The Heart’s Geography

Returning home after traveling is always sweet and yet a bit disquieting. Places visited have circumscribed our senses and experiences for a time; home, ironically, feels a bit foreign and we look at it with new eyes. Choices made long ago regarding furniture placement, or lighting fixtures, or garden arrangement, or partner, seem jarring and specifically wrong, or (in regard to my partner) more deeply delightful and pleasing…life has been shaken up a bit and our perspectives are altered. Is our home really this small? Has our yard always required this much tending? When did we agree to adopt all these animal companions and under the influence of what drug? Are our nephews really in college and grad school? How on earth have our lives passed so quickly and what is it, exactly, we’ve done with them?

And who can foresee the evolution of brother-and-sister relationships over a lifetime?

We don’t tend to return with many new “things,” from our travels; few souvenirs or purchased mementos signify we have been away and are changed, save the digital photographs that document the outward truth of this. And we are frugal travelers: I pack meals that keep us earnestly on the road for the 15-hour drive, although we’re always open to side trips when enticed by intriguing signs and curiosities. The experience of travel itself, though, has transformed us, and initially, home seems a place meaningful only to the strangers we used to be and no longer are.

Within a few days of re-entry, though, the new/old life settles into place, coherent routines knit back together, and like a re-tailored suit, our home fits us once again. Not quite the same. Encounters and revelations that crossed our paths while we were on the road have changed us. Although the patterns of the daily round are familiar, there’s a new step or two, a phrase, a recipe, a book, a point-of-view or a plan newly-adopted and adapted,  a new way of seeing and being that has been integrated. Our insights, and therefore our outlooks, have been tweaked. The outward travel has stimulated interior journeys as well, and the memories—long past and now updated—continue to roll and enlarge, diminish, fade, or take on mythic proportions in the latest chapters of our ongoing life stories…it takes a while to sift and settle, although we’ve been home for a few days now.

Every moment has the potential to transform us, of course, but the awareness of this seems heightened by travel.

We covered about 1950 miles, choosing interstates for our journey south and backroads for our drive home, offering us views of American heaven and hell. From the interstate, life looked hopeful, busy and unhindered by gasoline prices and a struggling economy; however, the drive back north, behind the bustling interstate curtain, revealed a sad succession of little towns that appeared faded, peeling and resigned; taped together, but sliding irretrievably into decomposition. Despite signs of life among the decay, people were nowhere to be seen and toys were abandoned in overgrown yards, as though everyone had already left on some tribal hegira to safety and better times, if either can be located geographically, although I suspect not. 

We stayed with my younger brother in a charming suburb of Atlanta, the stately, quiet neighborhoods blooming abundantly with azalea, redbud and dogwood. My brother and sister-in-law offered us a list of adventures from which we chose destinations every day and headed out to explore and tour the landscape and its offerings. And while the sights were interesting and entertaining and the restaurants were wonderful, it was the company of family and our shared stories that graced the week and hallowed our precious time together.

What I most enjoy about leaving home is the opportunity to see my partner and myself and our lives from different perspectives. His humor, intelligence, patience and curiosity—viewed in relief against new places and circumstances—charmed my heart and confirmed again what a gifted spirit good fortune has given me as my life’s fellow-traveler. A kind person with an open mind colors the journey so beautifully.

And I discovered that I’m far more easy-going than I used to be, and able to better enjoy whatever presents itself rather than bother with prescribed expectations. Just as I was reminded again by the family memories shared during the week and my (very tall) nephews’ entry into adulthood that life is fast and fleeting, I’m also learning to treasure the presence of loved ones more fully and delight in who we all are rather than evaluate the ways we are different in our philosophies and encounters with life. Choices and stances that mattered and challenged me when we were younger have been stripped away by time and all that I can see are people I have always loved. 

