Something happened at the airport. Maybe because it was too early for the holidays to seem like hell — we were still in the sugar-sprinkles and peppermint-sticks version of the holidays.
But listen. I sort of catapulted from my taxi to the terminal, too many bags, left my credit card behind. The cabbie rolled down the window and handed it out to me.
1) Found a stranger’s credit card in the slot of the self-check machine. I almost walked away and left the card, but remembered how I’d just had mine returned. So I gave it to a gate agent, who presented it to a tiny, teary frantic woman.
2) An elderly woman — presumably a legit airport employee — who seemed like a cross between a nun and a conspiratorial older classmate who knows the cool place to smoke, pulled me out of the baggage line. She checked me in on a separate kiosk and installed me in a much shorter line, saving me about 45 minutes.
3) Met a lovely blonde woman, mid-fifties, sharp New York accent; at the gate. She was reading Patti Smith’s Just Kids. We struck up a conversation, and as it turns out, she’s old friends with Robert Mapplethorpe’s studio manager. We talked art and books. (Caroline, wherever you are, thanks for the inspiration.)
4) Dropped a dime in the terminal. A skinny, smiley Chinese man picked it up and handed it back.
5) In line at Wendy’s, a woman I’d never seen before handed me a $6 voucher for food that said she couldn’t use, and then vanished. Cheeseburger and Frosty!
6) The teenager seated next to me on the flight gave me a piece of gum and gave cough drops to the flight attendant. I helped create a life plan for him to transfer from Purdue to NYU and stop being an engineering major.
Everything felt tinted with generosity and a sense of congenial good humor. I wasn’t sure I was really at the airport, after all.
My blue sticker says “IN TRANSIT”, which the airline required us to wear. Janelle took this photo in the Vietnam airport. We’d made our flight with moments to spare; Janelle had her wheelchair again (long story). Things were good.
Now, almost a year later, here in Chicago… Things here? IN TRANSIT. I’m traveling soon. My trip fund goal is almost met. Back to the road.
Sean: Hey, do you want this temporary tattoo of a spider that says “LETHAL” on it?
Me: I’m gonna save it so I can wear it to work!
So this time you asked me what I really wanted for Christmas, and I said I wanted freedom — like, from desire and pain and sleeping too late; freedom from words that catch in my throat, due to honey or battery acid, whichever it is today; freedom from the need to open the fridge and find a beer, from the need to open the inbox and find a note, from the need to turn away from blankness and litter the landscape with the spare ballast I’ve been hiding in this breadbox. From the need to undergo surgery of the heartfelt emotion; from the need to underwhelm; to undress; to understand; to appear televised and revised and baptized. Freedom, I said. You know. Freedom. And you said there’s no way, because freedom doesn’t come wrapped up in bows, and even though it looks like sunshine, it’s never free. And I said “Merry Christmas”, and you took my hand, and that was enough of a gift.
My friend Becca and I met when we were 24, newly hatched in Chicagoland and starting a course in improv theater. When people say “I’m in a bad place” or “I’m just not in that place”, they don’t mean geographically, they mean (usually) a place in time and mindframe. But to visualize: When Becca and I met, my “place” looked like an empty lot, weedy and surrounded by chainlink, with one sad green armchair in the middle under a somewhat promising oak tree and a small stack of books and a TV with an antenae, but otherwise: a wasteland; so blank that it meant opportunity and the absence of opportunity, all at once. I hated everything. I loved everything.
All at once.
Becca and I came up with a few shorthand phrases during this tumultuous time, including The Doom Spiral. It’s basically this: You worry about something. And then you call someone (usually an involved party) to tell them you’re worrying about it. And then maybe that phone call doesn’t contain a good sense of closure and you realize you sort of sounded crazy or like an asshole, and then after you hang up you worry about the phone call, and then (worst case) you call back again and apologize. But then that still feels weird. And you can’t call back. You can’t. You can’t call again. But you just sit there staring at the phone in self-loathing, and then you hate yourself for getting so worked up, and then you can’t believe you’re wasting all this time on self-loathing. It’s a bad scene. It happens.
It still happens. Even now. When I sometimes like to think I’ve populated my weedy abandoned lot with people and whimsical sculpture and a cottage ringed by geraniums. Sometimes, still, the doom spiral appears, sweeping up the whole scene in a tornado cloud. Your place is suddenly no place. And all you can do is put the phone down, take a walk, go for hot chocolate, and remember that being human means sucking at it, sometimes.
Big news: This winter I’m headed back to Cambodia. Last March, Janelle and I traveled there together for her spring break from teaching. We adventured. And I wanted to go back.
Over the summer, Kevin gave me a copy of Einstein’s Dreams, a book by physicist Alan Lightman that investigates theories of time and possibility — basically everything you need to hear in the midst of an existential crisis. When I mentioned to Caitlin that I was reading it, she said, “Oh, I interviewed the author for a story once… he founded an organization in Cambodia.”
A spark. But I didn’t act, and I didn’t look it up… and then, circling around and around a cemetery in Cincinnati for my 30th birthday with two of my oldest friends, I mentioned this strange happenstance. Kirsten and Amanda both told me to see if I could go there — in that patient but probing way that good friends make us better versions of ourselves.
And so one brave afternoon in November, I applied for a residency at Alan Lightman’s organization, a two-month position mentoring young college women who live in a dorm in Phnom Penh.
Things fell (quickly) into place. An e-mail exchange, a Skype interview. So now it’s happening, I’m really going, mid-January.
I’ve been overwhelmed by the speedy financial support for my fundraising campaign. Like, I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time with happy tears in my eyes; every time a new donation comes in. The women of my writing group rallied quickly, and a few big donations and a lot of small ones from friends/family added up to almost the entire total in less than a week.
I’ve felt jaded this year — knocked by a few hard knocks. But my surprise birthday bike and this campaign have severely diminished my taste for apathy. I’ve seen, firsthand, that despite the suckitude of the quotidienne and the unpredictability of the everyday, our human networks can form powerful weapons against chaos and despair. I’ve come to believe that, in a time when we’re so electronically connected, money is speech — and even a few bucks says where you stand and who you stand up for. A lot of people have already stood up for me this year. And I can’t say thanks enough.
More info, and to support my (almost finished!) fundraising campaign for airfare/expenses: lindsay2cambodia.chipin.com.