When I was a much younger man, a group of friends and I would take a week or 10 days each summer to go backpacking into the mountains. The sense of adventure and, more, the scent that is unique to the wild places, particularly alpine wild places, would drive me on for the first few hours on the first day. But by late afternoon, I began having doubts, along with muscle aches and a blister or two. Lugging a heavy backpack up mountain trails by that point seemed less adventure and more torture, and a nice motel room, along with a good steakhouse, seemed like a much better option than the ramen noodles that awaited me cooked over a small camp stove.
The bottom line was that I felt out of place. I didn’t feel like I belonged. I wanted to be somewhere, anywhere, else.
But after a few days my attitude would change dramatically. Suddenly I felt at home wherever I was. My muscles stopped hurting and began to take me back to an ancient time — I was using many of the same muscles my ancestors used hundreds and thousands of years ago, muscles that generally don’t get much use in modern society. And the scent made my heart sing. Somehow in the span of a few dozen hours I went from feeling like an alien in a harsh and unforgiving environment to feeling as though I actually belonged to the environment. It was wonderful, magical. Life was good.
Recently, I’ve felt like I don’t belong anywhere, that I’m struggling mightily against a world throwing a torrent at me.
For the first time in my working life, I took a two-week vacation. It was needed, as I was becoming a stressball of epic proportions. Despite that to some (and generally to everyone in Third World nations) my whole life seems like a vacation, I spent the past year and a half trying to do more than my over-half-century-old body and mind could deal with and felt burned out. Losing a friend to cancer at that time didn’t help.
My vacation was strongly supported by the wonderful people I work for at the newspaper, and I had the highest hopes for a quick recovery. On the first day, Michelle and I took off for Fort Lauderdale to board a cruise ship — a perfect way to be cut off from the world for a while.
We left early in the morning to arrive at the ship as the gangplank was opened to maximize our time aboard. I had worried the entire week prior that something might happen; a flat tire or the car would break down in the Everglades or something equally nasty, forcing us to miss the boat. I chalked up my worries to simply being a stressball.
Before we even managed to get out of Ruskin, we could smell the distinctly unpleasant scent of burning antifreeze. The day before I had topped off all of the fluids and I told myself that some had simply spilled, thus causing the smell. About 80 miles down the road, we stopped for coffee and, while sitting at a stoplight, the car became engulfed in steaming, burning coolant. I realized right then that it was a really bad time to drive a 30-year-old German sportscar. I also began to wonder, not for the first time, if the lightning strike that had hit my boat and me several months ago hadn’t actually killed me and landed me in some weird form of hell.
Pulling into a gas station, I saw a small hose spewing antifreeze all over the hot engine. We found a shop that, with some creative modification to a hose, could fix it but the mechanic also said another hose, so unusual that no creative machinations would be possible, could give way at anytime.
So what to do? Risk the hose giving up the ghost in the middle of the Everglades as our ship sailed off into the night? Time was running short so we ended up pulling into the Fort Myers airport and renting a car for the remaining two-hour drive to Fort Lauderdale. That was really not how I had hoped a stress-free vacation would begin.
As we arrived in the city, with 25 minutes before the stated last call for boarding, we dropped off the car at the airport and hopped into a taxi in record time. Afternoon traffic was already heavy, so Michelle asked the driver how long it would take to get to the ship. He replied, “About two hours.”
He’s a lucky man as, just before my brain exploded in the back of his car, he laughed and said, “Just kidding. About 10 minutes.”
True to his word, we arrived with 10 minutes to spare.
Ambedo, as defined on numerous websites, is a “kind of melancholic trance in which you become completely absorbed in vivid sensory details — raindrops skittering down a window, tall trees leaning in the wind, clouds of cream swirling in your coffee — which leads to a dawning awareness of the haunting fragility of life.”
Barring the melancholy, I rediscovered that part of myself to a degree while on the ship and in the subsequent days. Staring off into an amazing world does wonders for the soul. As I write this, I’m watching an osprey build a nest, carrying stick after stick, circling repeatedly to place it precisely on the growing structure. Sometimes he fails and the stick falls to the ground. He is undeterred but also unforgiving. He never attempts to retrieve the fallen stick but instead flies off for a new one, starting the process all over again.
I decided I could learn something from that osprey. I’m slowly learning to let the sticks fall and be forgotten, along with the stress and antifreeze-spewing cars.
So now my long-awaited vacation is over, and that’s a good thing, as working is a really good outlet and, it turns out, vacations are quite stressful. I still don’t know where I belong in this world but those things come in time. Tall trees are swaying in the breeze and the osprey is hard at work on his nest. Life is indeed fragile but the stress can blow away with the wind. Life is good again.
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