Posts Tagged ‘adventure’

A few nights ago, I was eating by myself at a standard American restaurant on Broadway. Whenever I eat alone, I make it a point to bring reading material along to make the waiting go by faster (well, really, whenever I go anywhere I like to bring reading material along).

The waitress asked me what I was reading, and I told her, “It’s a memoir by Julia Child.”

She looked at me blankly. “Who’s that?”

“Oh, you know, Julia Child. She’s famous for bringing French cooking to the U.S.” No recognition. “You know that movie Julie and Julia?” Nope.

It left me wondering if I would have recognized Julia Child’s name before I saw the movie. I hope I would have, but I’m not completely sure. But I’m glad I know it now, because her memoir, My Life in France, written with her grandnephew Alex Prud’homme, is so very charming.

Photo by Kaleb Fulgham

The entire time of the hurricane—the lead-up, the storm itself, and the recovery—I was reading this memoir. The personality of Julia Child fairly oozes from the pages. She gushes away about France, about food, about cooking, and her passion is so obvious from her stories. She recounts so many meals she’s enjoyed in the past, course by course.

Her first meal in France, when she was in her mid-thirties, was what set her on the course to becoming a famous chef. I love this fact so much. Because we never know, do we? We never know when we’re going to have an experience, or meet a person, or learn something new, and have a passion ignited within us. It can happen anywhere and anytime; it’s not something that only happens when we are teenagers or freshly adult, it’s not something that has to be planned carefully, or even something that can be anticipated.

I love this idea, too, because it reminds me that all of life is one big adventure. A new subplot could spin off at any time, or a nice bit of character development could take place, or I could begin my grand romance with pumpkin spice chais. Knowing this makes me feel so lucky to be alive.

By the time I finished reading My Life in France, I’d become very fond of Julia Child. I love her personality, her energy, her courage, and her unwillingness to give up. I love how enthusiastic she was, punctuating the text with Yum! and Hooray! and What fun! I love how her passion for food and cooking helped her through the bad times. I love how she spent a lifetime involved in food and cooking and teaching.

And I love some of her philosophy. When she is leaving her country house in France for the last time, do you know what she remembers saying? “I’ve always felt that when I’m done with something I just walk away from it—fin!” She enjoyed what she had to the fullest while she had it, and then let go when it was over. This isn’t a strong point of my own, but I admire her a lot for thinking it, and more importantly, for living it.

All in all, I can’t imagine a better book for me to be reading in the middle of a hurricane.

What about you? What have you been reading lately?

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If you want to get to know someone, take a trip with them. If you really want to get to know them, don’t bring anyone else along, don’t take an all-inclusive guided tour, and either go somewhere that neither of you have been before or somewhere the other person truly loves.


Even deciding where to go together can be instructive. Do they want to go camping? On a cruise? On a beach vacation or to a theme park? Are they attracted to big cities or locations off the beaten track? Close by or international? Low key tourism or adventure travel? Or do they want to do all of the above? (This would be me, although it changes over time.) Are they willing to save up for a more expensive trip? Do they talk about how they’ve always wanted to travel but haven’t? Are they completely uninterested in leaving their region/state/country? Do they have a dream of someplace they’ve always wanted to go but haven’t visited yet?

Egypt, outside of Cairo

The obvious reason that traveling with another person causes you to get to know them is the vast amount of time you’ll end up spending together. This is doubly true if the trip involves lots of travel time (by car, train, plane, bus) during which there aren’t many distractions and you don’t have much to do besides be together. You’ll probably end up talking a fair amount. You’ll see this person at all times of day and in many different moods (excited, tired, cranky, hungry, interested, relaxed, etc.). It’s harder to hold onto a public persona under these circumstances; the mask tends to slip.

You’ll discover, if you don’t know already, how they interact with the world around them. How do they respond to trying something new? What about something new that they’re trying just because you want to? What activities do they end up actually advocating for or spending time on? Which ones can they obviously not stand? How much downtime or quiet time do they need? How do they react to crowds? Discomfort? Fatigue? How engaged are they in what they’re doing?

