During in grad school, I moved into a trendy LA neighborhood that was swarming with hip twenty-somethings–people with ink and piercings and big eyewear; people who were edgy and way cooler than me. I worried that my Banana Republic banality might offend their creative sensibilities or dilute the neighborhood’s budding cool-quotient. But most everyone was friendly and welcoming, despite their unifying penchant for raucous, high-decibel celebrating.
Early one evening, I came across such an elderly gentleman on the corner. He was staring at a stop sign, shuffling a few steps in one direction before turning around and doubling back. Clearly disoriented, I feared that he could easily get hit by a speeding car of rollicking party-goers. Or by a plane (since one had just crashed into an apartment building nearby). Or maybe he’d be eaten by a marauding possum (since he was that small, and the possums that big). Yes, all these were possibilities not to be discounted in surreal Los Angeles.
So I did exactly what my parents told me never to do: I picked him up. In my little green Honda.
After he lowered his stiff, sliver-of-a-body into my car, we proceeded to drive, block by block, along every street in the neighborhood.
Eventually we passed a house that looked familiar (he didn’t know his address), and he got out. An elderly woman came to the front door, looking at once relieved and irritated. From the look of it, this wasn’t the first time a walk had turned wayward.
This is the bad kind of wander–being lost without intention, forethought or (as was evident) intact memory.
But there are good kinds of wander, as well: Wander that involves the radiating heat of a black dashboard and absurd attempts to belt out your favorite song; wander that involves stepping away from obligation and following the irregular line that wends across your pocket-sized map, the snaking black that stretches out before you.
Wander, in this sense, is predicted, even if it’s only the outline which is sketched in advance. The details, the wander’s interior, can be filled in as you go, crafted along the way.
Such wandering doesn’t lend itself to parenthood, and I often miss the ability to leave, unencumbered and unscheduled. As it is, my mind, like my diaper bag, is full of provisions for all contingencies–the physical and psychological reminders of tending to people both small and inherently dependent.
I wonder: How can parents find the good wander?
At times I have felt this way. But not now. Now I would like some moments and some miles, to meander and have fulfilled my dormant, itinerant longings. Not to engage in the rowdy festivities of my previous neighbors or my own (distant) youth, but to pursue the urge to wander, to follow the tug of that beckoning thread.
Would a stroll around the neighborhood (minus the baby carrier and its contents–the baby) suffice? What about spending some hours deep in the pages of a favorite book—could that provide temporary transcendence? Or should I meander through my mind, hoping that the traversal of an emotional topography might somehow substitute for a physical one?
None of these give me the thought-spinning, stomach-churning anticipation of grabbing my passport and wondering how I’ll manage in a small village where no one speaks English. None offer comparable drama or possibility.
Parenting is nothing if not an exercise in recalibration—of schedules, ideas, and identity. So maybe this means that our expectations about wandering must be recalibrated as well—retooled and perhaps downsized–so that they are attainable. Maybe drama comes not from a last-minute trip to Malaysia, but from watching our children swing rung by rung across the monkey bars. Or from standing alongside them in the deep trenches of childhood affect—witnessing the flailing of bodies and the heaving sobs of heartbreak—the intensity of which rivals any emotional storm in the so-called adult world.
Though I find myself yearning for adventure and open road, it is bittersweet to acknowledge that this freedom will someday be mine once again. Because a tarmac-filled existence would mean a certain longing for the things I now bemoan—the lack of sleep and the incessant, “but mommy, why?” It would mean that a dusty-headed, sap-stained child would no longer present herself to me for nightly kisses and cuddles, that my back would no longer provide transport for a too-tired toddler.
And eventually, such freedom might mean that I’m so advanced in age that wandering outside my front door constitutes risk, unless I rely upon a trail of breadcrumbs (or the kindness of a stranger in a Honda).
For now, I treasure my latent wanderlust and the fantasy it inspires, for it keeps me company in the way a 3-year old cannot. It serves as a backdoor through which my responsible, parentified mind can abscond. But it also reminds me that these days, steeped in drama of the childhood sort, are precious. And numbered.
Do you have strategies for taking vacations (of the metaphorical or actual sort)? Do you believe in the value of wandering?