I was 16 when I became an adventurer, though I didn’t know it at the time.
It was my junior year at Andover High School. I was young, but not too young to be an unhealthy workaholic, and I was taking caffeine pills in order to stay up until 1am studying every night. You see, the year beforehand my mother and I had concocted what we thought was a brilliant plan – I was to take 2 science classes my junior year – high school Physics and college level Advanced Placement (AP) Biology, plus AP Modern European History. This would set me up to be able to take four more college level classes senior year, including two sciences yet again – AP English, AP Chemistry, AP Physics, and AP Calculous. I would then graduate from High School with six college-level classes, and if I did well enough on the national AP exams, I could use the credit to graduate early from college. That was the plan, set in motion when I was a 15 yr old sophomore. “If you go to Harvard, you could graduate a full year early” she said “But if you go to MIT, you will only be able to graduate a semester early because they give less credit for AP classes than other universities.”
So there I was, popping NoDoz, studying AP Biology until the wee hours every night at our dining room table under a too-enormous-to-clean-properly dusty crystal chandeiler. My mother dangled legs on both sides of the wall – she took so much pride in my achievements but knew my path wasn’t healthy and wasn’t always so sure that she liked the person I was becoming. My father was significantly worse – concern never kicked in for him, only ego and pride. She danced between pushing me forward and begging me to slow down. He just sat there and waited for me to add more accomplishments to the list.
In late January that school year (it was 1992), Mom saw an advertisement – $99 each way to Paris. “We’re going.” She said. We would have to leave in a couple of weeks in order to take advantage of the cheap fare. The trip would partially overlap my February school break, but still I would miss several days of classes. I would miss an important AP Biology test.
“I can’t go. I will miss too much school.” I said.
“We’re going.” She said. “WE’RE GOING.”
I fought her for a while, worried about my grades, but she knew she had to pull me out of my tailspin. She knew I had to step away. She knew that somehow even if I missed a test and a few days of classes then I would still be ok. She never once suggested that maybe I should take less classes or take college at a normal pace, but still she tried to control the damage along the way.
There are so many beautiful memories I have from that fateful trip – the wind in my face as I stood by the Seine, being knocked over by the vibrant colors of my first real Van Gough at Musee D’Orsay, sitting in the garden among the sculptures at Musee Rodin. Still – this image stands out above all the rest – we had just landed at Charles De Gualle airport and were getting into a taxi. My mother spoke very little French and had trouble communicating with the brisk driver. She had visited Europe for her honeymoon 22 years before in 1970 but still was very much out of her comfort zone. I looked over to her, in the back of the car, and felt the stress and fear in her body. Her eyes got red and wet but didn’t spill and her mouth was one tight line. There we were in a foreign country where we didn’t speak the language – a 16 year old girl, a 44 year old woman, and her 70 year old mother (my grandmother) who had always dreamed of going to Paris but had never traveled and needed to be led by the hand. It was all on mom, and she was overwhelmed.
But – we did indeed make it to the hotel. My mom figured out how to drag her bookworm kid and elderly mom all over the city on the Metro so that Grandma Ruth didn’t have to walk too much. We went to Notre Dame, the Louvre , and Versailles and everything I was studying that year in AP Modern European History came alive. We ate oranges, roast chickens, baguettes, and pastries from local markets as we were too broke for the restaurants. We saw the ballet version of “A Streetcar Named Desire” from nosebleed seats at the Grand Opera House and tried on fancy dresses we couldn’t afford on the Champs-Elyees. And then, near the end of our 8 day 9 night adventure, I sat in front of Monet’s “Impression, Sunrise” at Musee Marmottan, and I finally realized – the world is big, beautiful, and full of colors I didn’t know existed. My books weren’t real – this was real. And – my mom made it happen. She was afraid and overwhelmed, but she was also strong enough to know that she needed to push through and that the rewards would be enormous.
I got a ‘B’ in AP Biology that quarter. I missed too much work to keep my ‘A’, though I got back there by the next report card. I was pretty upset about my ‘poor peformance’, but that was all part of my workaholic journey that would take a few more years to fully unravel.
Fast forward – I graduated a semester early from MIT with a BS in Computer Science and Engineering with a focus on cryptography and network security. During my sophomore year I added a student research job at the MIT Media Lab onto my over full plate and developed severe RSI (repetitive strain injury). By early 1999 I was 2 years post-graduation, being promoted rapidly at Microsoft. I often worked 12+ hours on week days and extra on Sundays. My hands and forearms continued to become crippled with inflammation and I could not type (or cook, or drive, or open jars, or masturbate) without shooting pains. My doctor said ‘enough’ and put me on 6 weeks of medical leave.
I was so bored and miserable at first. I hadn’t developed myself outside of work. Without work, what was there to do?
