A little more than twenty years ago, I found myself one morning strapped into a car on the Stratosphere, the Las Vegas roller coaster with a run that took its passengers off the roof of a high rise and suspended them over the city’s famous Strip.
I was there with my extended family, celebrating my grandmother’s 80th birthday, on the cusp of my own middle-age. I hadn’t been on a roller coaster in years, and, somehow, riding the Stratosphere that July morning seemed as if it were an opportunity I should not pass up. It really wasn’t my kind of thing (nothing in Vegas was my kind of thing), but I didn’t know when I might have such a chance again, if ever. I did not want to be the kind of person who passes on opportunities that might not come around again. I wanted to be the kind of person who tries things that aren’t really her kind of thing. I wanted to be the kind of person who experiences all that life offers. I wanted to be less like my usual self and more like my grandmother, a woman who brought her clan to Vegas to honor eight decades of living and made everything fun.
So that is why, after drinking a Bloody Mary and eating a spicy sausage-and-egg breakfast sandwich, I decided to carpe the shit out of my diem and let myself be buckled in to a car set to go screaming down a steel track that would hold me more than 900 feet above air over the side of a building. Me, who feels a bit lightheaded at the top of the Marquam bridge every single time I drive over it.
It was long before the days of inspirational internet memes, but I imagined the moment feeling something like this:
Panic started within seconds of the car’s moving, when I realized that my decision was irrevocable. No matter what the experience was to be, there was no turning back from it. The long, slow ascent to the first drop, during which I could do nothing but contemplate what was coming, may have been the cruelest part of the ride. I spent the entire time telling myself that I wasn’t going to die (or that, if I did, I wasn’t likely to be aware of it) and that it would be over relatively quickly and that I would survive it.
All of which proved to be true, but still: It was fairly awful. In fact, I hated every single second of it and nothing about it made me a better person.
“That was so awesome!” my younger cousin squealed when she exited the ride. I was already slumped on the ground, head spinning, hoping I wouldn’t throw up. Thanks to the Bloody Mary, the sausage, and my own proclivity for motion sickness, the ride for me didn’t end when the car stopped moving. It was a good 45 minutes before I could really walk again, and it was half a day before I no longer felt nauseated.
Well, I thought at the time, that was a really stupid decision. I should have known better. I should have known myself better. I lost half a day of this trip because of some idea I have about who I want to be (youthful! spontaneous! adventurous!) that is different from who I actually am.
If there’s one thing my life story would illustrate, it is that I do not learn lessons well the first time they are presented to me. And because of the way life or the universe or whatever works, the lesson delivery ramps up in some way on each subsequent go-round.
This is why, in the days leading up to my departure for a trip to London over the holidays, I found myself feeling not unlike the way I felt when strapped into that roller-coaster car.
When the opportunity to travel to London for several weeks over Christmas presented itself to me last fall, turning it down seemed like the kind of folly I could only regret.
After nearly a week on my own to decompress and learn the lay of the land, my daughter (on her way to a semester abroad in Sweden) would meet me there, and we would stay for free in a friend’s flat, taking care of her dog while she returned home to the states for her winter break. London! Christmas! Mother-daughter bonding! Free lodging! Sweet dog!
Who would turn that down?
Certainly not the kind of woman I still would like to be, one who regularly travels outside of her comfort zone and, as a result, finds it expanding. I would still like to be adventurous, spontaneous, free-wheeling. Dare I say it? FUN. (Yes, in all caps.)
My friends who know and love me encouraged me to go. “You have to,” they said. “You’ll be sorry if you don’t.” (What none of us talked about was the deeper reason why I might have wanted to go away for Christmas, which is that it would be my first one since the life I’ve been mourning the loss of ended.)
And so, I said yes. I told my friend I would care for her dog. I told my daughter I would meet her in London. I bought a plane ticket. I ignored that feeling in the pit of my stomach and the little whisper in my head that said, “Don’t do it.” As the day to leave grew closer, the pit grew larger and the whisper louder, but I was already strapped in. Tickets had been bought. Arrangements had been made. “I will be fine,” I told myself. I watched a sappy Nancy Meyers movie and even though I know her entire oeuvre is the grown-ass woman’s equivalent of an old-school Disney princess fairy tale, I let myself imagine a journey that would somehow shift me toward being more of the kind of woman I’d like to be.
