New Years’ Resolution… or Every Day Revolution?

Janus, the Roman god with two faces, was able to look into the past as well as ahead to the future.  He’s the reason why the first month of our calendar year, January, is named the way it is.  January marks the closing of the last year and the start of the new one – in this case, 2014.  Like the Ancient Romans, the Babylonians, and numerous religious groups around the world have for thousands of years, you can bet loads of people are making “New Year’s Resolutions” to honor this temporal transition to January.  But, while Janus was omniscient and powerful, wasn’t he also just an old, obsolete, two-faced guy?

The truth is, making a “New Year’s Resolution” is a passé routine for spineless conformists – and it can bring the two-facedness out of people that lack enduring willpower.  “But it’s self-improvement!”, you say?  Tell me how “self-improved” you are by the time spring comes and you need Lent – or your Lent-practicing Christian peers – to remind you of self-discipline and how you didn’t lose twenty pounds but in fact gained them.  But that’s just it – all of these “self-disciplinary” routines are just diluted remnants of past cultures where sacrificing first-born children was your socially acceptable ticket to heaven.  In other words, “New Year’s Resolutions” hundreds to thousands of years ago were not much different than Lenten traditions: sacrifice and self-improvement for the sake of Christianity.  So today… where does that leave us today in a very diverse America?

If only the devout spiritualists of those bygone times could observe the things that motivate people in modern American society.  Did you know the top resolutions in recent years include losing weight, exercising, eating healthier, drinking less alcohol, and better managing money?  In a snapshot perspective, these resolutions make America seem gluttonous, lazy, alcoholic, and greedy.  Oh – actually that seems pretty accurate.  To those of you who actually partake in making resolutions as a way of internal self-improvement, kudos to you for adhering to the original tradition as closely as possible.

Don’t get me wrong – I understand that some of us eat too much, exercise too little, and the like… but isn’t that something you should be self-improving constantly?  Even internal self-improvement: Does it really take the flip of the Gregorian calendar – an artificial point in time along the elliptical path the Earth follows around the Sun, a revolution – for you to say, ‘Oh, gee, I should get serious about this now!’ ? Because, if that’s how you think, you’re not going to resolve anything.  To really improve a problem, there is no “I’ll start on that day” because then you can always just say “I’ll start tomorrow…the next tomorrow”.  It should just be, “I need to fix this…so I’m going to fix it.  Now.”  Forget a New Year’s Resolution – that is part of an Every Day Revolution.

So, because I choose neither to sacrifice babies to an ancient god nor to put any real faith in labeling time through our calendar system (which, by the way, vastly differs between cultures), I am not going to be making neo-traditional New Year’s resolutions.  Instead, I’m going to resolve – as I do every day, June 1st or January 1st – to keep doing what I do.  And what do I do?  I land myself in the middle of third-world countries with too little cash, tour new cities by brewery, kick back with Sylvia Plath and my cats and no friends because I have none, and tell myself that one day I will save the world with engineering…as soon as I learn how to engineer.

Happy It’s-Just-Another-Day (but drink champagne and eat Hoppin’ John with collard greens anyway)!

Talking to Strangers.

I would say it took until I was about 20 to realize that all those “Don’t talk to strangers!” warnings mama gives you start to wear off and instead become a crutch if you continue to heed them.

I’m definitely a quiet person. I sit back and observe. Part of that is me naturally lacking confidence, the other part is just me fearing bad impressions or the misinterpretation of a situation. But I’m also a person who hates idleness and who wants to learn and grow now that all my physical growing has ended. It’s hard to just sit in a room if everyone’s just sitting in that room and no one is speaking. I start to form burning urges to say something – anything – that would take off the strain of silence. But lately I’ve been getting those urges in times that aren’t silent, in times that are totally foreign and uncomfortable. It sometimes frightens me, this uncontrolled adrenaline rush of opening my mouth and just saying something.

I have thus become a person not afraid to talk to strangers. Correction: I am afraid, but I tremble with intimidation and do it anyway. What’s more is this is something I have chosen to become. Talking to strangers as a child can be a dangerous sport. I don’t just mean that because of the crazy people out there today who offer kids candy and drive white vans. It can be dangerous because, as a child, you’re too easily malleable and your parents need to have some control over who puts ideas into your head before you’re able to make your own experienced judgments. I say experienced and not educated because I’ve come to realize that so much more of life is learned by experience and not in a classroom. In fact, the best parts of life are learned that way. But when you grow up enough that you’re starting to get an idea of who you are and what questions to ask, you start to realize that your learning experience – with a mental filter in hand – comes much more rapidly when you engage with a complete stranger.

