As a child one of my favourite films was Hayao Miyazaki’s animated epic “Spirited Away”. It follows the journey of a young girl, Chihiro; a whiny crybaby, moping over the prospect of moving to a new town and leaving her old life behind. On the way to their new home, she and her parents stop at what appears to be an abandoned theme park, but as night falls, she finds herself trapped and alone in a strange and fantastical world of spirits and monsters. She has no choice but to take a job at a bathhouse for the spirits in order to save herself and her parents from an eternity of indentured servitude under a money-hungry witch. Chihiro starts off terrified, weak and reluctant, struggling to perform even the most basic of tasks without bursting into tears, but over the course of the film, she is forced to find her strength and the resolve to face any situation thrown at her if she is to survive. And she grows tremendously. By the film’s end, she has saved the bathhouse and won back her freedom. She and her parents are released back into the human world, where it appears that years have passed since they entered the park. And then comes the film’s most important piece of dialogue. As the family climb back into their car, her mother asks her if she’s sure that she’ll be alright, and able to cope with the move. Looking back through the window at the abandoned park, Chihiro responds simply, “I think I can handle it.”
For the better part of my life I have been an intensely meticulous individual. Analytical and deliberate over even the most minor of choices. To be described as “impulsive” was, to me, the vilest of insults. Which is why I was so contented with my infallible plan, once I had figured it out. After leaving high school, I would apply to a top university programme. There, I would blossom into a passionate intellectual, the likes of which is only encountered a handful of times in a lifetime. I would spend some of my free time doing extensive reading in the library, while using the remainder to attend picnics, and shows and lectures in central London. When not making my presence known in this roiling cultural mecca, I would rub elbows over hobnobs with my professors, as they told me about their most recent research projects. In three years, I would graduate with honours, before moving on to pursue my next endeavour in art, or research, or whatever calling had been revealed to me by some inevitable divine intervention. This was the design that I had so carefully fabricated for myself, and I was dead set on achieving it.
The only problem, the single fly in the ointment, if you will, was that none of this actually happened. Presumably, my delusions of grandeur got the best of me. By the winter of the first term, I was living like a hermit. But that was alright, I thought. Because, according to my research, a number of great thinkers tended to have bouts of reclusion, even depression. As long as I was following the pattern of those that came before me, everything would be just fine.
By the spring, everything I had so meticulously planned out had crumbled around me. I was left sitting in the ruins of my aspirations, looking around as though in a daze. For the first time in my life, I realized that I was completely and utterly lost. For someone like me, so reliant upon order and plan and analysis, this is a terrifying premise.
And then, one day, I woke up to the most awful, wonderful epiphany. All of my planning-- my insistence on placing my feet precisely into each step of a fabricated path towards a faraway, predetermined goal-- my rigorous forethought, my analysis and laying of foundations for a specific future I had in mind for myself...had failed. I had so carefully planned my life for almost all of my life, and it had only served to make me unhappy. And all at once I realized that I had made one fatal mistake.
I had forgotten to take into account the fact that our lives are merely blank books, the pages of which we write as we live them, not the other way around. There is no prescribed manual, no chart of predetermined steps to follow to achieve the life that one dreams of. We simply spin wildly until we find ourselves aiming vaguely in the direction that we see most fit.
But what to do when you have lost the only path you have known?
I, personally, decided to pursue spontaneity. I thought, if everything that I had done up until that point had only made me miserable, then logically, the best thing to do next would be to do the exact opposite of what I had been doing for so many years. So uncomfortable and giddy with anxiety, I took on a policy of being spontaneous above all else, and wound up with a ticket for a trans-European voyage, departing in three days, and found myself, ten days later, in a restaurant in Venice with twenty strange Australians, and a wolf hat on my head.
Since then, I’ve mellowed significantly. I still own, and proudly don the wolf hat, but I have been less drastic in my measures of pursuing spontaneous activity. Nonetheless, I have been making a concentrated effort to try new things, and go new places, and throw myself into adventure. Not simply because it is fun, but because it is uncomfortable. Comfort is something universally loved, craved even. But I cannot afford myself the luxury of being comfortable for very long. Comfort turns quietly into familiarity, then complacency, and eventually, stagnation. It is too easy to slip into this easy, welcoming pattern, and be drawn into a sessile existence. And that is something that I absolutely do not want to do. Jumping into adventure is very much akin to jumping into the deepest point in a river. There is no time to get one’s bearings, or plan one’s approach to the rocks and bends ahead; it is very much a matter of sinking or swimming.
So, in the hallowed name of spontaneity, I have taken the proverbial plunge, and in two days’ time, I will be in Paris, living with people I do not know, and attempting to get by in a language that I had once sworn off of like a bad habit. Travel and I are not strangers by any means, but spending a semester living in a foreign country with a foreign language and foreign customs is wholly different to popping one’s head in for a few pictures and a macaron.
I expect to be completely thrown off my balance. And I anticipate this shock with open arms. I think that before I can begin re-paving the path that I travel down, I must first intentionally lose myself, in order to be able to find out which way is up.
Being me, I couldn’t resist the compulsion to devise a list of places to go and things to do while in Paris. Old habits die hard and then return as creeping revenants, I suppose. The list contains a few staples of the standard Parisian adventure.
“Cruise the Seine”
“Make pilgrimage to Oscar Wilde’s grave.”
“Visit Disneyland Paris”
The next few items are scored out in purple pen, and in their stead, two words have been scrawled in bold.
Sometimes, one must first become completely disoriented before finding a direction to move in.