When I was a child in rural Indiana in the 1950s I wanted to learn foreign languages as soon as I learned that foreign languages existed. The first one I had the opportunity to study, when I enrolled in a newly established parochial high school, was Latin, so I took Latin for two years. And then a German teacher arrived, so I studied German. For some reason I shunned Spanish but the German teacher had a Francophone wife so I took French lessons from her in exchange for babysitting and enrolled in French and German classes at the local college, which I later attended, when I was still in high school. My goal became to spend a year in Europe in a study abroad but that wasn’t part of Goshen College’s program at the time and my parents said they wouldn’t pay for it; that I would have to wait till I was out of college and could go abroad on my own.
So I finished college in three years—with the help of those pre-college credits in French and German and a summer of Japanese study at Indiana University which was shepherded by my college adviser. He pointed me to a scholarship and offered the opportunity to live with his family as he was also in a summer program there, in exchange for babysitting. So, little did my parents suspect that I would indeed make my own way overseas ASAP after college, after a shorter than usual college career, and it would be as far away as Japan. Because I promptly signed up to be a volunteer English teacher in Japan with my church’s voluntary service program.
Passion comes through as I track this path I forged for myself as a young person—passion so strong that it verges on desperation. I have often thought my path in life was a series of random quests. Why wasn’t I more ambitious? Why didn’t I devote myself to one thing, an academic career, or writing? Why didn’t my elders encourage me to do that? Could it be that I was a victim of 1950s-60s lower expectations for women? I often thought so. I often felt like a little Mennonite farm girl who had never reached her potential for . . . what? I couldn’t say exactly and there was the problem. If I didn’t know what I wanted myself, how could anyone encourage me to do it?
Actually, I was doing “it,” every chance I got. My soul was apparently set on a worldwide adventure. I managed to circle the globe by the time I was 23. Before I met and married my husband I had months of tourist travel and two years of immersion-living or what I am now calling soul travel, in Japan, under my belt. And one thing that attracted me to him was that he was ready to emerge from academia and see the world, too. As soon as he got his Ph.D. we volunteered to teach in Congo/Zaire, an assignment that included a year of French study in Belgium. All told, I spent six years of my twenties living and traveling abroad. Soul travel.
Being born a little Mennonite girl didn’t set me back at all, if soul travel was my calling. Many in my Mennonite community and family consider themselves citizens of the world (and, of course, the Kingdom of God) more than of any one country. We believe in service wherever service is needed so Mennonites have created service programs in many parts of the world, especially the Third World. Ninety percent of my international experience has been church-related–all of it except Russia and a few international tourism trips with my husband and family and one South African safari for the handicapped with my friend Dawn, which was really in the soul travel category because it was purposeful and stretched the boundary of my capabilities.
Going back over the checklist in my last post in which I identified with an ornithologist studying fish owls in the far easternmost wilderness of Russia, I can identify the outlines of soul travel.
It is propelled by a strong desire for adventure. This happens to run in my family. Three of my four brothers have done the soul travel thing and my parents visited all of us during our stints in Africa and Asia.
It is sparked by love, a passion ignited by something or someone. I loved foreign languages. Whereas others may learn languages in order to travel in certain places, I began traveling because I had elementary knowledge of a few languages. They provided a path into cultures where I encountered many more loves. Japanese arts, African cloth, Russian camaraderie, to name a few, and on and on from there.
It follows a rhythm of call and response—you respond to the call of those loves and certain opportunities and circumstances as they arise. This is the opposite of travel in which everything is planned, programmed, and reserved in advance. You can plan for soul travel but you can’t plan it out entirely and you can’t make it happen. It requires being open to experience, encounters, and opportunities. These have an itinerary of their own and will happen in their own way and time, and in your soul’s time. It helps to plunk yourself down in a place for a while.
It usually takes some kind of preparation and learning–a language, or field of study, or life experiences, or relationships. Sometimes this happens in advance, but the preparation and learning continue during the travel/living experience itself.
Soul travel will often reveal a purpose beyond your personal enjoyment and enlightenment. Be aware, though, that most deliberately purposeful travel—e.g. service ventures—are really just an excuse for getting somewhere. If you are actually of service it will almost always be in a way that you couldn’t have predicted or didn’t intend, and it won’t happen on your timeline. I caught onto this early and took advantage of my church’s penchant for offering service opportunities as my excuse to exercise my Wanderlust. After nearly a lifetime of doing this I did find purpose in my travel and I think I have been of service. I have written a lot about that in this blog but I am reaching a turning point, thanks to the pandemic, which is part of what prompted these reflections. I will have more to sort out about that in future posts.
It stretches your boundaries. Soul travel requires something of you in a way that grows your soul and taxes your body, tolerance, endurance, and patience. You will suffer. You will learn things the most painful way, by making mistakes. I can’t emphasize this enough. The soul traveler must be prepared to make mistakes, to correct them, to ask for forgiveness and compassion just as you exercise compassion for others.
The thing is, soul travel is also marked by moments of intense joy. In these moments the reason for soul travel becomes clear because they mark you forever. It is, in a way, about experience. Thus it is also an act of consumption, just as tourism travel is, and tourism travel can also produce such moments, but the tourism moments I’ve had just don’t stick with me. I remember loving snorkeling in Cozumel but I don’t feel it anymore. Whereas, for example, I still carry in my body the elation of entering an African church and being met by a blast of full-volume gospel singing. I remember looking out the dusty windows in a high-ceilinged Moscow apartment and feeling at home. My arthritic knees know how gracefully they once folded under me, swathed in kimono for tea ceremony.
It is built on and builds relationships with people and places. The point of soul travel, as far as I can discern from my own experience, is to be in the world, with other humans in all their diversity, and live fully rather than only to observe and consume. Relationships may also emerge in tourism but tourism does not require relating to a place and people.
I realize not all souls need to experience elsewhere and other as desperately as mine does. The loss of that experience, as well as how to be completely and contentedly at home in my own territory, has been one of my pandemic learnings. I’m not sure how I will handle the soul-travel longing that is making itself felt once again. This is what I want to explore further.
How has your soul traveled? Where has it found home?