If once you have slept on an island
You’ll never be quite the same;
You may sit at home and sew,
But you’ll see blue water and wheeling gulls
Wherever your feet may go.
From a poem by Rachel Field
Won’t you help to sing
These songs of freedom
‘Cause all I ever have
From a song by Bob Marley
On March 6, I took an unanticipated flight to Reagan National Airport. On April 6, exactly one month later, I flew home to Fort Worth. In the time between, air travel—like virtually every other aspect of our lives—had been transformed.
The March 6 trip was unexpected because our family had long been saving and planning for a March 7 rendezvous on St. John, USVI, to celebrate a BIG wedding anniversary with our adult kids and grandchildren. But a medical emergency call from one of our daughters on the 6th sent my husband and me scrambling to get two seats to DC that afternoon and to cancel our long-envisioned group vacation.
The flight was packed, like virtually every American Airlines plane back in those pre-Covid days. Every seat was taken, and a number of standbys never secured a place. Coronavirus was already spreading across the country and around the world. But US political leaders hadn’t yet sounded the alarm about the high potential for person-to-person transfer in tight spaces like the plane my spouse and I were on that day. So our worrying throughout the flight focused on the immediate medical situation at hand. The virus, then an uncharted enemy, never came up as we chatted with our seatmate in the tight three-person row and, occasionally, with busy flight attendants.
In the time between my initial March arrival in DC and my trip home in early April, air travel morphed entirely. My university had gone to remote teaching/learning, which had the benefit of enabling me to stay longer to help out our East-Coast family members, even as I joined faculty/staff colleagues and students in mourning loss of the usual springtime on-campus energy. Our family is still facing a long-haul challenge on the medical front, and our country struggles now with a larger-scale, parallel challenge to public health. I don’t know what made me more nervous as I entered Reagan airport for my April flight back to DFW: concern that, after taking a brief respite at home, I would return to DC to find a worsening prognosis for my dear family member’s just-diagnosed cancer, or scary thoughts about how this plane trip would go during a time of shelter-in-place.
Ironically, I was likely safer on the second flight than on the one earlier in March. The airport was a ghost town on April 6.
About half the few employees on hand at check-in and TSA wore masks. I had donned a mask too. All of us in the airport that day kept saying “thank-you” to each other, as if to conjure back a former normal that our being there represented. But I was struck, in each of those exchanges, that every smile behind my mask was hidden: how do you smile, I wondered, with only your voice and eyes?
Maintaining social distancing was easy in the gate area, since hardly anyone else was waiting there. Fewer than a dozen passengers joined me on the enormous 737. Each of us had our own three-seat row, with a number of empty rows in front and behind us as buffers. The flight attendants were attentive and welcoming, though. Appropriately no beverage service was offered. The plane itself—including seats, seat belts, and tray tables—was the cleanest I’d ever seen. I felt safe.
I also felt lonely, I confess, and somewhat spooked by the emptiness.
Though, as a professor, I usually do grading or course work when on a plane, I tried to view a film. Honestly, I can’t remember watching. The eeriness of such a wide-open and quiet space wound up drawing me into a fitful sleep.
In the past, I’d always enjoyed traveling—savoring both new as well as familiar places far from home and enjoying many parts of the journey process itself. Somehow, as much as I’ve complained recently about overcrowded airplanes, the hollowed-out feeling of my April 6 flight was worse, since it seemed to forecast many trips untaken in our collective futures.
Reading Lyrical Roadmaps
There is no Frigate like a Book
To take us Lands away
Nor any Coursers like a Page
Of prancing Poetry –
This Traverse may the poorest take
Without oppress of Toll –
How frugal is the Chariot
That bears the Human Soul –
Emily Dickinson poem #1286
Since arriving home, and while awaiting a call-back to DC to support the next stage of my family member’s grueling treatment, I’ve sought solace in poetic travels. After all, I’m a literature professor. Whenever I’m overwhelmed by life, I turn to reading. I’ve rediscovered several “old favorite” verbal portraits of journeys; rereading them in today’s context has been illuminating. If such lyrics don’t always bring solace, they at least support reflection that, for a time, can take me somewhere beyond where we all are now, cut off from so many friends and affirming social interactions.
