Friday, November 4, 2011

“One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.” – Henry Miller

I always loved to travel. I was the woman, after all, who at age 29 had moved to Japan to teach; the woman who traveled by myself from Japan to Korea, and later throughout Italy and Spain. And I loved road trips. Ever since I got my driver’s license at 16, it was nothing for me to drive six, seven, eight hours—from the Bay Area down to L.A., from the foothills up into the Sierra Nevada, from Northern California to Portland or Ashland.

My parents had fostered the love of travel in me and my sisters. As a family, we’d taken road adventures, camping excursions, trips to the homes of friends who lived in various states, trips to Disneyland and Mexico, a cruise of the Caribbean. As a kid, I felt a palpable sense of freedom in traveling, and the sense of time and place took on a completely different sense and scope. And then there was the feeling of returning home—refreshed, and looking at the familiar with new eyes.

As much as I loved exploration, by the time I was in my mid-twenties I had done more fantasizing about traveling than actual traveling itself. I had jumped right from high school into college, and every summer I held a job waitressing, or working as a camp counselor, or as a lifeguard. While in college, I had fantasized about taking trains through Europe but ended up married right out of college. I decided that the ideal honeymoon would be to go to a place my parents loved, that I’d heard a lot about, but had never been to: Hawaii. The island of Kauai. My fiancée wasn’t as excited about the notion as I was, but he didn’t have a stellar alternative, so he succumbed.

My new husband was a 27-year-old man who was a private pilot but had flown and been a passenger on only small planes; he’d never been on an airliner until the day after our wedding. Inspired by some marriage movie fantasy, I wore a blue and white sun dress and a wide-brimmed hat on the plane. I imagined us in a From Here to Eternity embrace on a beach—and inspired by my parents’ stories of the elegance of island hotels, pictured us on the lanai of our condo, feeding each other macadamia nuts and pineapple slices, followed by champagne.

But it turned out he didn’t especially like macadamia nuts, and beer was his beverage of choice. He didn’t like to lie down on the sand (too scratchy; got in all his cracks and crevices), and we hadn’t brought the right shoes for trekking over lava. He was a scuba diver, but snorkeling captured his attention for only a short period of time. Hiking didn’t appeal to him, and he vetoed my suggestion that we rent horses for a romantic ride on the beach because it was too expensive. Taking a helicopter ride in Waimea Canyon was also out because didn’t I know that helicopters are the most dangerous, unstable air vehicle? In fact, hadn’t a copter full of tourists crashed just last year?

The whole Kauai scene he found, and I use his word, “boring.” This off-hand critique of what I’d imagined would be the most romantic adventure ever was made worse by the fact that he hadn’t like flying on the commercial airliner. He’d squirmed for most of the five-hour flight, white-faced. And his anxiety about having to cross the Pacific again on the return flight kept him on edge most of our honeymoon week. When he flew small planes, he was in control. But, he said, in a jet that he himself wasn’t flying there was so much that could go wrong.

He hated being the one not in control. I was only 22 so perhaps I can forgive myself for not predicting the doom of our marriage. I can forgive myself for not being able to set my own boundaries. See, there was something about being with a “man in control” that had appealed to me. I’d been a crazy party girl before meeting him, and I’d been attracted to him as a stabilizing force. Of course what attracts us to a person—if the attraction is borne from a need for completion—is often what we end up resenting later. Initially I loved his “stability.” It felt like it balanced out my folly. Later I resented his “stuck-in-the-mud-ishness” and decided I was too Bohemian for that type of marriage.

Something else happened to me on my honeymoon. Something that Monday Morning Psychoanalyzing makes evident. I began to develop claustrophobia. Everything manifests in some way, and my feeling trapped and suffocated was virtually a literal response to my life choices. Certainly I had an ambivalent relationship with that marriage. The battle that raged in me was this: Security versus Freedom. I recall now that I’d never been afraid of flying but seeing my new husband next to me on the flight home drinking beer after beer to calm his nerves—and having his words echo in my head about all the things that could go wrong—unsettled me to the core. If Mr. Stability was unstable about this flying thing, then I certainly needed to fear it. He knew all about planes. He knew this flight from Hawaii to California on this big, unwieldy jet wasn’t safe, was to be feared. I swallowed his belief system like an addict swallows whatever pills she’s handed.

