Pilots seek the sky. For some, it is where their solace resides. Not for me, though.
I became a pilot about the time I turned 50, so for the first half-century of my life I didn’t have the option of mounting an airplane and shooting into the blue to find comfort. If there was comfort to be found there, I didn’t have the means to find it.
I could drive, however, and if I really wanted to get away from it all I could have driven myself to the nearby mountains. But I didn’t do that either, preferring to level myself at sea level. I would walk along the beach for hours on end, typically at dusk after the stark California sun began its retreat. Alone with my thoughts, the receptive sand beneath my feet and the soothing rhythm of the ocean waves sedated my nerves. I would just walk, and try less to find solutions than to let my thoughts emerge, as if some caged and reclusive solutions would emerge from their indolence if I could allow my body to ease up, to listen to its whispers rather than to think my way through the maze of pressured and tortured “what if’s?” that stultified me.
When the beach didn’t do the trick, there was the unforgiving Southern California desert, and in particular the Joshua Tree National Monument area near Palm Springs. Exactly how the desert worked its magic was a mystery, but perhaps the invitation to death provided by its vast vacuity, knowing that every pathless path led to a singular absolute and assured ending rendered big decisions banal. If every place I could possibly wander led to death then any choice I could make would be just as hopeless as the next.
The ocean, sky, and desert are places we can go to soothe our aching souls, but still, they are just places. Although its benefits are many, relocation is rarely a panacea. City dwellers may claim that they must leave the intricate web of distractions around them to find serenity in the simpler life that the country gives them. Yet, life in the country for some can simply mean a swapping of one form of chaos with another. It might be a relief to be out of cell phone range, to not have 118 channels of TV from which to choose, or hear the rumbling of the buses, trains and taxis outside your door; but soon enough the mosquitos will become noisome, the lack of air conditioning will propagate noxious body odors, the screen door slamming shut will shatter the peace, the raccoon will plunder the garbage, and the bursitis will act up when you think you are still capable of chopping wood. But worst of all, that decision about taking the new job will still need to be made, the paperwork and the report will still need to get written, and the catalytic converter will need to get serviced, that is, if you have a car that has one.
The biggest problem with relocation therapy is that nerve-wracking tendency to carry ourselves with us when we move from one place to another. Whether strewn on a beach in Tahiti, sipping a latte at a café in the Marais, or nursing a local red wine in Rome, a simple, sarcastic comment from your partner can instantly wipe away any shred of numen the immediate environs may have loaned you.
Thoreau, best known for hanging out in a borrowed cabin in the woods, was also an accomplished traveller. He wrote in his journal: ”It matters not where or how far you travel—the farther commonly the worse—but how much alive you are.” I would argue that while one can feel alive anywhere, the challenges of novelty that relocating offers can be an injection of vitality unto itself. The external world confronts us subtly or unabashedly with its array of colors, sounds, cruelty and aesthetic beauty. Finding ourselves crossing a reedy bridge over a deep chasm between mountains taunts us into the abyss; a sheer cliff begs us to lose ourselves in a slip off the edge. Or, as the novel scenery helps to bridge the depths of our soul and psyche, we turn our aggressive impulses toward others: who might we gently nudge off the edge of the cliff, or who may choose to nudge us off the edge?
In 1975, on my first trip abroad at age 21, I was wandering through the streets of Verona just past dusk. I lost track of where I was, and was feeling that pleasingly uncomfortable queasiness that over the years I have come to appreciate. I looked up at a sign carved into a granite plate on the wall beside me. It was a quote from the first act of Romeo and Juliet, which read:
O, Where is Romeo?
Tut, I have lost myself, I am not here; this is not Romeo, I am some other where.
Shakespeare knew the feeling. He knew that wherever we are, we are capable of being somewhere else at the same time. My wife, in one of her moments of Zen, once told me that she thought that the reason I had so few memories of my childhood was that I wasn’t there at the time. Perhaps it doesn’t matter at all where we are at any moment on the earth, and the only thing that truly matters is that wherever we are, we are present and alive. I can’t help but believe, however, that sometimes finding the sky, a mountain, or an ocean to treat our senses to can help bring us back to ourselves. Occasionally, it has done that for me.