In Flight

It also seems honorable that another woman would value motherhood over all my priorities. But I do not believe that I am selfish and she is not. There are women who chose motherhood for selfish reasons. There are mothers who act selfishly even if they chose motherhood in a burst of altruistic love. Selfishness and generosity are not relegated to particular life choices and if generosity is a worthy life goal–and I believe it is–perhaps our task is to choose the path that for us creates its best opportunity.
― Pam Houston, “The Trouble With Having It All,” in Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on The Decision Not To Have Kids

An old girlfriend of mine used to say that the world was divided into two kinds of people: those who can sleep on airplanes and those who cannot. That this was a sort of implicit commentary on the high-strung nature of those who can’t (me), and the more laid back, placid nature of those who can (her) did not escape me. If you know me at all, it will not surprise you to know that I have never been able to sleep on airplanes, and I am not particularly envious of those who can. I write this on an overnight flight to Tel Aviv. I look around as we, incredibly(!), fly through the atmosphere in a metal canister at an inconceivable speed and altitude, and here is humanity—slack jawed and utterly oblivious, eyes closed, breathing heavily, slumped against complete strangers, while the movies they started but have not the attention span to finish continue to play unwatched on their personal viewing screens.

I remember to be generous. Many of these people have days, weeks, months, perhaps even years, of hardship that I cannot fathom. Everyone here is tired.

It is precisely in these moments, when the rest of the world has given up their resolve, though, that I go into a kind of high-alert mode, unwilling to surrender to sleep when I probably should, and I will pay for my stubbornness later, no doubt. Why I always wind up when others wind down, I’m not really sure, but I suspect it has something to do with the quiet I enjoyed growing up as an only child and can never quite seem to recapture. Or perhaps it is my way of playing catch up, or even getting ahead, as I often do at night. This is especially the case when I am back home in Colorado. At night, once the boys have gone to bed and I am all alone, I frequently go out onto our second-level deck to sit under the stars. It is often cold by then, and always quiet. There is something about the silhouette of the peaks against the night sky illuminated, as they often are, by the moonlight on snow, that both puts my mind at ease and focuses it. My thinking tends to be the clearest and my writing the sharpest when I am there, in that place, just me and the vast night sky.

Everyone needs a place like this, where they feel more deeply connected to the natural world. For me, that place is in the San Juans—more specifically, the box canyon that cradles the town of Telluride. I am lucky enough to have traveled to some beautiful places in my lifetime, and to have even lived in a few. But none have moved me quite like the place I now call home. Beyond its breathtaking beauty and remoteness, it’s a place that was freely chosen, and required a goodly bit of sacrifice and trade-offs. The privilege that allowed us to make this choice is not lost on me and my family, not for a second. Still, the home we have made was the result of holding fast to a dream of living in these mountains and taking risks that others might not have taken if given the chance. I would be lying if I said I did not take some pride in that.

And, yet, I become restless if left in one place for too long, even a place as magical as Telluride. In an essay titled, “The Trouble With Having it All,” author Pam Houston writes that serious travel makes her feel “in relation to the world in an utterly essential way.” This resonates deeply with me, and I take her use of the word world here to mean something slightly different than the connection to the natural world that she establishes so beautifully in her newest work, Deep Creek: Finding Hope in the High Country. When I travel, especially abroad and especially without my children, my own sense of self deepens, in that I remember things about who I am that have maybe been neglected for too long. But I also feel myself expand in totally unexpected ways, and that has not only to do with new experiences but with the way in which travel abroad—travel that is taken by pleasure and choice, and not the kind of horrific travel that many migrants and refugees are facing today—involves a kind of welcomed vulnerability, anonymity and receptivity to whatever might unfold. We have few obligations, are at the mercy of people and customs unfamiliar to us, and no routine to foreclose the possibility of the unknown. How freeing it can be.

Most women I know do not like to travel if it means being away from their kids. I am not one of those women. Indeed, Houston wonders if her own wanderlust is what kept her from choosing children, suggesting that a life of travel is incompatible with rearing children, and perhaps it is. I am certainly open to that claim. I do not travel quite enough to make the question a pressing one for our family. But the more I spend time in new places, even as I miss home and look forward to returning to those majestic mountains, the more I feel committed to exploring the unknown, because of the intrinsic value that travel holds and the way it makes me a better, more generous person; because of the immense pleasure it brings me; and, last but not least, because of the particular way in which it strengthens my marriage. When we meet up in a random airport and hop on a flight to somewhere far away, something we regularly make a point of doing, Joe and I have a chance to be adventurous again, to be with one another in an unhurried way, and to remember who we are together, as an entity independent from the children we have made. A lot of work goes into making that happen—long flights (usually me alone) with two small kids; my parents and extended family take on the not-so-small task of looking after our boys, who can be a lot, and here I am honestly being generous; I have to say goodbye to these little creatures who pretty much depend on me for everything; routines are upset; sleep is lost, a lot of money spent, and about halfway through the trip I have an ache in my chest for my children like no other. But it is all worth what is gained in the experience. The adventure Joe and I make together in travel is both a privilege and, again, a choice. A great many coupled folks I know want this chance, but lack the resources to make it happen; but of those that I know, even more have the chance, but, for whatever reason, do not take it. They have their reasons, to be sure. And perhaps they have found other things that make them feel in relation to the world in an utterly essential way. I very much hope that is the case.

