The Muslim call to prayer woke us at 6 a.m., blaring from loudspeakers wired to the slender tower of a mosque in a small Turkish town. To my foreign ear the prayer sounded a bit like a wobbly Tarzan yell, only longer and more beautiful.
Dodging donkey carts stuffed with fig branches, we headed for the ruins of Hierapolis, an ancient spa town built on a terrace of white travertine pools. We arrived at the magic hour, the sun’s dying rays gilding the marble entrance to the Sacred Pool, where Cleopatra is believed to have bathed. Legend has it that the water here can cure almost anything—anxiety, PMS, even sun damage!—so I waded right in, badly needing the maximum bang for my 20-Turkish-lira entrance fee.
The long drive in a subcompact diesel Citroën, stuffed in the backseat with a kid on each side, had cranked up the stress level. A repetitive song called “Purple Pig” that promised to teach my kids phonics blared from crappy speakers, and Griffin, recalcitrant and unfocused, had tried to wriggle out of his homeschool lesson by teaching me one instead:
Griff: “Mom, stop picking your nose.”
Me: “I’m not picking my nose. Read this word.”
Griff: “Yes, you were.”
Me: “No, I wasn’t. I was itching it. Read the word!”
Griff: “No, you were picking it. I saw you.”
Me: “STOP TALKING about nose picking and READ THE WORD, or I’ll throw you out the window!”
Griff (calmly): “Pig. P-I-G. Why were you picking your nose?”
To my left, Adrian, nicknamed “Ado the Tornado” because of his ability to stir up disaster, had squirmed out of his seat belt. He kicked my laptop so hard that it died, taking my travel notes with it into the Great Beyond.
At that moment the early-morning grind at CBS flashed into my mind, and it seemed like an oasis. I had not anticipated that my new full-time mommy gig (not to mention working as a travel agent, teacher, navigator, and referee) would have such a steep learning curve, with 24/7 family togetherness pushing me straight toward the asylum door. Sensing my distress, Ethan had pulled over beside a roadside fruit stand for a break, where a smiling, crinkly-faced Turk gave the boys two eggs and a fluffy baby chicken. I sat down in the dusty weeds, defeated.
Standing now with my toes sunk in the sediment of a travertine pool, I looked out across a vast valley, where wisps of smoke curled up from small settlements. The setting sun was perfectly balanced by a full moon rising in the east when three microlight airplanes launched from a neighboring mountaintop, sweeping through the sky like bright birds of the future.
“What does ‘micro’ mean, Dad?” Griffin whispered, spellbound by the scene.
“It means ‘tiny,’ ” Ethan said. “You were a microbaby when you were born.” The runty result of our third in vitro attempt, Griff had come into the world looking like an extraterrestrial with a black mohawk. His birth had seemed downright miraculous, since some of the best fertility doctors in Los Angeles had put my odds of having biological children near zero.
Now, watching my strong five-year-old resume splashing in the chalky blue water, I felt a big zipper in my mind—one that usually closes off any possibility of transcending the everyday physical world—peel open. My lifelong need to be successful, beautiful, and respected seemed silly when weighed against the hard-won gift of my family. Everything I needed I already had. I closed my eyes and mentally reached out, trying to hold onto this powerful realization, but the more I tried, the faster it faded.
We spent the night at a small family-run inn called Melrose House Hotel, half a hemisphere away from the famous avenue in L.A. With Griff and Ado asleep, Ethan and I sat on the cracked concrete patio of a milky swimming pool and watched an episode of Mad Men on our iPad. Don Draper, a quintessential American man of the 1960s, was caught in a midlife crisis, screwing up his life with liquor and lies and slowly seeing that his high-profile job might not be the ticket to spiritual fulfillment.
“Things haven’t changed much in the last 50 years,” I joked, the moon turning the sheets drying on a line across the courtyard into gently flapping ghosts.
Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina
Without intending to, we had begun following an endless summer, landing in Buenos Aires six months after leaving Los Angeles. Speaking fluent Spanish had always been a dream (along with playing the guitar, doing a standing back flip, and winning American Idol). The funky neighborhood of Las Cañitas, where we rented an apartment for three months, became my classroom. When Griffin tried to grab an ice cream out of a beat-up freezer in a small mercado, the door snapped shut, pinching his finger. I turned to the group of Argentine men watching him sob.
“Pinche dedo!” I explained, holding up his hurt hand. An embarrassed Ethan whispered that I had just used the slang for “fucking finger,” and after that, he did most of the talking.
