Mon 19 Sep 2011
i used to travel.
a long time ago, Dave brought to my attention the handy fact that anyone who uses the words “used to” to describe an activity is rarely actually engaged in that activity anymore, only hanging onto it. a piece of identity.
i cringe a bit when i say “i used to.” when i take something up, i take it UP. i internalize it, wrap myself around it. this explains how i have managed to carry the same bright, fervid torch for David Bowie lo these many years: it’s my hobby. it’s a fundamental part of how i understand myself.
of course, i can’t just go altering how i understand myself willy-nilly, all the time. Dave starts three new things every week. i like to try a new activity every decade or so. i am part Ent, i suspect. i am not given to hastiness.
but i am given to wanderlust. or i was.
(at the end of The Lord of the Rings saga, the hobbit Frodo returns home to The Shire from his adventures as the bearer of the ring, but he cannot stay. he is too changed, and he leaves Middle Earth with Gandalf and the Elves to sail on to the Undying Lands. Frodo’s faithful Sam, the gardener, unwounded by the elven blade and the ring itself, settles down in The Shire and raises babies with his cute hobbit wife. this is ripe with metaphor, people.)
i had the wanderlust from the time i was a teenager, though it was probably mostly a contagious case of the Anywhere But Heres. i used to map travel, splayed out on the living room carpet with a highlighter and a fold-out map from a hand-me-down copy of National Geographic, imagining the places i’d go.
i was nearly thirty before i got to indulge it.
i’d nibbled at it earlier. i took the train across Canada the autumn i was twenty-two: spent my last $300 on the ticket, slept in the smoking car for a week, watched the stars over the Rocky Mountains, and got a job telemarketing in Vancouver the day we arrived. but passports and flights outside the country were beyond my reach, then. i spent a year in Vancouver, two teaching in the Arctic, headed back east to Halifax and a graduate degree. until friends blazed paths to expat teaching and it occurred to me that Scotland and Prague could be considered “on the way” to Korea if one was particularly creative with one’s geography and flight routes.
i left in the fall of 2000. i came home in January of 2005.
some wiser people used that period in their lives to, um, start careers. i plan to go live with them when i am old. i will tell stories from my lost years of indigence in return for small plates of catfood.
je ne regrette rien.
i don’t travel anymore, the way i used to. sure, we went to California for the first time this summer, and i’ll be all gussied up to speak at Blissdom Canada in The Big Smoke of Toronto come October, but conference travel is by its very nature bounded. it has a goal and a set destination. it is purposeful, and social, and for me, a lot of fun. but it is no more like the open-ended wandering that marked my late twenties and early thirties than babysitting is like having a colicky kid of your very own at three a.m., four months in a row.
this past year, i had the incredible privilege of revisiting one of my stories from those wanderlust days as part of a book: my work was included in Best Women’s Travel Writing 2011, a charming anthology being thrown lots of cool launch parties i can’t attend in glamourous far-away cities. sniff.
(yes, you should buy this for everyone on your Christmas list. absolutely. think of it as investing in the catfood stockpile.)
as the book makes the review rounds, those of us published in it were asked to answer a few questions about travel, and our relationships with travel. as i picked the questions that spoke to me, and tried to answer, a Mack truck of longing ran straight over me. the wanderlust flooded.
it told me i could not LIVE my settled life and needed to hightail it for the Undying Lands at first notice.
unfortunately, as you may have suspected, this is not Middle Earth. there are no Undying Lands for the weary soul momentarily overwhelmed by the drudgery and familiarity of The Shire. well, boo.
still. i think i can live out my Sam Gamgee days in peace.
truth is, travel, for me, was a constant cacophony: new smells, new sounds, new ways of seeing. history everywhere, if you look. i loved that about it. and i didn’t.
i didn’t handle it very well sometimes. i don’t like fish, which pops up in the most unexpected – and supposedly vegetarian – places, especially in Asia. i didn’t always like being an outsider. i don’t like being dealt with in an authoritarian manner. Dave still brings up that time i shouted at the customs officer as evidence of poor judgement on my part. what did you expect me to do? i counter, and then wonder if i’m not better off safe at home.
it’s hard to imagine going again. we have spent six+ years weaving ourselves financially and professionally and community-wise into this rooted life. the roots are good and growing strong. Dave spent the summer hacking out a patch of forest for a cabin for next year. we live a different kind of cacophony now.
i still don’t handle it very well sometimes. i don’t like the constant multiple demands on my attention. i don’t like mess. Dave looks at me funny when i shout about the fact that Oscar’s bus to kindergarten wants to pick him up SEVENTY MINUTES before the start of school even though we live an eight-minute drive away. what do you expect me to do? i counter, and then wonder if everyone wouldn’t be better off with me safe in Outer Mongolia.
sometimes far, far away sounds magical.
but wherever you go, there you are. ;)
the truth is, this is simply not that time in my life. i hope it comes again, and i will hold the space for it in my sense of myself. i even have vague hopes of vagabonding with the kids in five or six years time…taking a year or two as a family and committing to a joint work experience somewhere very different from this little corner of the world. but for now, i am mostly content to keep watering and weeding these roots here in
The Shire my pastoral homeland.
(i’d happily eat catfood for a weekend in Paris, though. just sayin’.)
what about you? where would YOU go, if you could pick up and go anywhere? what would be different about there?
…a few excerpts from my responses to the author interviews for BWTW2011. there are some exceptional writers in this collection: i’m looking forward to seeing the composite of answers that emerge. will share.
- What’s one place that has moved you or changed you in a significant way?
The Canadian Arctic. It was the first place in which I ever felt truly Other, and in which I came face to face with the legacies of colonialism and cultural history that permeate travel. I stayed a long time, and it taught me a lot about humility and relativism and my own privilege, and the folly of ever believing you fully understand what it is to be in another’s skin. The expanse of space there, the vulnerability of realizing that if you were to walk out into it you could go a thousand miles before ever meeting another human, is breathtaking. The North taught me that we are all different, and all inter-reliant, at the same time.
- In what ways does writing inform your relationship with travel? Do you keep a journal? Conduct interviews? Write on location?
Over the last few years, especially since I began blogging, my journal-writing has dwindled. I still have a big, black-bound artist’s sketchbook: the writing inside is still all-caps print, the aesthetic signature I developed for myself back in the days when I still considered my handwriting a part of my identity. But the current sketchbook – number thirteen or so in a long lineage – only sees the light of day these days when I travel. Especially alone. I love to travel alone, to play flaneur in an unfamiliar city. But writing is what keeps traveling alone from being lonely, for me. My journal is my companion when I’m stuck in an airport, or want to take up a table by myself in a pub without looking like I’ve been stood up. Writing is conversational: it allows me to dig in and reflect on what I’ve been seeing and how that changes what I’ve seen before. But these days I need to work harder to create that mental space, because the world and conversation and feedback are so easily at all of our fingertips…