“The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.”-St. Augustine
I love to map out my life with the hopes of creating an epic bucketlist story. A life that tries to mitigate pain and uncertainty, tempted to control the outcome as to minimize the chances of something going wrong. But I’m learning how much more free the world is when gripped hands turn into open palms. A lesson that began to unfold sometime in February, when a persistent tug to attend an upcoming writing conference in Portland kept coming back to my mind like waves to the shoreline. Travel, my unadulterated pleasure in life, has always found room in my soul. I often let money hold me back from exploring, but knew this conference was an opportunity to let go of all of that. So I paid for the conference, then the plane ticket and hostel stays. I remember writing in my journal, before a single one of those was in place, “What if you just buy your ticket and trust you’ll find a place to lay your head?” Being one to always want to know how life will turn out, that I’ll have enough money, be able to afford at least a can of tuna to eat (ramen noodles are too salty), this was an act of spontaneity. A side of me I lost somewhere in the midst of anxiety and depression that roared into my life in college; a side of me that I desperately craved to bring back into my life.
When this trip was merely an idea, I never could have known all of the joy that would soon unfold, the immense kindness strangers would dispense with alacrity, that every single person I came across in passing would teach me something specific about life, love, and faith. There’s no way I could have ever known I’d spend my last two nights on the couch of a house full of ten girls, mostly students at Portland State, including exchange students from China and Germany. No way I could anticipate a road trip with a pioneer woman in her sixties, and her dog, Murray.
But that’s the way it goes. We live the story forward.
And, if we’re lucky enough, get to live it backward too, reminiscing over every detail, every fine point, being washed over with some kind of double blessing.
And so I woke up early one sunny Thursday morning with two backpacks full of protein bars and travel toothpaste, a heart longing for the open air of the west, and a boarding pass to Portland via a lunchtime layover in Kansas City. The KC airport is so small; I can step outside. I sat there on the curb, eating protein bars while a light Kansas breeze blew against my arms and fingered through well-worn pages of “Through Painted Deserts,” before landing in PDX. I stepped off the plane, greeted by the light smell of Pine. With no agenda but to make it to the hostel by 10 PM, I headed Northeast to catch a bus into Vancouver.
“That’s a lot of stuff you got,” the guy next to me motions toward my backpacks.
“Yeah, I’m from out of town and wanted to say I went into Washington.”
“Where you from?”
“Baltimore? Been there once; not a fan,” he says candidly.
I looked around at the tall trees and mountains. “I can see why,” I reply.
A few more passengers climb on, including two nineteen-year-olds, a cute couple, real Jack-and-Diane type. The type you see at first glance, perhaps tempted to dismiss as just two kids trying to figure out the world. But by the time you’ve finished conversing with them about their culinary schooling, their Vancouver-to-Portland daily commute, and what it was like for them to move away from the safe confines of home for the first time, you realize that the part of the song that goes, “Hold on 16 as long as you can, changes come around real soon, make us women and men” is true in a very nostalgic, beatific kind of way. They were caught somewhere in-between adolescence and adulthood, loved each other, life was simple, and I learned more about life and love from their sweet back and forth banter on the bus that day than from any of the marriage books I’ve read that offer painstakingly dull platitudes like, “don’t forget to schedule sex,” and “have date nights.” Maybe at some point, we need to go back to this stage, go back to this era of our life, since it may have been a while for some of us. Maybe we need to go back and learn from these young ones because perhaps somewhere along the way into the journey of becoming women and men, we’ve forgotten our innocence; the innocence of life and love and beauty, and perhaps sometimes it’s these young, inexperienced couples who have more to offer us than PhDs and pastors.
“We’re getting off here,” the young man motions toward the door and his girlfriend and I hop out.
“The 30 comes pretty quickly,” he shared, lighting up a cigarette.
“Thanks,” I mutter, intoxicated by the smell of Spruce. Living up to his words, we leave Fisherman’s Landing for Vancouver a few moments later. Five stops in, my young couple friends hop off.
“Nice meeting you,” they wave.
“Hey, if I never see you again, I just want to say, you guys got something special,” I smiled. They smiled back. A quick trip into Vancouver and it was time to turn around into Portland, sun glistening off lakes like cameras flashing over and over again, as if to capture every curvature of beauty, of every unscathed piece of rock and matter reminding you to not get sucked into the trap of doing-more, of “succeeding,” of having your life look a certain way by a particular age. There is order and peace to be found, even in a world of chaos and confusion, and if but for a moment, I am seeing it all at once out of the tinted bus windows.
