Years ago, at a point when I was floundering in my unhappiness and delaying my happiness at every turn, I was thrown off-guard when a friend of mine said, “Hakan, heaven is right here!” Such a very different view compared to what I’d been taught.
As a good student in my religion class, here’s the way it was supposed to go, as I remembered it: Two interrogator angels would appear before you, ask you who you believed in and who your prophet was, followed by a bunch of other questions the exact nature of which was never quite explained.
The decision would then be made on the basis of your answers as to whether or not you had earned your way into heaven. As a child, I had taken this information deeply to heart, never to question it afterwards. That is, up until my friend made her remark: “Heaven is right here…”
I began to think about what she meant. Hardly could it be said that I was happy with my life. A graduate of one of the best schools and having worked at Turkey’s most prestigious companies, I was “a success.” I had a car and a house in a well-to-do district of Istanbul. Yet, despite being “successful,” this did not change the fact that I was nowhere near heaven on earth.
A poem came to my attention during the first year of university. In this poem titled “Instants,” an 85-year old man on his death bed was bemoaning his past. “If I were starting life all over again, I would eat more ice cream and fewer beans. I wouldn’t take an umbrella everywhere I went,” he lamented. Extremely impressed with the poem at the time, I posted it up on my wall in my dorm room—so that it would remind me to enjoy life!
It seems matters grew complicated as I entered the business world and started earning money. “Run, run non-stop. Rise through the ranks, earn money, save money, invest money…You’ll have plenty of time to live when you retire.” I’m not going to argue the point of whether these injunctions are right or wrong. The point is that I had begun to run so fast that the people around me were no better than a blur. Not to mention there was nowhere in particular I wanted to get to, other than that peaceful life beyond retirement.
“Heaven is right here” was one of the first sentences that began to wake me up.
The question at this point was now that I couldn’t care less about the peaceful life I’d hoped to live after retirement, what DID I want? I sat down and made a brief list:
- To live in a brightly colored house which I had painted myself
- To go on nature hikes
- To travel to Tibet
- To learn to dive headfirst into the sea
- To finish all my unfinished projects which had been tormenting me
- To be healthier
As I was making this list, I thought of something: After their first two questions, the interrogating angels were going to ask me whether I had done the things I’d dreamed of doing. “Hakan, have you ever gone on any nature hikes? Have you ever dived into the sea?” As I answered each of these questions with a yes, the interrogating angels would tick off the list in their hands. The more checks I got in this world, the closer I would get to heaven on earth and heaven in the world beyond.
I decided to begin by painting the house. There was just one problem: I hadn’t so much as held a paint brush in my life, so how was I going to paint an entire house? Since I had succeeded at everything I had set out to do in life thus far, I could do this too. I consulted with friends who had painted their own homes before and got tips from them. As a child of the Internet age, I even read articles about it from the Internet. Then I went and bought a paint bucket and paint brushes and made use of paint cards to have the colors mixed to produce the colors I’d dreamed of. I covered the floor of a room with a tarpaulin and applied the first stroke of paint with a friend whose ability in this department I trusted.
Within a few weeks, I had the bedroom that I had imagined. It had taken this long, naturally, because I had done the painting during my spare time off from work and because I had made progress through trial and error. In the end, as I appraised my work, I was in a room that I took pleasure from being in. What’s more is that having heard that “Hakan is painting his house,” friends of mine who I hadn’t seen in ages began to drop by out of curiosity. We chatted and we painted together and turned the whole business into a one long party. I had so much fun! Inspired by Feng Shui, I believed that by adding color to my house, I would add color to my life, and already this had begun to be the case.
I was tending to the items on my list step by step. I went to Yalova for a group walk on a cold winter day with a friend. On this trip, there was a woman by the name of Şebnem who clearly was different from the rest of us and who appeared to be a few years older than me who I wanted to talk with. As she walked on up ahead and I in the back, I thought about how I could approach her. She seemed to sense me looking at her and, turning towards me, asked, “What, do I have a dirt stain on my back?” I was stunned. She must have seen and heard me without looking, I thought, attributing wisdom to her. I stepped up alongside her, and though I was a talker at the time, I let her do all the talking. Besides, she somehow managed to answer all the questions that I had on my mind. An actress in a number of TV series and a world traveller, she was unlike anyone else I’d met before.
During one of the rare moments when I did speak, I said, “I would like to go to Tibet too, but there’s no way I can get 15 days off.” She asked me if I had ever tried. I hadn’t; I had been so certain that I wouldn’t be able to get 15 days off that I hadn’t even thought about asking. I decided to give it a try. The thing was, if I got my vacation, that would mean no vacation and no time by the sea come summer. She said that I could go to seaside in the area on weekends, and thus, I could have a vacation by getting out of the city. I had never seen things in this way before.
So why Tibet? For some reason, going to Tibet back then was a very popular thing to do. Books of Dalai Lama were being published left and right and a ton of movies were being shot about Tibet. What appealed to me was completely something else, however. As a child I had read a comic book in which an aged and unhappy Western man sets off in search of the truth and finds himself in Tibet. In a valley he discovers there, he meets people who say they are 150 years old, and yet appear no older than 35. He spends a few years with them and grows decades younger before returning to his country. Years later, the same story turned up before me as Tibet’s book, The Fountain of Youth. This book was also about a man who goes to Tibet and also about how he grows decades younger, in this case as a result of a series of exercises, nutrition and thinking techniques he learns in a monastery. Most likely, Tibet was calling me through my subconscious. “Come Hakan! Start your new life from here!”
