Two weeks ago, a girlfriend asked me if I wanted to go to San Miguel de Allende with her for the New Year. My heart immediately said YES! But my passport (the rascal) said NO! It had expired so long ago that I couldn’t even renew it. I had used it only once, on a trip to Germany in March of 1989. The fact that my little blue travel book with only two stamps in it had been filed in the “important papers” folder since then was a little sad. So I couldn’t think of better New Year’s gift to myself than a new International Passport.
On the last day of December, 2013, I set out on a mission. The air crisp cold at 18°F is blowing flurries at the windshield as I drive to Walgreen’s for passport photos. For the picture, I’m wearing a blue sweater the same color as my eyes, which always makes them stand out more. In the parking lot, before I go in, I practice my smile in the rear-view mirror. I don’t know why, but I always end up with this crazy look in ID pictures, which is even harder to avoid these days because no one lets you smile in IDs anymore. You’ve got one shot to pretend happy with a closed mouth, a situation that often creates a smirk rather than a smile. Gloria, the drugstore photo attendant, gave me a second (and third) chance to try to get it right (see image below).
At the Post Office, I step in line behind six other people. I feel pretty prepared as I’ve already completed the application form, except for line 19, which asks about “Travel Plans: Date of Trip, Duration and Countries to be visited.” The truth is I don’t actually have any plans. I don’t know where I’m going and I don’t know when, but if another offer comes up, I want to say YES and mean it! I can’t help thinking about San Juan, Puerto Rico – listed on the Internet this morning as one of the top ten places to spend New Year’s Day. Oh what I wouldn’t give to be someplace warm!
It isn’t long (maybe ten minutes) before Paula, the only licensed passport approver on duty, motions me to the counter. By now, there are about twenty people in line behind me and only one other postal associate working. I feel guilty and pray there are no glitches in my application. Paula takes my birth certificate and eyes the dime-sized hole in the middle that I have taped over. “It’s old,” I tell her before she has a chance to ask. She flips it over, looks at the stamp on the back and sets it down on the counter along with my driver’s license and the application. She reads a falsification statement and asks me to sign the bottom of the form. A new passport costs $110 dollars these days; the Post Office charges a fee of $25 to process it. That is almost double what I paid for my previous passport 20 years ago. But it will be well worth the money, I think to myself, because I plan to use it more than twice as much as the one before. I hand over $140 in cash and Paula completes the application. I breathe a sigh of relief looking over my shoulder at all of the people waiting behind me. Finally we are done.
I offer a wan smile as I pass the tired line on my way out into the cold. I feel elated, like I have been given a hall pass to come and go as I please. International travel has been “on hold” at the top of my wish list for years. I have allowed so many things to stand in the way of ever getting out there. Time, money, circumstance, responsibility, all just excuses that hide the fears that creep up on me whenever I even think of leaving home – Especially alone!
Well, it isn’t like I haven’t ever taken a vacation before (I have been to Germany, that one time). And I have traveled, just a little within the U.S. over the past few years. But every time, the night before a trip, I just can’t sleep. The anxiety is heavy. I worry that I will forget something important, arrive late to the airport, miss my flight (or worse, a connecting flight), lose my luggage or get lost myself. Two years ago, when I drove my three teenage children across the country from Indiana to Wyoming to see Yellowstone, I reached a point on the drive out, right before we crossed from Missouri into Nebraska, when I began to panic. “Oh My God,” I thought, “I’ve brought us over twelve hours from home and absolutely anything can go wrong!! And whatever does happen, I’m the only one responsible.”
For about an hour’s worth of driving I was terrified. My heart raced and my hands ached from gripping the steering wheel so hard. Despite Paul Simon’s upbeat voice singing from the “Graceland” CD on its third time around, I couldn’t shake the feeling of doom. I thought, “If this persists, it’s going to be one long and painful trip.” When I stopped for gas about an hour into Nebraska’s wide open landscape, I noticed the feeling had disappeared, silently and without cause, just as it had appeared. It was only irrational fear urging me to turn back – but I didn’t. I recognized that monster from before.
So why then, you might ask, would I want to travel at all if it brings up so much fear?
Because it does, and because I know that breaking through those fears will offer me an even greater sense of freedom than I could ever experience staying safely at home. It isn’t just the freedom to do as I please that I am after. I want to be free from the fears that bind me and hold me back. Besides, my desire to see the world only grows as the years pass and I know I can’t ignore that call any more.
It’s a cosmic catch-22 – how the thing we most want and desire in life brings up the biggest scariest monsters for us. I know that my greatest worries: time, money, circumstance, responsibility don’t only apply to travel, they appear as roadblocks to many of the other things I want to do in life. But mostly they get in the way of who I want to be and how I want to experience my life.
So today, standing in line at the Post Office, I accomplished more than applying for a new passport. I eliminated an excuse; faced a fear and freed myself a small bit from the limitations that keep me on the sidelines.
Paula said I didn’t have to complete line 19 of the form regarding “travel plans,” but if I had, I would have said,
Any/Day/Now … For as long as it takes …
And, as for my destination … well, any suggestions?