The first time I went to Panama for work, it was maybe a
solid five days or so, and everyone I knew was ecstatic about it.
“How’s my little international traveler?” my mother
“Must be nice to have to go work on a tropical island.” A
best friend pretend-huffed and rolled her eyes with a smile.
Then I went back. For two weeks. Three. Right now, a month.
And the questions now come with some sincere perplexity.
“You’re in Panama
“When are you coming home?”
“Why do you have to be there so much?”
I don’t have to be,
I asked to be.
You see, this job I have, doing marketing for an eco-resort
company, is yes, pretty amazing, as the whole sunsets, palm trees and beaches
part would have it seem. It really is, and I won’t be ungrateful for it for a
single second for the rest of my life.
But, like any job, and especially any job for a start-up, it
requires work -- hair-pulling, over-budget, behind-schedule, underdog,
limitless work. At a computer, in an office. And until it works, until we make
it, it’s what I’m going to do. Period. It’s the single most simultaneously rewarding
and depressing thing I’ve ever done. It’s alive, it’s real, it’s happening and it’s
challenging. And I love that.
So you see, when I go work on this island, I’m not staying
in a resort – I’m watching it be built. There’s no chef, only a cook for the
construction crew who specializes in 8 gallons of grease a day with a side of
plantains. My mattress is about three inches thick and smells like mold. I work
7 days a week. I talk about work seemingly every waking hour. And yes, the
sunsets are so breathtakingly beautiful that sometimes I walk to the end of the
beach, find a seat on a rough boulder, and watch that big neon pink ball sink
into the ocean as tears of gratefulness stream down my face. There are monkeys
and anteaters and toucans instead of street gangs and hipsters. I can do yoga
on the beach by myself, without a soul in the world around to laugh when I fall
out of crow ten times in a row. My commute is a hike through completely pristine
old-growth rainforest. It’s a give and take, just like any reality of being an
adult, I figure.
You see, by nature, I have the supreme ability to make
everything more complicated than necessary. In the words of my best friend,
“watching you make a decision is like, an apocalypse happening on your face.”
The particular decision at hand when this comment was made, was whether I
wanted to grab something at Starbucks on our way to Trader Joe’s. On the corner
of Ontario and State, I was having a fucking internal catastrophe over whether
or not I desired $4 cup of vanilla extract, soy, and ground up coffee beans.
So imagine, when someone asks me a question such as, “well,
are you happy?” Am I happy? Am I happy?
Do you know how many aspects of my life go into analyzing that question?
Needless to say, when I know I want something, I take that miracle
of assurance whole-heartedly. I gave up freelancing and hopes of grad school,
and started this job hoping to go to Panama. At every review, when I was
praised and asked what I would like from this opportunity, I said, “I would
like to go to Panama.” After a year, when my boss finally asked, “Do you have
availability for a trip in May?” I was on that plane faster than you could say
“business or pleasure?”
Best of all, when I’m in Panama for more than a week or two,
and I’m all caught up on work and wishing one of my very best friends was here
to have an adventure with, I know I’d rather be at home eating mediocre sushi
on an ordinary patio rather than without them on an extraordinary island. And
after too long in Chicago, when there’s never enough time in the day and I feel
as though I’ll never keep up with city life, I know I want to come back to this
beautiful, intrinsically simple island. Oh, all this certainty -- flat-out want
for all these things in my life that I love so much, with no internal
apocalypse -- it feels exceptionally wonderful.
So when you ask, why I want to be in Panama so much, the
answer isn’t so simple – in fact, you might witness a facial apocalypse. “Well I do and I don’t.” You could see it as
running away from something or as running headfirst into an opportunity my life
presented. It’s because I love feeling wild on this island and I love coming
home. It’s being a grown up and a free spirit at the same time.
It’s how I’ve found simplicity in complicating things.
Before my first trip to Panama, almost an entire year ago, I scoured the Internet for a movie about Panama to watch while I was packing. Something to keep up with the fast beat, the deep yearning of my heart for what I would soon embrace with every ounce of it. Something besides Modern Marvels: Making of the Panama Cana…oh, sorry, I fell asleep, I got so bored just thinking of the first five minutes.
Luckily, in the deep ethers of the internet, I stumbled upon a real, true, gritty, we have no money but endless time, documentary: In Pursuit of Panama. Two boys from the Pacific Northwest got in a car and drove all the way down the Pacific coast, until they got here, and filmed it. In the entirety of the beautiful story voiced over the gritty film, two words have never left me. In fact the phrase multiplies in my thoughts, as do the days I spend in this place.
