Essay: Becoming Seattle

SN859177I awoke today with a mission: Retrieve a package from the Fed Ex office up on Broadway, and go to a drug store for assorted stuff and things. Before walking out the door I looked in the mirror and was shocked. I looked like a Seattle native. There she was, staring at me in her worn out black pea coat, dirty old sneakers and skinny jeans. Her knit yellow hat that didn’t match her green scarf, the size of which could have fit her and ten of her closest friends. But this was not native looking back at me. It was me! The California girl! (The girl who didn’t walk anywhere because that song is right, nobody walks in L.A.) Seeing that dingy yellow hat reminded me. I’m not a native. Not really. That hat saw Texas, The Grand Canyon, and The California Redwoods long before it saw Seattle. And now it gave me the look of any local who comes in the store looking for Infinite Jest. When did this happen?

I set out on my mission walking fast. I developed my City Walk in the winding streets of San Francisco and I’m as good as any native New Yorker at dodging, avoiding, ignoring and moving in general. I’m like Jason Bourne meets James Bond. But my City Walk is a liability here in Seattle. A city who collectively meanders. A city who will wait their turn when no one else is around. A city who is so polite it causes traffic and incurs rage in an L.A. native like myself. (L.A.: A city where wait your turn means go)

I adjusted my speed, but kept my pace fast enough not to be bothered by, or knocked over by anyone. I passed slow-moving people heavily engaged with the palms of their hands, not watching where they are going. A young woman was so engaged in her own hand that she tripped over a dog. That made me smile. I quite enjoy running errands. I felt the same way in Prague and San Francisco. Places where just stepping out your front door could result in a hilarious story for later.

For me a twenty-minute walk to the post is a journey across the world and a tango down memory lane. I walk by Annapurna (here in Seattle) and the rich, vibrant smells of chicken tiki masala and warm naan remind me of the delicious meals I’ve shared with friends in Berkeley and London. I’m suddenly transported to Brick Lane, eating warm spicy curry in a crowded restaurant then getting fresh-baked doughnuts from the bakery next door. I’m sitting in a restaurant in Berkeley with my friends and their one year old happily eating spicy food, proving once and for all that babies can handle their spice. Each step I take is a new memory. A new place to revisit.

I keep moving. I pass a bar with a familiar neon sign. “The Alley”, it says. I smile and think about Oakland and how much I loved living there. How much I love singing at The Alley. Rod Dibble on piano. Song books available, just ask. Blue Moon you saw me standing alone. Can’t Help Lovin’ That Man. Cigarette stained business cards tacked to the walls. Stapled. Pined. Taped. Decades worth of ghosts listening to the drunk and out of tune sing the songs of yesteryear. Over and over. Night after night. The Alley. Oakland. The first city to steal my heart. But not the last.

I passed a tiny dog barking at a pigeon the size of a small house cat. I passed small groups of students in front of the City College. One group in a heated debate about how many selfies constitute “too many” on FB. Another group laughing about a girl named Jenny and whether she should be pursuing a career as a metal drummer if she’s never even heard of Metalica. I thought of my years at PCC and the similar debates I had with friends. Who’s better Barbara or Liza? Fosse or Sondheim? I know I don’t need anymore literature classes, but do you think I should just take one for fun? Discovering poetry and learning to write it. Learning to write. Buster’s Coffee shop and Vroman’s Bookstore. PCC Flea Market and MTW. The good old days in Pasadena, not my home town but damn well close. Literally.

I know some folks look at the way I’ve lived my life and say I’ve wasted it. I know this because folks tell me. The internet is great for that. Strangers actually write to me just to tell me that I have wasted my life. I have nothing to show for my forty-one years on the planet. And maybe they are right. I don’t have any THING to show for it. I’ve had cars but I sold them. I don’t own property and I don’t have kids. I don’t have a fancy job or fancy clothes. If the accumulation of things is the sign of a life well lived, then you’d be correct in saying I’ve totally wasted my life.

But I don’t feel that way. I feel lucky. I’m lucky because for me, a trip to the post office is trip around the world. It’s fun, not a chore. I pass a Phò place and think about the little place near JZP in Prague, and the twenty amazing places in London. I smile. If I had never left southern California I wouldn’t have a cache of memories that are with me wherever I go. Even if it’s just to the post office.  

