Despite travelling 30,000 kilometres through two countries; seeing breath-taking sites and meeting fascinating people, the biggest lesson I may have learned in 2017 didn’t come from being on the road; it came from an earache.
I’d like to tell you how the earache began while pelted by icy glacier water as I bathed in a remote waterfall in the snow-covered mountains of the Canadian Rockies. Or how I fell from a horse on a dangerous mountain trail in Yosemite, a thorn impaling my ear as I hit the ground. Or even how I developed a rare ear-canal-virus contracted only through close contact with mountain goats.
Instead, I have to tell you how I got dirty bath water in my ear while submerged in a dingy tub, in a cheap motel, where I was taking refuge from the mind-bending cold of van-camping in November, in western Canada.
Oh, how I looked forward to that modest dip in hot bubbly water after a week of cold weather camping in the mountains! Oh, how good it felt to lie back and completely submerge myself in that sudsy basin at the end of a good, long scrub. And it was good. So good. Right up until the moment my very thirsty right ear drank a quarter cup of the soap-scummy water, and swallowed hard.
I instantly felt the water settle into the centre of my head. I bolted up out of the water like a Marlin fighting a fishing line, and bobbed my head rigorously to the side, hoping there wasn’t enough room in my cranium for such a substantial addition of liquid. I got out of the bath and repeated my enthusiastic “head-bob-and-hop” over the sink, fully expecting a river to be released and flow down the drain.
For a moment, I contemplated whether my head was now “half-full or half-empty” but decided there was no time for philosophy. I had to get this water out before it made itself permanently at home in my skull.
“Damn” I said to Indigo, exiting the bathroom like a side-stepping crab, my head at a 90 degree angle to my neck. “I got water in my ear.”
“Muah muuuuah, Muah, muuuuu-ahh”, Indigo replied, glancing up briefly from her boyphone. (Her boyfriend and her phone had recently, and sweetly, merged into the One Loving Entity that accompanied us on our travels) I studied her face closely, scanning to see if she had heard what I’d said, but wasn’t convinced she’d grasped the severity of the situation.
“Muah muuuuah Muah, muuuu-ahhh” she repeated, with emphasis on the last syllable, her eyebrows knitting quizzically as she mumble-spoke through cotton balls. Her point appeared important.
I mumbled a comparably neutral “ah hmmmmm” and offered a neural half-smile, which she interpreted to mean I had accepted her response and agreed.
That night I slept on my right side, hoping to coax the offending bilge-water out. I woke feeling as though the tide, however, had ebbed rather than flowed. My head felt heavy and there was now a persistent buzz, as though I had placed my ear to a conch shell and forgotten to remove it.
My 24 year old daughter had just arrived and we were only a week into a six-week adventure together on the road; my graduation gift to a young woman I admire beyond words, who just completed her undergraduate studies at university. This felt like my last chance to make an impression as “mother” before she fully immersed herself in being an adult. I would be the attentive, always-listening mother. Super-awesome. Super-supportive. Super-available. A fountain of motherly wisdom. Ultra adventurous. I was excited to wow her with my hipness. We were on our way to Utah, a place she had always wanted to visit.
This next six weeks would see us travel from BC, to Utah, and finally to the Mexican border, where she would begin a new chapter of her life. Utterly without need of me, I might add. I fancied (in my lingering need to feel maternally valid) I was somehow facilitating this adventure of hers; maybe the last adventure I would ever have the gift of facilitating for her. This north to south highway we were travelling seemed strangely like a 2500 kilometre birth canal; and our time together a six week labour of unspeakable love that would culmunate in a sad-happy parting, the only work left to do would be her final flight, under the power of her own strong wings.
Deafness settling in for the journey. Indigo took up residence in the passenger seat, where I was least likely to hear a word she would say for the following five weeks.
As a result, any previous ability to carry on intelligent conversation evaporated; any chance at hipness disappeared with it. My vocabulary, which was previously reasonable, shrunk to mono-syllables and tedious repetition. My favourite go-to phrases initially being “What was that, honey?” , “Could you please say again, please?” and “a little louder Love?”
This later devolved into “WHAT THE HELL DID YOU JUST SAY?” But I managed to keep that in my head only.
If I were going to hear her talk while driving it meant spinning my head like Linda Blair in the Exorcist. It would also have involved driving while looking out the back window, so I (wisely, I think) opted for deafness, and regularly nodded and smiled.
My daughter was Kind, Patience, Tolerant and increasingly worked hard to hide what I’m sure must have been intense frustration with my apparent inability to properly follow a convesation.
After a couple weeks, we grew quieter. Maybe some of it was just simply the hours on the road. But I began to think perhaps it was my right ear’s first gift; this one to my daughter.
Not being able to hear meant I had less to say. This gave her abundant time to focus on all the amazing things that were about to come her way when she would arrive in Mexico, and be reunited with someone very important to her. It also meant she could talk for hours with her boyphone in complete privacy during the long evenings, because even though we slept so close in the van that our feet touched all night, I sleep on my left side, leaving only my deaf ear exposed; the only ear available to eavesdrop. Finally, it meant I became quite tedious and maybe even a bit vulnerable, and no child should go into young adulthood thinking there parent is hip and invincible. They need their own time to shine, and my ear’s second gift to my daughter’s was the utter brilliance of being 24 without excessive parental interference.
My ear’s second gift, thankfully, was to me.
In the quiet, I learned how to settle into my own thoughts, even while we sat by side. I learned how to be someone other than her mother, while I was still her mother, and in the same space. In the past, these two things usually only happened at different times. I thought a lot about getting older, and about my changing role in my family, with my children, and in the world. I spent some time being nervous about my own next chapter, when I would be joining my nomadic community in Arizona for the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous (RTR). It had been an awful long time since having an “in person” community.
My Right Ear, which I will now refer to as My Wise Ear, then offered a second gift to me, to help me with that nervousness.
As the days turned to weeks, the deafness turned to pain and I became even more anxious. What if my ear drum burst? What if I was unable to drive? What if I needed medication? I checked with my travel insurance and they advised me that unless my ear was severed from my head, it would not constitute an emergency and I was therefor ineligable for assistance through them.
So, I turned to my online peeps, and in an somewhat out-of-character act of desperation, I asked for help. “Had anyone ever had this problem? What did they do?” The response was swift and anchored in the collective wisdom of generations of women who had cared for their ears, and the ears of their children. I was awash in the warmth of their care and concern, but it was not just the sentiment that was helpful. I received countless suggestions and remedies, and I methodically utilized every one of them. As one who takes my health quite seriously, I would normally have been to a doctor a month before. Now I needed my women-folk, and they were there for me.
Indigo and I came to the end of our chapter of this journey, and I delivered her to the loving arms of a caring family at the Mexican border. Her boyphone would now become her daily companion and they would explore and work and live in Mexico for the next year, or maybe even two, navigating this exciting chapter of young adulthood together. My heart is so full of love for that young woman. Who, on this journey, became so much more than my daughter.
What began as my gift to her became an indescribably and unforgettable gift to me.
Oh, yes. My ear.
The day I arrived in Arizona to join up with other van-trampers and nomads at the RTR (the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous), my ear became itchy deep inside. And then it crackled, and opened just a little. Over the next week it would gradually clear, until the day before the RTR began, I suddenly realized I had regained full hearing and was pain-free.
It was time to open to this new experience about to unfold on my doorstop, among my new tribe, and I was now ready to listen to the wisdom of this – my community.
With both ears and an open heart.