I’m standing frozen in place in the condiments aisle of my hometown grocery store, twirling my hair mindlessly as I scan the mile-long shelf of peanut butter choices.
Skippy. Jiffy. Peter Pan. Crunchy. Semi-crunchy. Chunky. Creamy. Honey-roasted. All natural. Organic. 50% reduced fat. Low sodium. Low calorie. Low sugar. Low cholesterol. Dairy free.
What the…? I just want peanut butter; I don’t care what kind. But the sheer volume of options has overwhelmed the part of my brain that makes quick decisions, rendering it useless. So I stand here, twirling my hair between my fingers, wondering if I should cut back on fat, sugar, sodium or calories. Or maybe I should try the honey-roasted kind?
What’s worse, I’m not even thinking about peanut butter anymore as I grapple with the existential question of why any productive member of society would want to decide between 50 different brands and varieties for every single thing they consume every single day of their lives. “How does anyone get anything done in this country?” I think to myself. Which does little to help me choose a damned jar of peanut butter.
It’s 2002 and I’ve just returned to the U.S. after 2 years of teaching English in the Russian Far East, followed by 9 months of solo backpacking in a crooked line from Vladivostok to St. Petersburg with detours through Scandinavia and Central Asia.
For two years, my grocery choices consisted of whatever was left in the market when I got there. There was either bread, or no bread. Cheese, or no cheese. There were no kinds of things. There was simply “yes” or “no”. And it was always a “no” to peanut butter. That American delicacy didn’t exist in my little Russian town, hence why I’m standing in the peanut butter aisle, drooling on my shoes.
Returning to New York after almost 3 years abroad, I expect things to take some getting used to again, like driving, my parents calling me every day, George Bush being President, job hunting, Fox News. But I don’t expect to be overwhelmed by the little things like food shopping. I expect to be ecstatic to have the kind of variety and choice I grew up with. I expect to be comforted by how normal and familiar everything feels again. I expect my brain to understand where I am and process things the way it did before I boarded a 20-hour Aeroflot flight with my Peace Corps assignment, an overstuffed backpack and a Russian-English dictionary in hand.
And yet here I am, standing frozen in place in the peanut butter aisle in my hometown, feeling like a denizen of a strange country, wondering why nothing feels familiar and what gluttonous gods these people pray to that they get unlimited access to all the crisp, fresh mountains of colorful produce they want any time of the day or night.
When I finally get to the checkout counter, I spill my collection of random, disjointed cravings onto the conveyer belt: a jar of crunchy peanut butter, a wheel of frozen shrimp cocktail, a bag of Swedish fish, an avocado, and a loaf of fresh Italian bread.
“Tasha Hacker? Is that you?”
I turn around to face the eager smile of a guy I went to high school with in line behind me. I’d kept my head low as I walked aimlessly around the store looking like an escaped mental patient, just hoping to get in and out without running into someone I know. But that is an impossible task in a small town with only one grocery store.
“I heard you might be in town. Didn’t you just get back from — where were you — Russia?”
“How was it?”
“It was great!” I say, which is an empty response to a vast question, I know. But the social boundaries of small talk prevent me from replying with any depth or sincerity. So I find myself saying “It was great!” to everything in an effort to not make people uncomfortable. Because the real answer would require several shots of vodka in a dimly lit bar as the conversation meanders towards a scattered, anecdotal examination of the post-Cold War Soviet human experience; a conversation I’m well aware is not the kind you have at the grocery store check-out on a Tuesday afternoon.
“What are you, making shrimp cocktail peanut butter sandwiches or something?” the guy asks, looking over my grocery items.
I laugh, suddenly embarrassed that my choices are lying exposed on the counter for anyone to judge. “I can’t…I don’t…there’s just too much,” I mumble. “I couldn’t decide what I wanted.”
Apparently there is a term for this jarring experience of returning to a place, to a life you knew so well but no longer feels familiar because you’ve been away for so long that you’ve changed, your perspective has changed, and therefore the way you interact wih this place has changed. The term — often used by organizations like the Army and the Peace Corps — is re-entry.
I’m reminded of this jarring feeling now, as I return to Hideaway, after having spent the better part of a year in New York City, scrapping and fighting and trying to claw my way out, despite the short leash I was tethered to. It seemed like I would only get so far before New York would give a little tug and, before I knew it, I was at its heels, doing as I was supposed to, doing as my business demanded, dropping any dreams of adventuring, sailing and writing. Those were just hobbies, after all. Our businesses, on the other hand, were our babies. And like true children, these businesses were born of (and demanded) love and sacrifice.
