I like being a tourist. I know that is no longer a popular concept, and it is more acceptable to talk about being a traveler. I know there is an unflattering "camera around the neck" image of tourists, especially American tourists here and in other countries, but the truth is when I am visiting an unfamiliar place, no matter where it is, I am a tourist. I do hope I am a polite, nonoffensive, and discerning tourist, however.
I like going on field trips and have fond memories of school field trips, such as the 6th grade class trip from Mankato, Minnesota to the State Capital in St Paul, and when we lived on Long Island going into "the city" with my high school choir to see a play and visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art. My family moved frequently in my growing up years, and I recall one of our first Sundays in New York going on a sightseeing boat around Manhattan and being awed by my first view of the Statue of Liberty and the Empire State Building. When my husband and I moved to Cleveland, we loved nothing more than exploring the city and roaming the surrounding areas. Work colleagues and new acquaintances were amazed by all we did and all the places we discovered. "Have you been to Amish Country?" they would ask, and we responded with stories about our Sunday drives on country roads. We knew more about Ohio than people who lived there all their lives.
Being a Tourist in Your Own Town
When we moved to Madison about 4 years ago, we became tourists once again. Part of it is natural, for everything is new and just deciding which grocery store will be part of your loop of life requires exploration, and part of it is filling the time when you don't yet have a social network and haven't yet filled your time with activities. The first year we lived in a small and unsatisfying apartment before our farm in Ohio sold. I laughed about the 7 minutes it took to vacuum the place, but trust me, I had lots to time to discover my new city!
Most days I set a goal for myself. One day I went to a small town with a new library built in Mission style. Another day I visited a fancy cheese shop on Capital Square and then walked State Street from beginning to end, enjoying the university atmosphere. I walked the trails at the Arboretum, and I drove up and down the streets of neighborhoods imagining what it would be like to live there. I enjoyed afternoons at the UW Memorial Union sitting on the terrace overlooking the lake, writing in my journal and reading. I planned weekend events and jaunts for my husband and myself--new restaurants to try, concerts to attend, and neighboring towns to visit.
I enjoyed it all, but it didn't take long to establish a routine, to have an established loop of life in place, and while I have no problem setting out on my own, I enjoy my solitude at home even more. I ceased being a tourist. My desire to unearth, to discover, diminished. But then Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent nudged me to awaken my pilgrim self.
One of my guides this Lent is Margaret Guenther, an Episcopalian priest, a spiritual director, and writer whose many books I have treasured. Currently, I am reading Walking Home, From Eden to Emmaus in which each chapter is a meditation on the "walking stories" in the scriptures. I decided Lent would be a good time to set out on some new walks or even old walks, but survey the sights with new eyes. One aspect of Lent is to retreat, but perhaps another part is to seek a new path; to follow a quest, even if it is just around the corner.
My first walk was down the street from where I attended the Ash Wednesday service, the Chazen Museum of Art, home to Wisconsin's second largest collection of art. I had been there before, more than once, but not since a new building had opened. I had been intending to visit the new space, but ..... On their website I encountered this quote describing an upcoming lecture, "When your outer eyes stop working, what happens to your mind's eye?" What better way to expand one's eyesight than to expose them to art? I went on an art walk.
And what did I see? Charming watercolors by a UW art faculty member, Elaine Scheer. Claes Oldenburg's Typewriter Eraser. Collage drawings of planned projects by Christo. Tiger Sitting Under the Moon, a Cantonese scroll. Lots of nudes, including many in paintings by John Wilde which I found very disturbing. A large work composed of colorful, narrow aluminum strips by a Ghanaian artist. So much more. I was most comfortable among the Thai and Indian Buddhas and least comfortable when a piece depicted violence. I laughed at myself as I stood in front of a large canvas painted only in solid black. I could have done that, I thought, but I didn't and why did the artist do it? I sat on a bench and enjoyed the view of the campus pedestrian mall leading to Lake Mendota through a brightly colored glass sculpture called Cornucopia by Tashima Etsuoko . Glorious. Another walk I will take.
I wandered the galleries and missed the company of my artist son. I remembered the last time I was there when I brought my granddaughter who sat on the floor and sketched. I thought about other museums I've visited, and all the great art I have been privileged to see, and I was grateful for all those who have used and developed the gifts God entrusted to them. I thought about walking the skyway system in downtown St Paul recently and wondered why those walls were so bleak and how they could be a blank canvas for someone's imagination. I shuddered at how much I don't understand, and I rejoiced when I my heart lifted at the beauty in front of me.
The headline on the Chazen's website says, "What will inspire you today?" Perhaps it will be a piece of art or something you read or hear on the radio. Perhaps it will be a conversation you overhear or the view out your kitchen window. Perhaps you will be inspired by going on a walk, following a path, being a tourist.