I was at a book reading the other day (and when I say the other day, I should probably say other dayS). I’d gone there alone, as I often do anywhere in the city, not realizing what a social event book readings actually are. There was a lot of “Wow, it’s so great to finally meet you,” friends reuniting, and, the true sign of a social event, wine*.
As everyone talked, I was looking at books, which suddenly seemed like the odd thing to do despite it being a bookstore. It was a really neat bookstore actually, dedicated to travel. Everything was arranged according to destination. Soon there were dozens of people crammed in this tiny bookstore, and when I got tired of staring at people’s chests (a major plight of the vertically challenged. I’m seriously writing my Congressman about this), I sat on a bench by the window and read.
About 30 to 45 minutes after the scheduled start time, the room quieted long enough for an informal introduction and, of course, the reading. I’m a reader — I’d rather read the news than listen to it or watch it, for instance – so listening to people read felt unnatural. Maybe it’s because reading is such a personal thing. It’s why people get so angry when their favorite books are made into movies. Characters and situations rarely appear in movies as they do in our heads. I wanted to imagine the authors in these places they spoke of, but it was impossible with the distractions. For one thing, someone’s camera kept making that irritating fake clicking sound, and I could see everyone’s reactions and random movements since I sat off to the side.
One essay eventually got my attention, however. In it, Elisabeth Eaves talks about her inability to stay in one place. Wanderlust, she says, is not about what’s being left. It’s about the person who’s leaving:
“A hallmark of the wanderlust-plagued is that we favor experience over inherited knowledge, however sensible the latter might be. The best kind of travel – the kind I wanted to experience – involves a particular state of mind in which one is not merely open to the occurrence of the unexpected, but to deep involvement in the unexpected, indeed, open to the possibility of having one’s life changed forever by a chance encounter.”
And everything clicked.
She articulated something I’ve always felt but never could explain. I don’t know if it’s because I spent chunks of my life in different places (the Philippines, the Bronx, Virginia), or maybe it’s because I grew up in a relatively strict, authoritarian household that quelled my adventurous side. Whatever it was, I always pushed my limits and refused to fall into submission. When all things failed, I read, wrote and dreamed. I dreamed of summer camps and boarding school. Of leaving for college and seeing the world. And when I got the chance, I did.
It’s why I interned in small towns in the summer when I was in college. It’s what I relished most about my quirky newspaper assignments – the opportunity to go somewhere I wouldn’t have gone otherwise, to talk to people I wouldn’t normally have encountered. It’s why I studied abroad in a country where I knew no one, and it’s why I want to conquer New York, not just pass through it.
There’s just something about discovering things on your own, being incredibly uncomfortable yet surviving, and in some cases thriving. Though it gets lonely, the solitude frees me up for introspection; my flaws reveal themselves. Like my tendency to think too much before I speak or to be overly critical of everyone, including myself. Instead of hiding behind the safety of the familiar, I’m left to face everything head on. Don’t get me wrong — I have amazing people to turn to for support. It’s just that I like having the freedom to be by myself, too.
After the reading, I bought the book and finished Eaves’ essay on the train ride home. Her words strengthened my own wanderlust. I knew I was where I needed to be.
*Unfortunately I couldn’t enjoy it because I’d taken Tylenol (hi, acetaminophen, ruiner of livers) an hour or two beforehand. I’d tried to defy my own body for working against me. “Ha!” I scoffed. “I’m going to this book reading whether or not you, er, I hurt!”
Of course, in defying myself I’d ended up hurting, well, myself.
(Photo: Under the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, 2007)