Side note: Being Still while in Transit

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There is a a famous trail that runs through Spain to the Cathedral de Santiago de Compostela known as the Camino de Santiago, aka “The Way of St. James.” Every year thousands of people walk, bike, or even drive the approximately 500 mi/800 km of this route from the Pyrenees in the south of France to the cathedral, on a journey retracing the steps of St. James. Some do it for religious reasons, most do it for other personal reasons: an interest in self-discovery, a personal challenge, a chance to overcome a difficult obstacle. They are inspired by the journey itself, the challenge undertaken, and the opportunity for personal growth. It is a journey that I one day hope to undertake.

I wonder about the parallels with my current journey. While The Way has been walked by millions of travelers over more than a thousand years, my route is ambiguous and more variable. The Way is marked by iconic religious markers, from graves to statues recounting the great deeds of the past. My path is marked by the scientific feats and personal journeys of the scientists and scholars who have set forth knowledge and discovery in Psychology. While The Way is an intimate journey for personal discovery, the aims of my journey are more public: to share the stories from the rich history of Psychology. The goals are very different, the paths are very different, and yet I feel kinship to those who walk the Way. I can see how the journey changes the traveler. Here, which as it happens for me today is in South Dakota, the people speak a little differently. The radio stations, the architecture, the pace of life, the valued food all indicate common themes to other places we’ve visited, but also indicate the uniqueness of this place. One man I spoke with last night described how he had moved here almost 15 years ago — to these flatlands of Dakota. He liked the people, and, as opposed to where he grew up, no longer felt like people looked down on him. In the flatlands, he felt like he was on equal grounds with his neighbors. Physically and metaphorically, I guess.

On “The Way” the journey is the goal in and of itself. For me this journey is part and parcel of a different and, I hope, larger project. I’ve spoken to and captured the backgrounds of about 25 really amazing Psychologists: starting with Hal Grotevant back at U Mass — Amherst to most recently Morton Ann Gernsbacher in nearby U Wisconsin — Madison. (I know, I’m a little behind in posting and have lots to add with great stories from Jenny Saffran and Morton Gernsbacher that are currently in preparation).  Both Hal and Morton have roots in Texas, including involvement with U Texas – Austin. They have amazing  research programs, but far different areas of expertise and scholarly approaches. With each person I speak  to I am affected, changed,  by who they are. I learn about their childhoods and learn a little of their humanity, their struggles, their journeys to do the work that made them influential to the point of attracting the admiration of those in the field.

While on this journey I cherish these conversations and the moments of stillness when I can reflect and write about them. This journey has taken us far and away from what we once knew as home and the creature comforts therein. It is intensive, active, and the motion has great momentum often making me feel a sense of rush and urgency. But when there are quiet times  in the mornings, or on the days when I don’t have a scheduled conversation, or in the evenings if my head isn’t buzzing too much from a long day — during these quiet moments there is stillness. And it is in that stillness that this journey feels like it makes sense.

The journey itself makes me constantly aware of change. Finding a place to sit and embrace the stillness is a necessary luxury. The aim: to share the backgrounds of amazing psychologists takes patience and reflection. Why did Dan Schacter choose to write a book about a fairly obscure physiologist as a grad student? Why did Ellen Bialystok delve into bilingualism in the meaningful work of her career? The context for answering these questions are laid bare by the candid remarks they offer during our conversations. To do so requires the still moments to hear that message. A chance to understand it. Articulate it.

I am on a journey but the more I travel the more I cherish the stillness. In those moments do I get the strongest sense of what is precious.

As a side note to my side note, traveling through South Dakota is amazing. It is a blend of weird and rough terrain and roadside attractions. We drove miles into the Badlands today. Viewing it today, now as an adult, I see something I didn’t appreciate when I was a child and visited here. As a child it was a blur of rocks and an interruption to my re-reading some S.E. Hinton book for the 8th or 9th time.   As an adult, it was glorious — massive and foreboding! It was the raw markings of erosion and more than a millennia of nature building up and tearing itself down! Totally awe-inspiring! I gasped, my wife photographed and embraced the beauty of it! My son took a quick look and had his fill : )

As if that wasn’t enough, I might add that after viewing these amazing formations, I began walking back towards our car.I heard a small rustling in the bush, just off the metal path. I stopped. Frozen. There was a warning sign at the start of the trail “Beware of Rattlesnakes” and I was.

I searched the ground, fascinated and anxious at what I might find. It took a moment before my eyes identified the movement. Against the dark, speckled ground was a dark speckled coat. A gorgeous rabbit sat just two meters from me, chewing away at the brush. She was  wary of my presence, just as moments ago I had been wary of her sounds.  I called over my wife (who was just behind me), and then my son who was way ahead — pantomiming to them an urgency to approach, while also doing everything I could to suppress my own sounds or frightening gestures. The rabbit  was cool. Big eyed, and concerned of any movement that might signal a threat, but hungry enough (or experienced enough with silly humans) to hold her ground and continue snacking. It was a fantastic moment  of stillness! I gawked and adored her beauty and capacity to survive this brutal terrain.

We pressed on to more Badlands and then to Wall Drug — an iconic place of Americana home to free ice water and weary tourism. It’s weird. It’s advertised for more than 300 miles along the highway, with what must be hundreds of signs. To me it was irresistible! To my son — who already tolerated the Badlands, who visited another bit of weird Americana days before with us when we stopped at the House on the Rock — it was too much. What is this odd tourist trap and why would we ever bother to stop? For free ice water? Really?

I wish I could express the value of embracing these oddities and the spectra of interests it all represents. But alas, I’m getting older and more reflective and he’s just entering teenage-hood. In stillness I can even see where that conflict arises and why it must be fought. In stillness I think I can understand.  Maybe he’ll be able to enjoy some moments of stillness along this trip, as well.

(*Pictured is a bit of the obscurity we witnessed at the House on the Rock)

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