Compassion

The sun came out – just for a few hours – and I wept tears of joy. It’s been dark and flooding and heavy for so long, and I didn’t think I was going to see a blue sky for at least another week. Yet, there it was, waiting for me as I caught the bus to go downtown.

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The few hours of non-rain in days.

On the bus already was an old, frail, white man at the front in his wheelchair. Both legs were amputated from the knee down, khaki pants tucked neatly under stubs. He looked lost and confused, but then again so did so many others I shared the bus with every day as we leave “pill hill” and the myriad hospitals that fill it. Yet, this man seemed particularly distraught, and the others who say close to the front talked to him in soothing voices.

The hospital-issued wheelchair he sat in was the first clue something was the matter. The second was the semi-torn-out IV in his arm. He wasn’t supposed to be on the bus but had decided, on his own, that it was time to go. Go home. One of the men chatting with the escapee alerted the bus driver. A nurse confirmed that a man with an IV in his arm like that should not be going home, but going back to the hospital. The man soon realized his attempt to flee was discovered, and his distressed grew. He began to wail and cry as the bus pulled over next to the children’s hospital:

“I want to go home!

Move! Move!

Roll the bus, roll the bus!”

His cries became more frantic and became less convincing in his commands:

“I don’t want to go back to prison! They’ll lock me up. Don’t make me go back!

Roll the bus, roll the bus.”

The men at the front – one sporting a Veteran’s ball cap – told him it would be OK. The driver told emergency services to come quickly, please. She was calm, but adamant. She turned to reassure the man that help was on the way.

“No. I want to go home. Move the bus. PLEASE.”

He was crying hard, begging for his life.

I stood in the back and choked back tears.

The driver eased the man off the bus and stood with him until help arrived. She gave him a cigarette – forbidden on a hospital campus – and smoked alongside of him. Offering a small pleasure to a man who had none. Two policeman walked up slowly towards the two, doing their best to look gentle despite being visibly armed. The man was calmer now, and the driver got back on the bus.

As we pulled away, I heard the cries build again. Cries from the man who had to go back:

“I just want to go home….Please.”

His voice was weaker and less insistent. Defeated, but still with hope.

According to the man in the Veteran’s cap, the man’s home was a shelter on the edge of the city.

The bus made it down the hill before it stalled out. The driver stared ahead and said that it was her grandfather – mad at her for making her passenger go back. She said she was sorry. Passengers said she did a great job and thanked her. The bus started up again.

At the next stop, a woman got on, yelling at the driver for being so late. The driver smiled at said, “I’m truly sorry ma’am, but sometimes the unexpected happens.”

The sun was still shining.

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Taking chances here and there

When I was in middle school, I wanted to be a truck driver. Out on the open road like BJ and the Bear, without a care in the world except my haul. Then, my career plans changed – I wanted to be a van painter, traveling around the US turning people’s vehicles into pure magic through scenes depicting wolves, cougars, stallions, and other majestic creatures. I remember seeing a magazine article that featured someone who actually lived in their van (yes, there were shag carpets and lots of colors inside) and I thought that was the best way to live (apparently I wasn’t too concerned about showering and using the toilet back then). Kudos to my parents who just smiled and nodded as I planned my future – if they ever panicked on the inside, they didn’t show it, nor did they shut down my dreams.

For whatever reason, I really didn’t see these two wishes as a part of me that remains – until I read a blog post from a friend who is currently traveling a good chunk of the world on a motorcycle. She opened her story with “As a kid I wanted to be a truck driver so that I could be always on the road…” And that was it. My early life plans, although different, were about wanting to live freely, not being tied to a particular place. Wanting to experience new places, people, moments. I can even throw in my 4th-grade goal of being an archaeologist into the mix (thank you King Tut exhibit) – a job with travel as a primary focus. Until today, I honestly saw all these ideas as simply trying to figure out what I wanted to be when I grew up, and just figured those jobs were the coolest I could come up with at the time (read more on my thoughts on the career decisions and paths of youth, here). Turns out, truck driver, van painter, and archaeologist have more in common than I realized. And even though I am trying to settle back into the US, the open road keeps calling (photo credit).

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This could have been me.

A recent blog post from the Wall Street Journal helps me in my struggle to understand what draws me away: Away from security and loved ones. Away from establishing myself. Away from, what seems to be on some level, common sense. Here’s a quote from that blog explaining why expats are so drawn to their lives away from “home:” “Across all walks of expat life, many foreigners are united in their hesitation to “go back,” a description that often means more than just going home and implies returning to a previous state.”

