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Photo: erin m

Maybe I’m a weird travel writing teacher, because I’m always assigning my students texts that are not traditionally thought of as travel literature. They’re about people who travel, and the way their journeys affect their lives. But they rarely contain lists of sights seen, hotels or restaurants visited, safe returns home with bulging suitcases of souvenirs.

One example is Joan Didion’s landmark essay “Goodbye to All That,” featuring a young woman who travels from her home in California to make a new home in New York. She fails and decides to return to the land of her birth.

My students invariably fall in love with the piece, in particular its wise, cynical, even plaintive voice. “But,” someone always protests, “it’s not travel writing.”

I guess that certain forms of travel are travel and other trips are just, well, movement? I’m not sure. But to me, “Goodbye to All That” clearly fits within the genre’s boundaries, charting the ups and downs of a young person’s arrival in the big city, the sort of migration that’s become quite common in the age of Sex and the City and now Girls.

What exactly was Didion saying goodbye to?

Yet there is another issue — among many — that has long puzzled me about this gorgeously written yet tremendously flawed essay, which I reread recently now that I have moved away from New York City.

What exactly was Didion saying goodbye to?

The main thrust of “Goodbye” is that Joan Didion came to New York from California with dreams of becoming a cultural big shot. (I made a similar move, from Detroit, Michigan, some 16 years ago.) Instead she realizes the inherent emptiness in the glamour of a certain style of urban living, the phoniness of the material world and the primacy of the spirit. And so she’s going back home. Goodbye to New York and all that.

In fact, Didion’s actual life journey takes just the opposite track. She left what she saw as the shallow social scene of New York for…that paragon of philosophical and intellectual depth known as Hollywood? And as she became a well-known writer, she increasingly hobnobbed with fancy famous people whom she name-drops frequently in her later works, like her celebrated memoir The Year of Magical Thinking.

Being rich and successful in itself is not a crime, but Didion’s failure to acknowledge her privileged lifestyle does make me wonder what the Joan Didion of “Goodbye” would make of the Joan Didion who eventually returned to New York and currently occupies an apartment on the tony Upper East Side.

These issues are particularly on my mind as I adjust to my new home — I cringe as I type this word — Washington, DC. After 16 years in New York City, I’ve moved here with my husband, who has a new job.

In the weeks before our departure, I tried to think of the things I disliked about New York: snobby doormen, pushy commuters on the subway, the ridiculous rents. But now, next to the insularity and conservatism of comparatively small-town Washington, Gotham glows in memory like a Shangri-La.

Here, shorn of everything that’s familiar, I find there’s nowhere to hide from myself.

During our first month in town, I struggled to keep up my happy face, assiduously studying city maps, exploring different neighborhoods, signing up for volunteer gigs, mailing out cover letters for new jobs. And then one night, at the end of a silent restaurant dinner, I blurted out, “I hate it here!” and burst into tears.

Eventually, what I’ve come to realize, both about my DC feelings and Joan Didion’s essay, is that the here I meant when I said, “I hate it here!” was not the physical place where I was standing, but the emotional place I’ve been inhabiting in my mind. That, I believe, is also the “all that” to which Didion was saying goodbye in her essay. Not New York but her innocence, her flimsy youthful fantasies of what she’d thought it meant to be an adult.

The DC I hate is not my new zip code but a new set of fantasies I’ve recently adopted, the ones that too many of us adopt as we approach middle-age: feeling that you’ve failed to accomplish much of note in your life (as if living itself were not of note), or that you’re hopelessly lost (as if there’s anywhere to be found), or that you’re out of date (as if the trappings of modern life, whether we’re talking about the television sets of the 1950s or Twitter of the 2000s, have ever had any inherent value).

DC did not create these anxieties, but my comfortable New York routine allowed me to mask them. Here, shorn of everything that’s familiar, I find there’s nowhere to hide from myself.

And so I’m publishing these feelings of failure, loss, depression, and confusion in this essay, in the hope that by sharing them, I am also letting them go.

