For Those that Feel Imprisoned By the Travel Bans

         I was born clutching a globe as I exited my mother’s womb. I yearned to cross borders as soon as I learned they existed. When I studied the history of my globe, I dreamed of tracing ancient Persian culture without the Ayatollah’s dogmatism, and strolling the literary streets of St. Petersburg without an iron curtain in the way. I was skeptical of American exceptionalism by the time I reached my teens, so I left home to see what my globe could teach me, eventually landing in both Iran and Russia. When people asked where I was from, I said enigmatically: “I’m a citizen of the world,” tucking my tell-tale blue passport inside a book of French poems. I lived as if I were the subject of Baudelaire’s poem “The Stranger,” for when they tried confining me to one country, I said, “I’m an anti-nationalist.” I moved across the globe as if its entirety was my homeland from Kyoto to Ushuaia until mid-2019.

We all have our pre-COVID 19 narratives. Mine involved a baby in an altruistic gestational carrier’s womb. When I was living in Geneva, Switzerland last year—where surrogacy is illegal—I prepared to nest in the United States with my newborn. Little did I know that the term nesting would transform into less comforting verbs like quarantining and locking down, but I tried to appease my wanderlust first, since nesting did not come instinctually.

To bid Europe what I thought was a temporary farewell, I ran through the Italian Alps on a solo hiking trip in the sublime Dolomites. I bade adieu to my adopted family in Southwest France before a final farewell in Paris, where I had lived for several years in my youth. I lunched with old friends in restaurants where waiters poured fennel froth on my roasted sea bass, and sprinkled it with lavender. In the library of the Ritz, looking upon Proust’s portrait, I finished the last draft of a memoir I was writing about my recovery from Lyme in Siberia. Finally, I returned to the United States never leaving our nest, months before Corona erased our cherished quotidian lives.

By late February, after many months of bonding with my tiny family member, I choreographed short flights from the nest. The blank pages of my day timer filled with writing conferences in Geneva, a birthday dinner in Gramercy Park, and a series of weddings in Europe that would take me to Ireland, Italy, and beyond until the last days of 2020. But by the end of my first adventure—a module for teaching advanced meditation that I attended at Kripalu Center for Yoga in Stockbridge, Massachusetts—I was catapulted into a new world on March 15th that robbed me of the globe I had clutched since birth. 

 “But I have been in lockdown for months already,” I cried out to friends over Zoom. By May, all weddings were cancelled, and my novel writing retreat went two-dimensional; my fellow writers squeezed into tiny boxes on my laptop screen. There was no exit in sight. 

By late June, when Europe closed its borders to the United States indefinitely, I realized that my pre-lockdown of 2019 had become a meta-lockdown, that I would be imprisoned in the one country where I did not want to be. The one country where the virus had gone viral. Where people protested the wearing of masks when they should have been joining the great protest against racial injustice. Where people licked toilets in ignorant defiance only to contract the virus that claimed victims on an increasingly arbitrary basis. Where the purported leader proclaimed that the United States had the best testing system in the world, but that more testing produced more cases. “American Exceptionalism Exposed,” I whispered to my old globe, nostalgic for its three-dimensionality. 

When the virus ran as rampantly in the United States as California wildfires do in August, with 60,000 daily cases becoming normative, I realized I could still travel through the world of poetry. I turned to Baudelaire. Reciting the lines of “The Swan” in French with my eyes closed, I sought refuge. “Paris changes, but my melancholy hasn’t moved…My cherished memories are heavier than stones…I think of whoever has lost that which can never be found.” Although Baudelaire was writing about missing old Parisian landmarks as the city gentrified, his mourning that produced a Freudian melancholia mirrored the state of my heart. I had lost my New York, my Paris, my Europe. I had a useless passport, as if during quarantine, the United States had lost its privileges. I became an unhuggable two-dimensional frame on my laptop to commiserate with friends, family, and fellow writers. I lay awake worrying what would happen: to the children and teachers if they were forced to attend school in precarious conditions, to all those that had lost their livelihoods and homes, to the families that lost their beloved to COVID-19, and to those being killed for the color of their skin. I futilely yearned to be elsewhere. But they couldn’t take my Baudelaire away.

Caged as I feel, the elusive voyage lives in the imagination. Thanks to the words of my old friends like Baudelaire, Akhmatova, and Hafiz, and thanks to the words I am clumsily writing today, in the midst of a maelstrom. Collectively grounded, there are gifts for us to receive in spite of the incertitude. I hear the muse clearly when it speaks to me now; it helped me micro-edit an entire novel during the initial months of quarantine. I hear the poetic silence in a sky without jets, a sky that has cleared as we reduce our carbon footprints, and I hear whispers of hope. I imagine a future where we weave parts of our pre-COVID selves into our new identities shaped by resilience, fortitude, and a sense of global accountability that we carry on our travels.


“One Me: Lovable As Is. As Is.”

This quarantine—that threatens to bring us in and out of it— takes me back to when I got shut down a few years ago. I found myself on the couch in pajamas indefinitely with a mystery illness. In what became a long-term battle with chronic Lyme disease, I never thought my days lying supine in the same faded Johns Hopkins sweatshirt, and ripped flannel pajama pants could have a moral to the story. Yet the most meaningful lesson of my life came from those interminable days logged at home, and it suddenly seems worth sharing.

I am reminded of my struggle with my own ambitions put on hold when I look now at Instagram stories and blog posts from driven, creative individuals sitting at home in sweatpants befuddled with this abrupt shutdown. Everything was taken away from us before we even realized what was happening. Our rituals. Our hugs. Our livelihoods. After having sustained this period of immobilization for a few months, we are now told that there may be future flare-ups, that we must persevere with strength, resilience, and patience.

