Ask JKE is our monthly advice column written by Jackie Kai Ellis. Submit your questions anonymously here.
I live in Vancouver and I have a great life. I have a good job at a non-profit, a wonderful boyfriend, and a great network of friends. I have, however, always wanted to try living abroad—a plan that was first put on hold by familial loss and then by the pandemic. I’m in my late twenties, and while I know intellectually that I am still young, in some respects I feel that I have missed my window. I feel tempted to invest further in the things that make my life here so wonderful, but I also feel called to pack my bags. So my question for you is: how do you decide whether it’s worth it to go?
-Wondering If I Should Still Go
Dear Wondering If I Should Still Go,
I remember being 22. I had just graduated from studying fine arts, was about to start another degree in design, and felt like I was trailing behind the typical milestones of life—as if I had missed my window to start a career at the “right” age.
After a career in design, I recall my time in Paris at 32: studying pastry alongside 18-year-olds, wondering if it was a bit late to make such a drastic career change.
While writing my memoir at the age of 37, one of the most frequent questions I was asked was: “Aren’t you a little young to be writing a memoir?”
Now at 43, days away from having my first child [editor’s note: Jackie gave birth to a healthy baby on April 17], my pregnancy has been labeled a “geriatric” one, and it definitely feels a little late to be embarking on this kind of new life.
After decades of living outside a conventional timeline, perhaps I am proof that life itself doesn’t really impose a chronology on us—but rather, society does. We live in a culture that dictates to us what and when “normal” is. When I’ve tried squeezing myself into these rigid cubbyholes, I have just never fit. This caused me a lot of angst—and still does sometimes—until I decided that I would rather be happy than “normal.”
In some ways, defining our own visions of a fulfilling life is even harder than living the one that is expected of us. The possibilities can all seem daunting, especially when there are few limitations. Yet it’s also freeing to remember that there are no wrong steps, no bad decisions—simply different experiences we choose to try.
That’s not to say that your feelings about each choice won’t be difficult and multifaceted, even conflicting. As with every significant life change, when we invite in something that we really want, we often have to create room for it by letting go of something else we hold dear. So yes, there will be loss, and yes, some things just won’t be the same again. But we get to choose; and realistically, everything shifts, regardless of whether we decide to change it or not. Evolution is inevitable.
When it does feel hard to let go, we should remember just how lucky we are to have had a choice at all. Many people don’t have the same breadth of options; the opportunity to decide is a unique gift.
In the end, I believe choices are our responsibility and a rare privilege when we have them. We get to choose to get on that train; where we’d like to get off; which window to admire the view from; what door to walk through. The selection isn’t always easy: there’s a lot to weigh, and often it takes time to feel conviction about one direction or another.
In the past, I’ve found it helpful to imagine myself at the end of my life, asking myself which path I would regret not taking. Perhaps you’d have more regret about not deciding to live abroad; perhaps you’d have more regret about not continuing to build a life you dream of where you are right now. Regardless, once you decide, remember that choices are not usually so final and permanent. You might try living abroad for a year and decide it wasn’t for you after all. Or you might try investing in your life here for another year and decide that staying just isn’t your long-term path.
If it helps to know: through all my life decisions and reverse courses, I personally don’t feel I have ever made a life mistake. I have missed train stops, paused at towns I didn’t like, and decided to skip to the next ones. I have left cities and decided I missed them so much that I went back to stay for a long while when I thought I never would. I have learned from each experience, especially about myself—and isn’t that the point of it all anyway?
The timing never seemed perfect in my life, but I don’t believe life is meant to be perfect in the way we so desperately want to; nor is it meant to be painless. And, in hindsight, I think the timing was actually always perfect, because whatever happened, painful or joyful, brought me to who I am today: someone who is wiser, at most, and, at the very least, someone with a funny story or two to tell at a cocktail party.
Now that I’m 43, and very unsure about the experience of motherhood, your question is a great reminder for me to trust in this perfectly imperfect timing, too. I will be letting go of many things that I love about my life: my current identity and my sleep, for starters. But I was lucky enough that the train stopped here for me—and when I realized I would always regret not exploring this town, I stepped off to explore.