Traversing through miles of partly lush, partly dry farmland acres of plantain trees and sugar cane fields, our road trip motored us past silhouettes of volcanos rising from the horizon, hovering over the two-lane highway that chicken buses, big rigs, herds of cows, motorcycles, horse-drawn carts, and our Land Cruisers all shared in not-so-equal parts.
There would be surfy beach stops to explore sunset tide pools and dine on fresh-caught fish tacos. There would be city stops to wander through weathered cathedrals and taste-test modern, non-fish vegan cuisine. We’d horseback ride through swampy green, scenic trails populated with flighty white herons. We’d hike up active volcanos and later feast on more fresh-caught fish tacos.
There were 10 of us in the group. Family number one, parents to a just-turned-one-year-old and a six-year-old, and family number two, parents to a just-turned-seven-year-old and an eight-and-a-half-years-old. (The half is important). A 22-year-old nephew of family number two had joined the caravan; all of us strapped securely inside two packed and loaded SUVs, we set out for the North of Nicaragua for a multi-family vacation.
In case you lost track with all the numbers I just haphazardly littered this page with, that’s two families of four, myself, and a college student.
Five days into our travels, we arrived at a lovely Hacienda where we’d explore, relax, and celebrate a milestone birthday in the group. There was a long discussion over how to divide the rooms given the dynamics of our party.
In the Hacienda, a large house hosted four bedrooms and two shared bathrooms, offering a blend of privacy but also access to each person’s quarters. The access to each room would come in handy for parents of small, imaginative, and giggly children. Most rooms did not have air conditioning—only fans.
A second cabin on the grounds was a totally private one-bedroom ensuite and separated from the other by a dirt path under a jungle canopy. It was a good 30-second walk away (which is a fair distance if you walk in one direction and time it). The room boasted air conditioning.
As we adults deliberated how to delegate rooms and beds, we knocked around concerns such as safety, access to kids, kids’ access to parents, privacy regarding bathroom space, and privilege for family number one who had first discovered the Hacienda and were celebrating the father’s 40th.
The private cabin seemed to be the best choice for them and was clearly the favorite cabin on the Hacienda grounds. I felt for sure the parents in family number one should move in.
Since my role in this traveling family bonanza was “auntie,” I offered to sleep in a shared room near or with the younger kids, in the big semi-private house, sleeping nine people, declaring that the private cabin be claimed by the parents in family number. They would have privacy, AC, and comfort. All the good things they deserved.
But full access to their young kids turned out to be what family number valued more, so they declined the private cabin.
The other faces in the group turned to each other. Should I be the one to claim the coveted cabin? No. I offered my reasoning to the group, “I am the lowest on the totem pole out of all of us here, so I don’t mind sleeping where it makes sense for everyone.”
Then family number two laughed and said, “No way! We think you’re the second highest on the totem pole!”
And we all laughed and laughed, and they rewarded me with the best room. Solitude. AC. A private bathroom. All the good things.
So I moved in, stretched out on the huge bed, and then pondered. Second highest on the totem pole? Really?
Because it wasn’t my planned trip, but had been extended the invitation, I chose to go with the flow of what the party planners decided to experience. My presence I assumed flexible, my needs unprioritized. I was sincerely okay with that, just happy to be on the road, spending quality time with dear friends and their cute kids.
So I tried to add value by cleaning up after meals, scanning for lost toys, and holding the baby while the parents packed. I would contribute, looking for gaps where I saw I could help out the busy parents trying to keep their kids fed, watered, safe, exercised, and slept—all while pursuing their own enjoyment and relaxation in tandem. My intention was to support and be appreciated so that I could be invited back next year.
Amongst the sightseeing, activity planning, and exploring, there were the daily routines I was naturally not looped into (like feeding and changing the baby and other parental chores embedded into their own daily rhythm).
Nearly every day, there was packing and unpacking, loading and unloading of luggage and toys. The splitting of bills and cleaning of messes and attention to tears and cuts and toasted marshmallows.
