22: 365 Envelopes

22: 365 Envelopes

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Reboot Your Life

365 Envelopes

The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page.

~St. Augustine

I sat cross-legged on the beige carpet of my bedroom floor surrounded by half-packed boxes and hundreds of white business-sized envelopes. What had I gotten myself into?

In a few weeks I would be moving from Chicago to Germany, so I should have been packing. Instead I was working on a goodbye gift for my boyfriend — one envelope for him to open each day of the upcoming year, when we’d be living six time zones apart.

The decision to accept the job in Germany hadn’t been easy. David and I had been falling in love for a year, and we’d begun discussing marriage! But I had dreamed for years about living abroad, and David had encouraged me to pursue my dream. So there I was, stuffing envelopes with things that would make David smile and think about me throughout the year: favorite quotes, articles, comic strips, photos, personalized crossword puzzles, a 3x5 card with plastic googly eyes glued to it and a note saying “I miss seeing your face.”

Into envelope 178, I put a photocopy of an article that I had come across years earlier. It was a story from Chicken Soup for the Traveler’s Soul called “We Almost Did That.” The author, Steve Gardiner, wrote about the regret-tinged comments that he heard over and over as he and his wife were preparing to quit their jobs and travel around South America and Europe. “We almost applied to teach overseas once,” people would say. “We almost quit our jobs and traveled.” The end of Mr. Gardiner’s story embedded itself in my mind: “After eighteen months overseas, we arrived home with no money. In fact, we were in debt. But our riches include a shelf of ragged guidebooks, a trunk of well-worn maps, two minds filled with memories and no urge to say, ‘We almost did that.’ ”

I highlighted those last three sentences and jotted a note to David: “Proof that marriage doesn’t have to mean settling down.”

That year living apart was tough. But the envelopes helped, and so did David’s visits. We traveled all over Germany and Spain, and we talked about the idea of living abroad together someday, like the couple from envelope 178. On his last visit before I moved back to the States, David proposed. Four months later we were married and happily living together.

Throughout our first few years of marriage, we continued to talk about living abroad. We schemed and dreamed, researched and planned. We took a scouting trip to El Salvador, but it didn’t pan out. We investigated jobs in Guatemala, Spain and Costa Rica. For one reason or another, nothing worked out. Then an opportunity came up for David to work as a doctor in a chiropractic clinic in a city called Arequipa in southern Peru. We visited and fell in love with the city and its glittering white buildings made from volcanic stone. We gawked at the three towering volcanoes that ring the city, and we dreamed of climbing them someday. The job seemed ideal, and we gave the clinic owner a tentative “yes.” We went back to the States and began making preparations to leave. But when the buyer for our own chiropractic practice backed out, we knew we couldn’t pull things together in time to take the job in Peru. The day we sent an e-mail to tell the clinic owner we couldn’t come, we both lay on the bed and cried.

As the years passed, we talked about our dream less often. We stopped telling friends and family about every latest scheme. “I wonder what they think of us,” we’d often say to each other. “Do they roll their eyes behind our backs every time we talk about moving overseas?” From time to time, one of us would say to the other, “What if that Peru opportunity came up again?” But it didn’t. And our lives were comfortable. We enjoyed our jobs and our house on two acres in upstate New York. On weekends we did projects around the house and spent time with David’s parents and sisters, who lived nearby. We took weekend trips to the Finger Lakes and New York City. We visited my family in Chicago. Once in a while, we would stand in front of the world map that hung in our home office and dream. Or we’d Google “overseas job opportunities.”

Our dream to live abroad began to seem just a little irresponsible. Unrealistic. Childish. Perhaps, we thought, it was time to let it go. “We have a really good life,” we’d remind each other. I even contemplated buying a KitchenAid mixer, in my mind, the epitome of settling down.

Then one day, we got an e-mail from the owner of the chiropractic clinic in Peru.

Hi David and Karen,

The clinic in Arequipa is looking for a new doctor at the end of the year. Are you still interested?

Dr. Rick

We considered the e-mail for about sixty seconds and then sprang into action. I quit my job. We got rid of a car. We hired another chiropractor to work in our practice in New York. We found renters for our house. We took carloads of stuff to the Salvation Army and threw away armloads more. We hung a big piece of white paper on our kitchen wall: THINGS TO DO FOR PERU. We marked up the daunting to-do list with colored Sharpie markers: blue for house-related tasks, orange for the business, brown for things to bring to Peru.

The to-do list took a long time. From the day we got the e-mail to the day we stood by the single luggage carousel in Arequipa’s airport waiting to collect our two fifty-pound duffel bags, it had been eight months. But we never doubted that it was well worth the effort. That year in Peru was without question the greatest experience of our life together so far. We trekked through the jungle and explored deserted Incan ruins. We awoke beneath mosquito nets to the sounds of monkeys swinging through the trees outside our bungalow in the Amazon rainforest. We hiked to the top of Arequipa’s tallest volcano and learned how it feels to try to breathe the sparse oxygen at 20,000 feet. We learned Spanish. We made great friends.

Most significantly, we spent Saturday afternoons hanging out with a group of kids who lived at an orphanage near our house. Almost every weekend, after another day at the park or outing to the mall, we joked about wanting to bring home some of the kids. Then somewhere along the way it stopped being a joke and started to seem like our destiny.

We began the adoption process as soon as we got back to the States. It’s been almost two years of working our way through another daunting to-do list, but we’re nearly finished. We just recently got final approval to travel back to Peru — and this time we’ll be bringing home four teenagers from the orphanage in Arequipa.

That year in Peru was an incredible adventure, but it was only the beginning. As we prepare to go from being a family of two to a family of six, we know our life may not be comfortable again any time soon. And that’s okay. At least we’ll never have to say we almost did that.

~Karen Martin

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