Wednesday, January 13, 2016

The Greatest Lesson

Kas, Turkey
It's been almost two years since my husband and I returned from 9 months of travel around the globe that included 20 countries and 5 continents. I wish that I could say I came back with a renewed sense of spirituality after spending two months in India or a healthier body being away from the American diet and living in Asia for almost three months or a positive uplifting message for humanity after teaching English to Tibetan refugees for three weeks. I wish that I could say that I immediately came home and made slide shows of all our adventures and told harrowing and hilarious stories to all of our friends and families and that we hung our souvenirs and tapestries and framed our panoramic photographs and read through our weathered travel diaries. I wish that I could say that the experience was completely transformative and we both came back inspired and ready to start careers with newfound passions and a greater sense of purpose. I wish that we could say we now walked the earth with a stronger connectivity to our fellow man.

But, I can't.

What I can say is that traveling fills my soul in a way I cannot describe. It pushes me to become the best version of myself - trusting yet discerning, open yet skeptical, adventurous yet cautious. When I travel I feel in balance. I feel happy. I feel sad and outraged. I feel scared. I feel empowered. I feel confident and excited. I feel because I must. There is nothing to escape to when I feel all the feelings. There is no home to go back to that is mine, there is only one discomfort displaced by another discomfort. There is no comfort zone when you set out for long-term budget travel. There is plenty of food poisoning and sleepless nights and running to catch any form of transportation. But there is nothing comfortable about it. Because of this, you are exposed all of the time. You are invigorated and inspired, but tired. You are faced with your fears every single day and because of this they become very small, so small that you might just show up in a new town without a single reservation and just know that you will find a place to sleep that night. You will start to see humanity as friendly and actually very helpful. You will also see how terribly flawed we all are. 

I did not come back from world travel changed. I came back informed. I came back with a different lens through which I view the world and I came back sad... and relieved. Sad the adventure was over (for now) but so relieved when I heard the American accent of the custom's officer who was from the same neighborhood I was from. I felt overwhelmed returning to American supermarkets for groceries. Do there really need to be hundreds of choices for bread? Tens of choices for pickles? I went wedding dress shopping with my soon-to-be sister in law a couple days after returning and I was astonished at what we pay for wedding gowns and veils and shoes, even though I happily paid my price just a year and half earlier. Within days of moving back, we also decided to leave New York and move to LA, my hometown, and days later learned my mother was scheduled for a double mastectomy. Our travels were put on a shelf, a bag of souvenirs and mementos (that only recently was unpacked) thrown in a closet. Our thousands of pictures saved on a hard drive, packed away inside a drawer so we could make the most of our tight living quarters as we tried to get back on our feet in our home country.  

What we thought would be an experience that connected us with humanity on some deeper level, turned out to be isolating when we returned home and sometimes even embarrassing. No matter what your tone, talking about that time you took a balloon ride in Cappadocia or rode camels in the Moroccan desert or went blackwater rafting in New Zealand comes off pretentious. People asked us three questions: What was the weirdest thing you ate? What was your favorite country?  Did you get sick anywhere?

The answers: Unknown meats in Cambodia. Vietnam for me, Tibet for my husband. Yes - Morocco for me and Myanmar for my husband.

But a month ago, a friend from Colorado came to visit. As she bounced my 5 month old daughter on her knee, she asked me, "What was the greatest lesson you learned traveling?"

Without hesitation, the answer flew out of my mouth, "That the world hates women."

Her mouth dropped open and mine dropped a little, too. I followed it up with saying, "I also learned how happy I am that I was able to return to this country because it is my home." As someone who produced a documentary entitled Dear America that captured a portrait of post-9/11 youth, to find this gratitude for a country I spent many years criticizing was no small lesson. I am not one for patriotism or nationalism. I do not think Americans are better than other citizens of other countries. My life is not more important or more special than another's anywhere. I am just grateful that I am a woman in this country, even with its failings in parental leave policies and gender inequality and sexism and racism and homophobia, xenophobia, Islamophobia and so on and so on... I am not saying there is no work to be done. But I am saying that I am grateful that here I have the opportunity to fight for these things, even though there should not still be a fight for basic human rights. 

When I found out I was pregnant 7 months after returning, I knew it was a girl. I knew it was a girl because I wanted a boy. I was terrified of having to raise a girl, and yet, I knew she would be the gift I was given. How would I tell her about the statistics on sexual abuse and assaults on girls and women in this country, let alone the rest of the world? How would I teach her to love her body when I have struggled my whole life to truly love mine? How would I prepare her for the day or conversation when all of her achievements will be dismissed and she will be judged by her looks? How will I teach her to be open to new experiences but skeptical, discerning, and cautious? How will I teach her to protect herself in a world that that will not value her the way her family does or even her flawed country does? How will I save her from the pain and hurt and experiences women have been suffering around the globe for all time? 

I can't. And the weight of that is crushing. The world will keep being the world. The bigger question becomes, how can I teach my daughter to love? How can I teach her to choose love always, no matter the experience, the pain, or the loss? How can I teach her to love her body and her mind? To love the people she shares this planet with and this planet, too? How can I teach her to find love for those that hurt her and not let those that hurt or harm her become her teachers?  How can I teach my daughter to love, love, love - no matter what?

Practice, I guess.