Family trip to Idaho, 1950
I’m putting the prompt words first today as they include two obscure words and giving definitions to save you the problem of looking them up if, like me, you don’t already know the meanings. Prompt words today are fernweh (a German word that means the opposite of homesickness–a craving for travel or longing for distant places you have not yet visited), facetious, blanket, vellicate (to pluck, twitch, nip, pinch or cause to twitch), and complex.
I miss it, that feeling of fernweh–a craving for travel or a longing for distant places not yet visited that is one of my very earliest memories. I remember standing by the highway that passed through our town just two blocks south of the house I grew up in and longing to be that child with her nose pressed against the window looking back at me as the car she was in whizzed past. Who were they, these people in the cars that passed in strings through our little town each summer? “They are tourists” my mother told me, and I imagined tourists to be perpetual travelers with no homes of their own. What did I want to be when I grew up? “A tourist,” I would reply. Everyone laughed at what they considered to be a facetious reply. They had no idea that I meant exactly that.
Although I had been on short trips before–at the age of three, to visit relatives in Idaho, at the age of 8, to accompany my parents when they drove my sister to college in Iowa, other one-day trips to drive my sisters to summer camp, when I was 12, my family finally took the long vacation I always begged them to take. They left it up to me to decide where we were going, and I declared that I wanted us to start out and then take turns deciding which way to go. When we came to the first crossroads, I said “Left!” At the next crossroads it was my sister’s turn, then my mother’s and finally my father’s for two glorious weeks. We all agreed that it was a wonderful vacation. Because he never knew where we were going, my father couldn’t press us more quickly toward our destination than we may have chosen to go and so we stopped numerous times along the way and spent as long in each spot as we wished to. We saw cousins we had heard about but never met and visited old neighbors in Minnesota, just “dropping in,” but always being urged to spend the night, and doing so.
We wound up on the shores of Lake Superior–which to me looked like one of the oceans I had always dreamed of visiting. I remember sneaking out at night to collect water and sand from the lake in an empty prescription container—the rush of the waves dashing against the rocks, the blanket of stars overhead, that smell of freedom I had been longing to experience my entire life. It would be eight years more before I actually saw an ocean and at that time I would spend four months on it, sailing around the world. My parents thought it would solve my fernweh, but little did they know. The minute I graduated from college, I was off again.. to Australia, and then to parts more wild for four long years before finally returning home.
Life is complex and I have found that I am rarely able to predict what will happen next. That lust for change that has driven me my whole life to leave friends behind to explore foreign countries, to leave houses and careers I’ve spent years building to take off for the great unknown—that need to be the stranger and to face situations I have been in no way prepared for—has taken me to all but one of the seven continents. It is as though those yearnings for strangeness and change were errant hairs that needed to be vellicated and travel was the only way in which to pluck them.
So how does a person like me deal with the forced isolation that the coronavirus has foisted upon us all? Strangely enough, it has alleviated a guilt that has been creeping up on me for the past few years—a strange feeling of contentment regarding where I am and what I am doing. I am taking an intense pleasure in my own back yard, instigating changes in my house and garden that I’ve been too busy to attend to in my past years of going here and there. I am sorting through pictures of past travel, reading disks from long-dead computers that chronicle the adventures of long ago. I am starting to dread trips away from home, to enjoy days where I see no one, go nowhere. In taking off for longer trips inwards, I am perhaps growing into myself, seeking satisfaction there, perhaps because it is a richer place to be because of a lifetime of venturing out.
Heading out into the Timor Sea on a WWII tank barge, 1973