Finding Home

(Kintamani, Bali)

Sometimes on the road you get asked: “Where is home?”

The thing is, I’m not sure. Over the last couple months, I’ve left behind an apartment lease, a cohabitating relationship, and the need to sit in the steel and concrete traffic of LA to run my business.  If Southern California is “home”, its only because of history, and because of the people I love there.  There’s no one place that I want to feel permanent in.

Last week in Sanur, once the initial thrill of having arrived in Bali wore off, I found myself filled with growing internal unsettledness.  Dropped in a new place and new culture, I didn’t know how to make myself at home, where to belong.

I wanted the luxurious fruit smoothies of the tourist world, but hated the inflated prices, insulated environments, and “walking ATM” experience. I had a lot of judgment of western tourists who stuck to the corals of curated exploration, and the consumers who said they “did Bali” in 5 days or so.  

I also longed for the village simplicity of an inexpensive banana-leaf wrapped Gado-gado (veggie and egg stir fry with peanut sauce), ordered with intimate conversation of village goings-on,  where they don’t speak English.  I stood out like a bright white sore thumb, in that part of town though, and struggled with my limited command of the Indonesian language.  “Fitting in” wasn’t really an option, there.

Of course, what I wanted was the third path: to somehow be a traveler between those worlds, able to belong in both, and at home moving between them.

I met fellow house-guests who were on that traveler’s path.  As they explained how they navigated that open way, my heart sank. The magic opportunities of the traveler seemed to all come from reflexively giving to those around you, regardless of how much you had.  The traveler’s access arose from prolifically sharing things, of food, and human attention.  A wedge of discouragement thus widdled itself into my ribs.

As someone who recently chose to shift her career and downsize her income (have you tried to live in LA on $1500/month?) and an introvert who was exhausted from years of work in a service business, this all seemed beyond me.  I’d had to watch my budget like a hawk, and learned to scale back on all possible splurges. Food was a precious commodity, to be carefully rationed over time.  And I’d taken this whole sabbatical, in part, to get away from interacting with people at all.  I didn’t see myself as having extra money, food, or attention to give.

The portal to belonging felt sealed shut by a big door of fatigue and isolation.

Exhausted, I headed for the tourist part of town that I’d so adamantly resisted.  I politely refused the throngs of ware-sellers, the endless street massage hawkers, the overpriced, though lovely, beachfront restaurants.  I didn’t know why I was there, except somehow it seemed the path of least resistance.  The tourist side of town felt like failure, but I had myself convinced I didn’t have it in me to find belonging on any other road. I continued walking, unsure what exactly I was even looking for.

As I walked on, I soon began to hear the thump of bass music coming from down the strip.  

Memories of dancing with friends on one of my last nights in Los Angeles filled my mind’s eye.  Swirling and jumping and hugging that night, I had been surprised by a freedom and ease that that I’d long been missing.  There, sweating like crazy to great music with dear friends, I’d felt a version of myself who I’d met on dancefloors before.  She was the one who was quick to laughter and silliness, after charging across the desert from music stage to music stage, at Burningman.  She was the one who had stomped the stress away at endless afternoon psytrance cafes in Vagator Beach, Goa.  She was the one who was comfortable, and free, and at home, wherever she was.

I smiled at those memories, encouraged to followed the beat along the Balinese shore.

 I didn’t know where the music came from, but wherever it was, that’s where I wanted to be.

I arrived at the source to find a sort of “food court” of bamboo shacks serving all sorts of different treats.  I found the shack with the speakers, and quickly found myself drawn to the stall just next door.  I smiled at the couple manning the counter, ready for whatever this experience that called to me was.  It wasn’t sure why I’d been drawn to their counter, until I looked at their menu board and realized what they sold: my personal symbols of both roads – fruit smoothies and Gado-gado.

I was okay.  Following my own internal guidance system led me to my own best of both worlds. I forgave myself for thinking anything was wrong with me.    With each bite of that food, with each measure of that music, something in me healed, and something in me remembered…

 I didn’t need to find someone else’s route onto the traveler’s road… it was already wired in me.  I just had to listen to my own pull from within.  

In this moment,  I found belonging in the bass.

And you know where that inner guidance system led next?  To buy another helping of Gado-gado to bring home to the other traveler who’ I knew had been longing for it too.  The next day, I found myself in a local village market, bumbling through Indonesian price inquiries, to load my bag with snacks to share with others on the next leg of my trip.  The music the night before had told me I was okay just I was, and somehow that acceptance broke open the fear-sealed door to the generous wanderer I wanted to be.  

Now, just a week later, somehow my bag is never empty of snacks to share, and I have a head full of my own magical traveler’s open-door stories to share. The Gods sometimes work fast.

This quiet afternoon in the mountains, I decided to plug my headphones in my ears, and listen to a DJ set that a friend posted from a music festival “back home”.  

I’m surprised when my body starts sobbing as the bass drops.  This… aural reminder of who I am –  this is home.

I empty my pack of the colorful foil remnants of treats I’ve been able to share, along my wanderings this week.  I look over this gorgeous fruit basket just given to me by a hostel worker, as a gift for I don’t know what.  I drink tea from herbs picked for me by new friends who already feel like family.  I welcome the texts from local friends asking if we can get together once more before I go. I am myself, and it’s more than enough. I see my feet firmly planted on the traveler’s road.

