Stories of the World

From Success to Significance

I have been tempted by the siren song of travel for many years. From my first trip to Paris at age 16 with Madame Leggett’s French class, to my first trip to Africa during early college when ten girls signed up for a construction project in Kenya and realized that we, too, could wear tool belts and climb scaffolding, to my first solo backpacking stint across Europe after graduation, I have heard that call and followed.

Travel by its very nature is surrounded by firsts. Sometimes these firsts represent pure freedom: I remember strolling through the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam and remembering clearly, “I am alone! If I get bored, I can turn around and leave right now. No one will get upset or be disappointed!” Having suffered through family trips to museums as a child when I’d had my fill of culture after twenty minutes only to find my parents still back in the first room of paintings, this felt revolutionary. The irony was that Van Gogh, on my own terms, was magnificent. I stayed for hours. Because I could.

Sometimes the firsts are memorable for other reasons altogether. Just before embarking on a long bus ride from Udaipur, India I felt the vague rumblings of an unwell stomach. I didn’t realize at the time the effect that ice cubes made from unclean water in a single glass of ice tea could do to the plumbing of a Western digestive track. But vomiting for 21 hours out the bus window, in a ziplock bag, and all over the Rajasthani landscape, I better understood the jocular phrase “Delhi Belly.”

Travel opportunities have surfaced in various forms: as a solo backpacker thrilled by adventure sports and the vast, mobile network of global youth; as a roommate and youngest member of an Elderhostel tour with a former neighbor, as a staff for various tour companies, and most recently as a writer and photographer for some large-hearted non-profits. I have never been one to follow a traditional path, or a single one.

What continues to strike me, whether I am sitting on my couch worrying over some matter at home or swimming beneath a star-streaked sky in Southeast Asia watching heat lightning flash over the dark water, is how much opportunity is always available to us, and how much we miss.

Take today, for example. I am at the one-month point of a three month creative residency program on an island off the coast of Portugal. The spring landscape is lushly green, the weather changeable and wild. I am staying in a sloped-roof attic room made from knotty pine boards, with a blue-quilted bed and a writing desk with a small silver lamp. My housemate Amanda, a New York born poet who has spent the last few months living in Paris, walks around the house wearing black singlets and orange foam earplugs when she writes.

I go walking in the wind to clear my head and to admire the whitecaps out on the Atlantic. I’m still disturbed every time I see a cow or sheep or goat straining against a rope tied to its leg, trying to reach a patch of grass outside its allotted perimeter. Perhaps it is the perimeter itself that disturbs me, more than the straining. Who are we to determine the perimeter of another?

The locals see nothing wrong with the tying-up concept. They feel that the methodical grazing of animals is best for everyone: their lawn gets mowed in a predictable fashion, the animals never eat too much. (Or get enough to eat, as one cow has just announced loudly from across the field.)

I, for one, do not like to have my perimeter managed. I never want to travel somewhere more than when I’m told it can’t be done, be that India or Turkey as a single female, Afghanistan, or the Ho Chi Minh trail to photograph unexploded bombs. But sometimes, most times, it is not the allure of danger so much as a wondering at, and defiance of, the socially-accepted perimeters.

I am a 33-year old, happily unmarried woman with no children. I have dedicated this year abroad to work on my own creative and professional projects and to listen to the dreams of my heart. I have worked doing jobs that I love and others that have left me cold. I have close friends and a strong family but have also experienced deep losses and regrets. There is always love. There is always hurt. There is always the choice to change direction.

I am not sure whether or not it is a matter of gender, the tendency to sidestep one’s own passions for the desires and expectations of others. I only know that I seem to be pushed and pulled easily by others’ ideas and opinions, judgments and schedules, and to absorb and incorporate them so quickly into my own rhythms that I can sometimes not actually tell which thoughts and dreams are my own.

So today, I am determined to live by Kristie’s heart, and by God’s. Certainly, there are many other wonderful and talented souls out there to help direct and guide me, but I realize that I need to know my own heart first, know my values and principles and strengths and weaknesses and habits first, before I allow the input from the outside into the mix.

