I wrote this on my way home from Jamaica a week and a bit ago. I let it settle for a bit before posting it here, but a conversation on the weekend reminded me of it.
Travel and returning
I find travelling brings out many creatures. The adventurous creatures, who sees a new, unexplored road and wants to head up it, wander along, get lost even. Expanding. The so-attached-to-home creature, that wants to scuttle back to my comfort zone, get home as soon as possible. Contracting. The capable animal, who organises months of overdue admin records when facing an imminent trip. Ordering. The incompetent, fluttery animal, that gets panicky, forgetful, ditzy. Disordering. The stoic, resilient beast that can sit out the longest delay, the worst turbulence, the craziest seat neighbours. The querying, critical, demanding creature who gets involved and makes a plan. Detachment, I guess, and engagement – it’s all in the mix.
I dreaded this trip home. It involves 2 back-to-back long haul flights, divided by a day layover getting from Gatwick to Heathrow. I dreaded feeling exhausted, jetlagged, and utterly undone by the onslaught of passengers and airline crew. Here are the tiny paper cutouts from the past few days:
1. A thought-provoking article. Theatre maker Megan Furniss wrote this piece on her return to New York. Megan discovered a freedom in New York that she doesn’t feel in Cape Town, that many do not feel. Freedom from guilt, freedom from the burdens of being labelled and pigeonholed in the many ways that South Africans do to each other. The piece struck a chord with me. I could sense, deeply, what Megan was talking about. Some of her friends commented on the article, that they couldn’t understand what was she was ‘on about’. That made me glad: glad that there are those that are free of this strange burden, of carrying the projections and stereotypes imposed on them by others. But Megan’s piece also struck me as an invitation: is it possible to carry that freedom back home, to practise it through sheer awareness?
2. A moment of praise. In Kingston, before our workshops began each day, participants joined hands in prayer. They prayed for health and guidance, they expressed gratitude, humbly and joyously. A few years back, when I was more intensely involved with the work of Art of Living, moments of praise were plentiful. It was usual to pause before a meal for a moment of shared gratitude. I remembered this practice. Outside of the workshops on this trip, I ate almost all my meals alone. The moment of thanks was a reminder that no person, and certainly no piece of food, exists without a whole world of interconnected life.
3. Breath. I was quite ill before I left for this trip, with a chest infection that did not want to clear. It came after a solid month of non-stop overwork, during which I repeatedly found myself holding my breath from stress. Two days before flying, I went to the doctor and came home with prescriptions for a battery of drugs. By the time the workshop began, I’d spent a week on antibiotics and cortisone meds, and I still sounded horrendous. I’m not sure whether it was the infection, or the ongoing work stress, but I kept noticing the breath-holding. I had to start consciously reminding myself to breathe. I still feel there is a weight on my chest, fighting against my breathing reflex. I still have to remind myself to get the air in there.
4. Unexpected generosity. The rhythm was punishing: eat, sleep, work. Writing commenced at 8 am each day – and even when I arrived at 7.45 am, I was never the first to arrive – and we continued until 5 or 6 pm each day. By the end of it, everyone was exhausted. The team would head off as late as possible without hitting rush-hour Kingston traffic, and I would collapse in my hotel room, marvel at the lack of anything to watch on 100 channels of American TV, and eventually order room service. At the end of my third day there, one of the writers looked horrified to discover I was seeing nothing of Jamaica, and that I’d even forgotten a ‘swimsuit’. She offered to drive me to a nearby mall to find such a thing, so that I could at least unwind in the hotel pool. And after that outing, she looked at me and said, now, ‘What would you like to do in this city? Would you like to put those toes in the ocean? Or just take a walk? Or get some ice-cream? Come on girl, she said, let’s tear it up a bit!’ So off we went, driving around the island, pointing things out, walking along a local beach among the beach shacks and bars and families out swimming and Rastas trawling for tourists. Part of me just wanted to retreat back to the safety of the hotel room. And the rest of me was exhilarated by a simple drive around a place far from home. But especially by the generosity of someone who had been working just as hard as me, offering an extra couple of hours to show me around her island.
