Category Archives: Live Like You Mean It

Still Snowden-ing in Russia.

I am cleaning and gutting herring in a kitchen in Petrozavodsk, a city half an inch below the Arctic Circle and just north of Helsinki on your map. Also, at least one of my tonsils is aiming to be a tennis ball by morning. Stuck in Russia waiting for a passport, my hands covered in fish scales while my friends are drinking my share of the Guinness on a trip to Dublin, I could suspect the universe of hating me. Instead I hold on to the thought that I am exactly where I need to be.

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I like to believe that my life is more than a series of random events, mixed with a handful of shots in the dark and a heap of bad decisions. I choose to believe that mistakes are epiphanies in disguise, that the characters who appear seemingly out of nowhere, the cities I wake up in and the life-changing phone calls I receive are all there to nudge me along in the right direction.

When I was horseback riding in Mongolia, the buckle on the saddle came undone and I went flying off my galloping horse. After being immobilized for two days in a ger tent and after a couple of doctor visits I was flown to balmy Hong Kong to deal with what was thought to be an aneurism or a tumor but turned out to be a kidney stone. (Feel free to insert your own conclusions about medicine in Mongolia here.) My nerves and my travel plans were shattered by the time I handed in my hospital gown. Before the accident I had pictured myself hiking the Great Wall surrounded by autumnal foliage but instead I spent my days surrounded by nurses in pressed white uniforms, making my way down sterile corridors waiting to find out what was wrong with me. Still I reasoned that the accident and all that followed were a divine detour to avoid some greater misfortune, that on the road of life, this was a fender-bender that kept me from a massive accident a mile away.

I suspect that most of reality is subjective. How we choose to see things contorts and reshapes those things to fit our vision. This is why I don’t understand why some people consistently choose to be suspicious, hurt and angry in situations where it is possible to find humor, compassion and opportunity. It’s safe to say that if you set out to prove a theory without questioning its accuracy, you’ll only find evidence to support that hypothesis and ignore the rest. So why, when there is already a suffocating amount of abuse and neglect in the world would you choose to spend your life looking for the worst in humanity when you can choose to spend your life searching for its promise?

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Not surprisingly, my philosophy and I take a lot of abuse from my friends, who are impeccably sharp and witty and logical. What I call magic—they call coincidence. What I call serendipity—they call an overactive imagination. They may be right on all counts. I could just be spinning in space with other dizzy people and places, accidentally bumping into each other every now and again. I choose to not see that reality, it’s too uninspired. I like the mystery of my vision, it makes life even more fun most of the time and at least bearable in moments like these, when I am sitting in my grandpa’s apartment chopping off fish heads and sneezing into my sleeve two weeks after he died in a hospital down the street.

Last December I came within an inch of eating the contents of my carry-on after a soul-sucking experience at the Ryanair counter at Dublin airport. As I was walking to my gate, mumbling a monologue consisting entirely of profanities I caught a glimpse of an absolutely elephantine rainbow over the tarmac and stopped in my tracks. No one else walking by paid any attention to the giant swipe of color taking over the sky but to me it was a peace offering from the universe, a playful pinch to wake me from my cloud of self-pity and rage, a reminder that there is a sliver of light in every moment.

Lessons From the Camino, Part 3

When I was preparing to walk the Camino de Santiago, I imagined a perfect narrative for my journey.  I expected that I would first be challenged physically– out of breath and close to madness in the summer heat, with feet that looked like they had gone through a meat grinder. Then I would rise above the discomforts of the material world and take on the hurdles of the emotional one.  I pictured days of crying over the spilled milk of my youth, asking for forgiveness for my anger, my ignorance, for the cold and cruel rejection of a boy’s offer of a dance, for the envy I felt when a friend succeeded where I had failed to even try and of course, for failing to try in the first place.  Once I was granted pardon, which I assumed I would, I’d arrive in Santiago, my body shattered but my heartstrings finally perfectly tuned.  Isn’t that the classical story of any quest? You travel, you suffer but you trust that it will work out and when you cross the finish line, it does.  I expected this. I was ready for this. This was exactly how it was meant to play out.

Except it didn’t. The sensation of peace that I expected to find at the end of my journey I experienced almost instantly.  Before my left foot formed its first blister, l  was free of the weight of past decisions. There was no drawn-out atonement for my sins, no carving up of old wounds. I was even spared the misery of the physical burden of the pilgrimage. I was exhausted and sweaty but I  loved how my body ached at the end of each day, I reveled in the feeling– a reminder of what I had already accomplished, a temporary memento of the day’s climbs and slips. It all seemed so easy, like I got a free pass, like I took a shortcut somewhere. And I had to ask– what’s the catch?

