Taking chances here and there

When I was in middle school, I wanted to be a truck driver. Out on the open road like BJ and the Bear, without a care in the world except my haul. Then, my career plans changed – I wanted to be a van painter, traveling around the US turning people’s vehicles into pure magic through scenes depicting wolves, cougars, stallions, and other majestic creatures. I remember seeing a magazine article that featured someone who actually lived in their van (yes, there were shag carpets and lots of colors inside) and I thought that was the best way to live (apparently I wasn’t too concerned about showering and using the toilet back then). Kudos to my parents who just smiled and nodded as I planned my future – if they ever panicked on the inside, they didn’t show it, nor did they shut down my dreams.

For whatever reason, I really didn’t see these two wishes as a part of me that remains – until I read a blog post from a friend who is currently traveling a good chunk of the world on a motorcycle. She opened her story with “As a kid I wanted to be a truck driver so that I could be always on the road…” And that was it. My early life plans, although different, were about wanting to live freely, not being tied to a particular place. Wanting to experience new places, people, moments. I can even throw in my 4th-grade goal of being an archaeologist into the mix (thank you King Tut exhibit) – a job with travel as a primary focus. Until today, I honestly saw all these ideas as simply trying to figure out what I wanted to be when I grew up, and just figured those jobs were the coolest I could come up with at the time (read more on my thoughts on the career decisions and paths of youth, here). Turns out, truck driver, van painter, and archaeologist have more in common than I realized. And even though I am trying to settle back into the US, the open road keeps calling (photo credit).

van-paint-jobs-wildammo-11

This could have been me.

A recent blog post from the Wall Street Journal helps me in my struggle to understand what draws me away: Away from security and loved ones. Away from establishing myself. Away from, what seems to be on some level, common sense. Here’s a quote from that blog explaining why expats are so drawn to their lives away from “home:” “Across all walks of expat life, many foreigners are united in their hesitation to “go back,” a description that often means more than just going home and implies returning to a previous state.”

Yes! That’s a huge part of it for me. There are many ways in which I’ve changed after traveling for two years. I like those changes. I don’t want to go back to the way I was before I left. But I feel myself slipping into that familiar role, into those same reactions to things I worked hard to shed. It’s all well and good to come back to my favorite cocktail at my favorite bar, or an Al Pastor taco – but coming back to certain aspects of my “previous state” is NOT something to savor. I accept the things that I did when I did them, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to do them again. Yet, in some ways, that is exactly what I am doing. And I’m not sure what to do about it beyond being mindful, noticing, and trying to practice self-compassion.

Another point in this WSJ post is about how living as an expat allows more opportunities to take chances, fail, try something else, and learn from the experience. The environment of another country can be so different that somehow it can “soften fears of failure. Foreigners are sometimes granted unspoken permission to try things that might be discouraged in their home countries. The combination can lead expats to take more risks…the expat life always offers another chance to make it all different…you can make amends with the mistakes you’ve done or miscalculations and start anew.”

By no means did I live without fear when I was overseas; there were experiences I passed up because I was nervous. I didn’t eat ALL the foods (sorry boiled chicken feet, but I couldn’t get passed your clammy texture and doughy beige color), and I didn’t push hard to have a camping experience while overseas (then again, I barely camp in the US). And I found it difficult to travel alone, so I know there were things I didn’t do in New Zealand and Australia that I could have done had I been a little more brave. But there were a lot of things that I DID do that I wouldn’t have done before: I went skydiving. I ventured into – and used – toilets too scary to recount here. I figured out how to do day-to-day stuff that before I would be too nervous to try because I might have screwed it up. I tried anyway. And sometimes I did screw up. But, as the quote above implies, that’s OK to do. In fact, in many ways it’s sort of encouraged. Try, screw up, learn, rinse, repeat.

IMG_0662

Silly tiles distracted me from the icky toilet in Cheonan, Korea.

