During our trip, our hostess suggested that I lead some conversations about how the idea of slow love might apply to our travels. I decided to pose a question for the group to think about during the day, so that we could discuss it at mealtime. I like having table-wide dinner conversations better than the chitchat that happens when a small group fractures; you get to know your companions better, and you hear interesting things, and you aren't wondering whether that end is having a better time than your end.

There were several questions I'd been asking myself along the way; one simple one had to do with change. What effect does travel have on our lives? I asked about what each person might change in their life--small, large, ideal, material, whatever--as a result of the trip so far. What has been provocative? What has been inspiring? What has been reaffirming? I wanted to hear about even the tiniest detail--like deciding to float flowers in a bowl every summer morning, as we were seeing that done everywhere we went. Or wrapping yourself up in a new wool shawl to watch the sunrise at least once a week. (Dominique C. and Jenny and I enjoyed several jet lagged sunrises...)

I did not predict one response: "That’s a bad question."

That remark stayed with me, but, in the way that so often happens, a barb turned into the prickle that made me think about something new: the question of questions. Is there such a thing as a bad question? (And we're not talking about rude, prying, personal or petty questions here.)

The most important questions that have ever been asked are what might be called the naïve questions. What is the good life? What is truth? What is the meaning of life? What is happiness?

These are big, vague, questions, that can be asked at any time in anyone’s life. After any journey, any event. And they can be asked by anyone. They are the most interesting kinds of questions, because they teach you something:
The point is not the question. 

Questions are only the opening of doors. Much more important is how you walk into the space created by a question. What you draw upon to reply, and what that reveals about you, to others, or to yourself.

One person answered my question about what they might change by asking a different question: Why should we change? Why should travel make any difference at all? You get to a certain point in life, he said, you get older, and you don’t want to change anything. You're satisfied. That got me thinking...

Another person spoke of how the trip has reaffirmed her decision to give herself permission to be more adventurous about what she does, to let herself do things she has only dreamed of doing. That, too, made me think about how fear or anxiety has held me back.

My sister talked about reconnecting with Lisa, her childhood friend with whom we are traveling--and how important it is to share memories, and be reminded what you were like when you were young. 

Interesting discussion is triggered by just about any question. Our conversations about moments that made us fall in love with the world, or that slowed us down, or that refracted our attention at a new angle, turned out to be fascinating. Well, I have to confess that one traveler kind of stopped the dinner cold when she told us our comments were boring and banal; no lesson to learn there, sometimes rude is simply rude. And you just have to laugh.

On the question of questions, here's where I came out: If we are paying attention, if we honor anyone's question with an open mind, with an intention to explore, or play--and without judgmental defensiveness--we may just find answers where we least expect them. 


Anonymous said...

Group travel can be very difficult for people. I go with an open mind and just enjoy the journey and how it changes me comes when I go home and process. There are rude people everywhere. I just ignore them when they make it clear they are just negative people. Not wanted in my zone. Love your travel to India. It changed my life forever.

Sparky said...

Regarding your comment about where you came out: It took me many years to come to a point in which I am capable of "honoring anyone's question with an open mind." I think what turned me around from being jaded and judging were the years I lived in a smaller town (after nearly forty years living in big cities). The people were more genuine, less pretentious, surprisingly more open. I began to let down my own pretensions and looked inside myself for what I REALLY feel instead of what would sound more clever or cool or sophisticated or (embarrassed to say it) belittling. Even though I may have traveled more widely than some of these people, I saw that there is so much to be learned from the thoughts, experiences and "journeys" of anyone. And I have to say it humbled me that I had not dug deeply enough into myself to really know myself as well as they know themselves. Hope that all makes sense. Dominique, keep asking those types of questions. There's still time and hope that the rudies will dig deeper and join in the conversation in a more inclusive and productive manner in the future. ;o)

wmeribe said...

Then there is the time-honored, all-inclusive reaction to the subject of evolving perspectives: "Learn to love the question".

Veronique said...

