19 March 2014

thoughts on leaving

if there's one thing i regret, one "what if" about how i structured this year, it's whether i should have committed more time to each place, like go to two places for four or five months each to fill the year. i find myself a bit jealous of friends on gap years who've made that commitment, to a country or even a continent. i feel like in senegal, by the time i was settled in, i was on my way out. but i also appreciate the variety in this year. i wanted to see lots of things. and with the structure of each block so far, i've felt like i've put in the right time to complete the experience and appreciate it all while not overstaying and becoming miserable, feeling stuck. i even had time to work at home, valuable for the experience and to replenish my travel funds. plus, i've been able to spend significant time on five continents in one year, which is certainly special for comparison and for a range of experience.

now my african segment is over.

time is scary, and it's weird to think it keeps going and going and no matter what, i can't pause it. every day i'm older and every day i'm hurtling closer to college and career and marriage and oldness and whatever other life milestones there are. i'm also getting farther away from all the great experiences i've had. sometimes i think about that and i don't like it. it's sad. but then i remember there's no shame in getting older, no shame in having lived. each second is not the enemy. each year and each moment is something to celebrate.

it's also scary how close i was to not taking a gap year. if i hadn't, i know exactly where i'd be. having a great time, making lifelong friends, learning and thinking and reading a lot in rural massachussetts. it would be awesome, and it's exactly where i'll be next year. but who knows when i'd have spent eight weeks learning the streets of a tiny city in senegal? when would i have learned wolof, spent 24/7 discussing philosophy and eating brioche with a new best friend, shaken sand out of my hair after a day split between the beach and the desert? felt loyalty to a round, purple-clad woman selling peanuts on a street corner, or interviewed a fruit seller about his dreams of importing luxury cars?

this year has been a kind of pause, as weird as it is that it's now three-quarters over. rather than tumbling along the prescribed route, i've taken a divergent path, if only temporarily. i haven't just let the current of time pull me to wherever it wants me to go or wherever everyone else goes, and i therefore am expected to go. i've stopped, thought, and chosen my direction for myself. i may not be able to escape time, but i can use it in the way i want. college could wait a year; i needed this time to explore, get lost, make my own rules. rediscover my passion for thinking and writing creatively and organically. get in scary situations and pull myself out. experience the extreme emotional highs and lows that come with a new place, a new time, a new situation, even a new self.

i'll be headed to williamstown next year more purposeful, more self-aware, and more ready to take advantage of all the unique opportunities that college offers. it may be hard to settle down, committing four years to one place, and i know i'll never get rid of that itch to wander. but i'm glad i'll at least have had this year's adventures.

and i won't be sad about time passing, because i'm making the most of it. as long as i've really lived, i can't be upset about living.

i do try to live without regrets, and to me that philosophy is twofold: forgiving yourself for decisions you've made in the past, choosing to learn from mistakes and not be too hard on yourself; and choosing to try everything in the present, choosing to experience as much as possible even if it's scary. i'm so glad i don't have to live with the "what if." i don't have to regret not taking the chance on this year. i won't be the people i meet all the time who tell me, "i wish i'd taken a gap year..." either with wistful nostalgia if they're my parents' age or a sort of resigned longing if they're my own peers.

nothing about senegal or this year has been easy, but i've been trying my best to live with no regrets. so i'm at peace with both my challenging but rewarding senegal experience and my decisions about the gap year as a whole.

in a way, i can't wait to get home, back to the first world, back to the comforts of a mattress and warm shower and kitchen full of healthy food. and in a way i feel guilty for thinking that. senegal for me is a sojourn, interesting in its challenges, but tolerable partly because i know my time is limited. for the peanut lady and the fruit vendor and my host family and most everyone else i've met, this is their lives. they don't have an escape waiting for them in the form of a thousand-dollar plane ticket; they make only a few dollars a day. and leaving saint louis, while i was grateful to leave fishy rice lunches and being idle at work and getting harrassed by street vendors, was also the end of a lot of things i took for granted. all the little things that make a new status quo special, whether it's staying up late to talk to friends at a fast food restaurant or surprising people with my wolof skills or walking by the water to town every day. that's stuff i knew i would miss, so i tried to appreciate it all while i was there. i inevitably appreciate it more now that it's over, but that's life.

time goes on, and luckily for me i only have more things to be excited about. france, summer, school. i can't run away from time; i might as well embrace it.


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