I’ll leave soon for Ubud…  I’ve heard there’s an “annoying, ‘untz untz’ place” that’s opened recently there. You can bet my smoothies, Gado-gado, and I, will find our way to its speakers, and dance our butts off – along this traveler’s way we’re coming to call “home”.

 

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Songs for the ride: Count to Ten

You know that feeling of overwhelm where life is all just a little too confusing?  Where you want it to stop for a minute – to back up, and let it come into focus?  If you’re here, you must; I know that’s the pull to the road for many of us.  

Tina Dico’s Count to Ten is a song for those moments.

I heard it for the first time around the joyful west coast summer yoga/arts/music festival scene, with a dear man whom I would go on to share 5 years of my life in partnership with.  His encouragement is largely responsible for my personal freedom and location-independent lifestyle now.  

At that first listen, I burst into tears at the sweeping violin climax (4:25), and I still do, nearly every time I hear it now.

The soft, steady beat that remix producer Pumpkin layed under Tina’s transparent vocals feel like the rythmic pulse of railroad ties on a cross country train trip. The reasons for the road, the feeling of the road, and the sounds of the road are all layered into the mix.  Pumpkin’s recent death lends a haunting air to the already compelling track.  It’s an emotional must-have for a long-trip playlist.

Happy travels my friends.  Be safe out there.

 

(I can’t vouch for this video, it’s just the easiest way to get you the song… Maybe close your eyes and listen :-))

Lyrics:

There are faces, there are smiles. So many teeth
Too many arms, legs, eyes, and flashing buttons
All around me

I’m a watching, I’m a breathing, I”m a pushing
I’m a wishing that these walls
Would not be talking quite so loudly

I’ve been burned down once before
I’ve pulled myself up off the floor
And I am looking for a reason to stay standing

But sometimes its just too much,
Its not enough, its something else
Its so much bigger than my head
Its too demanding

Sometimes the fastest way to get there is to go slow
And sometimes if you want to hold on, you got to let go
I’m gonna close my eyes, and count to ten
I’m gonna close my eyes
And when I open them again,

Everything will make sense to me then

I have met so many people, we’ve exchanged so many words
We’ve said it all and we’ve said nothing
But its changed us

I have known a lot of men
Some were lovers, some were friends
But altogether, were they merely passing strangers?

They’ll contol you with their silence, they’ll control you with their words
And you’ll control them with your body’s coded signals
In the wild and tangled gardens of our insecurities
We loose our heads to each others silly pitfalls

Sometimes the fastest way to get there is to go slow
And sometimes if you want to hold on, you got to let go
I’m gonna close my eyes, and count to ten
I’m gonna close my eyes
And when I open them again,

Everything will make sense to me then

Box of Tears

Sanur Stories Pt 2
(While this story works as a stand-alone, it’s actually a continuation. You may want to read Part 1)

“So, are you going to tell me about your father?”

The question hung heavy in the air, like the stormclouds that had rolled through the night before.

I’d mentioned my dad the day before, when we talked about the tribal tradition of using tattoos to honor one’s ancestors.

I had told her then: “There’s an image that’s been floating around in my head since I left, and it’s of one of my dad’s tattoos.  It’s a real cool looking old dude, happily walking with a long white beard flowing behind him, and the words ‘just passing through’.  My dad and I have talked about the fact that there’s a possibility he may not be around anymore when I get back from this trip, and I think that image just captures something about a philosophy we share”.

“Ah you already have that tattoo” she said then,“Its your family story. You just wear it under your skin.”

A tear emerged at her response, but the conversation soon shifted in another direction.

Now, the next day, we sat sheltered from the fiery sun; overlooking the midday deep blue ocean, as it peered over yellow-green fields between our patio and the beach.  I’d been strangely tense all morning, maybe from a sense of guilt for being so far removed from the responsibilities I was used to at home.  Or maybe the tension was just lack of sleep, since the two dueling nightclubs down the road had continued blaring, even past the jolting rooster calls started around 3 o’clock.  This moment, though was quiet pleasant.  The view enchanted our eyes, and the sea’s come-hither breezes cooled our sweat-covered bodies.

And here again, the question of my dad hung like fog.

Again, as they did with she and I, hearts opened wide for sharing – joys, pains, fears, everything it was to be alive.  My dad’s had several serious health scares throughout my adult life, and there are a lot of question marks for him following a couple recent strokes.  

He’d shared with me that he’d had a strange mix of intense emotions about my going on this trip, which was new, despite my past travels.  He suspected it had something to do with how unknown this trip was – I had no plans beyond accommodation booked for the first week, but he was experiencing a new strange sort of worry he hadn’t felt before.

I’m sure the uncertainties in his own health and future had to have made up some part of the mix.

“It’s hard… causing discomfort for someone I love so much, who’s going through so much of his own struggle right now… but needing to go anyway.  Needing to take this trip even though it hurts, for so many people.”

My travelling companion just sat with me, holding, and understanding.

“It’s that way with some of my company’s clients, too” I said, finding a road to a quieter, subtler pain within myself.  “I have very tender relationships with them, and some of them I know are quite personally attached to me.  I know it hurts them to see me go.  It aches in my heart that I can’t make that better, by staying put anymore.  I’ve tried really hard to avoid causing pain for anyone else.  I’ve tried really hard for the last 7 years, and slowly boxed up some part of me that needs to live, in the process.”

“Yes, you’ve been working very hard, for a long time.” She said.  “I could see that in you when we first met.  I thought ‘This woman needs to be here.’”

