If you want to bring my blood dangerously close to its boiling point, say this: “You’re so lucky; you get to travel.” I hear it almost every time I tell people where I’m from or what I do for work. It’s not that I’m mad for me, because I’m not. I’m mad for the person asking. In a way, they are robbing themselves of the same “luck.”
It’s not luck that has me writing this from a black sand beach on a Spanish island the British revere as paradise. In fact, when I look at my life’s events, I think, for a white, American woman, the odds of becoming someone who lived out of a suitcase seemed stacked against me.
Preface: Spreading of the broken wings
I had every reason to stay in Montana for college. As a high school sophomore, I was finally diagnosed with OCD, something I think I’ve had since at least 5th grade when I kept a ridiculous spreadsheet chronicling all of my movements and encounters. If you so much as looked at me back then, it was documented in Excel. Why? Well, because I was convinced I was going to be kidnapped of course. Monk and Howie Mandel have an irrational fear of germs. Well, I had an irrational fear of kidnapper vans. OCD manifests itself in millions of ways.
My OCD was more than an impeccably organized sock drawer. In fact, it was so severe I almost ended up in-patient (think One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest). To show me what my future could hold, my parents and therapist actually arranged for me to do a supervised meet and greet session with a graduate (although I don’t know if he’d call himself that) of an in-patient place on the East Coast that treated his extremely severe OCD. It wasn’t quite Shutter Island, but it scared me into abandoning some of my most crippling compulsions.
During my worst episodes, I moved into my closet where I could set up camp and control every element. So, the idea of moving to New York City, while I was still seeing my psychiatrist regularly and hadn’t completed my cognitive therapy workbook, where I wouldn’t be under the watchful eyes of my parents, was preposterous, at best.
I had another reason to attend a school close to home. My senior year of high school, during baccalaureate and the Senior picnic and more Senior Week events which I had to miss, I was getting my first colonoscopy which would diagnose me with Crohn’s disease. I’d spent way too many months, and now that I think about it, years, silently suffering. It made sense to stay within a three-hour’s drive of home where I could have my parents take care of me if I had a flare-up. But, I didn’t. I went further east than everyone in my class except David Chen who ended up at Amherst.
I didn’t “get” a full ride scholarship
I earned one. No guidance counselor, friend, family member or mentor encouraged me to apply to a school In New York City. I watched a 48 Hours Mystery episode (again, my obsession with true crime) about a Ohio girl who moved there to pursue her dance dreams. I CHOSE to. I chose to log on to the St. John’s website, request an application, and then fill it out, along with a personal essay I spent hours agonizing over. It worked. I didn’t “get” good grades in high school. I earned them or when needed, avoided bad grades. For example, when my near-perfect GPA was in jeopardy, I quickly dropped AP Physics and enrolled in Art Class. RIP Mr. Borgreen. You were the best.
I didn’t “get” to spend my summers in the Hamptons
Try waking up at 6 a.m. six times a week during your summer break and helping manage a celebrity-ridden (i.e. high stakes, high expectations) yoga studio in the Hamptons all while cleaning up after a two-year-old and chasing after her older brother who was way too smart, and fast, for his six years. Yes, I got to do all of this in one of the poshest zip codes on the planet, but I, like many of the wealthy people who own homes behind hedges there, earned my place there.
After spring semester, I could have gone back to Montana where I had free room and board and a car at my disposal. But no, I sacrificed that to cycle from Hampton to Hampton, from bayside to beachside, even in the rain. My second summer there I went through Lululemon’s almost cult-like application process, got a job in retail (where I folded more pants in one week than most people fold in a lifetime) AND interned, unpaid, as a nightlife and social reporter for the largest newspaper in the Hamptons.
Did I mention I didn’t have a car? Yes, even on the afternoons when the summer thunderstorms rolled in, I’d have to ride my bike ( a hand-me-down hybrid, not the fancy one I have now) all seven miles from East Hampton (where I worked) to Sag Harbor (where I shared a basement room with my cousin who I brought out from Montana to nanny). The only other people in the Hamptons who seemed to be biking out of necessity, not for sport, were the Mexicans, who may or may not have “earned” their way…
I didn’t “get” to backpack across Europe with my best friend
Over Christmas break 2009, I met with my best friend in a hometown coffee shop. Instead of gossiping or talking about boys, we hatched a plan to backpack across Western Europe.
