“Better to write for yourself and have no public, than to write for the public and have no self.”-Cyril Connolly
Pop music is hammering down from the speakers above and there’s yet another war going on inside my mind. On the other side of the icy window snow is still falling. It hasn’t stopped since I got here. Siberian winters are even harsher than I imagined.
Pedal faster! Pedal faster! Pedal faster damn it!
I’m pedaling as fast as I can!
You can always pedal faster!
My long limbs and disheveled hair are flopping all over the place. Sweat hurls itself off my body hitting the floor with a vengeance. I look down at my feet and try to whip them around the stationary bike hoping that the quicker I move them the faster life’s answers will come. I’m so focused, yet everything is so unclear. Every few words seem to escape from my mouth in little bursts of incoherent babble. Thankfully there’s only one other person in the gym at the moment and he’s way over by the dumbbells.
He’s already flashed me a few sideways looks though, he must think I’m a madman, which I wouldn’t argue against.
I continue to pedal.
I haven’t been able to get out of Novosibirsk just yet, but over the past three days I’ve tried my best to listen to the two words God whispered to me: “trust me.” I’ve probably repeated them close to a million times by now. I figure that the more I say them the more likely I’ll actually begin to do it. I’ve tried my best to see all of these setbacks as tiny gifts from him put in my path to help loosen my consciousness and catapult it to the next level. What that next level looks like though, I still don’t know.
I’ve also begun the process of picking myself up and dusting myself off these past few days. I went to the train station yesterday and wandered around for three hours until I found Waldo, aka the one person that spoke a few words of English. That person was kind enough to direct me to the right ticket counter so I could cancel the train ticket that I inadvertently missed. I was told, or at least I think I was told, that I will be issued a full refund once I mail it back to the main office in Moscow. Then, I rebooked myself on the next train to Beijing, which leaves the day after tomorrow.
Thanks to my last remaining Marriott points I was able to leave the bunk bed hostel life behind and check into the nicest hotel in town. The rejuvenating powers a clean king size bed and a free breakfast have on me is nothing short of amazing.
But no matter how nice the hotel is there are still two things grinding my gears, which is why I can’t seem to stop pedaling so hard. As my relationship officially dissolved this week the feelings about my work seemed to have evolved. I’ve never cared very much about what other people think of my writing or my films and photos and I haven’t been doing this for anyone other than myself.
Considering how much energy and effort I put into them, I can’t help but to want some sort of recognition for my work.
In an ironic twist, as easy as it is to doubt myself, it’s becoming just as easy to over value my own importance. The last film I made I took a year’s worth of footage, everything from Cape Town to London. Then, I edited it into one, what I thought would be, inspiring three-minute travel film. I expected I would get tens of thousands of views online. But the last time I checked it only had about 400 views and I wouldn’t be surprised if half of those came from my Dad watching it over and over because he misses me so much.
I’m just left scratching my head and pushing these plastic pedals round and round.
What do I have to do to make an impact?
That film was my best crack at making something special and if no one’s really watching it, then maybe it’s time that I admit that no matter how hard I try, no matter how much I believe in myself and my dream, maybe I’m just not that good at any of this.
That’s a tough pill to swallow and just the thought of it tears me apart inside, so I increase the resistance on the bike, stand up and out of the saddle and I go for it. I slam all my weight into the pedals and rock back and forth like I’m trying to take over the lead at the Tour de France.
Are the things I create really that bad?
I must be burning a thousand calories a minute. A puddle of sweat forms underneath the front wheel of the bike as I lean over it. Not only am I pedaling as hard as I possibly can, but this is exactly how I’ve been going at life lately. If something I do doesn’t work, I don’t step back and look for a new plan of attack, I just do what I was doing harder. And so the only thing that I can come up with is that I’ve reached my creative ceiling. I must have officially maxed out.
Even though going around the globe and expressing myself creatively is very much my dream I don’t think most people realize just how hard all of this is. I do whatever I can to get by and maybe it’s taking its toll on my creativity. I hustle my way from city to city often taking thousands of photos or hours of footage in exchange for a place to sleep and I’m constantly grinding my way through one twenty-hour bus ride after another. I think one of the best ways to sum up how difficult this is, is to explain what I do for food.
Typically, the hotels I trade my film and photography work with offer a breakfast buffet and so after I eat my regular breakfast, I take another heaping plate of food and then I quickly shovel it into the Tupperware that I’ve hidden underneath the table while the staff isn’t looking. I’ve eaten soggy eggs for lunch more times than I care to admit, but as I crossed Europe I started burning through my savings and sadly, food has become a luxury at this point. It’s important for me to believe that the work and lack of normalcy in my daily life is worth something.
What do I have to do for people to notice my work?
