I don’t think I know very many people who aren’t struggling a lot of the time to feel alive.
Sometimes the days, weeks, even months drain by, but they don’t speak to us – they almost don’t say a word. They pass, but we are not quite sure how, because we did not often stop and step back and take notice. If they do speak, we are usually not there to listen.
Television. Net-surfing our free time away. Lethargy. Compulsive snacking. Food that lives in plastic. Hours spent in traffic. Bad posture. Cell phone and email addiction. Obesity. Prozac. Distracting ourselves to death or at least away from life. Modern life in all its glory.
More people are on anti-depressants than ever – trying to escape the vacancy that they feel when they do step back and pause and look around and don’t see anything but the abyss, but the big question why, or don’t feel anything but the numbness – the lack of feeling alive. Where is the joy lying hidden? Where is the sensation?
Most of the time it’s not so bad because we distract ourselves just enough to feel like everything is ok, maybe even mildly pleasant, certainly bearable. We live for tiny tidbits – the increasingly diminishing ups and downs – like the high: the buzz of receiving a text message, versus the low: the glum feeling of having no one like a Facebook status you posted. This is what life is getting reduced to for so many people so much of the time. Life getting narrower and narrower and the feeling of being alive is less and less common.
Things that have become an integral part of many people’s lives – television, internet, long commutes, cell phones, fast and faster food, social media, text messages, apps, long work hours – things that on the one hand we are often grateful for, also are the things that are helping drain us of sensation.
We forget how a live band sounds, how a real ripe, summer fresh, garden grown tomato tastes, what cool, unpolluted mountain air smells like, and how a sea breeze feels. We forget how to dance, how to skip, how to run. We don’t play anymore. We even start forgetting the deliciousness of a hot shower though we take one every day, or the intense pleasure of taking a bite of food when we are really hungry, though we have to feed ourselves regularly, because we so often aren’t awake when we do these things at all.
We become willing to accept less and less as we accumulate more and more. Music piped through a crappy speaker compressing all the sound into something tinny, all the complexity and depth lost – but we are willing to take it because it reminds us of the real experience. Until eventually we stop noticing the difference.
In fact I think at a certain point we start becoming afraid of feeling truly alive. Because feeling alive can mean all sorts of things – yes it can be beautiful and pleasurable, but it can also be deeply painful and shocking, when we are shaken into momentarily realization of our tininess or helplessness or briefness. It can be when we see the fragility of the balance that’s holding things in place; the constancy of change and the very instability of the ground we are walking on that we are pretending is so solid.
Because feeling alive can mean letting go of what we have loved and held onto – and letting ourselves start from scratch from time to time.
I think at a certain point people become willing to exchange feeling truly, intensely alive, for feeling comfortable, safe, secure, having the sense that they know what’s happening and what will happen, what to expect, to have the illusion of some control, to feel they are shutting the door on uncertainty. I think a lot of people call that growing up.
We have lived in Pau for 4.5 years. I never really thought that at this age I’d have lived anywhere that long – let alone a quiet French town in the middle of nowhere that I don’t fit into and don’t connect with. I don’t dislike it per se – but I don’t madly love it either. We thought we’d be here about 2 years – but when my husband David’s company switched him to a new position (as they do every 2-4 years) it happened to be …in Pau…again. We thought we’d have spent a few years in Uganda or Brazil or Angola by now. But nope, we’re still here.
Still in the same apartment, still with the crappy white Ikea furniture that was here when we moved in, and the chipped yellow dishes that I hate, and no frames on the wall. We’ve lived all this time as though we’d be moving soon, as though it were temporary.
I have wanted to move for years – but it hasn’t happened. When we found out a month or two ago that David might not be switching positions again for at least another year, we decided we should just move anyway. We wanted to feel like we had some control over our lives, to remind ourselves we actually have some choice about where we want to be.
We began thinking about moving to a city called Bayonne, in the Basque region near the Atlantic coast, about an hour from Pau. We could live in a new place, have a change of pace, be around a different culture, be close to Spain, close to the beach – and in a really, really lovely, fun area.
Last week we went to look at an apartment there. When we saw it we loved it. I was ready to move that instant, totally enthusiastic, charmed, persuaded, READY.
But then I got back home to Pau and I started feeling doubts. I slunk back down into thinking that maybe it would be better to do what is easier – and just stay in Pau until we know we HAVE to move. I slipped into some weird idea that there’s too much I love about our apartment to let it go – (when in fact a lot of things about it drive me absolutely crazy every day).
