Five things that make me smile

Things are grim out there in the world. The news is full of violence. The sky is full of wind and rain. I’m not really up to writing, as my brain is heavy and slow. So, to cheer myself up, I decided to look through some pictures — to lighten up my inside and outside. Here are five pictures of things that make me smile.

  1. A beer-inspired R2D2 sticker at a pinball arcade/bar in Seattle, WA.

Rainier beer R2D2!

2.  A park full of penises (Haesindang Park) in South Korea


Phalluses as far as the eye can see!



We picked up Dave’s NSUs (yes, he has both of these) in Roseburg, OR

…and this llama who came to visit us while we were picking up Dave’s NSUs


Hello there!

Street art


Awesomeness in Toronto, Ontario

I am grateful that it was super easy for me to come up with five things — this list could go on and on, really. Even on a day like today, I can find lots of things that will brighten my mood. I am very grateful for this ability, and the fact that I have so many memories that warm my heart. I know many suggest writing in a gratitude journal (it’s scientifically proven to improve your health!), and this is a similar exercise. I wonder: What would happen to our hearts if, every day, we named five things that make us smile?





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).


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.


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.

Always here, always now

To be able to be unhurried when hurried;
To be able not to slack off when relaxed;
To be able not to be frightened
And at a loss for what to do,
When frightened and at a loss;
This is the learning that returns us
To our natural state and transforms our lives.
[Liu Wemin, 16th Century]

Found while reading  dhamma footsteps 

I see these words as a great guide as I move forward in my new job, in my resettlement into Portland. I am wary that I will, indeed, slip back into the hurried state that I was accustomed to, that I witness every day in others. Taking time to stretch, walk, write, connect – these are important to me. The balance of relaxation with obligation is an ideal I will continue to strive towards. I felt this most when I lived in Toronto and Cheonan; working hard, yet still able to appreciate my surroundings and where life was taking me.


Taking a walk break in Toronto

In these two places I found a welcoming balance of routine and novelty; of unhurried and mandates; of relaxation and production. These were places where I went outside every day and experienced the community mindfully. Sometimes I threw myself into the bustle of humanity, while other times I would find a more secluded place and just sit. Refreshed, I would return to my computer and produce, create, or do whatever was needed. Rarely did I feel like I had to do something; I looked forward to the tasks that lay in front of me.


A park in Cheonan, South Korea. An escape from the large buildings in the background.


During these times, in these places, I was able to live in the experience of now. Appreciate that every moment is now without that meaning pressure, an impending deadline. Now simply is, and always will, be.

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.


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.


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.


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.


Job (allegedly) lies here


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.


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.