Looking down

Denver comes into view. Los Angeles comes into view. Oakland comes into view.

We sit on the porch in Colorado, people taking turns playing the guitar. We sit on the deck in Oakland telling stories of the past year and discussing chickens. We sit on the beach in Los Angeles and talk about learning to throw and to hit.

You called all the way from America” Joan Armatrading sings, as I drive 580 to meet an old friend. It can feel so far away.

Lifting off from Hong Kong after midnight the lights are muted but the city still bright. We pull up through the clouds and into darkness, amazed to be in flight. It has been some time.

Swimming in a pool with a friend’s seven year old I dive deep into the clear water, hunting colored plastic rings. He beats me to two of three and I am happy, surfacing to the bright Malibu sunshine and a view of the other side of the Pacific. Home is that way,” we joke, hanging on the pool’s edge and pointing west past the horizon. The gesture is a simple definition of distance, something everyone can grasp. Yet we are comfortable here, on freeway and in pools, in a way hard to remember from far across the ocean.

In an Oakland back yard I watch twins chase Tara around, and her them, in small circles. These are old friends, and younger ones, and we are glad of hours in each other’s company, with each other’s memories. There are good times to revisit, on beaches far from here, and sad times too. It’s been a year.

In another backyard some of our beach frisbee team reunites. They have all moved since our last visit, out of San Francisco to these hills and others. We are glad to sit and share tales of fires, of houses, and of children. There may not yet be disc to reunite us on a beach but backyards and hot tubs are more than enough.

In Colorado the house is clean and the puppies now old dogs. One limps slowly in and out of doors, following the humans he adores. He’s done well to survive to this visit, more than two years since the last. We are grateful to all be together, to show new songs learned in the time apart and hear old favorites once again.

And as we descend each time to new cities, to old haunts almost forgot, I marvel again at the ability to be aloft, to look down on the world and recognize even small spots from above.

California light

Sunset towards Malibu

Sitting in the hills north of Los Angeles, looking over the Pacific, the light seems both too harsh and too perfect. My eyes struggle to adjust to the brightness of air without humidity, or a sky without clouds. Along the horizon to the south the smog of downtown shades the air brown. In all other directions the sky is the particular light blue of southern California. As usual, it is both hot in the sun and cool in the shade. After two months of summer sweat and air conditioning in Hong Kong, leaving the patio doors swung wide is a glorious feeling.

We are once again on the move. For the first time in twenty twenty one we have crossed a border, boarded an airplane. For the first time in twenty twenty one we are in the company of old, old friends. For the first time in twenty twenty one we are on vacation. The combination is a wonderful feeling. Driving up the coast last night, working hard to do simple things like lane changes correctly after a year and a half abroad, we marveled at how comfortable we are here, on the southern coast of California, where neither of us are from and where we have never lived. We are comfortable here, on the PCH, precisely for that reason: it’s always vacation.

There’s a glory to returning to a vacation spot, to well-known restaurants and streets, to old friends and familiar beds. It’s an easy trigger for the body, which relaxes so quickly in these comfortable surroundings. Arriving, we chat with our hosts in the quiet dark of the house before all heading to shower and bed. We are so much more comfortable than we’d been, two dozen hours before, still exhausted from the work day and barely finished cleaning and packing.

Hospitals

A Bangkok hospital view

Some parts of life don’t bear talking about. Factories, mostly. I spend a lot of time in factories, time that forms a base of knowledge I have spent so many hours on the road to acquire. And yet it’s hard to talk about factories. Complicated, really.

Hospitals are like that too. Except I didn’t mean to spend so much time in them. Some days I remember the details. I remember waiting in the UCSF hospital while Tara got ACL surgery, nervous and uncertain in a tiny sitting area with no windows. Reading bad old magazines and trying not to stare at the only other visitor, an old man. Wondering over and over what or who he was waiting for but neither of us in any mood for talk.

The next time I had to wait through Tara’s surgery I went sneaker shopping in Siam Discovery, a fancy Bangkok mall. I had a couple hours they’d said, and knew better than to sit still. Sneaker shopping sounds fun, and often is fun. I remember walking the BTS stations almost surprised how normal everything felt. How normal my body was, despite the huge scrapes on my arms and legs. I felt worried, but also lucky, the doctor having cleared my shoulder after an exam. Only Tara’s wrist broken, after the motorcycle crash in northern Laos. Just the small bones. Just her right hand. Five years later it’s still a hard week to think about.

The third time wasn’t even surgery. Just stitches and a lot of cleaning, a lot of cutting dead skin away. She was awake. I left the room, pacing the entry to the fancy Hong Kong hospital for an hour at midnight on a Sunday. Nervous and tired but pretty sure she’d be ok. That was easier, but still too hard.

