Saturday, August 29, 2015

Transitions

Fresh off the train in Laos, totally unprepared
There are so many things about living in a place that you never notice until you leave. I don’t mean being grateful for ____________ or appreciating ____________. I mean fundamental, daily aspects of the culture that you don’t notice because they are so intrinsic they simply are. You can't really see them until you are in another place, and you notice something missing.

First day in Laos- seeing things like a tourist

That one should feel this way about one’s home culture should go without saying, but the strange thing is that when you move to another country and adopt it as your home, the same thing happens. I took Laos wholesale; I had to accept it fully in order to thrive and live there. When I first moved to Vientiane I felt uncomfortable every day, assaulted by the grind of motors and vendors and construction.  I was overwhelmed with the way streets and stores and even my school were organized. Motorbikes were a terrifying, absolute no I will not ever answer to the question of owning or driving one, tuk tuks made me clench my fingers in anticipation of a wreck, and I diligently applied mosquito repellent and crawled under a net every night. I was afraid of the dogs and the traffic, I wanted a smoke alarm, and I often felt tired just from the ordeal of walking down a sidewalk and dodging open fires, potholes, or motorbikes laden with long sharp objects.

My neighborhood street, which was basically an angry dog gauntlet

Purely for decoration

Inevitably, because it was simply too much work and effort to worry about, those things fell off of my radar as things that bothered me into the category of things that just were.  It became normal, and so it became my home. It’s incredible how quickly humans can adapt to such wildly different situations. I found myself owning, and loving, a motorbike. I can’t remember the last time I was worried about a dog bite (getting a rabies vaccination definitely helped). I got lazy with mosquito repellent. Even after a fire broke out in my neighborhood and I found myself in the street with hundreds of others, deciding if it was safe to go back home and sleep, I never returned to anything anywhere near the initial anxiety I had about fires. I had medical mishaps and I still stayed. I got to the point where I didn’t even notice the noise, so much so that I could sleep through weddings and karaoke and various animals mating and fighting outside of my window. All of these things that had been so hard, and foreign, and uncomfortable were a part of my life.

There's no place like home 

I landed in Moscow after two years in Laos and the first thing I noticed was how empty being in public felt. Street life in Laos is chaotic and complex, up close and intimate; it’s puzzle pieces of activity, multi-leveled and layered and spilling out over the edges. The sidewalks don’t contain it, the streets hold some of it, traffic flows in between all of it. It’s the constant human hum of eating and laughing, talking and drinking, music blaring and children crying and dogs whining and cats yowling, the tuk tuks screeching a high wailing brakes failing refrain, motors pounding down an erratic drumming, the sizzle of electric wires and hot oil, the soft sounds of food being sliced and pounded, dropped and stirred, ice and steam and strong coffee smells, insane looking fruit heaped in candy colors next to rows of shiny fish smoking over a fire tended by a child, incessant cell phone conversations punctuating sales pitches and interrupting tuk tuk drivers calling out over and over, a never ending plea for you to let them take you somewhere. You’re weaving and stopping and starting and flowing through it all within a month or two, and it turns into a familiar neighborhood rhythm.

On top of all the sensory overload that Laos can be is how unpredictable things are, from big to small matters. I truly never knew what was going to happen in any random day- what to expect out of drivers on the way to work, or the police on the side of the road, or service at a frequented restaurant, or how much I would be charged for the same repair job at the same motorbike repair shop from week to week. Schedules, timelines, opening and closing hours: these things don’t mean much. Everything was subject to change, to the point where I stopped viewing it through the lens of change at all- it just was what it was that day, or that week, and then you didn’t worry about looking for reasons why.

Waiting outside the bank, 30 minutes after it was supposed to open. Patience is a virtue.


In Zurich, I find myself overwhelmed for different reasons. Things feel immovable, stable, set down in a very permanent way that is relaxing in its predictability but also so very quiet and simple compared to where I’ve been. I go for a walk and wait on the side of the street to cross and the cars stop, waiting for me. Public life, street life, feels full of holes where fruit stands and food trucks and various people and animals should be. I am alone in public, surrounded by people, and I never realized how different it feels until I compared it to Laos, and SE Asia in general. Everything is painfully clean, to a level that makes me feel out of place, like a bull in a china cabinet, as though I would break something or upset something or offend someone. I went for a walk on one of the first mornings, and as I followed an immaculate trail through a perfectly manicured field and looked out at a lake ringed by regulation built houses, all I could think was that it looked like a movie set.

Not a tuk tuk for miles

These things aren’t better or worse, good or bad, and I want to be clear that I’m not comparing Laos to Zurich or anywhere else for the sake of weighing, evaluating, and judging. I’m just trying to work out the strange sensation I get of feeling foreign in Western countries. I’m also painfully aware that this sounds trite, a white girl pondering her experiences in Asia. But at the end of the day, it’s true. I feel out of place, in some strange fundamental way that I can’t describe or explain. I miss Laos. I miss Laos for what would objectively be called the “good” things, and I also miss it for what some might feel are the bad things. Other than sophomore and junior year of college, I cannot think of another time  when I’ve had so much stability on every major life level- I had the same job, in the same country, in the same town, and I lived in the same apartment, for two years. I was deeply immersed in my school community, the social life of Vientiane, and I lived in a wonderful neighborhood. 

