The first time I decided to uproot my life entirely came after a lazy morning lying in bed and watching reruns of How I Met Your Mother. I’d recently moved to Portland right after college because of a boy, and I had settled in nicely. I had an apartment, a job, and this boy and I were on the verge of cohabiting. I’d found a level of comfort that sometimes feels impossible in a new place, and I was enjoying the type of Saturday morning you can only truly enjoy pre-children. As I lazily snuggled under the covers, I drifted off as Lily frantically planned her upcoming wedding to Marshall, her partner of nine years. I opened my eyes about ten minutes later, and Lily was pacing in a public restroom, lamenting about all the dreams she sacrificed because of her relationship. I didn’t fall back asleep after that. Instead, I sank under the covers as a heaviness materialized, a heaviness that lingered long after the show ended.
For days, I reflected on the plans I had made for myself that seemed to have dissipated and now weren’t even in my periphery. I’d never intended to have a boyfriend at this point in my life. I wanted to graduate unattached and untethered so I could “find myself” while backpacking in South America or writing my novel in crappy coffee shops. I had every cliché mapped out for myself as I intended to stick it to the man and put off my 401K for as long as possible. I hadn’t anticipated meeting someone and trading it all in for something so conventional.
After that Saturday morning, I waited for those thoughts to blow over, but they remained entrenched in my mind. I tried to rationalize and justify my new life choices, but the voices in my head kept whispering, You’re pathetic. How dare you call yourself a feminist. I felt a longing to prove something to myself, to do something so big and so drastic that it would capsize everything. So I moved to China. I found a teaching job at a university, lived with a Belarusian chain smoker who was always insisting I try the cabbage soup diet, and spent a year in absolute unfamiliarity.
Living in a quaint city of only ten million, I had to learn quickly how to navigate the language and public transit and to ignore what I saw the chef doing outside the restaurant just minutes before he made dinner. I spent a year drinking tea and too much whiskey and washing my dishes while showering (multitasking!). By American standards, the pay was minimal, but it was plenty enough to live comfortably and spend my holidays traveling around Asia. It was exactly what I’d hoped for and needed. I felt alive. I loved the people and the challenge and the culture shock. My lungs and my liver both took a hit that year, but it was a small sacrifice to add life experience to my personal résumé. I came back to the States after that year feeling energized, enlightened, and smug in a way that only twenty-somethings can be after spending time abroad.
A break from my routine and a whole other continent under my travel belt scratched the itch that had been building for some time. And when I came back, that boy I left behind was still there, and we grew up and found an apartment together. And then we found grown-up jobs, and along came a baby, and a wedding, and another baby. Our reality morphed into mortgage payments, diaper rashes, and date nights discussing infant milestones and laundry duty. Life settled into a new level of comfort, albeit one with less sleep and more handling of other people’s feces. Most days were filled with lesson plans, grading papers, preschool pick-ups, endless games of hide-and-seek, and occasional bouts of crying in the shower.
And then my grandfather died. He was ninety-one years old, his Social Security was about to run out, and as he puts it, had lived “one hell of a life.” The end of a long life well-lived doesn’t usually constitute a tragedy, but he and I had recently become close. He had reached out a year and a half ago with an e-mail that read:
It’s the end of my third act and the curtain’s closing anytime now. I want us to talk more. I’m not talking in generalities, I’m talking about you and me. Whadda ya say?
I had the same relationships with all my grandparents; we spoke mostly on holidays and the biannual visit, so I was surprised, but not unpleasantly. We began e-mailing back and forth regularly, and soon he confided that he wanted me to know his stories because he trusted me to tell his legacy through his obituary. On the night he died, I sifted through all our old e-mails and cried as I read through his escapades, his advice, and his one-liners. And then I found an e-mail that had been buried months before that I had yet to open. I braced myself emotionally and then read a story about the time he and my grandmother backpacked from Yosemite to Lake Tahoe, which was not an unusual venture for them. What spoke to me was the final line of the e-mail that read, Ya know kid, life’s a feast, and most of these poor bastards are starving. Don’t forget to dig in.
