I’m always impressed when I meet travelers whose parents never travel. It must take a huge amount of bravery for them not only to decide to explore the unknown, but also to do so when their families would rather have them stay at home. My parents have always been enthusiastic about my travels, even responding with encouragement when I decided to spend all of my savings from Japan on years of backpacking. They’re huge travelers themselves (and raised me to be), so they fully understand my wanderlust.
My parents each left home as teenagers, and in fact my Norwegian mom hasn’t lived in Norway since she was 19. They rarely got to see their families after leaving home, so I always figured that they were therefore fine about not seeing me often now either. Spending time with them over Christmas, however, I was reminded that their unending support doesn’t mean they don’t still wish we spent more time together. I guess wanderers don’t always make the best daughters, something I felt so guilty about over Christmas that I somehow agreed to let my dad write a guest post on my blog!
When Silvia wrote about how coming home for the holidays (last year to Massachusetts and this year to Norway) triggered lots of unhappy tears, I found myself simultaneously pleased and distressed by her honesty. Being the father of a backpacker is not always an easy thing, I assure you.
Worried and stressed parents, aren’t they a widespread but seldom discussed down side to backpacking? Imagine, for instance, the emotions that Silvia’s mother and I went through when one of her blog posts featured the word “kidnapped“! And how do you think it felt for us when the long-sought reunion got interrupted by tears?!
Because it’s hard to write about such emotions, I decided to draw my inspiration from a poet. I chose stay-at-home Emily Dickinson for two reasons. First, the obvious one: Silvia’s mother and I have mostly stayed at home as our daughter has traveled the world. Second, the not so obvious one: Emily Dickinson was the prototype of the shy backpacker, even if her travels were internal ones. After noting, for instance, that there are no volcanoes in Massachusetts, where she spent her entire life, she added, “A Crater I may contemplate / Vesuvius at Home.”
Ah, yes, the volcanic life of feeling! This is the stuff for poetry. It requires language with “wings” to tell the story of what makes a courageous world-traveler vulnerable to bouts of tears when suddenly faced with the emotionally thick stew that most of us call Home.
That’s my explanation for what I am now going to offer you. First: a poem of Emily Dickinson about the “losses” that get measured in tears. As I read it, it’s really a prophetic poem about Silvia and her backpack. That’s a remarkable fact, so remarkable indeed that it opened the door for a rather shameless act of self-indulgence on my part: the composition of what will be my first (and presumably one-and-only) put-out-there-for-all-the-world-to-see POEM. Like I said before, only words with wings can convey what the parent of a backpacker has to go through!
So, with that as prelude, I will begin with the poem of Emily Dickinson:
“Her losses make our Gains ashamed–
She bore Life’s empty Pack
As gallantly as if the East
Were swinging at her Back.
Life’s empty Pack is heaviest,
As every Porter knows —
In vain to punish Honey —
It only sweeter grows.”
Next, my own effort. Consider it my contribution to the futile attempt to “punish Honey.”
I live for beauty — and when sick
Yearn sorely for relief.
My daughter lives for truth — if sick,
Lays it on, sometimes thick.
She says, “Look here, I’m sick.” I look,
Only wanting her well.
“But take me as I AM,” she says
And on her words I dwell.
So far apart, truth and beauty,
In love they try to kiss.
Father and daughter, both in tears,
Their sadness not amiss.
Truth and beauty ebb and flow,
Till in the end we die.
Love comes with this greatest risk, so
Too much love makes us cry.
How better thank you, dear daughter,
For lessons such as this,
But to entrust my heart to your backpack
To carry as you go?
If you are sick in Singapore
I will be sick as well,
But glad for the gift you make me,
Shards of an egg’s torn shell.
So break free and see the world, with us
(your mother and your me)
As backpack hearts with this to say:
We want you home — everywhere,
In all the pretty places
Whatever the truth is there.
But maybe, instead of trying to write a poem for you, I would have done better to let Emily say the words:
“Far from Love the Heavenly Father
Leads the Chosen Child
Oftener through Realm of Briar
Than the Meadow mild.
Oftener by the Claw of Dragon
Than the Hand of Friend
Guides the Little One predestined
To the Native Land.”
As the harshness in her words show, truth unites with beauty, when tears have wiped truth clean.
So here is the tears-cleansed truth about my beautiful daughter. It has always been a burden for her to know that she is “predestined” to find her way to her ultimate home, her “Native Land.” Rightly so, for the word is wrought with such terrifying EXPECTATIONS. Best to head off through the world.
But then the joke: how better to find one’s native land than by making the discovery that the whole world is your home — and all humanity your beloved family.
Life’s Empty Pack is a heavy one. Carry it well. In the end it will float in the air.