Sunday, January 11, 2015

So Many Homes in So Many People

Traveling and living as I have been the last few years has meant that I have experienced some of the most intense and randomly wonderful connections I’ve ever had. People can come into my life for even a few hours, maybe just a few days, but they change me irrevocably. We share stories and pour our lives out into each other and talk about things as easily as if we had known one another for years. We split taxis and tuk tuks, dinners and drinks; we give advice and listen and wipe tears and give hugs and encouragement. We laugh until we can’t breathe and stop in the middle of it and look at each other in wonder and say we are so glad to have met! We are filled with joy at one another’s ventures and adventures and misadventures; we fiercely love each other’s plans and hopes and we want to protect them as if they were our own. We travel next to one another as strangers but walk in an intimacy that springs up as easily as turning a key in a lock. We work with one another, live next to each other, share our lives and build a family within the bookends of a teaching contract. It is the very best of the human experience of falling in with your people, seeing them for who they are, knowing they will be good to and for you, and knowing you can be good to and for them. I have found pieces of me in other people because they have shown me things I didn’t know I had inside of myself.

And then, as is inevitable, they leave or I leave.  They slip out of my life as easily as they have come, a bird held in my hand for a moment before it darts off again into the sky. Just like that, all of who they are and were to me is gone and I know my only reasonable expectation is that they are gone forever.

It does feel abrupt; it’s a suddenly violent absence, regardless of the length of shared time, hours or months. One moment you are mixed up in the heady magic of human connection, of reveling in these people around you, counting your lucky stars that your paths crossed, and the next moment their path or yours jumps off on its own and it’s almost, almost as if they were never there. In the solitude after you sit with a heavy nostalgia so large that it feels like a traveling partner you picked up to replace the people you just left.

It hurts. I would never say it doesn’t.

I am terribly sentimental about humans, and I love them dearly- their mannerisms, their ideas, their faces, their voices, the things they want to be and do. If my friends all over the world could know how often my thoughts turn to them, if they could feel them when they come out of me, they would never have reason to feel alone or unloved in this life. I adore them, and it’s not too strong a word. When I find my people, I mean it.

But they leave. But I leave. So why do it at all? What is the point in these connections with end dates? Is it just so much churning to produce nothing? Why pour so much energy into something I don’t get to keep? Why do they do the same to me?

It’s because loving other humans isn’t about keeping them. Caring about someone, building a friendship with them, this is not a cage. It is not a leash or a collar you put on another person. It’s simply not contingent on their staying. Companionship is not a contract or a condition of terms. It’s given and taken freely because in the end the only thing we have to give one another is our humanity at the highest level of good we can give it, and the only thing we can freely take is the same when it is offered to us. All of these leavings of wonderful people who have slipped in and out of my life, binding me to them like a running stitch, has confirmed to me that this life is filled, absolutely overflowing, with the best people- with an inexhaustible army of them, in fact. As one leaves my side I can be sure that they will continue to travel on and others will meet them and, like me, will appreciate who they are and what they give and others will give to them as I have. And new people will come into my life and it will start all over again. When I think of it on a large scale, I imagine us all criss-crossing the world connected to each other, all these shining strands. It never stops, as we travel on down our respective and far flung roads, weaving a pulsing, beating, breathing thing, a sprawling web of connections made. I wonder who is coming down the road towards me next. I wonder who I am moving down the road towards at the moment. I am excited for what I will learn, what I will teach, what I will take, what will be taken from me.

The world has never felt so expansive or so small, so simultaneously. I feel both knitted together in a small tribe with these people, and I feel blown to pieces and expanded infinitely by how many more of them are out there. The ever expanding potential of human connection is eternity to me. That is what I believe in. The ability to change and be changed is ever present. It is an irreplaceable treasure and comfort to realize with conviction, based on experience, that everywhere in this world I have traveled there have been people there with whom I belonged. Wherever I head next, others are waiting for me, and I for them. It makes me know with certainty that, in places I have never been and will perhaps never see, there are others with whom I belong. I am a part of this, whatever this is, and I have much to give and much to learn. I am enamored with the truth of that. It is a light inside of me regardless of anything else that falters.

So I will always embrace the hello, knowing the goodbye curled inside of it, welcoming the leaving that begins as soon as the beginning happens. I’ll see you when you get here. I’ll find you when I get there. We’ll know each other when the time comes. 

Tomorrow I Start to Finish

A visual representation of life in Laos. Although this was taken across the river, in Thailand. Same same but different.

