Just like Forrest Gump, I am back in our nation’s capital once again (minus Jenny and the hordes of protesting hippies). We arrived here yesterday, after surviving a harrowing ordeal at the San Jose airport in the very wee hours of the morning, which mostly involved standing in the security line… more standing in line… and then sprinting. We were the last two people on the plane, and sat down literally three minutes before the plane pulled back from the gate.

Good times.

After 24 hours’ recovery, I am starting to sort through all the myriad impressions and emotions that accompany any trip I take back to our nation’s capital. I lived here for a quarter in college, doing an internship at an international think tank and experiencing life in a much bigger and far more political town than Santa Cruz. My time here began in October 2001, which as you might remember was a particularly eventful fall. A few of my friends interning in Congress included a course of Cipro in their DC experience, and heightened security measures became a way of life for us.

Political tragedy notwithstanding, we were still twenty-one years old, studying politics and hoping to change the world. Somehow, the newly erected concrete barriers around the Washington monument only heightened our urgency in this matter. For better or for worse, this was a place where things happened. My morning commute was a twenty-minute walk that took me past embassies, newspapers, and think tanks, with a full view of the White House the entire way. Even in the cold of November and December, even with all the dull memos and dossiers I had to compose every day, I felt invigorated just by being here. Never had I felt more alive, more dedicated to a cause, a belief, a mission.

I never quite got over that feeling. For years afterwards, I had a vaguely envisioned dream of moving back here and getting a job to change the world. As time went on, I quickly realized that this would most likely translate into working too much, earning a pittance, and becoming deeply embittered to boot. Still, the dream persisted.

Funnily enough, life has a way of interpreting dreams differently than you do. When I had nothing to keep me in Santa Cruz, I couldn’t find a reason to move out here for love or money. Somehow that dream job just never materialized (they can be elusive, especially when you don’t really spend much time looking for them), and my master plan kept getting put off.

Then, my big chance came. A little over two years ago, I was accepted to the PhD program in history at Georgetown University with a full five-year fellowship. This was it! I could move to DC, get my doctorate, and it would open doors for me left and right, either into academia or policy — or perhaps even both. Hurrah!

Unfortunately, by then events had conspired to give me two large reasons to stay in Santa Cruz. Or maybe only one: love. After months of agonizing, I decided to decline their fabulously generous offer and take my chances at home.

Since then, in moments of weakness I have thought about the “what ifs” of my decision. I don’t have any regrets, per se — that much is clear to me every time I look at my husband’s face, or my father’s. It’s just that I chose to follow the more difficult, unknown path, and the end result of that choice has not yet been revealed. So no, it’s not regret that I feel, just a kind of wistfulness, a yearning for the clear, wide, graveled path of academia that I walked for so long.

Until now though, I haven’t had to come face to face with the reality of what I gave up. I admit that I have been somewhat apprehensive to come back here, afraid that the “what ifs” would overwhelm me when confronted with the physical reality of this place. Had I chosen to do my PhD here, I would have been starting my second year in the fall, walking a path of carefully delineated stepping stones to take me from one place to the next. Making that one choice would’ve started a cascade of other, inevitable choices, one following from the other.

As it is now, my steps are obscured from me even as I take them, and the overall shape of their path will not become clear for some time. I just have to trust that my feet are heading in the right direction, and let them take me where they will.

So my return to DC is overlapped with multiple perspectives. I see it as who I was: a 21-year-old full of life and idealism, still in the clutches of her first love, drunk on the energy of this vibrant, vital town. I see it as who I am now: housewife, caretaker, only a few years older than that girl but lightyears away. And finally, I see it as who I could’ve been: a harried, sleepless PhD student, sacrificing all available resources — emotional, physical, financial — to the relentless god of her intellect and ambition.

Combined with the heat and the press of people, the ghosts that linger here all conspire to make me slightly dizzy and disoriented. So I am ashamed to admit that I only ventured out of the hotel for about 4 hours today, first on a long, sweaty morning run that took me by the Iwo Jima memorial and Arlington cemetery, then on a midday Metro ride up to Dupont Circle to rediscover all our old haunts. I came back to the hotel in the mid-afternoon, hot, exhausted, and jet-lagged, unable to face the crush of people any more.

I hope to regain my equilibrium by tomorrow, as I would like to venture out and see the city purely as a tourist for a change. As for the rest of it… well, I’m still working on it. More to follow.