hospital. My nostrils flared at the smell of car exhaust and rubber.
I’m not ashamed to admit that say that my idealism got the best of me when I first moved. I was excited about working in the government, a place I thought I would make a direct and tangible difference. I’d maybe wiggle my way into the Department of Education and change things there, and then go into my role as a teacher. I got to don a suit and wear a cool badge. James Bond style.
When the excitement swayed from moving to a new place, the fear set in. My view narrowed. I knew no one there, and having moved from a place where I was constantly surrounded and stimulated by the people around me, I felt isolated. My life, recently filled with so m
any exuberant and challenging experiences of love and life and knowledge in graduate school and journalism left me sitting in a cubicle. And slowly, I began to ignore the dissonance between words and action of the people around me.
And that was that. That was it. All of my time and all of my work in graduate school, in journalism and traveling, led to this. Had I lived through the most climatic parts of my life already? Was it done? Was it flat or down hill from here on out? The perverseness of these thoughts wore down my spirit. As an optimist, depression isn’t something I encounter often. Sadness, yes. But the inexplicable feeling that something was wrong was new to me. I wasn’t happy.
There were. however, brief moments when I left my shell for a while. When the snowstorm hit D.C., and the violent sounds of the city became muffled, I would walk around the National Mall and embrace the newness of this environment. I sat on benches and watched families as they sled under the shadows of the Washington Monument. Everything covered in white, the Potomac completely Frozen. I brushed my hands over the Vietnam Memorial and cried a little as older veterans brought flowers or badges for the companions who fought beside them. I even began a monthly tradition of stopping by Arlington Cemetery after work to watch the changing of the guard. Families from all over the world, people of all ages, silent, sharing a moment that somehow tied us all together in honor and respect. It was inspiring.
These brief open moments all begin to tie together in the spring. My parents gave me a beautiful hybrid bicycle for my birthday, and I began to bike commute to work (I dreaded the metro, despite its convenience, and I think many D.C. residents share that).
My first few days adjusting to bike commuting were difficult. Arlington and the basin of the Potomac did not make for easy coastal riding. The trails were hilly (one hill, returning from work, was about three miles long), with large ramps and bridges. Often times the chilly spring breezes were strong enough to push me backwards. But I was sick of being stagnant in my life. I needed to face a challenge. So I biked. And as I winded my way through the twisty trails, I realized that there was nature within feet of my apartment. It was never separate from me. Biking was the cathartic catalyst I needed. Funny, because I used to hate it.
The Arlington Loop and Custis Trail are gorgeous. A few miles into the trail and you hit the Potomac river and bike along its shore for the rest of the trip to the Pentagon. In the morning, I’d bike right next to Georgetown’s crew team as they silently muttered their chants, their rhythm fueling my peddling. I’d bike under Memorial Bridge and look across to see the capitol’s monuments. In these sights, I couldn’t help but beam with something other than sorrow for myself. Gratitude, probably. Weeping Willows surrounded the path and I’d greet them by standing and brushing my hands against their drooping branches. Osprey would fly over me, fish in their talons, wiggling like a shaggy wet dog to shake off the musty water. Grass and flowers and green and everything my eyes craved to see surrounded me each morning. Greeted me with an awakening similar to the first smell or scent of coffee.
Towards the end of my ride, I would stop by Gallvery Point, a park near Reagan airport. My dad always told me stories of he and his brother kayaking by the airport and watching the planes take off or land right over their head. I would sit there and watch the planes, thinking of that. That I was able to sit in a spot my father did when he was my age. A place where he developed his future passions for flight. Giant jets would fly feet above my head, and I would sit on my two wheels and marvel at mankind’s capability to persevere in the face of impossibility (wi-fi on airplanes, obviously).
My weekends became filled with hikes with friends in Virginia. Concerts. Dance-a-thons. Kayaking and camping. Encounters with people filled with passions and a zest for life. And that zest was contagious. I, yet again, was in awe of simplicity. Of the little Cardinal who nested in the one tree on our block and sang it’s song. To the man who couldn’t see, and his loyal dog. To the store clerk downstairs who always gave me a square of dark chocolate. To the blooming flowers in windows and the fingers touching at coffee shops. To my dear friends selling their Street Sense news papers to help fight poverty. I want to embrace all of this. I have embraced all of this.
It can be undeniably easy to see horrible things in D.C. Four small walls and a cork board. People marching in apathy, brain waves closed off to the world around them, eyes aloof as they walk past the homeless or hurting. Concrete walls. Soot. Debris. Politics. Ladder climbing. Pollution. Those aspects are still very real, and I am guilty of latching onto them . But I think, in retrospect, I have lifted the blinders I placed upon myself in fear of the unknown.
My staying in my small little world, my underground commute to work, my concrete view from my porch, my perception, kept me from realizing all there was here. This truly was our nation’s capitol, filled with culture, history, and nature. I just had to step back outside of myself to realize it.
Funny how perception changes things. Funny how life, and our reaction to it, changes who we are. Something to be embraced. To be torn apart and reassembled with a greater understanding of identity and wanting. Growth, I think that’s what they call it.