Last night while sipping whiskey to, ahem, clear my sinuses, I finished reading Graham Greene’s Travels With My Aunt. In many ways, I think this was exactly the book I needed to be reading right now. It is quietly thoughtful about adventure and human connection. As someone who doesn’t love traveling (yet finds herself doing exactly that), this is helpful.
The book opens with Henry, a recently retired bank manager, looking forward to his mother’s funeral to break up the monotony of his daily life (!). At the funeral, he becomes connected with his “aunt,” with whom he begins to travel.
Although the style of the book is not hyperbolic, the characters represent diametric opposition; Henry is quintessentially British, middle-aged; as a former bank manager, he spends his retirement tending dahlias. Aunt Augusta, meanwhile, has spent her life engaged in exciting but shady activities and has been involved in one love affair after another.
If these two characters represent the spectrum between “loving routine” and “loving adventure,” I am far more on the “loving routine” side of things. Even being in Lyon two weeks instead of one has made a big difference to me. I love knowing that when I’m going to pick up one of my kids from crèche, I can drop by this little corner store where I am ignored for at least five minutes before one of the two nice but surly guys will wait on me and get a little citrusy gingerale beverage. It’s the little things.
However, Travels With My Aunt explores the problematic aspects of living to extremes in either direction. Too much stolidity is stultifying; too much running about may mean sacrificing important relationships for the sake of adventure.
Balance, of course, is what to seek. But the nice thing about this book is that it allows for differences between personalities. There isn’t one balance; balance is individual.
Something I have noticed is that traveling can become a very “flat” experience. Moving about, you can be constantly trying to find food, shelter, rest, stuff to do. Travel is certainly interesting and stimulating, but being at home can be too–if you look at it a certain way.
More and more young people are becoming interested in farming. [See, for example, The Greenhorns.] At its best, small-scale organic farming provides this balance of stimulation and change with a sense of routine. Every farm has a rhythm, and becoming part of that is a really pleasurable experience.
What I have found at most farms is that ordinary days tend to begin and end roughly the same ways. These bookmarks change gradually with the seasons, but the real variance comes in what happens in the middle of the day, during the blocks of time between meals, while the sun shines. Of course, on some farms, at some times of the year, there are also the nighttime vigils for livestock about to give birth or early morning sugaring.
On a less intense scale, non-farm households tend to have their own rhythms, too. One of the reasons we seek travel, I think, is when these rhythms aren’t very satisfying–they are too dull. Unlike working at a farm, working at an office presents more or less the same landscape (in a literal and figural sense) on a daily basis, though the objectives of the work may change.
In the U.S., less than 1% of the population farms. Some people regard this as a wonderful thing, a sign that 1% of the population is working very efficiently and the other 99% are more free because of it. Others see this as a problematic figure, because it means that our food is primarily being produced at an industrial scale–a scale that provides incredible bulk to America and to overseas export markets, but doesn’t necessarily provide incredible nutritional value or environmental accountability.
Personally, I am keening for a time when I can grow my own food, prepare my own meals, and see long periods of growth and change around me. I am constantly frustrated by living in a snapshot, not knowing what came before me in this place or what will come after for me when I leave. But there are different kinds of growth–the growth of gardens is only one kind. There’s inner growth, too, and I’m trying to take advantage of a more static landscape to renovate my interior more than I might at home.