I’ve been feeling a bit lost. It was bound to happen, I suppose. I’m halfway through my four-year medical school adventure and it’s been almost eight years since I first made the life altering decision to become a doctor. Since that cool November evening when I was lying on my back with my arms behind my head, staring blankly at the ceiling, suddenly realizing what I needed to do with my life, I’ve become an entirely different person.
It’s mostly been a long, slow transition but the last two years hit me like a truck – unexpected, fast and dramatic. Medical school has been such an unrelenting journey that I haven’t been able to ease into this new version of myself. In these past two years, I’ve gained an absurd amount of knowledge, my perspective has changed significantly, I’ve poured so much of myself into becoming a doctor and I’ve never looked back. I lost myself along the way without the opportunity to take a break and come to terms with who I’ve become.
But now, I find myself in the middle of a six-week vacation and my introspection has sent me into something of an identity crisis. I’m a little confused. I don’t quite understand my own personality. I can feel the massive potential inside of me but I don’t know what to do with it, like a 13-year-old boy who’s becoming stronger than he control with feet that have suddenly grown four sizes. I’m clumsy, tripping over everything, but I know if I can just figure out this new body I can achieve something great.
I’ve become extremely nostalgic. Not the “I-wish-it-went-back-to-how-it-was” nostalgia. More of the “how-did-I-get-here” nostalgia. I find myself quietly sitting for hours, filing through memories that might help me explain who I am and how I ended up here. I’m still looking for the profound moments that describe the specifics of how this all happened, but I understand why I feel so lost. It’s simple: I’ve grown up.
I’m an adult now. There’s no arguing that. And being an adult is great, but I’m a little frustrated because it seems like it happened by accident. I allowed this transition to occur without any oversight. I just let it happen. The reason I’m having this identity crisis, the reason I’m confused, the reason I don’t know who I am is because I passively let go of something that has defined my entire life up until now: my childhood, my youth.
Of course, everyone needs to let go of their childhood at some point in order to move forward but there have always been certain parts of it that I hoped to carry with me forever, like a lucky rock in my pocket. A little keepsake I can take out and look at any time I want to. Something I can touch, that can connect me to all the people, all the experiences, all the memories that brought me to where I am now. But it looks like I mindlessly dropped those little parts of my childhood out of my pocket somewhere along the journey and I can’t find them anywhere.
During the extremely stressful months leading up to my current vacation time, my girlfriend, Lisa, and I planned a few trips to see family and friends around the country. The first trip would bring us to San Francisco for a long weekend.
I’ve been to San Francisco many times, but the last time I visited was probably ten years ago, when I was around 20 years old. I have nothing but wonderful, profound memories from all of those trips. My good friend went to college at the University of San Francisco and I visited as often as possible. I loved it there. To this day, I associate San Francisco with the most care-free, creative and happy version of myself. As our trip grew closer, I started getting extremely excited.
In my recent search for the lost pieces of my childhood, I thought that maybe I’d accidentally dropped one of them out of my pocket in the midst of one of those trips to San Francisco. I was always losing things back then and, at that point, I had so much youth that I probably wouldn’t have noticed if I left a little bit of it behind. I created a secret, desperate hope that maybe it was still there somewhere. Maybe I’d be able to find it and pick it up and put it back in my pocket. Maybe it would be the piece I needed to connect everything and put myself back together. Maybe I could be reminded of who I used to be. Maybe it would be the answer I was looking for.
I got on the plane with Lisa. It was a Friday. From the moment we began our initial descent, I was eagerly looking over her shoulder out of the window. We landed at San Francisco International Airport around 3pm.
I’m aware of how ridiculous it was to think that I’d be able to find an answer, a part of myself, on this trip. I certainly didn’t talk about it with Lisa and I didn’t even really admit it to myself, but I was definitely searching. I didn’t know what I was looking for or how to go about finding it. I thought maybe I’d see something that would trigger the thought or feeling I was missing. Or maybe I’d simply be in the right location and I’d be reminded of the part of me I’ve been forgetting. I don’t know. I guess I was hoping that somehow during this trip, everything would suddenly and spontaneously just be ok.
We got off the plane and made our way down to the BART station, San Francisco’s version of a subway. I saw the ATM-like box where you purchase tickets and was struck by the memory of Jon and I attempting to figure out how much money we were supposed to put in for a ticket to get us to Mike’s school. Lisa and I got our tickets and made our way to the AirBnB house that would be our home for the weekend. I was desperately looking out the window the entire way, trying to connect with every building, every hill, every tree that I saw. I kept thinking, “Have I been here? Have I seen this? Is it here? Is my answer here?”
