“The train on platform two goes to central station. Please mind the gap.”
The familiar droll announcement on the Sydney train network greets us when we first arrive back in Australia. I stand at the station, jetlagged, exhausted and with tears in my eyes, letting the routine, dependable noise wash over me.
After a flat white and a lamington under a winding fig tree, we’re off and away to my brother’s house in Canberra, but the gap is ahead of us:
A strange by-product of moving between the US and Australia every few years is the period we’re living right now – when work, housing, cars and all the routines that keep us grounded are not [yet] secured.
It’s either an empty space, a gap in our lives, or a long holiday – depending on how you think about it.
Although I now have more time to lie in bed with the kids, rock hop on big granite boulders at the creek and breathe in the sweet smell of flowering pittosporum, I can’t shake the feeling that life gaps are associated with negative events.
It seems we take gaps only when we are forced to, and that these times are often thought of as setbacks or gaps in the resume. We take time off because we are caring for a loved one, caring for our own health or in a period of unemployment.
Although we’ve chosen our current situation, and planned for it financially, I feel the absence of routine – every day is wide open, a Wednesday just as good as a Saturday for hours spent reading the paper over coffee.
Haak and I find ourselves having regular meeting-chats to narrow our focus and cocoon our goals.
Not having a job title, project or business to identify with feels a little raw in our society which values economically productive work above all else.
Wanting to find out more about how to thrive outside the bounds of 9-5, I talked to Sharnee Thorpe of Wandering Folk [who happens to be a family friend] to find out how someone who has designed a [gorgeous!] range of waterproof outdoor picnic rugs, pillows and coolers and shaped her life around the idea of freedom and travel deals with the ups and downs of being on the move.
Sharnee laughed when I suggested she was an expert traveller. “I’d like to think I’m an expert on wandering,” she said, “my family was always travelling and I knew from a young age that I wanted to work hard so I could travel more.”
There’s a well-known phenomenon in Australia, known as a gap year, often taken between high school and uni [college], when young people are excused from having a proper job and encouraged to travel, work seasonal or temporary jobs and explore the world.
Australians have worked at least this bit of socially-sanctioned free time into our culture, while Americans tend to jump straight from high school to college to a full-time job to cover the higher costs of health insurance and student loans.
Sharnee echoes the Australian ethos when she says: ” travelling is more important than university. Travel first then go to uni. Travel teaches you everything you need to know in life – how to live on a tight budget and make your money last, how to make new friends, learn a new language and learn about new cultures.”
Her 33,000 Instagram followers show that Sharnee’s life is appealing to many people – something to fantasize about when they are deep in the humdrum of work, gym, latte, meeting.
But having a business means never being away from work and Sharnee said she checks emails daily when in service. “As a freelance print designer and with running Wandering Folk, I always have to work when I’m travelling,” Sharnee told me, “it’s a blessing …and a curse at times.”
Sharnee has worked gaps into her working life, but not everyone is comfortable with so much change and lack of routine.
I’ve talked to two people in their 20’s since I’ve been back who are about to accept promotions and change jobs and both of them looked confused when I asked if they would take a few weeks or months off in between.
It’s not the done thing, but there’s good reason to pursue big changes and breaks in our lives, especially for encouraging creativity.
Sharnee says she tries to keep her work commitments to one day a week while she’s travelling, and saves big projects for when she is settled in her Northern NSW studio – but scrolling through Wandering Folk’s expansive Instagram feed, it’s clear that travel brings inspiration to Sharnee’s design work.
Our friend Michael Menager, an American musician and songwriter who has lived in Australia for thirty years asked me last week how I was going with moving back.
We were doing some digging to level out Michael’s new deck area, and when I answered that it was a bit gappy but going well, he squinted at me in the bright Aussie sun, kicking up dust with his shovel, and said in his Aussiemerican accent “well, you know what I think? having these spaces in our lives is a good time to be creative. So get into your writing.”
So maybe I’ve been confusing a life-gap with emptiness and doing nothing. Wandering Folk functions because Sharnee works as hard as she plays, the beach picnics in her Instagram feed a well-earned reward for balancing work and play.
Finding small routines within a period of travel or uncertainty is helpful too. “Most of the places I travel now have yoga, which helps me keep in a vague routine and maintain my health while on the road,” Sharnee said, “but I do miss being able to cook my own meals while travelling – especially being vegetarian.”
There are only a few reasons people don’t feel like they, too, could become wandering folk. Money is one reason [re-structuring your financial commitments is possible barring unusual circumstances, check out my $20,000 annual budget here] identity and fear another. But habit might be the most common reason.
Once we’re in the habit of a 9-5 routine, it feels impossible to imagine anything else.
If you threw it all in and took a sabbatical, what would bloom in the sweet panic of empty time and space?
It’s important to remember that you belong on the magic picnic rug as much as I do and Sharnee does. If you’d rather be dancing on an empty road and experience days stretched out ahead of you, or just think you might like to try it, go ahead.
This world is yours. [but pack speakers, Sharnee’s most-often used item when travelling].
Wandering folk don’t mind a gap. We just jump.
[Haakon climbing at Tantawanglo river. September 2018]
Special thanks to Sharnee Thorpe, who provided me with stunning pictures and the quote below. Please buy one of Sharnee’s stunning weatherproof picnic rugs before you quit your job and can’t afford to anymore!
“Traveling leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller.” ― Ibn Battut