January 28, 2010

Are you a Dreamer? Do you Dream?

There came a point in my life a few years ago in which I realized I didn't really dream anymore. Though I had dreams when I fell asleep at night, I no longer daydreamed about adventures I could take; of a person that I could become; of romances that could whisk me off my feet; of a career that aligned with my heart. At some point, I simply accepted that I was on a path, it was pretty straight, and as long as I didn't veer too far off the trodden yellow brick road, I would never become lost. I became the ultimate pragmaticist, focused on financial security and safety and comfort. Always stating, "this a means to an end," but without asking, "but is this what I want?" By avoiding my heart, I felt in control, but I also felt stagnant. I had lost an internal flame that once burned creativity and passion into the depths of my spirit. At some point, I forgot that there existed a "road less traveled." As Paulo Coehlo noticed, "there comes a time when our personal calling is so deeply buried in our soul as to be invisible. But it's still there." My dreams were buried. I had forgotten that I could shape my current reality into whatever I wanted, and I couldn't remember what I wanted anymore.

But as slowly as my dreams subsided, one day they creeped back in. I was in Northern Nigeria having experiences so foreign I was almost certain I was not actually experiencing them. I shadowed a seventy-year old woman hiking through the bush, investigating religious conflict, traveling where she felt called, interviewing those in conflict, hugging those in need. This woman, Caroline Cox, epitomized a life driven by a heightened sense of purpose, of living the life she believed she should live. And because of this, her heart was free.

And so, half-way through law school, my world of possibility expanded. It was if, after being repressed for so long, the kinetic energy of these pent up dreams burst into the infinite leaving me chasing parts of them in Uganda, and Rwanda, and the streets of LA, and New York City, and Armenia, and Thailand. But the dreams had been stifled for so long, I couldn't quite ascertain the road to reach them. I couldn't even quite verbalize what my dreams were...and this made me sad. The girl who used to rest in imagination, now rested in imitation, mirroring the lives of those around me, wondering if I should want what they wanted.

Realizing that I had the power to dream again, scared me too. Because if I wanted to achieve my dreams, I needed to make choices. This is scary. This means I have control.

Although I am not entirely in control of my circumstances, I cannot be held hostage by them. I know that at the end of the day, if I don't attain my dreams, it is not because of societal pressures, or familial expectations, or closed is because I was too scared to pursue (and even sacrifice) what I believed I was called to do.

A couple weeks ago my book club (yes I belong to a book club and, no, I do not watch Oprah... yet) read the Alchemist. I had read it years ago, but it's one of those books you should keep by your bedside and pick up every so often to remind you of a life that "could be." As we sat around discussing the book, we went in a circle and each vocalized our inner aspirations. The question of "who do you WANT to be? what do you WANT to do?" invoked much more conversation than "who are you now; what do you do?" A lot of us hadn't asked ourselves about our dreams in a while; some of our dreams were simple; some were complex and far-fetched. But, regardless of what they were, the mere thought of them awakened a childish hope that anything could be possible.

My dreams as a child consisted of fantasies and castles and sugarplum fairies and prince of charmings. Now, depending on my mood, they are subject to change. The vagabond in me dreams of a life of travel and wander. The hippy in me dreams of living in a commune with my friends. The hero in me dreams of exploiting the rich and using their money to provide necessities to those in poverty across the globe. The materialist in me dreams of vacations on isolated islands. But most days, my dreams align with what I now believe to be my personal calling: to develop a self-therapeutic, voluntary, and step intensive program, similar to Alcoholics Anonymous, for post-traumatic stress that communities, who have no access to individualized therapy, can implement and take ownership in. I'm not sure quite the path this will lead me on, but I'm hoping as I go, the road will become more clear.

Whatever my dream may be on a given day, the simple act of dreaming blasts open the heavy bars of pragmaticism, of financial security, of parental desires, and of societal expectations. It allows me take off running to visions of foreign places, of love, of my heart's desires. It allows me to "see the world in terms of what I would like to see happen, not what actually does." (Coehlo). Though the pursuit of my personal calling will undoubtedly be filled with struggle and sacrifice, the reality of the path towards the dream makes the journey beautiful. And even though I feel that the road is long, I know that right beyond the "now" is a realm of possibility that awaits to be seized by a dreamer.

