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It's a fine line between living for the moment and being a sociopath.

Patricia B McConnell: For The Love Of A Dog.

Pema Chodron: The Places That Scare You

Daniel Wallace: Mr Sebastian & the Negro Magician

All paths lead to the same goal: to convey to others what we are. --Pablo Neruda

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Just another trip

I have been before to Milan, and I have seen Lake Como in autumn. This weekend was just another trip.

But there are places you go that have nothing to do with the destination on your boarding pass. Even as it is handed to you by the (you hope) smiling woman behind the check-in counter -- the one who is at first grumpy because you haven't used the touch-screen kiosk, but who you then charm with your unintentionally, but unavoidably, self-effacing French -- your boarding pass is only a minor promissory note drawn on the potential of a journey: a flight and a landing. That is all.

It would be reassuring if the rest were up to you. It isn't. We know this, all of us, somewhere in us, but comfort ourselves nevertheless with self-deceiving optimism that intent is nine tenths of destiny, that the journey is mostly known in advance, and only the linear unspooling of a pre-written narrative remains to be lived. The perfect trip is one on which everything flows uneventfully from the plan, and nothing goes awry. The blessings of on-time percentages, uncongested roads, and luggage that magically appears on a conveyor belt are what we unthinkingly beseech of our silent, secular St Christophers.

So focused have we become on eliminating the unpredictable, in travel, that we often misplace the essential joy of journeys: the unexpected. We plan to within an inch of our lives, yet we still hope -- don't we? -- to experience something more than the self-fulfilling prophecy of a perfectly executed itinerary.

As in our travels, so it is in our relationships. What we cherish in finding love, of all kinds, is the unexpected: a profound connection with another human being; the initial shock of mutual embrace having entered our lives in an unanticipated moment and place. Settling into a friendship over time, however, discovery wanes. We begin to value what is already known, exalting established intimacy and all the assumptions that sustain it. We hope our friends don't surprise us too much, too often. The unexpected is no longer the currency that draws us, nor what defines the mutuality. That coin is exchanged for constancy, which is but a loverly word for predictability.

This is right and good. As love matures, novelty ripens into faithfulness: a fidelity to what we know of each other's hearts and minds, and a devotion to protecting our most cherished friendships from the calamities that befall those fashioned from more ephemeral material.

But it is at our own risk that we, with careful engineering, attempt to excise surprise from our journeys, be they across the map or into the hearts of friends. Missed connections lay bare the assumptive fiction that an itinerary should be destiny, and our arrogance of will that we wish it to be; that a travel plan is little better at predicting the future than any more arcane alchemical device. You want to believe you know where you are going, and how, and when. And why. But you can't. None of us do.

It was an old maxim of nineteenth century European explorers that adventures only occur as a result of poor planning. Perhaps. I'd rather think of them as catalysts to our humility and wonder. We cannot know our path, and what's possible is always greater than our imagination. Life is easier without incident. It is also not life.

We all, in travel, in friendship, in love, have different tolerances for risk -- which is another way of saying we all have different appetites for adventure. And we all choose carefully, if sometimes only semi-consciously, the spheres of our lives in which we tolerate the unexpected, and those in which we build vain bulwarks against chance. Some risk their hearts but protect their bodies. Others safeguard their careers while gambling their marriages. And on and on.

If you had asked me, on Friday morning, to predict my weekend, I would have given you a prescient sketch. The outline of anticipated events would have matched well the tracings that the passage of time has since overlaid. Yet these things -- the bullet points of the Monday morning how-was-your-weekend workplace rundown -- do not tell the story of my journey: adventures into the hearts of unexpected, extraordinary people; a ride across mountains in the boot of a car; simulated sex on the floor of one of the world's most celebrated rooms.

It is only in departures from what we know that we learn, and departures from the expected in which we thrill. Craving peaceful contentment, I forget too often that it is in extending myself into the unknown that I experience the full fascination of living, and the encompassing joy of loving. The expected is refuge and solace. The unexpected, the accidental, always holds the potential to be a prat-fall into wonder.

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Happy birthday, Sean.


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