When we returned to New York in March 2014, Ryan and I told ourselves it was temporary — a brief stopover — until we got our businesses back on track and in a position for us to leave again. But a few months blurred into a few more, and then a few more, until nearly a year had gone by and memories of sailing and ocean racing and weighing anchor and hopping from island to island faded into the past like a holiday remembered only in nostalgic snapshots.
It wasn’t a life I even had time to dream about anymore as I charged through meeting schedules, held conference calls while in line at Starbucks, sacrificed lunches for gym workouts and guzzled wine at midnight in a desperate attempt to unwind the day as quickly as it had wound me up.
But every now and then, I’d get a warm turquoise flash of my former life, a fleeting glimpse of a perfect day, like when we jumped off the boat in Little Inagua, into water as clear and blue as topaz, with shallow reefs all around, our own private aquarium teeming with rainbow-colored fish. We swam through the coral with our fins and snorkels and speared parrotfish for dinner, which we gutted and cleaned on the foredeck of Hideaway as nurse sharks circled, lapping up the discarded entrails like dogs under a dining table.
But as quickly as the memory materialized, it would fade away, leaving me sitting in my office, having drifted off to the ’80s music playing over the speakerphone as I waited, on hold. It was like this recurring dream I had as a kid where I’m running from a monster and my heart is pounding in my ears, I’m so scared. And suddenly I realize I’m only dreaming, so I stop running and tell myself if I can just wake up, then I can stop running from the monsters. So I stand there inside my dream with my eyes squeezed shut, fists clenched, waiting for the monster to pounce on my neck and jolt me out of this mad, stressful nightmare and bring me back to my real life.
But there’s always that sliver of doubt — which one is the dream and which one is reality? Is it my New York City business life that’s the dream? Or my Caribbean cruising life? If I stand still long enough with my eyes squeezed shut, will the New York monster disappear and will I wake up in the Virgin Islands?
Then, one day; one glorious, confusing day in March, it happens. I wake up and re-enter my old life. My life on a boat, my life as a writer, my life looking for the next big adventure. And this time I don’t have to sacrifice anything to make room for my responsibilities as a business owner. Because we don’t own our businesses anymore. After months of negotiations and endless financial paperwork, we did what we thought was impossible: we sold the teacher training and English language schools we spent 8 years grinding our blood, sweat and tears into the foundations of.
Just like that, we are released from the grip of New York City and free to return to the Caribbean.
It’s like we’ve scrubbed the barnacles off our bottom and cut away the reeds entangled in our rudder. For the first time in 8 years, we are free to move as fast as we can go in any directly we like.
And yet, for some reason, I’m still standing in that peanut butter aisle, twirling my hair, staring at an overwhelming number of options with a mixture of awe and confusion.
I find myself struggling to answer simple (and frequently asked) questions like, “What are you going to do next?” To which I end up mumbling a string of disconnected ideas about sailing to the Galapagos, rowing across the Atlantic, buying a new boat, traveling around Greece, visiting my parents, running across the Grand Canyon, writing magazine articles… I’m sorry, what was your question again?
Plans and goals are, to a certain degree, what got us here, to this enviable place of having infinite options and no plans. And now that we’ve achieved exactly what we set out to do a few months ago — sell our businesses and return to our boat — the truth is, I have no idea what to do now.
Already, I am just grabbing random items and throwing them in my shopping cart without thinking through what it is I really want, what would be most fulfilling, and slowing down to take calm, purposeful steps towards that end. I feel a little out of practice when it comes to standing still and just being in the present. So in my discomfort and panic, I catch myself flooding my schedule with plans and challenges that will quite possibly distract me from ever standing still.
But here I am now, having re-entered my life as a cruiser, trying to sit still on a mooring in Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas, in the U.S. Virgin Islands, while gazing out on an open sea to be sailed and a blank page to be written upon.
I know I can’t just pace up and down the peanut butter aisle forever, wearing out the floor with indecision. But I also know there will be plenty of decisions to make and plans to map out soon enough as we get ready to sell Hideaway and buy the next boat. Planning and working and filling our days with projects — that’s easy; that’s what we do best.
For now, the real challenge is to stand still and appreciate where my feet are planted in the present and acknowledge how far I’ve come to get here.
So, to the next person who asks, “What are you going to do next?” I will reply sincerely with, “I don’t know.” And I will try really hard to smile, rather than twitch, when I say it.