An Ode to Anthony Bourdain
As the holidays have provided a much-needed break from the madness of work and life, I’m finally putting together a post on this past summer’s trip to London. In doing so, I found a passage I had written in my journal about the late great Anthony Bourdain, whose crossing-over was still fresh at the time of my travel, and which is relevant to much of my year-end ruminations. I added some recent thoughts, and wanted to share this as we all prepare to transition from the holiday madness to the quiet reflection of midwinter. The new year is about new beginnings, yes — but it’s also a good opportunity to slow down, go inward and see what we can learn from the past 12 months.
I’ve been thinking about Anthony Bourdain a lot on this trip. For obvious reasons: because he just passed, and because I’m traveling, and because I’m reading his book. But also because something about his soul, or what we knew of it, has been calling out to me.
For those of us who are called to wander, who are compelled to traverse to Parts Unknown; who find their souls’ truest expressions in the pan and on the page; who find the deepest meaning and sincerest reflection of life in conversation around the table with dear friends or like-minded strangers — Anthony Bourdain was the guru. If the one who seemed to have manifested his true life’s calling, who seemed to have all the answers, who saw things for how they were, took his own life, what does that mean for the rest of us? The masters too often leave us without instructions.
I’ve been trying to consciously honor and channel and walk with his memory and spirit here in London, and I dare say I’ve felt his ghost a few times. Something about his tortured spirit in the face of such a rich existence, full to the brim of so many of the most crucial ingredients for what we call happiness, a life that even he himself seemed in awe of being blessed with, has given me a haunting feeling I can’t quite put my finger on. It feels bigger than “I guess success/fame/fortune doesn’t buy happiness,” as so many have said since he took his own life.
It's something about the powerful ability he had to connect people of any culture, any walk of life, anywhere around the globe — while simultaneously cutting through all the bullshit, distilling everyone and everything to its purest essence, that makes his loss so palpable and his leaving so painful. He seemed to see everything for what it really was. He knew when, where and with whom that five-star, 10-course meal was worth it, and when the corner food stand with some once-living thing on a stick that could be had for a fistful of coins was the better choice. He could identify how the heart and soul of a nation was expressed through its cuisine and dining practices.
He was fearless and bold when it came to food, drink, exploration, adventure and conversation. He wasn’t afraid to call someone out; bite the head off an animal and drink its blood; wash wine down with moonshine; trek through the jungle; throw himself into a foreign land without any prior knowledge; or walk through a war zone if the situation called for it.
Maybe that, in fact, is what got him in the end. Seeing too much. Knowing too much. Cutting through it all too many times. Too much shadow and not enough light.
And I know mental illness throws a wrench in the whole mix.
Maybe the one part he hadn’t figured out was how to build the same kind of connections at home that he made abroad — how if you are a wanderer, you must have something stable to return to. Not all who wander are lost. But sometimes they are.
Maybe he always fought the all-too-familiar hotel-room dread, the aching loneliness that creeps in when the day’s adventures are done and it’s time to retire to your single-serving home. Maybe he finally realized that the voices, the emptiness, the pain of whatever love he still lacked or didn’t know how to hold was always going to be there, lurking in the dark behind the key-card swipe; ready to ambush at the ka-chunk of that triple-locked door; hiding in the minibar; whispering over the drone of the free HBO.
Maybe he simply had given everything to the exploration, to the adventure, to the throwing oneself outside — and had nothing left to invest in the within, the introspection, the soul work, the building a base of loved ones who can support and share and process. I know that I started my mission by throwing myself outside on the roof at 3 a.m. every day. Now I stay in, and sit in the silence, and breathe the smoke, and go deeper; I travel ever-inward.
Maybe he wasn’t able to muster the bald-faced bravery in baring his soul, in enduring the daily grind of being a human with a family, that he gave to his work and his soul mission. Maybe it was all just too much, and it broke him in the end.
This work of street art comes to mind, which I saw on the way back to the Airbnb after dinner and late-night drinks with the childhood friend I came to London to see, along with a few members of the little family she’s built abroad. Somehow it seemed appropriate that I was looking at this message while standing next to both a person with whom I had built a lifelong bond, and one with whom I'd had a very intense and very fleeting experience with; the stuff that travel stories are made of.
On my last trip across the pond, he and I had spent one sweaty, chattering, drug-fueled dawn in an explosion of pain and loss and mutual isolation, spilling our guts and feelings and loneliness all over each other, entering into a weird vortex of space and time where everything was significant, and nothing was remembered. It was a terrible and beautiful piece of the human experience. After all, whether we are best friends or strangers meeting in a coincidence of circumstance and geography, we are all in pursuit of the same thing:
At the end of the day, maybe that’s the lesson here — that you can build temporary connections, sure, but they will always leave you longing for the ones that last. Traverse borders, reach out to strangers, have new experiences, go new places, gather a ragtag crew around a table — but you must also have a hearth to tend. You need to come back to the people who already know your story, your struggles, your strengths. Who want that favorite dish of yours, and will always bring over your favorite bottles. Who always have your back. Who can be your traveling companions on the grand cosmic journey.
It saddens me that Bourdain didn’t have that, or couldn’t keep it, whatever the case. So maybe we all can learn from his loss. Go out, say yes, be bold, have grand adventures, meet people, see things, make art, experience beauty, live and love, dance and sing, eat and cook, drink and laugh — but always come back to yourself and your community.
Tend your hearth, both literally and figuratively: the hearth of your heart. Keep your soul fire burning. Surround it with those you love. Be as daring and bold and true and open and honest and enthusiastic in those relationships as you are in your adventures. But more than anything, be able to come home to yourself. Know your true essence, and live in the most real expression of who you are. Trust your instinct and your intuition.
Just be you. And you will never be alone. The arms of the Universe will always be holding you tight; the rainbow bridge will rise to meet your feet; the wind will be forever at your back; and your guides and gods and ancestors will stand by your side.
Rest in peace, Anthony. And may the rest of us mortals adore and endure.