The sky is deep purple outside my window-seat portal. One side of my forehead stays cool where it is pressed against the layered plastic. People around me murmur in unfamiliar languages under the glow of seat-back monitors and cabin lights. The white noise of their voices (and the sleeping pills) are blurring the edges of my vision. There is something very sweet about the anonymity that comes with travel abroad. Immersion in the unfamiliar. The further one strays from home, the easier it is to forget the bags we left behind. The heaviest things we carry. Worry. Stress. Sadness.
Packing for this trip across the Pacific felt furtive in some way, as many of my larger journeys have done. When I left home after college to join the Peace Corps, I was asked on multiple occasions, “what are you running away from?” and I would respond with some indignation that it wasn’t about running FROM something - but running towards destined adventure. I’ve never liked the idea of running away. I’m a confronter at heart. I sprint to clasp spontaneous decisions when the moment feels right (which it nearly always does). Chasing things new and exciting, especially around the world, makes me feel alive. When I was younger, I could re-invent myself with each move – studying world affairs in Paris, fighting for clean water access in remote West Africa. Past selves were regularly shed before passing through security.
I caught sight of myself in an airport bathroom mirror at the start of this journey, light filtering in from translucent windows. I was alone. I met my reflection in a glance and brought a hand up to my earlobe, fingertips brushing my earring. A thread of silver, a red bead at the end. The pair had come to me in a care package from my sister-in-law, my little brother’s wife. She had sent a box during healthier times – there were also framed photos of us and a neon-colored trucker hat that screamed “BE AWESOME” in rainbow colors on the front. Since then, the news from her doctors has gotten steadily less and less hopeful (take a moment to visit her blog site here). She doesn’t expect to see her next birthday. The cancer that has spread through her organs is seemingly unstoppable. Each time my mind drifts to her, my heart cracks along a new fissure.
I’ve found that I’m less and less capable these days of running away. From myself, from the people I love, from my problems. When I woke from a Benadryl-infused slumber on the plane, one of my earrings was missing. People who know me also know that this happens to me constantly, but this one left me bereft as I touched my empty earlobe. I let all the other passengers exit the plane in Tokyo and scoured the aisles to no avail. It had vanished. The moment had passed, turned numb. I raked together my strewn possessions and ran to catch up with my travel companion before clearing customs. The incessant forward motion of a voyage keeps us from feeling too much.
I suppose I’m not just running away. I’m not being pursued by something so much as the inverse – I am the pursuer. I always have been. Something powerful exists on the horizon that I want to grasp. I am grateful to be drifting in a city packed with 10 million people and bizarre market stalls and different traffic patterns. When we exit our outrageously tiny hostel bedroom into the night air, the breeze outside carries smells I can’t recognize or put a name to. There is so much to take in that I am blissfully unable to dwell on what awaits back home. I have this temporary reprieve from it all. As we wander further down the road into the crowded maze of neon-lit market walkways everything is lost in the din, and I am lost, and grateful to be so.