Reluctant Poet (on writer’s block)

 

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The following is one of the first poems I ever wrote, back in those voice-finding days when I still believed in writer’s block. A bit melodramatic but accurate, which is more than I can say about many of my poems from back then. 

I had a conversation with an interesting fellow recently who said he was plagued by writer’s block and asked me what the cure was. I told him his belief in it was making it real. The world is full of interesting things to write about. All one needs to do is watch the news, talk to a neighbor, look out the window, sit in on a courtroom, read a newspaper (if you can find one), read a well-written book, or file through the thousands of memories each one of us has. With all this to draw from, how can anyone ever run out of stories?

This poem, when I wrote it, was about writer’s block, but what it was about more specifically was writing the things we know we must. The hard stuff most people spend their lives avoiding and burying. This is why authors and artists of any kind are celebrated, and should be – because they give freedom to the multitudes trapped within themselves, without the desire, ability, or perhaps the courage to excavate these emotions in themselves. As Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “In every work of genius, we recognize our own rejected thoughts.”

 

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Reluctant Poet

Words bound
through darkened corridors of my mind
like coy lovers daring me to catch them.
But I do not follow.
The darkness frightens me.
I do not follow.
I am safe in the light.
Safe from the worlds
they might open to me.
I accept myself, a fool,
until frustration with this half-life
erodes the empty shell of comfort,
forcing me to venture out,
to gape into the horrible blackness
I created
and groping, search
for what I really am
beneath the tortured, questioning facade
of awareness.

 

“Begin to write in the dumb, awkward way an animal cries out in pain, and there you will find your intelligence, your words, your voice.” (Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg)

Smash writer’s block by writing one line. It will lead to another, and another, and another, naturally following each other. Every book and poem you’ve read and every movie you’ve seen were written that way – one line at a time.

So when someone tells me they’re plagued by writer’s block, I assume that a) they’re being artsy and playing writer, b) they’re looking for excuses not to write instead of reasons to write, and c) they’re not paying close enough attention to the great, big, wide, throbbing world, to humanity, which is always bursting with stories. The hard part is choosing which ones you will devote large portions of your life to. I tell those plagued by writer’s block to stop thinking about it and it will evaporate like the fantasy it is.

Pennies From Heaven – My story from Chicken Soup for the Soul’s new book, Miracles and More

 

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I was at a yard sale looking through a box of old books when I saw a 1936 yearbook from Glendale High School in California. The name “Ben” was written at the upper right corner of the first page. The yearbook was full of the usual notes from classmates and also some newspaper clippings about Ben’s academic and athletic achievements. I looked around for the owner of the house and found him carrying more boxes out of the garage with the help of his two young sons.

I asked him, “Are you selling this?”

“Yeah,” he replied. “I’ll take three bucks for it.”

I asked if he knew who Ben was. He said he was his grandfather.

I couldn’t understand why anyone would want to get rid of such a precious family memento, especially for such a paltry amount of money, so I asked if he was sure he wanted to sell it. He said yes again with a slightly impatient tone as he began talking with another customer.

Though he obviously had no interest in it, I still wanted to encourage him to keep it, if not for himself, for his children, but then thought maybe he had his reasons for letting the yearbook go. Family emotions are complicated. I felt sorry for his sons who would never get to look at this window into their grandfather’s life, and almost didn’t buy it for that reason until I heard him tell someone, “Anything that doesn’t sell is going to the thrift shop.”

I handed him the three dollars, got into my car, and set the yearbook on the seat beside me. I wanted to find someplace quiet and explore every page immediately, but I had to hurry home because I was repainting the interior of my house that day. My wife had taken our two daughters to her father’s house to get them away from the paint fumes. I worked all day but the job took longer than I expected so I called my wife and asked her to stay overnight there so the paint would be dry before she and the girls returned.

I worked through the night and looked at the yearbook during breaks. I learned that Ben, the yearbook’s owner, was no average Joe. He was the Student Body President and Yell Leader, as well as a track and football star. Leadership also ran in the family because his younger brother succeeded him as president, which was a first for the high school at the time and probably hasn’t been repeated since. They were both exemplary students, full of boundless energy and ambition.

The first thing that impressed me as I flipped through the pages was how well-dressed and groomed everyone was. The next was the penmanship and eloquence of the comments. I had to keep reminding myself that they were written by teenagers. The language was charming and full of terms of endearment unique to the 1930’s like “good egg” and “swell fellow.” By all accounts, Ben was both.

