An Old Lady Returns from the Highlands

My husband and I just returned from Scotland – one of our favorite places in the world. But, on the long trip home, we admitted to each other that this might have been our last overseas trip. Scotland was gorgeous – we even lucked out and got an unheard-of two weeks of great weather, but was it worth it?

Air travel has become worse (if that is even possible), and we have become less resilient. Besides jet lag and the need to lift suitcases into overhead compartments, we have about a 50% infection rate – meaning at least half the time one or the other of us (or both) comes home with some kind of infection, presumably picked up on the plane. Sure enough, one of us is sick.

And it is not just our aging constitutions. Cognition is also not as sharp as it might once have been – in any case, driving on the left has not gotten any easier. Neither is deciphering maps or monetary conversion rates.

There is great pressure on the old to travel. In our rather aged community of many retirees, people travel far and often. There is much chatter about the best places to go and the best means to get there. Neighbors are often preparing to go somewhere or picking up the pieces when they come home to the unmown lawn.

Facebook accounts of our peers abound with selfies in exotic places, as the oldsters run through their bucket lists and their bank accounts. If one complains about the difficulties of travel, the solution is group tours, on which one can see foreign places while embedded with other Americans. No thanks. It is hard enough to get the flavor of a new place without seeing it through the lens of your peers and compatriots. One of the advantages of traveling on our own in Scotland was that we could avoid the places where the tour buses spilled out their tired clients. Plus (and most importantly), I am unsocial enough to find the possibility of being cooped up with a lot of strangers on a tour bus… terrifying. And, of course, we were in Heathrow earlier this week when pandemonium erupted as the biggest tour company in Great Britain went bankrupt and left hundreds of thousands of travelers stranded from Singapore to New Zealand.

And then there is this: while it is exciting to wait for an upcoming trip, can’t we all admit that after ten days or so we are simply pining for that flight home and wishing we had Dorothy’s ruby slippers? Don’t tell me it is otherwise. I know.

Of course, I may change my mind about travel. “Today you may write a chapter on the advantages of traveling, and tomorrow you may write another chapter on the advantages of not traveling.” True enough, Henry. Talk to me in another six months, when I have recovered from jet lag and bills from the last trip have been paid off, and I may have another opinion.

Even now I will admit that there are two true values of travel. First, travel makes you appreciate your own bed, friends who know you, food you recognize, and surroundings that are both boring and comforting. What Bertrand Russell called a “fruitful monotony.” Monotony that leaves time and energy for reflection.

Second, absence and return allows us to see the familiar in a different light. Like Thoreau, I am measuring the possibilities of seeing home with the eyes of a traveler. “It takes a man of genius to travel in his own country, in his native village.” Ralph Waldo Emerson traveled widely giving lectures and garnering acclaim. He toured in Europe at least three times, seeing the sites and meeting the intellectual figures of his era. His friend Henry never left North America, and seldom ventured out of Concord – but what he saw every time he left his house was always new and always taught him something. Pick up his journals and open them anywhere.

The story for this post is “Again and Again and Again.” Some people dream of foreign places, but they are forced to swim in their own backyards. In HDT’s case, this was Walden Pond. “I got up early and bathed in the pond; that was a religious exercise, and one of the best things which I did.” Thoreau reminds us that characters were engraved on the bathing tub of King Tching-thang to this effect: “‘Renew thyself completely each date; do it again, and again, and again.’” But it is, maybe, possible to do this without leaving home. At least that’s what Henry tells me and what I want to believe at the moment.

The Advice of the Old

I have written before about the difficulty of the young learning from the old (Teach Your Children Well), and whether we can teach the value of what we have experienced. It is an ancient problem – Gilgamesh and Odysseus are two who scorned the advice of their elders. And then there was Rehobo’am, the son and heir of Solomon:

Rehobo′am went to Shechem, for all Israel had come to Shechem to make him king. 2 And when Jerobo′am the son of Nebat heard of it (for he was still in Egypt, whither he had fled from King Solomon), then Jerobo′am returned from[a] Egypt. 3 And they sent and called him; and Jerobo′am and all the assembly of Israel came and said to Rehobo′am, 4 “Your father made our yoke heavy. Now therefore lighten the hard service of your father and his heavy yoke upon us, and we will serve you.” 5 He said to them, “Depart for three days, then come again to me.” So the people went away.
6 Then King Rehobo′am took counsel with the old men, who had stood before Solomon his father while he was yet alive, saying, “How do you advise me to answer this people?” 7 And they said to him, “If you will be a servant to this people today and serve them, and speak good words to them when you answer them, then they will be your servants for ever.” 8 But he forsook the counsel which the old men gave him, and took counsel with the young men who had grown up with him and stood before him. 9 And he said to them, “What do you advise that we answer this people who have said to me, ‘Lighten the yoke that your father put upon us’?” 10 And the young men who had grown up with him said to him, “Thus shall you speak to this people who said to you, ‘Your father made our yoke heavy, but do you lighten it for us’; thus shall you say to them, ‘My little finger is thicker than my father’s loins. 11 And now, whereas my father laid upon you a heavy yoke, I will add to your yoke. My father chastised you with whips, but I will chastise you with scorpions.’  1 Kings 12: 1-11

The old men counseled mercy, while the young men counseled the opposite – show them who is the boss. Rehobo′am took the advice of the young men, which caused the division of his father’s kingdom.

Now, old men do not always advise mercy. It is said that old men started WWI and were the ones who kept the Viet Nam War going while the young men paid the price. But I think in many ways, age brings mercy. Understanding. We have seen a lot, and we know that “things are seldom what they seem,” to quote Gilbert and Sullivan. We know that suffering goes on that we do not see for we have suffered and kept it to ourselves. And hopefully, we have realized that we are mistaken often enough not to assume the righteous position.

Maybe this is the most valuable teaching from our experience. When we cannot be sure, the quality of mercy is warranted. Plato tells us that the wisest thing about Socrates was that he knew what he did not know. In The Apology, Plato has Socrates expound on this: “Although I do not suppose that either of us knows anything really beautiful and good, I am better off than he is – for he knows nothing, and thinks that he knows. I neither know nor think that I know.” It has been my experience that young people are looking for answers; old people have found only one answer: we cannot always know and if we think we know, we may be wrong. We want to cry with Oliver Cromwell, “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible that you may be mistaken.”

My story this time, “Sylvia the Saint,” is about a young woman who is mistaken. It is the kind of mistake that we all have made (and continue making) which teaches us that things are not always what they seem. So hopefully, in times and places of unknowing, we learn to withhold judgment and apply mercy.