I am a Ninja.
My jaw muscles twitch at the appropriate times as a signal to other human-type beings that I’m on a quest and incapable of small talk. As a traveling photographer with agoraphobic tendencies and sound sensitives, my sanity and the welfare of others depends on my ability to tune everything out while simultaneously taking it all in.
Now before I proceed to sell myself out on every level, I should mention that hauling a few hundred pounds of architectural photography equipment through several airports is much like Crossfit training. Especially when you factor in my knack for doing everyday things with what I would like to consider an impractical yet commanding stage presence.
Please do not mistake my lackluster packing methods and logistical handicaps as an excuse for the antisocial behavior and ill thoughts I am about to share with you in detail. It’s simply a matter of practicality. It is very difficult to smile in a non-threatening way when I’m gripping my bronze-studded and severed purse strap between my teeth and yet somehow balancing precariously in this sort of slow motion, carry-on spin cycle. Shoulders are hunched as if I bent to reach for my heels but then overshot, projecting head-first through my spread legs…and now I’m on a trajectory of pain and humiliation with my white knuckles still grasping the handle of my rogue carry-on.
It looks a little something like this at various stages of the “complete fail” process.
Also, yoga is one of the many ways the Universe tries to save us from ourselves. The Universe thinks it’s hilarious to make me fall in the exact way that I can ultimately best help myself.
My latest trips included Charleston, SC and Memphis, TN to photograph memory care communities. Everywhere I go, I make an effort to experience part of the local culture, even if it’s just a glimpse. I am often overwhelmed with gratitude for the small kindnesses of strangers. These moments keep me in touch with my own physical and spiritual footprint. And I wonder: What is the ripple I leave in my wake?
I discovered a miracle cure for anxiety on the flight to South Carolina. “Discovered” meaning that I’m in the quaint 16% that are just now adopting technology invented decades before we were born.
I had my breakthrough shortly after I squeezed into the aisle seat at the back of the plane between the bathroom and a passionate man and woman untethered in their race to reach the mile high club. Between turns at 42,000-foot Twister, my peripheral vision was awarded long, slow and gratuitously wet pulls on an oversized lollipop by the hearty female half of the couple. Even the roar of the engine and unearthly moans emerging from the bathroom weren’t enough to drown out the sound of the same giddy blonde being tickled by a Pantone 154 (commonly referred to as "burnt orange") Romeo 20 years her senior.
Suddenly, my cells were alive with the electricity of an idea I knew would resolve the issue. I reached into my bag pushing aside an assortment of pill boxes, lip gloss and leaking lotion bottles to pull out my Bose noise cancelling headphones. Now I understand this is a very obvious solution in the moment but did you know being swaddled in white noise is also quite helpful throughout the airport, in the rental car line and even during tense encounters with security?
As the result of my newfound auditory solace, I was able to spend several hours of that overnight trip deep in self-reflection since the blonde’s fish-netted legs across my lap limited the necessary movement to attempt any degree of comfortable slumber. I considered the different levels of oblivion that we encounter while traveling:
Level I: Oblivion by default or circumstance
Level II: Oblivion since birth (or otherwise genetic oblivion)
Level III: Deliberate or fake oblivion (which is often mistaken for its evil cousin, ignorance)
In our native environment we can expect to experience several minor episodes of Oblivion Levels I and II throughout the day that are off-putting but generally leave our souls intact. On a crowded plane, all bets are off and Oblivion III manifests as thinly masked, well-timed distraction.
While there is a wealth of material I could cover on all three levels, I would like to focus on Oblivion I which is the level I can most relate to. It is the one keeping my ego in constant check with nearly instantaneous karmic justice.
Now I realize the 24 hour use of noise cancelling headphones puts me square in the middle of Level III Oblivion but it also prevents me from entering the Three Levels of Rage and Anxiety so I feel like it’s a wash.
Level I Oblivion is best defined as the complete absence of spacial awareness. It is as if the seemingly benign act of walking through the revolving doors of the airport scrambles our code and the cellular properties that conventionally define our bodies, belongings and personal space. My narrative of headphone induced self-reflection pointed out that I lose patience with people for what I falsely perceive as Levels II and III Oblivion, when in reality the breakdown of spacial awareness is simply a product of circumstance and over stimulation. For example, I must acknowledge that the family juggling three sleep-deprived kids is not on the plane for the sheer joy of touching all of my nerves at once. The crying, the ill-timed food fights and the abundance of colorful carry-ons that equate to a traffic jam of epic proportions are an inevitable reality for the family who just wants to get from Point A to Point B in one piece.
