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Nomadism

stillness
Nomadism

If I Could Fly: Seeking Stillness in Movement

Vermont. Early August, 2017. Stillness.

It’s 1:04pm, and the August sun is hitting my laptop screen at just the right angle that I must squint to see what I write.

The bus rattles and sways on the two-lane Vermont highway. Pen and paper prove unusable.

I have music in my ears for a change, and it makes me think of caravan routes through the desert, the rolling gait of long-legged animals on sand, the scorching white heat of a cloudless sky at noon.

I look out the window to my left and witness another set of elements entirely—green mountains, gentle New England sky. Yet, the felt sense is the same. It is a tenuous impression I have tried and failed to describe so many times, I nearly believe it impossible.

It is the thing that calls me to move and whispers instructions to my intuition. It is the thing that taught me to dance, barefoot and alone. “Wanderlust” is an incomplete surrogate for the thing I mean.

I look outside again.

There is a story in the sky, like always; I could spend the whole ride watching the shapeshifting drama and chuckling to myself. Mountains undulate on the horizon, soft and green and melodic; I could spend the whole ride tapping out their rhythm against my thigh. Walls of trees enter and leave my sight, as varied yet indistinct as an ocean of faces in a crowded subway car. I could spend the whole ride absorbing their anonymous features.

I could spend the whole ride sitting here, doing nothing, too—and for someone who loves to do things that’s already remarkable.

Several weeks ago, I shared my favorite ways to pass a long train journey. Reading, writing, and snacking all featured on the list. So did “doing nothing.”

stillness

I wish I could remember the first time I experienced the peculiar, meditation-like (but not quite meditative) peace of being in motion, but I do remember the first time I wrote about it. Somewhere in Southeast Asia, frequently on endless bus rides through astonishing landscapes, I first tried to put words to an enigmatic sensation:

What are you looking for?
I am searching…
I am searching for—
I am searching because
it is only in movement
that I find stillness.
In running I am free;
In dancing I am liberated.
But if I could fly—
Ah if I could fly,
I would be truly
Boundless.

— “If I Could Fly,” 2013

********************************

I think it’s time to revisit this finding stillness in movement that has occupied my traveling thoughts for so long. I would like to try again to define the thing that calls me to move and calms me through action.

What is it about being in motion—in trains or on foot, by boat or in dance—that soothes my mind into a stillness I have never found in sitting meditation?

What is it about being in motion that, like an embodied lullaby, so entrances me—and, I suspect, many lovers of movement?

The answer is in the question.

Movement entrances. It occupies us—or at least it occupies me—so fully that there is absolutely no space for thoughts of elsewhere. Other times, other people, other places…these disappear in the all-pervading “this-ness” of moving. (Moving my body through space, or being moved through space, it hardly matters, so long as the coordinates change fast enough to pull my thoughts with them.)

Four years ago I started writing about the inner stillness that arises when all else is in flux. Years before that, I experienced the same outcome in yoga and ecstatic dance. Its hold on me hasn’t loosened. I think it’s safe to say that this magic stillness is my only addiction. A single taste has you seeking it again for the rest of your life.

A vagabond knows this. A dancer knows this. A meditator or a yogi knows this.

However you step outside the borders of your skin and embrace “this-ness,” you will never be satisfied to remain inside the lines again.

I hear two things more often than anything else:

“What are you looking for?”

and

“I hope you find what you’re looking for.”

But it’s not a “what.” It’s a who and a why and a how. It’s a voice that calls me to move and a sense of boundlessness that keeps me coming back. It is a way of moving through life and through space.

It is not a thing I can find and then be done with.

It is the searching that gives meaning and form to the sought.

And so we keep chasing shadows through the desert and melodies through the mountains. We keep seeking stillness in movement.

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path
Nomadism

As Long As You’re Moving, You’re On Your Path.

In this moment of deep transition, a few brief thoughts on “following our path,” and what that really means.

A well-intentioned friend recently cautioned me about falling too far from my path as I meander, in my peculiar way, through experience and discovery.

I had to laugh. Such words of caution beg the question.

If we do not believe there is One True Path, how can we fall from it?

pathKinetic Freedom

I am on my path.

It twists and curves riotously, joyously. It is sheer movement.