Just this past month, I started realizing how many strangers I had befriended by simply going to the same restaurant during the same times. Some of them are guests, some of them are employees, and some of them I still don’t know their names – but I know their stories. These befriended strangers made me realize how we can so subconsciously bond with people who may not have that much in common with us. It got me thinking to actively making friends when I go places, and so I began engaging with random people more regularly and became enthralled with the results.

Then, finally, it occurred to me: How much of my life has changed because of these strangers?

That’s when I realized how much solo traveling has opened my mind, thanks to talking with strangers. Imagine traveling the world alone – as I have this last year – and not daring to talk with a soul you don’t know. I would have been so lonely. But would I had chosen to talk to those people otherwise? Outside of that situation? I can guarantee you No. Most of those conversations I had weren’t even in English. But just because I’m bilingual doesn’t mean I didn’t have conversations outside of any of my languages, because I did. I spoke with a woman on a train from Hungary who knew nothing but German. She had taken a train all the way to Budapest to save a rescue dog and she asked me – the American stranger! – to watch her things as she walked the dog down the night train and doted on his lingering illnesses.

If I had not tried to talk to strangers, I would never have gotten to exchange my experiences in West Africa with people who have never left their village. I showed them pictures of home on my phone and they showed me their kitchens and how to cook my favorite local dishes. They told me about how wonderful they think America is and I told them of how Americans think of Africa. Then we exchanged truths about how the African life is all they know and many of them love it, and I told them how much suffering does exist even in America… I learned that poverty is sometimes a blessing when you’re not living up against things you can’t have, and they learned that not every person from America is really as lucky as outsiders dream they are.

But you don’t have to go to exotic places to gain such insight and perspective; you just have to seek out a person you would never normally choose to speak with. Someone who is a much different age, who dresses much differently, who looks really outgoing or really timid. Someone who clearly practices different religious beliefs, evidenced by their prayer mat in a public place, their symbols of faith, their burka. You might be amazed at what you will learn. You might begin to question everything you once knew, wonder what the purest truths are, see yourself in a much different light.

So, sorry mama, but I think it’s time we all start talking to strangers.

Festive or Infective?

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With the holidays cranking out since November’s American Thanksgiving, I can’t help but feel perpetual bitterness fueled by the generalized attitude of the public.  Shop shop shop shop shop, eat eat eat eat eat.  Whatever happened to the holidays being a time of togetherness and thankfulness?  No, of course not.  Now it’s just a constant competition to get the best deals, cook (or take-out!) way too much food, have a prettier tablescape, decorate your house better than the guy next to you, cut down a bigger tree (that took as much as 15 years to grow!), and complete forget what this time is about.  I don’t celebrate any holiday, but aren’t these supposed to be religious times, too?  Who even goes to Christmas Mass anymore?  When did Christmas become all about Santa?  And what about the other holidays?  (I got so many “Merry Christmas” goodbyes as I left work this week that I began to think…what about Chanukah?  Kwanza?  Winter Solstice??)

And what I really can’t get over is this: Christmas trees!  Dude, that’s a PAGAN tradition!  PAGAN.  For all of you Christian/Bible-reading superlatives out there.  And that’s fine.  But just remember it’s not some holy, Christian-only enterprise.  (I’m sick of people asking why my family puts up a tree.  Why run your car if you don’t believe in Global Warming?  You’re still partaking.)

So let’s all just have an enjoyable winter and not feel pressured to waste money buying gifts that you and others don’t need, cook too much food that will go to waste, and stay inside instead of enjoying all of the outdoor opportunities that are peaked in the colder areas this time of year and just as available as always to the warmer ones.

This Bell Jar, and Plath.

I love Sylvia Plath.

Yes, she’s rather morbid.  Yes, she had “issues”.  Yes, she eventually killed herself.  But I think it was that internal struggle she was dealing with that made her writing so freely profound, poetic and yet harsh.  She had a way of wording things and of looking at life in a way that was beautiful in the same sense as a deadly storm.

I started read The Bell Jar at the beginning of the year.  It wasn’t until I was recently inspired to read an entire list of “life changing” books that I found online, as well as books on the histories of religions, that I decided it was time to finish up some books I had forgotten I’d started.  I’m kind of surprised I stopped reading The Bell Jar midway – I think it was due to finals and me leaving the country.  But, either way, I finished the rest of it in essentially one sitting.  I feel like there is a lot to take away from it.

OUR OWN BELL JARS

The whole “bell jar” bit didn’t make too much sense to me until, somewhere in the middle of the story, Plath drops the words “…because wherever I sat – on the deck of a ship or at a street café in Paris or Bangkok – I would be sitting under the same glass bell jar, stewing in my own sour air.”

I thought, WOW.  THAT is what the bell jar is.  The bell jar is what we pull over ourselves.  We live in this little world of our own, yet we can let our own negativity suffocate us if we don’t lift that jar every once in a while.  No matter where we go, we carry that emotional baggage with us, a kind of baggage that no change of scenery will alter enough for us to completely forget if we don’t cause some kind of resolution or absolution within ourselves.

