I am feeling melancholic in a way I didn’t expect, as I come to the last few days in Iceland before the ship turns south for the British Isles. I’ve been in Iceland a month now, for all or part of four different sailings. There are some ports I have seen four times and none I have seen less than twice. In at least the parts of towns that cruisers see, I know where everything is, what is just a bit off the beaten path, and what is worth seeing or doing a second or even a third time. I feel settled in, as if these familiar cliffs, valleys, rocks, fjords, flowers and birds are at least a little bit mine.
Today I spent the day in Heimaey, the largest of the Westman Islands just off the coast of Iceland, and as I came back to the ship on the tender, I thought about how this was the last time we would stop here. Never say never, of course, but despite the soul soothing I have gotten from Iceland’s clean, clear air and water, its friendly people, and its magnificent scenery, when I think of how many more places I want to go for a first time or return to, I really doubt I will be back.
That got me thinking about what I remember, not just about here, but from all my travels. What sticks? What, on the other hand, is really just one wonderful moment before moving on? I have to admit, I have trouble remembering what I did even yesterday when I am cruising because I live most thoroughly in the present when I am traveling. It seems as if trying to burn a lasting takeaway into my mind is only a distant thought compared to what is registering with my five senses at the moment. Perhaps that’s part, at least, of why I post here so rarely when I am on the road, or sea in this case.
I rarely remember the weather in the places I’ve been unless it is an essential part of the experience. I don’t often remember whether a day was sunny or cloudy, chilly or warm. I don’t remember food. In fact, I am amazed that on my land trip from Croatia to Barcelona, I can only remember eating once or twice. Obviously I did, but most food just doesn’t leave a lasting impression. As for people, I meet so many, but I only remember a few. Often I remember vividly the person I was traveling with, how their being illuminated my time in their presence.
I remember some things very well. Views, for one. I remember standing overlooking a spectacular river in Montenegro. I remember being gobsmacked by the Matterhorn. I remember looking out over the Negev desert. I remember the hugeness of the Amazon, the power of waterfalls, the outlines of islands. Sunsets, sunrises.
I remember people whose stories seemed written on their faces. Little villages where life seems to work despite hardship. Cities buzzing with people going about their lives every day, not just the one I happen to be there. Children chattering in languages they have no idea how few people understand.
Sometimes I wish I had noticed more, asked more questions. Stood a little stiller, been a little quieter a little longer . But those chances are gone. Now all I hope for is to expand my capacity for amazement in the moment, because that is the only place we actually are.
Of course Mary Oliver says it far better than I can. Here is one of her poems:
My work is loving the world.
BHere the sunflowers, there the hummingbird — equal seekers of sweetness. Hear the quickening yeast; they’re the blue plums.
Hear the clam deep in the speckled sand.
Are my boots old? Is my coat torn? Am I no longer young and still not half-perfect? Let me keep my mind on what matters, which is my work,
which is mostly standing still and learning to be astonished.
The phoebe, the delphinium.
The sheep in the pasture, and the pasture. Which is mostly rejoicing, since all ingredients are here,
which is gratitude, to be given a mind and a heart and these body-clothes, a mouth with which to give shouts of joy to the moth and the wren, to the sleepy dug-up clam,
telling them all, over and over, how it is that we live forever.