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  • “I have decided that I will cease being a coward.”

    A writer friend of mine once told me that. He'd decided that he'd not been living his life bravely. It was time, he thought, to evolve as a human, to accept chaos, to be kinder to people instead of being exasperated, to try things he might fail at.

    Having witnessed my share of cowardly acts and not wanting to subject others to my cowardice, I resolved to be a better person and follow his example. Hadn't I chosen the easy way out so far, roaming the planet, basking in the glow of adoration for my adventurous lifestyle, fleeing the hooks of those who might offer some claim on my time and emotions?

    Being an un-coward is clearly a noble goal. Less obvious is how to achieve this. Any behavior can be rationalized and while many people do not question their rationalizations, it is also possible to overdo it, to question what is a good decision that is based on instinct. It’s also possible to assume that an act is cowardly, when in fact, it is just sensible.

    An example from ten minutes ago: A South African man that I don't know well called me to ask if I’d like to accompany him to a Sunday market near the Cape Town Waterfront. He seemed like a decent man, about my age, nice to look at, with nothing creepy about him. We’d had a few short but convivial chats.

    My response was an instant no. Why?

    I was on the rebound from a coward who'd feared change, refused to evolve, fancied himself dashing as he roared across Sudan and Uganda on his Yamaha XT Tenere. He'd clicked right off when faced with commitment beyond the superficial fun we'd had for the past few years. He was comfortable in his role, unwilling to consider that there might be more to life than roaming the length of Africa in his sister's leather trousers as a lone wolf, as a slippery romantic figure always a few steps ahead of tradition. Unwilling to see that you can stay true to yourself even if you change the definition of yourself.

    And he'd shown me a mirror. I was no better, racing around the world, by train to Uzbekistan, by freighter to East Timor, by matatu from Cape Town to Cairo.

    Always alone, as if the act of being alone is somehow braver than the act of tolerating another human.

    I'd been emotionally useless since the Yamaha-rider had gone silent in the Ugandan bush after the miscarriage, the smallest disappointment sending me off the edge. If the South African offered to pay for coffee, I’d probably have broken down in tears. In fact, I did after I clicked off my mobile phone, but first I swore aloud several times (before realizing my door was open and sound carries in old Cape Town Victorians).

    But I was leaving town in the morning, boarding the bus to Lesotho. What was the point of going to the Sunday market? Was I being sensible? Or was I every bit the coward I'd left behind in Uganda?

    Instead of enjoying today’s sunshine with the nice man, I sat alone in my room with my laptop. I had a Woolworth's microwavable dinner to nibble on later while packing.

    To turn him down: cowardly or reasonable?

    Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary says this:
    “coward: one who shows disgraceful fear or timidity.”

    “You have such cojones,” I’ve been told. “You are so brave. I would never have the guts to…” (pick one: go alone through Sudan, rent a flat in Uganda, move to Australia to be with a man I barely knew, quit my job, hang out in emergency rooms in Namibia and Uganda, renovate a condo on the Lower East Side etc etc etc.)

    There is nothing brave about getting on buses and airplanes. I’m not trying to belittle the sorts of things I do. I obviously like to think of myself as brave, strong, independent; whatever sounds impressive. I sure don’t feel disgracefully afraid or timid. But what if I’m hiding behind bravado—because god forbid I should try something I suck at, like writing a book or opening myself up to disappointment in another person?

    I could do this, stop being a coward and evolve as a human. Surely, I could.

    But first, I had to pack, to move on. To race across the continent through Lesotho, Botswana, Zambia, Tanzania, Kenya. All the way back to Uganda, before stopping off at home in New York for a month en route to my new job in Kuwait.

    Step one in not being a coward was going to have to be this:

    Don't let the Yamaha-rider off the hook.

    He was going to have to face me.
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