By opening myself to spiritual growth through a fundamental change of perception, my mindshare of judgement naturally concedes to empathy. My hawk-like Quest Face softens and my eyes open to how I could be of service to others that are also suffering from the Revolving Door Scramble. One clear benefit to this softening is that my body language and eye contact begins to communicate to others that we are all in this together and that sometimes I could use a little help too.
My newly enlightened state did little to prevent me from exercising my own right to practice Level I Oblivion with reckless abandon on the trip to Memphis. Imagine, if you will, the scene at baggage check. I have two oversized bags and two carry-ons that each have the molecular density of pure lead. One of these is a wheeled Pelican case and the other is my weighty camera backpack.
I am in the shame-inducing process of redistributing the contents of my oversized luggage to bring the baggage fees under the Sell-Your-Firstborn-Child mark. In the midst of this chaos, I hear the muted voice of the attendant through my noise cancelling bubble of self containment.
“Ma’am, your stuff.”
I realize in that moment that my belongings have infected two lanes of foot traffic and is threatening a third causing precisely the kind of scenario that I typically look upon with contempt in others.
With this new awareness comes responsibility. After I clear safe passage for 20 or so seemingly patient travelers, I consider myself reformed. I commit to a renewed dedication of self awareness and the maintenance of my own personal space. But this commitment is short lived as I hike up my backpack, grab my heavy-duty rolling carry-on and make my way over to the deli for a tuna sandwich to go.
The lot of us headed to Memphis begin to board the small plane and the order of boarding takes on moral significance. If my group is called first, do I hold up the line while wrestling with the physical improbability of seamless storage? Or do I crush the knee caps of everyone in the aisle seats with my rolling carry-on that has adopted all the quirks and independent characteristics of an IKEA shopping cart?
Several knee caps later, I begin the arduous process of situating myself in the tiny seat I’ve claimed as the new boundary of my personal space. In the rising action of my solo performance, I attempt to remove the backpack that moments earlier defied the laws of physics to squeeze under the seat to the attendant’s satisfaction. After a second round of spastic jerks to the seat in front of me, I extract my warm tuna sandwich that has been molded into a fun new shape by my blow-dryer and several hardcover novels. From the wrapper, I wipe off the coconut scented lotion that had leaked in my bag and use it to rehydrate my chafed hands and any other exposed parts. As I take the first bite of my fish sandwich, I am suddenly aware that the aroma has already permeated the entire cabin and the woman to my right is engaged in a loosing battle with Level II Rage and Anxiety.
Armed with this knowledge, I must now decide whether I want to throw the grace of others and my own self respect to the wind by engaging in Level III Oblivion behavior. After the initial blissfully unaware bite, I take the high road and repackage my tuna sandwich with all the care and heightened sensitivities of a bomb squad at work.
Our flight arrives late and many of us stay seated so that passengers who are making connections can exit the plane first. The patience of those who remain seated reinforces my belief in humanity which traveling often puts to the test. I am in the Unmanageable Luggage Class and one of the last to leave the plane. I take a moment to absorb my surroundings at the gate and then begin the long trek to baggage claim and the rental cars. As I pass the third gate headed west through the airport, a familiar voice breaks through my protective noise-cancelling barrier. It is familiar because it’s the same woman’s voice that I heard disciplining her three kids on the plane. Like me, she was one of the last to leave but went out of her way to follow me with her tribe in tow.
In my haste to leave the plane, I had hiked up my backpack and along with it, the back of my dress, which was now embedded under 50 pounds of toiletries, novels and camera gear, revealing my entire ass to the surrounding gates. I sheepishly thanked the woman and proceeded to disentangle my sweaty and wrinkled clothing before continuing my quest to Point B.
By the very definition of oblivion, there is little we can do to avoid it. It happens to each of us when an abundance of stimulation blocks the flow of information from the space around us to our brain’s processing center. The same sort of code scramble happens at the entrance to the grocery store when the person in front of you is overwhelmed with gratitude at the abundance of free hand sanitizer and proceeds to bathe in it while you wait. Or the chance meeting of long lost friends at the bottom of the escalator resulting in unfathomable horrors of spacial breakdown as people descend helplessly into an unmovable cluster of bodies.
It is with that closing mental image that I am reminded of Detective Graham Waters’ quote in the movie “Crash.”
“In the real city you, you walk, you know? You brush past people. People bump into you. In L.A. nobody touches you. We're always behind this metal and glass. I think we miss that touch so much that we crash into each other just so we can feel something.”
I feel you, Universe. I feel you.
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