I was at a conference, and the family came on the trip with me this time. I was at some sort of event that involved mingling, perhaps a coffee break, and having some in-depth discussions about some aspect of the phonetics of intonation. John and Phoebe were off somewhere together, but Theo was there with me, and getting bored and impatient. I suggested he go back to the hotel, and continued my conversation.

A bit later, after the discussions had wound down, I realized that I had sent Theo, barely 4 years old, off to wander the streets of some strange big city. Of course he didn’t know how to get back to the hotel by himself. I had no idea which way he’d gone. I started to look for him, and in the flexibility of dream space, I looked on many streets, in many directions. I asked countless strangers if they had seen a little boy, walking by himself. I became convinced that I would never find him again and fell apart. Not only had I lost Theo, but it was my fault. It was through my carelessness and inattention and self-absorption. My worst fears had been realized. I cried and moaned in my panic and grief.

I woke up in the dark, at home in my bed, my heart racing. My throat felt tight as if I had indeed been shrieking. I’m pretty sure I hadn’t actually made the loud noises I remembered making, that I still heard echoing in my head, as John was there asleep next to me. I curled up towards him and let myself go back to sleep.

When I next woke up, there was light coming in under the window shades. This is never a good sign, as the alarm typically goes off at 6:00, while it is still quite dark out. Last night we’d had a power outage, and while I had correctly set the alarm on our ancient radio alarm clock, I had managed to set the time wrong. By 12 hours.

It was 7:30. Happily, there was still time to get Phoebe ready for the bus. I could take Theo to his preschool after the bus instead of before. We should have rushed, since time still tight, but I climbed into Theo’s bed and held him close, curling myself up against him, warming his cold feet. I called Phoebe down from the top bunk to snuggle, too, and we snuggled, the three of us, until the bickering over who was taking up too much space and the jabbing elbows got the better of me. I got up, got the kids up, got dressed, and started the rush to get breakfast, finish packing lunches, and get us out the door.

I should have felt more rested today from having gotten that extra sleep, but I’ve been feeling shaken by my dream all day. I know that I would never really send Theo off by himself like that. Or Phoebe either, for that matter. (Though there was that one time that Theo did wander off outside by himself, while John and I were engaged with Phoebe, arguing over a lollipop. Theo had followed some friends who had visited our house and left. Our friends noticed him following them, and walked him back. And there was a time at the beach a couple of weeks ago when Phoebe wandered off looking for shells and got disoriented in the crowds of people and umbrellas. She couldn’t find us, and we couldn’t find her, for far too many minutes.)

My dream shows me that anxiety about separation is still rooted in my mind, planted there by too many health scares and nourished by so much time spent lately trying to focus on my work and school. With so many things going on in my life and in my head, I clearly sometimes worry that I will lose hold of what is most important to me.

Things jostling for space in my head.

A week from tomorrow,¹ I need to set the alarm for 3:00 a.m. when I go to bed. Historically, I’ve been more likely to see 3 am from the other side of the clock. What on earth could possess me to get up so damn early? I have to catch a 7 a.m. flight to Newark. What on earth would possess me to fly to Newark at 7 a.m.? My 10:50 a.m. flight to Shanghai. Because I am going to Shanghai.

And also briefly to Beijing so that I can see the Great Wall. (Not that Shanghai and Beijing are all that close together. But closer than Boston and Beijing.)

I can hardly contain my excitement.

However, my excitement must share mental space with my soberingly intimidating to-do list, which keeps rudely poking its elbows into my excitement.

Here are some of the tasks weighing on my mind:

Work & School stuff:

  • finish a 12 to 15 page book review (because it’s already several years late)
  • prepare and practice a 15-minute talk at the conference (because that’s why I’m going to Shanghai)
  • read a large number of articles related to my conference presentation, especially given that the authors of those articles may be at the conference
  • rework images for a journal article by my research group

Trip prep stuff:

  • figure out transportation to and from airport on this end
  • Sort out as many details as I can for home and schedule in my absence (to minimize the hassle for John’s solo parenting. Yet another 11 days for him.)
  • find my multi-country travel adaptor doohickey I got for Hong Kong
  • dig out the unlocked cell phone I got in Hong Kong
  • (Happily, I already have my passport and visa squared away, and hotels, flights, and conference registration…)

Home stuff:

  • Finish dealing with thank you notes for Phoebe’s birthday party, which was now over a month ago. Gah!
  • Pack up a pile of books to donate for the town library’s book sale.
  • (Screw all the other household stuff that’s been clogging my to-do list for months. It will all be waiting for me whe I get back.)

Stuff I want to do before my trip.:

  • Plan out and read reviews for places to go and things to do and eat (this sort of thing is what distracts me the most when I’m supposed to be focussing on work)
  • In addition, I’d really like to finish writing about, and sharing photos from, my Hong Kong trip of last August. (I’d love to get these write-ups written up before I leave, because clearly I’m going to have a lot more to share very shortly.) I owe write-ups of:
    • Day 5, part 2 of my guided tour and harbour cruise from hell (I posted part 1 in November.)
    • Day 6 my fantastic outing/hike with YTSL (YTSL posted about it herself back in August!)
    • Day 7: last day of the conference and conference banquet (actually, there’s not too much to say here, so that should be quick)
    • Day 8: excursion to Macau (This was a big day, and full of minor (mis)adventures. I have a lot to say.)

All of my plans are being further irritated by a new cold or spate of allergies, which is leaving me wanting to sleep. A lot. Or curl up in a ball and groan. (You’ll note that curling up in a ball and groaning is not on my to-do list.) And other typical daily things like laundry, grocery shopping, cooking, kid shuttling as well as other family and social obligations, plus occasional attempts at personal hygiene, are also vying for my time and mental energy. (What, I have to brush my hair again? And find another pair of clean socks?)

Yes, I am seriously flying back to Asia less than a year after my trip to Hong Kong last August. I was hoping this conference wouldn’t end up in Shanghai, because I didn’t imagine that I’d be able to swing two trips of this magnitude in less than a year. But end up in Shanghai the conference did. Seriously, if the deadline for the conference submissions had been even in October, I would have said “no way.” But by the end of November, I was already thinking, “well, maybe I can do it.” And then my paper got accepted for a talk, and then I thought, “Hell yeah, I’m going.”

¹ I don’t remember when I started this post, but I’m pretty sure that this once said “in just over 2 weeks,” then various shrinking amounts of time since then. Here’s hoping that I manage to post this before I have to say “a few weeks ago…”