Yes! That’s a huge part of it for me. There are many ways in which I’ve changed after traveling for two years. I like those changes. I don’t want to go back to the way I was before I left. But I feel myself slipping into that familiar role, into those same reactions to things I worked hard to shed. It’s all well and good to come back to my favorite cocktail at my favorite bar, or an Al Pastor taco – but coming back to certain aspects of my “previous state” is NOT something to savor. I accept the things that I did when I did them, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to do them again. Yet, in some ways, that is exactly what I am doing. And I’m not sure what to do about it beyond being mindful, noticing, and trying to practice self-compassion.

Another point in this WSJ post is about how living as an expat allows more opportunities to take chances, fail, try something else, and learn from the experience. The environment of another country can be so different that somehow it can “soften fears of failure. Foreigners are sometimes granted unspoken permission to try things that might be discouraged in their home countries. The combination can lead expats to take more risks…the expat life always offers another chance to make it all different…you can make amends with the mistakes you’ve done or miscalculations and start anew.”

By no means did I live without fear when I was overseas; there were experiences I passed up because I was nervous. I didn’t eat ALL the foods (sorry boiled chicken feet, but I couldn’t get passed your clammy texture and doughy beige color), and I didn’t push hard to have a camping experience while overseas (then again, I barely camp in the US). And I found it difficult to travel alone, so I know there were things I didn’t do in New Zealand and Australia that I could have done had I been a little more brave. But there were a lot of things that I DID do that I wouldn’t have done before: I went skydiving. I ventured into – and used – toilets too scary to recount here. I figured out how to do day-to-day stuff that before I would be too nervous to try because I might have screwed it up. I tried anyway. And sometimes I did screw up. But, as the quote above implies, that’s OK to do. In fact, in many ways it’s sort of encouraged. Try, screw up, learn, rinse, repeat.

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Silly tiles distracted me from the icky toilet in Cheonan, Korea.

In theory and in practice, I could take that mindset and apply it in the US. But somehow it’s more difficult. I can’t explain why yet. Yet there are things I want to do and try, but for whatever reason I can’t. It seems weird to say I need the safety of living in a strange place to have the courage to take chances. Maybe it’s because every day there are so many little challenges when you live abroad – a trip to the grocery store is an adventure. Trying to get a key made becomes a story in and of itself. Taking these little chances as part of daily living builds up confidence to take bigger ones.

Now I am in back familiar territory, looking for the unknown in the everyday. The challenge here may just be the search for challenge. Or maybe I can take up van painting after all.

I got to wait for my friend

All day I was looking forward to the concert – yes, the Barry Manilow concert. I grew up listening to him, and I was in for an evening of cheese and nostalgia. And time with my dear friend. She got us tickets through Groupon, inviting me because she knew I would be into it. Able to both laugh at the idea of going, but also completely enjoy it, too.

Work that day consisted of listening to interviews of people with chronic illness tell their stories. So many, back to back. I didn’t realize until the last one ended and I removed my headphones how much the hopelessness had sunk in. I sat, numb, until it was time to go.

The sun and the walk down the hill were both welcome. But, somehow I was unable to shake the weight from my mind. But it was OK, because in less than an hour my friend and I were grabbing dinner at one of the most renowned places in the city, and then off to hear a voice from our childhoods.

Then the text came through. No dinner, instead a later meeting at the over-priced restaurant at the venue. I had about an hour to kill. It was too late to go back to work, and not really enough time to go back to the house, only to turn around again to the venue I would pass on the bus to get there. So I got on the 6 and went to the show. And waited.

Tons of people were gathering early. It never occurred to me that some would be from out of town, yet the maps and clueless faces let me know otherwise; people traveled to get here. The sun was out, and the benches were full. So many older people looking so excited. Many dressed up in their finest for an evening out with Barry. People in wheelchairs, and using walkers. Couples holding each other up as they stood in line. I grabbed a seat on the edge of a bench already occupied by a woman in her 70s, but gave it up as a woman of similar age had her mother take the middle seat. I wandered off to another part of the area.

There I saw a woman in a long black evening gown with a huge faux diamond necklace; the whole ensemble clearly Oscar-worthy. Then a group of 20 or so, many developmentally-delayed children, marched by wearing identical “I Love Barry” shirts. I wouldn’t have seen any of this had we met up on time – up the street a mile away to eat at one of Portland’s most famous restaurants as we had planned. I was grateful that I had to wait for my friend that day.