Suddenly I was breathing shallowly. I thought about the doors of the plane, how they’d been hauled shut and locked down, how I couldn’t get out if I wanted to. I gripped the armrest. I tried to channel the blasé attitudes of the flight attendants who walked the aisles as though the floor of this plane were firmly settled on the ground.

That was the first and last flight I took with my husband. The marriage lasted five years. Because he worked (on the ground) for an airline, we could fly free. But we never did. And then, when we separated, I realized I had one last chance to fly somewhere free before the divorce was final and I’d lose my free flying privileges.

I decided on Hawaii. I wanted to experience it by myself, to see if I could enjoy it alone and love what I’d fantasized was wonderful it. I would ride a horse on the beach. I would dig my toes in the sand. I would snorkel for hours and hike a volcano. I began to think of the trip as my anti-honeymoon. I was 27 years old.

I could get off work for only a few days, so I decided to fly to Oahu, the easiest island to get to with a direct flight out of San Francisco. In my carry-on, I packed a couple pairs of shorts and a bathing suit and running shoes, and wore a casual sundress with sandals (no wide-brimmed hat). I didn’t have a hotel reservation; in my new Bohemian attitude, I surmised I’d figure out where to stay when I got there. I was traveling as light as possible—nothing I had to do except step on the plane, alone. Yet I felt oddly heavy with remnants of fear: Could I really do this all by myself?

When the doors of the plane shut, a thread of anxiety zipped up my spine. My pulse ticked up a few beats. I was irritated with myself for the way my claustrophobia had worsened over the past few years. It was to the point where I could hardly sit in the back seat of a car that had only two doors; I didn’t like to be in the center of a row in a movie theater; I panicked in large crowds. I took a deep breath. The overweight man next to me was hogging the armrest, and a bit of his flesh overflowed into my space. No matter how I leaned, I couldn’t quite get away from his touch. I kept focusing on the fact that I was now free. I could make my own life decisions. That helped me breathe more easily. The divorce was my decision. I had outgrown a marriage that felt like it was prematurely making me old. I thought of my husband as 30-going-on-50—and if I didn’t escape I’d be old at 27. He wore white button-down shirts to work every day, which I ironed. All the cooking and grocery shopping were my responsibility. He could spend money however he liked without consulting me, but if I wanted to buy anything, we had to negotiate it. He was an aficionado of World War II and collected old bomber jackets, and books and movies of the time. He loved it when I wore dresses with big shoulder pads (ala 1940s movie actresses). How I had I let things come to this? I was a feminist, a lover of adventure and risk-taking. I had let the part of me that desired stability usurp the urge for freedom in me.

My husband had been devastated when I told him I wanted to break up. He’d not seen it coming, although he had told me months before that he was worried that all the literature I was reading in my graduate program was making me “too idealistic and too optimistic.” He’d felt my urge for freedom blooming. And I blossomed into someone who couldn’t live a June Cleaver life.

The plane began to taxi. It had been cold in the Bay Area that early spring; I reveled in imagining myself basking on a warm beach and tried to ignore the flesh of the man next to me pressing into mine, as well as my own creepy feeling that I couldn’t escape this plane. As the aircraft lifted, the blue bay appeared below us. The whole planeload of people tilted back, the plane pushing hard, fighting gravity.

We were about 6,000 feet up when liquid started to pour out of the ceiling of the airplane on the people in the seats spanning five-across in the middle of the plane. It was a clear liquid, no smell. Passengers being rained upon jumped out of their seats, panicked. I watched, oddly detached, as people struggled out of their seats and staggered down the aisles on the floor angled in its ascending position. Some screamed; some cried; some stood there in shock. Flight attendants appeared, throwing blankets over the wet seats, encouraging people to calm down.

After having cultivated a fear of flying and claustrophobia for years, I had a reaction to these events I never would have predicted. I became suddenly very, very calm. Relaxed. Accepting. My eyes swept the blue bay, and I wondered if this is how I’d go, by plunging into the water. The press against me of the fat man’s arm flesh morphed from irritating to comforting; I suddenly reveled in the touch of another human being. My breath was the fullest and most relaxed it had been since I’d stepped onto the plane. Maybe the most it had been in months. My husband wasn’t the only one who liked control. I did too. But here I was in a situation over which I had absolutely no control. And I felt the deepest, most profound sense of freedom I’d ever felt in my life. A complete release of resistance.

