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ISTANBUL

Full disclosure: I have never been to Istanbul, so I’m afraid I will have to do a bit of improvising with this post.

Having said that, I do know that traveling of any kind can be a powerful way for us to learn about our relationship to others and to the natural world. It can remind us of how interconnected we are and of what a tiny space we actually take up which can be a very humbling experience.

When I was thirty-six, I traveled alone to South Africa to volunteer on a reserve where my job was to help monitor their lion population, but in reality, I had already traveled to Africa hundreds of times in my mind.

When I was a kid, I devoured the new National Geographic magazine each month and made a habit of collecting the colorful maps that were included in some of the issues. Taking care not to rip them I would spread them out across the carpet on my bedroom floor and imagine myself an explorer of far away places.

When I was older and began traveling to places that required a plane ticket instead of our old station wagon, I remember the delicious sensation of walking out of the airport and seeing the world with new eyes.

I come from the north, from the land of conifers and dense forests of oaks and maples and slender birches.

The first time I saw a palm tree I could not contain my excitement. I had to excuse myself to run over and touch it. I was laughed at by the friends I was traveling with and called a tree hugger. That was fine by me – I couldn’t argue with them. I had been a lover of trees my entire life.

I depended on trees – as we all do – for my very existence, but like a tree’s thick roots my love for them runs much deeper. I appreciate trees not only for their outward beauty but for what they conceal beneath the surface. That network of connection, though hidden, kept me company when I was a child. It made me feel like I belonged to something bigger than myself and kept me grounded and excited knowing it was possible for me to tap into that.

When I was a child, my favorite tree was a hollowed out oak in the woods behind our house. I spent a lot of time with that tree, a lot of time inside that tree. If I was a tree hugger, then I guess you could say, this particular tree wrapped itself around me and hugged me back.

When my own kids were little, and I was homeschooling them, we walked daily and had favorite trees we’d say hello to along the way. Mine was the “chi-chi” tree, so named for its breast like protuberances that we sometimes rubbed for good luck.

For the kids, it was the “climbing tree” a beautiful old maple with think sturdy branches jutting out in every direction like an invitation. It stood guard atop a hill in the middle of acres of fields. I would give them my blessing to climb it along with a stern warning not to go higher than our agreed upon benchmark; then I would leave them to it as I continued on my walk.

The fields that surrounded this tree were often used by old men who enjoyed flying their model airplanes overhead. I will never forget the first time the three of us met some of them. They were gathered around boxes of Dunkin Donuts that were spread across one of the picnic tables, drinking coffee and gossiping about something like schoolgirls. We all waved hello, then I left the kids to climb and continued on my walk.

I was never at any point out of their sight – maybe walking another quarter of a mile down the hill to the turnaround before heading back up to gather them, but I was later told by the kids that I nearly gave our new audience a collective heart attack.

Maybe those old men thought it was reckless for a mother to leave her children alone, however briefly, to climb almost twenty feet high up into a tree. But when I thought back to all the crazy things I did as a kid, things my parents would have flipped out about if they knew what kind of physical danger I sometimes put myself in – mostly when I was all alone, I went with my gut trusting they’d be okay.

They were more than okay. They knew their limits and never pushed past them, delighting in every moment spent up in that tree, just the two of them, talking, laughing, telling each other secrets and probably wondering what their friends were doing in school. Often they’d be in the middle of “an important conversation” when I got back, and I was told to keep on walking. Instead, I would opt to take a seat at one of the picnic tables where I could gaze across the overwhelmingly beautiful landscape we had walked to from our backyard, and send a silent thank you to the universe for my blessings.

To me, traveling also felt like a blessing. No matter where I traveled, whether to a nearby lake or a far away tropical beach, the landscape always left its mark on me but none more so than Africa.

During the second leg of my trip there, I flew over what amounted to the entire continent of Africa, from London to South Africa. The flight lasted more than eleven hours most of which was during the night, but I could barely sleep from my excitement as I marveled at how unlike flying over the United States, for most of those eleven hours there was very little light pollution coming from the land below.

From my journal, August 2005:

…As I look down with only a little over an hour left before we land, I gaze out my window in complete and total wonder at what awaits me. I feel like I am being reborn.

From the moment I arrived I sensed that Africa was, much like Istanbul, “…a place where questions stop being asked as much as a place where they begin…” – David Whyte Consolations 

After all, Africa was where all of our stories began more than two hundred thousand years ago. We can all trace our roots back to Africa.

