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Traveling perspective

"And then, outside a greengrocer's, it happened - something that sooner or later always happens to me on a long trip away from home. It is a moment I dread.
"I started asking myself unanswerable questions.
"Prolonged solitary travel, you see, affects people in different ways. It is an unnatural business to find yourself in a strange place with an underutilized brain and no particular reason for being there, and eventually it makes you go a little crazy. I've seen it in others often. Some solitary travelers start talking to themselves: little silently murmured conversations that they think no one else notices. Some desperately seek the company of strangers, striking up small talk at shop counters and hotel reception desks and then lingering awkwardly after it has become clear that the conversation has finished. Some become ravenous, obsessive sightseers, tramping from sight to sight with a guidebook in a lonely quest to see everything. Me, I get a sort of interrogative diarrhea. I ask private questions for which I cannot supply an answer. And so as I stood by a greengrocer's in Thurso, looking at its darkened interior with pursed lips and a more or less empty head, from out of nowhere I thought,
Why do they call it a grapefruit? and I knew that the process had started."

-Bill Bryson, Notes from a Small Island

Bill Bryson is an excellent traveling companion. Initially I had only carried along an intense book by Simone de Beauvoir for my trip to Europe, but on the extra day in Chicago I decided to track down a local bookstore to find slightly lighter fare. Bryson's book hit the spot, especially because it's about adventures around England and English culture.

I read the above passage on the train during a point in the trip where I could relate all to easily to it. In addition to traveling all the way to Europe for the sake of a one-of-a-kind bicycling experience, I wanted to see other cities and their sights and sounds, to get a feel for what this whole human experience is all about. To get perspective.

The first time we visited Paris, some of the immigrant neighborhoods caught me by surprise. Sure, we have Chinatowns in the US, but there's nothing quite like walking down a huge city block filled with narrow shops all specializing in African weaves, each with a guy standing out front to entice you inside. There were drifts of hair blowing along the sidewalk on that street. Then there are parks that consist of small patches of gravel, completely overrun by people (men, mostly) just lounging around, looking like they have nothing to do and nowhere to go (not necessarily homeless, just without purpose). Even the crowded US cities don't feel like this.

The human experience can be uplifting, inspiring, discouraging, depressing, the whole gamut. I know I wrote briefly about feeling like London was soul-crushing without elaborating much on the sensation. If I was traveling for a sense of perspective, London and Paris both gave me that, just not the sort of perspective I'd expected. I left London with a sense of my own unimportance. It's a city that doesn't care about you and your petty aspirations, especially if you lack social class. So, why even bother? How can I continue to churn out blog entry after blog entry, knowing that most of the subject matter is trivial and will gradually disappear into a dusty corner of the Internet? Wouldn't it be better to take a more refined approach, only putting out and sharing maybe one or two all-time incredible gems, cultivated and polished over a lifetime? Could I channel my energies in that fashion? It's not that I have any wish to be famous, whatsoever. I just want to feel purposeful.

On that train trip, reading Bryson's book, however, I remembered something else.


Magnum opuses don't come out of thin air. They are born out of hundreds of small attempts and failures. I *do* need to keep at it, even when things seem utterly futile and I don't have any idea what the future holds (by the way, this is also related to gearing up for another round of job applications). The act of writing keeps me in touch with myself, and this is necessary for the sake of channeling my voice and using it for good. Besides, the demons compel me to write, and I have a hard time ignoring them, which means I probably shouldn't ignore them.

Shortly after I returned from Europe, my ceramics instructor from Tempe passed away. She had been diagnosed with an inoperable form of brain cancer a year or two prior. I haven't seen her since moving away, only heard the news indirectly. She lived such a public life, as a teacher, and yet I have also always had the sense that she was also a very private person, perhaps as a defense mechanism. Only every once and a while would this side of herself slip out. Just a few days after I learned that she had died, I received an alumni magazine with an article about her and her work, talking about the ceramic sculptures she's had exhibited around the world - the list of her accolades. What's most striking to me, however, is the photo showing her in her home studio space, putting on a bright face and smile even while the ravages of cancer are evident (but only to those who know). Despite the smile and warm, loving attitude, B did not have an easy life. Everything she has accomplished has been the result of tireless persistence and dedication. Porcelain clay is an unforgiving medium in an artform that is often overlooked because it's traditionally in the female "craft" arena. She was also one of the people who was a consistent champion of the things I did as a graduate student, and I know she will continue to be a source of inspiration through the low points.

And so, onward.

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