We are anchored to what we value most. Family, honor, freedom, money; the litany is unending. We live, constantly weighing options, following our hopes and motives as they ebb and flow, half-suspended in the murk of our subconscious.
Travel is a need in my life, as I’m sure it is for most of the Wheel and Anchor community. (I’ve roughly summed it up: I can make it only two years in one place before insanity encroaches.) And I don’t just mean a vacation, a relaxing pop over to the nearest change-of-scene. I yearn for newness, to splash out of my comfortable quotidienne into frigid water of something wholly unfamiliar and fascinating.
I’ve been home for a few months now and the refreshing familiarity has slowly washed away. I’ve been contemplating what keeps us in place. And what inspires us to embark again?
One of my favorite movies of all time is the 1946 box office flop, “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Now my holiday ritual, it was too much for audiences in the 1940s. The 20th century morals of work, family and community were shaken by the main character’s existential doubt and serious consideration of ending his own life.
For those who are unfamiliar, the movie tells the story of George Bailey. From the outset, George is a would-be-traveler. His deepest yearning is to see the world. Tahiti, Greece, Fiji, Italy, his list of destinations and aspirations are endless–so why does he never leave his hometown?
The last time I watched the film, I pitied George Bailey. What would his story look like if, in one of his many attempts to leave the country, he actually made it out?
There’s enormous beauty in staying put, in watching the backyard maple slip into its scarlet dress each fall. Or to hear the summer loons croon, or to just cook your favorite meal as dusk gently falls outside.
Rachel Carson wrote, “One way to open your eyes is to ask yourself, ‘What if I had never seen this before? What if I knew I would never see it again?’”
We all want to be that present, that aware of the immense beauty around us, each moment instantaneously originating and dying. The only people I know of who actually live like this are either poets or deeply rooted in a spiritual practice. I am neither. I’m more of a George Bailey: Busy and tired, to the point of losing sight of what’s precious around me at any one time.
There are a few things that rocket us out of that muted state of passivity. Pain is the first. Without a doubt, nothing reminds us of our ephemerality or our human-ness like an injury, or the staggering loss of someone we love. In a state of pain, it’s all you can do to just be present until it passes.
So, without pain, how do we take after Rumi and Thich Nhat Hanh and Ross Gay? How do we give ourselves over to an experience, to step, immersed, into something new?
Travel lends that newness, that painless yet mesmerized presence.
When we travel, we hold no delusions that the experience will last forever. Unlike the loons or the maple trees, we have never seen this new thing before. And we know it’s likely that we’ll never see it again.
Because travel is often so long-awaited, so relished, and so fleeting, I soak up every moment of it. Sometimes I do fantasize that I’ll return to this place; that I’ll beat the odds and this remote jungle will call me back again, or that I’ll dip my toes back into this azure water. But a small piece of me knows the chances are slim.
Some people build their life and work around travel; as the child of a diplomat, I can attest there is excitement and fulfillment there. Again, I’m more of a George Bailey. A nester, a believer that to be rooted in community is one of the most challenging and rewarding journeys of life.
Still, if I want to enjoy the familiar comfort of my bed, or the smell of summer rain in the mountains where I stay, I have to get away. George Bailey never got the chance to; at each turn, he chose the needs of his community and family above his own soulful wish to explore. I’d challenge that (especially in this modern world of self-care) if he had traveled, it would have made his life that much sweeter. His appreciation for his community and family would have deepened with the distance, broadened with the experience of new and strange.
For me to appreciate what’s in front of me as much as it deserves, I need to get away. To be brought into presence by some eager voyage, then to sigh in relaxation back home again. I love the sound of loons and the pat of dogs feet across my floor, but I will always be craving what George Bailey considered the three most exciting sounds in the world: Anchor chains, plane motors, and train whistles.