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What if My Life Isn't a Journey?
There are hidden ideas within “journey.” Where does this metaphor serve us, and where does it break down?
I’ve been thinking about that word, “journey.” Journey gets thrown around a lot with regard to fertility and transition. A fertility journey. A gender journey. What is a journey? We’re trying to get from one place to another, possibly through a lengthy trip fraught with peril. But I’ve learned it’s important to watch our metaphors. There are hidden ideas within “journey.” Are we always travelers? Always on a quest from one place to another? Where does this metaphor serve us, and where does it break down?
To begin, a journey contains the idea of arrival—a successful journey has an endpoint in which one safely reaches a destination, or, in some cases, achieves the goal of the journey and returns safely home. There’s a sense of the possibility of success, which suggests also the possibility of failure.
When I was first trying to conceive, more than five years ago now, there was the sense of a journey. There were steps—I stopped T, found a donor, tracked my cycles. Early on, after the first try didn’t work, I sought out a fertility acupuncturist. At our first visit, he said, “I’ve done a lot of acupuncture for trans people and a lot of fertility acupuncture, but never both together. This will be a journey for both of us.” His words put me at ease.
I really did see myself on a fertility journey then—full of setbacks and retries and supplements and acupuncture visits and scary tests and injections. One foot ahead of the other, not sure how long it will take but sure we will get there—until we weren’t sure anymore. Weren’t sure it would ever work, weren’t sure of our marriage or what we even wanted anymore.
We gave up. On the baby, and later, the marriage. I went back on T and it was like I’d tried to swim across the ocean but turned back, arriving dazed, bedraggled, shivering, and exhausted, with nothing to show for it, at the exact place I’d pushed off from.
That’s what the journey metaphor invites us to see as failure—where you set out to do something but end up back where you started, except shivering and ashamed.
Of course, there are those journey archetypes where the person goes on a journey and returns—seemingly a failure—only to discover that the true treasure was buried under their house all along and that the journey was needed in order to help them discover this. I wonder if we have stories like this because we need them, because they provide a sense of what we might do with ourselves after a seemingly failed journey.
For me, the buried treasure was writing. Books would be my babies, I decided. My swim out to the middle of infertility sea and bedraggled swim back gave me something to write about and connected to all the other themes I loved to explore in my writing: Grief. Bodies. Menstrual cycles. Hope and desire. Ancestors.
I thought the story was over. I thought that I had my journey, perhaps failed, but with an adequately satisfying resolution. Books would be my babies.
I gave myself to a new journey, that of a book manuscript. In June, I moved to an apartment in Phoenicia, NY and was ready to embark. This was the true journey, I thought, the one that was intended for me all along.
Within weeks, I was looking at a positive pregnancy test.
How was I to understand this? This wasn’t the journey. This wasn’t the quest. This was the failed dream, a grief I thought had long ago been accepted, a wish I thought I’d traded back to the universe in some kind of cosmic exchange for my writing.
I had never understood the idea of pregnancy—at least for my own body—outside the context of a journey. I didn’t think it would sneak up on me, engulf me from behind.
Because the journey metaphor breaks down here.
I suppose there are ways in which we speak of being in pursuit of something else and then “life happened,” although we don’t usually speak of such things as a positive.
We have the concept of “miracle,” perhaps, for when the universe hands out a situation better than you could have expected, but the pop culture version seems to be all soft-focus and fairy dust, and not sitting alone in a half-unpacked apartment, newly pregnant, forgetting to eat from fatigue, trying to figure out if years of work on a half-written manuscript with infertility themes can be remade into something new.
When I see fertility as a journey, the metaphor collapses. Did I set out to get pregnant just now? No. I thought it was impossible. But I was off T, for a seemingly unrelated reason, so perhaps I’d left the back door open a crack. Maybe I still wanted something I couldn’t admit.
I’ve written before about the ways in which the shapes we give our stories matter, and the ways in which the language and metaphors we use to describe our experience may affect us in ways we don’t quite understand.
So what about the metaphor of a fertility journey, one that collapsed as soon as I found myself transplanted from one story to another by a positive pregnancy test? I was in an unexpected life situation, but also without a story arc or metaphor in which to understand it. When I recently looked back on my writing from this time, it almost never addresses my new pregnancy, which surprised me, until I realized that I couldn’t write about it because I truly didn’t know what story I was in. In the most literal sense, I did not know where to begin.
If I had only ever seen a pregnancy for myself as the end of a journey, but I hadn’t set out (again) on one, then where was the beginning of the story? And what happened to the other story, the one in which I had set out to have a book for a baby? (During this period of time, Sophie Strand’s essay, Living Between Stories, felt like one of the only mirrors for my amorphous experience.)
We use metaphoric language like “journey” to give meaning and shape to our lives, or sometimes, perhaps, as a euphemism—a way to avoid the immediacy of how difficult it is to be in the midst of certain experiences, a way to zoom out and attempt to place them in some sort of broader, grander context in which they seem noble, or at least palatable. But this language can turn on us when life doesn’t fit into the tidy shapes it sets out.
Can I undertake a large project—a book, having a child—without placing it in the context of a journey? Can I resist such a grandiose or specific narrative of a project without giving in to platitudes about “only being in the moment” or denying that I do have dreams and desires for how it might turn out?
There are things I deeply want—for my writing, for my growing family, for other areas in my life—and for many years I didn’t even know I could name what I wanted. I didn’t know to fully claim that I desired something for myself that I might not be able to have. It’s interesting that perhaps the closest metaphor for claiming this desire is to set out on a journey—a word that suggests a difficult travail full of challenge and peril.
Are there other ways to acknowledge you really want something and set out to align your actions with your desire? Maybe good sex is like this? Cooking a nice meal and then feasting on it?
What I know today is, the journey metaphor held me once, but then it left me adrift. Adrift—or ready to find a new story.