July 1, 2015 It’s been a year in Germany, folks. Wahnsinn. Insane. I have had a thoughtful few days. Last night was a full moon, and I didn’t sleep.
What is this whole business of traveling and of living abroad, in the end? What on earth am I doing? Perhaps things are as T.S. Eliot says:
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
We turn abroad to come home, to gain a deeper understanding of what it means to stay and to know and to love a single place. Or perhaps, conversely, Tennyson was right:
I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’
Gleams that untravell’d world whose margin fades
For ever and forever when I move.
To him, traveling is end-less, a process of insatiability, the great awakener of greed and curiosity and wanderlust. There is no such thing as home. We turn outwards to keep turning outwards.
Even after a year, I don’t know who is right.
And why Emily Abroad? Why take the pictures and tell the story? Here, I have more of a definite answer.
Firstly, I write because I don’t want to forget. The opportunity to travel and see the world is an absolute privilege, one I want to pursue with intention and with eyes wide open. Posting a thousand pictures to Facebook isn’t enough: I want to think in some tangible way, I want to ask questions and make connections on paper between land, people, and literature. I want, as I wrote nearly two years ago in my DAAD application, to ground my love of art in reality.
This all has practical grounds, too, of course. The great dream is to become a professor of German literature, and I want my teaching to be based in reality. This is the time for me to gather and record experiences, to build bridges that, one day, could be important for my students.
After all, if not now, when?
But there is another personal reason for Emily Abroad, perhaps for me the most vital. I have had problems for years with chronic pain, and writing, simply put, offers me the chance to tell my story without that pain. The chance to heal myself. When I write, “I hiked up to the castle on the mountain and it was glorious,” it was glorious, and the fact that I took breaks every 15 minutes to rest and force back tears of frustration is no longer important. Because I so don’t want to remember the pain.
Writing, then, is first and foremost catharsis.
Many people–and above all Germans, for whom the private sphere has an almost religious importance–have asked whether I truly feel comfortable living my life and travels in such a public way. But everything I write, as should be clear from the previous paragraph, is Selbstinszenierung–self-staging, self-production, self-creation. I write about real life, but the reality I present is told, is storied.
In this view of things, I take my cue from pop divinities like Lady Gaga, for whom the public life is purely art, and from certain French theorists (Foucault, Barthes) who preached the disappearance, the death, of the author through the very process of putting words on a page. In telling my own story I make the leap from reality to art and in so doing destroy my own presence in the work.
So, in the end, the Emily in the blog isn’t me–or maybe she is, actually, since storied reality is all we have. All history is only tale-telling, after all (Geschichte).
At any rate, it is the tension between poetry and truth (Dichtung und Wahrheit!) that creates great art. Not that I am creating great art, of course, or any sort of art at all. I’m just a girl from Vermont who likes to take pictures of things and then write about them. And that’s exciting enough.
So there it is. One year down, one to go. As I said, Wahnsinn.
And finally, an enormous thank you to everyone who has reached out to me–emotionally, intellectually, spiritually, professionally, financially–in the last year. A German author who spent time in the USA with the DAAD spoke in Mainz today about the isolation of living abroad, the loneliness and the feeling of being shut off from all practical support. I can honestly say that, while a certain amount of purifying isolation most likely always accompanies travel, the drastic alone-ness he spoke of has not been my experience. Far from it.
To name just a few people who have been there in some vital way: my family and grandparents, the Professor and the rest of the Hillsdale faculty, Dian, Aunt Sylvia, Ralf and Jutta, everyone from the farm in Kulmbach, the Komparatistinnen, Kodiak, Mikal, Valerie, Max, Annika and family, Madlon and Ulrich, Professors Lamping and Eckel from Uni Mainz, usw usw.