A long-time friend and colleague once advised me to go overseas before I get too old, while I’m more able to walk and explore. I’ve been rethinking this guidance ever since I sprained my ankle on the fifth day of a five-week odyssey through Europe.
This trip was destined to be epic from the onset. The first stop was Prague, where I was to present on my justice system research to an international academy of colleagues. I still did, with my foot wrapped and crutch at the ready. The last stop is a conference of another sort: the world science fiction convention in Helsinki, where I’m speaking on superintelligence, the singularity, transhumanism, and my cats (yes, you heard that right: authors and their cats). From one area of expertise to its creative opposite pole, from one side of the brain to the other, this trip signifies my transition from research career into a phase where writing science fiction takes precedence. I am crossing a border within myself.
All of this will still happen, universe willing. But three days before my presentation in Prague, I missed a step at the Cubist museum—home of the Black Madonna—and my right ankle swelled and turned the color of porphyry. Suddenly, I’d crossed a border of a different sort, one in which I was privileged to be drawn into a world of hurt. A worker at the hotel saw my injury, and confided her own story of chronic pain as she helped me rewrap my foot more securely. I passed a person on the street who had a pronounced limp, and we shared knowing looks. I sat at a café with my crutch at my side and a man passed by, using a crutch; when he saw mine, he smiled warmly and wryly.
My friend’s recommendation on travel was from a well-meaning but ableist perspective. My own advice on traveling is now very different. Come out into the world and experience it as you are. Come if you’re old, or differently abled. Come if you’re too young and won’t remember much. Come in whatever state or condition you are. Cross all the borders—of countries and of self. Cross until the borders become unimportant, until there are none left, until home is wherever you are at present, among our family of humanity. As I make my own crossings I feel myself opening into a more completed self with many facets, a hard crystalline core within the sweet vulnerability of the human flesh.
Yes, yes, on the level of ordinary reality, I’m just one person of many—25,000 Americans a day, nine million a year—making the best of it on my sprained ankle, drawn for a while behind the scenes, into the secret club of pain.