In late January we celebrated my 46th birthday with a dinner of strange cuts of steak boiled in a dented fondue pot we’d found in our apartment, preferring home-cooked meals to Argentine restaurant entrées like stir-fried bull testicles and brains stewed in tomato sauce. The year before, my dream birthday gift had been a Louis Vuitton bag, but this time around I received the tools of a traveler—a waterproof notebook, binoculars, a pocketknife, and one of those Buff do-rags made famous by the TV show Survivor. I was settling into my new identity.
I was also settling into a new face. The Botox I used to have injected twice a year had worn off, leaving nothing but my own diminishing collagen to fight gravity. My forehead had looked lumpy at first, the muscles sluggish after a five-year nap, but lately I’d noticed neat horizontal lines starting to form.
I tried to see this as a wrinkly badge of courage, which was easier in Buenos Aires than in Los Angeles, as the porteñas seemed less concerned about physical perfection than my fellow Angelenas. A belly hanging out here or shorter-than-supermodel legs there—the Argentine’s body language and dress said, Who cares? By not hiding their flaws they helped me stop worrying about mine.
That night, to a soundtrack of Spanish, sirens, and barking dogs floating up from the street, I walked to the bathroom to try on my Survivor do-rag. It may have been the lighting, but the middle-aged mom staring back was sassy and smart, her brown eyes more challenged by the future than scared of it. The hard edges of the L.A. anchorwoman, who had struggled to maintain a facade of perfection, had softened until she was just a blur.
Head in the Sand
Every light at Namibia’s Hosea Kutako International Airport clicked off simultaneously at 9 p.m., leaving us waiting for our rental car in a blinding rainstorm. We carried no luggage because the airlines had lost our bags somewhere in Johannesburg. Skirting huge sinkholes and hopping frogs, we drove to our motel in the capital city of Windhoek and slept in our clothes.
The next morning, after buying T-shirts, shorts, and toothbrushes, we drove almost 300 kilometers on gravel roads through platinum-tipped grassland as wild dogs with vampire teeth and elegant springbok scattered at the sound of our engine. Finally we reached the Namib Desert, where saffron-colored sand dunes roll for more than a hundred kilometers in constantly changing formations until they reach the sea. Hiking up one ridgeline, we looked down into a dried-up riverbed called Dead Vlei, the only sign of life being two ravens sitting in a blackened tree. We joined hands and jumped off the edge, tumbling and rolling in the forgiving sand down to a place that seemed like the most desolate side of heaven.
The wild, unfamiliar beauty of Namibia provoked an intense feeling of melancholy. For ten months I’d been without my girlfriends in L.A., Ethan and the kids my only support. This isolation made me feel more secure at first, as there were no expectations to measure up to. But now, without this council of women—the human barometers I’d always used to determine what was “normal”—worry blossomed.
Late that evening in a safari tent surrounded by crickets the size of mice, I lit a candle my mother-in-law had given me at the start of this journey. The wick was worn and the wax had teeth marks from a baboon that had grabbed it off an outdoor table and tried to eat it, but the familiar little flame soothed. The spicy-sweet scent of Africa wafted through the mesh windows while I slowly read through a backlog of e-mails, savoring the badly needed virtual connection.
“With all the moves, the financial uncertainty, and two teenagers to worry about, I’m going down the path of too much wine every night to find solace,” wrote Deanna, a friend who had just sold her Hancock Park home to get out of debt. “We all agree that we would never want to do our teenage years over again, and yet I realize that as parents, we do.”
That’s it! I thought. I did feel 16 again: the hormonal fluctuations that made me either short-tempered or giddy, the odd changes in my face and body, the anxiety about the future. The only difference was that now my adult responsibilities kept me from locking myself in a room to play “I’m Sailing Away” over and over again in moody yearning for something I couldn’t identify. Ethan began to laugh less, too, the gray in his dark brown hair turning white as nearly a year of schlepping suitcases started to wear him down. But when he mentioned he was getting tired of being unsettled, I ignored the subtext that said he wanted to go home.
“It’s unsettling not to know where we’re going to settle,” I babbled like a child, “but settling to know we’ll eventually settle somewhere!” He sighed and said he missed L.A., but I simply babbled further about how going back now would be like running into my fool of an ex-husband in a bar. Even though I’d divorced him, it would be uncomfortable. And what if I ran into my ex-TV husband, anchorman Kent Shocknek, with whom I’d only spoken once since I’d been fired? No way! Sticking my head in the sand like a Namibian ostrich with its tutu of feathers might be immature but, like, whatever. It was safe. Ethan didn’t mention home again, but his melancholy magnified mine—especially after we met a woman named Yolandi Claudine.
