the heart, beats

They say home is where the heart is. An adventuress returns from a year spent traveling to the far corners of the globe and discovers an enigma: If the heart has two sides, which one is home?

By Emiko Atherton

I paused. Just for a beat. Long enough to gasp into my heart space and say, “I want to come home” into the phone.

Then I blew my nose, adding to the cacophony from outside. Lawn mowers trimmed plump blades of grass, dogs barked at ghosts of mail carriers, and children screamed as they ran through sprinklers. It was July Fourth in Washington, D.C. I was halfway around the world from where I had been in January and across the country from where my journey started the previous spring in Washington state. 

“It’s ok,” said my friend in Seattle. “Come home.”

Fifteen months before, I had left Seattle to travel the world with my partner. People told me it was going to be a once in a lifetime experience. It was, for seven months. In December, as I watched snowflakes melt on mosques in Istanbul, I made the decision to answer to my heart’s call. I would travel alone.

I left for Sri Lanka and then, India. I had studied abroad there and remembered being so alive in the streets of Delhi and palaces of Jaipur. In India, my heart beat in time with the tuks-tuks, tabla drums, and chants from nearby temples. 

“I feel amazing,” I said to a friend in D.C., in February, as I sat on the phone outside a hut in western India. “I’m really doing what I want.” 

“That’s great,” she said. “Is this going to be your life? Traveling the world as a free spirit?”

I watched two piglets run past. A woman swept dirt in front of the neighboring home. I didn’t know if I would be in this town, or even India, a week from then. This uncertainty was comforting—I didn’t have to commit to anything. I didn’t tell her that, though.

“No,” I said. “I’m ready to start my life again. I’m coming back soon.”

Although my body thrived in India, I knew my heart did not. Following my heart path led me to travel solo but it also meant reexamining my relationships, my career, and how I will define myself. I wanted to start on that part of the journey.

I left India, moved on to Thailand, and then traveled the U.S. for two months. When I stopped traveling, my feet planted in D.C. 

Picking the nation’s capital wasn’t random. I have a group of friends. I have worked in politics. 

Once there, I started to doubt my choice. I watched shadows of myself board Metro trains to jobs I used to have in clothes I used to wear. I wondered if I was following my heart’s song or a convenient path. Gradually, I stopped hearing my heart beat.

Five hours after my phone call to Seattle, I was on a plane back west for a week. I thought if I went to Seattle and grounded myself, I could hear my heart again. 

As the plane flew into the Pacific Northwest, my seatmate nudged me. 

“Look!” she said and pointed out the window. 

I turned to see Mount Rainier reflecting the last of the day’s light. It was a sight I had seen many times before, but until then I never felt like I could touch it.

“It’s perfect,” I said.

After we passed the mountain, the plane descended in time with the setting sun. Using the remaining summer evening light, I pointed out familiar seashores and hills to my seatmate.

“There is the Port of Tacoma,” I said. “And over there, Vashon Island.”

“Do you live in Seattle?” she asked. 

“Yes,” I said. “I mean, no. I don’t know anymore.”

I woke up that first morning in Seattle to the familiar sound of robin chirps and the smell of algae on Lake Washington. No longer weighed down by the humid air of the East Coast, I spent the week rambling on trails near my childhood home. I sat by the lake and listened for my heart beat.

“Are you coming back to D.C.?” texted a friend the day before I was scheduled to fly back.

I typed, “I don’t know,” but didn’t hit send. I didn’t want to go back, but I knew I wouldn’t find the answers I wanted in Seattle.

I wanted to fly and remain suspended in the air—halfway between the cities, a midpoint between the two parts of me.

Washington state and Washington, D.C., are as different as the two parts of my heart. Seattle is relaxed, illuminated by its omnipresent rain. Washington, D.C., is measured and bold. These cities reflect the conflicting directions tugging at me—the path that is imperfect and the one that is stable.

Friday morning, I arrived in Chicago to catch my connecting flight back to D.C. I bought a cup of coffee and watched people board jets to New York, Istanbul, and Paris—cities only a plane ticket away.

While I waited, I listened to a song about a woman waiting for a sign that something better is coming her way. Toward the end, there is a line that goes, “She’s countin’ the days until real life arrives.” I realized in the airport that’s how I feel: I am waiting for my song to start.

In a way, I believed I could reach perfection by listening to my heart, when the truth is that my heart path is messy, stymied by tears, doubt, and heartache.

It isn’t bookmarked like the beginning and ending of a flight or the opening and closing to a song. It’s not grounded in a place, like India or D.C. or Seattle. 

My heart path is also filled with hope and a beat that, even when faint, I can dance to. I know I’m doing the right thing by listening to it. I watched people coming and going different ways and understood that I don’t have to choose one direction because my heart is big enough for both sides of me.

When I reached my gate, a woman came onto the intercom.

“Now boarding for Washington, D.C.”

I looked down at my bags. I’d brought one more bag than I left D.C. with, filled with my favorite old clothes. I picked them up and walked to the gate.