We are all connected by the root to our mother. We are all offshoots from her taproot. Africa is Mother to us all.

I flew into Johannesburg airport, and as each passenger exited the plane and began walking across the tarmac, I noticed the woman who had been sitting next to me kneeling down the moment her feet hit the ground, then bowing in reverence as she kissed the ground.

I’m not sure if she was just thankful for that long flight to be over and grateful that we landed safely, or if she felt the same way I did and she was greeting her long-lost mother, but I was moved by it and felt hot tears welling up in my eyes.

It was the first but would not be the last time I would be moved to tears while there.

…Today we drove into town to see an almost three-thousand-year-old Baobob tree, and it was absolutely amazing. I could have cried in front of everyone I was so moved by just laying eyes on her…it was almost like meeting a soul mate….even as I write this I want to weep.

Like Istanbul, Africa “…lives and breathes like a real human being…” – David Whyte Consolations

This ancient baobab’s trunk was also hollow, and could easily fit a half a dozen people inside. As I carefully climbed inside her, I was instantly transported back to my childhood, back to my favorite tree, and I nearly lost it. I didn’t realize that I, too, had been feeling hollowed out by life, and with her reassuring hug, she made me feel whole again.

Every moment of every day spent in Africa I was being resuscitated.

Brought back to life by the sights and sounds and smells. By the colors of the rich iron red earth, the deafening cacophony of birdsong, the smell of wild creatures large and small.

The animals drew me there, the landscape enveloped me, and the people showed me their hearts in so many ways I was overwhelmed and moved to tears almost on a daily basis.

I was the only American volunteer during my time there. Besides the native South Africans that ran the program, the others had traveled from England, France, Switzerland, Austria, Hungary, Spain, and Holland.

To be in their company was so incredibly refreshing for me. We ate over a large open fire every night, sharing rich, colorful stories of our lives. The Milky Way hung in the sky like a masterpiece, the cacophony of zebras and hyenas and the occasional lion’s roar heard in the distance blended into an exquisite serenade.

…Interesting thing Aggie said to me last night by the fire – that since she’s been here, the English words are beginning to pop into her head before her native Hungarian – I thought that was so cool. I never appreciated how difficult it must be for people whose language is not English first, to understand and communicate with someone who is. I just assumed everyone could understand me I guess. How arrogant of me.

I think all of my life I assumed other people could understand me, but I was wrong. That’s just one of the many things I am learning as I continue on the journey that is this blog.

I, much like Africa and Istanbul, “…knows from whence it comes but knows not yet where it goes.” – David Whyte Consolations

Africa changed my life. I would never be the same, and I still cannot adequately express my gratitude for that.

I left there with a new understanding of how little I really needed after being reminded of how much I already had.

I had reconnected to the source and to myself and reconnected to every living thing in my company. Not just to the wonderful people and the landscape, but to every single creature large and small.

Another journal entry from my last night there:

Tonight I found out there is a python living in the ceiling – was told it likely got too big eating the abundance of mice up there to be able to come back out. Everyone is disturbed by how OK I am with knowing that. It’s a full moon, too. Blood red…. Thank you, thank you, thank you. What a blessing my life is.

I had been trained early that week on how to handle a puff adder (one of the top three deadliest snakes in the world) should I have the bad luck to run into one.

That night, as I drifted off to sleep thinking about the snake living in the ceiling just above my head, I was reminded of just how interconnected we all are. No matter the size or shape, no matter if you are a plant, an insect, a lioness, or a goddess, no matter if you are black, white or brown or any shade in between, no one thing or no one person is more important than another. Everything and everyone matters. Even the python slithering around as I slept.

I had uprooted myself from my life and my family in order to travel to Africa, alone, but by doing so, I was now firmly anchored to my life. To all life.

To be rooted

 is perhaps the most important 

and least recognized need of the human soul.

– Simone Weil, French philosopher, mystic, and political activist.

 

NEXT WEEK: JOY

 

About Amy

I am many things to many people. Daughter, sister, wife, mother, aunt, friend. I am a worshiper of nature on a journey inward, rewriting my story one word at a time.

2 Replies

  1. Linda

    Where do I start? I especially like loved this one Amy!! I too spent almost a lot of time with and in that tree!
    I too, am a tree hugger!! I am still moved and amazed at your talent at writing!!!
    And yes,we should all be thankful for and to the universe!
    Beautiful share Amy!!
    Love you. linda

  2. Jeff

    Remember that well! So glad you went! Loved spending time with the kids! Also so glad to have you home safe! Love you!

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