As you know if you’ve traveled yourself or read my other outer journey adventures every new journey reveals a special gift otherwise unavailable to you.
This trip is delivering early. That’s the thing about travel. You never know when the gifts will appear. They so often show up in the quiet spaces between big planned events, and of course when you least expect them.
I’m writing this on January 1 at 35,000 feet on a flight from Amsterdam to Istanbul on my latest outer journey accompanied by husband and daughter.
Amsterdam was meant to be nothing more than a short European connection on our way to Turkey, our principal destination, but since my daughter and I had never been there before we decided to make it an overnight stay. We were arriving on New Year’s Eve, after all, and this city is the party capital of Europe. What better place to celebrate?
But stateside, waiting in Atlanta’s airport before the overnight flight to cross the pond, I was melancholy. Continuing my reflections on 2011 and goal-setting for 2012, I looked back at the notes from my same process a year ago. I’d accomplished some of what I wanted (and other things I hadn’t even set out to do) but not nearly to the scale I had envisioned and desired. I reviewed the challenges and disappointments from the previous year-end and realized most of my current challenges and disappointments were exactly the same.
It felt deeply like being stuck. Like I hadn’t progressed; at least not enough. And with that realization two old friends, failure and fear, crept a little closer.
I boarded the 11:00pm flight to Amsterdam and mercifully fell asleep almost immediately. Deep slumber crept over me like a much appreciated, cherished blanket. Two hours into the flight, restless and woken by a screaming, suffering child who could not seem to calm itself despite the attempts of both parents and two crew members, I strolled the aisles of the 777. Pretty much everyone was asleep for the ride – small children haphazardly sprawled flat on the floor in the bulkheads and open spaces. Ah, to surrender that completely. The screaming baby at long last did, and I slept almost the entire remainder of the flight.
On arrival in Amsterdam we’d planned to hit the ground running and we did. Realizing we’d have only about half a daylight’s worth of time to see the sights, we made a beeline to one I’d been drawn to since I read her diary as a girl: Anne Frank’s House. It being New Year’s Eve, the house was closing early at five so we hustled over.
Even if you don’t already know the story of how the Jewish Frank family hid from the Nazis for two years in a small annex behind a sausage factory, it is almost impossible to complete the tour – made vivid by relatively recent videos of surviving Frank family friends – without tears. The despondency and final futility of their quest is heavy, palpable (only Mr. Frank, Anne’s father, ultimately survived the concentration camps). By the tour’s end I’d filled a couple of Kleenexes, yet still longed for the space and privacy to sit down and have a good cry.
Nevertheless, you can’t help but appreciate the miracle that is The Diary of Anne Frank itself. As she grew through her teens and filled not one but several journals in that hidden space, she discovered her calling – she wanted more than anything to be a novelist, a writer. Although she died at sixteen, she lived her purpose to a greater extent than she probably could ever have imagined.
I pondered by own scribblings – on this blog and elsewhere – and wondered what might survive my existence to touch the lives of others, and to what extent. Each of us will probably never know the totality of our impact on the world, but if The Diary of Anne Frank can come to light in the aftermath of the worst human tragedy known to man, certainly there is great hope that miracles can and will be revealed through everyone; through any one.
Time being of the essence, we shook off the bleakness of the museum and pushed onward. There was still much to see, and the city was coming alive with the approaching night. People were tossing what looked and sounded like M-80’s into the street at random. Little did we know these fireworks were barely a prelude to the apocalyptic show of pyromania that was yet to come.
We toured the Red Light District – consciously showing our fourteen year-old daughter the twenty-something (maybe) girls in windows, drugs at every door, marijuana shops. She was, as you might expect, repulsed, not by the sites so much as the feel of the area – the desperation, the wanting, the desire to go numb or escape with sex and drugs. I couldn’t help but stare at the scantily-clad girls in the windows – some clearly skilled seductresses, others looking forlorn and tired. More heartbreak.
After a stop for some fantastic local beer, dinner and (super-yummy) “Belgian” waffles, it was back to the hotel. We hadn’t planned it, but the hotel itself and our fourth-floor room in particular afforded a 270-degree view (another unexpected gift) of the fireworks which would be igniting the city that night. We had the best spot to watch them, and probably (considering the pyrotechnics we’d seen on the streets) the safest, so despite a local outdoor concert/celebration at the MuseumPlein nearby, we decided to stay in.
My husband immediately went down for a nap. My daughter went on Facebook. I was called to a long, hot soak in the tub where in between dozing, I realized I was cleansing not only my jet-lagged dirty body, but shedding much of what needed to be let go of in 2011.
As I washed away the gloominess, the failure, the disappointments of 2011, I surrendered the sorrow of Anne Frank’s short ill-fated life, the lost, enslaved, or misguided (take your pick) prostitutes of the Red Light district, the drifters and drug addicts lurking in the dark alleys of Amsterdam. I let it all go willingly, right down the drain.
Clean, refreshed, I dried off and brewed a pot of tea as I gently woke my husband for the fireworks display, truly unparalleled in our lifetimes. Not to make too big a point of it, but forty minutes of nonstop fireworks in every direction was a spectacle of pyrotechnic wonder that seemed like an amalgamation of every fireworks display I’d ever seen in my life happening all at once. We marveled at the extent and duration of the lights and colors, filming and photographing them between New Year’s hugs and kisses.
I fell blissfully asleep around 1:30 am, and slept more soundly than I have in months.
This morning the breakfast waiter told me the country (or was it just the city of Amsterdam?) had spent $70 million Euros on fireworks. And that was just for the legal ones. $100 million dollars on fireworks, is, I think, a little less than the GDP of a small poor Caribbean nation like Haiti.
No matter. This was a celebration of life, hope and rebirth in all its glory. The fact that I was there to witness it, no mistake.
Amsterdam – just a stopover, no. A catalyst, a transition, an inflection point – ja. And it is only the beginning of this incredible ten-day journey which, I suspect, will deliver additional gifts beyond my imagining (my husband and daughter have already scheduled a surprise side-trip to a destination unknown to me). More gifts or not, I feel as though I’ve already received the greatest blessing this journey beholds, for it has served as a wormhole, a portal, an eye of the needle I somehow was meant to pass through.
It has pointedly bookmarked the beginning of the rest of my life, in which (I decided in that Amsterdam bathtub) I am choosing to be happier, and kinder, and braver, and more abundant than I’ve considered possible so far. Because if a young Jewish girl can go from wealth to poverty to a torturous death and yet write one of the most famous and widely-read stories ever published (in over 70 languages) by the age of sixteen, what might the rest of us do? If Anne Frank could live “big”, her wide-open heart flourishing in a small confined space, how might we each live bigger despite our outer circumstances?
I don’t know about you, but I’m eager to find out. Welcome to 2012. Here’s to making it awesome.