Ten years ago I had a dream in which I flew down to a beach from a great height, just beyond the earth’s gravitational pull, where oxygen sits as a slight veneer over stars glittering on the light blue perimeter of dusk and dawn. Landing at the ocean’s edge I dug my hands into the damp sand. The light was golden and warm, a sunrise or sunset, not sure which. I gaze up at the cliffs, looking back at the stratosphere where I had been floating. I inhaled the salty sea air and I was filled with an indescribable elation.
Intent on setting deeper roots, I moved to San Diego this past May after a full year of traveling and living out of a suitcase. After a couple of days spent unpacking I finally went to the beach to stand in the Pacific. With waves lapping at my feet I gazed down at the bug bites lingering on my ankles from a magazine assignment in the Ecuadorian Amazon a couple of weeks prior. The sight of those angry welts struck me as an affront and out of place. I watched a surfer run into the waves and my mind wandered back to Ecuador: I recall sleeping deep in the jungle in a ramshackle house on stilts. A slightly ominous wind had whispered through banana trees after an evening spent by a fire with a shaman. He told stories about an anaconda river god and offered me a mysterious hallucinogenic drink, promising that with it I could see home. Home, I had thought. I’ve never known where home might be — it’s an elusive place to one who wanders.
Back again, trying to be present in the moment as I stand in the ocean for a bit longer, I resist the waves of these fresh memories washing over me. A few days later, after just 10 days in my new home city, I took off on yet another travel assignment — this one a cross-country train story. I was gliding across America, back again over the same ground I just driven in my move, from New Orleans. As I crossed the Sonoran desert yet again, I wondered, what is the lesson here?
I have a nomadic heart. I find existential relief in movement, in letting cultures and stories wash over me. In the last few months have found myself reflecting on the nature of wanderlust and what it means to stand still. As a lifestyle choice (or instinct) it can be useful to think of the nomadic heart as existing on a spectrum. Milan Kundera contemplates this range beautifully in The Unbearable Lightness of Being: “The heaviest of burdens crushes us, we sink beneath it, it pins us to the ground. But in love poetry of every age, the woman longs to be weighed down by the man’s body. The heaviest of burdens is therefore simultaneously an image of life’s most intense fulfillment. The heavier the burden, the closer our lives come to the earth, the more real and truthful they become. Conversely, the absolute absence of burden causes man to be lighter than air, to soar into heights, take leave of the earth and his earthly being, and become only half real, his movements as free as they are insignificant. What then shall we choose? Weight or lightness?”
Regardless of where one is on the spectrum — grounded or nomadic, light as a feather or weighted — as human beings we seek meaning and wonder. It’s a universal desire. We also seek ways to resolve existential angst. The solution is highly variable: Gazing into your newborn’s face or watching your child ride a bicycle for the first time, beaming as they glide by. Leaping out of an airplane, hurtling down towards the earth. Running into burning buildings — there are many ways to skirt the edge of death just to feel alive. Meeting a stranger in a faraway land and listening to their story. Climbing a mountain, lungs burning with thin air and triumph. Watching the sun rise before the rest of the worlds springs to life. We all arrive at different solutions for the persistent pangs of existential pain. There is no single answer. There is no right or wrong with any of it.
Whether we are traveling or standing still, we are all in a constant state of change. Our bodies are constantly regenerating — in a years time, 95% of the cells in your body will be replaced. The brain is replaced in 1 year, bones in 3 months, DNA in 2 months, liver in 6 weeks, skin in a month and stomach has a turn-over of 5 days. We are awash in biochemical processes, which can change in a moment — adrenaline spiking seconds after a near-miss car crash, the endorphins that come with a sprint or the natural, heady oxytocin that floods you while in the embrace of a loved one. Our memories change too, from moment to moment, filtered through new experiences that cast a continually changing light (and shadow) over our recollection of past events.
Even if there is no true stillness, I’m finding that there is grace in standing in place for a while, feeling time rushing by. I’m glad to be here, right now, in this sunny Eden, watching these waves break.