We are driving to the Great Wall of China at Mutianyu. We’re out of the city, mostly on straight roads now, so I’m braving the use of my laptop as we drive through a thunderstorm. No plan yet as to how we’ll stay dry (we probably won’t) while we explore the wall, but we’re OK with that. The rain is part of the adventure, as my three little Angelenos are more familiar with drought than downpours.
I am in the middle row of this minivan, next to Asa in his car seat. I am watching him trace lines up and down his legs, tummy, arms, neck, everywhere with his finger. He looks up and smiles at me. “What are you doing sweetheart?” I ask.
He grins and says, “I’m playing map, Mama!”
“Oh! How do you play map?”
He points out where we are now, in China, which is his knee, and drags his fingertip up to his thigh, saying how we used to be in Greece, and the other thigh is the pyramids, and then there is Istanbul on a shin, and Ireland, where the leprechauns were too shy to come out, is an elbow, and finally he says that our blue house in Los Angeles (a.k.a. home) is here, on his belly. No wait, he reconsiders, his face becoming serious, LA is here, he says. He opens his mouth wide and points inside, to his tongue. I agree. It’s a better choice.
This game is of his own invention and it makes my heart soar. Because this three-year-old is always the kid people look at when we describe what we’re doing this summer and, with a huff and a flick of their hand, say something to the effect of, “Well that one will never remember any of it.” Some even use phrases like “it’s wasted on him” or “not worth it” or just flat out “you should have waited a few years!” I take a deep breath when these people start talking, reminding myself that most have good intentions, are just attempting some version of camaraderie. And, I understand; he is too little to appreciate these experiences in the same way that his brothers might, or that his parents do. But he is, I am certain, appreciating them in his own way. And that way is valid, and worthy, and real. I believe seeds are being planted, even if the fruits are years away.
I often look at this tiny boy and wonder what thoughts run through his mind. I’m aware, during sweet moments like this one, and equally so during tough moments (tantrums and such) that I am privy to such a small fraction of those thoughts. As he rambles on in the car, naming so many cities and countries and sites jumbled together, all while doing his own version of heads-shoulders-knees-and-toes, it feels like a gift. An unusually long glimpse into his fast-moving, ever-expanding mind.
I believe he is taking it all in, this adventure, though I don’t know quite how. I wonder if when his fingers trace lines on his skin, he remembers roads, flight paths, train tracks, the wake behind a ferry. I wonder if he is absorbing each new place as easily as he breathes air into his lungs, tiny bits of atmosphere from other continents lodging inside his cells to live there awhile. Or maybe for him it is more like sensing a new fullness, each experience swallowed whole, carried inside his belly. I wonder if he has ever sensed the electricity of our border crossings, traversing invisible lines like magic, moving from country to country as easily (usually) as from one room to another. Maybe hearing new tracks of background noise will be the thing for him, submerged in new languages and tones, new birdsongs or new leaves rustling or new music playing, and this will expand his little mind and heart the most. Maybe the biggest deal to him will just be knowing deep down that the world can sound like anything, like everything.
Travel ought to change a person. That’s the whole point. As irrational as this is, when I meet people who have been to the same faraway spots I have been, and either of us is surprised, I am always disappointed; I feel like we should just know that we’ve both been there, as if there should have been a giveaway. Something visible, some outward marking. I want the change to be so obvious that it shows. So I arrive in each new place hungry, ready to internalize it, ready to have it change me from the inside out and the outside in, in ways I cannot imagine at the onset of the journey.
So as I tromp around the planet with my family, I am watching, looking for signs, expecting all of us to be altered. I look at my boys and pray for it, wish for it. In my mind I am willing us to be malleable, ready to be marked up. We are all maps, showing where we have been, and where we have stayed. We all have our own worlds turning inside of us, our hearts an axis.
Asa continues to giggle and dance his fingers along his body. My heart overflows. Who knows, maybe he will change the most from this. It is all I can do not to pull out the felt-tip pen I have in my bag and let him draw what his mind sees, what he remembers from our adventures so far, up and down those soft little legs.
Instead I say, “I see! What a nice game. Yes. You are a map, honey.”
He beams. Then he takes both hands, and wiggles his hands across his entire body, faster and faster, head to toes and back again, and squeals, “And look, look at my map, I’m going everywhere!”
author of #claywaterbrick. cofounder of @kiva. instructor at @USC. investor at @collabfund. in love w @rezaaslan + our three boys.