But I couldn’t help feeling sad as I looked at the photos of Ben and his classmates, their young faces so full of high expectations for their futures, because I knew their lives had been lived and they were all either gone or very, very old. It was a lot like the “Carpe Diem” scene from the movie Dead Poet’s Society. Looking at photos of young people from another time has always stirred unsettling emotions in me and made me meditate on my own mortality.

Before I returned to my work, I found a playlist on YouTube of hit songs from 1936 and said, “Here’s some music from when you were young, Ben. I hope you enjoy it.”

As I worked, Bing Crosby crooned Pennies from Heaven, Billie Holliday sang Summertime, and dozens of other enchanting tunes from the brightest lights of that era such as Benny Goodman, Guy Lombardo, and Tommy Dorsey transported me to the year when Ben was a high school senior on top of the world and destined for great things. As Fred Astaire sang The Way You Look Tonight, I imagined Ben slow dancing with his girlfriend across the floor of my living room. The fact that my house was built in 1939 and hasn’t been changed much in the years since only added to the ethereal effect.

With such wonderful melodies playing, work was easier and time passed quickly. When I finished, it was four o’clock in the morning. The music ended and the house was quiet. I sat down, returned to the yearbook, found Ben’s photo and said, “Thanks for keeping me company, Ben. I wish I could have known you.” Using the vernacular of the era, I added, “You seemed like a swell fellow.”

A few seconds later, there was a knock at the door, but not just any knock – it was a knock with the “shave and a haircut – two bits” cadence very common to the era Ben lived in – five knocks, a pause, then two more. I was startled because of the late hour but figured my wife had come home early with the girls for some reason. I was sitting close to the door so I rushed over and opened it. There was nobody on the porch. Thinking it might have been kids pulling a prank, I went outside and scanned the front yard. No one. I walked to the middle of the street, looked both ways and listened closely. It was as still and quiet as one would expect in the hours before dawn. None of my closest neighbors have children so there was no chance some kid quickly ducked into a nearby house.

Completely bewildered, I went back inside and sat down with the old yearbook again. A few moments later, it dawned on me with a chill that the knock on the door was Ben’s answer, his way of thanking me for playing the music of his youth, and for turning the pages of his yearbook so he could see the faces of his old friends again.

The curtain between this world and the next is thick, but every now and then, if we’re respectful and receptive enough, and if all the conditions are perfect, I believe we can be given a “penny from heaven” – a greeting from someone on the other side who is determined enough to reach us somehow. I was certain in that moment that Ben had been there, and that his happy, musical knock at my door was his way of saying, “Thanks, pal. You’re a swell fellow, too.”

– Mark Rickerby

(There are 100 other stories in this book about modern-day miracles and unexplainable events, available now in stores, online, or directly from me. 

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Twitter Launch Party for Chicken Soup for the Soul’s New Book – Miracles and More

Join me and many of the other contributors to Chicken Soup for the Soul’s new book, Miracles and More, today at 11:00 A.M. Pacific Time. The information is below. Should be fun and inspiring!

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The Real Greece

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They say it’s impossible to get bored in Mykonos, one of the world’s great crossroads, but I did. The constant hubbub of cafes and discos had finally worn me out. I wanted to see the real Greece. I wanted to look behind the stage prepared for tourists like me. I didn’t want to be just another sunburned fun-seeker collecting hangovers and notches on a bedpost. I wanted to slow down and feel my short existence in an ancient place. I didn’t know if I would ever return. I wanted a real moment or two to stand out above the typical version of Greece most travelers experience.

So one night I picked a direction and started walking, away from the noise, into the interior. The streets of Mykonos, like many Greek villages, have no pattern. They were built this way intentionally to confuse invading pirates and enemy armies. The village of Thira on the island of Santorini is probably the best example of this.

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The villagers would hide in doorways and windows with clubs and knives and slaughter the disoriented attackers as they passed. Now the labyrinthine streets confuse only tourists. After a half hour of wandering, I was lost but didn’t care. I was nervous but at least I felt alive again, out of the tepid bath of familiarity.

It was quiet for a long time as I passed apartments and the occasional shuttered cafe, then I started to hear music. I walked toward it. The sound of bouzouki’s and mandolins became clearer but not the source, until I came to a sunken doorway. Nobody was outside. I touched the handle. I wasn’t sure if it was a private house or a public bar. “I didn’t travel thousands of miles to be timid,” I thought. “What’s the worst that can happen? I’ll get thrown out.”