We walked along the streets of Athens, GA, one afternoon, and came across a mobile work of art the creator called his “Heaven and Hell Car.” I wish I’d had more time to photograph it and converse with the artist, but he was on his way elsewhere when we met. A traveler on his own journey. I especially welcomed his sculpture stating that we’re, most of us, “a little good, a little bad.” At any rate, this seemed to be his conclusion on the side of the car I was closest to; as I went around the other side, it seemed perhaps it had taken a lifetime of dancing with various aspects of his shadow to arrive at this fair-minded wisdom, as I suspect it does for “most folk” as well.

The days passed quickly and the joy of being together, away from home, and with people we love and seldom see made everything count. On vacation, my heart reminds me, “This moment matters: remember it,” and what it means is, “It all matters; be present to it; see the love that breathes through it all.” And I did; I do; I’m trying. I spent a good many years traveling in my own “heaven and hell car,” dancing with my shadows, too.

My nephews have returned to their honors classes, graduate seminars, and the exciting time of choosing careers and partners of their own. My brother and sister-in-law are back at work, and Phillip returned to school this morning.

I sit at my desk and ponder the week that has passed. Where did the time go? And what has changed? Why does the angle of light falling across the river and through the willow’s gown of leaves catch my attention and delight me so? Why do I cry when I see the picture of my brother with his arm around me?

And then I understand the gift of travel, whether we’re covering miles of road or years and years of memories. My heart reminds me that although we return to our recognizable daily rounds, we are changed and renewed. Travel clarifies the passing of time, the endurance of love, and the connections that last. It invites us to let go of the memories, beliefs, and feelings that no longer serve our spirit’s growth. We don’t need the excess baggage.

Travel allows us to set down judgement and see we’re just like “most folk,” equally light and dark, good and bad, seeking safety and better times, and sometimes discovering both when we let go of anything that impedes our ability to love. Heaven or hell depends on our perspective; we can travel down either road. Setting down and letting go of our hell, whatever it may be, frees our arms to embrace heaven and make our home there.

It was good to be gone. Our journey offered priceless insights and valuable perspectives. Frugal travelers that we are, we still came home with armloads of blessings. It is good to be home.

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9 thoughts on “The Heart’s Geography

  1. Glad you had a great trip Catherine. Sounds like it was fun. I have a friend that lives in Athens. Thanks for sharing your travels….VK

  2. This was a wonderful excursion, Catherine, along the travelers path. I’ve moved often, travel less now than earlier, but have lived nearly half my life in a foreign country. It has been a challenge to learn how to deal with the adjustments of arriving, leaving, retuning. Beautifully expressed. Glad your trip went so well!

  3. It is true… there is a lot to be learned from travel, including the coming home, as you describe it. We tend to get involved in routines… and while traveling we can liberate ourselves from routines and habits. We can live each day as it comes, and make more choices… I enjoyed this post, even if I got to it a bit late.

  4. I’ve been reading and re reading this beautiful essay ever since you shared it. To me one of the most moving lines is “Why do I cry when I see the picture of my brother with his arm around me?” Reminds me of that line in The Wild Swans at Coole where Yeats says “a nineteenth autumn has come upon me since first I saw those brilliant creatures, and now my heart is sore.”

    I read and re read this brilliant essay because it “reads the reader,” if you will. The blending of the literal journey to Atlanta and then back home to Wisconsin blends with all of the criss crossings of the metaphorica, spiritual, and emotional journeys that are nesting in the author’s psyche as she writes. Of course I remember so many of the writer’s long journeys, in geographical and emotional miles, to Peachtree City and back to Wisconsin, and the mixture of longing, of love, of the difficulty of saying good bye to her family. And the necessity of “coming home,” to the places she “was” “in” at different points in time.

    I read this essay often, not for answers but comfort — spiritual comfort – for all journeys end with other journeys. In my geographical isoloation from all my loved ones, my literal family in the western states and my emotional family in the modwest, I make journeys every day in my soul. There isn’t a day that goes by where I don’t great and embrace everyone I love. I carry them and hold them in my heart.

    Thank you again for this beautiful essay!

    • Thank you, MN, for your sensitive and generous reading and response; it means a great deal to me that one who has journeyed with me across years and galaxies of self and relational evolution still visits my orbits, knowing and known…your heart and wisdom are precious to me.

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