Pioneertown, Joshua Tree National Park, California.
In life it’s not easy to say where one moment ends and another begins, like chapters in a book where you can pause, mark a page, and jump back in right where you left off. No life’s not like that.
One moment flows into the next and placing endpoints between them seems like a tedious task. To make things even trickier, time itself doesn’t seem to flow at a steady pace. I get the feeling that if it weren’t for clocks we’d find it moving faster in some parts and slower in others, dependent—I think—on how close in proximity our brain is wandering to where our feet are planted. I think happiness has a little something to do with that too.
Even so, moments in time do exist. Usually they can’t be defined, and neither can the impact they’ve had on us, but they’re there, they’ve happened, and they’re happening all around us right now as I’m piecing together these thoughts I’ve scribbled down on various scraps of paper.
Maybe we can’t define those moments with words, but perhaps we can in the smiles we’ve smiled, the tears we’ve cried, and the people we’ve shared them with. It seems to me that what we really are is a collection of all the things we’ve experienced up until now. In that way, perhaps the most beautiful gift someone can give us is their story, the story of the moments that make them up. And if those moments are best defined by the world around us, then maybe that’s what we are after all—the world, everything we’ve touched, and everything that’s touched us, both the good and the bad.
Maybe not. But I do like the sound of that.
There are times in our lives that are the big ones. The weighty ones. The ones that shape all the times to come next. But the funny thing is, those are often the very moments that feel simple and small while they’re happening, passing by quietly and appearing insignificant to an outsider looking in. Sometimes we ourselves don’t even know their significance until after we’ve lived them, when we stop and think about the person we were at the start and realize it’s quite different from the person we are now.
And that’s where I am today translating scribbles into type, somewhere in the midst of those significant moments, unable to say precisely where until the passage of time has given me a bit of perspective and wisdom. In this moment I myself am a collection of all the things I’ve experienced until now..the things that made my eyes wide, my mind spin, and my heart race. The people too. The ones who stopped me in my tracks, spun me around, and sent me off in a new direction. I am result of the world as I’ve encountered it and who I am now feels quite different from who I was when I began, from the inside looking out at least.
I decided to make a map. A map tracing the path from where I came to where I am.
If I drew this map overlaying the globe you could follow a line from the heart of the USA to the heart of the world, a city defined by its inability to be defined, smack dab in the middle of Asia and Europe, East and West, Ancient and Modern, Peace and Chaos. You could then trace that line across the Bosphorus, down to Israel, and over guarded walls into the refugee camps of Palestine. You could follow it behind the wheel of a beat-up old car to the corners of Lebanon and Syria, and atop the back of a camel to the Bedouin camps of the Arabian Desert in Jordan. You could run your finger from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea, up into the clouds circling the misty mountaintop villages of the Black Sea in Turkey, where people live as close as they can to reaching up and touching the stars. Round and round you’d trace this map, across the Aegean to Greece, along the Adriatic to Bosnia, over ups and downs until you’d follow the path right back to where I started.
The only problem is, I’m not where I started at all.
That’s the trouble with maps, you see. What they don’t tell you is that it’s never really possible to go back to the beginning, at least not with all the bits and pieces you had when you began, but maybe with more than which you started.
So I decided that instead of a making a map I’d take a trip down the rabbit hole, to the corners of my brain and the center of my heart to figure out how it’s possible to be standing right where I began yet, at the very same time, in a place that I never could have expected.
It all started with a question, a question that was never really answered. But that question led to another. And then another. And in a way, the path between those questions is my map. It’s not an organized map, by any means, a proper narrative where things fall in order and connect from page to page, beginning to end. Rather, it’s random and weird and incomplete and certainly not entirely pretty. But I guess that’s how any good rabbit hole worth exploring should be—a little bit scribbly.
..to be continued..if I can figure out how the rest of these paper scraps fit together.
