Instagram has always existed as a form of wishful thinking but never so much as now, as we sit in our living rooms scrolling through places that we would rather be. My feed is full of wistfully-captioned snapshots of soft white beaches melting into wavy cerulean seas, hidden waterfalls in velvety green jungles tumbling into mist, sandy honey-colored deserts under pale blue skies on 35mm film, and fields dotted with colorful wildflower blooms; invitations to step into a dream world of the past, vibrant postcards from a former reality that feels almost imaginary. I’ve found myself revisiting my old travel blogs and photo albums and feeling consumed by an overwhelming wanderlust.
It mostly began a couple of weeks ago, when I saw this delightful gif of an elephant using a stick to clean in between its toes. I’m always amazed by the oddly humanlike quality of their movements, but I probably watched this gif five or six times on a loop before I realized why I felt such an affection for it: the sheet metal roof in the background, nestled in a lush layer of palm trees and greenery. Normally it would be unremarkable, but in that moment I instantly recognized it as Southeast Asia, a place I hadn’t visited since I returned from my short time living there, where those rooftops and colors are characteristic of the rural landscapes.
Ever since, I’ve tried to articulate exactly why the world feels so surreal; why it feels absurd to continue living life as normal, and what exactly it is that we’re craving when we post pictures of places we cannot go in person. The desire to be anywhere but home is natural now that we no longer have a choice, but I think it’s more than that. It’s a longing for the people we are on vacation. These vacation selves are inherently us, but they are the part we keep tucked away, hidden from real life like a precious pearl cradled delicately in an oyster, to be discovered only conditionally.
This version of us is what we allow ourselves to be when free from the conventions of everyday life, emerging in a rare, sterling set of conditions when the stars have aligned, or more accurately you have given yourself to the will of the universe-more adventurous, more uninhibited, more easygoing. It is what happens when you have the luxury of absolutely nothing demanded or expected of you, when you subsist on whims and what-if s.
The vacation self is a peek into a parallel universe, an alternate reality, a way of exploring potential identities without fully committing to them, trying them on the way you try on clothes. It is the seductive promise of life without its messiness, that glorious clear-headed split-second you jump off of a cliff with and see only the endless sky. It is the reason you keep that sparkly gold eyeliner you once purchased for a disco party, or refuse to delete someone you met by chance from your Facebook friends list-to have just in case, reminders of another life unburdened by responsibility or consequences.
As vacation people we are uncharacteristically satisfied by the smallest joys, a tropical drink offered from a frosty glass or a moment of quiet solitude listening to the world unfold around you, unaware of your existence within it. Truly simple pleasures, but their real appeal is possibility; they feel like being offered the world, an enticingly carefree lifestyle you feel you could easily slip into forever.
This is, of course, impossible. The impermanence of vacations is part of their charm; it’s why they are extraordinary and why we always remember them in soft-focus glimmers that occupy nostalgia-induced daydreams. It’s a delicate and elaborate trick, to make you believe that you are here, deliberately claiming a space in the world, when in fact these alluring moments of manufactured happiness are carefully designed to feel this way, appropriately blank for you to lose yourself in but just habitable enough to make it feel uniquely yours. It’s these moments that in our darker hours we return to, in an effort to recapture who we once were at a specific time and place; they remind us of who we want to be even after the golden glow has faded and the sand is dusted away, the romantic idealized self existing only in the state of being on vacation. Vacation selves are the best expression of our desire for escapism in the face of helplessness, a secret place of solace that we can retreat into like a protective shell.
But in a strange, paradoxical twist, the vacation self is not so much a fantasy but a self-fulfilling prophecy; it eventually becomes us, shapes our worldview and understanding of our real self, and guides our actions forward. It is a forever north star, a self with which we are perpetually seeking reconciliation.
Right now the passage of time feels very arbitrary-life feels neatly divided into a blissfully unaware Before Quarantine and hope for an After Quarantine, but in the present we are suspended in the surreal uncertainty of Nothingness, a hauntingly ethereal fever dream that feels both traumatic and oddly peaceful. We are boats with no direction adrift in a calm sea, but with the ominous presence of a storm stirring on the horizon. We have no choice but to bake cookies while the world slowly burns around us. The sudden lack of structure is jarring, but what was most disorienting was the absence of a definitive event or moment of catastrophe-instead, we woke up one morning in a world in which everything was entirely different, with no blueprint and no parachute. When we predicted the apocalypse, we did not expect that it would be quiet, the gradual fading of a recognizable reality and the struggle to adjust to a world that mostly the same but feels much more grim. We are on indefinite hiatus from real life; a long, uncertain stretch of airport time, in which there are no rules and you can inhale both a personal pizza and a martini at 10 am and then nap at two in the afternoon and no one thinks anything of it, because everyone just assumes you’re going through something. Except that now we’re all going through the same thing, together.
Life in a pandemic has imprisoned us in a kind of moral panopticon, holding a mirror to humanity’s worst impulses but also humbly presenting all of its tenderness and kindness. The influx of compassion is well-intentioned, a defiant act of unity, but the real test will be seeing if this compassion extends beyond this non-vacation. Solidarity and solitude magnify our collective pain, framing it as a pivotal moment in history, but we are still too close to it to fully understand the greater picture still forming.
It’s not always realistic to do what makes you happiest; in fact, it is a privilege most of us aspire to. And now in the time of coronavirus, we understand the necessity of putting the well-being of the community before our own personal happiness. Now, we can be grateful that so many of us work stressful but ultimately cushy jobs in a knowledge economy, taking meetings in pajamas from the comfort of our homes while emergency workers arm themselves with layers of protective equipment and spend 15 hours every day in a war zone, battling an enemy we still don’t know much about.
And yet, selfishly, I still miss traveling too. I miss being filled with wonder by the pure, unspoiled beauty of nature, the feeling of being very tiny and insignificant in a vast and unknown world that beckons every day just by existing. I miss the thrill of saying yes instead of no and not knowing where it will take me. I miss the indulgence of reading slowly on a sun-drenched balcony overlooking the ocean, savoring the words like hard candy on my tongue, free of the creeping anxiety that colors all of my thoughts lately. I miss the mild hangover upon returning home, the good kind of hangover, when your skin is still baked with salt and your face still brown from the sun, and you’re riding a lingering high of experiencing something new and lovely and strange, reveling in the rosy afterglow you’ve kept in your pocket as you take your first steps back into regular life. We feel a sense of grief that we don’t quite know how to process, for these vacation selves and a reality that no longer is, a beautiful life that only belonged to us for a moment, a ghost ship sailing on.
I’ve kept a quarantine journal of my daily thoughts since early last month, and what is most noticeable is that while nothing really changes in my life day-to-day, how quickly the mood of the entries has darkened over time. The existential dread is settling in, and I am afraid that the worst is still yet to come. I’m torn between the compulsion to self-optimize in every waking moment and the understanding that this is the new normal and not a temporary social experiment, that it is important to take care in whatever way is necessary. I’m still learning to accept that someday we will be left with a pandemic self, one that remembers and is defined by the Nothingness, and someday it will become a part of us, too.
Originally published at https://www.jayemsey.com on April 7, 2020.