The change of surroundings and routine that comes with travelling allows people to take a different look at their lives and the lives of others. In E.B. White’s essay Once more to the Lake he returns to a lake where he summered at as a child. Throughout the essay White has difficulty distinguishing between his role as a child at the lake years ago, and his role now as the father. Alice Walker has a similar conflict in her essay A Journey to Nine Miles. In her essay she and her family travel to Jamaica to visit the burial site of Bob Marley to bring them closer to the spiritual idea of Rastafarianism. In her vacation she is faced with the fact that she is in an impoverished country as a tourist. Both White and Walker are eventually able to understand their roles in their lives by travelling. White realizes his role as a father and Walker understands her role as an outsider.
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Both White and Walker felt an unexplainable need to travel to their destinations. White’s desire to travel is explained in his opening paragraph.
"I have since become a salt water man, but sometimes in the summer there are days when the restlessness of the tides and the fearful cold of the sea water and the incessant wind which blows across the afternoon and into the evening makes me wish for the placidity of a lake in the woods. A few weeks ago this feeling got so strong I bought myself a couple of bass hooks and a spinner and returned to the lake where we used to go, for a week’s fishing and to revisit old haunts." (White 74)
White comparison between the salt water of the rough ocean and the fresh water of the calm lake is also a comparison between his complicated life as an adult and his simple life as a child. His desire to recapture the peacefulness and ease of the time he spent at the lake is evident as he uses negative words, such as “restless… tides,” “fearful cold,” and “incessant wind,” to describe where he is right now. White then says he wishes “for the placidity of a lake in the woods.” By choosing annulling adjectives for the salt water and pleasing adjectives for the lake, the reader is given a deeper understanding of White’s need to return to the calm lake. In this passage, White also expresses a need to “revisit old haunts,” which shows that White is going with the purpose of reminiscing and reflecting.
Walker is traveling like White but she is going somewhere she has never been before. “My love for Marley spread easily over my family, and it was as neophyte rastas, having decided that ‘rasta’ for us meant a commitment to a religion of attentiveness and joy, that we appeared when we visited Jamaica in 1984” (Walker 285). Walker describes herself and family as “neophyte,” meaning they are newly converted, or new to the idea of a Rasta. They created their own interpretation of Rasta and travel to Jamaica to affirm and strengthen the feeling they get from the idea of Rastafarianism. Saying that they “appeared” in Jamaica gives the idea that they were not invited. The Walker family goes to Jamaica because the love a Jamaican singer and a Jamaican philosophy, but they are not Jamaican.
As both of their journeys get underway, White and Walker begin to feel the first effects of travelling. White is faced with the possible altercations to the lake that has remained the same in his memory for years. “On the journey over to the lake I began to realize what it would be like” (White 74). By using “began” White shows that he did not start thinking about what being at the lake as an adult, or about how time has changed the lake, until he started his trip. White remembered how the lake was to him as a boy and just starts to imagine possibly differences on the way there.
For White, travelling to the lake is not just a journey across miles, but back in time as well. It is this journey back in time made possible through travel that eventually leads White to face his new role at the lake as the father instead of the son. Walker and her family arrive to a Jamaica unlike the paradise they expected. Seeing how poor Marley’s home is helps Walker understand his message and what type of person he was. “I think of how much energy Bob Marley had to generate to project himself into the world beyond this materially impoverished place; and of how exhausted, in so many of his later photographs, he looked” (Walker 286). It was necessary for Walker to travel to Jamaica to witness first hand the obstacles Marley had been up against. With a better awareness of Marley’s background, Walker is able to find more meaning in Rastafarianism and in Marley’s journey from poverty to fame.
