This week I’m heading off to Spain for a do-it-yourself cycling vacation. Several friends and colleagues urged me to blog from there, and while I certainly might if the beach, the bike trails and the tapas aren’t beckoning, their urging got me thinking about why I’m doing this—as in , why am I spending more money than I should to fly to a place I’ve never been to before, where they speak a language (Catalan) I don’t know a word of, to ride from 20 to 60 miles a day in unflattering spandex, with no sag wagon behind us to help us up the hills rather than, say, remodeling my kitchen or going on a clothes-buying spree? There are probably several factors in my psyche that might explain what at times feels like a crazy thing to do, but as I started mulling the why question over, I think it has to do with reading.
The great Russian writer Tolstoy once said that literature is always one of two basic stories: either a person goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town. The novel I wrote was of the latter kind, with the stranger being the young Rudyard Kipling who came to Brattleboro, Vermont, with a pregnant wife, hardly any money, and the seed of a story that would eventually become The Jungle Book. But as a reader, I seem to gravitate to the former. As a child, for instance, my favorite fairy tale was Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Snow Queen,” where brave little Gerta travels to the land of ice to rescue her dear friend from the clutches of the Snow Queen (and which inspired two great recent children’s books, Breadcrumbs by Anne Ursu and Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy by Karen Foxlee).
And then there were all those classic journey books I couldn’t get enough of: A Wrinkle in Time, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Hobbit, The Phantom Tollbooth. Thinking back to those books now, I realized that each book’s main characters were on some sort of a quest, whether intentionally like A Wrinkle in Time’s Meg, who longed to find her missing father, or unintentionally like the children in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe who accidentally stumbled into a portal to a magic land. And reminded of that, I found myself wondering if I, too, was on a quest—and if so, a quest for what?
That question led me back to my bookshelf where I searched for a story by the writer Evan S. Connell I remembered reading many year ago. The story was called “The Walls of Avila” and it was about a group of men from the Midwest who’d been childhood friends. All of them had stayed in the town they’d grown up in except for one named J.D., who’d spent more than a decade wandering through Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. When J.D. comes back for a brief visit, the others regard him with a mix of bafflement and judgment. They can’t understand why he’d chosen to live the itinerate way he did, even when he tries to explain it, as the narrator of the story recounts here in the passage I’d been l looking for:
He had explained that the difference between our town and these other places he had been was that when you go walking down a boulevard in some strange land and you see a tree burgeoning, you understand that this is beautiful, and there comes with this knowledge a moment of indescribable poignance in the realization that as this tree must die, so will you die. But when, in the home you have always known, you find a tree in bud you think only that spring has come again.
I don’t think I seek out foreign places to be reminded that I’ll die; nor do I think you can’t find those moments in your own backyard, as another journey book character Dorothy discovered after spending some time in Oz. But I do think those moments of “indescribable poignance” are what I’m after on my journeys whether they’re to a foreign country, a classroom or a book: I want to be in the presence of something beautiful that speaks to fragility and the endurance of this amazing world of ours.
As for the traveling by bicycle, I can actually pinpoint the exact moment I decided I wanted to do that. And it came from reading, too. Beyond phonics worksheet I don’t really recall anything from my elementary years that resembles real reading instruction. But in sixth grade my class used an SRA reading program, which meant that during ‘reading’ we’d each go to a box on the windowsill and pick a color-coded text on a piece of cardboard to read and answer questions about. I remember the colors—teal and ocher—more than the actual texts. But there was one I vividly remember about the American Youth Hostel organization, which described how you could travel from hostel to hostel in amazing places by bicycle. From that a life was born.
I imagine I’m not the only one whose life feels shaped by reading. And while, with all those adventures ahead, I might not get to blogging, I would love to read other readers’ stories about how reading shaped their lives. So share a story by leaving a comment. And now I have to go.