“Aren’t you so excited?” people asked in the days before I left. I smiled noncommittally in response, unable to admit the truth to anyone but a long-distance friend. “I feel sad and anxious,” I confided, missing my dogs and my house and my routines before I’d even left them.
There were a few mishaps, but nothing catastrophic. I looked foolish at customs, where I didn’t know my friend’s address or place of employment and couldn’t produce evidence of my return flight home. My cell service wasn’t set up as I thought it would be, and that caused a few stumbles (such as not being able to produce proof of my return flight home at customs). Henry, the dog, didn’t immediately warm to me. But after a few days, I settled in. I learned the spot to get a most delicious pastry rolled in sugar and cinnamon. I went to a pub by myself and thoroughly enjoyed my burger, chips, and book. I walked miles every day. I fell a little bit in love with urban living and searched Redfin for condos in the heart of Portland, imagining a home even smaller and closer in than the one I downsized to last spring. Henry and I bonded.
I know this is the paragraph where the the magic is supposed to happen, where something comes along to change my perspective and part the clouds, letting my sunshine back in. But–spoiler alert–it’s not. The closest I’ve come to a meet-cute was when a man young as my son and scruffy as Henry smiled at me and asked to pet the dog–an encounter I was inordinately grateful for because it was the first conversation I’d had for days that didn’t include a credit card transaction.
Truth is, in spite of some truly lovely moments, there have been more in which I’ve been lonely and missing home and wishing I hadn’t come. Because, I’m not the star of a Nancy Meyers movie, and when I was saying “yes,” to this adventure, I was forgetting another piece of ubiquitous internet advice/philosophy/religion:
Yes, I am in a whole new place–a really wonderful place–but I am still me. As much as I believe travel can take us out of ourselves, it also takes us in. By stripping us of much that is familiar and comfortable, we can see more clearly who we actually are.
And who I am is not the kind of person who is going to easily strike up conversation with strangers. I am not the kind of person who is going to fall into some interesting new situation of some sort an ocean away from home; I’m far too cautious for that. I am a person who likes routine, familiarity, and feeling competent, none of which travel is conducive to. I am an introverted, socially anxious homebody who is exhausted from a challenging school year and the loss of a life she didn’t want to lose. I am a woman walking around in a rather thick, brittle shell that she hopes will protect the bruised soft tissue at her core. Being away from home for the homiest of holidays isn’t distracting me from that, much as I hoped it might. It is helping me see it all the more clearly, and that I am not going to Eat, Pray, Love my way out of pain I haven’t yet made peace with. And now that I’ve seen all that, what I’d really like to do is go home where my daughter and I can binge Netflix on our own couch and we can sleep in our own beds and I can recuperate in my comfort zone from all the other things I never wanted that have pushed me out of it in the last 12 months.
Before you go thinking that I’m just not trying hard enough–that I need to be more open to what this experience has to offer, I want to assure you that I’m not this woman:
I’ve gotten out. I’ve ridden the tube and the bus. Hell, I even got lost on the tube. (Okay, I have been to Starbucks twice, but only for their internet.) And this post really isn’t about asking for sympathy or advice, and I know (I know) all the ways in which I am privileged and lucky as hell to be where I am right now. I KNOW. (So please keep any judgement to yourself, too. Thanks.) I’m just offering this story in case any of you are also struggling a little with how your life right now isn’t resembling a Hallmark holiday movie–even, or especially, if you’re fortunate enough to be in some situation where it seems it should or could–and how every time you see an inspirational meme floating through your social media feed of choice you feel like posting this one in response:
I am far too much like Anne Tylers’s Macon Leary, the Accidental Tourist who writes travel guides for those who wish they were at home. Only, I’m pretty sure that there is no kooky, bad-clothes-wearing dog whisperer waiting in the wings to heal my grief and fill my life. Our real lives so rarely follow a traditional narrative arc; most of us are living our way through a much more meandering kind of tale, one in which nothing much dramatic really happens–more Harry Dean Stanton in Lucky than just about any character in any popular film.
I wish I could tell you a better story here. I wish there was some satisfying denouement, or even something resembling rising action. I am still in the middle of the ride of this trip, so maybe there is more to come. But so far, all I got for a take-away to this rather flat narrative is this:
Cheerio and Happy Christmas!