“Always begin at the beginning or you’ll never really know how far you have come.” ~ Ms. Beatra’s Book of Little Wisdoms
Travelling: love, life, and one day, death.
I don’t know if there is science to it, but I like the Buddhist notion that if we peel back enough layers of accumulated senses of self, ultimately, we find that at our core, we all have a buddha, an enlightened nature.
Everyone is a buddha if the funk can be knocked off the center. That center is love.
For me, and I am no buddha by any stretch of imagination, this has helped me to see that every moment isn’t as it may seem. There are many lenses that can be used to view any moment. Some we choose, and some we don’t realize we are using.
In the beginning, my beginning, my parents considered abortion—so I’ve been told by my father recently, I don’t know. My mother never mentioned it. They were young. I wouldn’t have known. Knowing now doesn’t make anything different. I’m not sure that knowing this has had any sort of conscious effect on my thinking. I’m not sure what my dad was trying to tell me when he told me. It was simply a fact.
But I’m here.
It wasn’t about wanting or not wanting me in the world that determined what they chose. It was about them—what they could and couldn’t do, what they could and couldn’t provide. It was about totally revisiting everything they had to do with a future they hadn’t imagined. They were young and were just about to graduate from college. It really wasn’t about me. That’s someone else’s story.
Time goes so quickly when I’m not thinking in the moment. Years seem like minutes, yet moments, if not crawling, can seem frozen.
It’d been two years since my last international trip, and they’d passed like yesterday, yet trying to pinpoint just where and when I had gone anywhere was like tracking down a dream: distant, ephemeral, untouchable.
Each day, I make choices.
“Come to Em’s wedding,” my friend said. He’s an old friend, and it meant a lot to me simply to be asked. Originally it was going to be in Miami, but due to confusing COVID-19 circumstances, Miami didn’t work and the couple was invited by the Iberostar Resort chain to marry in the Dominican Republic. This, too, was someone else’s story.
Buddhists speak in depth about attachment and aversion as being fundamental to suffering. We cling to things when they are pleasant and avoid unpleasant because they are unpleasant. These aren’t just material things, or friends, but feelings, ideas, and sensations. It’s not striving to be a zombie, but simply to understand that there is always flux and flow.
Everything is temporary and everything changes, whether I want to accept it or not.
I’d never been to the Dominican Republic despite it being a short hop from Florida and Florida being full of wonderful Dominicans.
I don’t like crowds. The pandemic is real. Airplanes at this time appear to be full of misbehaving idiots. I hadn’t budgeted for a trip; money is a concern. My ongoing, seemingly never-ending divorce proceedings keep asking for the same documents over and over because they drag on. I hate having to ask for time off from work—time actually owed to me but they like to pretend it’s theirs because it is always a pretend issue with them. With all this baggage I have, dealing with the logistics of foreign travel paperwork seemed daunting.
My passport and vaccination records for measles, typhus, hepatitis A and B, as well as COVID-19 are up to date. I have a smallpox vaccination scar but no paperwork. I always think I might have to go somewhere, anywhere.
Sometimes, choices are small. I’m old enough to know that if I didn’t go, I would simply remember that I didn’t go, but not remember why.
The idea of getting away and being with friends in a beautiful place, even if I am terrible with the language, is self-care. I’ve been told that’s a good thing. Where’s the line between care and self-indulgence? I don’t know, but I do know I want to support my friends and have fun.
I told him I’ll be there.
I followed instructions from the bride and groom, filled out the Dominican Republic’s immigration documents online, paid for my hotel, and began to brush up on my Spanish with Duolingo and native speaker friends.
There are no direct flights from Tampa.
A Dominicana friend suggested I spend the night in Orlando and fly from there. Numerous hotels allow travelers to leave their cars until return. Traffic from Tampa to Orlando is always, no matter the day or time, busy. It was comforting to know that rushing in the early morning to the airport and getting stuck in traffic could be avoided.
Plans are guides, not realities.
Meditation teachers speak of abiding without clinging in reference to things, sensations, emotions, friends, family, and thoughts. Originally, I thought abiding was accepting circumstances, being weak, and lacking courage.
I’m alive if I’m in motion.
I bought a new small carry-on bag and packed it a week in advance. I watched for flight cancellations, as they are common due to pandemic related issues. Go-day, I threw my bag in the car and left after work.