And now every day is an adventure. I looked out over the water today and thought about The Charles Bridge in Prague, but also how much I love the scenery here in Seattle just as much now. I wouldn’t trade it for the world. Hell, I wouldn’t even trade Austin. I met some fine people there and now have a deeper understanding as to why the rest of the world thinks Texas is full of crazy people. (Hint: Because Texas is full of crazy people)

By the time I returned home to my little studio here in Capitol Hill I had been through London, Oakland, Prague, Mexico, L.A. and Texas. I was exhausted but oddly happy. And isn’t that the greatest measure of a life well lived? Happiness? If I can return home from the Fed Ex office, three drug stores and the QFC, all while carrying a package and bundled up like a tick about to pop, I’d say I’m doing something right. My travels have made me adaptable to my surroundings.

As long as my surroundings are not in Texas.

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Zen Habits: New Year, New Now

94150-live-in-the-now-gif-Waynes-Wor-dW2TI am not the type of person who dwells in the past. I don’t hold on to my successes or failures as badges of honour or disgrace. I just try to keep moving forward. The end of the year is always a tempting time to look back and take stock of where you are and what you’ve done. And that’s fine I guess, as long as you don’t dwell on it. Looking at what you have done is not the same as doing something. I like to look forward.

Choosing to live in the past only robs you of today. I know that sounds all “New Age”, but it isn’t. It’s really simple. The ONLY important moment is the present moment. You cannot undo the past, and you certainly cannot mold the future, therefore the only thing that truly matters is…NOW!

The idea here is to enjoy the moment. I could easily do a recount of my year and look back at all I’ve done and seen. It was a huge year and I did a lot. But looking back does nothing. Instead I want to enjoy the fruits of my labors, which is the now. I’m here in beautiful Seattle with my fella. I have a great job and I’m pretty happy. My right now is pretty great, and it would be a shame for me to waste it by looking back, or worrying about the future. A life lived in perpetual planning is not really a life. I’ve known people plan for futures that they were nowhere near to achieving. Why live a fantasy life in your head when you could live your real life instead? Hey, that rhymed!

Where ever you are in this coming year, I challenge you to live in the moment. Enjoy yourself where ever you are. Sure, you might get sick or have to do things that are not enjoyable, but that doesn’t mean you can’t fully appreciate the small moments a day holds. Sights, sounds, smells, emotions even triumphs and tragedies, all of these things are worth noticing and living through. When I am having a bad day, I ask myself How can I enjoy this? Just asking the question has a calming effect and grounds me in the now.

You only have one shot at each day so try to make the most of it. Don’t dwell on the past – good or bad. Don’t worry about the future, it is coming no matter what you do. There will always be unknowns, and for me the unknown is the fun part. I guess good ol’ Sophocles said it best, “Tomorrow is tomorrow. Future cares have future cures, And we must mind today.”

A Map of My Life

SN859272Every month I am honored to be a contributor over at gumshoeblog.org – It’s a fun place. “Gumshoe features a collection of writers who are full of curiosity and are armed with an adventurous spirit. A gumshoe is a cultural curator who is looking for what is unexpected, beautiful, frustrating, and inspiring. A gumshoe digs deeper to attempt to understand how art and culture live and interact in our world. Gumshoes love the act of discovery and sharing.” Rad, huh?

So, this month we writers were tasked to make a map… of anything. I was a little dumfounded at the idea because I never like to put effort into anything that I believe will end up being ordinary. If I make a map I want it to be spectacular! So after ditching a few maps to fantasy realms, I decided to make a “map” of my life… with drawings.

The idea here is to show where I have lived over the past couple of decades. I travelled a lot over the years, but this little map shows where I have lived. Where I have planted myself. Where I have earned a living, paid taxes, etc. I’ve moved around a lot and I don’t regret it.

SN859274I started in So. Cal and then moved to San Francisco. From there I moved to Oakland, and then back to L.A. for a few months before moving to Prague. I stayed in Prague for about three years before moving to Mexico where it was ridiculously hot and I got paid very little. So… back to Prague for another four years. When I got tired of the Czech lifestyle, I moved with my partner to Texas, his home. We lived in Houston and Austin, but mostly Austin. I did not care for Texas. We left Texas in January of this year and packed our little car with everything we own. What didn’t fit didn’t come. (Now that’s a minimalist lifestyle!) We drove to Ratna Ling Buddhist Retreat Center. (I wrote a series of pieces about my time there. This was the last one) It was supposed to be a six month commitment, but they asked me to leave after one month. From there we drove back to Berkeley where we stayed with an awesome couple, their one year old and three legged dog. They were kind enough to let us stay and recoup before we repacked the car and headed to Seattle. And that’s where I am now.

O Captain! My Captain! Remembering Robin Williams

Like many people around the worldrobin-williams-by-Samerry[206123], I grew up watching Robin Williams. I watched him go from Mork on Happy Days to becoming an Oscar winner. He was one of the funniest men to ever live, and a great actor. He was quick, biting, clever and still had the ability to make us all feel. He was a human before he was a movie star. And it showed on screen. His movies taught me about life and love and joy and being able to laugh even when things are bad.

