2018 FOR ME HAS BEEN, IN A WORD: Difficult. There I said it. Despite all my pathetic 2018 New Year’s resolutions, I’m chalking it up as a year that has felt mostly like a desperate attempt to keep my head above water, and I’m still out here swimming, folks! Call me "Finding Nemo."

As I type this, I’m sitting in the waiting room of Loyola Hospital in Chicago waiting to hear an update on how my mother’s two-day spinal surgery is going. Two days ago, my older brother was in a car accident that put him (also) in the hospital with a severe concussion. And just three days ago, I watched my family’s first and beloved dog go from veritable happiness to sedated on my living room floor as we put him down due to cancer.

And that’s just this week. 

2018 has been a year full of harsh realities, painful goodbyes, fuck-ups, rough situations, and rougher conversations, but my God, so much growth. Growth happening at warped speeds that I can hardly see straight.

There's been less frantic country hopping, less mindless scrolling, fewer translations, saying no impulsive decisions, and goodbye to toxic people, places and jobs. There's been more slowing down, tuning in, writing, staying put, spending time with family, and focusing on the future I want for myself. 

However, no one tells you (and certainly no Instagram feed, or guidebook, or 22-year-old life coach will tell you) that once you’ve traveled the planet, when you “return home” (whatever that means) it’ll be 10x more impenetrable than it was for you in any other country you visited. 

The whole staying put, tuning in and focusing on the future thing was so beyond onerous for me that I began to second guess everything I once believed in about the world, myself, travel and what defines a “life well-lived.” I ended up quite literally going through an identity crisis, becoming a person I hardly recognized, contemplating if everything I had seen, done, worked for, and then accomplished was even worth it.

It felt like a never-ending, hazy, obstacle course against myself, and I was utterly hesitant about which way to turn, terrified about where my path was going to take me next, hesitant about if this new path could match up to the old one that I very much treasured so.

I had to entirely redirect my thoughts, change my habits and slow down. Physically, mentally and emotionally be somewhere I did NOT want to be (oh hey, America?), to grow. Just like I had chosen to travel in the first place — to grow.

These changes didn't come about by accident. It took a lot of force and self-discipline. A change in viewpoint of the way my life was and for how I'd like my life to be. I made these changes for my short and long-term health and happiness. And while I’m still (and probably always will be) “figuring it out,” and treading oh so lightly in this extreme current I’ve been swimming against — here’s what I HAVE figured out. Here’s what I’ve learned. Here’s where I’m headed. Here is a little bit of lately:


On Life

At 21-years-old, I fell into the trap of thinking a hectic, 24/7 stimulating, distant and rebellious life was a good one. I thought that my joy and self-worth was determined by a life filled with constant travel, substantial people, whimsical places, epic jobs, and even more epic weekend activities.

I found myself at multiple music festivals per year, traveling on private jets for work, flying to Vegas or Seattle or New York just for one night on the town with friends, packing my life and moving to the other side of the country, and then the other side of the world (that happened twice, actually), while aimlessly hopping from country to country in-between because, “Turkey is on the way so I might as well…” 

But even worse, I thought the lifestyle I was living was healthy, meaningful and fulfilling because it was filled with such unique experiences, self-discovery, easy paychecks, incredible stories, game-changing people, and countless passport stamps. I mean, isn’t that what life is about? Isn’t that living?

And shit, I’ve lived eight lifetimes in the past 3+ years. Most 20-something white females from America will never even CONSIDER what I’ve done, let alone have the guts to do it (to my babes who have though, thank you for "getting it"). 

Although traveling has this cognition attached to it of being the ultimate life experience — I couldn’t help but feel like for these past few years, I was blowing in the wind and unsure of which direction I was supposed to be facing. I finally realized that the life I was living was far from healthy, nor was it genuinely fulfilling. And I can guarantee that anyone who has traveled for an extended period of time, they at some point have felt the same, whether they admit it or not.

You see, all this traveling, all this freedom, and all this youth allow us to have and do almost anything that we want. But I understand now that the lifestyle I was living has afforded me nearly none of the things I need— purpose, structure, community, and love are all critical elements of a happy, healthy, sustainable life. Period. I don’t care what society or your damn social media feed is falsely FEEDING you (get it?).

