10 Years Ago Today: “loos’d of limits and imaginary lines”

*Follow this journey on my former (now inactive) blog: Europe 2010

My memory is hazy since my departure for Europe ten years ago (to the day). I can’t remember all the sensations of saying goodbye to my parents at the airport, laden with my brand new North Face 60 liter backpack, stuffed to the breaking point (I’d really test the limit before the end of my trip by adding several antique books I found at a shop in England) with one pair of jeans, a rain jacket, one fleece shirt, one flannel shirt, a long sleeve body thermal shirt, a pair of thermal leggings, a pair of shorts, a few t-shirts, socks, a pillowcase and sleeping bag liner (just an extra layer between me and the sometimes not-so-thoroughly-washed linens of hostel beds, a suggestion from an REI employee), my toiletry kit which included Dr. Bronner’s 18-in-1 hemp soap, a journal, a Bible, and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (I hadn’t finished the last book). The rest of my travel gear was worn on my body.

I can’t really recall what was on my mind when I boarded the flight. I don’t remember feeling particularly scared. I think maybe it felt surreal, an opportunity I never imagined as a freshly minted 22-year-old college graduate. I didn’t think of myself as particularly adventuresome. My first time out of the country had only been less than four years prior, and my list of foreign travels included only Costa Rica and Mexico (for no more than one week). I just decided to go. At one point in college I had somewhat of an internal crisis which caused me to re-examine my college experience. Was I really taking advantage of that stage in my life? I felt like the answer was no, so I made plans to study abroad, something I had never previously envisioned in my life. However, when my “best laid plans” fell through, at the suggestion of a friend, I just took all the money I had been saving for studying abroad and decided to go abroad anyway.

I spent three and a half months backpacking around by myself. Today I would say that experience is unusual but by no means unique, especially when you consider the travel habits of other nationalities. I have talked to so many individuals and couples who were spending a year or more backpacking around the world. So in the game of comparisons, my little adventure wasn’t so noteworthy. And yet, if you’ve spent any amount of time around me, you’ve probably heard me mention that experience several times (perhaps you’ve rolled your eyes at me; maybe I sound like I’m trying too hard to impress by name-dropping these random travel experiences). I promise, I’m not trying to be pretentious. It’s just that to this day, despite the myriads of adventures I’ve been on since, that trip was one of the most transformative for me as a person.

I left on January 14, 2010. I had no smartphone (or regular phone for that matter), tablet, or computer while I was there; these forms of technology–though growing–were not as ubiquitous as they are now. I occasionally posted travel updates via archaic hostel computers or (now nearly obsolete) internet cafes. While staying in hostels, bed and breakfasts (no, not Airbnb), and people’s homes (and once on the streets), I was not able to distract myself with Netflix or social media. I was forced to spend time with fellow travelers or read a book (I read LOTS of books). I was forced to spend time in my own head. I went on walks. I sat on trains and stared at the stunning scenery outside my window. I filled multiple journals with musings and stories that I began writing, my imagination exploding with life and vigor. Occasionally, if I wanted to “check out,” I could plug in to my 3rd generation iPod Nano. I remember listening primarily to Switchfoot’s “Hello Hurricane” album and a playlist that a friend made for me before I left (to this day I can’t listen to the “Hello Hurricane” album without being transported back to those endless train rides).

In the course of three and a half months I visited Ireland, Norway, England, France, Spain, Portugal, Switzerland, Belgium, Germany, Czech Republic, Austria, and Italy, and then back to Germany, France, Ireland, Wales, and England before heading home. For two of those months I had a two-month Eurail pass, hopping on trains as often as I wanted and only paying nominal seat reservation fees here and there. I saw the world in a new way.

