I used to live in a box. Its size and shape were relative to the quality of my life in Toronto at any moment. The box changed according to whether I was dating someone great, was reading a good book, had a decent project at work to tackle, was satisfied with whatever piece I was currently writing, if the weather was holding up. But always there was a sense of enclosure, which is an insane feeling for someone who has so many life options.
The issue was this: I constantly felt the gradient of my life trajectory was being monitored. I was obsessed with trying to keep up with current affairs (what if I went to a book launch and someone mentioned a new Romney gaff and I hadn't heard about it?). There was also the matter of wearing clothes that struck an appropriate balance between fashionable and class-conscious. Eating food without sugar and salt. Exercising 30 minutes three times a week (at least). Saving enough money for extravagant brunches and drink-a-thons on the weekend (enjoy that peanut butter sandwich for lunch!). Being tuned into the social media chatter on everything from local politics to that hot new restaurant serving Singapore street food. Above all, the game was to appear like you were "making it" when you were earning a salary most welders and electricians would likely laugh at.
It's true that when you live in a city like Toronto it's easy to be influenced by the milieu and boy was I lucky to live in said place with the minute concerns that I had. Still, I think it's too glib to say that the box was imposed from the outside; I was the one who bought into the package. I wonder now at my easy acceptance of its trappings. If I'm as smart as I think I am, why was I so eager to play along?
I'm reading The Idiot right now which is really very tedious (you can mark me with that philistine stamp now, go on!). Everyone is always in a great panic; I'm convinced it's the 19th century Russian equivalent of a telenovela. However, there are occasional flashes of insight. Dostoevsky mentions that many ordinary men think themselves brilliant even though they haven't ever possessed a single original idea. They adopt current thinking as their own, parading these little kernels of wisdom around like they invented intellectual discipline. Did I adopt the Toronto social milieu because I was unable (or, at best, afraid to) invent my own existence?
We don't make our own boxes nor are they imposed on us--we adopt them out of laziness, desire for acceptance, a shortfall in creativity, or out of fear. We rail against limitation while holding this dull blanket snugly around us, revelling in its ability to keep us out of the snarl of solecism.
This isn't to say that we should all go into free fall. Here in Mexico City I'm totally unleashed but subject to the whims of marginal characters and the dangers associated with being outside a culture and a language. And I write in my precious blog and buy ethnic jewellery--another box: the pioneering female traveller braves the wild South.
The key, in fact, isn't escape. You may not need to completely change your life; after all, it's relatively easy. What takes real discipline and courage is gaining awareness of the limitations in your life, and why you love them so.