During undergrad and my first master's degree, I worked full time and went to school full time, maintaining a scholarship during the former and volunteering an obscene amount of time during the latter. I also filled in any spare moments with gallivanting, socializing, and, during my master's, I managed to pay off almost $20,000 in debt while making about $35K a year and wringing every bit of fun I could out of Dallas, Texas. I was a freak of productivity nature, without even trying it seemed. I just did it. Yes, I was a spectacular procrastinator, but that's nothing new. It was fairly easy to be breakneck, constantly busy. It was normal to be occupied from 6 a.m. until 10 p.m., almost every day. I just killed everything in my path and kept on going.

And then I went back to school for this, my current master's degree, in education. 

What happened to me?

I started this program in 2011-2012, with my internship year. I was supposed to finish my master's in 2012-2013, in Albania. That didn't happen. Last year, 2013-2014, I planned on finishing. That... didn't happen. I had my reasons, big shitty life reasons, on top of personal issues and illness, but still. I find myself staring down the barrel of this, my last semester, and I see that it is 20effing15, and I am pretty disappointed in myself that I am STILL doing this. 

I start tomorrow on my last semester. I am inordinately terrified that I am not going to finish. I was wrecked with pneumonia for a month last semester and still pulled that off, so I'm not sure why I am so nervous, but it's there.

Actually, I know exactly why I am nervous- I am so tired of going to school, and that exhaustion is insidious, and it is more powerful than what I thought was my all powerful drive to Get Things Done. I want to spend my time reading and writing and belly dancing and weight lifting and seeing friends and finding new music on YouTube and reading cool blogs and news articles and studying Lao and being a prolific pen pal and Skype date. I want to research trips and watch dance videos and apply for weird jobs and read poetry and sprawl on my bed at 3 p.m. for naps sometimes, because Sunday. I am so frustrated with myself for how long I have dragged out this degree. I cannot wait until it is finished. Come June, I'll have two master's degrees, and one of them will actually be worth something! Excellent.

Other than that, I'm feeling a major amount of pressure in other ways related to these last months here in Laos. I've sketched out some ambitious personal and financial goals for myself, on top of the priority of finishing grad school. I know what I want to accomplish, and I know what I need to do, but again, a part of me is worried I won't do it. These last two years in Laos have been something of a surprise, deal with it! detour for me- they were not planned, but it was the path I found myself on and the wheels were set in motion, and the logical course was to continue. I have gained so much from living and working here, but at the same time I have fallen into a kind of easy rhythm. My drive, my unending energy for fulfilling obligations and pursuing goals, has been significantly diminished in the face of endless weekends and lazy days and a general culture that values slow and laid back. It's a singular and isolated world here in this dusty little river village, and it can crawl inside you a bit and tell you to just rest. Just sit under this palm tree with a mango shake and rest. It's hard because it's a developing country, but in terms of external pressures to Do Things... not so much. That's well and good sometimes, but I can feel that it's time to be in a place that puts a bit more pressure on me. I need a push sometimes, and Laos is a sleepy side hug in a hammock. It's been lovely, but there is a limit. I needed to come back for this second year. I need to leave at the end of it. 

And so I have about 5 months to accomplish a hell of a lot of things. To do this I need to change basically everything about the way I've been living the past year and a half. I am grateful for the break, for the breather, for the experience of not giving a shit about being so productive and on my game for a bit, but I know that it's time to gear back up, to focus, and to start planning for the next venture. For that I need funds, and organization, and at least something of a plan. 

I have to remember all the crazy things I have accomplished under intensely difficult circumstances. Compared to many things I have done, my plans for the next 5 months are not that hard. Compared to what I've been doing the past year and a half, they seem pretty daunting. I feel like I've been sedated for my own good, to heal up and rest and recover, and now I'm coming out of it and need to start learning to do things again. This is perhaps the most accurate way to describe it. The rest was necessary, but now I feel out of shape for what I need to do. It's time to get to work. 

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Right Now in Laos: Backpacking Detritus, Much Needed Showers, and Planning Sessions

Meet Martin and Erica. We had great times making train curtain Vogue fashion shoots on the night train. I tried to convince Martin he'd make a great living as a prostitute in Bangkok. I reveled about solo travel with Erica as we gave each other "that's right, girl" eye high fives from her upper bunk to my lower bunk. I'll never see them again.

I knew exactly what I was doing when I went hard and booked a homecoming night train for Saturday. Rolling into Vientiane on a dusty Sunday morning less than 24 hours before I had to return to work, after 16 days of not working, is not normally my style. I like to give a bit of a buffer/comedown section to my vacation, where I check my wounds and my bank account and do laundry and reflect on what I just did and ease back into Teacher Style. Not this time. I wanted to wring everything I could out of this vacation. I am wrung. I am out. I am not quite Teacher Style yet. Mostly because all of my teacher clothes are dirty.