The only way I have of honouring his life is to talk about it here. I can honestly say that everything I need to know in life, I learned from one of the greatest. These are ten of my personal favorite Robin Williams films, what they meant to me, and what they taught me.

  1. Popeye (1980) – When I was just six years old, I managed to win tickets to the premeire of Popeye. No one in my family seemed quite as excited as me, but it was my fantastic coloring work that won those tickets. There was a red carpet and cameras and Robin Williams. It was something. The movie got panned, but I still remember that night and that movie. Even though you hate spinach, you gotta eat it. “I hates spinach!”
  2. The World According to Garp (1982) – The John Irving novel is one of my favorite books. I read the book before I saw the movie, so of course I hated the movie. And I hated it for a while. I re-watched the film some years later and I fell in love. Robin Williams played the role of Garp perfectly, quietly and gave life to him. The movie gave me hope as a fellow writer who has a crazy family of her own. “You know, everybody dies. My parents died. Your father died. Everybody dies. I’m going to die too. So will you. The thing is, to have a life before we die. It can be a real adventure having a life.”
  3. Good Morning Vietnam (1987) vietnamI pretty much had this movie memorised. It was the first of Robin Williams as Teacher roles, and I ate it up. I wanted to have a teacher like him! But of course, there aren’t a lot of teachers that can do really great John Wayne impressions. It was also one of the first times we see him as activist. Standing up for what’s right no matter what the consequence. The lesson: “Okay, if someone is not telling the truth, you say that they are full of… (Vietnamese Class: Shit!) If someone has made you angry or angrier, they have…(Vietnamese Class: Pissed me off!)
  4. Dead Poets Society (1989) o-captainIn what way did this movie not change the way I look at life? I was fifteen years old when this came out and I wished, prayed and tried to figure out a way to go to boarding school. In the 50’s. I know, I know. Impossible. But even as a smart ass kid, I understood the message – Carpe diem, boys. Rip up the instructions, fuck the rules, and live life! Suck the marrow from the bone! And, “No matter what anybody tells you, words and ideas can change the world.” I still believe that. And I’m standing on my desk for you.
  5. The Fisher King (1991) TheFisherKingRobinWilliamsPTSonyPicturesStill one of his greatest films. And the life lesson here is pretty simple. “There’s three things in this world that you need: Respect for all kinds of life, a nice bowel movement on a regular basis, and a navy blazer.”
  6. The Birdcage (1996) – For me this movie was the perfect storm of awesome. You get Robin Williams being hilarious yet holding back because you just have to hold back when you are next to Nathan Lane. And you also get Gene Hackman, who can do no wrong. Together they gave this movie just what it needed to work: heart. “Yes, I wear foundation. Yes, I live with a man. Yes, I’m a middle- aged fag. But I know who I am, Val. It took me twenty years to get here, and I’m not gonna let some idiot senator destroy that. Fuck the senator, I don’t give a damn what he thinks.”
  7. Good Will Hunting (1997) – This movie is filled with so much greatness, and most of it is due to Robin Williams. When he says, “It’s not your fault”. You believe it. And you keep believing it. “So if I asked you about art, you’d probably give me the skinny on every art book ever written. Michelangelo, you know a lot about him. Life’s work, political aspirations, him and the pope, sexual orientations, the whole works, right? But I’ll bet you can’t tell me what it smells like in the Sistine Chapel. You’ve never actually stood there and looked up at that beautiful ceiling; seen that. If I ask you about women, you’d probably give me a syllabus about your personal favorites. You may have even been laid a few times. anigif_enhanced-buzz-13392-1384973721-10_previewBut you can’t tell me what it feels like to wake up next to a woman and feel truly happy. You’re a tough kid. And I’d ask you about war, you’d probably throw Shakespeare at me, right, “once more unto the breach dear friends.” But you’ve never been near one. You’ve never held your best friend’s head in your lap, watch him gasp his last breath looking to you for help. I’d ask you about love, you’d probably quote me a sonnet. But you’ve never looked at a woman and been totally vulnerable. Known someone that could level you with her eyes, feeling like God put an angel on earth just for you. Who could rescue you from the depths of hell. And you wouldn’t know what it’s like to be her angel, to have that love for her, be there forever, through anything, through cancer. And you wouldn’t know about sleeping sitting up in the hospital room for two months, holding her hand, because the doctors could see in your eyes, that the terms “visiting hours” don’t apply to you. You don’t know about real loss, ’cause it only occurs when you’ve loved something more than you love yourself. And I doubt you’ve ever dared to love anybody that much. And look at you… I don’t see an intelligent, confident man… I see a cocky, scared shitless kid. But you’re a genius Will. No one denies that. No one could possibly understand the depths of you. But you presume to know everything about me because you saw a painting of mine, and you ripped my fucking life apart.”
  8. Death to Smoochy (2002) – I think this movie is fantastic and totally underrated. You can have your Jumanji and your Patch Adams. I’ll take a little movie that’s really about making kids happy. And you know what I learned? “Even when you’re squeaky clean, you can still fall in the mud.” Oh, and I also learned that every movie is better with an iceskating dance number at the end. I love you Rainbow Randall. 
  9. One Hour Photo (2002) – I loved creepy Robin Williams. I was happy that he (mostly) stopped doing half assed comedies and did more dark stuff. He was good at dark. His character in this film was sad and frightening. “Family photos depict smiling faces… births, weddings, holidays, children’s birthday parties. People take pictures of the happy moments in their lives. Someone looking through our photo album would conclude that we had led a joyous, leisurely existence free of tragedy. No one ever takes a photograph of something they want to forget.”
  10. World’s Greatest Dad (2009) – I bet you haven’t seen this one. It was fantastic and completely overlooked. It was directed by Bobcat Goldthwait. It’s a little hard to look at now, seeing the way that Robin Williams took his own life. But I’ll never forget the scene at the end when he jumps in the pool. I hope he found the freedom he was looking for. This is how I’ll remember you. “I used to think the worst thing in life was to end up all alone. It’s not. The worst thing in life is ending up with people who make you feel all alone.” *Spoiler Alert! If you haven’t seen this film, then don’t watch this clip. It’s awesome, but also a huge spoiler. You have been warned. * 

