Welcome to The Meaningful Traveler.
For eight years, I wrote on this site about issues relating to travel and faith.
Since 2018, I’ve focused on continuing many of these same themes, in particular exploring the intersection of travel and creativity, over on ExploreYourWorlds.com.
I invite you to continue the journey with me there as I won’t be posting any new content any more on this site but will leave it up as a repository for past blog posts.
Thanks for joining me on this journey.
I recently (finally) saw the film, “Black Panther,” arguably one of the best of the Marvel superhero movies. At the heart of the film lies this question: “What if you value the richness of all that you own but are afraid to share it for fear that you will lose all that you have and stand for in the process?”
In the film’s case, the fictional African land of Wakanda sits on a reserve of vibranium, a metal from a meteorite that hit the land in the distant past. From this powerful and strong metal, the people of Wakanda have developed advanced technology and a way of life where everyone flourishes. They protect their secret from the outside world until a crisis causes the king and others to question if withholding their knowledge and riches is a good thing.
I’ll let you watch the movie to see how they resolve the question. But for us in our daily lives, we must wrestle with similar dilemmas.
We have a tendency, or at least I do, to hold on to and not share things I think matter most to me. It’s a natural response and seems justifiable until we delve deeper to ask why. On the surface, it seems we’re merely wanting to protect that which we value: creative ideas, material goods, relationships, our platform, reputation or connections or even our faith and core beliefs. But further reflection reveals that all too often, we don’t share because we’re fearful of what others will think or say. We don’t open up because we’re not sure what others may find. And those walls we put up keep us from the very relationships that would share in our joys and foster a greater appreciation of the treasures we hold. Thus, a downward spiral ensues.
The situation in Wakanda isn’t that different. It too reflects an unwillingness to open up or to share. It too stems from fear of loss.
We’ll have to wait for the next Black Panther movie to know how their situation plays out. But personally, here’s what I’ve seen and experienced.
When we step beyond our insecurities and fear and we share — our lives, our faith, our resources, our dreams — we run the risk of being misunderstood, mocked or abused. But if we don’t, we never experience the paradox of giving away that which we most value: We don’t lose it. We gain more of it.
I love this quote by Annie Dillard. I believe it applies to more than just writing:
“One of the few things I know about writing is this: Spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book, give it, give it all, give it now . . . Some more will arise for later, something better. These things fill from behind, from beneath, like well water. Similarly, the impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.”
Instead of hoarding and finding ashes, we can give and find something, new, something more and surprising. What we gain may not look the same as what we gave. And, as in anything related to love, we do risk pain. But the very thing we strive to protect by holding on and not sharing, that almost always withers. Only in giving it away does it blossom and grow to become more than we ever envisioned.
The only way you learn at the heart level about all that you get by releasing and sharing is to practice it. It isn’t easy. It’s not always immediately rewarding. But over time, the results can be stunning.
And you don’t even have to be a superhero to do it.
Today starts a periodic series here on The Meaningful Traveler that moves beyond travel to explore glimpses of meaning that can be found not only in travel but in popular culture, in particular books and movies. This isn’t highbrow literary critique as today’s first Glimpse reveals. However, I hope you find it both interesting and even helpful.
The premise of the movie, “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle,” defies reason. Which is what makes it work. Four high school students stumble upon an old video game console. When they turn it on, select their character avatars for the game and hit “Start,” the fun begins.
Each is transported — in a sort of vaporized and vacuumed manner — into the video game. They each land in the middle of a jungle. The primary humor of the movie derives from the fact that in the game, each student is now in the body of their avatar character. The nerd ends up as Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. The tall football player gets the not-so-tall body of Kevin Hart. The intellectual female student ends up in the Lora Croft-like-shorts-and- leather-top-clad body of Karen Gillan. And in, to me, the funniest role of the movie, the oh-so-into-herself hottie student (wait a second: does anyone still say “hottie?” Or “babe?” “Fox?” How about “sizzlin’ siren?”) ends up as the pith-helmet-wearing professor played by Jack Black. Yep. Nacho Libre as a girl in a man’s body.
That’s the setup. The rest of the movie is mildly amusing with interludes that cause laughs as big as Dwayne Johnson’s biceps. Or almost. But it isn’t the humor we’re after here on our little trek through the jungles of Jumanji.
Instead, to me the glimpse of something more comes near the end of the movie which pretty much ensures this requires a SPOILER ALERT. The four characters, now friends, have achieved their goal in Jumanji and are preparing to return to their real lives. When only two characters remain, one says to the other something to the effect of, “What if we stayed here? We could keep these new bodies and our new selves.” To which the other replies, “Or we could go home and be our new selves in our own bodies.”