I started to quietly cry – some of my most intimate, most insistent pain being seen, reflected, supported.  She scooted herself closer to me, and wrapped her arm around my back, pulling me into the comfort of her side.

Moments later, my sadness was replaced with a twisting yank of guilt.

“I’m so so sorry”, I blurted out “It’s terribly rude, and I feel so connected to you, and have had the most lovely couple days getting to know you, but I was so tired when we first met that now I don’t know your name.”

“Don’t apologize for that.” She said… “My name doesn’t matter; people call me a hundred different things”, and she shared stories of her name, and its origins, and the labels her family had used, others friends had used.  She told me of when a renowned tribal tatoo artist (really a spiritual storyteller), whom she’d spent days side-by-side with, exploring the depths of the soul, was asked what her name was he’d said ‘I don’t know… I call her girl, or nothing at all.” The name was immaterial to their spiritual understanding of one another.

“Man, its so different from America, where everyone is so so deeply attached to their names.” I said.

“I know; I’m from western culture too. I know how it matters to people.  But it doesn’t matter to me. I know your name, because names just stick with me, but it doesn’t tell me who a person is.  I know you – the person.  The good person.”

Forgiven for the ultimate social transgression of the west, our conversation continued winding through the afternoon.  Exploring intricate nooks and crannies of identity and meaning, as it always did.  Eventually my heart started to swell with gratitude for this striking new friendship.

“I’m glad you’re here.”  I admitted with the timid affection of people who haven’t yet expressed their caring for each other.

“I was just about to say the same” she said. “I’m glad you’re here”.

An surprising burst of emotion kicked my throat from within, and tears welled in my eyes.

“I don’t know why hearing you say that makes me cry” I said.

She sat quietly for a moment, with her hand simply cradling me, on the small of my back.

“Might not be from what we’re talking about now. Tears emptying from another box, maybe.  This place has a way of opening boxes; you’ll do a lot of that here.”

“Ah… we come to Bali to spring clean our insides, then?” I asked.

She threw her head back as she laughed, and then nodded.  Her own many summers of cleaning, emptying, being emptied by this land, shimmered behind the rich brown of her eyes.

As suddenly as it had started, the crying stopped, ushered out by a windy breath of relief from somewhere deep in my belly.  

“That’s a good breath” she said, her hand still on my back, her gaze still far out over the sea.  The box just opened, it seemed, was now emptied. Bali’s medicine for this moment was complete.

We sat silently for a few moments, again transfixed by the immutable beauty in front of us.  Me, the breeze, and the woman with a hundred names, and no name.

 

Why Bali?

Sanur Stories, Pt. 1

“Why did you choose Bali?” That night’s new arrival at the guest house asked me, as we shared travel plans.  

Her Dutch accent was light and soft, and draped her words with silky European elegance.  She was from a long line of Indonesian descent, and had blood that ran all the way back to one of the origin stories of  many local Island beliefs.  She spoke of Bali with experience deeper than her years of travel here – with a connection to the land inextricable from her bones.  Here on this lush island of art and flowers, she was among the most beautiful creatures I’d seen yet.

Every time I’ve been asked “why Bali?”, I’ve given a different answer… and I was a bit surprised by the California cool that came out of my mouth this time.

“Well, I’m pretty into the hippie-dippie stuff: yoga, healing, art… and I hear Ubud really has a lot of that going on, so I imagined I’d feel pretty comfortable there”.

My response shot a spear of inauthenticity into my ribs.  Though the conversation continued as normal with travellers getting to know each other, I was off.  I continued to be bothered by the way I’d refused to admit my inner pull to this place, my deep interest in exploration, the way my soul longed to engage on this trip.  As we talked, I began to sense that she wasn’t a skeptical stranger at all, and we’d connect better if I dropped my socially conditioned cloak.

Why had I presented this detached apathy?  Who was that person who had answered her question?  Why is this sharp end still in my ribs?

I slept restlessly that night as the conversation replayed itself in my head.  The past has a strange way of rehearsing itself in a divided mind.

The next morning over breakfast, I had to make myself whole again.  I opted for a side of vulnerability with my fruit and yogurt.

“I wanted to share with you – when you asked me last night why I’d come to Bali, I gave some answer, but the truth is, I don’t know.  I just know I was pulled here, and I’m actually fascinated to listen to the land, and let her tell me why she called.”

She simply nodded with a smile.  “Yeah, it’s like that.

For the next two days, we became travelling companions of the village around us, and the rich worlds within us.  She was, first and foremost, a storyteller.  Over beachside strolls and winding bike rides, her tales opened a window into the meaning of her world, her self, her people. As we explored, we formed a common feast for an entire mosquito family, and shared our love for our ailing fathers. She introduced me to the soul-storytelling tattoos called Ta’moko, and the Maori belief that our stories are already inked on us, many of us just wear them in our veins.   I introduced her to the zombie-movie sets of the abandoned amusement park,  and showed her the dark corners that seemed sure to hide their own primal histories.

We talked of skin and blood.  We talked of life.
To travel is bond quickly with new people.  And to bond is to share stories.  And to share stories is to be deeply, reflectively alive.  I still don’t know why Bali, but now I know, this is why I travel.

(This story continues)

Afraid of Being Ripped Off? You Should Be.

Sanur, Bali

Soundtrack for an afternoon stroll:

“Yes, madame, where you going?”

