The last two weeks in Tanzania were packed to full capacity with firsts. It was my first time in Africa and the Southern Hemisphere, the first time I’d seen my husband in four months, I had my first taste of fragrant, fleshy custard apple fruit and several first hours of predawn, head-splitting breaths above 5200 meters on Mount Kilimanjaro. It was my first time seeing giraffes, hippos, and lions roaming (or most often napping) in the wild. It was the first time I got so close to an elephant I could see a coating of dust on his long eyelashes. It was also my first time seeing an elephant dry humping a fallen tree, but I’m saving that story for later, when I’ve had time to sort through the jumble of intense, bright memories of Tanzania that currently resemble the mental artwork of a madwoman.
In the meantime, I am back in Istanbul. With the rush of the last pilgrimage in Africa behind me and the next pilgrimage in India hidden away behind a fog of uncertainty in the form of a delayed visa application, I am suspended mid-quest, with too much time to think and doubt and reconsider.
A few years ago while backpacking in Laos I had the misfortune of being talked into tubing in Vang Vieng by my new husband. The ritual, which has since been banned was less about tubing down the slowly moving river and more about drinking shots of local whiskey, spray painting pink penis stencils on fellow wasted Westerners, and then trying to have sex with them before you were too drunk to remember the approxiamate location of your genitals. In what I assume was an attempt to exact revenge on the Western locusts that descended on their village, the locals had built a flying trapeze, a waterslide and a zipline using little more than kitchen string and leftover plywood from a birdhouse project. The water slide was closed when we arrived because a Swedish backpacker had slid headfirst into a rock and killed himself just four days before.This was not the first or even the second time this happened and though the accidental deaths were a total bummer, the party was otherwise totally awesome so the tubing continued.
I found the whole thing unsettling, but was also tired of feeling like there was something wrong with me because I felt mortified rather than ecstatic to be partaking in this Asian Spring Break. In an effort to prove that I was as carefree and brimming with stupidity as everyone there I climbed to the rickety trapeze ladder. I had watched as dozens successfully jumped off the edge, turning into screeching human pendulums swinging back and forth with jungle-covered limestone cliffs providing a green screen for their acrobatics before falling two stories into the water below. If they could do it, why couldn’t I? I walked to the edge of the platform and stepped off, holding on to the bar as tightly as I could, though I forgot to straighten my arms and as they jerked straight I let go and fell sideways into the shallow part of the river, injuring my pride more than anything else.
I am a great leap taker. I cartwheel into the unknown wearing a blindfold and juggling bananas, much like I did on that rickety trapeze in Laos. I throw myself into a new adventure in academics or travel or relationships with certainty and enthusiasm and I am fearless when I start.
After finishing my Freshman years with a 3.98 GPA, I received an invitation to join the Honors program. The program would allow me to create my own course of study, merging whatever disciplines my heart desired into one unique Major. I would be the Frankenstein of my academic monster, merging Journalism, Philosophy, Russian Studies and anything else I wanted. I could mesh Music Theory and Astronomy and spend my college career investigating the existence of celestial melodies. All I had to do was turn in a graded essay from the previous semesters, which was fantastic news for me as I had many such essays including one with an impressive A+ and the words “thank you” written on the front page.
I am an expert beginner, but just when all I have to do is give myself over to the inertia of what I’ve started, I pause. I let go of the trapeze bar and I fall into the space between wanting the thing and having it. I never turned in the essay and as a result I never joined the Honors program.
I have ended up in the space between so often that I recognize the signs of an upcoming slip, which is why I was alarmed when I woke up in Istanbul two days ago with the symptoms of an impending fall crushing my ribcage, feeling restless and uncertain.
There are two of me fighting for the controls. One, the great leap taker and dreamer is just warming up. She wants to give every second of the next eight months her undivided attention and all of her energy, she wants to write a bestselling book and to start revolution in travel, to get a movie deal and win an Oscar for the script she wrote, no for Best Actress, no for the music score composed entirely of the melodies of stars, she dreams of grandeur, of saving the world, of saving puppies from runaway horse carriages and runaway carriages from whatever it is they are running from.