Angels dance on wingtips overhead, and devils on their tails below. They sing together of freedom.

I am not lost, my dear. Or, if I am, I do not wish to be found.

Because there is wilding here, on my path. There is witching, here on my path. There is wonder and meaning and laughter and growth—here on my path.

And on yours too, I have no doubt. I never claimed to walk the One True Path.

I know only a little about kinetic freedom, and it is enough to keep me spinning, spinning, spinning recklessly through parabolas and whorls—along this path that is unfailingly mine. Always changing. Always growing with me.

I choose it for myself.

No one is “falling” here. Only dancing.

As long as you’re dancing, you are on your path. As long as you’re moving, you are on your path. As long as you can read your footprints in the sand, you are on your path.

Choose it.


Next Stop: Costa Rica. Home for the next 12 months. Hasta luego!

 

Photo Credit: A Different Story

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won't you stay
Nomadism, Poetry & Fiction

“Won’t You Stay?” A Short Story about Leaving.

Written in Taghazout, Morocco in October 2016. Originally published in elephant journal.

Won’t You Stay?

won't you stay

A bird came to rest on a branch outside my window one day. It sang such a beautiful tune, I nearly cried.
“Won’t you stay?” I asked the little bird.
“I could stay,” it replied, “but that is not what these wings were made for.”

A fawn appeared on the hill outside my window one day. Its silent grace was so lovely, I nearly cried.
“Won’t you stay, and rest by my side?” I asked.
“I could stay,” it answered, “but that is not what these legs were made for.”

A fish jumped in the river outside my window one day. It moved with such effortless joy, I nearly cried.
“Won’t you stay?” I called to it hopefully.
“I could stay,” it answered, “but that’s not what these fins were made for.”

A man knocked on my window one day. His eyes were such pools of wild grace as he watched me pack my bags. Tears slipped from my eyes.
“Won’t you stay?” He asked, though his heart knew the answer.
“I could stay,” I whispered, “but that’s not what I was made for.”


Read the original piece on elephantjournal.com

Image: Used with permission from Paula Barkmeier

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wandering, kenya
Europe, Nomadism

In Defense of Aimless Wandering, Revisited

I’m riding from Sweden to Finland on a ferry named Grace, pondering over aimless wandering. I’ll come back to that.

Grace is probably ten stories high. She has a club room and a casino, cafes and restaurants, cocktail bars and a dog toilet. She is more floating apartment building than ship, but she floats as she is meant to and she will bring me from Stockholm, Sweden to Turku, Finland in just over eleven hours. For fifteen pounds, that was a slow travel bargain I couldn’t pass up.

I’m the foggy kind of tired after a weekend of midsommar celebrations, camping adventures, and repeated sunrise-instigated wakeup calls at 4:30am.

The weather sympathizes. Thick clouds crowd the sky and cast the archipelago (stunning, by the way) in monochromatic grayscale. A drizzle comes and goes; the “sun deck” is slick and empty.

I sip sour-tasting ferry coffee, which does nothing to clear my head, but successfully destabilizes my hands, and watch the procession of tiny islands. Some have just enough space for a single house; others boast dense stretches of pine forests. I daydream up a contraption that could hitch to and unhitch from the passing ferries and allow me to island hop. (I realize they’ve already invented one better…it’s called a motorboat.)

And I’m thinking about wandering. Aimless wandering.

In fact, I’ve been thinking about aimless wandering since it came up in discussion during the week-long wild wandering school in which I participated earlier this month.

Actually, I’ve been thinking about aimless wandering for much longer than that—since one of my first forays into vagabonding in early 2014—and just briefly forgot to think about it until that discussion reminded me.

For the past couple of years, my wandering hasn’t been so aimless. With so much work to do and so many friends to visit, I’ve planned my travels more often than not. “You’re in London in July? Great, I’ll come to London in July.” “I have one week free after Portugal…perfect, I’ll see you in Barcelona.” “I need wifi for work this week; I’ll just stay in the city.”

But there is value in wandering aimlessly. So much value. I still believe that.

As I gather the skills to wander ever more gracefully, I hope to welcome more aimlessness back into my life. I’d like to invite you to do the same…

What is aimlessness? It is space, and it is time. Space to move without restraint or reservation, and time to observe without hurry. Space to expand, in body and spirit—and time to be utterly still. Space for silence. Time for reflection. Space for reflection. Time for silence.