The New Nature of Friendship

all_friends-512I’m Friends with 736 people. Most of whom I haven’t seen in something like 25 years. A few I’ve never met. But we’re still friends. How is that possible?

First Friends

Our first friends are chosen for us. We don’t have a say in it. Our siblings are our first friends, or maybe the children of our parents friends. But we didn’t choose them. Your first friends were the kids your parents inadvertently decided on for you. That’s how it works when you are a baby. You can’t make those decisions for yourself. You are too busy learning to walk and talk and clap. Babies love clapping.

The older we get the more say we have in who is or isn’t our friend. We see personality traits we like and attempt to become friends with people who share those traits. When I was six I was friends with girls who enjoyed purple as much as I did. As I grew a little older and more mature, it was stickers. If you had a lot of stickers, I wanted to be your friend. In grade school my best friend was the girl who came before me in alphabetical order. We sat next to one another for five years and her family lived a short walk from mine. A friendship was born.

But how long is a friendship based on last names or love of stickers supposed to last? Your grade school friends either became your Jr. High friends, or you were put into different classes and developed new friendships. When it became clear that my Alphabetically Based Friend and I had little left in common, our friendship just passed into memory. It wasn’t a sad thing. It wasn’t a thing at all. We just outgrew each other. Nobody expected you to stay BFF’s with the kid you sat next to in Ms. Partridge’s Fifth Grade home room, or that girl who wore horse shirts every day.

But there they are in your News Feed. Every day. You get to see the children, dogs, cats, hamburgers, family holidays, work complaints and Halloween costumes of every person you ever met in your entire life who happens to remember your name.

Facebook Friends

It was a simpler time. A time before Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Instagram. A time when you met people at school or church or work or your local D&D game or the market and if you liked one another – you became friends. If one of you moved away, sadly the friendship would loosen its grip. Long distance friendships lasted only if both parties were good communicators. And remember, it was only the telephone and letter writing. Like with a pen on paper. If you couldn’t manage to keep up with your letter writing or phone calls, the friendship would die out.

These days I see the daily minutia of 736 people. For example, I know that some of my friends in Austin floated the river today. I know that another friend of mine from high school adopted an adorable kitten named Winston. I know which of my exes have gotten fat and which have gotten remarried. I also happen to know that one friend is “Trying the meatloaf”, while another is “Just over it.” Facebook isn’t really about friendships, it’s about self promotion. It’s a one-way street – MY Street. I’ll talk about what I want, and if you are my friend you are obligated to look at it. But is that really a friendship?I’m not casting stones from my fancy glass castle, so settle down. I am well aware that I am guilty of posting pointless pictures of cats to Facebook. And I don’t even own a cat.

someecards-enemies-real-life-block-youI guess I’m saying that since we (as a society) have decided that we want to know people forever, we need to start being a little more discerning about what we put out there. I mean, I would never bring someone over to my house and make them look at photo after photo after photo of my cat or my child. Or my lunch. So perhaps I shouldn’t be doing it online either. Perhaps less is more.

