Music has always been very important to me. Many times when I look back at a time or a memory, a song will sneak in before an image. I thought it would be interesting to look back at people and moments by tapping into this quirk. The first in my series “With Music” was about Ben Folds and a girl with elf ears (here), this time I take on a song by Sheryl Crow.
This is about the time I almost disappeared
The first thing you have to understand about me is I have a knack for romanticizing things. Moments are never just moments for me, I see the potential for some kind of poetic license in everything. Maybe I read one too many romantic poets back when I was in college, but I would look for messages in nature and life. Messages just for me. Let me emphasis this point- not for you or the rest of humanity, just me. Yeah, it’s just a sunset, I get that, but could those colors be reaching for me, embracing me, telling me something for only my eyes?
I was sure I had it all in spades.
When I was in college I used to romanticize the idea of exploring Europe by myself, nothing but a backpack and my wits for comfort. Besides meeting with the travel agent to work out the flights and some tours along the way, what I would do while there was all on me. One of the few things I had certain about me and my trip was I would arrive in London on the first day and fly out of Paris on the last. Point A and Point B.
This is how I imagined this adventure going down-
- I would see plays.
- I would visit locations from the lives of favorite authors.
- I would make sophisticated friends, maybe even date a few incredibly well-read British supermodels (but probably find true love in Italy or Paris).
- And I would walk away with the idea for the next great American novel.
Yes, I would arrive in Europe just another slacker of my generation and return fantastically important. That was the plan and I was taking it to the bank (which is definitely true, since I was planning to max out my credit card and use up all of my savings during it).
After graduating with my Bachelor’s degree I worked for the summer and part of the fall, saving up as much as possible for the trip. On the last day, my boss asked me when she could expect my return and I told her exactly where she could stick that job. (No I really didn’t say that but you get the idea; again, I make things dramatic.) Yes, I quit, nothing to return to, nothing waiting for me.
Then there were a few quick hugs with the family at the airport and I was gone. Zoom!
When I first arrived in London, I was in a whirl, but not a good kind. I was alone, with no one to meet me. “This is Scott, this is where it begins.” Strangely, that didn’t sound as magical as I once imagined it would.
I had to get to the hotel I booked for the first few days with only some funds in my pocket and a scribbled pad of paper with directions and notes on the underground. “Mind the gap please,” the voice said over the speaker, and I had no idea what she meant by a gap. Did she mean that little space between the platform and the train? Was that seriously that big a deal?
Yet, with each step I took dragging my backpack behind me, I was feeling weaker and weaker. I was almost feeling sick. I remember stopping at one park bench, and sitting for an hour, not able to get a good breath in because the air just tasted too differently.
Honestly, I didn’t sleep well in the plane, so that wasn’t helping. Did I even eat? I couldn’t remember. I was there now, the dreams were over, and no one within thousands and thousands of miles knew my name. Saying you are going off to explore Europe alone sounds great but here I was doing it.
Alone was the key word from the start for me. I didn’t want to share this with anyone. I truly felt like something was waiting for me in Europe and it was there for only me. Another soul would have just clouded the dream.
When I finally made it to the small hotel I had arranged and found my way to the small room (Yes, I used the word “small” twice), I almost felt truly like vomiting. I didn’t, instead spending the next few hours lying on the bed, in the fetal position, listening to the foreign traffic and sounds outside the window.
I remember there was even embarrassingly a phone conversation at one point with my parents. A part of me trying to figure out how to get home.
I finally went out to get food, once I did that and began to wander around the city (seeing all of the touristy things the first day), the excitement of the adventure returned. And in time, my mind began to flip from the terror of being away from home over to the other side.
What if I never went back?
And it was so very tempting. This might be the strange point, especially after my homesick arrival; maybe some won’t understand, but they feel very connected to me. And disappearing was the easier option during this trip as compared to the work and reality I knew I would have returning home. On any day, at any hour, I could have just walked away. Become someone else, taken on a different life and adventure. It was so easy.
