It’s no secret to anyone who knows me that I’m not exactly a people person. I live on my own when the finances allow it, I find afternoons spent with animals to be sufficient social interaction and I’m usually the one on nights out with girlfriends that some douchebag – having picked up on my disinterest in engaging in bullshit banter – feels the need to point at and sarcastically address with “whoa girl, pipe down over there!” My friends have come to affectionately use the term ‘Tara time’ for the solitude I require after social outings, to regain my energy from the personal-space-breaching, aurally-pungent privacy thieves otherwise known as strangers.
So when I took off for the United States on a characteristically solo adventure, I’d never have guessed that as I sit here in my final Los Angeles hostel reflecting on what has made my journey so far, my answer would unquestionably be ‘the people’. The revolving door cast of characters that entered my life for a few hours, a few days or a few weeks and made me feel like I was watching my own personal Coen brothers character drama unfold from the inside.
Like the little Asian guy who left his affluent family to bike across America, including a three-day stint in federal prison when he forgot he was carrying four grams of weed across the Minnesota border. The firefighter who’d just returned from a two year tour of duty in Iraq. The Vancouver Canucks. The Las Vegas strip club promoter who kindly drove me around in his beat-up car at daybreak to search for my wallet after losing it in said strip club. The girl I met in a clothing store in sleepy Stonington Connecticut, who took me out for a night on the town and later to a family dinner on the Upper East Side, where her Uncle introduced us to a quaint piano bar and I actually cried at a particularly moving rendition of a show tune. Not to mention the many hostel nights when I walked into a room not knowing a soul at 6pm, only to wind up crashing at sunrise after too much wine, a bunch of new friends and some more crazy stories later. It would take pages to list them all and in fact, I began to. Rather than keeping a journal of my travels, I’d reflect occasionally on the people who had punctuated them and scribble down as many as I could remember, knowing that a quick read of that list later would stir a big smile and possibly a little wanderlust.
Myself and my fellow Homo sapiens enjoying Texas national parkland
And on the flipside, when I found myself in the periods of solitude I’d deliberately peppered throughout my time in New York – thinking they’d be my saving grace across an otherwise socially exhausting few months – I found myself longing for my new friend; people.
I’d had such romantic ideals about days on end of Tara time; taking in sprawling city skylines and studying New Yorkers in their native environment from behind the safety of my coffee cup and latest novel, a’ la Sir David Attenborough. But it was the complete lack of interaction on those days that moved me more than the sights themselves. Sights which felt a little – well, hollow – without someone to throw a knowing smile at and acknowledge what had just been witnessed. I found myself turning over in my head that clichéd expression I’d always detested; that life is only meaningful – or in the words of the great Alexander Supertramp, that happiness is only real – when shared. Oh how I’d hated that notion! What an insult to my independence and my ability to create my own happiness! I’d thought it was a weak position, if not an entirely dangerous one, to allow our experience to be defined by the company we kept.
But I’m so glad for even the low days in New York, because in contrast to the bustling month that preceded them they provided a surprising new perspective. Strangers didn’t feel like energy-drainers all of a sudden; they were opportunities for connection, giving energy to situations by elevating them through a moment of shared experience. I guess that’s why I began taking myself to East Village karaoke bars and asking nice U.S. naval officers to grab a bite to eat in Koreatown. There is a difference, it turns out, between finding meaning in interaction for interaction’s sake and allowing other people to validate you. Maybe that’s Homo sapiens 101 for the more socially apt – maybe an extrovert would have had the reverse experience on this trip, of finding unexpected satisfaction in moments of quiet solitude and learning to enjoy their own company. But with those things coming rather naturally to me, I guess it’s not surprising that the things that pushed me out of my comfort zone and made me question my beliefs were the things that delivered the real soul food.
It’s a nice little reminder to embrace that which we find daunting – it’s usually where the gems are…
As some of you know, a few days ago I finished up at my marketing gig of over five years, moved all my worldly possessions from my city apartment into a bedroom at my parents’ house in Gippsland and I’m less than a week away from trekking across the U.S. I know that you know this, because after I finish this post (and my second wine) I’m planning to throw my blog open to the scariest people in the world – my friends. Don’t get me wrong, you’re a pleasant-looking lot and all pretty tops people. But at this point I’ve shared my words with about zero people for fear that someone might, I don’t know, ACTUALLY READ THEM. This thought is at once both terrifying and – nope, just terrifying. But life is about to get all kinds of unnerving and exciting and if I’m ever going to share my journey, now’s the time right?
