We have been back in the U.S. for a bit now, and I have sat down to write a post reflecting on the end of our trip and the transition home about 100 times. I usually end up giving up, finding myself unable to string together the right words, or collect my thoughts in an articulate enough way to pull it all together.
Part of the reason for my lack of wrap-up is that we haven’t stopped moving since we have gotten back. Just days after we arrived home, we unexpectedly found ourselves back at the airport. In the weeks since we have been back, we have squeezed in trips to New Orleans, Savannah, St. Augustine, Atlanta, and Chicago. We also have been lucky enough to spend some time celebrating friends and family members who are going through their own big life changes.
Life has continued to do what it does best, which is go on. And it all feels so weirdly normal.
This trip and the inevitable upheaval of our carefully built life in Chicago previously filled in all of the empty spaces of my mind and my heart. Before the trip, when I would be walking somewhere to complete some random errand, I would be thinking about traveling. At night, when I couldn’t fall asleep, I would imagine Al and I wandering around somewhere in the world. When I was stuck waiting in a line or sitting with my mouth propped open at the dentist’s office, I would pass the time by day-dreaming of all the adventures we would eventually go on.
And now, after all that, it is done. We did it.
We completed a long-term goal together, hiked a bunch of mountains, splashed around in various oceans, saw some new countries, ate and drank in front of different world backgrounds, and met some new people. But…So what?
Now that the dust is finally starting to settle, and the reality has sunk in that the trip is over, I have asked myself some of the following questions: Did it really make that big of a difference? Do I really feel any different than I did a year ago? Won’t I just slowly go back to doing the same things I was doing before now? How does this really matter in the long run?
I don’t ask myself these questions to belittle anything that we did or have done, but I ask them because I realize this point in our transition is an important one. It would be all too easy to have an experience like the one we had, come back, and continue to go on with life as if it was all a distant dream. If I am unable to identify and internalize what I got out of this experience and how I want it to use it to impact the rest of my life, then I might as well have not done it all.
If all I wanted out of all of this was a collection of cool experiences, then a few really fun vacations would have accomplished that. Our trip has already started to slowly fade into its new place as a past memory, settling comfortably into the coveted ‘best times of my life’ category. As difficult as it was to watch it change from a current experience into a past one, I have come to accept it (because what other choice do I have?)
So… what happens now?
Now that we have returned, it has been a challenge figuring out how to sort it all out. How do I even begin to process what just happened? It can become overwhelming, and the urge to ignore it and just move on to the ‘next thing’ starts to win over.
I shared this dilemma with my parents, and they presented me with a challenge.
They asked me to come up with three different words that would describe and summarize my experience. The first word would correspond with how I felt prior to going on our trip, the second word would summarize how I felt during our trip, and the final word would correlate with where I am now, now that it’s all over and I have accomplished everything I set out to do. I could only choose one word to describe how I felt during each phase.
It sounds like a simple exercise, but it wasn’t easy for me to boil down so much emotion and experience into a single word. It was the perfect way for me to cut through all of the chaos and various emotions that were flying around, and get to the heart of what this whole thing means.
Pre Trip: Hopeful
I wrote this post the day we left on our trip, and I asked the question that had been floating around in my mind at the time:
What if it isn’t what we thought it would be? What if the dream of this trip is better than the reality?
We were deliberately choosing to uproot ourselves and take an uncertain road. I knew from experience that choosing to take these huge dramatic leaps in life do not always pan out the dreamy way you hope they do. I also knew I would miss my friends, my family, my cats, and even having a steady paycheck. My life as I knew it at the time would change forever. But when it came down to it, I could see a clear picture of what I really wanted my life to look like, and it was nothing like the life I was currently living.
I hoped that it would be worth it, but I also knew that there was no way I could know for sure unless I just got up and did it, already. I knew that we would have some difficult times, and that we would likely have to start back over in building our lives when we returned. I felt so stuck with where I was, but I could no longer ignore the pull to do this trip. I figured that it was better to move without having the answers or all of the pieces in place, then to stay stagnant in a situation that was most certainly wrong for me.