I felt a hesitance, a lethargy, a gravity, thinking how HARD it would be to move. I felt sad and unsure thinking about how I’d have to give up having both my gym and the farmer’s market just 1 block away. How I’d be farther from my friends and maybe not see them enough. I started fretting about how much smaller the new apartment would be, how it didn’t have a view of the Pyrenees like we have now, or a big balcony like we have now, or a bathtub like we have now, or lots of light and a big living room like we have now, or a window that looks at the sky and sings the rain like we have now. Suddenly all those things seemed VERY important. Essential maybe. Certainly too nice to just give up on a whim.
But I have had all of these things now for 4.5 years. I have had the view, the space, and the light, the gym and the market. Will MORE time with them make the difference – will I appreciate them anymore? Will I really squeeze any more life or joy out of them?
I have never actually been good at letting go. I’ve always been afraid or unwilling to say goodbye – whether it’s to a person or a place or a piece of clothing or a stuffed animal or even some silly scrap of paper that somehow connects me to a memory of an experience I once had.
Every time I’ve said goodbye to a place I’ve always told myself it was temporary and that I’d be back soon. Even though that was usually not true.
I have almost never actually ended relationships – instead I just sort of faded away from them. I drifted towards other things but never actually put them to rest. Never actually told someone a definitive goodbye.
I guess I’ve liked to pretend that there is always a way back – and let other people pretend that too. Maybe that’s what made it easier somehow to become a world traveller, a gypsy sort with no permanent residence. Because I thought that I could always go back someday to whatever I’d found along the way – whether it was a love or a home. But I’ve learned the hard way that this is not the case.
You carry things with you or you leave them behind. There is not much middle ground. Because when you go back, you go back changed and often find what you left has changed as well.
Given that I am not even all that content or comfortable in Pau, what the hell is holding me back?
What is it I am afraid of?
I feel myself weighted down by habit lately – and strangely, uncharacteristically faltering around the idea of new experience. It makes me feel not quite myself.
But maybe it’s because I’ve finally learned that letting go really means saying goodbye and closing a door. Maybe now that I can’t pretend that the door stays open, it is making it harder. Maybe I have to learn a new way of seeking new experience. A more honest way.
I think part of the problem is a fear of scarcity. One feels a need to hold on to what one has, fearing that somehow it isn’t replaceable. Comfort zones have a tremendous gravity. Pau represents what is easier and therefore safer. More comfortable in the short term even if in the long term it’s keeping me from feeling quite as alive.
But look at this big bright crazy world – so many place to live and things to try. So many apartments to enjoy and homes to make in different places. Would I rather just hold on tight to one thing? Or experience more and more?
Do I ever wish I had just stayed home instead of going on a trip? Do I regret any of the places I lived, wishing I’d lived somewhere else longer instead? No…I don’t…I’m glad for each diverse experience – because each new thing enriched my life and my understanding and my perspective.
So here I must face myself and what I really want from life. Do I want to just keep what I have because there are some things about it I like – or do I want to try something new?
Humans are all so different. We have different affinities and needs and things that suit us or don’t suit us at all – different things that make us feel more or less alive. It is up to us to find those things and live our life in accordance.
Some people are happier living in a familiar place – staying close to home. Others, like myself, thrive on new experience and start feeling rusty and creaky if they’ve been stationary too long.
But I see that lately I have actually been weighted down, tethered by the idea of comfort over the idea of experiment. The idea of “it’ll do” versus “let’s try something else.”
But I am not willing to get tied down by the siren song of what is easiest anymore.
I want to fall back in love with adventure and moving on as a lifestyle choice. I want to practice the lightness of touch. Practice the willingness to let life be about endless endings and beginning, hellos and goodbyes. Loving and leaving. Practice not being afraid of opening my heart up and letting things come to an end. Practice not being so afraid of what is actually inevitable – change.
And I am strong enough to carry that which is really important with me always – my friendships, my family and my memories.
Because I know that the willingness to sometimes let go of what you have loved is what makes life rich, abundant, surprising – by opening up new space and allowing life, in all its complexity, mystery and color, to come rushing in.
Time to do what it takes to feel more alive again. One way or another, it is time for a change.
To Be Continued…
“Nostalgia has no place for the woman traveling alone. Our motion is forward, whether by train or daydream.” – the great travel writer Mary Morris