I’m straight-up excited. The moment has finally arrived for me to use a deliciously elegant little word that doesn’t often come up in conversation: leitmotif. Am I the only one? Do the rest of you use it all the time? Leitmotif. Doesn’t it make you feel as if you should have your feet up on the divan, wearing satin slippers, twirling cognac in a glass as you say it to your equally elegant and witty conversation partner?
But you’re probably more likely to use it while drinking box wine from a Dixie cup and watching The Bachelorette. I mean, what faithful watcher hasn’t, at some point, burst out with, “Enough with the ‘journey’ leitmotif!”
A leitmotif, according to the Oxford dictionary, is “a recurrent theme throughout a musical or literary composition, associated with a particular person, idea, or situation.” And good great grief almighty, but does “journey” ever get the recurrent treatment in The Bachelorette. I saw a social media rumor that if, during a confessional, a participant inadvertently uses “process” or “experience” or some other word to describe the meta-situation…they’ll cut and shoot it again. No, Rachel and her suitors are on a JOURNEY, dammit, to find love. Don’t forget it. The drama won’t work without the leitmotif.
But…let’s not kid ourselves. I don’t tune in to see a journey, which in real life, in real time, has value only to the person undertaking it, and is often lonely and long and offers elusive rewards that are purely personal. Nope. I’m here for a PARADE. I’m sitting on the sidewalk in my lawn chair and my popcorn looking for a SHOW. (Uninhabited granny-dancing not required, but it sure adds a lot.)
And the best show? A bunch of people who are confused about the line between a parade and a journey, who genuinely believe that they’re on some exalted pilgrimage in the noble pursuit of True Love…but who expect a pilgrimage to involve lots of photo ops and dresses with spangles and people falling in love with you, and that it should wrap up in a few weeks.
The Bachelorette isn’t compelling me this year. The parade has become self-conscious. Rachel is too smart for this. I can see her feeling the weight of her role as a black woman in a highly visible position, and she seems to see through the show’s central conceit. It doesn’t help that the show is airing at this moment against the tabloid-news backdrop of the Bachelor in Paradise scandal, in which producers went too far, casting people so cynical and so obsessed with their own parade value that they seem unaware of their humanity, and then finding the franchise stuck with a public relations disaster when those qualities didn’t mix well with unlimited alcohol. The parade is looking grubby and forced.
But I do believe in journeys. Real ones. Journeys that change the traveler. A journey involves a person starting in one place—physically, psychically, socially, emotionally, spiritually, mentally—and moving to another. The larger the move, the more painful and difficult the journey is. The stated purpose of the journey is usually external—to find love, to find God, to reach a goal, to perform an act of heroism—but the profoundest transformation is internal. God, it turns out, is not in the shrine, but in the self that took the time and the painful effort to strip away everything else until only God remained.
Today, we often think of these kinds of endeavors as naval-gazing, an indulgence of the privileged who can eat-love-pray around the world, thinking about nothing but themselves, and then finding some big freaking truth that, I’m sorry, the rest of us are too busy living a real life to have time for. Our grandparents didn’t do that. They were too busy chopping down trees and trying to scratch enough food out of the earth to carry them through the winter. Lazy, entitled modern brats thinking they have to find themselves. Mutter, mutter, grumble.
But I don’t think the comparison is fair. Our grandparents spent plenty of time finding themselves in the silence of pushing a plow, hour after hour. Or kneading bread. My great-grandparents homesteaded on the eastern Colorado prairie, trying to make a go of dry land farming. In their day, there was no TV, no radio, no phones. Only silence. There’s a single abandoned cabin still standing near their property. As I stood inside it, looking out the empty window at the empty prairie stretching as far as the eye can see, I wondered how many hours someone might have stood in that spot, hearing the wind, noticing a single bird flit by, making peace with shock, anger, disappointment, or grief. Or sitting and talking with neighbors to do the same thing.
Yes, society was certainly too constraining for them to even consider the idea of a “true self,” but their minds had time to think, and to heal. Today, we can’t wait behind one person in the checkout line without looking at our phones. If we tried, we’d be bombarded with magazine covers and candy wrappers and sale-sale-sale banners. Fresh communication is being pumped into our bronze-age brains at a rate they are not built to receive.
