Wednesday, May 16, 2012

5 Truths Travel Taught Me About Midlife Success

When young, it seems easier to balance a heavy load
I was a bad mother.  When my daughter started college I unloaded all her worldly possessions into her cramped dorm room, helped her put some curtains up, and then was on a plane for a two month stay in France before she had even memorized the weekly rotation of meat surprise in the student cafeteria.  Since she was just a Skype call away I wasn’t going to sit at home mourning my empty nest while my husband headed off to Europe for an extended stay to do his research in mathematics.

I’ve been traveling ever since.  It hasn’t always been easy because my children’s transitions to adulthood haven’t always gone smoothly.  In addition, I’ve suffered several years of physical ailments that finally required surgery and a long recovery.  Through it all, though, travel has been a touchstone as I entered this mid-point of my life.

Even when I haven’t been on the road, though, my life is being shaped by my journeys.  Travel has taught me how I want to live more than my daily perspective telling me how I want to travel.

I offer up to you five truths that my travel has taught me about making midlife and beyond even better than what came before.

1) Pack Light
I’m all about doing every trip with only carry-on luggage.  My health goal in life is to be strong enough to carry my own luggage up the stairs on the train platforms in Europe.  So it’s all about minimizing stuff.  You can travel farther faster through the second half of your life if you’re not carrying around all your resentments, feuds, unmet expectations from the first half of your life like over-packed luggage.  Do you need them?  Really?  Learn to let go and leave behind so you can concentrate not so much on the weight resting on your shoulders but the vista before you.

2) Learn the Basics of Different Languages
Sure, I mixed up “push” and “pull” in German and, therefore, gave the two Turks working behind the pizza counter in Wolfach endless amusement as I yanked, pulled, tugged, and everything else on a bathroom door that actually said “push” in the language of that country.  But I knew how to smile and say at least “hello,” “goodbye,” “thank you,” and order my lunch.  I’m not great at speaking foreign languages, but I’m not afraid to try anymore and I don’t let my pride raise its useless head when any native corrects my mistakes.  I just smile and say “thank you” in whatever tongue I need.

Don’t let yourself believe the hooey about old dogs and new tricks.  Open your ears when talk turns to Pinterest, Twitter, and smartphones even if you don’t think you’ll use them.  Talk to people older, younger, and different than you to learn what’s on their minds.  Don’t be pridefully ignorant of contemporary culture. Learn basics of the languages used by the worlds around you.  It’s not necessary to get on a plane to experience something new.  You can always learn a new tongue.

We can find something familiar in strange languages

3) Revel In the Unfamiliar
The best kind of travel takes you out of your routine and enlarges your world.  It doesn’t always have to be about risking life and limb.  You can set limits of how far you want to stretch your experience.  There’s no shame in deciding not to bungee jump or eat fried monkey brain.  However, a highly choreographed tour that promises comfort at every stage can put bars around you rather than expand you.  If you don’t at least occasionally dare the unfamiliar and uncomfortable when you travel, how much do you learn about the place you’re visiting, or yourself?

It’s the same at midlife.  I give you permission to ignore all those stories about people older than you, 50+ years of age, who tackle Ironman Triathalons on a regular basis.  Just step outside of your comfort zone.  Learn a language.  Take pastry-cooking classes. Travel – solo – to a foreign country.  Stand on your head and look at the world from a new perspective.

4) Take Lots of Pictures
Find ways to remember and record your life before it passes you by.  Remember all those snapshots you made on every family vacation?  Pull out the camera and record what’s important in your everyday, ordinary life.  Establish a correspondence ritual with a family member or friend.  Patrick McGraw began sending weekly e-mails to his mother at her request.  He began grudgingly but now treasures the digital archive of his life.  Take up pencil drawing or watercolors.  Keep a daily one-sentence journal that notes one image, thought, emotion, or quotation that defined you that 24-hour period.

In the first half of your life you were probably too busy to stop and reflect.  Slow down and capture each moment now.

5) Focus On What You Can Control, Not What You Can’t
Last summer on a trip to France I almost missed my connection for the transatlantic portion of my flight.  The plane got in late to Paris and I missed my train to Dijon, leaving me sitting on the floor among the Sunday crowd of travelers for almost eight hours until I could get a seat to continue.  It rained almost every day of the 6-week stay in Burgundy.  Due to my inattention and stupidity my wallet was stolen on the metro in Paris so without a license I couldn’t rent a car for my trip to visit a friend in Loire.  And my pain that eventually led to surgery grew exponentially worse each day.  Yet still I wrote, practiced my French any chance I got, climbed a mountain, and made new friends.  It was a great visit.

