Over the past year or so of traveling and living abroad, I’ve noticed an interesting theme weave itself in and out of the conversations I have with people about what I’m doing – that being the perception that this time of my life is temporary, an idea that’s often expressed in the phrase “while you can.”
“That’s great you’re doing this while you can.”
“You should definitely have these experiences while you can.”
Or the most wistful approach – “I wish I had done the same when I was your age.”
While I can? It’s always a phrase that scares me slightly – it’s unnerving in the way it implies a time will come when I can’t, when I’ll have to “settle down,” “get a real job,” “have kids,” etc. It’s weird to hear other young travelers like me say they have to go home to the real world because, to me, this is my real world. When I went to Egypt last year, there were three other American girls on the tour who were also living in London through the BUNAC program. As you do in these situations, everyone was asked where they were from, what they did in London (where it seemed everyone was living), where they were headed next, and so on. When the girls were asked about their post-London plans, all of them replied, “Oh, probably go home and get a real job.” It fascinates me how the traveling life almost always gets written off as not a proper job. But why? Why can’t being a backpacker be a real job, even if it doesn’t require a university degree? Granted we’re not crunching numbers or putting on suits in the morning or earning a stable five-figure salary from a single employer, but who’s to say it’s not real? The only reason I work two jobs in Queenstown (and am thus told by everyone that I work too much) is so that I can continue to save a reasonable sum every week. Just because I’m traveling doesn’t mean I can’t be financially responsible, it doesn’t mean my savings account has to get run into the ground.
Thus with all my frustrations and misperceptions, I look forward to meeting people who defy this concept and haven’t limited themselves to a global lifestyle only “while they can.” Like the family that came through my checkout lane a few weeks ago. The dad was wearing a Notre Dame baseball hat and I was feeling particularly chatty and up to striking conversations with customers, so I asked him about it. Turned out he was from Indiana, his wife was from England, and they met while working abroad for the same company…in Stockholm. And as if that wasn’t random enough, they currently live in Sydney with their two daughters. Increasingly intrigued by this couple’s story, I kept asking questions. Something my Kiwi friend Paul and I have discussed while joking about getting married is where the wedding would be for such an international match. This particular couple got hitched right near Windsor Castle, something I can’t imagine many relatives complaining about having to attend. And then the ever-popular question of how often you’d see your families living so far from home. “Not much,” he says, especially considering his twin brother lives in Alaska. Ouch. Looking at his daughters, though, he goes on to say, “But this is my family now.” How cool is that?
Or, to move on to Exhibit B, there was another woman who came through my till this week who asked me almost immediately after hearing my accent, “Are you from the States?” (Sidenote: You know you’re bound to have a good conversation with any American who refers to the country as “The States” rather than using the Team America-esque pronunication of “America.”) An American herself, she met her South African husband on a blind date in New York City, a date that brought her all the way to Queenstown, New Zealand, six years ago where she now raises her ten-year old twin girls. Another question I’ve given a lot of thought to is about children living in one country with parents who originated from another. Do these twins, for instance, consider themselves Kiwis now, Americans or some hybrid form of Ameri-zealanders? Interestingly enough, she shared that one daughter has developed a New Zealand accent while the other has retained her American one. Brings a whole new meaning to the word fraternal, doesn’t it?
And finally, my flatmate and friend Jordan. Although originally from Colorado, her art-dealing parents have lived in Bangkok the past four years as well as places like Nepal, India, and Costa Rica, if only for a few months in each country. She thus attended an American International high school in Bangkok and hopes to go to university in Melbourne, Australia. Where the whole idea for this entry even came from was on our overnight trip to Milford Sound. At dinner on the boat, we were seated with an American couple from San Diego. As Jordan shared her story in answer to more rounds of the usual getting-to-know-you questions, I grew more and more amazed at the woman’s inability to grasp Jordan’s life history. In every lull in the conversation, she’d come back to it, returning to it like an old Sudoku you couldn’t solve but weren’t yet ready to admit defeat to. “So, where did you go to high school, then?”…”You went to a school in Costa Rica, but wouldn’t that have been in Spanish?”…”And you haven’t started college yet?” It was all I could do to not laugh and say, “Come on, now, is it that hard to understand?” At the end of dinner – such sweet sorrow that it was to part from them – the woman said, “Well, I’m glad you girls are doing this while you can.”
