Twenty years later, I still remember this.

We had taken an overnight train from Paris to Provence. It was our first trip to Europe, and literally everything was both wonderful and strange. We were traveling with friends, and the night before the four of us had settled into a six-person couchette on the train. There was a young man and woman already in the compartment when we entered, sleeping, or pretending to do so.

Although we had romantic ideas about journeying by overnight train, it was not romantic. The compartment smelled, the bunks were uncomfortable, I was irritable and beyond tired. We hardly slept.

The next morning we were clumsily making our way out of the compartment and off the train when I saw them. It was the young couple from our couchette. The woman had long dark curly hair which she shook out as she threw a backpack over her shoulder and wound a scarf around her neck. He put his arm around her waist. She looked up at him and said something. They both laughed. They did not look like they had slept fitfully in their clothes in a crowded, stuffy coquette. They looked, in short, ready for anything.

I, on the other hand, needed a shower and to brush my teeth. I needed a change of clothing and a decent night’s sleep. I was struggling with two heavy bags as I watched them walking away from the train. I felt burdened and awkward and oh-so American.

It might be the time to confess that weighing down one of the too heavy bags was a coffee table book that I had brought on the trip. It was a book about charming towns in Provence, and we were going to Provence. As we toured the countryside, I would be able to match picturesque sights from the book with actual places we visited. When I insisted on packing the book, this seemed logical.

Of course, that Saturday morning when I was exhausted and dirty and badly need a coffee, carrying an extra five pounds in the form of a bulky coffee table book didn’t seem like such a good idea anymore. Instead, I desperately wanted to be a part of that sexy French couple, strolling into their day, unencumbered by baggage, physical or otherwise.

I have spent the last 20 years trying to figure out how to travel lightly, both figuratively and literally. Buddhist teachers remind us that it is our job to learn to practice where we are. Not where we aspire to be, not when we finish our to-do lists, not when the stars align in our favor, but right here, right now. Wherever that messy place happens to be.

I have needed this reminder a lot lately.

But first: Iceland.

Three years ago, we traveled to Québec with our good friends Anne and Dan. We went in October, when the maples were turning red and every cool night offered the excuse to linger over a whiskey in front of a roaring fire. The four of us travel easily together, something none of us take for granted. There is a comfortable trust over who is making what arrangements, and no fussing over splitting expenses or sharing driving duties. We allow each other space and freedom to do things on our own with no one taking offense if one of us needs a quiet early night. Our trip to Québec in 2016 convinced us that traveling together was not only doable, it was desirable.

Shortly after we returned home, we got a text from Anne and Dan. “How about Iceland?”

Given our busy, crowded lives, it took three years to make it happen, but last month we flew to Reykjavik for a week in magical, mystical Iceland. My performance goal: Northern Lights, and also elves (did you know that over 50% of the Icelanders believe, or at least don’t dismiss completely, the existence of elves?). This trip I did not carry a coffee table book. I had only a small backpack and an oversized purse. I was carefree and ready for anything.

Sadly, we didn’t see any elves, but we had a luxurious morning right off the plane soaking in the Blue Lagoon (but—OMG!—what it did to my hair. Nothing good.). We spent a day seeing the sights on the Golden Circle—waterfalls, geysers, and the rift between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. We had three days on the Snaefellsnes Pennisula (AKA the Snuffleupagus Pennisula). We wandered the streets in Reykjavik for hours and admired the woolen goods in the shops and ate our weight three times over in fish. For days we had beautiful sunny weather with temperatures in the upper 40’s.

But beyond all that:

WE SAW NORTHERN LIGHTS! Our very first night in Iceland! In a word: breathtaking.

The only wrinkle in the week was the nasty Icelandic bug I caught early on in the trip. It laid me flat for one entire day and left me functioning way under par for the remainder of our travels, but in spite of the sore throat and persistent cough, I remained in pretty good spirits. I let go of expectations and lived blissfully from moment to moment, sniffles and all. The Buddhist teachers would be proud.

I was still in good spirits when we returned to the airport for our trip home. I was in good spirits while I bought Icelandic dark chocolate at the duty-free shop. I was in good spirits while I drank tea and read the English mystery I had brought (Note: It was a paperback, not a coffee table book.). I was in good spirits as I threw my backpack over my shoulder and we started for the gate.

As we were strolling through the airport, an announcement came over the loudspeaker:

“All flights have been cancelled. See your airline agent for more information.”

“Huh? Did I just hear that?” Matt asked.

“I think so,” I responded warily.

52 hours + 7 buses + 2 airplanes + 2 hotel rooms in 2 different cities later, my spirits were flagging somewhat. Not to mention the little bug I caught had settled into what I will forever fondly think of as “Icelandic Whooping Cough.” We were finally home, but I was sick and miserable and, thanks to the high winds that led to all flights being cancelled out of Iceland for some 18 hours, I was two days behind schedule back in my so-called real life. I had lessons to rearrange, multiple Santa Fe Symphony rehearsals and a concert the next weekend, a set of chamber programs to rehearse and play the following weekend (not to mention a heck of climb to get myself back into shape to get ready for the demanding repertoire), 7 hours of a piano competition to judge in Los Alamos and two cats that were pissed off about our absence. Oh. And the Icelandic Whooping Cough. I was not traveling lightly. My load was heavy, the baggage of all I had to do weighing me down.

Practice where you are, not where you might want to be, I muttered to myself in between uncontrollable coughing fits. Gone went my normal 5am meditation and yoga practices. Laps in the swimming pool? No way. I lost all sense of measurement. I did some? Who knows. I answered only the most pressing emails, watered the garden basking in the beautiful New Mexico autumn sunshine just enough, dropped any plan to write essays or blog posts or even non-urgent texts. I forgot any intentions to practice anything beyond the programs demanding my immediate attention. And I coughed. A lot. “Do you think this could be anything besides a cold?” one high school kid asked me when I could not stop coughing during his lesson. He might have been hoping that if his piano teacher died he wouldn’t have to practice anymore. “Icelandic Whooping Cough is nasty stuff,” I answered, tears literally pouring down my face as I tried not to choke on my own lungs. “Call it ‘consumption,’” suggested my friend Lora, when I told her about my coughing fits. “It sounds more romantic that way.”

Consumption. Icelandic Whooping Cough. A nasty cold. Whatever it has been, it’s been persistent, dragging me down both physically and psychologically. I sense there might be a heavy spiritual lesson to be learned here: that traveling lightly means more than leaving behind coffee table books. It means shedding expectations and assumptions and to-do lists, and simply practicing minute by minute. Turns out, I’ve discovered the last few weeks, that one can travel very lightly indeed, the core of one’s days carved down to a shiny and slender essence. Things will go undone for sure; it’s not always very pretty or graceful. But sometimes, if one is paying attention, the raw realness of the present is breathtaking.

Today I am coughing less than yesterday. I swam 24 laps this morning—my first time back in a pool since before Iceland—and only almost drowned twice. Last night the temperatures hovered around freezing; I have spent the last few hours dragging inside 11 huge houseplants that summered outside the last few months. Symphony programs and chamber concerts behind me, I have started practicing for the next gig: a November 17 concert with a violinist. There is a thirty-five-pound pumpkin by the sunroom door. The sky is the bluest blue you could possibly imagine.

Today this is where I am. This is my practice.

 

*The Northern Lights photo credit goes to Dan with the fancy camera and the presence of mind to use it while the rest of us just watched the display with our mouths hanging open.