This year, I was able to determine and figure out what I was missing to break through. Life transformation takes place within, not in the next purchase, rad trip/party/event, relationship, destination, job, or milestone. Part of that transformation involves coming to terms with the way you’re living, what your surroundings are, where you come from and who you are.

On Travel

If you've been following along, you know that earlier this year I returned to the states for good after two years filled with euphoric and mind-bending travel. In doing so, I promised myself (while sitting next to a screaming baby for 16 hours on a flight from the UAE to Chicago) that I’d stop impulsively booking flights and jetting off to the next country just F-ing because. I was mentally, physically, and emotionally exhausted of the actual “travel” part of travel. 

Now, I’d be downright lying if I said I wasn’t going to leave America ever again, as there is still SO much ground I haven’t covered and SO many places I want to re-discover. But mostly, when it comes to “where I’m going next” (because so many people seem to be asking), I want to see more of my own country (oh hey again, America) with this fresh perspective I had gained from traveling elsewhere.

This past summer, I wandered down the streets of my hometown(s), I hung out in Los Angeles with some old friends (and new), then I went off the grid completely in Bozeman, Montana where I learned how to swing dance, and even flew down to the U.S. Virgin Islands for a hot minute to see what America’s island life is about.

It’s all been a breath the fresh air — bouncing around where people speak my language, where I can drive a car to get around, where I know people, where I can read the menu at a restaurant, where my phone works, where flights are cheap and painless, etc. 

I see my hometown and America differently, in a way I might not have seen before had I not gone and traveled. The outcome has been overwhelming, both positively and negatively — but nonetheless, necessary. 

My upcoming “travels” involve an official move to LA (more on this in a bit), as well as some trips around the West Coast. Believe it or not, I haven’t seen the Grand Canyon or Yosemite, which is the first question anyone from anywhere asked me when I mentioned I was American on my travels. 

Also, a quick Euro trip/bachelorette party is also in the works for next summer with some of my dearest girlfriends I met while teaching English in South Korea. Expectations of it being better than any other trip I’ve been on, are VERY high.

For now, that’s all the traveling my burnt-out, nomadic self can handle. And I surprisingly more than okay with it. It’s time to stop exploring the world at alarming speeds, and time to start to explore more of myself and my home. 

On Writing

I’ve been struggling lately with art, with self-expression, social media, connection, what’s real, what’s fake, what’s forced, what’s copied, what’s original, what’s natural, etc. And in the information overload, tech-driven world we live in, how could one not?

For me, writing is my “craft” or my “art.” It helps me to make sense of the world. And for as long as my memory can backbend, I have been holding a pen. I think society calls that a writer, but it’s always felt more fitting to call it “sanity.”

But it’s safe to say that a massive part of who I am and the way I think is due to writing and literature. A bit bohemian, nerdy, and carries a stigma that screams “I probably won’t make a lot of money,” but writing has allowed me to fully connect with myself, my thoughts, goals, skills, and eventually, dreams…

It still comes as a shock to me to realize that I don’t write about what I know. I write to find out what I know, whether it be with myself, with other people, with a memory, with a destination, an answer, or just with life. Putting these things into words on paper helps. It has always helped.

I started a website because my old college advisor told me that every good writer should have one and because apparently writing in a journal is pre-historic. Here, you won’t find any ads, plugs, sponsored posts, brand shoutouts, etc. It’s just my space to write and share that said writing.

But welcome to ALMOST 2019! A time where anyone with a pulse can declare themselves as writers, artists, entrepreneurs, photographers, designers, authors, creatives, and “content creators” (ick, that one has GOT to stop). 

But REAL creative work comes from people who create because they love it or they emotionally need to — not for validation and likes. Millennials and social media have destroyed art with their constant creating-to-sell mentality. And the worst part is, all of their “creations” are the exact same as the next person’s account you come across. I guess what my peers neglect to realize is that “creating” for a profit or status is NOT art (let me repeat, IT IS NOT FUCKING ART). It’s fake, it’s boring, and it’s everything that is wrong with the world.

Where are my Picassos, Pico Iyers, Bowies, Banskys and Spielbergs at? I want something raw and real to happen outside of the digital sphere, because great photography, music, writing, paintings, designs are NOT just another speck in the black hole of the internet. I want the whole world to see something and go, “NOW THAT IS ART!” because it seems like we’ve all lost touch with the concept.

