As some of you know, I spend much of the year wandering around the country sampling regional wine and food, taking in the sights, and trying to dodge weather events that make traveling precarious.
But now I’ve been stationary in San Diego for two months while I teach my Spring classes, and life has settled into a routine.
But “settled” is too kind a word. When I repeatedly move through the same streets a place becomes too familiar. I suppose it is comforting knowing the buildings one sees and the easiest route to a destination. But I naturally fall into habits so I no longer have to think about where I’m going. I can feel my level of attention decline and nothing really attracts my attention. Even brilliant things—a unique building, an interesting person, a piece of public art—are dulled by repeated exposure and fade into the ordinariness of everyday. It’s easy to fall into a daydream, and think about tomorrow, or next week. Being present is not necessary; everything becomes background unless something goes wrong. Only when my expectations are flouted do I have to focus.
In other words, familiarity breeds a loss of aesthetic experience. Aesthetic experience now requires conscious effort and planning. I suppose feeling at home in a place and succumbing to the torpor of habit is comforting and has its own aesthetic feel to it. But there is no edge and no need for exploration. Nothing seems distinctive; there is no rhythm or movement; it hardly seems worthy of being called “aesthetic”.
By contrast, when traveling I have to be alert and pay attention to details. I’m more sensitive to how things look and feel. I’m never quite sure that my assumptions about where things are located are correct and everything has an aura of freshness about it accompanied by the thought that I may never pass this way again and so I have to enjoy it while I can. The lure of exploration beckons and the anticipation of the unknown stimulates the imagination.
No doubt feeling at home in a place is a basic human characteristic, something we seek out and miss when it is not available. Most importantly, I sorely miss the friends and family I leave behind when traveling. And I can get more work done when I don’t have to drive for 8 hours or think about making travel arrangements.
But even after just a few weeks I miss the sensory intensity that comes with a constantly changing geography. It’s time to start making plans.