WritingTravel Illusion

 

About The Author

Aaron Hamburger

Aaron Hamburger was awarded the Rome Prize by the American Academy of Arts and Letters for his short story collection THE VIEW FROM STALIN'S HEAD (Random House), also nominated for a Violet Quill Award. His next book, a novel titled FAITH FOR BEGINNERS (Random House), was nominated for a Lambda Literary Award. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Poets and Writers, Tin House, Details, Michigan Quarterly Review, Boulevard, and the Village Voice. He has received fellowships from the Edward F. Albee Foundation and the Civitella Ranieri Foundation in Umbria, Italy, as well as residencies from Yaddo and Djerassi. He has also taught writing at Columbia University, NYU, and the Stonecoast MFA Program.

  • Scott Hartman

    Nicely done. If we believe (and to a large extent, I do) that we see in other people what we (often) can’t/don’t/won’t see in ourselves, then it can be true for Place, too.

  • Scott Hartman

    Nicely done. If we believe (and to a large extent, I do) that we see in other people what we (often) can’t/don’t/won’t see in ourselves, then it can be true for Place, too.

  • Jashana C. Copeman

    Very cool essay. I love this insight. It’s like we put adulthood and adventure on this fantastical pedestal, and it’s difficult to admit when it doesn’t always measure up to our ridiculous expectations.

  • Emily Dietrich

    1. Not accomplishing something of note, 2. being lost, 3. being out of date. This is a list of things that need not worry you.If all you ever did was write this lovely essay, and then one other person having a milestone birthday read it, it would be enough. (See Emily Dickinson “If I Can Stop”) P.S. Have you read the “About the Author” paragraph above?

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    • Aaron Hamburger

      Thanks, Emily. Once a teacher, always a teacher. I appreciate your wisdom!

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      I get paid over $87 per hour working from home with 2 kids at home. I never thought I’d be able to do it but my best friend earns over 10k a month doing this and she convinced me to try. The potential with this is endless. Heres what I’ve been doing,.. http://www.Sea12.cℴm

  • Aaron Hamburger

    Thanks, everyone!

    • Carol Weis

      Love this piece, Aaron. As Jon Kabat-Zinn said, Wherever you go, there you are. And let’s face it, growing is all about letting go.

  • Brian Stein

    Aaron. I have never read the Didion essay, but yours, for all its honesty and nakedness, is gorgeous. Impressive and moving….no pun intended.

  • Eva Mossberg

    Brilliant! I end up “there” every time I return from a trip… that feeling of “what am I doing here?”

  • Randon Noble

    A lovely piece! It makes me nostalgic for New York (also my former city), and more at-peace with DC (also my current city), and itching to reread “Goodbye to All That.” Thanks!

  • Lidia Pires

    “And so I’m publishing these feelings of failure, loss, depression, and confusion in this essay, in the hope that by sharing them, I am also letting them go.”
    In expressing how we feel (by first acknowledging them, of course) we are in the very first steps forward to letting go.
    Loved the way you write.

  • Rhi Kirkland

    D.C. is actually a fantastic city. Explore and you will find that you can have lots of fun there.

  • Caren Worel

    Moving from state to state with the Forest Service forced me to recreate myself a few times. Now that we are retired I want to move on…maybe to Ann Arbor. For once I may have a choice in moving. Your article did speak to me. Good job cuz.

    • Lynn Rosen Caradonna

      I was worried about you–finally fb your dtr.

  • Sheila Boneham

    Great piece, Aaron. My husband and I have changed cities/states 3 times in the past 4 years (yes, on purpose), and you’re right about the painfulness of stripping away the familiar to reveal our insecurities, fears, doubts, whatevers. The flip side, though, is that facing up to our “stuff” makes it possible to move to new places internally, too, and as writers we have those extra-special magical tools to help on the journey. Good luck! (I loved living in DC, for what that’s worth!)

  • Sheila Boneham

    Great piece, Aaron. My husband and I have changed cities/states 3 times in the past 4 years (yes, on purpose), and you’re right about the painfulness of stripping away the familiar to reveal our insecurities, fears, doubts, whatevers. The flip side, though, is that facing up to our “stuff” makes it possible to move to new places internally, too, and as writers we have those extra-special magical tools to help on the journey. Good luck! (I loved living in DC, for what that’s worth!)

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