On the cusp of my turning seventy, a supporter asks what has changed since I began a life of adventure travel.
Way back in May, not long after I launched my Patreon site, Saga Supporter NancyL, writing from New Zealand, fired me a superb set of questions to which I want to respond here.
They were so good. At the time I'd been largely stuck in my house and not traveling as much, so I wanted to wait until I'd returned to my peripatetic ways so that I had something of value to offer.
Then I couldn't find the damned questions for a while. Yesterday I did.
Here is what NancyL wrote me back in spring:
Writing from the other side of anywhere, here in New Zealand, I would simply love to read the tales of your travels. How has the passage of time affected the lens of your internal telescope, microscope, sensibility? What is different - and what is the same, but perceived differently because you are not the same yourself? I'm in the armchair, leaning forward to listen; fill my ears and eyes!
I bolded that part of Nancy's inquiry which really spoke to me. Since this question set, I've been back to Africa, which is very familiar, to Colombia, which is not, and am now back in Thailand, which brings back many memories.
The bolded piece of this question really hit me square in the eyes for several reasons. I have changed in some very important ways.
A tip of the hat first to NancyL's home country. I fell madly in love with New Zealand back in 1984, at the beginning of my first international trip. I was gobsmacked by New Zealand's beauty, and have the best memories of that gorgeous country, years and years before Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy was filmed there.
That four-year journey, a hitch-hiking trip across three countries and thousands of miles, was a life-changer. But not as much as the last decade.
How has the passage of time affected the lens of your internal telescope, microscope, sensibility?
What is different - and what is the same, but perceived differently because you are not the same yourself?
Damn. What great questions.
In 2011, I was celebrating the publication of my first book, Wordfood, with a trip to Thailand. I had at the time been suffering from eating disorders for close to forty years, a habit which would ultimately cost me all my teeth and dental torture beyond imagining. When I arrived here, the idea that I could simply walk away from them was, well. Impossible.
Some of this is repetitive so I ask your patience. I've written quite openly about these things but they are relevant in the context here.
A few weeks into that journey, in the tiny town of Trat, I did just that. Walked away. Forever. Since then I've eaten healthily, normally. While Covid has not been my friend in that regard (too much chocolate, thank you), bottom line, the eating disorders were gone forever.
Today, as I sit here in Chiang Mai listening to the gentle rain and the sound of tropical birds as they skim the pond for insects, I have been free for eleven years.
It would be difficult to sum up all the changes such a major shift has wrought. But this much I can list:
I have a life. No more centering my life around food.
I have more income for things I like to do, not things I want to eat.
I am no longer defined by a disorder, but defined by a lifestyle free of a terrible compulsion. That means I've been more engaged, active, social, productive in every single way since that day.
The eating disorders were a form of punishment, as well as a form of distraction from body dysmorphia and self-revulsion resulting from sexual predation. It's never about the food, really.
Anyone who has suffered from an addiction or a compulsion can relate. It doesn't matter whether it's donuts (me) or drams, when we trade our time for the next dopamine hit, we aren't living.
I also no longer live in denial of that disorder, which is a prime indicator of just how deeply entrenched it is within us.
That fundamental freedom, launched for me just a few days before my 58th birthday, also launched a whole other kind of life. Shortly afterwards I would start training in earnest to climb Kilimanjaro, and after that, the world became my home.
The way I perceive myself as a result of having been able to single-handedly end that horrible habit is also informative. I'm accustomed to being disciplined enough to end a smoking habit and to lose a great deal of weight. However eating disorders are particularly pernicious as we have to eat, and temptations are everywhere. So that was a win which informed just about every other aspect of my existence in a way that quitting smoking at 19 couldn't have.
Someone said to me back then, "You chose life."
Perhaps that is precisely why that moment, in that tiny town, was so pivotal.
I've been able to write about the painful parts of my life. I've had to let go of long- term friendships which no longer fit who I was becoming. I added many more friendships which would continue to push me to be better, some of those friends in far-flung places.
Now, eleven years later and facing down my 70th birthday in a few months, I have an older body, different challenges as I invest in repairs to both hands and feet (at least two for now), and begin to plan out my next decade.
My eating needs have changed, and I have finally committed to taking the advice and following the example of a number of my Saga supporters to limit myself to one meal a day. That tactic fits not only the research I've seen but also where I am physically.
I already know that I can do this.
To Nancy's question about perceptions. Eleven years on, although Covid put a crimp in my style, I have watched my skills grow, my knowledge expand and my willingness to take chances explode. While I have also ratcheted back some of the sports (expense, and I just don't like them as much), I have also noticed that I am willing to challenge whether or not I take something on to prove a point or because I happen to love it.
In response to too much social messaging around age, I challenge my motives. Am I doing this because I truly enjoy it? Or because I'm trying to prove people wrong about aging?
And if the latter, what does that get me? Is that a pure motive or is it driven by ego?
What, perhaps, am I trying to prove to myself?
Those aren't always comfortable questions. I love an audience, no question. But what good is an audience if my motives are self-aggrandizing and inauthentic?
