Woody Allen had it partially right with the main characters in “Midnight in Paris.” A lot of us have that desire to live in a historically, culturally relevant place and time. I don’t wish I was alive during the Gold Rush, or the Renaissance, or the Roman Empire. I like living now, but I’m also haunted by the idea that I would be better off somewhere else. That another place would cause me to thrive and use my talents more fully. There are a dozen good reasons to be in Asia right now, some personal, some not. It’s not a “the grass is always greener” feeling, either. It’s that at a certain age you should be living your life in a certain place that’s best for you, for who you are and what you want.
Your 20s are easy to execute. Move a lot. Work different jobs. Meet as many people as you can. Gain rich, diverse experiences. Without the willingness to allow mistakes in your life you’ll live a cautious, and unfulfilled, life. Once you make your mistakes and learn from them it becomes even more difficult. All that learning about the world is supposed to help you figure out where you should go. That’s not how it worked for me. It just showed me that there were more options. Despite that, I’m not looking for my Golden Age. I don’t need to be part of any scene. Even though I’ve heard the rumors, I’m not desperately trying to move to Berlin. If I wanted to feel like I was part of something I would have stayed in Brooklyn. I like living in Korea, but it’s not that culturally relevant to the rest of the world. Maybe China is, but who can stand all that pollution? Do I even need to live somewhere culturally relevant?
This is different from the desire to move. To be in motion, to not let yourself get stuck. That’s just restlessness and an inability or lack of desire to commit to something. I had that for the decade when I didn’t live anywhere for more than a year and a half. When I crossed the big oceans several times and went where I wanted when I felt like it, left when it got boring or hard.
Regardless of how scared any of the big moves made me or the failures that they threatened worried me, I would still always say go rather than stay. But you can’t listen to everything Lou Reed says. Moving some place you’ve never been before isn’t guaranteed to fix things. You might put all your hope and salvation in the idea you have of a place and it might not be what you thought it was at all. Upon arrival, it might seem good and new, then turn bad because it was never the right move to begin with. That might not become apparent for a year or longer. The way we don’t have the foresight to know whether or not our moves are right until long after we make them is what makes it hard to leave. It can make you afraid to abandon a bad choice for another bad choice.
We fear that with all the choices out there we’re spending our lives in the wrong town, or the wrong state, the wrong climate, or country. If you’ve ever lived in the correctly suited place for you at the right time in your life then you know the feeling you’re after. You know its resonance, the feeling of being perfectly fit for your environment. The place you’re in has everything you need. The place, as Philip Larkin says, “mashed you.” Like all good things, it will eventually end, either the place changes or you do, and then you spend the ensuing days, months, years chasing that feeling.
For awhile I swore by the mantra “we’re all exactly where we’re supposed to be.” It’s a comforting idea, and if you repeat it until you believe it you can use it to quiet down your restlessness. But it only really works when you’re actually satisfied. I don’t believe it consistently. We don’t always make the best choices for ourselves.
If you can find the right place for you it can make you whole in ways that nothing else can. People like to say a place is what you make of it. That has a lot of truth to it, and the people in whatever place you’re in matter as much as anything. It’s just that no matter how much you love the openness of Nebraska it will never have an ocean. No matter how easy life is in Korea it will always be crowded. No matter how much fun New York is it will always feel indifferent.
You have to know what you want, who you are before you can choose to build a life. I’m still looking for the right place to stay for a while. I’ve had plenty of trouble, done my share of living, and I’ve seen a few things. Now I’m looking for some peace. Does anyone know where I can find it? Is it even out there?