“Any man is old when he’s 36.” —Leon Spinks
It’s a funny quote, that one. Leon Spinks was on the verge of fighting a 36 year-old Muhammad Ali when he said it. It’s the kind of thing you say when you’re a kid, and the kind of thing that seems more ridiculous the older you get. I’m sure, a few years from now, the idea of being old at 36 will seem appropriately ridiculous to me. But that’s the conundrum of the aging process: no matter how old you are, you’re the oldest you’ve ever been.
Right now, sitting at the year in question, on the verge of a cross-country trip, and despite all my experience traveling, I find myself terrified. I’ve tried to reason with that fear, and I find I make a good case. First off, I’m in a better position financially than I’ve ever been. I’ve spent the last year and a half paying off the last of my debt and managed to accrue enough savings to take this trip and get home comfortably. Secondly, I’m in good health (I had some major dental work done, but that’s all behind me). And third, I love my job (tour guide), whose seasonal nature affords me plenty of time to take off and travel.
So where did this fear come from? And why does it feel so new?
I’ve been sitting with this for a while, trying to parse it out, and I’ve come up with four reasons. All of them have to do with where I am in life, and none of them have to do with a career. I know I’m not old, but I’m passing out of my youth, and if I want to continue traveling for the rest of my life, what does that mean going forward?
I know that a lot of this has to do with losing people I love in the last few years, and the realization that…
1. I want to see my living family as much as I can while they are still alive.
It’s been a little over three years since my mother died. We had a very difficult relationship and I am still coming to terms with the fact that we will never be able to repair the rifts that existed before she passed away. Losing a parent is one of those transformational moments in a life. Until it has happened to you, it is impossible to know what its effects will be.
Me and my mom, at our best.
I lost my grandfather a few months earlier. He and my grandmother have been two of the more sustained, positive influences in my life. Earlier that same year, my father was diagnosed with cancer, which he, thankfully, beat to the ground. He’s a healthy man these days, but during that time I saw him suffer with pain I’m not sure I would have been able to endure.
It was a bad year.
The thing that made that year tolerable was my ability to make the time I needed to be with them. In the case of my grandfather, I was able to spend several of his final months taking care of him, sharing stories and playing him music. I was able to be present for my father at the end of his radiation treatment, to sit with him in the audience at my brother’s wedding. And while I didn’t have a lot of time with my mother before her death (which was sudden), I was still able to speak, albeit with difficulty, at her funeral.
So what happens if these things start to go down and I’m on a six month jaunt around South America? More importantly, am I willing to sacrifice time with people I love in order to appease my own desires? If so, how much? That’s obviously a flawed way of looking at the situation, but fear isn’t about logic, and those losses at the center of my life kicked this fear up to a level I couldn’t have imagined 15 years ago. And the truth is I want to share the love I have with the people I care about while I can.
But it’s not just about the family I have. It’s also about the family I want. Which leads me to my second fear…
2. I am afraid I’m running out of time to have a family of my own.
This one didn’t really hit me until my last birthday, because I am now officially older than my dad was when I was born. I never even thought about being too old to be a father before. And honestly, I think it’s way too early for me to worry about that now. The thing is, if I’m traveling constantly (as I hope to do in the coming years), that doesn’t necessarily leave a lot of room for a stable relationship, let alone raising a child. I know there are couples out there (and even solo travelers) who go around the world with their kids, but how do I even get to that point if I’m not in one place long enough to cultivate a healthy relationship?
I’ve been divorced once, and it’s not an experience I recommend. It’s certainly not an experience I’d like to repeat. If I’m going to dig in for life with someone (and even talk about having a kid), I’d like to have plenty of time to figure out how to work out the flaws in our connections. This certainly means I’d have to be with someone who likes to travel as much as I do, and I like that idea. Back to back, us against the world. It’s a romantic notion. But if I’m moving around too much to develop that connection in the first place…you get the idea.
As for the age issue, I know I still have plenty of time to become a father, biologically speaking. I just don’t know if I want to be 70 when my kid graduates high school. I know people do this, and probably handle it very well. I just don’t know if I could.
And maybe that’s all putting the cart before the horse. Even if I did have a family, and even if they did like to travel, we wouldn’t have anywhere to land, because…
3. I don’t own a home, and travel could make it more difficult to change that.
This is going to be a dilemma for me in the next few years.
In my 36 years, I’ve lived in ten different U.S. states and one foreign country (France). I’ve moved over 40 times in my life. I haven’t lived at one address for two consecutive years since I was 17.
This is the kind of existence I’ve always enjoyed. I don’t own much, and there are only a few items (my mother’s guitar, my dad’s leather jacket) that I’d be truly devastated to lose. I’ve never been tied down to possessions, and by extension, I’ve rarely felt tied down to one place. But at a certain point, you realize that having a place to come back to, a safe harbor to point your ship, might be a good idea.
Right now, I live in New Orleans. Not a lot of people get to live in their favorite city, and the gift that I have in living here is not lost on me. New Orleans is wonderful. Exciting, thrilling, fascinating, alive. I feel at home here. But the truth is, as much I love the city, it exhausts me. I’m not alone on this. Many people I know have a very volatile relationship with this place. I’ve maintained for a while that one of the secrets to living here is getting out once in a while. It helps you maintain perspective. In that sense, it’s a perfect city for someone who likes to travel.
But could I stay here (or anywhere, for that matter) for the rest of my life?
It’s that question, combined with my history of movement, that keeps me from plunking down the first payment on a house, which in turn keeps my roots from really taking hold here. That’s the way I’ve grown used to living, and as a friend of mine pointed out recently, changing that (as in buying a house) would be a fundamental change in my way of engaging with the world.
A place worth sitting still for.
Am I ready for this? I might be, but I’m still not sure, and much like my concerns about having a family, I’m worried that if I take too long to make a decision, that will become a decision in itself. And this highlights my biggest fear of all, which is that…
4. I’m afraid my need to travel just a cover for me to avoid responsibility.
This is where it gets dark, where doing something I love begins to sound (in my own head) like a childish compulsion. It’s this ugly thing that’s at the bottom of all of my questions: this fear that my desire to travel is really just a smokescreen for my desire to never grow up. No responsibility. No home. No family. Just a passport with a lot of stamps. It sounds lonely when you say it like that, and I have been assured by many people (some of them in my own head) that this is exactly what is in store for me.
There’s a Buddhist expression that I quoted often during my divorce: “Leap and the net will appear.”
I believe that. The question for me is, which way is the leap? Am I risking more living a life filled with travel, which is familiar, and closer to the life I’ve always lived? Or am I risking more by settling down and letting my roots flourish, which is a radical departure from the way I’ve lived up to this point? Does greater risk mean a better life? Does a shift in my way of being indicate maturity, or surrender? Which direction is giving up? Which is going forward?
I don’t have answers here. Only questions. In one week I will begin a two month excursion around the country. I will still be filled with these same doubts and fears when I walk out the door, get in my truck and go. I know I will. And I will go anyway.
I need to, I tell myself. I need to.