Updated: Apr 21, 2022
Like Tolstoy's Ivan Illych I ask myself, "What if my whole life has been wrong?" (This is the Prologue to my memoir The Education of a Wandering Family)
“What if my whole life has been wrong?” I think to myself again, paraphrasing a line from Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Illych.
From the early years of our marriage, this question led us to make choices that brought meaning and purpose. It was a clarion call to motivate and ensure we didn’t end up living a life that was ‘wrong’ -- a life based on societal expectations that we might regret on our deathbed, as Illych did. This question drove us to make unconventional choices, even with children. It impelled us to take the harder 'road less traveled' and to pursue an ‘impossible dream’ of long-term travel with a family.
But during the last few days, Tolstoy’s question has become a sincere search of the soul in the other direction.
"What IF my whole life IS wrong? What if our unconventional choices were the WRONG ones?
What if I’ve messed up? What if every major choice since 2007 has been one huge mistake? What if we ARE delusional dreamers who are ruining our children’s lives and really will have ‘messed-up kids’ -- as one critic prophesied in our early travel days?"
Troubling thoughts like these tumble around inside my head and then wander aimlessly, seeking escape. Glancing at the rolladens covering the window I feel grateful for German ingenuity. Rolladens -- rolling shutters -- are amazing because they can make any room, and an entire house, completely dark at any time of day or night. They would have been convenient when we lived in Alaska five years ago. Now they darken the angled windows of the attic master bedroom where I sit on the edge of the bed, head hanging. Despite the full daylight outside, I prefer the rolladen-produced gloom. It matches the mood that has hung over me for the past week, even if I know it’s mostly hormone-induced. Rubbing my expanding belly, hopelessly wishing away the nausea and apathy only adds to my discouragement knowing it won’t leave. Instead, it will be an unwelcome companion for the next six months.
“I’m 37-years-old and what do I actually have to show for my life, except for my children and my marriage? Yes, I adore my family and they adore me. They bring me joy and purpose. But what accomplishments have I achieved?
No career. No assets. No home, no furniture, no savings. No 401ks or retirement plans. No college savings for my children’s future. No belongings, except what fits in our eighteen suitcases. At least we currently have no debt, and we do own two acres with a small, run-down cottage in Guatemala,” I think, allowing myself to concede those points. ”But we have little else of financial value. We have little 'progress' to show for the past 10 years of work.”
That is if you can call it work. It definitely felt like work, but maybe we’ve been doing it all wrong. It’s really been the pursuit of a dream — perhaps one that’s unattainable. Maybe we’re just foolish dreamers living in the fantasy land of our own imagination, disconnected from the actualities of the ‘real world’ with their measurements of 'real success'.
This apparent or real disconnect from the 'real world' is accentuated by my current condition. Three months pregnant, we are also ‘homeless’. No, we’re not living in the streets, I know I’m being dramatic. Renting a very comfortable three-story Airbnb townhouse in a quaint German town can't technically be considered ‘homelessness’. To some -- to us -- we are 'living the dream'.
But that doesn’t matter now to my hormonal, pregnant self. It doesn’t feel that way this week. What I really want — an inner longing that has been growing for the past few years — is a home that is mine. I miss my home, I miss belonging somewhere in the world. I miss having my own place to pick out the furniture and choose the artwork on the wall.
It has been more than ten years since we had a home that is our own — not since we sold everything in 2007 to pursue this crazy dream. The journey has been incredible, I can't deny that. During the last eight years, we've lived ten lifetimes.
But today it doesn't feel like a dream life. Alone without extended family, friends, or community while expecting my seventh child in temporary accommodations in a foreign country — emphasizes the exhilarating, but isolating, impact our choices have had.
Especially because it’s not the first time we've been in a situation like this. Three years ago, seven months pregnant with our sixth, and broke, living in a bat-and-mosquito-infested beach house rented temporarily in Nicaragua. We hit rock bottom when we spent our last cent and had nothing to fall back on -- no bank accounts or credit cards. No savings. Nothing left except to question our sanity and decision-making. Giving up this crazy dream was the most logical thing to do.
Yet here we are, still pursuing it. Now things are different, better. As digital nomads, during the last nine months, we left Costa Rica to move to Europe and 'lived' in Germany, Morocco, Austria, Italy, France, and England (in that order). But our life is dictated by tourist visas. They tell us where we can go and how long we can stay. Which is fine and fun -- except when you're pregnant and sick.
Wandering from country to country according to visa stipulations is no longer going to work. Finding a country to live in -- and a midwife to help me deliver at home -- is a must. But it's also not that simple.