As their vacations continue, White and Walker both come up against conflicts that later become key to their final realizations and understandings. White’s conflict is prevalent throughout the rest of his essay; he is torn between the child he used to be at the lake years ago and the adult he is now. “I began to sustain the illusion that he was I, and therefore, by simple transposition, the I was my father. This sensation persisted, kept cropping up all the time we were there. It was not an entirely new feeling, but in this setting it grew much stronger (White 75).” White specifically notes that the confusion he is experiencing between himself and his son strengthened while they were at the lake and “all the time…(they) were there.” He goes on to say that it is the “setting” of the lake that intensified the feeling that White is just like his own father. White describes this conflict in more detail later on in his essay. “I seemed to be living a dual existence. I would be in the middle of some simple act, I would be picking up a bait box or laying down a table fork, or I would be saying something, and suddenly it would be not I but my father who was saying the words or making the gestures (White 75).” The importance of being at the lake in order for White to experience the “dual existence” is apparent in his examples because many depend on being at the lake. For White, the lake is the only place where so many vivid memories of his father and actions he now does that his father used to do would coming rushing back at once.
Walker also experiences a conflict in her travels to Jamaica. Hers involves her role as a tourist. A little boy asks her for money and she hesitates until a village elder advises her to give him money. “Starting with the children, but by no means stopping there, because the grownups look as expectant as they, we part with some of our ‘tourist’ dollars, realizing that tourism is a dead thing, a thing of the past; that no one can be a tourist anymore, and that, like Bob, all of us can find our deepest rest at home” (Walker 287). Walker’s ambivalence about her role as a tourist is apparent in this passage. She came to Jamaica not experience something Jamaican and be closer to Marley, not to take advantage of land like many stereotypical tourists are viewed as doing. Walker did not want to give the people money, not because she was cheap, but because it made her more of an outsider. However, at the same time, she wanted to do what Marley would have done. She feels torn between the pure experience she was searching for and the reality of their poverty.
In the final moments of their vacations White and Walker both come to final understandings about their roles in life. White makes the final distinction between his son as the child and himself as the father. “Languidly, and with no thought of going in, I watched him, his hard little body, skinny and bare, saw him wince slightly as he pulled up around his vitals the small, soggy, icy garment. As he buckled the swollen belt suddenly my groin felt the chill of death” (White 79). By saying he had “no thought of going in” White is for the first time decidedly acting as an adult, watching the child. All of his previous adult-like actions were simply habit that made him feel like he was his father. This passage ends the essay with White realizing his role is now as the adult.
Walker is leaving Jamaica when she comes to a final conclusion about her experience.
Jamaica is a poor country reduced to selling its living and its dead while much of the world thinks of it as ‘real estate’ and a great place to lie in the sun; but Jamaicans as a people have been seen in all their imperfections and beauty by one of their own and fiercely affirmed, even from the grave, and loved. There is no poverty, only richness in this. We sing ‘Redemption Song’ as we change the tire; feeling very Jamaica, very Bob, very Rasta, very no woman no cry. (Walker 288)
Seeing the poverty and being faced with the decision to hand out money like a tourist brought Walker to a final understanding of Marley, which she explains by saying Marley saw Jamaica and Jamaicans, all of the good and all of the bad, and loved them for all of it. Walker came as an outsider, was treated like a tourist, but left feeling “very Jamaica.” Jamaica is an impoverished country, but Walker sees “only richness” in it because of the way Marley was able to move people and they way his spirit continues to help the country. Walker realizes that she was not a tourist, but instead just another person who was touched by the power of Marley’s music and dream.
White and Walker both began their journeys unsure of what to expect, but unaware of the conflicts they would face. The act of travelling and separating themselves from their familiar world helped them discover their roles in each situation. By returning to a lake holds so many memories for him, White is reminded of his father and has to battle with the idea of his own mortality and his role as the father. The constant reminders of his childhood and of his father bring White to a final understanding that he is now the father. If Walker had not traveled to Jamaica, she would have never thought of herself as an outsider in Marley’s community. However, after she notices the economic and environmental obstacles the Jamaican people face, she gains a deeper understanding of Marley and his music. Walker also resolves her feelings about being an outsider because she realizes that the power of Marley’s music is so strong, anyone can take part in it.
Walker, Alice. “A Journey to Nine Miles.” Eight Modern Essayists. 6th ed. Ed. William Smart. New
York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995. 284-288.
White, E. B. “Once More to the Lake.” Eight Modern Essayists. 6th ed. Ed. William Smart. New
York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995. 74-79.