What Are You Packing?

Most people hate moving, whether it is to a new house, a new state or new country. I think it is not the sheer exhaustion of the actual move, I reckon it is going through your stuff and determining what goes in boxes, what gets packed. I’ve gone through the process of moving about 35 times in my life, most of which happened before I was 25. I’ve got to sift through my things and consider carefully what I want to bring along with me. The other day in the shower (best thinking happens there, right?!), I was pondering all these places that I have lived, not just the physical places but the places in my mind and its habits. The different versions of me. Not only do I pack these physical items, but the mental ones. too. I get to purge the worst in me and only bring that which I want to to take forward into my next experience. I think this is the best part of moving to a far distant place because you do not have a personal history to defend. No one knows a dang thing about you and who’ve you been and you can set the reset button if you wish.

I think about the people in my life who have lived in the same place for ages. Sometimes, their stability is seen with a sense of pride, but, to me, I wonder if it is not a prison. A while ago I came to understand why I had this opinion about the “stable” people I know when I heard  this Indian mystic named Sadharguru say,

I am not against wealth. I am not against comfort. I am against stagnation, because if you stagnate, you are only half alive.

It made me realize that I harbor a belief that being deeply rooted to a place makes you deeply rooted in the comfort of your identity. Hating to disappoint others, might one be scared to do or say something that is contrary to the opinion of others? They might never get to experience the lightness and freshness of change! Of course, I do think thamovingt one can reinvent oneself in the midst of these strong attachments, but I think it must be ruthlessly difficult to challenge people’s perception of them. When people have a definition of who they think you are, it’s often difficult to get them to change their mind. But the definition that is the most challenging to change is the one we give ourselves: the one that is full of “can’ts” and “don’ts”. That’s the stuff that needs to be released, the beliefs that we cling to, and no one but oneself can do that.

So as I stare at all of my stuff, literally, and decide what is going to be shipped, I think it is important to reflect on this passage of my life–the China chapter–and consider what memories and insights I want to bring with me:  the ready smiles of my neighbors, the curiousity of locals when they see foreigners, the kindness and generosity of friends found here, the cacaphony of millions of people celebrating, the smell of the orange blossoms and the utter freedom of not giving a rat’s ass of what you look like to others (including the bold public display of excrementing) here. I want to stow that away as well.

No matter if you are intrepridly anchored to a place or a global nomad like myself, I think this exercise of unpacking and repacking our identity is an important exercise. Evaluating the “junk” and “clutter” in our beliefs and liberating them to the garbage heap is so profoundly necessary for our minds to feel the possibility of our own potential. What is truly valuable and extraordinary about oneself that is worth keeping, and subtracting from there might be a useful strategy. I’m thinking of my own list right now of redeeming qualities and wondering what I need in this next journey that awaits me.

What about you? What would you pack?

 

 

The Menacing Burning Within The Soul

If you jump and leap, don’t leap or jump for the landing. Leap for the experience through the air. -Brene Brown, on Magic Lessons Podcast with Elizabeth Gilbert

As I prepare for my transition, finishing up my last full month in China, I’ve been wondering if I made the right choice. Preparing to jump into the unknown fills you with a lot of doubt. Is this really the place in which I can develop more of what’s best about me? Will my Judy-ness get an upgrade? What about my family, Ryan and Hannah?–will this be the best for them?

Do you ever feel like you have gambled all your chips at the roulette table at Vegas and you’re hoping that life lands on the Red 6?  Well, the wheel is spinning, isn’t it?

We read Wild in our book club a few years back and she definitely left an impression on me as a writer. She doesn’t mince words; strength and power are something that Cheryl Strayed is really good at articulating in her work. Her memoir and her subsequent work encapsulate this idea of Motherfuckitude, which is a combination of 2 seemingly opposing ideas: humility and faith. And, although the term may upset your modesty, I assure you the idea transcends your opposition.

I’m going to really try and I might fail, but I’m not going to feel sorry for myself but I’m going to be strong in the midst of my humility. Forget success and instead put my faith in the work and be really fierce and very exacting. I must demand a lot of myself when it actually comes to doing the work…having a sense of surrender and acceptance that ‘I’m going to do this work and I don’t know where it may lead.

