I’m standing on a street corner in New York City eating a stuffed grape leaf. The desire is always to be somewhere else. Here is this perfectly good day: cloudless, dry and breezy, but I feel as if I’m watching the commercials in between my life: when will the show come back on? The desire has always been for a place, rather than myself, or the people that inhabit a place, to change me and improve me. Maybe something incredible will happen if I go here today. If I sit in this coffee shop, rather than that one. I think of a Greek island I haven’t been to in fifteen years, and wonder what it would take to get me there, and, briefly, what would happen once I got there.
Such is the weakness of those with wanderlust: it’s just a flicker of a thought, a few frames of a movie, the actual thinking about what would happen once we got to the place we’re lusting after. It’s not the belief that everything will be perfect if we could just be there. It’s the ability to forget the pain that follows us everywhere, to put the pain aside while daydreaming of greener pastures, and become convinced that we can permanently keep the pain at bay if we just go there, to the new place. Or the new old place. That’s another trick we play: make the old new again. Go back. Recycle. Do right what was done wrong last time. Same place, different era. That rarely works.
These are ways around the pain, however niggling, slight or silly. The pain is something to pass through, a tunnel. The way to do that is to stay put. Stay put long enough and the tunnel will appear for you to go through. At first the new place will trick you, convince you that there is no tunnel, no hard work to be done. It will look like there are many directions in which to run, when really there aren’t any. Well, you could keep running forever. But it will fray you. As Bill Callahan says in a regretful song about fear and running away: How could I run without losing anything? How could I run without becoming lean?
A desire to go into a book and stay there. A desire to hear every word of a stranger’s conversation, to be that person for fifteen minutes. A desire to sit in movie theaters and absorb other worlds. These are other conditions associated with wanderlust. When I watch people exit the movie theater across the street from my apartment, many of them look dazed. Most of them look dazed. Who wants to come back to their own world from elsewhere — say, the pretty, upper-middle-class West Coast elsewhere of Jill Soloway’s Afternoon Delight — so suddenly? Even the people who hated the film want to stay in there a little longer.
And a symptom of nearly everyone with the wanderlust pathology: overthinking. The propensity to think rather than do, sit rather than move. Sit and think about all the elsewheres. These other places are drugs. It’s an addiction you can live with, high-functioning, but there are still consequences. We tend to abandon people, because it’s easier than waiting for them to abandon us. If we improve, mature, we’re able to stick with people, but then we’ll drag them around the world with us, making convincing arguments about frontiers because this is what we do best.
“Solution”: find another person who also hates to stay put and time-travel with them through some current of air outside the actual world, exempt from it. Live in your head. If you do go anywhere, it won’t be with them. It can’t be, because they do not want anyone else along, and neither, you must admit, do you. Who is life for? For yourself. It’s not about impressing others. Or if it is, it’s from afar. And maybe eventually you will end up impressing yourself, too, which is convenient.
Never letting people know just how much they mean to you: another trait of the vagabond, and perhaps this one’s a strength, not a symptom. At least, it looks like a strength to us. Those with wanderlust build invisible barriers, protection from feeling, even though they actually like to feel. But they want to feel only on their own terms, until some expiration date only they are able to set. They want to be able to get away as cleanly and easily as possible. No point going to the new place hung up on the old place. Start young, and you can get very good at this. Once you’ve been dredged of a hopefully brief, adolescent tendency to want to hang on — write letters, write poems, listen to songs over and over — you will emerge a perfectly hardened, carefree adult. Your only burden will be the belongings you have acquired over the years, but happily those are even more easily disposed of than people are.
The ability to feel so much and at the same time feel nothing, to store the feelings somewhere that’s unreachable by the rest of the brain: another asset of us runaways. It’s all about ease of movement, physical and mental.
How does the story end for us? I think mostly the plan — if we can even call it that — backfires. Eventually even you will want to be with someone. But so many years of running away cannot be easily undone. You cannot just suddenly change because you find yourself at the mercy of a particularly great person. One day you might not feel at their mercy. You will want to leave again. You’re not justified at all. But the colorful yet emotionally flat existence of a person in motion is easier to live with than the unpredictable existence of a person at rest.
This is known; this in the back of most of our minds, at least if we’re old enough to know ourselves well enough. But we still find it impossible to admit it, which is to say, to live with it every day. To remind ourselves of this fact and try to punch a hole through its logic. There are things — as opposed to people or places — that can slowly spackle over the gaps in our minds, the gaps that don’t seem to exist in content, slow-moving people. Even though I am familiar with some of these things, I am still not convinced of their power to harness all these stray fantasies of mine and focus me.
Because we also have a tendency to want to chase some comet until it’s spent. It doesn’t need to be a place or a person. It can be a thing too: a hobby, an occupation. Moderation makes no sense to us. Those who want to run away can, it seems, only handle one thing at a time. They handle it, they overhandle it, they use it, they abuse it, and then they let it go. There are worse afflictions to have. There are worse afflictions than not being able to stand still. There are harder challenges than learning to enjoy several things at once. Put that way, and a door seems to open: everything in moderation, as hard a pill as that is to swallow. Life will present many more challenges down the years, and like any addict, I can never call myself cured. The past is past, but stepping away from life will always be the first option I give myself. It’s too ingrained in my mind, insidious and beguiling.