Earlier this month, I reduced my essential possessions to 23 kg plus carry-on and resumed a pandemic-friendly version of my old nomadic way of life. I’m cat sitting in a neighbourhood of Toronto I’ve never seen before. Just walking the block around my building, I’m feeling the lights come back on in corners of my brain that were dormant for almost two years.
I’ve also reconnected with an old friend this month and am reminded of the night in 2008 when she helped me make one of the best, and scariest, decisions of my life.
In 2008, my life was comfortable, but I was desperate for change. I was unhappy in my job and constantly sick with strep or ear infections or bronchitis. I was trying to find other work, both in and outside my organization, and nothing was forthcoming. It was May, and I had already used up my sick leave for the year, so now I had to take vacation time to stay home with yet another cold-gone-wild.
I knew Danie from a creative writing class, and I envied her full-time student status. On this night in May, we chatted on MSN Messenger as I sniffled with sick and sadness. I typed a melodramatic wail: How did my life get to be this way? It’s only because we were not face-to-face that I was able to be as pathetically honest as I was.
She asked a simple, frustrating question: What do you really want to do with your life?
My frank answer? I don’t know what job I want, but what I really want to do is read and write and travel.
And then I added: But I think it’s too late. I was 37 years old.
Sometimes our blurts reveal what we don’t know about ourselves. I was 37, and for six years I’d worked in college admissions offices, assuring prospective students older than I that they didn’t realize just how right their timing was. When I said to Danie that I thought it was too late for me, I suddenly realized I’d bound myself by a limit I didn’t really believe in.
I also didn’t know how, in practical (i.e. financial) terms, to break out of my limits.
Danie said: If it’s university you want to do, I can help you figure that out. Then for the next few hours, she pointed me to resources for funding and to advisors and profs who might be able to help me work out my next steps. When I went to bed that night, I had a plan to become a full-time student by January. Next morning, I found a more affordable living arrangement and prepared to give notice on my sweet apartment.
I see it as a gift in this season, to be reminded of that night. The pandemic sent me back into a more rooted life in St. John’s, a city I love but whose winters give me a depression so all-consuming that I find myself considering an “exit strategy” from life. St. John’s, where my doctor once suggested Vitamin D and this year suggested volunteering on a farm to manage my depression.
This fall, I feared what another winter in St. John’s might do to my mental health. My entire neural infrastructure was collapsing from the absence of those linguistic and navigational challenges I experience when I travel. Under the current pandemic conditions, I didn’t feel ready to travel abroad, although I desperately miss Paphos and Herceg Novi in particular. Desperation sent me to schedule pet sitting gigs that would get me off the island, even if I’d still be in a Canadian winter. That’s how I find myself right now in Toronto, hanging out with Danie and reminiscing about that weird night 13 years ago when I made that decision to leave a perfectly stable job and a lovely apartment and go back to school for an arts degree.
The risks these days are mainly related to the pandemic. I’m vaccinated, and I keep monitoring the COVID status in the places I want to visit. I remember a time before the pandemic, when I travelled without mask and hand sanitizer. I used to catch a cold on almost every transatlantic flight, and once I wound up in a Cypriot hospital with mono. I’m preparing myself to return to my pre-pandemic level of health risk, now with new and improved hygiene habits.
Today, when people ask me what I do for a living, I don’t know how to say concisely what my job is (I should work on that). I don’t know what job this is, but what I do is read and write and travel. A flight to Toronto, meeting a new family and moving into their home to take care of their cat, navigating a new neighbourhood, and even trying out new street foods, all these little risks are bringing me back to life. Bringing me back to what I do for a living.