Aimlessness isn’t purposelessness. Not to me.

Aimlessness isn’t meaningless. Quite the contrary.

Aimlessness isn’t absence from life; it is full-bodied presence in it.

To wander aimlessly is to move through the world without the conceit that we actually know what is coming next. That is, to move through the world with grace. (Told you we’d come back to it.)

So here I am, sitting on a ferry named Grace, thinking about aimless wandering.

And I’m thinking that maybe aimless wandering isn’t a choice, but a description of how we are, all of us, moving through life. Whether we like it or not. Whether we acknowledge it or not.

We don’t know what’s coming next, but we can go to it with purpose. We can go to it dancing.

There is space to expand, and there is time to be still.

Why not embrace it?


Leaving Stockholm:

A post shared by Toby Israel (@tobyintheworld) on

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life lessons travel
Adventure, Nomadism, Travel Advice

7 Hardcore Life Lessons Travel Teaches Faster

Travel is a relentless teacher.

There are no bathroom breaks, no question and answer sessions, and no weeks off for study or review.

We jump in, and there we are. We learn on the fly, or we fall on our face. Or, we fall, and then we learn to fly.

Whatever the order of events, we learn, and we learn fast when we get out there. These are a few of the life lessons I’ve found travel teaches fastest:

1. Let Go of Expectations.

That time you think you bought an apple pastry at the Finnish supermarket, but when you bite into it the orange mush inside is anything but apple—and it might be tuna fish. The time you order the cheapest thing on the menu at a rural Kenyan restaurant, and of course it turns out to be beef tongue. When you board your train to Rome, and find out you’re heading to Geneva…

Yes, life is full of surprises; never more so than when we don’t speak the local language, or are in too much of a hurry to ask questions. At some point, I realized I’m more surprised when I do get what (or where) I wanted than when I don’t.

Welcome the unexpected.

2. Eat the Food.

I’m not vegetarian, gluten-free, paleo, vegan, low-fat or high anything else. While I’ve met many brave souls who stick to their dietary restrictions while on the road, I’ve learned it’s a hell of a lot easier (and maybe healthier) to eat whatever’s available. Not to mention unique culinary-cultural experiences don’t usually follow our rules. I frequently choose to eschew the privilege of choice (the eschewing of which, yes, is a privilege in of itself) in favor of honoring a friend’s hospitality or sampling a street snack I’ve never seen before.

Eat the food. Maybe we regret it the next morning, but in the balance, it’s worth it.

3. Be Flexible.

Would you sleep in a boat? Would you sleep on a coat? Would you sleep on the floor? Would you sleep while they snore? It’s not Dr. Seuss; it’s a night in the life of a traveler. Parks, boats, train hallways, packed dirt, wooden pallet, moldy shack, noisy dorm—if you can name it, I’ve probably slept there.

Flexibility is a skill, not an inbred talent, and one which I’ve cultivated over many years. Be it food, sleeping quarters, hygiene or travel arrangements, I’ve learned—had no choice but to learn—flexibility is king of the travel kingdom.

Travel will teach us to be flexible like a ballet class on steroids.

4. The World is your Toilet.

Lest this be misconstrued, I’m not suggesting you relieve yourself in your friend’s bedroom or the public gardens. Rather more in the vein of number three, we don’t always get to be picky about our WC. London city street at three a.m.? Hey, everything’s closed, and the next bus is an hour away. Edge of a Himalayan field? The alternative is the middle of the village road.

Bottom line: we can’t be prissy about where we piss, and sometimes we have to get creative.

5. Technology Won’t Save You.

Sure, Google Maps is super handy for getting from point A to B in a new city, but it has never helped me get back when my phone dies. I’ve seen enough power blackouts and internet outages to firmly believe we can never rely on technology. It may disappear without warning—or it may not be useful once we drop far enough off the map.

We have to be resourceful—without any resources.

6. People Will.

When you’re outside the service zone, a friendly shepherd will give you directions, and he and his three dogs and two dozen goats will accompany you for the next kilometer of your journey. When you’re stranded on the side of the road, well-meaning strangers will (usually) stop and pick you up.

When emergency strikes, technology won’t save us, but the human beings around us will.