Have you ever seen rainbow colored ripples on a jet black sea? Felt the cool salty wind on your skin? Heard the sound of waves rolling, seagulls cawing, tea spoons clinking on an old wooden dock? Ferry horn sounding, engine roaring, rainbow colored ripples turning to bubbly white foam. Have you seen the men on shore casting line after line, day after day, but never seeming to catch a thing with their baited rods. From a dock in the waves surrounded on all side by a city spinning at an uncatchable pace, where it’s possible to move great distances without ever picking up your feet. Have you ever stood there hoping to understand this place one day but at the same time knowing you don’t want to to all. Because once you do you lose the magic, the wonder, the unanswered questions. You take off the tinted lenses that turn multicolored neon colored lights into rainbow colored ripples on a jet black sea.
After crossing out of Palestine but before crossing into Jordan, there is this weird stretch of no man’s land that doesn’t seem to belong to anyone. Just this strip of pavement lined by barbed wire fences in the middle of the Negev Desert. It’s a strange feeling; standing somewhere barren and beautiful, alone, not knowing quite where you are other than ‘in between.’ I think it’s kind of special—a space that can’t be defined. It’s not here or there. It just is.
And I got to thinking about this idea of spaces in between. Particularly, the periods of our lives that lie within where we came from and where we’re going. An undefinable pin somewhere on the scribbly roadmap of life.
Those periods of time are innately uncomfortable. They’re fuzzy, they lack answers. But what if we could accept them for their beautiful inexplicableness, like that strip of pavement somewhere in the middle of the Negev Desert? What if instead of tension we felt energy, instead of discomfort we felt wonder for the infinite possibilities contained in this very undefined moment?
This idea of embracing the spaces beyond definition isn’t limited to periods of time. It applies to people, beliefs, ideas—life. It’s easy to say that something is on or off, right or wrong, good or bad, but rarely is anything all one or the other. It’s more complex to acknowledge that relationships and choices and thoughts fall outside of those boxes. And maybe we can’t describe them at all. And hey, maybe we don’t have to.
When we can take that person or belief or idea or that undefined moment on our journey and simply accept it for what it is, whatever it is, life becomes less rigid. It becomes flexible, fluid. Our inclination to categorize turns into curiosity for the shades and hues of colors we haven’t see before. There’s freedom there, and truth, somewhere on a spectrum with no endpoints. Infinite shades of grey are more honest than dimensionless blocks of black and white…and lots more fun, if you ask me.
My favorite way to think about things which can’t be defined is in terms of who we are, our identity. Am I an adventurer? An artist? Am I young and reckless? No, that’s too simple. I’m something much more complex. It takes intention to live in this world without categories or labels. It takes bravery too, to say “I’m not here or there. I’m not this or that. I just am.” (And that other person is too!)
So let’s appreciate the periods of life in between milestones. Trust that wherever we’re headed is worth the journey. Accept the moments in time that aren’t quite here or there. Embrace the people and ideas that aren’t easily defined. And let’s always remember to love ourselves—whoever, wherever, whenever that might me.