Traveling also requires many decisions, and watching what someone decides, how they decide it, and how they try to communicate with you can also be very revealing. When and what are you going to eat? How are you going to find a restaurant? On what activities will you spend your time? What souvenirs do you buy? Even the timing of when you go to bed and when you get up in the morning can be a point of contention.

Iguazu Falls, Brazil

And then there’s that inevitable moment when things go wrong. And make no mistake about it, things almost always go wrong at least once during a trip. Often a lot more. These moments are among the most revealing of character and personality: how he deals with stress, what kind of fiber she’s made of, how resilient he may or may not be, how creative she is when thinking of solutions. And these are also the moments that can make or break a relationship, either throwing the two of you into conflict or bringing you closer together.

Of course, even if we can’t travel with a certain person, we can learn a bit just by spending some time asking them about their trip. What do they tend to talk about: the logistics? the food? the physical activities they did? the beautiful painting they saw? the people they met? Do they turn their trip into some kind of narrative through which they find insight or meaning? Do they dwell on what went wrong (the weather, bad food, lost luggage, etc.) or what went right (or maybe a bit of both)?

Traveling with someone is challenging, so don’t do it to keep the peace and maintain the status quo. I’ve heard stories of friendships ending during trips because they aren’t strong enough to bear up under the additional stress. But if the end goal is not to keep a friendship going at all costs but rather to know a person more deeply, then travel might give the insight we seek. We might not like everything we discover, but sometimes we’ll also find that we love that person anyway.

Your turn: Where would you like to visit? What aspects of a trip do you tend to talk about once it’s over?

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Last week Theodora Goss wrote a beautiful essay about finding romance in life. I’ve been thinking about it ever since, enough so that I asked a few friends (hi, guys!) what makes something romantic. The consensus was that something was romantic if it was both thoughtful and meaningful, and done by the right person (by which I think we mean, someone to whom you feel romantically inclined to begin with).


Thinking of romance as having to do with romantic love is probably the baseline in American culture (except perhaps for anthropologists, folklorists, and scholars). Certainly that is the definition my friends instantly attached to. Our culture sells us a certain idea (or perhaps group of ideas) of what romantic love should be, and I have heard more than one rant about how these ideals build unrealistic and unhealthy expectations for what to expect in actual relationships. So I really like Theodora’s reminder that romance has many meanings, and her call to embrace the romantic:
I know this probably sounds silly, but why not make your life romantic? Why not surround yourself with things that make you feel like a heroine?
To me, this doesn’t sound silly at all. I am a very romantic person, which I think contributes very materially to my happiness. I don’t go about it in quite the same way as Theodora, perhaps; I find romance in my life more in the people I meet and the situations I face (or even the situations I could potentially face, or the situations I’m merely making up in my mind). I find romance in my surroundings not so much by design (surrounding myself purposefully by things I find romantic) as by accident or general frame of mind.

When I lived in London, I found going grocery shopping to be incredibly romantic. Imagine, grocery shopping, a chore I avoid like the plague here in the States, being romantic. And yet I loved walking through the quiet residential streets and coming up to the main hub of Crouch End. And I loved that I could only buy food for a few days since I had to carry it home. And I loved all of the unfamiliar food items lining the shelves, and discovering my favorites that I would buy week in and week out. It was all an integral part of this amazing adventure I was having.
I can’t keep it up all the time (which is unfortunate), but whenever I remember the romance, my life becomes more interesting. I have to do all these stupid strengthening exercises all the time because my body is cranky. But when I imagine the exercises as part of a training montage, suddenly it becomes a lot more inspiring. When I’m teaching, I’m engaged in the romance of instilling a love of music and helping to grow self-confidence in young people. In my mind my romance with my husband is an epic love story on a par with Wesley and Buttercup in The Princess Bride, only better because I am not vapid like Buttercup. And writing, well, writing has been my ideal of romance since I was seven years old.

This romantic view doesn’t hide all the rough edges. I’m perfectly aware on one level that a lot of life is a slog: to improve at something, I need to repetitively practice over and over again. To have a good relationship I have to keep working at communicating and making decisions together and ‘fessing up to my mistakes. To be a good teacher, I have to encourage repetition with even more patience than I show myself. To travel, I have to deal with discomfort and stress and things going wrong.

