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I’ve been thinking about this post for quite a long time. When I first imagined it, it was a long list filled with the important relationship advice I feel compelled to share with everyone after traveling around the world for more than a year with my husband. I apparently thought I was an expert on the subject because I spent the majority of our 396 days on the road within a 10-foot radius of him and we’re still married.
But life has a way of showing me how little I really know.
More recently, I whittled these tips down to two lessons I had learned, and thought were generally applicable to most couples. The first of these: “Don’t criticize the other person’s driving (and maybe just don’t criticize the other person).”
But who knows! Maybe your boyfriend has horrible road rage and could use a little driver’s ed. Relationships are very specific to the people in them.
So this grand list I had in mind really just boils down to one great lesson I know to be true:
Sometimes I’M the jackass.
Do you remember last post where I discussed the omnipresent jackass? There really is always a jackass and sometimes it’s me. I know this shouldn’t be a relationship saving revelation but I think it might be.
You’d think I would have already firmly grasped the existence of my inner jackass growing up in a family of four children. My sister’s favorite retort, “Get off your high horse,” still echos in my head. Still I had never been able to translate that tip to my marriage.
There’s nothing like roaming around random foreign cities (sometimes in the middle of the night) lost and screaming at each other to encourage a little self-reflection. “What role did I play in getting us to this point?”
What role did I play? I push too hard often at the worst of times (Oslo). My brutal honesty can do more damage than most people’s lies (Sydney). Way too often I think I know what’s bothering you (Rio) and think I have all the answers for making it better (Berlin).
Too often in our closest relationships we get so hell-bent in convincing the other person we’re right, we forget to look at all the ways that we’re wrong.
The solution? As in other jackass related situations, expect the jackass. Identify the jackass. (Apologize if I’m the jackass). Move on (trying not to do it again)…
So that’s it. That’s my contribution to the stacks of self-help, relationship jewels out there.
Sometimes I’m the jackass and sometimes it could be you.
1) It’s Easier to Think Outside the Box if You Leave the Box Every Once in a While
It’s a big world out there and, for better or worse, there are many different ways of approaching life’s problems.
On our year anniversary of traveling, I wrote the following line:
“We fail to question all the little assumptions we make every day about the way we live because when everything works as well as it does in our modern society (and so cheaply), we have no reason to think differently.”
But I am sure we can all agree that our modern world still leaves a lot to be desired.
(After eight months back home, still living humbly at my parents house, with just a glimpse into the lives of the disenfranchised, this lesson is still unfolding.)
Doing things a certain way just because it’s the way you always have isn’t going to get it done. A view from the outside—looking in or further out—provides a fresh perspective, which could lead to some innovative solutions.
2) It Can Always Get Worse
So yes, you just spent last night sleeping in a van and you’re feeling pretty lousy. But because of your overtired stupor, you put unleaded gas in your diesel-running van and it won’t run anymore. And now you’re sitting in a McDonald’s parking lot contemplating your options with the persistent taste of gasoline in your mouth because you foolishly thought you could siphon the gas out of the tank.
It can always get worse and often does. When it does, please take solace in lessons three and four.
But don’t expect things to get worse. Don’t dwell on the idea that bad things happen to good people. I almost let my fear of being mugged ruin the last four months of our trip. I felt like things were too good and we were too lucky. It was a hard feeling to shake. But we never got mugged.
When we went for an off-road bike tour of the Ankgor Wat temple complex in Cambodia the following happened: My bike tire needed to be replaced. My bike chain broke and needed to be replaced. Nellu fell into a flooded rice paddy, dunking his camera. (We got it replaced in Japan.) I slipped into a flooded rice paddy. I got stuck up to my knees in mud and almost lost my shoe. My tire popped and we replaced the tube. And we got stuck in a major downpour. Which leads me to lesson number three…
3) Tragedy + Time = Comedy
That’s a line from a famous Tig Notaro comedy set. Days after she was diagnosed with breast cancer, Tig turned that bad news into a refreshingly honest and funny routine: “It’s weird because with humor, the equation is tragedy plus time equals comedy. I am… just at tragedy.”
(Um, you might have to hear it for yourself. Tig Notaro: Live can be purchased on iTunes.)
But it’s true. Not to say that we suffered anything close to tragedy on the road. We had mishaps and minor setbacks. And after getting a little distance from it, it was clear that we had some entertaining material on our hands.
