Dear Textual Healing,
I've been living overseas on and off for the last 15 years and now I am planning – and looking forward to – returning to the UK permanently. Odd as it sounds, it was never my intention to leave, but something keeps pulling me away for more ‘adventures’. My problem is that I know I am going to come back to a life with no partner, no house, no job... unlike everyone I know at home (I keep leaving these by the wayside) and then it will all seem insurmountable and I will be tempted to leave again.
Do you have any advice on how to stay put, how to commit? I feel sure I want to have a family, children, a base, even just a pet, but some instinct that life is elsewhere keeps making me jump on the next plane, even though quotidian life overseas is far more tiring and lonely than just staying put! Any advice on resolving this paradox and finding contentment in something more stable would be greatly appreciated!
Thank you and best wishes,
Ah, the carefree life of a wanderer! Most of us will find ourselves bitten by the travel bug at some point and summer is, after all, the season for it. Literature does plenty to encourage us, too, celebrating the wanderer via figures from Odysseus to Stephen Dedalus, the hero of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. As James Joyce writes of his restless protagonist, “There was a lust of wandering in his feet that burned to set out for the ends of the earth. On! On! his heart seemed to cry”.
Wanderlust is a hard habit to kick and, unchecked, can come to govern lives for the worse. In order to put down roots and nurture relationships, a person needs to stay put. It doesn’t take a shipwreck to make the inveterate wanderer feel as if they’re marooned on an island every bit as remote as Robinson Crusoe’s.
It sounds like you’ve already discovered this. You say that you’re eternally drawn to adventure but are you sure that’s still the case? I suspect that at this point in your life, it’s more that you’re being pushed back into it again and again by the problems you go on to list so candidly. The trouble is, those problems will become only more acute the longer they go untended.
As you point out, day-to-day life requires far more energy when it’s lived overseas, leaving you with little time to address life’s bigger, more nebulous questions – questions such as ‘where am I actually going?’ It’s one of the unspoken draws of travel, and Caleb Crain does a great job of conveying as much in his debut novel, Necessary Errors. Its protagonist, a young Bostonian named Jacob Putnam, has come to Prague in late 1990. It’s less than a year since the Velvet Revolution, and the city is fast becoming foreign even unto itself. Jacob, an archetypal innocent abroad, nurses literary ambitions but can’t seem to knuckle down to writing anything. As he observes, summing up the true appeal of life abroad, “Being here is what you’re doing, when you’re here”. It lets you off the hook, becoming a key part of your identity that’s difficult to relinquish.
The trouble is that in the meantime, Jacob’s friends back in the United States are advancing their careers and committing to relationships, and so, like you, he faces the problem of how to return home once he’s had his fill of Czech lager and adventure. The longer he leaves it, the farther behind he feels he’s fallen and the harder it all seems. Ostensibly a travel novel, this is ultimately a book about finding your way home again.
It doesn’t help that when we talk about getting on with the next chapter of our lives, we use the word ‘settle’, a word that positively shrieks compromise. But isn’t the ultimate compromise missing out on those things that you say you’re sure you want: a family, a home, even just a pet?
An ‘improvised life’
As a cautionary tale to help soothe those itchy feet and inspire commitment, turn to Flaubert’s satirical love story, Sentimental Education. It centres on one Frederic Moreau, following him from youth to old age. Ironically, it’s when he returns home from his law studies in Paris that he first spots the alluring and wholly unavailable Madame Arnoux. Like a true commitment-phobe, Frederic pins all his romantic hopes on her – after all, there’s no danger he’ll ever woo her away from her husband and so, as infatuations go, she’s safe. Despite a flurry of flirtations, Frederic is too hung up on Mme Arnoux to commit to anyone with whom he might have a viable future; for all its high-society diversions, his life becomes a stalled, half-lived thing.
To prove that your instinct to bolt really can be overcome, I’m going to prescribe you Andrew McCarthy’s memoir The Longest Way Home: One Man’s Quest for the Courage to Settle Down. McCarthy is an actor (St Elmo’s Fire was an early hit for him) and travel writer with one foot permanently out the door. How does a traveller settle down, he wonders? And how does a free spirit merge into a family without risking total loss of self? To answer these questions and more, he embarks upon a soul-baring journey into his own psyche that proves far more adventurous than the trips to Mount Kilimanjaro and boat rides into the Amazon that he takes along the way.
Of course, McCarthy begins his book with a fiancé who’s stuck by him for four years, despite his inability to fully commit to her. You, on the other hand, are returning to a clean slate. Daunting though that may seem, it’s also exciting. Unfortunately, there’s no travel guide you can take with you but The Group, a 1960s classic by another McCarthy, this one Mary, is a delicious compendium of possible lives. The group in question consists of eight young women, all intent on making their way in New York. They include an aspiring publisher, a hopeful social worker, and an heiress who commutes to agricultural college in her own two-seater plane. The paths they chose are different as they are, and their outcomes can’t be predicted. The novel’s period backdrop lends it an escapist vibe but its emotional truths remain punchy as ever.
Lastly, though it seems you’ve done plenty of thinking about what it is that you crave, it would be remiss of your bibliotherapist not to wonder whether, on some deep-down level, you perhaps don’t want a life like those of your settled friends after all. Perhaps you’d like a base and a family, just not on such conventional terms? No matter how commonplace divorce becomes, marriage is still held to be the ideal domestic arrangement, a gate through which we’re all supposed to pass in order to become fully adult. As Kate Bolick confides in her book Spinster, “Those of us who’ve bypassed the exits for marriage and children tend to motor through our thirties like unlicensed drivers, unauthorised grownups”. Part memoir, part group biography (its subjects include Edith Wharton and Edna St Vincent Millay), and part history of the singleton, it’s a book that celebrates those who’ve dodged “the marriage plot” and found their own way to happiness. But while the author is bent on embracing an “improvised” life, she’s also a bit of a homebody. Even if you weren’t already yearning for that place to call home, her description of a tiny light-filled studio apartment – her first without a roommate – would find its way into your dreams.
In the end, no matter what you pull from the shelf, the act of immersing yourself in a good book is in itself a sound cure for wanderlust and a promoter of commitment. After all, literature can take you places that no amount of air miles will enable you to reach, and who among us hasn’t wanted to give up on a book, only to stick with it and wind up someplace wonderful and utterly unexpected?
The places you’ve been and the stories you’ve gathered over the past 15 years are an irrevocable part of you, but your life’s biggest adventure is sure to begin when you come home and commit to moving on by staying put.
Send an email to email@example.com describing a problem in your life that you need some help with. Hephzibah Anderson will prescribe the books that offer the best advice for your situation. Submissions should be 200 words or fewer and may be edited prior to publication.
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