A critical piece of my cochlear implant broke last week. It was frightening, especially since my support network for additional parts back home also fell apart months ago.

I sat down and took a deep breath, recalling the time I lost my hearing years ago. When the brain stops receiving auditory stimulation, it creates a phantom sound — tinnitus — to fill the void of what it expects to be there. Years ago, this was uncomfortable and disturbing to me; but as the old adage goes, “that which you resist, persists,” so I learned then that if I could shift my expectations (or better yet, let go of them altogether), I could transform the experience. I sat with the tinnitus, no longer resisting it, but holding it with curiosity instead. It began to sound less like an annoyance and more like a beautiful aria — specifically, the one from The Little Mermaid, where Ariel’s voice leaves her body. I had never heard anything so beautiful.

A year of travel has presented me with a similar opportunity: so many moments where the expectation that I should still see or receive familiar patterns of home creeps up on me. The void leaves a phantom in my brain, not unlike tinnitus, that feels like ennui. It’s deeply discomforting. I’ve found myself reaching for old friends and tropes to ground me, and I’m so grateful for those who have shown up to make the pain more bearable. But there’s only so much that can be done at a distance, and time foils even the most loving of intentions.

What I’ve gathered from talking with others who have done long-term travel is that this is not an uncommon experience. Once the extraordinary thrill and conviction of travel becomes ordinary, what remains is an echo to remind us that what used to be ever present, no longer is. What’s left to contend with are our expectations; and to let go of them, thereby transforming the tinnitus within into music.

Although I’ve been able to replace that which broke on my implant, it’s given me the gift of returning to that place where I first learned to find music by letting go of expectations. So what music does the discomforting moments of long-term travel yield? It sounds like the quiet joy of sensing a pattern of thought or the mundane look on my child’s face that I would not have otherwise noticed were I still caught up in the familiar; like gratitude for the breaking of old patterns, however comforting they may be, so that I may discover new ones; and like an affirmation that the best parts of us can still be found within no matter which way the winds blow.

 

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