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.