I’ve been dreading my last blog post from Russia. In part because of the bittersweet feeling of heading towards home, in part because I don’t like summaries. My least favorite part of any project is the obligatory summing up. I much prefer the thrill of beginnings or the absorption of the middle. I’d rather be in motion, looking forward, than stopping to look back.
There are some things that a quick glance backwards affords. One is the arc of a journey. It is impossible to believe that I didn’t know some of these people 12 days ago. It feels like we have spent a lifetime together. It’s not just the hours in each other’s company. It is also the range of experiences shared.
Katie commented today that she is glad that we didn’t have “babysitters” on this trip. And it is true. The past two days in Vladivostok have been of a very different character. Our agenda has been taken care of by the consulate. Our transportation provided, our meals organized. While we have certainly enjoyed the pampering (and the organization), there was something engaging about having to draw on our own resources, to figure things out and rely our each other and our hosts as we did in Khabarovsk. This feeling of family that developed between us and with our hosts there was a byproduct of this, and something that we will treasure.
The arc of a journey starts in uncertainty and assumptions that the experience gives lie to. My fellow travelers have been thanking me for the organizing I did to make this trip happen. Believe it or not, I can’t remember it. When I think about this trip now, everything that happened seems inevitable. It seems like the journey defined itself, rather than being shaped by whatever plans I may have made in advance. The trip took on a life of it’s own, and the real journey was one that I couldn’t ever have planned.
The middle of a good journey is one of growth, of revelation and insight, exploration and hard work. The middle is the engaging part. New things are happening. Acceptance and understanding come without your even knowing it. A foreign language starts to sound musical. The strange streets start to feel familiar. The place becomes yours, as do the people. You drop your preconceptions and start to live in the moment.
Along the way there are peak experiences. Could be learning a new word. Having a good conversation. Meeting a kindred spirit. Sharing a tradition. Eating kebabs and drinking vodka. Playing a great concert. These get the adrenaline going and make you feel energized and alive. They make you feel like your engaged in things that really matter.
Along there way there is sometimes conflict. The hard work, long days and trying circumstances sometimes grate on nerves. The day-to-day challenges of proximity and lack of privacy strain relations. Fortunately we avoided most of this. A few sharp words here and there. But we got along remarkably well. I can’t imagine a better chemistry or more synchronistic combination of skills and temperaments. We travelled well together and along the way we coalesced into a tight band, an effective delegation and a group of friends.
The arc of a journey usually also includes what I call “the ragged edge.” The ragged edge is the straw that breaks the camels back. The day that was just too long. The challenge that was just too much. How a group responds to the ragged edge defines the rest of the journey. Often they splinter. They lash our in anger at each other. They suffer irreconcilable differences.
The ragged edge is where you see the parts of people you haven’t seen before, the sides of their character they don’t show under normal circumstances, the places they are vulnerable. The rugged, self-sufficient individualist is laid out with an illness. The indefatigable optimist suffers from self-doubt. The polish and poise cracks and inner struggles are revealed.
Sometimes the ragged edge brings people closer. A depth of caring is revealed. Strength is passed from one to another. And the whole becomes greater than the sum of the parts. After the ragged edge you are connected in a way you were not before. You are not and will never again be strangers.
Then there are the farewells. That is where we are now. I’m sitting in my hotel in Vladivostok. In twenty minutes I will go check out and begin the long journey home. I don’t want the trip to end, and I do. I wonder if I am the same. Will I forget this journey? Are the friendships developed really ones that will last? Will the plans made come to fruition. Is this a piece of destiny, or just a nice ten days? I keep hoping that something has changed inside me. That is the great thing about journeys. You don’t have time to ponder the future. You can put questions to rest and just go step by step.
One moment of clarity that I hope I will retain from this trip is that life itself is a journey, with its own arc. Much of the time I feel like I did at the beginning this trip, full of uncertainty, questions and incomplete assumptions. My thought was that if I could live every day, or at least most days, like the last ten – one moment at a time – then maybe every day would feel like the last ten – inevitable, engaging, with a life of its own, and full of possibility.
Farewell from the Jazz Bridge.