The right words in the right place at the right time

For two years I lived in a really great apartment. And for the first six weeks of having that apartment, I felt like the luckiest person I knew.

Its advantages were obvious—good location downtown, newly renovated, big rooms. But those aren’t the things that made it so fabulous. When I first went to see it, I had no intention of signing a lease. I didn’t think I was ready. I still had to sell my house, and this was the first apartment I looked at. I had decided it would have to be pretty special for me to take it. It was the beginning of February and a snow storm was just starting when my daughter and I went to view it. We slogged through the snow, met the building manager, went up to the fourth floor, took our boots off in the hall, and stepped inside … to an absolutely breathtaking view. The end of the living room was a wall of windows looking out on the lake and the big island beyond. Even on that grey, stormy day, it was something to see. “Well, damn,” I said to myself. “Guess I’m getting an apartment.”

The years before that apartment came into my life had not been easy. My sister died of cancer. My mother-in-law had a massive stroke. My husband ended our marriage. Most of our friends and his side of the family found that awkward, so they went away too. I was left to raise my teenaged daughters pretty much on my own. I would have liked to move then, but my girls didn’t need any more upheaval in their lives. When they were finally ready to move, both of my parents had become ill and my time was spent looking after them. Then doctors discovered that my mother had been having silent heart attacks, and she died 3 months later. The next year my daughters started their final years of university and high school, and I decided it was time to make the change I had needed for so long. I was finally going to get out of the house that was full of so many bittersweet memories. I spent a year getting things fixed so I could sell it. I leased the great apartment, then spent the next few months chewing down my nails while I waited for the house to sell. I got an offer just a month before I got the keys to the apartment. A few more things  in the house broke but nothing bad enough to scare off the buyers. I tentatively allowed myself to think that things were working out.

My lease started on the 1st of May, but I didn’t plan to move in until June. I had a month to bring over the things I could fit into my Camry. The new place was close to my work, so I gave up my parking pass and started parking at the apartment building. Every morning I would carry something upstairs and take a look out those windows. On the first Saturday of May, I loaded up the car for the first big drop-off. After a couple of hours lugging boxes up in the elevator, I finally took some time to appreciate my new setting. I unfolded a lawn chair in front of my wall of windows, opened up a cold drink, and started playing some music on my iPhone. The first song that came on was “Ordinary Day” by Great Big Sea:

I’ve got a smile on my face and I’ve got four walls around me
I’ve got the sun in the sky, all the water surrounds me.
I’ll win now but sometimes I’ll lose
I’ve been battered, but I’ll never bruise
It’s not so bad

The lake was a brilliant blue with the sun sparkling brightly upon it. A warm spring breeze blew in through the windows. Along with Great Big Sea, I could hear the cries of seagulls and the distant voices of people as they strolled along the waterfront. The words of that song filled my brain and I actually laughed out loud, then started to happily cry. After so many years of sadness and loss, of setting my own needs aside to make room for others’, after worrying up until the last days that I wouldn’t be able to sell my house and take this apartment, here I was, exactly as the song said—smile on my face, four walls (and not much else besides the lawn chair), sun in the sky, water in front of me. Had I actually come out ahead? It was almost too good to be true. I felt like I had won a lottery.

We moved in a month later, me and my daughters. When I took the apartment, I didn’t think they would be living with me, but circumstances changed and they both ended up staying with their mom. And sharing a bedroom for the first time in their lives. We got all of our stuff out of that big house into that much smaller apartment, spent the day unpacking and arranging, then picked up a pizza and sat down on the floor in front of our wall of windows to eat our first dinner in our new place. It was dark, and a full moon hung in the sky directly in front of us, the moonlight like a path on the water leading up to our balcony. We were mesmerized. Did we really get to live here? I thought of that Great Big Sea song again—no sun this time, but there were these words:

… it’s just an ordinary day
And it’s all your state of mind
At the end of the day, you’ve just got to say
It’s all right

It was definitely all right. The three of us had been through a lot in the past few years. Now my oldest was graduating from university and my youngest from high school. They had their lives ahead of them, and so did I. We had mustered up the courage to take a step away from the pain and memories, and start over. And we just so happened to have an amazing place in which to do so. Could we really be that lucky?

