They say the brown bear has the strength of nine men and I say, in that case, he’s more like a woman. The closest ancestor to the short-nosed brown bear made his way southward from North America, freed by the formation of the isthmus of Panama during the Miocene epoch, in what I imagine was Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s own deft, creative hand at spinning magic from evolutionary realism, carving homo sapiens from chimpanzees, painting grassy plains over forest, forging ambitious mountains ranges as an impatient toddler might: forcing tectonic plates together until they capitulate, crack, flake, and fold upwards towards the sky like majestic saltine crackers. At some point in this fruitful chaos, an exponentially-great-grandfather of the brown bear, Ursus arctos, made his way across the plains, step by muted step, traversing continents just before Pangaea divorced itself and scattered in large pieces across oceans.
Just as the aboriginal Ainu of Japan emptied the bear skull of eyeballs, tongue, and brain, so I stuff the rickety skeletons of life’s traumas with fresh flowers, succulent berries, the stuff of renewal and rebirth, in the hopes of a revitalized incarnation, in a show of divine acknowledgement.
I keep faith in the healing power of hibernation: low and slow in body temperature and heart rate, I rouse for no one, not even for myself. At the conclusion of those episodes I regurgitate the half-million moths my ursidae brethren swallowed before sleeping, calories aflutter, that keep our organs aloft and keep the blood pumping during these Great and Cyclical Slumbers.
It’s 3:00 a.m. in Hargeisa, and I’m caught between a (literal) nightmare that woke me, and suhoor, the pre-dawn meal before Ramadan fasting begins, which makes it useless to go back to sleep now. So, let’s do this… I’ve long been a fan of the start-over, the blank page which holds promise, tabula rasa. I made “art” prolifically as a child, but one errant mark of the crayon gave way to a whole new creation, the first (second, fifth, twelfth) “failed” version tossed aside. Even today, my amateur paintings are often four or five layers deep, whitewashed multiple times in dissatisfaction, a more economical alternative to swapping in a fresh canvas. I never had much patience with fixing, or saving a sinking ship, which always seems to get me in trouble. When I do stick it out, it’s with a “new leaf” mindset: This isn’t what it was before, it’s something different. That’s how I’ve always found the energy to dig in to relationships, jobs, creative projects, etc. Ironic, then, that in my newest endeavor I …
The year also brought a whittling of the self, especially a recognition of my limits. Time expands beyond the moment to the far reaches of age where, if I’m lucky, I’ll look back fondly on slow walks down the stairs, on the lines of schoolgirls in long, bright yellow hijabs like flocks of canaries, on the hot stacks of loxoox in the kitchen each morning, on the frigid hop from bed to closet on winter mornings. I think about my aged years as though I’m already there, ruminating over a life well lived or not, observing wrinkled, spotted hands, remembering when they were smoother, tighter, and when I took them for granted. I feel fullness, and a gentle longing, and fullness again.
What matters are the earnest embraces of greetings and farewells, the unique infusion of scents that accompany the people you love, the sparks of energy that scatter with their laughter, the loving gaze of those who know your story and bear witness to the triumphant and crushing steps on your upward spiral. While living overseas amplifies the magic of those moments it also rarefies them, detaching you even when you most need them.
Over the last five or six years, my constellation has expanded, the points of light farther flung, moving ever outward. But the weight, the gravity of the galaxy remains. There is no escaping yourself. Recent chapters of my life have seen travel like I hadn’t expected, but that I embraced with the zeal of a child offered an unexpected dessert–that’s for me?!–probably undeserving but jumping at the opportunity, spoon poised for attack, in knowing haste. I’ve seen my fair share of visa-related riots, people crowded around the speaker panel, lunging towards the glass and banging with their fists, arms outstretched, frantically waving white paper visa applications like so many seagulls flitting madly around a dumpster, shouting at the tops of their lungs about trips that should have started 3 days ago, and the ineptitude of the staff and the obscene processing delays.
After 4 years abroad, and enough inter-continental travel to warrant a few opinions, I thought I’d put together a quick list of travel favorites for long-haul trips (8+ hours, in economy class). My first goal is to share, but my second is to hear suggestions; there are always more efficient, more pleasant, and less harried ways to reach your destination.
Somewhere in there I lost myself, I tipped into the darkness that comes around every now and again, pays a visit without invitation, overstays its welcome. The darkness of old would shock me into submission, steamroll me to the point of immobility. And, looking for something to blame, I’d get lost in arguments with myself about the origins of my own depression – circumstance, coincidence, fate, dumb luck, or my own mistakes and missteps. I’d resisted the shadows as best I could, thinking I could hold them back. Once I realized I could not, I opened the doors and welcomed them: Let’s have a go, let’s make our way down the stairs, and sit for a while in the darkness at the bottom.