Sunsets on the Mekong never get old

I also hold a soft spot for Laos because I feel like that is where I fully became a teacher, completing the process I started in Colorado- I had two years of working with the same students in the same school, as I slogged through grad school, and I had time to really hone the fundamentals of my craft to better serve me in the future.

It's definitely not terrible to be expected to engage in an all day water fight holiday with your students every year

There is also a deeper, more fundamental aspect of missing Laos, and I recognize it from when I left Japan and Albania- I miss the person I was there. That’s not to say that I change who I am wherever I go. It’s just that different places, like different people, bring out different things in you. From simple things like being a person who rides a motorcycle and washes my clothes in a bucket, to big things like being the teacher of my wonderful students, there are daily rituals, habits, actions, interactions, responsibilities, and social communities that bring out things in me that were unique to my living in Laos. I built up an entirely new aspect of myself in response to the needs, challenges, opportunities, and requirements of living and working and thriving in a new place, just as I did in Japan and Albania. Most of those new parts of me are unnecessary outside of that context, so I say goodbye to them, too.  


Laos was not ever part of The Plans. Even after Laos became part of them, I fought it. But once I stopped fighting I gave Laos another year of my life and switched it from an incidental detour to a purposeful decision. I left in a whirlwind of packing and planning and medical misadventures, and I don’t feel like I really had the time or perspective to understand that I was leaving, for good, and saying goodbye to all of that. It was time for me to leave, and leaving was the best and right choice for me. There isn’t an ounce of regret or vacillating in any of this- I’m just in awe of how much Laos gave me, and now I have the distance to see more. I continue to discover new things about myself that I learned, or discarded, or refined, or improved thanks to my time there.


Saturday, July 18, 2015

History Lessons my Students Taught Me

"The U.S. dropped more than 2 million tons of bombs on Laos from 1964 to 1973 during the Vietnam War. That’s equal to a planeload every 8 minutes for 9 years. How does a country recover?"


When I accepted the job in Laos, I knew very little about the country. In high school and college I became familiar with Vietnam by studying the war and the protests and politics surrounding it; I volunteered with a non-profit that had schools in Cambodia as a result of my interest in helping the country recover from the Khmer Rouge; and as soon as I began daydreaming about travel, Thailand was on my list. But Laos? I never heard anything about it.

And that, frankly, is appalling, considering America's secret war there. When I first began researching Laos in Albania, I was in utter shock that I had no idea what had happened there, and what is still happening there as a result. Laos is the most bombed country, per capita, in the entire world- and they were bombed relentlessly despite being declared a neutral country. They were bombed as a convenience, as a strategy, as a simple calculation of efficiency, as an inadvertent strike against Vietnam. People lived in fear for nine long years as death rained down on them for no reason other than the unfortunate geographical positioning of their country and intervention from outside forces. They farmed at night, for fear of being targeted. They lived in caves, abandoned their homes, frantically moving trying to keep out of reach of the bombs.

"For survivors of the war, such as 84-year-old Kampuang Dalaseng, memories are still vivid. “I hate Americans to this date. They bombed, burned and destroyed everything. If their president was here, I would slap him in the face.” A former professor of French, he was forced to flee the bombardments, abandoning the village of Bat Ngot Ngum in 1964 and taking shelter in a forest cave with his family and fellow villagers.
Whenever the American bombers targeted the area the group would move, in an endless cat-and-mouse game. Exhausted and demoralised, the family fled to Vietnam in 1969, embarking on a month-long walk only four days after Dalaseng’s wife had given birth to her second baby. The landscape around them was apocalyptic. “The bombs had destroyed everything,” he remembered. “There were no more animals or villages.” source

Laos still lives with the damage of these bombs every single day, as they continue to maim and kill. The U.S. has donated about $82 million to clean up the area. Do you think that sounds like a lot of money? No. No it isn't. This is a lot of money- spending between $13 and $18 million PER DAY to drop bombs on Laos for nine years. That is a lot of money. $82 million looks like a cheap band-aid in the face of those numbers. It is a token. It is a shame.

I undoubtedly have an ulterior motive, a definite agenda, as an English teacher. Through books, news articles, poems, watching documentaries, writing, and any number of other creative endeavors in the classroom, my highest goal is that my students become critical, compassionate thinkers who look for ways to improve themselves and others. This is far more important to me than the grades they get, how quickly they can recall four examples of adverbs of frequency, or how well they can memorize the unreasonably insane spelling rules of the English language.

