We pinned a world map to the living room wall. It guides our fingers and our eyes when we trace our neighbor’s travels or the origins of our takeout spring rolls. The radius of our life spans less than an inch on one pink edge, missing the rainbow sprawl of continents, canals, deserts, and seas.
The tax on growing older is an unsettling measure of frugality and caution.
It also demands a revised dictionary.
Building towards a dream used to be heavy on the dream. Do you want art and justice in this life? Launch a local poetry slam or gather with neighbors to plant a community garden. Create a weekend dance jam. Teach theater, sign up for a writing workshop, move into a housing co-op and take to the streets.
At 41 with a child in tow, the emphasis shifts. Building trumps dream. The latter is a slate-gray mist; the former, a clear and steady slog. The process is this: work like a dog, keep the fridge stocked, and stash the extra pennies in my boy’s 529.
Travel once meant registering for a summer dance camp in Maine then figuring out how to make it work. It meant study abroad in Africa. It meant road trip to Cape Breton Island (why not?), road trip to Chicago (there was a boy there, you see), quick flight to Costa Rica (tickets were cheap and hostels cheaper).
Now, when I do manage to fit it in, travel means visiting the kin in Texas or booking a family beach week in Florida.
This is how growing up shifts the vocabulary. I share a common tongue with my younger self but as the years multiply, our overlapping lexicon dwindles.
Vacation means a day at the local water park.
Adventure means conquering a small Shenandoah mountain.
Hope means begging merciless fate to keep at bay the darker dangers that swim a little too close to the surface.
Language alters as knowledge expands. Or perhaps language alters knowledge?
World means swarming coastlines that fester and sink. It means trafficked children in cages lining Bangkok alleyways. It means Mexican drug gangs and teeming Mumbai streets and Tunisian suicide bombers and Saudi women at the lash.
Grownup means folding shame and fear into an ostensibly rational assessment of supposedly real constraints.
For the past two years, I’ve pulled the travel section from the weekend Washington Post and stuffed it, unopened, into the recycling bin. That’s two years of Sundays in which I’ve gone straight to the business pages, the advice columns, the local news, the national headlines. Even the photos on the travel pages hurt my eyes.
The demands of this life are too consuming (I tell myself). I can’t afford/don’t have time/am too exhausted to carry Bug and me someplace “out there” (I repeat). Stories about how and where and when to go first sting then throb. It’s like seeing an old lover with a new partner and a brighter smile. The adventures on those pages belong to a different breed of human, one who has taken a different — smarter? — path. Had I lived up to my promise and potential (I hiss at myself), perhaps the woman I might have been would be richer, more adventurous, married, and multilingual. Or maybe she’d just have some guts. Maybe she would be booking a group trek to Antarctica.
What if (I prod myself) I could?
My 20-year-old eyes try to see that map pinned there on the living room wall. What do I hope to achieve by keeping my boy and me contained in our safe, pink centimeter? Do I want my son to fear the unexplored span? He is stuck with this world just as the rest of us are. He can hide from it or open to it, deny it or claim it, give up on it or contribute to it. He can live in blindered oblivion, or he can weave and grow and connect and thrive.
Which definition of choice do we choose? The one comprised of the struggles and options that land at our feet, or the one made of shaping a vision and fumbling our way towards it?
This week, my Mister let Bug and me join his brood on a dive into the Great Smoky Mountains. A trip like this seemed unattainable on my own. He introduced us to this little patch of our very own country. We hiked Chimney Top and Grotto Falls, we rafted the class 4 rapids of the Pigeon River. We walked every night to the scrubby top of Legacy Mountain to listen to the whippoorwill call out the arrival of the first stars.
It was a travel adventure designed by grownups. It was a manageable, affordable vacation in an expanding world. It was a choice to open the door a little wider.
And it was so much simpler than I had imagined.
With my 20-year-old eyes and my 41-year-old responsibilities, I see how little a push is required, how small the step over the threshold.
Back home today with my suitcase still spilling out on the bedroom floor, I opened the travel section. I read every turn, every word: blonde hedgehogs in the Channel islands, a Benedictine monastery in the Australian town of New Norcia, a Balkan road trip in a Citroen alongside the Adriatic sea. I pictured us in each place. My son and me on a ferry with the cold sea blowing down our sleeves. My boy staring out the window at the crumbling red roofs along rocky coastal roads. Together at dusk, tracking bats in a heavy sky.
Next year, we will leave our pink nest and step together out across the blue. We will let our feet find their way into the jagged purple green, let the strange names of towns cross our lips for the first time. With the same pen we use to scratch new lines onto our map, we will write the dictionary we choose to carry on the next leg of our journey.