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Lessons from 2013

It’s the last day of 2013 and I feel as if I should write a post reflecting upon the year: the places I went, the lessons I learned, the ways I grew. But quite honestly, to quote Sweet Brown, ain’t nobody got time for that. Plus, I already did one of those posts, way back in October. And all of the stuff I said in my earlier post still applies: I still like routine, I still like putting things away in drawers, I still hate getting rejected. So today, I’d like to add just a few additional (and surprising) things I’ve learned over this past year of living abroad, moving constantly, and trying new things.

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1. Writing takes perseverance.

I’ve said this one before, and I’ll keep saying it, if only to remind myself that this writing thing isn’t meant to be easy. When I started off on my professional writing endeavor last October, I knew, intellectually, that it would be challenging and would require a certain amount of stick-to-it-iveness. I didn’t realize, though, just how much stubborn, unflappable perseverance it would take. I’ve learned, after a year of trying, that to hack it as a professional writer, you must develop a skin of rhino-like thickness, constantly muddle through morasses of confusion and disappointment, and force yourself to continue to pursue a goal that might not actually be reachable. Because it’s worth it. (And I’m still not giving up.)

2. You don’t need that much stuff.

Since moving to London in July, Al and I have moved apartments (and/or hotels) eight or nine times (we lost track of the exact number after a while — I blame PTSD). And the main thing one learns very quickly after being forced to haul one’s stuff around London in a taxi cab at rush-hour is that one simply has too much stuff.

When we moved to South Africa last October, Al and I put most of our earthly possessions into storage in Virginia and brought only a fraction of our belongings with us to South Africa. Then, when we packed up for London, we took only a fraction of THAT. And now, after living in a series of one-room corporate apartments, that amount of stuff even feels like too much. At this point, we’ve each pared down to two suitcases of stuff, because we only have a month left in London, and traveling with more is just too hard.

When we move back to DC in a month, I’m really looking forward to getting all of our things in one place and doing a giant purge of our belongings. We did a purge once before, a few years ago, and man, it feels great (and it’s cheaper than therapy, a spa day, and/or buying more stuff). By the way, anyone interested in doing a purge, or even in just decluttering, should read the excellent book The Hoarder In You. (Don’t be put off by the title!) The book breaks down the emotional reasons why we hold on to stuff and gives the reader strategies for simplifying, decluttering, and lightening. Highly recommended!

3. However, some stuff enriches your life. Keep that stuff.

I could never get rid of ALL my stuff. What would I do without yarn, knitting needles, books, and my running shoes? What about my underwater MP3 player, my pink leather gloves, and my Le Creuset Dutch oven? Sure, I COULD get rid of that stuff — but it would negatively impact the quality of my life. I’ve learned that some stuff is not just necessary, but happy-making. My advice is to figure out what those things are for you and hold on to them. Get rid of the rest (or at least, a lot of the rest).

4. Coming home is still the sweetest part of travel.

I love to travel, and I wouldn’t trade our last year of adventures abroad for anything. But I’m really looking forward to coming back to the States and starting my life there, with Al. We’ve enjoyed being away, but we’re so excited to come back.

So, that’s it: just a few life lessons I’ve picked up during the past year. What have you learned this year? Was 2013 a good one for you or an absolute stinker? For me, it was one of my best years — but I’m optimistic that this next one will be even better. Happy New Year to all of my readers, whoever and wherever you are. I wish you success, peace, and joy in the new year. See you in 2014.

Traveling v. settling in

For almost a year now, Al and I have been lucky enough to live abroad: first in South Africa and now in the United Kingdom. When we signed up to do this international stint, we wanted an adventure: namely, the opportunity to live in and travel to new places. And we’ve certainly gotten that. When we were in Joburg, we got to travel all around Southern Africa, and now that we’re here in London, we’ve gotten to go to Scotland (twice!), Denmark, and Corsica, and hopefully we’ll get to do a bit more traveling before we leave. It’s pretty awesome. Al and I look at each other sometimes and reflect on how lucky we are to be able to do this.

BUT. (You knew there was a “but” coming, right?)

The truth is that the price of being mobile (or, to put it differently, being hobos) for a year and a half is that there is a crap ton (i.e., a lot) of uncertainty about where we’re going next, and when. The way we’ve chosen to do this within Al’s company has meant that we must go where Al gets staffed, with little notice ahead of time. So, although we’ve been in the UK for three months now, we don’t know how much longer we’ll be here, or even where we’ll go next if we don’t stay here. There’s always a cloud of uncertainty hanging over our heads in the short term, which means that we have to be really flexible. And being flexible is hard.

Have international driver's license; will travel.

Have international driver’s license; will travel.

The other day, for example, we had to move out of our corporate apartment and check into a hotel for one night and then move back into the corporate apartment. In preparing to do this, we realized how much stuff we had accumulated (and I will take credit for a lot of it: my sewing and knitting habit adds up to a lot of crafty detritus) and how annoying it is to have to haul all of it around London. We resolved to do a purge of our stuff when we get back to DC, and in the meantime, to put a lot of it in storage so that we can move more easily on short notice, if we need to. This is the sensible solution; it’s always better to have less stuff.

BUT.

The stuff I’ve accumulated — sewing books, knitting needles, yarn, cloth, thread, scissors, the handmade products of my labors, and so on — represents, to me, a life in one place. And, despite my love of travel, I really like living life in one place. Don’t get me wrong, traveling is great! But I enjoy having a home to come back to afterwards. And home, to me, means a place where I have bags of yarn and needles, books on shelves, tea and edibles well-stocked, and clothes put away in closets and drawers. When you’re living out of suitcases for extended periods of time, it just doesn’t feel like home. I’ve realized that the main tradeoff to being wild and crazy guys/gals who travel around the world on a moment’s notice is that you must leave behind the stuff that makes a place feel lived-in. Al and I have always differed a bit on this front: he relishes the thrill of traveling to new places. I do, too, but I’ve always preferred settling into a place. I like traveling somewhere and then putting down roots, getting to know the place, pretending to be a local. This is what I did when I moved to Brazil, for example. And to be honest, I’ve really started to settle into London, which means, if we have to leave, it’ll be hard.

I’ve been trying to adjust my attitude about uncertainty. I remind myself how lucky we are to be doing this and how exciting it will be to see new things. If the trade-off for traveling to marvelous new places and having adventures is that I have to put away the cozy trappings of home and shake up my comfortable routine, so be it. That’s what we’ve chosen to do. But it’s nice to know that when this adventure is over, we’ll be staying in one place for a while.

Until then, I’m going to take my knitting bag with me.