Embracing second chances

Five months ago, I wrote my first post on this blog. I had just set out on a month and a half long vacation to Malaysia and Thailand, and was simultaneously eager to visit new places and also burned out to the point of extremely unhealthy exhaustion. At the time, I declared that this was an opportunity for me to rejuvenate, get inspired and reconnect with myself.

The reality turned out somewhat different than that.

Through a combination of personal issues and diving back into work less than two weeks into vacation, the trip was far less relaxing and rejuvenating than I had expected. While I saw some incredible places and have some fond memories of the trip, I came back to China only slightly less burned out than I had been when I left.

While traveling, I dove headlong back into work before I had really had a chance to rest, took on new projects, overcommitted myself, and then was surprised when a couple of months later, things began to unravel. For real this time.

It started out as a few bad days - throbbing headaches, irritability, a feeling of boredom with my work and circumstances in general. "I just need more sleep," I told myself. "There's no reason to feel upset. It's just X thing that's stressing me out. I'm fine."

Then came the full body aches and the exhaustion that had me napping multiple times a day, reluctant to do much of anything that required me to leave my apartment.

I had to admit something was wrong. Some days were great, and I'd feel happy and enthusiastic about my life. Others were the exact opposite, and I'd find myself filled with shame for not doing better work, not being further along in my career, frustrated by certain aspects of my personal life, and above all, exhausted at every level.

Things weren't out of control, I knew. Yes, I was going through a tough time, but I could make changes, figure out the root of the problem. I made regular appointments with my therapist, which helped. But I also recognized that I needed a break. A real break.

It was 4 a.m. on a Monday and I sat on my couch crying, confiding in a friend about how I'd been feeling. I described the sensations of exhaustion and numbness, and a sense of being unmotivated and emotionally drained. Intellectually, I knew that there were a lot of things to celebrate in my life, and that there were a number of work projects I was doing that I loved and was proud to be working on.

Somewhere in my mind, I knew all of that was true, but I couldn't connect with it emotionally. Most of the time, I just wanted to curl up in my bed and hide.

"I just keep having this thought that I want to go away," I told my friend. "I want to be left alone for awhile, to really let things go and give myself a break."

"Maybe you should," he said. "Maybe you should just go somewhere and be by yourself for awhile."

The relief broke through as soon as he said that. It was exactly what I had been thinking privately in recent weeks. To go away somewhere, to give myself a second chance at that relaxing, rejuvenating vacation. To really spend time traveling, tasting, experiencing - not keeping one eye on the scenery, and one on my computer screen. A vacation during which I'm not spending most of my days holed up inside a cafe working or stressing about things beyond my control.

The more I talked about it, the more excited I became. Yes, I could go away somewhere beautiful, somewhere quiet, somewhere fresh. I could rest, meditate, write, meet people, return to exploring my love of photography. It all seemed so colorful and easy and right.

By the time I crawled into bed as the early morning light broke over Beijing, I had decided to go back to Thailand.

The relief and excitement I felt in the following weeks told me I had made the right decision.

Still, the similarities to the beginning of my last trip could not be ignored. Burned out, overworked, running on perilously few hours of sleep and emotionally drained, vacation was meant to be a sanctuary, an oasis toward which I had crawled, fueled by the promise of rest and relaxation. The same patterns that had brought me to that point last time are what had brought me to the same place again.

Vacation is not a cure-all for what ails me. I know that. I have to deal with the underlying issues that push me to take on excessive amounts of work, to set aside things I'm passionate about in favor of less worthy pursuits, to become preoccupied by things that are not emotionally healthy, to move so quickly through my days that I don't stop to reflect, breathe and keep perspective.

It hasn't been all rough, though. Things brightened as soon as I committed myself to taking a vacation and taking that time to myself. I found that, while I hadn't broken the old habits, I was becoming more conscious of them, being more proactive to start healthy ones and feeling more appreciative of the great people, relationships and circumstances in my life.

Despite the chaos surrounding the actual travel out of Beijing, I left on a positive emotional note, and feel confident that I'll be to open myself up to the good things and all the new opportunities there when I come back.

In the meantime, I am happily back in Chiang Mai, Thailand, and consciously appreciating this second chance I've given myself, and all of the opportunities it represents.

Sinking into sweet uncertainty

Two years ago, I packed all of my belongings and completely uprooted my life. In a few short weeks, I went from working as a writer for a Capitol Hill newspaper in Washington, D.C., a position that fit perfectly along the carefully planned trajectory I had laid out for my life ten years earlier, to teaching English to kindergartners in Seoul, South Korea. A year later, I shifted gears once again. This time Beijing stood imminent on the horizon, and the freewheeling lifestyle of a freelance journalist and editor lay thrillingly before me.

Now, as I approach my 365-day mark in Beijing, I'm about to do it again.

But this time, I'm not shuffling into a new apartment or relocating to another city I'll temporarily call home, at least not yet. This time I am fulfilling a lifelong dream of backpacking through Southeast Asia, taking with me only what I can carry, and living a nomadic lifestyle of which I've secretly dreamed since I was a young child.

This is the first post on a blog will be a personal one, though I'll combine elements of travel writing as well. It's about exploration and growth; introspection and forging a greater connection with the world around me.

The name, Spinning Free, is inspired by the song "Sweetness" by the band Jimmy Eat World. I chose to name my site after it because the lyrics burst to the forefront of my consciousness the night I decided to make this trip more than a simple vacation, and began seeing it as the turning point for the next chapter of my life.

Since hearing the song as a high school student many years ago, these two lines have felt particularly poignant to me, more so in recent years:

"String from your tether unwinds...

Sinking into sweet uncertainty"

Sinking into sweet uncertainty. I had always reveled in the idea of allowing myself to spin utterly free, to embrace the unknown with wide, welcoming arms. Even when I left the U.S. for Korea, and Korea for China, I had a plan, a strategy. I had never allowed myself to simply go in without a plan and take what came in stride. Until now.

I'll delve into all of this in future posts, but for the moment, I simply want to debut this blog to the world, and celebrate the beginning of what I believe will be a beautiful, fruitful and thrilling journey in my life.

As I write this, I am on a flight to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. I have spent the past hour gazing at a sunset more spectacular and rich in its warm fiery gold and piercing pink hues than I can convey. And now, as I watch the horizon fade to black, I see the first star in the night sky and imagine that this beauty is nothing compared to what lies before me in the jungles of Borneo, on the beaches of Thailand, in the myriad wonders I will see during the next several weeks as I travel through Southast Asia.

The past two years, with all their upheaval and learning and friendship and joyfulness, have been beautiful, and I will likely reference moments from them frequently on this site.

But this change feels different. I am different. I have reached a new moment of clarity, openness, wonder and a sense of self I had not known before.

I will explore new places, taste new foods, meet new people. I will learn, about my travel companions, who are three of my closest friends, and hopefully more about the world.

Most importantly, this will be a journey during which I learn more about myself, which in my life thus far has led my greatest adventures of all.