THE LAND OF DREAMS | There was a huge, open-air camp. Singing plants and illuminated chilis sprouted from magicians’ hats and everyone offered dreams for barter. Some wished to trade dreams of travel with dreams of love; others offered dreams of laughter in exchange for sad dreams to release a long-needed cry. A man walked about looking for the bits and pieces of his dream, which was shattered by someone who smashed into it: He collected the shreds of his dream and pasted them together to make with them a banner of colors. The water bearer of dreams carried the water in a vessel on his back and dispensed it in tall cups to whoever got thirsty while sleeping. A woman wearing a white tunic stood on a tower and combed her tresses that reached her toes. The comb shed dreams with all their characters: the dreams were born from the hair and glided out into the air.
Excerpt from _El Libro de Los Abrazos_ by Eduardo Galeano. Trans. Nathalie Alyon
“But how is Nathalie going to find a husband while traveling?” my 93-year-old grandmother apparently asked my father a few weeks after I boarded a plane to Colombia from Atatürk International Airport.
“So what did you tell her?” I laughed.
“Nothing.” I could imagine my father growl while lounging on the living room couch with his legs crossed on the armrest, after having overeaten another Shabbat dinner.
My father continues to be more than supportive of my decision to abandon a normative life in order to travel and write. And even though my grandmother’s question was probably more a lamentation on my state of singledom at age 31 than a genuine inquiry, his decision to relay the message conveyed my dad’s hidden reservations about the path I had chosen.
While my grandmother is an old-fashioned woman, who keeps an emergency bag of hand-rolled borekas in the freezer in case one of her grand-grand children decides to visit, it would be reckless if not outright rude to not entertain her distress. After all, just months before leaving Tel Aviv, I had declared to my friends that I was once again ready to settle into a serious relationship.
If that’s not contradictory enough, my impetus for leaving home was precisely in order to be alone, despite harboring an intense fear of the prospect. During the months preceding my final departure, I secretly hoped to meet a globetrotter who would tie me on his backpack. I dreamt up scenarios in which I fell so deeply in love with a man that I decided to stay put instead of vagabonding into the wilderness of the world.
Foolish daydreams notwithstanding, I knew this journey was one to be traversed alone. I had to strip off everything familiar: my friends, my family, and the comfort of my bed. Instead of packing my favorite possessions, I filled my bag with clothes I fished from deep inside the closet—some I hadn’t worn for years, others weren’t even mine. I cut my long dark hair and died it blond, depriving myself of my own image. A stranger greeted me in the tiny mirrors of hostel dorm rooms.
Famous writers have long been known to uproot and travel. T. S. Eliot abandoned his American roots, rewrote his identity and literally became British. David Thoreau went into the woods to Walden Pond to “live deep and suck out all the marrow of life;” Joseph Roth had a habit of staying in hotels and never in one particular hotel for too long so that none ever felt like home. Virginia Wolf liked to escape to Corwall to find solace and John Steinbeck had practically locked himself up in a Lake Tahoe house in the dead of the winter to be alone and write. How Steinbeck managed to get married three times while living in such isolating conditions is beyond my comprehension.
Many others before had shown that writing was made much easier with a certain level of solitary confinement—a kind of shedding of a layer of skin—as well as a period of idleness in the wider world. However romantic it may sound, that’s exactly what I craved. Yet clarity and self-confidence about a chosen path’s relevance are gifts that are ephemeral at best. I frequently feel lost and find myself contemplating the kind of mental disease that has me roaming half way across the world.
When days of unproductivity give way to week-long dry spells, I drift from one coffee shop to another, rewriting the same to-do lists of articles and stories by longhand, using a different colored pen for variety’s sake. I crave for the company of my old friends, for a heartfelt laugh over an inside joke, for a familiar corner in which to cry. On rainy afternoons in Mexico’s colonial towns, I dream of the warmth of my living room where the Tel Aviv sun shone right onto my cozy couch. If quitting my job was the attempt at giving myself the idleness to write, what did leaving home, pealing off all these layers of native skin achieve? Have I put life on hold or have I just begun living it? And oh my, how will I ever find a husband?
“You’re living your dream, Nat,” my sister said over a phone call in an attempt to encourage me, in one of those moments of self-doubt. I had just lost my glasses in a small town in Mexico and gotten attacked by fleas on the same day. Everything beyond three meters was blurry. I poured kolonya from a travel-sized container onto my fleabites, pursed my lips and said “okay.”
As I listened to my sister put the state of my existence into a clichéd abstraction, I thought about the British guy I recently spent four days hiking with in the Sierra Norte in Oaxaca. Terry was a tall, introverted 30-something year old who lived alone, participated in triathlons, and worked as an aerodynamics engineer for one of Formula 1 race-car teams. Despite having shared 12 meals together, getting to know him was like procuring information from a detainee. He wasn’t one to speak unless spoken to.
“So, you like your job, Terry?” I asked him over one lunch to break yet another awkward silence.
“I’m living my childhood dream,” he said about his job. “You don’t have any childhood dreams?”
“No, not really,” I said, “I suppose I wanted to be an theatre actress once when I was little but that lasted about six months.”
I had already developed a fear of commitment as a child and constantly traded one hobby with another extracurricular activity. People like Terry and their passionate commitment to a path so determined from such an early age made me feel like an orphan of dreams.
Nevertheless, I take solace in the fact that Terry and his ilk are the exception than the rule. Figuring out what you love to do is as hard as actually doing it. The best advice I read on the topic was to simply keep “producing.”
While writing this post, I tried to include other historical women writers who, like their male counterparts, had sailed off into the world to escape the familiar. Then I remembered Virginia Woolf’s musings in A Room of One’s Own about the kind of literature Jane Austen or Charlotte Brontë would have produced “if experience and intercourse and travel had been granted her.” The handful of great books penned by women before the twentieth century were written by those “without more experience of life than could enter the house of a respectable clergyman.” She goes on to argue: “had Tolstoy lived at the Priory in seclusion with a married lady ‘cut off from what is called the world’, however edifying the moral lesson, he could scarcely, I thought, have written War and Peace.”
Times have certainly changed since Woolf’s 1928 treatise. Some obvious examples of women who have recently made headlines by making the world their oyster are Cheryl Strayed and Elisabeth Gilbert. But as a generation who grew up on embracing the dreams of Disney princesses like Snow White and Sleeping Beauty, how far have we really managed to reach?
A few days ago, I was surprised to receive a call from my father—he usually texts to confirm I am alive. I had just dismounted a horse that had taken me to San Juan Chamula—a town inhabited by indigenous Tzotzil Mexicans, where pre-hispanic rituals such as sacrificing live chickens in front of images of Jesus Christ in the town’s cathedral are daily practices.
San Juan Chamula’s dead chickens aside, my father informed me that he was sitting next to a friend who happens to live in Mexico City, and asked whether I would return there. I indeed planed to return to D.F., so he passed the phone along to his friend who most generously invited me to his family’s home. Plans were made; contact information exchanged.
As the delays in the whatsapp call began to make our conversation more and more difficult, I tried to politely end the conversation when I heard my father’s half-joking, half-serious plea from afar: “Find my daughter a husband in Mexico!”
“Reception is really bad,” I said and hung up.
Meanwhile here I am, producing, with the hope that one day I will stand in an open-air camp, watch the dream glide across the air and I will have the wisdom to distinguish the dream from the fantasy, and the will the reach out to grab it.