We met up with our friends and dropped our bags off at the rented house before driving over to Haight and Ashbury. I was thrilled. If I did drop a piece of my youth, there was a good chance it was around there, probably at Amoeba Music. Back then, Amoeba Music was my heaven. I’ve spent hours and hours there. I remember buying Joe Satriani’s “Is There Love In Space” there on its release day. That album was terrible, but the experience of buying it at Amoeba was magical for whatever reason. I’ll never forget it. I was excited to go back there and stand in the aisle where I first picked the album up off the shelf and try to feel what I felt back then.
After parking the car, my friend asked, “So where to?” I timidly offered my suggestion, “Maybe we could go to Amoeba Music?” and I made some dumb joke about them being able to buy a tape for the car they were driving. Earlier, we were laughing over the fact that it had a cassette player in it. Everyone agreed and we slowly made our way to the legendary record store. I tried not to appear too eager to get there. I didn’t mind when we made short stops to look in store windows or take pictures. I was carefully looking at every street sign, every building, every piece of concrete, trying to connect to it.
A few minutes later, it came into our view. The graffiti-covered storefront with the giant red florescent marquee gave me butterflies in my stomach. I felt it immediately stir something up inside of me. I couldn’t wait to go inside. We walked through a small crowd and in the front door. We were stopped by one of the clerks who was ringing up a customer. He said, “We’re closing in about 10 minutes, so unless you know exactly what you’re looking for, it’s not worth it.”
My friend casually responded, “Oh, ok. No problem,” and we walked out. Maybe I didn’t know exactly what I was looking for, but I really thought it would be in that store. I should’ve told my friends that I wanted to go in, just for a moment, just a quick look around. They definitely wouldn’t have minded, but I didn’t say anything and we left. It felt like a small defeat. A reminder of how ridiculous it was to think that I’d actually find this illusive and mystical thing I was looking for. We spent the rest of the evening walking around Haight Street and after eating dinner, we went back to the house to get some sleep.
The next morning, we had a light breakfast and then drove over the Bay Bridge to Oakland for a Muay Thai class at my former coach’s gym. Part of the reason for this weekend trip was to have the chance to train with my former coach and some former teammates from before I started medical school. During the class, the trainer pushed us really hard. I briefly forgot about everything else, the way I sometimes do when I’m working hard. I stopped thinking about who I am, who I was. I didn’t worry about how I got here. For those few hours, it all went away. I was drenched with sweat by the end of it. It felt amazing.
Afterwards, while I was looking out at the unfamiliar sites of Oakland on the drive back to the house, I realized that if I’d attempted a workout like this the last time I was in San Francisco, I probably would’ve died. There is no way I would have been able to do it. It’s not a realization that made me particularly proud or excited. I somehow felt disappointed. I’m just so different now. I started to think I’d changed so much that I’d never be able to connect to the person I used to be, that I’d never be able to collect those pieces of myself I hoped to carry with me forever.
I sort of gave up my search. It was an imperceptible change in my attitude because I didn’t even fully admit to myself that I was searching for anything to begin with. I still enjoyed all the sites and sounds San Francisco had to offer, but I was no longer laboring to find that little thing that would ignite the missing fire in me. Occasionally, while looking through the window of the car, I’d recognize something that would prompt me to inhale suddenly and straighten my posture with excitement and passion and happiness but the site would quickly pass by and fade into the distance behind us, my excitement fading right along with it as I sank back down into my seat and fixed my gaze on something else.
The next day, after what felt like endless walking and exploring, we decided to spend the afternoon sitting at The Presidio, a park at the northern end of San Francisco. We found a picnic table overlooking the San Francisco Bay, with a view of the Golden Gate Bridge off to our left and Alcatraz Island off to our right. We quietly sat there looking out into the bay, each of us isolated in our own personal sea of thoughts, ideas, fears, hopes. The sound of wind passing through the trees was occasionally interrupted by one of us starting a short conversation, but it always faded away, leaving behind nothing but the soft sounds of the bay.
I felt the warmth of the radiating sun on my face while the cool breeze coming off of the bay effortlessly cut through my sweater. An indescribable wave of comfort washed completely over me. Everything felt meaningful and meaningless at the same time. It felt profound and silly. I wanted to smile, laugh and cry all at once. I glanced towards my friends who were thoughtfully looking off into the bay. I looked at Lisa. The wind and sun made her hair shimmer and dance in sporadic and rhythmic waves. She looked beautiful. I reached over and put my hand on her shoulder. And just like that, everything was ok. I was happy.
