I walk through the woods when I feel a panic coming on.
I pull on my faded leather boots, strings fraying, mud chipping, zipper nearly breaking — wrap my hand-crocheted scarf around my neck over my Army-green parka.
England in the springtime is one of two things — cold and less cold.
I like it cold. It’s easier to breathe.
I got on a plane at 19 with a suitcase full of sweaters and a backpack full of questions. I whispered goodbye to the red dirt town my parents settled down in to make my first solo trek across the globe.
Fresh out of high school and my dreams were drowning me. I knew I had to get away, so I joined an international charity north of London. The program promised to help me find my purpose.
I just wanted to find myself.
I bussed tables at the Oval Cafe and sold tickets at the skate park’s punk rock concerts on Friday nights. I taught English at a girls home in Thailand and visited with South Sudanese refugees in Uganda. I marched in the Cambodian rice marshes, sweat dripping from my face, and called my mom when it got too hard.
I keep moving.
I keep moving because I’m terrified of what happens if I stop.
I march past the brick homes adjacent to my flat nestled in Harpenden — a sleepy town 30 minutes north of London by train.
I make my way through the rained-on football field overlooking the Hertfordshire countryside, and into the heart of the Westfield Woods.
Arms open, eyes closed, I inhale the freezing air into my lungs — and I know.
Four years of questioning, of packed bags and traveled roads, deep laughter and deeper friendships, cups of tea over shared tears — the place I came to look for answers had given me all it could.
All I have left is an empty rucksack and a broken heart.
It’s time to go.
I was 16 when I knew it was time to leave Oklahoma.
I sat at a table staring out the window, watching passers-by on Main Street. Blurs of orange T-shirts and cowboy hats. Country chic moms ordering chai lattes behind me, shopping bags in their hands from the boutique down the street, the 98 degree heat blowing in through the front door of the cafe — I belonged anywhere but here.
I’ve become accustomed to being on the outside, looking in.
Nine years old sitting in the backseat of our green, 15 passenger van bustling down Ghanaian dirt roads — what we’re looking for, I don’t know.
Visiting churches on my dad’s preaching circuit from Oklahoma to the East Coast, looking presentable in my lace dress and matching white socks, while my mom sings “Calvary Cross” to the congregation and Dad preaches the same sermon I’ve heard 100 times.
Old white people ask me if I like being a missionary kid.
It’s all, I say, I’ve ever known.
We eat casserole made by the church ladies with permed hair, and I stare at the youth group kids. I wonder what it would be like to be one of them — to know where my place is.
I was born in a fishing village in the Gold Coast of West Africa. Before I was 2, I lived on three continents.
Germany is gray and cold.
Ghana’s capital, Accra, is a constant summer.
Virginia is Saturday cartoons and dress-up in the playroom, playing in the turtle sandbox, and giggling on the tire swing.
Maryland is tie-dye dresses and watching Spongebob in the back of Grammy’s store on the boardwalk.
Tamale is the farthest north a person can travel before reaching Burkina Faso. It’s quiet in my memories before we frightfully evacuate in the middle of the night.
North Carolina is a year of normalcy — bike rides across town without supervision, climbing the magnolia tree in the front yard, butterfly kisses from the snow.
Oklahoma is where I always come back to.
I enroll in ninth grade at Stillwater Junior High in the middle of Oklahoma farmland. I keep expecting my dad to pack us up for someplace new, but for the first time, he never does.
The red dirt plains, the oversized trucks and cowboy hats, the football games I don’t understand, the “go back to where you came from,” the crying in the school bathroom at lunch, the searching for the right puzzle piece to fit in, the never quite finding it.
But when it rains, I feel at home — warmth wrapped around me, light kisses from the sky, peace.
I don’t know where home is, but I know what it feels like.
I leave London on a cold day in April. Mim, my roommate of four years, takes me to the airport.
I say goodbye quickly, walking away toward the terminal before running back to her for one final hug.
“Don’t forget me when you’re famous,” she whispers.
“Don’t forget me at all,” I mumble through the tears.
I walk away, and this time, I don’t look back.
I know I’m in America as soon as I get on my connecting flight from Dallas to Oklahoma City. Every man in a ten-gallon hat complains in a southern drawl that they have “somewhere else to be” — as if every other person on this plane does not.