No, as it turned out. Two weeks after we moved in, my father was diagnosed with ALS. It was progressing rapidly and he was losing his ability to look after himself. Soon he would have to give up his home, and reluctantly move to a place where he could receive the care he needed. And I came to regret my decision to take that apartment. My house had been close to my father’s home. If I had stayed where I was, I could have easily looked after him and given him more time in his own place. Or he could have moved in with me. Or I could have looked for an apartment big enough for him and the three of us. Neither he nor anyone else ever said anything to suggest that I had made a selfish decision; I reached that conclusion all on my own. I’m not the kind of person who easily makes choices just for myself. I had always been the oldest child, or part of a couple, or a loving mother, or a dutiful daughter. The only time I had ever thought only of myself was when I signed the lease for that apartment. I got to enjoy it for six weeks and live in it for two, feeling like I had finally won, that my ship had come in (and docked right down there in view of my living room). And then my father got his diagnosis, and the shine came off that wonderful apartment.

Two years later, I left. My father had passed away and my daughters had moved on and out. I myself had a different bit of luck, having reconnected with an old boyfriend and fallen in love again. He lived in another city, and was in the midst of dedicating his life to his own child. They were happy to have me join them. So I gave up that wonderful apartment. My boyfriend sometimes expresses remorse that I had to give up such a nice place, but I always tell him that regret can take away the wonder of anything. As amazing as that place was, once my father was diagnosed and I realized that I could have helped him more if I had stayed where I was, any joy that place brought was tinged with regret. I didn’t hate living there. It was still a nice apartment with a great view, and I enjoyed all of its advantages. But it wasn’t quite as shiny as it had first seemed. To quote that song again, “It’s not that bad.” It became just an apartment, not the symbol of positive change that it was in those first, heady days. Besides, an apartment is just a space to put your stuff. Happiness comes from the people surrounding you, not the four walls or the water. It was an easy trade—the apartment for him.

And I’ll always have the memory of how I felt that Saturday in May, the sun shining, the water sparkling, that song playing … the right words in the right place at the right time.

Yes, Punctuation Matters

I’ve been told, by people younger than me, that I shouldn’t use punctuation in my texts. Exclamation points are okay—the more the better it seems. And question marks, when necessary. But otherwise I’m just supposed to type all of the words in one long uninterrupted stream interspersed with the occasional emoji which takes the place of punctuation I guess and trust that the person reading my text will understand what I’m trying to say

…. Oh! That sentence was finished?

This texting advice is almost offensive to me. I’m an editor and, for me, punctuation is a necessity in all forms of writing. And that’s not because I’m a stickler for rules (although, I do admit that I find a particular—or peculiar—delight in language rules). Punctuation is necessary for full communication of our ideas in writing. It improves writing. I recently read that punctuation is the written equivalent of the enhancements of spoken language: hand gestures, body language, facial expressions, pauses and tonal variations. Very few of us speak without using these non-verbal cues to enrich and clarify our words, and to add meaning and emotion to what we are saying. Punctuation does this service in our writing.

The most familiar, and probably most used, punctuation marks (besides the period) are the exclamation mark and the question mark. Some would say the first one is overused (!!!), and young people especially are cautioned not to put too many of them in their writing, almost as if a “boy-who-cried-wolf” effect will happen and their statements won’t be taken seriously. Sometimes though, things are just really exciting! As for question marks, who knows if they should be left out. Or… who knows if they should be left out? See? I just proved the usefulness of a question mark right there. Both of these marks are valuable additions to writing, and even the texters who disparage punctuation like to use them.

