The Memories We Carry

At this point in the party everyone’s four or five deep, perhaps because, as co-workers, we’re not usually out of the office together, but more likely because we’re a bunch of neurotic writers. The get-together is a goodbye for a senior editor at our magazine who’s leaving Los Angeles for someplace actually affordable, and many at the party are friends of his that are strangers to me. I strike up a conversation with one of them — this pretty redhead in a black slip — and we get to talking about our pasts. She asks me what I used to do to before working at the magazine, and that’s how the question came up:

“So how was the trip?”

This is where I pause for a moment, probing her eyes for clues.

Even though I’ve been asked about “the trip” hundreds of times since returning to the United States, it’s still difficult to answer. Typically, I choose from three stock responses:

A. “It was great.” (then change the subject)

B. “It was an adventure.” (then give a 2 min recap of the “craziest thing that happened”)

C. “It was life-changing.” (before going full-bore into the emotional ups and downs of the journey)

And, well, it’s a surprisingly tough call to make – anticipating how deep down the rabbit hole your asker wants to follow.

Two years riding a bicycle from France to China with a friend was hands-down the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It completely changed who I am, defining my attitudes towards everything from country, to relationships, to family. When I was “out there,” months at a time in the hinterlands of developing countries, I learned empathy, I grasped privilege, I probed religion and selfishness; I saw the truest expressions of evil and goodness; I was beat up and tormented and lonely and had to construct myself from the ground up into the person I am today.

Returning home to California, I knew that it would be difficult to readjust. I also wondered how to possibly convey the extent of what I just went through.

Anyone who has weathered a period which was deeply challenging or ground-shifting knows what I’m talking about – whether it was time spent abroad, coming out of the closet, a religious (or anti-religious) experience, combat, an identity crisis – but then how do you convey the totality of what that meant to you? And what is considered socially acceptable in a casual conversation?

One thing I have learned: it is dangerous to expect too much.

It still stings when someone doesn’t seem to care. Upon mentioning “the trip” there are plenty of times I receive responses like, “Oh so you rode your bike around? That’s cool…Anyway, what did you think of the Breaking Bad finale?”

My reaction, in kind, has evolved in phases. The first couple of months after my return, I was frustrated.

This may sound presumptuous, but it wasn’t because I sought any special recognition or ego-boost. It was because I so badly wanted my audience to know the things that I’d learned, and be deeply marked like I’d been marked. My “biking around a while” had uncovered some ugly and beautiful truths about the world, as well as admissions of my own narcissism that I didn’t know where there before I left.

Yet the more I’d bring it up outside my friends and family, the more audiences I encountered that couldn’t be bothered. After a while, my frustration turned to indifference. This marked Phase Two: What’s The Point?

I was reminded of a passage from Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, in which an army vet drives around a lake near his hometown, trying to imagine how he might tell his father about the time he failed to save a buddy during a battle in Vietnam. But he can’t picture a way to broach the topic, because how could his father ever understand his cowardliness in battle, or what it was like being there? So instead the vet makes up excuses to stall the conversation, “maybe if my father were not such a baseball fan, it would have been a good time to talk.” The memory becomes a private burden.

Similar thinking eventually led me to Phase Three, which I still fall in and out of: Avoid Mentioning It

Unless directly asked, I know that there are times when bringing up “the trip” only makes me seem like a pompous ass. It’s such a loaded topic!

A brief example: at a dinner party the other night someone brought along a friend who had just finished a bicycle trip from Vancouver to Los Angeles. He was so fresh off his adventure that he had not yet trimmed his beard, which looked like it belonged to a Civil War general. He was totally elated with his accomplishment, all grins and laughs.

Then someone mentioned my trip.

At first the other cyclist was fascinated. After all, we are fellow bicycle tourists! But then I slowly watched his face fall as I described cycling through restricted jungles and villages in Myanmar, and how it required playing a cat and mouse game with the Burmese police.

Thunder stolen from his ride down Highway 1, the cyclists’ expression was like, “gee, thanks a lot dude.” I really wished I hadn’t said anything…

At times it seems best to just avoid mentioning it, which in a way has made the trip lose significance over time. In the ten months since I returned, my experiences abroad oftentimes seem surreal to me, like something I’ve read about but not actually experienced. It can seem otherworldly, and I start to lose touch until…

…I chance upon someone like the redhead at my co-workers’ party.

I had already opted for option A. “It was great,” and was trying to change the subject when she grabs my arm.

“Woah, hold on,” she says.

She begins needling me about everything she can think of. How did the trip affect my relationship with family? What things did all the cultures have in common? How did the trip affect me spiritually? Do I feel more, or less, proud to be an American?

Mind you, it’s not even a sexual encounter (Brooke is already seeing someone and jokes I’m about ten years too young). No, she’s genuinely interested in the trip,  pressing me. At this point I’m thinking damn, these are some hard-hitting questions. For the first time in a while, I’m having to think out new responses. I even learn a few things.

And that’s when it hits me: we shouldn’t write off the moments that shaped us.

Divorce, failure, doubt, transformational journeys. These types of personal challenges will always be that – personal. But just because the chance to explore them in conversation seems rare shouldn’t cheapen the memory. For every person who doesn’t care, there will always be opportunity when the right audience comes our way. By choosing option A — changing the subject — I had almost short-sold myself. After all, Brooke and I could have talked about Breaking Bad.

But empathy is contagious. It turned out she had a fascinating history herself. That’s a story for another time.


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