So as I sit here writing this, surrounded by every material object I have collected in my life so far, no job to get up for in the morning, not to mention having recently split from my partner, it’s a strange, leveling feeling. Between me and my cohort of stuff, everything I have done in my life until this point can be accounted for in this very room – and absolutely nothing else is expected of me right now. At the risk of sounding completely self-indulgent, it feels like a weird kind of rebirth; suddenly I’ve become acutely aware of the blank slate I’ve created for myself. Yes, that’s exactly the way I designed it. But when I woke up this morning, jumped on the treadmill, cranked up the iPod and the first lyrics to permeate the air were “…sweet dreams, when I’m alone, all that I have sleeps beside me…” this strange water-like fluid starting gushing out of my eyes. Okay, I burst into tears. And I realised for the first time that this next week between my old life and my new one is going to be a tough slog. I’ve been so busy getting through the last few weeks of finishing up at work, moving house and catching up with friends that I haven’t had time to think about what I’m giving up and the people and experiences I’m going to miss. Well, my tear ducts decided that 8.30am this morning, after exactly 20 seconds on the treadmill, was the perfect time to consider all of this. And yes, I finished my workout, because endorphins are ace when you’re feeling like a big, vulnerable bag of emotions.
I know it’s the right decision for me; the travel alone will be a game-changer and I’m setting myself up to actively create the life I want when I get back. I can, thank god, still count my ex partner as one of my best mates. And no matter what happens, I have always lived by the belief that I’ll never regret anything I felt I needed to do at the time. But I am, admittedly, equal parts excited and shitting my pants.
Luckily I’ve had friends go through this exact same experience who warned me there would be days like these. Days when you question what the hell you’re doing, when you’re feeling exiled from your old life and not quite settled into your new one. They told me there would be tears. And thank god they’ve been right so far, because they also told me that after a good night’s sleep and the next morning’s fresh perspective, I’ll wake up knowing I’m exactly where I need to be, on the cusp of the most amazing experience of my life so far.
Which I guess I knew all along. Stupid Patience from The Grates and stupid, stupid tear ducts…
I stopped writing almost five years ago. I had just started seeing my current partner when I came across an article that linked personal writing to anxiety and depression. It suggested that the introspective activity – complete with deconstruction and over analysis of every life experience – was like crack for neurotics.
Do we writers write because we’re always in our heads, or are we always in our heads because we write? At the time, it was a curious enough question to make me stop the activity altogether. I must have been having a particularly dramatic day, as I recall ripping up the pages I’d written about the relationship to date and stuffing my little black notebook into the top shelf of my wardrobe.
Around the same time, I started thinking about what I should be writing. I decided that since the holy grail of a wildly fulfilling, self-funded life path had not laid itself before me, it was time to start actively creating it.
I filled a new binder book with lots of very responsible words and diagrams. Start up ideas, capital sources, ways to potentially monetise a blog… But nothing of any real substance. Even those that started authentically quickly morphed into scalable business models, until they were so far from my true interests that they felt daunting and impossible to start. So I didn’t. Insert a few years at this point and frankly, life became stagnant.
Don’t get me wrong, I had it good – good job, good rental, good social life. I was leading a perfectly comfortable yet soul-deflating existence. I’d repressed my creative impulses for so long that they were practically non-existent.
So, I took a filmmaking course. I went to fashion design workshops. I tried (unsuccessfully) to learn guitar and I immersed myself in the philosophies of everyone from Eckhart Tolle to Friedrich Nietzsche. And these mini creativity fills were enough to sustain me, for a while. But I wanted a bigger change. I had accepted that the ‘good’ life just wasn’t cutting the mustard and I was ready to give it up for one of meaning and authentic purpose.
But here’s what I found about having it good; it’s a really effective roadblock to going out and getting something great. I felt like I had to uncover one hell of an artistic talent, a legitimate creative endeavour that I absolutely, unequivocally, 100% wanted to dedicate my life to, in order to justify leaving this comfortable existence. Not only did having it good give me something to lose, but it was starting to shape what I perceived to be a valid risk, a valid reward and a valid lifestyle.
So I did what any rational person with two maxed out credit cards would do. I gave notice at work, shipped my furniture off to my parents’ garage and myself into a share house to save money, armed with a big idea to trek across the Americas and absolutely no idea what I’ll do when I return home. I forced myself into a position of having nothing to lose. And for the first time in years, I’m facing an entirely uncertain future – with honest excitement.
So here we are. With twelve weeks left at work and home, one foot still in the ‘real’ world and the other already in an all-weather hiking boot. With all notions of what I should be doing now completely disregarded, it felt like as good a time as any to pick up personal writing again. After all, what’s a creative life without a little neurosis?