Meet Scott. Erica, Martin, and I all piled on his bunk while the cabin attendant made up our beds, before any of us knew each other's names. And then we had that train curtain photo shoot you saw above. I crawled into my bunk and listened to Scott talk about his plans while he picked Koh Phangan out of his beard. I fell asleep as he was talking and didn't see him in the morning to even say goodbye and thank you for the bedtime story. On down the track.

The last two days I've been in a daze, head swimming with possibilities, plans, and a fiercely focused motivation I haven't felt in years. But please be assured, that motivation is entirely within the intimate parameters of the inside of my skull, and does not in any way bleed out into my day to day life at this point. I haven't showered since Sunday night and it's Tuesday night, my backpack is flayed open and bleeding clothes all over my floor, my clean laundry that was rejected for the trip prior to my leaving is still lounging on my couch, water bottles and medicine bottles and errant socks and splayed open books skitter across my floor, and crumpled receipts and ticket stubs and notes speak to people and places that I just met and went to and already feel so far away. I am in the middle of this wreck, posted up at my kitchen table, one leg up and one leg down, stretching and working on my splits while I bang this pointless thing out. I should be cleaning, folding, hanging things, doing laundry, picking through all of those stubs and notes, but instead I'm researching those plans rolling around in my head, listening to music, ignoring how tired I am and how much I want to go to bed at 6:24, right this moment.

I wanna get with this, but I wish it looked like this at the moment. Get yourself together, apartment. I know we've been together almost two years, but try a little, damn...

My kids were an absolute dream the past two days and I'm reminded that I love them, truly. I'm finishing up my first Virginia Woolf book and the way she writes about the complexities of human interactions and thoughts is so perfect. On the ride to work today I realized with a start that my motorbike is slowly falling apart under me, surreptitiously, cautiously, but the rot is there and it's unavoidable and today I started thinking of ways to buy a motorbike I can actually take with me somewhere at the end of this contract. My motorbike is actually a solid model, but I had a vacation fling that has me wandering.

Okay, it's not really fair towards my dependable and steady motorbike, but I got distracted by this little hot pink chick in Krabi and all I can think about is glitter paint flashing in the sun and tight brakes and new tires. I'm only human.

I'm making some lists and schedules and budgets, and they look so nice all black on white and reflected off my laptop, and I hope they feel as nice to live as they look to read. If all knits together like I think it will, I'll be a very happy cat come June. Tomorrow is my first day back to belly dance and I can't wait. I'm researching training programs for weight lifting and aerial conditioning. I'm thinking of places I can hang a silk or a rope and practice dragging my ass up and down it until it's effortless. I'm imagining motorbike trips on weekends and friends coming to visit and more Lao lessons and reading  and writing as much as I can while I'm in one spot. I have big plans for my classes, pen pals to write back, pictures to sort through, Skype calls to make, grad school to register for, and lots of phone calls to make for financial things.

But right now I am dirty, sweaty, tired, and happily being lazy and forgetting all of what I need to do. That desire for sleep right this moment is pushing back on me and I'm giving in. The windows in my little corner kitchen are open and the fan is whispering dust into the air. The palm trees are curling green into each other, crowding their hands into the window and then fluttering back out again. I have a cold shower calling my name with fresh towels and a clean bed to crawl into with wet hair afterwards, with the palm trees sliding their curling green against the pane all night long until the birds wake me up with sunshine and another day.

I won't be long here. 6 months is a blink.

Monday, January 5, 2015

I Have Heard What the Talkers Were Talking

When you listen to people talk about their dreams, you see one of two things:

There are the bright eyed ones who you just know, I mean know, will do it. They share their plans not for validation, or approval, but out of sheer bursting desire to talk about this excellent thing they have built inside themselves, this thing that powers them on down the road, that leads them into often uncertain paths. The physical presence of their commitment is so much that, as they talk of their plan and the next move, you almost feel as though it were a partner, a flesh and blood person sitting next to them, nodding and murmuring along. It feels real, like a happiness you can clasp to yourself and admire before handing it back to them and saying good luck, you'll be great. The other side is the storyteller- the territory of the tentative, a squinty maybe. It's a well told, cold statement with no blood in it; you get the feeling it's been said a lot, the way it rolls off the tongue. And that's the problem. It's been said a lot. Said. Talked about. Mentioned. Brought up at random intervals. But talking isn't doing. The practiced art of the story of the idea, that's the hint, that's the clue- it's never, ever going to happen. They will be telling that story, that future "someday I will..." potential plan until they get too old to do it. And then they will never tell that story again, because they will be too filled with regret to be able to talk about the time when they were young and free and healthy, and had This Thing they Wanted to Do, but they never did it. So it wasn't done. And it never would be.

