“What started out as an exercise in what we think about when we travel, slowly morphed, with only minimal faculty input, into a fascinating meditation on liminality (the state of being neither here nor there) and whether travel is an opportunity for us to escape our true selves or whether it reveals them to us (Patrick S. Broadwater, “The Death of the Lecture?,” Bucknell Magazine, Winter 2013, p. 26).”
I feel like that sentence accurately describes the entire Semester at Sea experience for me. I’ve put off writing an epilogue to the voyage for reasons of distraction, confusion, a medical operation, and perhaps more important than any of those, fear. I was afraid that if I wrote about the experience from this purview, I would inevitably stop living in the voyage and start reflecting on it. I just didn’t think I was “there” yet, or maybe I didn’t want to be there, in a place that would mean I was no longer living it.
Let me just say, it’s not like I was returning to the land of the lost. This is my view on a lot of mornings.
I think about lessons learned during the 2012 fall semester almost daily…and I’m not even a student, at least not at any university. I’m a seeker, curious about life to a degree that makes me realize it’s time I learn to set priorities. Perhaps needless to say, one of the down sides of recognizing the importance of everything is recognizing the importance of everything; there simply isn’t time in this world for everything.
I love the idea of simultaneous worlds, because it’d mean I could stop having to prioritize one thing over another in my life. Sure, it’s possible I exist in multiple planes, however I’m only aware of this one, and its liminal quality—that of being neither here nor there—is something I know all too well. I have a foot in opposing worlds at most times. As a Gemini, it may be my birthright, but in the world of résumés, interviews, and plans, this sort of thing—I can only imagine—may not work at all.
This brings me right back to the idea of whether travel helps me escape from my true self or reveals it.
In my case, it did both. It also made me realize that I carried that self everywhere with me. All the planning, or I should say the over-planning (because I’m that sort of person) for this adventure had led me straight into the belly of the beast, which turned out to be located in myself and not in the engine room of the MV Explorer. My character flaws, apparently, were more than willing to come along for the ride.
What writer doesn’t know about procrastination? My guess is, very few. I have to say, however, that putting off putting words on a page paled in comparison to the fun I had putting off dealing with my character flaws. In this respect, Semester at Sea blew everything I thought I knew about myself out of the water, for the simple reason that I was unsteady and out of my element for most of it.
From this, I have to say, I learned that I could find my own stability in the oddest places--a rocking ship, a bull pasture in England, on a volcano in Spain, or clinging to vines on a steep mountainside in Ghana--the knowledge of which gave me the tools I needed to understand that my character flaws were simply that: unstable ground. Whatever my challenges, I had to remember that I could work with them. They weren’t the enemy. Inside, I had an equilibrium I’d somehow forgotten I owned, even though I teach my PT clients again and again that any change to their bodies has to start with stabilizing their core, the place from which all motion (and perhaps emotion) should begin.
It took thousands of miles of water travel and who knows how many more on the ground and in the air to realize, not that I should have had this wisdom all along, but that I had grown. I would return to my life on land in a different luminous place and—as T.S. Eliot wrote—know it again for the first time.
These days, I’m writing about home: as a concept, a challenge, as fiction, and as a place to blend pathos and humor. As my friend D’Lo’s Sri Lankan mother says, “Sweet Home Sweet.” More than the flip-flop of a second language, it is, after all, the sweetness of home that overwhelms us when we are away from it, the longing for that sweetness that makes us return, and finally, it is the mystifying twist of sour and sweet that makes us see home as transformative.
Our true selves are always in flux and are revealed to us repeatedly. On good days, we find a way to make every experience a step on the path toward self-knowledge. We find a way to return to ourselves different and to give that self a long and healing embrace. We escape the self we knew only inasmuch as we build on it constantly and change because of it. In turn, we reveal that new self to others, and this spiral is what we call living.
So what did I learn from Semester at Sea? Look inward. Look outward. Give. Receive. Welcome curiosity.
“In the modern Western world,” writes Jared Diamond in The World Until Yesterday, “we have come to take the freedom to travel for granted, but previously it was exceptional.” Given my experience, I would say that it still is.