Big Questions and Grains of Sand

Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence
Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence

“It is our nature not only to see
that the world is beautiful
but to stand in the dark, under the stars,
or at noon, in the rainfall of light,
frenzied,
wringing our hands,
half-mad, saying over and over:
what does it mean, that the world is beautiful—
what does it mean?”

— Excerpt from Gravel by Mary Oliver

Earlier this month, my husband and I spent a few days in Italy as part of a combined work/vacation trip. It was that kind of once-in-a-lifetime experience that overwhelms the heart, mind, and senses in the best possible way. The kind of travel adventure that reinforces just how big the world is, just how limitless its beauty is, and just how diverse its people are.

At one point, while sitting outside the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence, we had a rare opportunity to stop moving and just be still for a minute. And in that instant, while we sat outside this ornate and majestic building – a structure that is more than 600 years old – in a country on the other side of the world, I was suddenly struck by the sheer vastness of it all and the incomprehensible magnitude of, well, everything.

The world seemed bigger than ever, its people more plentiful than ever, its history more extensive than ever.

And I’ll be honest, when faced with this reality, it was very hard not to feel rather small and insignificant. Not necessarily in a woe-is-me kind of way, but more of a where-do-I-fit-in-all-of-this kind of way.

For a few moments, I was flooded by waves of confusion, with a million indescribable questions that all circled back to one singular question: What does it all mean?

It is a question that has been asked for ages, a question that Mary Oliver asks over and over again in her beautiful poem Gravel, a question that is always – despite our best attempts – incapable of a satisfactory answer.

What does it all mean?

I have always been a bit of a wanderlust, longing to travel and see and experience. And yet, if there is one thing that travel has always stirred up in me, it is the fact that this life, this world, this existence, this thing – whatever it is – is so much bigger than I am capable of grasping.

We are but grains of sand in a beach that stretches for miles and, honestly, it is hard not feel a little lost in that knowledge sometimes. It is hard not to feel somewhat tiny and inconsequential as I shuffle through my day – a day that consists of breaking up fights between young brothers, making meals and cleaning up after meals, writing emails and returning phone calls, making beds and folding laundry. It is hard not to feel a little trivial, a little lost in the bigness of the world.

What does it all mean?

And perhaps it is because of this very question that, despite my wanderlust, I am also a perfectly content homebody, happy to be surrounded by the routine and the comfortable.

Because as big as the world is, and as expansive and fluid as time is, whenever I am holding hands with my husband or looking into the eyes of my sons or spending time with a close friend, the world shrinks down to just the right size. I may be but a grain of sand, but I’m pretty happy with the other grains in my corner of the beach.

What does it all mean?

I don’t know the answer to this question, or if I ever will. I don’t know if my insatiable desire to travel will ever fade, or whether I will get rid the counterbalancing need to just be at home. And I don’t know if the world will ever stop feeling so big, so vast, so overwhelmingly limitless.

But what I do know is that, as big as the world is, when I’m in my world – surrounded by people who know me fully and love me deeply, people whom I respect and admire and feel comfortable with – the unanswerable questions and the overwhelming vastness just don’t seem to matter all that much.

Even without any answers, everything just seem to make sense.

Tell me: What feelings does travel stir up in you?

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1 Comment

  • Wow. You are so right on. Every time I learn about a new corner of the world my mind is blown. Yet I’m super happy in my own corner. It may be narrow minded, but it’s where I am at my best. I hope to travel someday, but if I don’t ever get the chance, I know I can be happy right at home.
    Kathy at kissing the frog recently posted…I’d Only Do It For JoeyMy Profile

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