I just discovered a document on my computer that I had written last summer and, in reading it, I was thrown back to those nervous months in anticipation of my travels. What I found is a bucket list of things I hope to achieve in my life and, scanning down this list, the items are completely arbitrary. I can check a few of them off, like “learn to surf” (badly, but it’s started) and “keep a travel diary” (you’re reading it now). Many have not yet happened but may get checked off in the near future, like “go skydiving” and “learn to cook Thai food.” But looking at this list now, it seems so detached – a collection of random items (on something so unromantic as a checklist) is not particularly motivating and it’s not something I have any desire to define myself by.
I have developed another way to determine what are worthwhile things to do in my life and what might not be worth bothering with. It’s about storytelling and it’s about that intangible magic that comes from the unknown – perhaps the opposite of a checklist. To find incentive, I think about my future granddaughters, strange as that sounds considering I’m years away from wanting kids of my own. However, these non-existent little girls are a driving force for many things I do at this point and this is the first time I’ve verbalized it.
It’s important to me that I have stories that surprise my grandchildren and make them say things like “You did that alone?” or “Weren’t you scared?!” I want to share memories that remain interesting in spite of any insane technological advances that exist at that point. And while, of course, I will gladly share stories with my grandsons, I think back to special lunches at Molly’s Balloon in Hanover, New Hampshire with my grandmother, Alice. While she never traveled the world alone, she did all sorts of interesting and valiant things which I found fascinating and proud of her for – like going to Wellesley College way back when women rarely attended universities and having her beautiful folk paintings showcased all over the country.
My mother, too, has a wealth of stories to share with my children someday – ones I know they will listen to open-mouthed and wide-eyed. She raised the bar for me, having lived in Japan to study garden design and venturing to Nepal alone. And, in the same vein as the American Dream, it’s motivating to try and create my own modern-day legends, ones that my family can pass down with pride. In my opinion, it’s especially important that the girls know what they can do on their own.
I will admit, even though it’s not particularly modern, I was most entranced by the love stories that the elder generations passed along. My grandmother still tells the story of when she met my grandfather. It was Thanksgiving Dinner in Chicago. He was in the Navy and in need a place to spend the holiday with a family (even if it wasn’t his own). My grandmother was 16, or maybe it was 12 (every time it’s re-told, she somehow gets a year younger). They have been married for over 60 years. When I was a teenager, my mother told me stories of previous suitors before meeting my father, which I couldn’t get my head around at that age. Mom had a whole life before she had me. What a strange thought.
My decision to travel occurred because every potential roadblock lined up all at once and created a window of opportunity, begging me to free myself. And I had to seize the moment because I knew if I didn’t, any one of them could hinder my trip; I might get into a relationship, settle down, and miss the moment I had been given to go off into the unknown for an adventure. I am not a person who has regrets, but if I let the opportunity pass me by, I knew I would regret it forever.
Revisiting my bucket list last night was surreal and it brought me back to my pre-trip mindset. The one item on the list that seemed most outlandish when I wrote it was “fall in love in Europe.” What a ridiculous thing to consciously hope for, to put on a checklist. But now I see that I wrote it because I wanted the fairytale to tell my granddaughters someday, even if the love only lasted a matter of days. (What can I say, I’m a sucker for a great love story.)
When I wrote it, I remember wondering who this guy would be (or these guys… maybe I would have many European lovers). Most of my friends had put their money on it being a Portuguese surf instructor. Others hoped for a Spanish bartender named Jesus or Nacho. I got a few people convinced it would be a Scandinavian named Olaf who covered his blonde locks with a hat made of chipmunk. Or one person thought it’d be a London hipster with women’s skinny jeans a scraggly man-bun. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect in terms of nationality, as I couldn’t see myself with anyone from any other country. For whatever reason, I thought it was something I’d see in a movie, but not something I’d ever experience.
Looking back at it now I can see it so clearly; Of course I fell in love in Europe. Of course it happened fast. I had just given up all of the things which kept me in a routine and replaced them with a lifestyle that forced me to be present and intentional. All of a sudden, I was at the mercy of the universe and my eyes had to be kept wide open. There were no schedules, rituals, or ways to distract myself. Each opportunity only happened once and there was no time to waste. To try and meet someone at home – where I would take the same subway ride to the same office, shop at the same markets, and frequent the same handful of bars and restaurants – there was very little room left for me to notice any signs and very little openness to meet someone out and about. Moreover, I can see now that, of course, when I put myself completely out of my comfort zone and followed my illogical, vague passions did I come to find a person who I could connect with on a soul level.
I found a man who has somehow been able to find only positivity, composure, and excitement for my continued travels, despite the fact that they led only further from him. He has always been there with the ability to be understanding or to offer a helpful idea. He reminds me to stay present when I get too in my head and refuses to take up too much of my time. He has never shown any sign of jealousy or possessiveness, despite the fact that I am socializing with other people, traveling with other people, and even sharing a bedroom with other people on a regular basis (a hostel dorm).
I recently listened to an episode of the NPR podcast, This American Life, in which a woman is married to an inmate she had met after he was already in jail on a life sentence. And while their story is entirely different from mine, she said something that struck me as I listened in the airport in Vietnam. “For a woman to know she is loved and to be able to still go on living her own life is very special.” And I realized that was what I had been given – it was something I didn’t know existed: loving independence.
Revisiting my bucket list is laughable. I can check off a box because I did fall in love in Europe, but I also fell in love in Asia. I keep falling in love, despite changing countries, continents, time zones, and cultures, all with one man. It’s the juiciest love story I’ve ever heard, let alone something I could have dreamt up for my own life. And while I don’t know what will happen with this man in the future, I know I’ve got a whopper of a story for my daughter’s daughters.
It’s funny to think that I can check off some item on a list because of meeting Mike, because that item is completely missing the point. Like the rest of my list, the reality of these experiences is so much more than a check box: Mike has challenged the entire notion of what I thought a relationship could be.
I couldn’t have possibly identified and planned 90% of the things that I’ve taken from my travels and I’m so grateful for that because the experiences, the learnings, the relationships – they’re all worth a lifetime of check boxes. Furthermore, I’ve decided to get rid of the bucket list concept. While I think it’s great to set goals, you know what they say: It’s about the journey not the destination.
Now when I think of my future granddaughters, I’m thrilled and I’m proud. I have so much to share with them – things I never thought would happen to me, things I can already feel their delight over. And I’ll continue to strive for legends to share; Ones I hope will inspire them to explore and live something bigger than anything they could write on a list.
Categories: Travel Philosophy