It’s far more dramatic — for a comedy — in the film than my rendition here, but it brings up an interesting question: Who are we really? Could those characters have become their new selves at home? Or did it take some extraordinary event — in this case getting new bodies and corresponding skill sets — and a new community (none of the characters were friends before their transformation) to become who they now are? Is our identity fixed or can we become more than we perceive ourselves to be?
Certainly every self-help book would affirm our ability to become the better — make that best, no bestest — version of ourselves. But in real life, what causes that change? Does it come from inside or out?
I’ve seen a lot of people that want to change. But I’ve only known a few that have. As in really change. Not haircut or new diet or move to the big city or midlife-crisis change. Change as in a fundamental altering (or is it clarifying?) of their identity. And almost all of those that become something much greater than they were before did so because of something radical from both within and without.
That may have been the combination of community and a “higher power” through a recovery program like AA. Or it may have been because someone loved them and invested in their life enough to alter their trajectory, someone who saw them as more than they saw in themselves.
Or it may have been because the person turned to God in the realization that their current plan and path in life wasn’t working. But as much as we love to praise the “self-made man” or the woman who has “pulled herself up by her bootstraps,” I’ve rarely seen a significant improvement in a person’s character come about all by themselves.
In short, we need each other and something or Someone beyond us to help us become what we were meant to be. It takes a person or situation beyond us to draw out what lies within us. That may be an intense struggle, family or friends who never give up, extreme hardship or a transcendent experience. But we can’t do this thing called life alone, even when it comes to something as individualistic as our own identity. After all, even the characters in Jumanji needed each other.
Oh, that and that freaky video game.
The sign outside read “Public Convenience.” Leave it to the British, I thought, to come up with such a polite euphemism. It’s actually more accurate than our term, “Restrooms.” After all, people don’t actually rest in there, do they? But convenient, especially after a few too many cups of tea? Indeed.
Equally convenient are the wavy glass panes used for the window of this particular public restroom, er, convenience, in Chipping Camden, England. The wavy glass lets the light in, but provides privacy to those, uh, convening, or resting or using the loo or whatever phrase you care to choose. That same wavy glass also provides (or at least it did for me), a lovely object lesson.
Take a look at what I saw from inside the Public Convenience.
It looks like the world we know, but not quite. Everything is familiar, yet distorted. If I hadn’t told you it was a wavy glass window, would you know what this picture was? You might think I’d messed about in Photoshop or otherwise distorted the image.
But encountering this view in real life forced me to look at it again. And again. And that’s the whole point.
We never (or rarely) do that.
We are loathe to take the second look because, let’s face it: why bother? There’s no time. Or no reason. We have plenty of new things to see. Why pause and re-examine what we just looked at?
Because what we just looked at, we didn’t really see.
Quick. Don’t cheat and glance up. But tell me, how many doors are on the house in the photo? How many chimneys? Windows? What color is the bicycle? How many panes are there in the window?
You might be able to recall the building was yellow and that there was a bicyclist in it. Did you recall any of the other details?
You’re in good company. Only when I re-examined the photo did I see any of that. And why did I re-examine this photo? Because it intrigued me. Something about the distortion of reality made me want to see reality better.
Let’s go deeper (cue the woo-woo music).
I think God throws variations like this window at us all the time. God gets our attention with something curious. We then have a choice: Pursue it or ignore it. The pursuit, however, requires us to pause and take notice, to yield to the hint, the glimmer, the still small voice, which then reveals so much more. For example, one of the most delightful things I encountered in the myriad English gardens on this trip were the diverse types of bees humming about. The bumblebees there (24 species, to be exact) don’t look like the ones where I live. So I noticed them.
But I didn’t notice the one right in front of me on the window until I took a closer look at this photo. The bee is likely too small for you to see unless you click on the photo for the enlarged version. It’s near the middle about the same height up from the bottom of the photo as the bicyclist’s back. See it?
I’d never have bothered had this been a normal, clear window. It was only because of the anomaly or novelty of the wavy glass view that I made the effort to look.
I believe every day is filled with such examples. Scenes right before me that God wants me to notice for no other reason than to bring me joy. There’s nothing important about this photo. But every time I look at it now, I see something new. Something more. Something that delights. And all the distortions in it make me want to go take a look at the “real” world with new eyes. In part to appreciate it better. And in part to reconsider what is real and what is distorted and to learn the difference.
Beware of stepping into a Public Convenience. You never know what you’ll see.