It's no impossibility, you and I and they can make these stories real, but that's the point- you have to make them real. That's the jump, and it's where most people, absolutely myself included, stay standing on the shore, content to tell the story, to trot it out as small talk introductory fodder at parties, or with friends when they get drunk and want to talk about dreams, or as an imaginary fallback they can grasp for security, an empty threat to shout into the wind when things get almost hard enough to motivate them to do it. It's not doing them any favors. It's never done me any favors. It's a lie you tell yourself about some future shining day when This Thing you want to do will be Done. But why do you want it, and will you ever do it? I am asking myself the same questions, trust me. My own frustration with my choices is at the base of this.

I've realized that I have to unilaterally, unabashedly, and without regret give up on what I'm not going to do. I'm not going to waste my time stroking a story of a dream that will never be real. Life is short and the world is large. There are things I wanted to do that I haven't done yet and now I won't be able to do them. Oh well. I can't do them, but I can do something else. As long as I am actually doing something, I'll be fine. My God, but regret is heavy. I can put it down. I don't have to make a mistake twice. I don't need to tell ghost stories about dead things- it's not going to happen. Let it go.

This trip, maybe more than any other so far, changed me. I can't say why:  it wasn't terribly earth shattering culturally, I didn't go far, I've backpacked far longer in far more remote places, Thailand is a familiar neighbor at this point. But something about this time in Thailand shook me up. I've been complacent here in Laos. It's been good for me, but I feel it in my bones, in every bit of me, that it is time to roll on down the track. Security, stability, contentment- I have that here. But I've grown dependent on it to the detriment of other aspects of my life, and myself.

I gave a lot of advice on this trip. All of it boomeranged right back to me and hit me in the chest with an accusatory "And what about YOU?" It's hard truth and it's undeniable. I've checked out a bit the last two years, licking wounds and swimming in grief and doubting what I was doing. Life was harder than I thought my life would ever be, so I took easier paths than I ever would have before. I fucked up easy things. I neglected important things. I made bad decisions and terrible mistakes. It was all necessary and I own it all without shame. I went through it; I came out the other side with pieces missing, with things in my possession I didn't want. I'm sifting through that now, and it's a long job. I'm thankful to all the people I've met along the way who laid the groundwork to get me to these realizations.

I don't know exactly what I want to do next, but I know what I don't want to be doing, and that's as good as the former being certain. I am ready for whatever happens next. I am okay not knowing what that is. I'd rather say I don't know than tell a sweet story that will never be real.

I have heard what the talkers were talking, the talk of the
     beginning and the end,
But I do not talk of the beginning or the end.

There was never any more inception than there is now,
Nor any more youth or age than there is now,
And will never be any more perfection than there is now,
Nor any more heaven or hell than there is now.

Walt Whitman

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Highs and Lows of Solo Travel

So right now, I’m on vacation, and I’m sitting alone at a Starbucks in southern Thailand waiting out a rainstorm, the power has gone out again, and I am hating traveling and wanting a home I don’t even have.

This is what you’re not supposed to say about traveling, or traveling alone. Everyone wants to hear the stories of meeting random people who are amazing, of falling into crazy situations, of getting your claws in experiences that yield stories that taste sweet no many how many times you tell them.  Yes, I’ve had that on this trip in spades, and in the years I’ve spent living and traveling overseas, I’ve had more joy and revelation than I ever thought I could have or deserve. These are the times where I felt like everything was slowed down like movement in amber and I could see the life going out of me and crystallizing into that moment to make that memory live forever as a touchstone of why I do these things. I crave my solitude and freedom and hours spent in thought alone on buses and trains and planes fill me with joy as I sit anticipating what awaits me around the corner in the next country/hostel/city/party. I can't believe it's my life. Most of the time. 

But the truth is that there is a trade- off, and it’s often a big one. The highs are really high, like outrageously silly high to the point where it feels like you are living in a movie starring your invincible, pulsing self shooting through life like a glorious comet. And then there are lows when you find yourself sitting alone at a Starbucks, hating traveling, and your big stupid strappy backpack, and hostels filled with other backpackers, and the constant churning growl of plane engines and train engines and bus engines, the searching for passports and locker keys and checkout times, trading colored paper for more colored paper when an imaginary line renders them useless, heading into each new place with a new burst of MAKE FRIENDS ENERGY! And sometimes, shitty things happen and you have no one with whom to commiserate, or from whom to get reassurance, or even help. 

Like last night.

