Good to Know

Sometimes when I look back, I think about how when I was a teenager, I thought I knew so much yet really didn’t know anything. Right? We had it all figured out. Then when we got to our 20’s, we were even more smart. We were in the real world now and therefore gained a sense of wisdom. We all knew that person that we considered an “old soul”, and maybe that was us. That wasn’t me. I never thought of myself as an old soul actually. But in our 20’s, we had this sense of newfound wisdom. We were confident in our knowledge. 

Then the 30’s hit and it felt more and more like maybe we didn’t know as much as we thought. The longer we spent in the “real world”, the more we realized we had so much more to learn. Especially when it comes to anything outside our bubble. Getting out of our comfort zone. This was a big wakeup call for me in my 30’s as I began to really travel. When it came to travel, I did here or there growing up, but nothing big. My biggest trip prior to 30 years old was a Mediterranean cruise with my mom for my college graduation. But as you know, cruises give you a taste of places, but not the true essence – they’re the trip least likely to push you out of your comfort zone. 

Since I was with my mom, this meant focusing on excursions and not just roaming around and getting lost. So while Santorini was beautiful and so was the Parthenon – when you arrive on a tour bus and eat a pre-packed lunch, maybe you’re learning historical facts from the tour guide but nothing life changing. But hey, it’s a start. You’re at least in a new place and experiencing new smells, sights and coming into contact with people that maybe you wouldn’t have at home. 

But when I turned 30, and Christian and I were dating, our love for travel quickly turned into regular adventures. Speaking of getting out of your comfort zone, our first big trip together was climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro. This was the trip I can honestly say changed my life for the better as I was faced with so many real world lessons that I wish I would have learned earlier. 

Lesson 1: Mind Over Matter

First, physically it was the first time I truly pushed myself harder than I thought I could. I had always been an athlete and I was no stranger to pushing myself physically, however climbing to the summit with oxygen tubes up my nose to combat the altitude sickness was a whole new level. I had never experienced that feeling of your whole body choosing the “flight response” in an attempt to protect yourself. Everything was telling me to stop, turn around and quit. My skin was pale, almost blue. I couldn’t breathe without the oxygen as growing up in the Midwest, my body wasn’t exactly used to altitude.

There were multiple times when I was concerned I would fall off a rock to my death as the only light was from our headlamps as we climbed the seven hours to the crater at the top. Did I mention this was after four days of hiking to the bottom of this summit? In those moments, I finally learned the meaning of the saying “mind over matter”. It was. My body had already given up. The only thing getting me to the top was my mental determination. So what did I tell myself to get my ass to the top? 

Well, I feel like for mental determination to take over and be successful, you have to know what motivates you. For me, I’m cheap and I hate wasting my time. And this trip was the most expensive trip I had ever taken and the farthest I’d ever traveled. So I just kept telling myself, you didn’t fly halfway around the world and spend all that money to not get to the top. And that was on repeat until, finally, I was at the top. And boy, you should see those pics – I was pretty much leaning on the sign, oxygen tubes and all, looking as if I was going to die. But I didn’t, and I made it. Mind over matter. Lesson learned. 

Lesson 2: Be Grateful for what you have

More importantly, that trip was the first time I came face to face with true economic inequality. And to a level so much more than anything I have or probably could experience in the US. In the states, we think of being poor as homeless. That’s the bottom. You are sleeping on the street, panhandling. And that, I see all the time, unfortunately. Living in downtown Chicago, the sight of homeless people is an everyday occurrence. Some of them are fake, but most of them are almost neighbors at this point because you see the same ones day in and day out. 

And I know me saying some are fake probably sounds cold, but it’s true. There are some that I only see when it’s nice weather. They come in the summer, they have all this gear with them, they don’t sleep on the street and they usually have pets. My dad used to always tell this story that there was a panhandler on the Michigan Ave bridge that he would give whatever change was in his pocket on his way to work, every day. Then one day, my dad was in Vegas and saw the guy gambling. 

But the real ones, you know the real ones when they’re there in the winter. Chicago winter is no joke – most of us just hibernate. So if someone is sitting outside all day, and worse, sleeping outside, in a Chicago winter? You better believe they have nowhere else to go. No one is choosing that. But that’s the worst I’ve ever seen. Homeless sleeping outside in a Chicago winter. And that’s bad right? Yes, but up until Tanzania, I thought that was the bottom. 

On our trip, two things stuck out to me that opened my eyes in a way that will always stick with me. First, our homeless people at least have rights. There, if you’re poor, you have no rights. If you have anything valuable on your land, like coffee plants, the government takes ownership of your land without asking. If the government decides your house lives on land they want to use for something, they spray paint a huge X on the front notifying you they’ll be tearing it down at some point. No questions asked. Nothing you can do about it. 

Second, when you hike Kilimanjaro, you have to do it with a guide. Our group of 15 hikers were supported by a total of 50 people. Each hiker received a porter that would carry your bag up a mountain. You were only allowed to carry essentially a backpack. But the rest of your gear for the trip was carried by the porters. Then you had the porters that would literally carry your shit up the mountain – the bathroom porters. That would clean the porter potty after each night, carry it to the next camping site and do the same thing the following day after the camp cleared out on their hike. Yeah, that’s right.

