Stories from a place called home — Elisa looks through the glass

Yoav Goldwein
9 min readApr 8, 2021
© Yoav Goldwein

How many times have you been encouraged by friends, colleagues, or family to step out of your comfort zone? And not just them; viral stories on the web, self-help books, and inspirational diagrams all praise discomfort and try to seduce you to get yourself out there and have a taste of unfamiliar territories.

If you are not always convinced by this wave of motivational messages and you still make your way every morning to your 9 to 5, I don’t blame you. Despite those attempts to present life as a journey of infinite possibilities, the reality outside our safe bubble is often pretty intimidating. What is unknown and unseen in the world’s dark corners can trigger our deepest fears, painting a picture in our mind that paralyzes us and causes us to stick to our mundane routine.

As a child, my safe place in the world was my own bed. Every time I had to sleep somewhere else — whether it was a sleepover at a classmate, a visit to my aunt, or a family trip — my legs would get weak upon departure and my mouth dry in angst.

As my anxiety worsened under social pressure, school trips were my absolute nightmare. On those dreadful nights under a gorgeous blanket of stars, while all the other kids were buzzing with the excitement of an adventure out of town, I was shrunk into a little ball in my sleeping bag, wishing for the morning to come and save me from my misery.

Surprisingly, as I grew older, I became a very adventurous man; wandering as far as I could from the comfort zone of that single childhood bed. But every now and then, when I onboard a flight or embark on a trail fogged with a thick layer of the unknown, I get a glimpse of that feeling again.
It is like a lump that makes its way up my throat, signals to me a change is about to come. Reminding me of the little child inside who is still sometimes panicking when taken away from his home.

— — —

I scan the room as Elisa and I are sitting next to her dining table to have coffee with Sonhos (Brazilian doughnut filled with guava paste). The space is furnished with great attention to detail, displaying not just the essential amenities of a modern apartment, like a comfy sofa or a big-screen TV, but also dozens of small decorative elements; souvenirs from trips abroad, wedding pictures, and rustic signs with feel-good slogans that make this space feel like Elisa’s own little princess castle.

She grew up here in this very same lot, in a remote small town in the southern hinterland of Brazil. The living room in the front of the house, where we are sitting now, is where the family used to operate a local bar about 30 years ago. Elisa still remembers those noisy evenings, helping her parents to serve caipirinhas to various local colorful characters who were bored from strolling aimlessly through the dreary streets. Over the years, the bar closed, the family matured and relocated to other neighborhoods, but Elisa recently came back here to rebuild her nest after getting married.
The stories from that dingy bar are still echoing in family meetings, and they encapsulate the spirit of the town in those years of upbringing. But if you ask Elisa, not that much has changed since then.

Thirty thousand inhabitants live here in several small districts which are surrounded by plantations of corn, soy, and eucalyptus trees as far as the eye can see. This monotonous landscape of monoculture is interrupted only by rivers and dirt roads, and makes even a small-town boy like me feel quite isolated. It takes about 30 minutes to drive to the nearest town of about the same size and 2.5 hours to the next proper city.
With almost no place to escape to, the people of this town, either poor or wealthy, black or white, are in this together, whether they like it or not.

The town’s streets are studded with small churches, sometimes as simple as a room the size of a small restaurant, filled with plastic chairs facing an improvised stage.
This part of Brazil is considered quite religious and conservative, and about 90% of the population identifies as either catholic or evangelical. In such a rural context, this usually translates to social conservatism and intolerance to going astray.
Elisa might be a small-town girl, but her smart and sensitive eyes taught her to see things differently and more openly than others, often leaving her feeling misplaced.

Living your whole life in one place is both a blessing and a curse. On the bright side, Elisa feels very safe as she knows almost everyone in her ‘hood’. Family, friends and colleagues will watch her back wherever she goes. However, there is a dark side to being constantly seen and known, as every step outside her house is also being judged by dozens of hidebound eyes.

Elisa is very conscious about what people might think of her and she works hard to keep a perfect façade. Her brother, who left the town 20 years ago to Europe, jumps into the conversation to tell how on his last visit, when they went together to the local supermarket, she was nervous that people might mistake him for her lover.

To his amusement she replies “Nothing happens here! And when people are bored they gossip… I know I maybe care too much about what they say but that is because I know I will see them again tomorrow, and after tomorrow and after after tomorrow…

— — — -

In this time and age, living in the middle of nowhere doesn’t have to limit our spectrum of reality. Every computer, phone or TV screen can connect us to the outside world and swamp us with information on the lives of other beings. Elisa has been always dreaming of living in a big city or going on expeditions overseas, yet those dreams rarely manifested. It is like there is a glass wall between her and the outside world, and all she can do is to look through it paralyzed, without being able to smell or feel what it is really like to be out there. The glass, as she discovered lately, is her own creation.