But I believe that seeing the romance in these things is what reminds me of how worthwhile they are. I love being the heroine! I love appreciating the romance of life, whether it be big and sweeping or small and easy to overlook (the rose bushes in front of my house are a good example of the latter; I find them so romantic…or else I forget about them completely).

So tell me, what do you find romantic in your life? What makes you swoon? How do you cultivate a romantic life?

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I’ve been feeling all organized because last weekend I made a list of topics for my next several posts. And then this morning I read a blog post offering some misguided writing advice. (No, I’m not going to link to it. I’m sure way too many writers read it as is.) Cue complete topic derailment.

I’ve already written about writing advice in the past, but the more I think about it, the more I think this issue isn’t confined to advice about writing. It isn’t even confined to advice about artistic pursuits. Over the years I have certainly received a great deal of advice about basic life topics, some of which has thrown me for a loop and later proven to be completely wrong. (My favorite? “Oh, Amy, you just have delusions of grandeur” in response to me having big artistic dreams. Way to try to ensure they’ll never happen.)

Add to this the undeniable fact that I sometimes give what could be construed as advice right here on this blog, and I feel almost obligated to write the following.

Read, learn, listen to other people’s point of view and feedback. Think about what people say, try out various ideas. Don’t automatically assume you know the one true way to doing anything. But ultimately, DO WHAT YOU WANT TO DO. Do what you need to do (assuming that what you need to do doesn’t involve anything blatantly illegal, of course). And more than that, do what works. Advice, even the more strongly worded variety, is merely a suggestion that we can take or leave according to our own inclination. Even if it’s good advice, we might not be ready to implement it. And if it’s bad advice, we might accidentally harm ourselves or take the plunge into regret that I talked about last week.

That’s one of the really wonderful things about life. We get to choose our own adventure. Sure, we can’t control everything or even most things, but within our small scope of decision, we act as our own kings and queens.

It’s not such a leap to believe that creative types need to follow their muses and express their personal integrity and vision of the world in their art. But what if we take a step farther and consider ourselves to be art and our lifetimes to be our canvas of expression? The expressions “Follow your heart” and “Follow your gut” are close but incomplete representations of this kind of life. Follow who you are, and even more, follow who you wish to become.

Choosing to live this way can mean leaving a lot of the advice behind. The Backbone Project has really opened my eyes to this. Why do people care whether I drink alcohol or not? Why do they care (especially women!) if I self-identify as a feminist? Why do people want to change my writing process? Often I think the answer is that they don’t actually care about me personally at all. Instead they are seeking to validate their own way of life and their own choices. Instead of following who they are and finding a sense of rightness in that, they need reflection from the outside world to reassure them. Instead of deep and subtle thinking, they allow themselves to fall into the black and white thinking trap: I’m right and you’re wrong. Because this doesn’t work for me, obviously it won’t work for anybody. Something needs to be fixed; you need to be fixed. If I have a big bad problem, that means you must not have any problems at all or else you’re trying to compete with me, but it doesn’t matter because my problem must be the worst. (Or flip it around: if you have a big bad problem, that must mean my own problems aren’t important at all.)

Don’t take my advice about this, though. Think about it, and make up your own mind. Choose your own adventure. Turn your life into art with every choice you make.

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I recently received an email from a friend of mine asking for travel advice for an upcoming trip to Europe. I am always thrilled to be asked about travel, because any excuse to talk about it is a good excuse in my book. So I wrote back promptly sharing what I knew, and when he thanked me, he also said, “You talk and blog about the wonders of travel, but for us newbies the actual process can be a bit intimidating.” And I knew I had today’s blog post.
One of my favorite things about travel (and also one of the things I most dread, paradoxically enough) is how uncomfortable it can be. It can shake us loose from our daily routines, from our preconceptions, even from who we might think we are. It challenges us, it taxes us, and sometimes things go wrong. Sometimes things go very, very wrong.

