20050309

Location, Jefferson, Dissipation

Where am I at any given moment? It's impossible to keep track over the course of an entire day...but in the space of thirty minutes in my chair here in this Brooklyn kitchen I have been kayaking on Nauset lagoon in Cape Cod, lying in the top bunk of a compartment on an overnight train from Vienna to London looking out the window at the wintry countryside around Salzburg, on an evening street in Siracusa dreading the next batch of wolfish leers at my blond American traveling companion, and catching the heart-swelling aroma of a young woman's freshly shampooed (still wet!) hair as she passed me on a street in the shadow of the old coliseum at Arles.

Thankfully, I do not always travel so far or so fast while seated in my kitchen, there was just something busy in me this morning. In a 1787 letter of advice written to the young Peter Carr, Thomas Jefferson wisely observed that, after a certain point, the effect of travel is a scattering, a dissipation of energy. He wrote from experience...probably imagining what he might have accomplished, what projects he might have realized, if he hadn't himself been scattered...with (multiple) homes on two continents.

Jefferson to Carr:

"Travelling. This makes men wiser, but less happy. When men of sober age travel,m they gather knowledge which they may apply usefully for their country, but they are subject ever after to recollections mixed with regret, their affections are weakened by being extended over more objects, & they learn new habits which cannot be gratified when they return home. Young men who travel are exposed to all these inconveniences in a higher degree, to others still more serious, and do not acquire that wisdom for which a previous foundation is requisite by repeated & just observations at home. The glare of pomp & pleasure is analogous to the motion of their blood, it absorbs all their affection & attention, they are torn from it as from the only good in this world, and return to their home as to a place of exile and condemnation. Their eyes are for ever turned back to the object they have lost, & it's recollection poisons the residue of their lives. Their first & most delicate passions are hackneyed on unworthy objects here, & they carry home only the dregs, insufficient to make themselves or anybody else happy. Add to this that a habit of idleness, an inability to apply themselves to business is acquired & renders them useless to themselves & their country. These observations are founded in experience. There is no place where your pursuit of knowledge will be so little obstructed by foreign objects as in your own country, nor any wherein the virtues of the heart will be less exposed to be weakened. Be good, be learned, & be industrious, & you will not want the aid of travelling to render you precious to your country, dear to your friends, happy within yourself. I repeat my advice to take a great deal of exercise, & on foot. Health is the first requisite after morality."