Last night, John had a dream that he was trapped in purgatory. in the dream, purgatory was a giant airport. He and all the other people in purgatory had one small bag made of red fabric. Each bag was the exact same size and shape with a number on a little rectangular plaque on the top of the bag. The number indicated how many days the person carrying the bag would spend in purgatory before continuing on to their next destination.
He overheard some men nearby discussing the numbers on their bags.
“Wow, 332…guess it’ll be a short trip for you then!” One of them said to the other. The man who was speaking had 77,468 etched into the rectangular plaque on his bag.
As John contemplated the meaning of this conversation, two other men with black backpacks in black pants, white shirts, and black ties hurried past him to their gate. They didn’t carry red bags. They weren’t required to wait in purgatory for their flight to Elsewhere.
When he woke up, he lay there for a while, concerned about the contents of his red bag and the number 310 on his little metal plaque…
Inevitably, when we travel to far away places for long periods of time, there is a psychological transition that happens before we move from here to there. This transitional period begins about two weeks before we leave for the foreign destination. It also happens after we’ve adapted to the new place and again about two weeks before we’re scheduled to come back home.
The transition is remarkably stressful. It comes on automatically, like clockwork whether we consciously acknowledge the slow, insidious cloud overtaking us or not. During this time the refrigerator doesn’t get restocked, but rather, we try to get rid of all the contents inside, right down to the last sausage, the last few carrots, and the last third of the mustard jar. As the fridge empties, I often walk into the kitchen to find Lydian or John standing in front of the fridge, entranced by it’s white, uninterrupted vastness and a nagging desire for something flavorful and filling.
During the transition, the house is cleaned thoroughly and reorganized. Our luggage slowly fills as the necessary travel items find their places. The cats sleep on the bags as a subtle hint that they’d like to go with us. We feel sad leaving them behind. All of us become a part of this silent transitional effort toward moving ourselves from here to there. During the transitional period, I rarely feel as excited about our trip as I did before the transition started. Until the trip gains momentum and we actually get in the car to go to the airport, I live in a state of chronic preoccupation. All other emotions and ideas are hijacked by the idea of transporting myself to a new culture on the other side of the world.
I study our luggage as the days slowly tick by, examining the contents each day and checking to see if there’s something I’m missing or something that I’ve packed that we don’t really need.
Today, I spent two hours shopping online for a rechargeable side table lamp that folds into a tiny packable space. I partially enjoyed the project, but also loathed it at the same time a voice inside my head saying, “You don’t really need this, do you?”. It was a nice escape while it lasted. I felt soothed by the idea of having a reliable lamp by my bedside. My Lamp. The task of finding just the right one became extraordinarily important to me.
In an effort to make myself feel better while I live in this purgatorial state, I’ve tried sharing my uncomfortable feelings with friends and neighbors.
I say, “I’m terrified.”
They say, “Oh, pshaw… you’ll be okay.”
I know immediately what they mean. What they’re really trying to say is, “I don’t care about what you’re talking about. It’s boring to me. Can we talk about something else now?”
Instead of making me feel good, a platitude, properly applied makes me feel roughly one-inch tall. I’ll never forget the platitude we received after leaving the hospital following a stillbirth with tears in our eyes, “Oh, you’ll have another one!” a middle-aged woman said waving her hand at us as though we were just being silly.
I suspect that platitudes make the speaker feel big or at least better, but they make my mind spin and argue.
“Oh, pshaw… you’ll be okay,” leads me into an imaginary conversation with myself about the situation.
“Oh ya? How do you know?”
“Well…God will watch over you.”
“What? Really? Where was God when we were getting robbed in Mexico? And where was God when John rewarmed that Moroccan pasty in the middle of the night and then ended up with a month-long bout of shits and pukes?”
The imaginary conversation then turns into a philosophical exploration of the classic glass-half-full, glass-half-empty problem. I actually think about what people are saying to me when I’m upset and unfortunately, platitudes often raise more questions and concerns than they quell.
