The Starship and the Canoe


I finished a book last year that made quite an impression on me. It’s called “The Starship and the Canoe,” by Kenneth Brower, an author of various books about nature and the environment. In this book, Brower compares and contrasts the lives of Freeman Dyson (father) and George Dyson (son), as one obsesses about space travel and the other about canoes. As an ardent lover of interstellar and inter-river travel, the book really spoke to me in a way that few other stories have. Father and son lack comprehension of each other in the most basic of ways, and yet show a deep, nearly-magical understanding of their respective works. It’s, quite literally, a trip.

But the line that clinches it for me comes halfway through the narrative. What I love about Brower’s writing is that he keeps making these killer endings at the close of each chapter. Some of them could end the book for me, and it would be more or less fine. I mean, I’m happy we get to the Dyson family reunion at the end, that’s all nice and done, but these little moments hit like meteor impacts. So it’s halfway, and George and Kenneth are at party, and he makes one of those rare admissions about himself that only come out at such parties. “I know how I have to live. I have to be able to move on. My canoe. I just get in my canoe.” George is always able to leave.

It made me horribly sad for an evening, because I looked at George and his canoe, and I thought, I have nothing like that in my life. I’m certainly not a celebrated astrophysicist dreaming of life beyond the stars like Freeman Dyson. And as much as I love getting in a canoe and floating the Colorado River for a few hours, I’m not George Dyson, not even by a mile. Worse, I’m not even a Kenneth Brower. I don’t go with people on these trips and document what happens the way the author does. True, I’m my own person, a unique and complicated being and all that. But I had this awful moment where all I could see and say to a work that was profoundly informing my sense of self was, “That’s not me.”

I have to be able to move on, too. That’s the thing. When I left Austin for college, I was terribly upset, but I had to do it. When I left Allegheny College for Austin, I was happy, exhausted, and ready to move on, even though I would miss Western PA. When I left Austin for grad school, I knew that I would need to come back, but I knew that this was important to me. And when I left New York, I did it because I had to go home, because I wanted to live and settle in Austin, to make a life for myself there, even though I had better job offers in the city, great friends, writing opportunities.

Looking at what I just wrote, though, I can see that’s not true. I’m terrible at moving on. I’m still deeply attached to Western PA, to New York. I have more friends out of Austin than I do in Austin. I know how to live in those places, how to make money and buy food there. In Austin, I’m happy to be here, but I have days where I don’t know what to do next. But, by and large, this is a question of home, and of having a defined sense of place. At the end of that evening, it was my greatest solace to realize that my home, my sense of place, is all defined by Radha Madhav Dham. This Austin ashram has been my spiritual home since I was a teenager, and has shaped who I am and what I care about more than my family, more than my schooling, more than my numerous friends, jobs or debts. Yes, I am crazy for the people I knew and loved in New York and Pennsylvania. Yes, I miss the campus life, the endless wonderment of higher education. Yes, I find myself struggling to start where I left off in Austin. But I keep coming back to Radha Madhav Dham, because here there is no need to start over, and certainly no need to leave. A spiritual home is kind of like a canoe in that way – it is your vessel into the unknown, a guide towards something distant, something hopeful. As I continue on whatever path I am on in life, I know that I’m not always leaving other places, other people. I know that I’m going home.


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