The Remote Year group that I’m traveling with goes by the name of Ikigai, a Japanese word that means “reason for being”. I spent all of about two seconds thinking about what my ikigai was on orientation day, but then quickly forgot about it. That is, until a series of events, people, and places re-triggered an inquiry into why I’m here.
Overlooking the rooftops of Chefchaouen, the “blue pearl”, a city nestled in the foothill of the Rif Mountains in Morocco, it’s hard not to feel an omniscient presence as Muslim prayers echo through the valley, bouncing off of the medina’s painted fifty-shades-of-blue walls.
This is an other-worldly place - peaceful, untouched, raw; and even though I had Googled it prior to arriving (as I do with all places I travel to these days), the real place not only meets, but exceeds what I was expecting — (something that never happens anymore — the curse of perfectly filtered Instagram and Pinterest images.)
Chaouen, as the locals call it, is a place of solace, a place of reflection, and its charming spectrum of blue soothes the soul.
28 days ago, I landed in Morocco.
55 days ago, I met 70+ people — people that I would be working, traveling, living, and breathing with for the next year (in very close quarters)— for the first time.
60 days, I landed in Portugal.
68 days ago, I sat on the floor of my apartment in San Francisco, conflicted on what to pack for the next couple of months, and how, feeling anxious about doing long-distance yet again with my boyfriend.
155 days ago, I signed an offer letter to join this crazy little start-up called Remote Year, not knowing what, exactly, I had signed up for.
I’m happy to be here, and grateful that Chaouen is the place my friend gets to experience in the short time she’s here. Her coming out to Morocco was very impromptu. She needed comfort, which I hoped to offer her, but mainly, she needed a breath of fresh air — to keep herself moving forward after an unexpected and traumatic event that had occurred just three weeks earlier.
Her boyfriend of over a year — the first man that she had ever let herself love and be vulnerable with — a man of 29 years with a heart of gold — had suddenly, abruptly, passed away. The reason? Unknown. We can only presume now that it had something to do with his heart.
Life and death are a big part of our everyday conversations, as is natural, given what she’s going through. She likes talking about him — it’s one of the few things that gives her some semblance of peace. On this night, as she reminisced about one of her favorite memories of him, she said:
“I keep telling myself that even though he’s gone, he lived a concentrated dose of life. He lived it so fully, it was reflected in everything he said and did. Maybe it takes other people 100 years to live the life he lived in 29.”
I don’t know what to believe in when it comes to the afterlife — reincarnation, heaven, parallel universes, multiverses — I don’t discount any of it, nor am I a full believer of any one theory. There are perspectives about life and death that I like and am drawn to, and what she said is one of them — of living a concentrated dose of life. It fits perfectly with many of the self-improvement-and-development articles I’ve read over the years — the ones that preach about how it’s the journey, not the destination that matters.
In my own life and work, this particular perspective has served as a kind reminder to be patient and gentle with myself when the going gets tough.
As we sat looking out to the darkening sky slowly unveiling its clusters of glistering stars, waiting patiently for the harvest moon lunar eclipse to show its face above the mountain’s peak, we talked about the polarity of life. The yin and the yang — how we can’t know North without South, happiness without sadness, day without night.
Can we know life without death? Can we live life to the fullest without having encountered death directly ourselves? What does it mean to live, anyway? There are stories of those who had fallen into the dark abyss of death and miraculously came back to the world of the living with a newfound appreciation for life, but do we need to go through that before we can truly start living?
So many of us (myself included) often fail to notice the life and beauty that’s around us all the time. We settle in cities that clash with our characters, fall prey to the comforts of having someone to come home to even when we’re no longer in love with them, and cling to the securities of a job that we dread waking up to.
What for? Is this what living is?
As I watch one of my strongest and dearest friends go through crippling waves of grief, I can’t help but ponder my own mortality and the choices I’ve made.
If death is the final (depending on what you believe) destination, then it matters very little. What matters is how we live.
After all, life is the journey, right?
My friend’s boyfriend died at the green age of 29, but he had been ripe with life — he lived a concentrated dose of it.
As the five of us sat atop the roof of our Moroccan home for the weekend, amongst friends old and new, I’m reminded of the journey that I’m currently on, living and breathing alongside this community of 70+ people who were complete strangers to me just 50 days ago.
In 55 days, I’d made my way through eleven cities spanning six countries across three continents — from the Eastern most tip of Europe to a night in the Sahara Desert. I’d traveled alone, with a single friend, and with groups of friends — small and large, old and new.
I’ve noticed beauty more often than before, in places and at times that I wouldn’t have noticed back home. On a smoggy day in Rabat, Morocco, while stuck in traffic en route to the workspace — I look outside of my car window and glimpse the beautiful kaftans swaying back and forth across the dirt-covered path.
I’m always stimulated (perhaps sometimes overly so), and somehow, I find myself living in the present more often than ever.
Even with all the traveling, exploring, adjusting, and living, I’m also (surprisingly) working harder than I ever have. Ten, twelve hour days seem to fly by in the blink of an eye. The oddest part? I’m actually enjoying it. I had never been a workaholic — more of a life-aholic, if anything — but since hopping on this wild ride of a start-up that is Remote Year a few months ago — work hasn’t felt like work, just life.
We have this running joke that a week on Remote Year is equivalent to a month; a month, a year; a year, a lifetime.
It’s a concentrated dose of living.
I remember the old days of being “chained” to a desk for 8 hours a day, 5 days a week. (My boss would not have been happy to know that much of that time was spent reading Wikipedia, Skype-ing my friends and watching the ticker on the clock make its rounds in slow motion).
Had that still been my life, I would’ve had to formally ask for permission to take time off so that I could be here, now, for my friend — which seems ridiculous. Even if my request for time off had been approved, we most certainly wouldn’t be sitting on this peaceful rooftop in Chefchaouen. I would have been living where I worked, rather than working where I live — and that would have been a far less mystical of a place.
As the mountainous peak began to glow with the light of the rising full moon and the silhouette of my friend crystalizes, I realize that despite all of the very real challenges that come with living this nomadic lifestyle — of always traveling, of working remotely, of being away from the comforts of home (from family, friends and boyfriend) — the upside to all of this — my ikigai — is the freedom to create space and time so that I can be here, fully, for a loved one — and for all of my loved ones.
That, for me, is living.