When I arrived at the conservation office I was absurdly early, like I am for everything that’s important. At 9:30 a bus would take me and 39 others to a ferry, which would drop us at the beginning of the Milford Track. From there I’d hike four days through cavernous glacial valleys, living out of my backpack.
After a day of scrambling to get all the right supplies: quick-drying clothes, sandfly repellant, cooking gear, matches, and food that didn’t take up much space, I was ready. Just early.
I sat down on the grass next to another traveler. We had the typical backpacker exchange: names, home countries, and current destinations. He was a German, about 20, headed to the Kepler track.
Our customary exchange ran its course quickly and soon there didn’t seem to be anything else to say, so we just sat against our packs, enjoying the day. It was sunny, and especially quiet. Te Anau is a little town at the edge of the civilization, so there was no background drone of highway traffic. Nothing happening in the foreground either.
Neither of us had said anything in a minute or two, when he turned to me and asked with a straightforwardness that only a German could muster:
“So,” he said, “What are your dreams?”
Having met new people almost every single day of my trip, I had reflexive answers for almost every question a near-stranger could ask, but this one caught me off guard. Nothing came out.
It’s not that I didn’t know what I wanted in life. In fact I’ve got a life list, and I started trying to recall what was on it, but nothing was jumping out at me and I knew that after thinking about it so long, no answer I could give would be very convincing.
A few items from my bucket list were beginning to materialize: Learn my wines. Speak French fluently. Ride a Harley. These are things I want to do, but clearly none of them consume me enough that they’re right there in the foreground of my mind whenever somebody brings up the topic of dreams.
I was self-conscious about how I seemed to have to rake my brain for what should be more important than anything. I didn’t have a clear idea of my dreams, and I knew I was talking to somebody who did.
Finally I laughed and said I didn’t know.
“What are your dreams?” I asked.
“I want to have a boat and I want to go to Iceland.”
“In your boat?”
“No, my boat will not be that kind of boat. It is two different dreams.”
“Why did you come to New Zealand when you could have gone to Iceland first?”
“It is not the time. I am too young.”
I have 150 items on my bucket list. Looking at it, pretty much anyone could tease out a few values that are important to me. What I want is a life that embodies those values.
One of the items on my list was the thing I was there to do: hike the Milford Track. But I knew he was looking for a more definite, more resounding answer. Not just one of dozens of arbitrary items I want to get to, but the experience I couldn’t die without. The Milford is a truly unbelievable hike, but my interest in it didn’t exactly define me as a person. It only hinted at what did.
About 48 hours later, I’m soaked in my clothes, crouched barefoot on top of a boulder covered in sopping, thick moss. A wet, roaring wind is blasting straight down onto my back. The air is a thick, swirling spray and it’s hard to take a breath without inhaling water. Wherever I look, there’s a rainbow in front of what I’m looking at, the kind you see in the spray from a watering hose, except this one is impossibly close — it was right in my eyes.
It was such a foreign and unusual moment that I felt disconnected from all the events leading up to it. It was like I had just dropped in to an unimaginable moment in some unknown person’s life.
I was at the bottom of Sutherland falls, at the end of a 90-minute diversion from the main track. A park ranger had told us it’s possible to climb around behind the main impact point of the 600-meter waterfall, if you’re careful and you don’t mind getting soaked.
This. This is my dream.
Not the swim in the waterfall pool. Not the Milford Track. Not New Zealand. But the feeling of finding yourself in a place you could not have imagined before you were there, and could never properly relate afterward.
Twenty-one months earlier, I’m sitting in the kitchenette of a basement apartment that looks like it’s furnished entirely from yard sales. I’m dating an outspoken French girl and she’s still getting to know me.
She brings our coffees and sits beside me instead of across from me, and I can tell she wants to ask me something but first has to find the English words. She finds them.
“I don’t understand. Why do you do what you don’t love?”
It takes me a minute to get it. The night before, she had asked what I love about my career and I told her I wouldn’t say I loved it but there are parts of it I like. This was a pretty normal sentiment to me. It’s what almost all my friends and acquaintances would say too, but to her it was genuinely bizarre.
