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Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Ten Years?

I look back on the phone call as another of those little landmarks which play a large determinant factor in how and where we might end up. As a pivot point it is more innocuous than others perhaps, but a vital one nonetheless. It was a Thursday evening, I know, and I was sitting on the couch reading as my parents watched TV. When I answered the phone I was happy to hear Jeremy, my former roommate from Boulder on the other end.

“Hey, listen,” he said. “I’m wondering if you are curious. I’m going to work my ass off for the next few months, sell my truck and travel. I want to go all the way around the world. If it takes two years, five years, or ten, whatever. I want to do this. You’re the only person I know who might be interested in doing it with me.”

“Yeah, sure,” I said. “When do you want to leave?”

“By May,” he said.

“Sounds good.”

We talked for another half hour, thinking of places we could go, where we might want to stop and work for awhile, how we could split up for awhile if need be. I could see it in front of me, all of it. I knew it was what I wanted to do. I wanted to step foot on every continent on the planet, and hopefully by the time I was thirty. After the phone call, my mom asked me why I was so excited. I told her what Jeremy and I had talked about, and she knew I was serious.

“Ten years? We won’t see you for ten years?” I remember her saying that, and I remember the tone in her voice – disbelief, sadness, resignation.

“How are you going to pay for this?” my dad asked. Always the one to raise questions of financial feasibility, my dad sat in his recliner as he asked this, a book open across his lap. “We’ll work,” I said. I don’t remember what he said next, but I am sure it contained some grain of doubt.

It did not matter, though. I knew that I was going to make this journey, wherever it might take me and whatever it might take. The knowledge of this coming trip also changed the way in which I viewed my days working downtown and the way I approached the books I was reading. Now that I knew I was going to be traveling again, I could spend my time at work tracing lines across the map in my head. As for the way I approached my books, I realized that with so much time on my hands, I would be able to write as much as I wanted to, and I would have an endless amount of stimuli providing me with the energy and inspiration to do the writing. I began, for the first time since my time in Prague to really contemplating a new novel. I searched novels I was reading for themes and characters that resonated in me, for voices that leapt of the page, for striking styles. Everything I left in my head to simmer.

I talked with Jeremy a few more times in February and March, to get an idea of how he was progressing towards his goal of saving money. We also agreed that the best thing to do would be to start in Europe (Jeremy had never been overseas and wanted to ease into things, and there was still much of Europe I wanted to see). We also agreed that the best time to leave would be in late April or early May, which was, though it did not seem it, fast approaching. By the end of March, I felt comfortable with the money I had saved. I had enough to start traveling with, and I felt that I was physically and mentally ready as well. It was around that time that I went up to visit my college roommate in northern Ohio. At the time, he was having some difficulties in his marriage, and as we talked about his problems over drinks, all of the separate strands of different stories I had been thinking about began to weave themselves together. The following night, we went out again, this time with a large group. The night was a lot like a college night out, with drinking games, wild dancing, and desperate flirtations. As we returned home, I felt depressed by the whole thing, and a book appeared before my eyes. As soon as I returned to Cincinnati, I started writing a long short story that I knew would have a place in a larger setting. I wanted to leave, though. I wanted to travel and I wanted to write.

In April, I talked to Jeremy again, and found out that he was not planning on leaving anymore. He said he did not have enough money yet, and that he wanted still to meet me at some point along the way. He asked me if I was mad at him, and I said no. He had been the one to plant the seed of an idea in my head, a seed that would lead me to incredible places. He asked me when I was going to leave.

"As soon as possible."

The following day, I went on to an auction sight looking for flights into Europe…I was not very concerned about where I would land. In the end, I found a flight into London for less than $400. My departure date was set for May 14.

The last month in Cincinnati, I felt as if I was already removed from those around me. I could think of little else than what was soon to come. WhenI went to work downtown, I was often asked questions about where I planned to go and what I planned to do. I heard then what I had heard before and have heard many times since – a variation of “What you are doing is amazing.” These comments struck me, and continue to strike me, as being absurd in the sense that while what I am doing may be different from the norm it is far from being in any way a fantastic deed. Someone working in the Ukraine, or in Uzbekistan, two hundred miles of dirt road away from the nearest English-speaker is pretty amazing. Someone working in Africa to teach people how to prevent AIDS or how to become self-sufficient, that is pretty amazing. Someone working in Sierra Leone to try and re-socialize teenage kids who have murdered and raped their families and neighbors – that is amazing. Traveling in Europe or Asia as a way of avoiding the responsibilities of a home life or a job in the U.S. is not. And the truth is, as May began and the trip came ever closer, I realized that while I did want to write and I did want to see the world, a large motivating factor was that I did not want to settle down. I just wanted to drift through my days with as little responsibility as possible.

I stopped working downtown a few days before it was time to leave. I had lunch with some of the people I had grown attached to there, and they wished me the best. I had lunches or dinners or drinks with a few other groups of people as well, but generally I stayed to myself, anticipating the freedom that was soon to come. I took care of the few preparations I needed to make: packing, buying last minute necessities, and tearing out pages from my old Lonely Planet book to make it as slim as possible. I then prepared myself for the hardest good-byes.

