When I was recently in Zanzibar, Tanzania, I met a 29-year old yogi from Buffalo, New York. There is a certain quality of surrealism that accompanies meeting a fellow American in a far away place. We always — and I mean always — partake in a traditional greeting undoubtedly established long ago by our journeying countrymen: Where are you from? What are you doing here? Where are you going next? Did you quit your job or are you in transition? Would you consider yourself a digital nomad?
The yogi and I obliged the list of questions. When we broached those regarding how long she planned to stay abroad and what she planned to do upon her eventual return, she, like many other Americans I have met, began to squirm uncomfortably in her seat. She offered a small, nervous laugh; cleared her throat; and turned her gaze toward the emerald-green sea that lay below our balcony. She switched the position of her crouched legs and stumbled over the sentence: “Oh… I’m not sure. I don’t know how things are going to turn out here yet, or what I’ll do back in New York.”
I found her response to be symptomatic of something ingrained within the American traveler. In spite of a desire to liberate ourselves from a narrative about how our lives ought to go (which is ostensibly the reason for our travel in the first place), we keep clarifying our leaves of absence within the context of that very narrative.
Only two yoga instructors in the world have had the misfortune of leading classes in which I was a participant. I have a terribly short attention span, and likely misinterpret their intended messages; I nevertheless find the courses to be revelatory.
At the beginning of these classes, students are told that, if we need to pause, we can “drop down into Child’s Pose” and rest, until we are ready to rejoin the group’s flow. We are strongly encouraged to take an expression of the pose that feels the most comfortable, and are welcome to take on a different pose from the one demonstrated at any time. They explain that the tempo of our flow is unique to us, and we move only as slowly or as quickly as our bodies feel is right. The practice of yoga incorporates a space in which we listen to ourselves and act on behalf of our needs. This space is incorporated into the temporal structure of each yoga class, and this space constitutes the very fabric of the practice itself.
Just as in a yoga class, our American lives follow the lead of someone who seems to know how this works. They demonstrate and adjust us. We look to our peers to see how others interpret complex and sometimes contradictory instructions. It feels embarrassing when we can’t keep up, or we take a step in the wrong direction. We think we ought to be further along by now.
The difference between a yoga course and our expected American lives is that the space to take it at a different tempo or to drop into Child’s Pose isn’t built into the fabric of American life. Other countries in the Global North heartily advocate for (or even mandate) gap years. They welcome the switching of degree paths and careers. Students are entitled to financial support while pursuing a degree (or four). Parents are welcome to stay home with their child and watch them grow. People are invited to discover what interests them, to reflect upon life’s big questions, and to change their minds.
There is a narrative about how American life is supposed to go: we do the right things to get into the right schools to get the right job and to find the right partner with whom we will eventually buy the right little box on the right hillside, and then we will create right replicas of ourselves who will do it right all over again, give or take a few variations on the theme.
The questions that we ask our fellow American travelers can be derived from genuine interest, but in my experience, they usually serve another purpose. Through them, we assess and compare the relationships that we have with reality, if we understand “reality” as the pressure and obligation to perform the same old song and dance at the prescribed tempo.
Although this fabric might not be material or tangible, many of us feel it. We are aware of it. Because it is not ready-made, we seek to carve out a space in which we can escape this pressure. We find ways to procure leaves of absence, during which we try to figure out how we will bridge the gap between the prescriptions for our American lives — what we “should” do — and being true to ourselves, exploring our passions, purpose, and what we “must” do, as Elle Luna puts it.
And yet, we feel the need to explain ourselves.
We do this by unconsciously reinforcing our relationship to American industry, even if we insist that ours is one that’s a little different. We often discuss occupations before ever exchanging names. We feel the need to contextualize this momentary break in that professional label and explain why we’re not participating like we’re supposed to be. These explanations rely on a tacit presumption that we will be participating again (as a richer, more informed human) sometime in the foreseeable future.
The yogi’s answers to my questions belied something subtle, pervasive, and shared about our expectations for leaves of absence. No matter their duration, we have a sense that they are supposed to be two things: temporary and purposeful. We feel obligated to have a definite answer as to why we’re abroad and how long we plan to be. When we don’t have these answers, we feel uncomfortable. If it doesn’t have a clear purpose, it doesn’t fit on the trajectory. And if it doesn’t fit on the trajectory, what’s the point? Americans cannot help feeling this way, although in doing so it strengthens the narrative we are seeking to escape.
Whether and to what degree we are interested in participating in the expected tempo and steps of our American lives is a question that brings many of us a great deal of discomfort. I count myself among the individuals who are interested in rewriting the narratives surrounding expectation for the “use” of our time, lives, and energy. We are rallying hard to support one another in our pursuits of purpose and passion in the world.
But in order to do these things, we must begin to reorient ourselves in conversations and beliefs about the value of the time we spend traveling and sharing our travels with others. We are fortunate to have space in which to take an intentional pause. We ought to let our fellow travelers know that we don’t need to know where they’ve come from or why they’re here. And we don’t need to know where they’re going, or how it maps onto the larger trajectory of their lives.
To my fellow Americans who want to experience travel and life more like a yoga class and less like a conveyor belt: you are here, now, because you have listened to yourself. That, in and of itself, is cause for a tremendous celebration. Keep going.