journey

Posted: November 27, 2010 in journey
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In occurred to me recently in Oxford, as I walked through the spaces formerly walked by Lewis Carroll, C. S. Lewis, and J. R. Tolkien,  that the children’s stories that I love most are all about  journeys, Alice in Wonderland, The Wind In the Willows, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, The Lord of the Ring.

The journey is one of the great motifs of art and literature and of life,  Alice traveling in wonderland, Mole and Rat down the river, the children through the painting and then onto the ship, the Dawn Treader, Frodo carrying the ring away from the shire to the mountain.

I want to get at this, the structure, the essence of the stories that I love. Paul Serusier, a French pioneer in abstract art, was interested in a new gospel of painting. His ideas help me.  Serusier sought to honor, I think, the shape and the idea behind things.  He was fascinated not by literal depictions of reality, but by the structure of certain motifs. With Gauguin, he was part of a group that dubbed  themselves Les Nabis, the prophets. They favored flat planes and bright colors.  I am with them. I lean toward wanting to see and understand the deeper things that can be shown by paintings, and I favor understanding the structure of  motifs when it comes to literature too.

In the  journey motif present in some of the best children’s literature,  the shape of the motif  is something like this: The departure of  travelers from home, their transport to a new place, their encounter with  new realities, the challenges and conflicts they experience, the changes that occur within them, and their eventual return to home as different people.  This shape of course is specifically the space drawn for the traveling characters. It does not necessarily get at the shape of the setting, plot, mood, theme or language of the stories.

But in itself, I find this extremely fascinating. It is really an invigorating question:  How do travels affect travelers?

There are so many ways to come at this. We all travel so much. There are our travels through the stages of life, our travels through our careers, our relational travels, our mental travels. They are all so amazing. There is also simply the travels we might take, if we are so inclined to new places, our vacations, our trips, our forays out.

We didn’t travel too far when I was young but we did get out. I remember a trip to the Black Hills of South Dakota. As we drove into mountains I remember the thrill of knowing ahead, we would find Mount Rushmore. And when we did, “Wow!” It was worth the miles. I remember the first drive into the Grand Canyon, the pinyon pines, the expectation that just around the corner was, and there it was, “Wow!” It was so eye-opening, so grand, so deep, so far across, so beautiful. I remember watching a storm form over the canyon, the cumulus clouds, the slanting rain, the chance to see the shape and structure of the storm, from a uniquely distant vantage point. And there it is, the chance to see. We travel, for the chance to see, what we haven’t seen, that defines, explains, and brings wonder to life.

The family I grew up in didn’t travel as a family to another country, but the travels we took were enough. I got the idea. And I found it a seed that I wanted to grow into something bigger.

And so when I got married, and I married, by no accident, someone interested in seeing too.  My wife Linda doesn’t like to stay home too much, even less than I and so together, Mole and Rat. We got out of our home in San Diego, California  to Chicago on our honey moon, and then we just kept going from there — to Sequoia National Park, (the place I fell in love with her) to see the big trees, to Lassen Volcanic Park to see the hot springs, to Tucson to see the saguaro,  to Seattle to see the water falls, to Alaska to see the orcas and the grizzly bears,  to Cape Cod  to see the horseshoe crabs,  to Hawaii to see the sea turtles, to  Rome  to see St. Peters,  to Johannesburg, South Africa to be with people in Soweto, to Mumbai, Swaziland to see new friends, to London to see the wonders in the British Museum, to Paris to see the art in the Muse d’ Orsay.  And because of my job, I have traveled too without her, to Rio de Janeiro  and to Mexico City  and to Washington, D. C.  These journeys, and others like them, have changed us, embedded as they are within the more central journey of our lives.

I wonder how.

Today,  I sit in  a house in West Finchey, in London. We have come to see our daughter Laurel who has been studying literature in London this last semester. We came so she could show us what she has seen. We have been to London before, but by coming again, we can see differently because we are seeing it with and through her. She ferries us around, through he tube, one tunnel to another, one station to another, we fly, following her, to see War Horse, Lion King, The British Museum, the British Library, Covent Garden to eat at “Food for Thought,” to Saint Paul’s, to Whole Foods. We fly down the tube from West Finchley each day, and zip back and forth through the city, and stream in a straight line back to Finchley at night. When she was little, we always told her, “We will take you to Europe when you are old enough to enjoy it. We were right and wrong. We are here together, but she is taking us.