In March of last year it was again voluntary, or scheduled: one night in the hospital alone after shoulder surgery. My left, beat up by years of climbing and frisbee. And probably never a hundred percent since New York. Or since that motorcycle crash. Overnight hospital stays, like Ben Watt says in his book Patient, are strange things. Peaceful but without rest, the body either shutting down or being woken up for pills, for checks, by pain. It’s hard to sleep, even in a private room, even with luxury. I got laid off that morning, by phone, before the nurses brought more pain killers. Overnight hospital stays, when they’re going ok, are an awful lot of time to think, and no energy at all for thinking.

And then New York, of course. Two different hospitals. Five nights each. Surgery with fingers and biting on sweatshirts. A lot of pain and long waits to try walking. A lot of slow hellos with nothing to say. A lot of time to stare and think and no energy at all.

Hospitals are hard to talk about. Like factories.

Make time

Light in London one afternoon in October 2006

Stephen King’s commencement speech to my Vassar class was a good one. His message, that you can’t take it with you,” never left me. Every year since I try to do more with, and waste less of, what I’ve got. The efforts aren’t always successful. I’ve spent a lot of time playing games and goofing off, and a lot of time on skills I don’t always need. Mostly, here half way through my forty second year, I’ve spent a lot of time.

My grandfather, on the phone a few weeks back, just eighty seven, said I never expected to be this old.” The line echoed in my head all week. Who does? And yet underneath the statement is the simple math, that he is more than twice as old as I am now. We have time, or we could have time, if we’re lucky and healthy and work hard at making more of both.

You said you needed time, and you had time,” Ani sings on a song Tara’s been learning to play. We do, I think, though never as much as we’d like, not with the people we most want it with. I think of the methods, of the sums. Half hour phone calls, hour long video chats, and text strings that cover years, that drop for days and re-emerge with new questions, new thoughts for that friend from years ago. Mostly I think about the good days, about the long weekend in Amsterdam with a friend I’d met in Tokyo. It was after the World Cup in 2006, and we spent the weekend relaxing and wandering the canals. I think about how there are no pictures of that weekend, how without both of us to remember, I’d have forgotten it entirely by now.

From October of that same year there are photos, somewhere, of our time in London together, of our brief wanderings as I jammed more travel into a busy year. In those photos we are young, and happy, and as unfinished as anyone in their late twenties can look. We are still en route to so much, still before so much.

Life, it seems, is like that. There’s never a sense of how far we have to go, only of how far we’ve been. Sitting on the floor of our office in Hong Kong on a Sunday, writing while Tara chops ume for pickles, I think of how lucky we were to have folk visit before travel stopped. How despite all the urging we did, we probably didn’t do enough. Because there might not be time, after. The world is here, now. Or it was, and, vaccines done, we hope it will be again. I’m getting ready, on these quiet weekends of chores and writing, for whatever’s next. Getting ready to move again, to act again, and to be part of other people’s lives again. It’s been a while.

We said we needed time, like Ani sings. Have we had time?

Until tomorrow

First, when given freedom, we meet friends, we meet new people, we gather groups and hike new paths to new rocks. We work to keep each other safe, to help each other up, new fingers on old routes. These gatherings are peaceful, everyone united in joy to be outside by the sea with raw fingers and sore toes. We share pads and water, snacks and tips for surviving, for getting to the top. In many ways climbing, during these last few months of lockdown, has replaced frisbee as our source of friends, though of course many faces are the same, like us moving between activities depending on season, weather, and level of quarantine. Together we try new things and learn to take joy in small steps, in getting something the second time out, or third. We learn the best way to each spot and the best place to put pads on the ground. We learn how to spot, and hope not to fall enough to need much. And then we hike back, when our fingers are raw, when the sun starts to set, when we run out of energy for pulling.

And then, showered, gear away, fed, I start to prepare for the week to come. I do laundry, and make notes for our Monday morning management meeting. I pick up the bedroom and pay bills, I clean up my desk and my desktop. And finally, ready but not yet ready to sleep, I read fiction and write. The cat, happy to have the bouldering pad back, stretches out on it to claim ownership, and naps. We are happy to be here together, resting in the slow hours of the week’s end. We enjoy each other’s company, the house quiet save for some tunes, save for the washer’s thrum and the tick tack of my typing.

It’s a good life, here, with space to breathe and time to before sleep to turn over some of the things I’d forgotten. Answering personal emails after a week’s delay, or checking on things I’d meant to research, is a good way to close down, to wrap up, and to feel human again. We need these hours, I think, as a buffer, as a way to be who we were, before jobs, before friends houses or beers on Friday, before de-stressing, before stressing, before a task list. We need these hours on Sunday evenings to remember where we were headed, and who we were hoping to be.