That thing you’re looking for, is always at the bottom of the bag. Past the two week old ticket stubs, the tangled wires of rebellious earphones, the extra-extra wallet your mother made you carry, the chewing gum, the sunglasses case, the miniature toothbrush, the tiny umbrella for a rainy day, a greeting card, a first handshake, a hesitant job acceptance, a painful goodbye, the fear your parents are getting old, the anxiety of never knowing where your life is headed — that thing you’re looking for, is always at the bottom of this bag.
I’m not the best packer. I carry emergency energy bars for the potentiality of a zombie apocalypse, sunscreen and sweaters, two slippers just in case I trip on a flat surface, and betadine for the off chance I fall into a prickly bush and develop a rash on the surface of my palms. For someone that hates spending money, on well, anything, the notion of pharmacies and 24/7 grocery stores is a convenience my miser of a brain cannot comprehend. I mean unless you can find a restaurant willing to spare tap water, you’re definitely going thirsty.
And so I carry my backpack like a home on a snail’s back, keeping worst-case scenarios at bay by the force of sheer will and a paranoid mother who hides cough lozenges in my toiletries bag. What if you have a coughing fit while you bathe? What will you do then huh?
And despite being over-prepared for a privileged foray into the developed world, I’m often overcome with a paralyzing fear that I’ve forgotten something. On an accidental street corner, as you pass that famous synagogue you probably won’t remember, you can find me standing to the side with my bag spilled open — hairbrush and extra socks alike littered on the street, crumbled papers decorating the tiles, as I hurriedly scour the endless depths of my luggage in search of something. If you ask me what that is, the truth is, I probably wouldn’t be able to tell you.
I came to Krakow with a promise clutched in fists so tight, that it left a line of fingernail marks demarcating the boundaries of my resolve. See, I even overcommitted to the promise of undercommitting — stood in front of mirrors giving grand speeches about taking it easy, scheduling ‘time to do nothing’ in a packed itinerary. If you’ve ever had the misfortune of travelling with me, you know that I walk fast. That I scribble notes while people are talking. I check Twitter for the news. I constantly worry about only having two days in a city to do ‘everything it is humanly possible to do before you pass out from exhaustion’ in that given time-frame. I am afraid of never being able to recreate the memories we could have made — this is it, our moment in the sun.
I think more than anything, I needed time. I grew up believing that the human spirit was perfectly indomitable — that the integrity of my principles and my ability to prioritise what truly mattered would stand firm against the constantly changing landscape of my life’s circumstances. I was raised to be a strong, independent woman by a strong, independent mother, and to fathom that I needed help, or a ‘break,’ or seconds of self-care, was an indulgent luxury I couldn’t accept. We don’t tire in my house — we may fail, but we never quit. Nearly a year into a job that demands 14 hours of my day finally exposed the mortality of my skin — my bones and blood it turned out, were human after all: flawed, fragile, and disappointingly mundane. I couldn’t think anymore, and man believe me, I love to think. If there’s one thing I valued most about myself, it was my ability to read — books, people, situations, ideas, abstract human emotions, the meaning behind the diminishing enthusiasm in my dog’s bark, the significance of your silence, my mother’s wrinkles, my father’s laughter, the lingering warmth of your hand, or the coldness of your last text message — I used to be able to find purpose in understanding the world around me. And then one day, I found myself becoming part of a world’s machinery that had no time to understand me back.
I became what I always thought I wanted to be — successful, to a certain degree of course, with the necessary caveats of humility inserted to maintain likability in society. By the yardsticks I had set for myself (read being paid to write, not CEO of Google) I had made it hadn’t I? But when you think success has come to you almost accidentally and unfairly in a race that privileged you with a head-start, you become so beholden to a narrative of gratefulness that stopping to question what truly makes you happy seems selfish, narcissistic almost, a tad bit spoilt — you have what thousands of people would die for, and here you are complaining about your workload.
Is it okay to take time falling in love with what you do? We all walk into first jobs with pictures from career day at school in our minds, expecting to become the firefighter equivalents of whatever field we end up joining — I want to stand in front of my child’s classroom and tell them I exposed a human trafficking ring, a drug mafia, corruption in the highest ranks of the government, human rights violations in conflict zones, misappropriation of funds, harebrained schemes, I don’t know, even seminars on the education system? Something, something to hold on to while I fall asleep at night. I’ve struggled to accept the reality of long-term career trajectories: I’m impatient, I want to be the best, and I want to be it now — l am afraid of never being able to recreate the memories we could have made. This is it, our moment in the sun.
I stopped listening to stories of other people’s lives, almost as if what wasn’t flashing on the news was merely distracting static in the background. Nights spent drinking at breweries, long drives, birthdays, movies, concerts, meet the boyfriend dinners, poetry performances, fights with faraway friends, everything buzzed around me like the illusion of a life I was truly living — I did so well you know, pretending to pay attention, nodding at the right times, and smiling when something was funny. It was almost as if I was actually there — meaningfully present in my own life as it happened to me. But largely, I’m not sure where I was. I couldn’t feel anything anymore, and I think I just needed time.
On the fourth day, as the bus glided past woodlands on my way from Krakow to Vienna, I finally un-clutched my fists. Set free my promises, switched off the news, and turned up the volume. This wasn’t real life I know, but I also knew that the power to decide how much freedom I was willing to sacrifice for the success I always thought I wanted lay with me. Somewhere along the way, my backpack had gotten too heavy — my shoulders were hurting with the weight of carrying all these extra energy bars. I wasn’t prepared for a life that didn’t feel like it was mine anymore, but no matter how deep I searched in the pits of my luggage for a bandaid to fix the tiredness in my bones, I realised it was never there to begin with. All I had to do was take a small step outside the boundaries of my own expectations — release my fists, and watch the line of fingernail marks eventually fade with time.