"Life seems simple here, poetically simple. The people seem happy, genuinely happy. And something about the way we grew up, keeps us from adapting their life, and something about the way we grew up, makes them envy ours.”
This island is a wilderness, like most of the country. One touched just enough by a human hand, that you can call it a home. Beauty here is the kind that slows down time. And at 25 and drowning in the expectation of that, I’m flattened by the humility of gratefulness to feel the earth spin slower. I’m gifted many quiet moments here, to sit sun-drenched and become magnetized by the presence of being still. “\ˈske-(ˌ)jül? a. obsolete : a written document.”
Sometimes I just go and watch from afar, the local men we’ve hired to don hard hats for the first time, as they slowly become experts. Working on a site where the ocean view stretches turquoise for miles and miles until bumping into the deep purple silhouette of a far away isle. They stop to smile a brilliant smile at me each time they catch me, up the hill in my perch. Lost in the calm, the strength, of cinderblocks being stacked, and cement being poured, and walls being raised; a slow, human, visual accomplishment. It’s a strange and universal wonder, this view of the site and the sea. A beauty that makes you sort of smile-cry in a gasp; so many things coming together at once. Like how in the world I ended up here, planted firmly in the red dust, and how their lives have become an opportunity just by stepping onto this island, how together we are creating something very, very beautiful. There’s just something about it; poetic simplicity.
This is past due, I wrote it over the Christmas holidays when my family took off to Arizona to see grandpa and see the Grand Canyon. Perhaps life was so good in 2011 that it silenced me, I'm not sure, but at times it felt like it was nearly going to kill me, only to spring back to technicolor rainbows again when I was about to give up. Last year I visited six new countries, and two new US destinations; now in 2012, I'm working part time on an island in Panama. Anyways, it is now April, I guess I should just post this 2011 reflection.
December 27, 2011. I stole this from a book:
"The Navajo say that when a person becomes sick, he or she has fallen out of harmony with nature."
I've been out of harmony with nature; an irregular beat among sunrises and sets. Swollen glands and accompanying headaches; weeks of purple up and down my arms from getting blood drawn just one time; a shrug from my concerned doctor with kind eyes. Sweating it out in Bikram to feel exhausted for a whole week afterwards, replacing the Advil bottle in the cabinet over the sink with a new one, again. Pushing the swells in my neck back and forth in anguish; red wine, heart-to-hearts, a few tears, and my soft flannel sheets the only escape.
I've been flat-out under the weather for two whole months now. And though the doctor points towards something persistent and viral and ending with an "itis," what it feels most like is my immune system waving its pure white flag of surrender. I've reached my edges so many times this year that they're starting to becoming heavier than my center, sending my days and weeks tilting into various tangents of extreme that have me awkwardly running backwards to keep my balance. Every dimension of my being has been begging me to rest, to reflect, to just be at peace with the enormously beautiful influx I've brought on this year.
Sometime around May, something wild and alive was sparked within me as I spent time on two islands. Self contained lands so pristine and primitive that although alien to this American girl for their lack of human impact, the soil felt native to me. The air instigating a comprehension of existence I didn't know I was missing. A wilderness unrealized within.
There are still places of Genesis and natives and savages. Of dinosaurs and explorers and lost boys. Milky ways and galaxies and the reason for being. It the midst of this everything, it feels evil to dare control. Fill out your calendars and make your resolutions. Step on the scale and plan your retirement. Determine love with ink on paper and diamonds on rings. Rip yourself open and chart every atom -- try to define your life with invented symbols, but for this illusion of stability you are going to have to stand too still to as much as breathe. For with every step you take farther out into the world, your reality transforms absolutely.
What you think you know is irrelevant.
And this is freedom. Since my college graduation I had been trapped in trying to find "the" place I was supposed to be in life. As if there is one. As if one job or the other could be it; staying or quitting; moving or nesting; the one I loved or a heart unknown. And I realized trying to narrow down a set of options that could come together to create my life was just that, narrowing down. When I don't have to. I can still be crazy and wild and adventurous and a sister and a friend and professional. There is time for everything, just not all at once, and of course never enough of it. It's okay to be whimsical, to leave the boundaries blurry, so long as your foundation is strong.
