Permission to live
When a trip freed me from dead-end routines
As I tensely sat at one full and newly-renovated gate of the Santiago Airport, ready to begin a month-long European vacation, guilt used the most space in my luggage.
I wasn’t throwing a Gatsby and running away from the consequences of my actions while leaving others to deal with the fallout of my lavish lifestyle. I was just asking my cousin Angela to feed my cat.
But most importantly, I was begging myself to feel worthy of such a break.
I had nothing to celebrate. Yet, there I was, switching the constant hum of my computer for the vibrant energy of London and my monotonous routine with the breathtaking splendor of new sights.
I was begging for a change in my daily life, and this vacation would help me catalyze the transition. It’s always easier to evolve in a foreign land. The word foreign screams transformation in itself.
So, as I sat on the plane, miles above the territory that housed my ordinary life, I wrote a note with my first task for the next couple of weeks: “Remember to prioritize my wishes.”
Permission to live: Granted
Kamil, my cousin and host for the week, is great at doing what he wants to do. If I had to describe him in one word, “certain” would be the one. He knows what he wants, what he is willing to deal with, and he may flinch when saying no, but he says it nonetheless.
You could use none of the above to describe me.
I’ve been ruled by shoulds, timelines, anxiety, and silly tasks to the point that everyone unrelated by blood enthusiastically emigrated from my lands.
Now I’ve taken the shape of an island with rough waters around itself. Nobody gets to shore.
Once in London, when my routine and Kamil’s already matched without deforming each other’s, I realized that the most challenging thing was not to fit activities and schedules but to be part of a group.
I felt alien while sitting with my cousin and his friends at a restaurant. I don’t meet people for dinner. In a way, that feast represented what my life could be if I dealt with it differently. Why had I deprived myself of such pleasant circumstances? A toast was given, laughs were exchanged, food was enjoyed, and I was the same but happier.
I pondered how Kamil has been living in London for only ten months and could write a book on his memories and adventures, while my ten-year life in Santiago has barely enough for a pamphlet.
I was living to check impactless tasks off my to-do list without making space or time for people. My routine was a dead-end. That realization was uncomfortable yet freeing.
My week in London was like a stone in my shoe, reminding me how the world around me has shrunk so much that I know the walls that make my apartment like the palm of my hand. Everything else is foreign territory.
My rigid mental state was blocking the gate leading to excitement and joy. So I adopted a new approach, one that looks for delight in mundane activities, one that considers options previously discarded without honest reflection but merely as a matter of procedure. I had the faculties to free that gate and enter a vast and varied place where I am open to new activities and routines.
I was content with being a mere witness of four people giving an emotional violin performance inside Covent Garden; I smiled as I watched a man walking down The Mall with a cat on his shoulder; I froze the scene of a woman setting herself apart from everyone else by contemplating Renoir’s The Skiff at The National Gallery without taking a photograph of it; I gave thanks as I witnessed a man singing while walking alone beside the Tower of London.
All while knowing that if someone looked at me, they could also say something beautiful.
Look at her; she’s getting a clearer picture. Look at her; she’s discarding her old ways. Look at her; she’s at her best.
Almost by osmosis, through being a mere witness, I changed. I was no longer an inhabitant of the walls that made up my apartment. I was part of something much bigger and in motion. I was part of the world.
I would go back home and be someone new.
Tossing the “shoulds” and keeping the wishes
Like someone who tends to their garden, I cultivated certainty and confidence: the certainty that I needed to make changes back home and the confidence to pursue those changes. I was turning off the engine of my automatic pilot way of living and starting with a renewed sense of purpose.
I had been waiting for permission to live, and while in London, the city granted that permission while scolding me: It’s ridiculous that you came this far to get it.
During my stay in the city of red double-deckers, I tackled everything on my wish list, from stepping inside The Globe to sitting at the top of Primrose Hill. And while focusing on pursuing my desires without the company of guilt, I learned that what I want is buried deep inside me, and I have to dig through all the “shoulds” and toss them aside to fulfill my wishes.
I slowly started un-shrinking my world. It felt like taking a ball of paper, stretching it, and smoothing it so its edges are even and accessible. Nowadays, it looks like walking instead of taking the subway, even if it takes me twice as long. It assumes the shape of accepting dinner invitations from family members or reaching for things that didn’t “fit” in my life and making time and space for them.
Holding onto change
I sit back at home writing this because I don’t want the person I became in England to stop being. I’m desperately clinging to her.
I was focused on that task when I read a piece in The New Yorker commenting on “the single most important fact about tourism.” It stated:
“We already know what we will be like when we return home. A vacation is not like immigrating to a foreign country, or matriculating at a university, or starting a new job, or falling in love. We embark on those pursuits with the trepidation of one who enters a tunnel, not knowing who she will be when she walks out. The traveler departs confident that she will come back with the same basic interests, political beliefs, and living arrangements. Travel is a boomerang. It drops you right where you started.”1
Yes, I have the same interests, political beliefs, and living arrangements, but my boomerang landed miles away. I face the familiar routines of everyday life with a new stance, reminding me that even in the comfort of home, there is change to be sought.