We arrive in Oklahoma City, and as I walk off the plane, the humidity hits me like a brick wall.
My black crochet scarf wrapped around my neck chokes me with sweat, my winter leggings clinging to my thighs.
My dad meets me in baggage claim. He looks the same, but I feel different.
He hugs me and says, “Welcome home.” His accent is more country than I remember. We get into his white Honda, and I start to panic.
It’s too hot — I unravel my scarf, and I still feel overwhelmed by the heat. We drive past red dirt plains and grazing cows, oversized trucks going too fast on the wrong side of the road that’s far too wide.
I sit on the bed my mom made up for me in my old room, inherited by my middle sister, Miriam. I hold the bag of salt and vinegar chips my mom bought for me, and I cry.
I’m thousands of miles from the woods and yet, I feel the tangling branches growing around my chest, cutting off my circulation, twisting and turning until my breath is gone.
My sobs fill up my lungs, and suddenly I’m back in those mud-caked boots staring up at the Westfield Woods’ winding tree canopy, trying to remember how to breathe.
I’m 23, and I can’t run anymore.
The branches have caught up with me. My limbs are broken and I’m trapped looking in the mirror and facing the person that stands before me.
A six-year-old girl with thick, brown braids and a Barbie doll in hand. She’s terrified of being left behind, of being stuck in the woods with nowhere left to hide.
I need to get back to her. To let her know it’s OK to stop. To let her know it’s OK to be.
It’s OK to breathe.
It’s OK to admit you don’t know if you like what’s underneath.
I’m in the middle of my freshman literature class at Oklahoma State when it hits me — I’m not getting on a plane back to England.
This is the new normal: slinging coffee at 6 a.m. to country boys with crooked smiles, wearing their Sunday best. They whistle and tip poorly after I make their sugary, blended drinks.
The group leader, invigorated with a charming smile and the Greek letters embroidered on his button-up, asks if I remember his order from last week —
But they all look the same to me.
Moving into my new apartment behind Sonic with Brooklyn B., Brooklyn R. and Cat, my Christian roommates who host their Phi Lamb sorority sisters in our living room for Bible study every week. They burn Bath and Body Works candles and decorate the living room in sparkly pumpkins.
I go with it.
Getting invited to church experiences as a social outing — after the service we eat banana bread, and I avoid contact when they bring up politics and ask if I’ll come back next week.
Around here, church is a lifestyle, an attitude, a personality trait — cloaked in artificial smiles and homemade bribes, criticism blanketed in pretty prayers, choking condemnation disguised as personal growth.
I decide I’ve lived it long enough.
I go to yoga with my baby sister, Marybeth. She’s five years my junior, but somehow she’s only one semester behind me in school. Her friends become mine. She drags me to the sauna, and I say I hate it.
I don’t mind.
We brunch at Mom and Dad’s on Sundays. We walk down the aisle with bouquets in our hands — crying so much our makeup smudges as Miriam says “I do.”
I meet a boy, and we fall in love. He tells me he’s not scared of what’s beneath the surface, and even though I am, I believe him.
We adopt an eight-year-old tortoiseshell cat named Bagheera, who becomes the queen of our household. We cook dinner with his little sister and play games until we fall asleep.
We make plans and whisper about faraway dreams.
After 26 years of running in the woods —
Home, I decide, is where I want it to be.
It’s at my mom’s house when she’s making salsa, and my dad is yelling at the OU football game on TV.
It’s in the den at the Reynolds’ old house on Eyler Lane, binging Bachelor in Paradise and eating IGA sugar cookies with my best friends Stephanie and Alicia.
It’s Thanksgiving at Miriam and Dane’s in Albuquerque, and wherever Derek is. It’s my new apartment in Norman, and the two houses before it.
It’s the red dirt plains and fields of cows outside my mom’s kitchen window at the old house, and the bunnies in the garden at the new one.
It’s the OU Daily newsroom that I once cried outside of when my editor ripped my article to shreds. It’s the same place where I wrote my first front-page story and the succeeding ones.
Home is not a place, it’s a realization. It’s stability, familiarity. It’s clean.
I know where I want to be.
I don’t panic in the woods anymore.