An old yoga teacher of mine once described air travel—specifically, the physics and mechanics of flying—as “magic” (this particular teacher had an annoying habit of referring to anything she thought neat as “magical” or “auspicious”). At the time, my devotion already starting to wane, I recall quietly rolling my eyes and thinking, “No, lady, it’s actually the opposite—it’s science.”

Which is not to say that it isn’t wondrous. The way in which flying suspends and scrambles time, the way it manages to put us into a very particular place and yet no place at all, eventually dropping us off in totally foreign lands thousands of miles from home, is one of modernity’s most delightful and mysterious achievements. I am ever grateful for the unique way it brings me back to some essential part of me, something that has very much to do with a connectedness to humanity, all the while dislocating me from the mundaneness of my daily life and the grounded nature of it. For those of us who need relation to the world and to humanity in just this way, we get to be ourselves again, but by way of exploring new places and being with previously unknown people, expanding our understanding of humanity. There is a kind of magic in that.

Although he does not always sleep well on the road, my husband, it will surprise literally no one who knows him, has learned to sleep when he knows he has to, when it can be put off no longer. He is, above all else, a survivor. Despite the hostile conditions to rest on this plane tonight, he seems to will himself to sleep right before my eyes: “I’m going to get some rest now,” he says, “and you should too.” Then he slips into hours of what seems to me like the best kind of sleep. I am amazed, and left to tap quietly on my keyboard in the noisy darkness of this Boeing 777.

Our lives are a bit complicated at the moment, and we are not in each other’s company as much as we would like, which is to say we are not together all of the time. In fact, we are apart most of the time—he, on the road, and me, in Telluride with the boys and our dog, Friday. A friend recently asked how the two of us navigate the usual tensions and annoyances in a marriage, given that we, essentially, do not live together as most married folks do. I replied that because we do not have the luxury (or headache, depending on how you see it on any given day, and on any given day it is a coin toss for me) of being together right now, we instinctively seek peace and avoid conflict when we are in each other’s company. We spend what little time we have together loving as hard as we can, and, for the most part, we overlook the rest. This answer is true, but surprises even me. Because it is not the life we imagined for ourselves, nor the one we wanted. One can never really know in advance the many forms a commitment to a shared life will take as a result of things you didn’t choose, but with which you, nonetheless, learn to live.

As he sleeps next to me, I find that I am unable to stop staring at his face, illuminated only by the light of my computer screen. I closely examine every line there, the ones I used to trace with my fingers in the dark and some new ones, for which I am, no doubt, responsible; the whiskers beginning to poke through his skin after a long day and an even longer week of travel; and the way his brown flat cap slopes downward across his forehead and the top of his nose while he sleeps. Our absence from one another makes these moments all the more precious. For a brief moment, I recall a time when it was he who would stay up all night watching me, making sure I didn’t go anywhere, he would say. It was not entirely without cause that he did so. But we have been married a while now, have two kids, and have pretty well demonstrated that neither party is willing to let the other walk away without a fight, so everyone usually sleeps pretty easy. The fact that we are here in this airplane just now on our way to a far-off land, and yet nowhere at all really, is a gift I would not trade for the same amount of time with my children, or for anything.

A heart will soften and expand in response to different experiences depending on the person. I was recently in the company of one of the loveliest women I know, and in her I always observe an unparalleled heart-opening and generosity of spirit when she is with her three children, in the beautiful home she has created for them. Her patience with each child and, indeed, with everyone around her, seems to me to be endless, and her ability to see the world through the eyes of her children in the smallest ways is a thing to behold. This is true for me as a mother only some of the time, but I am growing more into it every day.

Just as much as when I am holding my children tight, my heart expands when I am in flight, so to speak. Travel, wherever it takes me, has a way of activating a fellow-creature response inside of me that can only arise, I am convinced, out of the unique constellation of vulnerability, anonymity, and a receptivity to the unknown that accompanies it. And rather than take me away from my children (which, of course, in the most obvious and short-term way, it does), travel returns me to them a slightly better person than before, more willing and able to see the world through their eyes, and with greater receptivity to all that is unfolding for each of us.