Singing for the pleasure of the song

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“Learn the psalms and ponder the ways of the early church. Know what must be known. Ancient fathers taught their ancient children, who taught their ancient children, these very things. Puritan Milton with his pagan muses. It is like a voice heard from another room, singing for the pleasure of the song, and then you know it, too, and through you it moves by accident and necessity down generations. Then, why singing? Why pleasure in it? And why the blessing of the moment when another voice is heard, dreaming to itself?”

Home, Marilynne Robinson

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Traveling too much

Downtown mall in Charlottesville, July 2010. Source: Me

I was struck by a small exchange in an “academic” dog book I recently read, Dog’s Best Friend, by Mark Derr. The author, a writer for The Atlantic Monthly at the time, was visiting a Navajo reservation to study the relationship between Navajo shepherds and their dogs.

Derr told the shepherd that he was from Florida, working in Boston, recently got back from Alaska, and was now in New Mexico to observe him and his dogs. The wizened Navajo shepherd looked at Derr and said, “You travel too much. I have been here all my life,” and extended his hand out over the scraggy, red fields.

That notion–of traveling too much–really struck me as interesting, especially since it’s a phrase I’ve never even considered.

Where I come from, being widely traveled is almost akin to a spiritual virtue. When you’re in college, people especially love to brag about all of the places they’ve been. Discussion of your world travels is the subtlest way to talk about how cool you are without explicitly bragging. I’m guilty of it myself. Someone starts talking about Japan? I am compelled to chime in about the complexities of life in Tokyo, as if I were an expert in Japanese culture and custom after having lived there for a mere three months. This sushi? Ick, it’s nothing like what I had in Asakusa. And so on.

This phenomenon is the worst at college. Guion likes to call it “study abroad syndrome:” Students get back from a summer or a semester of travel and are suddenly incapable of talking about anything else but the food in Paris, the streets of Pamplona, the art in Prague. I totally get it. I’ve done and I still do it, too.

Daibutsu at Kamakura, July 2008. Source: Me

So, here’s the pattern of thought I’ve been working out lately, with regard to the Navajo shepherd’s notion of “traveling too much.”

Point 1: Americans are famously ignorant of other cultures and countries. This is well-documented. American tourists have a bad reputation for a good reason: They’re bumbling and self-important and despise any and everything that’s different from “the American way.” For this reason, we could all do well to travel more. Grace, who has traveled more than anyone I know, is proof of the calm tolerance that comes from the interaction with people very different from yourself. Travel forces you to let go of yourself and your all-encompassing way of life. Travel greatly expands your view of humanity, whether consciously or subconsciously. It changes us.

Point 2: There are still many places around the world that I would love to go to. I want to see all of Asia if I could. I am so eager to go back to Japan, particularly to visit Kyoto and Aomori, as impractical as it is. I have never been to Europe. Ireland, the Netherlands, France, and all of Scandinavia draw my particular interest. And New Zealand is so beautiful I can hardly believe it exists on Earth.

Point 3: That said, I am done with the chic obsession with travel–for myself, at least. This is what I have found about myself while considering the shepherd’s statement. I do not merely want to flit from place to place, visiting for a few days or a few months. I do not want to jump around, getting to know a few people I will never see again, leaving and considering myself having “experienced” that particular culture.

No. I want to LIVE somewhere. I don’t want to just visit places constantly. I’m not into visiting right now; I’d rather be living somewhere. I want to commit to a place. I want to get to know a community so thoroughly that I am daily aware of its habits, secrets, beauties, and blemishes. I want to be content where I am. I am striving to make this a conscious, continual goal: Contentment in current location. I think of that verse in the Psalms that says, “The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; surely I have a delightful inheritance.” To some, this might sound like a suffocating statement–to be boxed in by God? How dreadful! To me, though, it sounds like a beautiful gift: To see where you are as a blessing from God, a pleasant place.

The place and concept of “home” is one that has always been very important to me; it carries some kind of spiritual weight in my life. I was worried about this when I married Guion, to be honest. He’s traveled much more than I have and it has clearly enriched his life to a wonderful degree. He’s spontaneous and he dreams big. He could also live quite happily in an Airstream trailer for years, traveling around the country, playing guitar, making friends on the road (à la David Wilcox). This lifestyle sounds like a cute, claustrophobic version of hell to me, but we are all asked to compromise for those we love, right?

We live here
We live here. Sunset over the Blue Ridge Mountains, Charlottesville. Source: Me

Clearly, my view of the world is not everyone’s. Grace and I were talking about this last weekend and I told her my vision of the perfect life was to live in the same house for a hundred years and wake up every morning with a cup of tea and my husband and my dogs. She visibly shuddered. “Ugh, that sounds like the worst life ever,” she said. “I am going to travel forever; I’m never going to stop.” I believe her; she probably will. But I’ve come to grips with the fact that I’m not that way. I wrote this because I think my perspective is an unusual, unpopular one. To fail to glorify world travel constantly is blasphemy among my generation. But this is what I feel.

I say all of this knowing that we will travel. I want to travel. I get excited just thinking about it. But at the end of the day, I just want to live somewhere. In one place, in one community. For the time being. I think we will stay here indefinitely, striving for contentment, but always open to possibility.