Email excerpt from October 15, 2014 (two weeks before I left NYC to embark on an open-ended travel adventure.)
Mrs. O: “Follow your heart.”
Me: “My heart says ‘Go to Spain and communicate with the outer world only by posting photos on Instagram.’”
Mrs. O was being serious and I was being flippant… mostly. My heart was telling me to go to Spain. Or rather it was telling me to get the heck out of New York City, my home for the previous 15 years, and explore the world without commitments of any kind.
Having given notice and purchased a one-way plane ticket, I was already on my way, at least mentally. I felt, though, like unknown forces were conspiring.
I had written to Mrs. O exclaiming that I was having a fun but totally weird time with a new fling while fielding on-the-street run-ins and texts from exes. At the office I was receiving invitations to present at fancy-pants work conferences and being courted for new positions.
I wrapped up my email spill with: “WTF, I decide to leave and all this crazy stuff happens. I’m so glad I have a plane ticket!!!”
To which, Mrs. O replied: “You are a wanted woman for sure…leaving is not as easy as it seems, I’m sure the courting will continue on all fronts!!! Follow your heart:)”
Indeed, leaving is never as easy as it seems. Because once you actually make a decision to instigate change, the wacky tricksters of The Universe always throw a few last-minute sidetracking opportunities your way as if to say, “Really? Are you sure? Maybe it’s a HUGE mistake! Here is this other shiny thing you might want instead.” I know this from experience.
Thankfully, my heart can be stubborn. And the heart is the entity delegated with big decisions like whether I really should put everything into storage and spend half my life savings on travel. If the mind were in charge of those things, forget it.
Have you ever heard someone say “Oh, just make up your mind!” when it comes to life changing decisions. No! It’s usually hurled from behind when, for example, you don’t know if you want that pumpkin scone or a blueberry muffin with your afternoon coffee…
To be honest, I often saw statements like “follow your heart” as trite… But Mrs. O never takes matters of the heart lightly. Ever. It is one of the many things I love about her.
And she wasn’t the only one suggesting I let my heart lead the way. JD uttered the phrase many times in those last few weeks. He was my dance partner for a brief, fun farewell tango in NYC. “Follow your heart” was JD’s code; he lived by it, listening often and intently to the shouts and murmurs of an organ that beat fervently with hope and optimism. Sweet JD… the day I left NYC he gave me a kiss, a copy of The Alchemist, and a sticker that said ‘Try new things.’
Stories like The Alchemist tend to ruffle my cynical feathers, but I read it in the cafes of Spain while sipping cortados and to my surprise, I was smitten with the tale I had once dismissed. I felt for Santiago when he said, “My heart is afraid that it will have to suffer.”
One afternoon, during the hours between cortado and red wine, I wandered into a small bead store in San Sebastian. I discovered a section of brass plates with various phrases. One said, “Sigue a tu corazón.” Corazón I recognized as heart. I had just learned seguir, the verb for follow, in my daily three-hour Spanish lesson. “Follow your heart.”
I finally softened and decided to adopt the phrase as a travel motto along with another I found next to it: “Vivir es increible.” To live is incredible.
It reminded me of my 19-year-old self who had an Egyptian ankh, the symbol for life, tattooed above her right breast. The ink was applied by an artist named Nev in a tiny parlor in Whitstable, England, a 20-minute bus ride from Canterbury, where I was studying abroad for a semester. It was my first time outside of the U.S., and my first tattoo was followed by my first oyster, which I washed down with a pint of cider in a pub alongside Whitstable’s mud flats.
At 19, I felt very much alive. I was growing and learning and exploring a different country, a new landscape. But I also suffered from the angst of adolescence, and I feared complacency and dullness, which I saw as looming dangers inherent to adult life. The ankh was meant to serve as a long-term reminder that, if I ever found myself mired in boredom or discontent, I better do something about it because what’s the point of anything if you don’t feel alive, like you know, really alive!?
Ha. My younger self was naïve as to how much energy it requires and how complicated it can be to live by that intent… As easy as it may sound, it was not a small effort—mentally, physically or emotionally—to leave NYC and become a temporary nomad.
I left the shop in San Sebastian, my new mottos tied around my wrist with pretty ribbons, and went for a walk along the beach, which although windy and chilly, was beautiful nonetheless.
Near sunset I arrived at El Peine del Viento (Wind Combs), the result of collaboration between the famed sculptor Eduardo Chillida and architect Luis Peña Ganchegui. I sat while the sky darkened and thought about what it meant to follow one’s heart. I contemplated the circumstances that had led me to the end of a bay in Spain and the desires that would ultimately keep me on the road exploring the world for eight months.
It was November 6 and I had turned 41 the day before. Having “found myself” years ago, this journey was not one of self-discovery. I was not 22 with a few bucks in my pocket and a backpack asking the world to tell me who I am. I was embracing a freedom I had created to travel for the pure enjoyment of seeing new places and experiencing moments that are otherwise out of reach.
Inevitably, my thoughts shifted to the future and what could possibly come after embracing one’s freedom so thoroughly. But the future seemed far off and unknowable. So, I closed my eyes and listened as spray from the La Concha bay shot up through the holes in the plaza floor.
Later I read an interview with Chillida’s son Luis who discusses his father’s intent with Wind Comb. Chillida’s three sculptures represent the past, present and future. Luis described the past and present sculptures as “searching for each other, trying to link to what was previously connected.” The third and farthest sculpture was placed “to define a point that would take us beyond this place, the horizon, the future, what is going to come.”
As my days on the road unfurled, I thought a bit about the past and the future, but I tried mostly just to practice the art of being present.
Until one day, high on a mountain ridge in New Zealand. I was discussing my nomadic state with Craig, one of the guides leading a two-week trekking trip I had joined across the South Island of New Zealand. I had not uttered a word about my heart when he said:
“Well, you know, it’s important to follow your heart. The problem is, sometimes the mind interferes.”
Um, yes, that is exactly my tendency. When my heart is chatty, my mind usually offers plenty of reasons not to proceed—or it just distracts me with other stuff like scone vs. muffin.
In that brief moment of reflection, the sneaky Universe saw a grand opportunity and whispered in my ear once again:
“Listen, girlie. You’re not done heeding that beating muscle in the middle of your chest. Pay attention. And for god’s sake don’t overthink everything.”
I remembered that mountain-top discussion today because my heart and brain are it again. And it’s uncanny, still, how many times strangers or new friends on the road told me something true about myself.
I wore those bracelets through Spain, Portugal, Morocco, Hawaii and New Zealand, finally retiring them to a pocket in my camera bag in Asia because I was spending so much time in the sea. But I’m wearing them again now and trying my best not to think too much.