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I opened the door and saw a very small room, but it was a bar and cafe. I walked in and sat at the nearest table.

The room was filled with the mingled aromas of cigarette smoke, retsina wine, lamb and duck. Five men played vigorously and twenty or so others sang and clapped. A few took notice of me but most were too enraptured by the music to care about the outsider in their midst. A man I would later come to know as the owner walked to my table, looked at me very seriously, and waited for me to order. Wanting to earn the space I was using, I ordered a glass of retsina. He walked away, came back with a glass and, in a somber tone, said, “Welcome. Enjoy.” I had not yet earned his trust.

I watched and listened for an hour as the men did what they had clearly done for decades. They were masters of their instruments but most probably had never signed a recording contract.

Separated by language, the key that unlocks everything, I was unable to communicate with them, but the great gift and joy of that night, aside from the music, were the subtle looks and smiles the musicians and locals occasionally gave me. The bar owner refilled my glass without keeping track and became more friendly as time passed and he saw how much I was enjoying hearing his friends play.

 

I wish now that I would have snuck a photo or two but I didn’t take a single photo of the musicians for the same reason I started walking away from the crowd earlier – I was tired of feeling like a gawking tourist. I wanted something personal, sacred, real.

I stayed until they all went home, and shook hands with many of them as I was leaving. A few even hugged me, perhaps because they knew I didn’t find their secret hideaway to take photos of them and brag to friends back home. They knew I didn’t want to make an exhibit of them on some apartment wall. I’ve never even written about that night until now, twenty years later. They accepted me because they knew I was there to find the heart of Greece, and I did. And as usual, it was delivered to me by the two greatest forces that ever brought people of different cultures together – music and kindness.

 

Messin’ with Mark – God’s Sitcom! Episode 19 – The Wallabee Walloping.

 

Welcome to episode 19 of Messin’ with Mark! For those of you who are unfamiliar with this series, let me tell you how it started . . .

When I was very young, Jesus was walking around in His heavenly area up there when he saw his Dad looking down through the clouds, laughing His head off. Curious, he walked over and asked, “What’s up, Pop?”

“Oh, just pranking that Mark kid again,” He replied.

Again?” Jesus asked, “Why are You always picking on him?”

I don’t know. There’s just something about him,” God said. “I mean, look at his face right now.”

Jesus looked down and started to chuckle, then stopped Himself. “Okay, I admit it’s kind of funny, but this is wrong. I mean, You created him. With all due respect, what kind of an example are you setting for the angels? We’re supposed to love and protect humanity, not single one out from all the rest for humiliation.”

God thought for a moment, then looked at Jesus and said, “You’re right. I should stop.” They looked at each other seriously, then said, “Naaaaaaaahhh” and laughed some more.

Jesus suggested that he make a regular show of his pranks on me. They named it Messin’ with Mark. 

Remember Rodney Dangerfield’s bit about getting “no respect” from humans? It’s kind of like that, but on a cosmic level.

So, to today’s episode – The Wallabee Walloping!

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I was twelve years old when I experienced a harrowing event that would come to be known in family circles as “The Wallabee Walloping.” In retrospect, however, I realize it was just another episode of Messin’ with Mark, God’s sitcom. 

One of my favorite places to go at the time was a store in our local mall called Spencer’s Gifts.

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I loved Spencer’s for several reasons. First and most importantly, it carried whoopee cushions, handshake buzzers, itching powder and other artillery I employed in the ongoing war between myself and my older brother, Paul.

I also fell for their “x-ray specs” once – that promised the ability to see through girls’ clothing.

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Even at that age, however, I couldn’t figure out how a hole cut in cardboard painted with a spiral design could accomplish such a feat. I tried it with my sixth grade heart-throb, Janis Stephenson, but her clothes did not become the least bit transparent, or even opaque. Imagine! Duping sweet, innocent children out of a whole dollar like that.  

Spencer’s also had a wide variety of “adult” paraphernalia, harmless stuff like breast-shaped coffee mugs, which provided my introduction to sexual education, for better or worse. (Probably worse.) Over the years, sadly, Spencer’s has become increasingly pornographic, but back then it was still relatively tame. 

