Looking at all they’ve accomplished, it is hard to believe that John ever balked at teaching abroad; or that Nancy refused, even briefly, to consider taking the boys out of school. It goes to show how fast and hard habit strikes, and how quickly it can strangle a person’s sense of possibility. One of the defining strengths of the Vogel’s relationship is that they are braver together. When Nancy put her foot down and said it was time to move and find a way to be together all John had to do was say “no” and the door would have closed. Maybe she would have gone to teach abroad without him; or stayed in Albuquerque warring with her discontents. But there would have been a limit – however faint – on the scope of the future.
Contrary to what many people believe, to be daring is a decision, not an accident of personality. “The vast majority of people aren’t making conscious choices,” Nancy says. “They’re just keeping up with the Joneses.” She had the courage to conceive of a different life because she had already seen and experienced such a thing.
Nancy can pinpoint the moment her world turned from monochrome to Technicolor. When she was 15 her parents, who were from Minnesota via North Dakota, made the surprising decision to go on a family holiday to Mexico City. They had lived in Boise, Idaho since Nancy was eight and her primary exposure to other cultures was National Geographic magazine. Innocent of the wider world, she admits: “It literally never occurred to me that people lived differently.” Then they went to Mexico. A smoggy cauldron crammed with more than twenty million souls, its capital city was so alien that Nancy’s voice is still laced with awe at the recollection.
Instead of modest Lutheran churches people worshipped in a cathedral that was sinking beneath the weight of its towering dome and sad-faced icons. Instead of well-kept suburban streets they walked along thoroughfares jammed with rattletrap buses, hustling vendors and ferocious little taxis. Stunned by the rich, anarchic world that existed beyond her imagination Nancy went back to Boise full of unformed but urgent curiosity. An ad for the Peace Corps gave her an idea: “I’m going to do that when I finish university,” she vowed. And she did. Two years in the Peace Corps setting up special education programmes in Honduras lead to seven months of solo travel around South America, which inspired her to return to the US and work on a Navajo reservation. Then she took a sabbatical to tour India by bike and met John.
So by the time the couple hit what looked like a personal and professional impasse they already had done a great deal of the legwork that goes into making a life-altering decision. They knew what it was like to be foreign; they had cultivated persistence, self-sufficiency, and patience; they had taken risks together and overcome challenges; they had chosen experience over material goods; they’d camped in the rain, eaten out of tin cans and mended flat tyres. Despite John’s reflexive “no” their joint experience held the possibility of a “yes.”