Published on June 4th, 2014 | by Bryanna Millis0
Bryanna Millis on BEING A GLOBETROTTER MUTHA
I am an artist, poet, and international economist, by way of graphic design and documentary filmmaking. What I am not is a planner. I have never had a grand scheme for life, or much of an ability to picture a year or two down the road. Making my way by trial and error, curiosity, and gut instinct has sometimes been torturous, but it has also led to experiences of bliss I think are possible only by being open to life.
After years of experimenting with ‘what to do with my life’, a career traveling the world working on foreign-assistance projects turned out to be an amazing match. It got me out of my own head and focused on issues much larger than me. I found new passions that drove my artwork, and, in a way, I was able to live multiple lives. Spending a months a time in places like Cambodia, Morocco and Palestine, I would work late into the night, getting deeply involved in economic, political, and historical issues, meeting people who would become life-long friends, and visiting legendary cities and wonders of the world. As I casually hailed down tuk-tuks in Phnom Penh or grocery shopped in Rabat to make my own tagine, these places truly started to feel like home.
In the midst of these adventures, having a baby was probably the most foreign thing I could imagine. I couldn’t picture what it would do to my life – how I would continue to travel and work, much less have the time and mental space to turn my experiences into art. But as the years ticked by, I started to panic. There were always times on trips that were just hard. Hours spent in airports, and the jet lag there and back, were exhausting. I would get homesick while away and then I would come home to the U.S. and be sick, giving my husband the worst of myself. I worried that my love of being rootless and wandering would backfire, that I was sacrificing my one real life for some dream of living several. I worried about the regret I would feel if I lost the chance to have a child.
In 2010 I got the opportunity to move to Ramallah, and my husband and I packed up and went together. We dug into everything we loved about the place. I worked hard on programs to strengthen government institutions and support businesses to compete. We studied Arabic, learned to cook local dishes, and spent spring weekends bar-b-quing with friends at the Dead Sea.
We had endless discussions about the history and politics of Palestine, and I sat in my studio space looking over terraced hillsides of olive trees, making art from newspaper, thread and coffee grounds.
Six months into our stay, we got pregnant. We were hoping to get a work permit from the Israeli government and stay longer than one year, but that failed, and when I was five months along our tourist visas were revoked. There seemed to be something preordained about it all by then, the conflict between baby and travel working itself out on its own. So after finishing out our year abroad in Jordan, we packed up our suitcases and moved home.
When our son Wynn was born, I spent a blissful maternity leave taking care of myself and my family. I felt totally committed to domestic life, with a sense of peace that I hadn’t experienced before. The days were long and relaxed, and I didn’t try to do anything more than be there for my son. I started making artwork inspired by his joy in exploring his world and did not long for anything more than what we had.
So when the months were up and I was due back at work, I struggled mightily with the question of whether to quit my job. Leaving my son for long days was painful, and the idea of leaving for weeks at a time was inconceivable. I was back at that familiar juncture of two choices that both seemed impossible.
My first trip was for just three days at a conference in England. The heartbreak I felt in the taxi to the airport was indescribable – I absolutely knew I should not go. Each day took me to opposite ends of the spectrum. I would begin thinking I could definitely do this and would end knowing that I had to go home and quit my job. Over the next year I was able to space out trips, and keep them down to about 10 days door-to-door. On one long assignment, for 6 weeks in Ramallah, I was able to bring my husband and son. We set up again in an apartment near the center of town and made new friends with toddlers to play with. I loved the work I was doing, travelling the country and developing plans to support farmers and exporters of fresh herbs and dates, and was torn when the work was up and it was time to come home.
Back in the US, I continue to let the balance evolve. I no longer have a desire to travel to new places – I know it wouldn’t be possible to get to know them in a deep way, or be transformed by them, hurrying there and back. Instead, I structure my work to return to the places I know, so I can see old friends and find meaning, to compensate for the difficulty of being away. Within that first year I also reduced my work to part time, in order to have enough time for baby and art. With this flexibility, I was even able to turn the artwork I’d been making since Wynn’s birth into a book of collages and rhymes about adventure and the months of the year, “Where Are You Going, Little One?”
Before my son was born, I had been afraid to have a child because of all the things I’d have to give up, but that once I had a child and gave those things up, it was worth it. After three years I’ve realized that I can’t actually give them up forever, but I haven’t really had to. I’ve scaled back on parts of my life, sometimes less, sometimes more, and changed the shape of the work that I’m doing. But now, more than ever, I see the need to be open to life and ready for the moments of bliss it brings.