Tales of a 21st Century Gypsy

Friday December 12, 2003 Reactions

I decided it was time to send out a “moving on, it’s been great working together” email to the NJSSI clearinghouse list, the 2000 or so people who have received event announcements, “News from NJSSI” and occasional simple reminders of our existence. I spent an hour composing it:

Dear Colleagues and Friends,

After a fascinating and very educational year and a half launching the New Jersey Sustainable State Institute, I have decided to move on to other things and leave the Institute in the hands of its dedicated board of governors.

I will be leaving at the beginning of January, and will be making some major changes in my life. While New Jersey has been a great place to work and to live, it is time for me to return to more technical work, and to the international arena which has made up most of my professional life. I am returning to consulting on environmental issues in the developing world, which I will begin with a five-week assignment in southern Africa in January. I am exited about returning to international work, and very much looking forward to this first assignment, which relates to the logistics of transfrontier park management.

I am trying to keep the grass from growing under my feet in another way as well. My consulting work is short-term, and entirely conducted overseas. As long as I am reachable by phone and email, I can do that from any place. So I am giving into that urge that everyone has at some point in her life, to "just get in the car and go." I am "moving into" an old VW Vanagon camper van to become a 21st century, middle-aged, middle-class, professional gypsy - with my kayak on the roof, my bike on the back, my cellphone and internet connection, and as few other possessions as I can manage. When I have consulting assignments, I'll park at the nearest airport and fly overseas. The rest of the time, I'll be traveling around North America seeing places I've never seen, meeting people who are not caught up in the fast-paced world of the northeast, and adapting to life with less stuff, less personal space, less paid work, and and more free time to explore.

If you wish to stay in touch with the Institute, please use our general email address, sustainj@njssi.net. If you wish to stay in touch with me, I will be reachable at jhecht@alum.mit.edu, or on my cellphone at 202-494-1162. Sorry, no postal address in my van!

It has been a pleasure for me to work with all the very dedicated people who make New Jersey a dynamic, exciting state. I have been continually impressed by the committed people I've met here, people engaged with policy issues, and trying to make their social goals a reality. Keep up the good work!

Sincerely, etc.

The response has been startling. I got a few good wishes from people whom I vaguely remember having met or spoken to. But the best were from total strangers. Like these:

That sounds so wonderful. I am insanely jealous. Have a wonderful time; if your traveling brings you to Newark, stop in for lunch!!!

Although we've never met, I felt compelled to reply to your email, congratulate you on your decision to "move on" and wish you the best in all of your endeavors. Your courage to follow this path is enviable. You're taking the plunge to do something many of us have only thought about. Best of luck in your new adventure!

I was glad to receive your message. Though we don't know each other, I wish we had a chance to talk. I wish you the best of everything. Please keep in touch.

Joy, I envy your approach to life...best wishes.

Ah, Joy, best of luck. Your plans sound like heaven! I'm glad our paths crossed. Be well and happy holidays.

As one who has recently 'moved on' as well, I salute your choice and wish you much joy on your new adventure. I hope the Africa job is the beginning of many interesting travels, and hope to cross paths with you as you wander here in the States. Good luck!

We've never met, but Go Girl! I've thought it would be cool to set up my office in a cabin at 10,000 feet. Good luck with your consulting.

Hi Dr.Hecht, You don't know me, but I am a senior at Rutgers University. I want to commend you for your step into the unknown and only hope that I can sustain such a freedom of emotion and feeling throughout my professional life. God bless and good luck :) (this from a girl with a Muslim name, the userid “divachiq” and a reference to the goddesses in her sorority in her sigfile!)

And then this one:

Can I convince you to take me with you for a week? While I have commitments which keep me in NJ, I am car camping for a week or two each year somewhere in the US. You would be a very interesting person to share life the universe and everything with for a week. Or maybe I should not have used this particular reference since you did not say "so long and thanks for all the fish." OK, then sharing any trip of discovery with you would be interesting. I would learn a great deal. I hope to hear from you, but will understand if I do not. Good luck!

It’s quite strange. I sent an email to people whom I thought I kind of knew, since they are on “my” list. But then I realized that– not surprisingly – they consider me a total stranger. But beyond that, somehow I have touched them in ways that fired a spark in some of them. It’s a bit like performing in front of an audience, I’m on stage in the spotlights and the hall is darkened, so I have no idea who is out there. It makes me a public figure, not simply my private self.

Of course that’s a grandiose and overrated characterization of the couple of dozen emails I’ve gotten. I don’t have a vast unknown public out there viewing the way I live my life as a model for what they might do, if they only had the courage or the freedom. And yet, of course, I kind of like that idea of myself. So many people have said, “oh, so you’re going on the road, and then are you going to write a book about your experiences?” In a way I am thinking of it – why else am I keeping these notes, after all? But from a different perspective, if I am watching my own experiences and considering how they look to other people, then I am not honestly living my own life simply from within.

I have lived much of my life from within, while occasionally realizing that I didn’t live up to my expectations of what I was supposed to achieve. I have been frequently aware of a desire to understand better how I appear to other people, because I had no perspective on myself. If I could only perceive myself as others do, from the outside, then perhaps I’d understand better who I am. Over the years I’ve gotten pieces of that perspective, but not a lot. One part is realizing that people perceive me as argumentative and probably a bit imperious, very decided and holding strong opinions. But the other part is realizing that some people – friends like Marion and Julia – see me as living proof that it is possible to be different and make it work. For Marion my travel was exotic, she felt I could decide on things and make them happen in ways that others couldn’t pull off. For Julia, and other women younger than I, I was demonstration that one could have an interesting, exciting life without having or needing a spouse – indeed, that a spouse would be very much a hindrance in many ways.

This email I’ve sent out has brought in all kinds of unexpected feedback. But did I craft it just with this in mind, albeit unconsciously? Was I looking to impress people with the fact that I don’t need them or their values or their job recognition or approval, because I am walking away from all of that and taking to the road? Certainly in the past I have understood my own “walking away” as a play for status within the arena that I’m leaving. It’s the ultimate way of achieving the status of independence – because I don’t need them and I can leave. But of course if I thereby achieve any status within that setting, I don’t know it, because I have left.

It’s a bit like my conversation with the VW repairman in Mt. Kisco, and my feeling that I had achieved status in his eyes because I was driving a 1989 VW Vanagon. Why do I care? If I am trying to define my own life that is not based on the values of other people, why does impressing them give me such satisfaction? I think there’s a bit of hypocrisy going on here!

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