Here in the South summer continues its inexorable march toward too-hot-for-anything-but-front-porch-sitting time. These days we get afternoon thunderstorms, loud enough to shake the house, and the cool air they bring makes me giddy. It is the season of crape myrtle blossoms – pink, white, lilac, red – and they are blooming outrageously all over town. Mine, though, is in a shady spot at the edge of the porch, and so it’s late.
I am learning French this summer. I’ve wanted to for years, and now that I am making the effort to finally do it, I cant imagine why it took me so long to start. I could be nearly fluent. Instead, I can just about order a medium steak and exchange money or travelers’ checks at a bank.
Do people still exchange money or use travelers’ checks when they travel overseas? Of course they must, but I realized how out of touch I am with my former self when these questions popped into my mind.
You see, I haven’t travelled internationally since I came home from living abroad, over ten years ago. (I go to Eleuthera every year, but that doesn’t seem to count.) In those days I barely used email and had no cell phone. When I was in Australia, a friend sent me a box of books – a box of books! They came by sea mail, and the box was so injured by the long journey that it was delivered in an enormous canvas Australia Post bag. Do they still even do sea mail?
When I used to travel, half my luggage weight was books.
Now I could bring an entire library on a Kindle, but I don’t travel anymore.
People used to tell me I was brave for going overseas so much (I lived in five countries over the course of ten years!). They were wrong. I had a compulsion to seek out knowledge about the world, see it through different eyes, be me. Now I care about different things, or so I try to convince myself. Making a life in one place, building community, building a history. Being a real person. So I stay put.
But last weekend something happened that made me wonder if being a real person is mutually exclusive with being me. At a party I sat down next to a Kuwaiti woman. She noticed that I was comfortable with her “outsider” perspective. I told her that I have often felt like an outsider myself, both before and after my travels. I told her how I used to keep leaving America. I couldn’t stop doing it. I said, “I’m not sure why…”
She said, “It’s your love of leaving.”
She was right. I used to love leaving. I was happiest in those final days before departure, as if I were embarking on an world-changing quest. Leaving, I suppose, was how I distinguished myself. It was also how I eschewed longterm connections, which even now as I actively seek to form them sometimes seem too tedious for words.
When I traveled life was more vivid – more real – because every day in a foreign country was a mystery to unravel. And at the same time it was less real, because as a foreigner I was not complicit in what happened around me. I saw my job as being an observer, not a participant. And I enjoyed the feeling of being lonely. Because somehow, loneliness makes me feel more connected to the universe. I imagine early pilots, like Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, felt something like this when they were up above the earth, encased in a flimsy, shaking cylinder. Below, an impersonal humanity, perhaps holding the promise of future love and happiness – but for the moment, angling through columns of glowing clouds, there is only pure, unencumbered self facing down the eternal mystery.
I used to feel like I was really living, in those days.
For all the joys of my current life, I struggle daily to feel inspired. I can’t accept that this is what it means to be a grown up.
I wonder if I should start traveling again. And so I am learning French, because it is the language of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. And already I am beginning to feel more like myself. Or the self I used to be.