Captain Trips, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Convalescence

My companions this week

When I was a teenager, I discovered “The Stand,” by Stephen King, a post-apocalyptic tale of a plague that brings about a showdown between good and evil in Southwestern desert. The man-made bioweapon that escapes its military stronghold is named Captain Trips, a superflu that kills by choking hosts with obscene amounts of mucus, decimating 99.4% of the world’s population.

Somewhere between the Northwest and the Midwest, in the apparently non-HEPA filled stratosphere of my flight to Detroit last week, I encountered a cousin of Captain Trips (ironically named?), which has kept me home for most of the past week. While drowning in my own immune response, I’ve retreated from the world, missing work, friends, and my sacred exercise regime. Without energy to do more than switch camp from my bed to the sofa, I’ve also missed out on most of the impromptu sunshine.

In truth, I haven’t even unpacked from last week’s trip yet.

As I lay listlessly in bed, contemplating my favorite world-worn suitcase, which sat open with its contents dribbling out on the floor like the stringy insides of a limp clam, it became a game to see how long I could stand the clutter. Normally one who prefers things tidy, an unkempt home is a tell-tale sign that I’m really sick; as soon as I start to care again, I know that I’m on the mend.

Days later, the open case is still there and I don’t yet mind stepping over it to collapse onto the bed or move my pillows out on the couch to read the Sunday New York Times. I’m still not well, though conditions have improved since I hit bottom on Friday night, when I so disoriented that I mistook my Aveda hair gel for Vick’s Vapo-Rub, slathering shiny gunk on my chest and wondering why I couldn’t feel any eucalyptus-tinged relief. 

Now facing Day Nine as I continue to suffocate under raspy phlegm, I’ve turned to Sudafed—the big guns. The part of this bug that I hate most is presence of something heavy and wet on my chest, just at the base of my collarbone. Can’t escape from under it, can’t evict it with sheer will, the way I would with most things—I can only be patient as my leukocytes slowly defeat the virus and dry out my lungs to a healthy shade of pink.

While typically inspired by the world around me as I travel, whether it’s to work or a foreign country, being stuck at home contemplating a burping suitcase and my own simmering impatience to get well gave me a different lens to look through this week.

Groceries, luggage, baggage—congestion—anything extraneous that requires toting, hefting, or lugging is particularly annoying to me. The sheer weight makes me fell fettered, trapped. Like the heavy feeling in my chest, these are things that I’d give the heave-ho to if I could; they are a traveler’s kryptonite, rendering a person slower, less nimble, more of a mark.

Like the way I adorn my home, I prefer simplicity—fewer things to dust, keep track of, or take up space. Only meaningful pieces remain.

Last October, when I came home from Civita, where I had only the contents of that eggplant purple carry-on with me for two months, I realized that I missed little if anything from my apartment. Realizing the handful of things that were truly dear to me, most of which I can easily carry from one country to the next, I suddenly felt much more liberated. Unlike several friends, who have recently admitted feeling weighed down by their home, debt, families, or possessions, my existence felt that much more portable—light and curated.

Such liberation is addictive, though; the siren song of the unfettered journey encourages a person to skip out on relationships, jobs, or situations that seem like a lot of effort rather than sticking around to work through the kinks with patience. The traveler knows that something else will always come along—the next train, the next dining companion, the next amusement—hopefully something less labor-intensive and lug-worthy.

With that mindset, it’s easy to be present in many places without becoming a part of any of them.

It’s the life of the enduring observer, an increasingly hypocritical yet insightful vantage point from which one runs the risk of falling victim to her own self-blindness. As the saying goes, “Physician, heal thyself.” Yet, between mindless navel-gazing and honed perception, there must be some sort of middle ground—and with it, baggage.

That, I concluded, is where patience is necessary, the endurance to outlast the maladies we catch on the road and the foresight to rest a tired body in preparation for the next leg of  the journey. The patience of a quiet mind is what lets intuition work and makes for quick reflexes, no matter how many bags one has in tow; it is what I admire most in others and a quality that I will spend my lifetime cultivating.

While I would have rather contemplated this lesson en route to visit my cousin, Alix, as she spends a month on the island of Curaçao, I suppose that learning how to patiently exist in spite of momentary heaviness isn’t so bad. While forcing me to give up my normal weekend warrior errands, Captain Trips allowed me to sit dazed but guilt-free in the sun for an hour today and return home to the aroma of homemade chicken stock that I transformed into celery rice soup. There will be time enough for normal life with a clearer head next week.

As for baggage, there’s no way to avoid it; it’s a part of travel and of life. Actually, our baggage holds a great many valuable things—memories, relationships, glittering treasures that cannot be duplicated, even if they are flawed.

It holds a language for life.

Our baggage is a lexicon of experience; it helps us understand and relate to the ongoing trials of love, career, family, birth, death, success, failure, ourselves, and each other. Without it, we might travel light, but the journey would prove uneventful and perhaps purposeless. After all, newborn skin is flawless and beautiful, but wrinkles give us character.

When considered that way, a person’s baggage isn’t so much weight as it is gravity, substance, identity, and even comfort—the security of snuggling in between a down coverlet and a pillow-top mattress dressed in cool, crisp white sheets. When it gets heavy from time to time, you can always shift positions or turn down a layer.

Besides, if we didn’t have baggage from previous trips, we wouldn’t bring any capacity to appreciate or understand the next adventure. Or maybe that’s just the Sudafed talking.

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