I asked permission for 15 days of vacation from a department for which such a thing had been unheard of until then. At first they said, “We’ll see.” A few weeks later I asked again. I was met with silence. I asked for the third time and—out of a desire to be done with my pestering perhaps, who knows—they granted me my vacation. After arranging my tour of Tibet, I realized that I had indicated the wrong dates at work for my vacation. The actual dates fell on a period when business was busiest, and when there was no way I could have asked for even a day of vacation, much less 15! So was I right back where I started after everything had seemed to be going so well? I mustered all the courage I had and explained the situation to them. And you know what happened? Since I had requested permission for my leave beforehand, my right to the leave remained intact and the new dates of my leave were approved. I was going to Tibet! For 15 days and at the company’s busiest time of the year.
One other item on my list was to be able to dive headfirst into the sea. Being able to dive headfirst always seemed to me to be a symbol of great manliness. I had felt great envy years ago when a friend of mine showed me a picture of himself suspended in air as he dove headfirst from the edge of a 30-meter-high cliff. I didn’t believe that I could ever do such a thing. I had tried, only to give up after a few times with the discomfort of getting water lodged in my ears.
The time had finally come. It was necessary to take the steps to becoming the Hakan I dreamed of and to create my own paradise. I decided I would go to the beaches of Kilyos and the Princess Islands every weekend once summer arrived.
Once again following some Internet search, recommendations from knowledgeable friends, and in the company of a friend, I was in Kilyos. We had a delicious breakfast by the sea in the morning, the weather so crisp. We swam in the sea and sunbathed. The truth is, I was saving up my courage to dive by first playing around a bit. A long time went by, and then I spotted a raft off in the distance in the water. I climbed on top of it. The raft was so close to the water that my feet seemed to be at the same level as the sea, as though I would be jumping into the sea from its surface. It was harder than I’d thought it would be. For a while, I watched others who were diving to see how they were doing it. All I needed to do was to let myself drop into the sea. It was very deep down below—nearly as deep as three Hakans. In other words, it was impossible for me to hit the floor. Even so, I was afraid of hitting my head, water getting caught in my ear, or harming myself physically in some way, as though I were diving from meters high!
For a time that seemed like minutes to me, though it may have only been seconds, I waited at the edge of the raft. I was unable to let myself drop into the sea. I came to hearing a man say, “What are you thinking about, man? Come on, jump already!” I let myself go, letting myself drop into the sea. At that moment—no longer than a second perhaps of soaring through the air—the sensation of the bubbles brushing my body as I landed in the water, and amid each of these moments feeling as though I was flying…followed by the euphoria of my success and a child-like delight…all at once…what I had feared would happen hadn’t happened at all.
Wondering whether my success could have been just a coincidence, I got out of the water and jumped again, my pleasure in jumping increasing with every successive jump. Just like a kid, I jumped into the sea over and over that day.
Following that week, I would go to the seashore with friends every weekend with the excuse to practice diving headfirst into the sea. On those occasions we’d go to Thrace; we would take walks in the verdant forests, chase storks across sunflower fields, and in the evenings enjoy dining on fish while looking out at the sea.
One weekend I went with a friend of mine to the house she and her family had rented on one of the Princess Islands. The instant we got off the ferry, we were hit by a rain shower that came as a complete surprise, given that summer rains were something of a novelty for us. As everybody around us began to scuttle about in search of shelter, we continued walking as though it wasn’t raining, paying no attention to those who looked at us in amazement. Once the waters streaming down from the hills began to flow above the level of our ankles, we took off our shoes and walked barefoot in the rain almost clear across to the other side of the island.
Though walking in the rain hadn’t been one of the items on my list, I’m willing to bet I’d now earned another “check.” My life began to grow more joyful with every step I took towards an unfamiliar world.
I took my trip to Tibet in the fall. At some point while I was there, I had a laughing fit, the likes of which I hadn’t had since childhood. I laughed so hard my stomach ached. I laughed so hard I couldn’t stop. It was as if each shout of laughter I hadn’t laughed in years past was breaking out one by one.
I believe those shouts of laughter were the keys that opened the doors of heaven for me. I had changed the direction of my life. I now had a great many things in my life I was grateful for instead of regrets, and by now I knew how to keep them coming. As for Şebnem, the woman I had met on the tour that day, I never saw her again. Nor did we keep in touch. It was as though she had come into my life and touched it with a magic wand by asking, “Did you ever try?” And then she was gone.
If I could live again my life,
In the next – I’ll try,
– to make more mistakes,
I won’t try to be so perfect,
I’ll be more relaxed,
I’ll be more full – than I am now,
In fact, I’ll take fewer things seriously,
I’ll be less hygienic,
I’ll take more risks,
I’ll take more trips,
I’ll watch more sunsets,
I’ll climb more mountains,
I’ll swim more rivers,
I’ll go to more places – I’ve never been,
I’ll eat more ice creams and less (lime) beans,
I’ll have more real problems – and less imaginary ones,
I was one of those people who live
prudent and prolific lives –
each minute of his life,
Of course that I had moments of joy – but,
if I could go back I’ll try to have only good moments,
If you don’t know – that’s what life is made of,
Don’t lose the now!
I was one of those who never goes anywhere
without a thermometer,
without a hot-water bottle,
and without an umbrella and without a parachute,
If I could live again – I will travel light,
If I could live again – I’ll try to work bare feet
at the beginning of spring till the end of autumn,
I’ll ride more carts,
I’ll watch more sunrises and play with more children,
If I have the life to live – but now I am 85,
– and I know that I am dying …
—Jorge Luis Borges