The Berkeley coffee barista squinted at the Lemmenjoki gold nugget around my neck.
“I just can’t figure out your necklace,” she said, “what is it?”
I fingered the peculiarly shaped piece of gold and shifted awkwardly. “Umm, it’s a gift from the gold miners in northern Finland,” I said.
She looked again, frowning. “Is it a map of Finland?”
I smiled. I knew the inevitable, and the inevitable was hilarious.
“No, it’s a dick.” I said simply. “A golden dick.” I relished the look on her face, thanked her politely for my coffee, and turned and walked away.
On that warm July day in Lemmenjoki National Park, Antti Kohtamäki handed me both a gift and the most effective conversation stopper I’ve ever owned. Try saying the words “I have a golden dick!” at a bar, to a friend, at a coffee shop, on a date, and see if the whole world doesn’t turn around to stare. But the small token I wear around my neck serves another purpose, too: it is a reminder of what I’ve done.
I have been back in the United States for almost 2 months, but I when I’m not paying attention I tell people it’s been 3 weeks. In a perfect world, I would have something more to show for myself by now: a gallery of organized pictures, compelling videos, half a book’s worth of coherent stories. But when have I ever been organized? And when has it ever been a perfect world?
At 10am each day for the first two weeks, I found myself craving a glass of wine. I feared I was becoming an alcoholic until I realized that 10am in San Francisco is 8pm in Finland, about the time I would be sharing a drink or a chat with a friend. I slept with the window flung wide open. I brought my Lappish hunting knife to family functions, hoping to somehow use it. I ordered a burrito in Finnish. I woke from a dream where I was hunting ptarmigan with Ami, Aki, Tytti, willing it to be real. Sometimes the necklace I wore was the only thing that made me believe it was real, the only thing saving me from convincing myself I had dreamed up the whole thing.
On the outside, I was joy incarnate. I threw a bachelorette party, coordinated a surprise brass quintet flashmob and stood as the Maid of Honor at my cousin’s wedding. I cheered on the Giants as they won the World Series. I pinned Olavi Virta CD covers to myself and dressed as a Finnish Line for Halloween. I salsa danced the night away and hugged my friends a little too long. It was authentic, but there was a deep, sad side to my happiness. Rain made me cry. I watched Netflix until I was numb. I stayed inside for whole days at a time. When I got a letter in the mail, I’d run upstairs and lock myself in the bathroom and rifle through it, hoping to find words that would make me feel less alone.
I am not trying to be dramatic, nor am I complaining – I know how privileged I am. Held up by my community, I’ve just carried out the greatest journey of my waking life. I walked thousands of steps, hundreds of miles, and arrived – tired, joyful, and more alive than I have ever been – at my very own feet, at home in my very own soul. Coming back to anywhere after that can’t be smooth.
I started consulting my friends, who had some interesting input.
“Scrambling to find a toehold,” declared my friend Mira, “that’s what your mid-to-late 20s are all about.”
“Be kind to yourself when you need it, give yourself the freedom and space to realize what has changed within you, and move forward with your life according to those changes,” said Slocum. (Slocum tried his best to convince us all that he was just a crazy party man in college, a facade which only lasted as long as our first real conversation.)
“The homeless people on Market Street make it work,” said Hugs when I expressed my concern about never being able to afford the Bay Area with my given life choices. “You can, too!”
“Don’t take this the wrong way,” said Danielle, “but maybe it’s time to stop thinking about how you feel and just do it.” Philip seemed to agree.
“There comes a point when you look down and realize that you are still just sitting there, petting the old stuffed cat,” he said. “What can you let go of that isn’t serving you?”
The answer is fear.
When I tell people that I am afraid, they often greet me with laughter bordering on derision. “The woman who just walked across Finland – what could YOU possibly be afraid of?” they ask, but there are different types of fear. I faced Lyme disease and whitewater and bears, speeding tractor-trailers, public speaking, making friends of strangers again and again, getting hopelessly lost in the wilderness, but it was all right there in front of me. I could look fear straight in the eyes and stare it down until it didn’t make sense anymore. Now, my future feels like it is hiding in computer keyboards and MFA Programs and binary code and email inboxes all over the world, and I am lacking the one thing that will bring it all together. I am on a train racing in an unfamiliar direction, and all I know is that there is no turning back. How can one be brave from behind a computer?
Perhaps this is what being an adult is all about: doing everything before you are ready. There’s no practicing, it’s just the real thing all the time, happening around us. Life can’t be measured in weeks or months, gold nuggets or dollars or anything but the sum of the people we love and the way we show up in the world. Sometimes all you can do is show up. But goddamn, that’s something.