In a few minutes, the liquid stopped pouring out of the plane. The plane leveled out. Over the loudspeaker, the pilot told us that we were going to have to land back at SFO. We couldn’t land with all this fuel in the tanks so they’d have to jettison the fuel out over the ocean.

“You’ll see what looks like flames shooting out near the wings,” his disembodied voice reported. “Not to worry; that’s just the fuel being released.”

Indeed, for a few moments it looked like we sat on a burning airplane. Even that didn’t raise a sense of worry or resistance in me. Instead, I found I was curious about the process. I wondered how much of the fuel evaporates, and how much ends up in the water. When the plane landed, the passengers clapped. I smiled at the fat man, whose beady eyes gleamed with what looked like relief. Soon I learned two things: First, the liquid had been just water pouring from a broken drinking water line; and second, I wouldn’t be able to get on another plane for ten hours. This would make my trip not viable since I had to be back to work in two days. So I headed back home, accompanied by my carry-on. My body felt oddly light, as though my bones were the weight of a bird’s.

Interesting how sometimes we have to relearn the most important lessons. After that divorce, my claustrophobia virtually disappeared. I spent a year in Japan, riding subways so crowded that my body was like one piece in a jigsaw puzzle, and eating in eighth-floor restaurants so jam-packed that the back of my coat picked up the butter on someone’s table as I squeezed by, and riding in elevators to the 20th floor of buildings where passengers were virtually shoe-horned in around me. With hardly a thought, I took airplanes, trains, taxis; the doors shut, and I was ferried off to my next adventure.

But later in my life, my claustrophobia returned. It crept back into my life during the 15 years of my second marriage. During that time, both my father—and my wife’s mother—developed severe lung diseases. We were involved in intense caregiving for them—and, coincidentally, both of them were on oxygen and had to undergo similar medical regimens. For several years, our lives revolved around this caregiving, and our relationship was wilting. We both developed stress-related physical problems; an EKG showed she had a heart palpitation irregularity, and I had a hard time breathing sometimes and needed to use an inhaler, like my father. What insanity, now that I look back on it. We both felt like we were drowning in caregiving. We deeply inhaled the fear of morality.

My fear of flying and enclosed spaces had returned. I felt like the only thing that would help me regain a feeling of verve, of new life, was travel. I craved an embrace of freedom. I sensed that getting away and trying new things and going with the flow might help heal us both individually and as a couple. She had an ambivalent relationship with traveling; she resisted it. But if I made all the plans, she’d come along and usually have a great time. Afterward she’d say, “Thank you for forcing me.” And we’d smile with self-deprecation at our dynamic. But with her mother ill, she especially resisted leaving. She said she felt bad flaunting her health and ability to travel while her mother was stuck home, sick.

Finally I convinced her to take a trip to Hawaii with me. We had a friend who gave us a great deal on his condo on the Big Island. I did all the research and got her enthused about the opportunities to experience nature: whales and dolphins, volcanoes and rain forests. She loved those things in the abstract—she read a lot of nature books and watched nature TV programs—but had not experienced much of this in the flesh. The only drawback was the water. She was afraid of swimming in the ocean, and she didn’t like bathing suits. I told her we’d find some calm, beautiful beaches where she could wade—and she fashioned a swimming outfit that she could handle: black, mid-thigh lycra shorts and a black tank top. I bought a new one-piece turquoise bathing suit that made me feel something I hadn’t in a long time: Pretty.

Even though we’d been in the depths of the dark season of our relationship, the Hawaii trip was a revelation of light. The air smelled of sweet flowers. The whales spouted with joy. Eight spinner dolphins joined me as I snorkeled, while my wife watched, enthralled, from the shore. We hiked across a steaming crater, and marveled that we stood in a spot where earth was created. Spontaneously, we rented kayaks from a local and paddled the indigo waters. And one day, in her black swim outfit that looked like a man’s 1920s swim gear, she shouted at me from the shore where I sat in the shadow of my straw hat, reading a book. I looked out, and there she was, floating on her back in the glittering water, waving at me and smiling. I grabbed my camera and took shot after shot of her, floating on her back, floating in what she’d thought she’d feared.

