This time last year, I began my ruminations about turning 50 and what I’d do to mark it.
If I’d been thinking of celebration, I might’ve wished for a surprise party, or a fancy dinner somewhere, or a compendium of memories collected and bound in stamped leather. But my thoughts bent more toward commemoration…this birthday would be between me and Me.
Fifty for me marked a moment, not for trumpets and streamers, but for deep quietude, looking into the face of who I am and who I have yet to become. I have little idea how 50 feels – what it looks like or means. I only know that this time calls to me from far away and from deep inside. And the call is as primal as fire, as mysterious as the hermit, as inexorable as time.
When the question first entered my mind – how do I want to mark this milestone? – the answer came quietly: A trip. From this thought seed, from this slip of an idea, the whole thing was begun.
What kind of trip? A big trip. A journey.
What does that mean? To a place I’ve never been before.
Why? To challenge me. To open me to completely new experience.
A place to discover and remember, out of which to begin the next phase of this life.
Of the places I imagined in that first musing, Africa didn’t cross my mind. In truth, I thought more about where I wouldn’t go than where I would. I thought of the places I’ve been before and off the list they went. I thought of places similar to them and they scuttled along too. That left a blank page – a vast whiteness out of which I hoped the place would soon enough draw itself.
I went about my business.
Then one day a month or so later, on a phone call, the outline first appeared. I was invited to go to South Africa. The tip of a continent, the corner early European explorers persevered in rounding, a place of ancient beauty and painful history.
As I considered South Africa, I struggled to recognize it as my choice. You see, I hadn’t thought much about it. I’d read a novel here and there. In college, I learned of apartheid and the knowledge lodged deep in my gut. Movies and nature shows on life on the savanna stirred the vague hope of safari one day. And most of all, Mandela’s 30-year incarceration ending in his presidency taught me that nothing in this world is permanent, and clinging to “the way things are” – in either complacency or dread – is simply folly. But other than these few markers, South Africa wasn’t much more to me than an outline on a map.
After the call and for the next few months, I went through the motions of considering the decision, which meant coming up with a lot of questions. Why would I go? What would I do? With whom would I go? When would I leave? I talked with people; I gathered data; I read books and looked at maps. But it really boiled down to if I would go or if I wouldn’t. And at one point, I just said yes.
If I’m really frank though, saying yes was simply the moment when “me” caught up to what “Me” had known all along. Of course I was going to South Africa. – when, to do what, with whom and for how long were just details.
Back at home now, I reflect on what a superb lesson this is. It’s the one about saying YES. Choosing yes – without all the conditions, parameters, and details nailed to the wall. The kind of yes that is an act of faith in the goodness, the bounty, the sheer joyousness of life. The yes that sets magic in motion.
When I got to South Africa, a man explained to me that the word “safari” is Swahili for “journey.” It’s used in particular reference to the annual migration of millions of animals from one side of the Serengeti to the other. They make this arduous journey across the vast savanna in search of food, of sustenance, of life. It’s clear to me that my travels from the American continent to the African one was in the same way a safari, a journey from one side of the world to the other, in search of sustenance.
The taste of the new, from its pot mingling with things essential and some familiar, still lingers on my lips.
This is the first in a multi-part series on South Africa. Stay tuned.