But my favorite thing about Spencer’s was the back room where they kept the lava lamps, spinning disco lights, and fiber optic lamps with filaments that changed colors in waves every few seconds.

I would stare at them in a trancelike state, imagining I was an astral traveler and the tips of the fiber optic filaments were tiny stars outside the window of my spaceship. The eyes (and the mind of a twelve-year old) are easily entertained. Those lamps are tacky now but back then they were state of the art, and every self-respecting bachelor had at least one in his swingin’ bachelor pad.

There were always plenty of black light posters to flip through, too. The stalking black panther with deadly, green eyes peering menacingly through jungle ferns.

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The biker on a long, low chopper rumbling through the desert at night, his girlfriend leaning back languidly against the sissy bar, her long hair flowing behind her, the vast cosmos pitching and twirling overhead. The peace signs set against mind-bending optical illusions, and on and on.

I can’t explain how or why that explosion of illuminated color made me so happy. It just did. I spent about an hour there once a week gazing at the posters and lights, listening to the perpetually blasting music.

And that’s when I heard it . . . THE BEST SONG EVER. It was called Dream Weaver by Gary Wright.

The cosmic synthesizer intro and space-traveling lyrics made the electric wonderment of Spencer’s back room even more magical. I couldn’t wait to buy the 45. (For readers under thirty, that’s not a gun – it’s a small vinyl record album with one song on each side. Primitive, I know.)

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I left Spencer’s and rushed to the nearest Licorice Pizza (a long-dead record store), bought it for a buck and rushed home to play it and learn all the words.

Nobody was home when I arrived. I sprinted into my room and played Dream Weaver about fifty times, singing my heart out until I had mastered the vocals down to the slightest nuance. In retrospect, the lyrics were probably the main reason the song resonated with me so much. The stress I was living with because of Paul’s daily harassment had me fantasizing about escaping from the real world.

I’ve just closed my eyes again
and climbed aboard the dream weaver train.
Driver, take away my worries of today
and leave tomorrow behind.

I was completely lost in the music when I heard someone yell “Hey!” I looked over and saw something flying toward me, flapping like a bird. Before I could duck, it hit me in the mouth. Pain seared into my lips and I tasted blood. I opened my eyes and saw my brother standing in the doorway, laughing smugly. He had thrown a hardbound math textbook at me and yelled simultaneously so I would look over just as it collided with my face. His timing was perfect.

Blinded by rage, I jumped up and ran toward him in full attack mode. Unfortunately, since I had no fighting skills and weighed only seventy pounds, this mode consisted of closing my eyes and flailing my arms wildly. it was a very bad idea. Before I continue, allow me to explain why.

Paul wore shoes throughout his teenage years called Wallabee’s. They were popular at the time but were only one small step above a moccasin in quality. It was impossible to run, kick a ball, or do anything that required a sudden movement without one or both of them flying off. The leather laces were merely decoration.

He was fifteen, high most of the time like everyone else in the 1970’s, with more than his share of pimples, and long hair held in place by a blue bandanna. As that description implies, he was not an athlete by any stretch. However, as I ran across the room to exact revenge, I made the sudden and unfortunate discovery that he was a sort of Wallabee marksman. Perhaps he practiced firing them at tin cans in the backyard. I don’t know. But let me tell you, his accuracy was deadly, for my attack (the aforementioned running with flailing arms strategy) was foiled mid-thrust as he very casually kicked off one of his Wallabee’s, scoring a direct hit to my prepubescent left testicle. I crumpled to the ground, contorted in agony and emitted a noise that surprised even me; a noise I was not even aware I had the ability to make; something akin to a walrus’s mating call. The room spun counter-clockwise as Paul’s raucous, unguarded laughter blended with the mystical strains of Dream Weaver, providing a surreal, Fellini-esque quality to my already desperate and pain-addled emotional state.

Fly me high through the starry skies,
maybe to an astral plane.
Cross the highways of fantasy.
Help me to forget today’s pain.

We’ve all heard stories of people accessing supernatural strength to save themselves or loved ones from sure annihilation. Such was the force that flooded through my diminutive frame that day. Bleeding profusely from both lips, my only recently descended left testicle throbbing like a lighthouse beacon, I rose up valiantly again and rushed headlong toward my brother with murder in my heart. He backed up a few steps and fired the other Wallabee. His limp and awkward style belied his deadliness.

