Travel to developing countries?

My last post explored impressions from a recent family trip to Guatemala. I talked about confronting my experience of travel at midlife, as well as external factors that contributed to a sense I probably won’t return to this beautiful country. Although I loved traveling there with my younger son and husband, I nevertheless felt discouraged about the enormity of the issues that Guatemala and Central America overall are facing. In general, I wonder how much more travel to developing countries I will do.

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Busy marketplace in Chichicastenango, Guatemala

My reaction to Guatemala’s economic problem

My most troubling issue with travel to places like Guatemala lies within myself. I find it tiring to be always saying “No, gracias” to the scores of people who approach tourists, trying to sell them something. These entrepreneurs are just doing what they can to try and feed their families, but their sheer number at times can overwhelm.  My heart went out to a woman who hadn’t made many, maybe not any, sales one day — sometimes I would buy, or simply give a vendor money. And yet there were too many salespeople for a single tourist to make much of an impact. As a result, I felt discouraged. Admittedly, mine was a “first world” reaction, but I didn’t like feeling depressed while on vacation.

Furthermore, conversations with locals about Guatemalan industries like rose-growing and candle-making, where once-thriving businesses had been shuttered due to competition from lower-wage countries, gave me little cause to hope for future growth in their economy. Guatemala has more than 15 million people, but most of them lack the technical skills needed to thrive in the modern economy. Like similar countries, corruption is pervasive, but infrastructure and investment are lacking. Micro-enterprise loans and grants can address poverty on an individual level, but system-wide, the standard of living remains low.

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Mayan woman selling flowers outside church in Chichicastenango, Guatemala

My travel time is finite

It is a strange feeling to be in a place, feel grateful and happy to be there, but also to recognize you probably won’t be back. I felt this way a few years ago when our family went to Machu Picchu. I didn’t have this perspective when I was younger, when I ventured alone to Michoacán, Mexico, or took a midnight ferry across the Adriatic to then-Yugoslavia. It didn’t cross my mind as a twenty-something to wonder whether I would go back to these places, or what they might be like in the future. But from where I stand now, time for traveling seems finite, and some places are lost to me forever.

But maybe I shouldn’t give up yet

There are still some developing regions of the world I’d love to visit. However, I’ll need to reconcile my desire to change people’s living standards with appreciation for life “in the here and now.” Just because my personal impact might be limited to people whom I encounter, just because I feel frustrated or despondent that their lives seem so “uncomfortable” compared to mine — this is not a reason to give up my appreciation for the beauty of life as it is right now.

This insight, in fact, might be what I’ve been lacking all along. Moreover, it’s a significant element in why it remains worthwhile to travel to places that aren’t so comfortable. Whether we are at home or abroad, ultimately all we have is the present. Maybe this is what I was supposed to see, and why I need to continue traveling to places like Guatemala.

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The sun rises over the jungle of Tikal, Guatemala

 

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Iconic Mayan temple in Tikal, Guatemala

Messy today, empty tomorrow

Today my house is messy and happy. We just returned from vacation, so there are suitcases everywhere, mounds of laundry, mail spilling off the entry table. Plus the packing activities of my youngest son, who leaves for his second year of college tomorrow morning. And my oldest, who leaves tonight with his bride. My daughter was here for a few weeks, but she left nearly a month ago. Our house reflects a summer of coming and going, living in the moment, not concerning myself with clutter. But tomorrow they’ll be gone. The house will be empty. There will be time to clean, but I will be sad.

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When does it get easier to say goodbye to my kids? One or more of them has been leaving for six years now. Their lives are lived elsewhere. While they come back to share themselves with us from time to time, our home will never again be the center of their world. I know this is how it should be, how I want it to be. But I hate it all the same.

Tomorrow I’ll start to clean up the remains of a summer where I relaxed and enjoyed my family’s company. It’s actually easier now, since I no longer have to mediate children’s squabbles, remind them to do their homework, or drive to their innumerable activities. Tomorrow, while I clean, my footsteps will echo through the house. My husband will go to the office. Only the dog will hear my quiet crying.

