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Be one traveler

Be one traveler May 16, 2012

Airports make me think of Andy Catlett.

This is partly because Andy, the hero of Wendell Berry’s short novel Remembering, shares my own gut response to air travel. He knows it’s safe, so routine as to be dull, and that fear of flying isn’t wholly rational. But some part of his mind stubbornly still recites its worries:

It is preposterous. And it is most extraordinary that humans should fly. They have done so only recently, and they do so only clumsily, with a ludicrous hoo-feraw of noise and fire. Human flight, after all, is only a false and pathetic argument against gravity, which has the upper hand and is the greater fact. All will come down. And some will fall.

And even though Berry was writing long before the rise of the TSA, Andy Catlett’s description of airport security still rings true:

He passes through the Gate of Universal Suspicion and is reduced to one two-hundred-millionth of his nation, admitted according to the apparent harmlessness of his personal effects. Or it is an even smaller fraction that he is reduced to, for all the world is here, coming and going, parting and greeting, laden with bags and briefcases, milling around piles of baggage, hurrying through the perfect anonymity of their purposes. And none may be trusted, not one. Where one may be dangerous, and none is known, all must be mistrusted. …

The main reason, though, that I love this scene in Remembering and that I think of it every time I go through the airport, is because this is one place where Berry’s rich wisdom seems most practical and applicable for me. I love all of Berry’s poetry, essays, novels and short stories, but they can be daunting. I cannot read Wendell Berry without being uncomfortably aware that my whole life is bound up with all the systems and structures he exposes as corrosive madness.

“To be sane in a mad time,” Berry wrote, “is bad for the brain, worse for the heart.” And I often feel that “worse for the heart” when reading the lucid sanity of Berry’s wisdom because it’s hard to know what to do with it given the madness of our time. I can’t just ditch everything and become a farmer-poet. Most of us can’t. But here, with Andy Catlett in the airport, I can find a foothold — a way to learn from Berry’s wisdom without having to move to a fictional Kentucky farm county.

Andy drifts through the bustle of the airport, a place where more people are milling about than he will ever see in his small home town. His eye is drawn to the women there:

He feels his mind tugged this way and that by lovely women. They seem to be everywhere, beautiful women in summer dresses beautifully worn. … Who are they? What are their names? Where are they going? Who loves them? Whom do they love? They appear and pass, singly, each in the world alone, the solitary end result of the meetings of all the couples that have made her, each the final, single point of her own pedigree. …

A woman is walking ahead of him whose face he will never see. She is wearing a simple dress that leaves it to her to have the style. And she has it. … He will never see her again. He will never see her face.

Each of these “lovely women” seems, to Andy, to represent a different lovely possibility — the possibility of a different life in a different place among different people. The same attraction of limitless possibility is there in that list of destinations on the wall of the airport. That list seems to suggest that from here one could travel anywhere, become anyone:

Here is the eye of the whirlwind of directions. Those gathered here today, tonight will be in Tokyo, Delhi, Paris, Lima, where? … The long corridor stretches out head of him, a noplace to which all places reach, beyond the last horizon of the world.

I love to stand there in airports and to look at those screens and to think of all those places, all those possibilities. There, right over there, is a line for New York City, and a line for Chicago, a line for London, for Dakar, for Copenhagen, for Hong Kong. Right over there. I could get in one of those lines. I could get in any one of those lines.

This being a Wendell Berry novel, Andy finds his way home from this noplace by remembering the place where he belongs. He has chosen his place — one very particular place in which he has located his life with the one very particular woman he loves. Here, as always for Berry, the message is to find your place and be faithful to it.

Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” is often cited and recited as a kind of individualist manifesto. The final lines are recited as a boast of something like superiority — “I took the one less traveled by, / And that has made all the difference.”

Read that way, it almost sounds like Frost is sneering at his inferiors, at those mindless others trudging along the beaten path of quiet desperation. But to join in such sneering is to ignore the bulk of the poem, in which Frost makes it clear that these two paths in his yellow wood are “just as fair” and “about the same.” He doesn’t claim to have chosen the better path, only to have chosen. Because we must choose. “I could not travel both / and be one traveler.”

I am not a farmer or a poet, but that, I think, is the practical lesson I can take from Wendell Berry. “Be one traveler.”

And but so, I got in the line for Philadelphia, which was the line I belonged in. And I am very happy now to be done with airports for a while and to be back here, at home.

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