We spotted Yolandi in safari country, where blue sky pressed against savanna that spread to the horizon. We’d seen cheetahs hunting, giraffes nibbling treetops, and amber-eyed baboons perched on top of termite mounds, shoving grubs into their mouths in a lazy autopilot of motion. But on a road so rutted with gullies that one knocked off our front license plate, the most unusual sight was a woman holding a cloth bag and a plastic Coke bottle filled with water.
“Do you need a ride?” Ethan asked as he stopped the car.
“Yes, sir,” Yolandi answered, climbing in. “I’ve been out here for two days.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Trying to get work at a farm.”
“Did you get it?” asked Ethan.
“No,” she replied.
Yolandi lived 70 kilometers away with her aunt and 16-month-old son. The boy’s father had been killed one night while hitchhiking to his job in a uranium mine, she said, left to die by a hit-and-run driver. When I offered Cheddar Bites and yogurt, I thought she might cry.
Her house was a small, neat green box with a cardboard sign stuck to its chain-link fence that listed prices for homemade fudge, spices, and pork. Ethan gave Yolandi all the Namibian money we had left—sort of like spitting into a hurricane—and she looked dazed by the unfamiliar kindness. Then she ran inside and came back with her child and a smile that dimmed the sun. As we bumped away down the dirt road, I watched Yolandi Claudine disappear in the rearview mirror. She was helping her son wave good-bye with his perfect little brown hand.
The Mourning After
The unraveling began at Iceland’s Seljalandsfoss, an icy waterfall that tumbles 300 feet into a deep, rocky pool. At its base four people in wheelchairs sat staring upward, their matching blue coats standing out against white mist. Their refusal to let a lack of working legs keep them from living life made my skin feel as if it had turned inside out. The iron grip I’d kept on my emotions was weakening, and when both of my boys slipped and fell in the cold, sucking mud, which covered them like pigs in a sty, I snapped.
Iceland is a sorrowful rock of purples, browns, yellows, whites, and greens rising in defiance from a concrete-colored Atlantic Ocean. We hadn’t planned to visit this volcanic island, but Iceland Air had the cheapest tickets to northern Europe, where we were headed next, and layovers were free, so we figured, Why not? When we drove east on the 830-mile Ring Road, my cheek was pressed against the car’s rain-streaked window, and I was sobbing.
For six weeks I had been ignoring a raw, painful place inside, caused by a double tragedy that had happened in Los Angeles in late spring. Within 72 hours two of my friends had died, both of them just 42 years old. Tracey, a mother of three whom I had known for more than 20 years, had an unstoppable breast cancer, and James, a kind, thoughtful colleague at CBS2, died unexpectedly.
The last time I’d seen Tracey was during a layover in Los Angeles on our way back from Africa. She was on her living room couch, licking a morphine lollipop, the dark circles under her eyes the only thing marring the angular beauty of her face. Her postchemo hair was cropped short, like Halle Berry’s. “Not bad, right?” she said when I complimented her on it. “A woman stopped me the other day to ask where I get it done, and I told her Cedars-Sinai!” Tracey’s deep, raucous laugh sounded just like it had back when finding a cute boy and a cold beer had been our biggest concerns. There was everything to say and nothing at all, and so I told her stories of being chased by a hippopotamus in South Africa and floating down the wide Rio Negro in Uruguay.
“Do it all, Rico,” Tracey urged—she had never called me by anything but my last name. I put a hand on her arm, careful of the bruises and needle marks that made the cancer’s progress sickeningly obvious. “I’ll be dead in a month—maybe two—and there is so much left to do.” And then Tracey Firestone Greenberg, who lived only 12 more days, laughed again. “I just don’t have time to die!”
Now, here in Iceland, the tears kept coming as we crossed a steel bridge spanning a dry mile-wide wash. I was so sad and confused that I barely noticed the brilliant slashes of glacier bisecting fields of purple lupines and lava rock. Despite the progress I’d made in reordering my priorities, which had dropped into place in Argentina and Africa like the lost pieces of a puzzle, here I was trying to apply the same white-knuckled, must-succeed philosophy to this journey that I’d used in my career. Why was it so hard to quit something that had outgrown its usefulness? I needed my community of family and friends, but they were thousands of miles away. Intuitively I knew it was time to quit running, but I had been stubbornly ignoring my gut.
“Please stop crying, Mommy,” Griffin begged from the backseat. “I promise I’ll take care of you!” Turning to look at my boys, their faces scared and bewildered, it was clear I’d hit some sort of bottom—but when I reached back to hold their hands, it felt more like a turning point.
“You guys want to go back to Los Angeles to see Grandma and Grandpa?” I asked. They nodded, and Ethan looked over with a hopeful smile. “OK then,” I said, thinking of Tracey and what she would have given to have one more day, one hour—even one minute—with her family. “Let’s wrap up this last trip and go home.”