On Milestones

I don’t like GPS.  Always knowing where I am, where I’m going, and how fast kind of takes the fun out of exploring the world. Long before western empires had satellite technology to help us navigate, the Roman Empire used milestones to measure their progress. I imagine an ancient traveller passing the stone pillars and reflecting on the distance they’d covered that day. Maybe they counted the footprints they left along the cobblestones or breathed easier when they reached the top of a long, steep climb. Towards the end of the day when enough miles were behind them and they had reached an inn, they’d be welcomed by a kindly host and promptly asked, “how was the journey?”. At this point, the ancient traveller would sigh, think about the ache in their feet – the one that only comes when you sit down after a long walk – and stare blankly at their host for a moment. As a recent traveller myself I sympathize with the impossibility of the question and the necessity of a pause at this point. After a few beats of thoughtful silence, the ancient traveller would offer a vague and largely meaningless adjective like ‘good’ or ‘tough’. Maybe their host would press for more detail and the ancient traveller would begin to describe their journey by referencing the milestones.

Like all measurements, milestones make it easier to think about space and time. And in the absence of a GPS for life, yearly milestones help me think about where I am, where I’m coming from, and the most recent section of the journey. I’m lucky enough to have a summer birthday so between it and New Year’s my biannual reflections are well spaced. Of the two, New Year’s is the more introspective. I think it has something to do with the cold and darkness. It makes it easier to measure my progress.

At midnight on December 31st 2014, I was standing with friends on the icy shore of Georgian Bay just north of my home town. I was thoroughly layered in long-johns, jeans, two shirts, a sweater, coveralls, a coat, three hats, and a scarf. The temperature was somewhere below -10, the wind was plastering our backs with snow, and the bonfire in front of us was shooting sparks downwind. We greeted 2015 from a circle of (relative) warmth and light in the middle of a cold, dark night. When the fire burned down we went inside and played music in a kitchen until one by one the guests found places to sleep on couches and pieces of floor.

One year earlier, on December 31st 2013 I was partying with my cousin and her friends just outside of Paris. It was calm for a European New Year’s. My cousin is in her mid-thirties and was 8 months pregnant with her third child at the time. Her friends have young families too and we celebrated with snacks, kid friendly movies, and a dress up dance party just before midnight. While they were putting the kids to bed, I watched distant fireworks through the apartment window. It was the first year I hadn’t made it home for the holidays. After four months studying abroad in Amsterdam I extended my trip, celebrated with my cousin, and spent a few weeks afterwards in the UK. 2013 had been an adventure and I said good-bye to it from a much healthier place than I’d entered.
Just after midnight on December 31st 2012, I carried my guitar home from a party at a friend of a friend’s. That night, I slept in a sleeping bag on the floor of the house I grew up in. The furniture – and every other object – had moved south with my mother and sister and a for-sale sign peaked hopefully out of the snowbank on the front lawn. I was staying alone in the shell of my childhood and it was a terrible place to be. After a few hours of sleep I woke up in 2013, packed my things and drove 3 hours to an ex-girlfriend’s house hoping to spend the night. In retrospect, I was losing the physical foundations of my childhood and looking for some sense of acceptance and continuity to sooth my confusion. I imagine repotted plants feel similarly when the gardener shakes them loose from the soils that germinated them. The uncertainty – the total absence of the familiar – was terrifying. By December 2013 I was doing better and was carrying the kind of broadened perspective that time in foreign places and new friends can give a person. Coming into 2015, having spent the 6 months after my graduation visiting friends and family, sleeping on their couches, and wandering new paths in both unfamiliar and beloved places I feel the most grounded I’ve ever felt.

Hometown roots and school gave structure to my life. I knew roughly where I would be and who would be there even if I didn’t know exact details. 2015 is different. I don’t have a map.  I’m currently self-identifying as homeless and unemployed as I continue to crash on friendly couches and begin to seriously plan next steps. For the first time in my life, I’m crossing the threshold of a new year with no idea where the next 12 months will take me. I have no idea how I’m going to make money, where I’m going to live, or who I’m going to spend my time with. And yet I feel like I’ve arrived somewhere significant, like I’ve made progress, and like I’ve grown.

2014 was a year of transition and learning, and looking back, some of the best parts of the year were things that I couldn’t have predicted on January 1st. That realization calms me down and gives me hope. A year ago I didn’t know how many friends I would make, places I would travel, or things I would learn. I had no idea how the projects I was working on would turn out or how much fun graduating would be. I didn’t know my sister would get engaged or that we would spend Thanksgiving together in her home in Alberta. I had no idea that I would work beside a glacial lake in the shadow of Rocky Mountains or that I would find a new sense of calm somewhere in the 3 months of travel that followed. I entered 2014 with things to do but some of my greatest growth appeared in the unplanned spaces. 2015 is entirely unplanned. The next three-hundred-and-sixty-some days are pure potential and I’m excited. I don’t know where I’ll be when I reach the next milestone but I have every reason to expect that the road between here and there is lined with beautiful places and good people. I know that it might be steep in parts but I’m hoping that if I keep my eyes open – as I’m learning to – then I’ll be farther along when I get there.

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2 thoughts on “On Milestones

  1. Jon Farmer says:

    Reblogged this on Farmer Far Afield and commented:

    Hi friends,
    I neglected this blog over the past few months as I traveled in the Pacific Time Zone. This is the first piece I’ve written since getting back. It was submitted to a New Year reflection series on the blog Embracing Ambiguity. Check out their other authors as well.

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