Being Free

November 10, 2010

The concept of “being free” has run like a smooth seam through the course of my travels. Four months ago I toweled off my toes, wet and prune-like, from a two-year dip in the career pool and submersed myself in a sea of options. I began, quite literally, pointing at a map and taking myself there. Thanks to several extensions of the index finger, I have puddle-jumped through sixteen countries and forty-one cities. Sources depending, I have spent the past seventeen weeks doing nothing at all and everything at once.

I am technically more free than I have ever been and, quite possibly, as free as I will ever be.

But, if I’ve learned anything from the books I’ve been reading during this free time of mine, it is that freedom comes in more shapes, sizes, and colors than the entire human race. Freedom is Hunter S. Thompson on a wild drug binge in Las Vegas. Freedom is Johnathan Leffem’s attempt to break from his Fortress of Solitude; and Milan Kundera’s submission to his own Unbearable Lightness of Being. Freedom, according to Kafka, doesn’t even exist.

However, in the words of my Serbian host: freedom is an American passport. Indeed, my little blue book – computer chip and all – has granted me the privilege of fumbling around in the dark for freedom’s illusive bra-strap; and when the lights come on, I always find myself with two handfuls of good fortune. Metaphors aside, I am so fucking lucky. The foundation of my luck lies in the heart and mind of parents who introduced me to the possibility of travel; parents who set up my savings account and encouraged me to roll my pennies, nickels, dimes, and quarters. The privilege spawns from there.

Most people that I meet out here ask me why I decided to do this. Why travel? Why now? My answer errs on the side of simplicity: “a desire to see the world while I’m young – before I find a career or have kids or grow up.” While that’s all well and good and true, it still feels a little dishonest. The driving force in my decision to troll around the world lies in the humbling truth that I really had no idea what to do next. I graduated college. I got a job that I hoped would turn into a career. It didn’t. The months rolled on in a slow, passionless haze. I wandered around my office building in search of inspirational strays – cubicle to bathroom, bathroom to lobby – hoping to trip over my calling, to hear the words: “I’m sorry, I think you dropped this,” and find my future career in the outstretched hand of a stranger. I literally twirled around in my rolling chair, head to the LEED certified lights, thinking: “I could install those things. Maybe that would be a better job for me.” I taped a small basketball hoop to the side of my cubicle, and tossed a Nerf ball through the net – each shot taking the psychological bend of a detention assignment: “I like to work with people. I like to be constantly learning. I like to change locations. I like to write. I like to make things.” My buzzer shot was supposed to link all of these things together with the swish of a tangible career but the whistle always blew too soon.

There were parts of my job that I loved. I loved working with teenagers. I loved the challenge of making a minimum wage job seem more attractive than after-school make-out sessions. But, at the end of the day, it was my job to stuff them into Burger King uniforms, to mold them into Subway “Sandwich Artists,” to place them in the same uninspired position that I was fighting tooth and nail not to abandon.

But, when the two-year mark of my life as an Employment Specialist neared, I heard the words of my former manager at the Lake Oswego Rite Aid: “I was just like you, kid – a summer employee. But, hey, time goes fast, and now I’m getting ready to ring in my twentieth year in this vest.” He celebrated this statement with a sigh of resignation that just about blew the mustache off of his upper lip. So, in honor of Phil and his facial hair – in honor of all of my employed minions in their Team Member best – I typed out my own resignation and booked an international flight. Clearly the preparation was more extensive than I make it seem, but the point remains the same. I had no idea what I wanted to do for a living, but I was more than inspired by the idea of putting an ocean in between any job and I.

So here I am: twenty-two trains, twelve buses, six planes, and five ferries away from staff meetings and fax machines, happily enjoying the world’s longest lunch break. I’m the kid reading a book at the coffee shop at 2pm on a Tuesday – a member of the anonymous sea of mid-day loungers you pass en route to the office – the ones who make you think, “What the hell do they do for living? Who are these people?” But don’t get me wrong. It’s not always easy out here on the cafe patio. There are moments when the caffeine hits a little too strong and a hedgehog named Panic begins somersaulting in my chest. Suddenly, the pants of “being free” are around my ankles, and the temporary ways of my vagrant ways are inescapably exposed. At these moments, I can hear the tick of every passing wristwatch reminding me that the escape from my vocational indecision can’t last forever.

So, in an attempt to stay present, I take a deep breath and return my attention to the book at hand which is by no coincidence titled: How to Be Free by Tom Hodgkinson. Truth be told, this book is awful. Hodgkinson is a privileged white guy pumped up on the thrill of his paradoxical identity as a bourgeois anarchist. He encourages his readers to laugh in the face of poor credit and sky-high bills by insisting that “debt doesn’t really exist.” Hodgkinson recommends “sticking it to the man” by driving without insurance, canceling credit cards, and foregoing workplace competition. His encouragement for a life of rebellion is akin to preaching nudism to Eskimos. To be honest, he makes me a little bit embarrassed to be exercising my own privilege so flamboyantly. But, after diluting the potency of his manifesto, Hodgkinson’s formula becomes slightly more palatable. At the heart of his writing, he encourages his readers to slow down and consider the possibility of pursuing their passions:

And how do you find your vocation, your gift? The answer is simply to do nothing for as long as you possibly can. In the same way that wise gardeners advise that the first step when taking over a new garden is to do nothing for a year, in order to see what grows there and only then to design your own unique useful and beautiful garden, so I would advise taking a few months off, or even a year, if you can manage it. Most of the time we are too busy to step back and find out what we would like to do. Create some time for yourself and things will gradually become clear. Above all, strop trying. Career is a try-hard notion. The free of spirit have stopped trying and instead let things happen.

Again, tell a single parent to “stop trying” and see how “free” their spirit becomes. But, in theory, Hodgkinson is on to something. He urges us to, both literally and metaphorically, unearth what already exists. For me and many other recent college graduates without a fulfilling “plan,” the best advice just might be to stop working so damn hard to map it all out. Doing what we hate, or doing what we think we should be doing [for example, the uninspired nine to five], only magnifies the sense of occupational doom that haunts us. During my first salaried year, I put my head down and plowed forward, fueled by the belief that my first half decade in the work-world was supposed to be filled with torturous monotony. When that plan failed, I worked harder. I signed up for the GRE’s and lost myself in a distracting swirl of arithmetic and vocabulary. It felt good to solve problems and accomplish things. The test came and went with great success, and, there I was, a warrior in full armor, sweating in midday heat with no battles to fight. I bought the costume before being invited to the party. So, instead of running to the metaphorical mailbox every afternoon, I decided to stop searching. I figured that if this concept of a “calling” does exist, I have to, quite simply, free my lines. That is the full story of how all of this came to be.

Truth be told, I still have no idea “what I want to do with my life.” But, the good news is: I feel a whole lot better about that. It has taken several months of wandering to wake the confidence that laid drooling beneath the hum of florescent lights and computer screens. Somewhere between Budapest and Belgrade, I remembered that I am strong and creative and passionate enough to feel comfortable with “not knowing.” By skipping town, I forced myself to abandon the plow and neglect my field of expectations. As a result, I’ve seen 127 days go by, and I can vividly recall every one of them. When I return, I’ll take a look at what’s grown, and scatter a few of the seeds I’ve picked up along the way.

Touchy-feelies aside, here’s the current count of what’s sprouted:

Days: 127

Weeks: 18

Months: 4.5

Countries: 16

Cities: 41

Beds: 48

-Hostels: 7

-CouchSurfing Hosts: 19

-Hotels: 9

-Homes: 3

-Campsites: 5

Trains: 22

Buses: 12

Planes: 6

Ferries: 5

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