The Psalm of Life by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Tell me not, in mournful numbers,
Life is but an empty dream!-
For the soul is dead that slumbers,
And things are not what they seem.
Life is real! Life is earnest!
And the grave is not its goal;
Dust thou art, to dust returneth,
Was not spoken of the soul.
Not enjoyment, and not sorrow,
Is our destined end or way;
But to act that each tomorrow
Find us farther than today.
Art is long, and Time is fleeting,
And our hearts, though stout and brave,
Still, like muffled drums, are beating
Funeral marches to the grave.
In the world’s broad field of battle,
In the bivouac of Life,
Be not like dumb, driven cattle!
Be a hero in the strife!
Trust no Future, howe’er pleasant!
Let the dead Past bury its dead!
Act,-act in the living Present!
Heart within, and God o’erhead!
Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of time;
Footprints, that perhaps another,
Sailing o’er life’s solemn main,
A forlorn and shipwrecked brother,
Seeing, shall take heart again.
Let us, then, be up and doing,
With a heart for any fate;
Still achieving, still pursuing,
Learn to Labor, and to wait.
I found this poem lying discarded upon a table inside a small home just off the railroad tracks running through a quaint but often overlooked small town in Oklahoma. That home once belonged to my grandmother. It’s where I spent lazy summer days and marveled at my grandmother’s ability to cook, and subsequently burn, every Southern dish to perfection. Now, it’s an empty shell of what it once was, but its serves as “home” for Dan and I as we clumsily and hesitantly decide how to proceed with our lives. The open poetry book, with is cover missing and pages ragged and torn, may not have been simply discarded, but instead perfectly placed.
I’m often a talker, not always doer; a big dreamer, not always executer. I’m comfortable in the life I lead but have a hard time accepting things for what they are. I often think there is more. In fact, I know there is more. But, not necessarily for me. It’s the adventurer, the risk-taker, the opportunist, the strong, the successful that seem to pounce upon their target with impeccable timing. They reach beyond what’s comfortable to take hold of their dreams, and unshaken, they refuse to let go.
I wish I could say that’s how my 2013 came to fruition, but I fear it would lead you astray. My 2013 barged in overshadowed by hesitation, day-dreaming and confusion. Enamored with a dream career and wonderful life in New Orleans, I was leaving it all behind. In all honesty, I don’t know exactly how it came to be; I genuinely believe it was a fluke.
Whether it was naiveté and innocence or an inability to look beyond the life I knew, when I was younger I simply could not wrap my head around the world beyond. Sure, I’d traveled internationally. Sure, I watched the news and gave thought to the struggles portrayed in far off places. Sure, I’d imagined the enormity of circumnavigating the globe. In fact, I’d imagined myself doing it, and I fancied who I might meet and what I might find. I, like many people, even gave thought to joining the Peace Corps at some point in my life. But, like for many others, it was only a passing thought, one of hundreds of thousands of possibilities when you still believe your future can hold anything you want.
But somewhere between that trivial thought of my childhood and the reservation of my first airline ticket headed west from the United States, my once-diminutive idea became a reality. If left solely up to me, it wouldn’t have come to fruition. If left alone to my husband, it would not have materialized. But together, with the unwavering thought that if he could do it, I could do it and vise versa, we took the leap.
It’s still a blur. I remember nearly losing the feeling in my body, my head floating above me, as I announced to my boss I would not be accepting a generous contract renewal. I hazily recall detailing our craziness and reiterating that our wild idea to travel the world had little basis in reality. “If we don’t do it now, we never will,” I explained. Whether that was true or not is something we’ll never know. Several months later, our beloved home was sold, the massive Penske truck in the driveway packed and the path of my dreams changed.
French Polynesia was a great vacation. New Zealand was a blur. A once-in-a-lifetime adventure dwarfed by stress, anxiety and sadness. I was convinced the life I knew was over. Sure, Dan always told me we could come back. But, could we? Would it be the same? In the past three years of my life, everything changed. I moved to a wacky, bizarre but lovable city far from home, I unexpectedly lost those I loved, and I watched as my past seemingly faded into just that – the past.
Our first month, living solely in a rented camper van, I constantly gnawed over what could have been, and I wondered just what the hell I thought I was doing quitting my job, leaving my friends and family and ditching everything familiar. In between the worry, there were great explorations and explosive arguments; and, eventually I succumbed to the uneasiness, uncertainty, instability and grief inherent in life. Accpeting those feelings exactly for what they were, I was then able to embrace the vibrancy, exhilaration, diversity, and true ambition of a traveling life.
