The Great Escape
If you asked my parents about my wanderlust and where it comes from, they would tell you, that before I could walk, they had to place a lock on the outside of my bedroom door, since early mornings in the family home were often spent in an undesired game of hide and seek with their baby.
How or why I would climb out of the cot and shuffle about the house was a constant source of concern, worry, and some amusement. Aside from the nappies, probably not a lot has changed.
I still remember the day when my older siblings went to to school and left me for the first time. I climbed onto the settee in the front room, placed my face and hands against the windowpane, and watched them walk away from the house. I went back to my room, climbing the stairs one carpeted step at a time. I looked across the vast empty space of my bedroom floor and wondered what I was supposed to do? I was use to the stimulation and guidance of older, experienced playmates to fill my day.
So I developed a powerful imagination. I learned to play in worlds old and new, in lands that I created and existed behind the veil of the living room curtains. Where Robin Hood adventured under the tinsel forest of a Christmas tree, and where Arthur and Merlin roamed in the depths of summer lawns.
And then, between the rush, flash, and gaps of adults passing by fast, I noticed another layer of life, simultaneously playing out inside and outside of me. A voice that liked to record, observe and retell kept me company. One that wanted to see and not be seen, to play hide and seek. So with the colour of my imagination set free, I painted words on the canvas inside, sitting on the windowsill of my mind, I observed the world, told it back to myself.
Some years later, my Dad bought me a typewriter. One finger at a time, I replaced plastic soldiers and Lego bricks for the metallic tang and stamp of keys and the sliding paper-roller. Since that day, when my daydreams, stories, and thoughts became ink and paper, I have written and called myself a writer. Yet I was writing as long as I could remember.
To write and explore, what more could there be to life?
When I was sixteen I was expelled from the school 6th form. It happened because I ignored my heart, and did what I thought others wanted of me. (Odd isn’t it, what we fool ourselves into.) Trapped between the shame of my parents (one of which was on the school board!) and the desire to escape, and filled with romantic notions of far away ports and girls with flowers and goodbyes, I left home and joined the Royal Navy.
After four and a half years of sailing around the world, in and out of Conflict Zones, from The Persian Gulf and the Iraqi coast, to the civil war of Sierra Leone, I was exposed to aspects of life most people only read about, or watch with tired eyes in front of T.V sets. I was living in it, before I really had any idea of how the world worked at all.
I was young, I was foolish and I was idealistic and naive. On my 17th birthday I was in Basic Training. On my 18th, sailing off the coast of Iran with missiles locked. On my 19th, I kept watch on the riverbanks of Freetown, as bodies floated by. On my twentieth, my shipmate died in a fall on his eighteenth birthday. Life and death played out and the voice kept an account. In those days I was ready to be killed for an ideology called Nationhood. Not because I was staunchly nationalistic, loved Queen and Country, but because I was adventurous, had a strong desire to help and serve others, and had been conditioned to believe that War is right for the greater good.
I left the Military at twenty-one. Onboard my first ship, the Aircraft Carrier, HMS Illustrious, I served with a guy who had spent his late teens and early twenties backpacking. He gave me the book “The Beach” by Alex Garland, told me stories of run down, hell-hole hostels, in Indian back alleys, of scuba diving on ecstasy in phosphorescence filled nights, in the warm waters of Thailand. My imagination was hooked, though my terms of service meant I had at least three more years left before I could leave.
Two years later, I met someone who changed my life in the most wonderful way. She didn’t have a religion, she didn’t have a philosophy of life. She just loved. I fell in Love as hard as it is possible to fall for anyone. I was serving onboard a Frigate HMS Lancaster, recently returned from the coast of Iraq, conducting anti-piracy patrols, and met her whilst on weekend leave. I had been training to transfer into the Royal Marines. Preparing myself physically and mentally for the challenge. Yet all those plans were dashed and the death knoll for my service in the military was rung as something else, something far more nurturing was awakened inside of me. Filled with love, my heart, mind, soul and being was running on green fields and blue skies, no longer seas. Suddenly everything else was placed into sharp contrast. I couldn’t bear the metallic, pollutant, militated, dictated life I was living, It wouldn’t do. I remember standing in Hamleys Toy shop in London, whilst searching for a gift for her niece, and seeing on the TV screens, the planes that smashed into the Twin Towers as it happened.
Fear and war fever gripped the Nation, whilst I was slipping through its military fist. It was hard to leave. A whole piece of my identity was built into it’s structures, since the day they’d opened the door to a guilt ridden teenager, shaved my hair off and replaced it with a social version of respectability, a badge on a hat, it had become my family. Joining felt like a betrayal to my heart. Leaving felt like a betrayal to everything else. Yet I knew I had paid my dues, it was time for something else. The Military may have offered Travel, but it couldn’t offer what my heart desired.
Backpacking and beyond
Two years later I travelled across China, India, South East Asia, Indonesia, Australia and New Zealand. I travelled through Chile, Brazil, Argentina, Peru and Bolivia. I left the U.K in a climate of fear and hate for anyone and anything that was different, and yet I experienced a world full of kindness and love for strangers with no expectations. I began to see that life was not as it was made out to be.
When I returned to England, I went to University. I studied Creative Writing and English Literature. Discovered I was Dyslexic half way through. Carried on though it felt like I should quit.
To pay my way I set up and ran a Gardening business. By day I cut grass and hedges, and in the classroom I was studying the First World War poets. And between the natural world and the man-made history, I began to see, have my eyes opened to a wider way of seeing the world and how it is run, by who and for the benefit for whom. I remember being filled with anger as I saw through the lies I was raised on. I thought about friends still serving, fighting and dying, for a political and economic status quo to stay in flow to pockets.
