Since returning from my last trip to Washington D.C. and Philadelphia (with a quick jaunt to Pittsburgh and back), I’ve been trying to figure out why I’ve been feeling “at loose ends” and a bit useless. When I went to San Juan Island, I came back excited about retirement and all the possibilities it opened up. What was so different about the two trips?
As it happens, I picked up a book in the gift shop of the National Gallery of Art in D.C. that has, if not the answers, then certainly some very good suggestions about why travel affects me the way it does, and in such different ways from trip to trip. First, can I just say, I love museum gift shops! They always have such interesting little odds and ends! When I saw the book, The Art of Travel, by Alain de Botton (Vintage Books, 2002), I was immediately drawn to it. I had the vague sense that it was something I had already seen, if not read, and that I may have even given it as a gift at some point in the past, but when I opened it to random pages, the prose felt so fresh and so different that I decided to buy it anyway. I finally got around to reading it this week, and if I’ve read it before I sure don’t remember being this astonished!
De Botton starts the book with a trip he takes to Barbados as an escape from the dreariness of a London winter. The morning after his arrival at the island, he wanders out onto the beach, where he realizes:
I may have noticed a few birds careering through the air in matinal excitement, but my awareness of them was weakened by a number of other, incongruous and unrelated elements, among them a sore throat I had developed during the flight, worry over not having informed a colleague that I would be away, a pressure across both temples and a rising need to visit the bathroom. A momentous but until then overlooked fact was making itself apparent: I had inadvertently brought myself with me to the island. (My emphasis.)
That was it! That was the problem! I had somehow managed to leave a good portion of myself behind when I visited San Juan Island, but brought much more of myself than was good for anybody with me to D.C.!
This little book has insights like these on practically every page. What I love about it is the way it mingles visual art with literary insights with the author’s personal observations. The result is a varied and thoughtful look at seemingly every aspect of travel. De Botton divides the book into chapters like “On Anticipation” and “On the Exotic”, separated with title pages that include a place and then either an author, a visual artist, or both. I found a bit of myself in each chapter. In Amsterdam, de Botton stands in front of an apartment building, where he “…stopped by a red front door and felt an intense longing to spend the rest of (his)…life there.” I’ve done that! Pretty much every time I visit a place I begin fantasizing about living there!
In a later chapter, “On the Sublime”, de Botton visits the Sinai Desert, where he reflects on the importance of contemplating something immensely bigger than ourselves. As I read I found myself wondering if that isn’t why the trip to San Juan Island left me feeling so much more rejuvenated and hopeful than the trip to D.C. Sitting outside in the dark at our isolated rental house, listening to the ocean, gazing at the stars, watching orcas leap out of the water just a few yards away from my kayak, all this left me with a sense of wonder and infinite possibilities. As de Botton says:
If the world seems unfair or beyond our understanding, sublime places suggest that it is not surprising that things should be thus…Sublime places gently move us to acknowledge limitations that we might otherwise encounter with anxiety or anger in the ordinary flow of events…If we spend time in them, they may help us to accept more graciously the great, unfathomable events that molest our lives and will inevitably return us to dust.
I love Washington, D.C., but I inevitably feel diminished in some way when I visit. Whenever I’m there I seem to inadvertently end up reflecting on all the things that I didn’t accomplish in my life. I find myself confronting my own limitations there, but without the “sublime” element that allows me to put those limitations in a wider context.
In his last chapter, “On Habit”, de Botton suggests being as open to new observations and experiences at home as we are when we travel. He introduces us to the writer Xavier de Maistre, whose Journey around My Bedroom “…was gently nudging us to try, before taking off for distant hemispheres, to notice what we have already seen.” This is excellent advice, advice I found myself thinking about this afternoon as I drove home from the grocery store and noticed the way the sunlight was illuminating the mountains I look at every day, mountains that encourage me to contemplate the sublime if only I’ll take the time to do so.
What a wonderful book The Art of Travel is! That I picked it up during my travels only makes it more charming. It is a book I suspect I will read again many times, always finding a new insight to delight me and a new challenge to encourage deeper reflection. It certainly made me feel better about myself and my trajectory, and you can’t ask much more of a book than that!