This week I finished reading Andrew McCarthy’s “The Longest Way Home,” a memoir that explores why we travel. Is travel about escapism, or is it about a need to be present in the world around you for yourself and for the ones you love? For McCarthy, both impulses motivate his domestic and international travel as he examines his fear of intimacy and relationships before he ties the knot a second time.
As someone who spent a great deal of my twenties moving around the U.S. and Asia and who is now newly married, “The Longest Way Home” gave me pause. I’ve been a good friend to many people, but before Cameron came into my life, I can’t say I had a great track record in the romantic relationship department.
For much of my adulthood, I’ve been on a quest to balance independence and interdependence. As McCarthy so eloquently explains,
There is a pure, still place in me that remains mine alone. It is that place I first encountered as a child in my front yard, under the stars, it is the place from which I move out into the world, the place from which so much that is good in my life has sprung. Over the years my willful isolation and separation, my urge to flee, my feelings of being misunderstood and ultimately alone in the world, all grew from a desire to shield that solitary place.
Still, had life taken a different turn in 2002, I might very well have married my first boyfriend, Adrian, the Canadian-Hungarian sweetheart who literally swept me off my feet during our first date. (That night we were caught in a torrential downpour by a flooded creek. I can’t swim, and while I’ve never been a damsel in distress, I’m sure we could have posed for a Harlequin romance book cover as he hauled me across the rising waters.)
Life, however, did take a different turn. Partners for three and a half years, Adrian and I moved to Oregon after college. A few months later we watched the World Trade Center buildings collapse into the city we’d spent so much time exploring together. A few months after that, he broke up with me, became a musician, and eventually moved back to Canada where he now lives with his partner and two sons.
If I had been wary of intimacy before Adrian, I was allergic to the slightest whiff of it after him. I swore off all serious relationships with men, moved to the San Juan Islands to teach French and photography and then hopped a plane to Shanghai to teach English at a provincial university just miles from the South China Sea.
Why give so much of yourself to another person only to lose him/her and part of yourself in the process? That question haunted me for years until Cameron came into my life. Before Cameron, selfishly I would have rather been alone than give an inch of my autonomy to anyone else.
The summer after Adrian and I broke up, we attended our mutual friends’ wedding on Orcas Island. I had taken a boat over from the island where I was living and teaching; he had driven north from Portland. As we waited for his Anacortes-bound ferry that night, we lay on the hood of his green Jetta and stared out to Straits of Juan de Fuca dotted with stars and slow-moving ferries. I could hear the Jetta’s engine ticking beneath my back.
I’d watched his parents give him the keys to that car after he’d returned from Zimbabwe. He and I had crisscrossed the country in that car. We’d driven through the iced-over eastern hills of southern Canada and pushed it out of snowbanks when it lost traction during a blizzard. The Jetta had hauled our belongings from New York to Oregon. It had endured our battles over music. (Adrian: “I can’t listen to Tori Amos! She reminds me of middle school summer camp.” Me: “For the love of god, no more reggae jams!”)
A owl hooted from a tree behind us. I asked, “Do you remember the first time we met?”
“You mean the night of the rain storm?”
“No. I met you our freshman year.”
“No, you didn’t.”
No matter how many times I had told him about our first encounter, he pretended it was the first he’d heard of it. “Come on. When I first met you? You and Jeff were belly-flopped on on the lawn outside my dorm house doing an astronomy project. I said hello. You laughed as if my Southern accent was a role I was playing for kicks. You said you were naming the stars. You were so adamant you’d found Antares. I gave you a box of half-eaten pizza and walked back to my room.”
“I would have remembered you,” he protested.
“You can name the stars,” I half-teased, “detail their qualities light years away, but you can’t remember me?”
He smiled sheepishly. “You said your hair was short then, and you know I’ve never been good with faces.”
I squeezed his hand. His ferry was sliding into port. Its eerie horn sounded over the water.
“This is it, isn’t it?” he asked. It wasn’t really a question.
I slid off the hood. “Yeah, this is it.”
Adrian knew me better than anyone else on the planet at that time. Even though we were already better off as friends, I resented him for dumping me, for asking me to give up my solitary place to date him. It was only after Cameron came into my life that I could thank Adrian for knowing when to call it quits. I wouldn’t have gotten here via the circuitous path I took had he and I never met.
On the night after his wedding ceremony, McCarthy puts his son to bed and recognizes that
[W]hat I’ve come to see in the past months of travel is that these battlements I’ve erected ultimately ensure the creation of all they are trying to safeguard against. The revelation of my journeying is that so many of my defenses, so many of the protective choices I have lived by, behavior that has dictated so many of my actions and created much of my persona in the world, are both unnecessary and counterproductive. The realization is at once liberating and already deeply familiar.
Had I not travelled so far to find my home in the places now etched onto my bones, I might not have met the people who have shown me why love, as harrowing as its loss may seem, is worth the risk.
Below you’ll find a recipe for starry lemon poppyseed cookies. You can make drop cookies, or as I did, use cookie cutters to shape the light lemony dough.
Lemon Poppyseed Cookies (Adapted from Sweet Sugar Belle recipe)
Makes 24-30 shaped cookies
1 cup unsalted butter
1 ½ cup confectioner’s sugar
2 tsp freshly grated lemon zest
1 tsp vanilla
2 ¾-3 cups all-purpose flour
2 tsp baking powder
2 tsp poppy seeds
1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
2. Cream together butter and confectioner’s sugar.
3. Add to this the egg, lemon zest, and vanilla.
4. In a separate bowl, sift together flour, baking powder, and salt, adding this mixture one cupful at a time to the wet ingredients.
5.Mix until the dough forms a ball on the paddle.
6. Roll out on floured parchment paper and cut into desired shapes.
7. Bake at 400° for 7-8 minutes.