who would i be?

Flying from Ohio to Virginia today, I got to thinking about planes.  I could see two planes on the horizon.  I could see the shadow of my plane on the tops of the clouds.  There are planes everywhere, and I was only seeing a handful.  The flights so short.  The trips so far.  How could so many people have so many places to go?

I thought about the world and how interconnected it is.  I thought about how this changes our perspective, how it makes our “needs” just become more frivolous “wants”.  How it encourages our outrageous American sense of entitlement.

Just today, I was sitting back in the soils lab talking to Jeff and then I blurted out, “Wouldn’t life be so much easier if we just didn’t have air conditioning, heating, electricity?  If we didn’t have those expectations and then the simpler life would be so much more?  Wouldn’t we have less stress and less obligation and be better off?  And I wouldn’t need to worry about my hair looking lousy today or the fact that I had to put on a tank top under this shirt because I panicked when I realized you can see my bra…”

He laughed at my outburst, but he agreed.  And I think it’s true.

Then I wondered, what if… what if we didn’t live in this frantic era?  Here I am, starting a long journey overseas, ready to “seize” and “define” and “become” and “challenge” – but what in the world does that all mean anyway?  What if we didn’t have those opportunities?

Who would I be?

My incessant journeys abroad arose out of a panicky scramble when my personal life was falling apart, my academic life seemed too uninteresting to ever land a job, and my graduation date was approaching too soon for me to actually graduate.  There was no glorious find-myself-out-there moment or decision or scholarship…it was just GET ME OUT OF HERE and DEAR GOD HELP ME GET BACK ON TRACK.  Back on track in EVERY aspect of my life.

I was a mess.  What else would cause me to move temporarily to West Africa ALONE??

Every time I ride a train in Europe or fly through an airport, I can’t help but notice the plethora of young women in small groups giddily dancing around an unfolded map with hiking backpacks, black leggings, and sneakers.  They’ve got their bandanas on, their Fodor guides out, and they’re ready to “rough it”.  But why?

No, dear lord, please…don’t tell me I’m part of a trend.  I didn’t ask for this!

Now that the world is at our fingertips and women have access to more generous means (thanks to the push for higher education and the encouragement to abandon home-making for a life of independence), so so so many young women are out there traveling.  It’s like an epidemic.  It seems like I always see them, hear about them, or even witness them among my friends.  (I mean, men too, but not my point.)

What is it that they’ve lost about themselves that they think they’re going to find?  Am I really just the same as them?

I honestly don’t have an answer.  But while they’re so busy trying to find out who they will be, I can’t help but see who they would have been and wonder the same for myself.

At 23, where would I have been two generations ago?
A housewife, surely.  World War 2.  Cooking.  Cleaning.  Shopping.

It sounds dismal, but part of me wonders if I would have preferred it.

Relaxed, taken care of, at ease, important, with a place in this world.
These days, I don’t know where I belong.
These days, there are high expectations put on me.
These days, I still can’t walk into my job or my hockey game like a woman.
Because I’m still at the disadvantage.
I still have to work a little harder to just pass, because, well, men.
But that’s okay.
Look how far the world has come already.

But is there an intrinsic spark in me that would have caused me to rebel?  Would I have become a journalist like Skeeter in The Help and taken life into my own hands?  Chosen against a husband and instead fought for human rights?

I want to say yes, yes that would have been me.
But I’m not so sure it would have been.

Sure, now I feel like a rebel, going against the grain, going alone, fighting for native rights.
But that’s so trendy now.
Is that really that awesome of me?  Or am I just mundane??

It’s like when the whole world tries so hard to be “different” that “different” becomes “normal”.

But I’m not out to fight being normal,…or am I?

Questions even I can’t answer for myself.
But let’s say I am out there to be different.
And it’s 1940.
What would I have done?  Joined the Army?  Fought in WWII as a “soldier”?  Refused to marry, gone to school, practiced science?  Eventually walked on the moon?

Geez… Life is hard to understand sometimes.

Not only do I not have any idea who I am, but I’m unsure of who I will be and also confused by who I might have been.

Well, one thing’s for sure…I’m about to board a plane for Belgium.  And I know who I USED to be: a girl who could never board a plane by herself to Belgium.  And here I am, student card in hand, an ex-resident of southern France, ready to face the world with a loose itinerary and no reservations.

Because I’m kind of over asking what ifs.

nepal.

