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“The miracle of your mind isn’t that you can see the world as it is. It’s that you can see the world as it isn’t.” -Kathryn Schulz, from her TED Talk “On Being Wrong”
It has been said that humans are the only creatures on Earth which can place ourselves in situations that don’t exist. That could mean fantasizing about the future or thinking back on alternate routes we might have taken in the past.
Does it mean we are the only creatures which can experience regret? Or the only ones who can experience hope? Does it mean we are the only ones who can envision a world that is better than it is now or a life different from the one we’re living?
I think it may mean we are the only creatures who tell stories, for whom the line between what’s fact and what’s fiction is often quite fuzzy.
One of my favorite films goes by the tile Big Fish, by Director Tim Burton. It’s the story of a man telling the story of his life, and the story of a son grappling with the definition of truth. Because, you see, this man’s stories are whimsical and fantastic and strange and beautiful, driven by hope and fear and dreams and love rather than logic or practicality. The characters don’t always have names and locations don’t always correlate to a specific point on a map. Time slows down and time speeds up and jumps from past to present to future and back. The lines aren’t straight and the pieces don’t fit together with perfect angles and this the son resents. And this he struggles to understand, until he follows the footsteps of these stories himself and realizes that fiction may indeed be closer to the truth than fact.
Because – after all – we don’t see the world as it is, we see it as we are. And all we ever know and all we can ever tell is the story of our lives as we know it, and the stories of the events and places and people that have intersected with ours.
And those stories don’t always have a clear beginning. Or if they do have a beginning it’s not one we can pinpoint and often occurred long before any of the characters even existed. So there’s nothing left to do but pick a spot and start telling from there. And inevitably we have to hop back and forth into earlier and later times to get the details right. But that’s okay because life isn’t so easily segmented into moments than can be traced like a connect-the-dots. And unless you’re looking at a clock, I’m quite sure that time doesn’t move in a straight line either, and certainly not at a constant speed, at least not from where I’m looking.
And now I’m reading a book, the first book translated from the Kurdish language to English. I’ve been reading this same book for months now, and I swear that the more pages I read the more pages add on to the end. I pick it up and put it down and read other books in the times in between. The timeline is upside down and rightside up and its settings don’t exist and it contradicts itself and admits that it really makes no sense at all. And the entire book is about imagination. And it’s one of the truest stories I’ve ever read.
We are creatures on strange journeys, guided and followed by hearts and minds all our own. And as such, we are storytellers.
“I believe that all strange journeys begin with a step in an unknown direction. To become an imaginative creature you first need to take a step and follow a route without knowing where it goes.”- I Stared at the Night of the City – a novel written by Bachtyar Ali, translated by Kareem Abdulrahman
Somewhere between spring and summer as the water of the Bosphorus is waiting to warm and the clouds in the sky are waiting to part. Somewhere between Asia and Europe as the ferry’s passengers are on their way home at the end of the day or on their way out at the start of the night. There is a quiet eagerness in the air, sensing that the wait won’t be much longer now for summer to reach the city. Maybe two weeks, or three, but for now we’re waiting, waiting. In the rows of wooden seats people are mumbling about precisely that. The ferry is the old kind..the kind that rumbles and creaks as wind sneaks through cracks in it’s welded metal walls. Not like the new kind that’s sealed tight light a spaceship and glides over the waves instead of rolling with them. The strings of a violin are being put in tune. The volume is being adjusted on an acoustic guitar. Nobody notices until the notes meet in a melody. And the strumming of the violin and the plucking of a guitar become a time portal to the present moment. And all of a sudden we’re no longer waiting – we’re here – on the ferry, in the midst of a city split between two continents, where you can stand in one spot and travel a hundred different journeys in the course of a day, like the whole world is spinning around that very point. This is a moment too, and a precious one at that. And the musicians making the music have an open guitar bag at their feet. And no matter how much change the passengers place inside as they pass by at end their day or start their night, at the end of the spring and the start of the summer, couldn’t possibly amount to the value of this moment.
