My parents never placed great emphasis on having things. We were far from impoverished, but I grew up knowing that we wouldn’t have the newest and latest gadget or toy. The car I drove throughout high school was fondly nicknamed “The Beast,” largely because it was old, rusty, and muffler-less. Our go-to cups for my niece and nephews are the cleaned out Kraft cheese spread glass containers from the many cheese balls my mom has made over the years. Our compost buckets are emptied out ice cream pails and it is a struggle to remember a time when my parents let me throw away food from my supper plate.
Although these stories of my thrifty parents are nothing compared to my grandparents’ stories (the masters of frugal living, I believe), it was different from the way that many others in my generation grew up. I am at the younger end in my family and so most of my high school friends had parents who were significantly younger. Depending on how you break up generations, my older siblings could belong to a different generation than me. Whatever the reason, I grew up knowing that things can provide only so much happiness.
I like to think that I continue to live from my parents’ vision of simplicity. For years my phone has flipped open and been unable to send or receive text messages. When I purchased a new car, I was actually a little glad that it wasn’t in pristine condition. It was discounted because it had hail damage on the hood. (Prior to looking at cars, I had told my mom a story I read in A Severe Mercy. The couple wanted to be detached from things and so when they bought a new car, they intentionally dented the side of it. When we saw some of the cars had hail damage, my mom told me I wouldn’t have to hit my car with a hammer now. I am certain the salesman was a little confused.) Occasionally I will go out for drinks or supper with some friends, but I eat most of my meals at home and bring my lunch to work. My parents’ lack of focus on material goods makes all of this second-nature.
Rather than spend money on a large TV or stacks of video games, my parents chose to take vacations. It was a new mentality for my mom, but one that was very familiar for my father. My mom thought there was too much to do at home to just pick up and go on vacation. My dad reassured her that all of the work would still be there upon their return. As a one-year old, my travels commenced with a trip that covered most of the states in the western (continental) United States. For roughly a month, my parents voyaged from state to state with four children ranging from one to fourteen years old. We did a modified version of that vacation when I was in high school. My dad hates big cities, but he would bravely drive into Seattle, San Francisco, St. Louis, New York City, and Chicago to give us a taste of a different world. Travel wasn’t a flight to Florida for a week, but rather a car trip with numerous destinations.
It is because of this vacation-friendly attitude I experienced growing up that I find it possible to justify trips as a Theology teacher with thousands of dollars in debt. I don’t find it irresponsible, because I save money in ways that others splurge. By nature, I am quite conservative with my money and find myself having to give myself permission to spend it. Despite the lack of wealth, I hold fast to the importance of taking a vacation so as to step away from the demands of the daily life.
My first experience of traveling without my family was when I studied abroad during college. Those experiences helped shape my worldview and provide encounters with God’s providence in a way only possible when leaving the comfort of home. On a college student budget, I traveled to Spain, Portugal, France, Switzerland, Germany, Austria, Czech Republic, Italy, Poland, and Ireland. I rode in a gondola down the streets of Venice (a longtime dream), prayed at the catacombs in the Vatican, saw the Shroud of Turin, attended an opera at the Vienna Opera House, made snowmen in the Swiss Alps, toured the Auschwitz concentration camp, delighted in walking on the rocks at Giant’s Causeway, and experienced the nightly Holy Week processions in Madrid. Europe became a concrete reality in my eyes and made it possible to dream of returning in the not-too-distant future.
In the summer of 2014, I was able to spend about six weeks traveling in Europe with my sister and a friend. I went to Paris and then Lourdes before taking 30+ days to walk El Camino de Santiago across Spain. We traveled to Lisbon and Fatima before spending a few days with a friend near Toronto. All of the money I spent could have easily gone to pay off loans, but sometimes it is necessary to have a bit of enjoyment in life. As a member of a family who took yearly vacations, it seemed natural that when the opportunity arose, I would travel to places I wanted to go, even if the financially wise thing to do was to stay at home.
I have a feeling that money will never be found in over-abundance in my bank account. And I refuse to be one of those people who waits until retirement to travel when so much can be gained from traipsing around the world when I am young and able to easily walk around large cities. The expenses and the work will still be waiting when I come back from vacation. But it is necessary to take time to be with family and friends, spending a little money to explore God’s great world.
So thank you, Mom and Dad, for pointing us to experiences rather than owning many possessions. Thank you for sacrificing so that we could enjoy family and travel simultaneously. And thank you for giving me the gift of wanting to see the world more than impress people with a fancy car or house. You gave both roots and wings and I love them both.
“Not all who wander are lost.” -J.R.R. Tolkien