That’s when it hit me…why, why – and I ask that with every ounce of exasperation I can muster – do people say that? What is it about the life abroad that seems so mysteriously incompatible with having a “real” job, raising a family, and just carrying on with life in general? Why – there’s that frustration again – does there seem to be such a divide between this time of my life and the next chapter? Now, to be fair, a friend in Christchurch asked me once, “I presume you’ll decide to settle down at some point?” And every so often, I am filled with such a desire, especially after looking at Pottery Barn or Urban Outfitters too long and simply wanting a place to finally hang some of the pictures I’ve taken. And as my mom always reminds me, at some point I will have to have a small life and deal with its normal, daily struggles – annoying neighbors, frustrating queues at the supermarket, paying my children’s tuition. I can’t always jet about – at some point I must connect with one place and build a community. But the key to that is reconciling the fact that life is often small with the knowledge that the world is big, and we must have both. We cannot live in the world disconnected from real relationships, but we also must never lose perspective in life on the greater world around us. So rather than thinking of that day when I do settle down as a be all, end all to my travels, I’m going to keep on doing what I’m doing…not “while I can” but until I can’t.
And I suppose what’s keeping me from feeling like this chapter of my life is just a series of random wanderings, just a way of delaying the real world, is the belief that this is exactly what I’m supposed to be doing, this is right where I’m supposed to be. I’ve written before on my love for Jack Kerouac after reading On the Road, especially the following line:
“I felt like an arrow that could shoot all the way out.”
I instantly connected with his reckless abandon, his searching after something undefined and potentially unobtainable, and his constant decision to go. But a few days after I finished Kerouac, I picked up a book by Oswald Chambers, a well-known religious author who ran a Bible College in London in the 1910s. There, in his writing, was my answer:
“A saint’s life is in the hands of God like a bow and arrow in the hands of an archer. God is aiming at something the saint cannot see, and He stretches and strains and every now and again the saint says – “I cannot stand anymore.” God does not heed, He goes on stretching till His purpose is in sight, then He lets fly. Trust yourself in God’s hands.”
In a desire to develop my travel writing for the mainstream publishing industry, I’ve sort of kept much of the spiritual side of my journey in New Zealand out of the picture of this blog. But the truth is, it’s been a major part of what I’m learning here and how I am growing and changing as a person as a result of living in this country. And I know faith and spirituality are not taboo subjects by any means, as best-selling books like Eat, Pray, Love and Blue Like Jazz show people are willing and want to read about, but for me personally, it’s something I want to make certain that I present and discuss topics in a way that’s approachable, interesting and relevant.
But when I came across this juxtaposition – or perhaps intersection would be a more fitting word choice – this collision of ideas – “I felt like an arrow that could shoot all the way out” vs. “My life is in the hands of God like a bow and arrow in the hands of an archer” – I got it. This is it, this is the perfect marriage of ideas and ideals. Life is an adventure, we are meant to shoot all the way out as far as we can reach, and it’s not a matter of getting our sense of curiosity and lust for the world out of our system before the age of 30. However – and this is where the glorious “but” of my epiphany comes in – we are not sailing through the universe on some random trajectory, falling when and where we may. Just as Shakespeare wrote, “There’s a divinity that shapes our ends,” we are an arrow shot by an Archer with a dead-on shot, an Archer who knows the exact point where we will fall. We don’t know, though, and that, my friends, is what makes life such an epic adventure.
So it’s funny to pause at this moment in my course through the air and look back at points in my life where things could have gone in such another direction. One of those moments was my last semester before graduating from university when I began dating a guy I was essentially set up with by family friends back home. On paper, we were perfect for each other – eerily similar tastes in music and movies, similar life experiences and hobbies – you know how it goes, what prompted the set-up in the first place and fueled our families’ pressure to begin a relationship even though neither of us had ever dated anyone seriously before. But as the months went by and graduation drew nearer, it became clear the connection wasn’t there and – worse yet – he wasn’t talking about it. As I struggled to make a decision about life post-university, I wavered between getting a teaching job in my hometown to be near him or pursuing another job elsewhere. Ultimately, London won out almost immediately after I heard about the opportunity, a voice inside me whispering louder each time, “Go. Go. Go.”
I write all of this only to say I had a Family Man moment the other day, a moment where you see what your life could’ve looked like had you chosen the prize behind Door Two instead of Door One. The terrible beauty of Facebook is that it enables these moments to happen a lot sooner than your 20th high school reunion where you see your first love balding and thirty pounds heavier – or in better shape than ever. So I happened to see photos of the house this guy from last semester is currently building on some property his family owns – a perfectly normal, plastic-sided, two-story construction found all over Suburbia. And all I could do was thank God this guy hadn’t talked, that he hadn’t told me to stay. Because now that I’ve gone, now that I’m here, I can’t imagine being anywhere else. It’s not that I want more or better than that house, it’s not that I want to aim higher – it’s just that I hope, by the grace of God, my arrow shoots out in a different direction.
Until then, I’ll be here…until I can’t.