“Lowest on the totem pole” made sense to me in this context because I just figured since parents have more mouths to feed, deserved a break, had done the planning, or had traveled further than I, then it would make sense to award the most private cabin to anyone but myself. (Except maybe the college student.)
As I relaxed in the serene silence of my cabin, with only the chocoyo birds chirping from the trees outside my window, I reflected on how I seemed in their eyes.
At 44, I was the second oldest in the group. I had been “auntie” and friend to family number one for about eight years, celebrating so many Christmases, New Years, Easters, birthdays, and vacations together.
But I was not just a friend traveling along. I was an elder—second highest on the totem pole. I liked the idea more and more, realizing that just because I am not a parent, I don’t have to keep sitting at the kids’ table as I navigate my 40s. I can skip on ahead to adult land.
As the AC cooled the room, I lay in my comfy bed under ambient lighting, observing colorful art on the walls and stretched out breathing deeply. Enjoying my privacy. My space. My glass of red wine, perched on the glossy bedside table carved from a tree trunk. It felt good.
In the stillness, much I struggle with came knocking. To be “highest on the totem pole” implies a person of experience, of influence, or authority. I’m not sure I’m totally there yet. There are thresholds I haven’t crossed that call into question my totem pole placement. Uncrossed thresholds that inhibit my feelings of personal success.
Thinking about this, I believe the story of my own idea of success is worth a rewrite.
On paper, if I were to align with traditional examples of totem pole achievement, this might imply that I’ve nailed down a stellar career, secured my retirement plan, and accumulated a spouse and a house and probably kids.
While my career path has been exhilarating, terrifying, fully rewarding, hard, and pock-marked with insecurities, as well as victories, I’m not sure if it’s stellar. I suppose “stellar” is worth personally defining.
And a retirement plan? Bahaha. That’s all I have to say about that.
A house (also means a mortgage), kids (can mean limited freedom, but also limitless love and joy), and a spouse—no. A few close calls, but still no.
So for me, and for any of us really, what counts as making it at 44?
What achievements raise our status to the top of that time-honored pole?
Some of my umbrella goals include being/becoming loved, chosen, healthy, safe, wealthy, and refined. All of which are subjective, demanding a clear definition of how these goals materialize in this lifetime of mine.
How will they manifest into something tangible, such as a house that is mine, painted in my favorite colors, and securing a companion who is mine too and helps with the painting? And if I acquire my own house and paint it in my favorite colors with my favorite man, does that bump me higher on the pole?
This is starting to read like a mid-life crisis. This “elder” sh*t might be why I spoil a cat now…and keep house plants.
There is an uneasy feeling that “second highest on the totem pole” is rounding on the final stretch. I want to know what threshold I will soon cross that raises my totem pole status.
And how do I rise without rushing toward the end of my journey before I’m ready?
As panic and doubt set in, I pivoted my thoughts to accomplishments that ignite pride: Entrepreneur of an educational-focused travel business for 12 years; I traveled the world independently; I built schools; I changed lives; I earned several degrees and credentials; I journeyed with inspiring people; I kept a kitten alive; I wrote and published a book; I lived abroad for 22 years in four different countries. I’ve had incredibly fulfilling romantic relationships, even if every one of them ended in some way.
I could go on beating my own drum, but I won’t.
(But I most definitely recommend for you to do this, especially in times of self-doubt. Beat that beautiful drum of yours until you’ve drawn a crowd of adoration, all cheers and smiles, banners waving in a sea of humans who are eager to carve your face at the top of a wooden pole and raise it high. Just do it.)
Maybe I should stop thinking about this too much. Instead, I should collect those victories in a timeline that works for this life. Maybe by age 58 and a half. (The half is important.)
Choosing a path that releases age-defined, traditional expectations sounds more aligned to me. It feels kinder to my own sense of finish-line ribbons I have yet to break through.
Second highest on the totem pole.
Given there are way more placements on the pole awaiting my pursuits, I think I’m okay with my status in life right now.
I think I’m okay with others looking at me in surprise as I suggest I take the least ideal room and them shaking their heads at me, laughing and saying, “Oh no, girl. You’re second to the top. Take the best room.”