Free-Spirited Spinster?

I stood on the front porch of the Unwound yarn shop in Blowing Rock, NC, chatting with three women I’d met just a few minutes earlier inside the shop.  They were on a day trip to the area. I was two weeks into my sabbatical year, taking my sweet old time driving down the Blue Ridge Parkway.  As travelers are bound to do, we all got to chatting.

“Where are you from?” they asked.

“New York,” I said, already trying to figure out how to answer the inevitable next question.

“And what are you doing here?”

Where to start? “I’m on my way to Brasstown, North Carolina, and decided to drive for a spell along the Parkway.”

And that’s when we jumped down the rabbit hole. Each question they asked plunged them deeper and deeper into my story. They learned I’d just gotten rid of most of what I’d owned, that I was about to start a four-month stint at the John Campbell Folk School, that my sabbatical year would culminate in my walk along the Camino to Santiago.

“You’re a free spirit!” one of the women said. 

“I am indeed.” I thought of my littlest sister Meg who introduces me to her friends saying, “This is my free-spirited sister,”   usually followed by, “you know, the one who’s getting rid of all her stuff and going around the world.”

The woman on the porch of the yarn shop continued. “When you’re done with the free-spirit part, marry a good-looking man — and make sure he’s a democrat.”

I laughed.  “I’m hoping I don’t have to end my free-spirit days in order to get married.”

She considered that and quickly agreed.

This idea–that travel is something to “get out of my system” before I “settle down”–is one I don’t know that I agree with. A few months before I started my sabbatical  friends starting saying things like, “You’re going to meet someone the day before you leave. What would you do if that happened?”

“I’d still go,” I said, matter-of-factly.  There were no other options in my book.  I do some drastic things, but canceling a whole year of adventures because I meet someone who just may want to date me? Marry me even? “If he’s really that interested, it will work out regardless.” 

“Good for you,” they would say.

Then there were those who thought, myself included, that I’d meet someone over the course of my travels. That sounded more plausible then meeting someone in my hometown the day before I left. “I’m sure he’s out there traveling the world, so I’m going to find him,” I told a couple people when pressed on the topic. Indeed, I met more than a few fascinating traveling souls, but our time together was that of two free-spirits who cross paths briefly and then go on our respective journeys elsewhere.

Sometimes I wonder if I’m not meant to simply live the life of a single woman. Not long after one of my sisters announced she was pregnant, I had visions of being the spinster aunt–the “crazy” one with the wild hair, a cottage in the woods. My niece would love coming to visit; my sister would dread sending her worried what fanciful ideas I’d put in her head.

I laugh at that thought as I sit here on the porch of my cozy cabin next to my babbling brook, the sun peeking through the clouds, my hair unbrushed.

My back porch

My back porch

Quit a Job to Go To Italy? A Story about Motivation

In January of 2006, while on a beach in the Florida Keys with two dear friends from my college days, my mother called me. After exchanging pleasantries about my trip, my mother got to her point. “So your grandmother joined a senior citizens group.  And guess what the first thing was on the agenda of their first meeting?”

“No idea.”

“A trip to Italy.”

“Really?”

“Yeah – and she wants to go.” I was hoping this was leading where I wanted it to.  My mother continued, “but her hearing’s not too good, so she doesn’t want to go alone.” Jackpot.

“I’ll go with her,” I said, without hesitation. Grandma’s husband and dedicated travel companion of sixty years had died just six months earlier. Grandpa always called me “The Vagabond” when I arrived for meatballs on Sundays, having just returned from travels to Switzerland or France, or from an internship in Portland or North Carolina, or having come from my new home in Boston or Bethesda. It was only fitting that this vagabond take his wife on such a trip.

“I figured you’d want to go, but what about work?” my mother asked.

“If they won’t let me go, I’ll quit,” I said.

“Rebecca…”

“I’m kidding Mom. I’ll figure it out. Just tell her I’ll go.”

A few weeks later I received an e-mail.  My department was looking for volunteers to help another department catch up on a big project. It was not exactly mindless work, but it was routine. The work would have to be done outside our normal jobs, which meant staying late or coming in early. We would not be paid overtime, but we were offered something I consider much better: comp time.

By now I’m sure you can figure out who added an extra hour or so each day and earned six days of comp time in time to take her 83-year-old Italian grandmother on a once-in-a-lifetime trip to the land of her ancestors. (For those of you asking why I couldn’t just use my regular vacation days, it’s because I’m one of the few Americans who uses up all her vacation days. I needed more!)

First, I’ll say that of course this all worked out.  Because I believed it would.

But this story came to mind today for another reason.

I was just reading Daniel Pink’s book Drive.  I heard Mr. Pink interviewed about this book a couple years ago.  I heard enough to get the gist of the book and so didn’t bother to read it. But something sparked my interest in it recently, so off I went to check it out of the library (yes, I’m one of the three people in the U.S. who don’t own an e-reader).