The day eventually ended, like they all do, and the following morning our friends left San Francisco, leaving Lisa and I with a few hours before we needed to bring ourselves to the airport. We walked up and down the steep hills of the city and slowly made our way to Alamo Square and the Painted Ladies, the park and row of houses made famous by the impromptu picnic hosted by Danny Tanner, Uncle Jesse and Uncle Joey. We sang the Full House theme song all the way there. It’s a catchy tune but, as it turns out, I don’t have a functional, working knowledge of the lyrics.
We had an early dinner at a little Mexican place on Divisadero Street and walked to the BART station. I’d given up on my secret hope that I’d find some missing piece of myself, but it didn’t seem to matter much anymore. I was happy. I hadn’t quite achieved the unrealistic and intangible goal I set for myself on this trip but I was still able to climb onto the crowded train car feeling satisfied. I was ready to go home.
After a few minutes of listening to the whirling hum of the train gliding along the tracks, I thought I heard the sound of a guitar. I looked towards the back of the train car and between the standing passengers swaying back and forth with the movement of the train I was able to catch glimpses of a guy playing an electric guitar, a Fender Telecaster. When I saw him, it was like someone had turned down the volume of the humming train and I was able to clearly hear his song. He was playing a clever little riff with some nice technique. He was tapping on the fretboard with both hands so he was able to play a bass line and a melody at the same time, like a piano, while someone I couldn’t see was playing a cajon, a kind of drum that looks like a wooden box. It was great.
A couple minutes later, they finished their song and carried their gear towards us, on their way to the door of the next train car. When I was younger, I would’ve said something as they walked past, something dumb like, “Sweet Telecaster, bro,” and looked to strike up a conversation, but this time, I just smiled at them. Before they opened the door to the next train car, like it was his civic duty, the guitarist casually made an announcement, “Make sure you eat a healthy dinner. Don’t forget about your dreams.”
I loved that. It was perfect, exactly what I needed to hear. It put a huge smile on my face. My mind started spinning. I could feel things falling into place. I leaned in towards Lisa with my smile still fully intact and quietly said, “Don’t forget about your dreams! I love that he just said that.”
She inquisitively tilted her head, gave me the loving smile she sometimes gives me when I make an innocent mistake and said, “No, I’m pretty sure he said, ‘Don’t forget about your GREENS.’” She overemphasized the hard “g” sound.
“Oh. Yeah. I guess that makes more sense.” I looked down, a little embarrassed. I was almost disappointed for a second but then I abruptly felt myself connect to a little piece of my childhood, like someone slipped it back into my pocket without my noticing.
I instantly made the connection between who I used to be and who I am now. I know what’s different. It’s a complicated and convoluted process but growing up occurs in those moments when we start coming up with answers and solutions on our own. It happens slowly at first, but eventually, the answers are no longer spoon fed to us and we’re left alone in the dark to create our own meanings, our own ideas, our own interpretations.
When I was younger, I would’ve been upset to realize I’d misheard the guitarist, to realize that he didn’t actually give me the answer I needed. But in that moment, I was able to see that what he actually said wasn’t as important as the realization of what I wanted him to say, what I wanted to hear, needed to hear. The piece of myself I’ve been frantically searching for was with me the whole time. The lucky rock I always want to carry with me is my childish ability to think and wonder and chase after my silly ideas. I don’t want to forget about my dreams. I desperately wanted someone to remind me of that but, as it turns out, all I really needed was to hear something that rhymed with it.
I’m an adult now. I’ve grown up. And that means that when I’m lost or confused, the answers won’t be given to me anymore. I’m alone in the dark. I need to create my own meanings, ideas and interpretations. I won’t find pieces of myself in San Francisco or Portland or Honolulu or Chicago. Everything I need is right here, with me, all the time. I’m still a bit clumsy. I’m still tripping over everything. But I think I’m starting to grow into my oversized feet.
Lisa and I finally made our way back home. I sank down into the bed and immediately fell asleep. I woke up the next morning as little sun rays found their way between the gaps in our blackout curtains and illuminated the bits of dust peacefully floating through our bedroom. I reached up and put my hands through one of the shining rays, feeling its warmth. I smiled. I guess I did find the little keepsake I hoped I’d find in San Francisco. But that’s only because I happened to be in San Francisco when I realized it’s been in my pocket the whole time.