Posts by Randy:
Nap Dow is from a small town called Mong Nai in Shan State, Burma, where after years of little employment and mass hardship her family ran out of money to send her to school when she was only nine years old. They then quickly ran out of money to survive in their economically devastated village. So, like many other families from Shan State, they opted to flee to Thailand to find work to avoid starvation.
They had to walk most of the way. It took over two weeks, as much of the time was spent hiding in forests from the police and military authorities, who would either keep them there or send them back. It was a very hard two weeks, especially for Nap Dow, but the prospect of finally being able to go to school again in Thailand made the many 100s of KM walk (over the mountains) bearable on Nap Dow’s ten year old feet.
When her family ultimately arrived in Chiang Mai, the largest city in northern Thailand (and where they settled), she was told by every school that since she did not know Thai, she could not study there (there are no remedial classes in Thailand). While this may excite many children, this was heart breaking for her. Going to school and learning were her favorite things to do. So much, that in Burma when she came home from school in the evening, she would do her homework and read by candlelight, as her house lacked electricity, or wake up at dawn to finish.
This crushing blow, not being able to go to school, also forced Nap Dow to begin working, full time, at 10 years old. And to add insult to injury, the one job she could find that would hire such a young girl was pushing a cart around to sell fruit to school students. She did this for nearly a year and a half before she discovered a school that would accept her: Thai Freedom House.
While she still needed to work in the daytime, TFH allowed her to continue learning in the evening. She was able to improve not only her Shan language skills, but also learn English and Thai along with weekly art and traditional dance classes.
Four years ago, when she was 14, TFH opened a charity cafe, Free Bird Cafe, to attempt to support the school financially. Here she was able to become the server and leave the fruit selling behind. As she worked at the cafe, her English skills improved dramatically extremely quickly, as she was using English everyday. She continued to take classes each night as well and began reading books in Thai well above her grade level. (So much for that whole not being able to learn Thai business all the Chiang Mai schools told her…)
In the past four years she has been everything at Free Bird Cafe: the server/barista, the cook, the cafe manager in training, and a part time intern in TFH’s office. As if this is not enough, she also teaches traditional dance to many of the TFH students and manages the Shan Cultural Preservation project at TFH, which help ensures the students have ties to their roots, even as their lives have been uprooted from their country. And if that was not enough, she has spent the past six months, at least three times a week, going through what I like to call Grammar boot camp with me, so that her written English skills correspond with her verbal ones. She is doing this so she can get into a GED program this coming January, so she will be able to go to college, one of her dreams that until very recently she was afraid she would never reach.
If you are asking when she is able to sleep, don’t worry… you are not the only one.
She is an amazingly funny and artistic. She takes excellent photos (she has even made me look amazingly photogenic on more than one occasion) and while I can easily see her as a photographer, she wants to be a teacher or a lawyer. Both these careers appeal to her so that she can help her community, both as refugees and when things improve enough that she and the other millions of Burmese refugees can return to Burma. The pride she has for her people and the amazing amount of time she dedicates to helping already makes me think her future desires will make her unstoppable. I can easily see her being both a teacher and a lawyer, but most of all a community leader dedicated on helping those around her.
Early next year, she will be joining her GED class. And frankly, this is the most exciting thing I am looking forward to in the new year. Lisa, the director of TFH, and I spoke to one of her soon to be teachers this week and we both commented on how it felt like we were parents asking way too many questions as we try to get our child into some exclusive school. This was funny at the time, as this is just a high school equivalency program and what is so exclusive about that? Then I thought of how many people are denied access to such essential institutions as education and I realized the “funny” metaphor we compared it to was not so funny at all.
And then I wondered just what would have happened to Nap Dow if TFH did not exist. How would she have been able to continue her lifelong love affair with learning? How would she have been able to grasp hold of her dreams and be able to go to high school and then college? Just how long would she have been forced to sell fruit to kids, who had access to school, everyday, all the while, longing to be able to sit in those schools and learn? Without this education, how would she be able to assist her community as she plans?
How many other students also fall behind, without access to education? Actually, how many other people fall behind, without access to education? Well the numbers are sobering: just look at how many girls are being currently being denied education. But those are just numbers and not faces.
Nap Dow is a face.
Much more than a face.
So much more.
She is a person with dreams, struggles, aspirations, flaws, drive, and rights — one of which is clearly education. She is not the other 49 students that grace TFH 7 nights a week, learning Thai, English, Shan, Burmese, Chinese, art, dance and music, after they have worked all day and have rushed over to learn and share with their community. Their experiences are vast and many, and far larger than this post.
So what would happen to these amazing students without Thai Freedom House?
I simply do not have the answer to this question. But…. I can tell you it is not a positive answer. Not at all. It could easily involve trafficking, exploitation of all kinds, jobs paying well below minimum wage, and on and on. It also would not include many of these 50 students reaching their dreams.
Yet, Thai Freedom House constantly struggles to find the funding it needs to survive. So please, if this piece has moved you at all, if you are inspired by Nap Dow’s story of determination and the assistance she got to go along with it, if you would like to see others follow in her footsteps and succeed educationally, if you view access to education as a right we all share please check this out and during this season of giving help TFH continue to grow and bring the dreams of all their students to life.
Nap Dow’s dreams are starting to materialize. There are 49 other students who have equally as big and bright dreams as her. And not only do they need TFH to help them grasp their dreams, they deserve no less.
So yes, please share what you can for these amazing students. Share Nap Dow’s story with your friends, loved ones, and family. May the inspiration Nap Dow fuels me with daily, inspire you as well.