“Hallo… yes? Come looking my shop? Special price, only you.”

“Taxi, ma’am, taxi? TAXI? Where you going? Want taxi? TAXI? TAAXI!!??… You clearly can’t focus on anything else with me doing this, so it must be working and I will not stop hollering at you until you drop whatever you’d planned and get in my car just to make me stop yelling!” (Okay, I added that last part.  Consider it subtext.) 

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How they think they’ll get a taxi through many of these roads at all is beyond me

Welcome to any tourist town in the “developing world”.  Welcome also, to the wildly inflated bargaining dance.

It’s interesting to me how unaccustomed to the street haggle I’ve become, with just a few years of not leaving the west.  It’s a strange feeling, being seen as a rich foreigner, or, to borrow my Swiss travelling companion’s term, a “walking ATM”.

It’s also incredibly humbling to pause for a moment and realize that the perception is rightly so, when in many of these places, locals are providing for families on just a few dollars a day.  The scrambles for attention and exorbitant price quotes aren’t intended to be rude or abusive.  You’ve simply entered a different culture, where you’re responsible for your own boundaries, and where even locals go into each transaction expecting a good nature’d price jostle.

I didn’t make it into town until about 4pm today.  And when I did, I noticed I was feeling a little reserved.  I was working on my computer all day, and feeling rather stuck in my head.  I am also keenly aware of my budget on this trip, and found myself shying away from any potentially costly social wrestling matches.

Sundays in Sanur are a bit  mad.
Sundays in Sanur are a bit mad.

I didn’t come to Bali just to torture myself with the world within my skull, though. Little by little, I tip- toed into engagement.

Selamat Sore, Ibu!” (Good afternoon ma’am), I’d call to the beautifully leathery skinned grandmas, who manned their stalls with visible years of laughter and tears etched into their faces.

Tidak sekarang, terima kasih!” (Not now, thank you), I’d smile and reply to the endless offers for clothes, food, massages, taxi rides, trinkets.

And finally, when a beaming 5 foot woman who soon introduced herself as Lulu asked me to follow her into her shop, I agreed.

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Lulu was a firecracker.  An endless stream of rapid fire questions, comments, and laughter, in a mix of Indonesian and English that somehow aligned quite well with my toddler-level local language proficiency.

Saya menulis. Saya tidak mau lupa.”  (I’m writing this, I don’t want to forget) I said, taking out my notebook to add the word lucu (funny). Lulu’s face was all smiles, as she became both shopkeeper, and guru bahasa Indonesia.

We spent the rest of the afternoon talking, laughing, teaching, learning, and I filled pages of my notebook with useful words for colors, textures, common phrases.  I didn’t really love any of Lulu’s clothes, but I did want to buy just a little something in thanks for her time and teaching, and we’d become so cordial by this point, that I simply told her so.

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Clothes and clothes and clothes and clothes

Lulu dove deeper into the stacks of merchandise, and together we hunted, determined to find something I’d love (and not regret having to carry aroud in my backpack for the next 3 months).  Next thing I know, Lulu’s magical selective hearing had kicked in, and “just one small thing” became “okay, so you want these four dresses and this cardigan?”.  

In the past, I’d’ve probably become frustrated and panicked that I’d never get out of this shop without being tricked into a whole new wardrobe.  Today I just laughed, and Lulu laughed too.

Eventually, the magic of Bali surfaced a dress that I did absolutely love. And since you don’t ask for price until you actually want to buy something in bargaining economies, now that climactic dance would begin.

 

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Isn’t she lovely?

We haggled. I scoffed. She told fibs that were quickly revealed. We each pleaded.  We put on our theater masks and performed with great style.  For the first time in my years of travel, the tourist-trap haggle took on a deep sweetness of shared humanity.  I realized I wasn’t just buying a dress.  I was buying language lessons, cultural immersion, the contagious effervescence of this little Balinese woman.  I was buying the connection with what matters, that I embarked on this whole journey to find.  For $6, it was the deal of the century.

As I waved goodbye to Lulu and her husband and they sent me off with the warmth of new family, I realized I was right to be afraid of being ripped off.  Not by the shopkeepers, but by my own fears.  My resistance to dive in had almost robbed me of a profound life experience.  My hesitation had tried to steal from me the magic of Bali.

A touch of Bali
A touch of Bali

“Madame, come! Look! You want!” As long as I choose to travel, those calls will be there.  Often enough, my own isolating worry will likely show up as well.  Now, thanks to Lulu yang lucu (Lulu the funny one), I know which one is actually a threat.

You Don’t Defy Ghosts

It’s my first full day in Bali.  I’m staying in a guesthouse about 1km outside the sleepy resort town of Sanur, and there’s a supposedly haunted, abandoned amusement park just a short walk away. By visiting, it’s impossible to tell how long ago this place was open, only that now the jungle is reclaiming her land.

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Another young woman from the guest house and I strolled over together, and round the park nearly empty of humans.  We saw only a couple groups of young Balinese men lounging on old crumbling picnic tables and benches around the entrance.  

There’s a lot of just lounging that happens in this heat.  

An apparent leader figure of the pack lazily hollered “hallo, where you going?” To which we feigned ignorance, smiled, and strode with purpose past.  I assumed would have tried to charge us an “entry fee” if we’d stop to let them. (I went back another day and can now confirm that attempt.  It failed.)

