First Iceland… and then The Shock of the Ordinary
Aren’t the exotic and the ordinary two names for the same thing depending on where you stand? Unfamiliarity is the sole cause for the sensation of the exotic. Recognition and routine dictate the ordinary. Touching your heart and bowing your head as a greeting is both an exotic custom and the way things are done.
I’ve always found it natural to deal with the novel and unexpected. It never phased me to travel to new places without a program. The things that pop up out of nowhere that you didn’t expect are part of the package deal that I sign up for. I call them “swerves” and lean into them because they offer true surprises. Many of these swerves are annoying, awkward, even painful. You’d think I’d want to avoid them at all cost.
To travel according to plan is to sanitize experience. The ones who have had to slog their luggage up a long hill promise themselves that they will NEVER do that again and so set up future plans to eliminate any possibility of that ever happening. And also of having that story to tell. The unintended consequence is the attenuation of surprise.
The reason we plan is to avoid pain. The tight program creates the efficiency of analgesia. All pain is anesthetized and only pleasure is permitted. Buying a tour shaves off much of the challenge of what travel actually is. It makes irritants out of the “betweens” and directs our attention towards landmarks, the monuments, the famous paintings, the classic vistas. “We are walking….”.
That’s great if your traveling needs to align with every other practical aspect of you life. If pragmatism and efficiency advanced your career why shouldn’t these same things create the optimal travel experience?
Those just aren’t my rules. I travel looking for freshness and surprise. As a result, I program in the awkward, unforeseen, the annoying. I struggle up that staircase with my luggage and backpack because that is how I earn the rest of it.
This travel philosophy has served me well in providing a wealth of truly unique experience. Until this most recent trip to Europe I was able to fold new experiences into my life’s normal context. I always returned from the places I have been “enriched” or “sensitized” or “energized”.
Then I went to Iceland. You’d think maybe it was a nice little diversion. Some big mountains. A little dip in some hot springs. Instead I came back shattered and pulverized. It has now been a week since I returned and I better write about this because what happened over there is even now fading. In the first few days after I got back into my own house I rattled around like an abandoned puppy. The transition was not pretty. The ordinary was kind of shocking to me. It actually felt exotic. I felt like my old self had been windblown, like another kind of me was sitting where I used to sit. It felt unusual to say the least.
Part of the weirdness was that I have been thinking recently about the illusion of self and the tantalizing prospect of what happens after you recognize the “self” is just a construct. All of that is now a gentle theory that I used to play games with in my head. Iceland put at least part of that into practice, and with devastating results.
I remember studying about the “sublime” in Romantic literature and art; the grandeur of the mountains, the power of the ocean, the vastness of the desert. It’s one thing to study the concept in art school, in the abstract. It’s an entirely different thing to be overpowered by it in life. I’ve known sensations that I referred to as “sublime” before; with oceans, deserts, forests. Always very moving, even poetic. But never seismic.
Large natural settings reduce us to visiting points of consciousness, wandering cyphers subsumed by infinity.
That’s the theory anyway. In Iceland my assumptions about my personal significance (or more accurately, my assumptions about what constituted my “self”) dissolved and I faced a stark choice; move into it or hold back. In the face of the sublime I think we all tend to hold back.
In Iceland I moved into it. I remember walking along a path in their National Park Pingvellar after passing an hour of wonder in all of it, the mighty vistas and the small marvels of rock grottos. The snow was falling and I crossed above a gentle stream that faced the valley. It was a moment suspended. I felt this strange sensation of returning. I don’t know how else to describe it. And the one going back was not the one who left.
Iceland is otherwise inhabited. That has something to do with this. There are marvels afoot there that we would do best not to enumerate. But the ancient perception that this land is a domicile for trolls and elves comes from their intution. In Icelandic it is called “innsaei”. One translation of that is “the ocean within”. Of course in no way will my modern minds allow these stories of nature spirits to even approach accuracy. Silly stories. But maybe even sillier modern minds. In truth these stories approximate a depth of mystery the surface images only hint at.
I’ve come now to the point of re-assembling. The oscillation between self and no-self demands that shattering be followed by reform.
The effect of Iceland with its mountains that are not just only, with its broad desolate treeless plains, with its boiling hidden world playing out above in geysers and vents, with its rivers that flow with light not water, is that it breaks your heart. You are now in love and you will never be you again.
Iceland is enormous. Even as an island in an ocean it is as big as all-ness. The scale of its significance could be said to render us insignificant. But it would be the simple un-imagined self that would feel like that. The no-self expands to enfold it.
It was and still is a terrifyingly beautiful thing. Nobody would want this. I do know that I need it.