Monday, June 2, 2008

Chisel, Stone and Frequent Flyer Miles

… And we’re back. The blog has been on a hiatus for a month or so, partly because of my graduation and all the festivities surrounding it, and then because we took a trip to Ireland for nine days. It was my first time crossing the Atlantic since I backpacked through Europe 10 years ago with a friend from college. [How old does that make me feel???]

Back then, I spent 6 months visiting 20 countries and traveling became a way of life. I got accustomed to needing only what I could carry on my back and to exploring new places and people almost daily. This time we spent just 8 days, and confined ourselves to the Emerald Isle and one night in London. Still, the experiences felt pretty similar and by the third or fourth day, I found myself back in the traveling groove, hoisting my pack onto busses with authority and counting a good map and guide book among my most prized possessions.

We walked (or biked) several miles each day, sometimes with our 30-lb packs in tow. We put our lives on the line and into the hands of the Bus Eireann drivers – who appear to have somewhere to be and nothing to lose on the way. We sat in pubs and talked politics and football with the locals. We sang passionately along with the ‘rare auld songs’ as though we’d been hearing them our whole lives. We allowed ourselves to be surrounded by the warm welcome of the Irish people, who showed us enormous kindness at nearly every turn. It was one of those trips that demands of your time, energy and love; and from which you come home totally exhausted and fully renewed at the same time.

It’s funny how trips like that – whether they’re to another country or just a few miles from home – help us to discover who we are. By engaging with experiences and culture that are not our own, we learn something about who we are – maybe something that changes even at the moment we’re learning it.

In our performance-oriented culture, we often define ourselves by what we have and what we do. People we meet ask us about ourselves, and we tell them first where we work. We pride ourselves on having the nicest home, the most exciting job, the most volunteer commitments, sophisticated tastes, interesting parties. All these active, deliberate things have a place in who we are and how we express ourselves to the world. They are things that make up our identities, our self-concept.

But another, often-overlooked part of ourselves is not in what we choose to do, but in how we respond to the world around us. Travel is a great example of both active and passive interaction with the world. It all starts with active choices: choosing to travel, selecting a destination, buying a guidebook, picking activities, and putting yourself out there for the experience. After that, it’s all about responding.

The long room in the library at Trinity College in Dublin is the world’s largest single-room library. For centuries it has housed two stories of shelved books (organized, oddly enough, according to their dimensions) in its long arched room, and it will continue to do so for many more years, long after its current students and this writer are gone. In its quiet way, it is epic and lasting. But its impact on me is not just through the stories I tell, the pictures I take or the postcards I bring back with me. There's a more subtle impact in my internal reaction, the moment I ascend the stairs and take it all in.

The awe I feel entering the hall with its polished wooden walls and the incredible arched ceilings. The first breath as the unmistakable scent of old books fills me with memories and possibilities – my summer at Oxford, childhood trips to the library with my mother, pecking out my first story on my grandmother’s old typewriter… It all comes back instantly and disappears just as quickly, with every step I take across that hallowed floor.

Walking down the hall, my reaction to this place is visceral, unique, and difficult to describe. And even though I can never fully share it with others, it’s part of what makes me who I am, as fundamental in that moment as anything else about me.

Of course, you don’t have to travel to Trinity College or anywhere else to respond to the world in this way. Every day, we react in small, often-imperceptible ways to sensations and situations, and each reaction is a tiny pixel in a total self-portrait. Jazz music. Fresh coffee. The sound of a baby crying. Poetry. A friend’s laughter. A stranger in need. The annoying guy in the next office. These things have little intrinsic meaning until we react to them. But by eliciting our reactions and pushing us to engage with the world around us, they help chisel out the sculpture of who we are.

Often, I think, we get so busy focusing on our life’s active choices – going to work, scheduling our social lives, keeping up with an endless to-do list – that we stop paying attention to our little reactions to the world around us. We lose touch with what (largely) makes us who we are.

For me, traveling is a great opportunity to reconnect with that reactive part of myself, the part that connects directly with the world, taking it in without judgment and allowing the reaction to flow wordlessly through me. Getting out of my routine allows me to sit back and just enjoy being a part of the world, appreciating the artful expressions and emotions of those around me (and those who lived long before me).

I am not a singer, but when everyone in the pub is belting out “Wild Rover,” I can add my voice joyfully, without thought of what others will think. I am not a theologian (or even a Christian), but the echoes of children singing within the old stone walls of St. Patrick’s can still fill me with spiritual reverence and comforting grace. I am not a historian, but I can place my hand on a carving created thousands of years ago and feel connected to my infinitesimal place in human history.

Back on my home soil and into my own routine again, I feel challenged to keep awareness of these responses and reactions with me, to allow them to impact me fully. It is our gift as human beings to be able to participate each day in our own creation. We are made, not by chisel and stone, blood and bone, but by moments and experiences.

What will I do with what the Sculptor gives me today?