Now and then, I end up writing mostly fragments and thoughts, numbering them. This happens to me during periods of grief. It also happened to me the past couple of weeks when I was traveling a lot.
I guess it makes sense. At a time of transitions in my life, I can’t write transitions worth a damn. So:
1) “Jet lag is bullshit!”
My husband said this in a loud, authoritative voice at a dinner party a couple of years ago. I wanted to strangle him — since I thought he was wrong, wrong, wrong — but noticed that everyone else was paying attention. Hell, a couple of them were practically taking notes. He is, after all, an expert in certain psychological areas.
“You know, people really take you seriously when you issue one of your inane proclamations,” I told him on the way home. “They’re going to be catatonic with jet lag and thinking they’re only imagining it. Blaming themselves — because of you.”
“You’ve gotta make people think,” he said, getting one of his big grins on his face.
I think about this as I am sitting in the lobby of a hotel in Gdynia, Poland, and the phone is ringing. It rings, it stops, it rings again and again. Why doesn’t the woman behind the desk answer it? What is wrong with her? Doesn’t she know I haven’t slept in 36 hours, have spent the night in a warped approximation of fetal position in steerage class, and may, possibly, lose my mind in the next 10 seconds?
After the 103rd ring of the phone, my sister arrives and I stand up uncertainly. My sister notices the parrot in the corner and the parrot notices her. Then the damned bird squawks just like a ringing phone.
2) When I’m in a place where French, German or Spanish is spoken, I struggle to catch words and phrases and spend a good part of my time berating myself for not keeping up with languages I once had some familiarity with. In a place where you have no grounding whatsoever in the language, though, you have a certain freedom. You overhear lengthy, impassioned conversations and you are free to interpret them as you will.
Instead of focusing on words and their meanings, you listen to the rhythm, to the melody, to the emotions of another language. It’s like watching ocean waves come in on the sand. You understand something about the tide and the underlying forces, even if you never get wet.
3) My sister shows me a beautiful beach on the Baltic. “This is where I was walking with a friend,” she says, “when you called to tell me Daddy had died.”
I watch the water coming in and think of her there. Maybe, like today, it was a pretty day, and she was having a lovely time walking on the shore. A pretty day, a day with a friend, and then her phone rang and it all changed on her. Only the waves stayed the same.
In the absence of caller i.d., no one ever ignores a ringing phone. Unless, of course, it turns out to be a parrot.
4) The point is, you can travel, but the news always catches up with you. My daughter emails me about the monumental Supreme Court decision about health care. I am by myself in my hotel room, ecstatic, but with no one to celebrate with. I end up going on Facebook to repeatedly express my pleasure.
This sense of being alone with portentous news you can’t explain to anyone around you also happened to me 40 years ago in Le Mans, France. I was living there briefly with a French family. One morning, I learned that J. Edgar Hoover had died. I kept trying to explain his importance and the magnitude of his death to my French family — but, of course, they’d never heard of him.
Similarly, this. How do you explain to any European how important the health care decision is? Is there really such thing as a First World country without it?
Forty years later and 40 years older, I have to wonder what I’ve gained besides a little cellulite. My French has gone straight to hell and I still can’t explain my own damned country to the rest of the world. Or, really, even to myself.
(Copyright 2012 by Ruth Pennebaker)