Reflecting on a Year of Travels: Six Lessons in Relationships, Politics, and Health

I think we can find ourselves in our travels.  The best and worst things come out when we remove ourselves from our familiar environments.  Here’s what I learned from 2012 thus far.

1. We romanticize and demonize other parts of the country.

It’s true and you know it.  How else would the red state/blue state map thrive if we didn’t believe that Kentucky was a bunch of cousin-marrying racists?  Or that Northern Cal isn’t a bunch of self-inflated activists pressing liberals far left?  As I made my way to different parts of the country this year (Biloxi, NOLA, Knoxville, New York, New Jersey, Berkeley, Los Angeles, Flagstaff) I realized that the issues I find in Ohio are the issues everywhere else, it just tastes a little different.

I’ve both demonized and romanticized Ohio.  I’m a thinking independent Catholic writer, I tend to see both the good and bad in things.  It struck me, though, how political Ohio truly is and what makes it a battleground state in this presidential election when my CA born and raised cousin asked me, “Why is Ohio always in the news?  I feel like every time I turn on the news, there’s story going on in Ohio.  Always something.”  Out of nowhere, my mouth decides to regurgitate this reasoning I swallowed a few years ago which I recalled in that moment, “Ohio is known as the mirror that most accurately reflects the country.  It has its mix of both agricultural communities and city life.  While our cities are not as imposing as NYC, LA, Atlanta, or Chicago, they are mid-sized cities that reflect the same dynamics.  This mix balances the state as a whole and I think that most people can find a bit of themselves in Ohio whether they like it or not.  There are conservatives, there are liberals.  There are rich people, there are poor people.  There’s urban and rural, educated and illiterate.  Ohio is covered in the news because the story is likely to resonate with somebody watching.”

And when another cousin chimed in, “I’d love to see the political ads.  There are none here.”  I looked at him like he suggested he’d love to try a sampler platter of cow manure.  WHO WANTS TO READ POLITICAL ADS?  Apparently those who don’t hear every five minutes, “I’m Mitt Romney/Barack Obama and I approve this message.”  We romanticize what we don’t have.

I thought I would love to slip into liberal LA LA land and have heavy discussions with strangers that included phrases like Right On, Man. Right on.  And Preach, Sistah! Preach!  Yeah, that didn’t happen.  What did happen was relationship building with my politically-obsessed cousin who loves to discuss it as much as I do.  We watched the DNC together and sat on the edge of our chairs, yelling our support or suggestions for better speech writing (“That Jon Favreau!”)  I found that in the outside world in LA, there were no strange political signs (As spotted last night on 480 W “Obama supports abortion and gay marriage. DO YOU?!”) or coverage on the latest Chick-Fil-A scandal.  It was then I realized, “Ohio’s really political.  At least, since we’re inundated with messages, we’re forced to talk about it more.”

When surrounded by a like minded population, at large, perhaps you aren’t baited for dialogue as much, I surmised.  Ohio’s not as lame as I thought.  It keeps me fired up.

2. Our country is a geographical wonder.

I’m just not sure people can see it.  For example, the first day I was at the Grand Canyon, it was a mystical overcast day.  The tour guides were consoling the wanderers saying, “I know it’s not what you thought it’d be but this is exciting to us who see it everyday!  It never looks like this.”

“THIS” was a Grand Canyon spectacular vista, with clouds as accents and sharpening the hues and shadows.  The natural filter put an almost surreal feel to the already mind-blowing geographical miracle.

As my eyes and camera focused on one particular angle, I overheard two women talking.  One was more distressed and resigned who complained to her friend, “There’s nothing worth seeing here.  I’m not even going to take any pictures.  Let’s just go.”

I did a double take and resisted the urge to scream in her face, asking her if we were looking at the same thing.  Her comments made me feel as though I were on drugs, seeing things no one else was seeing.  The way the light pierced through some clouds and not others.  The different patches of white smattered against the red and brown canyon, the deep gorges of rock softened by the foggy cotton.

How often in life do we do that?  Stand before something absolutely stunning, but fail to actually experience it because we are too caught up in the fact that it doesn’t look the way we thought it would?