Emily Dickinson brings a special comfort. In choosing a circumscribed space for much of her daily life, she did not actually isolate herself, as some of the lore about her suggests. Rather, she made careful choices about the connections she sought and nurtured. She also used her writing to expand those horizons, to plumb depths, to observe significance in the modest everyday travels within the natural world: a bird hopping down the walk, a wind in the trees carrying memories of other farther-off places, a fluttering moth pictured in Brazil.
A bird came down the walk:
He did not know I saw;
He bit an angle-worm in halves
And ate the fellow raw.
I’d always loved the opening lines from one of British poet William Blake’s lyrics, which seemed to call for a similar capability for journeying simply by looking closely at the natural world.
To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.
I thought of these lines when I went walking through the Capital Hill neighborhood during my unexpectedly long DC visit, trying to appreciate the small-scale gardens still open to view, even as lockdown limited human interactions. Any passerby on the sidewalk demanded a pulling away from each other, even if we smiled at the same cluster of flowers.
Photos by Sarah R. Robbins
Back in Texas, reading the entire Blake poem online, I shuddered at its darker images, its critique of violence and envy, its assertion that “Man was made for Joy” but also for “Woe.” Only when we recognize the inevitable presence of both in our lives, Blake notes, do “we rightly know” our condition in the World. Just yesterday, I read about angry groups protesting shelter-in-place in my former home state of Michigan—blocking the entrance to a Lansing hospital so that cancer patients arriving for scheduled chemo treatments couldn’t enter. So, I have to think Blake might be right.
And yet, even though Blake’s fuller depiction of what society’s interactions with nature teach us must be acknowledged, I find I need to choose other, more language-affirming imaginative journeys just now.
Lines from Keats’s “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer” seem like they might offer a potential counterpoint, so I seek out the complete sonnet online. All of us who teach literature are, like Chapman, seeking to achieve a form of translation, hoping to take our students along on imaginative travels as uplifting to them as Keats found for himself in reading. In Chapman’s language, Keats (a poet too) could hear both Homer and the mediating translator “speak out loud and bold.” Contemplating the words, the young writer declared:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken
Like Dickinson, I recalled, Keats was able to explore without taking a literal journey: “Much have I travell’d in the realms of gold,” he began the poem. I can emulate their capacity for imagined travel by immersing in their words, I tell myself, while home in an enforced space. But when I read further into Keats’s sonnet, I come to forgotten lines, exalting imperial discovery through travel and, by implication, conquest. In the closing image of Cortez, who “star’d at the Pacific” from “a peak in Darien,” I find an echo of Blake’s reminder that actual human journeys through society leave sober marks, traces of taking and not just looking through empathy-seeking eyes. How do we reign in our impulses to appropriate through our journeys, our tendency to set ourselves above rather than with what we see?
I turn to contemplating literary form. If Keats’s imagined journey envisions a more expansive (and even troubling) landscape than Dickinson’s, I couldn’t help noticing my own longing for the regularity of rhythm and rime in their tightly crafted lyrics. So much contemporary poetry shrugs off these fencing-in choices, opting instead for boundary-resistant free verse. Even as I chafe against the constraints of “shelter-in-place” and savor, at least, my occasional walks outside, I find comfort in the regularized patterns of nineteenth-century poetry. I mark restorative tensions between tight meter and rhyme, on the one hand, and far-flung journeys depicted in words, on the other. I say lines from Robert Louis Stevenson to myself while washing my hands for the thousandth time:
From Breakfast on through all the day
At home among my friends I stay,
But every night I go abroad
Afar into the land of Nod.
All by myself I have to go,
With none to tell me what to do—
All alone beside the streams
And up the mountain-sides of dreams.
Cultivating Networks of Care
Poems give me roadmaps for journeys beyond the often-isolating sadness of our now-so-constrained spaces. The language of memory takes me back in time and encourages me to reconnect with dear friends from the past. I need to know they are safe. I dig out long-unused email addresses. I ask one old friend for information on another. I join ZOOM cocktail hours and revel in brief moments of shared laughter. I seek help in phone calls and Facetime conversations when I can’t answer my own questions about why our family is facing a beloved’s life-threatening disease in the midst of a larger pandemic.
