Your journey, Your life

When I was little, the two ideals I held onto were intertwined so tightly that one segued into the other, like the Celtic symbol of eternity. To write was to travel; to travel was to write. However, I was limited then, in the capacity of definition – travel, to me, was bound by its literal sense of movement from one place to another, without consideration for the possibility of there being other aspects to the word. To travel, by its dictionary definition, is to “make a journey, typically of some length.” As a noun, the word serves to encompass “the action of travelling”, to define a period of time spent on a journey, or journeys, as in “I have documented the travels of my youth.”

The last in particular, brings to mind a battered leather trunk you would find buried beneath worn picture frames, dusty vases and the sort of books that smell like autumn leaves, in a pawn shop full of old-newspaper light sifting in through the dusky window. Stuck over with peeling postcards, frayed at the edges and blunted from being dropped to the floor of many a long-ago terminal, this trunk would be the best friend and confidante of a traveller with a seamed face, bitter-end shoes, and creases in the palms from hefting the weary weight of the world with each lift of his life.

I covet trunks and suitcases like this. They map the world as it was, telling stories of who has been loved and who has been fought – faces dark with sepia-age, the eyes of one so full of passion undimmed, that the rest of the photo has been bleached away; army campaigns blurred with the hastiness of the illicit shot; the lone figure standing silently solemn before the oncoming march, guns cranked to the shoulder and black-talon shadows thrown long and loud as a scream; an Odessa-step line across the blank façade, taut and hard as barbed wire, where a mouth full of smiles and laughter once lay.

Fidgety with the anxiety of being all too aware of Time’s bubble essence – so many liquid colours, slipping away – I was a fractious five year old when we returned to live in the UK, after time spent out in Germany and travelling around Europe. The push-pull appeal of knowing our roots were shallow, could be easily moved on, was soon replaced with a sombre ache in the chest that only makes sense decades later. How can a child put into words that feeling of claustrophobia in a small town, when the world was her back yard? I would spent nineteen years of my life there, and while many memories have made happy ghosts of themselves, still many more are shrunken, wasted things of pain and resentment, directed at my family for ever stopping in one place for too long.
(Never their fault, of course; such is the way of the world, we can’t move on a conveyor belt forever.)

It is a strange thing, this conflict inside. As much as I crave routines to set my equilibrium, I find a raw fear-fire at their instigation; the choice must always be my own. I would like to be less selfish, believe me – though I have never really wanted children (for the acknowledgement of my own failings vs. the horror of contemplating a life spent buckled under the weight of others’ needs), I would at least like to give more of myself than scraps of paper. This is one theory for the creeping arrival of anorexia, in my teens – when you are red-raw with insomniac eyes and liable to pass out by standing up, people tend to ask less of you. Yet the other side of me that veers with an angry and purposeful stride from a beaten path, kicking back as much at self-imposed rules as those of others, actually wants to take on more responsibilities. To be granted authority to deal with situations; to be trusted to carry through on promises. In childhood, I was rarely told about family issues; I was deemed too much of a daydreamer.

I wish to Whoever that these two sides would sew their seams together, to make one cloak for my absence, arrival and awareness. As it is, the fraying between them is to blame for much of the tattered-rag attempts of my friendships and relationships; the duality of this light-dark nature means that at any one time, I may wander away on some errand or another, or to chase a bee, or to follow someone who is in danger of vanishing down a will ‘o the wisp road, while extending back chill fingers for the hope of a single warm hand to hold. In trying to save the world, I live in an absence of details. Seeing through a thoughtless porthole can leave others around and behind in a shivering darkness; while the blinkered effect dials my vision down to one point, and it may take a while to wrench away again, to discover that Time did not slow or stop as it does in the films – it carries on, regardless of wars, regardless of love and broken promises; of the near-solid bars of gold light slanting through a room done up in hot shadows. Life, as ever, goes on. I am learning to be less reactive; to try not to take on more than can be handled within an acceptable time-frame, with the belated awareness of others’ feelings that makes a crosshatch over my own limitations / capabilities. Better to take other’s disappointment into account, than to be a martyr for my own cause in taking on too many projects at once.

But after years of feeling Nothing – of being Nothing – how else do I survive now?

This woman-child is still a novice in the face of the world, for all her so-called experience.

