The Delusion of the Familiar
I have always been joyously afflicted with wanderlust. In It’s a Wonderful Life, when George Bailey tells Uncle Billy that the three most exciting sounds in the world are anchor chains, plane motors, and train whistles, something stirs in my marrow. I have always felt the romance of travel, even when I’m standing in line while some portly TSA (Thousands Standing Around) agent puzzles over my rosary, wondering whether it might an Al-Quaeda Ninja weapon. When the car engine starts at the beginning of a vacation or you feel the jet shove you into your seat on take off, I think you have to be a little dead of soul not to feel the thrill of it.
My line of work as a writer and speaker on things Catholic has, thanks be to God, taken me to some wonderful places both in the US and abroad. A few years ago, I was given the wonderful opportunity to visit England. Through the miracle of the Internet, I had gotten to know a delightful young couple named James and Ella Preece, who live in Hull (Kingston-upon-Hull, to be precise). They were marvelously generous with their time and were gracious enough to make the long trek from their home to Stanstead Airport and back.
During my brief visit, they took me to both Cambridge and York. In Cambridge, I was rightly and properly besotted with the magnificent wild clanging of the church bells as we strolled through the town on a Sunday morning. You could actually hear heaven exulting. And when you looked down on the Cam, you could practically see Ratty and Mole out for a boat ride. Then the next day, they took me to York! You know: old York, the original one—the one the founders of New York were missing when they stepped on to the shore of North America.
I kept asking James and Ella, "Do you realize you live in England?" but they seemed to be under the impression they lived somewhere ordinary. I tried to get them to see that Seattle (where I live) is ordinary but England is a magical far off land that positively bristles with literary, religious, cultural and historical meaning.
When you take a walk in Seattle, you're just taking a walk. When you take a walk in York, you are walking past the Tower where the Jews of York committed mass suicide when a mob of locals tried to forcibly baptize them in 1190. When you turn a corner, there's the house of St. Margaret Clitherow, pressed to death for the crime of being a Catholic under Bad Queen Bess. It sits right in the middle of the Shambles, a genuine medieval street. Go a couple of blocks over, and there's a Roman column from the camp of Constantine, who was sitting right there when word came that he had better hie himself back to Rome if he wanted to be Emperor now. The entire destiny of Christianity was altered by a message delivered to man who once stood where I am standing.
And there is York Cathedral, right across the street! one of the most awesome architectural achievements of the High Middle Ages. Yeah, we in Seattle have the Space Needle. Cool, in a Jetsons sort of way. But really, it can't hold a candle to York Cathedral. And when you go inside, you can practically trace the history of the West for the past 800 years or so as you watch the various layers of art and architecture build upon one another. You pass from the tomb of the bishop who founded the Cathedral, watch the glorious artwork of the High Middle Ages in full flower, witness the effects of the English Reformation, watch the Church become a tomb for the wealthy and respectable upper classes of the 17th through the 19th Centuries, see the Memorials to the dead of the two great wars of the 20th century, watch art devolve from utter splendor of the Rose Window to stuff so dorky it could only have been a product of the last 40 years (such as Laser Beam Jesus or headless saints spelling out “Christ is here” in semaphore like some bizarre Monty Python sketch). It’s half the history of the West in stone. Marvelous!
Meanwhile, the only way you can trace the last 800 years of history where I live is by counting rings on old growth trees in the Olympic Rain Forest. History, for Seattleites, means remembering Elvis in It Happened at the World’s Fair, Heart’s “Crazy on You” going gold, and Microsoft programs that only required 64K.
The romance of distance is one of the pleasures of childhood that stays fresh with age. My children are already steeped in it. Some time ago, James wrote me:
I thought of you recently because Ella has been learning archery and she wanted to buy a traditional longbow. Where do you go for longbows? Nottingham of course! Close to Nottingham is the village of Kegworth and we drove there to meet the man who makes the bows. It was a sunny day in a sweet little village and here behind the pub is a little workshop where a man is making longbows the traditional way and I thought, if Mark Shea were here, he would say SEE! You *DO* live in England...
My youngest son, Sean, was amazed by this. “You mean, Nottingham is a real place?” he said. (He’d been watching DVDs of the recent Robin Hood series made by the Beeb and is interested in all things heroic and medieval.) I stunned him by saying that not only did Nottingham exist, but I had flown out of Robin Hood Airport near Nottingham. He stood in jaw-dropped amazement that such places actually exist in this world. Such was his astonishment that I had to write James and Ella back to inform them that by the power invested in me by God as head of the Family Shea, I was dubbing them Sir and Lady Awesomeness.
It would all be enough to make a prosaic Yankee like me give in completely to the Grass-is-Always-Greener-on-the-Other-Side-of-Pond Syndrome if James and Ella had not done me one final favor before I reluctantly left their wonderful country: they introduced me to Ella’s Dad. In the midst of a wonderful and endless dinner lubricated by ever so much ale and wine, Ella’s Dad mentioned that he too had visited a magical far off land.
It was called “the West Coast of the United States”. In the course of his travels, it turns out he had driven right past my house on the same stretch of freeway I cover every time we have to go to church or do a little shopping. He spoke admiringly of the mountains, of the sheer size of the land, of the kindness and goodness of the people he met everywhere (much like the goodness and kindness of the people I met in England and Ireland). He hoped one day he could return. I told him that I’d happily give him the Nickel Tour of Seattle if he did. He got a little glint of that wanderlust in his eye.
I learned something that evening. For 99.99999% of the human race, my backyard (like yours) is the magical far-off place. I’d just missed it because I’d come to live in the delusion that seeing something often makes it something other than strange and wonderful.