3. I am a creature of habit. And control.

As much as I love traveling, I found that having my own space, time, food, freedom is essential to relaxing and enjoyment.  This includes deciding if and where I will worship on Sundays, having time to think and be in quiet, breathing fresh air without car or noise pollution, using my legs as transportation, and cooking with fresh garlic and cilantro.  After a few days, I found myself craving space.  Craving solitude.  Craving meditation.  How does that mix with community?  Family?  How does the absence of quiet affect our mental, emotional, psychological, and therefore physical health?

I realized how much I have worked to truly put a healthy balance into my life of social and solitude, sound and quiet, talking and listening, community and self, writing and reading, expressing and reflecting.  When I have more of one , the ground suddenly feels like ice.

Mental health is critical and the pressures of travels puts acute pressure on our senses.  When I travel my home base is my travel mates.  I must always travel with understanding and compassionate companions who understand my “random and picky” exterior actually has reasoning behind it.

4. Someone needs to study the traffic and psychology.  And more people should be employed to fix public transportation.

My brother commented that I was unusually tense on the road.  Never mind the moment that muttered an eff bomb as the sun peaked out from behind a mountain as I drove on the Pacific Coast Highway, blinded me and I hit the median polls with the driver’s side mirror.  Never mind the parking ticket I received for $63.  I’m not even going to go into detail about how I believe the 405 in California was constructed by Xanax who are reaping the benefits of the public feeling like ants marching to nowhere.

Everyone told me just to incorporate the traffic into daily life, but it was more than traffic.  It was the basic truth of a need not being met.  There are X number of people on the road and there need to be X number of ways to accommodate those folks to get to where they need to go in a reasonable amount of time.  Nothing about freeway driving in southern California was reasonable.  I wasn’t perturbed by the traffic, but by the lack of resources or ideas people offered when I asked what was being done to relieve the pressure of so many people traveling at once.  Someone offered, “The government should forget about the borders around Mexico and put it on California.  We can’t handle any more drivers.”

5. Most people in the United States are friendly to a traveler.

In the grocer. At a gas station.  On a sidewalk.  Guests at a party.  Introduce yourself as an out of towner and there is an immediate and magnetic aura that attracts advice, alternate and faster driving routes, wider smiles and longer attention spans.  Based on my travels this year, I believe that most people want to be good to others.  Even that teen boy with a backwards hat and sour expression on his face who I asked if he knew where St. Francis de Sales Church was located, he shook his head and shrugged but after two seconds turned around and said, “I did see something over there to the right that looked like a church.  That might be it.”

It was.

Or the cashier in Flagstaff who wouldn’t stop complimenting me on Cedar Point.  Like I personally constructed the record holding amusement park myself and ended the chatter with a swift, wide smile, “Welcome to ‘Staff!”

Or the number of people who smiled at me and let their gaze slowly wander to Isaiah and throw stranger love rays to him.  Or the friendly wait-staff in restaurants.  Or fellow hikers.

People are mostly good people.

Gotta try and remember that.

6. Be in relationship. Stay connected.  Get to know your family again.

Social media drives a well-oiled machine that wants you to *think* you are connected when, in reality, you are not.  Connection is different than knowing someone had a baby or moved to another city.  Relationship is not a status update or determined by the number of likes on a post.  How much time you spend in person – not real time – breathing the same air is what build connection and sustains relationship.

One of the most dangerous aspects of social media is the illusion that those who live far away are connected by photos and texts.  The reality is the relationships require more work, and perhaps we intentionally use social media to pacify ourselves and relationships to keep up the pretense that we are in relationship but in reality we actually just don’t want to invest in that relationship – which is actually fine – so long as we don’t kid ourselves into thinking that viewing photo albums is the same as sitting on a couch and actually getting to know your cousin’s children.  When siblings move away, there’s only so much that childhood can anchor you to your knowledge of who they are.  Development never stops and as sweet or nostalgic or horrifying as childhood may have been, adulthood – the present – is infinitely more complex.  That’s when change occurs.  That’s when you need to remember that your sibling, cousin, best friend is likely very different from the way you imagined that person in your head.  It’s called growing up.

Traveling is expensive.  And more importantly is costs time.  It causes discomfort and requires some level of surrender to be surrounded by things out of routine.  Time zones, foods, beds and expectations.  Awkward moments are countless.  Everything is different.  But when done in the name of relationship building, those hard edges round out with time and the memories made, the connection thickened, the laughter deeper – travels become a natural part of our requirement to sustain our presence to those who we most love.

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