The book is all about what motivates us. I’m currently reading about extrinsic motivation, which he argues is best used only when there’s a routine task that needs to get done.  He cautions that, even then, extrinsic rewards are only good if the person giving them 1) explains why the task is necessary 2) acknowledges the task to be done is boring and 3) let’s workers complete the task in their own way.

That’s exactly what my former company did with the aforementioned project. They explained – in numbers – how many adjustments had to processed, acknowledged it was something none of us would want to do all day (but perhaps for an hour), and they let us do it how we wanted to do it – whether that was to come in before or after work, do it on a lunch hour, etc.

Mr. Pink argues that had they forced us to do it and/or outlined exactly how/when we could do it, we would not have been as motivated.  He’s spot on. Lucky for me, somebody in my company knew a little something about extrinsic motivation. Either that, or they learned about my conversation with my mother and didn’t  want me to quit my job.

—–

Epilogue:

In March of 2006,  me, Grandma Gallo, my brother, and two cousins headed to Italy. Grandma still talks about what a great trip that was.

When I took my first writing class in March, 2008, we were asked to bring something that was important to us.  Our first assignment was to write about what we brought – in my case, photos of  that trip. When I read my story aloud to the group I cried as I recalled Grandpa sitting at the kitchen table greeting me, “There she is – my vagabond granddaughter!”

 

A Test Run

I don’t know that I’ll ever shake that initial jolt of fear that shoots through me when I arrive alone in a foreign country.  I follow the crowd through the terminal to baggage claim.  Traveling only with carry-on luggage, this is where I abandon them.  I look around to find the bus or train I need to get to my destination.

Sometimes, I don’t even have a destination when I arrive.  During a visit to Rome a couple weeks ago, I headed to the bookstore in the train station first.  I was in this same station with my sister ten days earlier so I knew they had a section of English travel guides.  I flipped to the index in a few of them scanning for the word, “hostels.”  I opened my small green notebook and jotted down a few ideas for places to stay.  My next stop was an internet cafe to research my options a little more.  I wrote down the contact information and directions to my top three choices.  A phone call to my first choice disappointed me a little – they only had one night available and I wanted two.  My intuition told me to go anyway.  So I found the bus that would take me there.  I got off one stop too early.  With my few Italian words and the helpful people at that bus stop, I was able to find my way.

Scribbled directions to the Lodi Hostel in Rome

My intuition, as usual, was right.  My roommate and I had a nice chat when I arrived.  She and I decided to meet up later that evening for dinner.  Upon our return, I met a few more people traveling alone and was invited to dinner again.  I declined, but spent a lovely couple hours with that same crew the following morning.  Over breakfast in the garden at the hostel, we all worked out our plans for the day.  Thanks to a couple no-shows the previous night, a bed was available and I got my wish to stay there for two nights.  Cam and Gary decided to take their chances with the proposed train strike and head to the train station anyway with Florence as their destination.  Daniel and I took off for a stroll through the Villa Borghese gardens.

A few days later I reflected on all the ways in which my three weeks in Italy prepared me for my upcoming Camino:

  • I got reacquainted with all the emotions involved in waking up in the morning not knowing where I’ll lay my head down that night – something I’ll do nearly every morning on the Camino.
  • I was reminded of what it’s like to be alone in a country where English is not the native tongue.  The result?  Anytime I heard people speaking English, I found a way to get into their conversation.  It’s a great ice breaker.
  • I remembered why it is I love staying in hostels (meeting people!) and how imperative it is that I bring my ear plugs and eye mask (lest I get no sleep – snoring does not help me descent into dreamland, nor do early-risers keep me there).
  • I learned why it’s best, if I have the option, to stay on the top bunk.  (Every time the guy above me moved, the whole structure shook and I was woken up.  I lamented about this the next morning, and a new friend informed me this doesn’t happen if you’re on the top bunk.  Note to self.)
  • I got plenty of opportunities for walking with my pack.  Like the Camino will be, I walked both alone and with others – sometimes spending whole days with people who were strangers only a few hours earlier.
  • I got to test-run how best to write on the road.  I took legal-size printer paper – a stack of five pages – and folded it in half.  This gave me a little booklet of twenty pages.  I made seven of  these packets and filled them as I went.  The idea is to make them into a book now (something I learned at the Folk School, then perfected while at Glenda’s in February.)  I wrote my blog posts in these packets, too, and when I got to an internet cafe I pulled out my entry and typed it up.
  • I got to test-run traveling with my pack – which pockets are best for which items?
  • I recalled why it’s so good to pack everything in zip-loc bags: my pack may get wet in the rain, but nothing else will.    Have you ever looked into the top of a large backpack?  At first its appears to be a bottomless pit.  Not so when everything has its own see-through zip-loc bag – I could pull out those bags, toss them on the bed, find what I needed, and throw them all back in.

My pack – and some of its zip-loc enclosed contents.

  • Best of all?  I was reminded and encouraged that yes, I can still travel alone.  And that there are tons of people like me out there to meet along the way – all with their own fascinating stories.  (Note to God: If you’d like to send someone my way who would want to travel with me for the rest of my life, I’m open to that.  Thanks.)