This school year, my year 10 students all told me they wanted to volunteer in their communities. I try my best to foster a student led classroom- basically the students express interest in certain topics and activities and I find a way to tie it back into learning English in some way. This is how we found ourselves poring over Emily Dickinson poems and analyzing Sylvia Plath's emotions in our poetry unit. For the volunteer project, I wanted to help them find a cause they would enjoy researching and supporting, so we kicked around some ideas together. Nothing was really drawing them in. The previous school year, when I thought I would be leaving, I had found a job posting for the organization Lone Buffalo, a free English after school program in Phonsavan, the most bombed area of Laos. I suggested Lone Buffalo to them and they were instantly drawn in to the school- kids their age, playing football, learning English, and doing it all in a rural, remote part of their country which only 2 of my students had ever visited.

But they were particularly inspired by the story of Manophet, the Lone Buffalo himself, the man who spent his days translating for UXO Lao, which clears the endless bombs from America's secret war. His evenings were dedicated to the local children, teaching them English and coaching them in football. It was his dream that they would compete at the Gothia Cup in Sweden, and his students and athletes were set to go. But Manophet would not be going to Sweden. He died unexpectedly of a blood clot in his brain. His friends stepped in and created the Lone Buffalo Foundation to take the boys to Sweden, and from there they determined that Manophet's legacy had to live on. They set up a school, which is now thriving in Phonsavan. I reached out to the director, Mark, who was in town promoting the school's UXO awareness film "Don't Touch!" at the Vientiane Film Festival. He was supportive and interested and with his permission my students and I moved forward with our project- to raise enough money to sponsor one class for one full year.

We started with research. We read articles, we studied about America's secret war, we had lots of discussions and wrote about our plans, and I showed them this video.




This is a picture of my students as they watched that video, as well as another video showing an animation of just how many bombs America dropped on their country over almost a decade. Look at their faces. I can't tell you how hard it was for me to stand in there with them as they watched this- some of them tearing up, the boys furrowing their brows and blinking hard, the girls covering their mouths. They watched both the video and the animation twice through and the room was silent.


As soon as our research was over, we began talking about writing presentations that would inspire others to donate. We talked about being fact based, passionate, approachable, and trustworthy. We designated partners to go into specific classrooms, we had class treasurers and accountants, and we maintained journals about the experience. The students diligently collected money and spread the word for three months.

One of the most touching moments came from my Year 9 students. Earlier that year, I had helped them communicate respectfully, via persuasive, critical letters, with the administration of the school as to how their class business funds were being managed. As a result they had a meeting with the secondary department head, they were given new directions, and allowed greater autonomy over their earnings. They learned how to advocate effectively for themselves, even when it came to standing up to authority (something normally not done in Lao culture, especially for students interacting with teachers). When Year 9 learned of Year 10's fundraising, they told me in class one day that they wished to donate all of their funds to our project.

Thanks to a supportive and involved administration, active participation from all staff, the organization, diligence, and commitment of the students, and the assistance of Lone Buffalo Foundation in visiting our school, we met our goal. The Year 10 students were able to fully sponsor one class for a school year, and next year they will travel to Phonsavan to volunteer with those students, to learn more about the area, and to make connections with children leading very different lives.

I am constantly humbled by how my experiences in the classroom with my students can continually enrich me on deeper and deeper levels. Just when something happens and I think "This is it- it can't get any better, this is amazing" my students show me even greater things. Doing this project with my Year 10 kids- students whom I have had the pleasure of teaching for two years- was an absolutely perfect way to end my time at my school. I couldn't be more proud of them.

If you want more information on Lone Buffalo Foundation, or are interested in sponsoring a class, you can check out their Facebook page here. 

You can read more about the impact of the secret war here.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Announcing my Place

When people asked me how my life was here in Laos, or what I liked about it, I never really knew what to say to them because I didn’t really know what or why myself. For most of my time here, up to and including my unexpected decision to return for a second year, there has been a part of me that has been standing off to the side, observing nervously, vacillating between politely tolerant confusion and gape mouthed “What the hell are you doing here?” disbelief. It took me awhile to fully understand why I ended up in Vientiane, and why, despite vehement initial distaste, I returned.

The overarching experience I’ve had is that here I have been given time and space to fail myself, and admit what has failed me.  Look, failing seems like something that doesn’t require time but I’ve found it does, especially when you’ve lived most of your life in mortal terror of failing. When succeeding became the antidote for every ill, when goals and programs and plans and achievements were balm for the things I couldn’t control, failure meant finding myself right back where I started, a place I wanted to leave. And so I beat myself relentlessly. I rode my own spirit like some poor starved beast desperate for rest- and when it said stop I said no, and no, and no and kept going, disgusted by its weakness. There were times in my life when I mercilessly whittled myself down to nothing but a crackle of nerves and a fine screaming line of anxiety, and then I threw that small chiseled bit of myself right back out into the world and told it to continue on regardless. Failure was a spiritual homelessness I couldn’t abide by. Weakness in myself, in others- I was cruel when I saw it. I hate admitting that, but it’s true. I gave it no quarter, even when it was me.  This was exhausting.