Long before we ever had cable or the Internet (yes kids, there was such a time), a local television station used to run old movies every evening at 8 p.m. One summer evening as a kid of maybe eight or nine, having apparently nothing better to do, I gave this channel a shot. I had never before paid attention to any movie older than I was. But soon I was immersed in an old Bob Hope movie, Son of Paleface, and it was more entertaining than most of the more recent movies I’d seen.
A whole new world opened to me that evening. I realized that these so-called classic movies could be, well, actually good. But another epiphany occurred that evening as well.
In the movie, Bob Hope’s character at several points says or does something funny even though no other actors are in the scene. As a kid, I didn’t make the obvious connection that he was doing that for us, the audience. At the time, what struck me was that you could make a joke or do an amusing antic that no one else would ever see. But it wouldn’t matter. You did it just for you.
Flash forward to last weekend when my wife and I were hiking. On a pristine trail with few signs of human intervention other than the pathway itself, we came across an old tree stump with a new tree growing out of it. I had walked right past the tree on our way out. But on the return, I noticed something unusual.
Someone had adhered a set of googly eyes to the trunk. A closer look revealed not just one set, but many. In fact, when I began inspecting the dead tree, I realized that there were these small quarter-inch or smaller white plastic circles with black dots inside them all over the tree.
Who put them there? Why? Did they leave all these eyes at once? Or did they start with just a few and other people added to it over time?
My response to Son of Paleface came flooding back. What if someone had done this just for themselves? Or perhaps a group of friends had added the eyes just as an inside joke among them? Whatever the back story, it raised some intriguing (well, at least to me, which is part of the point here) questions:
All this reminded me of my oldest son who is a graphic designer. He periodically goes out and finds some item — a piece of broken pottery, an abandoned display case, an old sign — brings it home and paints it or adds some other media to make it into a work of art. He then returns the enhanced piece to the place he found it. Trash to treasure.
He never knows if anyone ever even sees the work. But it doesn’t matter. Or maybe it does. Maybe the fact that he doesn’t know how people respond to it is the best part of it.
What if we did more of our work as if we didn’t care what others thought? What if we didn’t worry about the response to our efforts but simply strove to add beauty or humor or interest or hope in even the most unlikely places? What if no one knew we did any of this except for God? And what if we invited God into our secret creations and acts of beauty and good will?
I was challenged by something I just read a few days ago in Dan Kieran’s book, The Idle Traveller: The Art of Slow Travel.
He quotes these lines from Philip Larkin’s “Home is So Sad:”
“Home is so sad. It stays as it was left,
Shaped to the comfort of the last to go
As if to win them back…”
Kieran then asks himself, “In my love of travel, had I begun to view my home as a means to an end, a destination I occupy but don’t really understand?” He continues:
“Wherever you happen to be geographically, travel actually takes place in your brain, so applying the mindset of the traveller to where you live is an interesting way to think about what it means to go on holiday.”
With that thought, Kieran heads out one day to explore areas around his own home that he has driven by, but never really experienced. The story of his journey inspired me to do the same thing. To get to know the place I call home better in the same way I would if it were some exotic, distant destination.
I drove to a parking lot not far from our home. Then I left behind both the car and my presuppositions about an area so close and yet so far away.
The Interurban Trail runs both north and south of Seattle in two separate segments. I chose this day the southern part, an asphalt path that follows the route of the old Puget Sound Electric Railway trolley that ran here from 1902 to 1928. I’ve biked other sections, but not this one. And today, I walked.
I’d traveled a few miles when I had my first hint that the discovery wasn’t necessarily to be found around me. Sure, there were interesting sights. Low areas now behaving as ponds from the recent snowfall and rain. Playful ducks cavorting in these waters. A shy rabbit darting across the trail when the coast seemed clear.
Industry abuts the trail as do houses, railroad tracks and, eventually, the backside of a shopping mall. All of these were somehow more interesting today than I would have thought. But revelatory? Not really. Surprising. Nope.
What was unexpected was what I felt as I encountered the sheer normality of these places and sights. I was happy. Content beyond words. Downright joyful. Why?
I could try to rationalize the effect of coming home last week from a long overseas trip. Or the simple pleasure of being outside after a week indoors. Or a host of other factors. But as I walked, I found my answer.
Embedded periodically in the trail are these shiny metal disks, markers that, I assume, serve as engineering guides:
True North Control. This one stumps even Google. I can’t find the actual definition of what these are for. But here’s what they meant to me.
On this day, I had found my True North. I was given not what I thought I wanted — a day to explore and understand better the world around my home. Instead, I received what I needed. Presence. To my settings. To myself. To God.