In theory and in practice, I could take that mindset and apply it in the US. But somehow it’s more difficult. I can’t explain why yet. Yet there are things I want to do and try, but for whatever reason I can’t. It seems weird to say I need the safety of living in a strange place to have the courage to take chances. Maybe it’s because every day there are so many little challenges when you live abroad – a trip to the grocery store is an adventure. Trying to get a key made becomes a story in and of itself. Taking these little chances as part of daily living builds up confidence to take bigger ones.

Now I am in back familiar territory, looking for the unknown in the everyday. The challenge here may just be the search for challenge. Or maybe I can take up van painting after all.

Advertisements

How I Meditate

I’ve been writing, but nothing I want to put out in public for various reasons. Yet, I feel the need to maintain some sort of consistency here. I want to somehow prove to the world and myself that I am still writing. So, for lack of anything else to publish, I am sharing what goes on in my head during and after meditation. I free-write after most of my sittings, which have been too infrequent as of late. After you read this, you will witness why the phrase “practicing meditation” is apropos, and also realize how out of shape I am.

meditation spot large

One of the best meditation spots ever, on the South Island of New Zealand. Just hidden off the main road somewhere, but I don’t remember exactly where.

 

I sat for a full 20 minutes, but peeked at the timer just before 19; then one of the dogs barked at nothing in particular, sending my hear racing for the final minute or so. A sore body and monkey mind dominated. Should I really wait until 65 to live my life the way I want to? How do I want to live my life? I should look at my friend’s website. My middle back is sore – it would be the ultimate black humor if I had lung cancer, too. Will it be too warm to wear tights tonight? My left leg is tensing (again). I hear my back crackle. I have plenty of time to by another car. Waiting is a good idea. I like the print on these curtains.

None of these thoughts last longer than two lines of dialog in my head; none are really worthy of further consideration at that moment, but they ping back and forth, recur throughout my sitting time. Still, it feels good to listen to the chimes of the YouTube video, and allow the random thoughts to flow in and out of my brain. It’s been a few days since I have taken this time; I have had the time, but only after being out with friends and having alcohol. I can’t meditate after drinking, and this makes me wonder about my priorities. Ultimately, I will keep on doing both, but to make either a daily habit eliminates the other. Balance. While clearly one is deemed better than the other, I plan to keep both in my life. I am not, and will never be, perfect. I gain too much joy from too many things. What a lucky person I am.

 

The culture of sport

I first tried to understand cricket in the early 90s, after graduating from college. I was one of the managers of the intramural department at my alma mater, and a bunch of us who worked there decided to figure out how cricket worked. The World Cup was broadcast on ESPN2 at some ungodly hour when all other sports were off the air, so it gained our attention. Beers in hand, we would gather round a small screen in a dorm room (it took me a while to break free from my ties there) and watch. And wonder. We were all sports fans and also referees, familiar with the most obscure rules of soccer, flag football, basketball, and even baseball – cricket’s alleged relative – yet still we could not figure out what the hell was going on. It didn’t stop us from watching though. Every night, we would sit in front of the television for a few hours and excitedly share some theory as to why a player did or didn’t run, or hit the ball, or do something. We never figured out when it was another batter’s or the other team’s turn. Instead, we would watch every night until it was time to sleep. I don’t remember rooting or following specific teams. I don’t remember any specific matchups. That time was about getting together and trying to understand the game. We were determined, but unsuccessful.

Over twenty years later (ACK!), and I am touring New Zealand’s South Island. My time there was particularly lonely, only partially by design. I went there to reflect, but learned that there is only so long I can do that; I am simply not meant to travel alone. By the time I hit Dunedin, I was in need of company and superficial thought. Not knowing a soul, I did what I tend to do when alone on the road; I found a local bar and wandered in. When possible, I try to find a sports bar, because it seems acceptable to grab a beer and watch the game on one’s own. For some reason it seems a lot less pathetic than watching a sitcom rerun by yourself while drinking in a public place.

