Istanbul Rising: It’s not just about the easy moments

In her latest installment in the Istanbul Rising series, Meghan MacIver delves into the tenuous fragility of the human bonds that connect us to each other, and keep us apart…

Today, I felt lonely as I crossed the frigid waters of the Bosphorous; the cold air stung my face and my eyes watered. I was observing how the smoky air seemed to dissolve into the water – the mighty bridge was almost lost in a million shades of blue murkiness. How beautiful, I thought, and immediately found myself wanting to share the moment, and then felt sadness to realize I was alone. This is not the first time I have felt overwhelmed by the beauty of Istanbul. Sometimes, the sun setting over the peaks of the minarets elicits a grace so fierce that I have to squint in the face of it. I reached for my phone, but then held back. Breathe, Meghan, a small voice said in the back of my head as my thumb traced the contour of my screen, the thought of snapping a quick shot filling my mind. Everything was so beautiful and sorrowful all at once I thought that my heart might break right there in that moment, when suddenly the spell was broken. We were approaching the shore and people were softly pushing past me but before I could take my photo or catch my breath, the moment was gone. I got off the boat feeling alone and confused, as I scolded myself for failing to properly capture the moment on any level.

There is something about loneliness and Istanbul that seem to go hand in hand. Perhaps it is something about the age of the city. Rubbing up against a crumbling history can be disconcerting at times: at first, the decaying Ottoman buildings can appear charming. But over time, they begin to serve as a reminder of what was great before but what was allowed to fall into ruin. What happened to the people who used to live there, I have begun to wonder, and why did they let this happen to their home? If spirits live in Istanbul, surely they are as lonely as everyone else here at having to roam wild amongst the other abandoned treasures instead of being tucked safely into the hearts and minds of the inhabitants of this city.

Feeling alone is my hardest struggle, more than conflict or facing the unknown. I have a fond memory of a miserable day in the winter here years ago and running into a friend on the street. Without even chatting, we folded into each other and headed for the closest tea house, played backgammon all day and stamped our feet to keep them from getting too cold.

“Loneliness will kill you, you know,” my friend said at one point, and I smiled back at him.

We had kept it at bay that day, but how often will it come back to visit us? We all feel lonely, at some time or another. My Turkish friends readily talk about it (as it seems so common here), and one once offered that loneliness is part of our human condition. She believed that we are all separated from the oneness we experience in another realm, and in this life we are forever searching for each other, like in that game from childhood – blindfolded, stumbling, arms stretched out desperately seeking the touch of another person. Loneliness is raw as it is tender, and scary as hell because it recognizes who we are and where we’re trying to get to – it shines the light on that struggle.

Longing is familiar territory in this city. There is a sense of an imperfect history, and a golden future that’s like a point on the horizon that seems perpetually out of reach. Istanbul has always made me feel my loneliness more, in a city that seems lonely, too – forever mysterious and hard to understand. But it’s also made me understand it more too. How universal it is, how eternal and essential. The nice thing about it here, in a city of higher emotional awareness, is that especially on these colder, more spiteful days of darkness and flecks of hail shooting down from the sky, people act a bit more gently with each other. It’s not about eliminating loneliness; it’s just about recognizing it in others and acknowledging it in ourselves. It’s a sensitive place to be. You have to listen for how the waiter puts on a nicer, softer piece of music to accompany your lunch, you have to notice the stranger that makes eye contact with you as you pass on the street. You have to a bit more careful, make a bit more conversation, smile a bit more, and try a bit harder – even when you feel a bit tired.  In these more subtle encounters, you may feel the tug of heaviness at your own heart while simultaneously feeling grateful for these gentle acquiesces. Life is made up of all sorts of moments, and Istanbul is the kind of place that doesn’t just give you the easy ones. So if you ever plan to come for a visit, make sure you’re prepared for everything, including not finding what you’re looking for, but a longing to come back and try again anyway.

—Meghan

Meg in AlcoveMeghan MacIver is a Canadian writer and Kundalini pre-natal yoga instructor who lives in Istanbul. She has had a love affair with the city for nearly 14 years, and she is deeply excited about the opportunity to finally write about it in a spiritual way. When she is not writing or teaching yoga, she can be found exploring the city and contemplating life’s little intricacies. Her other work has been published in The National Post, CBC, RNW and ROOM magazine, amongst others.

All photos courtesy of Meghan MacIver.

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