Nepal: One of the “Thinnest” Places on Earth

Have you ever heard of a “thin” place? No, not a place without McDonald’s or obesity. (On the contrary, there can be thin places in the US, where both of those things boom.) Instead, a thin place is described as a place of energy, a place where whatever divides the real world we live in and an eternal world beyond our reach is extremely thin, so thin that the two worlds nearly blend. Some people believe thin places are connected to God, but no one can deny that some places in nature – “thin places” – invoke an ethereal sensation, God-filled or not. I’m pretty certain the entirety of Nepal is a thin place.

The spiritual intensity of India can be ethereal, where strangers equate their guests to gods and you can wait hours pressed body-to-body in a sweaty temple just to be blessed by holy men. Waves lapping and then smashing the shores along the Blight of Benin is peaceful, terrifying, and an ethereal reminder of who’s in charge. Standing at a Buddhist temple on Mount Saleve, France, overlooking Geneva, Switzerland under a banner of prayer flags, cold air rushing up the mountain face – that was also ethereal. High altitudes and misty scenery is ethereal. Now, imagine combining all of those: altitude, scenery, the forces of nature. That’s like standing high in the Nepalese Himalayas. Up in these mountaintops, formed by clashing continents and which also host the great Mount Everest, one is greeted by a simpler life that is elevated both physically and spiritually. Picture solemn, dedicated, generous monks seeking retreat. (And don’t picture the ones setting themselves on fire in streets – that’s just to the north, in Tibet. Those are the monks that need to go to a thin place, or Nepal.)

There’s surely a reason why so many Hindus gather in these places, and it’s doubtful that Hindi Ghandi’s admiration of thin places is coincidence. But not all of Nepal is standing on a mountain top amongst trees full of prayer flags, crossing bridges in orange tunics, or eating dal bhat while cross-legged on the floor. Nepal is in fact divided by three regions which run east-to-west: mountains, hills, and the swampy terai. These regions are dissected by the river system, flowing north-to-south, making Nepal truly feel like an intersection of the forces of nature.

Of course, not all of the intersections in Nepal are the most pleasant. Since 1990, Nepal has managed to push through 500 years of governmental transformation in only a couple of decades. Yes, in 1990 Nepal was still a monarchy. This transformed into a Communist lead (well, it does border China) and is now finally a Republic. Yet, no matter how backwards Nepal might have been a few years ago, it is the first Asian country to not only abolish the death penalty but to also rule in favor of same-sex marriage. In Nepal, you can even declare yourself as a third gender – neither man nor woman. Wowzers! Basically, Nepal just wants people to be Yay! happy. And to not set themselves on fire.

The only thing about Nepal that does not lead to a happy, easy life seems to be the complete lack of efficient transportation. Sure, Nepal has 47 airports – but only 11 have paved runways. Most of the population has a 2 hour walk to the nearest all-season road, so don’t even begin to complain about 480 traffic. Basically, everything that geographically assists Nepal in being a thin place makes its transportation feel like a nightmare. And when it’s the rainy season, you can forget it. Fortunately, though, there’s no sense in having a car to get around Nepal. Just get yourself a bovine, load all of your belongings (three blankets, a wok, some tunics) on its back, and you’ll be riding in style, high up on those…15 hand shoulders. (Okay, it’s not 37 Nittos but it’s still cruisin’ for Nepal.) But, seriously, Nepal is one cool, thin place. And you should definitely try to land yourself there some day, in a tunic, on a cow, and while not setting yourself on fire.

The Meaning in Dreams.

ColorMeaningsInDreams

Growing up, my mom and my grandma would always ask me about my dreams. Whether they were good, bad, or just plain profound, I would tell them if something stood out to me the next day. There were days when my dreams were dictated by medication, including a series of horrifying nightmares I experienced during my few weeks in India when I switched to a different kind of malaria pill.

I was always amazed by how progressive my family seems to be, yet certain things stick in the mud like a stubborn twig. Things like my grandma’s insisting that owls are a sign of death, my dad yelling at me for speaking ill of my brother when I saw a raven, or the way my family dwells on dreams. I’ve always felt like dreams are just a subconscious moment of clear thinking, kind of like an innocent child creatively experiencing the world or like those moments when you can’t solve a math problem and walk away from it, only to solve it when you’re not thinking about it. But maybe there is something more to it? I do, after all, own an old, large book of palm reading, tarot cards, and dream interpretation.

I do listen to my thoughts and my dreams. I find myself convinced that it keeps me out of trouble, or even death. Like when I leave the house late and my mom says “It was for a reason; something would have happened if you were on time.” Well, once a drunk driver collided head-on going the wrong way down the Turnpike a few miles ahead of me. I think that really got me thinking from then on.

But dreams?