Most importantly–and the point I’m trying to make–my eyes were opened. I met new people, new ideologies, new lifestyles, new beliefs, new perspectives. I got a taste (of course hopping city to city for three and half months could only provide a taste) of new cultures: new languages, foods, and traditions. I grew as an individual, accepting silence and solitude and personal companionship where before I was very uncomfortable being by myself. I developed new habits of voracious reading and writing and deep reflection. I learned to take even more risks and continue to seek new experiences when I can (side note: I might never have met my amazing wife in El Salvador if it hadn’t been for this initial experience). In short, my bubble burst. My myopic and limited view of the world had broken, and there was no way to stuff my old way of seeing the world back inside the box I had been living in.

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Nice, France

I recognize that the opportunity to travel as much as I have demonstrates the incredible privilege I was born into. It’s easy to judge others who have limited travel experiences, but the majority of the world simply does not have the means or the opportunities that I have had (even if I have worked hard to realize those opportunities). HOWEVER, almost everyone can do something. While living in El Salvador, I had friends who couldn’t afford to travel as I have but who had been on trips to Honduras or Nicaragua. Even in their own capacity they had ventured outside their comfort zone to know new places, people, and cultures (yes, the language is basically the same, but if you know much about Spanish, the variation from one country to the next can be extensive both in accent and in local vocabulary). So the challenge I want to make still stands: POKE THE BOX.

Whoever you are, wherever you are, poke the box of nominalism. Step outside your comfort zone. Do something new. Spend time with someone different than you.

If you have the means, travel. If the timing’s okay, try traveling solo. (All of my solo traveling took place while single; I’m not advocating shirking family ties to travel. Instead, bring your family along!)

Bring a journal with you. Bring some thoughtful reading material, too.

Try to unplug when you go (I’ve gotten worse at this since that first trip).

Perhaps the quote is overused, but let me leave you with this:

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” -Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad

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Journal entry from the day I left

November 5th

Bare trees with branches, tentacle-like, grasp. Exposed bark. Leaves cling to a few oaks, green tinged with yellow, orange, brown.

There is a difference between being alone and being lonely. God has given us nature to surround us and wrap us like a garment, and I have had only a few moments of electrifying clarity in my life, always at the hands of an important book or nature. It seems no accident that mystics seek nature to sharpen their visions and their divine movements.

And perhaps there is a mystical connection with coffee.

#HappySunday

Thanks to my parents for the blessing of their house, their little hermitage, their house tucked away in the woods that has often been a retreat over the years. 

Tolkien, Fairy Stories, and Sub-creation

I was first introduced to Tolkien’s The Hobbit when I was a pre-teen. At that point I was not familiar with The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings trilogy (the movies had not yet premiered). I had the joy and privilege to experience this story with a blank slate, knowing nothing about the book besides the cover image. Image result for the hobbit coversThus I was immediately whisked away into the magic of the Shire, Mirkwood, the Lonely Mountain, and Bilbo’s adventures with his “Unexpected Party” of dwarves. To my great relief upon completing the book, I discovered that The Hobbit was only the prequel (though it was not originally written with the intention of being a prequel) to the much grander and epic The Lord of the Rings, and soon after I dived right on in to that as well.

Few worlds have captured my imagination and inner longings like Middle Earth. Perhaps I could add Narnia (I have probably read that whole series ten times or more), Hogwarts, and the Fairy Land of Phantastes. I am being very serious when I describe my experiences in these worlds as mystical. It was not merely a matter of entering a great story–I entered into a new reality of wonder. It was not merely escapism–I began to see the magic of my world in new ways (what Tolkien would call “Recovery,” discussed below). Great imaginative writers have written detailed apologias defending the power of fairy literature. Stories and worlds such as those I’ve already mentioned have unfortunately been quickly dismissed into genre fiction: fantasy. It is almost never critically viewed as serious literature. But its importance is far greater than just another pop-novel category.

Tolkien’s mythopoeia is best detailed in his famous Andrew Lang Lecture, “On Fairy-Stories,” delivered at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland on March 8, 1939. In it he describes the importance of the Faerie realm equal to and even beyond the narrative itself. Tolkien goes on to explain that writers become “sub-creators,” drawing upon the Christian doctrine of the imago dei. Humans are made in the image of a Creator-God and are endowed with similar (though not equal) abilities to create: “we make in our measure and in our derivative mode, because we are made: and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker.”