Sadly, I feel I must preface this to say that this is not a joke and I am being 100% sincere. I say this because what comes next may surprise or even shock some of you who knew an earlier version of me who displayed none of what is to follow. But as much of my life is currently focused on growth and emotional evolution — becoming a better version on me, this is where I am at now. And my intention is to use this as a launching pad to an even better version in the future. (I find it sad/funny that this is necessary, but alas…. I feel that it is.)
One of the hardest things I am attempting to change about myself, evolve out of, is erasing my superiority complex. It has been a devil on my shoulder in most everything I have ever done. When confronted with things I felt better than, disagreed with or even just may not have understood I too often would just dismiss whatever by affixing a label such a stupid, useless, nonsensical, irrational, etc etc… imploding any sense of worth it may hold, making it beneath me. Inconsequential.
Or I affixed myself the position of victor/champion/wtfever; thus, whatever I was in opposition to was the loser, the unremarkable, the useless, etc, etc.. Truth be told, at times I even often saw myself as the Queen/King and others as just pawns. So not only was I superior to them, their built in disposability and ‘single directional abilities’ served not only to make others easily dismissive, but also as a chance to elevate myself, even if wholly unjustifiable.
I am positive that this type of behavior was born out of the need to make myself feel better about who I am and cover my faults by blaming others.
This, simply put, is DEPLORABLE!
This is also the epitome of negative thinking, as all I am able to do is see what I deem negative and unwanted qualities in the people, things, and ideas I dismissed. As it is far easier to wipe away the negative issues before you than the positive, or even the potential for positive. I realized this last year, when a friend insisted on asking me “is that a positive or negative way of looking at things.” I’ll be honest, at first it was more than a little grating of a comment — mainly because it made me stare into my normally unquestioned train of thought, but then as it went on and I saw my habitual negative thoughts on display I was most grateful. I even started to ask myself this question when my friend was not around.
To say it was transformative would be quite an understatement.
And it lead me to this:
I, of course, am not better or worse than any of these people and/or things. None of us are. And of course the act of dismissing, diminishing, invalidating, whatever does not make me feel better about myself. Ever. Never ever. Not at all.
I would argue quite the opposite, in fact.
Modern life is not about competition — no matter what societal/economic pressures try to tell us. We are not animals fighting over the rights to one small, shallow pool of drinking water. We are not even a class of first graders fighting over an eroding chair count in musical chairs.
We exist in a world of abundance, where needs can easily be met.
But though our dismissive behaviors, our need to “seem” superior, we make that reality impossible to achieve. Dismissive behavior births an us vs them mentality, where people hoard things, making them scare, diluting the abundance that is there for all of us — to share.
I know each time I big myself up at the expense of someone/something, I actually toss any hopes of inflating myself into a cesspool. I know this, from the core of my infinite potential; yet, when things start to get hard or overwhelming, or difficult to understand and/or communicate, I find that I can easily slip back into this destructive behavior.
So I write and mean this not only as some sort of extrinsic advice, but also to remember it at all times myself:
Stop asserting yourself as better, or worse, than those around you. The only person you should ever try and be better than is the person you were yesterday. And if by chance you do not make that goal today, thankfully, you can make up for tomorrow.
And yes, as easy as that is to think or type, it can be equally as difficult to implement. Societally we have all been trained to value competition and devalue compassion. We cheer on sports teams and vilify nurses wanting proper value for their work. “YAY TEAM!,” “Why do those nurses think they deserve a pension!?”. Basic human rights are often ignored so sporting events can go on, see the formula one event in Bahrain last year.
So yeah, somehow compassion is seen as weak and unwanted. Therefore, compassion is a radical, transgressive act. And one the world could use a lot more of. But is also something that we must cultivate within ourselves and release into the world if we expect the others to reciprocate.
I’m starting by doing my damndest to not dismiss others, to not assume a superiority (that clearly does not exist), finding the value in others – as we all have value, and never ever ever try and big myself up by tearing others down. I know there are perhaps a billion other ways to increase compassion in the world, but for now, these are the one’s I am focusing on. Which small change can you make that would help fill the world with compassion?
As a play on and tribute to Harvey Pekar’s wonderful graphic novel, Our Cancer Year, this is the first of many posts about My Cancer Year, (ooh…. a new tag….). This is an updated version of a post I wrote in October 2010. It really goes to show you how consumed I was by the diagnosis and note the words I use, how unhelpful they are in accordance to this post. I like the progression and positivity of my thoughts on the subject that you can see at the end, as I detail why I choose to share this now:
My last night on Don Det I dreamed I had superpowers.
Well that may be a bit of a stretch… I dreamed that the cancer inside me, pulsing through my blood, made my hands red, bright red, and hot – hot enough to melt plastic and cause a wooden door to smoke, smolder, if I placed my hands near enough to it. It was like I could transfer my cancer to other things. And other people.
I was contagious. The caustic poison that was reshaping my blood, turning my cells into tiny suicide bombers, was leaking out of me.
Like many a super-villain, some sort of energy pulsated out of my hands. Blasts propelled from my palms, my bright red, throbbing palms. Palms that could, would, infect others. And I could not control this. Even when I tried to make my hands into fists, covering, hiding my palms, it would leak through.
Unsurprisingly, this dream woke me up in quite a fright. I was sweating and my hands were visibly red.
I just stared at them, full of disbelief. Scared.
It was amazingly hard to go back to sleep.
When I finally woke up again in the morning no other dreams came to mind. I still felt this one pumping through my veins with all its tainted blood. I looked at my hands nervously, knowing they would still be red, maybe like a fire truck or even past red red and they’d resemble those vibrantly bright pools of beet juice, left on a cutting board.