I knew traffic would be bad. It’s always bad. The plan was to ride it out. I’ll stay the night at the Orlando airport hotel, wake confident, roll out of bed, and then take an elevator to the concourse. I’ll have a coffee, a spot to eat, and there will be plenty of time to relax before masking up and flying to the Caribbean.
So often, I have thought of experiences as things that occur outside of myself, like watching TV but being there. I relinquish control of events, having a sense that I am outside of them rather than a part of them. Abiding is different: being with something, within something. Abiding is understanding that I am not only a part of the experience, I am also the experience itself. It’s agency. It’s strength.
I’m here now.
On the road, I was in the left lane with heavy traffic, going about 80 to stay with the others, when I noticed the emergency light for tire pressure was on. To my right was a large, black pick-up truck and another lane packed with cars to the right of it.
Since before I can remember, I have been tied to highways and interstates. I was almost born in the back seat of a Nash Rambler, my father trying to make time on a highway in the Adirondacks to a hospital in the city. I wasn’t—they made it to the hospital. They had choices to make and those were their choices. For my parents, it seems I had an awkward entrance into the world.
Traffic was heavy but flowing. I tried to accelerate to try to pass and change lanes when I thought I heard the truck beside me beginning to make noise. That sucks, I thought, then I smelled smoke and my car began to roar and shudder. My right front tire shredded itself on the interstate, the roar was the remains of my tire thrashing my wheel well.
In my mind, I saw my car begin to spin.
In my mind, the car rolled.
I thought I was going to die or be seriously injured. My body felt fine. I didn’t die, I wasn’t injured.
My parents were young and it was a time before Roe v. Wade. The consequences of abortion for my mother were not only to be shunned by family but to risk serious injury, possibly permanent injury, or even death.
The choice wasn’t about me and never should have been.
Again, I never would have known. I do know, now. I loved my mother, as she was a delightful, loving, and lovely person, with or without me. I had two children and was worried I wouldn’t be able to give them enough to ensure they would thrive. I am fortunate—they did. The choices were about what my wife at the time and I could do. Our relationship didn’t survive, but we both have as individuals. We’ve each made choices.
The car, tire gone, rim sparking at 80 miles per hour, was in control. My body was able to ease it over into the left median, half on the grass and half in the breakdown lane. The car shuddered as the pressure wave of a truck washed past.
This was not my moment to die.
The sun was setting. I stepped out of the car and walked around to check the right front. There was nothing but rim with small smoking remnants of tire. I was still only halfway to the airport. I didn’t want to lay in the road to change the wheel.
I called AAA.
“We can have someone there in about three hours, sir,” the call center woman said.
“I’ll be killed in three hours; this interstate has one of the highest accident rates in the United States.” And it does. Interstate 4, the road from Tampa to Disney World, is one of the most dangerous roads in the country.
“I’ll put an emergency code in, but still, the nearest driver is in Lakeland.”
“How, what, really? That’s not close…”
“I put an emergency code on the call sir, that’s the best I can do. Maybe a Road Ranger will come by.”
As well traveled as I4 is, no ranger, no cops, not even a sympathetic wave came my way. Traffic rushed on. It didn’t seem possible.
It was getting dark; I kept my flashers and lights on and briefly noticed a black snake sidewinding onto the highway from the median.
It doesn’t have a chance, I thought and checked my mirrors for a tow truck.
The only light came from the headlights of the constant flow of cars and trucks on this section of the interstate. It was dark. The car shook each time a vehicle sped by. At least twice I watched in my rearview mirror and saw cars using the breakdown lane to pass. They blasted their horns as they sped by. Apparently, my vehicle, using the lane for being broken down, was their inconvenience.
A department of transportation truck pulled up behind me. I got out to thank them. The men in the truck shook their heads. “That sucks,” the one in the passenger seat said.
“If you don’t mind getting back in your car, we’re just going to drive around you. I hope someone shows up soon,” said the driver. He waited till I got back in my car, then used the median to go on his way.
Waiting is not abiding.
My father told me that my grandfather, my mother’s father, a devout Catholic, was not going to come to their wedding. His parents were disappointed in him. It was a big deal for him to go to college and this moment, me possibly coming into the world, jeopardized his and my mother’s graduations. It seems they felt things were very up in the air and that it all was being horribly determined no matter what path they decided to take, but they made choices.
