“Thirty-five is the pivotal year of change,” Merryde informed me as we clinked glasses full of Australian merlot. The night sky was a romantic chandelier of stars—and that particular evening, Venus, Jupiter and the crescent moon aligned in a very apocalyptic way. They were eerily parallel in the November sky. I had just turned 34, and was more preoccupied with the awareness (that still caught me off-guard) of: “Oh my god, I’m in Africa.” I was as far away from 35 as I was from Canada and maple syrup at that moment.
As for 35 being a year of change, Merryde obviously had a shiny crystal ball under the table that I didn’t see that night. But I do remember being on the verge of something, even then. It wasn’t quite tangible, but hummingbirds had been visiting me in my dreams for months. They were a sign of restlessness and spoke of change, according to a spiritual higher-up that my friend Gillian had consulted.
The moment I laid my head under the mosquito net in Africa, the restless hummingbirds were rudely ousted out of my dreams and replaced by slithering snakes (which I pooh-poohed as a coincidence considering that I was living among the world’s deadliest in Uganda).
Late night Google research investigations revealed that snakes in dreams indicated transformation. Transcendence even. I was advised to employ lucid dreaming techniques to ask the snakes what they wanted. As if that conversation would go over well.
If the snakes bit me (which they often did), it was a signal that I was “going through a kind of initiation; a psychological and spiritual trial that had the potential to change my life for the better if I dealt with it bravely and with a clear heart.” Bravery and pit vipers don’t usually fall into the same sentence, but I made note of the possible end result.
And here I am, not exactly with three clicks of the ruby slippers, but, I’m back in the hum and vibration of my Toronto. Thanks to the snakes I guess, and the hummingbirds that initially led me to Africa. My spiritual trial has been temporarily adjourned. Or was it just beginning season two?
Birthdays (like red wine and starry nights) have an indirect way of inspiring reflection and microscopic analysis of the years and the dreams that have propelled us along the way. After an indulgent night at the Sultan’s Tent on Friday, celebrating my 35th in fine Moroccan fashion, I was unbearably full of couscous and braised lamb shank. I was sleepless and I was thinking of Bob, again.
Bob was one of my first massage client’s at the Fairmont Royal York Hotel in 2002. He asked me one question that will never leave me. He breezed in almost daily (when he wasn’t golfing in Palm Springs), a Cuban cigar clenched between his professionally-whitened teeth, stylish and sockless in his Gucci loafers. His suit and perfectly-knotted pink tie probably cost more than my entire wardrobe, but he had charm that matched his wealth. And the first question he asked me when we were introduced?
“Jules, tell me the most amazing thing you’ve done with your life so far.”
Well, no pressure there. I ran with the first flashes that were triggered in my then 28-year-old head. I told him that I had volunteered in the Costa Rican jungle for three months and lived in a hut with a tree bark floor, no walls, and a palm frond roof. That had to be amazing. (Not so amazing was having to bang my boots in the morning to scoot out dormant scorpions and the trench foot that ate at away at my flesh at the same rate as the parasites in my intestines.)
I think of Bob often, especially around my birthday–almost in preparation if I meet him again. I can picture him with his trendy red eyeglasses pushed back on his shock of white hair. “Jules, tell me the most amazing thing you’ve done since I Iast saw you.” It’s a good question—why don’t we ask it of each other more often? We should have answers ready. Are we living our lives to the most amazing capacity?
Of course I would tell Bob of my time in Africa, those precious moments with Micah and the other darling chimps in the Congo hanging around my neck like it was a tree trunk. And how I survived Uganda and the several brushes with death that came in the form of gun-toting wildlife officers wanting to shoot me and my dog, rush-hour boda-boda rides and eating dodgy goat meat from the street vendors. That was amazing too.
But there are other things, and I would need to sit him down for about 35 days to share the rest. What was amazing to me at 25 has become amusing at 35. And at 45? I’ll be writing fortune cookie messages with my profound knowledge and wisdom.
I remember copying out a passage from one of Douglas Coupland’s books (Shampoo Planet?) in my early 20s about the beauty of hotel rooms. How everyone who stays in a hotel becomes a blank page, waiting to be rewritten. You are allowed to reinvent yourself, over and over again. I loved that—it was strangely reassuring to me then.
And now? I am beginning to crave familiarity. I want to be surrounded by friends who know me and can finish my sentences and bottles of wine. Moving back to Toronto has allowed me to spend an unexpected and treasured amount of time with my parents and brother, Dax. I missed knowing them so intimately. Even though I was just a just a five-hour flight away, many things are lost across the miles. And visiting at Christmas was such a hurried emotional and egg nog-fuelled rush that we were already missing each other on the day of my arrival.
Which doesn’t mean I won’t wander off again to that magnetic place called Africa. I do want to go back, eventually. That won’t change. Africa has become an integral part of me. I want to see the chimps from the J.A.C.K. sanctuary released into the wild. I want to see Micah, bigger and bolder, finding her place among the group. I want to see the fiery Lubumbashi sunsets that I stared into this past July, and see how far I’ve travelled spiritually since then.
I can’t stop my hungry need to see the world.
My mom told me a few days ago of her plans to travel until she’s physically and financially exhausted. Then she will be happy to be put in a retirement home to stare blankly out the window at the chickadees pecking at the suet feeder. Because then, she will be satisfied and content in what she has seen, comforted by the vivid memories of the misty moors of Scotland, the soupy canals of Ireland, her time in Belgium, Austria, Amsterdam, Italy and beyond.
And this is what it comes down to. What we have seen and who we have shared it with. Our footage changes over the years, as we edit, fast-forward and rewind through certain clips and replace them with others. All that is important is refined, but the structural bones of our life remain, stabilizing us through the years. As we stare out the window at the chickadees, what is it that we will really see before us?
Just as Jupiter, Venus and the moon realigned, I feel myself doing the same.
But tell me, what’s the most amazing thing you’ve done with your life so far?