Quotation marks are a form of punctuation that is actually falling out of use. Not in the academic writing that I edit, where they are necessary when using the words of other writers. But I have noticed an increasing lack of them in fiction, where dialogue between characters is distinguished by indenting lines instead of cluttering up the page with all of those little marks. But what if a character has a lot to say, like they often do in Thomas Hardy novels? Quotation marks let you divide up those long speeches into paragraphs to make for easier reading. Or what if your publisher wants to save paper and doesn’t want all those separately, indented lines? You might have to collect a succession of short-sentence dialogue into one paragraph, and quotation marks will help you distinguish the different speakers. Or, what if you’re an absent-minded person trying to do too many things at once, including read a book, and you lose track of what’s going on? Quotation marks are a quick visual cue that someone is speaking—that dialogue is happening—and they help you keep better track of what’s going on.

Two other forms of punctuation that are becoming more ubiquitous are em dashes and en dashes. I’ve used several em dashes already, including in that last paragraph. These are the longer “dashes” that we most often see in news stories or magazines, and in academic bibliographies. The en dash is supposed to be the width of a capital “N” and the em dash the width of a capital “M”—thus their names. En dashes are used when showing ranges of numbers and dates (e.g. 2018–19 season), and also to add clarity when forming complex compound adjectives (a Nobel Prize–winning scientist).

The em dash is the longest in length of these dashes. Three em dashes can be used in certain bibliographical formats when repeating an author’s name. But the most creative use of an em dash is to denote a “break” in the writing and set off the information contained within the em dashes from the rest of the text. This can be done with great literary flair, especially when the em dash is employed alongside commas and brackets. These three forms of punctuation can be used to create different kinds of breaks. Consider these three sentences:

Her hair (which wasn’t really blonde) blew across her face.

Her hair, blonde and curly, blew across her face.

Her hair—what was left of it—blew across her face.

In the first sentence, the bracketed part is like a whispered aside, a piece of gossip injected into the conversation. In the second sentence, the part separated by commas is a matter-of-fact description, a piece of information that it would be good for you to have. The brief pause created by the commas, draws a bit of attention to the words and makes you focus on the image of blonde, curly hair for a moment before moving onto what else is happening. In the third sentence, the em dashes are like a car squealing to a stop, and force you to notice and ponder the words they contain. These three examples show how punctuation can be used in the same way that hand gestures or changes in volume would be in spoken language: whispering in brackets, normal volume in commas, and so many other things—shouting, sarcasm, sternness—in em dashes.

My favourite form of punctuation is the comma. I love this little squiggle, and not just because my academic focus leans towards the Oxford comma (the final comma in a list of things, coming before the words “and” or “or,” often used in scholarly writing). Commas can add so much to a sentence. True, there are a lot of rules (and disagreements) as to their use, and people worry about using them correctly. But they are one of the best tools writers have to inject creativity into their work. Deftly used commas can divide a sentence into parts to help increase understanding of complex ideas, clarify meaning, and invite the reader to focus on certain words and phrases.

I think this last use is the best way to deploy a comma, because this is where the punctuation can really affect the emotion and beauty of the words. Take the last line from one of my favourite novels, The Great Gatsby: “And so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” Those commas separate that sentence into three parts, and as we focus on each part individually, images appear in our minds and, as we contemplate those images, emotions are inspired. Those commas force us to take breaks and think about the individual parts of that sentence and at the same time consider what they all mean together. We would read that sentence quite differently, and feel differently about it, if those commas weren’t there.

And that is the genius of punctuation. It is an essential part of writing, not just for its “nitty-gritty” contribution, but for its creative enhancement as well. Very few of us speak without using our hands, our faces or our voices to add expression to our words. Why would we want to write without the expressive possibilities that punctuation gives us? And returning to texting, and its social media counterparts such as Twitter and Instagram, these forms of writing are becoming the most common means of written expression. Why would we hobble the potential of our communication by eliminating an essential and valuable part of language? So, I won’t be deterred. I will continue to use punctuation in my texts, even if that makes me a language dinosaur. I will end my text sentences with a period—or, if I know it really bothers my reader, a happy-face emoji (which is big and round, just like a period.)