Plenty of aches, pains, economic uncertainty, family problems, and more are out of your control.  Energize the second half of your life with all that you can influence such as what passions you follow, a healthy diet, exercise, how you spend your hours, how you think.

Most of all, when you commence your second act, remember to enjoy the journey.

Don't focus on this in your second act
Now head to the comments box and tell us your story of traveling through midlife, whatever that might be.  If you haven’t reached it yet, tell us what concerns you, who your role models are, where you hope to be.


Lisa Carter said...

These are just great life lessons, Julie, whatever stage we might be at! I especially love the travel light metaphor.
I've been a traveller all my life, living in Europe, South and Central America for all of my young adult life. I'm doing the opposite in my second act, having just bought my first house in my home country (Canada) at the age of 43! Travel will always, always be a part of my life, though. I couldn't live without it.

Jen @ My Morning Chocolate said...

I love this post, and I completely agree with Lisa: there is tons of good advice here for people of any age. I really like your laid-back approach to traveling too. I always get nervous about my language skills and I tend to get caught up in what could go wrong. I'm going to bookmark this and read it before my next trip for inspiration.

Anonymous said...

Traveling light is the best way to go. And taking pictures on my travels gives me so much more to write about. Midlife is the best!

Patrick Mcgraw said...

Thank you for standing up against the old dog/new tricks myth. Never understood why we should stop learning. We need more examples like you!

Nadine Feldman said...

Great post!

We learned the "travel light" lesson on a monthlong trip to Switzerland and France a few years ago. We took too much, and our clothes were too heavy, so hoisting the luggage onto all the various trains was a real and literal pain. We've been lightening up ever since, both with luggage and the rest of our lives.

Want to know what I REALLY love about this post? You have a list of 5...not 20, not 101. I see these long lists and just delete the posts. Your post is thorough and beautiful without going on for days. Nicely done!

Julie Farrar said...

There's only 5, Nadine, because I'm a slow learner. :)

And yes, Janice, my photos are jumping off point for a lot of writing.

Jan said...

Love #3 because it's not about comparing yourself with others but to challenge yourself with your dreams. Julie, I loved this post.

Rossandra said...

Julie, you did it again. This time in a much more significant way (than the last time when you "made" me sign up for the 2012blogathon ;>)Numbers 1 and 3 really spoke to me. Thank you. I needed that.

Unknown said...

Like Jan, I like #3 as well. Know your limits. Yours, not theirs. All the "you can do its" in the world won't convince you to do something you're unsure about. And that should be okay. There are plenty of ways to go out of your comfort zone without having to scare or shock yourself to death.

Babette said...

Ah, these are all such great notes. Thanks for the lovely reminders.

Julie Farrar said...

I'm glad so many of you relate to #3. It's so easy to feel like a loser when newspapers and magazines champion people who do extreme things when I want to just announce to the world "Woo hoo, I hauled my own bags of mulch and topsoil this weekend." That may be a great achievement for me.

Sheila Callahan said...

Lovely post and blog. I'm so glad I stopped by.

Carly said...

Julie, I'm so glad I stumbled upon your blog. I especially like number 5. A great lesson for life and traveling. It's all about your attitude! The fact that you were able to have a great time in France despite so many things going wrong is truly inspirational.

Julie Farrar said...

Welcome home, Carly. You had a really wild adventure it seems. One truth I learned about travel itself is you don't have to go far; you just need to go someplace with your eyes and mind open.

Michelle Rafter said...

I love the advice to travel light by dumping a lot of unmet expectations and mental baggage. Letting go is a good way to go.


Tami Clayton said...

I love how you tied travel advice to life lessons and I completely agree with all of them. I managed to do an 18 day. 5 city trip to Italy with just a carry-on and small backpack last summer. Mind you, I packed those things to their capacity, but it was a great lesson to me that I could do it. It's the only way I'll travel now. When I get home from traveling, I am always surprised at how much stuff I have and how much of it I didn't miss while away.

Haven on Hanover said...

I stumbled upon your blog while planning our trip to Semur en Auxois which will take place this July. Lots of good advice here - rethinking what I need to schlep around!

Nancy Thompson said...

Great post and very timely in my life. My husband and I have decided to sell our worldly goods and become citizens of the world in our retirement. His mantra is "If it doesn't fit in the packpack and rollie, we don't need it." I started my own blog to chronicle our adventures and to muse on the backpack and rollie as a metaphor for our lives - what's really important and what should we toss. You've given me more good food for thought.

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