'To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all.'
- Oscar Wilde, The Soul of Man
Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash
On the first page: George Francis Train. Born in the United States on the 24th of March, 1829, of Francis Train and Maria Pickering. On the second page, and the next, and next, and next, stamps from all around the world; dates and city names and signatures from distant continents and lands.
Train was an entrepreneur, idealist, and one of the first visionaries of globalization. When he was sixteen, he joined a cousin’s shipping business where he organized the clipper routes that sailed south from Boston around Cape Horn then back north to San Francisco. He established shipping routes between Liverpool and Australia, built the first street railway in England, funded the women’s suffrage movement, and in 1869, completed the first transcontinental railroad in North America.
Train believed the world was heading to an age in which women and people of colour would have the same rights as white men to work for equal pay, read and write, vote. He also believed that borders could be redrawn and constitutions redrafted if they no longer reflected the identity and vision of those they represented.
People exist as they exist on paper; birth certificates, death certificates, passports. You are the name, age, gender, race, and nationality by your official picture. You are also your deeds and diplomas, speeches, and writings in journals.
The world exists as it exists on paper too; land and sea borders drawn on maps, events carved into indelible facts by words printed in history books. Freedoms safeguarded, or dismantled, by ballots, speeches, editorials, visa stamps. Ideas and ideals turned into universal principles by resolutions.
In 1871, Train embarked on a journey:
New York to San Francisco by train, then a clipper ship to Yokohama, then on to Singapore, then Marseille, then north by train, then across the English Channel. Then from Liverpool onto a ship across the ocean to New York…
Around the World in Eighty Days
He inspired Jules Verne’s novel.
Today, that journey would be impossible for most people to take. And that world he travelled around, nearly impossible to envision.
Maps and newspaper headlines today tell stories of closed borders, glass ceilings, trade wars. Refugee crises, travel bans, hate crimes. Marginalized, exiled, stateless people. Hate and fear are written into speeches, editorials, and ballots. Narratives of identities displaced in time and space, into passports.
This is the new world, on paper. But paper only holds carbon and ink. Dreams, personalities, and emotions are harder to see but just as real. We as individuals are more than our age, nationality, and gender. As a race, more than short-sighted laws, bigoted votes, and executive orders.
Passports are just booklets someone stapled together and stamped. Borders are just lines someone traced with a pencil on a map. History is just a memory of an event. Truth: a general consensus. Reality was once just a dream someone believed enough to commit to paper.
Well, the future has not been written yet, and there are still blank pages aplenty. Here is the one in which I would like to live. Let me put it on paper:
A world anyone, anyone can travel around in eighty days. A reality in which I could cross South America on a rusty motorcycle. Race a red car from Paris to Dakar, sightsee in a united Nicosia, go on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and be still in a church, and synagogue, and mosque. Play hopscotch till I get dizzy along the border of any two countries. Explore the North Pole, the South Pole, hike Everest, and dive the Challenger Deep.
Be seen for who I am, not what I am. Be able to see others that way. Learn by exposure and exchange. Be richer for it. Exist, and live, well.