It’s late and dark and quiet and I’m in a foreign land.
— § —
Does everyone feel as though they live entirely out of context by the time they reach my age? Because I feel as though I live entirely out of context.
This city is foreign to me.
This house is foreign to me.
This room is foreign to me.
This desk is foreign to me.
My own body is foreign to me.
My own mind is foreign to me.
I feel like a traveler. Not the traveler passing through, still seduced by the novelty of his environs and the local folk around him, secure in the knowledge that tomorrow I’ll leave them all behind, but rather the traveler who became embroiled.
The traveler who paused just slightly too long—and as a result is on year twenty of his vacation, still waiting to pull up stakes and move on, someday.
— § —
They say you can’t live your life waiting for life to begin.
But what does it look like to live without waiting? I can’t conceive of it.
Everything about our time and our place and our people is about waiting for rain, waiting for mana, waiting for the page to turn, biding time and doing the things that must be done if the breath is ever to be exhaled—if the journey is to continue.
Only it doesn’t.
— § —
Wrong turns happen.
When you’re young, they’re innocent enough things; you backtrack a bit and return to the intended road.
Then, at some point when you’re older, you realize that wrong turns have begun to accumulate; that it’s been some time since you saw the map—you don’t know quite where it is in your luggage. Maybe you put it back in your backpack? Maybe it’s in the pocket somewhere in your things? Maybe you’ve stowed it in your wallet, or in your laptop sleeve, or maybe it’s in the glovebox.
Maybe, maybe, maybe.
There’s no time to look for it just now, you’ll find it later, at the next opportunity, at the Next Great Unpacking which never comes, and anyway, it probably won’t matter because so many wrong turns have been taken by now that you’re hopelessly lost.
You’d stare at it and try to intuit where you are but in truth you could be anywhere in an eight square inch area covering cities and lakes and deserts and borders.
When you were younger, you’d stop and ask for directions, but at some point you gave that up; every time you asked someone, the directions were different, the names were different, the answers did nothing to resolve the questions that you raised.
Where is the GPS for the roads that you travel in your own biography?
— § —
It’s August 2020 and I’m out of context.
There’s an episode of Northern Exposure in which the problem of living out of context is discussed. When I was younger, I had no idea what this meant.
The words washed over me in the way that words sometimes do; you intuit a bit of this and a bit of that and the result is a kind of pastiche of meaningfulness that satiates for the moment without doing any particular damage to your worldview.
Now—now I understand the concept.
When you’re young, giants walk the earth and you’re one of them. You can see as far as the horizon in any direction; you can spot every landmark at a glance.
Ideas and decisions flow, and the symphony of your life plays out naturally, as though nothing could be otherwise.
But you’re only a giant so long as the things around you are smaller than you are, ready to hand, familiar. As the architecture of time and biography rises around you, it is you that seems progressively smaller, until your view is blocked on all sides by new, concrete and glass giants of contingency and history.
You wander and you peer, and at length you pick a little corner to dwell in, to create well-worn paths in, to avoid getting lost in—the same way a traveler tends to stay within a few blocks of his hotel while in town.
Only it’s August 2020 and I’ve been in town for two decades at least.
— § —
What would it look like now for life to begin?
If the world were suddenly to open to me—if the student loans disappeared and the children were grown and all the questions were settled and the floors were swept and I had open vistas again around me, could see all the way to the horizon once more—
What would I do?
I can’t even be sure.
— § —
People go to therapy because they want to be reassured that they don’t want what they actually want, which is—too often—nothing in particular, or nothing they can sell to themselves.
They want to be told that the reason they’re lost in their lives isn’t because they’ve decided rather intentionally to become and remain lost, to embroil themselves in complications of urban shadows, but rather becuase they are being oppressed by a foreign presence.
Of course what is asserted to be a foreign presence is their very own “subconscious” self.
The older I get and the longer I wander around these streets, the more I believe this to be nonsense. We do what we do because we chose to do it.
If you don’t have all the things in life that you “want,” it’s because you don’t actually want those things but can’t bear to admit that to yourself.
You have exactly what you want. You have conducted the cost-benefit analysis; you conduct it every day, and at every moment, in every thing. You do the things you do because you chose to do them. The other things that you don’t do are the things you didn’t choose to do.
The question isn’t why you don’t do what you want to do.
It’s why you don’t want what some part of you would like to be able to say that you want.
— § —
That calculation is the easy part.
The hard part is figuring out what it is that you actually want, so that you can enter into talks with yourself about when to issue the press release and come clean—“Here is what I want, and have wanted all along, and I’m going to continue to pursue it with aplomb.”
So that you can do what you are doing anyway even more, and even more properly.
— § —
Why did you take yourself out of your natural context?
Why did you pause in this town, at this hotel where you claim to be only temporarily marooned? What is it that you’re actually doing here?
How can you make the context your own?
How can you go home, finally, just where you are, and begin to put down roots in your life, in your own ongoing work of dwelling?
— § —
If there’s one thing I wish I wanted to do, it’s to put down those roots.
To embrace where I am and see the richness in it properly; to identify with myself and as myself and see myself through clear eyes, instead of through the haze of the traveler’s heady bewilderment.
Because twenty years is too long to be traveling, to be a stranger in a strange land—particularly when you’ve been there so long that everyone recognizes you already and has done for ages.
Everyone, that is, but yourself—for and to whom you remain a stranger.