Being known by others is an external exercise. We exist in alterity; meaning, I am ‘other’ than you, and I am known by what I say and do in relationship to you.
On the contrary, knowing oneself is an internal exercise. Only we know what we are thinking or feeling, and to some degree why we think and feel that way. With enough self-reflection, we uncover what has influenced, shaped, and inspired us, which systems of belief and social constructs have guided our choices, and who (or what) we have loved so much that we are forever altered by the weight and velocity of that love.
And, yet, like a river in flux, we can never fully deconstruct ourselves. Every time we experience something new, it affects our experience with our own past. Like a hall of mirrors, fractals of our identities extend infinitely in either direction, as if to say, 1) the “I” that you think you know is an illusion, and 2) catch ‘me’ if you can!
It’s no wonder we often look outside ourselves to be defined. We look towards our spouses, our children, our parents, our siblings, our friends, our co-workers, and our church/activity groups because we take comfort in believing that we can be definitively known by the roles we play on these stages of life. Likewise, we look towards our geography and our possessions to anchor our identities to a specific place in time.
Two years ago, when Tree and I gave up our Venice apartment and hit the road, I took off many of the identity hats I used to wear. I lost my job; I left Los Angeles, my hometown; I left my friends and my family, and I got rid of most of my belongings, save for a small storage unit of stuff and a bunch of books I stashed under Cyndi’s house. Since then we’ve been in a perpetual state of motion. We’ve been through twelve countries, crossed a continent, and covered thousands of miles. Untethered….
I have been feeling a little disconnected and dizzy, a vertigo of the soul.
During our recent visit to Los Angeles, I emptied my small storage unit and whittled my personal possessions down to six boxes filled with journals, photos, a few mementos, and essays I wrote at UCLA. I sent these six boxes to Outdoorplay and discarded everything else. That part was surprisingly easy.
Getting rid of my books, on the other hand, nearly killed me. When I first cracked open the boxes of books that I had left under Cyndi’s house, it was as if hundreds of friends jumped out and yelled “Welcome Home!” Out came Milan Kundera, Charles Bukowski, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Don DeLillo, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Salvador Plascencia, Tom Robbins, Friedrich Nietzsche, Philip K. Dick, Thomas Pynchon, Georges Bataille, Virginia Woolf, Edward Albee, Albert Camus, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, William Shakespeare, Plato, Sophocles, Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter, Tennessee Williams, E.E. Cummings, T.S. Eliot, Walt Whitman, William Butler Yeats, Emily Dickinson, Jorge Luis Borges, Kurt Vonnegut, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, David Foster Wallace, Mark Danielewski, Soren Kierkegaard, not to mention the literary collections and the short stories and the compilations of essays–the list goes on and on.
These were my most influential friends and ardent lovers. After taking one look at them, I found me again. I flipped through their pages and scanned the lines that I had highlighted and underlined years ago. I paused over coffee cup rings, dog-eared and tear-stained pages. I was reminded of all the internal debates and late night contemplations over the words I read, I studied, I imprinted in my heart and have carried with me all these years. My books were a touchstone, a reminder, a secret code or clue to who I am, and why I love me. They were a private love affair, a tryst I had with myself.
But now they are gone.
My friend, Madena, came over to help me do what I couldn’t have done on my own (Thank you, Madena!), namely to give my lifetime collection of books, nearly two hundred of them, to the Goodwill. Box by box, we packed them up and dropped them off. Even though my heart broke every step of the way, I decided that it was better to put my beloved books back into circulation than to hoard them under a house for god knows how many more years. I still don’t know if I made the right decision.
Tree and I have met many overlanders in the past year, and without fail, most of them seem to accelerate their pace rapidly as they approach their finish line. I think they feel the soul vertigo too, and with home and stability in sight, they make a mad dash for it. Tree and I don’t have that luxury, and quite frankly, I’m happy that we don’t. Instead, we need to recalibrate to find balance in the midst of all this motion. We need to find stillness within.
With no perceivable end to this race, we’re opting to slow down instead of speed up. Currently, we are in Montanita, a small surf town in the south of Ecuador. I have been constructing a routine for myself of running, writing and yoga before I head out to do the daily shopping and cook dinner. Tree has been surfing every morning and then working hard on Outdoorplay.
My books may be gone, but I can read by touch the words imprinted on my heart. So now, untethered, I’m reaching down into my muddled depths to pull out my own art. -STEVIE