Space: Less is More

I wrote this post almost a month ago, but have been running around getting ready to head to Oman in a couple of days. Now that I have left my house, reduced my possessions to a large suitcase and a carry-on, I feel more relaxed than I have since I came back to the US. Less stuff, less concerns. Just a simplified life which feels wonderful.

First night in the house alone in a really long time. First night alone in a long time, really. It feels fine and all, but it doesn’t feel like home, even though I pay the mortgage. I’m in the downstairs bedroom and what remains of my furniture is arranged haphazardly in the living room, ready to be carted off to the basement. More likely a storage unit where it will remain for a year – or more – while I continue my travels.

My house March 2014

My super fancy storage unit. I moved here in 2001.

This is by far the most space I have experienced in a long time. Dave and I shared two different places, each about 250 square feet for two months at a time. Before that I lived in a one-room cottage at my cousin’s house in Auckland (I guess that was sort of being alone, but not really: an in between state of independence and cohabitation. Before that I shared a 1000 square foot condo with my aunt and uncle. Reviewing this timeline, I believe the last time I slept alone was in Taos; I even shared a hotel room when I went to a conference last October in Dallas.

P1000437

The cottage in Auckland.

The issue of space has been the most difficult for me to adjust to since coming back to the US. It took me a good four times before I was able to marginally cope going to a grocery store. They are so big and there are so many choices. The first time I went in, I felt my heart race, my brain grow confused. Yet I managed to grab a bar of soap, some shampoo and conditioner, along with a loaf of bread and hummus to sustain me – all within 10 minutes. It would have been sooner if I wasn’t paralyzed by the number of hair products.

The second time I went shopping was the exact opposite. I believe it took me almost an hour and a half just to buy some basic things for a 4th of July BBQ. I felt lost going up and down the aisles. I stared at the different kinds of sausages and pretty much froze when it came time to come up with salad fixings.  I don’t even remember the third time. Then I went to Trader Joes and somehow it was semi-OK again.  I know people complain about the tight corners and narrow aisles there so maybe that’s why I fared better.

So now I exist in half of my house and it’s still too big. The upstairs is empty, waiting for the carpet installers to turn this place into a bonafide rental. The bottom half is not even totally useable, with the living-room-as-storage-unit pretty much just a pass through. That leaves me with the tiny bathroom, the bedroom, and the huge kitchen. I used to love it – still do to some extent – but now I see it more as wasteful. I hope the people who live here will appreciate the space and have many hands creating feasts. Me? While I don’t quite long for the kitchen I had in Korea (that was a bit extreme), I am looking forward to my next home being substantially smaller than this one. And, once again, it will be shared. The way homes are meant to be.

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Community and Connection

This post is based on an email I wrote to a friend/colleague back in the US. We belonged to a group called the American Leadership Forum (ALF); this program is designed to create leaders in the community. Our particular faction of ALF was also charged with promoting positive change within Oregon’s juvenile justice system. I’m not sure how well we succeeded in doing that, but I left that program (early, to begin my travels) with a better sense of who I am, what I can be, and what it means to be a part of something.

Thanks for reaching out. It feels odd to be so removed from the ALF community without a sense of closure. My last meeting was when we were at Mark’s church. When it ended, I sort of thought to myself, “well, this is it; I won’t really see this group of people again.” I started to cry and I left quietly. I don’t think people really realized it was my last time. I had mentioned it but didn’t dwell. No one said goodbye. I tried to get back into the church assembly area — the place where Mark would presumably hold his sermons every Sunday (how horrible I don’t even know the right term for that room – but the place were people have service and pray), but it was locked from the outside. So I walked home. I don’t know what I would have done once inside anyway since I don’t think I have prayed since I was a child, and even that was just reciting some rote speech and bedtime.

passion flower

Portland is beautiful in the summer!

Since that day, I have had a couple of email exchanges with another ALFer about the meaning of life (seriously) and had brief communication with a couple of others. Just some email hellos and nice to hear from you. I follow two members on Facebook. I miss you, too.

