Sometimes I can feel my bones straining under the weight of all the lives I’m not living.
—Jonathan Safran Foer, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
I fell in love with Swansea on a Sunday afternoon at the end of November. Perfect lemon-light lit up the treetops, and leaves chased each other down gentle slopes like children playing tag. The day waned, and pumpkin glows showered clumps of trees, and Double Bubble bubble gum streaked sunset across the bay as four o’clock rolled around. Pink clouds mingled with a blue sky like the two colours of cotton candy on a stick at a country fair. The sky is alive in Swansea: ever changing and always falling—raindrops, hail chunks, autumn leaves, shadows of snowflakes. There was a stillness, and yet it was a stillness spiced with activity: a peace that was punctuated by people pursuing pastimes, undeterred by “to do” lists and must-get-dones—present in the present. There was a pace about the day that made me nostalgic for a time that only exists to me in theory, a when that I yearn for and crave but only ever catch in glimpses—that Welsh pace that is part of the reason I’m here, that I’ve so admired every time I’ve visited in the past. I’d been playing hide and seek with it, and that day I caught it. It lingers, and it lets me linger. It loiters, and brings loiterers together into a community.
Last year I was living in the Middle East in a world without real seasons. It rained one evening, and I stood huddled on my balcony with a blanket wrapped around my shoulders. I was one of a community gathered to revel in the moment of exception, the day set apart from the string of sunny imitations of each other, the abnormality, the miracle that water can fall from the sky. It was a phenomenon so uncommon that it warranted stopping whatever else may have been at hand, and yet it’s an everyday occurrence in this new place that I’m currently calling home. Sunshine in Swansea makes me feel the same way now, although I don’t think it’s quite as rare as rain in Kuwait was. It makes me want to run outside and soak it in, to be drenched in the dryness and luminous light.
As I walk through the luscious green park and along the sandy seaside, I think of just how wonderful it is to get to live in such a place. I’ve fallen for it, and the thought of having to leave it, even though it’s still months away, is starting to make me sad. My mind is starting to concoct ideas about how I could stay. It’s similar to when I realized that I didn’t want to leave Korea at the moment when we started doing a Bible study on the book of Acts, and I realized that I wasn’t going to be there when they finished it. I signed a second contract and stayed because I wasn’t ready to say to goodbye yet, wasn’t ready to leave yet, didn’t want to start all over again somewhere else yet. And I feel the same way about Swansea. I still have almost half of my time here left, but I’m starting to feel this sort of impending doom, knowing that I do have to start thinking about what’s next, start shopping with the knowledge that I have to find a way to take everything home or throw it away, start buying baking supplies with an end date in sight. I love my flat. I love the beach, the park, the green. I don’t want to go. I don’t want to pack. I don’t want to start over again. I don’t want to have to view my evolving friendships with people here knowing that they have an expiration date. I want to be able to invest in them, believing that they could turn into something real, something sincere and genuine. I want to be able to plan and dream with people, without the shadow of temporality hanging over my head.
I have a problem. People have accused me of it for years, but I never really believed them. I believed that I could stop. I believed that I could stay. I believed that one day I’d learn how to not go everywhere. But there are these posters hanging in the halls of the buildings on campus at my university with “Kilimanjaro 2015” in huge letters at the top, and they’re killing me. I sat down in the library to get some work done awhile back, and stumbled across a book that had been mentioned in one of my classes. Geoff Dyer became my hero. He wrote a book that is structured like the one I want to write, that theoretically I could write (albeit not as well), and as I sat in a chair looking out the window over Swansea Bay, I daydreamed about exploring Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, and who I’d go with, how I’d pay for it, what my future could look like…
I do not need to go everywhere. I repeatedly tell myself this. But opportunities just call to me. They call, and I find a way to say yes. Yes, please. Please don’t leave me behind, stranded in monotony.
But in a paradoxical peculiarity, I crave monotony, repetition, tradition, constancy, continuity, consistency, a view of the future in which I envision repeating things I’ve done before, celebrating holidays with friends I already know, creating something of substance and lasting value.
And yet I can’t stay.
I have to go.
The road calls to me.
The world calls to me.
Novelty and newness call to me, and I yearn to experience what I don’t yet know about. The unknown must be knowable. I adore bookshops and libraries, largely because they represent this unfathomable wealth of available knowledge, and yet there is always a slight pang marring the otherwise utopian joy that they bring me because I don’t have time to read all the books, to learn everything.
It is an innate insatiable appetite, and even if I end up actually settling down and staying somewhere eventually, it will likely be with some difficulty, require severe perseverance, diligent self-control, and probably some sort of external insistence that I say no to whatever option or opportunities seemingly fall into my lap, or are there to be discovered.
I need to know. I am unquenchably curious. I need to follow every trail, to go down every path. I want to be rich, to be poor, to be married, to be single, to be a parent, to be a kid, to be a foreigner, to be a local.
Intellectually I know that I can only be one person, only live one life, and that as much as I subconsciously try to cram the lives of twenty-three people into my one lifetime, that, in and of itself, dictates the life I end up living, the person I am becoming, my reactions to the people and places around me, and the reactions of others to me.
I’m so sick of moving. I’m so sick of having to think in terms of how I can transport items, of where I currently live and whether or not buying large items at this point in my life is really a good idea or a worthwhile investment. I’m sick of having to make new friends over and over and over and over again, and then to have to say goodbye before I’m ready to. It takes months to really get comfortable in a place, and just when it happens, it seems to be time to move on again. I’m tired of it. I want a home. I want to be able to invest in relationships that have an indefinite future.
But at the same time, I have an addiction to leaving. “Summer in Peru, teaching English?” It was the upward inflection of his voice at the end of the sentence that got me: the questioning tone urging me to answer it in the affirmative. Of course I want to teach English in Peru this summer. I also want to climb Mount Kilimanjaro. I want to go on the trip to Hungary with my church. I want to go exploring all around Wales and the UK. But I can’t do it all. I still need to be in Swansea. I have a dissertation to write. And I want to write it, and I want to be in Swansea.
What else is there to say? I want to be an expat who lives all over the world. I want to have a place that feels like home above anywhere else in the world. I want to belong somewhere. No, the problem is that I want to belong everywhere. I want move and I want to stay. I want to keep meeting new people, but I want relationships that last. I want to get married, and I want my freedom. I want to have kids, and I want my freedom. I want to be able to pick up and go off on any adventure that comes my way, and I want to be stationary enough that I can justify buying glass food containers and a decent set of pots and pans. The thing is, I want it all. And I think I spent the past decade trying to prove that I could have it all. But here’s the unsettling and unfortunate truth: going means not staying, and staying means not going.
I love the sea more than almost anything in the world. And yet, standing there on the shore creates in me a mingling sensation of satisfaction and sorrow. I stand in awe of its unfathomable vastness, its unassuming potency, its imperceptible limits, and marvel at its beauty. But there is a melancholy in me about being confined to the seaside, an insatiate yearning to be immersed in the sea itself, to belong to it, to be a part of it. It’s a paradoxical presentiment, an oxymoron: beautiful in its own way, and yet full of unmet desires in the midst of profound appreciation.