People often say “absence makes the heart grow fonder” when someone is on the brink of a journey or separation, in a tone suggesting “it won’t be so bad” or “look on the bright side.” In other words, as comfort about a challenging experience.
In a span of six years, I traveled so much that my passport required additional pages—many opportunities to for my heart to grow fonder. Which it often did, and I returned with renewed, amplified appreciation for people and things in my life.
Of course, I also expected new thoughts and feelings, which I thought would relate only to the journey. But while studying in Europe during college, amidst Roman ruins, flamenco classes, and lots of espresso, I noticed that I didn’t miss some of my acquaintances from school. Because I wasn’t in my normal routine of seeing them frequently, I couldn’t follow the typical expectation of interacting with everyone. And I actually felt much happier—I realized they were quite negative, and I didn’t need to force myself to converse so often. Without that time away, I would not recognize my true friends so clearly.
Several years ago, one of my close friends constantly urged me to quit my job. However, I always believed that I liked it and that she was overreacting. Not until I wandered around Black Rock City, bombarded by desert and art, did I notice how much I didn’t miss my job. I certainly loved my students, but once I was away from them, I realized I stayed positive in order to face an unpleasant situation. Every day I braced myself for difficult coworkers, gunked-up bureaucracy, and not enough teaching opportunities. Once absent from my job, I noticed how much I was constantly saying lying that I liked it. But while in my normal surroundings, I couldn’t avoid my normal behaviors to realize my friend was right. With space away from my conditioned chatter, I recognized that I tended to downplay and dismiss my own unhappiness.
Wandering led me to discover, unexpectedly, that absence also reveals what is not worthy of my affection. In other words, the heart doesn’t always grow fonder. And so I have my own version, which acknowledges that separation can make one happier:
“Absence makes the heart grow fonder clearer.”
In other words, what I’ve learned from so many journeys is that they make the heart wiser, more able to discern between the wonderful and the toxic. Same timing, different tone—rather than comfort for something unpleasant, the statement indicates clarity. I try to take clarity as a catalyst for transformation, which of course does not indicate fun in the immediate future. But over the years, I have learned that clarity also previews the bliss that I can have post-transformation, however arduous the path. Ultimately, for me, clarity feels joyful, even when I know that it signals something unhealthy that needs to change.
Not to say that I don’t wish for fondness, but this clarity, which has so often led to joy, is why I wander. I learn and understand my life, the world, the universe in ways that I cannot when I’m comfortable in my home. A journey can lead to joy whether it makes the heart fonder or not.
The mere change in surroundings affects me profoundly. I have lived most of my life in Atlanta’s humid subtropical climate. I am intimately familiar with the lush landscape, where plants grow everywhere, even in the tiniest cracks in concrete. I note the nuances among trees, don’t mind the pollen, gaze at the sky.
As such, I feel keenly different in other landscapes, where the same thoughts are no longer striggered. Different lands and light mean I am literally in different worlds, which I likewise see differently. Desert landscapes are particularly potent:
I wander because I want to strip my life to its essence. My only tasks are to wander, eat occasionally, find a place to sleep by the evening. Beyond those, I observe. Sometimes I interact. I like to write. At times I take photos. I ponder, then observe and interact more.
My impression is that people often expect nomadic experiences to feel diminished from one’s normal life. Certainly in the logistical sense that’s true: living out of a backpack or suitcase eliminates common, frequent decisions often taken for granted as mandatory. For several months, I lived in India with four sets of clothing (two Indian and two western). Most days I wore one of the Indian sets, so as to attract as little attention as possible. And most of the time I washed, or at least rinsed, that set of clothes in the evening. In the mornings I chose between two outfits—though in reality the choice was usually made by whichever one wasn’t drying from the night before.
Consequently, that chosen deprivation actually creates just as rich and textured of a tapestry as the one of which my normal life is made—namely, time and space for other ponderings. Familiarity in any form, whether at home or in nature, reinforces familiar patterns of thought. Because none of those structures remain when I wander, I have space for alternate thoughts and actions.
Wandering has shown me who I am without my normal background (home, friends, job)—the best opportunities to observe myself and evolve accordingly. One of my most important lessons from India was learning how little there was to my truest, most essential self. I don’t mean little as in scope, but rather how few things were actually fundamental to my identity. For example, though I have never been an extravagant person, I believed I always needed a cozy home and a lifestyle with comfortable control over my interactions.
For two months in India, I and a close friend lived in a sturdy dwelling with few extras. No toilet paper, no hot water. Not even windowpanes—we draped mosquito netting over the burglar bars. And even though the bathroom had a shower head, I preferred using buckets because I hated standing under the cold water. Moreover, the organized chaos of India, where buying produce required multiple buses and multiple hours, quickly illustrated the uselessness of my desire for control.
I noticed, though, that I didn’t feel like another person. In fact, I felt even more myself. More than that, I was truly, blissfully happy. I concluded that I have only a few circumstances that MUST be present in order to be happy. I witnessed a different boundary between essence—who I truly am—and embellishment—what I prefer to have. Not to say that I don’t appreciate embellishment, but my minimal living situation was an apt metaphor for the few truly essential parts of myself. On that journey, I shed the excess layers like shriveled snakeskin.
Not because life was perfect or I never had negative encounters, but simply because I’d tapped into what Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estés calls el río debajo del río —the river beneath the river. Some call it the spirit world, the magical realm. Time and space away from what I learned was unnecessary or unhealthy made me live in possibility, in infinite potential, in boundless love.
And so I have continued, over the years, although nowadays the journeys are usually shorter. Currently I’m on a six-week tour with my band, Blue Spirit Wheel. We just started a circle(-ish) of 20+ cities in six weeks—lots of landscapes and a huge departure from routine. So much to learn, and time for my heart to grow clearer.
“All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.”
~ J. R. R. Tolkein
SK © 2013