It’s funny how life gives you little clues along the way that reveal who you really are. Some of my earliest memories tell a story about a girl with a great imagination. I love thinking of the days when I was only four, playing in the background, hiding under the swing-set slide. I used to steal my moms TicTacs from her purse and pretend like they were my pills. It made me feel like a grown-up; grown-ups took pills.
My later memories depict a young woman wandering through the desert, unsure of her purpose. As she wanders, she feels the rough sand soften the soles of her feet. The extreme heat makes her sweat but also feel proud of the effort she puts towards her survival. When she finds a tree, she rests and thinks about life. Where is she headed? She never understands the path she’s on. But, she knows there is a reason for feeling lost, and wishes she wasn’t so blinded by the sun, unable to see what’s ahead.
Over the years, she learns, tries new things, masters everything her mind embraces. She becomes a generalist of life. Her resume, filled with signs of success, looks more like a hodgepodge of uncertainty than a life filled with purpose. She struggles to make sense of her past in order to empower her future. Then the day arrives for her to leave the desert: worn, torn, and reborn.
When I lived in Ghana, every year there was the Harmattan season, when sands from the Sahara desert would travel across West Africa, fogging up the sky and leaving inches of dirt on everything in its way. Sand would creep into the house, through every little crevice in the wall or window, and cover the countertops, pantry, and living room with a layer of filth. As an asthmatic, I was confined to staying inside during those few weeks. Stepping out my front door, breathing in the dust, was too harmful. Those that were unaffected ventured into the storm, barely able to see much further than the neighbor’s house.
If I remember correctly, it was during that period I sat at my laptop and started keeping a digital diary. It had been years since I had written in a journal. The last time I remember taking pen to paper was two years earlier, in the desert of Uzbekistan, writing poems by hand to express grief over the life I left behind. Life before the desert; in a pretty city, structured and predictable. The life that had promise of a successful future.
Taking a detour through the desert was supposed to be a shortcut, but it turned into an extended journey. I was ill-prepared, as most of us are. The supplies in my backpack were quickly used and I was left fighting to make my way out. Every now and then, someone would come along with some water or food and pleasant conversation. They carried me a little further each time. But they disappeared after a little while, becoming a distant memory.
There were days when I couldn’t walk at all. I would just sit, praying for a helicopter to fly over, throw down a ladder, and lift me out of there. It never happened. I had to find the exit. Fourteen years later, here I am, with the barren land to my back.
The fog has cleared and I’ve washed all the bits of sand from my hair. I get to reflect on my experience and how it is leading me towards finding purpose and meaning. I think back to moments when I felt most alive; I was writing. The most expressive compliments given to me because of something I wrote in a newsletter, or email, or blog post. The moments of greatest vulnerability, sharing my heart and my mind through words on a page. Moments of greatest reward.
After a long pilgrimage, it is hard to explain to others exactly what transpired. I find clever and diplomatic ways to give details. I stay positive for others in my description because it’s the American way. But, what I feel deep inside is more, it’s inexpressible and subtle and complicated and prideful and transcendent.
It’s where I get to craft a resume reflecting the most authentic part of myself. The realization the struggles, adversity, the road less taken, does in fact have purpose. To tell myself a story. To remind myself who I am, what I am capable of. To put life into perspective, to teach me I had it right in my younger, naive years. I was made to create.