This next chapter, rather series of chapters, is difficult. It is not the Camino de Santiago alone I want to convey or even just the months that follow. It is a period of time encompassing the then to the now. Movement to stagnation.
If you will bear with me once more I will lend to you thoughts, feelings, and moments that stand as mile markers in a life that is not your own.
My lover is often heard to quote, “Brevity is the soul of wit.” I warn you, you will find none of that here. I have learned from my mother the great art of storytelling and our specific brand does not include shortcuts.
This would be the summer that I left the United States for the first time (not including the sheltered pseudo-travel of a Caribbean cruise in high school) and a ripple of excitement coupled with fear tinged every decision. The way I dealt with these upcoming months would either strengthen or weaken my resolve for what was to come.
I have struggled with just how to impart the series of events that encapsulate that summer. It was a whirlwind of such magnitude that it seemed but a brief moment and a full lifetime all at once. It began on Asiatic shores where an old friend led me on a short yet thoroughly transformative journey of discovery.
So it begins.
As I planned for the Camino and what I hoped would follow, it began to dawn on me that I was taking time for myself and giving none of it to friends who were scattered far afield. The few true friendships I have are kept close to my heart and exist in small pockets of time when we are able to coordinate a meeting. The ladies and gentlemen who have loosened from my grip the title of Friend are scattered across states and continents, some closer than others. I lament the distance between us and find myself wondering what causes us to pause so long between interactions. These thoughts swirled in my mind as I idea-mapped with Haylee about our imminent adventures. As if summoned by the force of my thoughts, I received a correspondence that would allow me to reach out and take from the universe precious moments with a distant friend.
Michelle and I had attended high school together. Our friendship solidified as we spent time reveling in creativity, struggle, and a great deal of bacon consumption. The Baker High School Marching Band is responsible for the majority of my youthful attachments, she is one of these. Band camps came and went bonding us over summers of heat, 8-to-5 step patterns, and the thrill of performing a finished show. This, along with our mutual distance from the rest of the city, served to strengthen our companionship. Mobile is not a large town and we managed to grow up twenty minutes away from everything; close enough to Mississippi to almost claim it as our own.
I have always admired her tenacity. At a little over five feet tall, she is one of the most imposing figures I have ever known; truth be told most of the diminutive women I know are fierce in a way that the rest of us will never achieve. She has a biting wit born of an indomitable intelligence. We attended different colleges and I would return home to find her reveling in a self-made home of artistry and angst. She rubbed elbows with creatives, baristas, and all manner of intelligentsia. (I ask you, is there anything in this world quite as off-putting as the attitude of a barista with a degree in the arts?) Despite my inability to bond with those with whom she had surrounded herself, I felt welcome while she was near. I marveled at her ability to transition seamlessly from one social group to another while always retaining the qualities that made her my Meeshie.
She began her foray overseas in college. Taking a well-earned semester abroad, she spent her weekdays in the city and her weekends traveling as far as the trains would take her. After working three jobs and, with seeming effortlessness, completing her degree she took an offer to teach English in Taiwan and never looked back. Not one to balk in the face of anything she relished the coming unknown. During her time in Asia and my time in Miami we became somewhat estranged. This never troubled me too deeply. Though I knew we had missed the subtlety and nuance of daily communication, I consoled myself with the knowledge that those moments do not a friendship make. Longtime friends have a particular feeling; a peace and security in the presence of the other found nowhere else. Different than the bonds one feels with family because these people you chose for yourself and name them for your tribe.
Distance and time do little to change the love grown in girlhood.
When she reached out it was unexpected though very welcome. Her message was simple: She had been abroad for a few years already and did not see herself returning anytime soon. She missed me and intended to see me one way or the other; so would I kindly get my ass over there and let her pay for the ticket? I was ecstatic for the opportunity both to see her and to add another country to my list. Her graciousness in footing the bill is the only thing that truly made it possible and I could not have been more thankful. I hope one day to be able to return the favor. I looked at the days and scheduled it for a few weeks prior to my European debut.
The trip itself was wonderful in a number of ways. Any attempt to detail the small moments of the trip will fall miserably short of the actuality. I will say this, I re-discovered my old friend. I found her both changed and unchanged. So much of the girl I knew remained, yet more settled. Her every limb seemed infused with a certainty of self and she exuded a charisma that lured others to her side. In an unfamiliar land she had formed her own tribe, connecting with souls who shared her sentiments and pushed her to expand her views. Once more she was with people who were not my own, though she will forever be of my ilk. We were at once as close and as distant as we have ever been, both peering into the soul of the other to see what the passage of seasons had wrought.
She reminded me, without intention, of something that I frequently forget. There are no true obstacles in life, only the ones we create for ourselves. More than once she assigned me a task that I would have deemed unlikely if not impossible. She sent me out into the streets, alone, to find food with naught but a few garbled syllables of Mandarin etched upon my tongue. In the span of a morning she taught me to ride the two-wheeled purveyor of terror known as the scooter followed by a joyride, side by side, into the wilderness. We climbed a small mountain together where I rescued her from a curious, sticky-fingered Macaque who had her cornered. We got lost on our return from the beach where we saw some of the most intricate and immense statues made of sand alone. We even journeyed on a long disused jungle road to pay respect to the great boulders and pebbles carved by the churning waters belonging to one of Taiwan’s hidden waterfalls. In these brief moments and all surrounding it, I found a richness that had been lacking in my previous days.
