by Jordan E. Rosenfeld
When I finally set foot on a plane to Vermont early in October, where I was headed for a four day retreat, I had walked up and down the aisle of that plane, mentally patted down each pocket of my carry on (earplugs, Unisom, eye patch, pillows), and adjusted and readjusted my seat a hundred times. Oh, not literally, but in the well-traveled corridors of my mind. I had also calculated and recalculated possible hours slept on my redeye flight (too few) and minutes it would take to walk to my connection through JFK (too many), and ran through the possible ways to kill the four hour layover I’d have there (shopping, drinking, and reading were top contenders).
Even if I had not been flying red-eye overnight, prone to trouble sleeping anywhere but my bed, by the time I arrived in Burlington airport and met up with the pleasant strangers who would drive with me to the retreat, words left my mouth in stutters, and my legs dragged like a dog with a bad back. I had exhausted my supply of adrenaline and mental calm.
This travel anxiety is actually a magnified version of my daily “logistical” anxiety as I call it. On days when my son and I have after school appointments; or an event that requires obtaining a babysitter, and trading sweatpants for going out clothes; or I’m scheduled to speak or teach, I am always a step (if not several) ahead. Breath held tight in my lungs, livid serpent-like neck muscles clenched like steel holding up the skyscraper of my head, I’m unable to rest until the steps have been executed.
I used to see myself as simply “well-prepared,” a person who made lists and crossed those items off moment-by-moment. Then, one day, a therapist gave me the description of an adult child of an alcoholic—particularly this bit: “Adult children of alcoholics overreact to changes over which they have no control.” Textbook in my need to grasp at order, for years I was anxious to the point of phobia to drive any farther than thirty miles alone. Several times I even turned around en route to a promised engagement, panting and sweating in the first throes of panic at imagined flat tires in bad neighborhoods or running out of gas on the freeway.
This summer, as my husband and son and I set off for Hawaii, including a layover in Sea-Tac that required taking a tram across the airport, arriving at nearly one am California time… renting a car when we could barely keep our eyes open…making sure the kid got at least a couple of hours of sleep to stave off overtired tantrum…navigating the road from airport to hotel without any light in the car, or on the roads, to read the map by…stopping at the hotel to call the manager who would give us the code to unlock the key…Well, let’s just say it was damn good I was already in Hawaii or I’d have needed a vacation.
In contrast to my husband’s natural calm and ease in the face of these kinds of difficulties, for the first time I realized that this manner of hyper-preparation, of obsessively attending to and then chewing over the details in anticipation of an event was, in fact, a form of control wreaking havoc on my own health and making it not much fun to travel with me.
It was on the way home from the Vermont trip, when I had survived my own anxiety, a full 24 hours without sleep and was still okay, that a switch finally flipped inside me. I realized that in my history of getting places and doing things, all generally works out. And even when things don’t go as planned, they still turn out okay. Like that time, twenty years ago, when I traveled to Europe with my ex-boyfriend, and we wandered all over the cobblestone town of Pisa without a reservation, communicating mostly by gesticulations with our poor Italian, and learned there were no rooms available in the entire town. By the time we made it back to the train station at nearly midnight, all trains back to Rome had left, and would not return until morning. But! Fellow travelers, Americans, no less, hunched in a corner of the empty, echoing station, suggested we shared a cab back to Rome. There, at midnight, we found a pensione overlooking the exquisite Duomo.
Or recently, when I visited Portland, Oregon, and my friend Klay graciously offered to drive me downtown to visit Powell’s books, The Happiest Place on Earth for a writer or reader. She hadn’t reckoned on there being a Lupus Run that required us to make a series of complicated maneuvers, and a wide detour around the city, only to be stopped by the miles-long train with a hundred box cars. For a moment, the muscles at the base of my head began their anxious knotting. Then I looked around at the stunning green scenery, damp with rain, and relaxed.
Later that day, on my return trip home, as texts came in announcing our flight would be pushed from 4:30 to 6:00 6:13 to 6:28, I felt my shoulders pop up to my ears, my breath scraping thinly at the top of squeezed lungs. And then I let that air fully into my lungs and down to my belly—an amazing cure for much tension; the worst of this meant spending a couple more hours with my good friend.
When my six-year-old son and I finally got on the plane, our seatmate on the crowded flight was a Buddhist monk, dressed in his yellow and brown robes. His calm silence, and the way he sat in meditation most of the ride (then insisted upon carrying my son’s suitcase off the plane), made me laugh, as though the Universe had to pull out all stops and send me a Buddhist monk to remind me to chill.
Sometimes you wait a little longer or rush a little faster, or ask a stranger for help, and shockingly, the world does not end, civilization does not crumble and the planet does not fall out of orbit. It turns out that I can trust myself to get from one place to another, that it’s useless to fret, and annoying to fellow travelers, and it’s largely missing the entire point of travel, which is so much about staying observant and awake to the moment, where it’s always the perfect time to be.