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Along with the jungle, an array of street artists seem to have made this place their own as well.   Bright splashes of color, and lovingly planned spray paint relics layer on top of the once-ornate facades of falling structures.  The result is an awe-inspiring half zombie apocalypse movie set, half burningman-esque art-gasm.

An especially Walking Dead-ish multi-level building beckoned to our left, with shattered glass and falling ceiling beamings shrouded in dangling, hungry vines.

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“Do you think it’s safe?  My travelling companion asked, and then answered “Ah, what the hell” and lead the charge up the steps inside, before awaiting any response from me.  Inside, it was incredible.

It’s easy to get introspective in a place like this, once the novelty of the macabre softens into the questions of “What on earth is this place’s story?” And for a brain like mine, soon melts into the recurring “what on earth is my story?”

It happens.

I learned from a PBS special once that our identities are neurologically shaped, and constantly re-shaped by our environments.  I find it totally fascinating that our brains are only partially formed at birth, and their structure is, in significant part, determined by our early childhood experiences.  While the physical changes are less drastic in an adult, our brains do continue to be carved and changed by our surroundings, our entire lives.

It’s part of why I travel, to stay open, to stay moldable – to let a bigger world inform the person I want to be.  I don’t always know what my travels will make of me, but sometimes I get a clear sign.

Like today.

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Oh, good to know.

Ah.  So that’s what today will make of me.   Okay, I’ll say yes to that.  What might that mean I need to do?  Fortunately, the spirits of the park had an answer to that for me as well:

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Ah.  Okay.  So I’m here in a new country… the way to majesty in my experience is being willing to take some risks.  Of course, one could argue simply closing up life at home, and coming halfway across the planet for an uncertain amount of time, is a bit of a risk.  But the voices of this haunted place seem to ask me for more.  Who am I to argue?

Lunchtime had crept up upon us, and the mosquitos had already made feasts of our flesh within the park.  We walked out, and braced ourselves for one of the great risks that separates travellers from tourists, the hardy from the squeamish… the universally novel and fascinating challenge of….. Street food.

I was excited, but intimidated.  I’m not going to lie.  We found a road side warung (local food stall), that fortunately had a few pictures on a sign board, to help us through that first otherworldy attempt to order food.  Lunch was served with half-English, half bahasa (Indonesian) stumbling communication, and embarrassed chuckles all around.

Once an order was placed and we waited to see what on earth we had asked for, I worked up the courage to return to the counter and ask for help with a few new vocabulary words for my notebook.  With good humor and patience, the two Balinese women manning the tiny stoves helped me find a first few steps of confidence and warmth in the community around me.  That little step had blossomed into a glow of accomplishment, by the time the food arrived.

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The food was almost as good as my growing social optimism.  What came out was a beautiful tofu and tempeh dish, flanked with roasted eggplant and fresh green veggies, with a sweet and spicy Javanese sauce, and a hearty scoop of white rice.  Exquisite.  They even brought of little bowls of lemon water, which I’m still not sure, but their gestures seemed to suggest, were to rinse our hands before eating. We were happy, relaxed, and feeling great about our journeys ahead by the time payment was due.  The cost for all this joy?  A mere 75 cents each.

You know what?  That felt pretty darn majestic. And like proper royalty, we wandered the village road back home, to do the afternoon in the new Balinese way we’d learned: we headed straight for the pool, and proceeded to lounge.  I think the ghosts would’ve wanted it that way.

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Career Advice From Balinese Bugs

I sat down at my open-air desk, in Bali, with fields of green in front of me, and a gentle air blowing in off the ocean behind me, intending to write a very different blog post than this. Just as I began to write, I was interrupted by some rather friendly tropical bugs…   I didn’t know ants had a thing for keyboards, but I’m having to do a delicate dance of key selection to avoid crushing the poor little things as I type, so watch out folks.. Might want to seal those keyboards in plastic to avoid an infestation at home.

I’m in Bali because I’ve spent the last 7 years building a business that is now providing just enough small monthly income, without too much involvement from me, to travel in Southeast Asia, and figure out what’s next.  I couldn’t live in the west off its current proceeds, but my heart won’t let me pursue growth in that current business as a full-time gig.  There’s a clear demand from within for something else vocationally, and I’m exploring, among other things, what that “something else” might be.

The view just next to my desk - certainly not a bad place for exploration.
The view just next to my desk – certainly not a bad place for exploration.

I’ve had quite a few conversations lately about how the notion that we’re supposed to have a singular career just doesn’t seem to fit for many of us.  It feels somehow off that there’s supposed to be one central  thing we do our whole lives that provides the vast majority of our income, fulfillment, and self-expression.  

I don’t buy it.

Just like I don’t buy that I’m supposed to go out and find that one perfect person for that one perfect relationship, who’ll meet all my different needs, and we’ll live happily ever after.  Not only is that the classic trap of “I”ll be happy when” thinking, but there’s a heck of a lot of different kinds of support, play, affection, adventure, and companionship that this mind and body seem to need.  To expect one person to meet all of those would be at best demanding, and at worst, cruel.  I keep close relationships with quite a few different people, dear friends who each meet me at a slightly different part of my personality, and who all together create a fulfilled life of human interaction.  I don’t think it makes sense, for most of us humans, to reserve our vast expanses of humanity, tenderness, and shared exploration, for just one person we’ve chosen as a romantic partner.  Similarly, I don’t think it makes sense for many of us now to reserve all our brilliance, expression, learning, and time, to just one career path.

