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No Home, No Phone, No Problem

Since I touched down in Montenegro nearly three months ago, I haven’t traveled by plane anywhere, and incremental travel from one place to another doesn’t give the same feeling of closure ( or opening) as a sudden relocation in a distant place. Maybe that’s why I have been feeling reflective today as I prepare to leave the ship and fly to San Diego for a visit with friends.  

Among those reflections is how it has been to be phoneless for the six weeks since I left my iPhone  on a train in Geneva. Honestly, I haven’t missed it that much. The main function I truly could not manage without was the clock. I hated the idea of wearing a wristwatch, so I bought a little watch with a carabiner-style clip that I attached to my bag, and problem solved. 

I haven’t been able to take any photos except for a few from the veranda of my room on the ship. I learned the hard way not to carry my iPad for photos when it fell from my backpack and the screen cracked pretty badly. Fortunately it still works, but it is hard to type or get things to pull up on the touchscreen sometimes. Losing that plus my phone would have been really tough. 

 I quickly forgot about taking pictures, and it was quite liberating. I saw people endlessly documenting their experiences, and I thought how nice it was just to be enjoying mine.  I will start taking photos again when I have a phone, but I hope I have learned a lesson from this about making sure I am not so busy creating memories that I forget to have experiences.

Sometimes I wish I had my app that tells me how many steps I took on a long day, and I am presently locked out of my bank account and a few other sites because I can’t receive either a text or a call to prove who I am.  Occasionally I could have solved a problem with a phone call, but really everything can wait. So much truly can wait, or doesn’t really need to be done at all.  

Most important, though, is that when I have a few minutes to spare, I don’t have a phone to pull out.  As a result, I  sit quietly, or walk—or maybe even talk to someone! I think, I imagine, or I just enjoy what is there, whether it is people watching, or  the scenery of a place I have gone to the trouble of visiting. Much, much better than finding out what I might have missed in the last few minutes. or ignoring my surroundings in favor of a rousing game of solitaire.

My second insight relates to my evolving sense of “home.” This is my first cruise assignment since I sold my condo and began my life as a vagabond. My assignments are usually long enough to establish a sense of a home base on a ship, but there was always that other place where my stuff was, where my mail would be delivered, where my car was parked.  A place where I would walk in, drop my bags and say, “ahh, it’s still here.” 

I don’t have that anymore, and it does make a difference.  For me, “home” is now wherever I am.  I love Victoria.  It is the place I choose to be when I am not somewhere else. It is enough of a home to meet my needs. I am excited to go to San Diego, but it isn’t home anymore.  Right now, as I prepare to pull out my bags from under the bed and pack to leave the ship, the future is full of places I am going to, all of which I anticipate with pleasure, but none of which are ”home.”

Do I miss things about having a stable life?  Yes!  I miss my blender and my French press.  I miss having everything where I can get to it immediately. I miss knowing the best place to buy things I want and need. I miss easier access to many longtime friends.  I miss having  a lot of little things be so much easier. What do I gain by going without? The world.

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Autumnal

For all the history of grief

An empty doorway and a maple leaf.

Archibald MacLeish‘s, “Ars Poetica” is one of the poems that have stayed lodged in my mind since I first began studying literature, and these two lines are among my favorites:

Every year at this time I see friends posting photos of the trees where they live, or their romps through fallen leaves.  It is indeed a glorious show nature puts on, but I recently learned something about maples, aspens, and other showy fall trees that has transformed the season’s  meaning for me.

Leaves don’t “change colors.” When a leaf unfurls it contains chlorophyll for photosynthesis. We see it as green, but in fact all the colors it will become are hidden under the green our eyes perceive. When autumn approaches, the tree no longer needs its leaves, and the chlorophyll fades. It is only then that we see the other colors that were always there.

That thought stops me in my tracks.  Aren’t our own lives like that?  When I was younger I thought I knew myself.  I thought I presented who I really was to the world.  But it is only in getting older that I can see the deeper nuances, the colors that were essential to who I am, but that I had not yet fully appreciated. 

As we get older, we see ourselves stripped to essentials, the distractions of green youth now faded. The rich hues that are the through lines of our lives emerge to show us the path we have always been on, the values that have kept us whole even when we were shattered, the moral compass that brought us to shore when we were adrift. 

 I first understood the word “autumnal” when I heard it applied to the Four Last Songs of Richard Strauss.  The music is full of the history of grief, all the empty doorways, all the fallen maple leaves.  Some things can only be understood when life becomes bittersweet, when we see our hidden colors and wish we had appreciated them sooner. 

When we become autumnal. There is no better season for the poetry our lives are writing.  As MacLeish puts it, “A poem should not mean, but be.”  There is poetic meaning to be found in the leaves of autumn.  I found some for myself in what I am writing here. But really what they whisper to us is just to be. To dance in the golden light because we are, and we are still becoming.

