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On Sunday, I had brunch on a perfect, white sand beach, hammocks swinging near by, then ordered a drink, dipped in the pool and selected a lawn chair, book in hand.
Cool breezes floated in from the ocean. The sun beamed down through palm trees.
And under my sunglasses, tears were falling down my face.
I was exhausted. And suddenly, it was all pouring out.
After a bit of a rough week, I had made what is an unusual decision for me: I was giving myself a vacation day, free from work and discomfort. I cabbed to a beautiful resort 30 minutes away, and feeling far from my typical reality of sweaty, sleepless nights, constellations of mosquito bites and street food, I plopped down and immediately started crying.
Now, I realize many of you reading this are doing so with mounds of snow outside or maybe from under the fluorescent lights of a cubicle. Sympathy for someone gallivanting around the coast of Belize and writing paragraphs like the one I just did is a hard sell, so I won’t try it.
I’m thrilled to be traveling through lesser tread parts of the world and sharing their underrated beauty. I experience incredible highs, deep fulfillment and satisfaction in an internal, if not always superficial sense. I wouldn’t change a thing about my decision to do this; at this point, I really can’t even imagine going back.
But beyond the veneer of “a glamorous life abroad,” this is also the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and I am still very much adjusting to a world flipped upside down.
I’m always barreling forward, always experiencing new, new, new, always backlogged and overwhelmed on projects as I work to produce at as great a pace and with as great a variety as I ever have — only now with public busses, sweltering porches and low WiFi zones as my offices; with conditions that never approach ideal as the backdrop. In my budget lifestyle, finding a meal or a comfortable place to relax isn’t always easy. Nothing stops or slows down, and there is no familiar routine, beyond writing, to ground me as I hop from place to place.
As I wrote last week, I’ve gotten so much better at managing and enduring discomforts. Of course, traveling through parts of the world in which many modern conveniences are absent and people regularly deal with hardships beyond our comprehension, I try to keep my privilege in perspective.
Sometimes, though, I hit a wall. Sometimes I’m just tired.
Last week, after a 10-hour bus journey to Placencia, I promptly contracted a head cold and a mini stomach bug. I woke up that first morning sick and tired — only to find the electricity and running water were unexpectedly out for the day. Thanks to the stifling heat and humidity, I’d managed only a couple of hours of sleep the night before. And when I posted about that, someone accused me of complaining.
It was the perfect storm of factors to bring me to my breaking point. Although the electricity and water came back the next day, I battled my sickness and a bad back all week and with no AC, didn’t sleep more than four hours any night. At the same time, the matters of money (or rather the LACK OF IT haha) and my workload were as stressful as they had been in a while.
So on Sunday, I spent the day crying on hammocks at one of the most beautiful places in the world, letting it all out, letting myself shed the “tough” and “brave” labels people put on me for a moment, letting myself be weak.
I was tired. And I felt guilty.
Early Monday morning, my mother sent me a long email.
In many ways, she and I are living very different lives. I am traveling the globe with a backpack. She is in North Carolina, caring full time (sometimes 100 hours a week between hiring other caregivers) for my grandmother who has an advanced case of Alzheimers.
But in other ways, I think we can relate to each other more than most. We both left jobs we mostly liked to do what we are doing now, because we feel compelled, drawn, in some hard-to-define sense to this work, and in doing so, we subject ourselves to a new standard of discomfort.
Here’s part of what she wrote:
“There are so many times I tell people about mother, and I’m sure there is an element of complaining about it, and they more or less say ‘Why don’t you put her somewhere?’
“I think we have such a comfort-driven society, that you aren’t supposed to be uncomfortable. You aren’t supposed to push yourself unless it pays really well in some way. You really aren’t supposed to complain. Everything is supposed to be easy. If not, you need to change what you’re doing and do something that is easy.
“For me, even though I complain mightily, often, there is something deeply satisfying about what I am doing in caring for mother. Well, not satisfying as we usually think of the word, but something important. Not as we usually think of that word either. What is it? It’s just what I am supposed to do. What I am called to do.”
Like with my travels, what my mom is doing caring for my grandmother is hard. For her, it’s almost entirely thankless. In fact, in emotional moments (my grandmother is unable to identify people most of the time, and often is distraught and confused), it is sometimes filled with insults. Yet it is also filled with the deep love of a daughter making sacrifices for someone who doesn’t appreciate them. It is filled with some internal satisfaction, some belief that this is what she’s meant to do.
Our struggles are different. Most of mine are physical; most of hers, emotional. And while I am fortunate to receive some feedback via readers and social media followers, I think we both feel our work is done mostly in a vacuum.
So sometimes we both break down. The day before I had found my admittedly cushy locale to have my pity party, my mother told me she had retreated into the woods near my grandmother’s house one morning and cried for a couple hours.
I was tired. She was tired.
But as she reminded me, this is not only OK, it’s part of the experience — an element just as legitimate as the fulfillment we feel. The struggles aren’t a side effect; they are an integral piece of the formula.
We’re not always comfortable. And maybe that’s the point. We’re pushing ourselves toward something; we’re growing, changing, learning. Rarely does that happen in a smooth and seamless way.
The next morning, I woke up feeling some sense of renewal, ready to embody “brave” again as I made my next 10-hour bus trek to Caye Caulker.
I was still short on sleep, still nursing a cold, still dealing with this dogging back pain.
I stepped onto my first bus and knew the day would be full of discomfort. But that was OK.
And for the first time in a week, I’m ready to overcome it again.