A Year Not in Pictures

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As travel returns, so does FOMO, and it’s not just for teenagers

Early in the pandemic, I remember hearing that the egalitarian nature of our isolation carried some blessings for teens and young adults. Namely, the dreaded FOMO anxiety was greatly reduced without social media posts chronicling peer socializing and exciting travel. Out of sheer boredom during pandemic lockdown, I started paying more attention to social media. It was a good way to connect with the collective home-based experience. Even if people were gathering or traveling, they had the sense and decency not to post about it. We were able to live our lives as if whatever we had going on, to take care of our daily business with our close friends and family, was enough. 

This spring, as everyone got back to their spring break travel and activities, and the stigma of posting about fun lifted, FOMO came flooding back in a way I’d never experienced pre-pandemic. For unforseen reasons I’ve been grounded, and now that I pay more attention to social media, I have a window into what it must feel like to be a normal teenager living a perfectly normal, uncurated life.

It’s hell.

I find myself feeling bitter about my circumstances, and jealous, and at times depressed. Petulant? Irritable? Self-centered? All that. Normal? Probably. Teenagerish? Totally! The hardest thing is that this state, like teenage angst, feels terminal.

Going it alone: the ultimate adventure

Recently, a friend sparked a conversation about how it’s now nearly impossible these days for kids to reinvent themselves, because the incessant feed of images supports who you are, and who you aren’t. It did take some deliberate effort, but you used to be able to walk away from your friends, your look, your labels and start an adventure into a new you, like an anonymous, uncharted, unrecorded trip to a faraway land. 

The discussion reminded me of a recent podcast with no-frills travel icon Rick Steves, where he shared his Utopian vision that every kid be granted a travel adventure after high school. Steves’ empire evolved from the thrill of his summer trip to Europe, on a shoestring. He talks about living on bread and jam and $3 per day or less. He emerged malnourished and penniless, but invigorated. The privation carried an empowering sense of independence in his ability to survive. Hearing him describe this trip so vividly, and what it instilled, jump-started the gears in my way-back machine.

I thought back to my own European shoestring trip, at age 16, after high school graduation. What started as a foreign exchange trip arranged through the Los Angeles school district, turned into the classic backpack-and-a-Eurail-Pass adventure. After discovering my host family in Corsica was not all that in to hosting, and undergoing the horror of seeing my host “sister” step onto the family windsurfer topless, I fled and forged my own adventure.

The next month or so involved youth hostels filled with fairly uninterested (in 16-year-old me) travelers, and eating canned vegetables straight from the can with my girl scout issue spork; sleeping on trains if I was lucky, sometimes riding for hours in one direction and then right back, just to have a place to sleep; and if not lucky, sleeping on a bench at the train station; or, when I was really unlucky, sleeping in a cornfield to hide out after hopping off the train in a remote town populated entirely with young military men. It involved meeting strangers who offered to take me in, and being abandoned by others who never picked up the phone when I managed to figure out how to call. It involved knowing that when the last of the traveler’s checks was gone—all $300 of them—that was IT.

My final transaction was buying a skirt with an elastic waist at a Parisian supermarket so I had something to wear on the plane home. This because I managed to keep eating through the stash of chocolate I kept telling myself I was bringing home for souvenirs.

Without a doubt, the trip was more scary than fun, more character building than educational. But, I emerged with stories, memories and, most importantly, an enduring faith in my ability to survive.

Temporary reality as full-time illusion

Looking back now, one of the most astounding things about that trip is that I do not have a single picture from it. Even if I had a decent camera, I would not have given up precious space in my backpack for it. I do have my journal, and the post cards my family saved, so despite my poor memory for detail, I know that it happened. This was before iPhones and email of course, and also without any communication other than those few post cards. In today’s world, it would be as if the trip never happened.

Perhaps this angst I feel now is what my peers felt when I was gone that summer, imagining me on an exotic Mediterranean beach. More likely, when I disappeared I was just…gone. And when I came back in my elastic waist skirt they might have felt a little satisfied. Sure, I had an adventure, but they had tans and boyfriends. Fair’s fair.

Regardless, whatever mirage my scenic post cards may have created would have been nothing compared to the digital barrage of fabulousness any kid traveling out of zipcode would create now, when you are what you curate. Now, if you are not having and sharing enviable moments and YOLO adventures, you’re left feeling stuck, invisible, irrelevant.

What if I had been able to post snapshots from that trip, showing me in a lush cornfield at the foot of the Alps, or on the shores of a Swiss lake? It would have instilled envy, but it would not have told the reality of the day spent hiding, terrified, in that cornfield, or of the illness and loneliness I felt after taking the free Swiss chocolate factory tour. It also would not have told the truth about my own greatest learning experience, that of learning how to be with myself, by myself and be ok with it. That accomplishment, like some of our hardest-won prizes, carries no visible record.

Here goes nothing

I used to see my inability to update my social media feed as a failing. But now I view each missed opportunity as a gift: a gift to everyone of any age who is trying to be ok with doing their best to live a pretty good, usually unexciting, real life. There is honor, and value, in just that.

If I really was feeling generous I’d take that community service gift a step further. Rather than being a ghost in the feed, I’d create some “Oh the Places You (Don’t) Go” reality montages that might make some people feel better. It would say to them: “Check out what I did today: Nothing. You’re welcome.”

A room with a view, of reality

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