Memoir charts writer’s uncomfortable travels

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.”

She vows, “If I outlive this darkness I’ll never leave home again.”

“Not Now, Voyager” ($23) 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.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.

Perhaps the most important lesson here 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.”

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