It’s always so interesting: one half awestruck at the idea of self-empowerment, the other utterly resistant. On one hand, it feels so good, so giddy, that I-feel-like-I-should-be-at-work/school-but instead-I’m-escaping-out-into-the-sunshine-to-swing-in-a-green-and-dappled-park feeling. There is a sensation of getting away with something, as if some secret playing at my lips hasn’t been shared with the rest of the dull-eyed populace who continues to sit behind their desks, who dozes through endless meetings, who suffers on grid-locked roadways, who hunches in wet coats on crowded buses, accepting that the allotted short vacation- if allotted at all- is still months away. That life has become a burden.

Equally alarming is the life that is completely apart from this, the one that on the outside looks glossy and colorful and conjures up dreams of faraway lands and no responsibilities. The one that can play havoc with relationships and comes with real trade-offs. The one, of course, similar to what I am currently living.

A migratory, pilgrim existence prompts such tactless and green-horned queries as, “Where do you get the money to travel so much?” or sighs of ”If I were only youngerÉ” Or emails filled with apology, “Nothing nearly so exciting is happening here.”

There are surprising and connecting emails from acquaintances, and sometimes pointed silence from close friends. There is never a science to it. Some people feel jilted, left behind, angry at not being presented with what they imagine to be a personal invitation from the good life. The train has passed them by.

Deeper truths, though hard to explain to those at home, are the sensations of other places outside our knowing: strangers speaking a strange language which, while initially alluring, quickly becomes the door to a house that we cannot enter. On a lonely day in a foreign town on unfamiliar soil, the loss of one’s own personal bearings that come from such primal sources as food, air temperature, the shape and color of other people around us, music, speech, landscape, these points that we rely on to connect us turn suddenly into chasms and alienation. Most people know nothing of this.

I consider myself one with a high tolerance for ambiguity, one who thrives on novelty and challenge, one who consciously seeks out new locations and the surprising golden threads that bind us together in the human family. Even so, I’ve shed tears over the desperate loneliness for family, been helpless with frustration over small tasks that can become ordeals in other locales: sending or receiving mail, taking a bus, shopping for food, filing a police report. It is the little things, not the big ones, that can break the spirit.

So what is the nugget? As I sit here on an island, drinking a pot of Earl Gray in the sunroom of a stone house in Portugal, there are friends and family around the world who are loving, working, parenting, sleeping, struggling. They may have less time but more money, inspiration but no means, desire but no health, or contentment in their own backyards.

Our brains see in patterns; we filter information unconsciously according to our preferences, experiences, and moods. Is this similar or different to what I’ve known before? If similar, will this new thing help or hurt me? What happened last time? If different, will I turn away or embrace?

By filtering unconsciously, we can focus on what is made conscious. If this person, place, or animal is unfamiliar, what do I want to do with it? Is the danger I feel in my head or outwardly real? How can my days, no matter where I am or what I am doing be not just successful, but significant?

We can’t afford the luxury of being overly humble in this case. Significance comes through comforting the spirit, ourselves or others; in honing a craft, in driving safely so that others are safe, in preparing food to strengthen and nourish bodies and minds, in cleaning a dish so that others can eat without getting sick, in choosing one path or another, in acknowledging a mistake, in tending a garden, in learning a new skill despite awkwardness, in stopping whatever we ordinarily do in order to consider an alternate perspective, to listen, laugh, walk in the wind.

Sometimes it is an achievement that comes from a culmination of a life’s work that demonstrates significance. For most of us, it is the million moments of every day and how we choose to spend them. Are we too busy for life to find us? Are we stepping into a place of the most possibilities, even if we can’t see the end of the story? Can we say without question, “Today, I am doing the work of my heart. Tomorrow I will do the work of my heart” - even if the work itself changes? Am I loving the beautiful and bumbling people on my path who have just as much a right to a life of peace and wholeness as I do?

Am I grateful for the abundance in front, beside, and behind me, knowing that I did not get here alone and realizing that these current conditions can change in an instant?

Am I challenging myself and keeping on my edge between comfort and creative longing- and surrounding myself with people who can say “No”as well as “Yes”? These are questions of life. What we choose to do with them shapes our path, expands our perimeter and relationships, and heightens the quality of our moments.

In this moment, I am choosing significance. Today, I am awarding my heart’s desire first place. And I will walk in the wind, knowing that although it is more powerful than this small and finite travelpoet, I can still choose which way to turn.