The Road Less Traveled (Plus A Few Other Roads)

In the mood for some light meditation? (Just a warning that I’m not trained, so this might put you to sleep, or you might end up dancing naked on your desk). Close your eyes, relax (but somehow keep reading). You’re in a warm, dark place and there is just a whisper of wind brushing across your face. Everything is calm and quiet, and the feeling threading through your veins, just below your skin, is one of curiosity…energy and anticipation.

Now, open your eyes. You’re in the middle of a forest, and the leaf-strewn path beneath your feet has come to a fork in the road, inviting you to travel down two separate paths. On your right the light is dimmer and more mysterious. Fireflies are dancing in the depths and the shadows beckon intriguingly. To the left the light gets brighter, fiercer. You can feel a steady heat emulating towards you. Which way will you go?

Choose Your Own Adventure books were a steady part of my childhood. I loved the game of chance you took every time a new decision was made. Would your character be chased through the forest by angry, evil animals? Or made queen of a castle made of glass and mist?

You could cheat and skip to the end to see what would happen, help yourself to make the “right” choice, but what fun is there in that? Isn’t the joy in the journey? The heady lure of the unknown. The sweet sting of regret. The aching power of success.

I truly believe that there is no right path. That either way you turn will bring you moments drenched with happiness, and those weighed down by sorrow. My life thus far has had it’s share of unexpected twists. Things that I would have sworn as a naive adolescent that I would never do or try, and then found myself thoroughly engaged in years later…and loving.

For example:

I never wanted to live in a big city. I grew up in a mid-sized town, like one big ol’ suburb stretching further west from the Mississippi every year. It was filled with strip malls and business parks and chain restaurants. Everything was family friendly and you were bound to find a new elementary school around every bend. It always felt happily secluded, yet just quirky enough to have it’s own individual personality. You could send your kids out to play until dusk without worrying that they wouldn’t make it home. And then you could go have dinner at a family-owned italian restaurant tucked away in some cool, old neighborhood, and enjoy handmade pastas and jugs of wine. It was unintimidating, and I liked that. I was drawn to places where I wouldn’t get lost and didn’t have to be scared.

Then, when I was 23, I decided to move to Chicago. Suddenly, I had to navigate the El train (going the wrong direction and having to backtrack more than once). I had to flag cabs with authority, standing in the street with my arm up high, making sure the light of the cab was ON not OFF to know it was available (then you earn the right to scoff at people who are waving exuberantly at cabs without their light on and think “amateurs”).  I even bought a bike and rode to and from my office, a 12 mile roundtrip commute, on streets with bike lanes (desperately hoping I wouldn’t end up on YouTube as one of those riders who gets bashed by an unsuspecting car door).

Apparently, all my trials of big city life revolved around transportation. But, in practically no time at all, I conquered those fears and realized that this big city held so much spark and excitement and energy. I found little BYOB thai restaurants and took ballet classes in the city park. We lived so close to the baseball stadium that, on warm days with the window open, we could hear cheers from the crowd. And even though I got lost a thousand times, or hated life again and again while freezing my ass off waiting for the bus in below-zero temps, the original intimidation melted away, leaving behind only a burning ember of adventure.

Other things I thought I did or didn’t like? Did or didn’t want? Would or would not do?

  • I wanted to marry Michael Jackson

  • I wanted to name my first son Tristan Atreyu

  • I didn’t want to travel for my job

  • I didn’t like good beer

  • I thought I’d never dress up for Halloween again

  • I thought my older sister would hate me forever

  • I figured red, pleather pants were flattering

  • I couldn’t stand the taste of mushrooms

  • I thought an overly dramatic, emotional guy was my “type”

  • I thought fashion was an Abercrombie tee & K-Swiss shoes

The idea that there is a “wrong” path to choose is abhorrent to me. Just like the idea that there is only one soulmate for every person feels so wrong and sad. As if you could accidentally miss the one and only person in life that could make you happy?! I just don’t believe that is true. No matter what path you choose, there will be people along the way that can enter into your world and make it shimmer. And, if you’re lucky, there might be more than one.

