Adventure is out there
'You can’t be on guard and let go. Playfulness comes with a certain element of letting go.'
When I was 22 years old, I got my first, real professional job, working on a newspaper in tiny Thomson, Ga., a town that back then was home to just a few thousand people.
I knew almost nothing about anything — I’d never taken a journalism class or even aspired to be a reporter — but I had good timing. The guy who’d been doing the job before me had just been let go, as he had a habit of showing up to work inebriated. So, not a very high bar to clear.
Because there were only a couple of reporters at the paper, I ended up covering just about everything that happened in the town, from local government “scandals” to light feature stories (and even car accidents, which I’ll never do again — I’ll never forget how it felt when I saw a police officer open the door of a crushed-up car and I got a look at the lifeless body inside).
Even with that, it’s one of the best jobs I’ve ever had. The salty “older” ad saleswomen (who were probably younger then than I am now) would smoke in the newsroom while we wrote and laid out the paper, and I knew everyone who lived there — they’d stop me on the street and ask me about articles I’d written. It felt like the work we did mattered.
Something I’ve never forgotten, though, is what the paper’s editor said to me my first week on the job. She asked me to submit my bio and a photo, which she planned to run in the next week’s issue. When she got a look at it, and saw how short it was, she looked up at me and said, “well, I hope you don’t die soon, because there’s not much here.”
It stung because it was true. I hadn’t done much with my (still young!) life yet. The honest truth was, I didn’t know what to do with it, or even how to figure out what to do with it. I had only a vague sense that something better had to lie just around the bend, you know?
Where I’m from — Augusta, Ga., today a medium-sized city that was (or felt like it was) a lot smaller when I was growing up — people didn’t dream big. Or, perhaps more accurately, they didn’t dream differently. (That’s not a criticism, necessarily; just an observation. I love seeing many of them now when I go home to visit.)
What that leaves you with, however, is little sense of possibility. Your expectation for your life is that it won’t be much different than your parents’, and that your children’s lives won’t be much different than yours.
But when I moved to Atlanta in the mid-1990s, I met people who completely changed my world. The act of just being around them opened up my sense of possibility about life — from running marathons to going skydiving to traveling to Africa, South America, Europe and the Middle East.
I share this with you not to be all “yay, me!” but to say, this is what I think I’m missing the most right now, after all we’ve been through this past year. The sense of possibility about life. The idea that we can grow and expand into places we can’t even imagine right now.
Fast forward to several years ago, when my parents came to visit me here in Atlanta and we had lunch with a friend they had known for years. All were in their early seventies then, a few years into a retirement it was clear they were enjoying, with calendars filled with trips to see family as well as places they’d always dreamed of going but never had the time to before.
Their friend — a man named Smith Foster, which I always loved because he had two last names — had just returned from a trip to Antarctica. He took his daughter with him, because his wife refused to go. (“Why,” she asked him, “would I want to go all the way down to the bottom of the world?”)
Her caution was warranted. The trip Smith told me about wasn’t his first attempt; a year before, he had traveled all the way to Chile, where he boarded a cruise that was to sail through the Drake Passage on the way to Antarctica.
Notice I use the phrase “was to sail through” — it’s not at all uncommon for turbulent seas to make the passage too dangerous to navigate, and that’s what happened on Smith’s trip. After days and days of travel (and seasickness), he was able to see the Antarctic coastline from his ship, but not able to actually step onto it.
And he wouldn’t be able to, not for another year. (“I had to go back and try again,” he told me. “It would have been a waste to get so close and never go back.”) So he did, convincing his daughter to with him a second time.
When I think about that story — and all the money, effort and time he put into an adventure he didn’t have to undertake, a totally unnecessary adventure that could have ended in disaster — I think about how difficult it is to imagine taking a trip like that right now.
Like you, probably, we’ve been in survival mode for much of the past year. Just getting through it has felt like success. And that is an understandable, rational approach to the year we’ve just had.
But I don’t want to stay in survival mode. I keep thinking of something my friend Polina Marinova Pompliano wrote about last year for her excellent newsletter, in a profile of the couples therapist Esther Perel.
In it, she noted Perel’s maxim that “eroticism is the antidote to death” — meaning not just our sexuality, but our sense of vibrancy, of being alive, of being playful in (and with) life. Perel’s husband, who also is a psychologist, helped her figure out how people cultivate this quality in this NPR interview:
“I was talking with my husband, Jack Saul, about his work with torture survivors and asking him, ‘What’s the process, and how do you know when a person comes back? What kind of coming back does a person do after they have been in solitary confinement for years, or away, dislocated, et cetera?’
And we began discussing it. There’s something about when you can once again take risks, because it means that I’m not completely trapped in a state of vigilance; when you can once again play, or experience pleasure or joy, because it means you are not completely wrapped in the sense of dread. You can’t be on guard and let go. And playfulness comes with a certain element of letting go.”
She realized that this described people she knew in her own family who had survived the concentration camps during the Holocaust:
“There were the people who did not die, and there were the people who came back to life. And I think that that applies to all trauma; I really don’t think there’s an exclusive monopoly on that for my community. But that’s where I learned it. And the people who came back to life really, in some sense, had less survivor guilt, sometimes, or had suffered differently or were able to reconnect with a certain fervor that basically said, ‘I’m not here for nothing. I’m gonna make the best of it.’ And they understood the erotic as an antidote to death: ‘How do you keep yourself alive in the face of adversity?’”
That’s the question that’s in front of us all right now, isn’t it? To be honest, I’m not 100% there. But I want to be — and that counts for something.
Wherever you are in the world, I hope you had (or are about to have) a great run out there — and thank you for reading. I’d love to hear your thoughts too, in reply back or in the comments 😃