In January of 2015, Linda and I both realized that we were stuck (collectively and individually). Not quite as dramatically stuck as Dante Alighieri in The Devine Comedy
In the middle of the journey of our life, I came to myself, in a dark wood, where the direct way was lost
or as surreal as Bob Dylan’s “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again”.
… but stuck nonetheless.
While I appreciate periods of boredom as a useful punctuation in the stream of an exciting life, the inverse was now true. Our lives had become predictable and exciting events had become the punctuation in the stream of what had become a boring life. Not only that, instead of enjoying most of the stuff we had accumulated over the years (including a lot of our art), our stuff was beginning to feel like a burden.
We had been living in Palo Alto since we were married and had lots of friends and even more good acquaintances. We found ourselves slogging through a week of tedium to reach the weekends when we would go out and have fun, both with each other and with our friends. The world had changed around us, and gradually we realized what had left our lives was the passion we both had for what we did every day — we no longer loved our jobs. Our jobs no longer were a vehicle for exploration and discovery, something both of us needed, and thrived on. And what was in some ways even worse, things had become predictable … and boring.
Linda was a real estate agent and delighted in putting young couples into homes where they would raise their families. But the real estate market had turned ugly in Palo Alto, and not many young couples could afford a home there anymore. I had been on the cutting edge of high-tech most of my life, and there was nothing out there that remotely interested me.
But there was a passion we both shared, one that was synonymous with exploration and discovery — travel — and we decided it was time to follow it and see where it would lead us.
So we sold our house in Palo Alto and our cars, put our art collection and a few other things that meant something to us in storage, gave the rest of our stuff to charity, and hit the road. Six months later we were in cold and rainy Kaliningrad Russia for a jazz festival (where they need to learn a lot more about having jazz festivals).
As we traveled we reconnected with the spectacular beauty of the natural world around us, and found a world of fascinating cultures, the ghosts and artifacts of past civilizations, and kind and generous people. As Jawaharlal Nehru said,
We live in a wonderful world that is full of beauty, charm and adventure. There is no end to the adventures we can have if only we seek them with our eyes open.
And open our eyes we did. Every day was new. It was exciting to wake up every morning and explore a world of adventure, and then go to bed at night having it become a part of you, and then to wake the next morning to do it again. It was like being a child again; nothing was familiar and we were experiencing the ebb and flow of daily life as if for the first time. And as we traveled we learned to see the world through the eyes of others. As Marcel Proust so beautifully put it in Remembrance of Things Past (or In e)
The only true voyage of discovery, the only fountain of Eternal Youth, would be not to visit strange lands but to possess other eyes, to behold the universe through the eyes of another, of a hundred others, to behold the hundred universes that each of them beholds, that each of them is;
We found it was not just about the “sights”— it was about the places and cultures we explored, and the experiences we had. And if we were quiet and listened carefully, and emptied our minds of preconceived notions and questions, the places would reveal themselves.
And reveal themselves they did.
We heard stories of how the past continuously reached forward to frame the present — thinking of the present as an artifact of the past.
We heard stories that showed us how different cultures look at the world differently than we do, and that if you open your eyes and other senses, your mind will follow.
And it was the people we met — the kind and helpful people we found around the world — that really made a difference. We found that “Most travel, and certainly the rewarding kind, involves depending on the kindness of strangers, putting yourself into the hands of people you don’t know and trusting them with your life.” as Paul Theroux so eloquently wrote in Ghost Train to the Eastern Star.
Life for us did again become about exploration and discovery. Exploring and discovering where we want to go, exploring and discovering a place once we get there, and even exploring and discovering the paths we take as we move from place to place (instead of settling for being just a passenger on a conveyance and thinking of ourselves as parcels). We got lost in the wonder of the places we were visiting — if you listen and see, you can discover marvelous things — and the most interesting things happen in the white space between the items in your itinerary or on your bucket list.
It is what you do being in that place is what makes it meaningful, and we learned to accept each place for what it was. It may have been freezing in Laos, or sweltering in Warsaw, or disappointing hotel rooms, or obnoxious (often including gratuitous flash picture taking and oversized daypacks in your face) tourists, or the wifi that didn’t allow you to actually access the internet (although we learned the cell networks in almost all countries were much more reliable), or even just figuring out the best way to do laundry on the road. We learned not to be fussy about being comfortable with the foods and accommodations, willing to trade scratchy sheets, lukewarm showers, and instant coffee for the experiences we had. We learned to dance with some obstacles and slide past others, barely not touching.
And all of it, the good and the annoying, added a new perspective to our view of the world.
And as we traveled we became unstuck.
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