Each time I come back from traveling, I need a few weeks to make the transition. I don’t mean I need to overcome jet lag. A few days will take care of that. I can curve around the clock, chipping away an hour’s difference each night, until I’m sleeping and waking at more or less the same time as my family.
More than sleep, I need time for my soul to catch up. A story says it best: Some travelers in a land rover were crossing the Sahara. They came to an oasis where they found a man sitting under a tree. He was alone. When they learned he was going in their direction and seeing that he had no camel or vehicle, they invited him to ride with them. He declined. “But you’re on foot,” they exclaimed, “and it’s miles away.” “I’m waiting,” he responded. “What for?” they asked. “I’ve left my home; I’m waiting for my soul to catch up,” he answered.
On short trips I don’t need to wait for my soul to catch up. It goes with me on my occasional weekends away, but on longer trips, thousands of miles over the sea, the plane, like an arrow, flies swiftly, directly to its destination, and I am left bereft even though I am going to places that are like home to me: Italy and Israel. On these trips I must seclude myself for a few days before I can go out into public where I will immerse myself in another language, another work, other friends and family, other geography, where I will go to different doctors, use different transportation, breathe different air.
When I return to the U.S., it’s the same. I must hide away for a while; my soul can’t get back in the time of a plane ride.
Part of what I do in those solitary weeks waiting for my soul to catch up is to remember/fantasize about where I’ve been. I’m in that no man’s land of comparing places and people. I’m full of stories about family and friends, situations in the other place, realities that don’t exist where I am. I’m a merchant, carrying foreign goods, standing in one place with my hands full of another.
Over the course of the days, as my soul reaches its new place, I deplete those stories, those fantasies, and can feel my soul fitting back into my body like a hand slowly sliding into its glove. I begin to recognize my surroundings, to be where I am. I let one language go for another.
We are encouraged to live in the moment, to be aware of what’s around us, even, for those who meditate, to feel the different temperatures of the air as we inhale and exhale. It is good for us to know where we stand, otherwise we can get lost permanently in fantasies of elsewhere, that imagined better place where we are sure we would be happier, or more comfortable, or richer.
But the more I travel, the more our souls seem to me like elephants, giant and thick, lumbering across the savannah, moving with steady pace toward their feeding grounds, or like whales that ride a winding current across the broad expanse of sea searching for their next sustenance.