This will sound like an exaggeration but, as God is my witness, that second Wallabee scored a direct hit to the other testicle. Down I went again. That was it. I was finished. Curtains. Kaput. My brother brushed his palms together as if to say, “My work here is done” and picked up his Wallabee’s, one of which was lying within sniffing distance of my nose. He said “Let that be a lesson to ya!” and walked away, supremely satisfied and chuckling contentedly as I lay there in the fetal position, drooling and bleeding into the shag carpet, waiting in vain for the pain to subside as Gary Wright finished his song.

Ooh dream weaver,
I believe you can get me through the night.
Ooh dream weaver,
I believe we can reach the morning light.

But my mind was no longer on such lofty subjects as music. I was already plotting my revenge as I lay studying the intricacies of the carpet weave. However, being so much smaller than him, my attempts at getting some payback had to be non-physical and very, very devious. If he thought I was going to forget this latest assault on my person, he was sorely mistaken. As this story attests, I still haven’t. One never forgets his first shot to the fella’s, let alone two in rapid succession, with a pair of busted lips on the side.

Which brings me back to the most important reason I liked Spencer’s Gift’s so much – weaponry. The itching powder I had purchased for just such an occasion came in very handy that night. Suffice to say Paul slept very uncomfortably as I giggled through swollen lips. It was so funny, I even forgot about the ice pack.

 

An Introduction to Karma

(Warning: Scary images.)

My parents loved going to the movies. It was like their church. They particularly liked horror movies. This love of voluntarily terrifying oneself was passed along to my brother and I. You see, we were taken to most of those movies . . . as children.

I suppose it would be called a “parenting fail” these days, but we loved it. Nothing was more fun than sitting on swings in the playground at the base of a forty-foot high drive-in movie theatre screen, stuffing our faces with hot dogs, popcorn and Milk Duds, and watching Dracula get a wooden stake pounded into his chest. Man, what a rush! We were too young to know or care about the effects such viewing had on our prepubescent minds. Oh, sure – we would get the Heebie-Jeebie’s back home when we had to walk through the hall at night to go to the bathroom, but that was about it, until one night.

In an amazing feat of poor judgment, my father decided my brother, at thirteen years old, was ready to see the granddaddy of all horror films, The Exorcist. I wanted to go but I was only ten. It would be three years before I was worldly enough to see possessed children vomiting into the mouths of priests.

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My brother left the house that night eager and rosy-cheeked, and returned gaunt and pale. I asked him how the movie was but he just walked by me silently. My mom asked my dad what was wrong with him. He said, “Ah, don’t worry about it. Kids are resilient.”

After a week or so, he returned to normal and started talking again. Our parents went to a party and left us alone. We decided to play hide-and-seek. He went upstairs to count and I hid behind our enormous Magnavox television set. And not just behind the TV, but behind thick curtains behind the TV. Of course, the TV was on. It was always on.

In the days before flat screens, TV’s were monstrous things with ventilation hole-riddled, pressboard panels at the back that heat belched out of like dragon’s breath. Well, it turned out to be the best hiding place I had ever chosen because my brother couldn’t find me for at least an hour. He actually looked behind the TV but didn’t find me because I was such a waif of a child (his nickname for me then was “Pale and Frail”) and I was making myself flat like an Egyptian hieroglyph behind the curtain. Exasperated, he finally decided to pull back the curtain. When he saw me, I was a sweaty wreck, badly dehydrated and on the verge of heat exhaustion. The excitement of being discovered made me laugh. It seemed perfectly innocent to me, but to him, still reeling psychologically from The Exorcist, I looked and sounded like a small, demented demon. I’m not sure what I looked like exactly, but I think this is pretty much what he saw.

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To my surprise, he screamed, but not just any scream. It was one of those primal screams only accessible when the mind is pushed to some heretofore unexplored extremity. He turned and ran, still screaming.

Now, the right thing to do would have been to go to him and reassure him that I was still his little brother – but where’s the fun in that? Every mean thing he had ever said or done to me (and there were plenty) rushed through my mind.

“An opportunity like this might never come again,” I thought. “We’ll see who the pale and frail one is!”

I chased him around the house screaming maniacally and scratching his back until he locked himself in the bathroom and begged me to leave him alone.

Don’t let anyone ever tell you revenge doesn’t feel good. It was awesome. For the rest of the week, I glared at him like one of the tots from Village of the Damned until he asked our parents to make me stop.