There are some very good language blogs that do a great job of explaining the curiosities and rules of language, including punctuation. A couple that I used in writing this piece are grammarly(https://www.grammarly.com/blog/) and Grammar Girl (https://www.quickanddirtytips.com/grammar-girl). These are great resources, alongside some of the more traditional ones, like the mighty Chicago Manual of Style (https://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/home.html). Whatever kind of writing you do, take the time to make use of such aids.

Fall and words in the air…

I have a decades-old dream that I hope to realize now that I’m living in the GTA: to attend a high-profile public event that has loomed large in my imagination for years. I’m not talking about a U2 concert, a popular musical or a production of the Canadian Opera Company. I want to go to a Massey Lecture. Yeah, I’m kind of a nerd.

The CBC Massey Lectures are an annual series of lectures produced by the CBC, House of Anansi Press and Massey College at the University of Toronto. Each year one engaging speaker—a philosopher, writer, artist, politician, etc.—is commissioned to give five lectures on a single, broad topic. The lectures are delivered in the month of October, one at time in different Canadian cities, then replayed on the CBC radio program, Ideas, and reprinted in a book. I get excited by the thought that such an enterprise, going strong since 1961, exists. Few others I know share my enthusiasm. I don’t get that. Who wouldn’t want to explore a vital topic in great depth and detail under the leadership of someone with immense knowledge, creative expression and infectious passion?

My first exposure to the Massey Lectures was in book form, discovered while researching an essay in university. It was Carlos Fuentes’s series on Latin America. I was really lucky to stumble upon the lectures this way. Fuentes was one of the best Latin American writers of the twentieth century, and I already knew his fiction from my university courses. So, of course, his Massey lectures were well written and passionately presented. And I was surprised to find a Canadian forum for a series on Latin American issues. I was young and came from a small city with little diversity. Studying Spanish was a venture into an unknown world for me at the time. I sometimes felt alone in that particular wilderness, so discovering a Canadian connection to a Latin American topic made my choice seem more valid. I was proud of the fact that somewhere in my vast country, a voice was being given to a culture that was trying to be heard.

A few years later, I chanced upon the Massey Lectures on CBC Radio’s Ideas program. I  remember that I was working at my sewing machine with the radio on in the background, and I think the lecturer was Charles Taylor whose series was called “The Malaise of Modernity.” I heard the second or third lecture of the series, and I don’t remember many specifics other than that I was so interested that I didn’t finish whatever it was I was trying to sew, and I made sure that I had the radio on the next few evenings so I could hear the rest of the lectures. I have since bought the book of Taylor’s Massey Lectures and they are incredibly relevant now, even though they were written in 1991. Taylor foresaw many aspects of western society that other philosophers and writers have only recently been examining, and lamenting.

Like anyone who follows a certain kind of entertainment, I have my favourite Massey Lectures. The one I reread every year, a cultural ritual for me like watching It’s a Wonderful Life every Christmas, is Adam Gopnik’s Winter series. I’m a Gopnik groupie anyway (he writes for The New Yorker and has also written wonderful travel essays about his time in Paris and New York City). His Winter series explores the cultural significance of this cold season to a Northern people. He writes about how winter has shaped us and we have claimed it as our own. And reading his words, wonderfully expressed as they are, make me consider my own relationship to this time of dark and cold, a season I at times resent (especially when I have to scrape the ice off my windshield), but mostly love. Gopnik writes of that particular lavender-grey colour of the winter twilight, and how winter wasn’t fully appreciated until we could look out at it from inside our warmly heated homes. What Canadian doesn’t respond emotionally to those images of winter sky and a cup of hot something in front of a fire (or TV)? And I haven’t even mentioned his chapter on hockey—well, he writes about other winter sports too, but do they really matter? That chapter should be required reading in schools, along with Roch Carrier’s The Hockey Sweater (which I bet Gopnik knows well, having spent some of his childhood in Montreal).