Thankfully they were not.
I was overtaken by fear that this dream was real. That it was coming true. I was sweating. But my hands were the color of the rest of my flesh and no warmer than the rest of my skin.
They did not itch.
As I sat there relieved I was not infectious, I conjured up a sense of dread to poison my mind as cancer was poisoning my lymphatic system and as it further poisoned my blood. I knew I was leaving this near paradise I had been quite taken with during my week stay (in fact, the 4000 islands in Laos is my single favorite spot in SE Asia – so far). I had done a lot to slip out of thinking about it during that time, but I could no longer avoid it. As it was on to Bangkok and the cancer center there and then on to Chiang Mai where I opted to undergo my treatment.
And while this dream faded as I reentered reality and had much of my lymph system removed, it continued to flare up again, just like those pulsating infectious bursts of energy from my palms, throughout my entire treatment. I had hoped it would disappear if I got an all clear on the cancer front, but much to my dismay a few weeks ago, it repopulated my dream space and woke me again.
So I’d say this is a pretty relevant subconscious interaction. One I guess I need to address, though to be honest with you, I keep grasping at what it means, but every time, my hands come back empty. So, any ideas here are both warmly welcomed and greatly appreciated.
I had initially intended to post this (a more present tense version, at least) well over a year ago, but became so wrapped up in the surgery, the treatment, and the ensuing writers block that is just seemed out of place, and then I realized that I did not want to invite this type of thinking back into my life. I thought I had escaped it, till as mentioned above, it reasserted itself into my dreams — no invitation required. So… I have opted to now put this out in the universe, but as a subversion of the invitation, as a release of it, to let go. Or, to take and expand on that felling of waking up relieved that it was not physical real into the present, making it my permanent reality.
I hereby declare myself free of the thinking that produced this.
I am giving this dream wings, letting it lift off and shift into the sky, to soar on its own elsewhere. I am disentangling myself from the fear this struck/stuck inside of me. I will no longer worry about infecting others with my negativity. I will however continue to send out metta every morning as I wind up my meditation sessions. That is something I am more than happy to infect the world with.
Recently I read an amazing article. It calls for ten simple steps one can do to take care of themselves better. My friend Siw sent it to me saying that it sounded like a “female Randy” wrote it. And I have to say, it does sound much like the discoveries I have made over the past months.
I especially like how the author frames this as radical self care, as just that concept is radical. So often we are challenged when we need to take a break to relax, rest, or even mend. And when we say “no, I can’t do _________,” people often feel rejected and fume about the person who said no: “Too busy to help me….” boils forth with incredulousness. I say this because, though it brings me no joy, I too am guilty of this. It seems that at some point that horrible fast food place adage of “if you’ve got time to lean, then you’ve got time to clean” has overtaken just about every aspect of our our lives. We have to remain busy at all times or else we are doing something wrong. And people wonder why we often feel the world is so toxic…..
She also points out that each of these ten acts are simple. And they are. Well, simple if you agree to three things: that you love yourself, that you are worthwhile, and deserve to feel good. If you treat these ideas as possibilities rather than facts, it may seem more difficult to climb Mt Everest on your hands — again, I speak from experience here.
I have adopted all of these into my life but one: the digital celibacy part. And at first I was not sold on the need for this. ‘Why would I want to give up my connection to the world for any extended period of time? After all, connection builds community and isn’t that also needed?’
Then I remembered the last day I forgot my phone at home, and how twitchy I got not being able to check in on things, that while possibly important, had no direct impact on me, nor would I have had absolutely any direct impact on them. And I also noted how the world did not seem to stop in the slightest because I did not have my phone, and anything I did not get to immediately waited peacefully for me. This, while I was bouncing with agitation. Hmmm…. maybe…. I do see a problem.
I also recalled back to those days, not so long ago, when I was the last person I knew who did not even have a simple cell phone. And how blissful it was to be able to escape messages when I needed/wanted to. Oh wait, that sounds quite a bit like self-care right there….
Add to that the blissful feeling I have when I leave a meditation course and the ten+ days of digital abstinence and well, lets just say it is easy to start seeing the value.
So… I opted to try and do a wifi free day each week. I should say TRY, as I was sort of sure it would prove too difficult. But in fact this past monday was my 5th week of this new habit. I was pretty sure I was unready and not even sure I was actually willing to pull this off — the digital hook is lodged deep into my skin afterall… And in fact the first Monday was not a complete wifi free day, as had two prior skype sessions scheduled.
But for the rest of the time, my Mondays have been absent all my digital tethers I have learned to lean on so heavily: the emails, the facebooks, the twitters, the blips, etc etc. And I would be lying if I said this was easy.
But then, that is why I think it is important. Lying fallow from the internets helps me recharge. In disconnecting, I am able to better reconnect with myself. And hopefully with those I love and care about as well.
I opted to call this wifi free monday, as I seem to react better to things with titles, with definition rather than just some rough idea. I can not commit to a pure digital free day, as I still need to write, but I will only do so with the wifi turned off. And only for the two or so hours I have scheduled each day to work. If the urge strikes me at other times, I will take pen to paper — perhaps i’ll even revert to quill and ink…….
I had even considered to give in to my kindle love — I named my kindle Mr. Rosewater, as in God Bless You… after all — and allow it as well, but I still have physical books that need reading. So other than those few morning hours I write, digital freedom here I come!
