As a young adult, I spent my travels composing elegies to fallen leaves; today, I’m more concerned with whether the person next to me is hogging the armrest
Author Chris Wright Illustration James Fryer
It was early morning, late fall. I was smoking cigarettes on the deck of an overnight ferry from Stockholm to Helsinki, on my way to liaise with a Finnish woman who played keyboards in a band that, as I remember it, had a name like Cryptic Binge. I would have been in my early 20s at the time, a point in my life when the entire world seemed to have been constructed to serve as a backdrop to the ever-interesting Story of Chris.
And what a backdrop this ferry ride was shaping up to be. As the sun flushed over the horizon, the countless tiny islands we’d been drifting among were revealed in increments: shadowy lumps, yellowish blurs, swaths of golden scrub. It was a vision of such glorious desolation, I felt obliged to write a poem—which, inexplicably, ended up being about nuclear war. As for the content of the piece, the opening verse should suffice:
I hear you sing,
but the thunderclap pushes
your voice from my mind.
I see you dance,
but the lightning flashes (flashes!)
flashes for a second I’m blind.
That parenthetical “flashes!” was intended to be whispered by a sort of backing poet, creating an overlapping vocal tapestry of existential futility. That’s how it was with me then—wherever I went, I took my journal with me, unflaggingly eager to compose an elegy to a fallen leaf or an ode to the beauty of a cornflake. And God forbid I should find myself in the presence of something genuinely inspiring—say, a painting—which would inevitably unleash a torrent of verse featuring insensate eyes that somehow see so much more than my own.
Travel was a problematic undertaking for me. Once, on a windy day in St. Petersburg, I followed a discarded plastic bag for about three miles, convinced it had something to tell the world about the illusion of free will. Another time, I spent an entire afternoon staring at a statue of George Washington in the Boston Public Garden, an exercise that resulted in a stirring political piece titled “The Colonial Heart.” As for the weeping hillsides of England’s Lake District, the less said about those the better.
But there is more. So bountiful were my insights into the true nature of things back then, they tended to overflow in the course of normal conversation. I remember being in a bar in San Francisco once and asking an attractive young woman if she thought it ironic that we humans pride ourselves on our ability to reason, and yet there we were, dulling our intellect with alcohol and empty chatter. “I don’t know,” the woman replied, lining up a pool shot. “I’ve never thought about it that pretentiously before.”
Things are different now. I’m a middle-aged man. When I travel these days, my mind is far more likely to be occupied by the question of whether the person next to me is monopolizing the armrest than it is trying to find a suitable rhyme for “boarding pass.” It’s not so strange to me now that the rational animal blurs his mind with booze; it’s strange that he’s prepared to pay seven bucks a pop to do so. As for that wind-swept Baltic ferry—well, that’s a chest cold waiting to happen.
And this, of course, is how it should be. People my age aren’t supposed to indulge in melodrama, egotism and brutally tortured metaphors. We’re supposed to buckle down, get on with it. Check the pocket for the passport before we leave, make sure we see all the important bits when we arrive. Step over the trash. Photograph the statue. Call for a taxi. Fly home. We do not gyrate our increasingly brittle hips at all-night dance parties, and we do not search ticket stubs for clues about the human condition. If it were otherwise, the human race would have expired long ago, succumbing to a combination of embarrassment and boredom.
Which brings us back (old habits die hard) to me.
I still have that old journal somewhere. I haven’t written in it for decades, but I did flick through it a while back, wincing at some parts, smiling at others. For all the buffoonery and bluster in its pages, there were passages that made me wonder what I might have lost in the process of growing up. It seems kind of wonderful now that a plastic bag “snagged by a passing breeze” should have stayed with me for all these years. And I like the idea that I built a story for that bag in a dank Russian backstreet while others stood frowning before classical porticos, wondering if the columns supporting them were Doric or Ionic or what.
Therein lies the trade-off. Where once a journey might have brought on a swirl of impressions and emotions, fantasies and false memories, today I am more like those frowning column-watchers, intent on knowing the world to the extent that I sometimes forget to be in it. Ask me about the places I have visited over the last decade, and I will provide you with a thorough inventory; ask me what I felt while I was there, and I’ll probably have to make something up.
Hemispheres executive editor Chris Wright is not always so sentimental.