I have a collection of Massey lectures on my bookshelves, that I want to expand. The names of the presenters/authors represent some of the greatest philosophers, artists and writers of our current age: Martin Luther King Jr., Northrop Frye, George Grant, Doris Lessing, Jean Vanier, Stephen Lewis, Margaret Somerville, Alberto Manguel, Margaret Atwood, Douglas Coupland, Lawrence Hill, Margaret MacMillan. What incredible scholarship is represented here, and how lucky we are to have these provocative and insightful ideas available to us in so many formats. We often hear complaints about the lack of thought and reflection in our society today. The Massey Lectures are a long-standing rebuttal of that false impression.

The 2018 CBC Massey Lectures are being given by Tanya Talaga, and her title is “All Our Relations,” a reflection on “the legacy of cultural genocide against Indigenous peoples—in Canada and elsewhere.” She will deliver them in October (this month!) across the country, the book is currently available, and CBC Ideas will broadcast them the week of November 12. You can find more information on the website at https://www.cbc.ca/radio/ideas/the-2018-cbc-massey-lectures-all-our-relations-1.4763007. Consider making some time to listen, either in person or during an evening on the radio, and explore the books. I won’t be attending in person (this year), but a week of November evenings by my radio are already planned.

My New Logo – A Picture Worth Many Words

I’m very proud to show off the new logo for my editing business. Based on a photograph I took a few years ago, this logo was designed by my daughter, Colleen, an artist and photographer (see more of her work on her website, solas-photo.com). “Make me a logo, please,” I asked her. “Base it on this picture, maybe work in a Celtic theme, but do whatever you think best—you know what I like.” The choice of image seemed instinctual on my part, whereas her work shows considerable thought, deliberation and talent. Seeing the time and effort that she put into this image has prompted me to ponder my choice of the picture in the first place.

The photograph (seen here)Picture of gazebo roof was taken at Longwood Gardens in south-east Pennsylvania in July 2015. I was looking up through the iron-work roof of a gazebo at the towering trees and blue sky above. It’s a familiar perspective for me; I have many memories of looking up at the sky, whether it was the starlit black over a campground, the brilliant and breezy blue of the first warm day of spring, or the heavy lavender-grey from which fell the first snow of the season. Looking up, often from a comfortable spot on the ground, I would let my imagination wander and lead me through scenarios and possibilities. That sense of breaking free is something I still feel whenever I can find a few moments to look up.

I took this picture just days before I turned 50, normally an introspective milestone and I was in the middle of a particularly difficult time of personal loss. The trip south was meant to be a short respite from what was waiting for me at home. I had long wanted to visit Longwood Gardens, mostly for the giant lily pads I had seen on the PBS show, The Victory Garden. They were worth the visit, but the rest of the gardens, the grand scope of the place, and the trees and big skies, gave me moments of freedom from my cares. Looking up through that gazebo roof, way up at the blue beyond, I was able to imagine a way through the mire of my current life. I was able to see, and feel, a moment of clarity.

When I started my editing business, I chose this picture for my website. It was an instinctive choice, and now that I think about it, I realize that this image of looking up to see the light shining through, strong and clear, represents where I want my life—my work, my relationships, my future—to go. I don’t want to get lost in the clutter on the ground; I want to look up and see clearly, imagine the possibilities even if I can’t quite reach them, yet.

Colleen took this photograph, and all of its meaning, and turned it into this beautiful illustration of what has guided me since I was a child. The centre circle is both an opening to new possibilities and a representation of the light that draws us out. The lines emanating from the circle are like the rays of the sun, giving clarity to our lives. The blue symbolizes the sky and the water, which inspire us to explore and imagine. And the Celtic circles point to my personal heritage, but also represent the many fascinations of life that swirl around us.

A less whimsical interpretation is that this image embodies the main principle that guides me as an editor: to help authors bring clarity to their writing so as to best convey their unique ideas. I’m always impressed by the knowledge and insights of the scholars with whom I work. They study incredibly interesting subjects, and find nuances and innovative interpretations that few of us could ever see on our own. I learn much from each piece I edit. My job is to help my clients use language to its full potential so that those ideas are expressed with as much distinction and vision as they deserve. I’m not so narcissistic as to think I’m the sun shining down on their work. Rather I hope my work helps to guide their readers to the sky beyond the trees, to the hole in the gazebo through which imaginations can wander.