 I’ve found it’s even harder admitting the truth of what failed you in the first place, forcing you into the relentless need to drive until you were exhausted but still didn’t feel like you had accomplished what you needed to do. Especially when you could still see, out of the corner of an eye, all that was bad you were trying to deny. In working on admitting what has failed me, I have undergone a bare fisted, violent recollecting to peel away the justifications that obscured my memories. When I admitted they existed, for the first time I could really see these things that happened and how they shouldn’t have happened. I remembered exactly what I had pretended I didn’t know, what I had practiced forgetting. This remembering feels exactly like grief and is as debilitating, because there is no delaying grief once it starts. You can delay the triggering pain, you can call it something else, you can live in denial of it, or ignore it when you pass it on the street and pretend like you don’t recognize one another. But when you say yes to that pain, the grief rolls in and doesn’t stop until it’s finished with you. I find more and more that you have little say in the matter. It runs its course, for however long that is. I’ll tell you how long it is when mine gets to the end of me. I can tell you that I never knew I had so much space inside me for misery.

Oh, because I have certainly been miserable here, especially in those first few months, that first year. More than miserable.

 Here, at times, I have been depressed to the point where I felt like I was existing at no higher a sentient level than an escaped helium balloon. Have you seen those tragic bastards, bumping blindly in circles against the ceiling, tail dragging pathetically? When I was in those useless circles I have certainly made bad choices that were purposefully self-destructive.  When I wasn’t a person I didn’t care about other people. It all had to happen. It was a process. It is a process.

I don’t yet know what these two years in Vientiane will mean to me in retrospect, but right now it feels like all of this peeling away is making me larger instead of smaller. I hold out my hands to unabashedly show nothing but weakness and I find I’m holding more freedom than I ever had when I was suffering through a show of strength.  There is knowing that and there is feeling it and not knowing, and I’d rather know it, and name it, and own it, and stop glancing sidelong at the dark rot of the edge of my brain where I go for reasons and sometimes for no reasons. I am enough of a reason and that is as much of me as anything else- it isn’t separate, and when I try to think of it as such I just separate myself even more. It’s not what anyone would call good but it’s the way my brain works and so I embrace this part of me which helped and hurt me the most.

It’s slow going and I might sometimes be just a ratty heap of tangles and crumpled mess , but I know I’m getting to the resolution, even if the outside leaves doubt or causes confusion. I’m not concerned about the outside, though, because I was able to go 30 years passing as good on the outside while inside, inside things were scattered and dangerous and I was walking on my knees hoping no one noticed. I’m okay with failing outside because on the inside it’s all coming unbound and I’m thousands of tightwound spools rolling down the weight. The emptiness that remains is clean, untouched by what I didn’t want, and the parts that stay are mine. I do not have to be good, and I do not have to deny what has happened to me, because it doesn’t have to be good either. I can admit what failed me and what was taken and not have to sanctify it with my own goodness. Nothing can make up for it anyway, and I’ve lost enough to those moments to sacrifice anymore to them.

From where I sit at the end of my time here in Laos, I know two things for certain, finally:

I owe nothing to that which took things from me I did not want to give.

I want nothing from that which took things from me I can never get back.



Tuesday, June 9, 2015

One Week



I'm curled up in my bed and there is a slow burn of a rainstorm outside, one of the three markers that tick off the seasons and years here: hot, rainy, cool.  I had somehow forgotten that the rainy season started in June until the rains started again this year, and I was flooded (bad pun not intended) with memories of waiting out storms at Bor Pen Nyang with friends, or saying screw it, I'm sleeping on your couch, or, worst option, braving the roads turned rivers on my little motorbike and praying my red flag of a rain poncho kept me visible and safe. Most of those people are gone now, and with this beginning of rainy season I am getting ready to become a person who will be gone now, too.

I have no concrete plans for next year. I have resisted talking about it because, to my Type-A, hyper planner self, the regularity and certainty of a contract secured in March that runs from August until the next June has been a dream. I can look quite far out in the future- a year, a year and a half- and know what job I will have and where I will be living. But now? Here's my "plan":

I'm leaving Laos in a handful of days, a small scattering, a quantity that feels so fragile when I look at them and think of all the tasks and errands and chores and duties I have to heap on them. I have a similarly scant scattering of time to fill with some kind of vacation time, a short break, before I head off to Russia for a month. My wonderful friend referred me to a job as a governess with a family, and so I am going to be Mary Poppins of the Black Sea for the exact maximum amount of time my Russian visa gives me. When that is finished, I hop over to Switzerland to couchsurf with a friend for an undetermined amount of time. At some point I will head to Italy in late September to meet up with another friend, and I hope to find my way to Montenegro to see a good friend with whom I taught in Albania. In between? After? During, if things go south?

Dear reader, that's it. No more plans after that. I have tentative ideas and feelers and maybe can I reaching out across Europe for reunions and couchsurfing and hanging out, but other than Russia followed by Switzerland not a ticket has been booked, an itinerary made, a schedule to follow, a back-up plan- nothing. I mean nothing.