The day before yesterday I was ending an excellent week spent between Phuket Town and Patong Beach. Circus school, city wandering, beach lounging, dancing, late nights, interesting people, two great hostels, hilarious banter- I had it all in spades. I was riding a wave of travel magic as I have so many times before. This came on the tails of a great start off in Bangkok with random connection and interactions that filled me with happiness that I was once again traveling, and traveling alone. It was incredible.

Yesterday I left the group of people I met in Patong to head off to a new adventure. I left them all at the beach before taking an hour long open local bus through the hills to Phuket Town. Then I waited for two hours before getting on an enormous, 1980s looking bus that barreled through thunderstorms and mountains, narrowly avoiding killing us several times, whether from hydroplaning around sharp curves and fishtailing back into place, or almost colliding with a logging truck while passing a car on a hill. We ended up on the side of a Thai highway- no, not, thankfully, in a wreck, but, unfortunately, at what passed for the bus stop. There was nothing distinguishing this patch of highway from any other, but somehow it was the bus stop, out in the middle of nowhere. I had booked, so I thought, a bus that went all the way to my destination, Krabi. No, no it did not. It actually went to Trang, a town I had never heard of, which made sense when I was dropped there at 9:30 in the evening- it’s not much to speak of, for sure. The bus, due to the thunderstorms, was delayed an hour and a half, and by the time I got to my “bus stop” there were no taxis to be found. The bus attendant dumped my bag on the side of the road, told me to look for a tuk tuk, and then left unceremoniously, without so much as a second glance back. I stood there, alone, under a weak yellow street lamp with my backpack on, sweating in spite of the night. I had left my water bottle in the bus station bathroom when I left, but I had assumed that I could get more at the bus stop. Clearly I could not.  I thought of my friends in Patong, who were either lounging in the hostel or at the cocktail bar dancing in the street, or perhaps already on the beach at night, talking while people set off lanterns over the water and fireworks burst off and on. I felt very, very alone.

With nothing else to be done, I stood and waited about 20 minutes on the side of this deserted highway in a random town in Thailand which looked for all the world like an abandoned meth town in New Mexico. There were no stores, barely any traffic going past, I had no cell phone service, and I had no idea what to do. So I start walking down the road, having a vague idea from the gesticulations of the bus attendant that Krabi was further on. The road splits. Cool, I don’t know, I’m walking a highway in rural Thailand alone, let’s go right. After a while a tuk tuk comes barreling out of nowhere, humid fog glowing eerily in the headlights, rattling and wheezing along the road with difficulty. I am alone on the side of the road with just a backpack and no one knows where I am. I am not feeling so intrepid or invincible anymore. The driver pulls up and his eyes are sliding different ways. Yabba, Chang Beer, who can say what he’s taken, but he’s not all there in any way that would give me confidence in his driving. He tells me 30 minutes, 600 baht, and I am somewhat relieved to see a license number on his windshield. It’s that or waiting for another random tuk tuk, after who knows how long, so I get in.  I pretend to call a friend on my phone that doesn’t work, as some sort of insurance that the driver will get me there since “someone is waiting for me”.

The next 30 minutes I spend clinging to the side of the tuk tuk as we charge down dark roads, the axle of the tuk tuk rattling to the point where we are rocking wildly. Everything is a maze of dark pavement and every moment I’m wondering if we’re going to turn off in the jungle and I’ll slip out of this world, when suddenly we are out of pitch black side highways, and a town blossoms light and street signs out of the darkness right in front of me. I’m here, I’m safe, I will not be found mangled in the ditch. Excellent. I need wi-fi to get my hostel address, so I ask the tuk tuk driver to drop me at a Starbucks, which seems, after the hours of transit I just had, like some kind of symbol of salvation via civilization. When I arrive, the hostel is quiet because it’s late on a random Sunday. I try not to compare it to where I just was. I go downstairs and put on a big friendly Texas smile despite being tired and sweaty and stressed after walking Thai highways. I am rewarded with four friendly new faces and an invite to go to a party on the beach. Yes. Yes is the only living thing. I’m in a tuk tuk again, in totally different spirits and circumstances, and I dance for hours on the beach under the stars with these people who took me in and took me out for no reason other than that I was staying in the same place. Things will change as they always do.

So, given that, here’s what might not make sense when I say it, but it’s true- I do this just as much for these exact kind of lows as for the highs I had a mere 12 hours before. I try to remind myself that no matter how low I get when traveling, no matter how often I hit a wall of dammit, I cannot, I just CANNOT, there is always another high around the corner. Always. I never leave a trip without an experience that I could not imagine having lived without, and that is worth all the random Starbucks corners on rainy afternoons where I allow myself to slide into a self-pity wallow, looking for the first plane ticket home, only even that isn’t home, because Laos is just where I am now, and I don’t know where I’ll be next. It’s not stable, it’s often not kind, it’s usually hard in some frustrating way, but you earn every shred of that investment back and then some when it all comes together and you’re back on the right side of things.