I’m only gone monday’s, which just means I should have far more time to catch up during the rest of the week (only it has not really progressed like that… yet), I still have some 200 email messages in my inbox I really should reply to and chat/skype sessions I should schedule/make, but alas, it is not like I was able to bang those out even with being online seven days a week.
There is a sense of both sadness and relief about this. But the relief wins out, just like putting ice on a sunburn, the self-care is evident. The self-care is important. Far more important than responding to the email that has been sitting in my inbox for a bit too long. Far more important than following the latest foibles and follies of the ruling class on the twitters. Far more important than refreshing my inbox waiting for a message that won’t come till after I am asleep (stupid time zones!). Far more important than trying to be funny/enlightening/self righteous/etc etc on the facebooks. Because at the end of the day, if I do not take care of myself and treat me right, how can I be sure I can treat others right and care for their needs? Thus, my Monday digital abstinence exists.
Could you do this? Would you even want to?
Effective communication is essential for living well with others. I am pretty sure I can get unanimous support and agreement on that one. One of the most important parts of communication is listening to other parties one is communicating with and understanding them. And I am not talking only about what is being said but, also what is being omitted and what is being said with non-verbal cues, and surely what is being implied though the words one chooses.
So why do I bring this up? Well, it helped me make an a huge change in myself and the way I relate to the world and illness specifically and most importantly, I can not envision getting to the “cancer-free” status without it. Or you know, a vitally important milestone, well worth sharing.
A while back a friend of mine said she needed to fix herself, just like many other friends have said before. But rather than ask her if she needed any help or how I could support this endeavor, I asked her if she thought she was broken. I got the squinty face when one looks at you quizzically as if you have perhaps lost your mind. But think about the word fix for a second. We fix chairs when one of their legs falls off. We call a wrecker for our cars when they won’t start in hopes a mechanic can fix it and keep it alive. And how many things when broken do we not even attempt to fix: think electronics which are easily replaced (just how many printers have you owned in the last decade?). She was not missing a limb nor was she in need of a wrecker, so just why did she need fixing? Why does anyone discuss themselves with a verb so tied to broken objects, things so many just toss out after declaring they are not even worth fixing?
In a round about way I said ‘what I hear you saying is that you want to improve yourself, improve your situation, be better, etc etc…’ And since our bodies are our homes, I took the home improvement metaphor and ran with it: ‘If our pipes freeze we fix them, but if we add a new coat of paint or a new stove we are only improving what is there. Apply that to the body, if we break a leg we fix it, but if we are working on an issue, say wanting to have more patience, we are not fixing anything, we are simply improving ourselves.’ It may sound like a tiny distinction, but none of us are broken. We need to care for ourselves, we don’t need fixing (like a record store where a certain Mojo Nixon does not work, which clearly could use some fixing).
We are all constantly evolving. Nothing is broken. We may just not be where we want to be, currently. This is not broken. This is an opportunity to do some work to get there, where one wants to be. Evolution does not just happen, it occurs through action and change. It needs catalysts: you and desire. Nothing abour this implies anything is broken.
Blah blah blah…. you can see the point I am getting at. Saying something like “I need to fix myself” implies a level brokenness at an innate level. This can not be good for one’s self confidence. In fact, this can not be good for the world – just by presenting yourself as broken allows others to see you this way, and relate to you this way. And since the world is not always full of shiny happy people, many of those will look to take advantage of this weakness. This breeds distrust of others and could easily lead to one saying, “I need to fix this, as well.”
I need to grow. I need to keep evolving. I need to become a better person. These phrases empower us to develop in a positive way.
Then I realized I was doing something equally destructive when I discussed how the body, my body in particular, related to disease. I was using words that implied so much more than good health and healing in describing how I was getting along with illnesses. So much more, but in the exact opposite way of being helpful. As I mentioned before, I was battling, rather than taking care of myself; I was fighting, rather than mending; a war was going on inside me, rather than healing. It is impossible not to think of Marshall Mcluhan here and his simple, yet transcendent, message: the medium is the message. The message thus is also the medium. So just what is communicated when one refers to one’s self as a battleground? If a war is actually going on inside you, even the winning side is bound to be quite the loser, as part of you is decimated when the other one “wins”. Gangrene may require the decimation and removal of a body part, but the act of healing never should.
I am loathe to ask why battle/war/violent/wtfever metaphors are used so often and what that says about our collective mindset: “I totally just kicked those dirty dishes’ ass!”, “I destroyed that salad!”, and so on. Yes, they are prevalent throughout all areas of our lives. They really should be avoided, especially when we are talking about getting better. Just how many times have you ever seen violence make any situation at all better?
And don’t even get me started on rape metaphors…. Can we all just agree to stop those outright? No doubt, occasionally ATM fees are excessive, but I have yet to hear of a cash machine physically and sexually assaulting someone. Not only does it decrease the impact the word rape should convey, it is beyond insulting to those who have been raped.
Could this all be a load of malarky? Sure, after all what power do words have? How often have words made you feel good? Or bad? If someone bared their teeth and screamed at you “YOU SCUM FUCKING FAGGOT”, would you be able to walk away smiling full of emotionally pleasing thoughts? And if someone came up to you and earnestly randomly complimented you, has this ever made your day worse?
So why chance it?
But once I started talking about healing myself rather than the war going on inside me (and I went so far to begin writing a major piece about Lupus in the blood stream, with white blood cells as characters — scouts before an invasion) things got easier to imagine the mending within. Sure, Russia and the west are “friends” now, but just how much damage did the cold war do to economies, to our psyches, to our world. I want nothing to do with emulating that or a more active hot war zone inside of me. When one is healing, one does not need something else to heal from and that is just what has to happen after a war, a battle, a skirmish, etc.
