Travel, Surprise, Forgiveness

Yesterday I reviewed my passport application, regretted some of the past, looked forward to the future.
My last passport was issued in 1982. My father was taking me to Ireland on one of those awful package tours where Irish Americans travel in clumps to see Jury’s Cabaret (if that still exists—it was full of heavily made-up colleens singing “Danny Boy” in a faux Irish castle) and to kiss the Blarney Stone.
The whole thing was awful. Most of the people on the tour were from a huge family from West Warwick; they wore Kelly green at all times. The young people my age were mean spirited. They cared little about Ireland; much of the trip revolved around shopping.
My father was a very damaged man who irritated the others by his loud fake Irish BS. He embarrassed me many times. My father was dishonest—he needed to cover his own failures. On the trip he lied in front of me consistently, bragging about his happy marriage and saying that my two old brothers were prospering. (Both of my brothers had experienced serious mental illness and were in and out of the state hospital.)
This was the early 80s. I had been out of the house for a number of years and was in a PhD program. That was located about 50 miles up Rt. 95 from Rhode Island, where I grew up, and I had come lived in a different world from the blue collar, narrow RI universe.
I was miserable. At the end of the trip I pointed out how much my father lied.
He responded by saying, “If you talk back to me one more time, I’ll slap your face.” I was 27 or 28.
That was pretty much the end of things with him.
The strange thing is about travel is that it can be both internal and external. Over the years I have come to understand Daddy much better and I now feel a deep compassion for him. My brother Terry had committed suicide a few years before the Ireland trip. It’s a cliché, but my father was broken.
With the trip, I now see, Daddy, in his coarse and inarticulate way, was trying to form a connection with me. He had been distant and emotionally brutal when I was growing up and now he was trying to make up for it.
It was too late—too late for a lot of things. He had also asked my mother to go to Ireland with him, but she refused. They were a bad match and the marriage had broken down years before. I think he was courageous, trying that.
He could not help but be himself on the trip—insincere, covering up failure after failure–which he knew.
Forgiveness can take a long time. I’ve never been a big fan of people lecturing about the subject. I see it as coming through a process of erosion of one’s hard heart, releasing the stone you carry.
This has come as a relief to me. I’m reading Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run autobiography and there is a great deal of forgiveness in it. Bruce grew up in a world much like mine–very harsh, but structured and full of beauty. It was also a world that valued history and memory.
To travel also takes courage, but it can remake the world. I think there is a great deal of conformity in American society. We want to be comfortable and every social group has its mores. At my age, there are still many constraints about how you’re supposed to be, including how to travel. The focus is on being a tourist, not leaving safety, not leaving the American.
I’ve been reading Andrew Solomon’s Far and Away about travel. Like Bruce’s book, it’s very good, perhaps because they are writers who grew up on the margins; when you’re on the margins, you see better.
I read the introduction to Far and Away and was stunned at my blinders, since I have not left the country in so long and lived a truncated life in a small Maine town for 25 years. (Although there are aspects of Maine life that are adventurous, especially the emphasis on the simple, nonconsumerist life).
Solomon points out that austerity can richly develop the life of the imagination; which is abundantly apparent in his chapters in, for example, contemporary Russian artists and folk healing of depression in Zambia (this is not a book that explores the usual tropes). I wouldn’t be disengenous about this, but I think there is often a deep loneliness and spiritual hollowness in our society that can detracts from the creative life.
I rescued myself from my Maine town and have been surprised by many things since moving away. When I read Solomon, I was stunned and overjoyed at the prospect of the new ahead of me. I want more of that—wonder, having my perceptions upended and perhaps coming back to some of the daily surprise that I had as a child.


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