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Out in the world


We are at that tired part of traveling. These are the days when it’s hard to think about sorting through your suitcase one more time to find a clean pair of socks, but then you feel guilty because what kind of problem is that? But still, it was a day when we just had to kind of pull over and rest a bit before the next leg. In the midst of that, I read an essay about the wonders of small pleasures. “When the world gets smaller,” the author wrote, “we get larger—and feel less vulnerable, more competent.” I love this idea because it resonates with me, and because it’s almost exactly the opposite of what I feel traveling to big cities in faraway countries.

In many ways, the traveling we are doing during this three weeks—a few days here and a few more there—makes me feel small and not very much in control. There is no familiar routine, few familiar landmarks. There is not even an apple that tastes like the ones I’m used to. As vulnerable as this makes me feel, of course, this is the very reason to take trips like this. I need to be shaken out of my comfort zone occasionally, like so many white flakes in a tiny snow globe. And yet, for a person like me, being shoved out of my complacency like this isn't exactly fun. It makes it interesting and stimulating and thought-provoking, at least 100 times a day, but it is rarely fun and relaxing. Those qualities are much more the result of a week at a mountain cabin or a long weekend at the beach.

The real power comes from the baby steps we learn to take

when we still feel scared and unsure of ourselves.

Still, the big take-away from a long trip to new, unknown locations is that it’s good for me to be out in the world like this. For one thing, it reminds me that keeping things neat and tidy and under control isn't necessarily a character builder. I got lost this morning on a little four-mile run around town. I knew I could find my way back, but there was a slight bit of panic for a few minutes until I found a familiar street sign. At home, I don’t get lost. I run the same three or four routes, I zone out, and I sometimes don’t even notice the ducks in the canal as they dive under for food. When I made it back to our apartment, I felt relieved, but also proud. I tried something and it worked. I don’t always remember to do that in my regular, day-to-day life where the engine runs smoothly from dawn until dusk with the emphasis mostly on keeping things uneventful.

There is no denying the ease of our days when we know what’s going to happen and we’re fairly sure how we’re going to handle it. But I can practically feel the value of being a little uncomfortable and unable to predict what’s next. I have thought more than once during this trip that traveling is very much like retiring from a long career. There is nothing even close to the amazing sense that you can do whatever you want to do whenever you feel like doing it. On the flip side, though, it means that everything is up to you. This is a great relief to my retired friends who thrive on spontaneity and wonder, but a little harder for people like me, who feel more confident with routine.

For me, this is probably the best reason to travel. I have certainly had my share of struggles in the last few years as I’ve adjusted to creating my whole world from scratch now that it doesn’t include my career. But I've loved tinkering around with my time, my interests, and my options, like doing a 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle without the photo from the box. It adds a deeper dimension when we aren't in charge of the whole thing. We like to know what we’re supposed to do and how to do it. But there is nothing quite as amazing as realizing how temporary all of those routines actually are. The real power comes from the baby steps we learn to take when we still feel scared and unsure of ourselves. The temporary result may be a fall—or a few minutes of getting lost—but I’m reminded on this trip that the long-term benefit is knowing I will be fine no matter what happens.

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