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I was heady with my newfound sense of power. However, I was about to be introduced to another kind of power – KARMA.

A few days later, in yet another astounding demonstration of irresponsibility, my parents decided it would be a good idea to let both of us watch The Legend of Lizzie Borden starring Elizabeth Montgomery. Though already quite the horror aficionado for a ten-year old, I found this movie particularly disturbing, for two reasons – she looked remarkably like my mother, and I was used to watching Elizabeth Montgomery play the sweet and perky Samantha in the TV show Bewitched.

I lay in bed that night wide awake, unable to stop hearing a song in the movie, sung eerily by children – “Lizzie Borden took an axe, gave her mother forty whacks. When she saw what she had done, she gave her father forty-one.”

Man, oh man. Sleep was completely out of the question. I was afraid to blink. I lay there for hours until exhaustion finally overtook me. I awoke in the middle of the night staring at the wall. I rolled over to get more comfortable and momentarily opened my eyes. When I closed my eyes again, I realized I had just seen the silhouette of a woman standing by my bed, the edges of her hair and nightgown illuminated by pale moonlight from the window.

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“Dear God,” I thought, “Lizzie Borden is in my room.”

I was too scared to open my eyes again. I hadn’t looked at her long enough to see her hands but I was certain an axe dripping with blood was in one of them, an axe she was about to give me forty-two whacks with. I turned to the wall again, hoping she might leave if she thought I was sleeping. She didn’t. I could hear her breathing. I let out one of those screams only dogs can hear and pulled my blanket over my head because, as every child knows, a blanket can withstand any attack.

“Ah, who am I kidding?” I thought, “It’s a blanket! It can’t stop an axe!” My mind raced, “I’m a goner! And still so young! How did she get out of the TV? I wonder if she got my parents yet. Oh, just whack me already and get it over with, Lizzie! Whack away! Why are you just standing there? God, if you care about me at all, make her leave!”

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I started reciting every prayer I knew – “getting right with God” as they say – when a hand touched my shoulder. I screamed. Then Lizzie screamed! I screamed again. She screamed again, too. I started to scream a third time, then thought, “Wait a minute. Why is Lizzie screaming? Axe murderesses don’t scream!”

I reached for the light on my bedside table and pulled the chain. It was my mom. Seems my dear mumsy had chosen that night, of all nights, to stand by her little boy’s bed and watch him sleep. It should have been a tender moment, but it was the longest, most horrifying minute of my life, before or since.

Once her heartrate slowed down and I realized I wasn’t going to be chopped up, we both had a good laugh about it. My dad did, too, as I slept between them in their bed that night, and the next night, and for the next two weeks.

 

More Kindness Than Danger (travel story)

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Here’s my story from Chicken Soup for the Soul’s latest book, Step Outside Your Comfort Zone. There are 100 more stories in the book about living life fearlessly and accomplishing your dreams. You can buy one online, in your favorite bookstore, or order a signed copy from me here through Paypal. (Message me for payment info, etc.) I hope my story inspires your next great adventure.

More Kindness than Danger

Another spring had arrived and, with it, my familiar and frustrated wanderlust. I had waited years for my friends to go to Europe with me, but there was always some reason they couldn’t. I proposed the trip once again to the same friends and received the same excuses. I wasn’t going to let another year go by without making this dream come true, so I decided to take the trip alone. I bought a one-way ticket to Copenhagen and told my friends I would send them a postcard.

On the day of my departure, I was excited but also surprised at how worried I felt—not just about being lonely, but also about the dangers I might encounter. My parents also questioned the wisdom of walking around Europe alone for months. They warned me not to be too trusting, to stay out of bad neighborhoods, and to avoid going out by myself at night. In retrospect, it was cruel to subject them to such torment, but they eventually understood that I just wanted to see the beauty of the world while I was still young.

My own worry was more difficult to assuage. Maybe I had watched too many movies that showed the darker side of man’s nature. Conflict is the essence of drama, after all. All those movies about naïve vacationers being attacked, kidnapped or thrown into abusive prisons had taken their toll on my trust in people. Watching the six o’clock bad news didn’t help, either. But there was no turning back, so I hugged my parents goodbye, got a ride to the airport from a friend, and flew into the big, blue sky and complete uncertainty.