Backpacks in tow, I hop off the bus and find my way to the hostel, a buzzing place blanketed with cherry blossoms in full bloom. It’s easy to start a conversation here, even for an introvert like me.
“So where ya from?” I ask a kid strumming a guitar on the back patio. He described himself as a 21 year old divorcee who stocks shelves at Wal-Mart and takes the train out to Portland from Northern California when he can’t take the same old scenery. His buddy to the left refers to himself as a “glorified chicken fryer from Texas.” Then there’s the British folks, “on holiday,” venturing around the Earth three to six months at a time, leaving a 9-5 American gal like me grappling with how one can take off for that long and still be guaranteed their job upon return.
“It’s unpaid leave,” the young woman from Australia explains.
I don’t care what you call it. I want it. And it’s with a dizzy sense of wonder about how large the world is that I fell asleep in a bunkbed above a British woman.
The next morning I made my way to the East side of town, closer to the conference, to check in at the Hawthorne hostel. After conversing with a tired Australian lying in her bunk bed, I gather my best pens and notebooks for the writing conference and head out on the front porch, grateful to be covered from the rain that just started coming down, and took a seat next to one of the hostel staff members, Happy. Happy grew up travelling and came to Portland about six years ago, where he’s remained rooted since. His friend Cosmo walked up the front porch stairs.
“Well, I’ll try again tomorrow,” she reported to Happy, trying to get off cigarettes.
“Yeah, getting off them is a real b*tch,” He commiserated, quickly putting out his last cigarette.
I glance at my watch, cheesily bid Cosmo and Happy “a happy evening,” and find my way to my first writing conference, feeling a bit out of place, slightly jazzed, and in awe of the many tall curbside pick-up recycling cans for compost I passed along the way. I found an open seat in the front row next to a woman in her sixties.
“Anybody sitting here?” I inquire.
“You!” she smiled, asking where I’m from.
“Baltimore, oh! So do you have any free time after the conference to explore Oregon?”
“Well, I’m trying to find a bus to head out to either Mt. Hood or the coast,” I replied.
She paused for a moment. “Oh, well, I can take you!”
“You can take me?” I ask incredulously. You just met me! I think to myself.
“Well sure!” Janet replies, telling me about what fun she had when she ran into some travelers in town from Ohio. She drove them along the Columbia River Gorge up to Mt. Hood, where they spent the day picnicking and hiking, her whole soul lighting up recalling the memory.
“You know, I was praying for some kind of God-thing to happen on this trip,” I laugh, in awe of her generosity.
“It will be fun! We’ll have plenty of time to chat about writing in the car. The coast will be beautiful; I just loving showing people my home state!” she enthused with pride.
One thing I learned about Oregon folks is that they love their state. Seeing people gush over how much they love the city in which they live was almost a rarity in Baltimore for me, until I found amazing friends who delight in calling it “Smalltimore.” Once you figure out its quirky joys and find some good friends, who in turn will know someone that you know, “Charm City” lives up to its nickname, and you hold the place close to your heart.
As our first session began to unfold, I got lost in the melodic zephyrs of hope-filled words dangling from pages and the mouths of this evening’s speakers, whose books have left me looking at God with much more appreciation and love (Wm. Paul Young).
“What if it’s all poetry?” spoken word poet Phil Long inquired.
What if it’s all poetry? I think to myself, feeling as though I now had a whole new framework with which to view the world. In just the past 24 hours, I’ve been swept off my feet through the poetry of refracting lakes, the kindness of strangers, and all of this points me closer toward a loving God.
What if it’s all poetry? Indeed. It already is.
Amidst mingling at the end of the first night’s sessions, I met Ana, one of the conference presenters.
“Wanna join us for dinner?” She offers.
Taken aback by such inclusion and kindness, I realized that it was getting late and the bus would take me almost 45 minutes to get back to the hostel.
“Sure,” I reply anyway, dismissing the voice inside that says to go to sleep on time, and to not take a late night bus home in a new city.
I sit down with a group of five other women; some moms, some not. Some bloggers, some writers, all of us together, though, talking life and Church over cheese and wine. The woman across from me meets with 30 family friends out of her house each week for Church.
“It’s beautiful,” She asserts as she shares about the weekly meal they have together, the questions that the older kids are starting to ask, and how they just let the day pan out, going on whatever time frame the day wishes to adhere to.