On a listserv of fellow alumnae from a women’s college (digital convocation spot based in relationships forged decades ago), one friend—a hall-mate from back when we were all journeying from high school’s familiarity to new vistas of learning—sends a video of her backyard garden. She plays her flute for a sweet audio accompaniment. Through tears, I see her in my mind’s eye as she was years ago, even as I also envision her now, stepping quietly through her garden to craft a comfort song. I think about the nineteenth-century women missionaries to China and Angola that I’ve studied: their writing exchanges with family and friends in the US took months to cross oceans. Today’s technologies render connections with an immediacy those women could not have thought possible. Separations now can at least be navigated to some degree with our new communication tools.
I listen to blind seer-singer Andrea Bocelli in the cathedral in Milan. Poetic Latin phrases carry me back to church services from my youthful choir singing and to the communal joy of hearing operatic arias in the outdoor theater in Lecce.
Twitter serves up a link of Lin Manuel Miranda reassembling cast members from Hamilton to sing the rhythmic lyrics of his musical’s opening number to a nine-year-old girl whose long-awaited birthday attendance of a Broadway performance was cancelled by Coronavirus. I remember our fabulous family trip to New York to see the play in its first summer. So I sing favorite Hamilton lyrics to myself. I recall how much my toddler grandson loves “Dear Theodosia” as a bedtime song. Does he know his mamma regularly sang it to him when he was still in her womb?
I look for poems about railroad journeys. Why? Because, sitting in the warmth of our back patio in Texas, I’m reminiscing about riding cross-country in a long-ago summer to take part in the Girl Scout Roundup in sun-drenched but every-chilly Idaho. I’m remembering rail rides across Europe in the 1970s, and the excitement of stepping through train stations into totally new places. I mentally revisit the time I took my young daughters by train from Michigan to see their grandmother in Chicago. A grandmother now myself, when I read some of these train poems, I find myself able, still, to hear the train whistles reverberating from tracks near the house in North Carolina where I grew up. Then many of my earliest journeys involved nothing more than stepping into our neighbors’ yard for free-form playtimes envisioning magic lands, or, somewhat bolder, crossing the street together to the soft hills of Greensboro’s Fisher Park, where we built forts and (to the dismay of city workers) dammed up the creek as we imagined ourselves in wild lands of adventure.
Edna St. Vincent Millay used train imagery to frame another rime-and-meter-bound poem about travel:
All night there isn’t a train goes by,
Though the night is still for sleep and dreaming,
But I see its cinders red on the sky,
And hear its engine steaming.
My heart is warm with the friends I make,
And better friends I’ll not be knowing;
Yet there isn’t a train I wouldn’t take,
No matter where it’s going.
Unlike Millay’s, my journeys are more constrained these days. I don’t have the freedom Whitman touted in his “Song of the Open Road” to go “wherever I choose.” Many decisions about where I can go are made for me.
Struggling to find acceptance, I turn to Native American writer Diane Glancy’s Designs of the Night Sky, where her protagonist is also struggling.
Can knowledge from the journeys of indigenous people ever be ethically held in spaces like institutional archives, which exalt the written word over oral culture? Contemplating the library, a woman of Cherokee heritage who works there asks how to find the communal in places that exalt the individual over the social, the inscribed word over the shared song, power over empathy:
The books have voices. I hear them in the library. In Manuscripts and Rare Books where I work. I know the voices are from the books. Yet I know the old stories do not like books. Do not like the written words. Do not like libraries. The old stories carry all the voices of those who have told them. When a story is spoken, all those voices are in the voice of the narrator. But writing the words of a story kills the voices that gather I the sound of the storytelling. The story is single then. Only one voice travels in the written words. One voice is not enough to tell a story.
How, as a teacher, as a citizen, and also as a family member and friend, can I invite others into productive, collaborative contemplation of past journeys now, in a time of pandemic-framed isolations?
I’m trying my best to use the language of literature, not only for reminiscing about my own past travels, but also to look ahead, to cultivate hope. Our family still aims to assemble on St. John someday, hopefully in a time not too far off, for a postponed version of the celebration we had planned for March 2020. We’ll be honoring multiple decades of marriage, reveling in our multi-generational family tree, sharing our love for that place we’ve been to on numerous trips in the past. We’ll play many of the wise Bob Marley songs we always enjoy singing there—songs whose lyrics can take us back to islands, even in the bleakest of current times:
“One love, one heart. Let’s get together and feel all right.”