Stepping into the light
“Oh, I feel so sorry for your children,” she said to me, eyes wide. “Poor things, having to live out of suitcases for a whole year.”
I’ll admit this was a new one. Most people simply responded with raised eyebrows and “Wow, that’s brave,” or even better, an affirming, “Awesome. You’ll never regret it.”
But to feel sorry for my children because we had decided to take them backpacking around the world for a year? It hadn’t even crossed my mind.
In fact, the whole point was that we were doing this trip with, and because of, the children. My husband, Ulrik, delivers courses to the fitness industry in several countries around the world. Instead of repeatedly dropping him at the airport to jet off without us for weeks at a time, we had decided to go with him.
For a whole year.
No longer would he have to fly home to Australia at the end of a teaching program … home would be right there, with him, staying in a guesthouse or hotel nearby, ready to throw our arms around him at the end of a long day, hear about his day and its quirks, and, in turn, tell him of our adventures.
Overlooking Taipei 101, the second tallest building in the world, from the peak of Elephant Mountain, Taiwan
Once the idea took hold, Ulrik and I could barely contain our naive excitement. Oh, how we would grow as we were plucked out of our comfortable, homogenous, western middle-class life and dropped into places where everything was different and nothing could be taken for granted, we thought. We dreamed of the empathy, courage and resilience such an adventure would build. We talked long into the night about the way a trip like this would enlarge our perspectives on life, people, culture … how each of us would be forever impacted, from the pint-sized six-year-old right through to the two of us, cosy and established in our mid-forties.
Now is a good time to confess that while this all sounded good – even somewhat nauseatingly like a gilded Hallmark card – in theory, I was not at all sure what the reality would look like – or, in truth, if it would even end up happening.
The logistics of packing up a lifetime’s worth of stuff, renting out our rambling family home (updating vast sections of it first) resigning from jobs, organising our lives to be accessible and manageable online, finding places for our pets, and farewelling the communities we loved … oh, how impossible it all seemed in the cold hard light of most days, especially when we had only given ourselves a matter of weeks to do it.
We held off until the last possible moment before buying our tickets out of the country. Even while we were outfitting the children with backpacks and all-weather jackets, even while we were being jabbed with vaccines and filling out endless ‘change of address’ cards, I was still telling people (and myself) that we were “Probably going backpacking around the world … perhaps for as long as a year … we think … maybe … if all goes well.”
Keeping it vague like this was partly wisdom, partly fear, mostly a case of not ‘counting our chickens’. I knew how quickly plans could change if life circumstances or leading intervened. I knew firsthand how ridiculous it was to think we were in control of the Really Big Things. One diagnosis, one distracted moment on a freeway, one email, one cracked bone, one fertilised egg, and all of a sudden everything looks different.
I wanted to leave room for the unknown.
But we also needed to plan. To move forward. To take the next step. To imagine and envision and prepare.
Oh, how to live in this teetering place between positive, faith-filled, confident action and holding things lightly?
Henri Nouwen, author and mystic, helped. “Often we want to be able to see into the future. We say ‘How will the next year be for me? Where will I be five or ten years from now?’ There are no true answers to these questions. Mostly we have just enough light to see the next step: what we have to do in the coming hour or the following day. The art of living is to enjoy what we can see and not complain about what remains in the dark. When we are able to take the next step with the trust that we will have enough light for the step that follows, we can walk through life with joy and be surprised at how far we go. Let’s rejoice in the little light we carry and not ask for the great beam that would take all shadows away.”
So, walking in the wisdom of saints who had gone before, step by tentative step, we edged towards that airport farewell. We did the next thing, and then the next, and those around us helped and supported us and inched along with us; and, sure enough, step by step, our journey unfolded.
Indeed, dear reader, it’s happening.
We left Australia three months ago. In that time, we have travelled through Thailand, Cambodia, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and right now we are in India. We have snorkelled through sparkling caves in the Andaman Sea, trekked into thick jungle to stay with remote Thai Hill tribes, gaped in awe at the ancient, crumbling temples of Angkor Wat, snowboarded the powder-topped ‘Alps of Asia’ in South Korea.
We have hiked deep gorges in Taiwan, shared elevators with drug lords in Hong Kong, and danced at the Holi Festival in Goa. We’ve eaten more bizarre food than Bear Grylls and slept in dozens of different beds – ranging from brittle, smoky bamboo slats to snowy, down-filled mattresses, soft as clouds.
My husband has held teaching courses in all the major cities we have visited, and we are there to greet him at the end of each day.
It is as wonderful and as challenging as we thought it would be. All of us are learning so very much about this world we live in. Every day is filled with new experiences. There are indeed Hallmark moments, but something else surprises me: even though we are now on the road, even though we are already one quarter of our way through this trip of a lifetime … there is still only enough light for the next step.
We are still teetering on that balancing edge between planning and envisioning our tomorrows, and understanding that, much more than we would like to admit, the future is unknowable: held in Cupped Hands – safe, and in love – but hidden from us, for now.
Tomorrow, next week, next month … is still in the shadows, waiting to be revealed.
And I mean that quite literally. Beyond a rough sketch of countries and a vague timeline, we have no solid idea where we will be next month. We are, in the most real way, doing life – all of it: work, schooling, finances, accommodation, transport, meals, and experiences … one light-revealed step at a time.
Our day spent at the Dharavi slum in Mumbai, India forever changed the way we view slum communities—we left with new eyes, humbled and full of respect
For me, this ‘not knowing’ is not comfortable.
Not one little bit.
It is downright scary.
This is not a jaunty family trip we’re doing: this is a terrifying journey of trust. It’s a cliff-leap that requires a level of ‘letting go’ that cuts against everything I’ve learned at the School of Progressive Womanhood.
And yet, I am learning, surrendering the need to have it all worked out is the only way to Peace.
Why did I have to wait until we had uprooted our family and travelled halfway across the world before this truth fully took hold of me? The answer is obvious, now that I am here …
Like many of my peers, I was working hard to shore up a safe, attractive, opportunity-rich sanctuary for my family. Risk-taking was carefully monitored, security and order were prized. I rarely did anything that genuinely caused me to ‘feel’ the edge of my comfort zone.
I needed something to smash through those tightly-packed, carefully-constructed calendar boxes and catapult me into the vast unmapped unknown, where I would free-fall into some Really Big Truths; for example:
How fear-driven I was, without even knowing it (and this has been the biggest revelation of all).
How much my peace was linked to external circumstances.
How busyness was keeping me from truly getting in touch with the deep.
And how fear is the enemy of love, of light and of peace. They cannot co-exist.
So, here I am: grateful every single day for the chance to feel the rising anxiety inherent in our unpredictable journey and to recognise it as a chance to grow. “I’m here, now,” I whisper, grounding myself in the present moment. I lean in to that still, small, inner Voice: “What’s the next small step?”
Photos: © Jen Larsen