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Adam Sanford

A Self-Portrait


From the time I left school I always had a plan. There were always decisions to make and I always felt more relaxed when I had formulated a plan: whether it was how I was going to spend my money; where I was going to travel; how my relationships were going to change (or even end) and most importantly where and when I would be moving on. I’ve never stayed in the same place longer than eighteen months. It’s strange, but as a result, I have viewed my life not as a progressive journey, but as a series of short projects, always with more than one eye on the future. Only now am I starting to realise the importance of slowing down, of enjoying small things and having small plans for today, not just waiting for the big projects that may happen next year.

I think I have always been scared of the ‘normal’ life, of working nine til five, that I have almost written off this part of life, viewing it as a time of survival, switching off to function like a robot. I never saw any real opportunity to gain serious satisfaction from work. I only saw it as something you would do to gain the freedom of not having to work, to be able to travel or study. The problem, of course, is that you do have to work; you do have to have a ‘normal’ life at some point. Simply running from one big plan to the next, while exciting, never really allows that much flow in your life. It is much nicer to build things slowly and it is much more refreshing to focus on small things, simple pleasures on a daily basis, than a series of unconnected projects.

I left school and went to university as my parents and I always thought I would. I don’t know when the decision fixed itself in their minds; I know my mum was always keen for me to go. Personally, I think the decision embedded in my mind after walking around one of the Oxford Colleges on what must have been my thirteenth or fourteenth birthday. It was a beautiful summer’s evening, a long night at the end of July that you only really get in the Northern Hemisphere. It was getting dark and all the lights were on in what I presumed was the library. It seemed so important and visually stunning. I imagined a group of students working late into the night, sitting at old desks, reading, writing and thinking. I assumed these people were working on something significant, some groundbreaking academic research, with old, heavy books. A couple of times during my own university life, the feeling I had on that night was realised and the impact hit me again. I always liked working late in the library or writing essays in the middle of the night. Like most students I procrastinated a lot and I certainly wasn’t obsessed with study, but I think at those times I felt as though I was doing something scholarly, which was gratifying because I always enjoyed traditionally academic subjects.

That scene on my teenage birthday sparked a real desire to be at University and that’s how it ended up. In a way, I was disappointed that so many of my peers ended up going as well and when it came to it the passion that I had to further my studies wasn’t nearly as important as it would have been say, thirty years earlier. Even so, I was the first from my mother’s traditionally working class family to go to University, which is probably more a sign of social trends than any blazing trail on my part. All of my sisters and cousins to date have followed this pattern.

When I left University, I took a year off to work, which I spent in Liverpool. I had travelled to Mexico twice, spent a long summer working in Greece, followed by travels through Italy, France and Holland. Rather than spend the last few weeks of uni relaxing in Lancaster, I flew to New York the day after my last exam to stay with an old friend. It’s funny and probably a good example of my life at the time, but without having any appreciation or understanding of art, by the age of twenty-one, I had seen the Sistine Chapel, and visited the best galleries in New York, Madrid, London and Paris. I had quickly looked over some of the most famous works of Goya, Dali, Hopper and Picasso, without ever having tried to draw. The irony is that I have gained a better appreciation of art through an eight week community college evening class in Sydney than I did when I was ticking off the world’s top galleries.

My first trip to Mexico was probably the best. I loved it! The life of the friend I had gone to visit, the life of the foreign student, seemed so amazing: the sparkle, the excitement, the brightness of it all, the interaction, the community, the freedom. But instead of reflecting on such a great trip, I gave myself a hard time. I should have done it. Why wasn’t I there full-time? How could I have made such poor decisions? How could I catch up?

