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Pompeii

9 Dec

“It was all unknown to me then, as I sat on that white bench on the day I finished my hike. Everything except the fact that I didn’t have to know. That it was enough to trust that what I’d done was true. To understand its meaning without yet being able to say precisely what it was . . . . To believe that I didn’t need to reach with my bare hands anymore. To know that seeing the fish beneath the surface of the water was enough. That it was everything. It was my life — like all lives, mysterious and irrevocable and sacred. So very close, so very present, so very belonging to me. How wild it was, to let it be.” – Cheryl StrayedDSC02087pp

Do you know what has surprised me the most about life?

You grow up and you think about building a life — deliberately, brick by brick. You go at it. Stacking them just so, building something that is strong and straight. You know, a solid foundation. Something that is disciplined and noble. That you can be proud of. That is not tarnished by oozing mortar or fireplace soot.

And then you step back and you look at your brick wall.

And it looks like the fucking Pompeii ruins.

Has anyone else had that experience. The soup-sandwich-clusterfuck-of-a-life experience?

And then there are moments when the sun hits your shitty-brick-wall-ruins just right, when wind blows across its rough edges just so. When the magic of the place courses through you. When the miracle of the fact that something you’ve built still stands — something! — strikes you. The beautiful mess of it all. The speckled dust of goodness in it.

That’s the thing I didn’t expect in life. How messy it all is. That messy is okay. That messy can dazzle, in its own crazy way.

Oh, my twenties. What a decade.

DSC02083p

Lucie Kerouac

29 Jun

 Below, my attempt at Kerouac-style stream of consciousness.  [Otherwise known as frantic scatterbrained late-night typing sans editing.]Jack Kerouac Making a  Face

McAfeeI was at a bookstore in Perth, Australia at the end of last year when my eye caught the Warhol-esque cover of Jack Kerouac’s On the RoadOn the Road, of course is Kerouac’s memoir of his travels across America that has come to define a generation – namely, the postwar 1950s “Beat Generation.”

And the thought first bubbled in my head: Is my adventure kinda like Kerouac’s?  I mean, it too is rebellion of sorts against societal norms that insist upon conformity.  It’s a search for meaning in my life, a longing for something to believe in, a hunt for a compass heading in the life ahead.  And I’m doing it in my own, uniquely American way – you know, equal parts individualism, conquest, and self-discovery.

Right?  It’s the same unabashed pursuit of happiness – a year of capturing memories like fireflies in a jar on a mid-summer night.  But realizing that, even when that’s your only aim in life, you still have to deal with a whole lot of gnats dive-bombing into your eyeballs and skeeters chomping on your exposed (and unexposed) flesh.  Oh, and — as the case may be — disease-riddled ticks.

I picked it up, but I didn’t buy Kerouac’s book – because as much as our journeys are the same, they are different.  Kerouac is not me, his trip is not mine, and his generation is not mine.  Kerouac’s trip was a rejection of the postwar American Dream – a gray flannel suit job, a wife, 3.4 (?) kids, a house, and a picket fence.  He divorced his wife and went on a mad hedonistic rush through sex, drugs, jazz, and alcohol.  “Wild and unrestrained!” boasts the cover.

My trip is not that – a full-scale rejection of society – but a quiet, contemplative pondering of how I fit.  Kerouac’s trip was mindless; his writing only maybe held together by some so-called “stream of consciousness.”  But my wanderlust, while perhaps rooted in the same thirst for a flood of emotion, is an ache – not a mad addiction. Continue reading

Lessons from the Halfway Mark

16 Mar

No, I’m not halfway done with the AT.  Supersonic speed still eludes me.

What does not elude me is the march of time.  I’m halfway done with my year off — or, as I’ve dubbed it most recently: “my one year escape from the real world.”  “So, like, what would you say you have learned?”, the voice of my Aunt Leslie booms through my cell phone receiver as she crunches down on a Medifast bar.

Looking out a bus window in Australia.  It captures perfectly this feeling that the world is whizzing by, and we're just trying to grab a piece of it.

Looking out a bus window in Australia. It captures this feeling that the world is whizzing by, and we’re just trying to grab a piece of it.

