Friday, September 26, 2014

The Narnias and Neverlands of Everyday Life

Growing up, I was perpetually fixated on the idea of Narnia, of Shangri-La and of Neverland. The idea of simply opening a door, climbing a mountain, or daring to fly above the clouds and discovering a whole new world—otherwise uncharted by your human peers—fascinated me to the point of obsessive yearning. I would regularly feel my way around the backs of the closets in both mine and my cousins’ houses—double-checking that the wall hadn't fallen away and revealed a magical land full of adventure and possibilities beyond my fathoming. Even now, whenever I hike a mountain or walk across relatively undisturbed terrain, there is a part of me that still looks at every peak, twist and bend as an opportunity to come upon an epic discovery, reminiscent of my childhood daydreams.

And while I will likely never give up this child-like dream, I have come to appreciate the Narnias and Neverlands of everyday life. And for me, the essence of these parallel realities is captured—to a much lesser and more nuanced degree—in the balconies of Cairo. To me, they are the wardrobes; the portals through which another time, place, reality is accessed. I sit on my balcony as twilight falls upon the city. The Azan (call to prayer) emanates in round from several mosques. It starts with one, then two, then three voices; altogether roaring in reverence. They slowly trail off until only one can be heard in a distance. Full, green trees adorn the textured skyline of a Cairo evening. The balcony, suspended in air, transports you to this world in the sky, this world of rooftops and satellite dishes, of muffled sounds from the street and the crisp music from minarets and church bells.

One of the most beautiful things about Cairo is indeed the layers of its skyline. There is no symmetry, monotony, or common height, shape or position. The buildings overlap across a multidimensional canvas, evoking sensations of a sultry, smoggy and stirring Shangri-La. Each balcony has its own unique and beautiful perspective of this city’s layered skyline terrain.  Even balconies in the same block present varied perspectives from their neighbors; and whether alone or with good company, the balconies of Cairo are a respite from the somehow endearing chaos below.

And it is on balconies that the internal battle between restlessness and contentment is most potent. Entering into the parallel world relieves my wanderlust and I am content; suspended and immersed in the glowing lights and endless rooftops. And then, every so often I see a plane in the distance, and then again closer, over my head. And the wanderer inside can’t help but look up, close her eyes and remember the unparalleled sensation of impending adventure in an unknown place. My heart beats loudly and my breathing deepens recalling the various times I’ve anxiously awaited, excitement uncontained, for the pilot to announce the final descent. Flying somewhere new—after fighting for hours with zippers to squeeze, smash and shove your life into two duffle bags—, not knowing how long you will stay, what your day to day will be, where your path will take you after, is a feeling that no drug could hope to induce. And when I see a plane, all I can think of is how much I long to wander once again.

But when I step back into reality, from my balcony, I am reminded of how far I am from experiencing this sensation. Not because I can’t, but because those moments of extreme anticipation and surreal joy are ultimately precursors to the real motivation behind my wanderings; which is “work.” And I hesitate to call what I currently do “work” because my time spent during the day constitutes some of the happiest hours of my life. It is indeed challenging, sometimes disillusioning, and frequently induces existential crises (all when dealing with the ridiculous bureaucracy and greed of the adult world)—but through it all, the interactions I have every day with the inspiring groups of teenagers I have and have had the pleasure of working both with and for, fills me with sustained joy. The previously described sensation of flying somewhere new is rivaled only by the warmth I feel when I see teenagers who have been through more than I could imagine smiling. Their smiles, their ever-developing senses of humor, and their passion for education and self-improvement are the sustenance of my soul. They give me more than I could ever hope to give them in return. I in fact contribute very little other than facilitation and coordination—all the growth, progress and improvement are a direct result of these young people’s resilience and perseverance; and I feel honored to watch.

As much as the wanderer inside of me longs to once again walk down the open road, she also knows her soul has not yet dictated a departure. And so I sit in my Narnia, reading the words of Khalil Gibran, humming “Moon River” and continuing on until I one day open the door to my balcony and the road has replaced the lights and sounds of the concrete jungle.