Letter to My Sons about the Importance of Travel

Dear boys,

I hope that this letter finds you both in good spirits and with open minds, for the primary purpose of my writing is to provide you two with advice; so if either of you are in a sour mood or mad at me for whatever reason and not receptive to what I have to say, please don’t read any further—unless you can meet both of the conditions that I anticipated in my opening clause. Ok?

Ok. If you are still reading, then the channels between us must be relatively good. I will proceed.

Recently, I have been reading Anne Lamott’s writing handbook, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, and in her book, she recommends writing a letter “[w]hen you don’t know what else to do, when you’re really stuck and filled with despair and self-loathing and boredom, but you can’t just leave your work alone for a while and wait, you might try telling part of your history—part of character’s history—in the form of a letter” (172). Now, don’t get the wrong idea, I am not filled “with despair and self-loathing and boredom,” nor am I some tortured writer in the throes of a writer’s block as I try to finish an article or a story or a poem for publication. You might already know, since coming to Qatar, each week I write a post for my blog about my experiences and observations, and lately, I have been experimenting with different genres and forms to keep my writing interesting for my readers—as well as myself. But, I digress.

Back to my original task, providing you two boys with some advice. Here it is: Don’t be afraid of travel, and always try to make it a priority throughout your life. Well, why? Let me explain.

First, as Americans, the majority of the strands that make up your ancestry are from immigrants, people who left their ancestral homes in order to pursue better opportunities elsewhere. From me, you inherit your Vietnamese, Polish, Irish, and Lakota heritage. (I am not sure what you receive from your mother’s side, but I believe she is a more of a Euro-ethnic mutt than me.) And, while some might point out that the Lakota have always been in North America, I would counter that your Great-grandma Mickey left the Standing Rock Reservation (recognized as a sovereign nation) to become a nurse and never moved back—arguably this represents an emigration. Most recently, your Grandma Minh left Vietnam in order to make a life in the US. Inversely, I left the US to pursue opportunities in Qatar—we’ll see if my relocation is as permanent as my mother’s or grandmother’s.

The point is that the people in your family have traveled to find education, work, love, or purpose in another part of the world, and this permanently altered the course of their lives and our lives. This type of travel decision is both daunting but eventually liberating. If you are not happy with the lot you receive in life, and you don’t see things changing in the foreseeable future, don’t be afraid to pack your bag, give away what you can’t take with you, and move to another part of the country or world. As proud as I am of my Midwestern upbringing, I wasn’t happy with the way things were panning out for me, so when I had the opportunity to relocate to Qatar, I knew I had to make my move. Otherwise, I had to resign myself to my despair, self-loathing, and boredom—which hopefully was not discernable to you two. Many people in your family have moved for better prospects, so don’t let any naysayers guilt you into staying somewhere because it is your duty to maintain traditions or a way of life. If you don’t carry traditions or a way of life with you, then those intangibles really aren’t a part of you.

Second, besides getting an education, the other thing an individual can do to grow as a person is to travel. By exploring the world, sometimes you learn more about yourself and where you are from than you do about the people you visit and the lands they inhabit.

Long ago, when I was in 10th grade, I was in an English class staring at a wall with various forms for summer program pinned to it. One of those forms caught my eye, and I felt compelled out of curiosity to apply for a two-week summer program. Lo and behold, I was accepted into the program and the local Rotary or Lion’s Club paid the cost for my tuition. That summer I traveled eight hours from the Upper Peninsula to the Lower Peninsula of Michigan to spend time with kids from that part of the state at a small private college in the town of Olivet. What I quickly realized was that I was small town boy who didn’t have as many educational opportunities as my peers from the better-funded suburban and big city school districts. People were talking about sending emails and the internet, and I didn’t send my first email until I attended college two years later!

What this experience did for me was to smack the bumpkin smile off of my face and light a fire underneath me. If I was to compete with my peers from Lansing, Ann Arbor, or the suburbs of Detroit, I needed to seek out opportunities to make myself more desirable for college admission to the good schools. I had two years left in high school, and I needed to become more serious about what I was doing. Thankfully, I was successful, and I ended up attending the University of Wisconsin Madison (where I majored in Creative Writing and got your mom pregnant, but that is content for another letter!).

In short, travel to learn about yourself and learn how to become the person that you want to be.

Third and finally, I have been thinking about the soliloquy from Blade Runner. Towards the end of the movie, the replicant Roy Batty is watching his hunter, Rick Deckard, cling by one hand from the top of a building. Deckard is losing his grip. Batty will win the encounter, and Deckard will fall to his death. However, Batty is a replicant with only four years of life, which is about to expire. So, he decides to do the humane thing before he dies and be merciful towards another living being; a living being who would probably not do the same if the roles were reversed.

After pulling Deckard to safety, Batty delivers the following lines: “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe/ Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion./ I watched C-Beams glitter in the dark/ Near the Tannhäuser Gates./ All those moments will be lost in time,/ Like tears in rain./ Time to die.”

What does this have to do with my advice for you boys to travel? Well, unlike Batty, we (you two and I) don’t know how much time we have in life before we expire. (Hopefully, you boys have considerably more time than me!) However, in Batty’s four years of life, he was able to see things through his travels—granted he was an android super soldier built to fight in an intergalactic war and be disposable. Still, in his short life, he was able to experience things that he felt were meaningful and tragically would be lost because he didn’t have the opportunity to share them with others.

So, my final reason for you two to travel is to enrich your lives and the lives of others through your stories. See and experience as much as you can in the world: a phosphorescent bloom off the shores of a beach, an ancient city being swallowed up by a jungle, the smile of a pretty barista as you try to order coffee in the local language. But, unlike Batty, record and share your memories as you travel: write postcards to friends and family (especially your old dad!), take pictures whenever possible and convenient, journal or blog about your experiences and observations. We can’t stave off our ultimate oblivion, but in the short time that we are allotted, we can find moments of meaning and beauty in our travels and feel blips of happiness as we share those experiences with others.

This brings me to the end of my letter. I hope that this wasn’t too much of a chore for you both to read and that you are able to glean some value from my words. Still, the best way that I can steer you both down the path that I would like you to follow is blaze ahead and encourage you to catch up to me. I hope by the end of this year, you both are able to visit me in Doha, and see the city that is being built around me as I am writing this letter for you two. Inshallah!



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