Life and travel; embracing uncertainty

A friend just asked me where I’m going next. Boy, that really did it. 

I’ve been answering that question for the last six years now, and the answer has always been fun – for me to say, and for my friends to hear: “Kyoto!” “Berlin!” “Bologna!” Or even better, “Kyoto, then Berlin, then Bologna!” 

My answer as little as two months ago was, “I’ll be here in Sacramento through the end of March, then I’m in New York for five weeks, then I fly to Barcelona and off to do El Camino de Santiago again; then it’s Italia, then Istanbul and maybe Israel. Then back to New York, out to the Hamptons for a week, then back to California for the summer, capped by Burning Man. Then a few weeks in Sacramento, then I really want and need to get back to Kyoto, then…who knows?” 

Two months later, “Who knows?” is my only answer. 

I’m living with friends in my hometown, Sacramento, and it has been spectacularly great, and I will be eternally grateful for their kindness; but I also know that it can’t last forever. Then what? 

Who isn’t asking themselves this question? We are facing an unprecedented period of uncertainty, the first time a lot of us have faced it. That is at the root of a lot of the anxiety floating around out there, isn’t it? You feel it, don’t you? 

I live a little differently than a lot of people, and I’ve built this sort of uncertainty into my life. Still, I have to admit that while I’ve inoculated myself against some of that uncertainty, I have my own forms of it. 

The life I chose six years ago, after four years in New York, has been my Dream Come True; but right now it’s feeling like the Impossible Dream, swept away by waves of infection and fear. The truth, as usual, lies somewhere between those extremes. 

Like most people, I’m seeing life anew in this situation, and I’m appreciating so many things I have – my health, my friends, my creative projects, my connections around the world, my bicycle, even just my trusty old car – which turns 21 this week!  

But I’m also seeing things I don’t have: A fixed abode; a partner; even just the fallback of an RV I can live in. I’ve scoffed at some of the basic securities that people make a priority, and I have gotten away without them for a good long while. When “all this is over,” I will get away without them again. 

But “all this” is NOT “over,” and I don’t really see a day when it will be. It’s out there. Until there’s a vaccine, we’re all vulnerable, and COVID-19 will affect everything – especially our relationships with other people. And our relationships with travel. 

These days, some of the things that people have to help them feel secure aren’t really doing that: Having a thriving business used to be a benefit; now it may be an albatross; having a home depends on what your rent or mortgage is, and whether you have a job or not; having a partner is, as always, a mixed bag. And don’t even get me started on the RV…

Moreover, my inability to travel freely right now is not a tragedy; I’ve always been clear about how lucky (and OK, smart) I am to have been able to create the life I have. Most people have many more responsibilities than I do. I am free in some pretty marvelous ways; that hasn’t changed with COVID-19. 

Moreover, there is a world of places to alight out there. I could end up in any number of interesting places, in California, in New York, or anywhere in between. Perhaps Kyoto? Perhaps Italia. Mexico? Thailand? Some place I can’t even imagine now? That is what I signed up for. 

Of course, that’s only partly true, and there’s the rub: Borders are literally closed, cities are “locked down” to varying degrees, and many of the businesses a traveler depends on are not functioning. It’s not a good time to go anywhere. 

Where I am right now is perfect beyond my wildest dreams, and this uncertainty makes me want to cling to it. I also cling to the notion that the next place could be even better, or better in different ways. There’s just no telling. That’s certainly been my experience. But that’s why it’s also a little unnerving: There’s just no telling. When I’m traveling, not knowing where I’ll be in a month is exciting; during the pandemic, that excitement can feel more like anxiety – if I let it. 

But truth be told, it’s always felt that way. Travel is an exercise in self-confidence and self-reliance, for sure; it’s a psychological game. But it’s also an exercise in having faith that the world is abundant, people are kind, and there is a place for everyone – even a tired wanderer. 

So, I’m not going to let my friend’s question get me down, or cause me anxiety (for long); the answer may not be as certain as it was two months ago, but it’s also an answer with its own built-in excitement, it’s own promise, it’s own limitless possibilities. Yes, there is anxiety; that is the other side of the same tossed coin. It’s all about how one chooses to experience that feeling. 

I’m an optimist. I know pessimists, and I just can’t go there, it looks awful. No matter what you expect, you get what you get. So I expect good things; better to spend time anticipating good things than fearing bad things, because even if things end up badly, at least you will have shorted the time you suffer. 

And then, of course, bad situations get good again. 

This is life. My life is a bit more exposed to the tides of the world, and that’s exactly how I like it. Sometimes you get a riptide that pulls you far from the shore; but then you eddy out and grab some flotsam or….but I’m not going to pursue that analogy too far, it could work out poorly.

But you get my drift: I have my basics together, and I’m open to the currents. I just have to maintain my faith that I will be somewhere, which is of course guaranteed until I am nowhere. That somewhere will almost assuredly be better than I expected it to be. That’s been one of the great lessons of travel, and one of the great lessons of life. 

Ten years ago, inside of a year, I lost both parents, two houses, my two oldest friends, my job and a longtime relationship – from all those losses came ten years of adventures that I treasure, ten years that changed my life, and changed me. They have been the best ten years of my life. I’m living that life now, and I love it as much for its uncertainty as I ever loved my past life for it’s solidity; more, in fact. 

So…bring it. No, that’s too macho; instead, I welcome it. We’re all a lot stronger and more flexible than we think we are, and a lot less dependent on the things we think are protecting us than we fear we are. 

I chose this life for good reasons; I can’t wait to see how it answers my friend’s question. 

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Thank you for checking out my blog - it’s just the tip of the iceberg.  I am working on projects regarding music history, Japanese culture and my songwriting.

- A week-by-week music history website, music1967.com
- An upcoming book on Japanese culture, Japan from Anime to Zen
- A YouTube channel, featuring random songs and thoughts for the pandemic
- Original music on Spotify, with links to Patreon and Amazon 

David Watts Barton

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