What I want to do is fill this page with photos from scenic, far off lands and tales of travels therein. Rattly trucks and quirky people, character-building nights off the grid and days spent in delirious wandering. Audiences prefer this type of content, and perhaps creators do, too. It is easy to hide behind a curtain of scenic vistas and stories of the other, or even stories about the self in a setting that does the heavy lifting. It is far more desirable to pause the endless doom scrolling to double tap an overly-edited sunset photo from some perfect locale than it is to stop and stare at a mundane photo of a messy room, far easier to wish we had that make-believe life on the screen than to face the one we are actually living.
What I am going to do is talk about the journey one takes when they go nowhere at all, the places the mind ventures while the body walks figure-eights around the in-law apartment at your relative’s house. The particular progress and agony of not being distracted by an elk crossing the road or a new follower on social media who sends you sweet nothings and knows nothing of your story. What happens when you plug your external camera into your old laptop and hop on a Zoom call, with a vendor for your shaky new venture or with your therapist.
It is here, in the banal cave of the comfortable and the damned, that we must contend with everything that is inside of us. The hazy details of a handful of childhood experiences that left our adult selves with unflattering attachment styles, the uncomfortable rock and a hard place of being neither authentic nor materialistic enough to fit in anywhere. The way the wordless voice in the recesses of your cranium whispers a ceaseless incantation, reminding you of what you wanted and that you don’t have it. It is here, where the dates on the calendar whir by indistinctly, that you start a letter to a love you wish you had and pile the pages up day by day, getting more desperate to say everything as more days pass by. Somewhere between the latest covid spike and lethal winter storm that the need for shelter and the need for a sense of home lock horns and cannot untangle themselves, until the two tramp around pissed off in the woods, unable to separate themselves, or eat, or sleep.
There is nothing photogenic to offer from these days spent working hard on the interior, and so the stoic mind contemplates selling off the camera gear. There is no badge of honor or dusty jacket that looks good in photographs that comes from working with a therapist and reading books that pile on difficult truths, no alluring mystery or story that sounds good over strong drinks in the din of a faraway bar. There is just hard, invisible work. Time to wrestle with the compounding decisions that lead oneself to this moment. The scar on your arm no longer feels like a fresh reminder of that particular bike wreck or the time you sliced yourself open trying to reattach your exhaust hangers at an auto parts store in Fairbanks. It is just tissue, and the more you look at it, the less it feels like a part of you.
With these slow days come the sleepless nights, when the inability to sleep pushes oneself to the brink of madness. When memories of her laugh drift into your brain and stay there, and the line between a sweet dream and a nightmare becomes so blurry that it is hard to say which is which. When you think about the way it felt when he was your best friend and the memory is as good as the searing loss is bad. You are not in Alaska, you are in bed. You are not lassoing cattle or wrenching on vintage motorcycles, you are answering emails and organizing spreadsheets. Feeling the soul split between the ideal and the substantial. Wanting to be known for more than your ability to put on a certain costume and play a part, wishing your master plan made more sense, wondering as the clock strikes three if your faith will be rewarded or if perhaps you should finally give in to the fleeting desires of your failing flesh.
If you are still reading this, if it makes sense to you at all, then you are the type of thoughtful empath who wrestles with the gnawing search for meaning. You refuse to trade your soul for all the profits in the world, and even small bargains do a great deal of damage to the soft belly of your life. We are like the armadillo, tough on top yet cuddly and fragile as a puppy dog underneath. Our armor is perfectly-formed for the natural world and yet works very poorly against the careening automobile and the cracking rifle. It guards us against attack but does little to enrich our days. And ultimately, we can survive a lot by curling up into a ball, but we won’t thrive until we don’t have to shield ourselves anymore.
There are a few things that could only be taught by the unique combination of swimming in the Arctic Ocean and sleeping in my parent’s new house as my thirties mock me and the world moves by like a punch-drunk jackal in quicksand. Truths that only wrestling with an over-evolved brain and the acutely primordial whims of a modern human could unearth. We are all searching for enlightenment and yearning for mindless self indulgence. We yo-yo between the two chaotically, envying those who skate through life blissfully ignorant and vowing that we wouldn’t trade our awareness for anything. We want life to look like the centerfold of some grand adventure magazine, and yet we are most worn out when we lie in our own beds at night, alone, weary, tired of not being able to put words to our deepest traumas and most vulnerable needs.
We compare ourselves to everyone, we destroy ourselves and our relationships by noticing all the made-up wolves circling in the shadows, by pulling our own insecure splinters out and then throwing them at the objects of our security. Blaming them for our wounds, unconsciously vowing that if we are going to bleed then everyone else is, too. And yet, we mock the first person who is brave enough to point this out. We torture the cyclebreakers and the whistleblowers, because they bring the ugly truth out of the darkness and into the light and force us to look at it.
I love the terse conversations laden with subtext that I pick up on in dive bars and cafes across the world, and I will always gravitate towards talking about the Truth using true stories, snippets of life that remind us of something universal. But sometimes the world shuts down and there are no cantankerous concert neighbors or wise-crackin’ wrenches at greasy old garages. Sometimes posting a three-line feel-good anecdote on Instagram avoids the truth far more than it tells it.
These times, the only place you have to go is within. The only people you can eavesdrop live within your own mind, and people will tell you that hearing voices makes you crazy. They say this because they had to tune theirs out years ago, had to solemnly swear they wouldn’t think of their true love or yearn for a career as a teacher, wouldn’t acknowledge the festering traumas and lingering disappointments. They lock their inner child in a soundproof cage and trudge onward, equal parts bravely and clumsily. The world does not want you to talk about the voices inside of you, because this threatens the status quo.