Connective Tissue - On travel, death, and the rivers that meet

At LAX, I was assigned to a gate that did not exist and I missed a flight heading towards Yosemite. I called the airline to tell them they were going to get me on the next flight, and that they were going to refund me. After one hour on the phone I got rebooked, and after eight days of follow-up I got my money back.

I become a very disgruntled passenger when I am the recipient of transit information that is incomplete, inaccurate, and inconsistent. I find “I will call you everyday until the day I die until I get my money back,” to be my most useful line.

Throughout the years, I have been credited thousands of miles, refunds, and small gift certificates towards travel by way of pointing out (and/or relentlessly insisting) that some hiccups are acceptable and to be expected, but the delivery of poor communication is absolutely unreasonable and unacceptable. Beyond the abysmal state of travel, and the fact that most airlines really do want to make us suffer, the truth is that the flexibility required in travel is a way for me to establish stability. It’s tethered me in unexpected ways to my personal center.

"Your personal truth, you better get that shit straight before you look for the bigger truths, because if you don't know who you are, or where you sit inside, you are going to be taken for a f***ing ride man…I think that's what Pynchon was trying to say.”
-Marc Maron on Thomas Pynchon's Inherent Vice before his WTF podcast interview with director Paul Thomas Anderson

I have navigated and responded to uncertainty more easily as a direct result of the privilege of my professional and personal access to travel. The more I traveled, the easier it became to reframe uncertainty as exploration, including the exploration of how to respond to the context of whatever situation I find myself in.

At some point, it became involuntary for me to drop expectations when I travel and to normalize its unpredictability. For the amount of time I spend on the move, to make any other association would be my delusion. I’ve learned a great deal about my circadian rhythms, and so while I drop expectations and can surrender to the reality of the situation, that does not preclude me from making choices. Often those choices need to come after a little self diagnostic; taking a deep breath, recognizing that I may be dehydrated, starving, stir-crazy, sleep-deprived, overwhelmed, or any combination of those less romantic features of traveling.

I've gotten to know myself through travel, which I often do alone. I connect to myself because traveling has created space for me to feel my own sense of place. In my peripatetic solitude, I have found the ability to live inside of whatever emotion comes my way. Some of the most eye-opening moments have sprung from that connective tissue of travel, the transit lines between coming and going, arriving and departing.

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Funny that I used to consider those spaces as irrelevant, less important, insignificant. They’re not. When I travel, I cross paths with all of me; I’m the Alan Watts’ aperture through which the universe is looking at and exploring itself, and I have room to meet the full spectrum of whoever I am.  I associate traveling with reclaiming and coming home to myself. It’s time to actually think; to be with, and to watch my thoughts in a way that I haven’t exactly incorporated into a daily practice.

My college soccer coach used to talk about how standing still on the field was essentially disastrous because chances are we wouldn’t be ready for the ball when it came or when we had to go to it; but if we stayed on our toes, if we kept moving in that flat back four, the instability of our motion could disrupt a play to our advantage. Movement meant stability and the point was to be ready.

In motion, I feel grounded. When I am the one moving, I buy the ticket and take the ride. I am not as disrupted as the times when I’ve been dead weight and knocked over. Moving in the world gives me a feeling like I am a part of it, like I belong to something.

It’s not that I can’t stay, or that I avoid stillness; I like the intimacy of commitment, I like being invested in something, I like quiet moments to release. my. grip. to. my. thoughts. But recently I’m tapping into what it means to have the momentum to stay.

I attended a wake where I shared that my father is a funeral director. My friend said, “So you’ve been around a lot of grief.”

Strangely, I never thought about it that way but it’s true. I have. And in the last two years, I’ve lost my aunt, cousin, best friend, and grandmother. My family and my friends keep losing loved ones. It is awful and sometimes unbearable—my own grief and the anguish of others.

When my grandmother and last living grandparent was dying, my mom and I holed up in my gram’s bedroom. I was either curled up at the foot of her bed like a dog, or watching Sherlock Holmes (the one with Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman). Considering my sister Kristen and I watched a million episodes of Unsolved Mysteries with our gram as kids, another mystery binge felt right.