Words do have power. And it is important to use them in uplifting healing ways.
My anticipated two month stop in Thailand is now approaching two years. Anytime I remember that initially, my planned time in Chiang Mai was five days, I can not help but laugh and laugh and laugh….. Okay, I do not exactly laugh as shake my head a lot, but you get the idea.
But now I am forced with deciding if I will stay in Chiang Mai longer or begin my journey again. The Clash wrote a song about this, no?
I have to say, my feet are itching for more travel, but I have no idea if my body is at the state that could handle the daily travel grind (I am quite thinking not). I know when I first left NYC nearly two and a half years ago, I took at least one day off a week to just rest in bed, so I could continue traveling, without winding up ill again. Well… we can see how well that worked out.
Travel is stressful and is not conducive to routines. And really, what I used to help heal myself was if nothing else the most routinely regimented time in my life. I had a plan from when I woke, what time I woke, to when and what time I went to sleep. I understood just what I would ingest and when I would ingest it. It was all designed to heal me, and while it did morph and change a bit over the five months, the 150 days, the core of it remained the same.
Do I dare drift away from such single mindedness that fairly constant travel will likely breed?
A friend and I were talking about how the need to be flexible is essential to a fulfilling life. Rigidity not only will breed disappointment, it also leads to snapping and breakage when under pressure. That oft quoted maxim of the largest sturdiest tree being the first to snap in a strong wind, while the smaller more flexible saplings can ride it out is not wrong.
And frankly, if I keep thinking ‘this is exactly how I have to live to be healthy,’ without some leeway, with even a minor deviation, I am going to wind up convincing myself I am unwell. And who needs that?
But this healing is so new, I am loathe to change much of it, and I have not, because I do not want it to be an aberration. And to be honest, getting to the point of six months clear and being officially in remission is HUGE for me. And while I know I need to be flexible I am scared to change too much until I get to that point — though I refuse to ever revert back to a diet of mainly cooked foods and the like. And spirulina, lemongrass and avocados will forever be my spirit animals, err… plants, spirit plants.
So in reality, staying in Thailand though at least July, seems essential. Though when I got my last Thai visa, I was told, “this is your last one”. And my visa expires in the middle of April. So… what to do, what to do…
The idea of traveling ten+ hours to the border every 14 days to “renew” my visa is about as appealing as slicing myself open and letting rodents feast on my entrails. I could fly out and back into the country every 30 days, but the expense of that, both financially and from a using so much fossil fuel, would be draining to say the least. I could also try the new passport trick, as I have heard from friends of friends of friends that to get a new visa all you need is a blank passport, without other Thai visas littered throughout. As I have some 40+ pages to go on my current passport, and a new one would cost me $150US this seems like a fairly expensive experiment.
The other two options I have is to learn Thai at an official language school and get an year education visa or get employed and get an official work visa. I am not so sure I could really do the second one, as forty hours a week would be super taxing to my still recharging system. And the stress of teaching — as that is the only job I would be able to get — could very likely set off a cascade of unhealing, until i rebuild the fundamentals of being healthy, err healthier. So this seems to imply the taking Thai classes as the best option, though I am not sure I want to remain here for an entire year more, nor where else on earth I would ever be able to use Thai.
But I also would like to get out for a quick trip or two to see how my body responds to a small bit of travel, as the wanderlust really has been kicking in hardcore of late. And avoiding Thailand in April seems sort of genius, as the heat is so unagreeable
I also would like to do another Vipassana course around this time, in reality I think I would like to do one once every other month, but that seems a bit too much like an addictive behavior. Though after this one, the next one I do can be a full 30 days of silent meditation cut off from the world. Whoever knew such a thing could be so exciting…..
Thoughts, suggestions, etc etc… quite welcome.
Once again, she has been given a clean bill of health, although with cancer that never means anything (you are only pronounced cured of cancer when you die of something else). – Ken Wilber, Grace & Grit
So…. Here is the largest piece of real estate in my mind since the end of last April. Not exactly the fear, but where the fear stems from and just how all encompassing it is.
Late 2011 I met a retired woman from Australia. This was during my first round of immunotherapy treatment, and frankly I looked like it may have been my last. As someone who had been through the cancer wars before, she eased into her question, but basically asked, “how long and how severe?”, the volume of her shared experience echoing off me like a reverberating image in a house of mirrors.
Unlike many questions, it did not make me cringe. It was full of understanding and compassion. What did make me cringe though was her insistence that “we all are afraid to die.” I was steadfast in my belief that I had plowed through that and dealt with it completely. Been there, done that.
I look back at that attitude today and can do nothing but laugh. Frankly, I was so afraid of dying then (and only a little less now) and so worried I was currently planted on the active fault line of death — just waiting for the earthquake, and was about to be swallowed whole, that rather than stare into what seemed a vastly approaching abyss I choose to focus my gaze elsewhere. Anywhere else..
It was not till I sat through my second vipassana course, this past April, that it hit me just how forcefully I was avoiding delving into this. And the lesson of avoiding (aversion) struck a nerve and I began what has been a fairly intense investigation of that fear and how it effects me. Needless to say the ensuing months have been intense and a fairly personal journey.
So just what am I afraid of about death?
At first I was sure that I was mostly worried about no longer being there for friends. My inner altruist really wanted me to stop my investigation there. But, I knew I needed to dig deeper, that the answer lay far deeper than in what I wanted to hear. Then no longer being able to experience what the world has to offer: seeing people I know continue to develop and grow, not being able to finish that/those book/s I was reading, and then just generally the unknown of not existing.
