October 22, 1987. Pokhara, Nepal. Our Nepalese trek started out innocently enough, sitting in a hotel room in Kathmandu reading through a book on trekking the Annapurna Range. Sounds like fun thought I. But sitting there in relative comfort it was difficult to imagine being 17,700 feet up in the Himalayas, in a bleak, silent, rocky landscape, squinting against the blinding glare of the sun on the snow, and pushing on step by step, as if in slow motion, exhausted and dizzy from lack of oxygen. By that point we were living a life stripped to the bare bones. All superfluous baggage, both physical and psychological, had been disposed of. We were unencumbered, free to move as we pleased (local politics permitting) with everything we owned on our backs. It seemed that the happier we were the less we needed. Does it follow that the unhappier we are the more we need? For four weeks we hiked up and down (and up and down again) through the mountains with only our legs to carry us. But all adventures must come to a close.
The last leg of our Himalayan trip was a water taxi across Lake Phewa. As the small boat neared the shore of Pokhara, our destination, the excitement I had initially felt at seeing the town in the distance was slowly turning to apprehension. Ahead lay all things we had been dreaming about for so long: a cold beer, a warm shower, a real bed. So why the sudden urge to turn back? All too soon, it seemed, the boat ran up to the bank. I looked back at Rae. I had expected her to be overjoyed at being back in civilization. When we initially got on the boat she had picked up an oar to help row. But she hadn’t moved. Hesitantly we picked up our backpacks, stepped ashore and walked up the grassy bank towards the road. There were so many people, cars, buildings, and sooo much noise. We hadn’t heard a motor in four weeks. It was almost as if we had just set foot on another planet. I looked back towards the lake but the boat had already left. With all other options denied us, and holding each others hands tightly we slowly walked back into the town we had left just four short weeks before, both realizing for the first time that our lives would probably never be the same again.
Rae and I travelled for almost three years on a quest to find the perfect place to live. While in Indonesia we took lessons in batiking. One of the batik pieces I made was a map of the world. We took it on our travels and whenever we stayed somewhere for more than a few nights we would hang the batik up on the wall. We would make a big deal of getting it out and hanging it up. “We’ve been in one place for three whole days, do you think we should put the batik up?” It was our way of saying this was home. A sign of familiarity in our ever-changing world.
November 24th, 2015. Southern Illinois. Prior to this trip, the Annapurna hike was probably the most challenging endeavor (outside of parenthood) that Rae and I had undertaken together. But now, this adventure too was coming to a close. As we drove further North the temperature had been getting colder. I put jeans on this morning for the first time since leaving Chicago last month in anticipation of our return. There was a hole in the knee which I didn’t recall being there the last time I wore them. Then I remembered I ripped them falling on the way to the airport. The ride could have been over before it begun. People keep asking if we’re anxious to get home? I want to say yes. I mean I know I should be. But I keep thinking no not really. This van has been our home for almost six weeks. Rae even decorated it with prayer flags as a sign of permanence.
As the mileage decreases between us and Urbana I find myself getting more apprehensive. Just as I did on that boat trip so many years ago. The names of the towns are becoming more familiar. Yes, there is something to be said about lying down on your own mattress and being enveloped by the comforting familiarity of your own bed. And not feeling the need to quickly pull back the sheets before laying down to check for bed bugs. But how do you know you’re home? The batik map of the world adorns the wall of what used to be my guitar practice room. I find the occasional child, home from college, asleep on the couch. And even though our eldest daughter and her family no longer live with us I still hear the incessant yapping of her chihuahua in my mind’s ear as I walk up the drive. When driving cross country Rae said she would make stories up about the lives of the people and the places we traveled through. But the closer we got to home the more we knew the stories. Here we know the people and places and the stories that go with them. We drove into town on Lincoln Avenue. But it’s not just Lincoln Avenue. It’s the parade route on the 4th of July. Eventually we turned onto our own street and felt the familiar rumble of the car tires on a brick street. Being home is that feeling, like sinking into your own mattress, but extending all around in every direction wherever you go and being enveloped by the comforting familiarity of knowing.
Every few days Facebook reminds me of something I posted on this day a number of years ago. “Ray, we care about you and the memories you share here” Facebook assures me, “We thought you might like to look back at this post from three years ago.” Three years ago on this day we were at a Leonard Cohen concert in Rosemont. These memories are a constant reminder of what seemed like a simpler time. Another world when time didn’t matter. But was life ever as simple as we recall? I have fond recollections of our Annapurna experience. But if I think about it I also recall walking a safe distance behind Rae because I was expecting her to turn around at any moment and start beating me with her walking stick for putting her through this. Just as with previous adventures, we know our lives will never be the same again. Now we have no more grand distractions and there are challenges we must face. Perhaps our greatest. But we will face it together like we have with all the others. Many of the scenarios and challenges that we now must face have been playing out in one form or another for countless generations. The circumstances may change but the challenges are in many ways the same. We have to continuously deal with our own faith and doubts about being up to the tasks placed before us. We have to weave a path between joy and despair, life and death, all the opposites and contraries. The same challenges play out over and over. This situation we’re all in doesn’t submit to a neat solution that you can put into a box and tie up with a pretty bow. The only thing we have any control over is how we face the problems. To say that life isn’t fair imbues it with a certain anthropomorphic sense of personality. Life isn’t fair or unfair. It just is.
But now we are home (locked out because we gave our keys to other people but home none the less).
Peace, love and midwives.