The Diorama of Ordinary Life: A Meditation on the Need for Travel


A view from sailing into Port At Fael, the Azores.

As I meet my middle thirties, I’m finding the lifelong, insatiable urge to see this world and be witness to new experience isn’t going away. When I’m home and the grass is long and the bathroom faucet is dripping, I start to feel as though the walls are closing in on me. I look at the objects around me, the possessions I’ve collected on the theme of “me” and I ponder how I got here.

If it’s been too long since I’ve traveled, I feel out of context even in the construct of my own design: this is not my house, this is not my beautiful wife. It’s not the old cliche about feeling imprisoned, but it is a bit like being fixed in a diorama I’ve built to suit my needs, my wishes and some of my desires. That’s the problem: it’s all me, me marinating in the thought of me.

We see these static dioramas in our lives every day. Like at cocktail parties. Conversations center around the health care debate, the relative greenness of bamboo flooring and what kind of Ikea furniture doesn’t look too Ikea.

And there’s always that one person at the party who just got back from backpacking in Bhutan or trekking in India. They are sharing a story of life off the beaten path and there is something about the passion of the story that makes us, just for a moment, deify that person because he or she “just did it.” For a moment, you fall out of yourself and let your imagination go wild as the yarn spins to the room. You experience life as an expression of navigation and let yourself become a character in the story being told. You dream of being wherever there is.  You imagine how resourceful (or not) you’d be. You taste the chimichurri, you bathe your bottom in the bidet.

But when the story ends, you find yourself back in your diorama, happy wine buzz fading away with it. Yes, it’s hard to get away. It’s hard to button up the house, forget the hedge trimming and jump into an ecstatic mode of being in some foreign place. But don’t you want it?

Trust me, you do. Make a plan, set a date. Read Travels with Charley. Even the planning phase will begin to disentangle you from you. You’ll start thinking of different ways of thinking and how different people live different lives. And once you go, you’ll come back to your diorama and it won’t look the same.  You’ll notice objects in your life that have been there for ages, but you never noticed them quite in the way you do now, with fresh eyes. Maybe they’ll even take on new meaning. You’ll think about the flavor of your tap water compared to where you were. You’ll think about the shape of your toilet, you’ll think about someone else’s health care debate and all of the sudden you’ll feel what all people who travel know: traveling makes you a better person in your home world.