So we get confused about what a journey really is. The lure of advertising and pop culture has convinced us that journeys are quick and snappy, the direct path between what you want and having it. The path itself? A mere obstacle. Given that paradigm, it kinda makes sense that a person with perfect teeth and beautiful skin and a toned body who has failed to find a permanent romantic relationship would think that a journey involves stepping onto the most candlelit, rose-strewn path in sight.
So it also shouldn’t be surprising that you could hardly find a denser population of people who could really use a journey into themselves to sort out their crap than in a hot tub full of Bachelors or Bachelorettes. When the question you ask, in tears, on the way to exit limo, is “What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I find love?” it’s time to quit trying to find love. Shut down all those external voices telling you what you need or who you are or who you should be. Find yourself.
Much as I’d like to, I won’t be engaging in any traditional pilgrimages myself anytime soon. Or ever. My Saudi surgery resulted in a foot that seems to have about a single-day five-mile max, and I’m a little busy right now trying to pack up my house for a one-way journey to Houston (in a car, hoping my worldly goods meet me there intact). So if the Bachelorette journey leitmotif has you suspecting you need to get your head straight about what a real journey is, start with these armchair versions:
Traveling with Pomegranates, by Sue Monk Kidd and Ann Kidd Taylor. This is a twin memoir of transformation, set against a mother and daughter’s travels in Greece, Turkey, and France. Sue Monk Kidd is a woman in mid-life discovering a new, creative self as she puts her years of physical creation and life-giving behind her. The daughter, Ann Kidd Taylor, is trying to find her way into a real-world adulthood after the life she expected and dreamed of is denied.
Return to Glow, by Chandi Wyant. Chandi is one of my co-authors in Once Upon an Expat, and she chronicles an unusually self-aware journey. In the wake of illness, divorce, and financial and emotional collapse at mid-life, she sets out on a pilgrimage that she cannot afford financially or physically, across her soul-home of Tuscany, believing that the journey will help her recover the true self she’d lost.
Not Without My Father, by Andra Watkins. Andra is a fellow-author I met at a conference, funny and brave and gritty, who resolved to walk the Natchez Trace to promote the launch of her first novel. Hers is an accidental pilgrimage, a walk she embarked on for one reason and that became transformative for another.
Wild. I watched this in an aisle seat on Air France, they of the un-edited movies, which found me glancing around during some rather explicit scenes wondering whether some passing ten-year-old was getting an eyeful. But it also found me trying to hide my full-body messy cry from my seat-mates at the end. If you watch, do it at home where you can let it all go. Reese Witherspoon plays a broken woman walking the Pacific Crest Trail, working through grief and anger and self-blame.
The Way. This is one you probably missed, and shouldn’t. Martin Sheen learns the son from whom he has become estranged has died in France, at the beginning of the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostella in Spain. He goes to France to collect the remains, then on an impulse sets out on the path himself, carrying his son’s ashes, meeting a Canterbury-Tales-esque assortment of fellow travelers, all equally broken, all seeking, all changed in unexpected ways.
What do you think? What journeys have changed you? Surprised you? What journeys have you been on that you didn’t realize until you saw how far you’d gone? What are your own favorite journey stories or movies? Amuse me. I’ve got a lot of packing to do, and heaven forbid I should just go about it quietly.
4 thoughts on “Destination Unknown”
Great post Margo. I watched “The Arrival” last night and it was very thought provoking. If you could see into the future would you change anything? Made me think of my own life these past few years, and I wonder if I would want to change anything. In the end, I don’t know. I haven’t reached “The End” yet, so I’m not sure. I just know that I can take each day one at a time, and make the best of each one. That’s my leitmotif.
I LOVED Arrival! I just sat in the theater having feelings for well past the end of the credits. And thinking! I was so moved by the value placed on the present moment. Does knowing the outcome rob the present of its joy, or make experiencing it more intense? Knowing that all we have right now is right now, what do we do with it? Perfect! Yes, I want to see that one again.
Thanks so much for the shout out about my book! I too saw Wild on an airplane– I need to see it more “properly” on a larger screen. The Way was enjoyable — a nice change from typical Hollywood stuff. My sister had picked it up on video, I remember it was 2012 because it was before I moved to Qatar.
Loved all your varied thoughts in the post about what a journey is. I particularly liked your musings about the world of our grandparents. 🙂
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