In the thick of such a busy summer, it’s easy to forget the busy spring which came before it – or the busy winter, busy fall, or the busy summer of 2016. One year ago today, I was in Edmonton, recovering from an ocean-spanning journey to the far side of the globe – Osaka, Japan – yet simultaneously preparing to span a different ocean for an even more epic trip to Lille, France. And only four months ago, I was on a plane from Paris from Kathmandu. Compared to all that geo-hopping, my daily 40-minute commute to work feels like a walk up the block.
If you’ve kept up with my blog or subscribed to my email updates, you know all this already. If you know nothing about my travels, it may come across as boastful, to list off the countries and continents I’ve clocked over the past 12 months. But when I do, on rare occasions, find the time to reflect back upon it all, I don’t feel proud. I spent the year traveling, and I got to live in France for the better part of a year – a lifelong dream fulfilled. And yet I don’t feel like I accomplished much of anything.
Now, of course, it sounds like I’m complaining, and I definitely don’t want to do that. I remember, when describing our itinerary to friends or acquaintances from Cape Breton, the expression that crossed their faces most often: disbelief and awe, thinly masking envy. The jealous would-be globe-trotters have likely given up on my whiny blog by now. It doesn’t make anyone feel any better to see somebody live out their dreams with dissatisfaction. If I was going to hate it that much, why didn’t I just hand the airplane tickets to them, and save myself the angst?
I didn’t hate it. There were plenty of things I loved, and could never imagine having experienced if I hadn’t gone: seeing my oldest friends in Japan, and touring a cave with some of the oldest artwork in existence, and drinking cat-poop coffee in Paris. Plus I enjoyed many of the mundanities: strolling through cobblestone streets in search of coffee; buying fresh produce at outdoor markets; sampling exotic beers in geek-themed bars. When friends came to visit, I got to show them some of the things that have always made France magical to me. When left to my own devices, I blended into the woodwork of life in an exotic yet familiar world. It added a frisson to the drudgery of daily life.
And yet, when I do think back upon the radical sabbatical, what I feel more than anything else is regret. It’s weird, because that’s not a sensation I feel much, at all, ever. But I feel it about my envy-envoking, one-in-a-lifetime year abroad, and so on top of regret I feel guilt – another emotion I don’t truck with much – because I know how privileged I was to have had the chance to go.
My regret is over two things, and both of them are dumb. First, I regret having hauled my five-year-old daughter to France with us in order to fulfill our vague dreams of living abroad. French kindergarten wasn’t her dream, and it wasn’t fair to tear her away from everything she knows for just barely long enough to get used to it, and then drag her back to Canada again. She’d travelled before, and she’ll travel again – but in hindsight, a solid twelve months of uprootedness was not what the doctor ordered.
It should be acknowledged that P’s difficult year was exacerbated by her transitioning from male to female. That’s going to be a rocky road no matter what country you’re in, and it’s not as if I could have seen that coming before I booked our airline tickets (well…there were a few warning signs, I suppose). But a child’s fifth year of life is going to be seminal no matter what. Going to France, our concerns were with language acquisition and “how many great museums can we expose our child to?” We got what we wanted: P got comfy in French much faster than either of her parents, and museums were among her favourite spots. But those concerns took a back seat to cultural differences, learning difficulties, and identity seeking – all issues we could have seen coming, to some degree or other.
Regret Number Two is related. I went to France without a specific plan for my own productivity, but within a month I’d committed to the notion that this, at long last, was the perfect time to become a novelist. While my wife explored Applied Theatre and my child learned how to ride a scooter, I would finally write a novel – a project I’d begun but aborted at least three times before. For a month and a half, the writing went well. Then P’s education imploded, and I ended up homeschooling her for the remaining four months – not a commitment which I found conducive to novel-writing.
I don’t regret setting my project aside for the needs of my kid. I may kinda regret the fact that I didn’t have the right sort of manic, obsessive commitment to the book – that I’d expend all my energy tutoring my hyperactive kid throughout the day, but then somehow draw on unforeseen reserves of energy to write my masterpiece at night. Yeah, right.
No, the source of my regret, I’m sad to say, is that I felt ambitious enough to try the novel in the first place. I thought I was being realistic, obviously, but real life has a way of finding you, even in France. And I regret deluding myself into thinking that I was somehow above or beyond the needs of my family. I could still write that novel, if it was important to me. But I’ve already proven to myself that it wasn’t important. And that recognition has extinguished its spark, probably forever.
So, more time frittered away on a project that will never see an audience. Big deal? It happens all the time. The only reason it stings, this time, is because I made the mistake of stitching it so closely into the tapestry of my sabbatical year. Now, when I look back, I’ll see it looming over all the coffee and pastries and beer, a half-formed notion, an abandoned child. A metaphorical child which I abandoned to take care of my literal child. Yes, normaloids, this is the sort of thing that artists get upset about.