Some time passed. My Father passed away unexpectedly. And as my heart smashed into a thousand pieces, I sank into the hell-pit of depression, stronger than any military discipline, louder than sergeants order, stronger than a lovers cry, more resilient than my love for I. The voice kept an account, but it became fragmented, as broken as the mirror of my heart. I lost or left, depending how you look at it, everything. My home, my relationship, my business, some friendships.
Eventually, gripping one bar at a time, I climbed out of the cot of my darkness, unsure my legs could run, I shuffled out into the world again.
When life has become so complex you can’t see the path ahead, placing one foot in front of another is sometimes all that you have left to do. And so following signs laid out in pages of books and whispered in crooks and cracks on graffiti walls, I began to hear my heart, let go of control and surrendered to it all, I started to walk. I started to wake up.
I felt the call of adventure and walked across France and Spain, following the yellow arrows, on the Camino De Santiago Compostela. It was this walk that gave material expression to the journey and change that was accelerating inside of me. A quest, a search for Self, a winding road of wondering why people have to die on the broken path of their fears and dreams. At the end of a two month-long trail, I gazed across the Ocean as though for the first time. I was changed forever and for the best, able to walk, able to run, able to fly and I did, for a while.
After that I was inspired to work with the Homeless and those with Mental Health problems. I moved to London and worked in a High Complex Needs hostel, helping people with Mental health, addictions and social issues. It was the most heartbreaking and fulfilling thing I’ve done in my life. You learn to count small victories whilst facing and confronting massive injustices on a daily basis, and your own humanity daily. Fighting corners for those called no-bodies against Police, Solicitors, Medical Professionals and judges. Giving voice, standing up for people who have none. It’s a thankless job, mostly. Though working with people on the fringe of society is a privilege, but one that comes with at a cost. And I learned on that journey, that redemption can be found in unexpected ways. Helping others and neglecting yourself isn’t going to last a long time.
The voice was now so split into many, that my hands were paralysed in the chorus and I couldn’t write.
Things got good. Things went bad. I left that job though I loved it. Things change and that’s what I’ve had to learn. People wanted to get close, and I kept them on arm’s length of friendship as long as I could. Relationships did happen again. Showed me I was missing the point, ignoring my heart and drowning it out in music filled dark venues and drug fuelled party benders. I got it back on track.
I continue to seek answers. Exploring myself as much as the outside world. I underwent therapy with a Psychosynthesis counsellor every week for a year and a half and it was the greatest journey of my life. I practice Yoga and meditation. I went on an Ayehussaca retreat and amongst many things, it taught me the truth and depth of our connections. I spent ten days in silent meditation on the course of Vipassana, which showed me what suffering is and how we choose it.
I went to Nepal and on climbing to base camp of the mighty mountain, Annapurna. There, sitting in a valley, 4420 metres up, higher than any sky-sc-raper, I learned to love myself again and first. I came home. And all the fragmentation, human, boy, son, brother, boyfriend and Ex, Englishman, blond, blue-eyed, forest fan, european, and a million more titles, expectations and personality separations that domino out from the moment we are born, began to reverse, re-merge, until I was one… for that moment at least, the work goes on. Though now the voice and the hands are back in sync.
And now I am travelling again. Exploring within and without. India called and loved me fiercely. Bali blew me to another level of gratitude and presented possibilities unknown or believed. New Zealand…. well you’ll have to wait and read.
Sometimes the world seems a hopeless place. Sometimes it feels like we’re nothing but a disgrace worthy of extinction. And not in-spite of my own experiences of pain and loss and love too, but because of them, I feel that if anything is true, is that it is a good world with good people in it. If only we can learn to accept and love our shadow too. Then the brighter life will flow, I know it and know you do too.
What has affected me the most, left the deepest impression to date, is not all the countries I’ve visited, the work I’ve done, the nature explored.
It is the people I have met. The world is full of so many incredible people and it is that simple meeting of hearts and minds, that takes place in near spaces, or familiar moments in far away places, that I feel a sense of home and hope the most.
There are a lot of voices in the world with vested interests in making us ill and miserable, no doubt. They depend on making us hate ourselves first and then others. Where are the voices speaking out against Social injustice? Where are the politicians delivering on public opinions? Where are the programs showing the majesty of life? The beauty…It is time to speak up for ourselves, to ourselves. Why do we want to turn away from getting activated for change, if when we feel the outrage?
I remember there are people I knew fighting people I never will for wrong reasons. I remember that we are all only two payslips from Homelessness. I remember there are people suffering in desperation, depression and drug addiction, trapped in a system set up for them to fail in. I remember this world is full of kindness and beauty. I remember because I’ve been writing. And it is my belief that in sharing stories, we can draw back the curtains and challenge the world we are making.
I may still long to play at Robin, fighting for the environmental Hood. I know that I dream of an Arthurian Camelot too. I know it… and want to share it. But when I stop imagining, that’s when the magic happens. The world is already perfect and that’s what I’d like my writing to show too.
Because my experience has been that it is always darkest before the dawn, and life gets better and better, when you let it.
And I am finding my voice, in all its crazy, fragmented-ing glory. Which is why I am now in New Zealand, writing and remembering, confronting, not escaping.
The search continues, though now I know what I am seeking for, know where to find it, at least I think so for now. Life no doubt will show me in time.
So thank you for reading and sharing your time with mine.
Peter Nathaniel Lee.