It is said that nothing happens until something moves.
A smile in return to the tip of a hat, shared stories with the person in the next bus seat, a penny left behind on a sidewalk..right side facing up.
I’ve been thinking lately about this idea of contact points, which are the most fitting words I can think of to describe the way we move and touch the world around us, how we interact with the people and moments we encounter along the way. Each one leaves an impact, big or small, positive or negative.
Sometimes those impacts are big, and those are the ones that people recognize and remember after we’re gone. But what I think are even more intriguing are the small ones, the ones that most people don’t notice, and sometimes we don’t even realize we’ve left behind. Those contact points, those small impacts, are untraceable..unattributable to one particular individual. Instead, they become a part of the world around them.
A moment in it’s unwritten history.
A note in a song.
Maybe that’s what comprises the energy of a place, that intangible thing which makes you feel at home in a far-away land. The songs woven into it. And we, as a part of that place, are the leavers of notes. The writers of melodies.
I once met a boy who could stop time. Capture a moment and hold it in the palm of his hand, focusing in on the details that might otherwise have become faded and creased as memories do, or lost in time all together left behind somewhere along a mountain range.
I knew a girl who could teleport people to dreams and far away places with the words that came from her pencil. And another who could turn anyone else into the most fascinating person in all the world. She’d do it by asking good questions and listening hard and then she’d watch the person transform before her very eyes.
Do we have super powers? As a matter of fact, I believe that we do.
And if there’s one superpower I’d like to harness within myself, it’s the power to become liquid.
I think the first inclination for many is exactly the opposite—to be solid, like a stone, rolling through life. Over time, the world around them chips away and smooths their edges, shaping them into something that only slightly resembles their previous form. But the process is slow. And the balance is off. They knock down more than they allow to knock at them.
What I’m talking about is a state that’s more fluid, a relationship with the world that’s more dynamic.
Liquids are gentle in their movements but powerful in their impact. They fill the empty spaces around them, both shaping to their surroundings and shaping them. And on the way, their components are ever-rearranging, ever-evolving, defying definitions and simple explanations.
To be liquid doesn’t mean totally losing one’s self and the core aspects of one’s identity in the journey through life, for liquids mold to their environment but never lost their substance; they are comprised of the same components, yet things can mix with them, add to them, make them better. And to be liquid doesn’t mean being powerless to affecting the environment around one’s self, for what’s really more gracefully powerful than an ocean wave?
Rather, to be liquid takes imagination—a superpower in itself. A willingness to pretend, to make believe, to become something new, even if just for today. To listen, to observe, to appreciate, to change. To make all things possible.
Liquidity is life itself. And to harness that would be a superpower indeed.
“I wonder if we have endless parts of ourselves to leave behind or an infinite amount of ourselves to paint over with experiences and people,” I heard you ponder to yourself the other day, at this point in your journey.
And at this point in mine, I’m pondering the little pieces of my heart left behind wherever I go, some bigger than others. And you saw a moment the other day where I felt their empty spaces. And I guess that can happen when you live like we do. Diving in head-first to the world around you – letting it bend you and shape you and permeate you – is ible to put a strain on your heart. And what a beautiful thing that it does.
At the same time your heart gets to feel this incredible sense of fullness that it wouldn’t get to otherwise. And you get to feel this immense fascination and curiosity and wonder and love for life that you might not be able to explain. And your mind and your strength and your courage and your dreams, they’re all kind of sparky. And sometimes you can’t remember which of your dreams were dreams and which were life. And that makes it worth it, I think. Worth it in every way.
But back to your pondering—
I’m beginning to believe that the more pieces of ourselves we paint with experiences and the people we share them with, the more multi-faceted we become. By interacting and interlacing with the world around us we give ourselves depth and color and complexities and substance.
In that sense, the more we uncover in life around us, the more there is to uncover within ourselves.
In that sense, we’re infinite.
“…two pieces of random blue sky pieces that don’t seem to fit anywhere.”
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!