The Bewildering Present

In addition to marking a full month since leaving the States, yesterday was heralded in the Gregorian Calendar as “Leap Day”, which — depending on who or where you are in the world — might mean something different to you. I’m told that in Scotland, Leap Day is the only time a woman can propose to a man. To the rest of the world, it mostly means that you’re feeling particularly jazzed as you’ve got an “extra” day to experience life.

That I may have had an extra day in my year only occurred to me today as I did my daily comb through Facebook, seeing many posts about how people used these “extra” 24 hours in 2016. In that regard, I used my extra day strolling through Lincoln, England with my Aunt Marla, and then climbed the 149 steps to the top of Tattershall Castle, a medieval castle on the road to Sleaford in Lincolnshire. While I’m not sure that I see yesterday as an additional day in my life, I do think it was extra — or supplementary, if you will — time with my aunt, who moved across the seven years ago after marrying a brilliant man from England, Chris Payne. In fact, this trip was largely born out of my desire to spend more time with the two of them.

A quiet pause with Aunt Marla at Tattershall Castle in Lincolnshire, England on February 29, 2016

But there was also a more introspective side to this extra day. Truthfully, it was the daily comb through Facebook that really made me think about how I was using not just my 2016 Leap Day, but living my life overseas. Before I left for Europe, Lauren Kaufmann (who, let’s be real here, is the true star of this blog) sent me a postcard that had the following E. M. Forster quote:

“Life is easy to chronicle, but bewildering to practice.”

This statement roughly sets up chronicling and practicing life as a dichotomy that takes different levels of skill to achieve: Mapping out life’s journey on paper might be easy, but living life’s journey confounds us all. It’s a fairly democratic and humanist platitude of how we spend our lives: Everyone tries to take note of important things, maybe shares them in some form or another with others, and we all move about as if we know what we’re doing. Chronicling today might look like checking in somewhere on Facebook, sending a detailed email to family, or snapping a picture on our iPhones. Of course the trap while traveling is getting stuck behind a camera lens and never seeing the places you’re visiting, or not being present in the places you’re visiting.

But as I think about the notions of “chronicling life” and “practicing life”, it’s actually the pairing of them that has enhanced my experience abroad. Against all odds (self-imposed, of course), I’ve been able to keep up with a travel journal, which has taken two forms:

  1. A daily log simply chronicling the activities of each day, and
  2. A longer narrative that fills in details of the activities, sights, sounds, etc.

Truthfully, the daily log has changed the way I live my days, as I now see my days as collections of experiences and memories that are written down and assessed qualitatively (how good my days were) and quantitatively (how many things I did that day). They’re down on paper; I can see them, they have materialized. I want them to count.

In the same vein, the longer narrative section has helped me relive and remember parts of my days, especially vignettes that had usually seemed insignificant, yet figure prominently in my journal. When I realized that, I started living the smaller daily moments in larger ways: savoring a long walk through a city, really trying to taste flavors and mentally record smells, extending time spent sitting on benches, watching the patterns fish make as they swim in a pond. In this sense, chronicling the narratives of my day has helped me better “practice” life.

Koi swimming below a verdant canopy of Bamboo trees at the Jardin Majorelle in Marrakech on February 24, 2016

I’ve also been able to document my days visually, and thankfully I’ve yet to fall into living my life behind a camera on this trip. After several intentional days of taking pictures in environments I enjoyed, I noticed that I’ve been extremely present when taking pictures (or visually chronicling) of places. It becomes a bit of a game to find beautiful angles and scenes, which activates my surroundings and the space I’m in. Some of my best memories, which happen to also be the moments for which I was the most “mentally present”, are when I was taking pictures. Documenting my present by looking through a lens has allowed me to intentionally look at where I am, and this intentionality has allowed me to enjoy these places in a new way.

Meditative morning moments in Hyde Park, London on February 18, 2016

I suppose it really is bewildering how these two ideas, chronicling and practicing life, have helped me on this trip. Really living, for me, is somehow indebted to and augmented by its documentation. But I’m fairly pleased this realization came about on Leap Day, as I suppose I really did use that “extra” time for something good. That said, I’m approximately two weeks behind on writing down my narrative, so the bewilderment is not entirely solved–and might never be.

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