-Cheryl Strayed- (in an interview on the Tim Ferris Show)

bravery.jpgHer words put a ding in my trepidation, making me consider that there could be no way I could fail if not failing forward–towards this furious ache that is in my soul, the one that causes me to be more than I am today.  The one that tells me that I am not too old, too dense, too unyielding, too silly, too pollyannish. Instead, it tells me that ‘life is long and I am young with so much to learn–isn’t that wonderful?’ It berates me until I have no choice but to heed its advice.

Anyone who writes knows how incredibly hard it is to write something that actually is interesting and meets your level of expectation. Anyone who runs knows how incredibly hard it is to run, in the rain, when you’re tired when you’re in pain and injured. Anyone who teaches knows how incredibly difficult it is to plan, to care and to put in the effort when you’re sick when you’re annoyed when you’re disappointed in life. Anyone who parents know how incredibly hard to be attentive, tuned in and patient. I could make a list of any job, hobby or role that we love dearly and are passionate about–there’s a time in which you want to throw in the towel and quit, but you can’t quit because your devotion to it is too strong and your life would be an empty shell without this struggle in your life. With the struggle comes the beauty and the joy.

So I have to wonder–will I expect more of myself in this new environment? As a wife, as a mother, as a teacher, as a blogger?–Can I work at it like a motherf*cker there?  Am I willing to diligently press on when it will be easier allow distractions to overcome me? I wholeheartedly agree with Cheryl, that once you surrender to the hardship of whatever craft one wishes to perform, then there is a grit and dedication that arises and overtakes the urge to abandon the task at hand. And you know, in your heart of hearts, that if you were to maintain a steady focus on it, you would eventually persevere. You believe in yourself and your ability to figure things out.

Long before I put all of my chips on Red 6, I had this menacing burning in my soul to have a fresh experience, to hit a reset button. I have to trust that I have made the best decision, that this move serves the highest vision of my creativity.  I wasn’t looking for a j.o.b.–something that I have to clock into- but instead, something that helps me to improve my art–something that I get to explore, experiment with and craft. I also felt this was the best option for my husband as well. So I must have the faith that this will be a fantastic challenge and that will cultivate joy and curiosity in our lives.

What experience have you had with your struggle to transition? What are you willing to leave behind and what did you want to “pack”, in a metaphorical sense?

When Your Cultural Identity is Adrift

Who Am I? That’s a difficult question for anyone to answer, let alone expats nevermind the children of those expats.

I remember my first time living abroad. As an American, we delight in our ethnic heritage, saying something like “I’m 50% Irish, 30% Polish, 10% German and 10% Cherokee”. I had said something to that effect to an Irish guy at a pub one night. He lashed out at me, ” You are NOT Irish. You are American. Nothing about you is Irish and you know nothing about Ireland, I bet.” It stung, and he shattered my cultural paradigm. I was deeply humbled. Although I might be a 3rd generation Irish, he was right, there was nothing about me that declared I was Irish other than this family history. Culturally I walked, talked and dressed like an American. I thought like an American. I liked American music and movies. I cared about American politics and issues. It was really the country and culture that I identified with. From that point on, I embraced being American, rather than caring about my genetic lineage.

But technically I haunaltered home.jpgve lived over 12 years overseas, a significant portion of my adult life. When I come back to America, I often go through reverse culture shock. I have a hard time relating to other’s view of the world, and what they feel is culturally significant like the Bachelorette or Unicorn drinks. This past summer was so challenging for me, with all the politics, I really struggled with all the intensity and polarization. Moreover, I really couldn’t understand how we had come to such a juncture in our history that hatred and misogyny were becoming a “thing” again. It really devastated so much of the tenderness and appreciation I have for my country and the people who I love there. So now I find myself in a strange sort of void, in which I do not really resonate with the culture I live in geographically but don’t really feel American all that much either. Although my accent remains, so much of national pride has withered away with my lack of attention and focus on America. It’s a strange and terrible feeling. It now seems like my cultural identity has become untethered, and will remain adrift.