I mean it when I say I’ll take all the empty highways and loneliness in the world for the postcard shop in Estonia, or the hostel in Bosnia, or couchsurfing with friends in Poland, or training aerial silks at the Lao National Circus after meeting a backpacker at a local bar, or taking a spontaneous road trip up into the mountains where the US embassy says you shouldn’t go, or dancing all night in Serbia to wild music, or riding horses across Mongolia, or a crazy NYE in Bangkok at a brand new hostel none of us knew anything about when we booked it. It feels good to stand in those moments and know that you could have given up so many times before but you didn’t, and because you didn’t, your perseverance was more than rewarded. I love the way I am living now, but it can be hard, and stressful, and the reality is that I can’t do it forever, and I don’t want to be doing it when I’m older. I want to do it, and so I have to do it now. I am grateful to be able to and I welcome every abandoned highway that gets me further down the road of these experiences I want to have.

I am reminding myself to be patient. I can wait out the rain. It’s just a rest. The sun will be drying my face and my hair soon enough, and then it’s on to the next.

Post-edit: Two hours after I wrote that, I fell in with an amazing group of people. For the next three days we had more fun than I had initially thought would be possible in that town, and one of my fondest memories of this entire trip is the day we rented motorbikes, used a shitty tourist map, and drove all over the area down gorgeous two lane roads cutting through perfect green everywhere, before ending up at the best beach I’ve ever seen. High again. 

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Right Now in Laos: Gut Anarchy, Chipped Fillings, and Trusting the Process

Today I had an emergency filling done for $15, with no appointment and no anesthetic, in a dentist next door to where I was dancing in wrapping paper and snowflakes on Saturday night. This is why I love Laos. But wait, I need to back up.

Sunday: After being out most of the night with most of the falang in town, I woke up tangled in said wrapping paper and blankets on my friends’ couch. I had gotten approximately 4 hours of sleep, and two thoughts hit me- one, my VTE BFF Peter was rolling out of the country that day, and I needed to meet up for one last brunch, which made me really sad, and two, I need to get out of here, but the gate, like all gates in Vientiane, is high, jagged, and locked. Every other person in the house had gone out the night before, and all were definitely still asleep. I waited until I heard someone stirring, then walking across the upstairs floor, then clicking into the bathroom. Poor Erica had me lurking outside her bathroom door like a curious cat or a clingy child, and she kindly let me out of her house with barely opened eyes but still, as always, with a big sunny smile. I drove home in the sharp-cold morning air, skirt flapping and crackling and shining silver, red, gold, and green in the sun. A motorbike gang of women heading to the market, laden with vegetables, pointed and openly laughed. I smiled back, happy to be their strange falang on a Sunday morning. I pulled into my apartment as I have so many mornings, wearing strange remnants of whatever costume I had put together the night before. I love my place because I live at a gay club, and therefore the owners have zero judgment of whatever I get up to. They barely batted an eye as I went fluttershining by. They’ve seen me in lights, in beards, in flowers- nothing to see here, moving on…

A few hours later I’m at CafĂ© Nomad for Peter’s last brunch. It’s attended by several of us all moving a bit slow, talking low, squinting in the light and talking casually all around the sadly commonplace fact of a friend leaving forever. Before it’s even started it seems it’s over, and he’s gunning off on his absurd bike. I know that I won’t know he’s gone until I head to Joma on a weekday and realize he’ll never randomly be there, calling out hello darlin’, pull up a chair. I’m tired and already a bit sad, so I head home and try to write something about it, but I find that everything is sliding, and why am I cold when it’s not cold? Oh. Oh. Great. I’m sick.

Monday: I am a flaming ball of food sick and or virus but who really cares, the end result is awful.  I can’t be certain of what it is, but I do know that it feels a lot like the souvenir I brought back from Cambodia last year, when I sampled homemade tofu made with local water in buckets, pressed on dirty rocks. So, you know, not great. I had the foresight, when I was downtown and felt the first prickings of gut anarchy, to pick up some Gatorade, bananas, and crackers. That was smart. The last two weren’t happening; the first was barely tolerated at well –spaced intervals.

In between the naps filled with watery limbs and hot chills, I used my laptop as a heating pad on my belly and confirmed some last minute details for my upcoming trip, which I am wholeheartedly “I hope it will be fun” about. I’m trying, really I am, to get it up for traveling in SE Asia, and I don’t know why I just generally can’t.