So far, I have been in Sacramento, Denver & Taos (for just a few, but meaningful days), Toronto (I LOVE that city!) back to Oregon to spend holidays with family and friends, New Zealand, Australia, and now South Korea. Next month Dave and I go off to Vietnam for May and June. This time away has been a truly amazing experience and I am grateful for it. To be honest, I don’t want to go back.

The time away in different settings has allowed me to do so much thinking — the luxurious kind where big thoughts are allowed in and all answers are acceptable. I think about what my career means to me, what makes me happy, and who I am when I am not surrounded by obligation and responsibility (not sure if that is the real me, but it’s certainly a different one!). One topic that keeps coming up for me is community. Living in different places for only a couple of months at a time, I don’t really form friendships, but I do meet people and develop routines that allow me to get to know some people better than others. In Toronto, I played trivia once a week with a group of people who were sincerely fun to be around; we also would karaoke every other week. Conversations never ran deep, but I looked forward to their company; not company in general, but their specific presence.

Cunning Stunts

The trivia/karaoke gang, The Cunning Stunts, celebrating yet another victory!

 

Here in Cheonan, I “know” the lady who owns the coffee shop, a kindergarten teacher who frequents the park I do, a woman who I seem to run into on the street all the time (she goes to the coffee shop, too), the people who work at the corner 7-11, the pub owner, and a woman named Annie; she’s Chinese Korean but lives in South Carolina and is visiting her father. I see these people around and, with the exception of Annie, the language barrier prevents me from doing more than smiling, nodding, and saying hello. But they are still familiar faces and a part of my life now. They won’t be when I leave next month.

Even though I don’t know many, more certainly know me. Dave and I live in a more remote area of Cheonan (pop. 500,000). The downtown is pretty bustling, but out here it is pretty remote. We stand out quite a bit, needless to say, and people know us a lot more than we know them. The bus driver for Dave’s school told Dave that he saw me waiting for the bus the other day. I have no idea who this person is. Once when we went out to dinner, people came up to us and knew which school Dave worked for. I go to a nearby park to exercise daily and a couple of people brave enough to try their English (I know about 30 Korean words) say they know where I live and where Dave works. It’s sort of weird, but understandable. People are curious and it’s not hard to figure out who we are if one were to ask around. Their community is different with us Wegukin (foreigners) in it.

Cheonan at night

Cheonan at night can be happening — if you are downtown

 

I have also spent a lot more time with family (mother’s side in Toronto, father’s side in Auckland) — family that I don’t see that often because of distance and demands. It has been amazing (re)connecting with these people who really were only related to me by blood until I got to spend quality time with them. Thanks to those visits, I have experienced more of where I come from and how that has formed the sort of person I am. I am related to these people as my family now. And, my family members are pretty awesome people so that’s a huge plus :-).

I then closed my letter by saying that I hoped to be at the ALF reunion in July and to stay in touch. I am still pondering what communities I belong to now – especially when one considers the online world – and which ones I will be connected to in the future. Travel before the internet was completely different. Without email and social networking, one was completely separated from friends and family with the exception of letters; and those were only possible if one stayed in a place long enough to receive correspondence. Now, I chat with friends daily, see what others are up to online, and still maintain employment with my university (albeit part time). I have grown closer to some people. I don’t really talk to some others, but I believe that when I am back in the US the bonds will be just as strong. If not, that’s OK; some connections are meant to be more temporary and/or situational. Being away from any sort of true home base has allowed me to consider the meaning of community, friendship, and connection – related but very different concepts. And all beautiful.

I am a City Girl

Ever since at least college, I have been fascinated by small town living. On road trips, I would often wonder what it would be like to live in a place with only a few hundred, maybe a thousand, other people. See the same people, eat at the same diner, drink at the same tavern, do the same thing day in and day out. I romanticized this lifestyle, believing that it was meant for me at some point down the line. I never thought I would stay in a rural community for long, but I thought I wanted to live in a place where nothing happened. I was wrong.

