Saturday, December 31, 2011

All’s Well that Ends Well

Across the street from my house in a small forest there is a tree that fell over ages ago. The top portion stretches its branches out into a small ditch, as if forever trying to grasp the other side but never quite gets there. Down below there's a narrow stream that runs with a few fish in the deeper spots; its not too loud but the stepping stones I put down as a child now make for good background noise. The moss, soft and moist to the touch, has grown over most of the tree after years of its decay, and I'm certainly not the only creature that enjoys the spot, but I like it all the same. Over the years I’ve spent a lot of time at that tree, just lying there with my bare feet dangling off the side with eyes closed and some fantastical reel playing on the backs of my eyelids. Sometimes I go to think, or to get lost in the silence, sometimes to remember, and sometimes to forget. You can't see the sky because of the leaves above, but I almost like it better that way. Its as if my second childhood mother is shielding me from the harsh light beyond with her majestic green canopy.

One would think that after spending so much time away from home I would want to be with friends and family, sharing stories of getting lost in the Grand Bazaar or learning traditional dance from a Georgian wine maker. Yet, as I showed pictures of crumbling Athenian ruins and blizzarding Swiss mountaintops, I could not help but yearn for that lone bark bed but a few yards away. And so, late one night I slipped through the cracks of my creaking house, over the still hot pavement from the day’s rays, and into the leafy darkness of a sticky midsummer night. The noise of mud squishing through my toes, the rustling of old autumn’s relics beneath my hardened heals, even the air flowing from my mouth seemed to echo on for miles as I followed the sticks that once boarded a neater trail. Passing the tee-pee with our soda cans and the rusted blue hood of some long forgotten ghost story I believed once upon a time I made my way to my spot.

Through the shadows, a dim glow attached to a human hand flicked with red ashes, the unseen smoke clenching to the damp air and sweetening the suspended water droplets. I was too loud for him not to notice, and he turned around as I backed away. For a moment, we both stood silent, allowing our eyes to adjust; each of our figures materializing from ominous outlines to something closer to human. He had grown since I last saw him, three, maybe four years ago- his features much more matured, his hair long and tussled, his clothes a different style. But even through night’s veil his eyes hinted at the boy that I once called my best friend.

We had the normal catching up conversation most old friends do. Those talks that sound like you two are complete strangers despite the fact that they still hold deep inside your most genuine secrets. We sat on that log for a long time without talking to each other. As I listened to an owl nearby, the darkness seemed to illuminate with distant memories of three kids running through these same trees barefoot, crouching low to escape the imaginary warplanes. Of picking out the perfect tree for that fort that was never built. Of catching a leprechaun, our noses frozen and our hoods covered in snow. Eventually, the threat of the sunrise pulled us back to reality. As I got up to leave his hand landed on mine; awkwardly we both pulled away, smiling at the thought of what once lifted me up out of the river below now shying away at my touch.

I doubt I will ever really talk to that old best friend again. We're old now. We're different. Somewhere along the way, we parted paths and never looked back at those secret adventures of three best friends. But despite all that, despite the fact that he will never be someone in my future, for that one brief moment we remembered. Those seconds, minutes, hours we spent on that log- those memories we silently shared- gave me something I hadn’t anticipated.

Six months ago I embarked on the journey of a lifetime, traveling to countries I thought were painted too far off the map for me to pin down. The cultures I’ve not only encountered, but lived, have been as distant to my own customs and as scintillatingly brilliant as the stars that faithfully reappear each night regardless of what continent I gaze from: I have taken part in a supra feast, making a toast from a wooden wine bowl between khatchepuri and lobioni dishes, and have sat silently pious in the Blue Mosque as the devout praised their Lord beneath magnificent tiled patterns and commanding, ornate chandeliers. The people that I’ve met along the way will forever be etched into my most cherished memories: running through orchards in Armenia towards the delectable smoke of a family BBQ and staying up too late in an anarchist cafĂ© in Athens talking about philosophy have become as dear to me as those three kids. The beauty I have been inspired by will continue to leave me speechless as I marvel at the pictures that cannot possibly capture their aesthetic might: the hidden Haija Sophia church in Bulgaria with its ancient frescoed onion domes or the amazingly creative opera of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the even more remarkably talented voices that brought it to life will never been forgotten. The nature of each distinct country has not only served as a backdrop for my travels but an integral part of my expedition, from monstrous storms high above the Swiss Alps to an Israeli sunset as magnificent as those of Monet’s pallet. And, finally, the lessons I have learned from teachers as diverse as Sub-Saharan African migrants in Morocco to contemporary artists in Georgia that no classroom could have taught will continue to shape my future opinions.

Years ago, that old best friend and I had the rest of our lives before us as we ducked under branches and hurtled over fallen trees. Our future possibilities were limitless- astronauts, the President, Hollywood, even Yankee Stadium (as a YMCA groundskeeper, of course). We dreamed of traveling to Africa to ride elephants and of inventing a time machine to see dinosaurs. We planned out how I would sing on Broadway and he in a rock band, living in the city, or Paris, or Timbuktu. Somewhere in between becoming blood brothers and shying at each other’s warmth we were both dealt our cards of seemingly infinite possibilities. I suppose we both chose what we thought was our best option at the time. And those choices led to others, that led to who we’ve become, that led to that night we silently shared.

I expected my travels to change me, and they have. How I see the world, how I see America, how I see myself have all changed because of my journeys from Tbilisi to London. But what has ultimately made those changes are not my visit to Mozart’s home in Vienna or fondue in Zurich; rather, it has been my life decisions that have led to those experiences. Looking back at where I’ve been and what I’ve done juxtaposed against my old best friend as the ashy orange glow relit for an encore, the phrase carpe diem never seemed so apparent. Life is entirely what you choose to make of it. It always has been, and I wager that it always will be. It’s about building up the courage to plunge into the labyrinth of a Moroccan medina instead of wondering through the tourist stands, about waking up before the sun and getting in a thirty hour line for Wimbledon tickets, about making the decision to follow your dreams with a full heart despite those inevitable obstacles. At first, I was petrified to return to the United States, fearful that this would be my last time to explore the gems of humanity with graduate school and a full time job on the horizon. But the final lesson that this trip has taught me is not to be afraid, but instead seize each and every opportunity of life. Perhaps it is a hackneyed message, but as I turned my back and left that old friend as silently as I came, I looked onto the rising sun with a smile, knowing that my next adventure will never be too far away.