How long do you plan to keep doing this? That’s the question I’m having trouble answering these days.
When I think about the prospect of my itinerant lifestyle coming to an end, I imagine only sad imperatives. An illness forcing me to remain under a doctor’s care. Some formless situation compelling me to take a job where I have to show up every day at an appointed hour at a physical desk in a specific office (undoubtedly poorly lit and smelling of egg salad sandwiches and ketchup). The only conditions my mind can conceive for changing my current lifestyle are unfortunate ones.
Get a grip, Lynette. Some happy and unexpected event could occur that makes you suddenly prefer a full-time residence in Canada to this bead necklace series of house sits and short-term rentals and non-refundable economy flights. It could happen that my travelling comes to an end one day because a more appealing opportunity comes along.
But when the how long question comes up in conversation, as it often does, I find I need to steady myself against a tide of anxiety about the future, to remind myself that “I don’t know” is sometimes the right answer.
Security and contentment mean different things to different people. I don’t know why I am built this way, but I know that living too long in one place makes me uneasy. After one year in an apartment, I start to cull my possessions with the idea that I need to “be ready” in case I have to move quickly. It may be born of a deep-down sense of scarcity, a primal expectation that life could fall apart at any moment. I used to think it was pathological, my inability to settle down. But now, as I have opportunities to visit places once out of reach, I begin to recognize a sense of stability within the perpetual motion. I like the term sojourn, a soft-spoken word in no hurry to be uttered, evoking the idea of a stay just long enough to tread a rough path through the bramble of languages and cultures and histories and streets.
Every life is a collection of nows. Even if you find yourself in that most traditional life arc of education->career->marriage->children->retirement, your concept of stability is still a series of moments that come to pass. They come, to pass. You are observing changes every day: your baby needing her first haircut, an involuntary groan as you stand up from the couch, is that new spot a freckle or something worse. Even the most pleasant of observances carries that awareness-twinge of time passing. The truth is, we are all anxious about the future; that’s the exhaust of a happy life running well. If your life is going well, the question of “how long” carries fear and sadness, you don’t want to go there.
It’s tempting to think of life as a rainbow with a pot of gold at the end. In contrast, my life may look to some like a prism of chaos that needs organization and direction to get me to the treasure. But I’m well grown up now and mature enough to accept that somehow I’ve bypassed many of those elements of the traditional life’s arc. Truth be told, I don’t really know why marriage and family didn’t happen for me as readily as they seem to happen for other people. Harder truth be told, I used to think it was the fault of my self-contrived pathologies. But look: if life has in fact given me lemons—and I would argue that it has given me lemons, and limes, and oranges, and tangerines, and clementines, and kumquats, and pomelos, and bergamots—I have, both figuratively and literally, turned all that citrus into fresh-squeezed goodness. Life is not so much a rainbow leading to a pot of gold; it’s more a kind of multiple helix of mysterious and fantastically coloured elements. It stretches light years, however long that is.
A life of travel needn’t be unsettled; for me it feels more like a series of passing settlements. This sounds melodramatic, but it’s true: when I worked 9-5 in an office with a steady paycheque, my depression and stress levels were so pronounced that I wondered how long until my physical or mental health drove me into sick leave. I saw my life as a dark corridor of scarcity and obligation, with no exit except retirement or death. That’s when I used to ask, “How long do you plan to keep doing this?”
I found my way out of that dark corridor; that’s a story for another time. A piece of the process included my making peace with my circumstances in the now, even when now wasn’t very pleasant. When things were hard I acknowledged it, for now, and I clung to a fantastical and slightly unreal hope that it would pass. And—true story—sometimes I would lift my heavy spirits simply by literally sniffing clementine rinds. Citrus is your friend, trust me on this. That’s about as living in the now as you can get.
We never know how long anything will last, do we? We have only now, and we know it is passing, and that is reason enough to take pleasure or hope. If your current circumstances are unhappy or difficult, take comfort in the knowledge that it is passing. If your current circumstances are sweet, don’t think about the how long of it; just savour every blossom of pleasure and do what you can to slow down that passing time.