24 January, 2015

The size of the world, the shape of a life

As some regular readers may notice, I think about place a lot. Places I've lived or visited, and those I miss, would like to go back or would love to visit someday...my place in the world, physically, spiritually, emotionally... So lately, I've been thinking about the size of the world.

First flight, March 2012
Or rather, I've been thinking about the size of my son's world, and how it expands and contracts and expands again, in the way that traveling makes the world - a world, our world - both bigger and smaller.

I was an infant the first time I flew on plane, but six or seven before I'd ever left the States. Finn was five weeks old during his first flight and seven months old when I took him to London for a conference and back to Oxford (where I used to live). Later, I took him with him to New Orleans and San Francisco, Guatemala City and Hong Kong, among others.

When I was little, I used to keep careful tallies: number of times on plane, number of cities and states and countries visited. Later, I switched to counting places "lived", if lived is roughly defined by working or going to school (i.e. not being on vacation), forwarding my mail, and having to prepare my own meals. I stopped counting flights around 100 but I never really lost my love of flying. Sure, there was a stretch in the spring of 2013 where I was on a plane - with my exhausted one-year-old - every two weeks for at least two months, and when it was done and I knew I would be flying again for a few months, I was tremendously relieved. 
Supervising tortilla making
Antigua, Guatemala, April 2013

I was thinking about this a few weeks ago as I walked to the restaurant district near my office to pick up lunch. It was unusually quiet because the neighboring university was still on winter break. When I was growing up, I would have been able to have free tuition at that university, through my parents, who taught at an affiliated school about an hour away, and so I thought briefly about what that would have been like.

And how, I never, not for one single moment of my childhood considered it. 

Which led to this question: What makes a child, at seven years old, know with absolute certainty that some day she will move far away from the world as she knows it?

There are some obvious possibilities but it's not straightforward. I didn't grow up in an itinerant family. I went to the same school system until I left for college, and lived in the same house, the same house I moved back to this summer. My mother and grandmother were both born in the city nearest our town. Few or none of my cousins left home. Much later, my sister left for two years for graduate school and then moved quickly back, which was always her plan.

Of course, my parents must have always been receptive to the idea. When I tried to apply to boarding school, they put their feet down immediately, but no one ever told me I couldn't go anywhere in the world for college. (The expectation of going to college was a non-discussion. It was always there, as it probably is for most children of academic parents, for whom speculating about your intended major in second grade is just good dinner table conversation.) My dad was my role model; I was used to being told that I was my father's daughter. He grew up in Virginia but finished his Ph.D. in Maine before settling in New York. And I can always remember wanting, in a small, quiet way, to go to the University of Virginia, like he did.

The doors to the world were always wide open to me. All I had to do was walk through them.

The road through the cloud forest, literally
(somewhere in the) Sierra de la Muerte,
Costa Rica, May 2001
The first time I traveled abroad by myself, I was 19 and going to hike across Costa Rica. The second time I was 21 and moving to Copenhagen for a post-college gap year. Both times, I was terrified, utterly and completed, and yet there was no part of me that seriously entertained not booking those trips, not getting on the plane - once the idea of each trip crystallized into a coherent thought, I was as good as committed to it. At that age and in that time period, I knew both people who had never flown and rarely traveled outside their home states, and people who had backpacked around the world solo. I've met people since who have traveled widely, despite growing up surrounded only by walls and having to kick open literal and figurative doors.

But I've also met people who seem never to dream of doing so, though I have no way of knowing their deepest desires, and it is very hard, maybe impossible, for me to imagine what the world looks like when it's reversed: when your world is very small, does everything in it seem very big? I've never had a chance to ask and it's a hard to know what to do with questions where getting perspective may cost you the answer. 

I can't imagine loving life within bounds, though maybe that is its own kind of limitation.

Which leads me back to my son and wondering what the world will look like to him. I hope it always seems both vast and awe-inspiring and inconceivable, and tiny and magical and completely within reach. When I was little, it wasn't easy to find a McDonald's in Italy and even when I was a teenager, Paris had no Starbucks. A few years ago, I ordered a vanilla latte in Chiang Mai. (Excuses, excuses: I drank salted lime juice and ate street food for breakfast almost every other day; there were no good espresso bars in sight; and I was furious for caffeine after breaking some ribs mountain biking.) So I ardently hope that there are things that globalization can't touch, so that my son still finds the world worth exploring and full of profound mystery.

People used to ask me why I always took him with me when I traveled, to conferences or for research. (I'll write another post on why this really wasn't such a big deal and how incredibly kind to us most people were.) Simple... I wanted to have a child so I could share the world with him, in all its puzzles and paradoxes. And seeing the world through his eyes is a near-magical gift. In changing how I see the world, it really did change my world.

Stopping to really listen to street music in Antigua, with Finn

This year, I'm planning to take him to Mont Tremblant in Quebec, and to Nova Scotia and Newfoundland. Next year - maybe Argentina or Bratislava, in the spring or summer, and hopefully Oxford and Skye, my old favorites, for New Year's Eve 2016. (God willing, adds my grandmother.)

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