this morning i was packing, preparing to leave amsterdam. i laid my things on the floor of my friend's apartment and went through them, one by one. i wanted to rid myself of as many as i could. i am not sure if it is part of a larger lesson one learns while moving through an unfamiliar world, but each time i travel like this, or work like this, i do the same thing.
i picked my way through, binning many. torn, frayed jeans, worn thin by a scrubbing stone. the sheaf of papers necessary for traveling in sudan. a broken skipping rope. i came to a black plastic bag and could not remember what it held. i opened it and pulled out two sandals. once black, they were now red with dust. they seemed from another time, ancient, an anachronism. i put them back in the bag then repacked them.
i talked to a friend on the phone for a few minutes the other day, and he said, surprised, "well, you sound ok." i wonder how he expected me to sound, if there was a fear that i had changed into someone he wouldn’t know.
i have changed. i am now a seven foot tall asian woman in her late forties. i suspect this will be the most surprising to people who know me as a medium sized man in his early thirties, but it has its advantages. concerts are one.
the other ways are less obvious, even to me. i suspect that most of us who go through with their first mission do it for several different reasons. one might be a perceived social responsibility. others are excited to see the world, others excited to test their mettle. i would say that all of us secretly expect the experience to change us. it does. you don't feel it as much until you land into the perfect mirror of home and the friends you have left there.
i was standing in the airport line last winter, about to leave, and talking with my friend matt on the phone. he asked me why i was going. why really. part of it, i said, was inertia. i built my career towards this point, the one where i step off the plane and into something a little less comfortable. it was like climbing the ladder of the tall diving board; there is only one way down. personally, i said, i want to understand the world better. to find my true place in it. to do that, i want to be close to not only its beautiful, comfortable parts, but also its hardest, most difficult ones. it is easy to convince myself of my own happiness when i am whizzing around toronto on my bike, answering phone calls from my friends. but remove this. all of it. instantly. then who am i?
it is a similar lesson that working in downtown toronto teaches me. i finish a shift at st. mike's and during it i see a homeless, helpless, who has had alcohol poison his life, and seems destined to die in a shelter, grizzled and filthy. a schizophrenic woman deeply addicted to crack, confused and screaming, a prostitute assaulted by her pimp. everyone who works these kinds of days leaves them and must find a way to be a friend to their friends, a son to their parents. i learned it on my bike rides home.
i succeed. mostly. but whether i do or not, on those bike rides, i see the world as it is. at the zero point. the good things, the hard things. there is no fooling. i don’t think it makes that first Frisbee throw in the park any sweeter. but it does whittle everything else away until only its true value remains.
so, part of it, amidst a dozen other worthwhile reasons, was a chance to better approach the world and see it as it is, a way to unblind myself from the millions of circumstances and possibilities that distractingly dangle dazzling in front of my eyes.
i am not sure if that is how i sounded when i spoke on the phone with my friend yesterday, but that is how i feel. unblinded. the true value of a conversation with my brother, the chance to move freely, to be in a warm house full of friends, the exact worth of these is reflected clearly back. and because of that, i better understand my place in the family of things.
somehow, miraculously, there is a life-size space for me in the world, and one for each of us. it could be otherwise in a million ways. i'm glad that, at least for now, at least for these days, i know it. sadly, there seems none for my frayed jeans. nor my chin up bar. the dusty sandals, though... i'll make some room.