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Tears, Rain, and the Day in Between

Sunday, April 14th, 2019


This morning at breakfast in Bhutan, my travel partner Susan and I got to talking about how our views on longevity have changed.  I mentioned that I am making an effort in my Years of Living Travelly to go to places like Corregidor, rather than the “easier” places in a port of call, because I understand so much better now what it means to die young. 

I used to think that whether one lives twenty, or eighty years, or points in between, any lifetime is really a blink of the eye when one considers time in the abstract.  All the dead aren’t here anymore, regardless of how long they lived.  

True, but yet….

When I think now of people who died young, I understand so much better what it means not to have had the opportunity to experience everything that can happen in a long lifetime.  I think of all my opportunities to learn, to travel, to make friends, to love.  It’s all that, and a host of simple things as well, like  hearing a new song that becomes a favorite, wiggling toes in  sand, the first sip of icy beer on a hot day, or watching a baby discover just about anything.

The previous day, when we saw the thousands of prayer flags that flutter on bridges, near shrines,  and pretty much everywhere there is a breeze or a memory, we decided we wanted to put up some flags of our own.  I wanted to honor my friend Peter, whose happiness when he came back from Bhutan made me put it on my bucket list. He had been just about everywhere, and it was one of his favorite trips. Peter died not too long after that, and Bhutan was his last travel adventure. I have Peter to thank for making it one of mine as well.

We began today shedding a few tears  about people we have lost. In the afternoon we went to the longest suspension footbridge in Bhutan. ( pictured at top), carrying the bundle of prayer flags we had bought the day before.  I put up one string of flags for Peter, to invoke his spirit in this beautiful place and to say thank you.  Here I am with his flags.

But those of you who know me well probably know what this journey to the bridge was really about. 

This is the twentieth anniversary year  of the death of my son Adriano.  I wish he had stayed in this world longer than twenty-two years, but he didn’t want to. I think of how much he has missed, but I have to acknowledge that mixed in with all that he might have enjoyed, there was most likely a disproportionate amount of pain and disappointment that he has not had to suffer.  

Grief  that softens  over time as part of healing can be, in an instant, raw again. But rawness is good too, because it brings us closer to those we have lost, before we tuck them away again in the emotional labyrinth that life becomes after something so heart blistering happens.

I wanted to be raw again in Bhutan today, because I wanted to honor his spirit and say again to him how much I love him.  There is a timelessness and a purity I can’t really explain about the love I feel for someone I haven’t been able to see, touch, hear, or talk to for two decades now.Nothing can tarnish that love’s beautiful, burnished shine. The good memories win.  

In the letter he left behind before he took his life, he said if there was something after death, he would be out there surfing the universe.  I always think of him that way.  And here in the foothills of the Himalayas, as close to the concept of eternal time as one can get on earth, I think that if indeed there is surfing to be done in the afterlife, he has simply beat me to it by a cosmic second.  

I heard somewhere that the Northern Lights are reflected off dust in the atmosphere, so I took some of his ashes to the top of Norway the year after his death and I flung them as high as I could into the sky. I wanted him forever to be part of that dust.  Now he is part of the Himalayas as well. As am I, because I left a little of my heart on that bridge too.  

In this part of the world, these flags are really more about hope for good fortune for the living, not memorials to the dead.  And that was part of what I was after today as well. I wanted to leave the flags at a bridge because bridges are symbols of transition—sometimes  sad, as when a loved one  leaves us,  but they also stand for hope and for the fact that to be truly alive we must embrace change.

The real finality of death is that it is the last bridge we cross.  But neither I nor anyone I love is there yet, at least if our good fortune holds. So the deepest meaning of today for me—and the biggest surprise—was how joyful I felt. Even playful, as this photo of me with one of Adriano’s flags shows, although my eyes are red with tears behind the glasses.

.The flags are for good fortune and I am grateful for the abundance of that in my life. The joy today came from thinking about the future  for my son Ivan and myself, that we still have not only bridges to find, but bridges to make.  

It’s raining in Bhutan tonight, a sound I haven’t heard, and a fragrance and freshness I haven’t breathed for a long time.  Out there in the dark,  two strings of flags are limp with rain.  Tomorrow the warmth of the sun will raise them up to flutter and wave beneath the hovering peaks, and lend their colors to the river. below the bridge, bringing snowmelt from the Himalayas down to the sea. I am headed there myself in a few days, as my life adventure continues. I am leaving something behind, though, and carrying something far bigger with me, in the mark this has made on my heart.  

Sent from my iPad

Step Out and Look Straight Ahead

Wednesday, March 27th, 2019

I have learned something about being a pedestrian in these crazy Asian cities with thousands of motorbikes whizzing by like biblical locust plagues. It seems pretty clear that if you wait for a break in traffic you will die of old age before you ever get across the street.

What you need to do, I was told, is look down the street for whatever is coming in the next few seconds, avoid stepping in front of it, but then just walk out steadily and calmly .  Look straight ahead and whatever you do,  do not look at the traffic. People on motorbikes will see you and plan their route to avoid a collision.  What causes accidents is pedestrian second guessing—seeing  something coming and reacting by stopping or speeding up.  Just breathe and walk.

