I have often thought about the roads we take in life.
More than the journey itself, I am fascinated by the swerves in the road, life’s twists of fate that bring us from a familiar point A to an unfamiliar, seemingly unrelated, point B. What we are, what we want, what we plan, nothing really matters. Life happens.
Which makes me think that maybe after all, we do end up where we are supposed to be. Maybe we would never have ended up here and now, had we insisted to plan the destination all along.
This probably does not make a lot of sense, since ‘common sense’ says that you have to meticulously plan every step of the way in order to arrive where you are supposed to be.
My very own road has taken me to a pristine, tropical beach. Gazing at the horizon, my eyes take in the blue of the sea, the glittering morning light in the water, the signs of the abundant life all around me—the fish flying gracefully over the waves, the birds swiftly diving to catch them, the crabs perpetually digging in the sand. Under the shade of the trees, a sweet breeze caresses my hair as I drink avidly the soothing liquid of the coconut in my hands. The rays of the sun wander over my body, making patterns as the clouds move and the day progresses.
This picture of obnoxious entitlement is real, not a product of my imagination. In life though nothing is given for free, everything is paid for in advance—one way or the other. It takes a lot to reach to the point when you can say with certitude, holding your head high: “I deserve this!” When you feel that that’s where you are meant to be because you have earned it. And this beach, I deserve it.
I have paid for it with five new incisions from my latest operation, hiding under my bathing suit. Dark against the white of my skin, they have healed well. I am happy and content.
I contemplate the road that brought me here.
At its start, an omnipotent god with compassionate, almond-shaped eyes of coal—my doctor—is sitting, operating the surgical robot. With his dexterous hands, he swiftly plucks me off my familiar road and ushers me into this tropical beach.
Extracting the tumor was the physical manifestation of his intervention. Methodically, and with resolve, he was actually doing me a favor. In a very spiritual way, unbeknownst to him, he helped me come to terms with the swerves in my road, accept them, and move on.
For a long time, I was clinging to a reality that was not working, but that I was sure was best for me. When the road swerved, my life—the edifice I had believed in so much—started crumbling against the centrifugal powers at work. Stubbornly and fiercely I resisted life’s efforts to take me to a destination that was a total unknown to me. The end of the road, even when I knew it was that tropical beach, was scary.
With all my might, instinctively, I tried to maintain the status quo. Like a cartoon character in free fall desperately, but vainly, trying and failing to find a saving branch, however small, jutting out of a vertiginous and lethally smooth cliff, I tried to persevere. A sad, and futile endeavor, after all. A fall from a cliff can have only one outcome: crashing at its feet.
You see, the reason I resisted was because I wanted to plan everything in advance and plan it well. After all, I thought, how could I plan well if I had no idea about the end of the road?
Little did I know that nothing really prepares you for your destination in advance.
The baggage I took with me, I had to throw it away midway. I was on a voyage to somewhere that I had no clue about. How could I prepare for it? What I knew and what I could think of was not valid anymore.
This is what happened to me. I thought I knew how to forge my road. But the fact is you cannot really plan ahead. Because none of your preparations will make sense when you arrive to your destination. You’ll find yourself with winter clothes in the desert or with summer dresses in the snow.
I did prepare beforehand. I thought I knew what to prepare, what to take along. But I had to abandon everything, little by little, as I was forging forth on my path. They didn’t make sense anymore, they were only weights. So I had to improvise, let myself go with the flow and follow gracefully the swerves of the road. Even when there was no road discernible in front of me.
Like the poet, Antonio Machado said, “Wanderer, there is no road, the road is made by walking” (“Caminante, no hay camino, se hace camino al andar”).
I understand this sentence as having two meanings: One is that in life there is no ready, “pre-opened” road. Like another Indiana Jones, you just have to force your way through obstacles, dense vegetation, wild animals, and treacherous enemies, and arrive to whatever treasure awaits for you at the other end. The second meaning of this poem for me is that only by taking steps you gradually see the road and the opportunities arising in front of you. Our steps leave footprints that lead us far away, so far indeed that, as Manchedo asserts, when we turn to look behind we can only see a path that we will never set foot upon again (“al volver la vista atrás se ve la senda que nunca se ha de volver a pisar”).
So you put down your head, you toil away as you open your own path, and nothing can anymore stand in your way. You go in the blind, but the euphoria you feel when you see your feet tread the soil and open the road pushes you to go on. I made a promise to myself not to stumble. Nothing could drag me down. Even if I fell, I would get up again. Against everything in the road, I would arrive to that beach a champion, standing tall.