Where Words Can Take You

This time of year, when the spring is a little too timid to shove winter along its way, I yearn to take off, to pack a bag and go somewhere warmer, more colourful, different. Unfortunately, time and money—especially lack of money—prevent me from just picking up and going. I have to find another way to escape. And my favourite way to do this is by diving into travel books. I don’t mean guidebooks; I mean a genre sometimes called “literary travel”, books written by people who have explored the world, had adventures, or sometimes found new homes. If, as they say, a picture is worth a thousand words, I think a thousand words (or more) can be worth a week or two of escape. Well-written tales about journeys to far-off places can draw a reader into the adventure. Your body may not be able to make the trip but your imagination can travel far. The words can take you to anywhere you want to go.

Literary travel books are not a new genre. They have been around not just for decades, but for centuries, and fulfilled the same needs they do today; the authors wanted to tell of the wonders they had seen, and the readers wanted to know about them. In the prologue to The Travels of Marco Polo, an invitation is extended to “…all people who wish to know the various races of men and the peculiarities of the various regions of the world, take this book and have it read to you.”[1] Marco Polo made his expeditions in the 13th century, and his descriptions of what he saw are still interesting to readers today. They speak to a longing many of us have to go beyond what we know, away from our ordinary or even dull lives. Many years later, W. Somerset Maugham echoed this feeling as he began his essay on travelling in Spain with a description with which many of us can identify:

In London now, as I write, the rain of an English April pours down; the sky is leaden and cold, the houses in front of me are almost terrible in their monotonous greyness, the slate roofs are shining with the wet…. And I think of Andalusia. My mind is suddenly ablaze with its sunshine….[2]

Now my mind is ablaze as well, and for a brief time I can shut out the browns and greys of an early Canadian spring and be somewhere brighter.

The first book of this genre that I ever read was Frances Mayes’s Under the Tuscan Sun. She wrote about her experience buying and renovating a house in Tuscany in such a captivating way, with detail, humour and affection, that I devoured this book. I didn’t want to stop reading it. Every spare moment in which I could so safely, I read. I loved being drawn into the Italian countryside, lingering over lunch at a stone table under giant trees, and feeling the hot mistral winds as I looked out a window over the olive grove. But my favourite episode, which I found so beautiful it almost made me cry, was when Mayes described a Christmas spent in Tuscany. She wrote of simple, magical moments, fully enjoyed:

Ed calls from downstairs, “Look out the window.” Snow fell in the night, just enough to dust the fronds of the palm tree and glaze the terraces with a sheen of white.

[…] We take our coffee to the wall, brush it off, and watch the fog below us moving like an opalescent sea. Snow on Christmas!

Is this much happiness allowed?[3]

Later Mayes and her family go on a Christmas Day walk in the Tuscan hills.

We see mountains in the distance we’ve never seen, and the hilltowns of Sinalunga, Montepulciano, and Monte San Savino rise sharply like three ships sailing against the sky…. I start to hum “I saw three ships come sailing in on Christmas Day, on Christmas Day in the morning.” A red fox leaps down onto the path ahead of us. He sweeps his plumy tail back and forth, regards us for a moment, then darts into the woods.[4]

She told of a Christmas that was very different from a North American one, less focussed on gifts and more focussed on family, food and the outdoors. At that time of my life I felt chained to the obligations of big family celebrations at great expense. Mayes’s description of a much calmer holiday gave me a momentary escape and hope for a possible reprieve, someday.

Another of my favourite writers is Adam Gopnik, who has written books about his time living with his family in Paris and New York City—two cities I especially wanted to visit but had yet to get to when I first read his words. Much like with the words of Frances Mayes, I was captivated by the descriptions Gopnik gave of the places he saw every day, and appreciative of the fact that he obviously realized how special these cities were and how unique his experience was. In Through the Children’s Gate, he tells of returning to New York City with his young family and preparing to see it anew through the eyes of his son and daughter.