Travel and writing used to mean the actual movement from one place to another for me, and the documentation of what was seen, who I spoke to and what was experienced on an emotional and sensory level. My father was rather sceptical of this dream, being of a rather more pragmatic mind. When I thirteen, and had already determined to leave school straight after exams – to cut all constraints and responsibilities (such as they were) and disappear across the face of the world, into the spidery scrawl of a postcard of four – he sat me down for one of those Serious Chats between father and daughter, which inevitably seem to end up with long pauses for patience, as much as breath. We are quite alike in our temperaments and manner of expressing ourselves, but in terms of ideals, my father and I will forever be poles apart. Perhaps this is why I took his words to heart: as much as they rankled, they were a different set of stepping stones from one point on a bank, to the other side. Whereas my friends in school and a handful of relatives were as much taken with the glory-spirits of footloose movement and a sprawling horizon, they represented a free-flow without obstructions or instructions, which would have seen me carried away towards the long drop of reality.

He made it clear that, while money isn’t the be-all end-all, it is at least a defining factor of adult life. To be adventurous is fine – this way, new facets of the character are brought to light, and old fears can be shed with experience. But to set off without anything to fall into, whether it’s a job or a safe point to call Home for a while, would be asking for trouble. If I were to be wrongfully arrested – I remember him angling a stern eye at me at this juncture – I would need contacts and credentials, a back-up plan.

The choice was inevitably mine – he knew he couldn’t stop me from selling what pitiful sum of parts made up my material life then, to disappear on the next flight out to Anywhere. Believe me, such was the all-or-nothing fear that was growing in my heart around that time, I might well have done it. Exams were creeping up, framed in the stern-pitying faces of our teachers, all well aware of the slog ahead; despite the attention bent upon our year group from the careers advisor, I still had no concrete ideas about where to go and what to do. To travel and to write – these were the dreams held up in one hand, while the other beat off the Hydra-fears of a myriad adult responsibilities.

I am naive yet, and in the absence of relevant experience, probably have no right to talk of such things. Marriage, children, secure job and a static home-life – these were never on my agenda, and not so much from a lack of commitment, as through the recognition of my own weak points. A butterfly meanders less than I do, from one topic to another, between aspirations and ideals. Friendships in school were based more upon an extended hand and brush of the fingertips in passing, than one arm slung about the shoulders of another. But I came back. In moving around between people, there was less chance of missing out on anyone’s words, the fleeting moments that make up our lives (they grow all the more fleeting with age, don’t you find? Where an experience used to feel like sitting in the top of a tree for a whole afternoon, now it is as rain speckling the hot pavement.)

Arriving at this conclusion has been a long process of travel that had nothing to do with the physical aspect of travel – movement from one place to another – and everything to do with a shift in perspective, as of light moving over a wall and illuminating another portion of the room. It has taken years of guilt and self-recrimination, to face up to the fact that No, I can’t always commit to what others would view as best for me, for them, for the world at large. Being able to stand firm and to say No, is as much an achievement for me as taking another bite of a meal – both are an acknowledgement of my needs, and are informed by my own opinions / tastes.

This in itself, takes time. It takes liberation from one’s own internal fears, and the acceptance of other perspectives to enhance our own. Certainly, I wouldn’t be where I am today without the inspiration and influence of several individuals who, over the past few years of my having regained health, helped to trigger once-latent interests: everything from contemporary indie music to ancient civilizations, from politics to art. I absorb it all at a rapid pace, doing the usual springboard-jump from one topic to another (my oldest friend from school often uses the apt description “monkey thoughts”, moving like slingshot between the trees) and desperately trying to retain it all, in a somewhat fried brain. As ever, the journey is the life, and I must stop every now and then –

– to write all of this down. To sit back and assimilate. That cheerful-hasty porthole view will gain the quickest results, but will have a limited scope when it comes to other’s opinions, their wants and needs. When I feel there is a goal to be reached – a destination, a conversation, an admission – the blinkers go on and I will notice less of what is at hand, what has been suggested, what has already been achieved, while my eyes desperately search the horizon for that elusive Answer.

And here, then, is the flipside of the coin. When it’s less a case of Nein, danke, as Sorry – I was completely unaware.

At age 17, I was fired from my job as a waitress. My boss gave his reasons succinctly enough: I was not a team player. In darting about the cafe, clearing up what had already been dealt with and paying little heed to the efforts of the other girls, I was not acknowledging their presence as part of the establishment. A couple of them had gone to him feeling like deflated balloons; how were they to measure up to someone who would not take the time to consider that the tables had already been wiped clean, that the cutlery was neatly arranged for the arrival of an important booking?

I was mortified then, as I am now to recall it. In trying to control the outcome of a shift, I played up to the vision of my own martyrdom. Nowadays, on the rare occasions that I am involved with one or more people on a project of any kind, I try to remember the importance of a pause for breath; this is applicable in solitary endeavours, for as life barrels on, it’s too easy to look upon something of real beauty, with glassy eyes.