Australia was a breeze, a natural fit. Hiking in the arid outback and trekking in the dense humidity of the rainforest, exploring the modern advancements of world-class cities and daringly floating above the world’s greatest natural reef. It was intoxicating. I was hooked.
Indonesia brought foreign intrigue and taught lessons of how to get by each day in an alien land. I learned to trust strangers, and discard ill-advised and ignorant preconceived notions.
Thailand was a thrilling introduction to the wild side of Southeast Asia. In Cambodia, I was deeply saddened by poverty, disheartened by the lack of humanity in daily life. Despite being given every reason not to trust (rule by a ruthless dictator, a corrupt government, etc.), I was deeply touched by the resiliency, kindness and open-hearted mentality of the people.
Vietnam shattered my perspective on war and only reiterated the utmost importance of thoroughly analyzing both sides to every story. Laos provided me with a deeper understanding of a simple, respectful life devoted to faith along with better insight into the invaluable efforts of international aid programs like UNICEF that provided dozens of small villages with their only source of clean water.
Myanmar forced me to stop in my tracks. I found myself doing it everywhere we went – I stopped and stared, sat and reflected. I couldn’t help but revel in the candor and spirit of a people forced into poverty and cut off from the outside world. Their stories, their landscapes, their culture – it’s unfathomable. The earnest way of life, their devotion to the past and the hope for a new future along with their ability to thrive in the uniquest of ways was mesmerizing. Still, I left with a deeper understanding of the invaluable nature of a democracy and the horrific, hateful and unfathomable nature of ruthless rule.
Somehow India captured my heart with its breathtaking landscapes, ancient history and extraordinary, unparalleled culture. But, I cringed at the lack of respect associated with daily life and burned with anger against a social system, the Caste System, that would hold anyone down simply because of who they were born to.
Soon though, the hippie haven of Nepal would capture my attention. I reveled in village life, a life far removed from modern reality, as I trekked along the base of the some of the world’s most captivating mountains, the Himalayas. I watched as sacred religious rituals were performed; I felt the pain of women who gathered to watch their husband’s or father’s bodies burned and witnessed children bathing in holy waters.
Eastern Europe brought with it a breath of fresh air – a reminder of home. Still, I learned. I now know the people, the cultures and the ethnic groups that so violently fought in the breakup of the former Yugoslavia. I walked past the pock-marked buildings in Bosnia, scarred from the use of heavy artillery, and listened to a homely, old man who survived the war attempt to describe what happened. I floated daily in the beautiful blue waters of the Adriatic Sea, while gazing upon ancient, fortified cities that have stood the test of time.
In an old, rusted bus across the Jordan desert I learned that often the worst kind of fear is the fear you create within yourself. Still, it’s hard to say where and when I learned the most. Was it standing in the historic streets of Jerusalem, crossing the thick concrete wall separating Israel and Palestine, or was it witnessing the devotion to the world’s three largest monotheistic religions collide in the desert where some believe it all began?
I can’t pinpoint it all. In all honesty, I can only put my finger on a small fraction of what I learned and how I changed in 2013. But, I can say with certainty, none of it would have been possible without the first step, a small, single move in the direction of my dreams. While traveling the world in one year may be the greatest adventure of my life, I’ve learned life is the greatest adventure of all.
It has left me wondering what’s next. Where do I go from here? Again, I’m scared. But, now with more confidence than ever, I know I have the ability to make my next exploration great. The truth is you do in fact build and control the foundation for your future. It may not be with the certainty and security we so envy in those who oft put on airs. Instead, we may blaze our trail with trepidation; but, the most important thing of all is you blaze a trail. It may not be new or unique, few things are these days, and it may not be exactly what you dream of, but then again, it may be better. You’ll never know if you don’t try. Take it from me, the person who believed she was on the same path as everyone else. The person who didn’t believe she could be one of the few to travel the world. So go ahead and take that step, and in doing so not only accept the feelings of fear, the emotions of uncertainty and confusion, but also embrace them.
I’m still pinching myself, but I know I still have a long way to go. I will continue to detail our journey for you on RevealingWorld, and hopefully have more time to dedicate to it in 2014. Who knows – this journey may give me an ability to reach beyond what I first imagined.
I hope your 2014 is filled with joy, adventure and acceptance. And, as a wise stranger once said to me on an overnight train in Vietnam, “Do something each day that you can do better the next – then you will realize your full potential.”