Recently, I’ve also been reading James K. A. Smith’s intriguing book, You Are What You Love. In it, he makes the case that it’s not what you know that causes you to live the way you do. It’s what you desire. And the scariest part of that? What we think we desire and what we deep down truly do may not be the same thing.
I left today thinking I needed adventure, albeit of the local kind. I thought I needed to engage my external world. But instead, what deeply satisfied me occurred more internally though I believe it was triggered (as is almost always the case in great travel) by the external surroundings.
What I found along the way was my True North, a mixed up sense of direction, desire and even the Author of all those.
God hides in plain sight all around us. Our True North is always available to us. But we forget. We lose sight of what matters. We get confused and we cease to understand what our True North is.
I personally think it’s one of the great tragedies of our age. We pursue what we think we desire without understanding our deeper longings. We travel aimlessly supposing that happiness comes in the journey without realizing that we are made for a direction, a destination.
Today I was given the gift of presence. Of peace. Of joy. Of remembering and rediscovering that God gives us what we need even when we think we want something else. And when he does, we find that indeed, that was what we truly longed for but didn’t realize we desired.
So what do you desire, deeply long for? Do you really know? Or do you, like me, need to take the time to just head out on a journey of discovery — perhaps as close as your own backyard — to find that everything you’re pursuing around you isn’t what will satisfy you. Only your True North can both lead you there and meet you there.
But when you find it, you realize that though you may have journeyed far, you have in fact reached your true home.
After losing my passport in the Madrid airport and then finding it, I was now faced with a new dilemma: How could I ever make it through this huge line for passport control in time to make my flight?
I ran ahead toward the front of the line. And there, right where I’d left him was the same official with whom I’d spoken before. I held up my passport. Again, the look of disbelief, but this time in a good way. Others were clamoring for his attention but thankfully, he understood my dilemma and asked them to wait. He told me to follow him as he walked to the head of the line and made way for me four people back from the front. Again, my words of gratitude couldn’t convey my appreciation.
Appreciation was not what the guy behind me was feeling. I heard him mutter something in English, not to me but to a couple taking way too long chatting with the immigration officer. I apologized for cutting in line but explained my situation. He said that he had arrived three hours earlier and still might not make his flight either. It’s a good reminder that even if you don’t lose your passport at the airport, getting through the airport for international flights can take far more time than you expect, especially during busy travel times or periods of heightened security.
The two of us waited anxiously and then, finally, the passport control official waved me forward. A few questions, the thunk of the immigration stamp and suddenly, I was back in motion, running down the concourse. The signs told me it would take 20 minutes to reach my gate. I halved that and made it to the gate three minutes before departure time.
Somehow, against all odds, I had made my flight.
I had prayed all the way through this process and all I could tell my relieved family when they saw me on the plane was, “God is so good.” And for the next hour as we took off and I finally settled down after this whole fiasco, all I could do was praise God for his kindness and grace. There was no doubt in my mind that God had performed a miracle. He had pulled the needle from the haystack and opened the doors to get me on this flight.
But as we cruised westward at 38,000 feet, something began to change. I replayed the scenario over and over. What was a miracle a few minutes ago became a carefully plotted explanation of how it all occurred. My passport likely got caught inside the X-ray machine. Someone found it and handed it to the right person to go in their equivalent of a “lost and found” pile. I worked through enough people to finally find the one who knew of this and voila! I had my passport back. And getting back on time? It was just smart on my part to have found the same guy who had helped me before.
In no time at all, I had explained away my miracle.
How can that be? How? Because I do it all the time. The Madrid airport was just a more dramatic example of how God comes through for me all the time in situations big and small. And at first, I am grateful. But soon after, I forget what really happened. I forget grace. Or more specifically, I choose to believe more in my own explanations than to concede that maybe, just maybe, God is real and active and concerned about things like lost passports. Or rather, the impact that lost passports have on his children, people he cares for so deeply.
I pray for miracles and when they happen, I am quick to dismiss them. The rational side of me isn’t comfortable with the possibility of divine intervention and mystery. But here’s the coda of this story.
I may have forgotten grace in the comfort of that flight home. But now, when other crises occur or I awake at 3 a.m. with some concern that no rationalizing can salve, I think back on my passport. It has become more than a government document now, a means of clearing borders. It is a symbol.
It represents answered prayer, God’s coming through in difficult straights. But most of all, it symbolizes that I am not alone however much I may explain away God’s presence and intervention into this material realm. I cannot prove God. But neither will I disprove him by refusing to believe that he still acts, intercedes and loves. That little blue passport book is a testament to a grace that continues when I remember it and even when I don’t.
It’s a symbol that at the end of all of this, it’s not just a passport that was found.