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Two weeks in I realized that I hadn’t wormed my way through a spiritual loophole after all. It was when were staying in San Bol, a unique pilgrim’s hostel that sits alone at the edge of a wheat field with no other people or houses for miles in any direction. By that point, “we” was no longer just Anya and I.

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Apart from Melanie, who was instinctively maternal despite being younger than me and Paul, whose kilt got its own post, there was also Lucas, a thoughtful twenty-one year old Brazilian. What made San Bol a favorite destination for pilgrims was a magic spring whose waters had been rumored to heal sore feet and more.  We lounged here in the afternoon, taking turns dipping our feet into the icy water, Anya brushing my freshly-washed hair, all of us happy and eager to become a more intimate circle of friends as we passed a bottle of wine around.

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The hostel itself was tiny with five bunk beds on the main floor and a mattress in the attic. There was also a round stone room just big enough to seat all of us for dinner and where the owner served us paella from a skillet that took up nearly the whole table.  After dinner, once we were all done cleaning up the owner left us the keys and drove home. Alone, without electricity and full of excitement we decided to forego our beds and sleep on the hay mounds that edged along the field. We were an invisible speck of life, giggling into the darkness as we climbed into our sleeping bags and eventually dozed off.

I woke up  while it was still dark and walked out into the middle of the field. The Milky Way was directly above me. a diagonal swipe of stardust extending from the upper corner of the sky all the way across to the horizon. Everything was perfect.  Paul’s sunburnt nose, Anya’s laugh, Melanie’s blond pony tail, the way Lucas scrunched up his nose when he was thinking, my own laugh, my own sunburnt nose and scrunched up face, all of it was exactly as it should be. The whole world was one breathing, gyrating ball of perfection and the closer I looked at each miniscule part, the more beautiful it became. “If I could spend eternity in a moment, I’d choose this one,” I thought.

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And then my heart dropped. In two weeks this will all end. These perfect people will scatter. This journey which brought me so close to the person I’ve always wanted to be, will end. This road will forget me.

From that day on, I counted every kilometer left to walk as if I were counting the remaining hours of my life. I was horrified when we began to make better time. I joked about becoming a recluse, living in a room wallpapered with photos from the Camino, reliving the best moments out loud to no one.  Walking into Santiago, clutching Anya’s hand was both brutal and poetic and I will be haunted by the unique bittersweet flavor of that moment for the rest of my life, I think. But I figured out what my challenge was, why everything was alarmingly easy for me. There was a lesson here that was tailor-made to fit the contours of my emotional pitfalls.

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Sometimes You Have to Let Go

I am still struggling with this one. I have spent years hanging on to people and places that I still wish I could bottle or carry in a locket around my neck. These were experiences that were so intertwined with the fabric of my life, that I feel naked without them.  But I am learning. I can’t say that I let go of the Camino with dignity and grace once it was over. To be honest, I walked away in sobs, with a tattoo of a scalloped shell– a symbol of the Camino de Santiago now permanently emblazoned on my ankle. And in fairness, I have decided to spend a year walking around the world, which some might consider the opposite of moving on. But I prefer to think that it is because I have been able to let go of the perfection I found on a road in Spain that I can picture myself reclaiming it on roads thousands of miles away.

Lessons from the Camino, Part 1

Paul

The victorious man before you is my friend Paul, who I met my first week on the Camino de Santiago. He was hard to miss in his kilt,  thick socks bunched up around his ankles,  bare-chested, with a Palestinian checkered keffiyeh wrapped around his head. In lieu of the metal walking sticks most of us were using, Paul leaned on a full-on wooden staff that “called to him.”  I triple dare you to find one person that walked the Camino last July that doesn’t have a photo of this man.

“I have a Master’s in witch-hunting,” Paul would say in his quiet Scotish brogue whenever anyone asked him what he did. What Paul has is a Master’s degree in the history of witch-hunting in Scotland but it was a great pleasure to watch strangers search their brains for the right thing to say to a university-certified insane person. They believed Paul for that first milisecond because Paul had already stepped outside of the box we call realistic. If  a man in his forties could walk 500 miles across northern Spain in what appeared to be a pleated wool skirt, why couldn’t he also have an MFA in the art of chasing  broomstick-riding women who dance naked in the Glasgow moonlight?

I think anyone who met Paul would agree that the Camino would not have been the same without him. And yet this was a man whose vital signs made him an improbable candidate for the pilgrimage. A heavy smoker and a drinker who suffers from dizzy spells,  Paul would get most people’s blessing to just stay home, at least until he became a kale juice-drinking, bicep-curling  health fanatic. Luckily, Paul couldn’t give a crap about most people’s opinions and his determination to walk to Santiago taught me two lessons.