Friends used to be people you saw often and hung out with, people you shared secrets with. In person. Now a friend is just a click away. You don’t really have to put time or effort into a Facebook Friend. Once you agree, that’s it. You are friends.

Terminus

Until you get deleted. And that is pretty easy also. You can edit actual people from your life with just a click of a button. You don’t have to write a long letter explaining why you can’t be friends anymore. Heck you don’t even have to look the person in the eye or be in the same time zone. All you have to do is click. They might not even notice. It’s that easy. Facebook prolongs the period it takes to get over someone, because you have an open window into their life, whether you want to or not. You see their updates, their pictures and their relationship status. You see how happy they are. Or at least how happy they seem. Either way it isn’t healthy. It’s a mecca for passive aggressive behavior.

We call people we know on Facebook our friends whether or not we know them in any real sense, or even like them. Most of your FB friends are just people you used to know. Sure you know what they ate for dinner last night, but it’s a one-sided deal. True friendship is built upon trust and interaction. Real friendship is deeper than words on a computer screen or photos of desserts. A Friend is someone you socialize with in person, someone you have an emotional investment in and feel a connection with. It seems crazy to expect the same experience from a computer screen.

So for good or bad, Facebook makes it easy to form and maintain friendships. We can post a quick happy birthday on a wall and we don’t have to worry about sending a card. If a friend is bugging you with her political postings or boring stories of his workplace, just log off. Personally I don’t give a rat’s posterior if you are “Having a hurried Friday” or if little Johnny “took forty minutes to tie his shoes”. And I certainly don’t care to know which GoT character a classmate from third grade is.

So how do we continue? What is the solution to the problem of online friends? It’s so easy to just hide or block those that don’t fit into the little online kingdoms we have created for ourselves. But that isn’t really doing anything to improve friendships or our online experiences with other people. We need to start conducting ourselves better online. Don’t post every thought that comes into your head no matter how hilarious you think it is. Use good judgement. Ask yourself if all 736 people you know online need to see the ice cream cone you are eating.

Ignore all of the bullshit. Don’t comment on everything. Use restraint. Don’t friend everyone that asks. Treat people online (or off) with respect. Having lots of friends and dozens of “likes” on a status can feel-good. I get it. But when things get tough, “likes” and comments won’t replace a real shoulder to lean on. Being a real friend takes time. I guess ol’ Will Shakespeare said it best, “A friend is one that knows you as you are, understands where you have been, accepts what you have become, and still, gently allows you to grow.”

Zen Habits: Work/Life Balance

WorkLifeBalance3Yesterday at work I read a passage in a book I was returning to the shelves of the Business section. I tend to glance at the titles in this section or roll my eyes as I flip through the pages. For me, most of what is in Business books is just common sense. They try to market to specific types of people (Type A anyone?) by claiming to have the answer to all of your important questions. It is not unlike the Diet book business. Each new book claims to have the right answer for losing weight, but you’ll only have the answer if you read the book. I’ll save you some money – eat right, eat smaller and exercise. No book necessary. The same goes for business. If you need to read a chapter explaining how to return emails (to your boss, coworker, team…) then you are kind of dumb. But there are plenty of people who think I’m dumb, so I guess we’re even.

The book I glanced at was by a young (twenty-seven years old) entrepreneur who claimed to have the keys to success for todays ever-changing world. Or something like that. She knows what she’s talking about. You can tell from the smart yet chic suit she wears on the cover. She’s also standing outside on a corner like she’s going to hail a cab. I guess thats supposed to let us know she’s a Big City Business Woman and we can trust her. Anyway, I opened to a page about work/life balance. Or rather how the idea of such a thing is a figment of your imagination. Like the Easter bunny. Okay she didn’t make that analogy but she should have. She writes that her generation strives for work life integration. To not work an eight-hour day and then go home and forget about it. She says that work and life are the same. The. Same.

I threw up a little in my mouth. But I kept reading.

She contends that for women, the balance of a home life and a work life doesn’t exist. Something has to give. Women cannot balance a successful career and be a wife and or mother, girlfriend, whatever… without giving up something, or saying “No” to opportunities. Um… No shit! Who says “Yes!” to everything? I guess realizing that at age twenty-seven is alright, but did you need to devote a chapter in your book to it? The trick is saying yes to the right things for you and your priorities. If your priorities are career driven, then say yes to things that will help your career. If your priorities are family, travel or whatever else, then say yes to the things that help that vision. Taking short cuts isn’t the answer.

woman-entrepreneurThe lady entrepreneur continues to write about how she has integrated her work life with her life life by getting  a nanny, ordering groceries on-line and having them delivered, and hiring someone to walk her dog for her. I put the book down. That is not achieving balance. That isn’t even integrating. That’s just delegating. Nice try. But I ain’t buyin’ it.

