Photo: Natalia Bostan/Shutterstock

How to Escape Yourself

by Aaron Hamburger May 29, 2013

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.

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