What am I doing? I ask myself again as I click “Submit” to order my train ticket. I have spent the morning gulping coffee and vacillating between dread at reading my orientation week schedule and a dim sort of elation at buying my train ticket, and round again. It’s a week until I leave the country for a year—I’m going to get a Masters in England. No better place to study English! I say, and it gets a laugh all too often. My chest flutters when my ticket appears in my email. It’s taking care of these small details, crossing to-dos off the Post-It notes stuck around the house, which makes me feel strangely powerless.
I’m whining, again. Mine are the kind of problems people get moony-eyed about and, plus, I’ve done this before. Only, when I spent a semester abroad two years ago, my life was very different. I was single, I was restless, I wanted out of my routine. Now I’ve got a lovely, supportive girlfriend, a stronger attachment to my friends and my city, and a post-college mental exhaustion that fogs my restlessness. On a continuous loop in my head, Dylan crows, “Ah but I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.” I’ve reached the first point in my life when stability apart from family looms, and I’m flying away.
It’s stability that seems natural, probably a necessary progression from the phase of our lives dominated by education. Into the void left by schooling comes something, anything that fills it and gives a measure of comfort: another degree, a job, a relationship, a child, a place, a passion. We crave stability, and in the last year I’ve barely gone a day without discovering, in conversation or on the social networking site of my choice, that someone I know has found his. It’s what “settling down” means, I suppose—no matter how bad the job, relationship, or apartment, it is a way to define yourself.
In braver moments, I tell myself I’m going because I have the rest of my life to be stable, to be comfortable. And so I will spend a year defining myself by what I’m not, which is what going abroad is all about. I’m not from here, I’m not with the people I love; getting away is wonderful, but these things nag persistently. When I went abroad before, I was told to expect a parabolic curve of emotions over time, from the “honeymoon phase” to the doldrums of “I hate it here” back up to the satisfaction of bi-cultural awareness. What I wasn’t told is that the emotional experience is, like light, both a continuous wave and a series of discrete intervals. The overarching trajectory was surprisingly accurate, and yet throughout I was jarred by two contradictory sensations: a low-level self-loathing at having exiled myself, and the understanding that I will miss this experience when it is over.
This understanding has persisted, and it manifests itself in the occasional pain in my chest when I come across something mundane as a London Underground map, or when I hear the names on the BBC Shipping Forecast: Lundy, Fastnet, Irish Sea. It’s that ache—more than the lure of travel or a degree—that has driven me to go back. While packing, I dug out my notebook from the last time. On the night before I came home I wrote, “There have been moments since I’ve been abroad when I’ve been remarkably awake, a conduit, vibrating.” It might be like what Robert Frost wrote about in “To Earthward”:
When stiff and sore and scarred
I take away my hand
From leaning on it hard
In grass and sand,
The hurt is not enough:
I long for weight and strength
To feel the earth as rough
To all my length.
This is what I want, in spite of everything and everyone I leave behind. And so I head off to find instability—to be in it, and nothing else, awake.