Success and fulfillment are different for everyone. Many people gauge their success by how well they get paid, their title at work, or their position. Others by how their life looks from the outside. Do you have the right things? If you have the right things people will think you are successful. It seems to me that the author of that book thinks this way. Money, fame and power are what matters. What people think matters. You can claim to have it together, but when you are living your life by proxy, I don’t believe you. Bringing your work home with you is fine if you are single and live alone, but it’s just cruel if you live with other people. Or cats. Nobody wants to be around the person who is constantly checking their iphone, constantly talking about work, or is obviously not present when you try to have a non work related conversation.

Eckhart Tolle says, “Neither failure or success has the power to change your inner state of being.” The most successful people I know do not look at failure as failure and success as success. They do not let outcomes change their state of beingYou can see if goals are being accomplished or not, but that shouldn’t have any effect on your inner state. Telling women to delegate their lives away isn’t the answer. We should make time to walk the dog or pick the kids up from school. We should be capable and willing to buy food for ourselves in a store or market. When we disconnect from our lives to the extent that we buy our food from a touch screen and have it left on our doorstep we’ve gone too far. When the nanny picks up the kids from school, feeds them dinner and you simply kiss them good night, you’ve gone too far. Perhaps we need to look at our priorities a little.

For me, being happy at work and at home meant changing my perception of the world around me. There was no other answer. The truly successful, whether a CEO, a lawyer, a bookseller, or a stay at home mom, are the people who create a life full of joy and accomplishment. These people are not controlled by environment or opinion. Truly successful people are self-reliant, they know where they are going in life.  Even if outward appearances do not agree. They choose where to focus their energy and their thoughts. Tolle also says that pleasure is something you get from the outside and joy comes from within. I think success is finding joy. Who cares what you do for a living if you’ve discovered joy within yourself? I try to remember every day, that looking for happiness is the antithesis of happiness. It helps. And it makes me happy.

Zen Habits: Life In-Between

roads-divergingNo matter what stage of life you are in, there are questions. You might be wondering, “What’s next?” or “What do I do now?” or even, “Is this it?” Maybe you just finished a big home project, or maybe, like me, you are in-between everything. I am so often in transition that it has become almost comfortable. Almost. I’ve been on the road since December 29, 2013 – that’s well over a month. I have a plan in place, but it’s a slow-moving, low-income, loose plan. It’s tough to be in-between a home and a job at the same time. Figuring out how to live in the “In-between” is difficult when you have money. It’s almost impossible when you don’t.

I’m in a unique position. I’m kind of stalled. My plan got derailed (as plans often do) and now I am left twisting in the wind. My fella and I had planned on heading to Seattle in June when we were finished at Buddhist Camp. I hadn’t planned on leaving early, but I did leave early. That means a new plan. I have feelers out in Seattle and folks willing to give us a place to flop, but jumping into the unknown with no money isn’t easy. It’s not impossible, just not easy. I have to look at this as an opportunity for us to be fighters; to look within ourselves and find that strength that we always knew was there. But after months of digging deep, who knows how much is left.

Transitions give us strength and builds real character. We discover who we are and what we want from life. We let go of our preconceptions and see clearly, maybe for the first time.

Each time I have found myself in a time of transition I try to seize the opportunities that life throws at me. I’m trying to enjoy the surprises that each day brings and accept all that life throws my way. Life is just one big experiment and there are no correct answers. There is only what you do, and what you choose not to do. All I can do is be fully present in the life I have chosen and take advantage of each stage, even the in-between ones. I have patience and I won’t let doubt get the better of me. I’m on a journey and I plan on enjoying every moment of it.

Hopefully one day in the not to distant future, my sweetheart and I will be able to look back on this In-Between time fondly and say, “Hell yeah! We nailed it!” I don’t know what’s next, but I do know I’m ready, willing, and able to kick its ass.

Ratna Ling Week 4: Peace Out

SN858181Our month-long trial period doesn’t end for another week, but it looks like the end is nigh here at Ratna Ling. And it wasn’t for lack of trying. I did all I was asked of, and more. I worked. I cleaned. I took classes. I even stood quietly and humbly while the rest of the community chanted three times a day.

What I didn’t do, and what I seem to be unable to do pretty much ever, is keep my big mouth shut. When people ask me how I’m doing, I have a nasty habit of telling the truth. When they ask me how I like working in an unheated factory when it’s windy and rainy out, I tell them. And when they ask me how I like the food, they get an honest answer. So it came as no great shock to me when they said I wasn’t a good fit here. I pretty much agreed with them.

