It’s been a few years since I’ve done a Christmas letter. Perhaps that’s because my last one didn’t go over too well with relatives back home. Perhaps it was just the craziness of my schedule at the end of 2016 as I geared up for my third year in Korea. Perhaps it was just laziness. Yeah, there was a bit of that. But when I think about 2018, I feel a need to do this, if only for myself.
You see, it was a big year. A crucible in every sense — several epic adventures in some far-flung corners paired with the most unimaginable of heartache. It was a year of trials, obstacles, and fear. It was a year of conquering physical ailments, smashing down obstacles, and reaping the benefits of exploration. It was a year of death. A year of love.
The year began with family — I’d flown back from Korea for a family wedding that never happened. It was a whirlwind visit, but seeing my family after nearly a year away was great. Then it was back to work in Pohang, banging out two more months of corralling my little monsters until the end of my teaching contract.
But life threw the most vicious of curve-balls my way and, in February, everything changed.
One of my best friends, a guy I’ve called a brother since grade school, suddenly and unexpectedly passed away. It was like someone had taken my universe and shaken it; I was left reeling in shock and grief. Being overseas at the time, away from family and friends, made the shock even more potent, and I can’t thank my friends in Korea and all around the world enough for their consolation during that time.
I was so tempted to scrap my planned trip to the Caucasus in March. Going on holiday just didn’t feel right, and I wasn’t sure I’d be able to enjoy it. But as soon as I thought of canceling my adventures, I knew the idea was ridiculous. Not from a financial standpoint, but I knew that Cody, the friend who had passed, would’ve slapped me upside the head for even thinking it.
So I went, and spent just over four months exploring the Caucasus. I immersed myself in the capital cities of Tbilisi and Yerevan, eating more food than I should’ve and quaffing wine as the locals do. I even made some very dear friends and hope to return someday.
And the mountains… oh, they were surreal! The Caucasus are a mountain range on the southern border of Russia with multiple peaks in excess of 5,000 meters. I just about hiked my legs off, pushing my just-rehabilitated knee to its limits with my summit of Mount Aragats and a 75-kilometer trek from Shatili to Omalo. I faced my fears of hiking at altitude and successfully summited the highest peak I’ve ever climbed. I came face to face with that fear deep in the Caucasus when I had to drag myself up a mountain pass as the temperature plunged and packed snow blocking the trail threatened to send me sliding down the mountain.
An interlude at home came next — a period of several months where I spent my time enjoying the place where Cody and I had both grown up. I desperately needed the time with friends, old and new, as we grieved the one we’d lost. Cody’s celebration of life was one of the most beautiful, emotionally exhausting days I’ve ever experienced, but it was a necessary step for me to move on from the events of February.
Later that summer, a good friend I met in New Zealand came all the way out from Germany to visit, and we set off on an epic road trip down the coasts of Washington, Oregon, and California. It was a great week and really helped me appreciate the beauty of the area that I’m from. It wasn’t without its hiccups, however, as I managed to acquire some gastritis towards the end, which made the following week a very uncomfortable one.
Southern Africa came next, with my sister, Alisha, and my Korean sister, Se. Compared to my solo trip through the Caucasus, this adventure was a piece of cake, as we had our hands held the entire way. The experience was a fulfillment of so many childhood dreams, including going to one of my dream destinations when we visited Namibia. There’s a reason safaris in Africa are so popular — there really is no other place like it!
Then, for my last adventure of the year, I boarded a plane for Guatemala for five weeks of relaxation, with a little bit of adventure mixed in. I got both, spending three weeks on the shores of Lake Atitlan before heading off to Antigua to climb an erupting volcano. Yeah, that happened. And yes, I told my mother… after I got back 😉 I’m not crazy!
That’s when the second curve-ball of the year hit me, but this time it was much more welcome. You see, I fell in love.
Cody made a habit of journaling every day — a habit which has given those of us left behind the means to hold a piece of him close. A common practice of his was to lay out what he was thankful for every day. These weren’t token things like family, friends, food, etc. These were specific and detailed, and they changed from day to day. Cody focused on the elements and people in his life that made it worth living and was methodical about making sure he cherished them. He practiced rigorous self-examination and consistently worked to improve his way of thinking, advance his progress in the achievement of his dreams, and cultivate the relationships he held most dear. While I haven’t been journaling daily, as he did, I have been actively trying to work some of his ideology into the way I approach my life. Being mindful of the things I have to be thankful for. Looking for ways to improve myself. Not letting opportunities pass.
So when I met Luz in Antigua, Guatemala and realized what was happening between us, I didn’t want to toe the line. I wanted to seize the moment and get swept away in its current. Improbably, unimaginably, she felt the same, and we both dove headlong into that river. I don’t know what lies ahead for us, but I can’t wait to see what it is!
So in 2018, as I prepare to spend another Christmas with family and friends, I’m going to try and focus on the positives and think about what I’m thankful for. I’m thankful more than ever for my health, that lets me be as active as I like. I’m thankful for the jobs I’ve been able to get, which have provided me with the money necessary to go on these trips that I love. I’m thankful for friends the world over who love me like a brother or a son, and who don’t mind that years often go by between our reunions. I’m thankful for a family that supports me and always welcomes me home. I’m thankful for my two little nieces (not by blood, aunties, don’t worry!) who remind me that hope is still alive and that the world is still a beautiful place just waiting to be explored. And now, I’m thankful for the love that I’ve found and the sense of bliss it infuses me with.
No matter how bitter life gets, no matter how much is taken away from me, I hope I can always find the strength and clarity to be thankful — just like Cody taught me.
Be mindful this holiday season, when you’re spending time with your family and friends. Be mindful of the fleeting nature of all of these things we have. Don’t leave things unsaid or opportunities unseized. Say, “I love you.” Buy that plane ticket. Climb that mountain. Ask for that kiss 😉 Because life does not wait for you to experience it. It is a wild, raging river, and we must cast ourselves into it with abandon to seize hold of all that it offers.
Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays, everyone. Thanks for reading!