I actually wrote this post before I started traveling and I posted it in January. To tell the full story, I will paste it in here. I had posted it on two of my other blogs (my personal site sashacagen.com and quirkyalone.net)–OMG, I have too many blogs.
“For me the first great joy of traveling is simply the luxury of leaving all my beliefs and certainties at home, and seeing everything I thought I knew in a different light, and from a crooked angle.”—Pico Iyer, “Why We Travel”
I am officially in a “life churn” mode. When I’m feeling more Australian and mystical, I might call it my walkabout. I like the violence in the words “life churn”; there is something comfortingly accurate about the language. There is something violent in making big life changes. For me, that was disassembling my apartment of four years. My couch is scattered to the Craigslist winds. A friend is driving my Corolla “Martha,” and my belongings are in beautifully taped purchased boxes (a move so adult and unlike all my others) and squeezed into an 11 x 6 storage unit.
Three suitcases worth of clothes for all seasons are at my mother’s house in Rhode Island, where I am staging my vagabonding adventures. I obsessively compare flights on Kayak and Vayama. I’ve purchased way too many Lonely Planets, because it’s way too hard to decide where to go. For the next six months, I will mostly be on walkabout: so far the known countries are Iceland, France, and Brazil, but honestly anything could happen. That is largely what I am seeking: the unexpected.
My friend Chris coined the term “life churn” a few years ago when we were walking through Prospect Park in Brooklyn. We were talking about our respective homes, where we had lived since college graduation (New York City for him, and San Francisco for me) and whether we should move.
We’ve both been stay-ers for the previous ten years and wondered if we were missing out by being so faithful to one city. Chris suggested that life churns are good for you: they shake things up and get you out of old patterns and into new ones. It’s part of the whole “change is good” philosophy (or assumption). The term “life churn” sounded genius to me, and I filed it away as part of my private lexicon.
We didn’t even define life churn, but it seemed so intuitive. A life churn can be violent and bumpy, but it is a kind of rebirth, a cleansing of the old to make room for the new. It forces change. Common life churns are moving, giving birth, starting new careers, and going traveling.
Moving is a classic life churn. It’s a confrontation with your possessions and also how you organize your life. We give birth to a new life by purging what we no longer want, and deciding what we do want.
A life churn might be imposed, but it has the connotation, I think, of being chosen. A life churn seemed exotic and desirable three years ago, because I was going on ten years in San Francisco and starting to feel a little bored and boring.
So now, after much effort, and violence of packing, the churn is on! I am lucky—I never believed I would have an opportunity to dip into a state of “mini-retirement,” as Tim Ferris, calls it, or vagabonding, as my friend, the travel writer Rolf Potts calls walkabouting. I always believed you work continuously, and three weeks for a vacation was a lot.
After returning most of my keys (and having nearly none—isn’t the mark of stable adulthood a whole big mess of keys?) and saying goodbye to my fantastic friends, then spending two weeks with my family, I spent ten days in Iceland, a beguiling place. I chose Iceland because of a book. Eric Weiner, the author of the Geography of Bliss, suggested Iceland had something to teach about language, creativity, and happiness. It seemed like a place I needed to know as a reference point since language and creativity are sources of happiness for me (more on that in a separate post).
In December, I am going to France simply because I love speaking French and it has been 13 years since I have been. I am perpetually interested in the fantasy I have cultivated about France compared to my lived reality, which I have mainly found French people in France to be too rules-oriented and formal for me. I stayed with two French families as a teenager and my romance with the French language is enduring. I’ve met French people when traveling or in the U.S. that I have enjoyed, so I’m curious about whether my experience would be different as an adult. I want to give France another whirl!
I’m taking these relatively short trips to Iceland and France between the Thanksgiving and Christmas because I want to be with my family at both holidays this year. After that I am launching off into the principal walkabout: some not-yet-totally-known, but likely in the range of 4-6 months, in Brazil.
Brazil is where the real walking-about begins. The other stuff feels more like tourism/travel to me. I will have the time to form relationships for longer than a week, and I know I will meet new BFF in Brazil. That’s the way it goes there—in Brazil, you become BFF first and then see if the friendship sticks. This analysis is courtesy of a Brazilian friend I met at a yoga retreat in California, and it definitely squares from my experience of two trips to Brazil in 2008. I’ve already been adopted twice in Brazil: once by a couple and once by a family. Both of them met me at street parties. I love the people who adopted me.
My principal interest is becoming fluent in Brazilian Portuguese and playing with becoming Brasileira, being as integrated as a white girl from San Francisco and New England can become. I am attracted to the Brazilian spirit of warmth, joy, humor, and even the way they avoid talking about personal problems. I mean, it’s great to talk about personal problems, but I think I talk about them too much. Brazilians mainly gloss over them.
“Tudo bem?” is the Brazilian way of asking how are you? The question answers itself implicitly. The question is “Everythign well?” and there can only be one answer: “Tudo bem.” There is no other option. I am a worrier, so I think living in Brazil and saying “tudo bem” for three to four months might help retrain my brain to believe that everything is fine.
I want to see the world with new eyes. I want to stir up my thoughts. I want new cultural reference points and learn in ways that newspapers and books cannot teach me. My point is to relax, but not in a resort. I want to exist in languages other than English. Thinking and speaking in other languages expands my minds–words describe emotions and things we don’t have English. I feel younger and more playful, expanded.
I want a break without thinking about work, as heretically un-American as that sounds. I am betting that a break will make me more creative, inspired, and focused in the future, after my brain has been energized from seeing the world at crooked angles.
The hardest part for me about taking a “career break” is feeling like I am sinking into a state of nothingness because I am not defined by my work. Will I never do anything interesting, extraordinary, remunerative again? In my confident moments, I believe it’s going to be fine and something new and interesting will occur or come to me when I get back. The best things I have done, like writing books, are projects that I never expected to take on. I welcome the unknown.
The most important thing for me to learn is to become more comfortable with peaceful not-knowing, to be more comfortable with doing nothing. If I can learn how to do that, that would help me chill out more and not believe so many of my swirling, counter-fighting thoughts, and that would be a lifelong gift to myself.
A few days before leaving San Francisco, I met an unusually chatty guy in a café. He wanted to know about my life, and so, my only story to tell at that moment was that I was leaving for a while. He asked me some basic questions. “You’re giving up your apartment. Do you feel like you are taking a risk?” Yes, I do. I gave up something pretty good: affordable rent, a garage, a washer-dryer, a dishwasher. Those are all the easy-making trappings of thirtysomething adulthood that I was so happy to arrive at.
Yet there were big problems with that apartment. I have the audacious feeling that life could be even better: a better couch, bookshelves, apartment, project, boyfriend. It’s an act of faith, trading in one life for a future one. For some reason I have a gut instinct that traveling to another country needs to happen first. There is no empirical evidence for going to Brazil being the bridge to the rest of my life, but that is what something inside me tells me to do it. Honestly, it’s scary to follow a gut instinct, not really knowing why I am doing this, but instinct is the way I have always felt my way through life. We shall see!