So, before the trip I was hopeful, but there was still fear. I would even say my fears and apprehension were making me cautiously hopeful, but since I was only allowed one word, I settled on hopeful.
During the Trip: Free
On the third day of our trip, Al and I were on a drive from Ljubljana to Maribor, when we unexpectedly got stuck in a two hour traffic jam. The second that our car pulled to a halt in the line of traffic, every single person in the cars surrounding us opened their doors and stepped outside. Instantly, everyone started chatting with each other. Some people went on walks with their dogs, others pulled out a deck of cards or opened up the back of their trunks to hang out of their back seats. Al and I couldn’t believe what we were seeing. At first, I was so taken aback by this that I was convinced we somehow got caught up in a giant family reunion caravan. What is wrong with these people?! Why aren’t they angrily honking on their horns, or pulling out their cell phones, or shouting at each other complaining about how busy they are and how they don’t have time for this?!
When my instant reaction during a traffic jam was to be annoyed; Slovenians used it as an opportunity to accept their reality, and relax into it. I decided to follow their example, so I opened up the book I was reading, and hung my feet out of the passenger window. Al pulled out a puzzle and went to work on it. Occasionally, I would stand outside of the car to feel the sun, or to stretch my legs.
This day was when the feeling of freedom first truly hit me. In a traffic jam of all places. I realized that I had no reason to hurry anywhere, and that life was happening to me right now. I felt completely content with the moment I was in, and I knew that time didn’t matter. Eventually we would get where we were headed. Somehow, here I was in SLOVENIA, on a road trip with my husband. I had nothing ahead of me but freedom, adventure, and choice.
This feeling continued to radiate throughout the rest of the trip. I attribute my focus and awareness of this feeling to the reason why I was able to enjoy every moment, and every destination, no matter what went wrong along the way.
What I failed to consider prior to leaving on our trip, was the possibility that it could actually be better than our dreams. The reality-version actually somehow outperformed the dream-version. No matter what happened or where we went, I was free.
Post Trip: Grateful
When my parents asked me this three-word summary question, I had to really think about the word that best described the post-trip period. It was still so fresh, so I struggled with how to capture it in one word.
As I was thinking, I looked out to the right of our table, and saw nothing but white sand and a shining ocean staring back at me, and my first thought was: I can’t believe this is my life.
Just the week before that moment, I was walking through tea fields in Sri Lanka, and watching families of wild Asian Elephants roam through grasslands. Now here I was sitting at an oceanside restaurant with my family, talking about life.
I felt so thankful for where we were in that moment, but even more so for the chance I had to see so much the world and travel freely on my own terms. I felt so thankful for the hundreds of memories Al and I created together and will now share for the rest of our lives.
But time has passed from that first week back and now, and things have shifted as the trip moves farther away from the present. I haven’t stopped being grateful, but it feels important to say that even with all the good, it has not all been perfect or easy.
Doing something like this does not come without challenges and hardships. There has been what may seem like a never-ending montage of beautiful places and adventures, but along with that, there are difficult times that manage to wedge their way in more often than I would like. In coming home, there is doubt, frustration, isolation, and heaviness that inevitably attach themselves to this huge life transition. These feelings can be hard, even when they are a result of a self-inflicted change. This is the time when things start to get bumpier, and when life begins to really challenge how well we can apply the lessons we have been learning along the way.
What I have realized now is that this trip is actually not about the hundreds of memories we collected, or stories we now share together, nor is it about the mountains climbed or the destinations we discovered. The impact from this trip is not going to come from those things, but instead it comes from the fact that we did it at all.
When you really commit doing something in your life that feels scary, uncertain, or risky, it becomes the first move in a series of shifts that can impact your whole life. It is the choice of courage over fear, which are basically the two options we are faced with when making any type of decision. Now that Al and I have done this together, we have set a precedent for the choices we make in our lives moving forward. We can now move more confidently in choosing courage over fear every single time, regardless of the difficult things that may come along with it.
Post-trip life has been all about handling transition, but I chose grateful as my word because it is the only word that can describes what it feels like after months of living out a dream.
So, that’s where we are at now. As far as what comes next, I’ll save that for another post (which basically means that I have no idea).