On my summer travels I met women who had choices about what to do with their lives. Choices about how to spend their days, and where to be. We hiked, climbed a glacier, shared dinner, but most of all we reached across racial and language barriers and shared our self.
One women I met was 34, a Chinese nurse, and home was Hong Kong. Her English was halting but sufficient enough to tell me that spending her money on seeing new places, meeting people from other cultures topped saving and buying an ultra expensive small flat in a crowded city. We spoke of marriage, in her view a prospect of bondage. Instead if marriage she preferred a looser arrangement with friends.
Another woman was 38, a Danish theater director and home was Greenland. Her English was fluent and we spoke of living the single life among a culture of men who lacked communication skills, who couldn’t talk about feelings, who knew about work and making money in a harsh climate. We spoke of using theater to break audiences out of their shell…
There was another 28 year old Danish citizen with a British boyfriend and home was a puzzle. She had lived in the US and played basketball for an American University. We talked of citizenship choices, career choices and love. Love seemed secondary to choosing where home could be, what “home” meant.
A 34 year old Canadian financial consultant had left home in Montreal. She spoke English and French fluently. We spoke of travel as a way to open new horizons. She had recently broken her engagement with her partner over the issue of having children some day. A career partnership with the man she loved wasn’t what she saw as happiness, family was. She was torn between her heart and the future she wanted.
A 28 year old German woman had spent four months on the trail from Mexico to Canada. Close to the end of the journey, she wasn’t ready to stop. We spoke of hiking as a form of meditation. She decided she would keep walking and hike another trail until her visa ran out. Her happiness was hiking.
All of the millennial women I met this summer were from different parts of the world, different races, educated and multi-lingual. They all had choices that allowed for personal development.
As millennial women from mostly western societies, they won’t have to break out of the subservient marriage expectations, and limited career choices, women in other, more conservative cultures, face. The women I met can seek adventure, find their edges of comfort and expand into new discovery. The women I met shared their dreams, their desires, their need for freedom.
These women aren’t choosing the formulaic lives women in America had in the fifties and sixties. A time now heralded as “Great” by a certain politician running for president.
Stephanie Coontz, a historical expert on family and marriage, responds in a recent interview for Sun magazine (September 2016, page 5) to her interviewer’s statement of “It’s often said that people who don’t know the past are doomed to repeat it’ with the following words:
“I’m concerned they think they can repeat the past - which is dangerous”.
Coontz, who recently revised and updated her 1992 book, “The Way we never were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap”, puts forth her perspective on marriage, love and happiness as it developed through the ages. It becomes clear that the current nostalgia for “family values” in America are a memory of 50 years ago when the nuclear family with women as home makers and men as breadwinners, is idolized. It was the first time in economic history when one person’s salary could support a family. And how great was that for women? Yes, there was a certain economic security in the arrangement, but for many women it was also a prison, preventing them from self expression and personal development.
In the last 50 years women have fought hard to change gender politics and get to this place of choice the millennial women in western societies are experiencing now. Why would we give it up and allow those who haven’t been able to adapt to the economical and psychological changes which have taken place, drag us back into an imagined past that can’t be repeated, a past most women don’t want to repeat?
The happiness data from around the world show that in countries where there is support for two career families in terms of parental leave and caregiving leave, such as Sweden and Denmark, parents report themselves as happy. In countries where that support isn’t there or extremely limited, i.e. America, non-parents report themselves as happier than parents who are juggling careers, children and extended families. Lets not even talk about happiness in countries where women can’t have careers, or where they are the sole breadwinners living with abuse, poverty and war.
Rather than going back to the past, lets adapt to what the future brings us, and find ways to support living arrangements that lead to happiness, that allow choice. As the women I met this summer told me, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all living arrangement that works under the current variable economic and family circumstances in this country. There is no ideal “Great” American way of life. America and the world is in flux, always changing. If we continue to support and create race and gender equality, equal educational and career opportunities, and equal access to health and family planning services, people will be able to choose a way of life that makes them happy. The women I met this summer showed me it doesn’t take a politician to make that choice for them.
The last month of my summer travel took me to the Pacific Crest trail, a trail that runs from Mexico to Canada, 2660 miles long. I completed a 350 mile section of that long trail in the state of Washington. It was a month long hike up and down through woods and meadows, over passes, through rivers and snow.
A young German woman finished the whole trail from Mexico to the Canadian border at the same time I finished my section. She had been on the trail for 4 months, hiking day in, day out, up and down, through desert and snow, through woods and over lava beds. “I don’t want to stop”, she said smiling, “I want to keep walking”. She turned back at the border to walk another 30 miles south to Hart’s pass where she could connect with a trail that runs east-west to the Pacific Ocean.
“What comes after?” I asked.
My visa will be up, I will meet a friend in Toronto, and hike a bit there, winter will come and I will have to go back to Germany. She reminded me of the woman I was in my mid-twenties. On the road for a year, moving around with the season until the money ran out, until the weather changed, until, until…., there was another journey to go on.
Life is the journey. The month long walking trip was a slice of my life, stripped of its daily distractions, void of its daily social obligations, filled with vast nature, and a simple regime, walk, climb, breathe, eat, rest and do it all over again, day in, day out. Attention on the path to avoid injury, mind becoming empty as the hours pass with an almost monastic schedule of waking, eating, walking and resting. When the trail is the focus, the mind becomes one pointed, the effort stirs unresolved life issues and they emerge for contemplation and letting go.
How to describe the experience of a month on the trail?
I walked, breathing hard on the steep uphills, my aging body calling my attention. I learned to stop instead of push to get to the top, where I surveyed the distance, the snowy peaks, the glacial river thundering deep down below. I tasted the berries on the brush covered sections of trail, the nectar lingering on my tongue, as the sweat dripped down my back. The pack, a bundle of needs and comfort I chose to carry, hugged my hips, my shoulders, weighing down on my aging knees and feet with bunions and callouses in the wrong places, remnants of vanity shoe-wear in my youth. I descended into the deep stillness of moss covered logs under old growth trees, towering above me in their 500-800 year wisdom of being still, their limbs moved by wind, rain, and snow, sprinkled with sunlight as I passed through. As I climbed to a pass, where cold wind blew from distant snowy peaks, carpets of wild flowers, pink, white, and blue spread out in front of me, making my heart leap in that far distance of mountain ridge after mountain ridge. The endlessness of things was presented to me again and again.
I chose the summer to experience the wildness, to comfort me with sunshine and long days, but as I walked, I imagined the cold winter, snow deep, trees creaking and breaking, animals starving. I imagined the shadow side of life which cycles inevitably in its seasonal motion. Three days of rain and low, dripping clouds gave me a taste of my vulnerability, hypothermia just around the corner. I had no fur to keep me dry, I could only hole up in a shelter covered by a light weight tarp, hoping my down bag wouldn’t get wet through. When the sun came out again I stripped out of my wet clothing, laid everything out to dry on soft heather and jumped naked in the silky, clear water of an emerald mountain lake. I was embraced by its clarity, its buoyancy. I yelled out the chill biting my skin, my voice echoing against the snowy cirque above. I became part of the natural world and I thanked the universe for letting me be alive.
This journey ended. The journey changed me. Another one will emerge out of this experience. I completed an arbitrary goal I set to challenge the forces of indulgence and sloth that lurk in the shadows of the easy life at home and try to kill my connection with wholeness. I have returned to my comfortable home. My summer nomadic season is coming to a close. I’m carrying stories from people, especially women, from all over the world inside me. Stories I hope to share with you in time. I feel whole and complete.
Fall and winter are around the corner. They will bring their own journey.