“The untold want, by life and land ne’er granted,
Now, Voyager, sail thou forth, to seek and find.”
– Walt Whitman
One week ago, an old friend and I rode through the sprawling highways of Southern California with a kind couple, Jin and Chris. As we drove past the Mothers grocery store and shopping centers of California, I felt a wave of emotion and memory sweep over. This was the same highway that I drove through when moving to California almost five years ago. But this time, the old friend and I were leaving California for a year-long sabbatical, leaving behind the comforts of familiarity, of home, of friends and family for a lifestyle of vagabonding and exploring.
Over the past few years, this old friend, Ting Fen, would try to convince many friends to go on various trips, but we were all “too busy”. We had our jobs, we had to pay rent, we had our daily habits. But this year, her persistence worked. So here we are, sitting at a hostel in Auckland, New Zealand, cooking oatmeal and dumplings in a communal kitchen full of people of all ages and backgrounds, drawn together by our soul-searching and wanderlust.
One year ago I did not imagine that I would be typing at this computer, looking out the window on Liverpool Street. One year ago, I was going through a breakup, moving out of the one-bedroom apartment that I shared with my partner of five years. At that time I didn’t know where I would be, I just knew that I wanted to learn to be happy wherever that was.
Over the summer, I spent a lot of time alone with my cats, just reading loads and loads of books in my studio apartment. With the need to be alone, came the pangs of loneliness, especially at night. So my girlfriends and I fed each other, with home-cooked meals, long walks in nature, and dancing til two in the morning at the goth club on Sunday nights (thanks Allie). For the first time (at almost 30 years old), I tried casual dating too (thanks to the encouragement of many friends).
Through all of these changes, I continued to work my desk job as a user experience designer, and continued to wonder “Why am I here?” During this time of exploration, I met many people who did not live their lives tied to a desk; a mathematician who went to conferences overseas, a French tutor who spent a month living in France, a new coworker (who became a best friend) who left India to pursue her master’s degree in the states. All of these people (and many more) made me question my daily life, and wondered what was my life working toward? I was single, with no family, no mortgage, and only two cats that depended upon me. The desire to wander began to grow. I bounced the idea off of a few friends, and each time I spoke of taking a year to travel, their eyes immediately lit up with a sense of wonder. They didn’t have to say anything at all. Their eyes always said, Go!
Making the decision to go
So in the summer of 2017, after visiting family in the countryside, I returned to California and promptly called that old friend. Finally, we would just go! Making the decision to leave everything behind is not an easy one to make, especially in American society where wanderlust is rather counter cultural to the work-focused, “be productive” mentality that is instilled in most Americans at a young age. But by that time, I had a wealth of personal and professional reasons to leave everything behind.
Why travel (from a Professional perspective)
For the past ten years, I had worked as a waitress, as a graphic designer, and most recently as a user experience designer for a consulting company. My career (and yes, waitressing is part of that career), had consistently involved serving people, but had progressed from serving people face-to-face, to designing digital interfaces from the shield of a computer screen.
User Experience Design: Getting away from the computer
A teacher, Jimmy Luu, once said, “Sometimes, you need to step away from the computer in order to design.” That phrase always made me ponder.
At my most recent job, user experience was an important part of the design process. We interviewed managers and web editors, and sketched ideas to design web applications and digital interfaces for government clients. But looking back, many times the people that we spoke with were not the true users of the interfaces. I designed with a small amount of knowledge, based on information from a third party, and sometimes purely on assumption. The longer I stayed at the desk, the more I longed to talk to real people, to understand how they think, how they feel, how they really use digital interfaces in the context of every day life.
Stefan Sagmeister’s Sabbatical (every seven years)
To experience every day life, I realized that I could not just stay at the desk. I was feeling stagnant, and did not feel inspired creatively. I recalled the work of Stefan Sagmeister, a prolific designer who closes his studio every seven years to take time for exploration and personal work. Instead of waiting for retirement during the last 15 years of life, he disperses them throughout the working years. I then recalled watching my grandparents age and go to the nursing home. Was there any guarantee that retirement could be enjoyed? Sagmeister’s approach seemed like a good path to follow.
Why travel (from a personal perspective)
In order to even think of the retirement years, one must be in the mindset of aging. At that point in my life, I didn’t feel like I had much to look forward to while visibly recognizing my own mortality. No family to raise, no house to grow old in, none of the typical structures that anchor a person into a purposeful future. I had been with my former partner for five years, but we recognized that those normative structures would never come to fruition with our relationship. So we ended it. I had moved to California out of love for him, and out of love of exploring the West Coast of the United States. After the breakup, I didn’t really know why I was in California, far from my family in the country side.
At the same time, I was coming to terms with a lot of deep-seated anxiety issues. Friends told me that I said “sorry” too much. Asking simple questions at work took loads of effort for I feared that my boss would think I was stupid, or would scold me for asking. I frequently imagined worse-case scenarios so that I could be prepared for the proper reaction. My ears were atuned to the slightest tone of anger in my friends and colleagues. I recognized that I was having panic attacks, and learned that I needed help.
After talking with a counselor, I learned that much of the anxiety was a combination of being a sensitive introvert, but was also due to a history of emotional abuse in my family. As a small child, I had learned by observation, that it was not ok to have a voice, to speak my mind, to have an opinion. I was usually ok around friends, but especially near situations of authority, I would almost become paralyzed, and not able to speak or tell people what I really thought, no matter how benign. As one coworker put it, “Miranda has an opinion, she just doesn’t want to share it.” Looking back, the inability to speak up, to have a voice, sounds like such a petty problem, maybe not a real problem at all. But I also had to recognize that even petty problems can grow to larger or long-lasting issues.
This was probably the biggest reason for the travel – needing to take time to be kind to my self. If you can be kind to yourself, then maybe it doesn’t really matter where you are. But if you are always worrying about what people think, and letting fear drive your life, then you can never fully experience the beauty of the place and the people in your life. All of your energy is funneled into worrying about how to have a good response, how to be reactive, instead of learning how to be whole, and how to be responsive.
Ru Paul says it best, “If you don’t love yorself, how the hell are you giont to love anybody else?”
Life after Travel
At this point, I’m not really sure what I will do upon return from the travels. As I grow older, I feel the need for a quieter life; a dog, a garden, and maybe drawing cartoons. But we shall see what the future holds 🙂 For now, the future means lots and lots of hiking 🙂