Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Hunting on Forking Paths

I ended up in Russia the same way I ended up everywhere else I have lived and worked overseas- by lucky coincidence and random chance. I also have to give props to graduate school end of term work for being so onerous that I finally gave in one night and accepted an invitation to happy hour (eating delicious things hour for me) so I could see the friends whose faces I had almost forgotten, since it had been so long since I had seen anything other than the inside of my school or the screen of my laptop or endless educational journals.

That night I caught up on the comings and goings and social issues of Vientiane’s finest. As it was getting towards the end of term and so many contracts finishing up, much of the talk revolved around who was going where and when. I had already committed to stray cat summer but had made no plans other than “somewhere in Europe”. Joe casually mentioned that Sarah wasn’t able to do her summer teaching job in Russia.

I’m sorry, what?

The unassuming start to my trip- the Russian embassy in Laos. 

Sometimes when I’m making these moves I think of all the choices and luck that have led me to where I am now. Had I not met Joe and Sarah, of course none of this would have happened. But more than that, had I not avoided grad school, or had Joe not shown up, or had he not thought to talk to me about it- all of these things lined up to get me to Russia, which got me to Europe, which set off all of the things that have happened to me this summer. I can walk this back further, to how I ended up in Laos, because big parts of this summer revolved around people I met in Laos- Roman and Maike and Tobias and James. Even further back, I’m on this side of the planet just in time to reunite with Tiara, who’s now in Laos; Sven and Sam, two close friends from Laos, are mere hours away from me at the moment, where they are visiting Andrew, my old co-worker from Laos, who is now living in Albania and working at the same school where Tiara and I worked. It makes me wonder what inconsequential daily choices I’m making right now that will add up to some huge turn of events in my life- meeting someone at a hostel, applying for a random job, making friends on the bus, staying an extra year __________ or going home early instead…

Right now I have a lot of balls in the air for future opportunities of where to go and what to do next, a list of possibly maybes that are all appealing to me. I feel lucky to have had the luxury of turning down several jobs in June/July/August because they weren’t the right fit for me. I’m grateful that I have a profession I love that allows me to work anywhere and pick up work almost any time of the year. I’ve recently hit my “don’t freak out, but start being mildly concerned” number on my savings (I confided in a friend what my threshold was; he admitted that if he were me he would definitely be freaking out). I’m excited to see what kind of choices come out of the position I’m putting myself in right now. I have no idea where I will end up. I have no plans. I just know I want to teach and I want to travel. With those two desires literally the entire world is up for grabs.

The person I was even six months ago could not have handled this. At all. Not one bit. I remember that my greatest fear about going without a contract, walking into summer without a plan for next year, was what if something terrible happened medically and I had to use my savings and couldn’t travel. And that is exactly what happened. When I was diagnosed I was so angry. I couldn’t believe that after all these years of playing it safe, of planning, of being careful, the one time I threw caution to the wind my biggest fear happened.

But here I am, writing this at the border of Montenegro on an old rumbling bus while I wait for my passport. My biggest fear happened. It was the best thing that could have happened. Nothing fell apart. I’m fine. I’m still doing what I wanted to do. I have made decisions others in my place would not have made; I have willfully decided to be financially precarious and hold out until my next job before I pick up the mantle of being a Fully Financially Responsible Person again. I think my diagnosis at the beginning of this summer was the greatest test I could have had. I could not have dealt so graciously with this before my two years in Laos or the year before that in Albania. It changed me. It changed the way I see the world, the way I see myself, the way I view what I’m capable of. Finishing my time in S.E. Asia with that last final blow of a medical mishap was the final step in the process I didn’t know I had started, which was unwinding so much of my fear and anxiety about life and how I was living it.

The fact that so many random coincidences and quite a bit of lucky interventions have landed me right here on this bus seat gives me the freedom to just kind of throw up my hands in peaceful submission. I’ll bring my best, do what I need to do, and the rest is up to whatever mix of people and places and events conspire around me, which is all out of my control. I have a narrowly defined boundary of decision making impact- it’s approximately within the lines of my bone and skin, perhaps stretching out of me into a field into which others can venture and take what they want, but then there goes my choice and control. I can’t even control what my body does at this point, the whys and hows of veins and legs- even this is beyond me. My own body has a mind of its own. This final knowledge made me realize that nothing is guaranteed, and if nowhere is safe, not even my own body, I can be terrified or I can accept that there is an overwhelming freedom in that.