But I realize that maybe that’s not what I tend to talk about. My excitement and passion for travel shines through so brilliantly that it tends to eclipse all else. I gloss over many of the hard bits, or I don’t mention them at all. Plus many events that were quite difficult at the time seem funny or interesting in retrospect. Even as they’re happening, I try to see them as all part of the adventure, and that attitude carries through even when I’m back home.

So yes, the process of travel is intimidating, and not just if you’re a travel newbie. It takes a certain amount of energy to get started, and at this time in my life when I’m getting more settled and am dealing with lingering physical limitations, I have that energy less often than I used to. And while I’m not overly intimidated by travel to Europe anymore (which wasn’t always the case), I’m still easily overwhelmed by contemplating trips to other parts of the world. (Exotic diseases are my bugaboo. If the ailments I read about in the medical part of the guidebook are too disgusting, I lose all enthusiasm for visiting. I’m also convinced that I will get malaria in many parts of the world because mosquitoes love me soooo much.)

I didn't have a digital camera when I was in Sweden, so a photo of Norway is going to have to do...

Still, it is through the discomfort that transformation can occur, which is why I love it in spite of itself. The first non-English-speaking country I visited by myself was Sweden. Very modern, almost everyone speaks at least some English there, the food isn’t too crazy. I’d arranged to stay in a dorm room in Stockholm, so I even had a place to head upon arrival. I went out and about my first day, and I was so overwhelmed by being alone in a foreign place that I went back to the dorm and hid. I’m not even kidding, I hid and watched TV and cooked food in the dorm kitchen and felt miserable. I thought I’d made a terrible mistake, and it took all my willpower to eventually leave the safety of my room and continue my travel adventure.

On top of the world... in Switzerland.

Fast forward two months and I was in Switzerland, also alone, but completely transformed. It wasn’t that I was so much more comfortable, but I knew I could rely on myself. I had more confidence, I had seen amazing places and met a huge array of different people, and I had survived. I had faced up to the strong surges of grief I still felt over my mom’s death, and I had finally found a measure of peace around it. I was a different person, and to this day I believe that those two months are among the most important experiences of my life.

So is travel amazing? Yes, but it’s not for the weak of heart. It can be dizzying and terrifying, tedious and stimulating, painful and healing, and no matter how carefully we plan, travel will turn out differently than we expect.

What is an amazing travel experience you’ve had? Or, if you haven’t traveled much, what destination are you eager to visit?

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I have a love-hate relationship with being a free spirit. I wouldn’t change who I am for the world, but it comes with its fair share of heart ache and difficulty.

Sometimes I want to be a sheep, happily grazing in a flock of other sheep and doing exactly what everyone else does. I don’t want to wander off on my own, I don’t want to forge my own path. I don’t want to collect data until I reach the inescapable conclusion that the traditional way isn’t my way. I want life to be easy, all in a straight line, with my only task being to connect the dots. I want to follow the rules, I want to pay my dues, I want to embrace a guaranteed path to success.

Of course, there are no sure paths. If there’s one thing life has taught me, it’s that you can never predict how it’s going to turn out or what opportunities may rise unexpectedly. It’s good to ask questions and reach your own conclusions, because what if circumstances have changed and conventional wisdom is just flat-out wrong? It’s good to take stock and figure out what will make you the happiest, even if the answer is unique and makes your friends and acquaintances shake their heads.

The sad truth is, sometimes people are judgmental. We emphasize the need to fit in during high school in YA novels and movies, and act like this social need doesn’t continue past a certain age. But does it disappear on our eighteenth birthdays? No. Life is not so simple and clear-cut as all that.

The result is, if we decide to be a free spirit, if we make nonconformist decisions or hold nontraditional ideas, we’re going to catch a certain amount of heat, whatever our age. Not only that, but we’ll be making our own road maps as we go, which can be a solitary and scary endeavor. Sometimes we’ll fail spectacularly, and our failures will be all the more visible because we were trying something unusual — something people didn’t think we should be trying, or something people assumed we couldn’t make work. Even when we do succeed, people will try to belittle what we have accomplished.