At the risk of seeming impolite, I'd like to offer a possible interpretation of the rather rude-seeming comment that "what would you change in your life as a result of the trip?" is a bad question. First, I'd say that's a 'bad' criticism insofar as it does not help the recipient understand what a good question would be. But I think that what bothered the person was that that sentence was less a question than an implicit suggestion. I.e., it implies that each person present _should_ change something as a result of the trip. Perhaps a more open-ended question might have obviated this flat criticism (which would have stung me, too), something along the lines of what you wrote in that paragraph just prior to relating the incident: "what effect does travel have on us?" There is no hidden suggestion, expectation, or judgment in that question. (Plus, it sounds a lot less like Oprah :)

Just trying to be helpful.... but of course, I wasn't there, so maybe your question was indeed perfectly open-ended. In any case, please keep writing and sharing your reflections....you write so beautifully and capture such important sensations and ideas.

Thank you for all that you do.

Cristina said...

so true!:
"...you are wondering whether that end (of the table) is having a better time than your end".
with your knack, even (apparently!) superficial observations like these, give one something to think about.
I do appreciate your attitude a little bit more with every new post.

snippets of thyme said...

How interesting you posted this question? What do we learn from travel that make us change our mind about how we live? I just wrote a post that touches upon this very question. Basically, it was traveling with my teens as well as Valentine's Day that made me continue to try and make small changes in our lives. I posted this article today! "Low Impact Treats". My writing is juvenile as I am not a writer and just beginning to channel my thoughts through this blogging phenomenon.

Baker Martin said...

Sometimes a trip is just a trip (and not a "navel-gazing journey to a better self"). Why do we always need to question? Is all this self examination a byproduct of the blogging medium? As your friend so aptly stated recently...maybe it's time for you to get a puppy.

mary said...

Hmm, Puppies and kitties are great (I have 2 of each); but if we don't ask the questions, if we shut down introspection, then we cease to grow . Since we live in an ever-expanding universe, it would seem that our lives, in concert with the universe, are intended to be ever expanding.

Splenderosa said...

I, too, love great & lively conversations around a dinner table. I understand exactly where you were going with this & cannot see that you were "navel-gazing" at all. This was a simple question needing no real introspection, just off the top of your head answers. Should've been fun, D.
This world could use a whole lot of improvement in conversation, this was a good way to begin.
Sending love from Texas, Marsha

Emom said...

Fear makes people rude....they simply don't want to do any sort of self examination or exploration.....nothing to do with you I suspect......questions open our world....
and travel brings our world into sharper focus....smiles.

david terry said...

Dear Ms. Browning,

You are, I'm sorry to say, very-very wrong.

That woman's response (i.e., that others' questions/responses were "banal", etc) wasn't "rude".

It was simply D-U-M-B. Perhaps just monumentally self-referential.

To cough up yet another anecdote concerning a female relative of mine?.... (& I probably should, at this point, emphasize that I have PLENTY of male relatives, given that my family has produced nothing but passles of boy-children for at least 4 generations. The women just happen to be funnier and generally brighter)??....

I and my brothers used to seethe with resentment when, as boys, we'd refer to something/someone/somewhere as "boring" (first cousin to "banal"). Our grandmother, who'd raised somewhere between 500-1000 boys during her career, would just look over her cat-eye glasses at us and announce "Don't say it IS 'boring'. Just say that you're 'bored' BY it. Please try to be ACCURATE when you speak??...."

I've regularly and productively recalled that early dictum of hers during a last pre-publication read-over of my own critical and reviewing work.

That said?...I do sort of sympathize with that woman's emotional reaction to the scenario. There's a very good reason that, for as much as I travel, I NEVER go on group-trips or stay in "friendly" B&B's, and I would throw myself overboard before I condemned myself to a even a 3-day boat-cruise with strangers. Some of us are just wired this way. At the same time, I wouldn't TELL a bunch of folks that I thought something-they-were-obviously-enjoying was "banal", or even that I thought it was "banal".

In any case, you're a nicer person than I am. I would have replied "Well...perhaps these questions and responses DO seem "banal" to you at this stage in your life, so I suppose you're just LUCKIER than most of us?....but I can assure you that the question wouldn't seem in the least "banal' to many people who have never previously thought to ask the question, and it's certainly not so for any number of people (including, of course, many deeply religious folks of various stripes) who've spent DECADES rigorously asking themselves this sort of question each day."