P.S. The show was great! Barry Manilow remains a true performer and he still has serious pipes. Plus, glow sticks were handed out at the gate. I kid you not. I might have cried a little during Weekend in New England.

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Oh yeah — we also had kick-ass seats. Thanks Groupon!

In search of my people

In some ways I’m having a hard time adjusting to back to Portland (have I said this before? It feels like I have, which means it was, and still is, true). It’s cold here, and today is one of those stereotypical/prototypical Pacific Northwest days where it’s grey but not quite rainy. Mother Nature is misting down upon us like spray from a tongue raspberry – mocking me for leaving the warmth of the sun behind. Dave and the others say it’s unbearably hot in Rustaq now – 30 degrees warmer than here. In the flat we once shared with the aircon running. Outside, their centigrade temperature of blazing heat almost matches the Fahrenheit number here in Oregon. But I don’t care; I would rather be there. I haven’t felt warm all day. At least if I’m going to feel cold, I should be able to enjoy the hockey playoffs. No point in being cold without hockey.

Even though I’m back in North America, I live in a city that could not care less about the NHL*. A sad mismatch in my relationship with the city I call home. In fact, I almost didn’t move here because of its lack of hockey culture, considering Phoenix a better option with its sun and Coyotes. Yet, when the time came, I pointed my loaded-down car north instead of south as I drove out of the Bay Area, California – home of the San Jose Sharks.

I caught a glimpse of the good life in the three-plus months I lived in Toronto. There, after dinner with family, I would walk down to the local bar to watch the rest of the game. The first period was watched in the condo, and during first intermission I would hurry down the street to my choice of three bars showing the game. If I walked during the middle of a period, I could tell when there was a change in score based on the cheers or groans coming from the apartments above. Everyone in the whole city was watching. Inside, I would find a spot at the bar, or accept standing room only. Almost all of the screens would be on the game (except for the occasional lone one in the corner that would be tuned into curling, or perhaps the World Series). This is what home feels like, even though I dare to admit I was usually rooting for whoever was playing the Leafs.

Here, where the closest NHL team is hundreds of miles away and not even from this country, basketball dominates sports bar screens – despite the fact that the Trail Blazers were knocked out of the first round. Only four teams left in hockey, and no one cares. I found one bar that shows games – sometimes with sound! – while another one treats it the way Canada treated the World Series, hiding it in the corner, embarrassed to admit it exists. The rest don’t even do that.

I did find a bar dedicated to hockey, but it’s in Seattle. The Angry Beaver is 100% hockey – no NBA playoffs or even a lone curling match. Just Molson on tap, poutine, and ice on the screens. I wish there was a bar like this in Portland, especially now that the finals are about to begin. While I don’t really care about either team playing for the Cup this year, I am going to make an effort to go down to the one bar there and pray for sound. I’m sure there will be others like me, who prefer a rink to a court any and every time. Perhaps there will be a small community that comes out of the woodwork. We shall find each other, cheering or groaning at a score change. Just like everyone in Canada – only our beers will taste better.

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Believe it or not, this is not Toronto. Unfortunately, it’s not Portland either. Welcome to the Angry Beaver in Seattle.

 

*Yes, I know Portland has the Winterhawks and they are very good, losing in the finals this season to the Kelowna Rockets. Not interested. I have been to a couple of games and I prefer a higher level of play when I watch hockey. Sorry.

Everything Old is New Again

The old airport carpet was still there to welcome me despite its busy social calendar. I am back in Oregon. Reconnecting with friends, listening to sports radio, drinking good wine, enjoying rain. Relishing the fact that I am wearing a skirt that exposes me knees. So far, the culture shock has been minimal, but I haven’t done too much. Brunch with friends, time with family, sleep, and a happy hour. Oh, and I went to a crab feast for a high school fund raiser – a true sign I am back in the US.

It hasn’t hit me yet that I am back here for a while at least. It still feels a bit like a visit. Probably because I haven’t settled into my living situation yet. It will be a while before I am in a place I can call home.

I will still be writing about here and there, changes inside and out. There were so many things I experienced but didn’t share; journeys in nine different countries gave me the chance to reflect and learn so much. I’m looking forward to seeing which memories will come back to me as I build my life back in my hometown. Which ones will shape me the most.

For now, I am filling my calendar with friend time. Friends old and new. We will share stories in favorite haunts and I will find the new places that have sprung up since I’ve been gone. And of course there will be karaoke.

Stay tuned! I have no idea what will be next.

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I took this before clearing customs and was scolded by security. But she did understand my excitement and let me keep the photo. The carpet will be gone from here next month.