The evolution has been to move from loving an audience based on ego needs to serving an audience based on values. Not an easy shift, but a necessary one. It's ongoing, too.
Having lost a goodly portion of forty years to eating disorders, how much of the last ten or more have been about trying to make up for lost time?
Truth? A great deal of it. I can't get that time back, but I can fill the time I have with experiences which give me great joy and a sense of purpose. The friends I have now are very different from ten years ago. The kinds of people in my inner world, those I listen to, those whose lives and questions motivate me are of a wholly new nature. In fact,
Another truth: As I have explored the world, so too have I been able to far more deeply explore my fears, the inner world that I have avoided all my life, and face down some of the uglies which have driven my compulsive behaviors.
Among those "uglies:"
The messaging that I had no right to be born, it was an offense to be born female, that my value to the world was limited to my fuckability, and that I was a pimple on the world at large simply by having shown up. That I am guilty for being female and deserve to be punished for such a crime.
Perhaps the worst, a demon that still needs exorcism, that I deserved the incest and sexual assaults, that I brought them upon myself. That's a doozy, right?
I am most certainly not alone in such thoughts. Perhaps I can find ways of framing such horrid questions for others. Find mercy, grace, freedom as a result. Maybe.
To be fair, I have indeed found measures of mercy, grace and freedom along the way. Pushing myself, taking big risks and doing extreme sports were part of it, but so were all the brand new relationships, the experiences and the insights gained from being out of my comfort zone much of the time.
That makes all this worthwhile.
Recently in a private message Saga supporter Nalini McNabb asked a few very direct questions about whether I was "deifying pain." In the past I could have agreed with that absolutely, but would not have been able to. Not at all. These days, happily, that is nowhere near as true, albeit there is an undertone to my making fun of the injuries that I deal with which indicates that pain remains a theme in my life.
Such intense questions are the lifeblood of an examined life. Our discomfort with them is a fine indicator of how much truth they hold, whether in the past or still in the future.
As I reframe my intention to return to adventure travel in my seventies, back to NancyL's questions, I find that the perspectives gained from these years of travel have in many ways changed what I will likely do next.
For example, the willingness to release nearly all I own, including my house, after spending two long, hard years creating that very home in the place of my long-held dreams: Oregon.
Living out of a backpack for much of the last twelve years has been a lesson in minimalism. But bringing home all those souvenirs and goodies forced the need for a house big enough to hold them. The only answer for me, ultimately, was to sell all of it. One big gesture, still underway, still in process.
My company had effectively folded, the options were few. You choose, you move forward. You don't look back, you deal. These days I am far better at allowing grief, which is an essential part of being able to move forward.
At 57 that would have been impossible. Not today. The ability to pivot swiftly, deal with the demands of the moment have been built from days and weeks in situations which are by their very definition both fluid and often dangerous. Some have required that I make instant decisions not only for my comfort but in some cases my safety or even my life.
It becomes far easier, over time, to make decisions such as dumping possessions, walking away from a broken dream, moving to another country. All the while getting surgeries for parts needing repairs, trusting that the Universe will provide (it always does) and forever looking for the humor.
There's always plenty of that.
Just as there is more time now to allow myself to feel grief, to feel sadness, and not pressure myself to swiftly move along to the Next Big Thing. That compulsion has been much tempered these last years, as I have finally embraced the sacred goddess work of vulnerability.
I chose life. To be fully in life, which I am still learning, is to be vulnerable to sadness, loss, pain, disappointment. I finally see how much strength vulnerability gives the soul. I can pivot, sure.
But pivoting involves transition, and transition most often entails loss. Refusing to acknowledge losses puts rocks in the emotional backpack moving forward. The people closest to me remind me of who I can be, the lessons I need to face, and my right to love, live fully and stop apologizing for having been born.
Eleven years on from that fateful day in Trat, which for me really did signal the beginning of life, I look out onto the world with very different eyes. There is far greater confidence, written into my face as wrinkles and into my brain as experiences, and written into my heart as the gifts of doing what I really love, which is all about travel, adventure sports and animals.
Going forward, I still carry buckets of self-doubt, goblins of fear that I might not be enough, and all the very reasonable questions about my future that anyone facing seventy in today's world has a right to ask.
I've happily pruned away much of what doesn't work, the heavy rocks in my backpack which no longer serve. Is all well? Hardly. However there is no point at which everything lines up and is perfect. As NancyL wrote me elsewhere, I still have 17 balls in the air. What I've learned is which ones to put down for now.
Unlike previous trips, I have taken four long, slow, quiet days here in Chiang Rai. Only a few hours to visit the temples. The rest, I am watching the pond, the storms, the winds through the trees. Not sure I could have done that eleven years ago.
When I return to training in full, I will not train compulsively the way I did for Kilimanjaro the first time. That's a healthy shift. I don't need that kind of intensity now.
Of course there's more. But I'm going to take a nap, something else I couldn't have done for myself at 57.
With sincere thanks to NancyL and Nalini, and those of you who poke, prod, challenge and inspire. I appreciate all of you so very much, including those of you kind enough to just read. You are all part of my world.
Dear Walkabout Saga Reader:
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