Tuesday, May 19, 2009

My daughter, Kate, returned from a high school field trip to Europe. I asked her “How was your trip?”. And instead of the expected “good” or “it was awesome!” she replied, “There were a lot of stairs, and don’t ever call anything in Canada ‘old’.”
There is a lesson here for all of us. When we travel, it is not enough to think of our experiences as ‘good’ or ‘bad’. We should think about how our experiences have changed our relationship with the world at large. Every new experience moulds and shapes us, however little, or it wasn’t truly experienced. Travel is rich in new experiences, and since travelling is costly, economically and environmentally, we owe it to ourselves and others to make the best of it.
Keeping a journal is an effective way to enhance the experience. Not only does having a record allow you to relive your memories, but the mere act of writing down what you saw and did and felt, involves the whole mind in the experience.
Photography is a useful tool as well, for reliving your trip, especially when you share the photos with others. But I find the act of taking pictures removes you from the act of experience. Take a beautiful sunset for example. To sit and watch the colours of the sky gradually shift down the spectrum and fade to that deep indigo, and to see the night stars emerge in order of brightness, can be a deeply spiritual experience. Sunsets can be beautiful, but if you are fussing about setting up the tripod, and waiting for just the right moment when the lighting is perfect, you get a great picture, but no sense of having experienced the sunset. What you experienced was the act of photographing the sunset, not the act of observing it.
I remember a trip I took with Kate when she was eight. We drove around southern Vancouver Island in an old camper van I had. My camera broke(drowned, actually) the week before when we were on a sailing trip, so I was relieved of the distraction of photography and was free to fully experience the act of observing the joys of discovery that only an eight-year-old can truly do well. Without the camera to chronicle the trip, I deliberately took mental pictures. One picture is of an eight-year-old girl dressed in fleece jacket and pants, with new hiking boots. She was standing on a tree stump, which had washed up on the beach. The stump was not very tall but wide enough she could have lain down on it with neither head nor foot hanging over the edge. She was leaning into a pair of miniature binoculars and gazing intently out to sea. Her expression was of serious curiosity, and she was a perfect miniature version of an adult, all the cuter for being a kid.
Now picture a huge conifer, its massive buttress roots anchoring it to the earth. Each root emerges from the tree as a triangular slab of wood, a few inches thick but three feet tall at the base, tapering to a more rounded shape a few feet from the trunk. Now picture this noble tree, long dead, washed ashore with the buttresses radiating from the base, facing the sea that delivered it to some lonely beach. Now picture the same eight-year-old curled up, lying asleep on an horizontal buttress in the root system of this great tree, shaded by the root above. My feeling at this image is one of great joy, at spending this brief moment of time with my precious daughter. The memories of that time together will remain with me all my life, and has shaped our relationship.
So, by all means take a few snaps. But more importantly, write down your experiences. And most of all, live them.