I couldn't eat for over 24 hours, but when I finally broke my fast that night, I managed to chip a filling. I chipped that filling on, of all things, soggy crackers and soup. Then I barfed up the soggy crackers and soup. After that I cried a little bit because my tooth hurt and I was damned hungry and still sick. I posted a request for a dentist on Buy and Sell Vientiane, which meant that within about 5 minutes every single person in town knew that I needed a dentist, which is both useful and strange.
My stomach was killing me, my chipped filling was making ribbons out of my cheek, and I wanted more than anything to eat but my stomach was saying no in no uncertain terms. So I went to sleep.

Tuesday: I woke up still feeling somewhere on the spectrum between garbage dump and compost heap on a hot afternoon, but I dragged myself to school anyway. My students were epic- they really suit up and show up when I am a miserable sack of myself, and their empathy makes me happier than any spelling test or correct grammar ever could. All day I worry that chipped filling with my tongue, feeling somewhat relieved that my co-worker has assured me that the dentist- down the street from the best cheesesteak in town and across the street from the western themed pub where the waitresses wear cowboy hats- is wonderful, cheap, safe, and clean. I like all of those adjectives. The location, next to my first favorite restaurant, the best club in town for dancing, and a place that references all things Texas, seems propitious. I indulge in omens I don’t believe in as a sign that all will be well. I end the day haven’t not puked or otherwise expelled my late lunch, which leaves me feeling inordinately cocky and full of life and optimism. I head downtown and get the last train out of Suratthani on January 1st, and although it is fan only and the windows don’t open, I feel like I won the lottery. And then it’s off to the dentist.

The dentist’s office is somehow refreshingly casual, like going into your grandma’s living room. It’s neat and tidy, slightly careworn, some chipped paint here and there, but altogether it’s solid and spotless. I’m led back to a chair that is unassuming and out in the open, and quickly I’m turned over to the competent hands of a dentist. She pokes and scratches, and then comes at me, with no explanation, all nonchalant with a drill. I immediately lose my “No big deal, getting dentistry done on a random side street in Laos is FINE” cool, and protest as to a vital step being missed- where, excuse me, is my shot? How is there a drill without a shot? The receptionist pops around the corner, with a jaunty kind of fedora on her head, and she assures me that the shot will hurt more than the drill.

What. Are . You. Saying.

I do not believe this. I am unconvinced, to the point where I am actually clamping my hands over my mouth and shaking my head. Do not want. She laughs and promises it’s fine, saying “She just needs to drill out the filling down to where it’s cracked, and it’s not worth doing a shot for.” You don’t say? Just, not WORTH it, huh? Okay, okay, I’ll play this game. A part of me wants to test this theory just to see what happens. So I throw up my hands (literally and emotionally at this point), open my mouth, and let that tiny little Lao woman come at me with a drill. And the receptionist was right. Yeah, it hurt sometimes, but it wasn’t a big deal, and actually, it wasn’t worth a shot. I am having a revelation, sitting there in that chair, with a drill in my mouth and feeling all of it, but it stays at a level of uncomfortable, only crawling into ouch a few times, and when I place it on the scale of pain, I emphatically decide that my flaming brick of a stomach was far more painful. This is charming and novel, and I focus on the attentive eye of the dentist, an ink black pupil shining in a circle of brown reflecting the inside of my mouth. It’s over very quickly.

When I checked out, the receptionist grinned at me, gave me my shockingly cheap bill, and said “It’s funny, people from over there always think you need a shot. Most of the time you don’t. The shot hurts more than anything. It’s easier to be a bit uncomfortable.”

So I write to you with a brand new $15 filling in my mouth, and in my head I’m changing what that receptionist said into something far more profound. Numbing things usually does hurt more and take more time than just doing them. Living here involves a lot of just doing things, without any prior preparation or script to follow. I get randomly sick pretty often, from food to bizarre viruses to pneumonia to who knows what else. People I love often leave, and I often leave people I love, and relationships in general shift like sand and it’s hard to keep a firm footing. I find myself in uncomfortable new situations, having to trust in things I don’t really trust in, having to suspend my preconceived judgments, expectations, or fears. It can feel so incredibly vulnerable to go at these things with nothing between me and them but blind faith that it will be fine. But on the other side, 99% of the time, I am fine. I like those numbers.   

Sunday, November 23, 2014

For Occupation - This

This week I decided to teach a poetry unit to a group of students for whom English is a second language, and one not yet very well mastered. To say there is a wide range of abilities, motivation, effort, and home support would be a gross understatement: some of my students are near fluent, while others are still working on reaching conversational comfort. I wasn’t sure how this would go.