Let me tell you about today.. Today I had my residency visa appointment in Istanbul. It’s something I’ve gone almost totally bonkers working towards and have been equal parts nervous and excited about! But today after 13 months living, learning, working, and volunteering in Turkey, my visa was denied and I was told I have ten days to leave the country. I left my appointment feeling shocked, a bit heartbroken, and with no clue what to do, but then I realized there’s a beautifully unexpected silver lining to this–This past year in Turkey and the Middle East I’ve met countless people whose biggest dream is to go to the very country I came from, and who have worked their whole lives trying to make that dream happen but haven’t quite been able to. As Americans that isn’t something we get to experience all that often. With the most powerful passport in the world, we don’t often get to know what it’s like to have the door to another place closed on us. My visa being denied today is an opportunity to try to understand what it’s like for those people hoping to get somewhere not quite in reaching distance, and for that experience I can be thankful. I’d like to encourage my friends in the US to have patience and compassion for foreign people around you. They are living in a place not totally familiar to them, speaking a language that isn’t their own, attempting to follow rules in a system that is probably quite different from the one they know. They are likely some of the hardest working people around you at the moment and have probably been the most intentional about absorbing your culture. Those people deserve just as much kindness and respect as those who were lucky enough to be born a US citizen, and the label “illegal” is no reason to deny them that. Maintaining a legal immigrant status is not always realistic or possible when working to achieve a difficult goal (speaking from someone who is, as of this morning, living somewhere without a visa). Rather than focusing on borders and differences and ‘us’ versus ‘them’, let’s focus on the fact that we are all humans sharing one planet and we are all trying our very best to contribute something positive to wherever we are. I feel so incredibly thankful for the people who have made me feel welcome as a foreigner so far, and I know that extending that sense of welcomeness will mean the world to whatever foreigner you meet today too. I betcha their story will amaze and inspire you if you stop and listen. As for my current state of visa-less-ness, I’m going to look at this last minute total change of plans as an opportunity for an unexpected adventure. I’ve got a week to figure it out. Wish me luck!
I’ve been here for four months.
If I didn’t have some time to kill I’d simply call ‘here’ the Middle East. But since I’ve clearly got time on my hands…The border doesn’t open for another two hours and for now I’m sitting here in the desert, outside the gate, scribbling this on a piece of paper, with no one in sight but the sun that’s about to rise over the mountaintops. So, I’ve got a little time to explain that calling ‘here’ the Middle East simply doesn’t suffice.
But back to the start: Four months ago I was packing up my backpack and boarding a plane with a one-way ticket to Turkey. I had just graduated from college. I had some questions I wanted to answer, some things I hoped to accomplish; mostly I had no clue what to expect. But I had instincts telling me to go, so I listened. And there I was, a blonde, twenty-two year old gal from the States alone in what I then would have called the Middle East.
The first friends I made were—if I was in a rush I’d say they were refugees. But again, since I’ve got some time, I’ll explain that they not too long ago called Syria home, were forced to flee, found slightly more solid ground in Turkey, were homeless there, eventually weren’t, and when I met them they were preparing to make the long and uncertain journey to Europe. They taught me how to play backgammon. They tried to teach me how to cook. They told me I smiled too much. Mostly they told me stories. Stories that were heartbreaking and difficult to understand, but stories full of strength and courage and dignity.
So there I was, living in a part of Istanbul where you simply don’t hear English. But what you do hear is music. So that’s where I started, in the streets. Trying to wrap my brain around this colorful, chaotic place by focusing in on the music around me. The musicians making that music became my friends. They taught me how to speak Turkish, unintentionally because that’s all they spoke. They taught me about the struggles of the people around us and the opportunities not quite in reaching distance. They asked me why I asked ‘why’ so much.
And there I was, taking it one moment at a time, trying to soak in as much as I could. I learned of the conflict in Israel, so I went there. I learned of the refugee camps in Palestine, so I visited those. I learned of the nomadic Bedouin people of Jordan, so I found them. I accidentally found myself in a kibbutz on the border of Lebanon. I rode camels under the stars. I met a man who never knew his birthday, or his age for that matter. I followed the seas: the white one, the red one, the dead one. I found realness in those places. A tension that creates an intensity that forces honesty, with yourself and with others. For me, those environments created a desire and immediacy for awareness, for understanding, for empathy.
I met an old woman in Jerusalem once. She told me I was dangerous, but she said it with a smile. Because I lean in when many would lean out, she said. But I don’t recall a time I was scared. I chose to take people and places for who and what they were, and by doing so I felt safe. Sure, I got some bumps and bruises – I’m noticing a new one on my kneecap right now – but people were there to dust me off. Strangers, new friends, some that became dear friends, people I never would have met if I hadn’t gone and followed instincts that I couldn’t quite articulate.