I’m not a good fit here for many reasons. The top reason is my age. I turned forty a couple of days before arriving to Ratna Ling. I know age ain’t nothin’ but a number, but sometimes that number is staggering evidence of your wisdom and experience. If I have done my job well as a human being I have already learned a lot of the “lessons” the work here is supposed to teach me. For example, patience is not a lesson I need to learn. I taught preschool and kindergarten in three countries. I have applied for a Visa in the Czech Republic. I took a bus into Mexico in the middle of the night. I have patience. Most of the people here are in their early to mid twenties, so they still have a great many things to learn about the world. I get that, and I wish them luck in doing so, but man is it exhausting listening to people talk about weather and dorm rooms. Maybe the reason old people seem so grumpy all the time is because they are tired of hearing the same mundane stories again and again, year in, year out.

Next, as I have noted previously, the food here is awful. There is absolutely no seasoning in anything. If you are going to serve vegetarian food unseasoned, then I am going to want to punch you in the face. Period. I’ve worked in restaurants before, and I know a lot of professional chefs and cooks. I know good food, and this isn’t it. I now know for a fact that there is nothing worse than unseasoned, partially cooked black beans and tofu.

And lastly, I never fit in here. From the moment we arrived, both my boyfriend and I felt judged. Bringing two new people into a community takes sensitivity and nurturing. We got neither. Instead we were thrown into the deep end with little to no guidance. Instead of explaining the chanting (what they are saying, why they do it, who exactly are they chanting to) they just judged us for not doing it. Tell me why you light incense and candles and tell me why you leave flower offerings. And don’t wait three weeks to do it! Tell me right away so that I can begin understanding. Don’t let me fumble my way through my day. Instead, give me the tools I need to feel successful and confident.

SN858183Before coming here I understood that skepticism is an important aspect of Tibetan Buddhism. It is supposed to encourage and promote your skillz concerning analytic meditation. “One should test the Buddha’s words as one would the quality of gold.” A Buddhist may study with a lama for decades before finally accepting him as his own guru. Me, I only got about three weeks to make a decision. Doesn’t really seem like a fair shake if you ask me.

So I take only partial blame in our being shunned from Buddhist Camp. I have a big personality. Some people have a hard time with my honesty. I don’t pretend to be happy when I’m not, and I’m not laughing if your joke wasn’t funny. Maybe I lived in Prague too long or maybe I’m just Czech at heart, but I just don’t do small talk. And I think it’s worth mentioning that they asked my boyfriend to stick around, just not me. So I guess I shouldn’t feel bad. That is pretty low class. But I’m not apologizing. I don’t need to. I tried and it just didn’t work out.

And hell, who else can say they got kicked out of Buddhist Camp?

Ratna Ling Week 2: Much Chanting

SN858105High in the hills of a remote stretch of the Sonoma County coast sits the world’s largest printing press for sacred Tibetan texts. I work there every day, six days a week. Each of those six days begins relatively the same. I wake up at six, take a quick shower, put on a pair of jeans and a few layers, then head to The Lodge for breakfast. The walk to The Lodge is about eight minutes. I make breakfast for myself from what is leftover/available in the kitchen. The pantry and walk-in are locked. I usually end up with yogurt and cereal. I have a cup of coffee and read my book before walking down to the big golden stupa/garden in front of The Bindery. This walk takes about eight minutes as well. At eight, we have a morning meeting (AKA chanting) for ten minutes or so, and a reading from a book covering the history of Ratna Ling and its founder, Tarthang Tulku. After the morning meeting we split off and go to our “jobs”. Mine is in the Bindery. Before we actually start working, we do more chanting. About twenty minutes worth. After that another reading, this time from Tarthang Tulku’s book, “Skillful Means”. After that we set to work.

Odiyan in the distance

Odiyan in the distance

I work in a 21,234 square foot factory housed on the grounds of Ratna Ling. About six or seven volunteers like myself work six days a week to print and collate more than 100,000 books a year. The texts are then shipped off to India and Nepal for distribution to monasteries and refugees from China’s brutal crackdown on Tibet. The books I am currently making will be in India this summer. That’s pretty cool. I’m happy to be someone who is helping. To a certain extent. Most of the volunteers here practice Tibetan Buddhism, and produce text as a mandate of their religion and their “teacher” (Rinpoche) Tarthang Tulku. He lives in a golden palace called Odiyan which sits across the valley from Ratna Ling. Okay, maybe it’s not a palace, but it’s close.