5. Pain. After three days of writing workshops, my body seized up completely. I could not sit or lie down without pain – my back and neck, hips and legs seemed to turn into one contiguous spasm. Movement helped a little, stretching helped a bit, applying ice helped temporarily, and hot water. I had to start moving almost continuously – standing up, walking around, swinging my arms and legs, rolling my head and shoulders. Eventually I resorted to Ibuprofen, scarily administered by the pharmacy in a tiny ziplock packet with handwritten instructions. There is nothing quite like physical agony to push you into the present. Every single moment, every single breath demands attention, attendance. I had no choice but to be present and breathe into each moment of pain.
6. A word of advice – and laughter. On the way to the airport, Lawrence, my taxi driver, was talking to me about the local foods. He was trying to explain a local pastry called bulla – a kind of hard cinnamon-spiced bread. And blackies – little mangoes the size of plums. We had a bit of extra time en route to the airport, so Lawrence stopped at a local supermarket to show me these things. I was bracing myself a little as we got out of the car – for more staring and calling and whistling. As a tall white girl, and clearly a foreigner, I’d drawn a lot of attention in Jamaica, and often felt that people were staring and scowling, as though I were an unwanted intruder. Lawrence laughed at my self-consciousness. ‘Nah, man,’ he said. ‘Let dem talk. If people talkin’ about you, it mean you famous.’ He laughed again when I expressed self-consciousness about taking photos in the supermarket. ‘Nah, man – you live your life an be happy, girl.’ Live your life and be happy. Yes, I thought, live your life and be happy… that sounds like a good thing to do.
Lawrence bought a bulla at the supermarket, and we broke it and ate some on our way to the airport.
7. The Dalai Lama. On my last evening in Kingston, I came back from a swim in the hotel pool (in the new, lovely swimming costume Lillia helped me find), and again marvelled at the non-content of American TV. Then I remembered that because I was in US territory, I could probably watch old TV episodes using the streaming Internet. I missed Masterchef Australia last year as we don’t have TV at home, so I did a quick search for some online episodes. The one that came up was an episode in which the contestants cooked lunch for the Dalai Lama. Surreal and made-for-TV as it was, the episode made for lovely, moving, feeling-ful viewing. The highly competitive must-be-the-best idea suddenly had to expand to make room for the idea of food as source of spiritual and physical nourishment, something fun and delicious – and also merely material. The competition was dwarfed by the special moment of meeting the great man, and no one was immune to his sense of humility and compassion and fun.
There were other paper cutouts that have fluttered gently into my awareness the past few days: the suffering of an elderly woman who was in such pain and distress on our flight from Kingston, that we were almost diverted to some islands I’d never heard of. My own awareness of the contradictions of travel – excitement and homesickness, patience and impatience, curiosity and exhaustion. Wondering about how we carry love with us when we are far away from those we love. I’m not sure how they all converged, but somewhere between Kingston and London, I found an intention, a certainty about the convergence of all these things. A practice that requires less apology and more, well, practice.
And it may sound utterly far-fetched, but a magical thing has happened. It’s a difficult thing to explain, but in the space of two days, the world has become full of people I can see, and people who see me back. Everywhere I have gone, there is a mutual curiosity and interest, and warmth. It still feels slightly unfamiliar, and every now and then I remind myself to sense my way back to it, to find the clear, warm place that this springs from. One of my teachers called it the Buddha’s smile, and taught us to wear that smile no matter who or what seemed determined to knock it away. Another calls it a sense of belongingness. I imagine His Holiness the Dalai Lama might call it compassion or lovingkindness, or perhaps he would just laugh out loud at all these words.
Whichever way it is, the journey I dreaded has turned into something astonishing. I write this on my way home, in so many ways. June 2012.