What has been happening behind the dormant curriculum vitarum, or the social media pictures on the inside of people’s minds right now? Having experienced multiple lockdowns while chronically ill, but having come out of them unexpectedly with even more verve than before, I empathize with those mourning their former lives. Based on what I see on social media, people have been giving in to desires for enormous bowls of ice cream and vats of wine partially because they fear they will never get their old lives back and be productive again as the world enters a new era of abnormality.

In the summer of 2012, I went from being a professor with a Ph.D. in hand—and a long goal list that included publishing academic books and articles—to feeling like someone came with an industrial vacuum and sucked out my memory, my ideas, my energy, and my health. Before I knew it, I had no job, no conference papers to deliver, no chance of writing a decent publication, and no idea who I was anymore. I had lost my identity as an academic and a  high-functioning member of society. I couldn’t drive and I couldn’t leave the house. I was immobilized without an exit plan.

As my days went by isolated at home in bed or on the couch, I began to have a string of tiny epiphanies. I closed my eyes and replayed my thoughts from the time I had been dressed in suits giving lectures and teaching classes. Even then, when I was contributing to society in what felt like a meaningful way, I had an invisible inner dialogue that would have seemed brutal if it had been amplified audibly to those around me.

My inner critic rattled off a string of complaints most days: “Your dissertation should have been stronger.” “You should have published it into a book by now.” “You should have published more articles by now.” “Maybe you just aren’t good enough.” Nothing ever seemed to be good enough for my impossibly high standards and ideals.

As weeks passed like an amorphous mass of time and I was still in no shape to go out, let alone drive, read, or write, I noticed that the messaging in my head began to change. Compassion got planted and it took root. An accepting voice appeared inside my thoughts that sounded unfamiliarly kind, no matter how low I sank.

The part of me that prattled on about how I should have been smarter, more productive, and more driven softened. I adapted to a new normal that included deciding how important breakfast was to me. Because to get it, I would have to slide down the stairs from my bedroom to the first floor on my bum, and then lay at the bottom to rest before I could muster up the strength to get to the kitchen. My body was so beat up that I didn’t have the heart to beat myself up anymore in my interior monologue.

Yogi Swami Kripalu once stated that the highest form of spiritual practice is self-observation without judgment, which had always seemed like a wise philosophy that was wildly out of my reach. Suddenly, it clicked for me without me even having to strive for it. My fingers couldn’t dance over the keyboard the way they used to as I wrote out lecture notes? No problem. Had to slide down the stairs on my bum to get to the kitchen? That’s okay, too. Face in the mirror looking pale and drawn? What a lovable face. Can’t concentrate? Nothing needs to get done right now other than resting. Check. Done. Fine.

With mounting astonishment at the new voice inside of me, I came up with a slogan for myself, like a used car ad: One Miche: Lovable As Is. As Is. No matter how broken I looked on the outside, no matter if I couldn’t get anything done and didn’t know if I would ever work properly again physically or mentally, I was lovable just the way I was right then and there. The key part of this phrase was “as is.” I couldn’t think straight. I had no job. It sounds so simple, but it was the most elusive thing imaginable for so many years, even while I was a gainfully employed professor.

When the voice of anxiety shouted inside my head, “What if things are like this forever?” I imagined that my body was a pressure cooker boiling, until the valve opened, and the fear shot out into the atmosphere and evaporated. I imagined filling myself up with peace, light, and calm. Some days I closed my eyes, and did this over and over again until I had a modicum of calm within.

I would lie in bed thinking about the quirky things I actually liked about myself. Things from my past life that were big and small from tutoring English at the anti-human trafficking center, meeting a friend at the Gare de Lyon in Paris as a grad student with an overnight bag and picking a random weekend destination based on the timetables, taking my bathing suit off when I’m already immersed in the ocean and tying it around my waist so I can swim freely without anyone seeing me naked, or dancing with my puppy to funky music while making dinner for friends.

There I was at home looking and acting like my former definition of a sloth—slow- moving and lethargicbut feeling better about myself than I ever had in my life before. When I suddenly had my memory back after radical treatments, my body back, and my energy back, that voice didn’t go away.

 I was able to move freely about the world again and I lapped up the gift of mobility. Post-Lyme lockdown I used up my second chance at life by romping from Iran to Cuba with glee, all the while using every spare moment to write the memoir I thought could help countless individuals rise back up and reclaim their vitality.

I never thought Lyme lockdown could have given me a gift. I thought it was something to survive and endure. But it gave me the greatest gift of my life: the ability to love myself as is. The perfectionistic drive seemed to die off along with the Lyme disease. I was cured, and I was left with an inner voice that admired whatever it was that I was able to do, whether it was tiny or grand. Most of all, I didn’t have to do anything to win myself over. As I think back on it today, I wonder if what I learned from Lyme could help others through Corona.

I would like to offer that in the era of Coronavirus lockdowns when many of our former livelihoods, routines, and even identity markers vanished overnight, that the “Lovable: As Is” slogan can function as a mantra gifted to us in the form of heightened self-love and self-acceptance by the conditions of the virus itself. The upswing is there inside of us, waiting to be claimed.  

When I came out of Lyme lockdown–which I write about in a memoir I am seeking to publish, Starving to Heal in Siberia: My Radical Recovery from Late-Stage Lyme Disease--I felt like I had reincarnated in the same lifetime, in the same body. But this time I was shining, thanks to my peace within. I didn’t do anything to achieve this and you don’t need to either. When our social selves are in hibernation, our inner selves get teased out. When we witness ourselves struggling, we naturally develop compassion for ourselves. When we do emerge from sheltering in place and venture out, we can bring our new kinder voices with us. We can love ourselves as is. As is.