On Being Temporary

Something liberating happens when you cast off years of accumulated shoes, crystal wineglasses, and boring acquaintances. Traveling with nothing more than a backpack and a limited plan reduces life to its basic elements: where are you going to sleep tonight; what will you eat; what will you do when you get lonely? I can’t recommend enough packing your junk into storage and flying the coop … just to see.

On the spectrum of craving freedom versus stability I tend to stand closer to freedom, but anyone can benefit from pushing their comfort level: doing scary things delineates how limited we can become in our daily lives. We rely on the job we’ve had for years, the friends we made in graduate school, the same food from the same grocery store. For some people this is comforting. A friend of mine tries to find what he thinks is the best of everything, then sticks with it no matter what. I have this irrational fear that my neural pathways will harden and then I won’t be able to adjust to new circumstances unless I’m in the habit of adaptation. Or maybe I just get bored.

But I would argue that there’s value in re-negotiating your sense of self every few years. Are you the person you wanted to be when you were a child? Or have you gained a more sophisticated worldview lately but haven’t put it into practice? I’m not talking about a change in your essential character, which is unalterable, but a re-assessment of the persona you show both to yourself and to others. It may not be necessary to think too hard about it, but just to give yourself room for reflection that isn’t available in the stress of normal life.

I’ve been asked a few times over the past year what I will do once I find myself. Personally I find this a bit patronizing, as I know exactly who I am (possibly more than most people do). I’m simply giving myself that space to see if there’s some way I can make a good life better.

Another favorite is the question of whether I went to India on a spiritual journey. Anyone who knows me knows that’s laughable: I went because it was cheap. And, oh yeah: it was fun. Why save your best times for when you’re too old to appreciate them? Whoever coined the phrase ‘you could be run over by a bus tomorrow’ was a frickin’ genius (especially when you live in certain cities).

It helps to be fairly confident before you set out: confident that your friends won’t forget you; confident that you’ll be able to get a job when you need it again or that you can make your own chances; assured that you like your own company enough to spend a lot of time with yourself. But it’s not necessary. Chances are you will gain confidence simply by doing daunting things: courage has nothing to do with not being scared.

Eventually, however, even the freest of us begins to yearn for stability. It’s hard to invest in a place when you spend only a short time there. I find myself thinking ‘why bother making friends if you’ll only know them a few days or weeks’? Why join professional organizations when you’re not sticking around to contribute to their growth? The relationships you make can be intense, but rarely last long (though I have a couple of girlfriends who met their husbands while traveling, so go figure); sooner or later most of us want to spend time with people who’ve known us longer.

And there are only a certain number of new experiences you can take in before your brain gets too tired. Frankly I felt sorry for the people I met who were traveling around the world spending only a few days in each country. They would never have time to learn languages, meet local people, and process cultural norms. For me half the interest of traveling is to see what other people have gotten up to that’s either better or worse than the way I do things, to shake up my stereotypes, and then to take it all home with me.

Nothing gives you an appreciation for home so much as leaving it: I never felt so American until after I’d been living in Scotland a few months. I loved being able to pass off some of my personal eccentricities as ‘typically American’ (sort of like blaming all bad smells on the dog), but never got over being considered an iconoclast because I couldn’t wait until one o’clock to eat my sandwich.

I’m on my way home now. In November I’ll be moving back to Boston, back into my own apartment with my own china and bedding. I’ve been dreaming about getting another dog and tiling the bathroom. I’ll invite old friends over for lunch on Sundays and resume teaching; I’ll take long walks around the city in the snow and complain about Red Sox traffic. I can’t wait to settle down again…at least for a little while.

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