No one handed us tickets to Dublin or paid for our Eurail passes. Instead, we divvied up the research—each of us responsible for specific cities and spreadsheets—and pinched our pennies. For the entire spring semester I packed lunches of Trader Joes-brand food while my classmates ate out and shopped at Whole Foods. I even trekked to Brooklyn a few times to make babysitting money while the parents had a Saturday date night and many of my classmates were probably at a bar.
Once we were in Europe, no one was waiting for us at every train station, ready to carry our backbreaking Keltys and take us to our rooms. No, we had to learn how to communicate with the strange older Italian man in the Cinque Terre who told his room for rent had AC. So we took it, only to learn later that to him, a fan =’s AC. Just like mistakes didn’t happen to us, we made them, we didn’t “get” to backpack across Europe. We put in the time, sweat and a few tears needed to spend 80 days touring more than 10 countries.
I didn’t “get” to help hand out 550 bikes in Costa Rica
Bikes for the World didn’t email me or hand me a flier on a street corner asking me to contribute to its cause—collecting and donating used bicycles to rural communities in developing countries. I Googled something like “bicycle non-profits”, ended up on its webpage, and scrolled down so I could click on the “Contact Us” button. Even after responding to my inquiry and saying that yes, I could help with the next distribution, no one from Bikes for the World offered to pay for my flight down to Costa Rica or drive me to the distribution site, a few hours from San Jose on a barely passable dirt road. Instead, I went on craigslist and then met a stranger in Chipotle where I traded him my netbook (remember them?) for his Jet Blue voucher. Then, I reached out to a friend’s sister’s ex-boyfriend who I had never met in Costa Rica and asked if he’d take me to the rural village. Thank God he said yes (and today he’s one of my best friends).
I didn’t “get” a Leonberger
Leonbergers are rare and expensive. Anyone who knows that tends to say, “You’re so lucky you got one.” Except, I didn’t. When Zeus’ owner dropped him off at the Yellowstone Valley Animal Shelter, they didn’t call me.
I had to learn about him from my mom (who found him online) and make a trip to visit the shelter (you had to show up in person for a supervised visit to get approved to apply). Once I was approved to apply, I had to drive back to the shelter to pick up the paper application, which I completed and handed in. A few dozen (I seem to remember the number 100) applied for him. I didn’t “get” Zeus because I was the lucky one. No, the shelter chose me because I’d done my homework and I had stellar references.
For at least three years, I’d wanted a Leonberger and anyone in my inner circle knew how passionate I was about them. Even people who weren’t in my inner circle! For example, a few years before meeting Zeus, I emailed a reporter at the Associated Press who wrote about my obsession with the breed. That story appeared in newspapers across the country. I also reached out to a national Leonberger club, eventually visiting the home of a Montana representative (who I reached out to online) who would later vouch for me at the shelter.
Finally, I CHOSE to go against my mom’s advice (she didn’t think adopting Zeus was a good idea at the time) and I accepted him when I was told I could adopt him—something I credit my AP article and association with the national club for.
I didn’t “get” good genes
Okay, so that’s not entirely true. I do have some good genes. BUT I also have Crohn’s disease (which runs in women of Eastern European Jewish descent) and strictly vanity speaking—I had to wear braces, get glasses and suffer through years of people either making fun of my freckles or telling me they were adorable. I was confused af. But I want people to know—for their sake—because they can do it too—that I didn’t “get” a good body.
I make choices that result in being healthy and lean. I.e. I’ve never gotten bigger than a size small ice cream (my parents used to make us split SMALL Blizzards when Dairy Queen was open). I never get extra toppings, unless they’re fruits or vegetables. And who needs stuffed crust when the cheese is already on top of the pizza? I don’t look at appetizers unless I’m eating them instead of an entrée and I NEVER NEVER I-don’t-care-what-the-occasion-is* day drink.