I’ve brushed up against a few soulmates in my life so far. Each rare and earth shattering in their own way.

They will build you up, and break you down. Blaze with passion or offer you peace. Give you a thousand things, and withhold a thousand more. Support you, challenge you, laugh with you until your body hurts from the shaking, cry with you until you’re sure that your broken spirit will never recover. And then they’ll pull you in and surround you with a warmth so complete that it feels like you’ve never felt the sun until that very moment.

They’ll spark something inside of you that becomes a living, breathing thing—bringing a new sense of wonder to every inhale, and an unknown terror with every breath that escapes from your lips. And they will understand when the things you said you wanted, swore you could never live without…change.

My husband, while not the most prosaic man ever made, said something once that has resonated with me forever after.

“How can you promise someone forever? The best that you can hope for, is that when you change, you’ll change together.”

Because we WILL change, and our lives WILL differ greatly from what we first thought. And things we were once afraid of, in the end, will bring us joy and laughter and wonderment. It would be naive to expect that plans laid so early on would never have hiccups, would never force you to rethink your route. But if you can accept those things and be flexible with change, you’ll open yourself up to so many amazing things you never before knew existed.

I’m no motivational speaker or expert on how to live your life—but I’m truly grateful for the divergent path my own life adventure has taken so far, and I’m pretty excited to see what the next chapter holds…Plus, I’m REALLY glad my kid’s name isn’t Tristan Atreyu (though I’ve still got mad love for you Brad).

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To Israel And Halfway Back

***Written years ago for a travel writing class in college, I recently reread this story and realized its potency and relevancy in the world of today. It highlights memories that still blaze true, and are even more reflective now that my sister is living in Israel.***

Seventeen is a tender age to visit one’s homeland.  In a place where the sun rises and sets on some of the holiest places on earth, my memories of Israel are a haphazard collection of adolescent love affairs, fabulous mountaintop sunbathing and nights spent taking vodka shots out of empty film canisters.  At the time I promised myself that I would write in a journal every one of the thirty-four days that I was in that tiny strip of exotically landscaped history; but when reading that journal today I find misspelled Hebrew names of the landmarks we visited, plenty of gossip on who slept in whose sleeping bag last night and whether that strange kid actually attempted suicide with the plug-in wire from the iron.

I remember nameless places and sweat drenched complaining.  I remember techno dancing in bomb shelters and mysterious eggplant meals.  But most of all, I remember those sunsets.  The most alluring and heart stopping moments that stun you back to life, running on the cracked, barren ground toward the ends of the earth, just to make the magic last a few more precious seconds.

Visiting the Bedouins and following them camelback through the desert was the most authentic, yet somehow luxurious experience I had on my israeli adventure.  Knowing that this group of people were vagabond types who slept in tents far away from civilian cities, I reluctantly dragged my hundred pound wheeless suitcase towards what looked like a circus tent made of rain resistant tarp.  I groaned as we stumbled over jagged rocks and looked around at the vast and empty expanse that surrounded our hovel for the night.

Pulling back the plastic shower curtain of a door to get inside, I ran into a few of my fellow group members who stood fairly agape at our Indiana Jones accommodations.  It was so unexpected that you had to take a minute to shake off the surprise of finding Persian rugs sprawled across the floor and miniature round tables set low to the ground, crowned with lit candles and surrounded by soft, white pillows.

It was warm and glowing inside the corners of the three-walled abode, and on the left side you noticed that there was no curtain enclosing us from the world outside.  Ten feet from where we were sleeping was a fence of 4’ boulders all snuggled up against one another, attempting to keep warm amidst the evening desert wind.  Beyond that protective barrier, the earth dropped off into nothing.  Miles below the land looked like a feather stuffed quilt, its colors and designs rolling up and down against the twilight sky.

It’s hard to breathe standing in a place like that, where the wind is tempted to blow you right off of your crest and into the waves below.  Everyone has colorless eyes, reflected against the wash of pinkish grey, cascading down the boundaries of the world.