Then, there it was, in an email from Expedia.com – $375 round trip to Paris. I would have to leave in a few days to get the cheap fare. Paris, by myself, with zero French language skills and little time to prepare. It seemed so brash and scary. But…mom had done it. Her eyes were wet and her mouth was tight, but she persevered and gave me and my Grandma one of the most wonderful and memorable experiences of our lives.
Maybe scary things can lead to growth. Maybe I should be less afraid of the unknown and more afraid of the known – my obsessive compulsive need to achieve, my exhaustion, my inability to use my crippled arms for basic household chores.
I bought the ticket and went to Paris by myself. Sure it was only four days, and sure I had been there before. Still – I went to Paris and reminded myself that the world is still big and beautiful. I got off that plane and discovered – I am indeed still alive. I was 23.
Over the years that followed, I took many more solo international trips. I knelt and prayed at various temples in Kyoto, gazed with awe at the David in Florence, and did yoga in the rainforest in Costa Rica. I learned to walk slower and watch the world around me. I went to bed alone but not lonely.
Still, I was always a workaholic when I came back from a trip. It took a few years to fully admit that I needed to re-haul my soul, but eventually I decided to sell my car, put my possessions into storage, and travel solo for a year. First 6 weeks in Thailand, then 6 weeks in India before venturing elsewhere. “Be careful.” My yoga teacher Denise said. “I know another woman who went by herself and she said she absolutely wouldn’t do it again.”
Many of my loved ones were concerned that I planned to travel in rural India alone. People kept reminding me that it would be hard, as if I didn’t know. I told them that I wasn’t looking for easy. I wasn’t looking for a vacation. I knew my life had gotten too comfortable and that my perspective was too narrow. I knew I couldn’t fix myself by staying where I was. I wanted to feel, grow, and change. I wanted the trip to be hard. I wanted to struggle. I needed to struggle.
And, struggle I did. But, like Mom – I persevered. My escapades in India are fodder enough for their own story, but for now I will share with you this gem: when you are chased by a pack of wild dogs through a small village and almost eaten, your perspective on life changes and you let go of a lot of bullshit.
Not long after my year of travel, I decided to chuck the software thing and became a therapeutic yoga teacher. I lived by myself in an 860 square foot home, half of which became my yoga studio. I taught myself to cook Indian and Thai food. I worked 20 hours a week in my living room, took afternoon naps, spent time with friends, and sewed costumes for Burningman. When I left software for good in 2002 I was making $100k a year. That first year of teaching I made and lived on $18k, $6k of which went to various yoga teacher trainings. Money was so tight, I didn’t go to restaurants or even out to the movies. But I was surprisingly… happy. Happy in a way I hadn’t ever been before, and that happiness was completely self created.
And now, 2 years after the death of my husband, life has become too comfortable again. Yes, my sadness is an ocean, my burdens are crushing, and my anxiety is pervasive. Still – in a way, life is too easy. I have my comfortable home. I have my comfortable car. I have my comfortable and never ending grief. I grump and gripe about various things because I am so comfortable in my misery. My perspective has again become too narrow. My brain knows there is joy to be found in the world but my heart is still saying “I don’t even want to try, things are too comfortable in this dark and empty place.”
And so, it is time for an adventure yet again. I’m a mom now, so the adventure will be different. I won’t be dragging 2 children through rural India, but I will be settling down with them in an apartment in Barcelona for a year. People keep saying “Oh, what fun! You get to go on holiday for a year!” Yes, it’s true that Europe can be beautiful, luxurious, and easy to navigate. Still, this won’t be a vacation. I am leaving my community of friends and family. I will be a single mom in a foreign country with very few childcare resources. I will still have all of my grief, and when I wake up at 3am only to get sucked into a dark vortex of sadness and despair, I will be completely and utterly alone AND lonely. There will be fun moments in Spain, but I expect the experience to be hard. Single parenthood is hard, period, and I’m only going to make it even harder.
So yes – I know it’s going to be hard. Quite a lot of me is not at all happy about leaving the comforts and community that is here in Seattle, but still I continue to determinedly plan our trip. Staying would mean paralysis and paralysis means death. There is a voice in me that says that it is time for a new phase of growth. I explored so much inside my heart and brain these last 2 years through various books, 1:1 therapy, group therapy of multiple forms, grief retreats, memoir writing, and meditation. I have grown so much, more than I knew was possible through such horror, but by now – I have plateaued. I need things to be hard in a new way. I need an exciting adventure. I need challenges which will, through struggle, make me want to reach for light. And – I need to either miss Seattle while I’m gone (and want to come back) or pick a new place to live.
Everything needs to be shaken up, and my mother always told me that if there’s one thing I’m good at, it’s stirring the pot.
Thanks for Paris, Mom – I love you.