I tried so hard to control. To sleep the right amount and dictate the appropriate amounts of time to the appropriate ways to spend my time. To get my ducks in a row, gain a bed time, make lists, and check boxes and schedule exercise and social life in appropriate increments. Of course all of those things are good, adult, taking care of your affairs, things to do. But in all this planning, what I somehow lost was the purpose of it all. Not all the time, not when I thought about it, but on enough monotonous, routine-driven single days that it added up to a mundanity that makes me nauseous to think about. Luckily, and this is not a statement of faith but rather a submission to a universe much bigger than I: we are certainly not in control of our own destiny. But we can play our cards right.
When I moved to Chicago, I let the graciousness of humanity throw me back into the world I was hiding from and where I fell was a stunning existence of absolute joy that can only come from complete and utter openess to the beauty to be found in the world. Two years previous of utter loss, fear and confusion were healed. Surrounded by the best of friends, a vibrant city and a simple existence, I learned lessons about life and myself and my heart that I will use to make decisions for a lifetime.
And then I got a "real job," almost two years ago. A wonderful, ideal job for a company that has my heart. But a 9-5 (7-7) job in an office, in front of a computer, with a never ending list to be done. I've never known what to do about the conflict of it; the free spirit squandered, the rhythm never quite "me." Having to silence that part of my personality that wants to be raw and vulnerable and young and flooded with the simple magic of discovery all the time. What I gifted myself was obstinacy -- it didn't matter how many times my boss made me cry, or how confused I felt, or how challenging it was to get up many days -- I was going to do it, and do it the best I could. I worked so damn hard. I pushed, I argued, and I threw my heart into it, and after awhile, I began to feel proud of what I had learned. I came to understand the meaning of that thick lump of accomplishment that wells up in your throat when you realize that what you just pulled off was something you were secretly afraid you couldn't do. When you realize you are probably too small, and too stupid, and have too much to learn to know the pride of success, but nevertheless, you did something that adds value to the world. I did.
Accomplishment -- that's great. But it's not what I learned this year that changed my life, it's not what the islands taught me, it's not what made this year one of my best yet, or that fueled a fire to live in a massive way in the next one. Working hard just opened a door for me to be "lucky" or "blessed" or the recipient of marvelous undeserved gifts in whatever way you choose to define it. In the opportunity to travel so much this year -- to get on a plane and experience the wild abandonment of the unknown, I was floored with that sense of purpose. That inexplicable feeling of "right", of love for existence, of my place in this world, came flooding back into my heart with a powerful vengeance that I cannot wait to live again.
Oh, the days of 2011, time gracefully placing me at a quarter of a century on this planet of unfathomable beauty waiting patiently for my stupid schedule to make some time for it. The tears of mundanity, the butting heads of past and present, the utter confusion, the much-awaited surge of bliss in my heart -- this year has given me a run for it. I'm not sure if it was swallowing a pepper too hot for human consumption in Shanghai, dancing late into the night in full view of the milky way in Belize, working 14 hour days to launch a website in Chicago, riding a rickety bike through pitch black dirt roads in Cambodia in search of sunrise, accepting a live chicken in a shopping bag as a gift in a rural Chinese village, ducking under a fence to get a true sense of depth in the Grand Canyon, or swallowing one too many tea cups of rice wine with the locals in Vietnam, but at the culmination of this year, if I'm not going to choose a break, it seems by body is.
It's time to be well. We'll see what I can manage in 2012.
Now I know why Panama called my name like a severed heart string for over a year. When I didn't feel like taking this job because I wanted to go back to school, or do a million other things instead. When half of me wholeheartedly believed that this was not my path, but some sort of steel core kept me commuting to work every day as if possessed. Kept me persisting on, trying to keep my head up as tears hit the weather-worn planks of the train platform in dark perfect circles that came to be known as 6pm. Kept me stubborn and prideful as strangers stared, and I tried to explain into the phone that I was going stick with this until I got to that illusive isthmus that at times seemed nothing more than a six-letter word. Some people who loved me thought I was too stubborn for my own good, others thought just plain stupid, all got sick of my repetitive analysis of the struggle within my raw, idealistic heart. But I just knew I had to get there.
It's because she was there the whole time, waiting for me. Walking down a mile long stretch of beach as big heavy raindrops hit her cheeks. The sky spitting on previous distrust. Smiling up at it, northern skin turning pink, city feet covered in sand, wild, wild heart beating with the force of a life well lived.
On that 400-acre jungle island, I stepped back into my shadow. That sensation of being in the exact right place in the world at the exact right time. The one I've been looking for since 2007.
Suddenly, every step along the way makes sense.