I know a lot of friends would reject my subconscious theory and rationale. They would say it is undoubtedly god speaking to us, showing us what he wants to see. I just have a hard time believing god really cares that much about the bajillions of people here that he sits with them every night and orchestrates their dreams within their respective time zones and sleeping schedules. Wouldn’t it be easier just to sit back and watch? I mean, most people probably forget their dreams anyway.

Last night I had an unusually frustrating dream. My family and I flew to London for a week. I had just gotten back from London (true story), but I was eager to go to the White Cliffs of Dover and also to the northern most point of Scotland. We sat around in this large, modern apartment, staring out at the glass windows for several days, not leaving, before I finally said something. My mom insisted it wasn’t a big deal, we could see London from the living room. I looked out and, sure enough, I could see the London Eye turning and Big Ben not far from that.

My brother was playing games on his computer. I’m not even sure what my dad was doing – if anything. Every time I tried to suggest leaving, they’d ignore me and say that my brother had stuff to get done. But then they’d let him keep playing games.

“Mom, let’s walk to the train station. I have London so well memorized around the Thames that I can get us to Dover in no time.” (true story)

“Okay, fine, we will get ready and go to Dover.”

I wait for a few hours and it is getting dark.

“Mom, if we don’t go now, it will be dark and we can’t see anything.”

“We can go tomorrow.”

“Then we can’t go to Scotland, too!”

“Calm down, it’s no big deal.”

“I didn’t pay for airfare to come to London for a week and sit inside this room!”

And we never went anywhere. It got dark, I could see the blue Eye, and I couldn’t leave. I couldn’t even run away.

I think I know what my dream was telling me.

First of all, my mom mentioned grandma talking about a trip to Australia. I was surprised yesterday that the flights are cheaper than the ones I’m buying to go back to West Africa in less than two months. That’s why I was dreaming about our family traveling. London was always on my mom’s list.

The apartment. I think that’s how I feel about a lot of people, that they’re just idling, watching the world through protective glass, never going outside of their comfort zones. Suffocating in their Bell Jars. Thinking this is as good as it gets, that text book pictures and stories come even close to representing the real thing. And that’s definitely not what it’s like.

The imprisonment. I think I feel imprisoned often by the restraints my parents have always placed on me, whether it is in my athletics or in my travels, whatever. They were shutting down my idea of going somewhere, doing something crazy. I always feel like, if I listened to them, I would be idle, I would be stuck living the same old, conventional, rural Pennsylvanian life. Maybe I want that, but not without leaving it first. They just never tried to leave it at all. And they try to lock me in their norms.

The computer. This is two-fold. One, I was surprised when my mom recently made the comment “I can’t believe you’re surviving without Wi-Fi”. I thought it was sarcastic. Since when did my mom rely on the Internet? She just got a laptop and an e-mail address not that long ago. It’s not like she ever needed it. I didn’t even know she understands half of what she tries to do on it. And, yes, work makes me dependent on Internet, but not like that. Two, this DEFINITELY reflected my attitude on my family’s treatment of me versus my brother. He is more important, he can do what he wants. I can only do what I want if I damn well do it myself. They’ll dish out the money for him to do something stupid and useless and which doesn’t help his career. Meanwhile I’m actually working and trying to live life. Give me a break.

So – let’s look at this two ways:

1. Subconscious, pure thoughts: Does this mean I truly feel this way? Or is this where the imagination part kicks in and starts making me dream up situations for self-pity? Could it be that my views from this dream are really what I’m facing in my daily life?

2. God’s thoughts in my head: If there’s a god putting these ideas there, what is he trying to tell me? I don’t see a way for me to appreciate anything from that dream, unless I’m supposed to appreciate being able to say “I’m in London” – I think not. Is he trying to make me realize the differences between me and my family? I have no idea.

But I enjoy dreams. They are stories I write without trying to write them, and look at all the symbolism I subconsciously conjure up!

Avoid Being a Critic.

benin-06

As I struggle to understand the world around me as well as my own emotions and role, I realize how often I judge people in my mind.  You would think that the more I discover about humanity, the more I would come to dislike people who go against the grain of what I think is the right way to live.  On the contrary, it’s been quite the opposite.

I used to be haughty and swing around the opinions I’d been raised on like some kind of righteous sword without even having a cause for why I felt that way.  It was strictly due to my environment.  Moving away from home – and then eventually traveling independently – gave me the priceless ability to view myself from the outside.  And I didn’t like what I was seeing.

