I was the first person in my family to get a passport. A kind of declaration of independence. Confirmation – in case anyone needed it – that my life would be different than theirs. That I would be Different from them.
Mom, Dad, I’m going to see the world. Wait, no, more than that! I’m going to know that world. And let it know me too.
First stop, France, on a summer exchange program. France! (You can almost hear the teenage squeal) Liberte! Fraternite! France occupies a special place in our global imagination, doesn’t it? Synonymous with fine foods, rich culture. Amour! A land synonymous with pleasure.
Pleasure? What did a 15-year old “good girl” know about pleasure? What right did a 15-year old good girl have to take decisions driven by pleasure?
Pleasure didn’t feature prominently in my Midwestern vocabulary – except, maybe, maybe, as it related to the purchase of a new pair of shoes (the ones that everyone else had) or jeans (the ones with the correct name or animal on the back pocket). Ours was a world of muted expectations, of reasoned ambitions framed mostly by respectability and financial success.
We conformed. So spectacularly that successful conforming was viewed as a kind of achievement.
My only glimpse of pleasure was on the soap operas I’d watch after school with my mother and two older sisters. Days of our Lives. General Hospital. Bo and Hope. Scorpio and Anna. At the end of that hour I’d lay on my bed daydreaming about “making love” to a violin-led soundtrack.
Did I now possess a passport to pleasure?
Yes, actually, I did. And by that I don’t mean the most obvious pleasures of sipping table wine, taking puffs of a Gauloises Blonde and kissing floppy haired boys (though there was plenty of that). I mean the kind of contentment that only comes when you feel alive with possibility.
I’d never known possibility before – everything in my life had been scripted and telegraphed in the most unspoken and yet unsubtle of ways. It was perfectly obvious to everyone in my suburb what was “done” and what wasn’t, what was right and wrong, acceptable and not. To challenge those assumptions was a sort of social suicide.
But now… now, as I felt the grass of the Jardin du Luxembourg on the back of my neck (Dear Mom, people here seem to seem to spend HOURS laying around in parks!) my life possessed an all-together foreign type of possibility – the kind I’d only ever seen at 2pm on ABC.
So I might not just get a decent job, meet a stable man, have 2 kids and settle into a suburban house with too many rooms? No!
So I might explore, indulge, experiment, and inhabit spaces and places that people back home would deem dangerous at best and at worst, “weird”. Yes!
I heard “yes” echoing through my head. Yes, yes, yes! Had I ever before said yes like that?
For the first time in my life, I felt free. For the first time in my life, I felt like me.
Whoever “me” was. She/me had never been deliberately defined before, she/me was entirely derivative, the most untroubling extrapolation of a sort of suburban everybody/nobody. She/me just made as little noise as possible, spoke up as little as possible, defied as little expectation as she could.
I made myself so little. It was as if the entire objective of my life had been to take up as little space as possible.
Until I told my family I wanted to go to France. Then there was space in my life, so much space. As if I could travel forever and never fall from the edges of what had been my flat earth. My world had all sorts of juicy contours and delightfully dangerous edges.
Eventually my passport filled with so many stamps I needed a new one. With every year the destinations grew weirder, more dangerous.
Looking back it’s easy to see that trip to France in the summer of 1985 as typical teenage experimentation on a somewhat grander scale. And, of course, it was.
But I can’t help but think it was also something more. A beginning. The first time I heard my voice say Yes! Yes please! An ending. No! No more, not for me.
I can’t help but think it was a tiny taste of courage: the willingness to begin and end things, to deviate from whatever script you think was written for you. To write your own script.
I’ll get another French stamp in my passport this June. And I cannot wait to find out what I say yes to.
Courage Camp 2108 – https://couragecamp.net/europe-2018/