Three Pillows

I nestled myself into bed, head sinking into the pillow.  I turned onto my side, reached for a second pillow, and stuffed it between my knees.  Then, I grabbed a third pillow to wrap my arms around.  Perfectly comfortable, I closed my eyes and a little old lady’s voice came into my head.  “Travel when you’re young.  And when you have no money.  Because you can sleep anywhere and not feel it the next morning.”

Those words fueled my travels for many years.  I first heard them when I was eighteen years old, standing in the Reception Hall at the Vanderbilt Mansion National Historic Site.  Bedecked in my Park Ranger uniform, it was my job to greet visitors entering the home.  After checking their tickets, I then told them all the things they couldn’t do: chew gum, take flash pictures, touch anything.  When there was a lull at the front door, I’d eavesdrop on people’s conversations.  If they said, “I wonder who that is?” while looking at the bust in the foyer, I’d pipe in,  “We think that’s Zeus – but we don’t know for sure because there’s no documentation about it.”  Most of the time that’s all it took for visitors to realize I wasn’t there solely to enforce the rules.  I actually knew about this place and could tell them some pretty interesting stuff.

Bus groups were my favorite.  First, because I loved when it was busy.  And in my first season as a Park Ranger, we could have as many as five buses of tourists some days.  Secondly, bus groups were mostly senior citizens and I love those folks.  They’re usually funny and wise, and I got equal parts of laughter and wisdom in my conversations with them.  I didn’t realize it then, but now I know why I like working with them so much: we have the same outlook on life.  Do what you want now, because you’re not getting any younger.

I remember that little white-haired lady, name tag around her neck, dispensing her advice shortly into our conversation.  She lamented that she wasn’t walking so well today and blamed it on not being in her own bed the night before.  The crux of her advice was that, as a young person with little money, I could afford to stay in cheap places with crappy beds – and wouldn’t have to pay for it with aches the next day.  I remember telling my boyfriend (a Park Ranger on duty with me that day) what she said.  I remember we took her words to heart that summer. Though that relationship didn’t last, her words stuck around.

As I recalled her advice snuggled into my bed last night, I laughed to myself  thinking, “You know, Rebecca, you’re not going to have three pillows to sleep with on the Camino…”  Though then I thought, “Maybe I can bring a couple – pillows are light.”  I did just pull out my backpack yesterday and wonder what I would fill all that space with.

The Things People Say

“Are you independently wealthy?” he asked.  It’s sad that people think in order to live the life I do, I must be independently wealthy.  “No,” I said.  “I just choose work and manage my money in such a way that I can do what I want.”  I wasn’t going to get into it any further with this guy.  I could see he could not at all relate to what I was saying.  Most men of a certain generation can’t.  I don’t fault them – they grew up at a time when people married young and therefore had a family to support, a home to pay a mortgage on.  Sometimes I’ll say, “Well, I don’t have a family or a mortgage,” to try to explain to these men how I can do this.  But I’ve stopped saying that recently because I know people with families and mortgages can follow their hearts, too.

I’m used to the money questions because I have a father of that same generation.  He got married at 25, and by the time he was my age he had three kids and was building a house for what would eventually become a family of seven.  It seems that money is the language is which these guys speak.  Their language also involves security, and thoughts of the future – the very far-off future. It’s not that I don’t care about my far-off future.  I’m just not going to let those thoughts stop me from doing what I want to do now.

Though I know I don’t have to justify my life to my father, I like the guy and can’t help but share things with him.  I just hope I don’t give him a heart attack.  I used to ensure I wasn’t the one who killed him by telling my ideas to my mother first.  She would then present them to him and handle the brunt of his shock.  Now I try to prevent his imminent death by preparing him for the inevitable changes I will make.  When he gets excited about a new job I’ve taken up, he’ll say something like, “Oh – it sounds like you really like this.  Maybe you’ll stick with this one, huh?”  “Dad – you know the minute you say that I’m going to quit, so don’t get your hopes up,” I’ll respond. I’m not sure whether he’s adjusted or if I’ve just gotten better at handling his reactions and worries about me.

“I don’t know what your relationship is with your father, but as a father myself, I just feel I should tell you that  they’ll come a time when you won’t be able to just up and go wherever you want,” said a man of my father’s generation to me the other day. He was dancing around what he really wanted to say: Has someone told you you need to save for retirement?  I was in a room full of folks who had worked for 30+ years and were now “enjoying” their retirement.  I got the feeling a lot of them didn’t enjoy their working lives nearly as much.  I was the youngest one there by 25 years I’d guess.  “I put money away,” I told this dear man.  “I have money saved for retirement.  I have health insurance, and disability insurance.”  His face gave away his surprise.  I told him my dad is adjusting to my way of life.  “Well, he’s doing a good job,” he said.  As in, “Thank God someone told you…”

I know these folks don’t mean to burst my bubble.  And they don’t anymore.  That’s because Barbara Winter’s words from her book Making A Living Without A Job have stuck with me: basically that people who don’t know a lot about something are usually it’s biggest critics.  But that doesn’t mean you don’t talk to these people.  It just means that if I’m talking to a guy who worked 30 years in the same job, he might not have a clue as to what to say to me.  Or his advice might be completely off base.  Or might be coming from a place so very different from where I am in life.  And as long as I recognize it as such, it doesn’t stop me.