And I'm certainly not doing this because I'm independently wealthy, or have been making bank here in Laos. I assure you neither of those things are true. I am doing this with an amount of money that would buy you a pretty nice used car in Texas. I am doing this because if there is one thing that Laos has taught me, it's that I can handle uncertainties, so I am choosing to mark the parameters of my uncertainties and give myself something I have wanted for a long time- true, unfettered travel. I could easily have convinced myself not to do this this summer, but I had these plans last year and (SO VERY WISELY, BEST DECISION I COULD HAVE MADE) put them on hold, gritted my teeth, and clawed my way through my last year of grad school. But it's time now. I am up for the challenge. I am tired of being jealous of the people I meet in hostels who are traveling on a shoestring and just throwing everything up for grabs and going for it. I've saved as much as I can, I'm selling as much as I can be bothered to sell, and I am giving away the rest.

When I leave Vientiane, I'll be willfully putting myself in a precarious situation for the sheer curiosity of seeing how I will handle it. I'm using myself as my own test subject to push on pieces of me and see how I react. I want to know how I do this, how I make it work, how I deal with it when I fail (no if, when, there will be failures). I want to do it now, when I can, before it's too late, or before I'm too afraid. Look, I know it's not some crazy adventure like scaling Everest, or going on some dangerous back country wilderness trek, or doing any number of far more traditionally adrenaline packed things. But for me, and my personal fears, doing this is hard. And it's scary. For someone who has worked since the age of fourteen, and takes a lot of pride (sometimes excessively so) in taking care of myself and being responsible and organized and with it and sensible, this is like a foreign land of experience, another universe of options. But I have to do it because when things are hard and scary I usually find myself on the other side of them, looking at myself in amazement at what I accomplished, and feeling so much relief that I tried it and didn't just turn away.

Or maybe I'll end up flat broke in Europe. That's a possibility, too, and I'm okay with it. There are worse things in this life, I know from experience.

The rain has been coming down for about an hour now. I'm imagining all my friends here in Vientiane safe in their houses, sleeping to the sounds of this storm. I am curled up in this familiar place, for now, in my bed, in this apartment that has seen my best and worst over the last two years. I am loathe to leave the stability, love, and enjoyment of my social network, my wonderful job, my peaceful home, my bed, the rain on the palm trees outside my window, the list goes on. But I am going to leave all of that anyway, for no other reason than simple curiosity. I just want to see what will happen.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

This Feels Like a Dream, but I Might Also Be Typing While Sleeping

My view for most of the last... long time. My disgustingly filthy computer and too many carbs/sugar to keep me entertained. Repeat times a million.

Last night, after a month of work, I finished the final two rough drafts of my action research thesis paper. I submitted it and crawled into bed knowing full well that the next day I could have a boomerang of edits and work sent right back, but I chose not to indulge in worrying about that- and by chose I mean I passed out as soon as my head hit the pillow and I didn’t have the luxury of worrying about anything.

This morning I woke up to find a message from my professor, saying it just needed a final run through and it looks great. I had to read it three times before the reality of what I was seeing sank in- I have, for all intents and purposes, finished grad school. I have to stitch everything together into one document with formatting, it needs to be given a cover page and a table of contents (because y’all, this thing is damned long and it’s definitely necessary), and I have to make an appendix as well as an abstract, but that is nothing, actually the definition of nothing, in comparison to what I’ve already done so they barely even register as work in relation to the WORK I’ve been doing.  Still, I didn’t feel finished. I just felt tired.

Today I went to the central post office to mail off my study closure form, paying about $40 for the privilege of knowing that it will get where it needs to be stateside. When I walked out of the post office into the bright hot air, I was too concerned with getting back to work in time to water fight with my kids for the Lao New Year to think about any kind of closure, form or mental. 

Closure apparently costs about $40 and you can find it in an envelope in Laos.

I headed back to work mostly just happy that the post office errand went smoothly- I think my over the top Pi Mai Lao get-up was a hit, and my shorts were already soaked, which was probably entertaining. The water fight was everything I could have hoped for, and I spent the next few hours playing, dancing, and water throwing with my kids. A view from the top:

Happy New Year indeed

At the end of the day, thoroughly drenched and hot, I changed into dry clothes and wrapped up the details of my research presentation for tomorrow- the last big requirement of the assignment.

As I drove out of school to head home, I realized that I wasn’t anxiously counting down how many minutes I had to get to my after school tutoring job, or estimating how many hours I would need to write after that, or figuring out how early I would need to wake up the next day to use the internet when no one else was so it was actually fast enough to download articles. I stopped and got things I needed on the way without subtracting it from work time and then adding it to my sleep deficit, or figuring up how long I would need to nap on the floor at work the next day. 

This is my king sized bed, and it is glorious, and I never felt like I had enough time in it.

This is not a king sized bed. This is the only corner of my classroom where I can sleep during lunch break without anyone seeing me from the window. That lump? It's my backpack/pillow. My friend sent me that blanket and I keep it at work and it is awesome, but it definitely doesn't make the tiles feel like a mattress. 

