Monday, August 31, 2009

Butterfly in the Sky...

A friend of mine posed a question the other day on Facebook, and it was an interesting one, so I thought I'd answer it.

"If you could go anywhere in the world, where would it be?" A simple question, really, but what made it fascinating were the answers that she got. Italy. Ireland. Greece. European countries mainly. The underlying question that I heard was "Why would you want to go there?" What makes people want abandoned ruins and lavish castles? What makes them yearn for lavish countrysides, or the beauty of fellow people on European beaches? Why look for greener grass?

I certainly understand the seduction of travel. There have been times, when, traveling at 70mph on the interstate through Conyers that I just wanted to keep going, to travel to someplace else, wherever, and enjoy my life of freedom. But, as Shawn Mullins sang, "Freedom's just a metaphor / You got no place to go." Freedom, the ability to run away from the life we have, has a strong pull. It's running away from reality, escaping from this place to another. I have known people to do it. A good percentage of the people that have worked at Borders with me have quit suddenly and moved to California, or Colorado, or Texas. Someplace far away from Georgia. Whether they found what they were looking for, I'm not sure. I hope they did. But I've had other friends that, just to get away, moved to Canada. One found happiness, marriage. The other, misery, loneliness. She moved back later and was a shadow of herself. And of course, it is certainly possible to escape from reality by taking drugs, alcohol...etc... but since I'm not talking about that necessarily, I won't. I do want to mention that reading can push that need to get away even more. There are scenes in Steven Hall's The Raw Shark Texts that describe the shores of the Greek Isles. Idyllic, almost paradise, and those scenes really make you want to visit there. I'll return to travel and reading in a minute.

So let's say you have the money to go to Europe and travel around Italy. Now, don't misunderstand me, I'd love to go and do just that, but let's think for a moment about why someone would want to go to Europe in the first place. Everyone talks about the Historical landmarks...the castles, the churches, the paintings and masterpieces of geniuses that lived hundreds of years ago. The achievements of mankind are definitely a worthy subject for study. I doubt one could stand in front of Michelangelo's David and not feel a sense of awe that a human being could have conceived such a piece of art. Similarly, you couldn't stand in front of St. Peter's cathedral in Rome, with the outstretched arms folding outward, embracing you, and not see the magnificence of what we can build when we try. We should see this in our own country, our own city, our neighborhoods. Because the difference is merely one of conception and usage. Could we not stand in front of the Brooklyn Bridge, and, seeing the mathematical formulas that stand the structure erect, marvel in the masterpiece that men had constructed, right here in America? Or the skyscrapers in New York City, or Chicago, or Atlanta, raised to the sky in some high praise for what we have done with the iron, the steel, the rock of this nation? It is what holds us up, holds us together. (you will excuse me if I've taken a page from makes me feel good, right in a way.) So when you go to Europe and stand before the Colosseum, or you wander about the Parthenon, realize the rocks that were carved into these shapes are not what is awe inspiring, but the people who built them are. I think if I were to go to the Old World, what would be truly wonderful to see would be the Aqueducts in Spain, still carrying water from the mountains to the villages, after all these years. Or maybe the sections of the Via Appia that still cover the streets of Italian villages, that are still used today like cobblestone streets.

If I were to travel anywhere in the world, I would go first to the Peruvian Andes, and see the marvels of Macchu Picchu, of the roads and bridges that still stand, and of the ancestors that still use those bridges. What power the Incas must have had, to construct the buildings of that city, with such angles of perfection and consistency. Only the pyramids of Egypt would compare in architectural wonder. But as I said before, it's not really the buildings I would want to see, but the people and the culture of the society that made them. So actually, it would not be just a place I would travel, but a time.

I wouldn't want just to see the Parthenon, covered as it is now with iron bars and archeologists who are trying to keep it erect. And aside them, the markets and the souvenir shops that sell postcards and t-shirts, that keep the 21st century very much in the forefront of the mind. I would rather walk amongst the people of ancient Greece, the philosophers sitting amongst the trees arguing of human principles, the politicians being just that, the worshipers of Zeus and Athena, the common people, the slaves, the difference of it all. The only thing that would nag at me would be that they never found the wheel to be of any use. Why build tools of convenience when slaves did all the work? It is the one thing that kept Greece and Rome from becoming truly great and progressing as far as they could have. Ah, to see them going about their daily lives, to see human society as something completely different from the world today. That would be incredible.

And the same would go with other cultures. The Incas, the Mayas, the Aztec. To watch the Mayan astronomers calculate the Sun and stars for centuries ahead of them, with complete accuracy, at the observatory at Chitzen Iza, or at Palenque. To witness the barbaric sacrifice of human victims to the Aztec gods upon the temples towering into the sky, not so much for the Gods, but in reality, to show the power of the Aztec Empire to the neighboring tribes. These are things I would see, not just the ruins of Teotihuacan and Tikal.

The power of human life is not just in the incredible or the violent. I would want to see people living in their day to day lives. I have always wanted to return to the days of the 1920's, prior to the mechanical devices that we have today, and see how people in America lived. What would Milledgeville have looked like, or Shady Dale, or Conyers for that matter? What swimming holes would be filled with children swimming instead of the absorbed in the electronic whirrs of the Xbox 360 or Wiis? The rocking chairs would be filled outside of porches, the sky would be pitch black dark after sunset, and the stars would shine and glimmer through the treetops. Yes, life was hard, and people died of common diseases and so forth... but there must be happiness that they found in doing things that we have lost today, because getting to Level 17 is more important than climbing a tree.
Let's face it, reality is not like that. We have no technology to let us go back in time, nor to we all have the money to go flying of to lands foreign and romantic. While this sounds like a big cliche, we do have books that we can read. Out of the minds of authors come lands and societies real and imaginary. I could just as well find a copy of Plato's Republic and sit in with the Greek philosophers, or pick up a copy of Gary Jennings' novel Aztec and relive the days prior to the arrival of Cortez. The worlds of mankind are neatly compiled into words, and then transformed into reality in our minds.

A perfect example, coming from the current news, is the story of the 13 year old Dutch girl that tried to sail around the world alone. You can find her story on Yahoo easily enough. She was retained by Dutch authorities and is now in State Care, so vehemently against the trip is the government, for some reason. But there's no need to do that right now, as there have been people before her that have succeeded. Take Robin Lee Graham, who wrote the book Dove about his adventures around the world. The experiences that he had on Pacific islands, the paradises he found, the extreme loneliness on the boat alone for weeks on end, it is all magnificently written for anyone to read.

And when the current rules of society are too much for us to bear, we can simply read about worlds that are in another reality. Take Arthur C. Clarke's Songs of a Distant Earth, a set of stories that take place on a colony planet in the far reaches of space, where people have been sent to start the human race afresh, with the entire knowledge of mankind, but without the religious or societal prejudices that have set this world in the direction it has gone. The makers of the spaceship loaded the libraries of the Earth, but omitted anything with references to God or to the horrors of man. Tough choices, but the result was a colony that was much different from Earth. It was a pleasure to read, a a book of Tabula rasa, where people could find their own moral standards and live life according to them.

Or take Anne McCaffrey's Pern series, which is the most liveable world in Fantasy Literature. Amazing scenery, and you are surrounded by dragons constantly, ones with abilities that we could only dream of here. I'd give anything to live in Benden Weyr, or at the Harper's school next to Fort Hold.

So to answer the question of where I would like to go, I would say, "Wherever the pages in my books will take me." And if, by some chance, I get to actually visit those worlds, then they shall be but echoes, dreams, of what resides in my head.

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