“My therapist tells me that I sabotage myself. Whenever there is something new and different, I give up before I even try. I tell myself that I can’t do it or I won’t succeed in it.”

Living her whole life in an insular context, this obstruction is perhaps rooted in a primary fear of the unfamiliar that most of us share. One good example is Elisa’s fear of deep water.
Her husband loves to embark on trips to explore the beautiful nature surrounding their town. The landscape of the region is carved by many rivers, which erode the sediments to form gorgeous waterfalls and small pools. Elisa is thrilled to go on those hikes yet when they arrive drenched with sweat to the cascades she stays seated on the rocks and avoids cooling herself in the water.
She used to give herself and others excuses that it is too cold or that she doesn’t know how to swim, but her fear of water is different.

“You see, in nature, especially here in Brazil, there are a lot of creatures in the water. Things that can actually kill you.. When I dip my toes in a small lake I go only as far until I stop seeing them. It’s a simple rule — if I don’t see what’s out there, I don’t get in.”

This fear of the unknown also translates to other realms of life and paralyzes her from becoming the person she wishes to be.

In March last year, she had a job interview for an exciting role in a city a few hundred kilometers from her hometown. The city is rather small by Brazil’s standards, but for her, it was exactly what she was hoping for; new scenery, new people, and new possibilities that will enrich her world like in the feel-good movies she watches from the comfort of her living room.
After 10 years of being stuck behind the desk in a local corporate office with a misogynist boss, Elisa thought she was finally ready for a change, but when the moment of truth came, she panicked.
“I got the position and immediately got cold feet and declined the offer. As a world pandemic was starting to make headlines, I told myself that perhaps it was not time for changes, but if I am honest with myself it wasn’t that.”

Hopes and dreams were not enough for Elisa to jump in the water. From the safety of her bubble, she could run all the worst-case scenarios in her head again and again until she was too tired and anxious to act.

In nature, fear might be essential to protect us from danger and death, but in a world sanitized from traditional risk factors like bears and snakes, fear has perverted into a mechanism for maintaining control, comfort, and acceptance.

To be born, live and die in the same place is not necessarily a bad thing. The presence of family and friends around us benefits our well-being and provides us with meaning and safety.
But we live in an age of increasing possibilities and we crave to reach higher and fill our world with excitement. Many of us envision ourselves having a life of prosperity and accomplishments like our idols who flash their success on our screens. We want more, and some are willing to take daring risks for it, but listening to Elisa made me wonder — perhaps less is more?

Many spiritual practices and life coaches will argue that the key to true happiness is being present and content no matter where you are. So perhaps settling for the humdrum-yet-reliable option is not such a bad idea. After all, is there any guarantee that the world outside Elisa’s bubble is a better one?

What would your life look like if you left this town? I ask her.
“I have no idea. I think I would like to be anonymous for a bit. Meet new people and visit new places. I definitely do not want to do the same things I have been doing here all my life, but I don’t know what they would be yet.”

— — — -

Small steps.

A week after our coffee Elisa had another job interview in the nearest big city, 2.5 hours drive from her small town. She promised that if she had got the position offered, she would take it. And so it was.

Several days after the New Year she packed half of her life and embarked on a new chapter. She rented a new apartment where she will spend her weekdays, while on the weekends she will return to her small-town home and loving husband. With one foot stepping into a new and exciting landscape and the other still rooted in the old and familiar one, it seems like she found the perfect compromise.

Being nervous and emotional in the first few days, she couldn’t stop crying, but after some time the fear and anxiety subdued and made space for curiosity and excitement. She is in love with her new life and with the new people who entered her path.
Overcoming her fear seemed to open a floodgate for the energy of abundance and now new possibilities are knocking on her door. In one case, a few weeks after entering her new role, she was headhunted to another prestigious position in a bigger city. Flattered, she politely refused the offer, knowing that she needs to give herself some more time before jumping to her next adventure. This time waiting paid off and within a few weeks, she got promoted to manage a big international project, an opportunity that is rarely given to new employees.

She feels invincible, yet still, every Monday morning as she gets on the bus out of her hometown and into the big city, she gets that lump settled in her throat for the rest of the ride, reminding her of the loving and comfortably numb world she leaves behind.



Yoav Goldwein

Everywhere and nowhere. Urbanist, researcher, social anthropologist and a huge fan of human humans.