I got home after work today and took a long, cold shower, sprawled out on the tiles in the dark, feeling the water slide over my eyelids, not a care in the world. I ended up wrapped in a towel on my bed, right under the breeze of the A.C., and there I remained for an hour. The last time I did that, it was a defiant act, an irrevocable middle finger to the amount of work I needed to do- I felt like I was snatching back something I needed, but I knew I couldn’t hold onto it for long (and I didn’t). Today I didn’t feel like I was stealing from someone to do it, or struggling with panicky guilt and anxiety about deadlines. I just stayed wrapped up in my towel on my own damn bed in the early afternoon because I could and no one was telling me I couldn’t.

I wouldn’t trade my education degree for anything. It gave me a career I love, it made me an excellent educator, and it has given me the life I have now. My education degree was worth it, and I am so glad I did it. But just as much, I am so glad it is over. Much of that has nothing to do with grad school- it’s just that it was a persistent, demanding obligation I’ve had to do while at the same time the last four years of my life have been the hardest of my life, most certainly, on every level. I sometimes can’t believe all that’s happened. I wish a lot of it hadn’t happened. 


This morning, when I saw that the rough draft was accepted, I entertained grand notions of coming home, doing all the final formatting tasks of my paper, and submitting it tonight. Instead I just stayed in bed for another two hours. It’s not even 9:00 p.m. yet and I am going to sleep. I feel like all the relentless driving I’ve done for the past semester has finally caught up with me, and logic is telling me there is no reason why I can’t go to bed now. So that’s what I’m going to do. And I don’t have to do work before work tomorrow, or do work on my lunch break tomorrow, or do work after work tomorrow. I am so completely exhausted and so happy to be finished. 


Saturday, March 28, 2015

Racing

"Well, in our country," said Alice, still panting a little, "you'd generally get to somewhere else—if you run very fast for a long time, as we've been doing."

"A slow sort of country!" said the Queen. "Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!"
Illustration from Lewis Carroll's "Through the Looking Glass"


I keep sitting down with good intentions to write what needs to be written for my thesis (and what needs to be written is just as much as has already been written, and that took me more time than I can bear to recall) but every time I do all I want to do is write whatever I want to write, which is a lot of things lately. Then guilt takes over that I would sit down and write here, for no reason, for nothing, when a degree for which I have paid more money than I care to think about is hanging in the balance. 

So for the last two days I have sat at my computer for hours, working through pain and being sick, and entered survey data into an Excel spreadsheet. And then I read the survey data several times, making notes and plans and outlines. I reviewed the notes on qualitative data analysis that were the result of a full work week prior of research and reading. I did all this to prepare me to begin writing another chapter in my thesis, so I haven’t actually even started what I’m supposed to do yet, but I did what I needed to do before I could even start what I'm supposed to do.

It’s Friday night, and I was supposed to sit down, once more, with all of that data and start writing a story out of it: identifying themes, sketching out categories, separating and copy pasting and research marking and citing and connecting. I was supposed to prepare it to be grafted seamlessly onto what I’ve already done, so it is accepted and works well together and fills in another blank in this big project that I’ve come to see as so many seemingly endless blank squares that I am slowly filling in, tiny black letter by single keystroke by citation by article, a meditative inch by inch belly crawl through this last long stretch of requirements before I get my degree in hand.

Instead, I sat down and wrote this. This that means nothing other than a representation of what is in my head, when what should be in my head is research and facts and Chap 4 rough drafts and Chapter 2 reworking and formatting tables and figuring out how to make Excel do what I need it to do.
I can’t stop premature nostalgia for Vientiane from creeping in all around me, and it makes me feel this deadline of time to write down what I feel like living here, what it means to me, what I’ll take from it and what is has taken from me. It all feels terribly self-indulgent when a) I am still three months out from leaving and b) I need to finish this paper because being able to enjoy my last three months here hinges on my getting this out of the way. I’m not interested in going through my days with the grad school guillotine hanging over me until the very last minute.

Actually, before I sat down and wrote this I came into my house, peeled off my work clothes, crawled into bed, and sprawled out under my air conditioner for the better part of two hours. No music, no mindless interneting, doing nothing more than watching the light in the room change from late afternoon to early evening. I just stayed in the quiet. I have had far too little quiet to stay in these last two months. February was a grind and March wasn’t much better. I feel like I blinked in January and woke up at the end of March.

No, actually, that’s not the right analogy at all. I experienced nothing like sleep, it wasn’t like waking up…I feel like I started a race in January and that race turned into an obstacle course and then I was injured several times and the race got harder and the obstacles were higher and I didn’t have enough water, sleep, or food, and I have finally, finally arrived at the end of March, heaving and gasping for air. Unfortunately, I feel that I have done all that running just to stay in one place, because I don't feel a rest yet, and nothing much around me has moved or changed. I can't see the work I'm doing, and that makes motivation difficult to gather.

There are far harder things than writing a thesis, or having metal in your eye and then cut out of your eye, or dealing with chronic pain that eats your patience and gives you back frustration and anger. There are more difficult tasks than a heavy workload, or debates to coach, or finances to sort, or school trips to plan around doctor’s visits and homework. There are even more awful things to bear in this world than another round of the endless cycle of grief for a lost sister, or a partner, or the anxiety of having a brain go sideways as you whisper please, oh please please, please just stay still right here and don’t slide away from me right now.