So next time you complain about your job, just think about if your job was cleaning and transporting a porta potty up a mountain. Then there were the cooks and the actual guides. The guides were the highest level as they were certified to make sure we arrived safely. You could tell they were paid well as they had appropriate clothes and looked healthy. However, the porters were skinny, didn’t have the right clothing for the trip, and in a lot of cases, didn’t even have shoes. Yeah. They were carrying our bags up a mountain with no shoes. Yes they were happy, or at least seemed like it. They were making money, although not much. 

Never in my life had I been more thankful for even the most basic of necessities. And that’s not even mentioning the children’s foster home we visited. I left that trip appreciating things like sidewalks. When we returned home, I felt guilty having any sort of luxury or first-world problem. It truly impacted the way I looked at the world and how I thought about politics and society. Then it made me think – I wish I would have experienced that earlier in life. Growing up in a middle-class Chicago suburb, 30 years old was the first time I was faced with true poverty. Not US poverty – real poverty. If I had seen this when I was younger, would I have been less entitled? More grateful? How would this perspective have impacted me? 

Traveling is great for lessons. The older I get, the more I can tell within minutes if someone is well-traveled. Not because they’re bragging about a trip or not, but because of the perspective it gives you. It is painfully obvious when you meet someone that has never left the US. Never gotten out of their comfort zone. Because there are life lessons that you just can’t learn in books, in a classroom or in the media. Some only stick with you if you experience them for yourself. As we get older, we have more resources at our disposal, so if you haven’t yet traveled to a place that makes you slightly uncomfortable – I truly encourage you to do so. You won’t regret it. 

Lesson 3: Don’t assume you know

The other surprising area of learning that I’ve been dealing with is fertility and family planning. As a 39 year old woman, I thought at this point in my life I know my body. I am an expert in all that is the female form. And in some cases I am my own expert. I know when something is up. I am that person at the doctor often because I catch things early, sometimes before a doctor even does. I am in tune with my body. So as we start to plan a family, you would think I would be ready right? 

Wrong. Being an almost middle-aged woman starting the journey that is family planning, I have learned more about my body and this process than I ever thought possible. As girls, growing up we are pretty much taught if you have sex, you will get pregnant. So for the entirety of our sexually active adulthood, we are constantly concerned we’re going to get pregnant. If our period is off by a day, we’re out there at Walgreens buying some First Response. Hell, we wouldn’t even wait until then, we’d be taking it the next day! Which I’ve now learned is a complete waste of time cuz shit doesn’t happen that fast. 

But now that I’m trying to reverse the 20 years I’ve told my body to not get pregnant, I come to find out – it’s actually difficult to get pregnant! And not just because of my age ok, so you can calm down on that front. I don’t need the pressure, I’ve been getting that from my parents for at least the last ten years. But really – there’s this window of like five days per month, that can change every month if your period isn’t regular, where there’s really a possibility of getting pregnant. Then you have to wait almost two weeks before an at home test is even going to pick up enough hormone levels to give you a positive. 

Oh, and if it’s negative, it can be a false negative because your hormone levels aren’t high enough. If it’s positive, it can be a chemical pregnancy, or you can miscarry or have an ectopic pregnancy. You can spot your whole pregnancy. You can bleed, and still be pregnant. You can have symptoms which mean nothing, or they mean you could die. Thanks Google. It is a never-ending rollercoaster of emotion that requires a level of patience I definitely don’t have. 

And there’s a lot more. What the heck? I’m 30 years old. How is there this much I didn’t know about my own body? And I know I’m not the only one. I know multiple women in my situation right now and it’s a mutual frustration. Why was I not taught this? Why does it feel like I was almost lied to about how easy it was? Every time I learn something, I’m like – Good to know! Not sure how I have never heard of that but Good to Know! I just can’t believe I’m having to say it as often as I am. Now that I’m entering my 40’s, it really does raise the question, what else don’t I know? 

Knowledge won’t come to you; go find it

With age comes wisdom, With age comes wisdom. But what I’ve learned is that knowledge is limited if you wait for it to come to you. We only gain as much wisdom as the effort we put into learning. And there is a stark difference between people that intentionally move through the world looking for opportunities to learn and grow and those that don’t. It has nothing to do with income or status in society. It has nothing to do with how you were raised, or what your hometown is. Looking for ways to step out of your comfort zone and to learn something new is available to everyone.

The journey may look different, but the older I get, the more I realize the only excuse not to, is because you don’t want to. You like your comfort zone. You like your bubble. But just know, that those of us that choose the other route, can recognize you very quickly. Maybe it’s in the audacity to expect a baker in France to speak to you in English, or in the entitlement when you declare being asked to wear a mask is an infringement on your constitutional rights – but the tells are there and they are so obvious, you’d be broke if you used them in a poker game. So which road are you going to take? It doesn’t matter if you’re twenty-five or fifty-five. It’s never too late to start to get more curious about the world around you and open your mind to the idea that you don’t know everything. And the best part is, you never will. 

2 thoughts on “Good to Know

  1. I enjoyed your podcast, Jennifer. Just think…you’re about halfway to knowing it all! Each decade is a whole new learning experience. Trust me.

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