“The creatures of the woods … in their most strenuous striving, sleeping and waking, dead and living … are at rest. In the circle of the human, we are weary with striving, and are without rest.”
- Wendell Berry
In 2014 I circled the navel of the world along a string of beaches: the secluded topaz Caribbean, the cold velvet Mediterranean, Florida’s clarity, and the polar waves of the Atlantic. I was leapfrogging across a year that held no other obligations for me – but our lives are wiser than we are, and they skip us, like stones, to shores we will call home.
I turned 25 in December, in Jerusalem, soaked in rain like a cake in liquor, touching the freezing stones of the Western Wall mere miles from the primordial Dead Sea. A friend and I slipped across Jerusalem that night to the site of the 3000-year-old Temple Mount. We kept walking and talking until we meandered over to the wall – and, suddenly, it was midnight. Unintentionally, I marked the equinox of my life while looking up at the ancient wall as it dripped ink from its face onto mine, rainwater stained by hundreds of notepaper prayers wedged inside the stones.
Having spent all year by water, I've come to realize that the earth’s sloping blesses us with the illusion that oceans belong to coasts, but really we live in a water world, which has absorbed every single event since the first drop of rain fell and the first creature washed onto the beach, wondering, “Why me; what now?” Many of life’s questions can be answered by the pattern of a ripple: We rise and travel until we peak, and then we dissolve.
My early 20s were filled with questions: What am I doing here? What's my purpose? Do you ever feel as if you've arrived? When does "real" life begin?
At the Wailing Wall, when the clock struck twelve, invisible men celebrated loudly on their side of the partition separating the square; the women on my side faced forward with intractable grief, and I was alone in a sea of meaning. I felt like an impostor in a holy place.
Our arrival into life is a result of lines crisscrossing on their way to becoming something else entirely – but from our raindrop perspective, that moment is everything, suspended in enough time to be cognizant of some sense of purpose. Questioning is a human gift, like flying is to birds, and the challenge is to let the questions elevate us, or else they dig us into the ground.
As the clock ended its chiming, I touched the wall, my thoughts about life inevitably enveloped in thoughts of death. Death sang mightily through the night air of a city that survived plundering by the world’s greatest cultures, from Babylonian to British. Rather, people died conquering and protecting it, and the conquerors too have since died. It’s a tough city to abide: it represents survival, but also humanity’s worst struggles. Try comparing your own issues with Jerusalem’s. Let's pause to joke about Jewish guilt.
Since childhood, death has followed me, its endless inevitability lurking inside me, ready to pull me back into my inner emptiness at any moment. In recent years, with increasing frequency, I’ve witnessed the end-of-life struggles of people whom I loved dearly and who are fundamentally important to my sense of identity. The worst part is that you can never suffer with someone who is, say, battling illness; you can only parallel them, watching them drift away from the other side of a glass boat while you are still safely inside.
Before they passed, every one of my friends wished they had lived more, worried less. It’s made me obstinate to travel and encounter as much beauty as I can absorb. Exactly one month after my 24th birthday, my job as an editor at a risk management magazine fell through, and off I went to sift through Haitian monsoons and listen to coyotes by the banks of the Colorado River. A simple year of travel without pausing to think. Untamed travel is an absolute luxury, but to me, it’s a necessity. I break without movement.
Do I crave new experiences because I love them, or because I’m afraid not to have them? When I’m away from home, I find myself unprotected by my things, my habitual thoughts, huddling in insomnia with my fears flimsily tightened around me until a deeper voice awakens and tells me bedtime stories about how fear keeps me small, keeps me in the dark, one step away from facing the line between "me" and "not me". Fear is our last barrier of insulation, and it shrouds knowledge in darkness.
Or – I’ve seen this etched in the faces of the friends I’ve lost, and echoed by a quote marking the exit of Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum in Israel – fear forces you to stand back, awed by the power of creation - and creativity.
Some moments offer far more than reflection. They open a floodgate of undefinable emotion. A moment alone with the often-crowded Western Wall is rare enough, so I tested it for its powers of reflection. “Show me a sign,” I thought to the senseless wall weighted with pilgrim's expectations. Here I am (“Hineni”, in Hebrew), my ripened world opening up to me, but what’s behind the gates of my heart?
I looked up, focusing my eyes for a shooting star, anything I could interpret as a sign of an answer. The universe is directly suited for the seekers of symbols. Above my head was a bird’s nest. Inside it, a tiny swallow sat near her offspring, her little chest calmly rising and falling while she scanned he commonplace commotion below. She chose to be here because the wall fed her, and when spring came and her babies flew, she would move on.
Two weeks after my birthday I was in south Florida, combing the beach with my baby cousins while the locals, all retirees, sat meditatively on the sand, holding pale hands with their wives, watching their grandchildren dig quietly for shells as if they were artifacts.
I mistook the weather for my mood and wore floral, but I was feeling somber. I was closing off the year by water, thinking and re-thinking the course of my fears and desires as if gripping a snowbird flown off course for many years. When I was younger, I looked forward to falling in love in the future, to meet a light dancing with life, waiting for me to stoke it. It’s my life itself, though, which is seeded with love, a mystery poised inside the chemical swirl that is us, the answer and origin of self, suffocated by effort.
Earlier that day, by an odd twist of fate, I was invited to visit a beekeeper’s farm in Tampa. There was a net of peace, a quiet understanding industriousness, between the keepers and the hive that was neither an invention nor jurisdiction of bees nor humans. Through work, the two discovered an affinity already present within the pollinated air.
Later on the beach, letting go of my questions, I mounted a one-gear bike behind my cousin and his pregnant wife, spun the pedals, and with the motion of my legs, began to pray.