Nothing if not earnest, I've been chasing her across this country in zig-zagged strokes. Stopping to look up, down, all around and wonder, "are you here?"
I glimpsed her running straight up a steep hill from the city market in Seattle, the Pacific laid out behind me like a sapphire blanket in the sun. Causing my calf muscles to burn and my lungs to pump and happy energy to elbow random passer-bys. "This is it," I thought I heard her whisper, as I ate creatures pulled straight from the sea and giggled endlessly while talking with a smelly, burnt-out bum. At the understanding of a place completely new, my eyes turned into satellites, mapping every vivid detail -- the velvet fuzz of a yellow bloom, the sharp stench of fish, the dirt in the corner of the poster store and the story told by the Asian import cargo boxes.
In Ely, Minnesota she sat crossed legged with me on the wide, shady porch of a log cabin for an evening, in Dubuque, Iowa she high-fived me in the basement of a thrift shore as I unearthed from a leather suitcase, two saffron colored salt and pepper shakers in the shape of owls with big circle eyes. There have been so many little moments, close to home and far away, but its been four whole years since she let me hold her close and relish in the wholeness of that grip. Although I've tried to convince myself that she lives here many times, she gently tucked me into my Chicago bed two years ago, pointed my chin towards the painted tin ceilings, reminded me of the sky beyond and placed my feet into my bike peddles before she was off. I've used words to try and nail her down ever since, but the beauty is that I cannot. Transcendence cannot be forced.
You're nodding your head that I'm a silly dreamer, we always have a shadow, right? But no, I will argue, your shadow is not a thing to be taken for granted. Too often we walk in it, blinded by the past, or in pursuit of it, wondering if we are even alive. But to walk with your shadow, is to be able to see yourself both behind you and in front of you at varying lengths. To look from side to side and see yourself there too. There you are, in all of your different funny angles and unique perspectives, rooted in place like a pinpoint on a map. I, here. And for no reason at all, everything beyond you and your funny gray vestige just seems to make sense.
As children we study our shadow at length, wondering why it is sometimes tall and lean and other times short and squat, we stare at it in relation to the shadows of adults, buildings, trees, understanding our smallness and wanting to conquer it. When it disappears we wonder about the light far above us, and run out from undercover to define ourselves again, playing games with the fact of our existence. As as we grow older, we take our relation to ground and light for granted, and instead focus on where we are going instead of just where we are. We stop playing games with the right now and wonder instead about where we've been and who we will become.
Sometimes you know where you are meant to go in life, and sometimes you just know you're supposed to go somewhere, to feel like something, but those "somes" are unclear; they cannot be isolated or defined. In these times, you look down and cannot locate your shadow, perhaps as you sit crunched into an office chair under florescent lights, or because you are so tightly wrapped into another person that you can no longer define your individual outline. As a baby adult, I have struggled to define my edges many times, the unceasing want and lack of answers blurring the definition of my life like an endless shadow.
That's because she had landed somewhere, and now I know where. My shadow was sitting on on a jetty alone before the ocean, chin in her hands, inhaling deep sighs, just waiting impatiently for me to get there and figure it out in one altering sigh of relief. Had I not worked in dire pursuit of something just beyond my reach, I never would have met this island, and through the rest of my life I would have cried myself to sleep sometimes and not known why. Because I would have missed my chance at breathing the air there, at imagination manifest; because deep down I would know that I had been too proud to trust my gut. It would have been to fail my own destiny.
On this island of towering trees, howling monkeys, black and white striped sand and an excuse to ignore just about everything else, it all just fell into place. Every why, every tear, every doubt, and as if possessed I realized that all I wanted was more. More hard work, more fear, more unanswered questions on the way to the next great adventure, the next faraway land, the next heart thumping love affair. As if my blood is composed of atoms of certainty, for the first time in a long time, I feel absolutely right in this place.
I know that traditionally shadows are gray places where people are hidden or overlooked, places where your secrets hide. But to me they are the uncomplicated forms that provide secondary proof that something actually exists. They connect us to the ground on which we stand, so no matter how high we soar, we are always connected to the place in which we are standing alive and real. If you ever get too lost deep in the channels of your head, the real dark spaces, look down and watch your shadow run until it greets a place in which you are safe. The shadows of leaves dance in the wind, and as long as I'm moving, so does mine.
So go ahead, my free spirit of a shadow, with your knowing smile and a feather in your hair, run away and hide wherever it is in the world that the deepest wishes of my heart desire, and I promise to remain true to the instinct that will have us meet again.