I thoroughly enjoy the edginess of travel once the plane takes off and we’re on our way there, but in that transitional time period before we go, I am a Walking Mortality Issue. Thoughts of Death and all his friends skulk around inside my head. I wonder, what will happen on this trip?
A part of my brain earnestly dedicates itself to considering Worst Case Scenarios. Our plane could be gunned down over a small landlocked country filled with rebel insurgents, the unfortunate fuselage spiraling down through the air, a ball of fire in the big blue sky. A piece of glass could dislodge itself silently from the room above ours while I stand on a terrace admiring the city view and I could be definitively sliced in half lengthwise. One of us could trip and fall in the airport, breaking an arm or a leg and then be rushed to a substandard hospital in a small third-world country where some poor soul has just wandered into the ER with Ebola. We all die shortly thereafter, literally barfing our guts out.
Unfortunately, there is no part of my brain dedicated to Best Case Scenarios. Perhaps this is because I live such an easy life in our developed and industrialized country with its clean water and trash pick-ups that I don’t have to meditate on Best Case Scenarios. I live the Best Case Scenario every day.
It’s a wonderful thing to come back to the Best Case Scenario. It really is. Which begs the question, why go? Why leave such a pleasant lifestyle behind?
I wonder about it sometimes, especially in the midst of a major transition when the refrigerator gets empty and the house gets so clean that we can hardly live in it. But there are reasons—none of them easy to explain. When we traveled to the Amazon, we saw a woman slaughtering a fish for dinner with a machete on a piece of tree bark in the grass. She lived with her family in a thatched hut on stilts with chickens and monkeys mulling around underneath it. No running water, no grocery store nearby.
She smiled at us genuinely as we walked past her.
In that moment, as that woman smiled at me genuinely from her bent over position above the bloodied fish, I felt as lucky as I am. I was on the trail back to my lodge where dinner would be prepared for me.
Normally I don’t appreciate the ease with which my daily life progresses, hour-by-hour from sunrise to sunset. I hardly notice my comfy memory-foam mattress and flushing toilets once I get into the American grind. It’s hard to know what I take for granted when I never force myself to live without my routine, my hot shower, carpeting, and padded chairs.
And the longer I live in a place, the less I listen to what the people around me are really saying. And the less they listen to me as well. We all stop hearing each other. Communication becomes reduced to platitudes and short neutral snippets of talk about the weather. When we think we know another person, we take them for granted. We start to feel entitled to their attention or their willingness to participate in community contracts or convenants about lawn-mowing or flower-growing. But everyone goes through a time in their lives when it just isn’t possible to mow the lawn on schedule. The longer we stay, the more petty I become about things like overgrown weeds in someone’s yard. And the more susceptible I become to pettiness directed toward me.
I lose touch with what’s important. I forget that I’m alive or that I could be living a much different life in a different place. I forget to be grateful.
Last night, I dreamed that I lost Lydian in a giant labyrinth of school rooms. She turned into a sick kitten and I carried her with me until she became herself again. Then, she fell behind and I lost her again. This continued on and on until I woke up, still distressed by the lingering feeling that I couldn’t find my kid.
Blinking awake slowly, I remembered the other things I’d been worried about the night before: packing the travel printer, remembering to transfer money from here to there, vacuuming the floor upstairs.
How do we get so wrapped up in such inconsequential details?
We’re just tourists for Christ’s sake. We aren’t remotely intrepid. Just tourists who like to travel for long periods of time.
Our family doesn’t go into war zones. We take high-tech antibiotics with us and we get our vaccines updated before we go. But we still get scared about certain destinations because traveling is something we really want to do. When you do what you really want to do, inevitably, life happens.
And then, people start throwing platitudes at you, singing, “LA, LA, LA…” with their fingers in their ears if you try to talk about it too much.
Glass-Half-Empty: No one wants to hear about your grand adventure.
Glass-Half-Full: You’re going somewhere. You’re doing what you want to do.