Lots of friends. Lots of Jobs.
Lots of friends. Lots of Jobs.

Lots of friends. Lots of jobs.

It’s not an easy mindset change.  I catch myself frequently returning to “what do I want to be when I grow up?” Sort of thinking.. Or, more uncomfortably, “What do I want to do with the REST OF MY LIFE?”.  That question’s just not helpful. It acts like it is, popping to mind multiple times a day, but it’s actually way too overwhelming. I can’t possibly presume to imagine what the next 50+ years will bring.

Plus, I change my mind.  It happens.  A lot.  And I’m learning to be okay with that. After having been busting ass  in my current field for the last 10 years, even with having the freedoms of being my own boss the last 7 of those 10, thinking of committing to a multi-decade career, or even another 10-year project right now, fills me with all sorts of feelings, none of which are joy.

So, as I have to remind myself every 12 hours or so, I’m interested in what’s now, and what’s just next, not the million things after that.

What’s now is using caution to avoid becoming an insect steamroller, while wondering if ants crawling under the keys of a laptop computer will be the death of its circuitry, or if the sweat dripping from my hands attempting to type in this giant outdoor sauna will have that honor.

The center of the action
The center of the action

Next, after this trip, will be something that feels “seasonal”.  Short-term, without the need for years of ground-laying, and fun.  I’m thinking “project” instead of “job”.  I’m thinking expression and fulfillment and joy, that happens to also provide income, and is expressly temporary.  I’m letting a bunch of ideas tickle that fancy, while keeping most of my focus on being on this trip, while on this trip.  

These ants just won’t let me stay present though.  They seem to want to crawl right under whatever finger has reached to click on my laptop trackpad.  They come in close enough to just brush under my skin, but not so directly under that they wind up squished… and then run away under the keys again. It’s like they want to come over, and just be touched before going on their way. I watched this with confounded chuckles for a few moments, following their movement with my thoughts, until they lead back to one of those next project ideas.

I’d earlier had this idea, you see, to use the massage skill I learned working as a personal fitness trainer for the previously mentioned decade, in combination with my delight in energy work and intuitive practices, to offer spiritual bodywork sessions. Since one of my next big interest points when I return to the states is paying back the loans I still carry from Spiritual Psychology grad school, this seems like a fitting and energetically-aligned way to move forward on that goal:  Make a project of paying back my spiritual education, with offerings of spiritually-focused touch.

And here I am, trying to “do some work” writing in Bali, and these little ants just won’t stop coming over to get their mini massages.  I suppose that’s what’s now.  For the last decade I’ve been a personal trainer. In a few months, I’ll likely be something else.  For now, I’m a massage therapist for ants.  And somehow, that seems exactly right.

Your Survival Instinct Is Killing You: Book Review

Unfortunately titled? Perhaps.

Useful tools? Absolutely.

A personal training client of mine handed me her copy of Marc Schoen’s Your Survival Instinct is Killing You, one day after another of our great hikes shared lamenting the anxieties of modern life, and my near-daily mini-meltdowns about my impending international move.  Fortunately for my ability to willingly read the book, she disclaimed the triggering title, even as she told me about it.  I agreed to set aside the alarm bells going off in my head at merely seeing the cover, and give it a glance through.

I got a ton out of this book, and am really glad I was able to get over any initial off-put-ness I had around it.  I’m not someone who particularly appreciates unsolicited advice, so I found it interesting that I was able to  receive a book about escaping the crazy, and not be wildly offended.  Good first sign!  No doubt it made all the difference that it came from someone who’s known me and my many flaws for years, and still loves and appreciates me each time we see each other.  Pro tip: be sure to reflect on the nature of your relationship with anyone you’re considering recommending this book to, before you give it to them.

Cohen asserts that we all have an individual discomfort threshold, beyond which the limbic brain thinks our survival is in danger, and triggers all sorts of nasty reactions and often self-destructive behaviors, in a desperate attempt to get the threat to stop.  

Discomfort beyond your personal threshold => internal chaos

Now that’s part of brain wiring, and has apparently always been the case.  What’s different for us in modern life, according to Cohen, is that we’ve unknowingly lowered that threshold, and caused ourselves to be in “fight or flight” panic, way way too much of the time.  

We’ve done this by cultivating two states in modern society

  1. We’re always agitated.
  2. We’re too comfortable.

First, our frenetic, short-attention, constant stimulation cultural lifestyle puts us in a state of constant “agitance”, which elevates the intensity with which we experience even minor discomforts.  Can we say road rage?  In true modern millennium style, Cohen even includes a DIY quiz you can take, to check in on your own current agitance levels.  Of course, overachiever that I am, mine were at stellar heights.

winning

 

Secondly, we’re constantly sold the idea of the quick-fix, and the expectation of perfection. We pop pills at the first sign of  trouble, we keep our thermostats set to one unchanging temperature, and we’re trained to think that if we consume enough, we can buy happiness by making life go all our way.  Unfortunately, reality doesn’t line up, and our stressed-out hormone systems pay the price.

We have so many problems with anxieties, addictions, and, Cohen makes the case, psychosomatic physical diseases, that arise from this survival instinct firing out of our control, way too much of the time. The equation might look like this:

Agitance  + Unaccustomed Discomfort = eventual survival instinct mayhem.