And therein lies my issue with being here. There is a Guru on a hill who dictates my days. I find this odd and just a little disturbing.

When people here ask me why I wanted to come, my answer isn’t the same as everyone elses. I’m not here because I want to become a Tibetan Buddhist. I’m here because I believe strongly in freedom of religion. I think it sucks that Buddhists in Tibet can’t read their own sacred text. Imagine what Catholics, Presbyterians, Jews, Mormons and Muslims would do if it were illegal to read the Bible, or Koran, or Book of Mormon. They’d freak out! And they’d be really happy that some nice folks in a free country literally donated years of their lives to make sure they could still read their Sacred Texts. It is your right to follow what ever crazy religion you choose, it is also your right to abstain from it altogether. And that’s why I’m here. I support their right to practice, chant, read, and be Buddhists. I guess I’m learning that Buddhism, at least this kind, just isn’t for me.

Sunrise

Sunrise

Tibetan Buddhism isn’t at all like the Zen Buddhism we westerners are familiar with. It’s not namaste and downward dog here. It’s chanting prayers to “Rinpoche” and Kum Nye yoga. Kum Nye yoga is a traditional Tibetan body practice that is part of the religion. It was first introduced in the US by Lama Tarthang Tulku (or, Rinpoche as he is known at Ratna Ling) and he has written five books on the subject. Many of the people I have met here came to Ratna Ling specifically to practice Kum Nye. It is a really, really slow-moving yoga. It is supposed to massage you on the inside. I know. It sounds really “hippy”, and I’m not going to lie, it totally is.

There are a few different parts of Tibetan Buddhism, and a few of them don’t sit well with me. I don’t believe in reincarnation, and therefore I don’t really believe in Karma. At least not the kind talked about in Tibetan Buddhism. I don’t believe that I had a past life, and if I did, I doubt it pulls any weight with this one. I also have trouble with the Guru devotion part. Many of the people here talk of Rinpoche like he is a literal god. Those tiny horses in the picture above? He wanted horses and the next week they were there. He calls the shots. Literally. He gave us Bindery folks a half day on Saturday. It was a big deal. It marks the first time in twenty years that he has given any time off to his, um, worker bees.

So I’m working my ass off in the name of freedom. I’m walking the walk. I believe in the human right to believe in, or not believe in whatever you want. I don’t really want to chant all the time, I find it as silly as the call and answer portion of the church services I grew up with. It’s a little creepy. But that’s my opinion and my right. I have a right to find most religions silly if I want. I have the right to pray to Buddha, Jesus, Guru Rinpoche, or a life-size cut out of Darth Vader. As long as you aren’t hurting anybody, then be as religious as you want. So saith me.

Praise Cheebus, amen.

Zen Habits: Questions to Ask Yourself at Year’s End

four-seasonsThe end of the year is nigh. That means people the world over will be looking back and taking stock of what they managed to do and not do in the past year. In the past I have used this blog to reflect on what I’ve done, and look forward to the year to come. This year is no different, but a lot easier since I took stock of my life mid year. I knew I wasn’t happy where I was and waiting isn’t really my style. So I asked myself some important questions and took action. The result is that 2014 is going to be an exciting year for me.

Even if you are totally content with your life and happy with where you are (both physically and mentally), it won’t hurt to look at these questions and see where your life is out of balance. I answered most of these questions last year and it showed me quite vividly that I was unhappy. Sure it was my first year in America in almost seven years, but reverse culture shock isn’t to blame for everything. I quickly saw that Austin wasn’t good for me. Most (if not all) of my unhappiness stemmed from living in a place I found stifling to my independence and growth. Once I figured that out, the rest was fun and easy. I developed an escape plan that commences in three weeks. It’s not enough to know what the problems are, you have to be proactive in your own life in order to create change.

  1. Where in my life do I feel stuck?
  2. What am I most proud of in this last year?
  3. Am I passionate about my job, or career?
  4. What have I learned this year?
  5. What have I been an example of?
  6. How have I been open minded?
  7. What new experiences, people or places did I experience?
  8. How did I express myself creatively?
  9. What projects did I start? Did I complete them, or procrastinate?
  10. Did I get in my own way and make excuses?
  11. In what ways can I restructure my time?
  12. How have I been a good and supportive friend/lover?
  13. Have I been unfair to anyone?
  14. Who do I need to forgive in order to move forward?
  15. What (or who) do I need to let go of?
  16. What old habits am I ready to get rid of forever?
  17. What habits would I like to integrate into my life?
  18. Am I healthy in mind, body and spirit?
  19. What do my finances say about my life?
  20. Am I spending my free time in healthy and productive ways?