This is part 2 of this post. Read part 1.
So, how did I come to believe that I’m supposed to drop everything, travel to a far and distant land, and start over?
To be fair, some small but core part of me didn’t fully believe this – it’s the bit that loves my girlfriend, knows Toronto is my one true city-love, questions my sense that the world is “out there” and not “right here.” But a big part of me has believed this for I’m not sure how long. Again – how? Simple, embarrassing, and a little sad: I believed in fairytales. I believed all this because I was reading stories like Eat, Pray, Love that were happy, perfect, and exciting – and they worked! Each of these people got to live happily ever after! They found out who they really are and what they’re supposed to do.
In comparison, I felt isolated, lost and alone. I didn’t want to be who I felt I was: a life-loser in a masters program I hated, with no idea of what I wanted to do, feeling like a crappy girlfriend, upset with my mother, missing my dad. I felt ashamed to be this person, and angry with myself. I was wasting all the supports and resources in my life, incapable of amounting to anything. I say this in past tense – but it’s still here a little.
So to recap: lost and a loser versus finding myself and learning Italian. Tough choice. How could I have not fallen for these stories?
I’m not quite sure when or how the want turned into an expectation and then into a pressure. I think it was tied into feeling like I wasn’t amounting to anything when I really should be. The stakes were pretty high for me in figuring something out – my sense of myself as a capable, motivated person who should do great things was at risk. When I felt I wasn’t able to work anything out in my life, it made sense to look to how things had worked out for other people who I viewed as capable, motivated, and doing great things. I wanted so much to be who the story writers were and wanted so much to not be who I was, that I took what they wrote to be not only true but also possible for me. I started to see these stories as the only way I was going to get to where the authors had ended up, which looked pretty good to me. I just had to do what they did to go where they went.
It’s like that Matsuo Basho quote: Do not seek to follow in the footsteps of the wise. Seek what they sought. Yeah, I went for the footsteps.
I have to pull back my scope here for a minute. I am 100% responsible for working up my own crazy. Full-stop. But there is also a massive post-millenium self-development publishing industry heavily profiting from me feeling more or less exactly the way I felt. There are Eat, Pray, Love tours you can take. Sure this tells me I’m not alone here, but it also tells me there’s a lot of money to be made selling these feel-good life journeys about women in their 20s and 30s getting lost-and-found. And readers (like me) do not want to read about some woman screwing up her life indefinitely – getting found is the crucial part of the story. Writers know this, editors know this, and publishers know this.
And so for over a decade there has been a whole world of varying but often formulaic personal stories about women travelling and learning. These stories have nice beginning-middle-end arcs that always wrap up with a satisfying and happy conclusion. But they are always essentially retrospective stories – even those written in present tense. To fit the formula, people and events and even breakthrough thoughts are marshalled into a narrative arrow pointing from life breakdown directly to now, a great and permanent place.
I never questioned how nice and neat Elizabeth Gilbert’s story was, everything lining up and fitting together the way it did. A year travelling, 4 months in different places to learn life lessons in turn about passion, then spirituality, then love, tying up each lesson as she goes? I’m pretty sure life doesn’t actually happen like that. But tightly edited stories written in hindsight do. Life never looks the same when you’re going forward as it does when you’re looking back. So the blind and stumbling learning that was likely the reality of most of that year is nowhere to be found and the story about it that was told was in effect a fairytale. And because they feel good to read, these fairytale stories are the ones that sell.
I also never really questioned what Elizabeth Gilbert did after eating, praying, and loving. No one really reads the follow-up books. We like our heroes to stay exactly where we left them at the end of the story. Living happily ever after. The idea that there’s a further horizon to the story, that they’ve kept living their lives and moved on from the concluding moment, kind of ruins the effect. What could come next after a perfect place? Not change…!
So for me, more kind of embarrassing lessons from the school of hard knocks. I feel like I should have known better than to believe in a genre of fairytale stories publishers make billions shaping and selling. Embarrassment is not a helpful feeling, but it’s there anyways.
After all this, I still want to travel. Travelling, experiencing other people and cultures and places, has to be part of my life. No questions, no apologies. I want to take my love of travel back from the pressure that it’s been surrounded by and let myself daydream and scheme about road trips from Germany to Greece. With no expectation that they will be anything bigger or more meaningful than a damn good time.