Many years ago my husband, Hank, bought me a T-shirt that read “I used to be schizophrenic, but we’re just fine now.”
We joke about the crazy woman he married. The unconventional wife who reinvents herself every decade or so and still doesn’t know who she wants to be when she grows up. And, as the shirt suggests, there’s more than one of me in this marriage.
Who has time to think about the meaning of life, happiness and fulfillment when there are iPads, Facebook and jobs to fill the days? These are big concepts. Deep questions. Topics that for much of my life I rarely contemplated.
Like most people of the world, I was busy doing my best to hang on and enjoy the ride as life whizzed by. I’d been raised to view life and its certain pains and pleasures, struggles and triumphs, beginnings and endings as something to endure with grace. So I tried to be a good sport, to stifle anxiety and confusion with the usual American distractions: working hard, trying to appear normal and going to the gym.
The miracle is that despite a formidable capacity for denial and great gaps in knowledge of myself and the world around me, important questions still accumulated: Who am I? Where do I find meaning? What is my purpose?
So now, with streaks of gray in my blonde hair and fifty years on this planet, these are questions I’m finally getting around to asking. And the answers are not what I expected.
The plan was to meet in Rome and then spend the following three weeks circumnavigating Italy’s hot spots creating lifestyle photography for a travel tour company. I would be the photographer and my beautiful German friend, the model. The client was footing the bill for expenses and a generous day rate. Dream assignment, right? It should have been.
I’ve learned a lot from travel and living abroad. I’ve learned about my own ignorance, arrogance, and resistance, but also about kindness and compassion.
One of the most liberating lessons of being a foreigner, however, has been learning to love the feeling of anonymity that comes from hanging out in places where no one knows me.
Sure, there are times when being away from home feels lonely or frustrating. When, for example, I crave the company of a cherished friend or advisor. Or when an unfamiliar language prevents me from connecting at a deeper level. But mostly it feels like freedom.
As a traveler, by the very nature of my foreignness I am granted a reprieve from constricting social norms. And as a visitor, I am free (even expected) to spend my days playing.
There’s a quote by author William Watson Purkey that has made its way into the public lexicon: “dance like there’s nobody watching.” When I travel I get to live like there’s nobody watching.
Strangers don’t care that my Spanish isn’t perfect, that I’m curvy instead of slim, or that I’ve reached middle age without amassing a fortune. Or if they do, I’m blissfully immune to their disapproval. I don’t know them, they don’t know me. There’s no need to impress, no requirement to conform.
I need quiet to sleep well. I need high-speed Internet to work. I need to live in a natural setting to feel at peace.
Until two-and-a-half years ago I believed unequivocally in the truth of these “needs.”
At the time, I lived in a place so quiet I could hear the whoosh, whoosh, whoosh of a raven’s wings. I had a well-equipped home office with a high-speed Internet connection that served as the headquarters of my freelance travel writing and photography business. And I spent my afternoons hiking in the dense ponderosa pine forests and white-barked aspen groves that blanketed the steep flanks of the southern Rocky Mountains that surrounded the six spacious acres we called home.
Today, as I write this from a rented house in Mexico with extended stays in four Latin American countries behind me, I can get a good night’s sleep amidst a cacophony of barking dogs, exploding fireworks, and blaring music.
I don’t consider myself a rebel. Rebels are brave and bold. They fight for social justice, world peace and environmental awareness. Rebels protest, raise money, build schools, and produce meaningful documentaries. They are charismatic leaders who make the world a better place.
Me? It’s all I can do to love and be loved; to live with courage in a world of fear.
Sure, I’ve done some brave things in my life, but this might be the boldest yet. At the age of 49, I am learning self-acceptance.
“Just be yourself,” a trusted friend once advised me. I’d been in a panic over a public appearance, caught up in a whirlwind of self-doubt, and certain of only one thing—that ‘myself’ was nowhere near good enough.
What I needed, my inner critic assured me, was a razzle-dazzle multimedia presentation to hide behind and a pedigree that I did not possess.
I had done my homework, knew my subject, and was well prepared, but I’d been lulled into believing by organizers that the event would be a low key affair. “A simple question-and-answer session with a few other media types,” they’d said. “No need for a PowerPoint or formal presentation.”
What they didn’t tell me, however, was that my fellow presenters—two impressive national magazine travel editors and a charismatic TV personality—would never dream of showing up prepared to ‘just be themselves.’ They knew better.
The magazine A-Listers had brought cutting-edge iPad presentations (well before iPads were mainstream) with professionally produced videos and storylines, and the good looking TV host had, well, TV clips.
Oh, sure: Just be myself. WHAT WAS I THINKING?
There’s a certain comfort in leading an ordinary life, slipping into the cozy habits of everyday routines and donning the familiar masks of personal and professional identities.
But no matter how snug the habitual may feel, how secure the career, house, or marriage might appear, now and again life’s Big Questions (e.g. Who am I? What is my purpose?) simmer to the surface, casting a nagging net of uneasiness over my ordinary contentment.
So, with the hope of better understanding life’s deeper meanings, I open my heart and travel beyond my comfort zone in search of answers, different ways of thinking and universal truths.
Most of us don’t set off on vacation to face our fears. But if there’s one thing the past sixteen months of living abroad has taught me it is that traveling beyond our comfort zone can be a bit unnerving. It can also serve to teach, inspire and challenge us to push through and return home bolder and braver.
The next time fear strikes, learn how to put your anxiety to good use with these tips from my recent article, Conquering Fear: 5 Tips to Help Get You Through Anything
What about you? What do you do when fear threatens to ruin a vacation? Share your tips using the comments link below.
Yesterday was the fourth of July; just another winter day in the ancient Andean city of Cusco, Peru, where my husband and I are currently based as part of a multi-year experiment in Latin America living.
In lieu of the usual fireworks, picnics and holiday revelry that defines the day in the U.S., I spent the day reflecting on freedom.
Or more specifically, how grateful I am for the freedom to travel.
Why is it that in an age of cutting edge technology and double digit megapixels, when we can make picture perfect images with minimal effort or expertise, that we’re often left feeling like there’s something essential missing in the process?
“When I started in photography I was using my hands to create images and it seemed like overnight digital came along and all of that came to end. I didn’t know it at the time, but I lost something I loved.” says photographer Ian Ruhter in the above video, a heartfelt account of an incredible journey of discovery that inspired him to convert his van into a camera and set off across America in search of social connection.
“Everyone around me had the same camera, with the same signature,” says Ruhter. “I decided I was going to build a camera that no one has.”
For some, like Ruhter, the creative void that digital technology produced was felt so acutely that they make deep radical changes in their professional and personal paths. Others, like me, are newly awakening to a vague dissatisfaction gently simmering beneath the picturesque surface.
It was enrollment in a Seedlight Photography workshop and the resulting barrage of unflattering emotions – shame, vulnerability, envy– it unleashed, that first got me thinking about transformation, creativity and the courage to change.