Tomorrow will mark one year living as an expat. I recently felt the need to clean out my little leather folio where I keep my passport and came across a much cherished letter I’ve carried with me from country to country for 10 years.
Back in college when I thought I wanted to be a journalist, the campus paper was silly enough to let me write a column. After one particular column in which I laid out my dream to travel cross-country collecting stories I received a typewriter typed letter. Here is what it said,
I hope the enclosed article will inspire you to follow your dreams.
At age 40, I’m still following mine. Unfortunately, people my age are always spouting unwanted advice. Here goes…
1.) Become yourself.
Not as easy as it sounds. Years from now most of your peers will have become their parents–or worse.
Ask yourself: What makes me different from everyone else on earth?
2.) Don’t be afraid to make yourself happy.
A great many people reason away their happiness for a comfy, dull security.
Ask yourself: What do I enjoy doing more than anything else?
3.) Never give up.
It’s unoriginal. Don’t give in. Don’t sell out. Never ever, ever, ever quit.
Ask yourself: What do I absolutely have to accomplish before I die?
Don’t wait until graduation. Hope a Greyhound with ____ and go to Portland for the weekend. Get a van and spent next summer on the road. But whatever you do, don’t give up on the coloring books.
Best of luck to you both.”
The timing for having rediscovered this gem and its message feel all the more useful now that I am 10 years post graduation and one year having lived 4000+ miles away from home. And there is a bittersweet feeling as I reflect on the last year. It has been really tough. I can’t lie..at times I’ve really wanted to quit and head home into the arms of waiting friends and family. I’ve cried so hard that I’ve woken up the next day with swollen eyelids.
Basically I’ve shaken myself up so much that I, for a long time since moving, questioned every aspect of the life I knew and the life I wasn’t quite living here up until about 3 months ago. I romanticized and pined for comfort and for a long time after I moved thought I wanted that comfort back.
Come to find out, I don’t want my old life back. Revisiting the letter I received 10 years ago when I was about to mark my transition into “real” life was good fodder for reflection. And by and large, without knowing it I’ve managed to live my life by those three pieces of advice. I still don’t have The Answers but I’ve carved out a life I can be proud of in all its mess and glory.
I’m largely still figuring it out–who I am, what makes me happy and not quitting. And though I see the merit in advice numero tres, I’ve been able to face a hard reality about quitting. The idea of returning to full-time teaching in the States appeals to me no more. I have no desire to put myself in the classroom or in that system in a full-time capacity for at least one year. Since moving here and continuing to teach I’ve only taken one sick day. One.
The worst I’ve had (knock on wood) is laryngitis and that was caused by fatigue. Prior to this teaching gig in another environment and country, I was sick almost all the time. This is not an exaggeration. Strep, laryngitis, the flu, a staph infection, sinus infections and numerous colds–you name it, I probably had it those 4 years teaching in the States. And here’s the thing, I’ve not had less stress since I moved abroad…in fact I think I’ve had far more. One of the main differences is, I’m trusted as a professional and I don’t have to prep kids for a meaningless test and I don’t have to follow any given curriculum.
It has been both terrifying and extremely rewarding to have basically no huge demands or requirements put on me.
And here’s what I’ve learned about being happy. Happiness isn’t some hoped for coveted mood that you attain as if it were enlightenment. No, the national obsession with happiness, now that I’ve been away from it is something I think makes us very very unhappy. I’ve lived a lot of my life, I think like a lot of Americans, convinced it is in what I do (re:my job) that I will find happiness. If I could just get the right this or the right that, then I’ll be happy. And I still have a hard time shaking this because I am, I fully admit, stepping away from teaching in search of something different in which I can hope to find some level of happiness.
But in this great quest for happiness (and reflecting on my year abroad) I’ve come to realize it isn’t one thing. It will never be one thing. Rather it is in how I chose to grow, how I chose to cry, how I chose to fall apart and pick myself back up again, how I forgive myself and how I allow myself to come home and leave work at work. That essentially I am not what I do to make a living.
Rather, the trick is in how I decide to live.
So as I look forward to the final three months of my adventure here in Costa Rica I’m keenly aware that I’ve not failed. That heading home and not returning to my profession isn’t a sign of failure. Choosing to step away to care for myself is in fact strength. I feel very grateful for the experience, space and time I’ve allowed myself to face the fear (over and over and over again) and grow. If I hadn’t moved, I can say pretty confidently that I would’ve just kept on the wheel because I was slowly whittling away my happiness for a sense of dull security. Oh sure, part of me is scared shitless, but I’m getting better and better at not listening.
I’ve become a master sunset watcher, beach stroller and a whittle the time awayer. And at letting go.