I wonder for a moment if that’s all God hopes for Church to be. Somewhere among doctrines, theologies, conservative or liberal dichotomies, rules and arguments about gender, marriage, politics, heated discussions about who’s “saved” and who isn’t, and all of the other things I struggle with about the Church—amidst all of that— I wonder through this woman’s house church experience, if we now remembered that the Jesus we follow talked about ecclesia, and people being one, loving God, loving each other. He didn’t talk about buildings, “contemporary” vs “traditional” worship, or any other things the Church gets caught up in sometimes. I wonder how along the way this message of oneness got misconstrued, when in reality “Church” is everywhere, and in everything, and was lived out by some first century folks who ate together, prayed together, and shared with whoever had need. Maybe Church is that simple. Yes, I’m beginning to think so.
I spent Saturday soaking up the wisdom of speakers and publishing agents. I caught a taste of the rhythm of passion, and being fully alive, knowing, deep in your core, unshakably, that anything is possible. Ana introduced me to some friends and we left the conference in the typical Portland early spring rain, headed over to Hawthorne for tacos and story. Alyssa was one of those friends. She sat down with me and walked me through the journey of pain, joy, light, and holy struggle that she now turned into the pages of an upcoming book. Story, beautiful story. And I got to hear it all because she took the time to simply be present with me. We meandered down the street, sharing my umbrella, and head into a coffee shop, where Alyssa listened to my story, which mostly consists of questions at this point. Musings. Thoughts on life and love and marriage and not being fully ready for any of it, but desperately wanting to live the story now. The sky darkened and we left, headed down the street to the home of some of her friends, my introverted shield of shyness slowly melting off of my body and into the puddles on the ground. Sophie B. Hawkins played in the background as we entered into a brief dance party. They live in a house of 10 people, mostly Portland State students, plus a couple who owns the house and supports the group like a loving mother and father. I explore the three levels of the home, the multiple refrigerators, the chore chart, and wonder if this is what Cheaper By the Dozen felt like. But it was more than that, I’d soon find out. Ready to call it a night, I skip the bus and jog back to the hostel, one hand holding my umbrella, the other my now-heavy backpack filled with conference handouts.
Cold and wet, I enter the hostel and find my way to the bathroom to get changed and brush my teeth. I heard a soft knock on the door. “Coming!” I call out, gathering my dirty socks and remembering to leave my sports bra on in case the person outside was a gentleman. Sure enough, it was. Opening the bathroom door to let him use the bathroom while I brushed my teeth, we struck up a conversation on his way out. Oklahoma, I nicknamed him. Oklahoma was here for a psychology conference and he presented the therapeutic styles of St. Augustine, or at least that’s what my tired brain understood at the time. Oklahoma (ok, his name was Travis, but it’s not every day I meet people from Oklahoma) asked about what kind of conference brought me here.
“A faith and culture writers conference,” I replied, in between flossing.
“Mind if I have a piece?” Travis asked, motioning to the dental floss.
“Sure.” So we talk story and faith at midnight over dental floss in a bathroom hallway that turned into a 1 AM conversation on the living room couch, where other night owls bonded or wrote in journals and the two of us made plans to meet back in the lobby at 8:45 AM when a new friend of mine would pick us up for church. Sunday morning came too quickly and I sleepily got a ride to The Groves Church, where I was greeted with free coffee and scones. I had several cups and too many handfuls and shoved some dollar bills in the offering basket as a condolence for my insatiable appetite. I met Ana inside and sat next to her and Talli, just about losing it at worship. I felt an arm wrap around me. It was Ana. “You ok? How you doing?” she whispered.
“It’s just life. And knowing I need to make some hard changes in my life. I want to take more chances, and risk failure, and re-evaluate where I am with life and relationships, integrity…” I stopped, barely understanding myself but feeling the power of this moment. She let me sit there, head rested against her shoulder, arm around me, while I cried emotional, tired tears of being ready to throw it all to the wind, to change the trajectory of the story I’m writing. Because I’ve been repeating some of the same pages. And they’re rote, not fully alive.
We spend the rest of the day together with Talli and Eva, two of the girls from the house of 10 wandering around the Grotto, a Catholic-run peaceful outdoor sanctuary at the top of a mountain cliff. Rows of glowing candles in brightly colored holders were lit near an alcove containing written messages commemorating love, loss and grief. “You were gone too soon,” wrote one friend on her candle holder to a deceased friend, “I miss you.” I choked up as Ana told me that she came here a week earlier, Easter Sunday, and lit a candle for her father who passed away. At the top of the cliff, vibrant rainbow glistened over Northern Portland, kissing treetops. After the flood, all the colors came out, story goes. Inside, my soul is purged with renewal. And the colors never looked so vibrant.