It wasn’t my father’s choice to make, although my coming into the world gave him and her an indelible link. He didn’t want her to be hurt or die, and he didn’t know if sharing his life with her was right, but he knew not being supportive if she chose to go on wasn’t right either. She would need to not feel or be alone. He chose to love her either way. It wasn’t about me. He chose love.
I had stopped thinking about the Dominican Republic. I just wanted to get to the airport.
For about what was supposed to be an hour drive, I had been on the road for about three hours. It was around eight in the evening when a white SUV pulled up behind me and turned on its flashers. My phone buzzed. The SUV was the AAA vehicle.
Now two of us are going to die on this damn road, I thought and hopped out of the car.
He waved, hopped from his door, and pulled a jack from the back of his SUV while I popped the trunk and grabbed the emergency doughnut tire. He nodded, took the tire from me, and checked the pressure. He gave it a couple pounds, then commenced to carry and pull everything to the front, staying inches from traffic.
Then he screamed, stepping into traffic—and a car going about 75 or 80 leaned on its horn as it swerved past. He ignored it. “F*ck this, I don’t need this. There’s a snake under the car.” Indeed, the black snake I had seen earlier was under the car.
“I’m not going to die on this road tonight. You’re going to fix the tire. Don’t bother the snake. I’ll grab a flashlight and watch the snake. Now stay out of the passing lane, that’s more likely to kill you than the snake.”
“I just don’t need to get bit man,” he said. He dragged the jack back and I grabbed a flashlight. This time he came around the driver’s side and I held my light on the snake.
My parents didn’t expect my mother’s father to show up at the wedding. He did. My father’s parents didn’t think either my father or mother would get through their final semesters in college. They did. As a child, I never heard about my parents’ wedding. I don’t recall ever having seen any pictures.
“Done,” the young man said and dropped the car back down. My flashlight flickered out. He came back around the car with the jack and my rim. I took the rim and set it in the trunk as he headed to his SUV. “Where’s the snake?” he asked.
I looked down, saw something sinuous on my shoe and instinctively kicked. We laughed. It was a shred of tire. “Flashlight died,” I said, “I don’t know where it went but I do know I’ll be careful getting back into my car. Thank you.” He nodded and shut his door.
My wedding had nothing to do with kids. We thought we were in love, and back then, I thought we were a team.
I’m in the midst of divorce. My wife, soon to be ex-wife, put these tires on the car just before I had filed for divorce. Coincidence that one of these tires almost killed me? Could be if you believe in coincidence. My next half hour to Orlando turned into an hour on the doughnut spare.
Google navigate took me away from the airport.
“I thought I had booked a room in the airport hotel,” I told the young lady at the counter. She nodded.
“Yes,” she looked empathetic, “that happens, but no, you have a room here.”
“I don’t know, sir, but you’re booked here, not at our airport location.”
“The lady on the phone told me the airport.”
“I see sir, yes, but you’re booked here.”
“My car? I need to go to Santo Domingo in the morning…”
“You can leave it here, sir, and it is half what it would have cost at the airport.”
I realized this would help cover the cost of a new tire and nodded. “Okay then, shuttle?”
“Yes, takes about 10 to 15 minutes and one leaves every half hour. Here’s your room key and a parking pass.”
I went to the car, hung the pass on the rearview mirror, and grabbed my luggage. When I returned to the lobby, the young women waved. “Do you have a bar with food or anything like that?”
“It’s closing in a few minutes—go through the door toward the elevators, go left, and then take another left, and step into the first door on your left.” She smiled and I followed her directions.
I was back at the front desk, albeit just to the left of the front desk.
“Is this the bar where I can get some food?”
The young lady smiled again, “Yes.”
“It looks like the left side of the front desk,” I said.
“It’s the right side from where I am standing, but yes” she said.
I was about 10 feet from where I had begun my night at this hotel. Although the kitchen was closing, I could get a salad. The “bar” had cans of various American beers and liquor labeled, “Whisky,” “Scotch,” and “Bourbon,” each a slightly different shade of caramel color, all from California. I ate my chicken salad and drank a “Scotch” with a side of soda water.
Tomorrow, I’ll begin again, I thought as I stepped into the elevator to go to my room. The experiences and choices may or may not be life-changing; they may or may not be entirely in my conscious control; they may or may not be pleasant—like there could be a cottonmouth in the wheel well of my car. But all of it, like right now, will be a part of me and me it, making the choices and consequences mine. Tomorrow, I will be in Punta Cana by noon.