The sport of choice that night was cricket – The Black Caps were hosting Team India (the Men in Blue) and it was apparent that this was a big matchup. Perfect. I ordered a Kilkenny poured just right and settled in among the many glued to the screen. My understanding of the game had not miraculously improved through maturity, so I was just as lost as I had been in that dorm room. This time, however, I was in a room full of people who had the answers. During breaks I started to ask about the basic rules. My gender and accent pretty much pegged me as a novice and several men seemed to take not just joy, but pride in explaining what the hell was going on. I learned that runs happen when the two players made it from one wicket to the other. Over the barrier meant six runs; hitting it meant four. I knew that one team batted completely before the next team got their turn. I walked back to my hotel room buzzed and happy at watching a sport among sports fans. The game had ended in a tie, which seemed to please the crowd.

About a year later Oman becomes my next destination that includes cricket lessons. My new friends include a Kiwi and a Pakistani, and it’s another World Cup year, so cricket is in the air. I enthusiastically agree to watch matches with them whenever I can, which usually requires getting up at some horribly early hour and stumbling over to the Pakistani’s flat since he was the one who shelled out for a large-screen TV and paid the streaming fee for all the games. We set up camping chairs in his common room to accommodate the six of us (an Italian and two additional Americans make up the complete crew). Our host lessens the pain of the hour by making amazing omelets seasoned with masala and ginger, served with Nescafé’. Dave brings his mosquito racket, dubbed the Mosquito Killing Machine (or MKM-48), as the little bug bastards have a way of inviting themselves as well. On teaching days we stay as long as we can until it’s time for our first classes. On weekends, Dave and I bring bloody Mary fixings and we stay the full 6-8 hours of the match; the Kiwi brings beer. There are no ties in this tournament.

IMG_3323

Pakistani omelet and the Black Caps

 

I ask tons of questions in the beginning as I watch the matches. We witness India, South Africa, and West Indies fall to Pakistan, Australia, and New Zealand. Then the Black Caps take out Pakistan and Oceania comprises the final; the fact that they are co-hosting this tournament adds to the drama. While watching the games I learn the strategies; I can differentiate between good and bad pitches; I begin to understand terms like angler, boundary, Yorker, bail, and over. I can even string the terms together, “He hit a Yorker over the boundary to end the over,” and actually know what I’m talking about. Australia ends up winning the Cup, much to the dismay of my Kiwi friend and the rest of us who cheered the Black Caps on unanimously, especially once Pakistan lost in the semis. Given that both teams lost to Oz during the tournament, I see Australia as the eleven to root against forever.

I am a sports fan. This part of me has provided the opportunity to connect with people in and from different places, and has introduced me to cultural aspects of a place that I wouldn’t have normally witnessed. Very little brings a group of people together the way a sporting event does. The beer helps, too.

Slow down, you move too fast

I took the bus for the first time since coming back to Portland. It made the city feel more like home again. I like the idea of sitting down, staring out the window, and letting someone else deal with the traffic. Yes, it takes more time than driving, but in some ways that’s good. The bus has helped me feel less rushed about things. If I miss one, I need to wait for the next. If it’s late, I wait until it arrives. I have no control over its exact timing. I can plan a schedule, even look up real-time arrivals using TriMet’s website or texting center. But overall, the timing of the bus and when it takes me where I need to go is out of my hands. It’s a freeing sensation that I welcome in my usual tendencies to stress about stuff. Taking the bus is one small step towards learning what I can and can’t control, and my responses to such situations.

IMG_0097

At a nifty bus station in New Zealand. I think Wellington.

 

I also use bus time to do nothing. Sometimes I message friends or listen to NPR, but usually I am just spacing out or people-watching. The pace of the United States is so much faster than anywhere else I have traveled (I have never been to Japan so there may be some places more hectic than my home country) and riding the bus slows me down. In Korea, it was more common to see people drinking their coffee at a table than taking it to go. In the hotter climates of Vietnam, Cambodia, and Oman, things literally come to a stand-still in the middle of the afternoon as shops close in the heat of the sun. In New Zealand and Australia, the cashiers always seem to take the time to really say hello, and no one behind you in line seems to mind. While the times and specifics may vary, each culture seems to have a break built into people’s daily routines. Even Toronto, Canada – a major Western city – didn’t seem as rushed as it does here.