I would notice spikes in the number of hits on our blog when I wrote about some of our more trying times on the road.
“Our friends like to see us suffer,” I joked with Nellu.
Apparently what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger and will also make your friends laugh.
4) It Gets Better
The good news is that after you’ve had a rough go at it for a while, your bar for better is a lot lower. Getting to blow out my hair was a luxury I looked forward to on the road. I still makes me feel better.
5) Wherever You Go, There You Are
This is the title of a Jon Kabat-Zinn book. It’s particularly relevant to travel (and I guess life too.)
Seriously, you are where you are. Stop trying to get ahead of yourself. Unless you’re a character from a J.J. Abrams production, with a clone or something, you can’t.
There’s something about traveling that makes you take things one step at a time. You can get more from the world around you and yourself by just paying attention to where you are.
Moreover, life has a pace of its own. (Recognizing that there’s no way to control that pace—I’m still working on that one.)
6) There’s Always a Jackass
You know the expression “expect the unexpected?” Well this is a similar strategy. Expect the jackass. Sometimes it’s the guy that insists on following you, harassing you to buy something. Sometimes it’s an actually donkey that wakes you up, braying at 3am.
There’s always a jackass. Expect it. That way when the jackass appears, you can quickly identify him/her as such and move on.
Sidebar: When I first sketched out this list when we got home, I led with “there’s always a jackass.” Apparently jackasses lose relevance over time.
7) People in Groups Are Assholes
Think about the last time you were with a group of people in public. Let’s say three or more people. Chances are, you collectively acted like an asshole. You probably laughed a little too loud at each other’s jokes. Maybe you walked too slowly or took up the whole sidewalk. You probably didn’t notice, but someone else likely did.
Now that you aware of your assholery, don’t let it happen again. And if you often find yourself as the odd man out of the group, invest in a quality pair of earbuds.
8) Be Open To Random Acts of Small Talk
I know this can be particular painful to some people. I used to be you. I am very approachable. Apparently my face says, “Talk to me!” even though my mind used to scream, “Why are you talking to me!?”
Now I love it. Sure, this is just one of the ways that I may be turning into my mother. But I think there’s a lot to be said about the rewards of a casual conversation. It might just be a quick tip: “Oh you may not want to buy that apple, I saw someone lick it.” It might be something more…
I’m taking a brief detour from our adventure to share some more recent stories, but next post, we go to Greece.
(Just a note to all my friends before you read this piece and call inquiring politely or covertly on the state of my mental health: I am absolutely fine. I over-dramatize the events of the last five months because I think it’s funny and cultivating a sense of humor over the matter is a healthy coping mechanism. So don’t worry, I’m fine. Thanks for caring.)
I may be starting to freak out. It was bound to happen. I’d say it was only a matter of time and that time has come. My birthday may have had something to do with it but mostly I think it was time.
Yeah five months ago when we first came home, I bragged to friends about how for the first time in my life, I was plan-free, living life off track, post-corporate and proud. I am no longer okay with these things. And while I do have a plan now, it is evolving at a pace so slow it could kill me. I also bragged that one of the lessons I learned from our trip was that life has a pace of its own and you just have to go with the flow. Despite that revelation, I’ll probably die still trying to swim against it.
When I went out for a girl’s night the week we got home, I actually told my friends that they were stressing me out. Seriously. In a voice reminiscent of the cast from “Dazed and Confused,” I told two of my closest girlfriends—amazing women who were juggling the complexities of work, husbands, kids, and life in general—that they were bumming me out. I was still reeling from my world awareness high and the issues of building a life in modern America seemed so unnecessary.
(I also got really drunk and muttered under my breath that my friend was “no longer a good person.” I didn’t mean it obviously, but my psyche was in culture shock and I was having a hard time reconciling the girl that helped me collect coins for months in a jug wine jar so we could buy a flat iron with the woman who was suggesting we call a car and and skip the train to get from Brooklyn back to her house in Connecticut. We did take the car and I didn’t even offer to pay. Who’s the bad person now? Also, sidebar to the sidebar: I discovered just yesterday that she still owns said flat iron, which I gave to her when I wanted to trade up for a newer model.)
I am working with a theory right now that suggests the dirty little secret of the life I grew up in is that things are so good, so comfortable, just so fine that we actually have to make up things to be upset about. Take a brief survey of your problems and assess which ones are actually self-inflicted, self-perpetuating and which ones are real. And even though I recognize that, I can help inflicting a little existential pain on myself.