For one more day, I’ll live in the mess and be happy. Cleaning can wait until tomorrow.

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Two weeks, two graduations, what’s next for me?

Last month we celebrated. First was college graduation for my eldest on the East Coast, then back home for the last rites of high school with my youngest. There were so many parties and official events that I powered through by focusing on logistics. Now I have time to stop and consider the meaning of it all.

 

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There’s no denying middle age

In addition to the festivities, I also underwent that initiation into middle age, the baseline colonoscopy. And recently I’ve spent hours collecting financial documents, as my husband and I worked with an attorney to update our wills. Little wonder that my spinning instructor cautioned me about hunching my shoulders, and my chiropractor told me to come back in just a week.

 

That persistent question

Why can’t I stop and bask in my kids’ graduations — celebrate a job well done? Why do I jump to “what’s next?” Maybe it has to do with the question people were asking me at last month’s functions: “Now you’re going to be an empty nester. What do you think about that, and what do you plan to do with yourself?

 

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I tense up. For twenty years I’ve been a stay-at-home mom, school and sports volunteer, carpool driver and family chef. I don’t know how to translate these skills into something that will give my life meaning for the next twenty years.

I know I’m over-reacting. Folks are just being nice when they ask me “what’s next.” We don’t know each other well, and they’re trying to make conversation. Maybe the woman who asks me this is gathering ideas for her own midlife transition, or maybe she wonders if anyone else dreads an empty nest as much as she does. In fact, the actual number of people asking me “what’s next” has been small — nonetheless, I feel overwhelmed by the question.

 

Not knowing what’s next

For lots of us, it’s a scary transition. We’re left alone as our children go off to new adventures, friends and opportunities. Although it doesn’t hit you when they’re in elementary or middle school, the implication of raising your kids to be independent is that, eventually, they won’t need you anymore. This is good. But it’s also terrible.

I’ve spent the better part of two decades shepherding my children through their activities, helping with homework, doing laundry and cooking, and learning about their friends and interests. Now I’m staying put while they move on to do these things somewhere else, without me. Sure, it’s nice to do less laundry than before, not to always plan ahead what we’ll have for dinner. But there’s a big hole in my day-to-day life where my kids used to be, and I’m not sure how to fill it.

 

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A beginning or an end?

Commencement: for the graduates, it’s a beginning. For me, the graduates’ mother, it feels like more of an end. The end of their childhoods, the end of little people who need me, the end of doing what I know how to do.

I have faith there’ll be more joy ahead — I’ll make my way through this tunnel of sadness, fear and confusion. But I’m not ready to announce “what’s next” for me.

When I figure it out, though, I’ll be sure to let you know.

 

Image credits: Daisy Shih, Nick Harris, Anne Rosales

My life is good; so why am I feeling bad?

Have you ever had one of those days? Maybe not a day worthy of posting to the FML website, but one that reminds you of the children’s book, Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day? Monday was like that for me. By the time the day ended, I couldn’t isolate anything that I’d call “terrible” about my life — I just was feeling bad.

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Feeling bad after the older kids leave

It started Sunday, when my college kids returned to school after being home for a week on spring break. I liked having our whole family together again, enjoyed seeing the older two tease their younger brother. It was just like old times. Then they went back to their “real” homes at college, to their friends and their lives there. While it’s nice to stop sharing my car and go back to my routine in our household of three, I know that next year we’ll be a household of two  — and I’m worried that’s not going to feel so great, at least not initially.

Knowing I wasn’t feeling particularly good, I thought I’d ease into Monday, use the morning to catch up on paperwork, do laundry, change sheets and clean up my older kids’ bedrooms. They left their rooms as if they’d been leaving a hotel — beds unmade, shopping bags on the floor, papers and receipts on the night tables. Straightening up in the quiet, I felt like a housekeeper — not the mother of three well-adjusted children.

