When I was in college, I applied to study abroad in Italy through the writing program offered at my school, The University of Washington. They have a 100-year lease with a beautiful building overlooking the Campo de Fiori in Rome, and it still operates as their Italian campus for a variety of programs for University of Washington students who want to travel to the UW Rome Center. My senior year in college, they offered an English Majors Abroad program, and I applied to it.
And that is where I was able to stay–in these beautiful apartments overlooking the lively activity of all the small farmers in Italy who showed up to present their produce, fish, shellfish, and dairy every weekend. It was amazing. (Original photos coming soon.)
I remember the incredible excitement that built over the months leading to departure as I looked forward to the dream-come-true experience of reading and writing in Italy–I stared at travel books and photos of the Campo de Fiori and imagined the food, the walking, the discovery. I didn’t know it then, but I know now that there are three main phases of travel: The planning and dreaming; the doing, being, and experiencing; and the remembering. (And, indeed, I know now that the planning and dreaming and the remembering are nearly as fun as the doing.)
After I got into the program, I looked carefully at the time I would be away–we would prepare throughout early January with basic language and some reading groups and depart January 19th for Rome, and return to Seattle in mid-March at the end of our Winter quarter. (The University of Washington operates on a quarterly, rather than a semester, system, so a quarter is equivalent to just a bit under 3 months.) I realized I wanted to stay longer–it was a long trip, after all, and, at the age of 21, my first time to Europe. How would I be able to stay longer?
Recalling a book release reading I had been to featuring our English Department Chair at the time, I remembered him saying that he believed travel was a fundamental way to build empathy and to understand others. I also remembered him saying that travel was an essential way to look back upon one’s own experience and see it through a new lens. I set up an appointment to meet with him, and asked him if he thought I could possibly put together a program where I could travel on my own and write about it for an additional quarter abroad. To my great delight, he offered to sponsor me for a 10-credit writing abroad program. That, along with a 5-credit sponsorship from a poetry professor that I adored, and I was able to travel for an additional three months after the Italian program in Rome was complete. I would be able to do this for college credit, which also made it possible for me to access my academic scholarship funds to help pay for the experience. This was, indeed, a great thing. And I intended to make it worth their faith in me. I would write great poetry. I would write great stories. I would show them that I was worth their investment in me.
This was one of the buckets on my big life bucket list, as it turns out. I didn’t know it then. I knew then that I’d always wanted to travel. But I didn’t have a tally list, or a poster covered with a list of things that mattered an impossible amount to me (like I do now–I’ll post about my vision board soon). But I did have a huge amount of hope and desire and an intrinsic belief in possibility. I had my Grammy, who had traveled the world as a ballet dancer and who had inspired me with her scrapbooks of New York, Paris, London, and beyond. I had my mom who believed in me. I had my family.
And I had 21-year-old me who at that point had a long-distance view of my life that involved writing, experience, hopefully travel, and a lot of books published…Admittedly, a lot of books published by the time I was 40. I thought that by the time I hit age 40 that I’d be ricocheted into a world of published writing that I could only dream about at the time.
But when I finished my trip to Europe, I didn’t have a lot of money left over. So I returned to Seattle. I got a job at Amazon, back when they just sold books and DVDs. And I continued my journey into business writing.
And here I am. I’m 40. I’ve had a lot of cool jobs. And I have written one manuscript that I showed one publisher and otherwise that’s it. But you know what? Unlike the incredibly cool aplomb that I presented to my professor back in 1998, I have not pulled together the gumption and the faith to talk to anyone in the publishing world. So HOW WOULD THEY KNOW ABOUT ME? Seriously. How would they know I wanted to write books if I didn’t use my intrinsic bravery to write my books and reach out to them to ask for help publishing them?
OTHERWISE I have my two beautiful children and my beautiful marriage and my beautiful house and my own resume to show for my time here on Earth. Is that it? HECK NO! There are so many things on my bucket list that are FULL. I have lived a good life. I have done great things–fed the homeless, cared for kids, worked at nonprofits, hugged the despairing, given to the needy, written the truth, tried to stop death–Let me be clear: I do not feel a sense of disappointment because all my books haven’t been written and therefore published. I do not feel a sense of shame. Not here. NO. I have this life. And it is AMAZING. But books there will be. People, books there will be. Melinda L. Barnes will write books that you will want to read. That’s the mantra that’s been living in my head since I was seven. Here I am: Age 40. Ready to write the books.
And you know what? Life happens. Truth happens. There isn’t anything worth more than the truth. I realize this time and time again as I travel through life and find respite in the morals and values of my family. My dear Grandpa Howard was voted to speak as the keynote speaker at my uncle’s graduation in the 1960s for the Bainbridge High graduation–and he spoke about possibility and truth and the morals of a good life. He spoke about values and goodness and living life well. He didn’t speak about cutting corners. Who speaks about cutting corners and how to lie your way through an otherwise boring life at a high school graduation? Nobody. Nobody does that. And if they do, their words are not remembered. So. I have my Grandpa and my Grandma to believe in. And I believe in them all the time.
Truth matters. It always does.
So I am here to say as I resound my 40-year-old yawp that THIS IS THE ONLY LIFE YOU’LL LIVE AS YOU. What do you want to do with it? What is your mark? What is your message?
And what I want to say today is that there are messages in your life as you wander through your beautiful life. They are the messages that ensure that you will live your best life. Whatever those messages might be, they are there–and you need to pay attention, because they are speaking to you. Whether they are messages telling you to move on and choose something better, or whether they are messages highlighting your worst moment rather than your best, they are the messages that are saying (trumpeting/broadcasting/yelling) that you should live your best life NOW.
Today, as I think through all of this, I am pausing for a moment and considering where I live now. I have to be honest: It is my dream. It is the place I have always wanted to live. This is the home that needed me, and that we needed to live in. This is the farmhouse dream that my whole life needed, and it’s the farmhouse home that we will live in forever, until our lives are done and the legacy passes on to our generations that follow.
I find peace in blossoming trees. I find peace in flowers. I find inspiration in the greening of a meadow. I, like Anne of Green Gables and Laura Ingalls Wilder, have big dreams about how we will live on this land.
But in all of it, in all of the dreams and the hopes and the attempts, I will say this big huge thing in this big huge public space: My Dreams Matter. They all come into play, in the end. I could be hanging out in a tent on the corner of Madison and First Streets in Seattle, and my hopes would still matter. Just like yours.
And I am asking you today to have faith in your hopes and dreams, whatever they might be, and to have some very specific goals around those. Tell me about them. Talk to all of us here, please. And keep it going. I can’t wait to watch as you journey toward your big hopes and dreams.
Because, as it turns out, if you keep the journey in mind, it all works out. It always does–if you work hard enough. So keep your best journey in mind. Here are a few photos of our little farmhouse on Bainbridge Island–the house I think we were always meant to live in. It’s just one part of the whole big deal. And while we live here, we will work to keep our next phase of big dreams alive and thriving.