The Australian Aborigines go on a journey during adolescence and live in the wilderness, traveling by foot to trace the paths of their ancestors. Their rite of passage is called a walkabout.
I recently returned from my own version of a walkabout. For the past few years I’ve hunkered down to the tasks at hand. I’ve started each day with a to-do list and have kept track of my days in thirty-minute increments to maximize productivity. Something about turning forty felt like getting slammed up against a wall built of my own expectations and obligations. I’ve started to consider mortality and wondered whether it’s time to take new risks, to explore different, more authentic ways of living. Nagging questions kept surfacing: was my fear of not using my time wisely resulting in a hyper-productive state that ultimately made the minutes worthless? Should I focus more on my loved ones and less time on racking up accomplishments? Was I making the most of my life?
My three-year old and I spent ten days in Europe visiting my brother who lives there. He conveniently married my high school best friend (I set them up on a date when we were fourteen). For over a decade, I thought their three children would be the closest thing I experienced to parenting. That’s all to say that we’re close beyond reason despite the miles.
We rented a three-bedroom apartment on Lake Como in Northern Italy, where the Alps abruptly disappear beneath the water’s surface, creating a dramatic landscape of snow-capped mountaintops that transition into blooming Italian hillsides, the watery blue often reflecting the pink and white spring flowers on its surface. Lake Como is blessed with a rare combination of dramatic Swiss alpine scenery and the Italian aesthetic in architecture and food.
We let the days unfold, traveling as much as we could by foot with our four kids who ranged from three to fifteen years old. We packed a picnic and set off walking up cobblestone walkways that weaved between coral and sunshine-yellow buildings, passing villas with ornate gardens and troughs of free-flowing water where locals filled jugs. Along the way we took turns pushing, carrying, and listening to our kids tell us stories we’d never heard as we made our way up the mountainside. Hours later we passed the last house and set out to find hiking trails leading to waterfalls and vistas. Along the way we picnicked and let our kids run wild in the grassy meadows.
I became absorbed in the people and sights surrounding me. I stopped obsessing over filling every waking moment with worthwhile action. The days unfolded all on their own without me looking at the time. Thoughts drifted in and out of my mind. I thought of the man I love on his own journey with loved ones, realizing that he had miles to walk with his own children before we would walk together again. Words welled up inside of me for books and articles I want to write. I let my thoughts come and go. The quest to do more and to have more time vanished, leaving me engaged with the good company of my family in a beautiful place. Without expectation, the days were enough just as they were and I enjoyed the simple joy of walking.
Walking lends itself to a certain clarity about what’s most important not despite of the slow pace but because of it. There is so much to see along the way that can be missed by going too fast. Dawdling along also helps unwind the past, giving ourselves the time and space required to explore what’s gotten us to this place in life.
On the last day of our stay, my sister-in-law and I were drinking white wine while watching our four kids swing on a tire. She held my hand and said, “It’s amazing to sit here and watch our kids play together. I would have never imagined this moment when we met in high school, but I would have always wanted it.”
My heart swelled with love for her, for my family, and for my own life. The years had served me well, my own life was coming full circle before me and I was present enough to witness it.
Transitioning back into my everyday life, I want to continue giving myself the permission to meander and lose track of time. Walking reminds me that productivity isn’t the true measure of my soul. Focusing and applying my energy in directions with no measurable outcomes is why I’m here, to love, engage, move, laugh, and write.