She just could not understand a person carrying on in a career unless it was their dream. Or, at least, was leading to their dream — at the time she was the weather girl, Mademoiselle Météo, and openly hated it, but acknowledged it was a necessary step in becoming une journaliste.
A few lame answers had come up in my mind: Well sometimes life doesn’t work out exactly like you expect. The job market isn’t so great in all sectors, I’m doing what’s practical. Life has a lot of obligations, I have to take care of them first. I’m young, I have lots of time.
I don’t remember what I ended up saying, but I know it couldn’t have been a viable answer to her question, because there isn’t one.
Later that morning we were looking down from the Osborne bridge, talking about travel, and she decided in front of me that she was going to backpack through Greece, with all the same casualness with which I might decide to order rye toast.
In the summer we went our separate ways, and she went to Greece. She is now an arts and culture reporter for the CBC.
The German had the same clarity of purpose about Iceland and his boat. His dream was so matter-of-fact to him, such a foregone conclusion, that I wonder what he made of a well-spoken 29-year-old Canadian who could not even guess at what he wanted to do with himself.
Clarity is not normal
When I was in school there were some kids who knew what they were after from the beginning, but they were unususal. Most of us just wanted it to be Saturday. I look now on Facebook at my former classmates’ current occupations, and I may be projecting, but none of them look too dreamy.
I entered two successive careers with no clear vision of what I ultimately wanted my days to be like, and I think this is normal in my culture.
The whole boatride to the track, and the first leg of the hike, I was preoccupied with why so few people around me seem to know what they want their lives to be. It’s not really talked about all that much. It’s almost like dreams are embarrassing, at least outside of the self-improvement/daily-affirmation crowd.
My answer to the German’s question is becoming clearer now — and it turns out, has nothing to do with either of my two chosen fields — but man has it taken a long time.
Not that that’s a bad thing. The German may have had it totally wrong, found it too quickly. He was 20 at the time, he maybe had just seen a Sigur Ros video and decided Iceland is where his heart needs him to be. I don’t really know. I just remember wondering why I couldn’t say anything about what I want in life with such certainty.
Either way, there’s no question French Girl had it right, with her non-rhetorical question: Why do you do what you don’t love? If a person really knew what they loved, how much room could they let other things take up in their lives? How many of their hours or dollars would they let go toward something else?
You’d think the things we love are the things we’re most inclined to do, but this is just not true.
Love and attraction are not the same, not at all. Did I spend over $500 on Starbucks last year out of love? Or out of a thoughtless response to a short-term attraction that I feel at about 7:09 every morning on my way to work?
The loving thing would have been to drive on by and save that money for traveling. Or an apartment that doesn’t make me frown. Or to pay for some time off my job, so I can create something beautiful, or at least try.
Theoretically, if you know what you love, then every time you make a decision you’ll have a pretty damn clear idea if it’s taking you closer or further away from what you love. You’ll know the right thing to do. So self-love is a moral issue. It consists of doing the right thing, and nothing else.
Yet living that way is somehow not the obvious thing to do. “Live for the moment” is unquestionably good advice, but it’s easy to think that means “live for what you feel like right now.” I may be way off base, but think most of us live for what we feel like right now, making adjustments whenever it leads us into trouble. We’ll do what we can get away with until it appears we can’t get away with it anymore. Then we change something, a job or a partner, and find a comfortable spot from there. But there’s no real aim, other than to stay okay. Dreams remain hopes.
The compass-effect of living only towards what you love is undeniable. Still, I think it’s relatively rare in humans. Until people have kids, anyway. After that they’re usually hopelessly in love and they know where the compass is pointing. But even then, it means their energies are now invested in directing the course of another person’s life. So how many people really live for themselves, with a clear idea of what they want, and whether they’re getting in their own way or not?
It seems so simple and so intuitive, but it is definitely not normal.
These aren’t stupid questions:
Do I really know what I love?
What am I doing with my time and money and attention?
How much of that gets me closer to what I love, and how much takes me farther away?
Can I know, in each moment, which type I’m doing?
I’m curious. Honestly, do you have a pretty clear direction? Are you following the winding trail of cookies, or are you headed towards something real in the distance?
Photo by A Kid Who I Lent My Camera To, I Forget His Name