For my daughter, she too is somewhere in between 2 worlds–the worlds of her parent’s heritage and the country in which she lives. They have a name for her kind: Third Culture Kids. She has lived most of her life outside of her parent’s culture and is used to traveling and living in different places in which things are foreign. She connects with others not through language as much as feelings. However, I didn’t expect last year’s summer trip to impact my daughter so greatly. As much as she loved being with my family and friends, enjoying new foods and experiences, it really stressed her out. She stared at these “real American” children with confusion and amusement, literally, and at one time, when we were camping, some boys called her a freak and pretended to shoot her. It genuinely stunned her. Luckily since she is so well traveled and resilient, she managed it well, but as one month turned into two months, her nerves did fray. My husband told me about one day when she fled downstairs to the basement in tears, wondering if the “black men” were coming and how he could protect her. It was all the conversation and media messages that she was exposed to with the “Black Lives” vs. “Blue Lives” Matter debate that got her feeling paranoid, which was sad since ironically she is a child of color, as my husband is dark skinned.

In 2 months from now, we will touch down in Chicago, spending 3 weeks in America– a much shorter visit this time. As much as I look forward to seeing my family and friends, I absolutely dread this feeling of disconnection, especially with Trump’s presidency bringing tension and conflict to an all-time high. After this brief visit, I will step out of my homeland and my foot will land upon a new country, Laos, with its own complexities and challenges which my family will have to navigate. I remain hopeful that we will set down roots there, an antirumi field.jpgdote to this unease, making friends and building a life of joy and peace there. However, Who Am I? clearly is not a question that can be answered with nationhood or birth origins. Its answer, I imagine, that is somewhere in a vast space, the field that Rumi writes about in his poem.

Perhaps I will see you there.

Innovate Yourself

There are many great people whose stories provoke me and have made me wonder if I was indeed doing enough with the gifts and abilities that I have have been born with. Currently, I am on the verge of one of a cathartic moment, as I read the biographical book Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future. I know it wasn’t on A Tentative Reading Lists for 2017 but it’s a must read. I am so inspired by him that it’s actually taken me a while to even attempt to articulate why it is that I feel the way I do. His struggle to envision the future to me is heroic, on par with my other heroes of Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi, due to his infinite pursuit of a dream that is larger is than himself. Now I know what you’re thinking–you’re comparing him to those great men?  Yes, yes, I am. Why?-because he stares at the abysmal status quo and is willing to do whatever it takes to disrupt it in an effort to move humanity forward. He has created a movement in technology and innovation that so is understated and he continues to doggedly persist in solving problems that seem impossible.

I think there are probably too many smart people pursuing internet stuff, finance and law. That is part of the reason why we haven’t seen as much innovation.

Elon Musk

I mean, how many of you worked on, let alone sat and pondered these issues?

  1. Making life interplanetary
  2. Accelerating the transition to sustainable energy
  3. Artificial Intelligence

So many great scientists and engineers have asked questions that are beyond one’s comprehension. However, Elon staunchly believes that ordinary people can do extraordinary things when they choose to make a commitment to asking insane questions in the quest of serving the needs of humanity. When your curiousity collides with your passion, a life’s purpose emerges and you can do things so much bigger than you could ever imagine. He challenges the assumption that innovation is a natural outcome of civilization as if evolution is set on an inevitable course. But without drive and intelligence, nothing new emerges and people and the planet languish in complacency’s wake. The notion that something is “good enough” is the antithesis to improvement and growth.

People think just automatically that technology gets better every year, but actually, it doesn’t. It only gets better if smart people work like crazy to make it better…otherwise it actually gets worse.

Elon Musk

As I reflect on these ideas, it appears obvious to me that when people accept what is average, what is the bare minimum and don’t demand more of themselves and each other, then they are ultimately in a death spiral. Doing the same thing over and over again is actually going backward (such as thinking that drilling for oil is the answer to our energy needs now and in the future). I remember a famous quote from Albert Einstein that stated, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”, which if Elon Musk was to rephrase it, it might be: It’s absurd to think that doing the same thing over and over again will yield innovation.

