A couple of years ago, a friend of mine returned home from a six-month-long self-finding trip to India and Nepal. On one of his first days back at home in Perth, he captioned a brooding Instagram photo with the cryptic line, the longest way round is the shortest way home. (This was like, 2012, and he’d found himself, in Nepal, and this was cool, and shut up).
I didn’t pay all that much attention to the line but somehow it wedged itself in the deep recesses of my mind and surfaced recently, as I was preparing to pack up my life in Dili and head home, home to Perth.
I googled it, to figure out its origin and meaning, and found it alternatively attributed to James Joyce, CS Lewis, a New Yorker contributor from the 1930s and 1940s called Margaret Fishback and an English minister called Alexander MacLaren. But all potential authors seemed in agreement on its meaning: an instruction not to cut corners; to spend time to do something carefully and properly, and to find that to be the most effective pathway.
Both my broody friend and I interpreted it in a slightly different and perhaps more literal way: the best way to return home to yourself is to roam far and free.
As I write this I’m sitting in the quite dappled shade of the Black Russian Caravan Bar courtyard in Katherine, a town of six thousand strangers and one friend, about 300 kilometres south of Darwin. I flew into Darwin from Dili yesterday–the first flight of a hectic few weeks of trips and visitors and homecomings–and caught the bus down here, to visit my friend Clare and to give myself a chance to equalise, recalibrate, decompress between full-volume Dili life and being back home in Perth.
Katherine is gorgeous–it’s the end of the wet season and it’s lush and green, full-throated eucalyptus trees and shaggy palms and walking along a green-grassed highway beneath a clear blue sky. It’s a bigger town than I assumed it’d be–I’ve already had my inevitable post-Timor freak-out over how well-stocked the Woolworths is, and I’m sipping a Campos long black as I write–but it’s still small and relatively rural. For however sleepy Dili can be, it’s still a capital city; it’s a concentration of energy; and these few days here in Katherine feel like a tonic for my overwhelmed, over-wrought farewell brain.
I’m hardly roaming far and free, visiting Woolworths and the coffee shop and the Katherine shopping centre and sleeping 10-hour nights in Clare’s air-conditioned townhouse. But that’s the point. This is not a blog post about how I find myself. This is a blog post about how I come home to myself.
These are the days in between Dili and Perth I suspect I’ll be forever glad for.
I’m still too close to Dili to have the space and the energy to reflect on those two years, and I’m still in a holding pattern before settling back into Perth. This is neutral, quiet, safe time; time for me to catch up with my own momentum.
The longest way round is the shortest way home. I remember thinking before I left Melbourne for Dili that I’d improve and grow, moving overseas. I reflected recently on this blog about what I’ve learned about myself living overseas. In that post I wrote about mashed potato and sleep-ins; hardly the profound truths I may have anticipated before I left.
But that’s key. On the short flight to Darwin, just yesterday morning, I was scrolling through and deleting old screenshots on my phone, to free up memory space (and to sate my phone addiction in aeroplane mode). Various screenshots from the past couple of years hint at what I’ve been thinking, feeling, wanting, missing at different stages of this time–cute clothes I liked; activist-y tweets; anonymous Midwest desert photos; pastel design work and big blotchy paintings; a photo of six jars of homemade pickles, standing still on a kitchen bench. Same as in my house in Dili.
I stopped at that photo; it made me smile. A year ago I clearly thought it desperately important to make pickles; to not only make pickles but to be the kind of person who made pickles. Most of those screenshots and saved photos reflected things that inspired me or things that I wanted to be. I’d forgotten about that pickle photo and just made pickles the other week because I had jars and cucumbers, saw a recipe, and thought that it would be fun.
A few months into my time in Timor-Leste I wrote a blog post about how I once cried in my therapist’s office, thinking I’d never learn another language.
“Just because you’re not learning a language now, doesn’t mean you won’t learn one in the future,” my therapist, Kellie, reminded me. “You have the time. If you want to learn a language, you can.”
Of course I could. But I got so tied up in what I wanted to do and how I wasn’t doing it that I forgot there was a not yet within that, as well–not just a no.
Learning Tetun, making pickles, deconstructing my feminism, buying art, cutting my hair, visiting mountains–every small hope, idea, shame, dream, plan contained smally in those screenshots and notes and bookmarks represents the kind of person I want to be; the kind of things I want to do; what I want to crowd and colour my life with.
And the capacity to do all of those things is already inside me. It’s just an excavation, or a waiting for something to surface. Like the pickles; like learning Tetun. The longest way round is the shortest way home.
I used to get very tied up about where my home was–when I first moved to Melbourne I asked myself whether I could call that city my home, whether Perth was home; what my bullet-point criteria for home were made up of. But Dili, as it does, eased me up and made me see more clearly–I can choose what my home is; I can label both Perth and Dili home. No problem.
And, of course, here in Katherine today I’m thinking about the home within myself; the person I am beneath the mucky layers of distraction and excuses and guilt and shame and stories I tell myself and how I’d like to seem rather than who I may just be. Everything I am is already inside me; everything I want I can already do.
I didn’t expect to move overseas and find myself. I think that’s pretty trite. And, of course, self-discovery isn’t a static, box-ticking exercise–and even if it were it’s not something that must be exclusively, uniquely accomplished in a place that isn’t your own.
But, of course, being in an unfamiliar environment forces you to think and reflect in a way that you don’t in the everyday churn of ‘real’ life; and relocating from what was always normal forces you into thousands of tiny, mundane choices and realisations of like, wow, pepper is really important to me. Living away from home, being out of your comfort zone naturally teaches you about yourself and builds resilience, by forcing you through uncomfortable situations and together with new things (another good one from my screenshots folder: the only way around is through).
Two years of going through. Two long foreign years in a place that became home, because it sifted and sloughed away layers; self-talk stories and habits and routines glued onto my skin like layers of papier-mache. Red-raw skin and bawling like a newborn baby.
I didn’t move overseas and find myself. I didn’t move overseas to find myself.
That was never the point.
I’m going back now to go home; to go back to Perth; to go home to the person I have been all along. It has been the longest way but the shortest way.