By Caitlin Kelly
This was my longest break from work since 1988, (not including job-searching!)
It was the best possible birthday gift I could have given myself as I enter another decade, and with fewer ahead than behind me now.
Some of what it reminded, or taught me:
The world is filled with kindness
Yes, we live in an era that can appear utterly savage: terrorism, racism, violence, economic inequality, grinding poverty. All of these exist and can destroy our hope, our belief, that there is also counter-balance, much active kindness and compassion.
I was so lucky and so grateful, even in the busiest and most crowded cities in the blistering heat of summer, to be treated with kindness by almost every single person I met. It was deeply moving to me, just one more random stranger amid the millions of tourists out there.
People’s lives are complicated — everywhere
When we go on vacation/holiday, we switch off from our daily cares, which is the whole point. It was powerful to hear of Europeans’ challenges, from the Venetian chambermaid whose wristband prompted our conversation (27 years lifting heavy mattresses had injured her) to the Croatian tour guide who told us his monthly wage is about $200, typical there, to my London friends and colleagues who are seeing some pernicious effects of Brexit already.
Listening at length means the world you’re passing through isn’t just some postcard.
It’s full of fellow human beings struggling as we do.
If you feel disconnected from the world, from others who seem so different from you, travel and speak and listen to them with an open heart and a healthy curiosity.
Slowing down — and getting off-screen — is essential for mental health
I wish someone could put electrodes on my head right now as I can feel a major difference in my brain function and mood between when I left New York and how I’ve arrived home:
I didn’t listen to or read news.
I didn’t watch television or movies or listen to the radio.
I didn’t waste hours every day on-line attached to a screen and social media.
I didn’t consume two newspapers every day.
I interacted on-line maybe an hour a day.
Instead, I was outdoors in sunshine and nature, watching and listening to and connecting with people.
In real life.
So many stories!
I enjoyed the people I spoke with on my journey, from a woman at the Venice airport from Calcutta who’d traveled the world to the Romanian professor of anthropology I talked to on a bench in Zagreb to the young women who vividly recalled living through the Bosnian war as children.
Unless you get out into it, and speak to people, the rest of the world can feel very distant and literally invisible when you live in the enormous and self-centered United States, where “foreign” coverage of the world is shallow and the “news” forever dominated by American politics and violence.
Working alone at home can render you a little feral
I’ve been working alone at home — no kids, no pets — since 2005 and rarely in a cafe or library, although our suburban New York town offers both.
Being surrounded by so many people in crowded cities reminded me what a hermit I’ve become. By the end of my journey, I was relieved to withdraw to silence and solitude.
But this trip also reminded me how stimulating and fun it is to meet new people, so this has shifted how I now think about spending more of my time in others’ company.
How can I miss you when you won’t go away?
Having been with my husband for 17 years, and now both of us working from home much of the time, we can end up in one another’s pockets.
I missed the hell out of him on my trip!
There are some husbands who would freak out if their wife said: “Bye, honey! I’m traveling Europe alone for the next five weeks.” But we have the savings, I have the time off I need as someone self-employed — and he knows he married a restless globetrotter. Tethering someone like me to home/work is not w prudent decision.
Routine is comforting — but deadening. Break it!
It feels good now to be home again and to enjoy my routines: the gym, the coffee shop, cooking, favorite television shows, two newspapers every morning thumping onto our apartment doorstep.
But it’s also deeply confining to keep doing the same old things the same old way, day after day, week after month after year. Only by cutting the cord to all of them could I envision — and in solitude really think through — some new ideas and ones I’m really excited about.
If something makes you really happy, savor it now
I arrived home in New York to the terrible news that a local writer, someone whose work I’d seen for years — envying her Big Magazine bylines and steady, well-paid work for them — had died.
Leaving three children and a husband.
With 1.5 months between her diagnosis and her death.
We have no idea, ever, how long we will live or how many more precious opportunities we will have to seize joy, to hold our sweetie’s hand, to cuddle our kids or pets, to connect deeply with work we still enioy.
Or to travel, even a bike ride or bus ride to a nearby and beloved beach or mountain-top or museum.
Travel makes me happier than anything else, ever, anywhere.
I’m so grateful for taking this time and having, for now, the health and the income to do it.
Nothing is guaranteed to us.