I don’t see America’s fast-paced lifestyle as a good thing, at least not for me. I benefit much more from a slower way of life; I feel better, I’m more creative, and I’m generally happier. I believe I’ve somewhat of an empath (just like Deanna Troi!); if I am surrounded by people who are stressed, I tend to feel the same way. Living a slower life for the last year and a half has really helped me in many ways. I just hope that I am able to recall this way of being and know there are other ways to live, even though I am rooted in a culture that doesn’t seem to value this. Looks like I am going to have to build in my own break times. I’m thinking tea. Pretty much every country sits down for tea except the US.

But for now, there’s the bus. I may be the only person around expressing gratitude when I wait for it.

Nope, not in there, or over here…Where?

I started reading the Quran today because a friend who went back to the USA left it behind, and I am curious. Six pages in and it states that Allah is to be feared, he knows all, and can spot the fakers. I will continue to read, but to be honest, these first impressions aren’t great.

I don’t adhere to a defined religion, and for the most part I do not consider myself very spiritual. Yet there have been times when I have felt “something” – a power/force that I cannot explain very well, but it gives me the chills, expands my heart, and causes me to think “I get it – this is what religion/God/the Spirit is.” So far, I have not felt this way at “home”, only when I have traveled. The first time I recall was when I was at the Notre Dame when I was in college. I was surprised by the feeling, because I never really considered myself Christian, even though I was confirmed at a very liberal Protestant Church. But as I wandered through that building, I remembered understanding why people believed in God. That moment didn’t change me really, but it made me understand the feeling of sensing something powerful. Not an evil or domineering power, but one that I feel throughout my body; it overtakes me, but doesn’t last long. It’s a safe feeling, but not really comforting. It’s a time when I know I am not alone.

About this time last year, I went on an overnight boat to Milford Sound on the South Island of New Zealand as part of a ten-day solo road trip. I was at the height of my grappling with my own meaning of spirituality and life. I was meditating a lot, and connecting with various forms of Buddhism. I was coming to the conclusion that my spirituality – my “ life purpose” philosophy – had something to do with connection, people, and compassion. I think I scribbled down a huge epiphany about it somewhere, but I can’t find it. I know I wrote to a friend about it in a long email, and he responded to it thoughtfully, but I can’t find that email anywhere either. But that feeling I had when I was at Notre Dame? I had it here, looking at this.

Milford Sound large

Meaning thrives here

 

So, I feel this sensation in both nature and in places of worship. For example, I have felt this strong connection and power at a Buddhist temple in Cheonan, Korea.

IMG_1155

I felt power and connection when I walked through this door.

 

And every time I go to the Redwood forest and gaze at the trees that dwarf me.

IMAG0435

Possibly my favorite place on earth. Still wouldn’t want to live here, though.

 

I’m sure I have had this feeling of connection and power at other times in my life, but these are the most recent ones, the ones that I have had over the past two years, since I have been traveling more. But I haven’t had the feeling since being in Oman. I visited Job’s tomb, but felt nothing. I’ve been inside the Grand Mosque which is beautiful, but did not leave me with a sense of belonging or comfort.

IMG_2749

Job (allegedly) lies here

IMG_2194

The Grand Mosque

 

Nor did I experience that sense of awe or connection in Vietnam, despite being in this amazing temple that honored several religions at once – a sentiment I appreciate and resonate with, but for some reason that sense of awe was completely missing. Maybe it was because I was on an official tourist-like tour. Maybe it was because the circus-like colors don’t align with my sense of Spirit.

temple prayers

Beautiful, but not awe-inspiring

 

I also didn’t feel it while on an overnight boat trip staring in Halong Bay. Why did I feel it so strongly in Milford Sound, but not here? Perhaps I wasn’t listening.

IMG_1468

Awe-inspiring, but not quite it…

 

Whatever the case, I am looking for that connection again. Many things are weighing heavy on me right now – sick friends, the uncertainty of my next steps, the start of a new and highly disorganized semester at the college. My search for meaning continues. Or perhaps it’s starting over.