Featured in Panorama: Journal of Intelligent Travel – Fall 2017
In each issue of Panorama, a contributing writer writes about an Influencer, or someone who has greatly influenced the way she or travels. In this issue, I write about Gloria Steinem’s legacy and her new book, My Life on the Road.
When I was a girl, I didn’t think much of road trips. For one thing, we just didn’t take them. The only real one we ever took as a family was when we moved to Georgia from Pennsylvania when I was five years old. I remember the tops of trees passing by as we drove down the East coast; I remember gas stations off highway exits, the sweet candy sticks sold at the counter at Cracker Barrel restaurants, the boredom that set in as we made the fourteen-hour trek from one city to another, new city. We wouldn’t take another epic road trip like that until ten years later, when my grandfather, passed away.
Georgia would be my home until I finished high school. On the night of my graduation, I received two gifts: the first was a three-piece set of blue luggage, and the second was a copy of Victor Hugo’s poem, “The Bird,” which my mom had framed for me to hang in my dorm room at college. It is a brief poem, only a few quick spurts of language. In it, the speaker advises her listener to be like a bird on the precipice of flight—to feel the weight beneath her tremble, and then take off, unafraid.
Be like the bird / that, pausing in her flight / awhile on boughs too slight / feels them give way / beneath her and yet sings, / knowing that she hath wings.
These simple words—and, truth be told, the suitcases that accompanied them—have followed me into adulthood in unexpected ways. In college, I copied Hugo’s poem into my first travel journal, a little blue book with a cloth flap and a string of burlap to tie the pages together, and it came with me to Spain. Some years later, when I moved to southern Arizona, I found it etched onto a rock at the Sonoran Desert Museum, a place more like a wild outdoor reserve for the desert’s flora and fauna than a museum. It stayed with me when the boughs of my life did feel slight, even shaky, as I trekked through my twenties in airplanes and on roads, as I got married and pursued my graduate studies in feminism and writing and turned thirty. The framed poem now hangs on the wall in my Florida home. It will stay with me for the rest of my life, or until the paper the poem is printed on rips apart or stains too much. Even when that happens, it will still be with me: I’ve memorized every syllable and every line break.
The feminist in me loves the translation, which uses the feminine pronoun for a creature representative of freedom. One question I’ve always asked myself about the poem, though, is decidedly more practical: Do our boughs always need to tremble beneath us to inspire flight?
I’ll tell you a secret: I came to feminism late. What I mean by that is, up until my late twenties, I didn’t take much time to consider the ways in which the road I’ve taken has been paved for me by women far braver and more intrepid than me. I had ignored, in a sense, the lineage of women who fought for me to be able to travel the way I do. In many ways, the luck of where I was born allowed me this freedom not to think about this fact, because I was born a white, American, English-speaking girl in the 1980s to parents who both held college degrees and who’d worked to move into the middle class. Not until I started reading important works on feminist thought and met women in many other countries whose lives looked very different from mine did I begin to understand that my path—one of travel, discovery, and freedom—is neither a given nor a right. It is a gift.
Though Gloria Steinem once wrote that she does not like to write—she likes to have written—women don’t write their stories alone. We never have. What Steinem meant by this small turn of verbal play, I think, is by turning an infinitive into an auxiliary verb and a present participle, we demand more authority over our stories. She’s right, of course: having written our own stories can give us the glory of looking back in pride, but when we ground our footing too much in the past present, I sometimes forget something very critical: that I am writing my story because women like Gloria Steinem wrote hers.
Read the full story in Panorama: Journal of Intelligent Travel.
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