It was early April, but snow was still on the ground in Copenhagen when I landed. Determined to be frugal, I chose the cheapest youth hostel in my travel guide. As I slept that first night on an ancient, unpleasant-smelling mattress beside a cracked, graffiti-covered wall, homesickness began to overwhelm me. I thought, What am I doing? I could be home in my clean, comfortable bed. But even that wasn’t there anymore because I had vacated my apartment and sold most of my belongings to finance this trip. I sat up, took out a miniature flashlight and found a note in my pocket that a friend back home had given me. He had written down the name and number of someone he knew in Copenhagen named Lisbeth. He said she would be happy to take me in for a few days. I decided to call her the next morning, and then fell asleep from exhaustion.

When I arrived at her door, she welcomed me like family and showed me the sights of Copenhagen for several days. I felt so accepted by her and her friends and had so much fun that I forgot to feel homesick.

One night, they took me to a karaoke bar. Word got around that I was from California, so someone asked me to sing a Beach Boys song. I chose “California Girls” but changed “California” to “Copenhagen.” The syllable count was a perfect match. The first time I sang “I wish they all could be Copenhagen girls,” everyone cheered, and I made a hundred friends instantly.

That’s another thing about movies. Nobody can sit in a bar in a movie without some group of drunken nincompoops harassing them. But this bar was filled with the nicest people imaginable. It was just another example of the skewed reality of cinema. Travel was working its magic. My faith in human beings was being restored.

I stayed in Copenhagen for a week before moving on. I was alone again, but invigorated by a great first week away from home. My solitude didn’t last long, however. I found travel companions everywhere I went, especially on the trains. My backpack was a silent invitation to other wayfarers to join forces and see something new together.

With only four thousand dollars, I didn’t know how long I would be able to travel. I ended up stretching it out for six months. When I wasn’t sleeping at youth hostels or the homes of new friends, I saved money by sleeping in train stations or on moving trains between one destination and another, roughing it for the sake of extending the adventure. Besides, with so many new people to get to know and so much world to see, sleep wasn’t much of a priority. It wasn’t just that, though. I wasn’t tired anymore. The continuous excitement of exploration freed me from the weariness that often plagued me at home.

While my friends back home repeated another typical summer, I awoke to the view of cotton clouds drifting through a pastel blue sky above Venice, Italy, as opera students practiced arias in the square below my hotel window. I dipped my feet in the cool water of the Trevi Fountain in Rome and imagined I had discovered the fountain of youth. I watched the sun rise over the red tile roofs of Florence. I held hands with a Parisian beauty at the top of the Eiffel Tower. I sat silently in the cool air of a mountainside prairie in Switzerland as spring exploded around me. I parasailed over Swiss Alps so fertile that the lake below them was bright yellow with floating pollen.

I watched a rainbow form over the Irish Sea. I held my hand against the cold monoliths of Stonehenge and felt their mystery flood through me. I read poetry by candlelight in a cave at the base of the mountain the Acropolis stands upon while colorful hot-air balloons filled the night sky in the distance. I recited a monologue under a full moon at the Theatre of Dionysus. I walked the ancient cobblestone streets of Athens. I danced all night in a Greek disco pulsating with life. I watched a golden sunfish sail past my rowboat in the Aegean Sea and imagined it was Zeus taking the shape of a fish to observe me more closely. I walked through ancient ruins and felt with an ache how brief my existence is, but how sacred and powerful it is for that same reason.

And through it all, I had time—that most precious commodity—to read, write, watch and really see, to listen and really hear, and to savor my life while gazing through the moving church of a train window. I discovered what Joseph Campbell meant when he said people aren’t as interested in the meaning of life as they are in the experience of being alive.

I arrived home with less than a dollar in my pocket, but with a heart and soul overflowing with riches and dozens of new stories to tell. Traveling alone can seem intimidating at first, but the world is full of kindness and generosity, and they are both showered upon us for prices anyone can afford—respect, friendliness, and an open heart.

I’m twenty-five years older now, and those same friends who didn’t come with me on that adventure can’t recall what was important enough to make them stay home back then. My problem these days is not fear of travel or distrust of humanity; it’s being content at home. The desire for adventure only grows stronger with age. How can one have enough fun? Romance? Awe? A world full of wonders, ever-pulsating outside my window, still calls me to new adventures, but now I accept the invitations fearlessly, knowing the rewards far outweigh the risks, and there is much more kindness in this world than danger.