Feeling bad about a lost ring

Then I realized one of my rings was missing. Not my wedding ring, but the one my husband gave me for our twenty-fifth anniversary. A little worried, I checked the bathroom, the kitchen counter, my jewelry box. Not there. So I looked harder: I put my hand down the kitchen sink to check the disposal, looked all around the house. Cleaned out my purse, checked the pockets of my clothes.

I called the restaurant where we had dinner last night. No, they hadn’t seen my ring.

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Feeling bad and sorting through refuse

So I went through the last three days’ worth of garbage, then turned over the recycling bin and emptied it out to make sure the ring hadn’t slipped off my finger when I tossed out old magazines. Still nothing. I went outside and dug through the compost, running my hands through banana peels, coffee grounds, chicken bones, Saturday’s Indian takeout, and more slime I won’t discuss. But still no ring.

So at least we weren’t about to send it off with the garbage truck. But if the ring wasn’t in the trash, I’d have to look more aggressively inside the house. I cleaned out two bathroom drawers, then dismantled the sink drain. No luck.

Finally, something possessed me to check a closet I had looked in two hours earlier. This time I saw it.

But you know what? I thought I’d feel happy to find the ring, especially after looking all that time. Instead I just felt relieved. And emotionally worn out.

Feeling bad at tennis

I left to play a tennis match I had scheduled for the afternoon. It lasted only an hour. I lost 6-0, 6-0.

I wasn’t sure what was going on with me, but the day wasn’t getting better. I remembered my dad’s response whenever things got tough. He would say, “Want a cup of coffee, honey?”

So I went for a cappuccino and one of those delicious seven-layer cookie bars. I sat and stared out the coffeeshop window while I gathered my strength to go grocery shopping. I wondered whether I should quit playing tennis, spend my time on something I could do well. But wasn’t it okay to like a sport and want to play it, even if I played poorly?

On the other hand, if I couldn’t win, could I honestly say I liked tennis? I realized I was immersed in a conversation with myself, with my own Voice of Judgment. I had made this whole day about me, and I was over-reacting to a poor outcome in a match I supposedly had played “for fun.”

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The feeling-bad vortex

How did I get here, to this place of feeling bad? I have a great life: faith, family, friends, health, financial stability, and more. So why, all too often, do I spin down the woe-is-me vortex?

Sure, I know there are real people with real problems in this world. And I’m not one of them. It’s just a lot easier to stay in my personal vortex, than to get out of it and experience someone else’s.

I bought my groceries, went home and cooked a good dinner. At least that much of my day went okay. Actually, the whole day was fine, if you consider it in relation to the day of someone with real problems.

What drags you down, and how do you pull out of your vortex? Let me know in the comments!

 

Image credits: Amazon, Portland Observer, photoholic1 via flickr

Losing sucks. What happened to the “undo” button?

By any name and in any form, losing is a drag. Our family experienced this yesterday, when my son’s water polo team lost a playoff match to a lower-seeded team — an opponent that, on another day, they probably would have defeated handily. Post-game analysis of why they lost might be useful to the younger players, but to the seniors, not so much. It was their last game together as varsity water polo teammates from their high school. This was not how they wanted to go out.

 

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Whether it’s a water polo playoff, a USTA match, or Nadal losing to the 100th-ranked Rosol at Wimbledon, losing never feels good — especially losing a match you know you should have won. My husband remarked to me on the way home, “I just wish we could rewind it.” I agreed. I woke up this morning thinking, if only they were playing the match today. But they aren’t. It’s over.

And that’s how losing goes. Sometimes we lose because of factors within our control. And the consequences for losing can be much greater than the outcome of a sports game. Which one of us hasn’t regretted something we said, something we did, a choice we made? And what if the stakes for our decisions were high — say, the loss of a friendship, a business deal, maybe even a marriage?

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