Athena's Head

On Writing, Parenting, and Pop-Mom Culture

Martha Nichols

Martha Nichols
Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA
March 18
Editor in Chief
Talking Writing
I am Editor in Chief of Talking Writing, an online literary magazine. I'm also a contributing editor at the Women's Review of Books and a freelance journalist in the Boston area. Martha on Twitter: (I cross-post most OS entries on my website Athena's Head. I am not paid a cent for any reviews or product references—these opinions are mine alone.)


MAY 21, 2012 2:06PM

Why Travel?

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When I started college, I took a plane from San Francisco to Portland, Oregon—Alaska Airlines! how exotic! how great!

As soon as I fastened my seatbelt, I burst into tears. Some of my high school friends had seen me off at the gate, along with my parents and brother. I’d been cocky, chirping good-bye! I’ll miss you! as I eyed the departure gate, ready to dash off to my new life. I wanted that new life desperately. Yet I felt such terror that I couldn’t admit it until I was alone in a window seat.

That’s what travel does, even if a given trip doesn’t symbolize the before and after of a major life event. This week, after returning from four months with my family in Singapore, I’ve been thinking a lot about travel and why I do it.

“I'd love to know how writing in Singapore is different than writing in Boston,” an email correspondent asked me recently. “Your writing, your sense of the familiar/unfamiliar.”

I like this way of framing the question. Getting to know a specific place like Singapore through small details—the hawker stall with the best chicken rice, the scent of durians piled in the heat near our subway stop, the kingfisher gleaming on a cable wire above an artificial lake—illuminates it far better than news reports about no jaywalking or gum chewing.

But from a writer’s standpoint, it’s the inner space I’ve traveled that makes the most difference. Time away from home is wonderful but it can also be an internal rollercoaster—yet here's the surprise. It’s the hard part of traveling that I’ve found most valuable. Good for the soul? Maybe. But what really matters to me now in middle-age is getting a closer look at the mess inside.

I can do this in Boston, too, and sometimes I manage to carve out time and space for that kind of writing. But only sometimes. Travel is a far faster route to developing The Rough Guide to My Unconscious. I leave many of my usual distractions behind. I’m forced to open my eyes and pay attention.

Otherwise, I’ll miss my subway stop, I’ll lose my way—or in losing my way, I’ll stumble on a madrasah in which the boys wear purple-and-white uniforms or a Buddhist monastery right beside a Hindu temple, neither of which I intended to visit, but here we are. My ten-year-old son clutches my hand, and I squeeze him back. He wants water, so we try an unmarked café by the monastery, me cautious, thinking we have no right to be there, wondering if they'll understand my English. But they’re serving tasty vegetarian lunches. They are gruff but sweet. We are okay again. Better than okay.

What I’m talking about is not exactly a guidebook—too organized—but a compendium of unpredictable experiences that hit all my hot buttons:

  • Ecstasy: Yes, I’m enthralled by the sunset purples and reds, sipping wine with my husband on the Sentosa Boardwalk.
  • Rage: I hate that jackhammer outside my front door; it’s crashing through my skull.
  • Terror: What if my son gets lost on the subway? What if I lose my keys?
  • Despair: I’m trapped forever. I’ll never find my home.

When you go to a new place, you’re more vulnerable. It’s as if a crack of light opens in the clouds, illuminating your inner landscape as well as what’s passing outside. That’s not the relaxation I seek when I’m on a beach vacation. But when I’ve living somewhere else like Singapore, even if I’m on a sabbatical from normality, I’m writing. I have to write. And for a writer, feeling that stark glow within can be as heady as swimming with the dolphins.

My Shadow Self ÒÂÃÒÒÂÒÂÃÒÒÂÃÒÂÒé Martha Nichols These days, I need that sense of vulnerability. It’s the spark for my best writing. It brings back the tears I cried on Alaska Airlines at eighteen, when a kindly flight attendant gave me tissues and orange juice in a plastic cup. It conjures my three-year-old self on my first cross-country flight, charging up and down the aisles singing, “The clouds are moving! The clouds are moving!”