The oh-for-the-first-time-in-my-adult-life-I-don’t-have-a-plan-Molly got left behind when I could still joke with people that we were summering at my parents house in CT, rather than living with them because we don’t have jobs to support ourselves. Suburban squatting is what I call it now. I hope it’s self-deprecating enough to get a little laugh from people but not insulting to my parents who have been so supportive. They’re so generous that not only do they let us live in their house, eat their food, use their wifi, and drive their cars, they were also willing to star in my parody video of the whole experience.
But it’s hard coming home, especially if you were the kid that was so independent she was never going to live at home. I created that narrative a long time ago, and I lived with it for all of my adult life, so you can understand how reshaping it has been a process.
When I went down to the town hall in my hometown to re-register to vote, the women helping me with the form looked very confused about me. Finally it came out that she had a daughter that went to my high school that was about my age. I later figured that her daughter was probably in my older sister’s class. But at the time, I could not get out of there fast enough and agreed non-committally with everything that she said. But then came the ego-blow.
“So moving back home are we?” she asked in that faux concern, thrilled at the prospect of some juicy gossip, sing-song tone.
I murmured something about traveling the world for a year with my husband and looking for jobs so we could move back to New York City which is where we had been living for the past ten years and working successfully before we voluntarily took off to travel around the world. But the damage was done. I left and had a good, short cry in the car, drove home and fished my uninsured engagement ring out of the safe and wore it around for the next week to make myself feel better.
Having a job is paramount to my new life plan. We can’t justify the cost of a New York apartment while we have a cozy bed that’s close enough to the city for visits and interviews. Similarly, I can’t sign off on big-ticket, vanity expenses like paying for the insurance on my ring or the data plan on an expensive smartphone. (Though I do have to say, using the bedroom I used to share with my sister as a walk-in-closet is an unexpected perk. I’ve never had a walk-in-closet before!)
But I’ve considered pursuing the following money-making endeavors to help us get by: babysitting, retail, waitress, and day laborer. (Although, I am assuming one of the upsides to hiring day laborers is that you don’t have to put up with any lip from the paid help over your design choices.)
A friend did get me a couple days of work as a fashion assistant. I was going to include those adventures here but I think I’ve got enough material for a separate post. And Nellu verified votes for the AP for three days so we do have a little money coming in.
In the meantime, I’ve executed a self-imposed restraining order on commenting or liking friends posts on Facebook. (This is similar to my self-imposed restraining order on the overuse of exclamations in my emails.) But sometimes I can’t help myself and I go on a like-clicking frenzy. (And you would too if you saw the absolutely adorable pictures of my sisters’ and friends’ kids in their Halloween costumes.)
I’ve become a connoisseur of cat videos and Gangnam style tributes. (Apparently there was a recent cat video film festival and Henri 2, Paw de Deux won a well deserved award for top video.) I do this mostly under the guise of research. I want to be gainfully employed, writing and creating video for the web, news video really, but it’s important for me to know what’s out there, right? This is the same justification that led me to conclude I could sample the local brews abroad and call that research too.
I actively look forward to “Mentalist” marathons and I try hard to suppress my disappointment when they air shows I’ve already seen. I may have go cold turkey on this addiction because after five months, I’m pretty much caught up.
And I resist the urge to sign on to the Colbert Report’s “Better Know a District” map and go on a clicking rampage encouraging Congresspeople all over the country to be “better known” every time I see the ad. (But now that I am an official Connecticut voter, I may give into this one.)
While I do spend most of my days in my worn yoga pants and fleece swag from my old job, I have an active policy stating that neither velour pants nor my fleece-lined Crocs should be worn out of the house. Although, on more than one occasion, you could catch me running errands in my Crocs.
And I’ve made progress on retraining my hair. This is just a nice way of saying that I go as long as I can without washing my hair so that I can wash it less often when I am gainfully employed, which I hope will be soon, real soon.
I lived for a long-time in the world where my job dictated my large degree of my self-worth. Rewriting this story is hard. Change and transition are hard. But not as hard as not having food, running water, internal heat, access to education, opportunity, upward mobility or dealing with the persistent threat of violence, conflict or war on a daily basis. Shall I go on or should I just stop freaking out and be grateful that I have such a cushy place to squat?