“There’s no way to know what makes one thing happen and not another. What leads to what. What destroys what. What causes what to flourish or die or take another course.” – Cheryl Strayed
I just finished reading Cheryl Strayed’s Wild. As is typical for me, I was anxious to get to the last page just to see how the story ends. But six pages from her final sentence, I found myself lingering on each word, even backing up a few pages; this was a conversation that I wanted to keep having. There were similarities in our stories, Cheryl’s and mine, but I certainly never set off on an 1,100-mile lonely, wilderness hike to gain clarity. My “hike”, thus far, was of a different nature; I climbed over people and things and barriers of my own making. I languished in campgrounds of corporate complacency for too long, afraid to venture off the trail that I knew so well. Since I tend to be guided by my personal spirit animal, Fear, I wondered what my world might look like from another perspective, from my own different viewpoint. But now I’m hungry for a new challenge, fueled by the bravery and voracity of people who really do get off the trail.
In the middle of reading Wild, I also watched The Way, which recounts yet another personal journey along the Camino de Santiago in Spain. One scene that particularly struck me is a discussion between the main father-and-son characters, talking about the son’s decision to live an unconventional life. The father injects his own take on success by saying that his choice was to become an opthamologist and earn a decent living because that’s the life he chose. The son’s response: “You don’t choose a life, dad. You live one.” Oh my. Chills. And now I am absolutely itching to get to Spain and hike the Camino. Yes, please!
But for today, my pilgrimage leads me back to the grassy savannahs of the Maasai Mara, that magical place in which I fell totally in love last year. I dreamed of Africa . . . but that was nothing compared to being there. As I sit at the airport contemplating the ferociously long 2-day trek it will take to deliver me back into the arms of the Mara, I found the journal entry that I wrote on my trip home last January. It feels like just yesterday that I was scribbling these words:
“On the plane, surrounded so closely once again by so many of my fellow humans, listening to the coughing of multiple people and begrudgingly snapped back to the reality that reminds me that malaria and other disastrous diseases exist in the world. I saw things that stopped my heart, and things that broke my heart. I heard stories that filled my eyes with tears, like that of a 5-year old boy begging the police to help his mother, who had fallen ill in the road and needed to go to the hospital, and his pleas went unanswered as she died on the asphalt. But I met beautiful people with the sweetest dispositions, full of spirit, and saw gorgeous things, even in the midst of abject poverty. An awakening to my princess lifestyle, to be sure.
As my incredibly sweet driver, James, dropped me at the airport, we hugged for the last time and I slipped money – not enough – in his hand and told him to take his wife out for a nice dinner to thank him for all the time he’d spent away from his family carting our group all over hell’s half acre. He grinned at me, his teeth reflecting the fluorescent glow of the airline departure signs, lovely lines crinkling around his eyes. “I live with four large women,” he said. “Then take them all or pick your favorite,” I replied. I kissed him on the cheek and off he went into the darkness, and I felt immediately sad that months will pass before I see James again.
My seatmate is Wolfgang, a lovely man from Germany who spends each January in Kenya tending to the children’s home he runs with 7 other kind-hearted souls. I told him I would love to arrange to come to the home next year and make portraits of the children. We’ve exchanged information and I hope to make that plan a reality next year. “Visit Wolfgang and gang” is now officially on my to-do list. He and I had some great laughs through our respective broken dialects and subsequent to our 12:30 a.m. repast and double shots of cognac . . . until the mean lady in the row in front of us shushed us. Geez.
I said my final, silent goodbyes to Kenya as the plane raced down the runway, the lights on the ground becoming mere background blur as the nose lifted into the night air away from Nairobi and we began the 9-hour trek to Paris, memories of the past two and a half weeks flickering through my mind like the highlight reel of a movie—one of the most amazing movies I’d ever seen. I wish I could fully explain it, but I can’t. So I will just leave my overanalytical mind there on the runway, beneath the tires that carried me away from there, back to a place that I want to call home, but now feels better to state that it is simply the place where my stuff resides, the stuff that I am merely going to visit. My place in the world is not yet certain . . . but I feel that I am getting closer to discovering a whole new side of me. And damn, I can’t wait to see what this curiosity and incredible experience lend to my life. Kick my ass, world. Open my eyes, my heart, my soul. I think this is the challenge I’ve been seeking. Bring it.”
In retrospect, I didn’t get to where I wanted to be. But I’m farther than I once was, and that’s a pretty good start.
“Whatever happens to you belongs to you. Make it yours. Feed it to yourself even if it feels impossible to swallow. Let it nurture you, because it will.” – Cheryl Strayed