7. No Fear.

When I said yes to a stranger’s invitation to dinner in Nepal, she became a friend, and her family’s hospitality gave me one of my most memorable experiences of the trip. Jumping on another friend’s motorcycle for a two-day ride from Mustang to Pokhara tied it for first. Wherever I go, I try to say yes to every (reasonable) opportunity.

Not everyone will agree with my “yes-woman” policy, but I stand by it. From hitchhiking to midnight swims, and mountain climbs to backstreet wanders, it has led me to a treasure trove of adventures—and no regrets.

In short: leave fear behind, along with the high heels. Where we’re going, we won’t need them.

 

What did I miss? Please share your travel-taught lessons—I’d love to hear them!

***

Originally published on elephant journal.

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struggle
Culture, Europe, Nomadism, Travel Advice

Struggle: A Travel Manifesto

If you travel (or live), where the mother tongue is not your mother tongue, you will struggle. The mundane will become complex and challenging, and you will no longer take your habitual fluency in the everyday for granted.

This is a good thing.

It shouldn’t be easy. (Or at least, I strongly believe that it is through challenge, discomfort, dis-ease that we grow best.) So, this is my travel manifesto for you…

Go out into the world, and struggle:

Struggle, to purchase underwear.
Struggle, to ask directions.
Struggle, to talk about the things that matter to you.

Comprehending the cost of your coffee will be a minor victory.
Catching a compliment on the first go will be cause for celebration.
Navigating a simple interaction will thrill you—as it never could at home.

These are all very good things.

For it should not be easy, this day-to-day living.
It should not be easy, this being in the world.

So struggle, to take the bus.
And struggle, to order at the bar.
Struggle, to understand.
Struggle, to say you have understood.

For it should not be easy, this everyday living.
It should not be easy, this quotidian life thing.

When it is easy, we forget—

We forget that buying our coffee is in fact a minor victory,
that a compliment is cause for celebration,
that understanding is a miracle,
and being understood doubly so.

So struggle,
and don’t forget
that it is a privilege to move through this world with grace.

And when you do forget,
as, invariably, we do,
Go out again
and travel.

Remember what it feels like
to struggle for the simplest of rewards.

Remember not to take
anything for granted.

Remember how to move
through this world
with grace.

 

— Monday, 15 May; train Barcelona—Paris

 

*Image photographed in Belleville, Paris. Artwork by rnst.

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solitude, curious
Adventure, Europe, Nomadism, Travel Advice

When You Don’t Want to be Friendly and Open and Curious

That’s okay. It’s normal. Go ahead and hermit.

 

I stare resolutely out the window of my Uber at the windy Cape Town day, quite determined to see that any attempts at conversation die a quick death.

As our fellow hostel guest in Matosinhos (northern Portugal), a kind man from Tokyo determined to talk about marijuana at length, engages my friend in discussion about alternative cures for cancer, I stare resolutely at my book, quite determined to leave the onus of politeness on her.

A talkative-looking chap sits down next to me at a cafe. I pretend not to speak English, or Portuguese, or French, or Spanish…I stare resolutely at my coffee cup, quite, determined to be Russian for the next hour or so.

Surprised?

I write so much about openness in travel, without giving any stage time to its inevitable counterpart: closedness.

I think I’ve touched on this before, but never really delved into it: No one can be “on” all the time.

For permanent vagabonds, this can be a slow realization. After all, aren’t curiosity, openness, and willingness to engage the key ingredients to meaningful travel experiences? Sure, but then, so is balance.

I love my alone time. Fiercely. I am probably less social, less inclined to long chats, and less of a people person than you are (and I don’t know who is reading this).

I write often about kindness, talking to strangers, being open to the world—and rarely about selfishness, ignoring talkative strangers, and withdrawing from the world.

But balance, right?

Lest you mistakenly conclude after reading my blogs that one must always be friendly, happy, and socially-inclined in order to travel, let me assure you: I’m not.

After all, how else would I get so many articles written?

Someone once told me that I like the idea of people more than I actually like people, and he was probably right. Humans are so fascinating! Culture, language, food, stories—I love it, and I want to soak it all in…50-90% of the time. The other 10-50%, I really cherish my own company (another key ingredient for solo travel), and I don’t want to share it.

Balance.