Then, I would have told the Miss "It's So Banal" that she had to stand in front of the whole group and write 1000-times-on-the-blackboard Einstein's epigram "The man who has ceased to wonder has practically ceased to exist".

Thanks for evocative posting.

David Terry

Dominique said...

I'm still laughing, thanks David...I have to admit I've never been on a group tour with strangers before, and may never do it again after this....but in the end it was fun. Bored/boring: excellent reminder. And rejoinder.

As for naval gazing? Hey, if all you see in there is a bit of lint and some dried skin, don't look again. And don't tell us about it. It would bore us. If what you see is that scar reminding you that you were once connected for your very life blood to another being, then a bit of naval gazing will be, at the very least, interesting.

david terry said...

Dear Ms. Browning....

one more note....

As is the case with a lot of other folks since the publication of this most recent biography of J.D. Salinger, I've been re-thinking (or at least thinking about) his writings.

Your posting (and that woman's reaction to certain questions and responses) made me recall Salinger's account of Zooey's questioning his sister Franny about her motives for reciting "the Jesus Prayer" (in the novel "Franny and Zooey").

Similarly (and not due to any particularly incisive digging on my part), I thought of the conversation between Seymour and that very young girl on the beach in Saliner's story "A Perfect Day for Banana Fish".

Well, I read your blog (it's one of only two that I read)because your postings and the good response regularly strike some sort of chord with my own experiences.

And to go back to that woman who was so plagued and burdened by banality of others' questions and responses?......

....I've gathered that you had Kentucky grandparents and lived some time in NOLA. So, perhaps you're already aware of a certain sort of southern woman's (men don't do or say this) default, polite retreat-position...which is to simply receive the comment/opinion, and then (with no particularly remarkable tone or inflection) simply murmur "Well, I'm sorry FOR you...."

That tends to get the point across without entailing any gratuitously "personal" criticism.

As for "Navel-Gazing"?....I recently enjoyed a latter-middle-aged, VERY practical-minded friend's remarking (this was after this past week's Grammy Awards Ceremony) that, unlike a lot of folks, she really didn't mind anyone's gazing at his/her own navel for as long as he/she wanted...but she was really plain-out tired of having to gaze, herself, at other folks' navels whenever she turned on the television or went to the mall.

I thought that was funny.


David Terry

Baker Martin said...

To clarify...I have no issue with conversation. It is one of the pleasures of life to break bread and hold forth. I have issue with the nature of the conversation, with the incessant focus on the "I". Do you think those construction working women are asking each other about what is inspiring or reaffirming? Why not discuss what changes the world for these women rather than ourselves (micro-finance? cell phones? equal pay?). I would consider my travel experience pretty banal if I returned to "float flowers in a bowl" when there is so much richer territory to mine.

SweetRetreat said...

Even the thought of group travel makes my blood run cold. Group questions too. I like travel to be for enjoyment and new experiences, not deep thinking.

Puppies are wonderful, nothing compares to the way life changes and big issues fade in importance. Puppy love, perhaps the very definition of slow love living.

A Life Unhurried said...

I love where you "came out". Travel continually reminds me to be more appreciative of the simple things in my life. It has taught me to look at another human being as simply "different" rather than attach a label to them, as I would want others to see me. My perception of the world and life changes as I continue to probe, ask and ponder. Your questions and thoughts bring John Keats to mind: "The only means of strengthening one's intellect is to make up one's mind about nothing, to let the mind be a thoroughfare for all thoughts."

(A true writer never ceases to write, do they? Catching up on your posts have inspired me to get back to it after my holiday. Thank you.) --Grace

Violet Cadburry said...

There's always a grump, what she meant to say was "shut up" but couldn't break the bonds of her pretentious civility. Keep calm and carry on, and if you can't do that, throw an altoid at her when she isn't looking:)

Suzanne Kerr said...

Last year, the Houston Chapter of The Transition Network (for professional women over 50) discussed various points you made in your very thoughtful book. Many of us are facing similar transitions, so thank you for sharing your journey with us.

Your blog is delightful! I would like to recommend another magical blog to you: kristinvonkreisler.wordpress.com
Kristin, a seasoned, published writer, blogs about animals and nature. It's a worthy and inspiring read.