Tolkien went on to dispel the myth that fairy stories are only for children (similar to my statement about the dismissal of the “fantasy” genre):

At least it will be plain that in my opinion fairy-stories should not be specially associated with children. They are associated with them: naturally, because children are human and fairy-stories are a natural human taste (though not necessarily a universal one); accidentally, because fairy-stories are a large part of the literary lumber that in latter-day Europe has been stuffed away in attics; unnaturally, because of erroneous sentiment about children, a sentiment that seems to increase with the decline in children.

Tolkien concluded his lecture by listing three important functions of fairy stories: recovery, escape, and consolation. First, fairy stories help readers recover the magic of their “Primary world,” which is often lost in our overly scientific, overly explained universe. Escape, in Tolkien’s view, is not a bad thing. Instead, he likens escape to the noble desire of the prisoner rather than the ignoble flight of a deserter. Escape in this sense is one who imagines a better world. Thus, in many ways fantasy begins overlapping with the real world to help heal it. Finally, consolation is Tolkien’s and the fairy tale’s highlight. Tolkien names this the “Eucatastrophe”: “the good
catastrophe, the sudden joyous “turn” (for there is no true end to any fairy-tale)…” I’m reminded of Gandalf’s eucatastrophic appearance at Helm’s Deep when it seemed that all would be lost. Tolkien, however, goes further, and here his Catholic Christianity is very evident. Consolation envisions the fulfillment of the Christian’s longing: paradise, the new heavens and new earth provided only by the eucatastrophic death and resurrection of the Christ.

Thus, I hope it is evident that fantasy, true and good fantasy, is something much deeper than a superficial pop-novel. By creating a secondary world of imagination and magic (if you will), it plays out consistently the deepest human and universal themes of the primary world.

Deep breaths…

It’s a simple playlist, only sixteen songs right now. My thinking music. My deep breathing, deep contemplating music. My centering music. It’s playing in the background right now. I invite you to join in my thoughtful reveries:

a pipe and thoughts

 

Every life is a universe. Every step opens new worlds, new realities and spheres of possibility and influence. Some days I feel off center but find that my life is merely finding a new center; it’s the way of things on the outside of normal.

  All the past we leave behind;
We debouch upon a newer, mightier world, varied world,
Fresh and strong the world we seize, world of labor and the march, Pioneers! O pioneers!

-Walt Whitman, “Pioneers! O Pioneers!”

I cannot always believe the life I live. At times it is painfully ordinary; life must be that way to be effective. But when I float up and out, when I peer down upon my life like the watchful moon, there’s something unsettlingly magical.

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…a little bit of honesty

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reading at my hostel in Quito, Ecuador (2014)

Because I’ve tried to be more consistent and at least post once a week, and because I’ve spent this past week a bit sick and busy, and because frankly I just don’t have a whole lot of time today, this post is a bit of a ramble. And a bit of honesty.

Confession: I want to be a published writer. I don’t want fame or fortune or success really. I simply want the validation that I don’t absolutely suck at my passion. I’m sure a lot of artists can relate to that. I’ve sent writing in the form of poetry or fiction to publishers or agents probably about twenty times now. Nada. It can be disheartening. But I keep telling myself that this is part of the game; this is the grit and the grime, the how-much-do-you-want-this, the kick-you-in-the-nuts and start again process that all determined people must face. Is publication the great satisfaction in life? Of course not. But if we’re determined to do something and feel strongly about what we do, we have to keep at it.

So today’s post is a renewal of commitment and energy. Art was never meant for notoriety really but simply to say something that’s important to the artist and maybe, collaterally, to their audience. Thus, publication or not, it’s still important if for no other reason than that it is coming out of me. It is reflection and release.

Whatever you’re doing, whatever you’re sweating towards, keep working. Don’t forget to lean in and love others (I guess I’m saying not to be so consumed that we miss the greatest purposes of life), but don’t stop. The world needs YOU. Unique, weird YOU. Thank YOU.