A Map of the World
By Chris McCann
Through winter-time we call on spring,
And through the spring on summer call,
And when abounding hedges ring
Declare that winter’s best of all;
And after that there’s nothing good
Because the spring-time has not come—
Nor know that what disturbs our blood
Is but its longing for the tomb.
This poem by William Butler Yeats has haunted me since I first read it at age 15. I moved around a lot as a kid—Boston, New Hampshire, Georgia, New Jersey—and always felt most at home when I was in one place thinking about another. These eight lines by Yeats knocked me over, and made me wonder whether my desire for wandering was simply a self-deluding race toward the grave.
Since then, I’ve crisscrossed the United States a number of times on interstates and country roads, traveled to nearly 80 countries, and stood atop the sea ice at the North Pole. When I was in the sticky heat of Madagascar, I dreamt of the glacial lakes of Iceland. The endless forests of Siberia made me long for the serrated skyline of New York. Wherever I was, I was always also somewhere else.
In 2007, my first son, Ciaran, was born. I’d been living in Seattle for nearly 10 years, and had grown accustomed to the bellowing of the freight trains, the wash of the Sound against the seawalls, the mossy scent of the city forests, the gleam of the northern sun as it edged its way through the soupy clouds. Normally, this would have been a signal that it was time to move on—familiarity having been great friends with boredom throughout my life. Instead, with the arrival of my son into the world, I felt grounded in a way I never had before.
Suddenly, I wanted everything to stay exactly the same, forever. As a typical new parent, I took hundreds of photos, hoping to preserve the quiver of amazement I felt each day. That quiver mixed, of course, with too much coffee, a lack of sleep that bordered on the pathological, and a profound fear of screwing things up. Yet screw things up I did. Every day. And nothing stayed the same, despite my increasingly desperate attempts to focus only on the present moment, in the hope of prolonging it into infinity.
Instead, my son grew. We crawled around in our front yard, peering between blades of grass to find rolypolys, searching for worms after the rain. I discovered that when I looked at anything closely enough—no matter how familiar—it became new and strange. When Ciaran began to walk, we would walk together. Puddles shone in the wan afternoon sun; small gray rocks clattered under our boots; rotting leaves sent up a redolent scent of decay. Sometimes a journey of a hundred feet would take an hour, so plentiful were the fascinations of the world.
On these walks, I became anchored to the idea of a home that didn’t have to change. I was pretty sure I’d never exhaust the variations in a single block, just as long as I remained focused on what had always seemed too small to see.
Some nights I still dream of traveling. Wandering the pathless paths of seas of sand, losing myself in the frenzy of an unknown city’s teeming streets, watching the silent falling of the rain in a small mountain village, sitting on the banks of a great river as the last green light drains from the sky. But these dreams always end with a return to consciousness that feels like surfacing from underneath the water. From wavy, refracted light into the real thing, strong and substantive, anchoring.
Lately, I’ve been working on a book about traveling, usually at night when the house is quiet. Awash in the cool glow of my laptop’s screen, I compile a natural history of the dispossessed, the undocumented, the wandering lost, in an effort to better understand my own place in the realm of the contented.
Contentment is a new, strange place to be, and it’s taken some getting used to. But when I emerge from my sedentary nightly travels through Samarkand, Tegucigalpa, and Muscle Shoals, I return heartened, somehow more in touch with these faraway places than I ever was when I was there. And slowly, I’m putting together a collection of snapshots of places I’ve been and others I’ve only imagined: a map of the world.
The other day, I sat with my second son as he taught me a song about the continents he’d learned at school. He sang “North America, South America, Europe, Africa, Asia” as I pointed out spots on the globe and told him the names of countries. We talked about the ice in the Arctic, the equatorial heat, and the insects of the rainforest, as he spun the globe around and around. We were here, and also there, and there, and there. But we were mostly here, which is where I’m hoping we will stay for quite some time. At least until winter rolls around again.
Chris McCann is a Seattle-based writer whose work has been published in Salt Hill Review, The Stranger, and The Seattle Times.
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