In one of the many exchanges between Sherlock and Moriarty, Sherlock almost sounds as if he’s accusing Moriarty; “You never felt pain, did you? Why did you never feel pain?” Moriarty invites him to reframe, “You always feel it, Sherlock. But you don’t have to fear it!”

I have always been afraid of loss and pain and abandonment. Sometimes to paralysis. But with all the loss of the last two years, I surprised myself in noticing that I didn’t feel fear. I was so sad that there was no room for fear. Instead, I felt empty and heavy and foggy and sick. I felt full of Edward Hirsch’s poor Sisyphus grief. I couldn’t function unless I announced to someone that I was grieving; but after I acknowledged it out loud, I didn’t feel as buried in the quicksand of sorrow. I’ll never forget a friend’s dad telling me, “You need to give yourself time.”

Time. The transit line between life and death is like a bridge whose tangible, material structure vanishes into the fog.

When my Aunt Mary, Bello, and my grandmother were in their last days, I’m grateful for the shared silence and the unguarded chatter with family and friends in the hospitals, waiting rooms, bedrooms, couches, hotels, cars. My memories are somehow a totem. I can still feel the weight of the rooms because time did actually stop. Time was nothing beyond the intense presence of love, kinship, sorrow, and impending loss.

Sometimes we spoke of how much it sucked that we were waiting for them to die. Their bodies were giving out, but their hearts—they were all so strong, so big; even as their consciousness faded, went to some other side, those hearts kept going.

Were they using that final stretch to give us time to be? Because in the runway of time before their departure, I got to know my cousins again. I reconnected with dear friends, and received new ones. I shared hugs and laughs with my family. I was both supporter and supported. And I was transported.

Distinct memories resurfaced of their laughs, their physicality, and the environments that I spent time with them in. I saw my aunt’s beautiful warm smile as she called me her merry wanderer. I remembered my cousin laughing and acquiescing when I told her to give me a real hug instead of her little half hug/ pat on the back. I saw Bello’s grit and buoyancy on the soccer field, the flush of her tanned cheeks, the imprint on her shins as she removed her shin guards and peeled off her socks; how it is even possible that I could know the shape of her feet so well.

In my grandmother’s room, there were flashes of sunlight, garden tomatoes, the lush magical green of her backyard, which seemed giant to me. She never minded that I’d constantly pull back her watch that she hardly moved. I’d smooth out the imprint it left with my fingers; I wanted her skin to breathe, but she liked the comfort of where she placed it.

Herman Hesse said, “One never reaches home, but where paths that have an affinity for each other intersect, the whole world looks like home, for a time.” Traveling is coming home to myself.  And I’ve realized that in approaching and crossing the intersections of motion and stillness that live within and outside of us, all along they’ve marked the paths so that we can come home to each other.

And when we are uncertain, when we cannot find ourselves, or each other, when we need to find home in that which remains, we can travel to the passages laid out for us, or we can forge new paths to love, and to explore.

And though the course may change sometimes, rivers always reach the sea.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Megan Scanlon is the North American Representative at the American University of Beirut. She advises and recruits North Americans, and promotes AUB in the U.S. 

She is a frequent contributor to the DOC NYC and Stranger Than Fiction blogs, to which she credits her film education; she has moderated panels at the Bronx Documentary Center as a teammate on the programming committee; prescreened for the Brooklyn, DOC NYC, Margaret Mead, and Nantucket Film Festivals; and in February 2018, she dove into the great wide open of the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival, covering their featured retrospectives in Missoula, Montana.

Megan is rumored to bring up Burt Reynolds, Marc Maron, and Werner Herzog when she teaches at Yoga to the People; and though peripatetic in nature, Megan does in fact, live in New York City.

Megan graduated from Hobart & William Smith Colleges and New York University, and has worked in the field of International Education since 2005.

Follow her on Instagram and Twitter @meganscanlon5