As I sit back down in the saddle I somehow manage to maintain my blistering pace and my phone buzzes. It must have picked up the Wi-Fi signal here at gym and I click on the notification that’s on my home screen, it looks like someone’s sent me a direct message on Instagram. I don’t get to many of those, so I wipe the sweat off my temple and after drying my hands on my shorts, I click it open.
Based on the tiny profile picture of the person that sent the message, I can tell it’s a woman. She’s wrapped in a black shawl and only her olive face is exposed. In the background is a marble minaret. If I had to guess, I’d say she’s in her mid twenties and she’s more than likely a Muslim. Just based on the demographics of where most Muslims live and the style of the minaret she’s in front of, I wouldn’t be surprised if the mosque she is standing next to is somewhere in the Middle East or maybe even Turkey.
I pedal lightly as I begin to read what she wrote, “I am reading your chapters like everyday. My english not perfect. But I can tell you this, you change my life. You became my hope. I followed you everyday, I read your chapters, looked your photos… And its gives me hope. Now I believe I can travel all over the world. You are my idol. I feel like I love been free, love adventures and see new things. That’s because I try to learn english. I wondering cuba, india AMD kind of like this countries. I want to go AnD live my way. At the beginning I was like its just a dream. But than I find you and I understand. It is possible. Thank you for this hope.”
By the last line my hands are shaking. The slow strokes of my feet have turned back into rapid movement and I’m pedaling so fast I’m worried that I might actually break the bike. I’m awed by the power of her words. If I am Popeye then her message is a truckload of spinach being shoveled right down my throat. I had no idea that what I’m trying to create could stretch so far and wide and cross over so many cultural boundaries to reach someone on such deep level.
I guess to gauge the impact of what this means to me I should go all the way back and explain a little about where I grew up. It wasn’t necessarily a one-stoplight town, but it was pretty close. I spent most of my life in a tiny town in Eastern Pennsylvania called Coopersburg.
I was a bad student back then, not behaviorally, but I just had a hard time with anything that wasn’t related to sports. I was taken out of most of the college prep courses around 10th grade and I nearly didn’t graduate high school. I was pretty much a D student across the board and I did particularly bad in all of my English classes because I always struggled with the most basic aspects of reading and writing.
My reading comprehension was virtually nonexistent growing up; I could read a paragraph twenty times over and still have no clue what it was about. I can still remember how my senior year nearly ended in disaster. In order for me to graduate high school it all came down to the last English exam of the year. It was an essay test on Aldous Huxley’s book, A Brave New World. If I passed it, I graduated. If I failed, well, I don’t know what would have happened. Thankfully my mom sat me down every night after dinner and made sure I understood enough of the fictional dystopian society that I had a prayer of passing the test, which I did….barely.
One more thing about Coopersburg. Based on the most recent census of 2010 the population is 96% white and I wouldn’t be surprised if back when I was in high school that number was closer to 99.9% white. On top of being all white the religions in the area reflected a similar homogenization. I think it’s pretty safe to say that nothing outside of your basic branches of Christianity ever made its way into this tiny two-stoplight town.
So to come from that place both mentally and logistically, and to get a message like this from a Muslim woman in the Middle East really has me thinking. I wrote a top 10 list before I left for Africa, which included the 10 things I hoped would happen to me as I traveled around the world. The number one thing on that list was that I wanted to live my wildest dream, which meant that I wanted to have things happen that were so incredible that I could have never dreamt them up in the first place. A dream within a dream, if you will.
I think this is one of those wildest dreams. Giving hope to someone in this part of the world is something that I would have never ever imagined possible for me.
I let myself dive deeper into my thoughts, and I think that maybe my work isn’t meant to be out there on a bigger scale; maybe I couldn’t handle it if it was.
Maybe it’s just meant to hit one person at a time just like this, but as long as the impact is meaningful and lasting then that’s all that matters.
I stop pedaling and get down off the bike and I make a promise to myself to keep creating and to still believe in myself even if that means the views, the likes and shares on social media don’t always add up. Even if I only ever get to do this on a very small level, that’s oaky, because at least I’m trying.
As I reach for a towel and a bottle of water, Rachel Platten’s song Fight Song begins to blast from the gym speakers. I’ve heard the song a few times lately. It always seems to get my attention with its triumphant and uplifting beat, but I’ve never listened to the lyrics she’s signing.
I turn my ear up towards the speaker and I listen closely as her nearly still voice glides along, “Like a small boat, on the ocean, sending big waves, into motion, like how a single word, can make a heart open…”
I think: Maybe that’s it, maybe all these films I’m making, all the photos I take and all the stories I write are like little waves that I’m sending out into the Universe and then one day down the road as they keep traveling towards the shore they’ll come together and form one giant wave.
A chill runs up my arm as her she finishes the verse, “…I might only have one match, but I can make an explosion.”