I write this from a hostel lounge in Lisbon. The sky is a clear blue, not a cloud in sight, and the immense Rio Tejo sparkles beyond the orange-tiled rooftops. A live street guitar performance, playing out somewhere on the mosaicked plaza below, floats up to the open, sixth-story window, mingling with the sounds of a traffic jam: jitneys, vans, motorcycles, and cars. All these are mingled, in turn with the sounds of chirping birds and passing people. The people are making the sounds they are apt to make in loud cities: shouting — but more importantly and more noticeable, laughter. (Joy has a way of standing out against all the humdrum-rest.)
I woke up pensive this morning. Today is May 19. I have an eidetic memory, and that includes a memory for dates. What I remember most about this date — what I have remembered most about it for the better part of a decade now — is its iteration in 2010. Not just what I watched on TV that morning, the songs I heard, where I had lunch, which friend I ran into, which article I was reading, the fact that I had a counseling session and an acupuncture appointment that afternoon, or what I had for dinner. I remember all of that too, I mean, but what I remember most is that May 19, 2010 was the date I had a one-night stand that changed everything.
About a week ago, to kick off my current Iberian adventure, I was in Barcelona visiting a friend, a vibrant, hilarious, sharp, thoughtful, generous, fascinating older woman with a background as a counselor. As we chatted in her kitchen and I asked about her healing process with some difficult experiences of her own, she mused about neuropsychology, explaining: “Every seven years, your psyche is totally new.”
I’d heard the more general variant of that statement before: that the body completely eliminates and replaces all its cells within every seven years. Physically speaking, who we were seven years ago is not who we are now; every single piece of us is new. But the mind, too? Really?
When she said this, I had to wonder: am I anything of who I was seven years ago?
My 2017 life is somewhat unrecognizable from 2010. . . but do I truly see the world so differently? Are my emotions new, too? Or my dreams and beliefs — are they also something completely else?
Seven years ago, I was a Ph.D. student who had been ignoring the sense, for months, that this was not the future I wanted. . . but I also wasn’t allowing myself to really sit with that awareness, brainstorm alternatives, make other plans. It was during that time that I happened to invite a man to spend some time with me. My interest was purely sexual and enhanced by the fact that he would soon be moving. Seemed perfect: no risk of ANY feelings when you barely know each other and one of you is about to leave for a new continent indefinitely. Right?
Apparently wrong. I fell in love within hours. And more than that, I “remembered” myself and saw — far too clearly to ignore — how unhappy I was and what kinds of changes I needed to make to live a life more in line with my heart, soul, and spirit.
Nursing a broken heart is hard enough. Being left with a bunch of existential epiphanies that demand radical life changes is, arguably, harder. But I had seen myself in him, fallen in love with those pieces, and, thereby, remembered the selves I had buried. The philosopher-mystic. The poet. The wannabe-world-wanderer. There I was, entrenched in the politics and data deluge of the ivory tower, and yet what I had always wanted to do was see the world, talk with its people, learn their stories, write creatively, and bring uplifting social change through my “art.”
. . . and somehow, of all the types of life experiences that could have brought me to realize this with such crystal clarity. . . it was a one-night stand.
By the following May, I had quit my Ph.D. program and taken a trip to East Asia. Little over one year after that, I had moved to China. After a couple of years there, then I moved on to Germany, which is where I live now on a work visa. In some ways, it’s not so hard to believe that things are completely different from 7 years ago. But the process was tough; it’s a very hard road, trying to figure out how to support yourself when you have such “impractical” dreams. Who dares to come up from coal country and do something like “write” for a living, or travel the world as a woman alone? There weren’t a lot of resources to draw from or to use as a safety net. That constrained the choices I could make, along with the investments in my own success or the dreams I could act on. But I kept pressing forward. Because the alternative — to retreat back into a career that drained me, or to return to where I came from, are non-options. I was far less healthy then, and that, alone, is reason enough to keep striving to live by my heart and my spirit. Perhaps my body is new, too, seven years out.
But my heart? My mind?
So, this morning, my mind keeps flashing back and forth between May 19ths. 2010 and 2017.
2010: some research to do for the day, but mostly I was excited for plans to see a cute guy later. No idea that I’d see life and love and myself forever differently after mere hours in his presence. No idea that everything would transform completely. That rush of unexpected love, deeper and more spiritually alive than any I’d ever known, bestowed upon me an inspiration powerful enough to fuel years of superhuman strivings in the quest to revolutionize my entire world. . . Yet this love and inspiration were also quickly followed by grief and terror, as I realized how devastatingly far I was from everything I’d ever wanted to do and see and become. I was terrified that, at age 25, it was “too late.” Terrified I wouldn’t have the money. Terrified that nobody could help me figure out “the way,” since I dreamed of traveling roads for which nobody had a map. May 19, 2010, a one-night stand that changed everything.
And now, 2017: Lisbon. The sun, the birds, the sea. The sense that just maybe, just finally, I am getting closer to “living the dream.” I even did some work this morning: I freelance, working with words, in a job I can do from anywhere. Life feels so much better than in 2010, when I was crunching numbers and isolated in a little college town. No, on this May 19, 2017, I’m thankful to be “on vacation” — overseas! like I always dreamed! And even more thankful to have a job that I don’t mind doing on vacation, because it’s aligned enough with my true passions that I find it a pleasure. More importantly, I’m not nursing any sort of heartache or fighting with the realization that I detest my career. I am alone and happy. I am finally devoting my life to things I love. I don’t know when I’ll finish the draft of my book, or start making “enough” of an income, or even incorporate my mystical bent into a career, but that can all come in time.
Also a privilege: the realization that my major life questions on this particular May 19 revolve around what to eat, and whether I should spend the day at a beach (and if so, which one). . . or spend the day at an aquarium. . . or maybe just do more aimless hiking up and down old Lisbon’s hilly, tiled lanes.
Sure, the existential questions do remain; my quarterlife crisis is still in-progress. I’m still not sure how it’s all going to “work out.” It’s hard to get ahead when it’s hard enough simply not to fall behind. But I keep trying. There are no answers here. Just my memory, jumping back and forth between the dates, like parallel rails on a train track. Seven years ago, a college town in Pennsylvania. My bed. A young man so much like me that we finished each other’s sentences, with each other’s precise words. The sudden revelation that everything needed to change, and that I owed it to myself to try making my way toward places, literal and figurative, that I had no idea how to arrive at.
And today. An airy hostel in Lisbon. The sea, the sky, the sounds of a language I once studied well before I had ever temporarily given up on — and at last resurrected — my dreams of travel. The question of how most to enjoy the day. And the memory of what I’ve done with these seven years in the interim: the places I’ve seen, the wonders I’ve lived, the people I’ve loved. The certainty that, even if I’d been promised an easier road back in 2010, the 2017 me would not want to give any of this back in exchange for comfort or convenience.
So, it’s seven years later. . . Is everything truly new? Some things are entirely different. And some things feel very much the same.
If our bodies and minds make themselves completely new, where is it that we store the thoughts, feelings, dreams and wishes, preferences and propensities that remain? I don’t know. It doesn’t matter. For now, it’s enough to be here in Lisbon, daring to hope that maybe I am finally, seven years out, close to making the old dreams viable — that my life has reconfigured itself in these 7 years too. Seven years ago, I never saw myself here. That’s part of the beauty of this whole journey. And I feel beyond grateful for that.