I’m not joking. This is how so many of the books I read began, right? That first step that leads to something new, a legendary experience. And the excitement of the idea would get my heart to racing.
For example, once I was used to London, the idea of living in a one-room apartment, maybe trying to work backstage at a theater. Or how about living in Stratford? I could spend my days around the same land of Shakespeare, seeing plays whenever I can, becoming friends with the actors. Then when I got to the Lake District, I dreamed of just finding a job someplace (I used to imagine an out-of-the-way bookstore as the best idea), spending my free afternoons writing poetry watching sunsets over that land. And on and on and on. Every location was followed by a thought of “Well, what if I did stay…”
And it’s not like I had to go full-on ghost mode, disappear! There were degrees I could use. I could even keep my citizenship and my name, stay in touch with family and friends (maybe go home on the holidays?). It was all so enticing. F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway became friends while living in Paris. Why couldn’t I have the same experience? Didn’t destiny call me too?
The fact is going back to Michigan meant a normal job and possibly a normal life. Staying in Europe, testing the unknown, meant nothing but the possibility for adventure. Which would you choose? And, more importantly, which would you choose to read about in a book?
There are two moments of realization that defined that trip for me looking back.
The first was that I was chasing ghosts.
See, I had three books about traveling in famous writers’ footsteps, but it didn’t change the fact that the writer is dead. What I was seeing was covered with dust and time. Fitzgerald and Hemingway were not waiting for me in Paris, nor Tolkien and Lewis in Cambridge, nor Dickens in his home. Basically it was all history, the past; the future was not going to be found there. And the future was wherever… well… wherever it was. The idea of location didn’t have as much artistic force as it once did.
The second was that the journey was sometimes just as important as the destination.
My favorite moments in my trip were not the easiest ones to find. For example, to get to the real 100 Acre Woods (Yes, I visited Winnie-the-Pooh’s homeland), I had to take a train and two buses, then walk over a series of fields sometimes covered with sheep (after collecting a map at a small general store). That was amazing. Almost as important as finding that bridge that inspired A.A. Milne.
I had the similar feeling traveling to visit Jane Austen’s home, going up to the Lake District, seeing plays in Stratford; or the many trains and buses I took around Europe. I remember those views racing past my window just as much as the feeling of arrival.
I wish I could put my finger on exactly what this point means in the end, but to me it is like the anticipation for Christmas Day. Yes, Christmas Day is wonderful and presents are great, but there is a certain mad glee in preparing and waiting. And really the fact is I could wait for my future anywhere.
“Home” is a song by Sheryl Crow about finding a home while on the road. It’s a traveling song, definitely catching the vibe of what life must have been like for her on the road during those touring years. Her experience through the song is very different from mine, no question, but the idea of finding home anywhere and the beauty of the melody hit me during that trip. I listened to it in my headphones while on buses, trains and the underground.
This is not a song that saved me during a day, or even captured that perfect sunset that was just for me; but it was along for every journey. This song played in my ears as I traveled those lands, walked or sat in the trains. This song was there for me during the quiet evenings when I had to decide who or what I was going to be. It played as I lay on the bed scribbling in a notepad, working on stories; it played as I lay in the darkness wondering where I was going to go next and what I was going to do. And where I wanted to be when I made that decision.
The thing is when I look back at my life, it is always easy to spy the big moments: meeting my wife, the birth of our children, those are the obvious placemarkers. They are what fill up the photo albums and are saved on the phone. Yet, sometimes the biggest moments in a person’s life can be the smallest, the most private and the most alone.
Yes, I needed to go away and be alone, but, in the end, I came home.
My latest novel Permanent Spring Showers was just published by 5 Prince Books. You can find out more about my novel as well as my other books (including A Jane Austen Daydream and My Problem With Doors) and grab a copy via my author page on Amazon.com here.
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