I still want to believe that there are organic, authentic and noteworthy writers/artists out there, who understand that truth to how words are a writer’s worst enemy, but also our very best friend. But for now, I’m blasting the Rolling Stones, re-reading Paulo Coelho, and searching for inspiration outside of my cell phone.

On Health

One thing I’ll never forgive myself for is how careless I was with my health over the past few years. I’ve never been one to completely disregard good health, eat like crap, smoke, or obsessively worry about my weight. But there were other things I was doing that weren’t exactly adding years to my life.

Everything from sleeping with my makeup on, to drinking 3+ cups of coffee a day, to skipping the gym, to sleeping on trains, to living in places with mass air pollution and fattening foods, to too many tequila shots at the bar, and whatever other garbage in-between — I’ve made a complete 180 with.

It’s astonishing how everything just sort of falls into place when you put your health first, both physically and mentally. Even if it is something as simple as drinking sugar-free coffee, eating actual meals a reasonable hour of the day, or doing a few more crunches at the gym. How just a little, bitty lemon water in the morning can not only make you think like you are on your way to becoming sponsored by Weight Watchers, but also what a difference it makes in how you feel throughout your day. I. AM. SHOOK.

Overall, I finally understand that I only have one body that will be with me until whatever upstairs character decides “NO MAS!”. Our bodies are not just a machine to take us through our lives. They must be treated with respect and honor more than anything else you have. One blow to your health, watch the quality of your life disintegrate right in front of you. Without quality health, you are nothing. 

That being said, you can now find me only eating, wearing, consuming, supporting and doing anything all-natural. Yes, I’m avoiding red meat. Yes, my make-up is from Kiehls. Yes, I’m staying in to sleep and then going to yoga at 7 am. Yes, I consume stupid amounts of kombucha. Yes, I have tried intermittent fasting. I don’t CARE how pretentious, LA, or basic that makes me. It feels fucking good, and you should try it.

On Home

I debated it over and over to a point where it kept me up into the wee hours of the morning. I scoured the internet, asked nearly everyone I came across for their input. Shit, I even debated city hopping for a month just to give each place on my list a trial run.

“Where am I going to 'settle’? Where is my next ‘home’ going to be?”

After coming to a conclusion last spring that I could NOT mentally, physically and emotionally live out of a suitcase and bounce around the planet solo anymore; I became downright obsessed with choosing the right location to establish some roots, earn, build and grow. It turns out, once you’ve seen quite a bit of the world, you become pretty picky about your home-base location. I've learned what I want and don’t want out of a place, and what that location needs to fit me and my needs. So my next move needed to be THE move. 

Rewind ten years ago, when I was 15-years-old and flew to Los Angeles for my first ever solo travel experience. Destination: Big Bear Lake Summer Camp. I label this trip as my “first beer” — an introduction to life outside of my hometown of Chicago. It truly changed everything for me. One taste of what it was like to travel on my own, and I was addicted. 

It’s now a decade after I had traveled for the first time to California, and I realized, "What better place to sort of…end my chronic travels and settle?" When I did come to a conclusion, LA no longer felt superficial and cliche -- it felt right, and I booked my ticket that same hour. AND not to mention I still have some of THE best friends in LA, due to that week at summer camp ten years ago ;)

“California here we come, right back where we started from..”

Overall, I’ve learned that “home” isn’t a specific location. Or even a spot where you lay your head at night. You can find a "home" inside your own mind, in the people you love (this one I know for sure), or the things that make you happy and fulfilled. The destinations we reside in or travel to make the world seem small, secure and lovely, sure... Maybe these places can shake you and wake you up a bit, too. But the truth is, you can find that adventure, person or lifestyle you're craving, and whatever else it is you think that you need, in your own damn backyard if you really want it. Trust me on that. 

So after all the globe-trotting, after all the people, passport stamps, strange foods, times I should have covered my shoulders, missing flip-flops, delayed flights, complicated currencies, hostel beds, tickets to nowhere, conversations with strangers, and surreal sunsets. After literally everything — I can finally see the person I'm becoming and I’m so beyond excited for her and her next chapter.

See ya in Cali!

Emma CunninghamComment