After the trip, we fantasized about moving to Hawaii, but those fantasies disappeared, along with the feeling of freedom and reconnection we’d fostered on the trip. Soon we slipped back into our familiar routines, our stale patterns imbued with worry and fear of mortality.

Several years later, I went back to the island of Hawaii by myself. My wife and I were in the throes of a legal battle to complete our divorce, a brutal breakup of our 15-year relationship. But as often happens when edifices burn to the ground, I felt the phoenix emerging. I’d been single for a while and was now dating a man I liked a lot. The trip to Hawaii felt like an important step for me—like somehow completing a circle, somehow closing a gap.

That was the first flight I’d taken since the break-up. When the airplane doors closed, to my pleasant surprise, nothing happened to me. I didn’t feel an inkling of claustrophobia. I didn’t feel my usual urge to get off the plane, to beg them to open the door. I just sat, looking out the window, same as I would in my apartment—and when the plane had been in the air for a while, I ordered a small bottle of champagne from the flight attendant. I toasted myself, and dubbed this event my “divorce honeymoon.” I was taking myself on a trip. I didn’t have to convince anyone to come with me. I didn’t have to convince anyone else—or myself—that everything would be okay. I was just being, sipping my champagne, and looking forward to whatever adventures awaited me as I disembarked.

And adventures there were. But the most remarkable one was this: I decided to take a long hike by myself across a volcano, a more arduous trek than I’d ever attempted. I had to do something I’d never done before: get a back-country permit, and take a long hike alone. The hike I chose would take about five hours.

I made a conscious decision. I was going to release all fear. Fear had been my companion for so many years: fear of my parents’ illnesses and deaths, fear of flying, fear of being suffocated literally and figuratively. My whole life I’d regulated many of my actions because of the messages I’d embodied: women are vulnerable, women get attacked and raped, women shouldn’t go places alone. I had done enough in my life—like my experiences in Japan—to counter those fears. But I realized that when I’d done those things, I “felt the fear and did it anyway.” On the flight on the way to Hawaii, I’d viscerally remembered that aborted flight almost twenty years before—and how when I’d thought I might die, how when essentially I’d embraced my mortality, I’d felt no fear. It was as though I no longer fought gravity and the free fall felt like flying. I decided that for this hike, I was going to cultivate that feeling. I wasn’t going to fight fear. I was going to release resistance to life and death so that I could fully live.

That morning there was a light rain in Volcano National Park. At the ranger’s station, the ranger didn’t bat an eye as she issued to me the back-country permit and marked my route on a small map. When I walked outside, the wind had picked up. I pulled my disposable rain poncho from my backpack and donned it over my hiking clothes. I knew that this hike would involve the often disorienting feeling that a volcano can engender because of its monochromatic landscape. You have to keep an eye out for the small cairns placed to mark the path, and sometimes the vertical cairns don’t stand out because everything blends together.

Soon I was alone on a massive rock, like a woman on the moon. Vast craters rose out of nowhere, and the tips of my boots hovered over an abyss. Sulphur-smelling steam misted up from the ground, while rain tapped at my plastic covering. After hours of rock-walking, I descended into a rain forest on a narrow trail, branches tugging at my poncho.

After hours of being alone, I saw walking toward me a man, also bound up in a poncho, a hat shielding his eyes, a man ducking the low branches of the rainforest trees. Out there in pure isolation, one of us would have to turn sideways to let the other pass, and all the warnings about being a woman alone began to beep on my internal radar for a solitary second. But I breathed them away. He caught my eye and moved to the side to let me pass on the narrow trail. He said one word: “Hi.”

Then I saw there was another person, a woman turning the corner following him. They were young. They were probably on their honeymoon. She smiled as she squeezed by me and joined her man on the trail. Soon they disappeared, and I was alone again in the canopy of trees. The rain dwindled to a light drizzle, and streaks of sun pushed through the overhead green, illuminating my way.

*

Postscript: The boyfriend I mentioned here and I have been together almost two years now. He loves Hawaii too, and we plan to go together next summer. Travel continues to remind me to embrace life's journeys, wherever they take me.

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