The prison of habit

by Steve Brock on September 4, 2015

The prison of habits: Image of a roseBad habits are like prisons you don’t know you’re in. No clang of the slammer door. No jostling of keys. No sense of remorse or despair. No recognition that you’re even confined to something from which, if you were aware, you’d want to be released.

Good habits are equally unobtrusive in practice but more obvious in acquisition. They seem to build more slowly – thirty to forty days of consecutive action I’m told will get you a new one – and are harder to maintain. Bad habits, on the other hand, seem to get locked in overnight and with little if any effort. I routinely seem to fall into them as easy as stumbling into a ditch. Which is pretty much the same thing.

Take, for example, a former good habit, walking. I used to walk. Not just to get from place to place but because walking did something to and for me.

In France, Parisians are known for their flaneurie, the art of sauntering the boulevards of that great city. In Italy, each night couples and small groups emerge on their passeggiatta or evening stroll. The French and Italians know something I have forgotten: walking is more than the repeated placement of foot on pavement. Walking brings life.

But somewhere along the line, I seem to have misplaced that awareness. I lost the habit. I picked up another less noble one instead that seemed to think other forms of exercise sufficed. My new habit told me I didn’t have time just to walk for its own sake. It convinced me that I was too busy to find a crack in my avalanche of calls, meetings and deadlined deliverables to simply walk.

But today something changed.

I took a walk.

I was working from home and had an hour break between calls so off I went. Walking. Breathing in. Moving. Not specifically for exercise – that’s what the gym, biking and other activities are for, at least to me. Not to arrive anywhere. Not to accomplish anything. Merely to walk.

Along the way, I encountered a row of rose bushes. “I should stop and smell them,” I thought. But I didn’t. I’m not sure why. Perhaps because the triteness of the expression constrained me. Or maybe I thought someone might see and think it odd. Or maybe, I’ve lost that habit as well.

As I arrived back home, I noticed that our own carpet rose bush, enveloped as it was in a helmet of brown petals, still had two clusters of pink. I walked over. Stopped. Bent down and sniffed.

The scent was faint yet still there. Enough to confirm the rewards of such a simple act as smelling. Enough to remind me that walking over to this plant – or walking in general – is worth it. Enough to make me reconsider my current habits…or simply to be more aware of them.

Maybe it is time for some new habits. Not the ones I fall into by neglect or indifference. But the ones I choose. Ones that matter. Ones that lead to freedom.

I’ll think about this on my next walk.

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Surprise and wonder

by Steve Brock on July 17, 2013

I’m in Louisbourg, the recreated 18th century fort on the island of Nova Scotia, Canada. I’ve seen many of the reinactors throughout the day, especially those playing the role of soldiers as in this photo.

Soldiers at LouisbourgExcept for the modern-day spectacles on a few of the actors, nothing seems amiss.

Until I look more closely.

Actually, I didn’t look very closely when I took this next photo. I just liked the composition of the posts and the soldier leaning against the wall.

Leaning Soldier at LouisbourgBut after I snapped the shot, the person playing the soldier smiled at me. This actor, I gather, is used to being photographed. After all, that’s part of what they are there for. But when I saw the soldier smile, as small a thing as it is and as weird as this may sound, I had a bit of a shock. A surprise that bordered on wonder.

Wonder and surprise are interrelated. I’d say that surprise, in many cases, is a mild form of wonder. We can be surprised by something new or just by the suddenness of encountering something unexpected. And such was the case here. For if you look at the soldier closely, that isn’t a guy (as you would logically expect since in the 17oo’s I seriously doubt any soldiers were women).

She had this beautiful smile because she was a beautiful young woman dressed in this soldier’s outfit. Because I didn’t expect it, it threw me for quite a loop. Why?

First, I was embarrassed because she was aware of my taking her picture. That seemed to be fine because she continued to pose for me afterwards (though none of the other photos were as interesting). Still, I felt as if I was busted, like staring at a person you don’t realize you’re staring at until they give you a quizzical look.

Second, I had this fleeting feeling of being back in high school around a pretty girl and not knowing what to say. Silly, I know, but I was so taken aback that I was rather tongue-tied.

Third, I was surprised that I was surprised. By this I mean that I couldn’t believe I hadn’t noticed earlier that this soldier was female. How could I have missed that?

Thus, the real wonder (if we can really even call this wonder) came as a combination of factors all caused by a single surprise. But because of this, if you ask me about that day now two years later and you inquire as to what stands out the most, I’d say it was this odd moment taking a photo of a young woman dressed as a soldier.

I used to think it was rather wimpy of me to fall back on the excuse that I couldn’t explain wonder. Now, I think it is par for the course. If you could explain wonder, it wouldn’t be wonder. If I could tell you why such a seemingly minor incident left such an impression, well, it probably wouldn’t have left such an impression.

I’m learning to be OK with not having explanations for everything we think or feel or experience on a trip or at home. Even small moments of surprise. I am learning to just accept them even if I don’t understand them and be thankful for wonders, both big and small.

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The wonders you missed the first time

by Steve Brock on July 2, 2013

Louisbourg TurkeyLooking back on my trips reminds me of the wonder I found there. It reminds me as well that wonder lies all around us. It reminds me that God has surprises – good ones – stored up for us each day if we have the eyes to see them.

My family and I took a trip two summers ago to Nova Scotia, Canada. One of the places we visited was outside of Sydney, at the restored fortress of Louisbourg. This is like the Canadian version of Williamsburg, VA, an entire 18th century town recreated for visitors complete with “actors” playing the various roles there: blacksmith, soldiers and officers, clerks, housekeepers…basically everyone who lived and worked in this fort several hundred years ago.

Louisburg isn’t the obvious choice for a place to experience wonder. After all, it’s a reenactment. But who says wonder has to be “authentic?” Ask any kid about Disney World and they’ll tell you it has more wonder per square inch than Mickey Mouse has fingers.

Over the next several entries, I’ll look at different aspects of wonder I discovered there by looking back on the trip.

Let’s start with a less-obvious one: Discovering wonder that you didn’t notice at the time.

In the above photo of a turkey at the fort, I obviously was aware of the bird when I was there. But I didn’t really see it. Only in looking at my photos in hindsight did I appreciate the details in the bird’s face or the myriad colors – almost iridescent in their hues – in the feathers.

I could go online and find hundreds of photos of turkeys but they wouldn’t have the same effect on me. This one is special because I was there. I heard it. I saw it. I even thought it was cool enough at the time to warrant a photograph.

You may look at the photo and think, “Well, OK, that’s an interesting bird” or “It would look better on my Thanksgiving table.” But the physicality of travel and the memory of all that happened that day combine with the present review of the photo and make me think, “Wow! That’s amazing.”

Try it yourself. Go through photos of a past trip not to reminisce about the journey but to intentionally hunt for hidden wonder. You may find it in the oddest of places.

Even in ones you might otherwise think of as just a turkey.

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Wonder in the rearview mirror

by Steve Brock June 26, 2013

When you lose the ability to wonder, sometimes what you need to do is look forward to your next trip…or look back on a past one.

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Meaningful lessons – Part 2

by Steve Brock August 15, 2012

You can’t think about how others will react to your trip at the same time you’re experiencing it. Or you can, but you’ll diminish the effect for both…

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Meaningful lessons – Part 1

by Steve Brock August 7, 2012

Today marks the second anniversary of The Meaningful Traveler. So what have I learned in two years of writing this blog? Find out…

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Making vs. taking – Part 2

by Steve Brock April 19, 2012

Learn five more similarities between making a photo and a meaningful journey and learn why I will likely never have my own cooking show.

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