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Traveling in Place: a response to Dear Sugar’s advice to a young man wondering if he should stay or go

Sometime last year or very early this year, I read Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar by Cheryl Strayed. It is a heartbreakingly wonderful book. Ms. Strayed combines profound compassion with deep insight. I liked her writing. She knows when to use humor (and when not to) in response to someone’s question. I did not always agree with her, though. There was one letter and her advice to it that I found unsatisfying, even upsetting.

As I am recounting from memory without the book in front of me, I may misconstrue the letter as well as the advice given. I will forge ahead despite this, in part because I often still think about this particular letter and her advice.

A young man in a band in a smaller community wrote about trying to decide between staying in his community and thus his band, and going off on his own grand adventures. He wanted to do both. We could say he felt an obligation that he “should” do both even though doing one appeared to close off the possibility of doing the other. Sugar’s advice was “Go! Go! Go!” followed by a longer explanation of why.

To me, her advice seemed to be all about individual fulfillment through travel and exploration of the world. She wanted him to cast off the lines and sail away. She suggested that this young man would learn so much more if he left the nest, that he would regret not going. I found her advice troubling. It may be because she did not acknowledge just how much a sense of physical, geographical place many of us have. I think she over-emphasized the often intense pleasures of individual adventure and ignored the subtler but also worthy daily joys of being connected and rooted to a community in physical place. She forgets that many good and joyful lives has been fashioned by people who never left home in the way that she suggests is so necessary. Perhaps commitment at an early age to a specific place and specific people is an unreasonable sacrifice, but I am so glad my father stayed rooted instead of flying free.

My father did not take a two week vacation until he was in his forties. Most of his almost sixty-five years of living has been spent in Alachua County with some small amount of traveling around Florid and very rare trips across state lines. He has never been out of the country. When he was a young adult, he committed to staying in North Central Florida. When he was twenty-one he put a down payment on a house, not for himself, but for his mother because his no good drunk Daddy never would. He made that down payment and made a commitment to stay the course to make sure his mother, his grandmother, his younger brothers and yes, even his father had a permanent home. He chose not to go on adventures. Because he made those choices, my cousins had a home when things got too chaotic at either of their parents’ houses. Because he made the choice to commit to a place, he raised up not only himself, slowly moving from working poor to working class, he created the stability that meant my generation, his children and nephews, have much better lives than our parents and grandparents did.

It is true that sometimes my father acts like a martyr, and that there are some unhealthy reasons for his choice to stay put. But I’d offer up that there are unhealthy motivations for those who go adventuring. My father takes intense joy in knowing his neighborhood and his community. He delights in small changes in the flora and the weather. He’ll tell me about people or animals he noticed on his walk with his dogs. He has a detailed inner map of our neighborhood, our city and our county. He often acts like a traveller on even well know paths and roads. He is open to the unexpected. The intensity of his attention means that his world constantly offers up new things. He travels in place.

Daddy loves his subscription to National Geographic for offering vivid pictures of the wider world and is satisfied with his life in a smaller, more circumscribed world. My father would not have done well if he had gone off traveling. He is stressed out by noise and crowds. His refined sensitivity to the world- its sights, sounds, smells, textures- means that he is easily overwhelmed. He needs a safe place to retreat to every day. He is comforted by his home, his dogs, his cats and his projects.

Despite occasional grumbles about people using him and an admitted problem saying no when he should, Daddy gets deep satisfaction from helping people. He helps people move with his big van. He fixes their computers. He does yard work for an elderly woman at a reduced rate. He has been taking care of the house and yard and financial affairs of a disabled vet who has been living in a facility for the past couple of years. My father gives daily service to others. And it makes his life richer.

What if this young man is like my father, what if he is like me?

I went far from home when I was not yet able to hold it. I moved across country right after college. I saw new sights. I met interesting people. And there was much that was good. But much, perhaps most of it was bad because I did not have the skills or the emotional resources to handle the big wide world. My brain broke when I was far away from anywhere safe. I did not have anyone to take care of me. My lover of many years could not handle it. I was so grateful that I could come back home. My father made a safe space in the world not only for him but also for the rest of his family. My brain probably would have broken if I had stayed closer to home, but knowing what I know now about me and what keeps me healthy and happy, I can with some certainty say that my crash would not have been quite so devastating, and I might have found my way through it a little bit sooner. Like my father, I need the comforts of a specific place with specific people. More days than not, I need stable routines. It is only now, as I enter my forties that I have the skills and the emotional resilience needed for traveling and adventures in the big wide world. If life offers me up a chance to travel in a way that won’t break my brain, I will take it. And if I don’t get to travel, I know that I will find joy in exploring the world around me. I have a sense of adventure and the eyes of a traveller when I walk or bike or drive, when I sit in coffee shops, when I take the city bus. Every day, my somewhat circumscribed world is rich with new experiences as well as comforting routines. I travel in place.

Sugar also missed the chance to tell the young man that he could, with some creative life shaping, mix the two desires. He could stay rooted in a specific community with obligations to specific people and groups and travel. Some people craft lives where they live one place six to nine months of the year and travel the rest. Many a band has gone on tour. And while they did not find fame, they did find plenty of adventure to tell people when they came back home. Sometimes people commit to a place but take a long sabbatical/trip later in life when they have more resources and feel more comfortable taking on the risks.

Many never will be able to travel, many will never leave home as Sugar recommended. But the seemingly circumscribed life of commitment to community and place offers up adventures and satisfactions of its own. By even slightly suggesting that staying home was the poorer choice, Sugar does a disservice to all who do not or cannot go. The young man who wrote the letter could find meaning and satisfaction and adventure in a life like my father’s. He could find happiness in a life like mine. He also could enjoy a life like Sugar’s. Every choice means giving up other options. I think wisdom comes from understanding that and finding ways to have a satisfied mind, to be fully present, to savor life whether you stay or go or somehow do both.

“Should I stay or should I go?”

If he were to ask me, I would tell him that either can be wonderful or horrible and that most of the time both are some mixture of wonderful and horrible. Some of it depends on luck, and some of it depends on him. If he wants stay and go, I would tell him he can do both, but he might have to patient and willing to let things unfold, he might have to delay gratification, as he finds his way, as he crafts a life that lets him be rooted and fly.

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