Similarly, I don’t bingewatch anything or spend Saturdays sprawled out on a couch. Nor do I take an Uber if it’s within walking distance. Walking is cheaper anyway. And the elevator? I only use that when it’s more than 6 stories and even then, when I lived on the 9th floor of my apartment in New York City, I took the stairs most of the time. So, I challenge you, if you want to be leaner and perhaps, probably, meaner, to make similar choices and see if you “get” a body closer to what you want.
And finally, I don’t “get” to travel
No one fired me from the 9-to-5 realm and said you are simply not cut out for the corporate world. Nor did a genie magically appear and grant me a wish of being able to travel as often as I’d like. No, what really happened is I made a series of conscious choices. Sometimes, with the consent of my friends and family. More often, without it.
When I was at my sickest, very weak and around 100 lbs., I got an email offering an all-expenses paid trip to South Africa if I was able to secure an assignment. Granted, not only was I too sick to travel anywhere, according to my parents and doctors, but it was also 2015: the year of the Ebola scare. I.e. if I had a $1 for every editor who told me there’s no way they’d assign an Africa story right now and even $1 for the editors who didn’t bother responding to my request, I could have paid my own damn way. But I didn’t. Instead, I chipped away at every editor and outlet whose contact information I could find until one finally gave me a letter of assignment.
And then, I ate as much as I could, put on some weight, and convinced my parents that I was healthy enough to travel abroad. Two months later, I was in Africa. Furthermore, I didn’t just stay in South Africa. I’d reached out to Rwanda’s tourism board and convinced them to agree to host me, if I paid for my flights, so I flew there. This was despite being told by my doctors that visiting Central Africa wasn’t in my best health interest. I’m on a biologic which weakens my immune system and doesn’t allow me to get live vaccinations such as the Yellow Fever vaccination required for visiting most, if not all, Central African countries.
The rest of my trips in the past few years have been similar. Yes, I do get a ton of emails offering “free” trips to exotic destinations. BUT, no trip is ever free. Nor do I “get” to go on them. I’m working: from responding to that initial email to handing in my assignment. I work to secure an assignment in advance, I hustle and suffer through boring, drawn-out press trip dinners, and when I get tired of having to play by their rules, I keep traveling by paying my own way. If this means I still drive a 2006 CRV, my bike seat is held together by duck tape because I can’t drop $100 on a new saddle and I can only afford to eat out during happy hour or on my birthday when I eat for free, then so be it.
The goods news is that because I don’t “get” to travel, neither do you NOT get to travel. If you wanted to quit your job tomorrow, I don’t think you’d have to walk over any dead bodies stopping you.
If you wanted to buy a ticket to Thailand and check riding elephants (although you will learn you shouldn’t ride them) off your bucket list, no one at the airline or elephant sanctuary is going to stop you. Nor is your bank account going to not approve the payment (unless you don’t have the funds in the first place).
But just like no one is going to stop you from booking a flight, reserving a week at an all-inclusive resort or whatever it is, no one is going to hold your hand when you sit in your boss’s office and ask for the time off. Unless your parents are as generous as mine, no one is going to volunteer to watch your dogs or your kids while you’re away. Also, no one is going to pat you on the back when they see you’re saving up for your trip by doing without a month’s gym membership and riding your bike for cardio (rain, wind or shine) instead.
At the end of the day, you are pretty much responsible for what you “get” and don’t get. Sure, sometimes bad things happen to good people, but genuinely good people usually don’t become bad people just because they’ve had some misfortune. They dictate how they react and they don’t let circumstances define them.
If you see something you want, don’t expect to “get” it. Expect to earn it. Most importantly, expect to savor the satisfaction that comes with knowing you earned it. Listen to any Ted Talk by a successful person or read the biography of a celebrity and most of it won’t be about what it’s like to live life at the top. It will be about the choices they made, and the hours they put in, to get there. The journey is NOT the destination. But more often than not, it’s just as pivotal.
*I do partake in the blood of Christ at communion