Do you remember that time in your life when you were so incredibly open to new experiences because everything was new? I mean that time when you neither desired success nor feared failure because your whole existence seemed to be a harmonious balance of the two, or perhaps to word it more accurately, you had not yet learned to categorize your actions into these narrow, inadequate categories.
It seems to be a rule of thumb in my life that the further I stray from this way of living, the more fragmented, nervous, and robotic I become. Ridding my mind of the rigid categorization and judgment of my own actions frees the ego from its usual ‘shoulds’ and ‘should nots’ and allows life to flow more naturally, joyfully, and openly. It allows me to respond to the moment in front of me, not the moment that I imagined would be in front of me.
I am now going to make the obvious statement that this truth is pronounced while traveling. It is a subtle trick of my (however brief) adult life when I find myself being pulled into a routine that I begin to see each day as a repetition of the last day, each week as a variation on a theme, each month as a slow, grinding progression through the seasons, and each year as a somewhat exciting step toward the imagined future, and maybe an equally disconcerting step closer toward an uncertain end.
Now I am not trying to sound morbid, nor am I trying to smugly proclaim that y’all (I’m in Tennessee right now) are caught in a routine that I have escaped from, nor am I trying to imply that there is anything wrong with living in a routine in the first place! In fact, I greatly look forward to the routine and consistency of a job. I look forward to the comfort of a home, the knowledge that I have my kitchen, my couch, my bed, all of them waiting patiently for me after a long day.
What is my point? I am not sure. Perhaps I am merely ruminating on routines, novelty, comfort, uncertainty… Others who have traveled long-term will know what I mean when I say that even while traveling to new places every few days, routine starts to seep in like weeds in an untended garden. The more important factor is not whether you are traveling or staying in one place, it is where your head is. Where you are is really where your head is, and if your head is stuck in its old routines, your life will be as well, even if you are visiting places you have never even imagined.
Molly’s birthday was on Thursday and we took a tour of Mammoth Cave. It was astounding. Stunningly beautiful chambers, massive cathedrals, tiny crevasses, all carved slowly by water running through the ground over centuries and centuries. There was a couple who were about our age walking near us during the tour, chatting noisily. As we walked through sparkling passageways, crossed deep vertical pits, and stared in awe at rock formations worthy of something much more sacred than postcards, the two of them talked about movies, gossiped about mutual acquaintances, and discussed places they had visited in the past, only occasionally pausing to say “Hey look at that rock!” “Wow, cool,” or something to that effect, before lapsing back into their conversation. Now I am not trying to fault them for talking to each other. In fact, I think it is great that they have so much to say. The point is that they could have been anywhere at all, and I was left wondering if they remember much at all about Mammoth Cave, the longest and one of the most spectacular cave systems in the entire world!
Now, I have hiked to mountaintops chatting mindlessly about video games, and I have laid on the floor of my apartment listening to every creak and pop of the floor, every rustle of a leaf outside, as if it were the first time that floorboard ever shifted, and the first wind to ever touch a leaf. At which point was I actually exploring my surroundings?
Where is your head? Are you exploring or are you just moving? These are questions I try to ask myself as often as possible. Sometimes it takes something outside myself to snap me back to the present reality. I may be walking around through the woods that I have walked through a hundred times, but my mind is already brewing the cup of coffee that I’ve prematurely decided to drink in an hour, and it takes Molly’s exclamation, “Kevin is that a turtle?!” to remind me that life is happening now and it is always new, and that there is a baby turtle crawling inches from our feet! And that it is a turtle that probably did not exist a week ago, and probably will not exist in a year’s time! There are no reruns in life, just patterns restating themselves.
In another example, I may be walking the streets of downtown Nashville, as was the case yesterday, wondering what to do, stressing about where to go, what to see… Is Molly having a good time? Am I having a good time? Shouldn’t I be having a good time? I’m traveling after all! Should I go here, or the place down the block? Go inside, sit outside? It’s hot. My legs are tired. My mind is swirling in this ludicrous dance that has nothing at all to do with living life or having a good time or being connected to my environment in any way, when finally it all reaches a certain level of absurdity, and just like a house of cards that is being built beyond its frail bounds, it all collapses, and there I am in downtown Nashville and I realize, Goodness Gracious! Nashville is a city teeming with life! Vibrating with the energy of thousands upon thousands of musicians, millions of people from every corner of the world! What rich history that I know next to nothing about! What infinite possibility! And suddenly I realize that everywhere I go I will be amazed, and everywhere I look there will be something beautiful that I have never seen before and will never see again. So I would have to say that I arrived in downtown Nashville sometime around 3pm yesterday, though my body seemed to have arrived a few hours ahead of time.