After dinner and a sunshine-after-rain drive home, I spent the night on my new friends’ couch, rehearsing the walking directions to the #4 bus stop to make it to Beaverton for a day on the coast with Janet. A few hours of sleep, 15 minute walk, bus and subway ride later, Janet and Murray greeted me. Sitting passenger side, we chatted away our 1.5 hours on Highway 101.
“Here’s some trivia for you that might help you out on Jeopardy one day,” she threw out. “Did you know that there was almost a 51st state? And it would have been named Jefferson?”
I laughed. She had the wisdom, life experiences, and knowledge similar to my grandmother, a world traveler whose passion for learning I want to emulate. She was a historian, responding to my “oohs” and “aahs” out the window with story after story of life growing up in rural Oregon, how play involved rolling tires down hills and being outside all day, knowing all of your neighbors in the backdrop of open sky…
We pulled up to Canon Beach, my eyes wide open to the cliffs and the cold, pulsating shock of ocean water to my feet, wiggling in Pacific waters for the first time. Holding no generosity back, Janet drove us to Astoria, leaving enough time to pose at the cheesy statue commemorating the end of the Lewis and Clark Trail along the way. We took a long walk along the beach, pausing long enough to ponder crushed sand dollars and baby jellyfish that washed ashore.
We climbed back in the car for our last stop to Astoria Column before hitting Southern Washington, where Janet told me all about her husband, who passed away a few years ago. They were very much in love; in fact, she sang him a love song the very morning he died. He came down with heart problems but did well for several months after a hospitalization, until one morning he went out with his buddy to chainsaw some timber.
“What!” She exclaimed. “I’m calling the doctor.” The doctor said it was ok.
“I’m calling the surgeon!” The surgeon said it was ok.
So off he went with a buddy and their chainsaws. After a morning of timbering, they came in for lunch and then headed back outside, when all of a sudden, Janet heard a thud. His heart gave out and he died right there, in her backyard. She shared the news with her kids, who didn’t seem surprised. It turns out that when the he went to the doctor’s 48 hours prior for a follow up visit, his doctor told him that his condition unexpectedly worsened and he would have two days or so to live. He called each of his grown kids, scattered throughout the West Coast, and said words of blessings. But he didn’t tell his wife.
“And I was sooo angry!” She recalled. On the first of many counseling visits, she shared her hurt over his decision not to tell her.
“He didn’t tell me! How could he do that!?”
“What, so you could sit him in a wheelchair? And confine him and not let him move until he died? So that he would stay inside, safe and tamed, while you poked and prodded and body monitored him 24/7 to see how he was doing?”
Janet paused, wiping away some tears that had gathered around her eyes.
“No. He wanted to live a full life right up until its end. He wanted to be with you in peace and joy. He didn’t tell you because he loved you,” Janet recalled of the counselor’s take on this situation. The words sunk deep into her chest, and mine, now both of our eyes welling up with tears. I learned so much from her husband that day, a man I’ll never meet, if but in Heaven. He taught me beyond his lifespan, as I thought about God and my incessant longing to know how things will turn out, realizing that I don’t need to know what’s going to happen next, not because God is cruel, withholding such information from me, but because God loves me. God wants the journey of each day to unfold one step at a time, so that we can live each day with completeness, not dwelling on the trial that lie ahead. S/he does this because s/he loves us. All of the questions I want God to answer now, S/he won’t tell me because S/he loves me, loves us that much. Loves us too much to leave us to our own devices of outcome-control and false security.
It was a holy moment as we hugged each other before heading up to the top of the Astoria Column, overlooking the Columbia River, newness of the character and love of God moving in and around my soul. We made it across the Astoria Megler Bridge, crossing into Washington, and took a long, scenic ride back to the house full of girls who invited me to stay my last night at their home, on the couch.
I woke up the next morning taking in the names of every street I walked down to get to the bus that would take me to Powell’s Books before I took the red line back to PDX. I felt like I already knew my way around, a little bit. A strange sense of familiarity, of home, of coming and going, and knowing that if I return here one day, it just might be to call it home.
At PDX, I had just enough time to make small talk with the guy standing in line to board our flight to Denver. It was here that I met Justin. “Are you a rock climber?” he inquired. Assuming he was referring to my large backpack with pockets that zipped and buckled all over, I shook my head, “Oh this is just an old lacrosse bag from high school.”