For those naturally inclined to solitude, there’s a spider-web-fine line—at which you may choose to stare resolutely while seeking to avoid conversation—between comfortable, uncompromising introspection, and exhausting, unrelenting openness. And if you can dangle from that line by your toes, in an incredible feat of mental acrobatics, you just might find the recipe for richly balanced, joyful adventure.

Maybe your travel soup will have some of the same ingredients as mine:

> Ample time to read, write, yoga, and think
> Bizarre and fascinating interactions with strangers
> Learning experiences of all variety
> Wordless (heart-centered) communication with people and spaces
> Silence in abundance
> Dancing and other movement in abundance
> Kindness
> Selfishness
> Outward-focused curiosity
> Introspective curiosity
> Creative exploration
> Physical adventure

So happy travels, and happy soup-making—I hope you’ll find just the right balance.

Please share your favorite ingredients if I’ve forgotten any!

 

Photo Credit: Zen Monkey Photography

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Adventure, Europe, Nomadism

The Strangeness

 

“There are no foreign lands. It is the traveler only who is foreign.” — Robert Louis Stevenson

Sorry, Robert Stevenson, on two counts. First, I still haven’t actually read any of your books, but I swear they’re on my list. Second, I’m going to have to disagree with you on that lovely and popular quote of yours.

Because I’m starting to think that there are only foreign lands. That nothing is, after all, familiar or domestic. That when we spend a portion of time “abroad,” away from what was once home or something like it, we realize that “home” is just as strange, just as illogical, just as arbitrary as all the rest.

***

The sun is out in uncharacteristic force, and as I walk down the street in Chelsea, London, it reflects back at me with a grin off a row of tall, identical apartment buildings.

The walls are spotlessly white. The streets are free of garbage. The public transit runs seamlessly.

I have just arrived this morning from Cape Town, South Africa. And as I am coming to expect when I jump continents, I’m slightly bewildered by everything… The old lady in a mauve pantsuit and Ugg boots pushing her walker with one hand and holding her mauve hat with the other. The young men wearing shorts and T-shirts (whereas I have just pulled my down coat out of storage). The utter politeness of traffic on Kings Road.

Politics and economics, on the other hand, run parallel. Xenophobia and poor economic choices rule the day, here as much as elsewhere.

I digress. It is the strangeness that lingers with me today, and which I would attempt to describe. The slight eeriness of one of the places I consider a home base. A flutter in my stomach as I amble along the too-neat lanes and study the too-same rows of pretty buildings.

London.

London, where I stay for free. London, where I have friends, a climbing gym membership, and a regular cafe, supermarket, and aerial dance studio.

London, where I don’t need a map.

London, where I keep coming back, although I can never quite decide if I even like the place.

As I do in Cape Town, I have a community here. And so I return again and again, such that it has become familiar, evan banal, to visit.

Except, not this time. This time, it is the sense of strangeness, not of homecoming, that strikes me first. The roads too straight, the people too well dressed, the pavement too clean, the attitude of the entire city just a bit too…deferential.

As spring unfurls in the flowering magnolia trees and the underdressed pedestrians, London opens her arms to me, and I hardly recognize her.

This, too, is a foreign land.

And if this is foreign, then nowhere—nowhere is anything but.

Why talk about this strangeness? This foreignness of the formerly familiar?

“This is our tragedy….our fictions are killing us, but if we didn’t have those fictions, maybe that would kill us too.” ― Salman Rushdie

It’s critical to acknowledge the inescapable quality of strangeness in a world brimming with fearful people seeking security in the familiar. People who genuinely believe there is a “right” way to build a city, be in a city, be a city.

There is no right way.

There is no “standard” from which all other lands digress in various degrees of foreignness. Such a standard is fiction, and it divides us.

Perhaps the truer statement is this:

All lands are foreign, and it is us, only us, who are the same—everywhere.

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Africa, Nomadism, Travel Advice

Don’t Take My Word For It

Everything I have ever written, everything I will ever write, represents an infinitesimal slice (mine) of an infinitely complex whole.

I may speak of the universality of experiences such as fear, joy, loss and love. And I do believe in the value of sharing knowledge. But still, someone else’s words will never be enough.

A single truth only brings us so far.

I can write that it is Saturday, that I am in Muizenberg, South Africa, that the sun is hot and high for so early in the day. And that is all true.

