Mark Twain said, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” One of the reasons I have chosen to live abroad is to be able to see the world from different perspectives. Walking in a different world can make you come face to face with the reality that what you may hold dear and precious others may not comprehend. Alternatively, you may be able to see that there is another way of living and being that makes very good sense in the context it exists, or perhaps a very good way of interacting in the world that you could benefit a great deal from if you followed that path.
Sometimes there comes a time, though, when you’ve been journeying out for a long time, and you realize it’s time to come home. Coming home, however, doesn’t always necessarily mean coming back to the same place. It could mean that you need to travel out in order to change. Change is a constant factor in our lives. Life is a river, an energy source that wants to flow, and we need to let it flow through us. We are meant to experience life’s wonder, and live in awareness of it. If we dam river, silt begins to build. Alternatively, if we siphon off all the water into a hundred channels, the river loses its energy flow. Similarly, sometimes coming home to yourself, means traveling out in a new direction, remaking yourself or removing from yourself the things that are blocking the water’s flow so that the silt that has been building up can enter the river and once again flood the land with the nutrient rich soil that allows life to grow.
A few months back I observed a snake hidden beneath the miner’s lettuce growing in the blueberry box in our garden. It sat very still as it hid beneath the shade even though I was weeding around the blueberry’s base. The snake was molting, shedding its skin that was too small for the snake’s body that wanted to grow. When we know it’s time to change, we may need to travel out on pilgrimage, so to speak, into a space without distraction, a place for walking and wandering where we can see ourselves differently and anew, where we can reflect on who it is we are or want to become. Like the snake beneath the miner’s lettuce, we need to be able to lie still long enough, that even though someone else may be pulling out the weeds around us, we can do the work of letting go our old skin so that the new skin can grow, and so we can grow into it.
“Before tourism there was travel, and before travel there was exploration,” wrote Paul Fussell, explaining that in exploration there isn’t a specific path set out. It’s an exploration, a discovery. The path to our new selves may not be a well lit path. How do you know the way? What is closing in behind you? What is opening before you? The children of Israel fleeing Pharaoh’s army as they left Egypt didn’t necessarily know the way through the wilderness to the promised land, but they left anyway. When they got to the sea, they didn’t know how they would cross the water. The way behind them was most certainly closed off, but the way before them opened, even though it appeared there was no way it could occur. Maybe the story is a metaphor, or maybe it’s what really happens to us when we set off into new territories in our lives. It takes courage to begin such a journey.
When we are young, we have marked points of transition, a driver’s license, graduation, college, a first job, marriage. When you grow older, there are no fixed points for transition, yet we all go through them. They are subtler, more fuzzy around the edges. Maybe we all need to invent ceremonies for ourselves, rituals that physically demonstrate the fact that like the snake in the garden, we are molting. We are changing, or have changed. We are entering a new era, we see things differently, or we want to–we want to understand how to re-envision who we are so we can integrate all we have been and done in our lives, what it is we have become so we can give it away.
Maybe during this transition we start to let go of things we have lived with. I’ve noticed how a number of people getting ready to make transitions clean out their closets and garages. It’s a natural part of moving, and in the process, we realize we don’t need everything we thought we did. We see newly that we can live with less and actually have more. What matters most are those we love, and how we can give away who we are, what we’ve taken our lifetime to become. As our eyes weaken, they are opened to the understanding that time is a kind of Holy Land, and we want to live in it by sharing it with others. We want to give away what it is we have created through the whole of our days so we can become ourselves, so we can become whole.
Thoreau, in his essay on walking describes the word saunter as those who were seeking the holy land, the “word is beautifully derived, ” he says, “from idle people who roved about the country, in the middle ages, and asked charity, under pretence of going à la saint terre” — to the holy land, till the children exclaimed, ‘There goes a sainte-terrer’, a saunterer — a holy-lander.'” There isn’t enough sauntering in this sense of the word these days it seems, and yet I think we long for it even as the literal wilderness around us diminishes daily. It would do us good to saunter out on literal walks, or interior ones, but walks where we wander out into a wilderness, where we create silent space in our minds and hearts, or even a small space where we can lie in the shade and do our work of molting. Moses, after all, lifted up the snake in the wilderness for the children of Israel, and when they looked on it, we are told they were saved. Those bitten by snakes did not die. Maybe we will not die either in the process of our transition, even though we fear such journeys, such changes.
Do you recognize that you are on a journey, or do you realize you’re getting ready for one? Eventually, we will die someday. That is a journey we must prepare for with smaller journeys out into the wilderness where we discover who we are and what we are here for. Time is passing. I ask myself, am I living the life I want to live so that when I get to the end of my life and am accountable for my days, I will know I have used them well? I want to have made of my life something that is beautiful, to give an offering back to the world as best I am able.
We journey in order to come home. We leave the garden in order to be able to come back to the garden and know it for what it is. In the words of Thoreau from his essay, “Walking,” “So we saunter toward the Holy Land, till one day the sun shall shine more brightly than ever he has done, shall perchance shine into our minds and hearts, and light up our whole lives with a great awakening light, as warm and serene and golden as on a bankside in autumn.”
Where are you now? What is your journey?