Veterans Day: One question

Today is Veterans Day in the US. As the child of Canadian citizens, this day doesn’t mean a lot to my family. To my knowledge, no one has talked of any military service performed by anyone on my father’s side, though I am sure, generations ago, that happened. On my mother’s side I come from former Soviet heritage – Latvian to be exact. Therefore, my grandfather fought against the Russians and with the Germans in hopes of gaining independence for his country. No, he was not affiliated with the Nazi party, but still, it is difficult to explain to people the complexities of WWII and why different people fought for different sides for different reasons. Therefore, I usually remain quiet on the matter, though I do have a Latvian pin or two that may have adorned his uniform at one point. They are among the very few possessions I have to help me remember him, even though they are far from symbolic of who he was, in my eyes, as I was growing up. So, on a day like today, I struggle to find ways to reflect and honor those who served in the past.


Photo taken at the Hoa Lo Prison (the “Hanoi Hilton”) in Vietnam.

I do have friends who have served our country. Like my grandfather, their stories about their military service are infrequent. I’m not sure if this is because they don’t see that time as a large part of their identity, or if they just prefer not to talk about it. Or, perhaps, they don’t think I or others want to hear about it. But today, their Facebook pages come alive with pictures of them in uniform, or other acknowledgement of their time overseas. But again, I see these friends of mine as a combination of many other characteristics and memories first, with “(former) military” far in the back of my mind.

No matter who I do or don’t know with a military background, millions went overseas to fight wars built on strange, some say false, pretenses. On some level the “why” matters a whole lot, but on another, it doesn’t because, regardless of the reason, many served and then came back changed and alone. Our lack of services – especially those related to mental health – for our Veterans makes me sad for them and the priorities of our country. Over twenty suicide deaths every day; most of these victims never received services from the VA health care system. Too many whys from access to stigmatism to name.

It’s not enough to say “thank you” and then just walk away, or even offer a free breakfast or oil change as some companies choose to do. Even if it’s only for today, the next time you see someone in uniform (or anyone else for that matter), if you are going to say only one thing to them, ask “Are you OK?” Then take a moment to listen to the answer. As simple as that sounds, that one question can go a long way towards supporting someone and even preventing suicide. Much more than a free coffee, anyway.

If you’re not OK (and that’s OK), reach out to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (24/7). Press 1 for the Veterans line. You can also text “Go” to 741-741


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.

Food overseas: Strange yet simple

Food is one of the main things that draws me to travel. I like seeing different ingredients or flat-out different edibles. Over the past year and a half, I have eaten goat, headcheese, clams on pizza (complete with shells), a 1000-year-old duck egg (that was disgusting), and other things that I haven’t been able to identify – and I appreciate the fact that sometimes you are better off not knowing. Many people have had far more outrageous cultural adventures, but my goal hasn’t been to purposefully try to find the weirdest food and eat it. I’m more the type to eat whatever is offered to me, available on the menu (nothing like pointing at something in a language you don’t read and hope for the best), or looks good.

But despite the strangeness of the food often served, what I have noticed is that, more often than not, food is simpler in many of the countries I have been. Presentations are beautiful, but ingredients appear to be fewer and less fussy. For example, here in Oman everyone here eats meat and rice (or chicken and rice – chicken is not considered meat. Seriously. If you say you are a vegetarian, you might get served chicken). What makes it a little more special is that the rice is seasoned with all sorts of things – bay leaf, clove, cardamom, and other spices I can’t identify. So meat and rice becomes a little more interesting. Though it’s still not something I want to eat every day the way the Omanis do. I once asked my class to name their favorite food. That was a mistake. In a class of 30, I got one saying pizza and the rest said either meat and rice or chicken and rice; see, I told you they were two different dishes. Such variety.

grilling meat

Our neighbors are grilling meat and chicken. I am sure there will also be rice.


In Korea, each dish is preceded by several small bowls of pickled things and/or version of kimchi. I love this idea and vow to adopt this concept wherever I go. The notion that appetizers don’t have to be elaborate or even that filling. Just putting out a little nibble that helps welcome guests. In Oman, there are often dates (sometimes flavored with cumin – they’re delicious that way) and/or nuts placed in small pretty bowls.

In Vietnam, they are fond of hot pots – cut up vegetables and meats displayed around a bowl of boiling broth. Dump in the ingredients and let them cook at the table, serve and eat. They also commonly serve various soups. While the ingredients can be many to create that perfect blend of sweet, salt, spice, and sourness, the final dish is a basic broth with some meat, noodles, and colorful herbs. The fact that you are most likely eating this while sitting on plastic chairs barely off the ground emphasizes the simplicity of the meal.

hot pot

Vietnamese hot pot, and low-rider chairs


typical eating in Vietnam

A typical street restaurant in Vietnam. Again, check out the low-rider chairs.

This sort of simple eating reminds me of when I was in Seattle for a couple of weeks, visiting a close friend. We were both in need of healing and had each other. She was just moving into her new home and I had time to kill before I headed out to Toronto. Because her stuff hadn’t arrived yet, her kitchen was sparse in terms of cooking instruments and going out to eat every night was outside of our budget. Instead, we would go to the grocery store, buy hummus and carrots, pick cherry tomatoes out of her new garden, and eat that. A bottle of wine and her amazing view of Lake Washington from her deck made it idyllic. We sat in deck chairs and a cardboard box served as our table. I really believe that the simplicity of the food added to the perfection of those evenings.

Moon and Lake WA

Simple food, a bottle of wine, a close friend, and this view.


I think that in the US we are too focused on making food special through elaboration. Odder ingredients, extra preparation, over-the-top combinations. A burger that uses grilled cheese sandwiches as the bun? Nachos with everything under the sun on top of them? I know it’s not always the case – America’s adoption of sushi shows that we can appreciate the simple. Yet even there the rolls are complicated. No one needs cream cheese with their rice and fish. Or mango. No one.

I could go off on the idea that all of this food that tries to out-do each other is one of the drivers of unhealthy eating, but I won’t. First of all, I am hardly eating healthy here: too much bread. Secondly, what is really striking me is the back-to-basics of food I am experiencing. I am appreciating the emotional comfort of food that is presented to simply, not its health benefits. Or maybe I am just grateful that there is a way that people like me, who are not great cooks, can still offer food to guests without embarrassment.

On one lazy Saturday morning, I puttered into the kitchen and made a plate of hummus, carrots, pickles, and olives. Dave and I ate it and although it was hardly filling, it did stave off my growling stomach. I was guilty of sprinkling some Kashmir chili powder (think paprika-inspired chili powder; it’s what is available here and it’s great) over the canned hummus before serving it, but to me I still presented simple fare that satisfied me both physically and emotionally. Sometimes it really doesn’t take much.


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.


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.