And it works. It is a crazy feeling to cross the street almost as if you were blind, but I’m still in one piece.

“There must be a lesson in this,” I thought to myself.  And of course, when I think there’s a lesson, I can usually come up with one, so for what it’s worth, here it is.   It’s easy to be stopped in our tracks by too much information, in this case the data point represented by every bike whizzing towards you.  It’s easy to think you need to react to everything, when in fact, the opposite is true.  Dithering can be deadly to an idea or action whose time has come.  Second guessing decisions, getting wrapped up in “what if’s,” can be utterly paralyzing.

And it not just uncertainties in our personal lives that the constant whoosh of too much input affects.  In these awful times, it is easy to get sucked into following every story and getting outraged over every horror of the daily news cycle. It’s all motorbikes bearing down on our vulnerable, frightened psyches.

Sure, this is oversimplified, but there is something to it. There’s always something headed  straight for us, often a whole streetful of things. We can focus on that  and get slammed, or we can step out, look straight ahead and just keep going.


Like Riding a Bike

Thursday, March 21st, 2019

You know the expression about never forgetting how to ride a bike?  Well, I tested it out today on Palau Ubin, an offshore island in Singapore.  I was looking for something to do after I checked in at the airport for my early flight to the Maldives tomorrow, and saw this island mentioned on a number of online “top attractions” lists.  Since it is accessed by the Changi Village Ferry Terminal and the airport is also in the suburb of Changi, I figured it sounded perfect.

I got to chatting with the hotel concierge, and he said  it was a good choice, since the island looks pretty much like Singapore looked before the colonial days.  He told me the best way to get around Palau Ubin is by bicycle. I responded without hesitation, “I think  I’ll just walk around a bit.” Then, as I was in the cab, I had a conversation with myself that went something like this:

Brave Laurel:  You know, you were planning on doing some bicycling this summer in the Baltic, since you have been to the ports many times before and that would be something different to do.

Chicken Laurel: Well, yes, but I was going to practice when I got home…

Brave Laurel: But this island is flat and it would be the perfect spot just to see how it goes.

Chicken Laurel: But I haven’t ridden a bike for over fifty years!

Brave Laurel: That will still be true in San Diego or the Baltic. If you won’t do it today, what makes you think you will do it then?

Chicken Laurel: Oh, okay, I’ll check out the bikes and if they look pretty basic, I’ll …well, I’ll think about it.

Fast forward. I have now ridden over to the island  on a “bumboat” (private boats that offer ferry service). This photo of the taxi service will give you an idea of the infrastructure of the place. Not a car or even a tuktuk in sight, and I wonder whether taking a taxi means you just jump onto the handlebars.


Then to my existential dread, I passed by a bike rental place.  The proprietors called out to me to rent one of their bikes.

Chicken Laurel: “Well….maybe.  I’ll have to think about it.”

Brave Laurel:  Bad, bad girl!

The proprietor pointed to a bike, and I agreed to go up the road a few yards to see if I could avoid maiming myself or someone else.  I actually did it without crashing, but it was pretty terrifying because the bike seemed so bulky.  The owner found another, scaled-down version, and I tried that out.  Lo and behold,  I managed a little better.

Brave Chicken Laurel set out on the bike and discovered several things.  First I was okay if I was not going too fast or anything other than in a straight line.  Second, that is not always possible, and I did a lot of stopping to make minor adjustments in my trajectory if I had to turn or found myself headed for a ditch. I also have no thigh strength for anything more than a slight incline.  But all that is minor compared to the thrill that Brave Laurel had won.

The  ride was beautiful, as this one image will show.

Forty  minutes later I brought the bike back. If you picture me whizzing down the road with my hair blowing back and my girlhood bike skills miraculously resurrected, forget it.    My fingers were twisted with cramps from having gripped the handlebars so tightly the whole time, and I felt halfway to a heart attack with anxiety, but I did it—

I did it!  I even managed a sweeping turn back to the shop by the end, although it almost landed me in the grass.  I beamed all the way back on the boat.

And yes, riding a bike after fifty years is just like—well, like riding a bike. You don’t forget the basics, but the rest is a different matter.  Chicken Laurel is not salivating to do it again, but the primary question of whether I am capable of it has been answered in the affirmative.

Here I am with my bike, below.  Too bad the photo the bike shop owner took makes it look as if I have gained fifty pounds, or maybe it’s just that the photo got a little stretched out in the post,   but I am so stoked about this accomplishment that I will share it anyway.

I think the conversation Brave and Chicken Laurel were having was really about something else altogether.  It was about pushing past boundaries and fulfilling promises to myself about not being so risk-averse that I miss out on the best things about being alive.  I rediscovered snorkeling in the Philippines and bike riding in Singapore.  I am rooting for Brave Laurel to keep Chicken Laurel on the straight and narrow, but in bike riding, sooner or later, I’ll have to learn how to turn.