Lynne Sharon Schwartz begins "Not Now, Voyager" with a telling recollection: She is in Orkos, on the Greek island of Naxos, when she awakens "to a darkness so thick I could breathe it in."
There is no electricity, no light anywhere, nothing but the disassociating black. Schwartz knows where she is, yet even so she wonders: "Maybe time had stopped and I was in the afterlife, or some place in between, a dark place, oddly enough with the same layout and furniture of my final room."
Eventually she finds her way to a small balcony, from which she can see the moon. Even this does not completely calm her, and as she returns to bed, she vows, "If I outlive this darkness I'll never leave home again."
"Not Now, Voyager" is all about the implications of such a moment; it's a travel memoir by someone who would prefer to stay at home. Or not a memoir exactly but a meditation, a series of riffs on the nature of coming and going, on what that offers and what it takes away.
For Schwartz, travel is, at best, a source of "fretful ambivalence," fraught with uncertainty and obligation, a task she performs grimly, "the way you do with jobs you dislike and what to get over with." This, of course, does not keep her from visiting more places, and in that apparent contradiction, the tension of this exquisite little book is forged.
Schwartz is, after all, a collector -- a gatherer of memory, experience, narrative. In her 1996 memoir, "Ruined by Reading," she lays out her perspective: "A poet friend of mine, after heart surgery, was advised by a nurse to take up meditation to reduce stress. 'You must empty your mind,' she said. 'I've spent my life filling it,' he replied. 'How can you expect me to empty it?' "
This too is one of the tensions in her writing, between her sense that knowledge can redeem us and her understanding that such redemption will not save us in the end. "We all design our own modes of distraction from the knowledge of mortality," she writes, "or our modes of confrontation." Travel is one such mode.
And yet, Schwartz admits, even the most distracting trip "can rarely be that hoped-for escape, since we haul our histories with us like carry-on baggage wherever we go. The only place we can travel without the burden of the circumstances we seek to flee is the afterlife, and no enthusiastic or reliable reports have yet come from there."
As a result, "Not Now, Voyager" is less a book about escape than about being present; it contains a bit of everything. Schwartz invokes Camus and the Tao te Ching, Marco Polo and Jacques Lacan; she recalls her childhood summer sojourns in the Catskills and her husband's Fulbright year in Rome.
The idea is to deconstruct our concept of travel, but what really gets deconstructed are the textures of the self.
"I once read that the soul cannot fly as fast as an airplane," Schwartz quotes Yoko Tawada, writing of moving from Japan to Germany. "Therefore one always loses one's soul on an airplane journey, and arrives at one's destination in a soulless state."
Yet what puts the soul at risk is not air travel itself: "It's enough to trust," she tells us, "that airplanes will stay aloft." More to the point, Schwartz is concerned with how all this movement serves as a diversion, not from "our cluttered calendars, 'the ten thousand things,' as the Tao te Ching puts it," but from the essence of who we are.
"Preferring to stay put," she writes, "is practically disreputable in a cultural climate that prizes mobility, haste, multitasking and optimum consumption of sights, sounds, and experiences." Travel, then, is only valuable if it helps to root us, leaving us, as Camus suggests, "feverish but also porous, so that the slightest touch makes us quiver to the depths of our being."
Here we have another paradox, for how can traveling root us when it represents an attempt to leave our roots behind? The answer, Schwartz suggests, has everything to do with stillness, with the way travel stirs a kind of existential anxiety, which mitigates the distractions of leaving home.
As someone steeped in the word -- she writes at length about the consolation of reading as well as the role of narrative in creating meaning; "Only through stories," she notes, "that is, through the transforming work of the imagination, can we have any glimpse of the world's coherence" -- Schwartz ultimately brings it back to language. "Just as we may have a repertoire of selves for home or abroad, for work or play or love," she observes, "the self is inflected by each language we speak."
But perhaps the most important lesson has to do with our ability to be self-reliant, no matter where we are. "Problems will arise, yes. And I will resolve them," a friend says, citing his travel mantra. "I was stunned at both the simplicity and the confidence of those words," Schwartz reflects. "Maybe I should say that to myself every morning . . . to confront the new day."
In the end, this is the most we can hope for, whether we remain at home or venture forth. As Schwartz understands, it is not the outer voyage but the inner one that matters, the way all these experiences get filtered, the way we react.
"[A] writer has to go out into the world to know it," she writes at the end of "Not Now, Voyager," "but the going out interrupts the crucial trip inwards, the making sense and shape of what you already know. This requires staying at home and being quiet" -- the most critical journey of all.
Ulin is book editor of The Times.