Ummhh, well.  It’s hard to sum up the lessons of 4 months of solo backpacking Asia and the Pacific, 2 months of rehabbing my ankle while raising a puppy in the metro DC area, and a week-plus stay at a silent meditation cult in bumfart Canada.  But, if I had to try:

1.  I have learned… a few new prayers.  I’ve said a few during the last six months (except, I will note, during my time at the meditation cult when prayer was BANNED — yes, still traumatized; will write about it… next century).  A sampling:

  • “God, please don’t let me [expletive] up.”  
  • “God, please preserve my sanity in spite of the craziness happening around me right now.”  
  • “God, please sustain the lift beneath this airplane right now.”

2.  I have learned… that Thornton Wilder (whoever he is) said one of the truest things ever said:  “It’s when you’re safe at home that you wish you were having an adventure; when you’re having an adventure you wish you were safe at home.”  One of the great — and frustrating — truths of adventure.

3.  I have learned… to see myself differently.  Before (on an admittedly self-indulgent level), I pictured myself as a strong, independent person who has pulled it all together and, like a phoenix, risen from the ashes of life’s sorrows.  But now, when I look in the mirror, I see just another broken person, like all those who walk around me — the prostitutes and the johns and the vacationing families and the other backpackers (or, that’s who was walking around me in Thailand, when this thought first skipped acrossed my mind).  I am broken; we are all broken, in some sense.  And there is a unity in that brokenness that binds us together.  That feeling, racing through your veins, is the antidote to so much — expectation and perfection, fear and inadequacy, judgment and envy alike.  It restores our humanity.

4.  I have learned… the difference between confidence and self-confidence.  Before, I was confident in my ability to succeed at various things.  I strode into job interviews and dodgeball leagues with confidence.  But, I’ve realized, I lacked self-confidence because — if it came to it in the end — I couldn’t weather the storm of failure.  The disapproval of others was hail to my psyche.  It’s like: I bet on the racehorse and I piloted the racehorse, but — at the end of the the day — I didn’t own the racehorse.  Because I didn’t love it no matter what.

You can be really confident and yet lack self-confidence.  The latter — self-confidence — is the tricky one.  It happens at home underneath your covers after you’ve royally messed up.  Botched a work project.  Completely embarrassed yourself in a social setting.  Ate multiple pints of Ben and Jerry’s in one sitting.

5.  I have learned… that — no matter what they say — you can’t enjoy the ride until you believe that everything is going to be okay at the end.  [Note: this is particularly true with airplane flights.]  Six months into this big journey to “figure it all out,” I have figured out little beyond the best way to get gored by a rhino and that Germans are good kissers.

Recently, I had dinner with a friend who queried me about how my life was going to look 5 or 10 years from now.  My reply: “I haven’t got the faintest, foggiest clue.  When I am able to wrest the drunk goggles from my face, I will let you know.”

She looked at me, and she said what I never really knew until she said it.  She said: “It doesn’t matter.  Because whatever happens,

You are going to have an amazing life.

You are going to do cool things.

You’re going to meaningful things.

And, most importantly, you’re going to be happy.”

Trekking through the Longji rice paddies of China.

Trekking through the Longji rice paddies of China (November ’12).

Lonely Days and Whiskey Nights

7 Dec

[Dad: Don’t read this one!  For another ten years.]

Two nights ago, I was lying on my bed in my Melbourne hostel room being antisocial — watching a TV show on my laptop with my earbuds in.  When two guys, backpacks in tow, came in and made their beds and tried to say hello.  I gruffled something back and then didn’t cast another eye in their direction.  The fact that my one glimpse hinted they may be attractive annoyed me even more.  Why can’t I be left alone?  Or at least put with weirdos?

I went to Bikram (hot) yoga, showered, and resumed a vertical position on my bed, peacefully watching my TV show.  When they came back!  I refused to look at them and turned up the volume on my laptop to drown out their voices.  Then one of them tapped me on the shoulder and asked if I wanted to have a drink on the balcony with them.  I was pissed.  Ahhhh.  Vegemite your face, I thought.  Because I knew I had to.  Keeping to yourself is one thing.  But refusing offers like that in a hostel means you’re at the point where you might as well be at home on your own couch with your head stuffed in a pillow.