I have always given myself a hard time; I am always hard on what I have done and equally demanding on how opportunities in front of me are so amazing if only I would grip them fully. If I talk to myself, it’s usually to say ‘You have a great opportunity here, you need to make the most of it. Your life could be excellent.’ This harsh way of treating myself has had both negative and positive effects. Yes it creates a lot of self-inflicted pressure, but most probably I would never have experienced the things I have without pushing myself so hard. Would I have seen the sunrise over Machu Pichu? Would I have dived at night in the Caribbean? Would I have skied in Argentina? Or seen the sunset behind Sydney harbour as we sailed out to celebrate New Year?

With such a diverse and exciting world to choose from I could never understand why people lived in one place simply because they had been born there. When I left uni I thought about moving to London with some close friends and at one point I contemplated going for a permanent position with the company I was temping at. The idea of a company car and a reasonable salary could have seen me living in some newly built suburban estate. It would have kept me closer to home, but of course I would have had to forget about my travelling plans. It was a comforting scenario for a while. I knew that if I left it was going to be difficult, opting to leave a safe environment with a close network of family and friends to travel across a continent on the other side of the world on my own.

Despite my own brief flirtation, I could never really understand why people complained about where they lived and how much they wanted to travel and experience new things, but yet never had any real intention of doing anything about it. One of my favourite songs is an acoustic Noel Gallagher tune, mainly because it addresses this very issue. It’s called ‘D’yer Wanna be a Spaceman’ about a guy who goes home and sees all his old mates. He is trying to find some common ground after leaving for London and following his dream. He starts thinking back to when they were young and had childhood dreams. These are some of the lines. I probably know it a little too well:

Haven’t seen your face round
Since I was a kid
You’re bringing back those memories
Of the things that we did
You’re hangin’ round
And climbing trees
Pretending to fly
D’yer wanna be a spaceman
And live in the sky

You got how many bills to pay
And how many kids
And you forgot about
The things that we did
The town where we’re living
Has made you a man
And all of your dreams
Are washed away in the sand

Well it’s alright
It’s alright
Who are you and me to say
What’s wrong and what’s right
Do you still feel like me
We sit down here
And we shall see
We can talk
And find common ground
And we can just forget
About feeling down
We can just forget
About life in this town.

It’s funny how your dreams
Change as you’re growing old
You don’t wanna be no spaceman
You just want gold
All the dream stealers
Are lying in wait
But if you wanna be a spaceman
It’s still not too late

It sums it up perfectly for me. We all have these ideas, whether it is being a spaceman or travelling the world, and lots of people find they get a job, then bills, a mortgage and stuff gets in the way. We happily give ourselves excuses and end up just forgetting about our dreams, or pretending they never really existed. When I stop to think about what I am most proud of, it’s avoiding this and following my spaceman equivalent. I remember conversations when I was younger, summer nights in the park with my mates when we would talk about how great it would be to go trekking in the Amazon or similar adventures. Having actually done some of these things makes me feel proud that I have achieved what I set out to do. I feel so positive as a result of the choices I have made and happy that I have been through the hardships of leaving home by myself. I feel independent with a great deal of strength to draw upon. At the same time I try to remind myself of the chorus to the song. Who am I to say what’s wrong or right? It can be difficult, as I want people to do the same as me, so I can keep that common ground, but I have to remind myself not to judge people who have chosen different paths.

I still find myself different from people in this way though. I am completely uneasy with popular culture, I dislike television and I tend to feel cut off when people talk about it. It shocks me the way that people can work and then return home just to watch TV, sleep and do the whole thing over again the next day. I have a picture of suburban lifestyle, a recurring nightmare where everyone lives in the same houses and goes to the same jobs.

It’s funny, because when I went home to England recently, an old friend of mine said, ‘I am disappointed you ended up in Australia, you’re just like all the others on the backpacker gravy train. I thought you would be working on a ranch in Argentina or somewhere random, totally integrated with the locals speaking the language.’

He’s right. I would have probably thought the same of him if he was in my situation and I have always preferred the idea of an alternative, ‘bohemian lifestyle’. I think the utopian vision I have of this life and a love of history will eventually pull me back to Europe, or somewhere old and bookish. Oxford. Maybe that’s really my spiritual home. I think the history, the university and the eclectic mix of its inhabitants make it such a fascinating city.