It’s too easy to get caught up in the toxic wave of judgment.  Someone says one thing, a few people nod in agreement, no one wants to be “that guy” who stands up and protests.  It’s important to remember people come from different backgrounds, experiences, comfort zones, and beliefs – and all of those things drastically influence their actions and choices.  Even if something seems wrong to you, that person might not be viewing it in the same way.

Let me take a very simple example:
When I was living in Ouidah, Benin in West Africa this time last year, it was perfectly ordinary to walk out onto the street from my compound to swarms of children with outstretched hands.  They would chant “Yovo!  Yovo!’ on account of me being a foreigner with lighter skin.  They would sing “Yovo, yovo, bon soir!  Ca va bien, merci!” without even knowing what they were saying.  They would then tug at my dress and beg for a “cadeau”.  The parents would chuckle and watch.  Yes, these children were taught to racially discriminate and demand money, to disregard personal space, and to taunt.  That’s at least how some people saw it and it angered them.  They’d spit out mean words and curse at the children.  I just smiled and played along, rarely given out any francs.  These kids were raised to believe this is how you treat people, this is how you survive.  And there’s nothing wrong with that because that is how they survive.  That’s how those kids get the coins they need to go to the Internet café.  Some of them probably give the change to their mom, and that’s how they have bread for dinner.  No harm done.

Probably the hardest part in avoiding being a critic, for me at least, has been realizing not everyone is so determined to live righteously.  Some people choose to just live and get by within the common rules.  They don’t strive to find some inner-peace or to travel the world or discover themselves.  They’re content like that.

I used to hate that.  I used to resent that and call it being lazy, selfish, stubborn…but really, it’s a choice.  In fact, I preach so much that morality is just a human-made concept in order to function in an optimal society – that we are really just animals.  So isn’t that perspective more animalistic?  I guess so…I just couldn’t see it before.

I think I always just wanted the best for myself, and then to see the best in others and help them bring it out.  It’s a tough line to walk, but there is a point when your suggestions should stop before intervention.  I see it between me and my peers, the ones who don’t say they’re inspired by my ambition and who continue with the same mundane life they grew up into.  The ones who don’t move or don’t try to make changes.  I’ve got to let them decide for themselves; they’ve already seen the things I have done and how those things have helped me.

So before you’re hasty at judging someone, consider why you’re doing it and why you think you’re better for what you do.  You might find you don’t have a legitimate reason after all.  You might realize you should remain a worst critic to only yourself, and I think you’ll be a better person for it.

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.

Perspective

perspective

I’m in Europe.  I came here after two weeks in India and I’m not going back to the US until mid-August.  I was lucky enough to find the job I wanted in a company that was willing to wait for me to start after my return this summer.  I’ve been able to see so many incredible things, thanks to the inside resources I have in each country I’ve gone to so far.  For example, in India I had several professors who are well-known in their country and who got us VIP entrances into temples where we were blessed by holy water and, in Slovakia, I had a friend whose wife’s aunt knows the wife to a long-lost cousin of mine who managed to answer age-old questions about my family history.  What are the chances that such great things could happen?  My summer is full of amazing things and I should be happy.  But I’m not.

I’ve felt alarmingly depressed.  Why?  Well I can’t help thinking about home.  No, I’m not homesick.  I’m just stressed about the people at home, back in the States.  I’m stressed about guys, about a guy who I thought was something special and who is now not replying to any message I send, about guys who don’t matter but whom I wonder about anyway, etc.  Yada yada yada… all this stupid stuff that you would hear from a rambling teenager.  Stupid just in its own essence, but here, comparing it to where I am and what should matter to me… it’s ESPECIALLY stupid.

And that’s why I decided to write a little quip about perspective.  Although I might think a relationship or an individual is crucial to my life right now, the truth is it’s trivial.  It’s especially trivial if someone doesn’t have the decency to acknowledge me.  And maybe I’m nothing special, but I’m nothing ordinary either.  So have fun missing out.  The whole thing is even more trivial considering I’m in Europe, I’m traveling the world, I’m doing what so many people my age or older wish they were doing.  I don’t need anyone’s sympathy or lack of attention.  My problems might seem big on a local scale, but step back and it’s nothing compared to the world and everything there is to see and do in it.

I have guys asking to Skype me while I’m away, guys messaging me and reading my blogs to keep in touch as I travel, guys planning to meet me in various cities along my way.  I have friends who have kept in touch for years and who have never changed.  It’s people like these who matter, not the ones who flicker and fade.  So, while I’m sitting here watching a movie that is set in his city, all I have to do is PITY that city for having him and his ignorance and PRAISE mine for showing me that the world is my oyster.

Don’t lose sight of what’s important; I’ll always preach that here.