Cohen spends a good deal of his book laying out that premise, and presenting enough neurological evidence for his claims to make any amateur brain geek like myself quite happy.  However, he had me on board with the first case study, and spending half the book continuing to lay out his argument was counter-productively contributing to my state of agitance, while reading.  Maybe he meant to do that?  A little Meta demonstration of his point at play?  

In any case, after my initial fascination wore off, I tolerated the continued first half of the book, asking as I read “okay okay, but what do I do about it?”.

Fortunately, the second half offered a big ol’ bucket of tools to address this two part problem.

First Cohen presents a bunch of ways we can reduce our agitance.  I do recommend checking out his full description of practices in the book, as many of them you’ve likely seen recommended elsewhere, but I think the context he presents of how they work neurochemically makes them additionally compelling.  Here’s a few highlights that stuck with me.

  • Meditation
  • Breathing Techniques
  • Getting some exercise (even just a few minutes to calm your nerves)
  • Taking time away from screens and electronic communication
  • Slowing down and paying attention to the present moment
  • Practicing better sleep hygiene

 

Second, Cohen lays out ways we get ourselves more accustomed to discomfort.  His practices are set up to actually re-wire the brain, so we give the rational cerebellum a chance to give the flighty limbic system a little calm reassurance, before it leaps to hit the panic button.  Again, it’s really worth reading his full instructions, but the super-generalized overview of how this process works is:

  1. Experience some relatively minor discomfort (eg: delaying gratification –  A compulsive eater might let herself feel a few moments of  real hunger before indulging the instinct to eat. Cohen lays out quite a few other tolerable discomfort examples in the book)
  2. Use breathing techniques for a bit of immediate relaxation – priming the brain to respond to our new conditioning
  3. Cultivate some safe, empowering state (Cohen runs through a whole bunch of them including noticing pleasant physical sensations, consciously inciting gratitude or love, or imagining one’s self as a warrior going into battle.
  4. Bring your attention back to the discomfort, and practice physically feeling the discomfort and the positive feelings at the same time. Repeat.

 

In this way, Cohen asserts, we’re re-wiring the brain, to link discomfort with safety and pleasant feelings, instead of having it linked to panic, as we’re set to default, from the caveman days.  Cohen explains that conditioning ourselves to welcome this discomfort is key to achieving the potential available to us today:

“Seeking and settling for comfort and familiarity now actually leads to rigidity and a constriction of our brain resources… Although our ancient wiring strives for familiarity and comfort because it allowed us to survive in the past, today it actually impedes our ability to function.”  

It’s not a one-time quick fix, but rather a reconditioning process, that happens with practice and over time.  Of course with my background in fitness training, my brain easily latches onto the idea of it functioning like an exercise program, getting our resilience stronger and stronger each time we safely push it toward its limits. Reaching for outside distraction (like TV and cell phone games), or chemical medication (like alcohol, or as in my case, food), actually weakens our resilience “muscles”, by reinforcing the brain synapses that say we can’t handle it on our own, and need that outside solution.  We have to repeatedly experience tolerable discomfort, and find calm and safety from within. That strengthens our coping and comfort “muscles”.  

 

It’s been a couple intense weeks for me since reading this book.  I packed up my life and prepared to move overseas for a while.  I said goodbye to people I love, whom there’s some small but real chance I may never see again.  I let go of control of key parts of my business and have had to trust others to care for my “baby” that I’ve devoted most of my recent life to building.  

Departure day . A heck of a lot of very scary and stressful work went into this.
Departure day . A heck of a lot of very scary and stressful work went into this.

I’ve had a lot of opportunity to practice using my life’s discomfort for my growth and mental health.  I’ve taken time to breathe and feel safe, while feeling anxious.  To breathe, and feel love, while feeling fear.  To breathe and feel powerful, while feeling helpless.  And I feel a difference.  There is definite growth in my capacity to be peaceful in an unpredictable world.  There is a definite decline in my sense of dependence on sugary snacks to ‘get me through” challenging times.  There is a distinct growing trust, in myself, and in the innate possibility for good in the universe.  

I won’t promise that reading this book will change your life.  I can’t say, nor do I think the author would say, that reading actually changed much.  But being willing to try the exercises has changed something.  Putting in the work has made a shift. Saying yes to visiting that neurological gym inside  just might shift your need to visit the fridge, or the medicine cabinet, or the doctor.

Certainly an experiment worth trying, in my opinion.

Available where ever you like books, or via Amazon.
Available where ever you like books, or via Amazon.

What Hong Kong Taught me about Saying “No”

There’s a lot of advice out there, encouraging us to learn to say “no”.  We live in an age and culture where attempting to be superhuman is quite normal, and where endless possibilities present endless opportunity for FOMO.  Anxiety and overwhelm run rampant, and It makes sense that saying “yes” to too much would be seen as the culprit for these ills.

I’m just not comfortable with a life philosophy that worships the invocation of “no” though.  Many of my life’s greatest adventures, gifts, and learnings have come from saying “yes” to an unforeseen opportunity that could’ve easily been a “no”, and that maybe I even felt originally inclined to say “no” to.  I simply don’t want to be the kind of person who says “no” to life.

Image source: Memegenerator.net
Image source: Memegenerator.net, from Hyperbole and a Half.

