La Flâneuse, Life Lessons, Wanderlust

À la recherche de la flâneuse

This isn’t how this was supposed to happen. What was supposed to happen was this: I was supposed to turn in the keys to my rental apartment in Oakland, then carefully make my way from west to east, hopscotching from California to Nevada to Idaho to Wyoming to South Dakota to Minnesota to Wisconsin to Michigan to Illinois and then back to California after eight weeks on the road. After my return I’d board a plane for New York; then London; then France, Italy, Spain, and beyond..

That was what was supposed to happen. What actually happened started with a phone call from my doctor the day before I was scheduled to pick up the U-Haul. Quick medical words peppered my ears. Hyperplasia. Progression to cancer. Hormone pills not working. Hysterectomy. 

“But I don’t have a place to live,” I said, staring at my near empty living room. “I don’t even own a bed anymore. I’m supposed to be leaving for the road.”

Moving Day

“I know this isn’t what you wanted to hear,” my doctor said.

“Yeah, sure. That’s an understatement.”

In truth, I didn’t actually say that. I like my doctor. I trust my doctor. And even though the news was something I couldn’t wrap my brain around in the context of my already chaotic life, my gut told me that having the surgery immediately was the best decision — in spite of the fact that no decision felt right.

I’ve never been a planner. I travel through life on instinct and intuition and tend to roll, for the most part, with what life throws my way. But I planned this trip. I planned this trip. I had vision, purpose, an actual itinerary (created post massive champagne consumption, but still, an itinerary). And at 45, both childless and never married, this year-long trip has represented the freedom everyone says single, childless middle-aged women are supposed to have.

A few months ago I read a book that was a bit of a life changer, Flâneuse by Lauren Elkin. Flâneur is the French word for stroller, wanderer, loafer. It connotes a masculine image, one of privilege, leisure, and urban exploration. Flâneuse is the female form of the word, and in her book, Elkin writes about women who have wandered the world in their own way, women such as Virginia Woolf, George Sand, Jean Rhys, and Sophie Calle, in places like London, Paris, Venice, Tokyo. I saw myself in every page. It could have been a book written about me. It is definitely a book written for me. In my core I am la flâneuse, always wandering, always discovering.

But what happens to la flâneuse in the face of medical urgency? What happens to her journey when she loses control? When her body retaliates? When she can’t find her way?

The week after I received the news, summer travels back-burnered, I was talking with a friend as I meandered my way around Lake Merritt in Oakland. “I’ve been thinking a lot about la flâneuse,” I said. “She doesn’t have a plan. She doesn’t have a destination. She revels in the unexpected.”

“Maybe for you la flâneuse right now is a voyage of your body, an exploration of the self,” my friend said. “You’ll get to where you want to go eventually, but maybe first you need to navigate your way through this detour.”

So I’m learning to let go. I push aside my shattered expectations. I try and accept what’s happening. To recognize that there is so little in life I can control.

Reading Sophie Calle by the lake

Today I await my surgery. I sit on the shores of Lake Tahoe, flipping the pages of my book. I watch children dig in the sand with fluorescent, plastic shovels. The sun from a near cloudless sky dances on the water, making the surface look like a Monet painting. The breeze flicks my hair. I eye the snow-capped mountain peaks on the horizon.

Yes, this isn’t how this was supposed to happen. And maybe, just maybe, that’s the point.

Lake Tahoe
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12 thoughts on “À la recherche de la flâneuse

  1. “Maybe for you la flâneuse right now is a voyage of your body, an exploration of the self,” my friend said. “You’ll get to where you want to go eventually, but maybe first you need to navigate your way through this detour.”

    I love this interpretation! Here’s to a speedy recovery and to happier detours in the not-too-distant future.

  2. Love that you’re doing this! And yes, it takes courage to embrace reality–especially when it deviates from expectation. As Kristin says, write on!

    1. Oh, thank you! I’m actually all recovered now. I know it was the right decision to make, even in spite of the chaos and frustration of the summer (and it guided my sabbatical work in a new — and more interesting — direction).

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