When I was a little girl I enjoyed reading stories about American pioneers. It began with Laura Engels Wilder and her little house on the prairie and it took me all across the U.S. It took me on a boat from Sweden to New York, then to Wisconsin and up through Minnesota; it took me from Illinois all the way to California. Perhaps it was these pioneer stories that convinced me that life was about going places. To me it seemed the pioneers were always looking for something new and what they always found was adventure. My young mind even perceived a certain kind of glamour in being able to fit one’s entire material life into a covered wagon.
The pioneers experienced life as it sprawled out before them -- great and expansive, limitless if not endless. The world was big, with spaces still unclaimed. They were conquistadores of travel itself, epitomizing the self perceived necessity of movement which pulls all true travelers forward. Theirs was a large world filled with blue grass prairies, rushing rivers, bustling cities and hilly hamlets.
I am older now and I know that the world can be many different kinds of large. It can be large the way it was when I was little and the oceans had their names written upon their middles and each country had its own bright color. France was pink and looked like a side portrait of an old woman and Italy was purple and shaped like a boot. China was yellow -- China was where china dolls and tea cups came from.
The world can be the kind of large it was when I got a bit older and suddenly felt smaller than ever as big city buildings loomed over me, reminding me of just how tall I’d never be. And as lights illuminated the million windows, I would think of how many, many people I’d never know and who would never know me – people who wouldn’t care if I died or if I had a bad day or if I grew up and found myself disappointed because my life wasn’t how I had imagined it would be.
And the world can be large they way it was after I had boarded numerous planes and been a couple places – some of which are too far away to easily revisit – and I realized that the globe doesn’t do the enormity of this world justice. It doesn’t account for how rude it is to decline a cup of tea when it is offered by a shopkeeper in Istanbul, nor does it account for the lovely quiet of a Cornish village by the sea.
Of course, the world is at its largest just when you think it has gotten smaller. I convinced myself that it would be possible to return next year, that I would come back to see how the alps look in the spring and that the next time I walked the cobbled lanes of my favorite English town I wouldn’t be too old and the way wouldn’t be too changed and I would feel again what I felt when I was young and taking a fairytale for granted.
I think I have to trick myself every now and again into believing that the world is getting smaller, just as I must sometimes allow myself to forget that forever is really just a nicer way of saying “as long as possible.” I trick myself because if I don’t, then I would feel too small and the weight of all the things I can never know, all the places I’ll never experience, and all the time I’ll never have would crush me. It’s simple, really. I promise myself that I will go back to England just like I promise to love forever: because I am afraid I won’t be able to.
There was a time when I believed in forever. It was during this time that I came to believe that the whole world was just one connecting flight away. I convinced myself that anywhere I went it would be possible to return. All the places I wanted to go, I needed only to set them as my next destination and to buy a ticket. Then one day it struck me that I had misled myself. I might not be able to go back and big pockets of the world would forever exist without me. I had taken time and repetition for granted. I had misinterpreted the narrative of the pioneer tales I had read as a child. Most of life isn’t about traveling; it’s about settling.
NOTE: This is a work in progress.