We are exploring the world together. We have come here, as we have lived, as a family, together. Roz didn’t come; she didn’t want to. We respected that. Her disability needs familiarity. And when it journeys, it needs time to adapt, to reorient, to understand the new spaces. The tube wouldn’t work for her, the rush up and down the stairs, the terrifyingly steep and long escalators, the push of the crowd through the doors, the standing back-to-back, the coming out above ground in a new place each time, people and cars and buses everywhere. Nightmare, for the learning disabled.

 And so we skype her yesterday, and she told us about home,  and how the cats are doing, home where we go back in just a few days, to life with her and the cats and what is familiar. This is the journey, to do life together, to travel together, or if not to skype,  to  build shared experiences, to share the structure of the motif. We tell her about the big kitties, the lions, that we have seen in London and in Paris, sitting  happy with themselves in The Muse d Orsay, winged and magnificent in the British Museum, screaming off the side of Notre Dame. We get close, by talking. And we talk about what we have experienced and what we have seen because these things help make us who we are.

The changes that come with travel,  come through the people we go with, the people we that we tell of our travels and the people that we encounter when we travel.  I love the people I meet in  new places. They change me, define me and renew me. When I travel I find my own. I will never forget my  trip to Washington DC a few years ago.  I  went there for a Christian conference. But I had been reading Smithsonian Magazine  and my Bible, and so I had discovered that the American Art Museum was featuring an exhibition of the painter Charles Burchfield. A the beginning of the conference I saw an opportunity and made my way to the museum.  I attended later attended the conference don’t remember anything that was said; I can only remember the Burchfields in the museum. They were a revelation to me.  In the museum I woke up. I gawked. I wrote in my journal.  I didn’t want to leave.  I could see what Burchfield had seen the cathedral in the woods and God in the sun and the mystery of mysteries in the oncoming spring, and I saw it through him and with him, his way of seeing, his seeing the structure of the spiritual motif running through nature. 

This is it; this is why I want to travel.  It is about the people I meet,  in the  art museums of the world and on the streets of the world.  They renew me; they help define me; they remind me who I am and what I value. In them I encounter a new river, a new mountain, a wonderland and I go home different. In London and Paris I met Renoir. Renoir and I bounded, because Renoir is like me and so he adds affirmation to who I am. He loved children, and so do I.  He valued his own children, enough to paint them,  and so do I. In his La Lecture, the little girls, dressed with love and care, are bent over their book, focus, studying, learning. I love them. They are mine. This is my reality, teaching little girls, my daughters, bending over books, putting books and stories in front of them.  I have painted my daughters too, not with paint, but with words, and in that way I have valued them as Renoir did his own.

This is the part of the journey that matters, the part where in the new place, we meet  new people and  these people who are like us add to us and help us define what we value and who we are. Some of them are dead, and some of them are not yet.

Today I walked up to a market in Finchley to grab lunch. I bought some humos, some pita, some couscous, some brea and apple juice. The owner of the market was Turkish. We talked. I love to talk to people when I travel. We spoke of the weather in today in London. As newsman said yesterday on the tele, it is “bitterly, bitterly cold.” We compared the weathers in Turkey and in Southern California. I asked if he had family.

“Yes, I have two daughters,” he said, “five and eight years old.

 “Me too; I have two daughters too,” I said. “It’s good because daughters love their daddies,” I said.

  The space between us went small. We smiled knowingly at each other. Then we had to disconnect; someone was now waiting to pay. I wanted to keep on.

He gave me my change. He said, “Good to talk to you.”  I turned to go. I looked back at him over my shoulder as I went out into the bitter cold.  He was looking toward me again smiling. Our eyes caught, warm.  We knew each other. We knew each other’s reality, daughters. It was good; it was the deep structure of the motif.

I don’t know much from my travels. They have been too few and too short. But I learned a  few things.

When I was in Brazil, I met a little woman in Campinas, in a very impoverished part of town. She was standing in front of her unfinished home. She told me her son had epilepsy. I told her that my daughter Rosalind did too.  I could feel her pain, she could feel mine. We smiled at each other. The space between us grew small. I didn’t want to go.

This is it,  the trip down the rabbit hole,  what we find at the bottom, the queens and kings there,  the way they change us. And through such encounters, we begin to see what is true in us, and what moves toward the universal, and the planes and the colors that repeat, the central  themes of the piece.

The journeys change us.

We travel and then we come home and each time, we have met others and we have met ourselves and we are, because of this, slightly different.

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