I’ve always relished any opportunity to carve my own path, to separate myself from others in an individual experience. Since starting summer camp as an adventure hungry ten year old, I’ve continually grown to see my life through a certain lense as an exercise of gradual freedom. The solitudinal aspect of such an approach to life isn’t its crux, but rather the control that accompanies such freedom. When I went to France in the summer of 2015 on an exchange program, I enjoyed exploring the rues of Pierrelatte without my group members, stopping to buy an eclair, sit on a bench, and watch cars slide by. When I went on an exchange to an English boarding school my junior year, I spent two days on solo forays into London during a mid-term break, visiting museums, scoping out bookstores, and taking in the charm of the city. Last summer, on a graduation trip to Ireland, my two best friends and I took our leave from the rest of our recently graduated class to explore the coastal town of Kinsale, climbing into abandoned forts and walking across the shoreline until catching the last bus back to our hotel, two hours away.
When I was accepted to Bridge Year, I was overjoyed at the upcoming opportunity to explore a whole new corner of the world, unfettered by juvenile restrictions and unencumbered by anyone who didn’t share my passion. Sure, Bridge Year isn’t a free-for-all: I have a daily routine, live with a host family, and take part regularly in numerous organized activities of reflection and discussion, often organized around one of numerous central learning themes that define each month. Nor is Bridge Year a solitary journey: I’m surrounded by six of the sharpest, most thoughtful, and most enjoyable people I’ve ever had the pleasure to learn with as well as by two instructors who are always there to guide us. But that doesn’t inhibit my time in Bolivia from being uniquely my own. Unlike in high school, where I had to sneak in moments of individuality in a largely preordained system, I’m now free to make my own decisions and shape my own path independent of anyone else, just like I’ve always wanted.
Bolivia, however, brought a new level of freedom beyond anything I’d previously known. On such a broad experience like this one, I don’t really notice the nuances of independence in the broad strokes. Instead, like a character in James Joyce story, I notice them in the momentitos, the momentary epiphanies I have in the light of something minute or even trivial: putting on my bed sheets that I’ve washed by hand, looking up a string of unfamiliar Spanish words, putting llajua in my soup even though I know it’ll make my stomach hurt even more than it already is. I awoke one morning in October to a golpe of anxiety of nearly Kierkegaardian proportions upon realizing I had no idea how I’d spend a Sunday bereft of any planned activities. In these moments, freedom takes on a new life. It doesn’t quite reach those planes of existential burden, but it’s no longer the beckoning refuge it once promised to be. Instead, it’s somewhere in between, in a paradoxical center that encompasses both extremes. It’s that gray area, that little window of nuance, however, that enables real discovery.
“I hope that life without a chaperone is what you thought it’d be.” So begins the chorus of “All Your Favorite Bands” by Dawes, an American folk-rock band whose crisp vocal harmonies, masterful instrumentation, and poetically poignant lyrics have made them the soundtrack to my life since I latched onto them sophomore year. A few weeks ago in a hostel in Sucre, my friend Noah in agreement remarked to me, “Listening to Dawes is like listening to a philosophy lesson.”
It’s strange then that I’ve become so transfixed recently with “All Your Favorite Bands.” The music is pretty standard campfire song fare, and the lyrics are straightforward and simple, seemingly unlike such masterpieces as “Something in Common” or “For No Good Reason.” Before I got to Bolivia, “All Your Favorite Bands” was just a great song to hear at the end of both Dawes concerts I’d attended: “I hope the world sees the same person that you’ve always been to me/And may all your favorite bands stay together.”
But that first line recently struck me in a way it hadn’t before as I was walking home one night. I latched on to the phrase, “Life without a chaperone,” remembering one night months ago when I walked home alone in the cold darkness of the El Alto night, turning my head at every stray dog bark or lonely car as I struggled to remember the location of my temporary home in this still alien country. As I reflect on the song more and more, however, I consider the fundamental ambiguity of the line itself. The singer isn’t guaranteeing the satisfaction that comes with freedom: he’s hoping for it, wishing that it’ll come for his friend just as we all wish for it. Without really even stating it, lyrical genius Taylor Goldsmith waxes about the frustrating nature of freedom and it’s lack of a satisfactory guarantee.
As time passes, I feel less in control and more like one of Milton’s doomed angels in Paradise Lost: “Sufficient to have stood, though free to fall.” But as the paradoxical challenge of my independence continues to grow as Bridge Year progresses and even more of my experience falls to me to shape, I know I can’t succumb: I can’t let my lack of structure dictate a lack of growth or learning. Instead, like everyone, I have to take the reins I’ve been demanding for so long and hold them tight. Maybe now that I’ve got a better grip on them, I can really start to go somewhere.
“All Your Favorite Bands” is property of the band Dawes.