“Travel is equal parts flight and pursuit.”
It’s a line I’ve quoted numerous times since first reading it in Paul Theroux’s The Great Railway Bazaar, and I’ve thought over it even more.
Truth be told, my perplexity comes in that it sometimes (or often) feels as though I’m fleeing more than I’m pursuing. From what? That which is considered the familiar, the norm, what I’ve grown into for twenty years… my hometown, my background, memories, the fear of being stuck or complacent, a continuing sense that something is… off. Not quite right. Missing.
What are we really pursuing, though? What if we don’t know? Does pursuing the unknown and the unfamiliar count as pursuit – if we don’t know what it is we’re chasing?
At first, I was unsettled by the idea that perhaps I am just fleeing, running anywhere but here… but isn’t a lack of a destination still a destination, a vague hope though it may be? Perhaps in pursuing that which has of yet been unfamiliar, we are truly pursuing that which we hope will be familiar for us – that fit that hasn’t quite been met, that puzzle piece (or two or three) that’s been missing. I may not know what I’m running to, but I know what I’m running from, and that in itself is flight and pursuit, destination-less though it may seem. Isn’t it?
They say happiness is a journey, not a destination, yet people can’t seem to stop themselves from the destination mindset, can they? Take, for instance, Eric Weiner’s The Geography of Bliss: One Grump’s Search for the Happiest Places in the World. It’s a charming and intriguing idea, really, but certainly not a recent innovation. That universal search for happiness will always be a best seller, because it will always be relevant and identifiable.
Take, further, Eat, Pray, Love, a bestselling book turned movie – and a fantastic movie at that (I have to hang my head in shame here and admit that I have not yet read the book, but I’m hitting up Borders ASAP for a routine hangout session). As we filed out of the theater this afternoon, slightly gushing, I chuckled at the fact that we seemed to be in a swarm of women- of all ages, too. Not surprising. The response: “Well, we can only get stuff like this in movies; it never happens in real life.”
A reasonable and common response, yes. Still, I can’t help but think that that is not at all what Elizabeth Gilbert was going for when she chronicled her story or when the movie was produced. Aren’t we pulled in by a sense of understanding and commiseration, empathy? Such stories are popular, I’d think, because we enjoy the possibility of putting ourselves in those shoes and having a similar happy ending. Because our lives don’t fit into a neat two-hour package, though, we tend to write it off quickly. “Such things aren’t possible in real life,” we think. Sometimes, though, they are. Every once in a while, if you keep your eyes open, you’ll see it happen; you’ll even be a part of it.
Say, for instance, you accidentally make eye contact with a handsome young foreign fellow on the metro platform, waiting for your train. You enter the train, followed by a swarm of bustling old ladies (what was it, a Red Hat convention?) and sweaty tourists, pushed into the center of the car – and there he is, just boarded the same car. A smile? No, that couldn’t be directed at you… wait, yep, there it is again. Definitely looking at you. The nice septuagenarians gradually empty the car from stop to stop as the man glances over their wide-brimmed sunhats and visors, ultimately leaving you standing side-by-side as you near the door of the car. Fancy that, the charming fellow has struck up a conversation (go ahead and bend to the stereotype as you appreciate the Hispanic accent) and, as you exit together, requests your phone number.
Or, better still, someone closer, more meaningful. Share a bowl of Asian noodles for dinner and appreciate the fact that you both fail miserably with chop sticks, then move on to frozen yogurt as you make your way to the nearby fountain, getting lost in conversation. Others aren’t so fortunate, though, and here’s a homeless man looking desperate and hungry; luckily, you had untouched food leftover and the time and care to sit with the man and hear his story, in doing so helping him and better appreciating one another. Dessert over and man fed (and hugged, incidentally), the sun is setting and it’s a perfect night for star gazing. The city lights are too bright, though, so you strike treasure with a pond in the suburbs, a wooden bridge leading across to the perfect little island, complete with a bench, willow trees, and grass just right for stretching out and staring at the stars. The weeks continue with meals on the balcony, miscellaneous gallivanting, conversations at the fountain, and returns to the enveloping peace of the island.
No, I’m fairly certain such things don’t just happen in movies. The trouble is, it seems, that we get so caught up in everyday life,attempting to force it into something it isn’t, that we miss out on such moments. Or, perhaps, we forget magical little moments like this in the midst of this "everyday life" and they fade until they become stuff of myth and Hollywood (or Bollywood, if you’re more musically inclined). Yes, maybe some were meant only to be isolated instances… but others have greater potential, I’d hope, if only we’d allow for it.
Whatever the case, in the spirit of the day, I’d concur that it’s a balance that’s needed… and for some of us, that requires a bit of flight and pursuit – even if we don’t quite know what it is we’re pursuing. What’s more, the drama-packed yet neatly tied Hollywood storylines don’t mean such things are too grandiose for real life. On the contrary, let’s put an end to this rambling with another quote, this time from E. M. Forster:
“Life is easy to chronicle, but bewildering to practice.”