All those combined to make me quite okay with the idea of finding a little corner of the airport to call my own, setting up camp, getting a good night’s sleep, maybe doing some writing, and getting some nice morning meditation and exercise before my next flight. I was fine with this.  Okay, maybe a little uncertain about what I’d do with the evening waking hours, and just a bit afraid of falling into a horrible mood after such great feelings to start my trip, but for the most part, totally okay.

A conversation with my seat-mate mid flight shifted my perspective a bit though.  He’d done extensive Asia travelling, informed me that I didn’t actually need a Visa, directed me to which neighborhoods would have nightlife that I could enjoy, and highly recommended getting out instead of staying sequestered at the airport.  Suddenly my choice to say “yes” to the airport started feeling like a “no” to life. I started feeling like I was “the kind of person who say’s no to life”.  That’s not something I ever want to feel.

If you don't know Hyperbole and a Half, you should! http://hyperboleandahalf.blogspot.co.id/2010/06/this-is-why-ill-never-be-adult.html
http://hyperboleandahalf.blogspot.co.id/2010/06/this-is-why-ill-never-be-adult.html

 

Once landed, it was easy to use airport wifi to explore the possibility of a mini downtown adventure.  I had plenty of energy. The airport express train into the city fit my budget. I could go, and still get back with more than enough time to sleep and do all my self-care I’d wanted to at the airport.  So I said yes.

The bustle of Lan Kwai Fong
The bustle of Lan Kwai Fong

 I marveled at the beauty of skyscrapers swathed in moonlit fog, from the IFC mall roof garden.  I wandered through the rambunctious pub-lined sidewalks of Lan Kwai Fong, and explored the elevated pedestrian walk over SoHo.  I ate the dinner I’d packed, avoided ever having to get any HK Dollars, and made sure to catch the train back before night service ended, to ensure I wouldn’t have to wait until early morning to get back to the airport.

 

Nighttime in Hong Kong: A city bathing in clouds
Nighttime in Hong Kong: A city bathing in clouds

 

Sure, there were other neighborhoods to explore… sure, I could’ve taken out cash at an ATM, to ride the subway to the Temple night market.  Sure, I could’ve wandered through the fabled streets lined with neon in Kowloon… yes, I could’ve really made a night of it and caught the airport train back when service began again around 6am.  But I didn’t want to. I wanted my “me-time” more.  So passing on those didn’t feel like “no’s”, they felt like “yes’s”.  

 

I said yes to sleep, yes to my meditation, yes to my workout, yes to plenty of time and peace through airport check-in and security screening.  I was focused on what I actually wanted, and so it didn’t feel like I was giving up anything.

Sleepy Airport Cozies
Sleepy Airport Cozies

 

Every choice we make in life has an opportunity cost.  There is always something else we could do with that time, energy, or money.  By focusing on saying “no”, we’re turning down the cost of that opportunity, but we’re still keeping our attention focused on that cost.  If I’d said “no” to a trip into town, I’d’ve likely stewed in further indecision and possible regret, because there wasn’t something that I valued more that I would’ve been saying “yes” to.  When I did decide to say “no” to further adventures, it wasn’t for the “no”, it was for the “yes” of prioritizing the airport experience that mattered to me.  

The epitome of luxury
The epitome of luxury

I’m not suggesting we return to being slaves to saying “yes” to every opportunity that comes our way.  I’ve spent years attempting to “do all the things”, and I can tell you, it can have some pretty ugly downsides. (Ask the months I lost to adrenal fatigue, if you want to know more about that).

What I am suggesting is that in evaluating opportunity, we don’t have to look at it as saying “yes” (which feels positive and enlivening), or “no” (which by definition feels negative).  Instead realize there are different paths with either option, and our choice is simply which path we would rather enthusiastically say “yes” to.  Then once the choice is made, our attention will naturally be where we are, instead of wandering back to regret that thing we said “no” to.

Just a little morning airport workout

Hong Kong taught me to say “yes” at every opportunity.  Not necessarily “yes” TO every opportunity, but “yes” to my values, my needs, my self.  Whether that comes out of my mouth as a “yes” or a “no” to the particular thing being offered, inside my reality will always be “yes”, to my own path.

Movies for Wanderlusters: Brooklyn

Brooklyn.  2015. 1hr51 mins, English. Directed by John Crowley, and starring Saorise Ronan and Emory Cohen

I was on a plane to Bali, when I learned of this sweet art house film. I had just hit the reset button on my own life, extricating myself from a deeply entrenched role in the company I had founded, broken the lease on my apartment, ended a romantic relationship, and headed off for a several month sabbatical in the tropics.

All I knew about this movie was the in-flight sumaary synopsis: “Eilis leaves Ireland for the shores of 1950s New York CIty, where she embarks on a new life.”

Doesn't she just look ready to set off into a new life?
Doesn’t she just look ready to set off into a new life?

Solo travel to carve out a new life?  Yes, sign me up.

The movie wasn’t some groundbreaking masterpiece of cinema, but the lead girl was so tenderly acted that her quietly introverted struggle to find her place in the world pulled deeply at my heartstrings, and may have caused the shedding of a tear or two before the movie ended.

Saoirse Ronan as Eilis - image from Screenrant.com
Saoirse Ronan as Eilis – image from Screenrant.com

I like not knowing much about movies going into them, so I won’t give anything away for you, except to add it to the list of movies you might enjoy.  Especially in those “new life” moments where your desire to start fresh seems a little crazy to everyone around you, and you just want to see it understood and reflected at you on screen.

Goes well with airplane peanuts :-)

Enjoy!