Saturday, July 13, 2013

How Was Your Trip?

side of a truck that's been graffitied, paris, june 2013
It's the first question I get upon returning from Europe each summer.
Sometimes I get it when I take smaller teaching trips - Toronto, Chicago, even.
But there's nothing quite like being gone for five weeks to Europe.

It's a fair question to ask. A kind one. And one I often don't want to answer. Here's why.

Until I have processed a trip for myself, I have a very hard time talking about it to someone else. I have the great fortune to be surrounded by many soulful folks - friends, students, sangha members - all of whom want to know how it actually *really* was. And yet, if I haven't gotten any grasp on how it *really* was for myself, then I either feel fake (with surface level answers) or too vulnerable (with deeper answers). At some point, with any experience, I reach a state where I can give pat answers, then a state where I can "use" my interactions with others, especially deep interactions. Eventually,  even surface questions, I can somehow get deep insights out of, either from the other person or from bouncing ideas off them. But in those first few days home, it is a free fall from the journey back to my life. In that time, I don't want any contact at all: few emails, no calls. It's a tough state to be in.

During this initial arrival, I go through a few stages. Finding the fine line between me hiding when I get home (so hard to do when traveling/so easy to do in my own house) and taking the nurturing time I need to land is difficult, for sure. In traversing these boundaries this year, I am picking up on a pattern or two...

1. Shock. What? I am home? This place I hoped to return to even as I was so happy somewhere else?
Who are you? My wife? Are those really my cats?

For me, this can last a couple of hours - up to a day in total, but usually fades. In fact, Freeman Patterson, amazing Canadian photographer, calls this a real clarity of seeing - seeing fresh - which we do all the time but overlook. It's unpleasant in this case, but also very real.

2. Appreciation. Wow. How nice to be somewhere where _____ (I know everyone, I have more clothes again, I can choose what I eat basically whenever I want it, etc).

Comfort and challenges that are familiar, both. But this doesn't last long, or not for any one long period. It is interspersed with other states, as it always is in life.

3. Irritation. Often concurrent with appreciation, I find the most basic things irritating. How my wife tells long stories. The way our cats have chewed up the rug. Mosquitoes.

Familiar things, only their downsides totally apparent. Sometimes this causes a real questioning, real doubt: wait a second. Should I have come home? Maybe this was a bad idea.

You will note that none of these stages have anything to do with processing my trip.
Not really. Sure, there might be some comparisons ("In England there WEREN'T any mosquitoes, I really missed your touch," etc), but that's not processing.

The processing is happening underground the whole time. As I am still a bit in shock throughout the first week or so, not to mention jet-lagged, my body and mind want recuperating time. I approach conversations gingerly. When people ask how my trip was, any time in those first few days, I am likely to say "Good. Intense. Glad to be home." Keep it short and simple.

After a few days, though, I can start to sift out what happened. For instance, yesterday in therapy I was able to tie together a theme out of my entire trip, one that seems so obvious afterwards but wasn't that apparent as it happened. Often this will occur even as the listener has no idea I have gone there - I'll mention two seemingly disparate parts of the trip out loud and suddenly see the connection. This is true of life, of course, always, but what is nice about a trip is that it makes a finite period of time. This is when I know I am shifting out of the cocoon of arrival and back into some kind of gear with my "regular" life.

"How was your trip?" is often an easier question to answer than "How has your life been since I saw you last?" At any point in time I could be in one of these states about a particular period of my life that is currently happening: beginning, middle, ending. But unlike a trip, beginnings and middles and endings are a lot more ambiguous. Maybe, after all, this is one of the things I like about travel: it is a container, a clear-cut set of time that contains experiences and contextualizes them. It marks before and after the trip.

There's a sadness there - some of the transition time helps me to hold on to what was precious, or even painful, about the trip. Eventually, though, it is time to let go, time to close the gap between the trip and life. And in that letting go comes insight. I am sure I'll be writing about my trip long after everyone has forgotten to ask about it, just like insights about my father or mother's death came only after people stopped giving me condolences. There's no time limit on processing, no statute of limitations on grief or insight.

How was my trip? Not yet done. What a long, strange trip it's been.


  1. I think I know what you mean. When I return from a retreat, I literally can't talk about it at all. I lack words describing it. It seems like a parallel universe, an entirely different version of the world, of my way of thinking, feeling, a different self. Sometimes, after a while, things surface and find words - but sometimes, they don't.
    Oh, and I can totally relate to your irritation. I can't stand it when I come home from a trip and the litter box smells. It kills every feeling of happiness to be home. Joey now cleans it up before I arrive, so that it's all fresh and the house smells good.

    Take your time.