1.  We Are Infinitely More Capable Than We Allow Ourselves To Be

I had some hesitations about my endurance when I started the pilgrimage but I discovered that not only could I walk the Camino with ease but the overwhelming joy I felt doing it meant I needed less sleep, less food and less maintenance work on my blistered feet. By the end I was eating a salad a day and sleeping for five hours a night and I had the strength and energy of a gladiator. Well, a gladiator before taking on a lion anyway. Paul walked slower than me,  he had a harder time with the heat and the upward climbs but he got as much out of the experience as I did. We both felt the same relief, the same bittersweet joy when we collapsed at the steps of the cathedral in Santiago  and judging from the photo above, when he got to the top of a mountain he felt like a gladiator too.

2. You Deserve Your Happy Now

How often do we put off doing the things we dream about because we don’t feel like we deserve them? “I’ll do it when I lose ten pounds, when I quit smoking, when I sort out my family drama, when I get a good job…” The truth is you may never do any of those things, life is like that. But you are perfect just as you are right now, with your extra weight and your extra toe and all the other extras that you’d like to shed. Keep trying, keep working but don’t punish yourself when you don’t succeed by putting off happiness. Paul may never quit smoking, but he got to do something that changed him, something that fulfilled him and made him a more complete person. We all should be doing those things because ultimately, once you treat yourself like a person who has the right to be happy, you’ll find the world agreeing with you.

A False Start and a Flight that Changed My Life.

I wish that my first time flying had been special, romantic, the kind of first time that makes you fall in love. Instead, my first was a bumpy ride on Aeroflot in the only country on earth where an 11 hour flight can still be domestic. I was four and my mom and I were flying from Moscow to Vladivostok to reunite with my dad who was  serving in the Soviet Air Force.  At the time I was dealing with an ear infection, which made the ear popping that goes along with flying that much more excrutiating for me, my mom, and I imagine all of the passengers within hearing distance. I was also nauseous most of the flight. My clearest memory from the flight, in a general haze of despair, was being sick in the black paper bag that was in the seat pocket in front of me. My destination was not one to make me swoon with love for travel either. If you look carefully, you’ll see that Vladivostok is beyond even Siberia- a place many consider to be as far away from joy as you can get on a map. In the end, after living in a communal house, sharing a toilet and a kitchen with a dozen people, a brutal winter and a terrible bowl cut for me, my mom and I  decided to love dad from afar and headed back West.

I became smitten with travel only four years later, on a flight that would make the perfect first time for anyone, let alone a Soviet kid who wore out the pages filled with toys and stylish little girl’s clothing of a department store’s catalogue from London, trying to imagine what the life revealed in those pages must be like.

A year of studies, exams and rounds of eliminations led my dad to a job with the United Nations in their New York headquarters.  The flight to America was a far cry from the tin can Aeroflot experience.  Not only were we floating above the clouds in a sleek, double-decker Pan Am Boeing,  but we were in First Class. I got free toys, colored pencils and a blue eraser in the shape of an airplane. We got little blue bags, stamped with the Pan Am logo filled with socks, and a comb and mini toothpaste– this was a big deal as I had spent the last few years  brushing my teeth with a soap-tasting powder. I had arrived. That life that I imagined as I flipped the pages of the British catalogue was somehow now mine. After years of looking at photographs of  Mr. and Mrs. Smith in their satin robes smiling, watching little Suzy play with her plush rocking pony, I was going to live it.  If I was nauseous on that flight, I was too overwhelmed with joy and bewilderment to notice.

Things only got better. After sharing a two-bedroom apartment with six family members,  I was now living it up at the Beverly Hotel on Lexington Avenue in a suite on the 16th floor with pink velvet chairs, a separate bedroom, and a mirrored dining area (it was the 80s). In the two months that we spent at the hotel I  drank orange soda until I was sick, ate bananas to the same end and fell in love with Pink Panther, Alvin and the Chipmunks and reruns of Bewitched. I became quite taken with FAO Schwartz, the Lipstick building on 3rd Avenue, pizza, the Cloisters, Fruity Pebbles, Halloween and of course travel.

Within another couple of years I got to see Paris and London. Then Amsterdam, Brussels, Luxemburg, Athens and eventually most of Europe. That first transatlantic flight not only made me curious about what lies  beyond my immediate reach but it also made me think that my wildest dreams are just shy of what’s possible.  After all, if I could end up in First Class,  flying to a life I thought I’d never touch, where couldn’t I go?

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