The Schengen Agreement gives us access to 26 European countries for 90 days -- and then we have to leave the Schengen area for 90 days. That means 26 European countries we can’t stay in — places such as France, Finland, the Czech Republic, or Italy. It's a lot trickier to navigate visas than it is in Central America.
Without a long-term visa, we will have to 'move' again before the baby is born — and then again right after the birth. I can’t do that — physically or mentally. Getting a long-term visa is the only sane option.
Returning to the United States was considered, but not for long, for lots of reasons. One of which is we don't want to leave Europe. We love it here. And when we left Costa Rica to move across the pond we did so planning to spend a good chunk of our life exploring this continent. Our dream is to drive from country to country -- as needed according to visa requirements -- in my husband's dream vehicle, a Defender 110. But that original, exciting plan didn’t include having another baby. Now it's throwing a wrench in the works, despite being consciously conceived.
My thoughts go round and round, back and forth, trying to solve a problem that can’t be solved in my current state of mind, thinking of the quote often attributed to Einstein. "We cannot solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them.”
Yet I can’t quit worrying about our circumstances, and more importantly, what they represent in the bigger picture. Is our current situation a temporary setback, an obstacle to be overcome — like so many obstacles we’ve already overcome to get where we are now — living our dream life in Europe?
Or do the previous obstacles -- and current events -- represent an overall error in thinking that has brought us to this point and is leading us even further to a destination of destitution?
We own very little because we’ve exchanged things for experiences. Will we still own little when our children are adults? Will we have nothing to leave them when we die? Will we still have no home when our grandchildren want to visit us? And what about the not-so-distant future? Will my children be prepared to go to college if they decide? How will they pay for it? If they don’t (or can’t), what kind of career or job will they be able to get? Will they be wandering vagabonds, but in the worst sort of way? Do they (or we) even have a future — whatever that means?
What consequences will our choices have on children’s lives, and their children’s? What can I give or provide for them when we currently have so little financially or materially? Is there hope that they will succeed with such a legacy?
The only assets I have to show for the past ten years of work and travel are very intangible ones — memories, lessons learned, the development of my mind and soul, and deeply-bonded relationships with my husband and children. Our life, money, and time have been traded for flashes of color, exotic experiences, foreign foods, psyche-shaping adventures, and shared reminiscences. Just like the meals I’ve eaten and the books I’ve read, I can’t remember them all, but each one has made me -- and our family -- who we are.
And though I can't remember every moment, what I do remember stands out in vivid color. Climbing the giant steps of ancient pyramids in Mexico; drinking coconuts freshly picked from the palm trees of Caribbean; eating nopal (cactus) tacos, pig-brain empanadas, and iguana tamales; wading through crocodile-and-bull-shark-infested waters in the primary forests of Costa Rica; the sweetness of jasmine flowers in my hair, and the stenches, in India.
Memories from experiences like these -- and the lessons they taught -- are my primary assets. They are what we’ve exchanged time, money, things, and life to gather — intangible, life-changing stories, innumerable photographs, and pragmatic personal growth.
The only problem is these exist in the past, on my iCloud, and in my mind and soul, likely to be forgotten by my growing children — and perhaps even by me.
What value can they truly have?
I rub my eyes, trying to stop the tears, and shake my head from side to side, groaning deeply and laying back in bed. Who cares if it’s already noon? Why get up? I feel too sick to work or read or eat, and I’m too despondent to care. My husband is two floors down on the main level of the condo caring for our six children. He’s capable. He doesn’t enjoy it when I’m in this state, but he adores me and supports me and I know he can handle everything without me, even if he should be working instead.
So I wallow longer, bemoaning our choices, analyzing if we should have, could have done things differently, questioning the logic and folly behind taking the ‘road less traveled’.
Then I see a glimmer of light through the fog and sit up on the edge of the bed. My mind clears for just a moment but it’s enough to provide a glimpse of the meaning in all the madness, the value in the vague and indefinable. There is a way to bring practicality from the past, significance and substance to the stories, and measurable merit from the memories.
Tell the stories. Share the lessons. Write the books. Use words on a page and convert the intangible into tangible.
Yes, that’s what I’ll do.
I’ll share our journey and transform the abstract into something concrete. This is our legacy and it's worth sharing.
Then I lay back on my pillow and drift into a peaceful sleep.
Six years and 22 countries later, I finally begin.
I am currently writing the first book in a series of memoirs sharing our adventures and experiences of traveling the globe with seven children over the past 15+ years.
This Prologue is the introduction to the first book in the series. I would love and appreciate your feedback. Please leave a comment with suggestions, clarifications, edits, or ideas.
(This post has already been edited based on feedback from the comments below.)