Then there is another me who says “Who are you to write a grocery list let alone a book? Who are you to save the world? Why do you get to listen to stars? How come you get to live out your fantasy?” And then she goes in for the kill, “You already have so much, why do you need more? Don’t be greedy, leave these dreams here for someone else, they don’t belong to you.”
That last bit, that’s the one that delivers the fatal shot. It confirms what I have always suspected—that I am a fraud, that I am taking what life has to offer under false pretenses. If only my friends, my readers, my professors, my boss, my husband, my cat knew who I really was they would never give me their love, a job, a soft purr, their praise or their endorsement. Before I decided that having an above average college experience was not for me, I met with someone from the Honors program. They told me they wanted to be sure that the stellar performance of the candidates during their first semester wasn’t a fluke so they waited to see how the second one went before inviting students to the program. I left the meeting convinced that my third semester would reveal how abysmal my academic abilities really were and I preferred for that to happen without the pressure of being an Honor student.
I have gained a lot of wisdom since my college days and certainly since my brief stint as a failed trapeze artist. That part of me that creates and yearns and leaps knows that I am no fraud and that my dreams are my divine right, but I still hear the voice of that other me at important moments like this, when I am past the first enthusiastic leap and in danger of tumbling into the space between. Do you know how maddening it is to try and convince yourself of something half of you doesn’t believe? It’s like trying to win at poker against yourself—inevitably you end up calling your own bluff.
I spent that first day back in Istanbul locked in the apartment wearing sweatpants and alternating between crying, pacing and watching inspirational videos in hopes of finding the key to getting myself to the other side of the abyss. The crying was not helpful, nor were the sweatpants with the baggy knees especially when I happened to pace by a full length mirror. The videos didn’t do much for my spirit either as all they really offered was a prediction of there being many battles ahead which I will either win or lose, but should really try to win.
Defeated, lying on the couch, staring at the ceiling I pictured myself as a tiny sun hovering above the world with billions of other little orbs emanating light and floating around. I saw this pack of firefly souls and then I imagined my orb’s light going out and by seeing the darkness it left behind I was able to appreciate that my light, even if by a tiny fraction made the world brighter. Before you roll your eyes, know that I threw up in my mouth a little just writing that, but if you’ve ever sat in an apartment in a foreign country with the curtains drawn and cracker crumbs stuck to your dried up tears, you know that spiritually bankrupt beggars can’t be choosers, at least not when it comes to what New Age-y vision motivates them to finally take a shower and leave the house.
Walking down the street I started thinking about what would be lost if I gave up on the big plans I have for myself and I came up with a long list that included making a friend laugh so hard she peed a little, strangers thanking me for inspiring them to walk, my cousin calling me to say that if it wasn’t for me drilling my “follow your heart” mantra into her skull she wouldn’t be deliciously happy and living in Vienna and my dad telling me I’m his best friend. Everything on the list had this in common— it made someone else feel good, even if they soiled themselves in the process. My heart’s greatest whims are always in service to others, that they bring me pleasure at the same time is a fantastic plot twist. On the milelong scroll of my wants you will find the odd self-indulgent item or five, but these are not the things I am afraid of never attaining, it is not their imagined loss I mourn when I am in the space between, crying into my pajama sleeve. I would love to wake up at the Plaza Hotel someday and order champagne at seven in the morning, but if I get to do the stuff that’s at the very top of my list, I won’t have time for that sort of nonsense. Fine, I might be able to find a sliver of time for that particular bit of nonsense but you get where I’m going with this.
The realization that ultimately I am driven by a desire to contribute and give back rather than to simply take was my ticket out of the abyss and it left judgmental nemesis-me stumped. How could she continue calling my dreaming greedy when what I want is to make travel more accessible for others? How could walking around the world be asking for too much when it encourages others to ask for more? How could a journey that has already changed my life and the lives of others not be destined to continue with the same magic ability to transform and connect?
I started my pilgrimage around the world as I always do, jumping headfirst into a new adventure, but as I am swinging over the space between the hopes I left with and their fulfillment somewhere in the distance, I’m starting to think there’s no abyss at all anymore. In fact, I think I might just take a leisurely stroll to the other side. You guys coming?