Irritated, I snapped my laptop shut and shimmied through the window onto the balcony.  My hair was wet and uncombed.  I was wearing a purple sports bra, and a green shirt that I hate (Have you ever seen a picture with me in it?  No.).  They were drinking Asbach, a German whiskey you can only get in Germany.  Sebastian was 27, tan from two months in New Zealand, and tall with tousled hair, a prominent though otherwise inoffensive nose, and pale blue eyes.  Mario was 25, fresh off the plane from Germany (and hence the supplier of the Asbach).  His relative youth — both on the road and in years — meant his manner was franker and his words somehow held less intrigue.  His hair was dark and closely-cropped, and while Sebastian casually rested back in his chair, Mario sat straight up and bounced his knee every so often.  Joining us was Marcus, a 20-year-old baby-faced Swede who — restricted either by skill or confidence — spoke English far less expertly.

I’ll make this a short affair, I thought.  Sebastian and Mario were drinking out of coffee mugs.  I couldn’t be bothered to fetch one for myself from the kitchen downstairs so Marcus and I just took shots out of the caps from the two Asbach bottles.  German bankers they were — Sebastian asset management and Mario risk control.  I disclosed I was a lawyer, and Marcus nearly fell out of his chair.  “I’m not educated at all!,” he exclaimed.  I brought my whiskey bottlecap up to his and reassured him that “it matters for shit because we’re all getting bed bugs in this shoddy hostel room together.”  We drank to New Zealand and we drank to Australia and we drank to America and we drank to Germany and we drank to Sweden.  Turns out they had not only interesting lives and experiences but reflections upon them.  Eventually, I fetched Marcus and me coffee mugs, and, after polishing off the Asbach, we moved onto Johnnie Walker Red Label — though I refused to sink to Sebastian’s level and dilute it with Coke.  I licked my lips, numb from the whiskey, looked out over the street below, and let life wash over me.

The only photo of the night, in our hostel room.

The only photo of the night, in our hostel room.

Continue reading

Wild Thoughts

21 Oct

After the disaster that was Fifty Shades, I rushed to the bookstore and prayed to the gods of the bargain shelf.  They gave me Cheryl Strayed’s gutty memoir Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail.  It is powerful.  It’s sad.  It’s haunting.  And I don’t know exactly how I feel about it.  Or how I feel about her.  But it’s touched me.

Cheryl is 26 when she begins her 1,100-mile hike through California and Oregon.  She says she’s at a “low and mixed up” point in her life; she’s better described as majorly f***ed up.  The death of her beloved mother – “the love of her life” – 4 years prior has destroyed her.  Having abandoned her bedside promise to finish college, she is waitressing… and shooting heroin into her ankles and having lots of indiscriminate sex (including with all 5 of the line cooks in the course of 1 month), which, coincidentally, leads to the end of her 7-year marriage and an abortion.  On top of it all, as if to prove the point, in the wake of her divorce she’s changed her name to “Strayed” in a cliched stab at self reinvention.

Cheryl starting on the Pacific Crest Trail at age 26.

To say the least, it’s gritty, and it feels real and it feels raw in a way that makes Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love seem downright silly.  This is not an indulgent book-advance-funded quest for enlightenment.  The ethos is pragmatic self-reliance.  God, she says, is “a ruthless bitch.”

Nothing at all extraordinary happens to Cheryl on her long hike.  She meets some interesting people and has some scary moments, which she conveys sharply and vividly; but in the end, they barely matter.  It’s the whole of it that’s compelling.

Her story is both deeply sad and strangely beautiful.  I guess that’s life.

Yesterday, I arrived in Singapore, and I bought a mini-bottle of Cab Sauv from 7-Eleven, and I snuck it into a movie theater to watch Taken 2.  And the thought invaded my head yet again: “what the dragonfruit am I doing here?”  I should be at home – taking hot showers – practicing law – building a life – going on dates — paying my student loans! – decorating an apartment.  Not halfway around the world, at the movies, alone, drinking bad wine from the bottle.

But Wild helped.

