In transit: The brink of possible happiness

I love being in motion – heading somewhere, even if I don’t have a particular destination. There is something at once soothing and invigorating about being on the road, upon the water, in the sky; moving forward, making progress, gliding toward the future. Of course, there are times when we are nearing a less than desirable terminal; when the final station is an anticlimactic or disappointing end to our trajectory. In these cases especially, I wish I could draw out the journey, remain in suspension a little longer. But even when I’ve feverishly anticipated my arrival at a cherished place for weeks or even months — like, for example, reaching the shores of a tropical paradise I’ve dreamt of visiting — I still relish, and generally wish to prolong, my trip there.

It must be a melancholy streak in me, but sometimes the fleetingness of time, the almost hallucinatory flash my vacation will soon be, pervades my bones and tinges my pleasure immediately after touchdown. While I’ve repeatedly experienced this foolish nostalgia for the now, this premature treatment of the present moment as already past, vanishing before my eyes, going, going, gone, like an unstoppable reel of projected memories, I don’t think I’ve articulated it much, let alone in writing, the reason being, perhaps, that I’m not quite willing to admit that sad, resigned attitude in this supposedly young and experience-hungry phase of my life. And experience-hungry, travel-ravenous I am — but also, incurably, heartsick: the deliciousness of immediacy mixing with a toxic premonition — worse, a certainty — of impending loss. Isn’t that macabre? A surefire way to spoil the most magnificent alignment of circumstances? Or does it define and heighten my joy, expose it as a piece of precious and exceptional luck: a comet that has a beautiful tail only because it is falling. Whether it’s an ugly blessing or a pretty curse, I’m not alone in this wistfulness, and coincidentally I encountered two independent sources that spoke of the same sentimental sentiments this weekend, which was enough to end my denial and make me rejoice over a new-found solidarity.

The first surfaced in my reading. Alain de Botton refers to Baudelaire’s frustrated idealism in travel. He could never quite find the happiness he sensed in foreign lands, but was compelled to keep seeking: “It always seems to me that I’ll be well where I am not, and this question of moving is one that I’m forever entertaining with my soul” (The Art of Travel, p.32). The closest he ever came to capturing that feeling, that longed-for fantasy destination, was in between places — neither here nor there. I inhaled in disbelief when I read the following passage, because it gives substance to my own disposition: “[H]e was, throughout his life, strongly drawn to harbours, docks, railway stations, trains, ships and hotel rooms, and felt more at home in the transient places of travel than in his own dwelling. When he was oppressed by the atmosphere in Paris, when the world seemed ‘monotonous and small’, he would leave, ‘leave for leaving’s sake’, and travel to a harbour or train station, where he would inwardly exclaim: Carriage, take me with you! Ship, steal me away from here! / Take me far, far away. Here the mud is made of our tears!” (The Art of Travel, p.33).

I have to adjust this claim slightly for myself — although maybe I’m being too literal. I don’t exactly feel more at home in transit than I do in my house or my motherland; I just feel better about myself, closer to who I really am or might become. I suppose that is what Baudelaire meant, too. At the same time, I’m aware that travel only feeds me so deeply because I rest on the privilege of a stable, supportive home (unlike poor Baudelaire). If I didn’t have that anchor and were instead untethered in a state of perpetual transience, I would have a very different relationship to moving around. Even if I retained the advantages of a wonderful home but had to be frequently mobile against my will — for a job, for instance — I’d probably lose some of my gusto for time-in-transit. Nonetheless, the overwhelming sensation I get from the above excerpt is a deep recognition. While it’s hardly profound that I love ports of arrival and departure and their associated vessels of transportation, I had not fully grasped the significance of their hold on me. Something registered as I read this: these liminal places are where I feel most realized, most self-possessed, most me. Most happy on the brink of possible happiness, just before it’s bittersweet reality. Rather than brooding over the tainted and ambivalent moment of arrival, the long-awaited chance to dance with an elusive happiness, I want to focus on that eve of promise, that rising of the wave, that truest vision of everything that could be. That divine suspension. In a bit, in a bit. Even in writing, I apparently delay the pleasure.

The second echo of my rueful delight in arrivals turned up in a conversation with a friend I visited this weekend on the Hudson River (that silent, ever-moving witness). My friend said she found much of her enjoyment of great events in their anticipation; that her favorite day of the week is Thursday because the weekend is still untouched, sparkling in the near distance; that preparing for a trip is more delicious to her than its actual unfurling. Rather than flinching at the recognition of that quality, I suddenly embraced its marbled complexity, its romantic fragility and self-taunting idealism in someone else, feeling understood and reassured.

But now, I will stop elaborating on the transience of the moment, and instead luxuriate in the moment of transience — quite literally, time spent in transit. It is perhaps my favorite part of going somewhere: that nowhere between places where I come alive.

Travel elevates and elates me. Navigating through an airport, I feel like I’m walking on air (which seems even more miraculous when burdened with heavy suitcases). But none of this earthly baggage matters anymore, because I’ve entered a new metaphysical dimension! Yes, I’m joking — and not. Even on a sleek-sounding but utterly unglamorous Greyhound bus, I am, in more than the obvious way, transported. Seeing the landscape slide by through the big windows makes my blood circulate, stirring excitement, a tingle of recklessness and adventure, waking my dormant spontaneity and soothing my yearning spirit. I feel a surge of energy, and my thoughts start tumbling and twinkling in the sky of my mind. Suddenly, anything seems possible. Alain de Botton interprets “the swiftness of a plane’s ascent” as “an exemplary symbol of transformation. The display of power can inspire us to imagine analogous, decisive shifts in our own lives, to imagine that we, too, might one day surge above much that now looms over us.” I agree, but in my case, I would take it one optimistic step further. That perspective I gain while up in the air, either physically or metaphorically, allows me not only to imagine the hypothetical beauty of the future, but to recognize the glory already present in my life.


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