In early September I went to Taos, New Mexico. I needed time to clear my head, think about what I wanted to do with my year off given that my plans at the time had fell through. The two weeks before this trip, I spent time with one of my best friends helping her move into a new home thousands of miles from her old one. She, too, was setting up a new life. We spent the days exploring her new neighborhood bit, but overall we did as little as possible. The moving van didn’t arrive for the first week plus, so there was no furniture; we slept on an air mattress in the middle of her living room floor. We ate simply – carrot sticks, hummus, and cherry tomatoes from the garden left behind from the former tenant – a couple of camping chairs and a cardboard box set up on her deck that overlooked a magnificent lake served as our dining area. There was always a bottle of red wine and conversation about our fears as to what lay ahead of us. So much unknown.

Lake WA

A bottle of wine and this view. Life was unsettled, but good.

It was time for me to go as her new job was about to begin, so I flew to Colorado to reconnect with a childhood friend of mine. My goal was to stay busy during my time of uncertainty. We went camping in the mountains with her husband and a couple of friends. Again, I lived a stripped down lifestyle. We slept in tents, cooked over a campfire, and went off into the woods with a shovel to signal that we weren’t to be followed.

Chaz

Camping is always better with a dog.

The weekend and therefore the camping trip was over. I was going to stay in Denver while the rest went back to their jobs. I had work to do, but not a lot of it. My plan was to work at my friend’s house while she and her husband were away, and then hang out with them when the day was done.

“Have you ever been to Taos?” asked my childhood friend.

“No,” I replied. I think the only time I had ever been to New Mexico was when I drove through it with my brother almost 20 years ago.

“Why don’t you go hang out at my mom’s condo there for a couple of days instead of hanging out here?”

I didn’t like the idea of being alone. Yet I knew it was a good idea. I got into the rental car the next day and drove the 300 miles to get there.

It was Monday evening when I arrived. As a football fan, I sought out the nearest bar that was playing the game. I couldn’t find one. I went to several different places and they all lacked the sporting community I was looking for and frankly assumed was everywhere. I guess Taos was too arty for that. I settled for watching the game with one drunk guy at a small bar. The Eagles won to his satisfaction. I nursed one beer and headed back to the condo.

The next day I took off to visit the wine country, which, to put it mildly, was remote. One of the wineries in particular was really in the middle of nowhere – unpaved roads that were more puddle than solid surface thanks to the recent downpours. As I neared my destination, I became aware that it had been quite a while since I saw a grocery store, never mind a restaurant, gas station, or place to gather other than a church or school. I was venturing out into the very place I envisioned would be my relaxing paradise (minus the diner and tavern).

La Chiripada

I was the only patron so I got to spend uninterrupted time talking to the tasting attendant. She had moved to this part of New Mexico from Denver to “get away from it all.” I asked her how she liked it:

“Well, there’s no internet, no cell phone service, and I have to drive at least 30 minutes to get food or anything to drink other than what I pour. I have to plan my trips carefully so I don’t run out of gas. I really live nowhere now, which I guess is what I asked for. Not sure how much longer I am going to stay.”

Ever since I arrived in Taos I was beginning to reassess my plan of rural living, but her description of her life made it clear to me: I am a city girl. My feelings about wanting to live in some remote area are not tied to a way of living, but to my stress levels; and I was inaccurately equating a stimulating environment with a stressful life. During the four weeks prior to tasting the all-too-sweet New Mexican wines, I had been doing little more than putting in work hours, spending quality time with friends, and reflecting on my life. In this state of mind, the idea of being in a small community was now horrifying to me. I am an extrovert: I thrive on people, diversity, and exploration. I won’t get those things living in a place like Taos, New Mexico, though it sure is beautiful there, and I am very grateful I went there.

office

This was my “office” when I was in Taos. It’s the only place I could get the internet to work reliably.

Taos center

I could stare at buildings this lovely all day.

It’s been months since I left New Mexico and I have been able to, for the most part, maintain my feelings of peace despite – or perhaps because of – my city living (Toronto, Auckland, Cheonan) and visits to other crowded places (hometown Portland, Melbourne, Sydney and Seoul). I have also learned to appreciate and respect routine and the Shambala way of discipline (or at least how I see it – I am still a novice here) as a path to awareness, joy, and authenticity. Perhaps it was these qualities I sought when I longed to wake up daily in a tiny town isolated from the rest of the world. I am happy I know that this way of life is possible among the bustle of city living.