I can write that I am sitting at one of the southernmost edges of the world watching the waves roll in against a backdrop of rocky peaks; that the wind and my hair and the sky taste of salt; that my shoulders ache from surfing; that seashells crunch under my feet as I walk. And that is all true.

But this information is mine only. What of yours?

The Buddha was fond of saying, “Don’t take my word for anything; go find out for yourself.” (I’m paraphrasing here.) In the Jewish tradition, debate and inquisitiveness are encouraged. We are not to simply take another’s words (or even doctrine) as truth, but rather—to fall back on a much-overused phrase—to discover our own.

I believe much of the world’s wisdom boils down to this:

Go and see.

Today, I was going to write a snapshot of Muizenberg, a small coastal town just a thirty-minute train ride from Cape Town. But I changed my mind.

You can Wikipedia that, and I think this is more important.

“Go and see” does not necessarily mean, “Drop everything and go travel the world.” Although, if that is within your means and your calling, I certainly recommend it.

“Go and see” means, “Experience the world—any world, your world—for yourself. Don’t just take my word for it.”

Perhaps you won’t venture to the southernmost edge of the world, but touch the edge of something.

Maybe you won’t be crossing international borders, but find a limit, a frontier, and surpass it.

You may not “watch the sunset from every coast,” but you can watch the sunset every evening—and if it’s the watching that counts, then that’s kind of the same thing.

There are many ways to seek, many ways to wander, many ways to cross borders; I share only mine. And while I hope you enjoy seeing a certain world through my particular gaze, I also hope you will go and see, because these words, these truths, are only the beginning.

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travel bug
Culture, Nomadism

The First Time: When the Travel Bug Bites

Some people will reminisce—with nostalgia, regret, or a little bit of each—about their first cigarette, their first drink, or their first time trying X (fill in the blank with your substance of choice).

Me?

Alcohol was never a big deal in my family, and I’ve stayed away from cigarettes like my life depended on it (oh wait, it kind of does).

That doesn’t mean, though, that I don’t have a “first” on which to reflects with the romantic fondness of well over a decade of distance.

I’m talking about travel, of course.

Several early family vacations could count as that first—London, Canada, Florida—but one in particular stands out in the box of mismatched, half-faded memories I carry: Italy.

Italy, first and most enduring love of my life… after horses. That first visit I only remember in glimpses: The heat (there was a record-breaking heatwave that summer). An old woman in a bead shop, and a strand of irregular, aquamarine beads (I would finally turn them into a necklace some fifteen years later). Crisp, white slices of coconut beneath a cascade of water glittering in the sun. Venice canals and dreams of carnevale (I have yet to visit at the right time). Cappuccinos for breakfast, and several subsequent bathroom breaks over the course of the morning. Fairytale mountain villages, and cities shimmering under summer sun.

I have since been back to visit nearly a dozen times, learned the language, and made numerous friends across the country. I have bungee jumped in Piedmonte and reignited a passion for adventure in Sicily. I’ve indulged in pizza in Napoli, anchovies in Genoa, and fiori di zucca in Rome.

Just thinking of it makes my mouth water and my palms tingle.

Italy.

But the dreamlike beauty of these childhood memories is about so much more than one country. It marks a beginning.

I could trace my enthusiasm for the wonder of discovery to many moments—many trips:

Dancing in a circle of women in rural Senegal at age sixteen.

Wandering the streets of Spanish cities at Christmas-time with my peers, age fifteen.

Age seventeen, arriving in Paris alone, and growing into a sense of adventure once too big for me.

I could pick any of those or countless other journeys, but I choose to locate my travel awakening in that sweltering Italian summer many years prior. A seed already planted. A map already drawn across my future—big, swirling letters spelling, WANDER.

And so I have. And so I do.

The first time we meet ourselves is extraordinary indeed. Even if we’re too young to realize it. Even if we repeat the experience countless times thence. Even if we’re full of shit, and it wasn’t like that at all, and that dreamlike beauty is just the result of fifteen years’ obfuscation.

So, I’m curious: what was your first time traveling like?

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As Long As You’re Moving, You’re On Your Path.
August 10, 2017
“Won’t You Stay?” A Short Story about Leaving.
July 5, 2017