Israel is like a whirlwind game of Jumanji, where a new set of challenges and adventures are awaiting you around every turn.  In a country that is only 280 miles long and about 85 miles wide, it seems that the eclectic landscape of oceans, forests, mountains, and deserts are the only thing residing peacefully together in the cramped quarters.

Five years ago when I boarded my midnight Tel Air flight to Israel, over 500 other anxious adolescents were joining me.  In a time of so-called peace, there was only one suicide bombing that happened in Jerusalem during the month I was traipsing around, and I probably only stopped for a second to be thankful I wasn’t near the attack.  Now, most of the youth group trips to Israel have been cancelled. Any young adventurers are left to endure a hundred year sleep plagued with nightmares, patiently waiting for prince charming to sword through the decades of war’s undergrowth, and let back in the dreamers.

We were the dreamers, the schemers and troublemakers taking over the gawky tour buses that summer. Seventeen, free from parents, and legal to buy alcohol and cigarettes, get tattoos and piercings, we skirted around every rule and took full advantage of all our opportunities.  Trekking through the sandy sun drenched Negev, I lit a cigarette while riding high atop my new camel friend, Abu.  There were so many clothes, sleeping bags, and other random supplies stuffed into the side pockets of Abu’s sporty fanny pack that my inner thighs were stretched in gymnast like directions.  I just looked down to my far-from-Moses-and-forty-years-in-the-desert-friendly companions and laughed, “Wouldn’t it be funny if I were smoking a Camel on my camel?!”

By noon the heat in the desert is too intense for laymen to be bumming around in, and our Bedouin guide led us to a giant rock structure that seemed to rise out of the barren landscape at exactly the right time.  It was a twenty-foot alcove that tucked us inside its cool, stone walls, and we scattered like mice to find the best shaded hiding places that might lull us into mid-afternoon sleep.

No air conditioned hostel before, or cushioned mattress after, would offer the kind of sleep we found in that sprawling old piece of God’s architecture.  I lay there with my head resting on my water bottle, looking out into the starkly blue and brown landscape, peacefully unappreciative that it would be one of the most serene moments of my life.

When you first think about camel trekking through the desert, Aladdin-like images are conjured up full of rolling orange sand dunes and magic carpets.  But our abandoned dune seemed to appear out of nowhere and stood singularly majestic amongst the miles of flat, cracking, rocky desert floor.  After a breathless climb to the top, I expected to look out over that imaginary sea of blowing stand, but instead was accosted with more of the rocky, ungraceful terrain we had previously traversed.  So I sat atop my lonely beach castle and entertained myself in the evening sun, watching handfuls of sand slalom around the stiff brown hairs on my unshaven legs.

For millions of people around the world, Israel is the religious mecca, and some spend all their lives trying to make one trip to see the birthplace of their beliefs.  When I tell people that I spent over a month in the holy land when I was only seventeen, they always ask me, why?  I tell them that it is sort of a tradition.  I tell them that my parents did it when they were teenagers, and it was their plan to send their children to experience the same sort of adventure.  I tell these people that it was my right of passage, my good fortune, to be sent away to have such an important and life altering experience.  Sometimes I wonder what I have to show for such a lucky break besides remnants of the vulgar songs we used to sing on the bus, and photographs of the vicious sunburns we managed to incur.

People look at me in disbelief when they find out that I spent so much time in this war torn country at such a young age.  I find it impossible to explain that it hasn’t always been this way, that there have been times of peace, that Israel is a stunningly beautiful country perfect for any type of fantastical vacation or getaway.  I see the confusion in their eyes and know that they are wondering how it is possible, after all of these bombings, that anything beautiful could be left behind.

I remember how we used to sit in only our bras during the long trips up the coast, and pluck our eyebrows to pass the time.  I remember how we begged to go see Armageddon one night and I cried the whole movie through.  But most of all, I still remember those sunsets.  We ran on the cracked, barren ground towards the ends of the earth; watching the dragon-fire sun sink deeper into the dusk, with tears in our eyes from the stinging dry air and my camera long since gone.  I stared in disbelief and promised myself I would never forget what that moment felt like.  The most alluring and heart stopping moment, that still stuns me back to life.