January 12, 2010

Death, Man's Best Friend

It was the summer after I graduated from college. I was having the time of my life living with my college roommate Hannah in Martha's Vineyard, going to the beach during the day, and waitressing in the evening. Each night I'd sink into my bed slightly sunburned and with a couple hundred of dollars in cash in my pockets. It was wonderful. Except for the fact that I was convinced I was going to die.

Hannah and I had plans to travel to Thailand for three months at the end of August; she was going to be interning at a hospital in Lopburi and I was going to be working in a home for sexually abused girls. It was surely going to be was too bad that I believed I was never going to get there.

I don't really remember how "the" epiphany happened. I think I was lying in bed one night staring at the ceiling when I decided, "I'm going to die soon." And just like that, I became obsessed with death.

Soon after my realization, on one of our daily walks, I confided in Hannah. She looked at me incredulously, "Ker, you are NOT going to die." "But, I really think I am," I responded blankly. "Come ON," she started and listed off all the reasons why I was not going to die. I blocked out everything she said because she was convinced she was going to get bit by a rabid dog or contract malaria, dengue fever, and/or the bird flu in Thailand, so I couldn't trust her rationalities.

I talked to my mom about it. "Hmmmm...." she said. "Maybe you are going to..." "You think?!" I exclaimed, slightly relieved that even though I may be about to die at least I wasn't crazy in my belief." "Maybe...but I think you should see a therapist. We'll make an appointment with Dr. Goffman when you get back home in August." "Dr. Goffman ?" I asked, not recognizing the name. " know him, he's the marital therapist who got divorced from your old math tutor...the one with the long pink nails and all the cats who always said 'Shaloooom' when you and Cate arrived for your sessions?" He certainly would not be helpful.

So prior to my trip to the therapist and my trip to Thailand I was forced to sit with my death obsession for the next few months. It consumed a lot of my thoughts. My previous distinctions of life from death soon became blurred. Every time I talked on the phone, I thought that this could be my last conversation. It got annoying because even when I didn't want to talk someone, I convinced myself the conversation was worthwhile, because, afterall , I was going to die soon and this may be my last phone connection with the person before I passed away. My obsession with death was never fear-ridden or particularly sad; it was simply a firm belief that crept into my thoughts and made me appreciate, if not cling to, those fleeting moments that would have undoubtedly remained unobserved had death not been on my mind.

My nostalgia for a life that would soon fade permeated every activity. When I took walks on the beach I would stare longingly at women playing with their children in the sand. It must be nice, I sighed to myself, to live long enough to have children. When I ate my ice cream sandwiches, I'd savor each taste...I'm really going to miss these suckers I thought to myself as I licked my fingers. At night, I'd draft my obituary. I pictured my funeral. I got annoyed by the prospect of being buried, not cremated. I planned where my ashes would be spread (on the lake by my cottage in Canada) and the songs that would play as they spread through the air (enya maybe? no maybe snatum kaur.) I cried at how hard it would be for my parents to lose a child. I took joy in finally figuring out what death would be like.

When I returned home to Buffalo, I met with Dr. Goffman. He looked at me and smiled smarmingly: "well, leave for Thailand in a week and you're still alive, so that's good news!" "Yeah...I'm pretty sure at this point I'll die in a plane crash." I responded matter-of-factly. "You know," he started to drone, "that the statistics of dying in a plane crash..." blah blah blah. I stopped listening. I had already diagnosed the cause of my death obsession: the thought of myself living in Thailand, at this point, was so unimaginable that my brain couldn't register it, and therefore, I had convinced myself that because I couldn't imagine myself there...I would surely die before getting there. Knowing why I thought of death so much, however, didn't make the thoughts go away.

When Hannah and I met at the airport in LA a week later, I was slurping down a venti frappuccino in one hand (with whip cream of course) and eating a Wolfgang Puck pizza in the other. "This could be my last meal!" I exclaimed. 24 hours of travel later (and no sleep...thanks to my ridiculous consumption of caffeine), we landed safely in Thailand. I WAS STILL ALIVE!

Soon after my arrival, my thoughts of death dissolved into the tastes of my new life in Thailand. At the last leg of the trip, as I lay on my mat alone in an abandoned two story building in a Buddhist monastery (that's a whole another saga -see blog entry on "joy" in January 2009), I realized I kinda missed death. It's ever present presence had helped me see the delicacy of life and because of this I saw beauty more vividly. And it certainly helped me be a better person each day guilting me into treating each interaction, even if trivial, as precious.

