In search of utopia

I always choose comfort first—in attire, in stance, and even in the company I keep. And when it comes to my everyday life, I don’t have many surprises. My day begins the same way every day and ends in the same way. Throughout each day, I focus on things that matter most to me—tasks I enjoy, tasks I’d be willing to repeat.

As a result, I’ve grown comfortable with a certain lifestyle. It’s my zone, my happy place, and I don’t appreciate disturbances in that.

As attractive as it sounds, there’s also the risk of becoming too comfortable. I realised this while replying on a Twitter chat. Sometimes we get so accustomed to what makes us happy, like certain choices and routines that we’d rather not break out of. Most often than not, that’s because we prefer to be happy with whatever we like instead of putting ourselves out there and exploring new opportunities.

That’s how we let great opportunities slip through our fingers. Even if we realise that a new choice or a new job offers more potential for growth, we still choose to stay where we are… because that’s the easier option. And the longer we train our minds to satisfy itself with whatever—little or much—it possesses, the harder it becomes for us to venture into newer experiences. As the combination of fear and laziness builds up, inertia creeps up on us even before we know it.

As our fear to try out new things increases, we begin to focus more on the task at hand rather than the purpose of it. We care more about completing the routine than about the satisfaction it brings us. We start to define our self-worth based on the destination rather than the journey. That’s when routines become lethal. When our journey lacks passion, our life lacks soul, too. We become afraid of unfamiliarity, associating it with discomfort. We hesitate to make decisions, and douse in doubt even when we do. And with doubt tags along the inability to forgive ourselves for our mistakes and accept embarrassment.

And all of a sudden, what once was comfortable would’ve reduced us to nothing but scrawny scared cats. Staying in the comfort zone is as handling a two-sided sword. We just have to find the right balance.

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Self, thy name’s Esther

The first time I read a few lines attributed to her, I fell in love with Sylvia Plath. Thanks to the collection board that’s Pinterest, I discovered plenty of gut-wrenching, heart-clenching verses that Plath had written. Hooked, I went on a rampage of Sylvia stalking. Before I knew it, she’d become one of my favourite writers. I’d read about her curious suicide, and I’d watched Gwyneth Paltrow’s portrayal of her life. Her story strengthened my affection for her and somewhere between feeling respect and pity towards her, I found myself doting after her as well.

Wonderful though it all was, I’d become addicted to Plath despite reading none of her works in complete. That’s how I came upon The Bell Jar—guilt-ridden and hungry to prove to myself that I know the author I adored.

Before flipping through its pages, I didn’t know what to expect from The Bell Jar. Wanting to figure it out for myself, I read none of the reviews and asked no one I know what they thought of the story. As I began reading, I grew fascinated by the protagonist of the story, Esther Greenwood. The reason, I later realised, is that she’s in no way special. Unlike many other protagonists with their exceptional talents shining through print, Esther was simple in all sense.

The book opens with her in the middle of a writer’s scholarship—something I could appreciate as an aspirer myself. Little by little, as the story progressed, I found parts of myself relating to Esther. She reminded me of my deeper self—the unassuming, uninterested self that often prefers solitude, dabbling in self-doubt and incessant imposter syndrome.

It was later that, as the narrative turned to Esther’s psychological issues, I understood that Esther isn’t just me, but she’s every other person, too. Not only was her behaviour characteristic of me, but she was also an embodiment of the natural evolution of the teenage mind.

It’s not easy growing up, and it’s even more difficult when you’re alone and lacking guidance. That’s most of us. That’s Esther.

That’s why it became tough to separate myself from the character. I became so involved in her life that I wanted to see how each day of her life unfolded. As she cringed, so did I. As she ran away from accepting herself, as did I. I followed her every move, her every decision and instinct as if it would all affect my life in a way.

It was as if were in a vortex where Esther—who struggled to find her own way—would guide mine.

By the time I finished the book, I could do nothing but stare at the wall. I felt intense pleasure within me, a silent jubilation. Esther was recovering. She had hope in her life. Although the book didn’t affirm she found her utopia, it hinted toward it. And having gone through her life with her, relating her every moment with mine, I felt as if my own life would be fine after all. It was as if I’d ridden a roller coaster—dizzy and unsure of what I’d face next, weak in the knees with butterflies in my chest—but had come to a secure halt with my entire being intact.

I couldn’t talk about the experience for days after I’d read the book. I didn’t know how I felt, and finding the right words seemed herculean. But as time went by, my feelings also evolved. From seeing myself in Esther, without a conscious effort, I began relating everything I knew of the author’s personal characteristics with that of Esther Greenwood. Then it hit me that the author herself battled with depression and psychological issues. I began to revere Esther as much as I did Sylvia. And my respect for the writer increased when I understood that she had manifested herself in Esther, giving readers a hint of what she herself was going through during her lifetime.

What a wonderful way to express oneself. Also, a little sad.

Index of the mind

Static expression

of ecstatic wonderment

carved on a statue

 

Triggered

Bess stared at a tattered postcard. The sun was setting behind the Empire State Building, once-brilliant brightness browned with years of neglect.

Walking away from the boxes she’d been unpacking, she sat down. She’d bought postcards in all 56 countries she’d visited, stocking boxes upon boxes with frozen memories of a lifetime of adventure.

She was no longer the same. She’d neither left the house nor invited anyone since her husband died. For fifteen years, she lived alone, minding her self, motiveless as if in a trance.

Until the postcards evoked her younger self.

Picking up her laptop, she searched: Seoul.

A first-time solo traveller

Aloneness has always been my happy place. Although most people would assume I suffer from social anxiety, it’s in fact a bad case of intense affection to solitude. I find that it helps me focus on my thoughts and prioritise myself. The society I grew up in, however is overprotective to the point of patronising. My parents make constant effort to prevent me from being too alone.

My father, in particular, agonises that I’d end up forever alone. It’s this deep-seethed fear that makes him flare up with emotion every time I hint at going out alone. And to avoid causing more pain than he already feels, I often choose to obey rather than counter argue. It’s easier for the both of us when I avoid confrontation. Besides, at 60+, it’s almost impossible to introduce change in his attitude. There’s just too much inertia there.

It thrilled me when my boss announced I’d be travelling to the US with a colleague for a work event. Here was my chance to venture on my own, a chance I wouldn’t forgo. I decided to extend my trip by five days and inaugurate my solo travel experience.

Hello, SFO
Hello, SFO!

Soon, with lots of help from my North American colleagues, I’d made travel and accommodation arrangements in Portland and in Seattle. I’d spoken to strangers, made flight reservations for myself, and even mapped out my itinerary. I felt proud. I realised I’d organised my life without being my parents’ puppet. By the time I left home and embarked the flight, I had everything for the following month planned out, ready for life to play it out.

Finishing up the work event, my colleague returned home as I prepared to run solo. As I walked out from my employer’s sponsorship and embraced my own, I felt my entire weight on my shoulders. To my sheer surprise, though, it neither scared me nor dragged me down. It, instead, made me feel complete and independent.

For the first time, I realised, I—who’s never felt autonomy in personal life—could manage being a part of the world on my own. Growing more and more fond of that comforting thought, I took off on my journey.

I couldn’t have planned and scheduled any of it without my friends and friends of theirs I acquainted with during the process. But I no longer expected my father to do the talking on my behalf. I didn’t need him to set up my life for me. And that, I think, is the most pivotal part of every first time solo traveller’s life—finding their own path, and accepting its consequences.