There are worse things, but these are my worst things right now, and it’s hard. I am looking so forward to being well again, to being finished with grad school, to having more time to just stay in the quiet and enjoy it because I get it as often as I need it, not because I feel like I’m stealing it from all my other loud obligations that demand and insist and remind me I asked for this and signed up for it, so I shouldn't really complain.

I am so tired. But I am so close.
_________________________________________________________________________________

It’s Saturday morning. Last night I decided to just scrap the whole evening in terms of productivity and guilt, so I went out to dinner with two of my friends and then ended up out at CCC, the best local dance dive in town, until almost 2 a.m. I couldn’t dance and for the first time in maybe ever I sat and watched as the dance floor swelled out to a full on proper night out in Vientiane, and while I was a good deal jealous I was, more than that, happy to be out on the patio curled up inside good conversation and under a canopy as tentative practice for wet season rain fell around us. I set a date for some productive proximity last night, and this morning, after dropping another unfortunately uninsured sum of money at the doctor for more blood tests, I headed to a coffee shop and added my laptop to the mix. Five of us have been here for the last several hours, clacking on keyboards, working away at various projects, the silence interspersed with comments and laughter that easily slide back into long stretches of supporting each other’s work, sharing food, and ordering ever changing varieties of drinks on the classic SE Asian spectrum- tea, coffee, fruit shakes in all flavors.  I have spent hours and hours and hours alone with my work over the past year, avoiding social get togethers because of my work, sometimes feeling like my work is slowly breaking down my friendships. 

Today I have watched the light slide across the room and go from late morning to late afternoon, and I was able to stay in more quiet and enjoy it, and I was able to do so with the people in my life who have made my life here very good, even when I am very tired, and very stressed, and very sick of grad school and sickness and money worries and job fears. 

And there’s more Vientiane nostalgia creeping in. I want there to be no mistake- even when it is hard, my life here is exactly what I want it to be, and I am doing what I want to be doing, or I wouldn’t have chosen it.


I am so tired. But I am so close. 



Thursday, February 5, 2015

Song of the Open Road, or, My Best Sales Pitch





I have frequently been asked some version of this question: 

“I want to go travel long-term, or live overseas- what should I do?”

While I can give you concrete answers and practical advice, websites and organizations and applications, this is not that. The details are easy to find, but sometimes what you really need is a cheering section and a push and a note to tuck in a back pocket for when your brain starts going sideways and telling you why you can't. What I offer here is a rambling anthem of encouragement, a call to leave, a humanist blessing for your journey. Often difficult and uncomfortable, with an unpredictable edge, is where I've preferred to live and travel for the past three years. I can’t recommend it enough. It forces you into things you might never have chosen, because you didn’t know the options existed. It teaches you things you didn’t plan on knowing. You become a person you didn’t know you were capable of being.

This change happens because daily, in myriads of subtle ways, you reorient to a new system of interacting with the world and the people in it. You will come to casually accept situations that would previously register as strange. A policeman lets your friend play with his gun at 3 a.m. in a bar, and your main concern is that it’s raining and you have to walk home without an umbrella at some point. Your neighborhood is on fire and you calmly pack a bag and pour into the street with hundreds of others. Upon waking to find your Russian bunkmate has pissed in your boot in the middle of the night on the first leg of the Trans-Mongolian railroad, you just laugh about it, buy a smoked fish at the next stop, and stink up the place until the piss smell is gone.  You make friends with prostitutes after dancing all night with them. When it’s too late for a tuk tuk, you don’t think twice about hitchhiking in the back of a truck to a club early in the morning hours. You see unsupervised, gleefully naked babies running down a busy street, fresh from a bath in a bucket, and you don't think to wonder where their parents are. When the Estonian guys at the postcard shop you’re in ask if you want to check out the attic to see the famous watchtower clock from the inside, you’re up those stairs, and, later, you start a dance party with them in the street for the musicians busking on the corner. Inadvertently helping a little old lady hide cigarettes and booze on the train crossing the border from Serbia to Hungary also makes friends fast.  You sit far too close to the barrels of fireworks buried in the beach at New Year’s, right under a fiery banner of stars and spiderwebs, all those flaming colors slightly hazy from the explosives that made them and could unmake you. Your friends ride home in the trunk of an embassy worker. The club you are in is raided. The TV is playing news about a military coup as you have a rowdy dinner with friends at your favorite pizza restaurant, and you brush off the news as overblown media hype. You consistently wind up in strange places with strange people but if you think about it at all you realize that you have to remind yourself why it’s strange, because at this point it seems normal.