We came back to New York in 2000, after years away, to go through the Children’s Gate…. The Children’s Gate exists, and you really can go through it. It’s the name for the entrance to Central Park at Seventy-sixth Street and Fifth Avenue. The names of the gates—hardly more than openings in the low stone wall describing the park—are among its more poetic, less familiar monuments…. There was, and is, the Miners’ Gate, and the Scholars’ Gate, and—for a long time this was my favorite—the Strangers’ Gate, high on the West Side. The Children’s Gate is one of the lesser known, though the most inviting of all.[5]

I was enchanted by the idea of these gates, something I never would have known about without reading Gopnik’s book. I eventually made my way to New York City and sought out the Children’s Gate. It is a very inviting entrance, and leads you to the sailing pond and the delightful statue of Hans Christian Andersen and the Ugly Duckling. This was a rare occasion when I got to live out what I had held in my mind for so long; those words actually did take me somewhere wonderful.

Another book that held me spell-bound for several days was The River at the Center of the World by Simon Winchester, about his journey up the Yangtze River, from its mouth in Shanghai to one of its presumed sources in Tibet. He told of a journey through what was to me a very foreign and fascinating country, all inspired by an ancient scroll painting of the great river by one of the most revered artists of ancient China, Wang Hui, that Winchester first saw in the living room of a home in New Hampshire.[6] That part of the book was more familiar to me at least—being cozy in a darkened living room on a winter’s evening, dreaming of a trip.

In her book, A Year in the World, Frances Mayes talks about the push-pull of wanting home and wanting away: “…my profound desire for home…the sense of this is my place—all that has been at the mercy of an equal force, the desire to shut the door, turn the key, and go. Go. The domestic and the opposite.”[7] That is a common feeling for many of us, wanting so much to go away and then missing home when we’ve left it. Reading about travel gives us the opportunity to journey without leaving the comforts of our home, to learn of new things while being surrounded by the familiar.

As well, it gives us the chance to understand and appreciate cultures different from our own, something that is becoming very important in our increasingly globalized society. When we can communicate so easily and quickly with people from around the world, it is essential that we understand each other. While it would be wonderful if all of us could travel everywhere and learn from experience, that is an unrealistic dream. But we can learn from those who are able to travel. The journalist Andrew Solomon’s book, Far & Away: How Travel Can Change the World, is a collection of his writing about the different countries he has visited as part of his job over the past 30 years. In the Afterword, he stresses the importance of traveling:

Witnessing a global world is a way to make a global world. Openness makes us safe…. We must take action as citizens of our own countries yet embrace a larger whole. As soon as we believe that we cannot be citizens of the world, we lose the world of which we might have been citizens.[8]

Earlier, he writes, “This is a book about boundaries: about both the beauty in our differences and the surprising symmetries among us that persist despite those differences.”[9]  As I read that, I was struck by the similarity to the preface of the Marco Polo book quoted at the beginning of this post; how if you “want to know the various races of men and the peculiarities of the various regions of the world,” a book can show you that. To me, it’s a demonstration of the power and importance of language, and where words can take you—to different places, new knowledge and deeper understanding.

[1] Marco Polo, The Travels (London: Penguin Books, 1958), 33.

[2] W. Somerset Maugham, The Skeptical Romancer: Selected Travel Writing, ed. Pico Iyer (New York: Vintage Classics, 2009), 3.

[3] Frances Mayes, Under the Tuscan Sun: At Home in Italy (New York: Broadway Books, 1996), 218.

[4] Mayes, Under the Tuscan Sun, 220.

[5] Adam Gopnik, Through the Children’s Gate: A Home in New York (Toronto: Vintage Canada, 2007), 8.

[6] Simon Winchester, The River at the Center of the World: A Journey up the Yangtze, and Back in Chinese Time (New York: Picador, 2004).

[7] Frances Mayes, A Year in the World: Journeys of a Passionate Traveller (New York: Broadway Books, 2006), 412.

[8] Andrew Solomon, Far & Away: How Travel Can Change the World (New York: Scribner, 2016), 520.

[9] Solomon, Far & Away, 512.