Nicole Javorsky is an editorial fellow at Mother Jones, and a former editorial fellow at CityLab.
As a child, I loved the fantastical lands from The Phantom Tollbooth. As a troubled college student, I used them as a roadmap to self-acceptance.
Why can’t I eat? Why is everything so difficult? Why can’t I feel happy?
Submerged in the depths of depression during college, I wandered into a rare book store on Manhattan’s West Side in search of momentary peace. There, the glimmer of a 35th anniversary edition of The Phantom Tollbooth caught my eye.
I had savored reading and rereading The Phantom Tollbooth back in elementary school. Popular with generations of young readers, it tells the story of a boy named Milo who complains of endless boredom and finds a mysterious package in his room. In it, he discovers a fantastical world called the Lands Beyond that he must navigate to free twin princesses who are imprisoned in the Castle in the Air. The book charts these territories with such vivid specificity that young readers feel as if they are entering too.
I was a hand-raising, school-loving kid, so Milo’s adventure validated my enthusiasm for learning. It encouraged me to search for possibility and complexity in the world, and reframed my particular passion for art and writing as assets, instead of pushing them away to gain the acceptance of my peers.
Back in Manhattan, I bought a copy and brought the book back to my dim dorm room. I flipped open the inside cover. There it was, the map of the Lands Beyond. Inked in blue, the illustrations (created by renowned cartoonist Jules Feiffer) are utterly fanciful, and would never work for a to-scale map of the real world. But that isn’t its point. The Lands Beyond represent the twists and turns of the labyrinths of one’s mind, on a search for wisdom.
On the left side of the map, the entrance to the fantasy world is called Expectations. When Milo arrives there, a character from the book called the Whether Man explains what kind of place it is. “Expectations is the place you must always go to before you can get to where you’re going,” he tells a bewildered Milo. “Of course, some people never go beyond Expectations, but my job is to hurry them along whether they like it or not.”
As I recalled that line, I braced. I had so many rigid expectations of myself that I often felt stuck.
Not too long before, I had taken a semester off during my second year of college to enter treatment for an eating disorder. At the time, I viewed this as a failure. I had failed to take care of myself, just as I’d failed to recover from anorexia in previous years, I believed. Here I go again, I thought.
But now, as I traced the cream-colored page with my finger, I remembered how a person’s perspective can shift. When Milo arrives in a place called the Forest of Sight, he exclaims, “Isn’t it beautiful?” Another boy answers, “Oh, I don’t know. It’s all in the way you look at things.” The boy proceeds to give him a lesson about this, referring to a mundane object. “From here that looks like a bucket of water,” he says, “but from an ant’s point of view it’s a vast ocean, from an elephant’s just a cool drink, and to a fish, of course, it’s home.”
At another point in the book, Milo lands in the Doldrums—winding paths that swirl around and lead to nowhere. He shouts, “WHAT ARE THE DOLDRUMS?” An answer comes from a disembodied voice: “The Doldrums, my young friend, are where nothing ever happens and nothing ever changes.” Eventually, Milo makes it out using the power of his imagination: He envisions birds that swim and fish that fly.
That day, as I gripped tightly onto my favorite book from childhood, something shifted in me, too. I remembered the person I’d been in my younger years: passionate about learning, curious about the world, unabashedly creative. Back then, my inner world had been full of color, in contrast to the bleak landscape in which I now felt trapped.
Maybe I had to follow the same kind of clues that Milo did to understand my own self-worth. Maybe I needed to look at myself from alternative points of view. If I lingered here in the place in my mind where failures were all I could see, my life would never change.
If I wanted to return Rhyme and Reason to my world, I would have to stop these constant interrogations of my self-worth. To reach new places and learn about who I was, I could not dwell forever in the land of Expectations or the Doldrums. I had to reframe my thoughts, create space for hope, and envision who I might still become. And I had to find some humor again.
Gradually, I did. It took time and tears: The foothills of confusion were still all around me, and I needed to conquer my own mountains of ignorance. But after that afternoon with the map of the Lands Beyond, I started to wake up from what had felt like a long dormancy. I allowed myself to re-engage in therapy and began to understand that reentering treatment was not a failure. Instead, it was a life-changing decision not to lose another second for my body by following such dangerous demands.
I decided that taking a semester off from class wasn’t wrong, either. Rather, it meant that I had succeeded in changing my mind about what my future could be. When I did go back to school, I started to see that my visits to Digitopolis, the kingdom of numbers, and Dictionopolis, the kingdom of words, were ways to rewrite the narrative of my life, too.
A few years later, I became a journalist. Now I’m reporting on environmental issues facing cities around the world from my new home in Washington, D.C. I still keep a copy of the book in my room. There’s an element of the map of the Lands Beyond that continues past the borders of the book: the Sea of Knowledge. There’s no end to how far one can travel in a body of water with a name like that. Day by day, I cherish the privilege to keep on swimming.
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