I couldn’t stand it another moment. I had to get away.
How I arrived at that moment of crisis, seemed less important to me than the fact that I was 19, and I was completely alone.
At least that is how I remember it. It was the worst kind of alone. Alone in my head. Surrounded by people talking not to me, but at me. Their helpful, hopeful, loving and stern words swirled about me like stale smoke in an enclosed space. I held my breath, unable to take them in. The camera of my memory pans around me in a spiral, before rising up and zooming out. Fade to black.
Sitting huddled on the floor of my dimly lit apartment, eking out an existence on unconsumed advice and three takeout meals a week, wasn’t an option. Something had to be done. So I picked up a newspaper and phone. I dusted off my passport, and bought myself a last minute plane ticket, one way, to Israel. I told my friends they could have my stuff. I was leaving in under a week.
To date, short of adopting my oldest daughter from Russia, this is the craziest, but sanest thing I’ve ever done.
When I shut down the other voices and searched for my own, I didn’t hear much. Just, “Go to Jerusalem, and have a good think.” All the other voices continued to surround me. They grew louder and more insistent and angry. They asked me where I’d stay, what I’d do, what about school, work, life, friends. And also… what was the point?
Two nights before I left, someone climbed in through my window and stole my passport. I had my suspicions about who did it, an “ex” or a friend, but I’ll never know for sure. It meant I had to take a train to DC, then a cab, then another cab and train, and pay an exorbitant fee for a rush replacement. It meant my already meager funds would be decimated. It meant I shouldn’t go. Really, it wasn’t responsible at all. It was silly, selfish, self indulgent and crazy. I knew it, I heard it, enough. I wanted to punch it in the face.
So what? I went. Much to the shock of everyone I knew. “Faster! Faster!” I thought, as the plane slid down the runway. I could not wait for that moment of liftoff.
My life in Jerusalem was hard. I worked at hostels – cleaning toilets, making meals and taking shit from a lot of people I’d define as “lowlife” both then, and now. It was cold, I was hungry, and I very very much missed my friends and family. I got really sick for several long weeks with what was probably pneumonia. Yet I was inexplicably happy. Maybe happy isn’t the word. Maybe it’s clear.
In the camera of my memory, I am on the street outside the old city. It is cold and the sun is shining. I’m not sure where I am going. But the air around me is clear and fresh. Birds, traffic, a bus zooming by. It’s not silent but there is space enough that I can hear myself think.
It’s a tough thing to know your own mind. I’ve always found it nearly impossible to set aside my wish to please others, to make them happy and be worthy of their praise. It’s a dangerous and slippery slope living up to their dreams and expectations. Make too many decisions based of what others feel your life should look like, and you won’t recognize yourself anymore. One day you’ll wake up disoriented, exhausted from taking all that good advice.
What scares me more than the thought of being crazy is the the thought of losing my ability to hear myself, to trust my own instincts.
I’m not sure what it is about Jerusalem that clears my head. For sure I’m not the only one who feels strangely at peace and in touch in that city. What is Jerusalem if not the city where people hear the voices in their heads? It may be what Jerusalem is most famous for – since the time of Abraham.
The years have flown by since I’ve been back. Looking back I realize how not alone I really was. I had my family and friends – even one good friend who was nearly as crazy as me, who hopped on a plane, arrived in the Middle East and attempted to drag me back to “reality” as I attempted to drag him to see the pyramids. The loneliness that I felt didn’t come from my disconnection with others. It came from my disconnection with myself.
Over the years I’ve thought so often about this time in my life. I close my eyes and will the words of others away. I picture myself walking down the street outside the old city walls. What do I hear? I tell myself ”Shhhh – it’s time to run away to Jerusalem”. If only in my head.
This year, I’ll go back for real. I’m planning a trip to Israel with my family, centered on time in Jerusalem. It’s ironic for me. At this point my life has been completely taken over by fulfilling the needs, expectations, dreams and desires of others. Where I live, how I spend my days, how much I drive, and what I watch on television. The food in my fridge. Even, on occasion, what I write on this blog. There’s not much time in my day for my own dreams and desires. There is very little “me”, without “them”, but I’m no longer 19, overwhelmed by what others want for me. I don’t feel alone. I recognize that where I stand is the result of choices that I have made. Consciously.
And yet… there’s a part of me that is quivering a little at the thought of Jerusalem.
I’m not running away this time, this trip isn’t even about me, but I still can’t wait for that liftoff.