Friday, December 20, 2013

En route from Marion, Massachusetts, to New Haven, Connecticut

Et in Arcadia, ego
156 miles, 12.5 hours
This morning I slept through my alarm, set for six AM, and had to run to catch a bus leaving from New Bedford, supposed to allow me to transit in Providence to get into New Haven before noon. But the company failed to mention that I was supposed to change buses, to Greyhound, at a random transportation plaza in downtown Providence, rather than going to the bus terminal.  Now it already is after four and I'm stranded in Hartford, eight hours into what will probably be a fourteen-hour journey. It was supposed to be three.

I'm going to Connecticut to pick up a car belonging to my family, a car that I intend to drive back to Marion and then to Chattanooga, hopefully tomorrow, and thence to Atlanta, where the flight to Bangkok departs on New Year's Eve. But today's snafu has me questioning all sorts of things. Namely: what the heck am I doing planning for six months of constant travel when I can't even manage one lousy bus transition, in my own backyard, when I speak the language and can read the signs? How am I going to survive in Burma? Or Cambodia? Or anywhere?

It makes me want to buy the next bus ticket to the County and hole up for the winter. I find myself wondering what I'd be doing there. As I write here, in blue pen on paper, it's barely light in Hartford, so the County is already dark. I'd be back from my solitary walk, like the one on which I took the picture above, having seen the light glowing above the washout. Maybe I'd do yoga, think about dinner, make a pot of chai. I'd be putting more wood in the woodstove, petting my cat, listening to NPR. I'd be cozy in my office, with a blanket around my knees, working.

Instead I sit huddled in my down coat on a bench at an old train station, drinking fountain soda to stay awake, pretending to listen to my iPod to avoid contact with strangers. I've already burned through all my reading material and am debating buying more. They have a newsstand at least. And I see months of this kind of life laid out before me, months of sleeping in train stations, of existential angst, of constant fear that I'm on the wrong bus, train, platform.

I said to myself, during my first three-hour bus station wait of the day, that this day had a nightmarish quality to it, and then I stopped, because this is exactly my recurring nightmare: I'm in a bus or train station, or in an airport. I have to be somewhere by a certain time, or the time is already past, or I'm already too late, or I'm supposed to be elsewhere. My itinerary keeps changing, and I have to be shuttled across town in bad traffic. My plane's already left, or it's going to leave, or I'm going to miss it, and then, generally—I lose my suitcase or wallet or passport or ticket. Then I wake up.

But here I am, putting myself in a position to experience exactly that same sequence of events again and again and again, for months. Why? Because it's what I want, or claim to want. This is what I wanted. This is what I've always loved.

It's exactly the part of travel I've always loved—the fear, the missed connections, the life balanced on a knife's edge. Travel, especially in a foreign country and an unknown language, is a constant state of existential crisis. One never knows anything for certain. One swims in a morass of uncertainty, with a delicious frisson of danger running beneath its surface. Uncertainty becomes the water in which one swims, the water which one breathes. It's what I love, or what I'm addicted to, what I crave, what I long for. And the payoff is so great! The relief, when arriving at a long-sought destination, is a crescendoing climax, an utter release of pent-up adrenaline and anxiety.

The human heart is a mysterious place. Human desire utterly unpredictable. Even my own is a mystery to me. Once I heard Amy Frykholm read from her book See Me Naked, an excerpt about a girl so anorexic she'd become unable to identify her own desire for food. She couldn't recognize her hunger as hunger, so couldn't identify what she hungered for. My best friend's husband is a doctor who works with obese diabetics, trying to help them change eating patterns, and he says that many of them have never even had the experience of being hungry. They don't even know how it feels.

I am certain this trip is something I am hungry for, something I've hungered after for a long time. “Delight yourself in the Lord, and He will give you the desires of your heart,” says the psalmist. More and more I think desire is a road map for life, a signpost pointing each path forward. The more I live closer to the bones of my own desire, not from fear of what anyone else thinks, or what others want from me, or for me, not according to cultural dictates, but closer to what I want from my own life—the closer I am to fine.

What I want, what I've always wanted, is to travel. Despite it's inherent labyrinthine torture. I am certain of that. Maybe not forever, but for now. And that certainty limns the waiting, lights the way forward.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Aroostook County, Maine

Eating as much garlic as we can.  It's especially good in hummus.  Most of it will probably freeze.

On the drive back here, back home, it was white-out conditions north of Millinocket, the entrance to Baxter State Park, the way to Katahdin. All the way into Aroostook County, it snowed. At first I thought it was dust, the first truck I passed. Or maybe fog, swirling around. It was foggier and foggier, and then all of a sudden the fog was snow. I woke K up and he drove, thirty miles an hour slower than I'd been driving. The county always welcomes us with snow, embraces us with cold.