Ever since the phone call from Jeremy, the one which had given me the broadest outline for a ten-year plan, the fact of time had been drifting in and around the edges of my thoughts. One or two or five or ten years, to say it like that, with a careless, flippant tone makes it seem as if five or ten years of life is a somewhat negligible chunk of time. It ignores the fact that in such a period of time there will be countless events – weddings, births, and deaths in the lives of those one is acquainted with or close to. I did my best to avoid thinking about these things, but after a point it was impossible. I had already missed the weddings of a few of my friends due to my time in Boulder, and I knew that by leaving for Europe when I did I would miss two more. In the time that has elapsed since my departure for Europe almost three years ago, I have also missed the births of several children and two or three more marriages. I made a resolution, though, for better or worse, to live my life the way I wanted and needed to. I resolved not to stick around waiting for eventualities when I knew how unhappy that would make me.

The problem with this sort of reasoning, though, it that it discounts the finality of death. My maternal grandfather, one of the most important influences on my life, had by that time already reached ninety, and my paternal grandfather, while younger, was becoming gradually weaker. My mom and dad reminded me more than once that they would not be around forever (and they have reminded me since). For their part, my grandparents have differing opinions of what I have chosen to do. My mom’s father has been very supportive and upon my returns home has always been the most excited about seeing pictures and hearing stories. I have spent many evenings his house, sitting around the kitchen table with my grandma and grandpa discussing travel and looking at maps. I have listened to my grandfather’s tales of his youth and how he came to marry my grandmother in his early thirties.

“There is no need to hurry and get married,” he told me. “Look at me. I have seven grown kids, a large number of grandchildren, and have been married for more than fifty years.”

My father’s parents are also supportive in their way, although they tend to observe a more traditional viewpoint that one should settle down and marry a nice hometown girl and live a nice suburban life. We disagree on a number of things to be sure, but they have always been supportive of me in many ways. My grandmother, for one, has always encouraged me to write, as she herself is a fine poet. When I took my first trip to Europe, they were eager to talk about a trip they had taken many years ago and to compare notes. Now, as I teach children in Taiwan, they are always curious about what the children are like and how they are doing. If anything, it is a source of amusement for me when my grandma asks about girls in my life, and suggests that they do not mind so much if I marry a girl from abroad, as long as we live close by after any grandchildren enter the picture.

Three years later, all four of my grandparents are still alive, although lately both of my grandfathers have had some scares. I have one month until I see them again (by which time it will have been almost a year and a half without seeing them), and then I will be leaving again. Perhaps this time it will be the final good-bye. And there it is, the scariest thought related to travel for me – that each time I leave, it will be the final time I see someone close to me. I know that it will happen, and perhaps I have braced myself for it in some ways, but how will I deal with it when it comes? What I find particularly scary is the thought of me being somewhere in a remote part of China or Burma or Laos when it happens, and I don’t even know about it until two days after the funeral. In some ways this seems unforgivable. On the other hand it would seem unforgivable to make choices in life that would lead to unhappiness and regret.

Anybody have any answers for this?


Anonymous seadragon said...

Well, I think it depends on what you or others would get out of you knowing about their deaths or even attending the funerals. Not to be blunt about it, but if they died, does it make a difference to them if you know immmediately? (I suppose this depends on your religious beliefs.) And would it make a difference to your own grieving if you knew immediately versus finding out a couple of days later?

A couple things that seem like they might be at issue would be whether your family would need/want you for mutual comfort, and whether you would want to be at the funeral yourself. I personally don't think it makes you a bad person for not waiting at home for the possibility that your grandparents might die while you're in the vicinity. It really sounds me to like they would want you to be doing things like this with your life. The major issue, it seems to me, is whether or not there are regrets you would have if you weren't reachable as soon as they died and how it would affect your grieving, if at all.

10:24 AM  
Anonymous Natalia said...

I wonder, whether I fit in all these equations.

11:00 AM  
Anonymous Shawn Grant said...

I have a similar situtation which I will be leaving for Europe next week and my grandfather (88 yrs young) is just finishing up with his chemo treats. I am going to visit with him before I leave and it may be the last time I ever see him. I could return early if something were to happen but is that what he would want?
cheers my friend! still making me think after all these years.
I am headed to london, amsterdam, paris, Rome, and the south of Italy. This will be the first time I will be traveling overseas with my girlfriend. it should be an adventure. Keep in touch! Hello Natalia!!

12:44 PM  
Blogger Alan Brinker said...

First, thanks for the comments.

Natalia, my love, you have changed the equation.

Shawn - wicked that you are heading back to Europe. Do you have a web page now? I clicked on your name and couldn't get into whatever I was supposed to get into. Have a great trip, good luck with the lady, and keep me posted as to what kind of trouble you get into!

Seadragon - I guess I won't really know how I will react to any of those scenarios until they take place, or how I will go through the whole grieving process. I have been remarkably lucky thus far no one too close to me has died.
I suppose it doesn't really matter if you find out at the time or later, but somehow I suspect that I might feel some retroactive guilt - for enjoying myself while others are grieving, which even if I didn't know about it would make me feel like I should have. Does that make sense?

6:33 PM  
Anonymous seadragon said...

It definitely makes sense. The thing is, could you accept that the reason you didn't know for a couple of days were because of necessary circumstances having to do with what you've chosen to do with your life for ten years. I don't know. I think they'd understand and I think you might have more regrets if you just sat around waiting so you could be available in case they die... It sounds blunt when I write it, and it doesn't mean I think it would be easy. Just saying I don't think you should be too hard on yourself just because you've made traveling your life at the moment. :)

10:21 AM  

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