And so, I got to thinking. Even though I don't particularly like pets (don't judge me), maybe our relationship with death is a lot like our relationship with a dog. It grabs our attention, forces us to walk with it hand-in-hand, and often causes us to stop in our tracks as we wait for it to catch up. Sometimes it barks at us and instills fear, other times it lies at our feet, patiently waiting until we acknowledge it. Sometimes its dirty and we don't want to touch it, but other times the thought of it seems gentle and sweet. Sometimes we get mad at it and push it away, begrudgingly knowing that no matter how much we ignore, it will undoubtedly be waiting at our door for us when we come home. Sometimes it forces us to change our schedule, but even when it is a burden, the appreciation of its existence brings us a greater joy. Perhaps then, it is not dogs who are man's best friend. It is death.

January 10, 2010

Taking Cover Under Shitty Umbrellas

The bane of my existence in NYC is umbrellas. Cheap umbrellas. The kind you buy for $5 on the side of the street because you don't want to spend any of your disposable income (what little I have) on a nice one. No fail, about 4 blocks into buying the umbrella one of three things happen: (1) a gust of wind flips the umbrella inside out; (2) one of the spokes of the umbrella rips through the cheap plastic and creates a dagger-like knife which sticks out, and leads you to become obsessed with monitoring it for fear it will puncture a young child on its mother's breast as you walk by; or (3) your umbrella hits another umbrella and you blame the collision on the other person and decide that you hate people.

At this point, it would appear obvious that nothing good comes from buying a cheap umbrella and it is certainly NOT the means to stay dry. And yet, I seem to make a vain attempt to use them every time it rains. The only thing that brings me comfort in all of this is that the other 8 million people in New York seemingly have the same pattern...united we stand under shitty umbrellas.

When I told one of my friends that my next entry was about shitty umbrellas, she paused and said..."do not even try to tell me you think there is symbolism behind this." I shook my head seriously, "I utterly believe there is MAJOR symbolism behind this pattern."

I think my unwillingness to buy a functioning umbrella is indicative of greater unwillingness (i.e., stubborness) to seek refuge in places that will actually provide me with a place of shelter and protection. This is nonsensical, you say. Why would you have such a pattern?

I offer two reasons: (1) I'm an optimist; (2) I'm an idiot. I think, ideally, that a shitty umbrella will keep me dry. Despite experience upon experience, I convince myself that maybe it's not that windy out today, so my umbrella won't flip; maybe these built in daggers won't puncture through the fabric; maybe the streets won't be as crowded because people are staying inside. And so I grab the umbrella with the false hope that...this time I'll stay dry.

The second reason is that, well, I'm an idiot (or insane). They say insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. (See above paragraph).

So regardless of whether I am the former or the latter, I still tend to seek refuge under that which I know will not sufficiently provide protection. More examples:

I seek refuge in wine and sweets when I am emotionally drained. I seek refuge in coffee (with hazelnut creamer please) when I am intellectually stagnant at work. I seek refuge in the internet when I want to attain mindlessness after a stressful day. I seek refuge in my sister and my mom when I want to vent my frustrations (sorry guys.)

While these refuges are not are "shitty' per se, they aren't self-sustainable. They may provide me a temporary reprieve from the storm, but ultimately when their comforts wear off (as they always do), I am left on my own to figure out the next place to which to run. The irony about this all is that I already know exactly the place which will provide me comfort--a place of silence; a place of prayer; a place of meditation.

The Bhavagad Gita stresses, "control the thought, word, and deed; ever absorbed in yoga of meditation, and take refuge in detachment."

The Bible states, "[t]rust in Him at all times; ye people, pour out your heart before him: God is a a refuge." (Psalms 62:8)

Buddha encouraged, "be a lamp unto yourself, be a refuge to yourself...betake no external refuge, but hold fast the Truth as your lamp, and in doing so, you will reach the topmost height."

Ok, so I know the answer (that's usually the easy part), but then why do I avoid the places of true comfort and peace? I mean...I'd rather read about taking refuge in meditation and silence and prayer for an hour, then actually sitting in prayer and meditation and silence for an hour. Just like I'd rather THINK about buying a functioning durable umbrella then actually buying one.

Whatever my resistance may be, I can, for now, take refuge in the acknowledgment that when I am ready for it, I know where a true refuge exists. And hopefully the fact that I just received an umbrella for Christmas is foreshadowing...