It wasn’t the country or the presence of my well loved friend alone that gave me this feeling, it was the daily doing. Get up. Move. Stride towards a new experience. Greet each moment with openness and readiness. Be prepared to achieve and allow for the learning opportunity that is failure. Most importantly, greet the day as a friend rather than a foe. So often in life we get wrapped into cocoons of our own make in an attempt to shelter ourselves from the ills of this world. In this safety we can endure, yes, but we can also become stunted. Life should not be a thing merely to be gotten through. Not to stand on cliche, but we must all wrest ourselves from the mire and take the bull by the horns lest find ourselves trampled in his wake. Days should offer moments of joy and further understanding both of ourselves and those around us. Connecting to the world does not need to mean forced interaction with people for whom we have no interest and who are not interested in us; rather it should mean actual interaction with the ground, the sky, the trees, and the people who greet us truthfully and openly.
A desire and passion for exploration were budding within me and this cross-cultural interaction only sped its growth. Each day I awoke with a sense of purpose and ambition to do and see more. More sunlight on my face. More trees carpeting a great expanse of mountain. More pursuit of the mountain stream and its illusive source. More natural beauty and connection to the Earth.
These days with Michelle shuttered too quickly to a close and I savored them all the more. Though I cannot detail the myriad steps in this shared journey, there is one moment of this particular week I wish to shed more light upon. The nights were sweltering from the summer heat and pushed us out in search of liquid repast. Beer, gin, anything would do so long as it was cold and wet. Meeshie’s favorite haunt at the time was an ex-Pat bar where she frequently met her fellow ESL teachers.
One such evening I found myself amongst her usual group and she had a point to prove. She turned to me and demanded I tell her friends what a loser she was in high school. It is in this moment I realized how skewed a person’s vision can be when it comes to themselves. Michelle, in my opinion, was never anything other than impressive. She traversed teenage awkwardness without a backward glance. She walked through different realms and social circles without pause. Academia, athleticism, musicality, dating, all of it, she handled with a grace and tenacity beyond her years. No, I would not propagate the lies she told about herself. Rather I chose to celebrate the strength and bravery of this person I hoped to emulate. So I told them the truth as I saw it. She stared at me in surprise, disbelieving. This marvel of a human could not see herself as I did.
This begs the question, do any of us? In this world filled with vanity and it’s selfie-culture, most of us are striving to be someone else’s embodiment of perfection. Constantly we measure our achievements and our waistlines against the current ideal. Held captive by this never-ending beauty contest unwittingly entered once our teenage hormones take hold with a psychological death grip. Without realizing how or when it happened we consider ourselves less than whole. The ticker card appears and gives us a checklist with which to measure our aptitude. Aesthetic. Artistic. Athletic. Academic. Subscribe to the A’s or be left behind forever to flounder. The nauseating part of all this is that, truly, we do this to ourselves. So many of us, myself included, view our own bodies and achievements through a filter of negativity we ourselves accepted. We take steps toward the path of self love and enlightenment only to be turned from it mid-course by some event of life.
How often have you encountered someone who seems themselves half-formed and always searching — restless yet immobile?
When I look in the mirror I hope to encounter someone on a journey rather than someone in need of one. I look at my friend and wonder why she can’t see herself; I suppose, she looks at me and wonders the same.
But I digress.
Our week drew quickly to a close as we both prepared for departure. She too would be taking pack-to-back this summer and tramping through Thailand. On her own. A fantastic and fearless human being. We bumbled our way to the airport a full twenty-four hours too soon. Such fools are we. I am thankful for this last day as it was a day with her alone. I have difficulty with unfamiliar personalities; when confronted with a group of unknowns I fall quiet and observe. I learned long ago that my thoughts and opinions are not always welcome at the table. Best to wait and see who is in attendance before engaging in the sort of conversation that can leave one empty rather than full. Thusly I have always preferred one on one interactions as it allows small pretensions to fall away and the two individuals can lapse into a fluid state of being. This extra day bolstered me and proved once more that no matter how far we come in life, side-splitting giggles are just a good friend away.
Time played its usual tricks, giving me a day that felt infinite though comprised of the usual twenty-four hours. The time had come. We gathered our belongings, I found balance in my over-burdened pack and she effortlessly lifted her minimalist one. We traced the steps of our previous day arriving again at the airport in Taipei. Here is where I left her and she left me. We swung packs-to-back again and began our separate voyages. A quick hug, a subtle smile, and she was gone; adding stamp after stamp to her passport. I turned my attention to my own passport and the months of wayfaring ahead. I am forever thankful to her. Beyond financing this inaugural trip abroad she unwittingly gave me the tools I would need to conquer my own fears.
Her gypsy spirit leaned in to whisper to mine and call me into action.
Move. Stride. Grow.