But… those too felt like deflections as I really processed it. They all hinted at the big looming fear of no longer being here, that I might not/would not be remembered, like a beloved TV show that you once felt was canceled before its time, but now can not even remember exactly what it was about or even the characters’ names and/or motivations. Yes, the ego strikes again.
Talk about making me cringe.
Needless to say, this was not a fun realization. And even one that at first I did everything to rationalize away. And then was ever so hesitant to share. Even as I type this today, I wonder if I will keep this private or share it at all, or even edit it out of existence. (Obviously, I opted to forge on with this, but It makes me pause more than I like admitting)
So yes, I have not dealt with the fear of dying. Of being erased. Of existing no more. Of being forgotten.
And I simply can not just wish this out of my head. Nor do the meditative exercises I do eradicate it. So currently I am just accepting it while still trying to root out the causes, hoping to one day abolish it.
All this has prompted me to ask just what causes fear to begin with? Well it obviously first begins with stimuli, usually of something you are opposed/averse to (fire, snakes, heights, etc) for whatever reason. But what is the response in yourself about? So I looked at something that stir fear within me to see if I could understand this better. Heights are a strange thing for me, as I am not scared of them, but I fear the effects they cause me. Ever since I got a nasty ear infection in high school (a two day bout with I-can’t-stand-up-style-vertigo ensued), whenever I get five or more stories up, looking down gives me vertigo. Feeling as if the world is spinning alarmingly fast is quite scary. The spinning is not what scares me, but the sense that I have lost control. And realistically is that not the root of fear, the lack of control involved?
If we were in control, what is there to fear. If we were able to pick the day we died, we could assure ourselves that everything we have intended to do could be accomplished before shuffling off into the void of death. And then what would there be to fear. Well okay, the unknown: simply not knowing what is on the other side, if there is another side. But think how dramatically different your fear of death would be if you could be sure that every last thing on your to do list was crossed off. It would come at/on your own terms. You would feel in control.
And I say feel, because just like when you are driving a car and feel more in control than if you were “just” a passenger, the other vehicles on the road play into what happens to you too. We actually control very little in the world, essentially just what is under our skin, and even that may be pushing it. But so many of us sure do enjoy the feeling of being in control, even when we are clearly in no way capable of it. Maybe that is when we crave control the most though?
This spins us back to the fear of death — well my fears: that i will potentially not be remembered, that I lack the ability to control others ability to remember me (oh damn… it gets worse, and even more egoist), along with my other lesser fears. And thus it seems I get stuck in an infinite loop re: locating the basis of the fear. And why even though meditation has helped me endlessly in so many areas, it is not working here. I seem to need to further let go that need to control things that are beyond me, but my monkey brain is still clinging to this much like tarzan-swinging vines and/or a bunch of perfectly ripe bananas. And yes, while I have the intelligence to understand the absolute disconnect this represents, my emotional intelligence has quite a distance to travel to catch up, unfortunately.
And so the real estate section of my mind will continue to work and struggle with this. Here is hoping to some seriously declining property values on this one.
It occurred to me recently that twenty years ago I was 18 and going to college. I was thinking what words of advice did I get and what ones would I have liked to get. Here I want to focus on what I wish someone would have sat me down and told me, very seriously and yet emphatically to ensure I would listen, at that major crossroads in my life. Since no one did this, I’m preparing a list in case I ever am able to travel back in time and can deliver some learned wisdom to myself or maybe someone else will find them usefull.
– As soon as possible, marry someone for another passport, and possibly repeat after/every 5 years.
– Medical checkups are not to be postponed.
– Being a vegetarian is great and all, but…. cut out all that packaged processed veg food. Vegetables need to be 80-90% of your diet. Fresh and as raw and green as possible.
– Exercise. Exercise. Exercise. Everyday. Like you mean it.
– Learn to meditate as soon as possible. Take a meditation class every year. Meditate everyday.
– Being constantly pissed off not only is not interesting long term. IT WILL affect your health. Find creative outlets to stem its rise & let people enjoy you, not a simulacra of you that takes far too much effort, time, and energy to construct and project.
– Sarcasm is not a crutch. Do not fall back on this out of laziness. There is nothing wrong with a sarcastic outburst, but do not let it be your default response enabling you to deflect all your other emotions and become cut off from the world by it. Do not let it suffocate you.
– Stop hoarding stuff! You are not a boat and stuff is an anchor. If you insist on hoarding things horde experience and affection you can give to others.
– Give things away. If you do not use it, you do not need it.
– Dance as often and as fast as you can. Worry more about needing new shoes than that someone might point and laugh at you. New shoes are easy to get.
– Wear Clogs! Help end the shoelace industrial complex!!!
– Don’t postpone joy! Seriously, if you do not listen to anything else (and since I remember all too well the lack of listening I did, it sure seems possible) pay attention to this. Enjoying yourself is not a crime and should never be shelved to appeal to a need to SEEM more serious/stoic/important/wtfever. Find the things/people/cats/etc that bring you joy and embrace them, make music with them – even it none of you can play an instrument, stay up all night with them and bask in the dawn together, make magic and terraform your lives with bliss. It’s not terribly difficult, unless you fight it.
– Learn a musical instrument. No excuses. And start now, this instant.
– Stop acting like you can do everything alone. If any of us could do it all then there really would be only need to be one of us. The Tralfamadorians needed our entire civilization to be a simple point on a map home. Asking for help is NOT a weakness, but knowing you need help and being incapable of asking for it sure is.
