One of the first things you learn, as a traveler, one of the hardest lessons, is that you always take yourself with you.
This sometimes really sucks.
You default to the best and worst in yourself when you strip everything else away, and you figure out how much of who you are is tied to place and how much of you is something you carry with you, always, the same way you carry your heart, your lungs, your faulty pancreas.
I figured this out in Alaska, when I bought a one way ticket to Fairbanks and decided to start over in a little town at the edge of nowhere. The whole world was wide open, and I believed I could be anyone I wanted to be. I broke a lot of my own rules. I drank too much and ran around with drug addicts and drank home brewed beer and carried around a rifle and collected stories. I biked everywhere, worked out regularly, and said yes to nearly every party invitation. I didn’t want to be a sedentary wallflower anymore. I wanted to build somebody different.
But when things got bad, when somebody’s girlfriend threatened to kill me, when I got brushed off by the guy I was – for some bizarre reason – pursuing, I would default to old ways of dealing with stress. I’d retreat to my room, sleep a lot, eat ice cream sandwiches and yogurt pretzels. I would stop saying yes to invitations. Bruised from all the effort it took to be with people only to get hit over the head, I knew how to retreat, how to protect myself, and I reverted to those ways of comforting myself, though I knew that by reverting to those old habits, it was just a step to the right of reverting to everything else I was, everything I had been and had hated.
I made a lot of headway toward being somebody I wanted to be, in Alaska, but I still spent far too much of my vacation in Juneau sleeping in the hotel room and eating overpriced steak. I learned to love to be alone, and I kept loving people who didn’t care about me, because believe me, loving people who don’t love you is really cozy and safe and totally free of obligations. I built a lot of my own safe spaces, and I’ve spent much of my 20s in a constant state of advance and retreat, advance and retreat, running out of the trenches waving my arms and screaming and then holing up somewhere and sobbing hysterically before the next push.
In South Africa, I played the same sort of game, rushing outside and going to parties and a couple of clubs in an attempt to be extroverted and pretend I was slim and blond and brilliant. Mostly, social interactions left me with a horrible feeling that I had somehow failed. I had failed to be pretty enough, well dressed enough, witty enough, brave enough. I spent most of my time in South Africa drinking Laborie Pinotage and smoking Peter Stuvyesant cigarettes.
I also wrote a thesis and finished a book and was asked to measure my worth in cows.
Thus, it wasn’t all self-immolation, but the undercurrent was there, because when I became fearful, when I was uncertain (which was pretty much my entire time in SA), I retreated back to old modes of behavior, old ways of dealing with stress – sleeping and eating; retreating inward. Being fearful.
When I was under pressure, the fear often won out over my drive to be better, do better, to learn new ways of coping.
I am constantly amazed at how difficult it is to change oneself, to alter these childhood patterns that we learned to keep us safe.
I can learn other ways of behaving; I can even learn to cope differently and consistently apply those new methods. But when everything breaks, when my new lives fail, what I find at core, after I’ve stripped it all down, are those same coping mechanisms that have worked so well for me in the past.
But there are other things I find, too.
When everything else fails me, when people fail me, when my body fails me, there is something else I reach for, something I carry with me just as I carry those bad habits, something that keeps me going when I have nothing and no one else (or feel that way, at least). I push myself back up. I have books to write. Places to see. Things to accomplish. Miles and miles to run before I sleep. I have lists and lists of things I need to be doing, things that I’ll be happy once I’ve done, completed, made steps toward, but I’m never completely satisfied, because the closer I get to these goals, the further out the goals move. I can’t ever die, really, because I have too much to do.
When I sit down and open the book of my life, there are things I want to see there, and those things are huge and big, things you see out there in the stars; I want everything. I want the whole world; I want more than I can hold.
So despite getting knocked down, despite watching myself fall off the wagon during the worst of it, I still reach for those huge things; that big life, the one where I’m tootling around Rome and have a beach house and a couple of other vacation houses and I make a living writing and I take up a whole shelf at the book store and I travel wherever the hell I want, and I am happy and spend time on the beach and I have good friends, good food, good coffee, good conversation. I’m strong, and I’m healthy, and I am surrounded by people I love more than my life.
Sometimes I feel bad that I still want those things, I feel foolish and youthful and I think, “Man, why don’t I just settle into the fact that I’ll be a bitter secretary my whole life!”
And then I remember that the reason I don’t do that is because, well, it’s not true.
That’s not the life I want. It’s not the life I’m going to have. I’ve been presented with a good deal of different lives to choose from in the last decade, and despite several things having been chosen for me (dead pancreas), I’ve chosen the life I wanted wherever possible. I have a very clear idea what I want. I’m down, yeah. I’ve been down before. I’ll be down again. But every time I’ve hit a wall I’ve gotten back up again with a clearer idea of who I am, what I want, what I can do.
Because yea, you know, we all carry these things with us through our travels, through life: we carry the bad things, the broken pancreases, the reversion to red wine and binge eating as a means of getting through a shitty day, but there’s the good stuff, too. There’s the passion. There’s the determination. There’s the blind stubbornness in the face of overwhelming odds. There’s the drive. There’s the persistence. Always, the persistence.
I fall and I fall and I fall and I fall…
It’s not a perfect life I’ve lived. I could weave a pretty good story from some of the highlights, but the brutal truth is that the highlights aren’t living. We leave out the drudgery. The getting up everyday, the persistence. We write about the big heroism, the great war, the big book sale, the wedding, the funeral, the birth, the marriage.
But life is about how you lived on turnips and spent long hours reading outdated magazines during the bombing of the city, and the big box of rejection slips in your garage and that night when you got the rejection from Ellen Datlow and cried because it was just the perfect way to top off the perfect shitty fucking day, and it’s how you courted somebody you really thought you should marry but weren’t sure and had nightmares for months that you’d lose them and how you fell all over yourself trying to be too perfect, trying to be just right; it’s how you dealt with the daily quiet grief of death, how you ate your eggs alone every morning afterward with this big hole in your life; and how you make that marriage work during the horrible times when you’re both being assholes and you’re exhausted because there’s no money and everyone in the whole world looks like a better mate than whoever the hell this person is you ended up with, and how you get up every day, after, and how you learn to love them again.
Life is the details. It’s in the lows between the markers where we spend most of our lives. It’s in the imperfect times. The boring times. Those long stretches of desert that not everybody gets through, but that I slog through on my way to the big hills, the grand vistas.
Life is the stuff you blog about.