I’ve made a joke out of this being my stray cat summer. To take that further, I know I’ll land on my feet. I don’t when or where or how, but at this point I have made it out of enough that I know I can make it work. I want to push this as far as I can to see what I’ll do. I’m so curious about all of these things inside of me that are unknown, and won’t be activated or brought out until a new experience, or place, or person, or challenge illuminates it, triggers it, opens it up, spills it out. It’s a moment that flips something on inside like a switch, and suddenly there is a great big expanse that you never would have imagined you had waiting inside of you. I want to be open to being opened up like that.

I will probably always get anxious in certain situations- it’s who I’ve been as long as I can remember. I still sometimes have panic attacks that send me into quiet corners to whisper to myself that I’ll be fine, to breathe, to affirm the things I need to say to get out of that swirling falling feeling. I have doubts and get scared. I think of what if____________. That is usually when I know that I’m moving in the right direction. From my earliest memories I have tried to avoid anxiety and pain and fear, and gave myself a lot of anxiety and fear and pain about wanting to be so so careful and clean and quiet and neat and responsible and good, but this was an illusion of security. Bad things would and will still happen, and I was insane enough to think I just needed to be even more careful, as though the universe would tally my concern and correspond my suffering in ratio to it. I’m changing the game into something I can actually win, something that isn't rigged against me from the start. I’m following my fear instead of trying to avoid it; I hunt it down. I make this chase now: I seek it out, I dig it up, I call its name and tell it to show me its face, and then I let it lead me where I need to go, to places I never planned in this world. In my indecision and rootlessness I feel more decisive and focused than I ever did when making plans.

If travel is searching
and home has been found

I'm not stopping 

I'm going hunting
I'm the hunter
I'll bring back the goods
but I don't know when

Friday, October 16, 2015

How a Norwegian Stranger Took Me to Russia from Bangkok

Why do you ask?

The night I left the hospital in tears and compression socks I fumbled back to my friends’ hostel crying in the street, on the train, and back on the street.  I just couldn’t imagine getting on that plane the next morning- my mind was in a million different places, I had to pack, I had to say goodbye to my friends, I had only one pair of these socks, I barely knew what I had just found out. It was too much. I wasn’t going to Russia.

By the time I got to the hostel I had finished up the tears (or at least this first shocked round of them, there were many more to come that month). I told my friends and then went straight to my dorm room and had an addled conversation with my father, who promptly told me that the worst thing I could do was give up a job and a purpose in order to focus full time on the negative project of worrying about what ifs and whys. Over dinner my friends all co-signed my father’s wisdom. I still didn’t want to go, I still had moments of “Seriously, WHAT IS MY LIFE” when I would look down at the beige bandages on my legs, but in spite of myself I realized that I was in no position to make big, rash decisions like quitting a much looked forward to job that would give me the funds I needed to travel when I was finished. So I was going to Russia.

With that I desperately needed to get out and find some distractions from the fact that I would be heading to the airport the next morning at 6 a.m., which was not very far away at that point. On my way out the door I met a boy from Norway in the stairs. I was a frazzled mess, he was all smiles and laid back how’s it going? We talked in the hall, exchanged polite hostel talk, I declined an invitation to go out with him and his friends. Why, he asked? I have to get up early I hedged, wanting to get out as soon as possible, definitely not wanting to talk to a stranger about it. He told me had to fly to Russia the next morning, and also had to be up early, and that was no excuse. Plus, he had to fly alone, which would suck. It was then that we realized we were on the same flight, and within 5 minutes of meeting we pledged to one another we would be sure the other was awake and ready for what would be our shared ride to the airport. I left with a shout over my shoulder to be sure to set your alarm.