Then you realize that actually forging the road was the easy part. On the beach your mind is finally free to roam and think. You start to search for that turning point that made you realize you had to shake things and pushed you to get going.
For me, the turning point was that moment when I came to myself after anesthesia. I was alone in a foreign country with tubes sticking out of my body, and none of my loved ones near me—not out of choice of course, it just was. Too many coincidences had occurred for me to be there, like that. At this moment, I felt I was emotionally at the most difficult point of my life.
It was also my moment of truth. For more than a year before that I had many moments of insight, when my conscience told me I should take the leap and make the change. But I pushed back. I was comfortable and happy in the familiar, and the unknown seemed a dangerous, unwelcome place. Arriving there seemed like too much work.
But this particular moment on the hospital bed was the one moment I could not ignore. It was the moment that pushed me to accept the fact that a change was necessary, obligatory. Only then I was able to welcome and accept the insight that my mind offered me, without pushing it away from me.
Then and there, I embraced my destination. I was elated and euphoric. I wanted to be on that road, and neither the uncertainty of the road nor the magnitude of the hurdles in front me mattered anymore. After all, nothing could scare me anymore. Nothing could be more scary or miserable than what I was going through, anyway. I longed for the moment that I would get out of the bed and set out on this road. I welcomed the unknown mystery of a path I had to forge.
When the euphoria of the road trip subsides, your mind seeks the familiar yet again, looking ahead, thinking that now the road is ready, stretching out forever. Soon, you see again the jungle in front of you.
You contrast the unbound, endless horizon with your own limits and limitations. Your finite humanity becomes a blessing and a curse. The sense of the road dwindling, always shortening and you, running out of time, before running out of breath, overtakes you. You know you are where you are meant to be, but at the same time you are acutely aware of reality. You are here now, but nothing is a given. After conquering all the swerves and turns of the road, nothing really scares me, except my own reality, except what my own body might bring in the future.
I have always been arrogantly proud of my health and well-being. How the Universe swiftly crushed my arrogance to earth… Hubris and divine retribution at its best! Although rather than retribution, I would describe it as a divine intervention. It did not destroy me, but simply shifted my world in a way that I was unable to do for myself.
Today, much more than before, nothing is final and nothing is clear. The future is still opaque. And yet, I welcome all that is to come. Still there are more roads for me to open. There is no escape from this fact and the only thing to do is to forge ahead with resolve. Living for each step I take in front of the other and marveling as I see the path being made in front of me. Rejoicing at the chance I have been given to be able to face and fight those monsters in my road.
In the roads we take in life, even when we’re alone, we are never lonely.
We are surrounded by monsters and obstacles, enemies and dangers—all fleeting, momentary distractions. And then there are the people that we meet and choose to take along with us in our voyage, some physically, some only mentally. They shape us to become who we are.
Those before us who fought and lost the battle with Death are always with us in our memory. They remind us of the fragility of life and give perspective to the trivial. What they went through, their epic struggles and the memories they left behind serve to humble us and remind us how lucky we are to be still here.
Those currently in the battlefield, ascending their own personal Golgotha, through immeasurable sufferings so much bigger than what I have gone through and that life has mercifully spared me, inspire in me humility and awe.
And finally, the people surrounding us that accompany us on the road. When we fall down, they help us stand up, mend our wounds, and nurture us back to health. When we succeed in our journey, they relish in our serenity, without gloating over our successes. When we face setbacks, they still are with us.
To all these people in my own road—and they know who they are—I am grateful for having them in my life, and learning from their courage and grace.
NOTE: I am particularly grateful to my good friends, Dr. Bruce and Beyhan Trock, who were instrumental in arranging my surgery and during my recovery. I am also thankful to all my friends (Suzy and Jack; Silvio and Dulcie; Soli; Huseyin; Kevin, among others), who helped me in the summer of 2015.
All photos in this post are taken by my mother-in-law Sol Levi (née Almozlinos) visiting Barbados, May 2016.
Notes of the photographer:
Photo 1: Skeetes Bay: “To catch the waves, I used 1/800 shutter speed.”
Photo 2: Heron Bay, St. James.
Photo 3: Animal Flower Cave, St. Lucy. Opening looking out to the sea.
Photo 4: Coconut trees. “7 am in the morning, just before the sun came up.”
Photos 5 and 6: Heron Bay, St. James. “The photos were taken holding the camera very near to the sand.”
Photo 7: “For a period of 10 minutes, the camera took 1 picture every 10 seconds (6 pictures per minute, 60 pictures in all). Combining these photos on top of each other gave this result. People, waves and their movements seem to change place and blend in each other.”