Tonight it's one degree on the thermostat, the diesel fuel burning in the hall from our jury-rigged plastic jugs. No need to fill the tank—we're only supposed to be here a couple of days, days that stretch into weeks. We're out of wood, down to one log of tamarack, that we're saving for something. Who knows what or when. The house will freeze while we're away, and we're preparing for that, packing up canned goods. What does freezing mean for the books? The vases? The dishes?

Nonetheless, we're leaving it all behind. K's coming with me for the better part of two months to Thailand, the country where I grew up, the place I've been wanting to take him since we met, nine years and eight months ago, and I'm staying for an additional three. Or that's the plan, at least. As we've progressed together, I've had to learn not to plan. Sometimes I realize that's the deal we've struck, the deal I have to live with—definitely the deal when it comes to Spirit. We could decide to sell her tomorrow. We could sail for the next nineteen years.

But right now, the plan is, as much as there is a plan, for me to be alone for three months, live my dream of a bungalow on the beach. When I was a kid, we used to drive down the peninsula for family vacations and find a beach resort in the off-season, just “winging it,” as my mom said. One time we went later than usual and the resort where we stopped had no one in the place, except one guy. A German, a writer, staying all the way in the thatch-roofed bungalow at the other end of the beach from us. I never saw him, just heard about him through my family, talking to the waiters at the open-air restaurant. They cooked for him. He had the run of the place.

I've dreamt of ithat ever since, and I've even thought of trying to find that exact beach resort—Shell Beach, we christened it, for the crushed shells of its sand. Now I have three months to find it, or some place else, some other version of my lost home.

And in finding that lost home, chasing into the past after it, I lose this one. The cozy orange cat nestled in winter coats. The wood smoke. The brisk purity of cold.

I just finished reading Eat Pray Love for the first time, the book that was such a sensation a couple of years ago, and I was impressed by it. Its ruthless honesty, and Elizabeth Gilbert's fearlessness. Somehow it's still shocking for a 35-year-old woman to step out alone. We all still live in Scarlett O'Hara's Atlanta, where a lady needs accompaniment.

I'm also reading Dave Eggers again, A Hologram for the King, whose prose I nestle beneath as if below a zero-degree sleeping bag. He says: “We've become a nation of indoor cats. A nation of doubters, worriers, overthinkers. Thank God these weren't the kind of Americans who settled this country. They were a different breed! They crossed the country in wagons with wooden wheels! People croaked along the way, and they barely stopped. Back then, you buried your dead and kept moving.”

But I feel resfeber, a word I recently tumbled: traveler's fever. “The restless race of a traveler's heart before the journey begins, when anxiety and anticipation are tangled together.” I'm going back to the land of my youth. The land I call my heart's home. I'm going there with my one true love, and he's giving me the gift of time alone there too, and what if it's a bust? What if I hate it? What if I fail? Somehow I'm still setting this high bar for myself when my only job is to marinate in the language, food, and culture of my youth, and to write about it. To write. To write, to keep writing. But what about my notebooks and pens here? My office? What about my typewriter? My beaver-pond facing desk? Worse, what if I fall in love with the land of my youth? What if it is my true home? What if I never come back? What does that mean for this place and my life in it?

I practice my Thai penmanship, look up words in the dictionary, memorize my guidebook. I watch television on the couch. I sleep late, and miss most of the five-hour day. I burrow. I read. I vacillate wildly between abject terror and breathless anticipation. I count down the days. Nineteen. Now eighteen. Can it really be true? It can't be true. It's true.

The word in Thai for adventure—I looked it up, to be able to explain what I'm doing—is gaanpha johnphai. It means, literally, to battle danger. I love that. I love the idea of taking up arms against danger, of fighting it, rather than letting it rule my life through fear. There are so many, many things to be afraid of, and I'm just sick and tired of being afraid of them. Maybe I'm finally ready to live, or maybe I'm just heading into the next phase of my life, my middle age, where I'll do these things and worry less about the what and the why and the for how long. What's great about Eat Pray Love is—spoiler alert—she ends by dividing her time among three places: America, Australia, Bali, and Brazil. A ridiculous arrangement, she agrees, but she loves it for its neat rhyme scheme, its internal echo. I see no reason why I can't, like her, become a hummingbird and absent myself in the winter, during these dark days that require fortitude and endurance and vast amounts of carbohydrates and sleep. Why not build my own migratory pattern, spend the carbon dioxide of a tankful of fuel oil on a tankful of jet fuel instead, and fly away? I'm thinking a four-month schedule, equally divided among Southeast Asia, Aroostook County, and Spirit. With Spirit in the Mediterranean. Or the Azores.

No matter where I am, I dream—or at least daydream--of being elsewhere. Are all of us like that or is it only me? I dream of being elsewhere than where I am, here, now, even while mourning my exodus from this place, my castle in the snow. Sometimes I remember and I stop nesting, mourning, cataloging, cooking. Instead, I retreat into myself before I jump into the great wide world. Instead, I look out the window. Try to watch the blue light of afternoon drift across the white swamp.