For a good while my dentist is saying, “That’s great,” standing just inside the threshold to the room nodding his head as if he’s been rubber cemented there and tasked with telling me how lucky I am, and I am, I know it, and I’m half-sitting up out of the half-reclined chair and saying, “Thanks,” and smiling, trying not to seem like an airy kid with a graduate degree in creative writing even though, at the moment, it’s what I believe that I am.
I’m going to Malta. That’s what Dr. Balkins is telling me is great. I’m going to Malta and he is staying in Corvallis, Oregon, where he’s probably got a nice house, a spouse, some kids, a couple cars, and a beautiful summer headed his way, but still he’ll be coming to work every day to poke around in mouths when the dental hygienists are done and to interrogate patients about their home lives and brushing habits while I’ll be in Malta, squeezing through ancient alleys and emerging into the wind and brilliant sun of a 122 square mile rock in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea. “That’s great. That’s great.” I know and I’m sorry, Dr. Balkins, I want to say as he shrinks into the fluorescence, the white walls and his white coat becoming one, and finally he disappears while the hygienist, with whom I have a much more comfortable and limited relationship, sets into my teeth with the floss.
Or: We’re halfway up Mount Harvard when a girl about our age catches up and we stop and she stops beside us and says, “Twenty-one deaths in the Rockies this year already.”
“Jesus,” we say.
“Fifteen were struck by lightning on Bierstadt. And a dog.” She adjusts a strap on her daypack.
“Good God,” we say.
“Yep,” she says. “I had a lot of coffee this morning. But it was that instant stuff, and I don’t think it had any caffeine in it. Do I seem wired to you? I don’t feel wired,” she says.
“Well, have a good hike,” she says, and continues up the mountain while we look at each other, five guys with packs a quarter of our body weight, three of whom have never been backpacking before and are plagued by blisters and knee and Achilles problems. We’ve got another 1,500 feet of gain in front of us until the top of our first fourteener of the trip, not to mention a four-hour off-trail descent down the other, talus-strewn side. Mount Harvard is the third-tallest mountain in Colorado. We grimace. The Rockies curve into a valley below us, its ridges like a set of ribs.
But we keep hiking and soon come upon two mountain goats. They’re huge white things, one of them perfectly downy, one of them with strips of wool blowing off of it like white scarves in the wind. The people with cameras take pictures. I watch the goats watch us, both species surprised at how suddenly we’ve come upon something divine.
A thousand or so feet of vertical gain later, when I’ve struck out on my own and almost reached the top, I pass the girl again. “Pretty funny how you brought up the deaths,” I say. “We’re new at this. You had us shaking in our boots.”
She pauses as I jump across a couple rocks to get by. “Well. They’re just statistics,” she says.
Or: I’m throwing everything in my childhood room away except the things I care about, and some of the things I’ve decided to keep are journals that I sit on my parents’ back patio and flip through, old composition notebooks that are mostly blank after the first ten or twenty pages, and one of them is covered in stickers of my name, of hot dogs, of a tiny soccer ball, and of letters saying kEep oUT! Inside, after a page that reads Caution, Radioactive, and has a skull and cross-bones drawn in marker with green goop spilling out of its eye, there’s an entry that reads:
I didn’t have a very good 2nd week of vacation. That is because my dad had heart bypass surgery. He is okay though. My mom had been going to the hospital a lot and I couldn’t have much fun. But on the last day I went to an arcade place and got a stuffed animal out of one of those machines. I was amazed. I named him Tiny.
The entry is classic. I read it aloud to my mom and grandma, who are also out on the patio with me. They laugh. Later on, at dinner, I tell my dad about it and he laughs too, and here’s why: Heart surgery is the most painful thing he’s ever felt in his life, and I was either oblivious to that (probable) or trying to express through my journal entry the disquiet I felt circulating in our family due to the surgery and knew no way to do it except through the lens of myself (also probable).
What’s amazing now is that I’m not stuck there anymore. We’re at the kitchen table and I can imagine what it might have been like to be my dad there in the hospital, a huge incision in his chest, fielding visitors and reeling, and this thing, this imagining I can do now, is called empathy. I’m still oblivious but not as much as I used to be. I’m an adult, and I have been for years.
In two weeks, I’m getting on a plane and going to Ireland. Then Italy. By mid-September I’ll be in Malta, a new and unknown home.
These are some windows. I don’t want to write a typical travelogue of moving to Malta because I don’t think writing about a place as if it’s exotic leaves room for us to experience the massive strangeness of our own everyday lives, and I don’t think treating travels as provisional and limited does a good job expanding our worldview. But I do think every moment is a window—into not much more than itself, but that’s all you need to see through to.
Some Buddhists call it suchness. A friend of mine, in an email he wrote to me years ago trying to explain why he wanted to be an English professor (he’s a lawyer now), explained it like this:
[W]hether or not we know it, we don’t want an answer to the question: What is the meaning of life? We just want our desire for the answer to be sated. I think literature is where this happens.
So: When I come around the curve on my bike—my Fuji Touring, a steel black monster newly assembled from the cardboard box it arrived in this afternoon—and see a blonde man on a Segway pulling a U-turn in the center of the otherwise empty street, I grin at him, and he grins at me, and both of us know we’re in the same business: rediscovering movement, tooling around on our machines, God forbid playing, and nobody’s looking but him at me and me at him, two grown men getting a simple kick out of flying through the world on two wheels apiece. I lean into my pedals up the hill. He zips down it with his huge, collegiate smile. Then he’s gone and I’m back off the handlebars, on a straightaway now, my gradeschool behind the bushes off to my left, the golden Ohio River miles below to the right, and the day is closing like a pair of tired eyes.
I ride past the field where I used to practice football and got the scars on my elbows, once scabs that I opened again and again and bled adolescent blood. The field is turf now, not rocky dirt like it used to be, and I haven’t seen anyone on it for ages. But I’m sure they still practice here; I’m the one who hasn’t been back since I stood and banged shoulder pads with my friends until the coach told us we’d finally hit hard enough. That we’d finally gotten down to business.
No more of that. Instead I glide, and moving is more effortless than staying still.
This is not an official Department of State website or blog, and the views and information presented are my own and do not represent the Fulbright program, the U.S. Department of State, or any of its partner organizations.