Monday, March 24, 2008

Neither Here Nor There

A week ago last Friday, my wife and son and I started out on our big, adventurous trip to visit our daughter, Fran. Fran is teaching English in the Philippines as a Peace Corps volunteer. We haven't seen her since last May. Our son, Ed, has been overseas twice, to Spain, but my wife and I have never been out of the country, except for short stays just over the border in Canada. As we got ready for the day, the excitement built. I checked the weather one last time--everything looked good along the entire route, Cedar Rapids to Minneapolis to Tokyo to Manila.

But when we walked into the Eastern Iowa Airport and checked the departure monitor, we were greeted with the word "delayed" next to our flight. The ticket agents told us the plane hadn't made it down from the Twin Cities yet. One of them said we'd definitely miss our flight to Manila; the other said we might just make it. By the time our airplane arrived and we boarded, we were sure we'd miss the next flight. But we hoped we could reassemble our trip once we got to Minneapolis International.

In Minneapolis, the gate agent told us that the earliest we could get on a flight to Manila would be in two days. Worse, we learned that all flights from Manila to the airport near where Fran lives were booked for the first several days of the week. It was Holy Week in the Philippines, a time when the many balikbayans--Filipinos who work overseas--return home. If and when we ever did arrive in Manila, the best we'd be able to do would be an overnight 12-hour bus trip. The ticket agents offered to rebook our return trip on flights two days later, but that wouldn't work for Ed. So, reluctantly, we asked for a flight home, and we started the refund process.

We flew back to Cedar Rapids and got in our car and drove home. Pulling up to the house, we saw the lights on and cars in the driveway. Our house sitter was having a dinner party for a couple of friends. We felt very odd, ringing the door of our own home so as not to startle the sitter. We felt even stranger, trying to stay out of the way as the sitter and her friends cleaned up and cleared out.

We've been dealing with the travel agent and the airline, and it looks like we'll get a full refund. We're going to try again soon, and next time, we'll know a little more about the process. We won't book a connecting flight with a short layover, we'll go at a time when we can add more flexibility to our itinerary in case problems occur, we'll find a time when there should be less of a demand for seats.

The whole experience was a good opportunity to practice mindfulness, mindfully being present with all the big emotions and odd happenings of the week, the anger, the frustration, the sadness, the feeling of being a guest in my own home, of being a visitor in my own workplace. Being present didn't fix things, didn't magically pop me through the ether and into the Philippines, didn't smooth out my sleep or ease my stomach, didn't make me less upset or less sad. But it did help create more emotional intimacy with my wife, by staying with the emotions, instead of acting them out or suppressing them.

The entire past week felt surreal. Every so often, I'd find myself thinking about where we would have been at that moment, if we'd made the flight to Manila. Even though we never left good old Central Daylight Time, my wife and I both experienced sleep disruption and even stomach trouble, as if our bodies were trying to give us the whole international travel experience. We both went back to work the last half of the week. I couldn't bring myself to cancel the vacation autoresponder or change my voicemail message. I felt like I was in some odd half-world, not really here, but definitely not gone.

It's been strange, being present with the feeling of not being present. I'm reminded of what one of my favorite authors, Pema Chodron, talks about, the sensation of having the rug pulled out from under you. It's that helpless pit-of-your-stomach feeling that happens when things go wrong. But if i can be present and let go of the anxious train of thought, I can sink into a sense of great space and peace. I've been gradually returning from this non-trip, gradually feeling more and more here, more and more involved with what is going on around me at work and at home. Maybe the whole fiasco has been good practice for the real trip that still lies ahead.

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