So here I am. The soldiers are arriving to open the border and looking at me like I’m lost. I’m not, and I am, but probably not in the way that they’re thinking, so I’ll wrap this up and explain why calling ‘here’ the Middle East simply doesn’t suffice.
I’ve realized that the portrayal of this part of the world is often quite monochromatic. That the picture it paints misses so many colors. It misses a lot of beauty, a lot of diversity. Often it misses that there are humans here. None all bad, none all good – because that’s how us humans are – but most fantastically passionate and many tremendously inspiring. I’ve found that this section of the globe is more like a patchwork quilt. Within it, each country is unique. Within them, each city is unique. Within those, each person is unique. At the core of conflicts spanning borders and generations are hearts and minds, all with their own reasoning. I’ve found that nothing can be generalized. Some terrible things are happening here but wonderful things are happening here too, every day. I’ve heard stories of destruction, separation, judgment; others of adaptability, selflessness, and acceptance. I’ve been harassed; I’ve been welcomed. I’ve been threatened; I’ve been embraced. I’ve witnessed intolerance; I’ve also met some of the most open-minded individuals I’ve ever had the opportunity of knowing. Amongst the chaos there is peace. Within the rubble there is art.
So I can’t really call where I’ve been these past four months ‘the Middle East.’ I’ve seen what I’ve seen, I’ve gone where I’ve gone, and I’ve met who I’ve met. I’m here. And all I can really say about here is my story. I’ve learned to approach new experiences without bringing a narrative already written out. For if you bring with you a head full of expectations or heart weighed down with fear, surely you’ll only see what you expected to find. Instead, let a place define itself: the same goes for people. Stories are shaped by what you give, and if what you give is an openness to contradictions, a willingness to be wrong, an insatiable curiosity, and an eagerness to learn, you can bet that story will be one worth telling.
So here I am, and now I’ve learned of something new. A place where the sea is black and people migrate each summer up to crumbling villages in the highlands where their ancestors have journeyed for hundreds of years–to be as close as they know to touching the sun. So that’s where I’m headed now. We’ll see where it points me next.
I want to be wrong.
I want to see, experience, learn something that causes me to question what I once thought to be true. I want to be sponge-like…absorbent. I want to say, “Maybe that’s different and maybe it’s better. Maybe it’s right and I was wrong all along.” And there’s certainly no shame in that. It’s quite beautiful in fact. I think it’s important not to hold on to too many things too tightly. We’re all just learning as we go, after all.
I want to be scared.
The kind of fear that comes from doing something I’ve never done before, that comes from not having all the answers, that comes from question marks. I want to be scared enough to begin to walk away but brave enough to turn back around. I think that kind of fear is a good kind of fear; it’s the sort that makes us better. It pushes our boundaries an inch or two further. It makes us so much more capable. It makes impossible things possible.
I want to be lost.
I want to spin around a see everything but something familiar. I want to test my senses, my faith in myself, in my surroundings, and find that in most ways we’re one in the same. I want to dig deeper, to climb higher, to be amongst it, in it. I want to spin around again and find that what once was unfamiliar now seems quite like home.
I want to be uncomfortable.
I want to encounter people, places, and situations I can’t quite wrap my brain around. To approach them honestly, intimately, and vulnerably. I want to be open and to fill those open spaces with new perspectives, ideas, and ways of going about life. Because there’s at least a million and a half of them, of that I’m sure. And I think it only makes sense to look beyond my own. It’s probably a whole lot more interesting over there.
I want to be challenged.
Challenged to love harder. To think deeper. To be stronger. I want to problem solve, to learn and grown a bit more every day. I want things to go off track, to look back and laugh at how I thought I had it all under control. – Because we all know that almost nothing is. – I want to encounter things I don’t understand, to find answers in books, in people, in myself. I want to share and give, to be a light for someone else. I want to be the best me I can be.
So far, boy, have I been wrong, scared, uncomfortable, and challenged. But I’ll tell you what, I’m all the better for it.