“We look at the world once, in childhood.
The rest is memory”
― Louise Glück
Rain washing windows, the train waiting on sidings…freights flash by so close just a flickering blur…Eerie return to Denver Union Station, deserted an hour after a-swarm with activity from arrival of California Zephyr. Took my bag from baggage room and walked away…Yuppie Mexican food and Dos Equis in New Canaan…Desi Chicago cabbie who loved his Chevrolet Caprice…Got it used from the police department. Paying to bring whole family over. Hugely fat surly Denver cabbie hated his Caprice — constantly replacing brakes due to hills…The White Hen Delicatessen in Chicago, six different kinds of coffee brewing 24/7…I.Z.’s simple joy in Chicago after uptight Philadelphia Main Line…Post Road diners between the City and Boston. Denver nachos with thunderstorm, umbrellas trying to take wing. Buffalo burgers and black-walnut ice cream in the Rockies….
Rereading sketchy late-Twentieth Century notes from a continent-spanning train trip home after a Manhattan visit made me think of the Gluck quote. Because my memory was on the trip I really looked.
Way my brain works, it produced memory of all the things read promoting beneficent benefits of travel. And my often-negative reaction to the notion. Which itched the back of my mind, as it searched for a concept to unify Gluck’s evocative statement with my remembered experience on the train. My memory of the trip: how fresh every observation was; unfiltered as my first childhood view of the astonishing Atlantic Ocean — ever fresh in memory.
I needed a…thesis! The word appeared with my third morning sip of pinon-nut coffee. H’mm, what came next? I thought synthesis. But there was a third word I could not recall. To a brain shaped before the internet appeared it seems like cheating to consult the Google Brain. Intellectual rigor requires studying and committing concepts to memory, on call as required. Wasn’t that the entire point of education? Wasn’t that what various diplomas and etc. were meant to represent — successful intellectual rigor?
Fourth sip of coffee. Wake up, bonehead. Who even cares about these ruminations of an aging old-fashioned brain. Look it up!
Entered thesis…synthesis, Google is good at filling in the ellipsis. Antithesis was the third leg of the dialectic stool, widely attributed to Hegel. Even called the Hegelian dialectic. Google assured me copiously his biographers insist he never wrote the specific equation down. Reminding me of a Medium story alleging the cold French Queen never said “Let them eat cake” which brought on the pitchforks, torches, tumbrels and guillotine…I am so easily distracted.
More coffee. Explaining writing is an exercise in futility. Travel notes don’t give a rat’s ass for form; they go directly from eye to instrument with no filter or edit.
So: thesis “We look at the world once, in childhood. The rest is memory.”
Antithesis: Unless we travel. Travel makes us look again — with no automatic comparison to previous memory. A kind of unacknowledged “travel amnesia” sets in, blocking episodic memory by which we navigate familiar surroundings, focusing our attention entirely outward — and we look.
Synthesis: Flinging oneself into the unfamiliar— i.e. travel — is close as we can come to replicating the one, unfiltered, childhood look at the world of which Gluck writes.
Many have had the experience, and it moves them. Some attempt to explain with phrases like travel is broadening, and so forth. Here’s my idea: travel gives us back a child’s devouring eyes and ears and sense of touch, stripped of imposed filters of age and experience.