A universe that includes you can’t be all bad, but does it?

Quiz time. What do you get when you try to summarize Eat, Pray, Love into three passages while you are in a very bad mood? Answer: “Postcards” by Margaret Atwood, who is of course a little darker and better than Elizabeth Gilbert.

That was a sloppy comparison, I admit, but you get what I mean. Both works reflect disintegration, decay, and disappointment while wandering about strange, new lands in solitude. And both make perfect reads after any confusing breakup. It is also clear the postcard-writer in Atwood’s poem is not visiting some charming little gelatoria in Italy. Atwood’s poem is gender-neutral while Gilbert clearly appeals to upper middle class women from the US. In fact, Atwood is not even limiting the relationship of the postcard-writer to be that of a romantic nature. So, please feel free to use your imagination and do not let me color your experience with the poem if it is new to you.

What is it about the impulse to travel alone after a breakup? An attempt to escape? A way to rejuvenate? To pause and think? To prove you could still survive fine on your own? Just to maintain an aura of staying productive while you are feeling so distraught to do your real work?

To break up is to disperse, separate and go in different directions. It makes perfect sense that you feel compelled to go somewhere. Packing up and leaving for a destination seem dramatic enough that you feel you are accomplishing something, but normal enough that you can fit the journey relatively easily into your life. Traveling to new places lets you drown yourself out in bursting stimuli coming at you through all different senses, and distracts you from your troubles. Hey here is a new business idea: “Newly-singles tour packages.” You can have one arrangement for the breakup initiator and market differently to those on the receiving ends. Word.

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Postcards

I’m thinking about you. What else an I say?
The palm trees on the reverse
are a delusion; so is the pink sand.
What we have are the usual
fractured coke bottles and the smell
of backed-up drains, too sweet,
like a mango on the verge
of rot, which we have also.
The air clear sweat, mosquitoes
& their tracks; birds & elusive.

Time comes in waves here, a sickness, one
day after the other rolling on;
I move up, it’s called
awake, then down into the uneasy
nights but never
forward. The roosters crow
for hours before dawn, and a prodded
child howls & howls
on the pocked road to school.
In the hold with the baggage
there are two prisoners,
their heads shaved by bayonets, & ten crates
of queasy chicks. Each spring
there’s race of cripples, from the store
to the church. This is the sort of junk
I carry with me; and a clipping
about democracy from the local paper.

Outside the window
they’re building the damn hotel,
nail by nail, someone’s
crumbling dream. A universe that includes you
can’t be all bad, but
does it? At this distance
you’re a mirage, a glossy image
fixed in the posture
of the last time I saw you.
Turn you over, there’s the place
for the address. Wish you were
here. Love comes
in waves like the ocean, a sickness which goes on
& on, a hollow cave
in the head, filling & pounding, a kicked ear.

– Margaret Atwood

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