Thursday, September 25, 2008

Little Rock 16.5.05: There and Back Again--Old Skin, Itchy Selves

I need to bring this travel narrative to a close. I keep thinking of things I want to say in it, then I don’t take time to do so. Up early again due to the jet lag; we haven’t slept past 5 A.M. since our return, and are going to bed before 9 each night. Past two days, I’ve taken long, stuporous naps in the afternoon.

So, the trip is over and done with, and I’m back, but betwixt and between, neither fully here nor there. My old life and old comforts (and old certainties) slip around me like a skin whose contours are very well-known. But the skin is also confining.

One should come back from a journey different. It’s a theme as old as the Odyssey. And not just different as in bearing gifts or trophies to demonstrate to envious friends that you have been “there”: different in some essential human way.

I know all the clichés, and they’re as true as any cliché is true: travel broadens; we see things differently and realize our perspective is limited and culturally determined; we encounter cultural artifacts that transform heart and mind.

But for me, this trip needs to mean more. I feel stuck. Yet something in the trip made it all “better”—the grand tour as 19th-century cure for nervous prostration. What is that something.

In part, it’s the chance to live as a different person, an unknown entity, someone without a past, drifting dreamily through days and nights. All the more so when you’re in a foreign country speaking a foreign language. As Rilke says, to learn other tongues is to assume other, new souls.

This experience renews, precisely because it does take you out of your skin. I feel a renewed sympathy for other human beings against whom I’ve been bumping blind in the night, a resumed sense of all they mean to me. I feel a renewed civility, a willingness to engage in the small rituals that ease the discomfort of human encounters—hello, pleased to meet you; thank you, how lovely, etc. One cannot travel without assuming that persona—at least, not travel successfully. One should bring something of it back.

Travel also reduces life to its bare essentials much as a retreat does. At least, a certain kind of travel does this. Where shall we get food? How shall we ask for it? We need it to fuel our bodies as we walk. And you do have to walk: to buy bread, to mail a letter; to obtain stationery. What comes easily in the everyday—what is already at hand—is obtained as you travel at a certain cost. It demands effort.

Travel is about fulfilling basic needs—for food, shelter, warmth, human companionship. It’s about relearning basic steps: Wieviel kostet das? How much is 2 € in $? Let me remember: does halb neun mean 8:30 or 9:30?

It is good, if sometimes very uncomfortable, to have to deal with such bedrock realities of everyday life. Travel can burst the oh-so-insulating bourgeois bubble.

But then there’s the self at the end—the itchy, irascible self you began the journey with, glowering and pouting and expecting you to pick it back up. To my shame, I always do. I’ve never been able to integrate that new self I become briefly and gloriously as I travel, and the self I always seem to carry around with me.

I feel I’m waiting, as always, for the summons. When will it come? And will it take me away from Little Rock, where things feel stifling?

On the other hand, there’s that deep need for once to dig my heels in and stick it out, to have a pied à terre. I’m betwixt and between two powerful currents here.

As I am with the quandary—always there—of choosing Narcissus or Goldmund, the aesthetic or the politically engaged. Both are powerful impulses. I don’t know how to decide between (or balance?) them.

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