Of course, you might just be thinking that’s all well and good for the development of plasma TVs, internet speed and space rockets, but so what, What does innovation have to do with me. I’m not an engineer or scientist, and I certainly not a millionaire. That may be true, but there is NO area in life that couldn’t be innovated; it only takes a willingness to acknowledge that failure is a possibility and do it anyway.  Take, for instance, Gandi. He went against the British government and won India’s independence through non-violence. Non-violence?! This idea still is revolutionary and to my knowledge, Martin Luther King is the only other man who has attempted to use it against oppressors with success. But the idea works! And yet we still wage war–outdated, archaic and what should be obsolete methodologies–when you look at the power of this innovative strategy. It’s the equivalent of riding a horse and buggy to work, and yet so many people favor guns and bombs over the more impactful approach of non-violence. This astounds me. Yet I digress….elon musk

If you were to trace the trajectory of anyone who did anything amazing, they did things in spite of their fear and knew that the person who they were now was not the person they needed to be, thus they had to innovate themselves. Not only did they seek to educate themselves, but they supplanted their beliefs so that the importance of their cause was too cemented in order to slink away from daunting challenges. These people have loads of fear but their faith in the do-gooding nature of their intended movement has more power over them. Going back to Gandhi, he was a rather wealthy lawyer from India who transformed into an incredible man whose heart was impenetrable to the evils of his self-doubt and worry cast upon him from naysayers. He legacy still remains: Be the Change You Wish To See In The World. This could be a true mantra for a life worth living if we were willing to make small, yet extraordinary changes in our thinking. These incremental changes have a snowballing effect over time. There is a level of willpower that must be developed and exercised so that we can overcome the mentality of the status quo and accept a higher version of what we could create with the intelligence we were given.

Obviously, this is something that I am ruminating on diligently–what sort of mental program do I need to download so that my small-mindedness gets an upgrade? What am I capable of that I am allowing fear to be my obstacle? In what ways can I innovate myself so that I can pay it forward to humanity?

Perhaps you too are haunted by these thoughts as you examine your life. How about we give each other permission and get set to work to do something amazing?

 

My Mind Drowning in the Wet Cement

I joked to one of my friends that the only vice I have left is swearing–I don’t drink or smoke or eat junk food or lie or even watch T.V.–but she assured me that I have other vices. The nerve, right?! But I think I found one.

The other day my family and I were walking back from shopping when I decided to dodge one of the fire stove “popping machines” that you commonly see on street corner here in China. It makes a popcorn-like treat and, when it’s ready, has this booming noise that scares the bejeesus out of my daughter. So my husband went towards the popping machine while my daughter and I  took a long way around and encountered fresh wet cement. We jumped over it–as the area wasn’t roped off and no sign was posted–but then a strange and sudden urge took me over. My eye spotted a narrow scrap piece of PVC pipe by a tree stump and I picked it up. Before I knew it, I had written Hannah’s name in the wet cement. Hannah asked “what’s the big idea” but then she added a smiley face after I pitched the pipe.  All of a sudden it hit me–I probably just committed a crime, in broad daylight, in China, with my daughter as an accomplice. What kind of parent am I?  And all the mischievous fun that spurred this impulse suddenly vanished and I felt awful–like nearly wanted to cry because of the shame and guilt that was summoned up by my reflection of this event.Why had I indulged in such a frivolous action? I had spoilt the wet cement and there was no way to fix it. What had I done?!!!!

When I came around to the other side of the “popping machine”, I confessed to my husband who shot a barb–“Judy, they’re cameras everywhere! They totally know it’s you!” He was right. This is a police state. I was certainly busted. Inside, you would have thought I had killed someone. I was ready for the police to handcuff and cart me to jail. For at least 15 minutes, I was definitely imprisoned, in my mind, awaiting trial and execution. However, when Ryan realized that I was seriously upset, he tried to console me–“They will probably think, ‘oh wow, cool, it’s English’. Don’t worry.”

And it occurred to me–why am I beating myself up? I  can’t go back and fix it. My action was silly and irresponsible, certainly not a good role model for my daughter, but it wasn’t dastardly. I didn’t harm anyone. The real crime is if I don’t forgive myself and move on.


Weeks have passed now since I first started writing this post and I finally summoned the courage to take a look at that spot where I had written Hannah’s name in the wet cement. When I saw it, I laughed out loud because it was sullied with bicycle tire marks and footprints. You can barely make out my writing.

Although I had intentionally defaced the sidewalk, there were numerous amount of people who had unintentionally done the same. Did that make them “bad” people? Do you think they lost sleep or mildly trembled with the thought of their carelessness? Doubtful.

I am still pondering the lesson of this wet cement and the inability to forgive myself. Did I suffer such a strong reaction to such a minor infraction due to the fear of getting in trouble in China or because I was a poor example to my daughter? Not sure, but I know that it was my perspective that caused my self-disappointment, and it has made me reflect on what other trivial things I beat myself up for that aren’t really probably worth the time or effort.

