then and now
From 2015, when I was visiting Japan:
Why find yourself when you can lose yourself? I’m in a cramped room in Itabashi, squeezed into the middle of three narrow bunk beds reading Martin Amis on Lolita. I’m always reading when I travel: in airplanes, subways, and air-conditioned convenience stores while my friends buy cheap beer. There are five other people staying in this Airbnb. It's cheap–slightly under $30 a night. The host is a Japanese guy currently working on his masters in mathematics. He began renting out his place because he wanted to interact with more English speakers back in college. I admire people like that, who decide they want a certain type of community and then promptly go on to construct it. I can never find in myself the desire.
I ardently hate the word wanderlust, the same way I dislike people who advertise how much they love to travel on their OkCupid profiles or reel off stories about that exchange year in Europe, the threesome in Amsterdam and night they got hospitalized in Paris. Who cares? For me, the specifics of being somewhere new have never mattered more than the general realization that most things that occupy my mind when I am not traveling really shouldn’t. Be in love with every detail of your life, Orwell says. I want to love every piece of the ultramundane while also remembering that none of it holds weight. Last week’s fight doesn’t, and your friend not texting back doesn’t, and your clothes and photos don’t, and very few of the people you interact with care about you in any real way, though most of them are cool and kind. What does matter: that there are people in my life whom I love, really, and they love me back, and even when I’m away and not thinking of them I’m certain of their being there, caring about me. What kind of miracle is that?
What also matters: words and thoughts. As I’ve gotten a little older I’ve become more stingy with my time, whom I spend it on and why. I’ve never understood people who constantly need to be with someone else, immediately becoming anxious the moment they aren’t surrounded. I do a reasonable imitation of extroversion–I like meeting new people, I’ll go out of my way to pretzel myself into likability–but I’ve come to believe that being with other people (unless you’re an inconsiderate asshole) always requires accommodation. There’s inevitably a gap between what makes someone else happy and what makes you happy, and while I’d like to be more open to compromise I’m rarely in the mood.
With interest in solitude comes space and time mostly filled up by reading--I’ve been binging on essay collections lately, Susan Sontag and Martin Amis and Joan Didion and Maggie Nelson, ripping through them and highlighting particularly numinous sentences that I worry in my mind again and again. Reading more makes me want to write more, and it also makes me never want to write: it’s discouraging to realize that everything you think, someone else has thought better. There’s something uniquely dismaying about seeing emotions articulated on paper that you weren’t even aware of feeling until that very moment. One of the things I want most is to be able to write and think better, string together clean sentence after clean sentence and cut the bad ones. Words are good enough, as Wittgenstein claimed, though mine might not be. Amis writes, “To idealise: all writing is a campaign against cliche,” and I try to lose the cliches both in my writing and myself. Writing is a pain: I’m halfway through this and I’m already embarrassed by it, the sloppy language, my failure to properly voice my thoughts completely and concisely. Thank God no one records me talking.
I could go on about my desire to be a good person, and my uncertainty about what that entails–may it be that a man must implore Thee before he can know Thee? St. Augustine asks, and fuck if I know–but I’m more certain of my desire to be interesting. By interesting I mean avoiding what’s hackneyed and unoriginal in what I do or say, willing to cut away the parts of myself that are useless or worse, boring. There are lots of them: my vanity and my dishonesty and my procrastination, the way I confuse pain for passion, my tendency to obsess over the wrong things. Even sexuality, which I've analyzed so much in the past few years (in See Me, Emma Cline’s beautiful essay for The Paris Review, she writes about being a teen learning “the opaque language of attraction,” her understanding that “getting people to look at you… was a way of getting things to happen,” and I was struck by how perfectly she described the wonder you feel as a girl when someone first pronounces you worthy of notice) sometimes feels like just a distraction—being young and female and happily engaging in casual sex is hardly a positive manifestation of a third wave feminism. But while I know the things I don’t want, what I do want is a harder question. It’s not that I believe you have to be morally unassailable to write well, but it does require a certain depth of awareness, of self and world, that I struggle to reach.
The best argument for new places is that they help you get out of your head. I want to try all of it, in hopes of finding an experience that finally opens me up in some meaningful way: sketchy piercing parlors in Kowloon, swimming in ocean water filled with debris, asking for help in languages I don’t speak, staying in nice places and ugly places and weird ones. Getting lost and staying lost. Everything I really want to share I don’t have the language for, like the sliver of moon peeking through last night and the way the rain comes down thick and fast and how these cities are so radically different and really all the same. Joyce had it right when he said that in the particular is contained the universal. He might have gotten everything else right too, but I’m still figuring that out.
Why find yourself when you can lose yourself, I asked, but looking back it’s obvious that I did want to find myself. All the threads of who I was are still in me now: the dislike of travel culture, the desire for connection twinned with the fear of compromise, the search for what it means to be good. The struggle to put the right sentence down on the page. I’m in a hotel room in Paris right now, remembering how travel undoes me. It’s nice to be back in a city that articulates certain parts of your psyche back to you: here’s what I was always looking for back when I had no words to describe the yearning. Visiting a place like that—a significant place—years later, can make time fold back into itself. The person I was peers out from the person I am now, ghostly and flickering.
Time makes you more yourself—I’m more Ava than I was three years ago. Back then I was less substantial and less certain. But sometimes I miss that lack of identity, the ability to just cave into someone else. How you tucked me under your arm and I went limp immediately. The follow-up to why find yourself when you can lose yourself—how do you live with yourself when you know who you are?
I’ve always been exacting, voracious. I’ve always been searching for the right light beside the right window. I still feel like that girl in bunk bed in Japan, split open by my fear of the future. I still believe that all categorizations leak. What’s changed? I write more, I read the same amount, the apartments I live in are better decorated. I have a dog and boy whose combined sunniness suggests something I’m not sure is true—that my life is steady, that my hand’s on the steering wheel. Is my hand on the steering wheel?
Then and now I am looking for answers. I still like to be in liminal spaces, to balance on the knife edge of any experience. I like things that feel precipitous: I am the most myself when I’m hurtling towards something uncertain. I still believe in the magic of ordinary objects, their ability to conjure and protect. I know that God is not in people—he’s in the azalea bush and the basilica, the cream-colored dog with the wrinkled muzzle. I know that “seeing is flux,” that the world is always in motion and always ahead of us. My love is shadowed by my certainty that we will never find what we need in each other. Which is why we’re searching after all this time.
James Salter said, “Life is weather. Life is meals.” I don’t know why exactly, but it came to mind when I was reading this.