It awakens me to the familiar places in my life, past and present. Just last week, on another plane to California, I’d been wool gathering about Singapore and what we’d left behind, wishing I was still there rather than on this flight to the Bay Area, my childhood home, where I often travel to see my frail parents.

As the plane came down at SFO, I realized that travel can be addictive, allowing you to skate on the surface from one place to another—but then I saw the carpet of yellow wildflowers along the runway, the hills on the horizon, golden with patches of dark green on a hazy late spring day. I felt a thrilling wash of feeling and memory, of love, of grief. I began reinventing everything that used to seem so ordinary when I was a child.

I’d arrived. I’m a traveler in my own life now, and I love it.



Thanks to Arlene Mandell for emailing me such an intriguing query.

Also, see “Can You Capture a Volcano with an iPhone?”, my Editor’s Note to the new issue of Talking Writing, in which I reflect on my ambivalent response to visiting Bali.


• "Everybody" © Martha Nichols: From conceptual artist Lee Wen's exhibit "Lucid Dreams in the Reverie of the Real" at the Singapore Art Museum.

• "My Shadow Self" © Martha Nichols

• "Last Night in Singapore, Sentosa Boardwalk" (below) © Martha Nichols


Sentosa Boardwalk, Singapore ÒÂÃÒÂÒé Martha Nichols


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singapore, writing, travel

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Bravo! We wrote travel into our family mission statement a long time ago. My kids are just as at home in an airport as they are at a local bus stop. How else do they know what's real? Both inside and out. /R
"It awakens me to the familiar places in my life, past and present." This explains it all. Why I love and sometimes why I don't love to travel. This piece confirmed for me what I felt when I awoke this morning:I need to get on a plane.
I love how you tied the eternal questions of the mind into your recent travels. Wonderful piece, Martha. Whets my personal appetite for more travel!
Hey, thanks for such quick responses! I agree that travel away from the familiar helps pinpoint what's real, or at least one's personal truth. And yet, I'm glad to be back in the States, too. Very glad. And returning to OS feels like coming home as well. There are so many different worlds to travel through these days.
Martha,i love travelling..being away from my country..meeting cultures,new ρeoρle,learning from others..Forgetting my life for a while..this is travelling for travel for museums and antiquity..I have been to Singaρore too and I was surρrised by the how clean the city was...Thank you for sharing!!!
Yes, true and well said! Cracks of light to illuminate the inner landscape as one travels to new landscapes. I just read Dolores Whelan's blog about pilgrimmage before reading your blog. She says, "A traveller passes through a place: a pilgrim allows the place to pass through them. To become a pilgrim for an hour or a day, a week or a month is to step outside the normal way of being and of experiencing the world it .To become a pilgrim is to open up a suil eile (another eye ) with which to view and see the world around us."
Cynthia, that's a beautiful quote about pilgrimage. Yes. At some level, the experience of traveling--or, in my case, of living in a new place--does feel like a spiritual struggle, one in which you eventually let go.
I enjoyed reading this so much since I am looking forward to traveling in a country soon to which I haven't seen for a dozen years. I cannot yet get past the "ecstasy" stage as I anticipate how my perceptions will differ from those of twelve years ago. So much has changed since yet I hope my writer's spirit has not left me as I knew her then.

Having grown up in the military with a different state or country every other year or so for most of my youth, I was unable to stop moving even after my family took root in the South. Funny how the life of the nomad settles in the psyche...Now that I've been stationary for awhile, I recall the fear and the ecstatic thrill of the journey to new places, the meeting of new peoples and cultures -- be they regional or radical...And I am grateful for those experiences that made me stronger, more resilient and able to quickly adapt, more independent. After a lifetime of moves, I know I can do whatever needs to be done...Not a bad exchange for motion sickness!
Fusun: I look forward to reading about what it's like for you to go back to that particular place. Please write about it! KC: I know what you mean about that feeling of motion sickness. I just returned from California, and I'm feeling a lot of internal vertigo, but when you've traveled a lot, you learn that this is part of the process--and an unexpectedly good part, too.
It is an intriguing question. I can see how being in an unfamiliar environment can turn on some unused switches -- spark new ideas. And the internet can be a destination too, although I wish that when I got there it didn't smell like the same old dog blankets I have in my home office. I wonder if I should make a complaint...