Your new normal also means that: when the power goes out while you’re teaching you don’t even notice anymore; untended fires on the side of the road are probably fine; you reintroduce “hold on a sec, the page is loading” into your internet language; you learn how to dominate aggressive street dogs and handle a brick when needed; the statement “I have some extra de-worming tablets if you want them” is an appropriate thing to say in casual conversation. Hospitals, potable water, sidewalks, well lit streets, fire codes, regular rubbish collection, animal control- you let these things go. Sanitation standards become an unrealistic theory of the past, and restaurants that look like truck stop bathrooms are happily patronized at 3 a.m. after a night out. You gladly receive any food offered  out of a pot bubbling over an open fire,  from the dirty hands of a child in a yurt, pulled from an unidentified sack on a train,  taken off of the back of a donkey on a beach – eat it all.


Delicious homemade tofu in Cambodia. Not pictured: any kind of food safety regulations.

It’s good to decide to graciously give up your personal space and privacy, because it won’t exist anymore. Know that buying a ticket for a seat means nothing, and your lap might become a stranger’s seat, your shoulder a pillow. Sleep on strange couches or random floors, and open your home to travelers to do the same. Revert to the community space of early adolescence, slumber parties and “Can I borrow a shirt to sleep in?” and waking to lazy Sunday mornings. Rent cars or motorbikes and drive in as many countries as you can, even when you need to translate the maps through three filters of references and several writing systems to know where the hell you are going. 


Somewhere in the mountains around Christmas, celebrating having taught myself tor read Greek via Google maps. There was some trial and error. 

Hold any baby when he or she is given to you (this will happen), smiling nicely for the inevitable picture that follows. If there is water in which to swim, swimming is always an option, regardless of the absence of towels or bathing suits. Devote time to aimless city wandering, purposefully trying to get lost, walking down unfamiliar streets, figuring out maps and finding landmarks. Climb everything unless you are explicitly forbidden to do so. If the trains stop running at one a.m. and start running again at 5 a.m., you choose to stay out until 5 a.m. when it’s time to make that choice. Always check random doors on interesting buildings, abandoned or otherwise, just to see if you can go in. Related- when rowdy Balkan gypsy music comes spilling out of a basement stairway and crosses your path on a random Sunday afternoon, you go down that stairway. And above all else, if there is music, you are dancing- no excuses about sunshine or sobriety allowed.


Estonia was a real good time, y'all.

When you get wherever you are going, remember you can do whatever you want. Leave before you planned on leaving if you don’t want to stay. Stay longer than you thought you would if you don’t want to go.  Write things down- you will forget them, even if you think you won’t. Speaking of, take the time to send postcards home whenever you can. You’ve held them in your hands and they went from you to the people you were thinking of when you were far away from them. That means a great deal, because wherever you go in this world you came from somewhere first, and that point is what anchors you while you roam. What it means to be anchored to that point will change. 




As to timing, and plans, and organizing-  make a budget you cling to amorously, write a letter of resignation if you want to leave for good, make a rough wishlist of the things you want to experience or see or do, pick a date to leave, and set your face irrevocably to that day.  “Someday maybe I’d like to possibly” has never been a date in this world of time, so it will never happen, I assure you. 

A word about traveling companions: ask people to go with you, if you want, but be ready for a no or, worse, an endless hedging, hazy, sometime maybe promise with no heft. Know when to stop waiting for those sometime maybe promises.  Any companion who would join you will join you emphatically, with a heavy commitment you can pick up and test for strength and durability. If you find yourself with a date to face and no partner with which to face it, don’t worry- anyone who doesn’t join you at the beginning of your trip is already on the road, waiting to be found.  You'll find them along the way, just like I found my people.

Post baptism in a mud lake in Vang Vieng, Laos


Serbians know how to party.

Albania is another universe, but they still have watermelons.

No one costumes as hard as we Halloween

We Christmas pretty well, too.

I want to end by talking about ending, specifically, dying, and the fact that, even as I write this, and even as you read this, we’re both, ever so slowly, but most definitely, dying.  To that inevitable destination of dust we travel in this outrageously miraculous concoction of bones and flesh, and for most of us, it’s a healthy home and excellent mode of transportation for many years.


I got here in my body! 

But don’t take that for granted. 

One day you will hopefully be very old, but you will also move slowly, and your bones will ache, and you will be frequently tired and need things like doctors and hospitals nearby, and loved ones who check in on you to make sure you are Okay, the capital O signifying that this is a synonym for “hasn’t died yet, because at this point dying would not be a surprise.” That time is not now, but it is coming for all of us, and it’s running fast although you won’t be doing anything very fast when it gets here. It might come even faster in the form of cancer or a car wreck or any other number of things that can befall a human being in the course of being a human. 


Me + everything I own + a very appropriate sign outside of a hostel.

I promise on everything I own (which isn’t much at all, but I’m including my mind full of stories and my heart full of memories of all I’ve known so far, and that is quite valuable to me) that this will work. You’ll make it work because you’ll have to, as long as you’re willing to have no attachments to enduring definitions of what making it work means. Define right expansively, and wrong narrowly, and find yourself surrounded by right as a result. It’s handy to take control of the definitions that way. 

You’re always right in going and doing something if the only defining characteristic of being wrong is not going and doing something.

So go.

Just go.

That’s what you should do.