I began to think of my own bell jar and what I feel like inside it.  It feels terrible a lot.  Too often, in fact.  But that’s why I bury myself in sports, arts, books, cooking, dance, and especially travel… It’s like my way of lifting that jar a little bit every once in a while, like a small distraction.  But that jar never totally disappears.

DEALING WITH DISAPPOINTMENT IN LIFE

I feel that jar heaviest when others affect me.  I have the tendency to go out of my way too much for other people just to feel useful and have worth.  I don’t expect anything in return.  But when I get stood up or let down, I think it hurts twice to thrice as much.

“If you expect nothing from anybody, you’re never disappointed.”

Wise words.  I should listen to that.

I’ve come to realize I’m never disappointed when I expect someone to back out, no matter how much they swear they’ve committed.  I just shrug it off.  But that’s hard to accept all of the time, to expect disappointment.  I love the anticipation of something.  It’s what makes the days happier.  Why ruin that with expectations of letdown?  (“I couldn’t see the point of getting up.  I had nothing to look forward to.”)   It just makes one feel inadequate.  (“The trouble was, I had been inadequate all along, I simply hadn’t thought about it.”)  And Plath’s character continues to struggle under her bell jar for a long, long, long part of the story.

GETTING OUT OF YOUR BELL JAR

“To the person in the bell jar, blank and stopped as a dead baby, the world itself is a bad dream.”

Yet the whole story isn’t just about depressing thoughts (although, some of them really make you think, like when Plath wonders if the most beautiful thing in the world is actually shadow).  In reality, Plath’s bell jar sealed shut just after the publication of The Bell Jar.  Esther Greenwood, however, the narrator of the story,… she finally flings off her jar and takes a deep breath.

“I felt my lungs inflate with the onrush of scenery – air, mountains, trees, people.  I thought, ‘This is what it is to be happy.'”

If that isn’t testament to how the best medicine for anything is just a breath of nature and the world, then I don’t know what is.

ACCEPTING BETTER LOVE

Finally, one of the quotes from Plath in general that I recently shared on Facebook (and which received a lot of applaud) is one about love.  I often think about how lousy we can get it when it comes to friendships or relationships, and why is that?  And my answer always come back to The Perks of Being a Wallflower: “We accept the love we think we deserve.”  Not to mix up authors and stories here, but I think that is true.  And I find it particularly interesting to take that notion and juxtapose it with Plath’s quote.  Plath seems to be quite the self-loathing person with little value in herself, should you base her personality off of her writing style, yet she shows strength enough to reject men who don’t strike her very specific fancy.  Here is the quote I adore so much:

“Yes, I was infatuated with you: I am still.  No one has ever heightened such a keen capacity of physical sensation in me.  I cut you out because I couldn’t stand being a passing fancy.  Before I give my body, I must give my thoughts, my mind, my dreams.  And you weren’t having any of those.”

In the words of my mother-aged peer, “What a wise, tragic woman who said that.”

The True Education

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It doesn’t matter how many textbooks you study, nothing teaches a person faster about the ways of the world than travel. And I don’t mean hoity-toity resorts, hotels, and cruises, I mean actually getting out there and exploring less-than-perfect destinations from the perspective of a local. While I was living in Benin this past year, I read a book called “Go Your Own Way: Women Travel the World Solo” which helped me understand just that and really learn to absorb what was around me. Don’t get me wrong; an education is important to help us understand the sciences and histories of the world, but it lends us nothing to culture and the people. You can’t study what it’s like to be someone without stepping into his or her world, much like you can’t experience art by looking a photocopies in a book and never trying to replicate a piece with your own hands. Travel and opening your mind to other views and lifestyles will cause you to understand things you thought didn’t make sense and will even help you learn yourself better. So, yes, travel is a nomadic education of the highest value.

See how I’ve learned these lessons in my recent travels at kfdevault.wordpress.com – that is, if you don’t already follow and thanks to those who do!

Embarrassment.

What a funny word. Did you know we haven’t had the word “embarrassment” in the English language for more than 300 years? It’s a relatively young word that actually comes from French meaning “to block” and which can be applied as “feeling awkward” of sorts…which is why the Spanish word for “pregnant” is quite the same. Yes, not only that but embarrassment can be a thing as well as a state with three different implications: confusion or disturbance of the mind, difficulty from wanting money to pay debts, and difficulty from a cardiac disease. Embarrassment encompasses a heck of a lot of spectra, much like my face when I’m red from an embarrassing situation.