So I started off with Emily Dickinson, for a very simple reason- if someone were to come across an Emily Dickinson poem printed on a wayward slip of paper, wholly out of context from anything else, the sparse style, disregard for grammar, and liberal use of Capital Letters would clearly mean that this was no letter or page from a book or notes from a speech. It’s visually, in an immediate way, something that looks like poetry. It’s foreign and strange compared to ESL textbooks and even the novels we read in class. And so we started with Emily, and specifically, with this one:

I dwell in Possibility – (466)
I dwell in Possibility –
A fairer House than Prose –
More numerous of Windows –
Superior – for Doors –

Of Chambers as the Cedars –
Impregnable of eye –
And for an everlasting Roof
The Gambrels of the Sky –

Of Visitors – the fairest –
For Occupation – This –
The spreading wide my narrow Hands
To gather Paradise –

Look, plenty of native speaking American kids struggle with poems like this. Plenty of adults do, too. So I asked them to close their eyes, and just listen first. They did. They opened their eyes. I asked them if they understood. Not a single hand. That’s fine, I said, that’s part of the work. I paused for a second, and then promised them they would understand. Are you ready to take some notes? Yes? Okay, get out your dictionaries. Let’s dig in. We will understand this together, but you’ve got to stay with me. What is the definition of dwell? Let’s start there…

And so, together, with all my tricks and hints and leading and support, and with their dogged insistence on hanging with me and following along, we got it. They understood. Their pages were marked and annotated with definitions, and with my plain speak translations of the words. We had cracked it open, sifted through it, and put it back together. Okay. Read it again now that we’ve explained it.

They all read, and the room was so silent that I could hear the electric hum of my laptop. Not a single student, not one, didn’t read. All I saw when I looked out was the white shine of light on the tops of black hair as they bent over their papers. This was no perfunctory glance down and glance up. It was a good two or three minutes before they raised their faces again. And they were lit up. The air in the room felt different. I asked them to shout out words that they felt, just the first thing they thought of.

Full! Large! Happy! Big! Strong!
What does it mean to you, to dwell in possibility?
It makes me feel like I can do anything, one said.
Do you feel proud right now?
Emphatic nodded heads all ‘round. They looked at each other and grinned like they shared a secret.

I feel proud of you, too.

More smiles.

The bell rang and they slowly packed up, telling me thank you and have a good day and a good weekend and see you on Monday. And then- Teacher, can we read more poetry next week? Can we write our own? What is your favorite poem? They stayed a few lingering minutes into their break clustered around me. The air still felt different. I felt like we had gone on a journey together and seen something new and were remembering it together.

They left and the room was filled with that quality of discovery even after they had been gone several minutes. I stood in the middle of the room and found that I was crying. So I sat at my desk and thought about how I would never have seen that in them if I hadn’t tried to do something hard with them. I’m in the habit of writing down observations throughout my day, and I wrote the following, while it was fresh on my mind:

How many challenges in the classroom come from the teacher not having enough faith in students' abilities to do difficult and demanding work?  If a teacher has never comprehensively tried to support students in performing at a higher level, that is base laziness; it dismisses out of hand students’ possible abilities. High expectations without adequate support is counterproductive, but a lack of expectations borders on willful oppression of potential. Even if students cannot accomplish what is set before them, higher expectations and more challenging work will show them what they can do when they are required to do more than they think they can. A failure, in this context, is still a success, and a success in this context is a gift of confidence and motivation that has few rivals.

This isn’t just about teachers and students in a classroom though; this is about what we do to ourselves as well, when we choose our paths and actions. I know there have been many times in my life when I haven’t attempted something because I was afraid to fail. So I aimed for something easier. Something safer. Sure, I had to work. Yes, it was hard. But I went into it with at least a kernel of solid faith that I could do this thing and probably do it well. And that’s not really learning. Or experiencing. That’s recycling, or re-doing, or re-working something I already have. To truly learn, in a classroom or in the world, requires a moment when you just admit that you’re not sure if it will work, or if you can do it, or how it will turn out. You might not even know where to start. You start anyway. You don’t know where to go next, but you keep going.  You can fail at a lot of it. You might not get exactly what you want. But you can want so much more than you are currently allowing yourself to try to have. And if you try, even when you fail you can have so much more. You can feel large, and happy, and big, and strong, if you let go of safe- if you let yourself accept also the possibility of what others deem failure.

After days in the classroom like I had on Friday, days that leave me jittery with happiness and stunned by the humanity and will of my students, I’m deeply moved by what I’m doing right now. Teaching has, up to this point, been the most transformative and humbling experience of my life. Days like Friday remind me of the potential I have to open windows and doors in my students, not because I’m doing something magical, but because I’m helping them see what they already have inside of themselves. I’m just pointing it out- hey, look here. You know what that is?

That’s you. And you are filled with possibility.