As I read that last line, I crumpled and dissolved into heavy sobs. I cried for my grandpa and all the things I wish I could have asked him and all the stories I still had yet to hear. Then I cried for myself, because my life had felt like nothing close to a feast lately. Where was the girl who moved to the other side of the world? When was the last time I sat in the grass with my kids without worrying about the dishes in the sink? I had two healthy, strong-willed children and a partner I adored. We were so damn lucky, so why did I feel so exhausted and lifeless? My life seemed to circulate around to-do lists, domestic duties, and survival. I spent so much of my days counting down to bedtime or waiting for a vacation to give me back a lightness in my soul. I hadn’t been feasting at all. I had only been picking at the buffet and shoving it in my pockets for later when I got truly hungry.
Later that night, armed with a strange mixture of grief and drive, I set about finding a way to both honor my grandfather and revitalize my life. I reread his stories to see what I might replicate. I briefly considered hiking the trail from Yosemite to Tahoe, but then thought better as I realized I had no backpacking experience, and it also sounded like a knock-off version of Wild. I thought about auditioning for a Shakespearean play to honor his love of all things theater. A quick internet search revealed that experience and talent are generally prerequisites. Grief leaves no room for rational thinking. I briefly contemplated a tattoo to commemorate his words of wisdom before I remembered he thought tattoos were only for sailors and whores. Nothing felt quite right.
I then thought about my past desire to live abroad again, but this time with my whole family. This yearning had lain dormant for so long that I rarely bothered to acknowledge it. Feeling mildly hopeful, I looked up real estate and teaching positions in South America, and as my plan gained momentum, I researched family Spanish lessons and what it would take to put our house on the market. This is what we needed; this is how we would get our feast. I went to bed that night alternating between tears and triumph.
I sprang downstairs the next morning, made my tea, and told my husband of my new plan to sell our house and relocate our family to Belize, or Ecuador, or Chile. He had, after all, been so supportive of my move to China. He looked up from his coffee, and knowing I was still shrouded in grief, said gently, “Doesn’t this seem a bit abrupt? If you want to live abroad, let’s talk about it and make plans, but does it have to be this second?”
I stared at him and erupted in a fresh batch of tears. How could he not understand the urgency? Our lives had been coasting along in a haze of familiarity and routines, and the time to shake it up was NOW. I didn’t want to be ninety-one years old, reflecting on my life, and thinking to myself, Well, I never made it to South America, but at least my kids were on a structured nap schedule.
We went back and forth like this for a while, while I still firmly insisted that moving thousands of miles away would be the panacea, until he said, “When did we become not enough for you?”
“You are enough!” I protested wildly. “I just want us to really live and not let the monotony of daily lives starve us anymore!”
“And the only way to do that is in Peru?”
“No, that’s not the only way,” I sputtered. “But why wait?”
“I’m not saying we can’t make a plan to give our family an amazing experience, but we also have a good thing going. What about making a conscious effort to be happier here and now?” I didn’t have a reply.
Did he have a point? Did I have a point? Bolting to China with minimal planning was doable when I was twenty-four, but I did have other people to think about now. I can’t just as easily load everyone on a plane at a moment’s notice because my life hasn’t had enough flavor lately. But, oh, how I wanted some fucking flavor.
And it came to be that maybe we both had a point. We needed big, bold adventures and there would always be a reason not to do them, but joy can’t be limited to a passport.
We’re planning our venture to Mexico once the world allows, and I will be there with my laptop and camera in hand, walking my kids to their bilingual schools. But I am slowly learning and reminding myself that it’s not just a destination. My feast, my happiness, the happiness of my family is not dependent on a foreign venture, though I hope there are lots of them. My grandpa may have hitchhiked across the country after the war and directed Shakespearean theater, but he also married the love of his life and with whom he celebrated every anniversary with pizza and beer, just like their first year when they were broke. He raised four children, which he claims was by far his greatest accomplishment.
Mexico is waiting, but I am not. The kitchen sink is piling up with dishes, and I am now the oldest member of a local hip-hop dance class. I finally started my masters program in creative writing, the one I’ve said is too impractical to waste my time. We are dancing in the kitchen more and listening to Spanish podcasts in the car. Whether that’s moving to Sri Lanka or sitting in the dirt just to look up at the sky, we all deserve a feast.