The painfully early next morning (dear reader, I did not sleep, I needed to not sleep at the time, but afterwards oh I wanted to be sleeping) he was nowhere to be found. I lurked around the silent bar and reception, the air sticky, the time creeping by. I pestered the receptionist twice to wake him up to no avail. Finally I made her give me the keys and tell me where he was. She took me up and found him sleeping. He dashed out of bed, threw his things together, and then we hustled down the street to find a taxi. Both sleep deprived, we collapsed on each other in the back of the taxi without saying a word and then it was onto the local train and finally the airport train. We stood learning against each other, my forehead on his chest, his arm around me, both of us onto the next legs of our respective trips, quiet and reflective, balancing on the swaying floor with our bags crowded around and under our feet. None of this was strange or awkward- it was just comfortable. We were bone tired travelers who had gone from thinking we had a long, boring trip ahead of us to having a person to suffer with, to help grab bags and open doors, to ask about ________ while the other asked about ________.  You forget what a luxury it is to have a traveling companion until you have one again after a long stretch of solo wandering. Considering the state I was in, I felt unbelievably lucky that we had bumped into each other the night before. He kept saying he didn’t know what he would have done if he had missed his flight, and I was realizing that part of what helped me deal with my flight was that we had decided to travel together.

At the airport it was a quick check-in and we were able to get seats next to one another. I had an aisle seat; he let me put my legs up on him. We promptly fell asleep on each other like tired kids. We woke up to turbulence and he got nervous; I had been a nervous flyer for years and had finally gotten over my phobias so I reassured him with all sorts of nerdy information about what turbulence is and why it happens. We ate our terrible lunch and then talked for a few hours. I told him about the diagnosis I got the night before. He said he was sorry and pet my hair and held my hand and told me a story of his own. Then it was sleep again for him, anxious rumination for me as he leaned on my shoulder. At the end of the flight my legs were so swollen I could barely bend them, and he rubbed my calves for me and assured me everything would be fine. I cried. He was a stranger and didn’t make me feel bad about the fact that he was taking care of me. I cried more out of gratitude, frustration, and pain. The last two hours of the flight I spent in the back by the bathrooms, performing all manner of exercises to move the fluid out of my legs. I went to the toilet to lay on the ground and put my feet up and within two minutes the stewardess was knocking on the door asking who was in there. I went back to my seat to find this new friend in knitted brow concern over me, asking if I had enough water, did I need anything else, don’t worry, we’re almost there. I kept apologizing for being a mess, he kept saying he wouldn’t have made his flight without me and I saved him, so please don’t worry.

We landed in Moscow and almost immediately had to part ways- he was going on home to Norway to surprise his parents and needed to dash across the airport, I had to go through customs and find my way to the driver of the family for whom I would be working. A quick exchange of Facebook contacts, a hug, goodbye, we turned away and were gone as quickly as we had been together that day. I stumbled through customs on numb feet and swollen legs, and it wasn’t until I was home that night at the family’s apartment in Moscow that it really hit me just what an absolute and total blessing it was to cross paths with him.

We kept in touch on and off, and later this summer I mailed him a care package to the army base where he was completing training for his mandatory service. I put it together in Dresden, spending an afternoon heading to a few different places for random things that might be needed or wanted. It felt really good to be able to return the favor of providing comfort and support. When I handed the box over to the woman at the post office tears immediately came to my eyes.

I have historically been the worst, and I mean the worst, at being vulnerable and accepting help. I hate feeling like a burden; I don’t like feeling weak; I like to feel independent and capable. The last three years of living overseas I have found myself in the most uncomfortable positions I’ve ever been in with other humans, often strangers or brand new friends, and I was forced to just let it be and accept their help and trust that it would be all right. The relief and gratitude that I felt in trusting and accepting makes me even more eager to offer help whenever I can, because I know how much it can ease another person’s suffering.

I am going to keep crying in front of strangers if I need to. I’m going to tell people I can’t anymore, and I’m going to trust my friends and family and strangers on the street when they say they can for a while since I can’t.  I’m going to give up needing to be the one taking care all the time and allow myself to accept care. And I’m going to continue offering as much care and comfort as I can, from a place of gratitude to those who allow me to help them. There is nothing noble in suffering for no other reason than you think you deserve to suffer, or that you don’t deserve help when it is kindly offered, or that you need to prove something by doing it alone. Some of my most satisfying moments in this life have been when I have selflessly helped someone else, and I never regretted offering that help. Forget your ego. If you’re in a position where you need help, and people want to give it, let them.