– If you are not learning from or being inspired by someone and/or inspiring someone else everyday you are simply doing it wrong. Do not focus on what others should do to make them more acceptable to you, offer them things to help them fulfill their dreams, even when that simply means you have to distance yourself from them for them to soar. Never be a weight for others and always share the burdens of your friends and loved ones. And remember that just listening and being present is often all anyone wishes from you and is usually a more powerful act than levitating a mountain. Only act when asked, and listen carefully for this and ALWAYS provide the space for it.
– Always be the best friend you can be. Never help sublimate others’ desire to pursue your own.
– Fear is never an excuse. It surely can be a high hurdle to leap over, and often you will need the help of others (NEVER EVER EVER EVER BE DISCOURAGED IN ASKING FOR HELP), but life is better on the other side.
– Share and feel freely. Do so daily. Even when it is late, it is dark, and you are all alone, share with the universe. Call out your successes and hardships of the day. Keeping them deep within is not ever going to do you any favors.
– Live full of intention. When doing something, anything, let it be your everything. Focus brings clarity, clarity brings understanding, and understanding brings knowledge. If you veer off tangentially at any step along the way, your goal only becomes further away, and possibly unattainable. Any arrow flies when flung, but rarely strikes the target without precision. You are the arrow, but you are also your archer. Intention, focus, and will allows for success.
– If you hold on to things, people, ideas, anything too tightly your hands will be full and unable to hold anything new that presents itself. As funny as it may sound, you can never be blessed with a life full of abundance if your hands are full.
Sitting in my approximately 86th hour of continuously silent meditation at my 2nd vipassana course last year, I was overcome with an idea that could change my life. Yes, I know the goal is to sit still, in the now, and forgo concerns for the future and lose any frets over the past, but a mind will wander…
Normally, I would quickly right that wander, breathe a little deeper, focus a bit more on the air streaming through my nostrils and feel the tidal wave of right now consume me. But this was one of those ideas that escaped my intention and started to live on its own. It actually was the most exciting idea I had over my year in Thailand. What was it you ask? Well I thought of a way that might allow me to ride a bike, while in my brace (as you might recall, this was one of those majorly important to do items). The level of excitement was pretty much what I assume occurred to a certain Orville and Wilbur Wright that led them to their first successful flight.
So not only did I have this ball of excitement making meditation a bit harder than normal, I also had some 154 hours to go before I could even attempt to see if my idea was even worth this level of excitement. Needless to say, this became quite the obstacle to overcome as I worked at bettering my meditative practice. And honestly, it remained with me for the rest of the retreat and while it was difficult, ultimately it was quite helpful as it forced me to go deeper and intentionally into the moment. each moment, and feel the now intensely as I noted that there was a constant voice tempting me with misdirection.
But eventually I left the meditation center and finding out if my idea was viable became more than just theoretical. I had planned to rush out and try it the Sunday I got back to Chiang Mai from the vipassana center, but it was really raining and I was not about to try it whilst getting soaked. All of a sudden I was able rationalize and procrastinate attempting with any simple reason: I’m tired, it’s too sunny out, tomorrow will be the perfect day, etc…
All that excitement, the part that wanted to leap out of my body and pedal as fast as it could possibly pedal, had turned into fear.
‘What if it does not work,’ started to echo in my head. ‘If this does not work, that is it, there will be no way I can manage to ever ride a bike again’ populated my bones like a vitally cold, damp winter frost. ‘It won’t work at all, just like all those other times I tried, why even bother…’ replaced my blood and touched every centimeter of my existence as it pumped through my body. I knew that since this was one of the ten things I most wanted to do, that it may just break me if i was unable to do it, and thus, for a week, every time I would begin to build up the nerve to attempt it, I would locate another borough of rationalization to escape into. And in fact if I had not still been sort of high from the meditation retreat, I am not sure I would have been able to shake this fear. But I kept meditating, and meditating, and meditating, every day looking for the courage to make the attempt, shifting out of the worry that I might fail.
Then I woke up nearly a week after I got back from the retreat and told myself that I was going to find out today, no matter what. So when I marched off to my favorite cafe here, which also rented bikes, I asked my friend Maria there if she would let me attempt to ride one that day. She happily said yes. I said let me eat and we will be good to go. Only then she got super busy, and was unable to get away to assist me. And with that, I breathed lighter, almost as if I got a stay of execution. My faith that I was going to be able to pedal off into the sunset was waning quite quickly.
Two days later, I asked Maria again, and a few hours later she had a key for the lock and we were ready to go. I traveled out to the street like a steamer trunk bulging after being overstuffed — with apprehension. I thought to myself, ‘I can put a stop to this madness right here and never know, but also never have to face that absolute disappointment of simply not being able to thrust the left pedal down.’ Okay, okay… my thoughts were really more like this “FUCK FUCK FUCK FUCK FUCK….”, but as you can see the same impression is conveyed… And when i put in all the fucks into google translate, well it too understood.
But we stood on the street next to a pink bike, which i nervously and quite unsteadily affixed myself to. Once on, I hiked up my pant leg and removed the left metal bar on my leg brace, upon which my leg could then bend greater than 90 degrees. I tossed it into the basket (I may or may not have been singing “a bell, and a basket, and rings and things to make it look good…” in my head), and began to set the pedals in place. And then when no cars or motorbikes or dogs or anything else were coming in either direction, I pushed my right leg, my good leg, down on the pedal. This action forced my left leg up, yet rather than let it travel the parabolic arc of pedaling, I kicked it off. I was quite uncomfortable with this rediscovered movement.
