July 2008 Issue
Challenging our comfort zone is part of travel — and life.
Every year when I was little, our family traveled from Findlay to my grandparents’ house in downstate Illinois for Thanksgiving. To keep from getting bored on the trip, then an all-day affair on two-lane roads, I usually took a map to see where we were at any given moment. It was a very big deal when we crossed that first state line: the thick black line on my map and the “Welcome to Indiana” sign told me that these were no longer Ohio fields or barns. Suddenly, we were somewhere else.
I’d look back and watch as the “Welcome to Ohio” sign on the other side of the road receded into the distance, but even though I could now see two states at once, the effect was always disappointing. The line on the map looked as real as Lima or Lake Erie, but the flat fields kept zipping by as if nothing had happened. I could see no difference between Ohio cows and Indiana cows.
Borders are mysterious, and not just to 8-year-olds. Borders are paradoxical entities that contain their own undoing: If we never crossed them, they wouldn’t need to be marked. After all, the sign simply said “Welcome to Indiana.” It did not say “Welcome to Indiana: You won’t exist here.”
At their worst, borders become devices for putting other people down. A popular song when I was little began with the words “South of the border, down Mexico way”: It fed the myth that the Rio Grande separated us from an exotic place where lazy people slept all day and put everything off until “mañana,” as another song told us. Another, scarier, border was marked by the Berlin Wall, which separated us from ruthless people who wanted to “bury” us, as their leader Khrushchev said. Needless to say, these were not especially helpful images of Mexicans, East Germans, or Russians.
At their best, borders signal possibilities for transformation. History is filled with stories about momentous things happening when borders are crossed. The Hebrews cross the Sea of Reeds, the Sinai wilderness, and the Jordan, and along the way Judaism is born. Alexander the Great crosses the Hellespont, and Greek and Near Eastern traditions enter into a fascinating new mix. Caesar crosses the Rubicon, and the Mediterranean ultimately becomes a “Roman lake.” History also shows that borders never last, their endless assertions and dissolutions offering further proof of their fluidity. After the conquest of Canaan came the Jewish Diaspora; Alexander had a very bad night in Babylon; Caesar had an equally bad day in the Senate. In short, things change. Borders mark these changes temporarily, but then new changes come.
What’s true in history is also true in our lives. We cross borders every day as we transform and grow. Although borders define limits, their inherent fluidity also makes us conscious of those limits and therefore of the possibility for change. They tell us who we are and who we are not – but also who we could be.
I’ve always suspected that growing up in small-town Ohio in the 1950s accounts for how I feel about borders, inner ones as well as outer ones. I remember my childhood in Findlay as an ideal blend of security and restlessness. It was hard to imagine a place that was more stable and predictable. From the clatter of the horse-drawn milk wagon at dawn to the wail of the trains as they passed through the East Sandusky Street crossing at night, the days had a comfortingly solid shape to them. And yet, the very predictability of those days kept us neighborhood kids on a constant lookout for something new and different. We grew up appreciating routine as well as novelty — ordinary things as well as things on the edges of the ordinary. If a border is something that divides the expected from the unexpected, we liked both sides of the line.
I now live three state borders away in Maryland, where I teach English at a small college. Because a college is a site of constant change, it’s an ideal place for pondering those inner borders — what they mean, which ones we’re crossing, which ones we’re not crossing. College students, who inhabit that volatile zone between adolescence and adulthood, confront and cross borders every day: who they are, what they believe, who and what they might become. In the twinkling of a semester, someone who knows no foreign language crosses a border and becomes a person who knows a little French — or chemistry, or English lit, or European history. Someone who has never had a steady relationship crosses another border and becomes part of a couple. Someone with an addiction to partying gets tired of the monotony and crosses a border into maturity.
Because they occur at the edges of things, borders are less predictable than centers and therefore more scary. But they are also more dynamic. The in-between territory that they mark out is exciting because the most interesting things happen not at the center of our comfort zones, but at the edges. We suspect that life is very different on the “other side” of whatever border we’re imagining, and this thought both excites and frightens us. Borders can intimidate us into playing it safe and staying put, or they can challenge us to pass right through them with our eyes wide open.
If borders are allowed to harden into boundaries, nothing changes and nobody grows. But if we let borders generate openness rather than fear, life can become a series of threshold experiences — an ongoing process of transformation. Breaking the old habit of retreating from borders back to a safe center keeps us from getting stuck in reductive thinking and false dichotomies. “Which side are you on?” is always a less interesting question than “What’s appealing about both sides?” Once we recognize that borders are never as rigid or clear-cut as we think, life becomes harder to figure out and negotiate, but it also becomes more of an adventure.
On the trip back, the “Welcome to Ohio” sign always evoked a different feeling than it had on the way out. Something had always changed in the crossing: It was as if that sign was welcoming home a slightly different me. I never figured out exactly what that change was or how I was different. I now knew, however, that Indianapolis was even bigger than Toledo, an unimaginable thing had I not seen it with my own eyes. To a patriotic Buckeye, this new knowledge was both exciting and disturbing.
Still, it seemed better to be an Ohio kid who had passed through the mysterious vastness of Indianapolis than one who had not.Jeffrey Hammond is Reeves Distinguished Professor in the Liberal Arts and Professor of English at St. Mary’s College of Maryland. He is the author of Small Comforts: Essays at Middle Age, to be published soon by Kent State University Press.