The conventional advice on this subject is that we shouldn’t care what people think, but sometimes we are going to care, no matter how hard we try to deny it. Therein lies the dark side to living a life outside the normal boundaries. It takes courage and self-respect, and sometimes it will sting in spite of ourselves. Sometimes we may weaken a little bit and wish we could be like everybody else, happily following the Pied Piper and playing it safe.

But we are not like everybody else. We cannot convince ourselves to be. It’s so much more exciting and fulfilling to question, to think, to decide what we honestly want and plot our own route to achieve it. It’s exhilarating to take risks and feel the buzzing, growing vitality of being alive and creating our own life stories. When I falter, I remind myself of how happy I am to have the power of choice, to be able to do what I love so much of the time, and to belong to a network of people who trust me to be me, no matter what choices (or even mistakes) I’m making.

What do you do when you falter? How do you stay strong in the face of judgement?

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A few weeks ago I read an essay by one of my favorite bloggers, Penelope Trunk, about how to think outside the box. The entire essay is well worth the read, and I might discuss other aspects of it some other time (yes, that’s how good it is). But for now I’m going to focus on just one brilliant paragraph:“We are all creative. The only thing we really have in this world is the ability to craft a life. One day your life will be over, and we are largely unsure what happens next, but during the time we’re alive, we get to choose what we do. We create a life.”

Crafting our lives is the ultimate form of expressing ourselves, and we all do it, every single one of us. The decisions we make on a daily basis form the shape of our story, both in our own heads and in the outside world. That’s one reason why I’m so big on priorities: your priorities can quite literally determine the direction your life follows. Our priorities are the guiding vision for the complex artistic creation of who we are.  (more…)

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The Cowardly Lion


The one thing I’ve always known about courage is that you don’t need to be brave unless you’re afraid.  If jumping out of an airplane is no big deal for you, then it doesn’t take courage to strap on your parachute and leap.  It’s just something cool that you’re doing.  But if you’re terrified of jumping and keep imagining your terrible and bloody death when you reach the ground, well, then you have something to be brave about.

What I’ve been less clear about is what courage really is and where it comes from.  I do so many things I’m afraid of because I don’t feel like I have a choice.  Take shots, for instance.  I’m really scared of shots, especially the Tetanus shot, but I dutifully go in and receive said shot when I need it.  In fact, I’m probably more dutiful about receiving it on schedule than someone who is less afraid of it.  But is it courage if I don’t have a choice?

I’ve been having a lot of problems with my back tooth over the past several weeks, and last weekend my injury came to a head.  I woke up in the middle of the night in simply excruciating pain.  It was hard for me to breathe, and involuntary tears streamed down my face.  My heart rate accelerated and my chest felt like it would explode.  So much pain to be caused by such a small part of my body.  In those moments, my nerve completely broke.  I would have done anything to make the pain stop.

The pain eventually receded, the Ibuprofen kicked in, my nerve came back, and there I was refusing to take the Codeine I’d been prescribed.  But that moment of sheer panic and helplessness made me realize something.

Courage is the choices we make every day.  Courage is my conscious decision to go to the doctor’s office and get that stupid Tetanus shot even though I know my arm’s going to hurt for the next week or two.  Courage is going to get a root canal instead of letting the infection spread.  Courage is allowing myself to fall in love again after suffering from a broken heart.  Courage is saying what I really think instead of being bland and inoffensive and nice.  Courage is doing what I want to do even when I know people will be mean or insensitive about it and I’m going to care that they don’t understand.

When I’m about to force myself through something scary, I sometimes forget that I do have a choice.  I’ve just already made it.

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On the wall right inside my front door hangs a map of the world, stuck by a great number of little pins.  The red pins represent ME, places I’ve visited.  The black pins represent my husband.  The white pins are places we’ve been together.