I’m a firm believer that the greatest flaw in humanity is emotion. I think emotion too often overrules our natural responses and instincts. It causes us rage that goes beyond adrenaline and necessity and assists evil doings. It causes us to make hasty and improper decisions, then saddles us with regret shortly thereafter. Regret. That’s a pretty bad one, too. But regret lets us feel like we have room for improvement. Embarrassment on the other hand… sometimes I wonder if that’s the worst emotion ever. Grief and regret are things that hopeful pass or inspire, but embarrassment is like a memory branded in your mind and you can replay those moments so vividly that you inadvertently relive them.

But why do we get embarrassed? What causes people to feel embarrassment?

For me, it can be a slow process. It could be an article I spent a long time writing and poured my heart into only to have it torn apart grammatically and ridiculed for its silly content. That’s embarrassing; I was proud of that now mangled mess.

For me, it can also be a split second of failure. The first thought that comes to mind is when I try to run in lovely Shaker Heights and catch my toe on its splendidly uneven slate sidewalks. In front of traffic. Country bumpkin over here running, sorry. Don’t mind me. I don’t often wear shoes and sidewalks are kind of a new thing for me…

Yet why do I care? Who cares if I make a lot of mistakes in my work if no one gets hurt by it? Who cares if I think differently than other people or they just don’t get something I’m trying to say? Who. Cares. If. I. Trip. But really? So what? I’m running, I fall, I get back up, whoop-de-doo. Oh, you were driving your car when I fell? You were NOT exercising and I was? Who should be embarrassed? Alas, it’s still me. I’m embarrassed. But I don’t want to be embarrassed. And I can remember my moments of embarrassment better than any moments of success – or a dynamics equation.

Since embarrassment is such a personal and intrinsic feeling, I try to think about what spiritual leaders would be telling their followers. They always seem to have good advice on handling others and keeping your cool, so what would they tell me about embarrassment? If I had to guess, it’d be something like this: None of us are flawless. God/Allah/some other spiritual being has made us the way we are, all unique, and has provided us with these moments to remember our imperfections. It’s grounding, it’s humiliating. Humiliation is how you learn to be humble.

In fact, thinking of humility, shame, and moments that cause us to reflect as such reminds me of a sermon I visited this fall when my friend invited me to his church. To confirm my speculation that a spiritualist would tell me that my embarrassment is a humbling eye-opener, I have rediscovered this passage from that sermon:

“When the scribes of the Pharisees saw that He was eating with the sinners and tax collectors, they said to His disciples, ‘Why is He eating and drinking with the tax collectors and sinners?’ And hearing this, Jesus said to them, ‘It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are sick; I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners.’”
-Mark 2:16-17

It doesn’t matter what religion you are or aren’t, I think all holy scriptures are like additional Aesop’s Fables to life and I love to use them to reflect. This quote from the book of Mark, one of the many brought up in the sermon, makes me realize that I feel embarrassment because I am able to be humbled. I am not so righteous that I am perfect or in my own Nirvana; I have flaws that I need reminding of. And what’s better yet is those moments when I fall – whether figuratively or literally – are always those moments when I am overconfident. I am embarrassed because I realize maybe my writing isn’t as fantastic as I thought it was. I am embarrassed because, for a moment, I was caught up in thinking about myself too much that I tripped and realized how feeble I am.

In conclusion, I have decided that embarrassment is really just a blessing. Without it, we would be blinded by overconfidence and not realize how foolish we are being at times. Embarrassment does give us a chance for redemption, but only if we actively seek it.

Radiant Orchid: Pantone Color of 2014

Today’s news is all over the board.  Nelson Mandela has died, Obama has been called out on a lie that rekindles my beliefs that he’s not really American, and Rachida Jones surprisingly has to defend herself against comments she made previously which disapprove of women trying to sell an image that they shouldn’t be selling.  Yet I am brought back again to a silly obsession that is plastered all over Pinterest, image searches, and the dolt-filled fashion world this morning: the announcement of the Pantone color of 2014.
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Last year, I wrote a satirical article about the Pantone color of 2013: Emerald.  This year, it’s a less startling and even more feminine “Radiant Orchid”.  I’m not sure what everyone’s obsessions with orchids, but I guess it stems from their long-lastingness and their original symbolism of rarity, beauty, and strength.  However, orchids come in so many different colors, and I certainly do not find a pink-purple to be the representative sample of a “radiant orchid” – but that’s beside the point.
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So amidst the countless women striving to succeed in the business world of men, we will now have cartloads of bimbos raving over this ultra-feminine shade of Barney, buying make-up sets that are way to over-priced and made with questionable materials and restocking their already grotesquely over-loaded closets and clothes racks with styles that hopefully aren’t as horrific as the ones on fashion show catwalks.  (Do they SERIOUSLY think those outfits look good??)  And, as always for your pleasure, enjoy some photos of what you KNOW you’ve got love for a whole other year now:
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