By contrast, the small mindedness and lack of diversity in Banbury drives me crazy after about two weeks. When I returned home after uni I kept thinking of a scene from the film The Matrix. The main character gets offered two pills, two choices. Take the blue one and you wake up, you forget anything had ever happened, you go on with your life in a kind of blissful ignorance; take the red one and you see the matrix, pictured as ‘the truth’ in the movie. But once you take the red pill, you can never go back; once a mind has been opened it can never be closed. After being away from home for a year or two, I felt as though I was in the same situation. After I had started reading and studying and more importantly mixing with people from all over the country, something which became international when I began travelling, I realised I could never go back home and pretend nothing had happened. I found it really hard to maintain an interest in things I had enjoyed before I went away and sometimes painful to communicate with the people I had to interact with on a daily basis.

Leaving the UK and following my plans has had a significant impact on my development and my views and tastes have changed considerably. I think they would have been much more stagnant if I had stayed at home. I am happy with the way I have become more tolerant. What I find difficult is tolerating intolerant people. I hate being in an environment where intolerance is accepted or encouraged. In the same way that I find it difficult to understand why people stay in one place simply because they were born there, I find it even more frustrating that people feel they can exclude others because they happen not to have been born there. In my dream world everyone would have the freedom and right to travel wherever they wished. I find it exasperating to think that people can be so restrictive and inflexible, and at the same time consider themselves superior because of their place of birth, an event they had absolutely no influence or control over. I can never really deal with intolerant people, I tend to run away from confrontation, I have an anger that builds up inside me and I just have to get away. I am quite fearful of overtly aggressive and confrontational people and I tend to avoid having arguments.

I would love to have the opportunity to discuss these general things with my parents more – social issues, politics, travel. To live close to them would add another dimension to my life that I miss and envy in people who have grown up here in Australia. I feel as though I am now in a position to give a lot more back to my family, which is frustrating when they are so far away. It’s something I want to make sure I do in the future.

I know that my mum thinks and worries about things a lot, in a similar way to me: excessive thinking and over analysis. I would love to trek the Camino de Santiago with her, spend one August slowly walking through Northern Spain with lots of time to talk and discuss. Quite often you can’t just jump into deep discussions, especially on long distance phone calls, and whenever we see each other there is always the pressure of time, I feel like I have a few days to get right into it otherwise the opportunity is lost. It never really flows in those situations.

It’s funny that for all my planning and attempts at control I cannot restrict or control love or romance. I loved the independence I had when I was travelling, I met an amazing variety of people, but when you sit back and think about it, it’s so much better to have someone that you have shared the experiences with, using those experiences to bring you closer together. Moving around without time limits or any other constraints with someone you love would be the ultimate experience for me and I fully intend to do it when the two opportunities present themselves. For me love is really the only thing in life that can make everything else fade into insignificance. I remember hearing the idea that it’s impossible to go through your whole life and not fall in love and I agree with this idea.

The strongest will of any human cannot compare to the impact of love. I often find myself in such vulnerable situations. I find it incredible that the sight of someone’s name in my inbox can make me feel physically ill; my stomach can turn over and over like a washing machine. How amazing is that! To have such a visceral reaction to a name, that impact, whether it makes you feel happy or sad, is impressive if just for its sheer power. I am trying not to think too much about the way love affects me and I have tried to stand back and admire its power.

Emotional attachments from relationships stay with me for a long time. I always had difficulty coming to terms with relationships when they end, but for all the pain it has inevitably caused me I would never have considered staying with someone if it conflicted with my plans. Change, travel and a lack of commitment to any one place or time has always destroyed love for me. I think that now I would be less inclined to compromise an opportunity that came my way.