A few more fumbles like this occured and I was well on my way to giving up, I even said something to Maria about “this is just not working,” but like the superstar she is, she encouraged me, saying I “just needed to get going” that “she knew I could do it.” And it took a bit of equally convincing myself of this, but she was right. I could do it. I am sure I looked horribly awkward that day, but I had found a way to overcome the immobility of my leg brace. I found a way to do one of my most missed things.
Life was indeed pretty fucking good that day.
I was fearful of overdoing it, so it was only a five minute ride or so up and down a short portion of a short street, but I began thinking of just how dramatically this would change my life going forward. I’d like to say all the places I was thinking of being able to go and bike around, but really my head was deep in the ‘OH MY GOD, OH MY GOD, OH MY GOOD GOD’ state instead. This was as exciting to me as it would be sitting out at sea watching a new island from the cooling of lava.
Over the next week, I only biked once again, but I knew it was possible, and also that I needed to ensure I had the strength to pedal far and return. So I also was increasing my leg lifts and general fitness. And then, about a week later, my friend Lisa needed to get a group of bikes from one part of town to another. So without thinking, and smiling, and said, “I’ll take one.” She looked at me and asked if I was sure. I am pretty sure I also heard a very unspoken ‘have you gone insane?’. But again I said “I was sure.” And I began to caravan (carabike?) with three others about 2 KM. And let me tell you, 2 KM is much further than it seems. But I made it smiling like an imbecile the whole way. I even passed three or four people I knew and waved with a sense of previously unknown pride.
When we got to our destination, and I walked away from the parked bike, I knew without any sort of doubt, that once again I was a bike rider. A condition I am unwilling to give up lightly ever again.
And over time I have come to realize that it was me and my fear limiting my ability to ride a bike rather than just physical limitations, as I am now able to pedal without removing one side of my leg brace. I am able to get my leg around even with both sides engaged. I discovered this while traveling around Sukhothai with my friend Leigh. A place that would not have been accessible had I not figured out that I could ride again. At the Sukhothai Historical Park you bike and bike from temple to temple and it is a constant getting on and off and back on your bike. I got really good at removing and putting back the brace, but then as I was biking to another temple in the late afternoon, I noted that the piece of metal was not in my basket. At first I was horrified to think I had lost it, and my ability to walk. Then realized I was pedaling with it on.
Now, unless I am hitting up the market down the street or going up quite a bit in elevation, I bike everywhere I go. And every time I do it, start pushing my feet on the pedals and gliding along the street as the tires whisper that “zzzzzzzzzzzz” they make I constantly marvel at the fact that I am doing this. This thing I shuttled into the ‘that which is impossible’ corner of my life, where it hung out with reading people’s minds, lifting things through telekinesis, flying through the sky on my own volition, having an amazing restorative healing power, or you know superhero powers and/or mutations. This ‘box’ has been a black hole of desires, but this lets me think what else have I been limiting myself from doing, just because I have told myself i can’t though the filter of self-preservation. (Please note, while I will always silently, wistfully, long for superpowers, I am not about to jump off a house thinking I can fly, afterall, I am not PCP man….)
My brace buckles and protects me daily. And while it does indeed limit my mobility, it vastly improves it at the same time. Without it, I would be unable to walk impaired. And I’ll take impaired walking over not walking at all every day of the week. But, and this is one of those big BUTS, while I strap it on, I can not let it affect what I see as possible for myself. I can not allow the buckling to buckle in my capacity. Not only can I not, I will not. Self made limits are a type of censorship we weigh ourselves down with. Gravity weighs us down enough, lets not capitulate with it and artificially make it harder to move.
Yes, another playlist. One whole hour of songs that show that sometimes joy radiates in such a way that the only description that makes sense is Dancing! Click play and enjoy.
The response to the image of me darting from one side of the road to the other on my bike singing my newly made up song “Dancing, Dancing, Dancing….” was far greater than I could have imagined. I’ll be honest, I figured it would garner a few chuckles, even a guffaw or two, but I was quite unsure if I could convey the simple, exuberant joy I was feeling. I guess I did.
So many messages of people wanting to sing along with me (just a reminder, you do so at your own risk), doing their own dances, etc etc. That while I will not ask anyone to listen to me sing (yet. just wait for the all ukulele Wham! cover band called ‘Whatever Happened to Andrew Ridgeley?’ makes it’s youtube debut….), I did want to make this a bit more participatory, and to share the moment with all of you. So here is a playlist full of 19 songs, that command you to tap your foot, shimmy in your chair, thumb your steering wheel tot he beat, go full flashdance across your apartment, etc etc.
So take an hour, gear up and dance with me virtually, become the joy.
1. Stickboy – Pirouette
2. Nouvelle Vague – Dancing With Myself
3. The Divine Comedy – With Whom to Dance
4. The Ballet – When You Go Dancing
5. Coeur de pirate – Danse et danse
6. Los Campesinos! – You! Me! Dancing!
7. St. Thomas – Take a Dance with Me
8. Regina Spector – Dance Anthem of the 80s
9. Feist – We’re All in the Dance
10. Plastic Bertrand – Dance Dance
11. Magnetic Fields – Nothing Matters When We’re Dancing
12. Lykke Li ft. Bon Iver – Dance, Dance, Dance
13. Noze & Dani Siciliano – Danse Avec Moi
14. Nouvelle Vague – Dance With Me
15. Émilie Simon – To the Dancers in the Rain
16. Monseiur Periné – Swing with Me
17. Chantal Goya – Ce soir on Danse
18. Belle & Sebastian – Dancing Queen
19. Miss Li – Dancing the Whole way Home