Riding the Tiger

 In Blog

Another voyage around the sun. In 2018, I spent my birthday on a midnight flight from French Polynesia to Easter Island, and met my first moai. In 2019, I spent my birthday flying from New Zealand to Australia, enjoying a whiplash celebration with my in-laws, before embarking on another pre-dawn flight to the last two destinations on our 14-month assignment for National Geographic: Exmouth (Western Australia), and Cocos Keeling Islands (Middle of Nowhere).

This year was meant to be spent in the company of friends, but the pandemic changed that plan, as it has so many others. And that’s okay.

Collectively, as one blue/green planet, we’ve experienced a reset, whether we’ve wanted to or not. In a piece for the New Yorker, George Saunders described it this way:

“I guess what I’m trying to say is that the world is like a sleeping tiger and we tend to live our lives there on its back. … And now and then that tiger wakes up. And that is terrifying. Sometimes it wakes up and someone we love dies. Or someone breaks our heart. Or there’s a pandemic. But this is far from the first time that tiger has come awake. He/she has been doing it since the beginning of time and will never stop doing it.”

The tiger wakes up. But then it lies back down again.

We’re scared, we cope, we adjust, and – once the tiger settles – we move on. And so it has ever been, throughout history. Although our individual tiger-riding experiences are unique, sometimes the tiger takes us all for a ride, and that shared trauma is important. Why? Because it resets things – collectively. There are opportunities to do things differently. To re-evaluate what we value. To look through the world with new eyes.

(Saunders also writes about the importance of having “… writers to observe it and (later) make some sort of sense of it, or at least bear witness to it. It’s good for the world for a writer to bear witness, and it’s good for the writer, too. Especially if she can bear witness with love and humor and, despite it all, some fondness for the world, just as it is manifesting, warts and all.” See last week’s Weekly for suggestions on how you can chronicle this crazy time.)

One of my favourite things about traveling is it subconsciously provides a reset. The sensory overload of seeing, smelling, tasting, hearing, and touching new things can’t help but affect us. Sometimes travel challenges us, or gifts us with a revelation. Other times it’s a slow burn, a gathering of otherworldly experiences that chip away and shape the stone of our minds, without us even realizing it’s happening. This is not a new sentiment. Travelers have written about it (and better than I) since we set our sights on new horizons; it’s why we explore.

Regular contact with friends and family was difficult during the time we were on the road. I missed both their milestones and minutiae, and one of my (many, many) resets from our grand adventure was realizing how important that is to me. I was looking forward to celebrating my birthday with friends.

And then Covid-19 sailed in and meted out its own re-calibration, and I ended up celebrating my birthday on the phone to my friends and family. However, the pandemic had a gift for me: I experienced a flash – swift, clear, and sharp – where I realized that all of my friends and family are (for now) safe and healthy. How fortunate I am. The greatest treasures we have are loved ones, health, and time – everything else is color. And right now, at this birthday, I am in possession of all. I really couldn’t ask for more, and I would have swept right past that realization on any different day in any different time.

Perhaps I’m becoming more sentimental in my older age. It’s certainly possible, especially since I don’t feel the wiser. Or perhaps the elevated point of view from riding the biggest tiger of my lifetime has forced me to raise my eyes and see things differently. Who’s to say?

In any case, hold on tight, and let’s hope the tiger tires from its sprint soon. I wish you well.

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Once upon a time, when I first moved to New Zealand in 2004, I wrote a weekly email to my close family and friends, cleverly titled The Weekly. It was my way of sharing the details of my new and day-to-day life with people I loved who were back in the States. I continued The Weekly for many years: sometimes it was a breathless paragraph; sometimes a lengthy ramble (or vent).

I am currently writing nine hours a day to finish the book resulting from our extraordinary assignment, but I’ve been toying with the idea of reinstating The Weekly for a while now. I think I’ll give it a try, although it may be brief and breathless for now, and the writing will be far from perfect. So, check back around this time every week if you’re keen to be part of The Weekly II. I’d love to have you along for the ride.