Can anyone relate to this?

 

Awareful

That’s not even a word, so my spell-checker tells me. And it doesn’t even have any suggested alternatives but I swear it’s real. I’m going to attempt to define it through this post.

Have you ever heard about the Dhamma Brothers?  Years ago, I watched the documentary about these high-security prisoners that were taught Vipassana meditation and how much it changed them, inside and out. It’s profound, but you can hear about its synopsis in the TEDx talk below.

 

I think what I love most about this story is that they learned to not be victims anymore, to take personal responsibility for their lives (past and present), and recognize that they have a choice. Even in their environment of violence and despair, they can take a moment to reflect on how they feel, what thoughts they are having and the quality of their relationships. We all have that opportunity–we all have that choice, to recognize how our actions, words, and deeds can impact, not only ourselves but others. This is how I am going to define this word: AWAREFUL

I believe that most of us going through life thinking that we are victims of circumstance-someone did something and now we all are paying the price for what THEY did to US. Maybe it’s the politicians or the bankers or the teachers or the lawyers or our neighbors or our families. It doesn’t matter who you think did what when you blame another, you give away your inherent freedom of personal choice. Even in the most oppressive environments, one has the power to choose. Choose what? Your attitude!

Your attitude is the sum of your beliefs about life and your place in “the big picture”. Do you feel powerful or powerless? Do you feel connected or disconnected to others around you? Do you feel well being or sickness? Do you feel happy or discontent? However you feel, it makes a difference in your behavior and affects the “vibe” you bring wherever you go.

You don’t have to convince me about that–I teach 3-5 year olds! They are sponges and act like mirrors. I know that I have to get my attitude in order if I am to teach them or they get completely nutty. I may jest that “it must be a full moon or something” but I know in my heart that they are just responding to what I am projecting upon them through my energy, words, and reactions to them. They provide excellent personal data, I tell you what!

With that in mind, being awareful is a chronic habit timg_3278hat I have been developing. Throughout the day, I have these reminders on my phone that go off, suggesting that I take a moment to breathe and get in touch with my body or ask me how do I want to feel? I want to develop my focus so that I can be more mindful in my actions. It is my intention to develop proper attention. And some days I’m awesome at it, and other days…..um… I could improve. lol  But I know, I always have a choice, and if I don’t choose to be mindful, then it’s MY choice–no one else is in control of me. And me taking personal responsibility for that choice? –well, that’s a work in progress! But at least I am aware that it’s a choice of mine to make.

To Africa, with Love 

A long time ago I had a friend from Senegal who used to admonish me for telling kids at camp to finish their food because “there are starving kids in Africa”. He would tell me that there is so much more to the continent of Africa than kids with bloated bellies and he didn’t want me to spread this message. It has taken me years to finally grasp what he meant. I owe him a sincere apology.

I reckon most people from the western world don’t travel to countries in Africa unless they want to go on safari or are involved in some religious/charity work. I don’t know what compelled us to journey to South Africa exactly but we ventured there during our long Chinese New Year holiday. It’s been, hands down, the most amazing time spent as a family.

From the moment we boarded our Ethiopian Airline’s flight in Shanghai, the whole atmosphere of the airplane was different. It was a full flight with seeming strangers but I immediately felt like we were apart of a community, in which fellow African passengers helped each other with their luggage, made jokes and referred to each other as “brother” and “sister”-even though they were not even related.  I am not a person who knows much about the history and culture of many African nations, but it was obvious to me that they shared some common values which were easy to connect with, no matter the age or language barrier between them. I’ve done a lot of traveling but I’ve never experienced anything like this before. Needless to say, it left an impression on me.

I’ve known quite a few people who feel drawn to the soils of Africa and now I totally get what they cherish about it. Even though I only spent time in Addis Abbas and Cape Town, I believe that you can be anywhere in Africa and have a similar experience. And what experience is that? An experience of breath-taking beauty–not just of nature but of the human spirit. And it was a place full of contradictions, particularly between poverty and wealth. It’s really hard to even relate this in words. Words can not capture what it is that I want to say, but I am utterly grateful for my experience there. And, I urge you, the reader, to go visit and experience for yourself. And if you keep your mind and heart open, I believe that you will have an unforgettable experience that will leave an indelible mark on your consciousness.