If Cheryl’s trip is about about piecing together a life that has come apart, then mine is about coming to terms with a life that has never really been put together.  It is about allowing myself, finally, to acknowledge my own brokenness.  To pick up the pieces and to feel, for once, the sharp edges.  And I have a sneaking suspicion that at the end of it all, when I find my way back to my Dad’s couch, the ending of my story is going to be the same as hers:

Nothing has changed, but everything has changed.

Cheryl completed her big hike in 1995; she published Wild earlier this year.  17 years later.  And that’s how it will be with my story.  Changed forever in ways that only time will reveal.

Fifty Shades of Horseradish

19 Oct

Leave your genital clamps at home, weirdo.

So far my reading list on the road has been dismal.

In Nepal, I read Michael Crichton’s 1969 (yes, 1969The Andromeda Strain, a science fiction book where the major plot device is that someone doesn’t get a typewriter message.

In Thailand, I read Patricia Cornwell’s first book Postmortem (1990), which turns on a new invention (the computer!) and a new discovery (DNA!).  Revolutionary stuff to read about.

So here in Malaysia, I was stoked when a fellow traveler passed along E.L. James’ much-talked-about and wildly successful Fifty Shades of Grey.  Yes!, I figured, at least this brings me into the decade.

Or so I thought.  It actually single-handedly sets the female species back eighteen decades.

I’m not even going to address the horrible writing or the shiteous sex scenes.

Let’s focus on the toilet-paper-thin plot.  It’s the same as Twilight but worse: a seemingly bright (but actually idiotic) virginious young woman falls into an electric, all-consuming love/lust/infatuation with an impossibly wealthy, incredibly powerful, ridiculously handsome, controlling, possessive, condescending, cruel, stalking, emotionally bereft, quasi-rapist PYSCHO (with, incidentally — shocker!– a giant schlong) who is constantly described as “serious,” “brooding,” and “threatening.”  Their relationship is emotionally abusive (not to mention physical dangerous because, after all, he does beat her). And ultimately our heroine (?) is drawn into a sinister, isolating world (called BDSM!) in which she quickly abandons her entire life and every dream she every had for him — an Adonis-like doucher with the emotional maturity level of a crusty piece of dental floss.

[For the record, the above is a word-for-word recitation of the review of Fifty Shades that I publicly delivered on a local Malaysian bus today when I (un?)ceremoniously delivered the book back to the girl who gave it to me.]

But on some level, I get it.  It speaks to a deep desire within us to be found insanely attractive, to be enigmatically wanted, to be loved completely, inexplicably for who we are – despite our pasty bodies, despite our clumsiness, despite our obvious and utter inadequacy.  We ache for something – and sure, love will do – that gives us reason to get out of bed in the morning (or, in this case, to stay in…), something that gives us purpose, meaning, confidence, a reason to live (or die?!).  PASSION, damn it!

Sigh.

Life’s a Trek

8 Oct

Timmy and I went trekking for three days in the Annapurna region of Nepal.  I loved it.  It stirred something deep inside of me, and I couldn’t help but think of my good friend’s dad Steve, who is headed off on the Appalachian Trail by himself for a few months.

The more I walked, the more it struck me: trekking is a great metaphor for life.

You get to the top of one hill… and realize there’s just another hill on top of that one to climb.

You step on a rock with invisible moss and fall on your butt… and then you get up and step on a thousand more rocks, any one of which could be covered with invisible moss.

The emotional vulnerability that you feel in life — the fear of rejection, the haunt of loneliness, the ethereal sense of isolation — becomes tangible, as if it may as well be strapped on your back.  For you have a very real appreciation for the fact that you are hours upon hours, by foot, from a doctor or any other modern convenience.

I figure that most of life, like most of trekking, is just plain hard.  You’ve gotta find your rhythm in the march and live for the small moments of joy in life — when the mountain silhouettes peak through through the clouds and expose their splendor.  Or when a little Nepalese kid pokes your chub and calls you fat in Nepali (I think that’s a compliment ’cause it means you’ve got food to eat?!).

Okay, I’ll shut my trap now and let the photos speak for themselves:

A candid shot of Timmy and I getting ready for the start of our trek.

Lots of little bridges.

Hmmm, it’s a marijuana plant.

Annapurna South (7,219 meters).

Amidst the world’s highest mountains: the Himalayas.

Rice paddies are a photographer’s dream.