I’ve lived in the same locale for more than forty years. The scenery scarcely changes. The Santa Ynez mountain range fills the horizon to the north and the ocean and distant Channel Islands stretch serenely to the south.
And yet, yesterday I drove up a street I’ve driven countless times, and found myself vaguely wondering where I was.
Wow, there’s a beautiful church! Rising nearly three stories, its whitewashed plastered walls and red-tiled roof could belong to any of a thousand buildings in downtown Santa Barbara and environs.
I didn’t remember seeing it before. “Apostolic Church,” it proclaimed in big Greek-style letters high up on the wall.
I brought my attention back to the street as we motored along, then glanced again to my left at the church.
With a sense of electrifying shock, I recognized it from this more typical angle, recalled abruptly what street I was on, and continued driving, in a careful kind of daze.
For a few brief moments, I had been in a gently altered state of awareness where I didn’t “know“ what the next block would bring (even though, on a practical level, I of course did).
It has been many years since I’ve traveled, but I recollect that sense of delicious anticipation. The allure of the unknown, ready to surprise and delight and transport me with unimaginable possibilities.
Now, the usual sense of doubt and a little poke of worry creep in. I admonish myself: you shouldn’t space out while you’re driving! It could be dangerous!
But it’s only a token protest, and soon I am relishing the memory of how delightful that moment of peaceful emptiness felt.
An empty vessel, fearlessly open to the unknown, to new experiences, to what might be.
Which only seems available when I have been freed from the dense filter of certainty. Yes, here I am on Bath Street. There is that church with the wide steps where they give away free food on Wednesdays, and after that the Adult Ed center with its pockmarked driveway, and after that, Cottage Hospital…
A few minutes later I made a spontaneous detour and drove down a genuinely unfamiliar street. But that sense of wonder and anticipation was gone. I couldn’t recapture the emptiness of my vessel.
The yen to travel – somewhere, anywhere – grips me with poignant strength. I read years ago that one reason traveling can be such a marvelous experience is that it bumps us out of our ordinary states of being.
It nudges people away from their certainty and their entrenched understanding of and belief in a certain reality. It is emotionally and spiritually satisfying on a level that can’t be easily obtained as we trudge through our boringly familiar, survival-oriented lives of work and school and family and obligations.
Travel helps create the empty vessel, open to new experiences and understandings.
In a less literal sense, I believe we are all taking a journey into the unknown. We are traveling in a kind of energetic vehicle with the doors shut as inexorably as a bank vault, and no handle to pull if we wanted to escape.
We seem to be entering a time where, even for people who are scrambling madly to keep up with events, it’s impossible to know what is going on in every corner of the world and what might be around the corner of our own neighborhood streets.
Rather than fret because it’s impossible to know what’s going on, I am finding it vastly more pleasant and simple to allow myself to be taken along for the ride.
Or, as when I was driving the car myself, to trust that I am not lost even if I don’t consciously recognize this street or that church that apparently sprang up overnight.
I have a naïve faith that when I get a little closer to where I’m going, I will recognize the landmarks.
Though they may surprise me, I also feel certain that there will be delights and joys and astonishing events far beyond anything my everyday life has ever presented.
My empty vessel will be filled with such a perfectly inevitable reality that soon, where I am now will be the barely remembered dream.