I drive to the Human Services building on Federal and hand-deliver Ali’s packet to ensure her SSI benefits will continue. The waiting area is loud and crowded, filled with wheelchairs and strollers, people waiting for a seat, others slumped over and asleep. The melting pot of disability, hard luck, unemployment, food stamps, foster care, child welfare. The list is long, the needs seemingly endless in the city I call home—yet I’m going to Nepal. Somehow it seems easier over there. I know what it takes to build a healthy and productive life for someone who needs support. I’m ready for another kind of giving. Trenches and concrete, hoses and cisterns. A different venue. A new way to be in the world.
The leaves of the cottonwoods shimmer in mid-afternoon light. It’s early October in Santa Fe. Faded green, yellow and gold overhead, a soft, dry crackle underfoot. This morning three of us walk up a trail to a white cross on a hill and overlook the city of faith. We wind our way through narrow streets and along a dry creek bed, past the galleries on Canyon Road to the coffee shop for peach ginger iced teas. This is my last trip before the big trip. Already I’m imagining what trip will follow the one to Nepal. Am I really that restless, or is this what comes with turning sixty and hearing stories of heart attacks, brain aneurisms and cancer in people younger than I. The only way to deal with insecurity, fear and suffering, writes Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Zen monk, is to live the present moment in a profound way. To fully align mind with body. To give each movement, each act, one-hundred percent of our attention. I have enough moments of full concentration to know he is right. I have many more that tell me I have much to learn.
Ali is ready to move out. Fly the coop, leave the nest, live with roommates instead of family members. For years I wondered if she would ever want to leave my side, ever be able to. I wondered if I could bear the separation if she were to go, if I could trust that she would be okay without me and, with a force just as potent, I struggled with how to last, how to endure the long haul and not be buried in the rubble. We’re considering purchasing a house for her that I can see from our front window. Before walking up the stairs at night, I could look out and know the roof was not engulfed in flames, see that the van was home and a light was on. My head says she has the skills, the judgment and the support to live anywhere in the city. My heart wants her across the street.
I awaken early, before dawn, and fall back to sleep to dream of a doctor, in tears, giving me a diagnosis. I had no idea anything was wrong. She has covered me in a cape and pulled a tight cap down over my ears. I strain to hear her. The words are garbled, like she’s talking under water. “I can’t hear you!” I scream. “I need to hear you!” She shouts that my eyes are filled with yellow spots, and I won’t recover. Her eyes are filled with terror. “It’s a disease that originated in Peru,” she shouts. I flash to the trek last summer—the last time I traveled far away—and wake up.
No running water or electricity in Nepali villages. No showers, no hair dryers, no mirrors. We will all look and smell bad together…except the young ones. I saw a picture of myself at 19, maybe 20, the other day. I had no idea I was ever that beautiful.
Long skirt ordered online. $4.99 khaki work pants from Goodwill. Low-cut work boots purchased with REI member refund. Sleeping pad from backpacking trips. Sherpas to supply tents, sleeping bags and liners. Homeopathic immune boosters and remedies for gut and respiratory issues. Cipro if things get serious. A new bottle of Ambien. On the to-do list goes a remedy for jet lag, flu shots, Pierce’s second Hep A shot and next week’s call to the Travel Clinic for their updated advisory. We have money belts and passports, duffels, stuff sacks and backpacks, 50 toothbrushes from Dr. Robbins and 10 official frisbees individually wrapped in plastic, including two that glow in the dark. Still to purchase: a new journal, Arnica gel, two gifts for Christmas sharing and books to read with children in the village. We need to take photos for our visas and create back-ups of passports, credit cards and airline tickets. Have I crossed from conscientious into compulsive? Will I really be able to let go?
Depending on my purpose for travel, where I’m going and how attached I feel to things, I can pack an overnight bag and be gone for a week or bring three bags for four days. On this trip I’ll be the one with more homeopathic remedies than t-shirts, more lotions than pairs of socks. Travel light. There’s pashmina and silver in Katmandu.
Lately, at night, curled against the backside of a warm husband in a familiar bed, I think about lying on a pad in a tent on a patch of ground halfway around the world. An ambulance blasts down Monaco. No sirens in the village. Roosters at dawn probably, but no wailing fire engines or speeding police cars. Westerners are an anomaly to the Nepali people, the source of endless curiosity. Every book I read talks about there being no privacy. We’ll see stars we never see in a sky vast as an ocean brushing up against the tallest mountains on the planet. Some nights, before falling asleep, I imagine this new place and feel fear crawl out from under the blanket to look me in the eye, followed by a glance from her sister, the thrill of adventure.
Away from home, the choice to be flexible or frustrated, fluid or stuck, open or closed, appears at every turn, sometimes moment by moment. It is the same at home, but here we fall into routines and ruts. We sleepwalk, sometimes for years. In places far away from what we know, we choose how to be with what presents: no bathroom, no bed with flannel sheets and a favorite pillow, no room of my own. A son to protect. No husband to turn to. Traveling companions I’ve known for less than a year. The self, exposed.
Canopies of yellow, gold, brown and red drape the streets in our neighborhood. Leaves have begun to fall. We woke up to rain the other morning, with a dusting of snow in the mountains. The first frost of the season arrived last night. The wedding quilt from Phoebe has gone back on our bed. Molly and I are walking later, after the sun is up. We’ve moved through winter, spring and summer since I first felt the calling to make the trip. If fall is here, Nepal can’t be far behind. We leave in 65 days.