Wednesday, June 8, 2016


It begins with a toddler’s first giggling dash away from an anxious parent. “Must be free,” as one of my sons puts it, speaking of his own son. There is never a lovelier moment of that feeling, the wild rush of excitement, the certainty that no harm will come to you, as none ever has.

Then we go off to college. And, as Mark Twain said (more or less), “By the time a boy reaches eighteen, his father is as anxious for him to leave home as he is to go.” But that feeling doesn’t last, from the parent’s standpoint, at least. We begin wanting them back almost immediately. For a few days at a time, anyway. They are different people by then. No longer our responsibility, no longer anxious for our guidance. Entertaining to grab a pizza with, but less and less fun as their laundry piles up and they go out for the evening just as we are turning in.

It's a bit ironic: We try to show our children something of the world when they are still young, but as often as not they see more of their smartphones than the Grand Canyon or The Louvre. It’s not that they don’t want to see. They just don’t want to be shown. Not by us, at least. They want to find out for themselves.

And so they begin, our journeys of discovery. We leave the nest and fly away. Some farther than others, but in most cases—economic necessity provoking certain exceptions—the old homestead seems hopelessly quaint and boring. It represents who we were—a person we are not even all that comfortable with—not who we want to be. Not the bright, shiny creation of our ambitions and daydreams.

It is a journey that for many of us lasts a lifetime. My mother no longer chases after me to catch me by my arm and pull me to safety—although now and then I wish she could—but still I run. Less from the strictures and constraints of childhood—although there is some of that—and more toward a new inchoate freedom I imagine for myself. There is the metaphorical running of a constant (and constantly unsated) need to know who I am, and there is the physical running, the exploring the world.

I’m on a physical exploration now. Most call it a holiday or vacation. But for me it’s a kind of work, one that is not as structured , or sometimes as satisfying, as the jobs that make us useful. It’s an effort to understand myself by understanding the past. Why did we wall our cities? Why did we pour so much of our energy and resources into cathedrals? Who made the first path between two small coastal towns; and why?

There are many on the journey with me. Tourists we are called, implying that we are little more than trifling sightseers. We take photos and sip wine and cappuccinos and munch overpriced croissants at tables looking out on the throng of others like us. Sometimes it is hard to work my way down a quaint old street because it is jammed with so many others like me. Sometimes I imagine I hear the lowing of livestock being herded to slaughter.

But we are not cattle, not me, and not my anonymous fellow travelers. I feel certain that when they visit places they have never seen, they are thinking about the same things I am: Who did this? And why? What does it mean? 

One obvious, and slightly depressing, thing it means is that in the great sweep of the journey of mankind, our time on our own path is insignificant. Our lifespans aren't even long enough to build a middling pyramid or mosque.

But the other thing it means is that we are connected, one to another, all the way back to those first journeyers, those first explorers, that first teenager to leave the cave: “Really, Mom and Dad, I love you, but I’m sick of this smokey hole in the mountainside. I’ve got to see what else is out there.”

When someone bumps me as we pass on a crowded path, or another looms over me on a packed train, when I have to wait in line to see an old painting that is nothing like anything I would want in my living room, I don’t think to myself, “Why the heck am I spending all this money to sleep in lumpy beds in strange places?” 

Instead I think: “Grazie for passing the light to me so that for a little while I may hold it up to my world, and to myself, before I pass it along to another.”

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