June 5th-June 15th, 2009
We do not grow absolutely, chronologically. We grow sometimes in one dimension, and not in another; unevenly. We grow partially. We are relative. We are mature in one realm, childish in another. The past, present, and future mingle and pull us backward, forward, or fix us in the present. We are made of layers, cells, constellations.â€
Slovenia and the Golden Seed.
I’d landed myself in the psycho-ward.
Or at least that’s how it felt that night as I attempted to sleep upon the floor of Italy’s Milano Centrale Train Station.
Laying on floor amidst a wandering mob of drunks, thugs and junkies,
it was sometime after 3 A.M. when I nearly fell asleep.
This after wailing moans of a nearby madman subsided into high-pitched squeal of the janitors trolley.
Just short of slumber, it came to me that the squeaking wasn’t coming from a trolley at all.
It was the sound of rats. Hundreds, if not thousands of them crawling all around me.
It was a sound that would mark the beginning of another sleepless night.
When my alarm went off at 5:30 A.M., I rose to my feet.
Moving my vision from the dusty splinters of light that cris-crossed the station, I turned my attention to a large electronic sign-board that brimmed with destinations: Verona, Como, Brescia, Budapest, Vienna.
Scanning each destination for some spiritual resonance, time and again I came up empty.
I felt nothing
It was a numbness I’d all but gotten used to.
It began upon my return from a three-year bicycle journey around the world.
As much as I tried to explain it, no one seemed to understand.
It’s like something inside me just up and died.
My spontaneity, my creativity, my zest for life, all seemingly sucked-away by the impossible sameness of everyday life.
I’d come to Europe seeking answers.
Like a farmer wandering his fields amidst a ten-year drought, I reached within. Grabbing a handful of dust from the cracking soil of my disposition, I threw it to the wind.
This time the winds blew me east.
My first stop was Venice.
But six hours into battling tourists along a tangled patch of canals, I returned to the refuge of the train-station.
Happy just to board a train to just about anywhere, I took a seat and quickly fell asleep.
Then, just after midnight, my train stopped, the doors opened, and I rolled my bike onto the streets Ljubljana, Slovenia.
With little or no money for accommodation, I hadÂ no choice but to take refuge within my tent somewhere in the heart of the city.
Pedaling blindly down a series of back-streets, I scanned the skyline, looking curiously upon the silhouetted outlines of the onion domed cathedrals. Small groups of youths giggled in bar-fronts, the clink of their beer-bottles sounding through the air.Â
Pushing my bike up a nearby hillside, I pitched my tent at the base of a castle that was perched above the city. Listening intently as a dog’s bark faded, I was just short of sleep when my mind reeled back to a phone conversation I’d had some 9 months earlier.
"Hello?" it began asÂ a woman’s voice sounded on the other end.
"Rick?" the voice returned, "Is that you?"
It had been nearly two years since I’d first met Marija Kozin.
Beaten and battered while cycling across Tibet, I’d been traveling alone for the better part of ten days. Scared shitless, I’d struggled solo over a series of 15,000-foot mountain passes, struggling through flash-floods, a broken bicycle, snow, dust and windstorms.
Then, one night, as I took refuge in a rundown guesthouse, Marija justÂ Â tumbled-in out of a raging snowstorm.
I instinctively walked up and threw my arms around her.
A woman of incomprehensible courage, Marija would go on to become the first Slovenian woman to ride a bicycle solo overland from Slovenia to Beijing.
Re-inspiring my hope, the two of us agreed to travel together for the remainder of our trip across Tibet.
After completing her journey, she cycled back home.
"How are you doing…?" I asked after reaching her by phone.
A silence came over the line.
"It’s been hard." She returned in a sullen voice.
"I’ve only been back for two months" She went on, "and sometimes Rick, I feel like I’m totally lost. Everyone around me keeps telling me what I should do, everyone reminding me that I’m 30 years old now….asking me what I’m going to do with my life."
"But you did it.." I assured her, "Your famous now Marija."
"In fact I tell your story to everyone at my slideshows," I added
"People are just amazed by you and what you’ve done."
In the impending silence, I could hear the syncopated rhythm of her breathy tears.
"It’s just been hard…" she repeated in a broken voice.
"I just don’t know what I’m going to do right now."
I reminded her that she had much to give to those around her. A book, a chance to share the experience through lectures and slideshows–a chance to inspire. I assured her that there were many waiting to hear her story; those hungry for life, and her particular brand of inspiration.
It wasn’t until I’d hung up the phone, that my own tears began to flow.
With that I realized that the words of encouragement I’d bestowed upon her were the ones I most needed to hear myself.
"I hope to see you this summer," she said before saying goodbye.
With those words echoing through my head, I awoke just before dawn.
I tore down camp, blazed down the hillside, then raced from Ljubljana’s main square to the nearby town of Skofja Loka.
I made a phone call, then waited upon a bench.
Ten minutes after that, Marija appeared atop her bike, adorned with her trademark smile. After following her back to her house, she introduced me to her mother, father and brother. They welcomed me with soft, honest smiles.
For the next week, we did what Slovenians do best: Eat, drink, talk and laugh. Each night we tucked into hearty Slovenian meals lovingly cooked by her mother. No meal was complete without copious amounts of Slovenian beer, wine, or a fiery nips of homemade schnapps concocted of sugar, pure alcohol, combined with the young tips of local pine trees.
Each night Marija and I stayed up late, exchanging our own unique stories of connection to people and places across the planet.
As we did, IÂ that we were both the keepers of a tremendous gift: our shared stories of the human condition. Those deep, life-shifting tales brought back from beyond our borders. The ones that highlighted the fact that we are all one human family.
All of it seemed to point me inward.
With that I began to see, that somewhere deep beneath cracking soil of my current disposition, there was a seed.
That golden drought-proof seed of hope that could do nothing now but grow.