Writing and travel mean more to me in the cerebral sense than the kinetic. The very act of moving from one conclusion to another; an admittance that nothing is forever, that a situation / circumstance is not the Be-All End-All that I once believed it to be. A job does not mean a lifetime’s commitment to a company; a mortgage does not necessarily mean being locked in one place forever. Children grow up and grow away, and while they are always in our hearts and welcome to return, they too must move from one consideration and one place to another, as is necessary for evolution of the self.

Which is what I would like to leave you all with. I would like to know what has shaped your opinions, changed your ideals and expanded your horizon, over time? Do you find a correlation between someone stepping off a plane onto foreign soil, taking in air that is of a different texture and experiencing that which causes them to reconsider their opinions / options in order to progress … and working over a relationship in the mind, fragmenting it down to the essentials of How do we make each other happy? and What am I learning from this? And most importantly, When was the last time I stopped to consider all of this at all?

Though I do not stand still for long, in a literal and metaphorical sense, I will try to arrive somewhere – a destination, a conclusion – as quickly as possible. The fallout of this of course being, that the whole “travel” aspect of experience is lost; the awareness becomes dialled down to a limited view of What could Be as opposed to What is already Here. The feel of the leather trunk under my palm, the faded sigh of postcards and the jewelled skyline of an ancient city, become just so many flickers of perception. The light touch on the shoulder, the heaviness of nimbus-eyes and the stir of an ocean floor beneath words, seem as nothing more than a tempestuous mood-swing to wrinkle my own good spirits.

So I write, and talk to myself. Putting thoughts into context; giving them vocal and lexical substance, to be picked apart at a more objective level than within the confines of my mind. Isn’t that why we blog and tweet, after all? Why we engage on social media, to air our thoughts and unclutter ourselves, whether anyone is reading / listening or not? The point is, we take the liberty to do so, and are accountable for what comes out – but these outlets are as necessary as breathing, particularly for those (like me) who cannot always directly express themselves in speech.

You, poor reader, are stuck on the receiving end of what is essentially my convoluted way of annotating thoughts and experiences.

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4 thoughts on “Your journey, Your life

  1. Jess West says:

    Our experiences in life make us who we are, that old adage has been said often enough. And it’s true.

    Your experience as a waitress struck a chord in me. As a fully-grown adult, I’d experienced a similar problem. You know my enthusiasm, Rai. Well, when I was about your age (early-mid twenties, yeah?), I worked as a receptionist at a law firm. The two attorneys each had a secretary that handled the pleadings and such, and my job was to greet clients, answer the phone and take out the trash. Naturally, I reached for more.

    I familiarized myself with legal proceedings, learned how to properly word the documents. I immersed myself in work that I was not expected to do and as such my employer saw fit to increase my responsibilities until I was meeting with him every morning, right after his secretary. I, too, would take dictation tapes from him to my desk to transcribe.

    Maybe it wasn’t much in the grand scheme of things, but I sought personal development and worked hard to achieve the next level, every step of the way. That made me a valuable asset to him, and a threat to my co-workers. My experience differs from yours, though, in that I was old enough to say, “Screw them. I’m doing what’s best for me.” and my employer was wise enough to say, “Screw them, do what’s best for you.” Instead of getting fired, I got commended.

    Which is why I say SHAME ON that employer who fired the best, hardest working waitress he had. I don’t like to use this word, but that was just plain stupid. That was a poorly handled situation, and I weep with frustration for the child you were and the woman you were becoming.

    Today’s society is full of people just like him and those waitresses. When one person seems capable of rising above their expectations, they are quickly shot down so as to keep the general population content to be seen as equals. I was expected to know my place, and damn well stay there. To hell with that. You were expected to do your job, and don’t mind the other waitresses, they’ll do theirs. To hell with that.

    Don’t ever stop reaching for more simply because it makes someone else feel bad. If those waitresses were that put out by you coming behind them, they damn well should have stepped up their game. Being a team player is one thing, lowering your expectations to be part of a team is another. It is well you had to move on from that place, another year there would have considerably dulled your sharp, glinting edges.

    The problem wasn’t that you weren’t a team player, the problem was that you were playing on the wrong team. Now that you’ve found blogging and Twitter, you’re in the right place. You’ve found teammates that will *never* tell you what to do or not to do, certainly not in the hopes of keeping you at a level with which we ourselves are comfortable. You’re free to be who you are here, you’re home. And I’m confident in speaking for myself and a few others when I say we’re happy to have you amongst us, just as you are. ♥

  2. Cnawan Fahey says:

    What separates “good” from “great”, in any context, is hard to define – that ineffable character that sets something above the rest in quality – but I will say this: You are a great writer.

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