With so much change in my life so far, with a number of important relationships having come and gone, it really helped me when I applied the simple philosophy ‘everything has a life, everything has an end’. By simply repeating this to myself, I can look at groups and most importantly relationships and begin to realise, everything has its time and its place and by trying to hold on to these moments I only restrict the chance of them occurring elsewhere with someone else or within other groups or movements. It’s hard, but I am trying to celebrate the good times and focus on future possibilities rather than mourn their passing.

I have always thought that when a relationship ends my main objective is to overcome the hurt that usually accompanies it. Really, I should start thinking about all the great people I have been with. If I could take just a little piece of each of the good qualities I have seen in the people who have been close to me, my personal development would be astronomical.

There are some common characteristics to all of the people I have admired, respected, loved and missed. Some people have a great ability always to see the good in people; others always try to include as many people as possible when they’re doing things in a group, there are no exclusions, no restrictions. Others just have a sense of energy that is infectious. All of the people I have loved have been very sociable with an ability to relate to a number of different people. I will try to take those feelings and learn from the relationships I have had.

When I first arrived in Sydney, I assumed it was going to be the same sort of period as I had experienced in England before I left: waiting, saving, preparing for the next trip. In reality though I had reached a limit in the amount of travelling and movement I could carry out. Two years later, I feel as though I have left behind the mindset of thinking I am just sitting through an intermission. While I used to spend all my money on travel, I am now focusing on developing the world around me and developing myself. Travel has made me more satisfied with what I have. If I am honest, I don’t tell myself I am lucky to have the opportunities I have had, it’s something that I should remind myself of more often. Instead I feel more satisfied in a life that doesn’t revolve around travel. I can learn and experience more about the world simply from interactions with a range of people, without necessarily having to move myself.

I am really happy to be in a time and place where people come to me. I enjoy having friends to visit. Setting up a life here has been a really difficult process, though – much harder than travelling. Travelling is so easy in comparison to developing an actual day to day life for yourself. When you’re travelling, if you don’t like it, or you get bored, you can move on. Catch an overnight bus and you are in a new town or a new country. My mum once said to me, ‘I have lived in a city you know. I know what it’s like. It can be lonely. It can be hard.’ At the time I heard what she said, but thought I knew better. How could a city be lonely? You could never get bored somewhere with so much activity, so much life. Only boring people get bored! Of course, Mums are always right. Cities can be hard. You may have contacts, but it’s unlikely that you will meet up with the same people every week or every weekend, as I had always done when I was growing up or when I returned home. It can be lonely. I miss the friendships that I used to have. I would love to bring everyone together. If there was no limit to money, I would try to bring all the amazing people I have met together for a week-long party. To have a sheltered, relaxing environment, an island, with all of my favourite people would be the most amazing experience.

My ambitions have changed from simply experiencing new things to building my life and thinking about a career that can support it. Working for two months in Nicaragua as a volunteer has left a mark on my ambitions and the way in which I can see myself moving forward. If I have a utopian vision of the future, it’s working for a charity, something that sees my time split between Europe and Africa. I gain satisfaction from my current work as a training designer from the level of research and theory I can draw upon and the fact that I can incorporate activities to help people grow and reflect on themselves, in order to act with more compassion, grace and tolerance.

When the right time for study comes around again, I think it will be connected to International Development. I am determined that if I move into this field I will bring some positive, valuable experience and knowledge to the role. I intend to complete some time working as a full-time volunteer.

Being in Sydney with no structure, no peer group that I feel I have to fit in with and no network of family and friends to demand my time has also been a liberating experience. I have begun to think about the things that I am genuinely interested in and thinking about the things I personally want to do with my time. So often people seem to think that travel will give them the time to sit and reflect, find something inside, enjoy some moment of revelation on a picture postcard beach. I have found the reality to be the opposite. Understanding myself and what makes me happy has evolved more from living a ‘normal’ life and those moments of revelation have more often shown themselves on a boring Tuesday afternoon when you catch yourself staring at the wall in your office.