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A Bridge in Vienna


Years ago, when I was around 40, I  was convinced that I was supposed to go to Vienna.  It wasn’t an idle thought about a place it might be fun to visit, but more like a compelling need. I believed that there was something there I was supposed to find. 

This was before search engines on the internet, and I had only a vague idea about what Vienna would look like, but this vision of where  I needed to go was quite concrete.  There would be a bridge in the city, and right where the bridge met the street, there would be steps down, and on those steps something waited for me.

I wasn’t at all clear on what it was.  Maybe someone I would meet, maybe an object I would find, maybe a flash of insight I would have. I just needed to go, and I would find out.

My then-husband and I were traveling in Europe frequently by that point, and since I was in charge of planning our trips, I could have made Vienna a focal point, but somehow I never did.

Just in the last few years I have been able to tease out a few threads of the tangled, matted mess of our relationship, and I think I know now why I kept this need to go to Vienna a secret.  I wasn’t  supposed to go with him.  What was supposed to happen couldn’t, while the energy of travel was so taken up with his demands, his shallowness, his whims.

So we never went.  And in the decades after the divorce, I never went either.

A few months ago I began my most ambitious solo travel adventure, seven weeks on public transportation through the Adriatic and across Europe to Barcelona to catch the ship I am currently on. The itinerary was fluid.  I changed my mind often about where I wanted to go, and many evenings I spent poring over maps.  Towards the end, as I always do, I started thinking about where I would go when I next had the opportunity to travel.  Budapest, maybe?  Bucharest? What’s in Slovakia?  Macedonia? 

But never Vienna.  I never even considered including it.

Recently my former fixation on Vienna came to mind.  What was that about?  Why, if there was something so important there, had I simply forgotten about going to find it?

And then I realized that it was never really about Vienna at all.  I was in a marriage of unequals, in which I was being gaslit, taken advantage of, and regularly betrayed.  I was not ready to acknowledge this.  I loved him.  He was lively and fun.  Our combined income was high enough to buy our way out of having to work on the serious, fundamental differences between us.  Travel was the ultimate symbol of our “success.”

I get it now. I didn’t want to go to Vienna with him because going there was really about him. I needed to escape, and I wasn’t ready. Eventually I went to that bridge.  I found what I was supposed to find— the will to cross it, the courage to leave. I just did it in my own head without going to Vienna at all.

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At Sea Tonight

I am in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, halfway through a crossing from Europe to North America (Lisbon to Miami precisely). Tonight I decided to have dinner by myself on the pool deck of Seabourn Ovation, my current assignment.  

The night is surprisingly balmy.  No need for the puffer vest and wool socks I expected I would be wearing. No need for the blankets and heat lamps they provide when the weather is colder. After some lovely wine and a bit of dinner, I sank into one of those states where I just wanted to be there right then, totally, while at the same time reflecting on how I got here, and what lies ahead. Sometimes I think “living in the moment” is most satisfying when past and future come to the rich party in my head. 

I have a friend joining me in Miami whom I have known since my twenties, when we taught together at San Diego State University. She has known me since before I finished my Ph.D., in the time when my two toddler sons were “helping” me type my dissertation. How in the world could I have predicted that a graduate degree in English would lead to the life I have now?  It was hard enough to imagine how I could make it to my seventies, but here I am. 

It’s an odd feeling to realize that I am in the middle of the Atlantic, on a speck of a ship.  After dinner I came back to my room and sat on the veranda in the dark listening to the waves.  They roar to a crescendo as they throw out their white spume, then hiss away into nothing as the next one takes their place.  I see our movement, but the sea is so vast I can almost hear it laughing. It has us in its grip and it is letting us pass. We only think we are important. It can wipe away our arrogance as it wills.  Or flirt with us with its most radiant beauty, as this morning ( photo here).

I am utterly content with my life right now. I am not sure I could ever have said that so heartily in the past. Yes, I have loved a lot of chapters in my life, but they came with burdens I still remember. Now everything I own is either with me right now, or in a storage locker in Victoria. Except for my car, parked in the condo garage of friends, I have no other possessions or responsibilities and I even sometimes think the car has to go. The people I love and who love me back are with me in spirit, and I see many of them as often now as I did when I lived closer. Everything I do, I am doing with unprecedented confidence. I am gliding through my life, much as this beautiful ship slips through the water tonight. 

So I guess the reason tonight resonates so much is that it reminds me of how small my footprint now is, but how much energy this life in flux gives me.  I am moving away from the wake of what has been and toward whatever lies ahead. The ship vibrates with the power of the waves, and I feel it in my bones.