“No, I mean your hands. Your veins. You’re strong.”
“Oh, thanks!” I smiled. “So do you rock climb?”
“I used to, and my hands used to look like that too.”
“Used to?” I inquire.
“I’ve lost some tone when I got into an accident a month ago. I was hit by a truck; that’s why I have this scar,” he responded flatly, pointing to a small series of dark zig-zags on his forehead.
“Wow,” I paused, looking him straight in the eye. “I am so, so glad you made it through ok.”
“I am too,” he replied, as he recounted that he was in a coma for three weeks straight.
“What do you remember?” I ask.
“Well I remember everything leading up to when I got hit and then I remember waking up in the hospital, three weeks later.”
“Wow,” I responded, shocked, amazed, grateful. He was headed to Florida because the truck company wanted to offer him a settlement.
“It’s a large amount of money they’re offering, but I don’t really need it, as long as I can do what I love, ya know?” Justin was a humble spirit; I could tell he meant every word he said. We sat down at the first empty seats we could find, where I met Barb. Barb is one of the most genuine women I’ve ever met and we chatted nonstop from Portland to 19 degree Denver. We proceed to talk story for the entire flight, as she recalled a painful divorce, delightful grandchildren, and life in Oregon. She listened intently as I shared mine, including the mess and joys of my family, especially highlighting my dad and some of his goofy Dad-isms (cartoons with breakfast on Saturday mornings being one of them).
She looked at me, smiling sincerely. “I can tell your dad must mean a lot to you,” She noted.
“Yeah, he sure does,” I replied, unexpected tears rushing to my eyes. “I’m really grateful to have him for a dad.”
As we hit the snowy tarmac of Denver Airport, I gathered my belongings swiftly, with just twenty minutes to spare before my next take off. I said goodbye to Barb and Justin.
“Melissa,” Justin began. “If I never meet you again, you are beautiful, inside and out, and have a peaceful presence about you. I wish you the best on your life journey.” I was dumbfounded by more kindness, blown away by how beautiful life is when you say what you really want to say. My thank you and amicable words back couldn’t describe how touched I was to have the opportunity to interact with him. Barb walked me to my gate and we embraced as if we’d known each other for way more than two hours. “If you ever want a place to stay in Bend, you’ve got yourself a place,” she encouraged, as preparations for boarding calls pulled us to opposite ends of the airport.
I sunk inside of myself, as snow accumulated on the run way, wanting, pleading for just a few more minutes in this moment. Anything. A delay, a cancellation. We got a delay of an extra ten minutes, but then it was time to board. I piled into a row with two folks from a town not too far from Baltimore. As the flight crew sprayed de-icer on the plane, the gentlemen next to me begins to sing. “Oh the weather outside is frightful…”
“But the fire is so delightful,” I chime in.
“Since we’ve no place to go, let it snow, let it snow, let it snow,” we sing in cacophony, laughing away. I tried to hold on to every minute in the air until the sky reached that strange point in which the sun is shining late evening sun behind you and ahead, dark sky, like a fast cascade. Soon, I could see city lights on the ground, a sure sign we were nearing home now. No Portland trees and mountains here. We descended toward the conglomerate of lights and landed in 70 degree Baltimore, where I was greeted with a phone call from a dear friend inquiring how the trip went. Tears in my eyes, I couldn’t get through the line, “Rajni, I feel like anything is possible and I just don’t want to lose this feeling,” without my voice cracking, recalling the faces of Happy, the girls from The Groves who welcomed me in with an impeccable love, the late night chat with Oklahoma (Travis).
We are all travelers, I thought, as I took my last leg of the journey into my neighborhood via train. All of us. Even homebodies who feel the beauty of life right where they are. Even those of us who liken airports to sanctuaries and take comfort in hostel bunk beds. We’re all travelers on the journey. No one gets left out. And today, yesterday, the past week I’ve been blown away and struck by such kindness. And tomorrow it shall happen all over again, even when I’m back in my regular hometown. Because that’s what travel does; it awakens our eyes to see the things we miss everyday in our own surroundings. And so I hope to recycle the kindness I’ve been bestowed. I’m trying to hold on to the belief that anything is possible. And my hope, prayer, and wish for you, is that wherever you are traveling today, I ask for the blessing of traveling mercies, I wish you love, I wish you friendship and I wish you peace.
See you at the airport.