Here is a close-up of Europe on this map:

Lots of red pins, huh?  I visited every place with a red pin within a five-year time span, between ages 22 and 27.  I didn’t have a salaried job, I didn’t have paid vacation.  Most of the time, I didn’t have anybody who wanted to travel with me.  I had an extremely tight budget during those years.  Consider, too, that I started my business when I was 24 and was working completely for myself before my 26th birthday.  No safety nets there, let me tell you.  So how was I able to travel to all those European countries?  (Eighteen of them, nineteen if you count the one I’ve added since that time.)

Priorities, plain and simple.  One of my highest priorities in life was to travel around Europe, and therefore I did what I had to do to make it happen.

This is probably not the last time you’re going to hear me using that word, either.  I have this theory about life, that it’s all about priorities.  Sure, people start off with different advantages and disadvantages, I’m not denying that.  And some things are literally impossible to accomplish, or at least have such a very low probability of happening that it’s almost the same thing.  For instance, I am just plain too old to enter certain professions that depend on youth or a certain current level of physical fitness (unfortunate but true fact: sometimes healing takes a really long time).

But not as many things are impossible as we think. And once we begin to contemplate the realm of the possible, everything shuffles down to priorities.  My priority was to travel in Europe, so I structured my life accordingly.  I had a very strict budget, passing up on buying stuff I really wanted like clothes and dinners out so that I could save money for travel.  I passed up regular salaried jobs for a number of reasons, but not the least among those reasons was my desire to have what I considered a reasonable amount of vacation time to allocate to travel.  I learned how to be self sufficient and more outgoing so I could travel by myself.  I took some risks.

As we get older, we often gain certain obligations: spouses, children, aging parents.  But even with these connections, which have their times of joy and their times of heartache, ultimately my life is my own.  I’m the one who’s going to look back on my lifetime with happiness or regret; I’m the one who’s going to have to live with the choices I’ve made, whether they were good or unfortunate.  Maybe, as a consequence of other choices I’ve made, I’ll have to wait and have a longer-term plan to achieve certain of my life goals.  But it’s still all about priorities.

I’m not writing this post to make you feel bad if you haven’t travelled.  Maybe you don’t even want to travel, and that’s a perfectly fair choice.  What I want to tell you is that if you really want something, whether it’s to travel or to be an artist or to achieve happiness in your own special way, think about a way to make it happen.  Strive, try, and be happy in the freedom of your choices.  And if in the process, you realize your priorities are different than you originally thought, rest easy, reset, and try again.  That’s the last great things about priorities: they can change.



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Once upon a time I lived in London, the United Kingdom.

Crouch End, London, UK

How did this happen?   I was twenty-two years old, I held a fresh-off-the-presses Bachelors of Arts degree in Music, and I needed to get out of Dodge, Dodge being pretty much anywhere in California.  What I wanted most of all was to live in the UK.

I planned my move for twelve months.  I found a program that would obtain a working visa for me (BUNAC) and I saved money for my plane ticket.  Through luck and family connections I stumbled into a prime house sitting gig in the little neighborhood of Crouch End, in northern London (Zone 3 on the Northern line, Zone 2 if I took a bus to Finsbury Park).

In London, I had many adventures, met many strange people, and obtained several jobs over the course of my time there.  Most importantly, I was living in a foreign country, which opened my mind and allowed me to discover who I was without all the external confusing trappings.

While I was living there, I was corresponding via e-mail with a friend of mine, telling him all about my new life and how much I loved living in London.  (And I did love living there.  It was a hard year for me, it’s true, but I never stopped adoring that city.)

His response?  He wrote something to the effect that my life, or in any case what I was choosing to do with my life by living in London, “wasn’t the way the world works.”

I have always remembered that e-mail, even though I received it over nine years ago.  It struck me as deeply profound.  Because of course, me being in London was exactly the way the world worked, because otherwise how could I be there in the first place?

It was profound because that sentence of his got right to the heart of the difference between him and me.  It’s all in the way we believe the world works.  In other words, it’s all in our perspective, it’s all in our minds, and it’s all in our courage.  It’s all in what we believe to be possible.  The White Queen had it right all along.

I believed I could live in London, and I did what it took to get me there.

What do you believe?

P.S. The banner on this blog?  Why yes, it’s a photo of London, and yes, it does help remind me of what is possible. 🙂

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