Preparation for the journey.

I’m not a very spontaneous person (that may be an understatement) – if you ask my wife she’d probably tell you that I tend to be more on the obsessive-compulsive end of the spectrum.  So, when it comes to traveling, I like to be well prepared for the journey and not leave things to the last minute or to chance.  Some destinations require a visa for entry into the country and that requires some advance preparation in order to get your passport back in time.  Other places require innoculations which are best not left to the last minute.  Of course, there are also the more routine matters of selecting the right clothes, the right luggage and the right accessories for the journey (and for me in particular, which books to pack).  I like to know where I am going, how I am getting there and where my travels will take me along the way, so an itinerary is an important consideration.
A number of years ago, my wife and I decided to make a motor touring vacation of the western isles of Scotland and it quickly became apparent that you can’t just go with a car and expect to catch a ferry.  There are limited sailings and limited space on most of the ferries.  It was necessary to plan out our journey, booking accommodations and spaces on the ferries and calculate distances and driving times in order to see all that we wished to see and to complete our journey successfully.  It worked (with the exception of one missed ferry) and we had a wonderful trip with many great memories.
Just the other day I was asked if I would do the reading at the funeral of a friend’s mother.  There were two passages of scripture and a poem by Robert Frost that she requested I read.  The common thread that held these thoughts together was that life is not a journey to be embarked on carelessly or without thought to the purpose and destination.
I wonder how many people find themselves on the journey of life without realizing how they got there and having given little thought to where they were heading?  I’m rather reminded of foolish hounds (and yes, we’ve had some) who get on the scent of a deer and chase it for miles before coming to a realization that they are lost in the woods.  The Italian poet Durante degli Alighieri (commonly known as Dante) wrote of his sudden awareness at the age of thirty-five that he was lost:
“In the midway of this our mortal life, I found me in a gloomy wood, astray, gone from the path direct…How first I entered it I scarce can say.”  Now, I don’t know what it was that brought him to this awareness, but whatever providence or misfortune awoke him to his dilemma; to it he owed a debt of gratitude for it was then that he was able to change his course, fight his way out through the undergrowth and glimpse the sunlit hill which was the goal he desired to reach.
It has been said that if you have no particular destination in mind any path will take you there and that, sadly, seems to be the case with so many travelers on the road of life.  Even for an obsessive-compulsive person like myself, life has plenty of surprises, detours and hazards along the way that we have to learn to take in stride and adjust for, but an unexamined life is one that leads deep into the heart of the woods.  From there, it is hard to see the sunlit hill that we desire to climb, to rest on its summit and to look back with satisfaction on the journey that took us there.

Puerto Rico

View from a sunlit hill – Puerto Rico

And speaking of wandering…

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Calidonia Street Market

Calidonia, Panama City

My wife and I recently had the pleasure of joining our daughter and son in law on a trip to Panama to celebrate our daughter’s 30th birthday.  I’m not sure why they chose Panama as the destination – perhaps because they could use their points for a nice hotel there.  Well it was a nice hotel and we got to stay for free too, which (we Scots have a reputation to uphold, you realize) was wonderful.
Well, in anticipation of the trip I bought a map of Panama to study the city and to find the places of interest that we might like to visit (us fair-skinned Northern Europeans don’t do beaches very well).  As I perused the map, I was reminded of something my grandfather had often said: No matter where you go in the world, you will always find a Scotsman there.  And it is true – whether by choice or by something like the Highland Clearances we Scots have become a tribe of wanderers.  My maternal grandfather, who worked in a tartan mill in Scotland, was offered the chance to run a textile mill in South America in the 30s or 40s and turned it down – a choice he later regretted.
So what was it about the map that brought that comment back to mind?  It was the discovery of a section of the city called (of all things) Calidonia (latinized spelling, presumably).  That brought to mind the first time I had heard of the Scots in Panama by way of a Celtic folksong about the ill-fated Darien Expedition.  Then just last year I read Tim Severin’s book “In Search Of Robinson Crusoe” where he gave a pretty good account of the misery and suffering inflicted on that group of Scots who had such high hopes of making a good life in the New World.
For anyone interested, you can read more about it here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Darien_scheme
So, how was Calidonia, you ask?  Well, at first glance I thought “This doesn’t feel very much like my Caledonia to me”, but on reflection, is it really that much different to a street market in Glasgow?  People milling around, going about their everyday lives, window shopping, buying groceries for dinner, treating themselves to something from a street vendor, music blaring from the stores.  So, no – it’s not that much different.  Oh, except for the fact that it was warm and sunny in Calidonia which is the norm there… and a rare splendor in my Caledonia. 🙂

I wonder as I wander out under the sky…

So read the words of the old Appalachian Advent hymn, and really, is there any better time or place to ponder the big questions of life (or even the small ones that you otherwise never think of) than when you are far away from the daily distractions of computers and the myriad other “conveniences” of modern life?  Apart from traveling for the sake of seeing and experiencing new places (which I love to do), what takes me away from my urban life?  Well, when the weather turns cold and the old year fades away and the calendar is on its last page it is time to dig out the boots and outdoor clothing, to clean and oil the shotgun and to reconnect with old friends for the start of the annual pilgrimage to the woods on Saturday mornings for the next couple of months.  It is rabbit hunting season once more.  Now if you know anything about rabbit hunting you will know that it typically involves a pack of noisy beagles and a group of men wandering (apparently aimlessly) around in the woods and fields following the dogs as they seek to stir up rabbits and get them running.  Surprisingly though, there are times of perfect quiet and stillness when the hounds are not baying and cannot be heard snuffling around in the undergrowth, when the rabbits are secure in their hiding place and the hunters are spread out and waiting patiently for something to happen.  It is in those moments when the eye catches the splendor of the natural world in its minutia, the ear is attuned to the smallest sounds and the heart and mind are open to contemplation.
To witness the spectacle of horizontal shafts of early morning sunlight piercing through the trees on a frosty morning is to capture the moment when the pine needles are festooned with gems and the hard ground is broadcast with emeralds and rubies.
To stand in a clearing in the woods and hear nothing but the slightest rustle of small birds moving through the undergrowth is to realize how crowded and noisy our days have become and to appreciate the beauty of silence.
To smell the fresh air of the countryside, the earthiness of the soil and the decaying ground cover disturbed by moving feet is to reconnect oneself with the land in ways we have forgotten in our urban lifestyle.
These are the times when the heart and mind are open to the wonder of life and the beauty of those words “Be still and know that I am God” resonate deeply within the soul.  As I grow older the hunt is becoming less important (although the sound of a pack of beagles hot on the trail of a rabbit is still a thrill) and the time in fellowship with friends, in solitary meditation and the refreshing of the spirit is far more gratifying.  That is the essence of a good day in the woods and the reason why I wonder as I wander out under the sky.