From: Tender: Essays on Travel, Food, and Love.

Travel as Tenderness toward Experience

The effect of “looking and looking” is “love . . . a sense of tenderness toward experience, of being held within an intimacy with the things of the world.” Mark Doty, Still Life with Oysters and Lemon: On Objects and Intimacy.

I stand on high ground overlooking the Vale of Evesham in England’s Cotswolds region— a wide expanse of rolling lawns, rows of darker trees, and distant hills of patchwork apple green. Clouds cluster overhead, sometimes threatening rain, sometimes parting to admit sudden slants of sun and swaths of sky. My daughter walks toward me, becoming part of the scenery, her scarf adding a burst of blue, her face illumined with a touch of light. I feel a rush of love for her and for the landscape as well.

On my flight to England, I’d read Mark Doty’s Still Life with Oysters and Lemon: On Objects and Intimacy, a book about still life pictures, but also about love, loss, and our hunger for intimacy. In in the course of a ten hour journey, Doty touched me, altering my comprehension of why I travel—of why I need to travel.  

On the surface, I’d had a grasp of what I looked for in getting away–to break with my work as a writer, with the discipline, the effort, the disappointments, the unending nature of revision. I also longed to escape our distinctly American culture of individualism and overwork. My English friends work hard, but their lives have always seemed more balanced, more leisurely, and more pleasurable than mine.

Traveling for me, also involved what I thought of as an opening to the world, an expansion of my capacity for pleasure.  When I travel I begin to focus on something other than my work, to take in landscapes, music, art, food.  Reading Doty, however, made me aware that there were deeper layers, to this opening and this focus and to their accompanying delights. The effect of looking and looking, Doty writes (he is gazing at a still life involving oysters and lemon) is “love . . . a sense of tenderness toward experience, of being held within an intimacy with the things of the world.”

Reading Doty shaped what I would go on to feel in the English countryside.  It was more than pleasure, I realized, it was love I felt in looking at the Vale of Evesham and at my daughter in her azure scarf. It was tenderness toward experience that I felt in Hidcote Gardens when I came across a soft green path, bordered by tall hedges, a path that seemed to go on forever and to promise openings for my life—the possibility of journeys to unknown places, the soul-releasing prospect of renewal.

Doty asks “is that what soul or spirit is, then, the outward flying attention, the gaze that binds us to the world?”  I can’t answer his question, but I know that reading him made me understand for the first time that my own “looking and looking” also gave me a sense of being bound to, and rooted in, the world– of feeling at home in it. As a child of distant parents, feeling at home in the world is something I’ve pursued for most of my existence.

Describing what we have seen, Doty writes, is an “inexact, loving art, and a reflexive one.” In writing about what we see, we “come closer to saying who we are.”  Though, in my case, writing what I see feels more like trying to become the person I want to be. I carry love of my daughter within me no matter where I go, but I want to feel intimacy with green paths and leafy vistas and to hold that love within me too. And I want that connection without my usual ache of nostalgia, without my familiar longing to re-experience what I once felt for the English countryside when I was much younger, when I taught nineteenth-century British literature, was married to a man I loved, who later died of AIDS, when the lush verdure of the English landscape was so new to me that it hurt my heart. Now, I want to feel that the intimacy I experience in the present is–enough.

I began to see that it had been a desire for intimacy without nostalgia that had prompted me, in part, to persuade my daughter to come with me to England. Young people, and especially our children, can revive our capacity for wonder at the world and a sense of intimate connection to it. I felt closer to the landscape because I saw my daughter come alive to it with an intensity that no longer comes so easily to me. She shares my passion for the fullness of white peonies, for the brightness of honey colored stone and ancient wooden doors, for clusters of deep lilac ceanothus hanging over them, for roses splayed, in a fragrant pink fragility, against a centuries old brick wall. My connection to them was more palpable because she felt it too. And, more simply, my love for her magnified my tenderness toward all three.

Of course, Doty reminds us that everything is “evanescent. “  In still life pictures the bounty of shimmering  things artfully arranged on a table always bear signs of decay– an insect, a flower whose petals are coming loose, a fruit that is overly ripened. The intense intimacy we feel when we study a landscape or a painting passes–as will we. But we can carry the imprint of that tenderness within us.  And, despite, or because of, their evanescence, the moments we do spend “wrapped in layers of intimacy with the world” can feel like “perfection,” which, for me, means feeling love, means feeling at home in the world at last.


Picture: Vale of Evesham, Cotswolds, England