The Grief of a Star

Grief does something odd to your body. Your limbs lose sensation and a numbness seems to take over you. Simultaneously there is this deep penetrating hollowness in your chest that balls up in your throat. Despite these feelings, you somehow can walk, hold a conversation and fry an egg. Time seems irrelevant though and you can barely remember how you or why you put your shoes on. Life feels outside of you, and it seems strange to think you are a part of its mundaneness. You cannot hear the song of birds or enjoy the shrieking laughter of a child. It feels as if life is mocking you. At least that is how I feel at the moment.

They say there are 5 stages of grief. I’m not sure where this shock falls into but my guess is that it is Denial. Should I be looking forward to the next phase?–Anger? or Bargaining? Depression? or Acceptance? I actually think I cycle through all of these phases within a day. My wound is open and raw. And I can’t understand why my Star died so soon and in the manner in which she passed. inuit.jpeg

I don’t really want to think about the fatal accident. I wasn’t there when it happened. I was feverously typing out a Thank You email for a job interview I had when my husband yelled for me to get in the car immediately because he had accidentally closed the truck door on Star’s neck and we needed to rush her to the vet. I sprung into action. As my husband handed our Yorkie over to me, I noticed her head wobbled aimlessly and she didn’t make any noise. Shit. This WAS serious! As I jumped in the truck, I tried to recall my CPR training and began giving her breaths through her nose and mouth alternating with 5-10 chest compressions. Her eyes were wide and her tongue was purple, dangling out the side of her mouth. But I wouldn’t give up. All the way there, I went on believing that it might be possible to revive her. The vet took ages with her, making us all feel hopeful. But after 20  minutes, when I asked for an update on her status, the vet came down to inform me that she appeared to have died instantaneously. She was dead.

We came home with her wrapped in a spare towel, in a cardboard box. We were going to bury her in our backyard. It was hard to imagine that an hour ago, she was chasing around the yard, excited to see us return home. She wouldn’t go to the toilet until all 3 of us–my husband, Hannah and myself- had to pet her and give her some kisses. She ran around in such a state of glee that it was dangerous to pick her up because she’d get so happy that she’d pee on us.

That time now felt so very long ago. Our friends came over to share our grief and keep us strong enough to bury her. I really don’t know how my husband could dig that hole. How his heart was aching at that moment. He removed her from the box and uncovered her, her body so much heavier than when alive, and stroked her apologetically before setting her down in the grave. My daughter was afraid to approach the now dead animal that had slept with her every night and tolerated all of her funny games. I can’t say I blame her. Seeing someone you loved so very much dead is a difficult image to erase. I still remember my dad in his coffin.  I was glad that she kept her distance until she was completely buried.

hairy potterStar, like many dogs (or other pets), brought uncommon joy to our home.  She was our “hairy” child that we had “puppy sourced” from a local doggy daycare and training facility. She was “imported” from Thailand, a pedigree Yorkshire Terrier that never grew beyond 2 kilograms no matter how much bacon we gave her. She was playful and smart and a bit of a bandit, stealing tissues, pen caps, and my daughter’s toys, hiding it in her favorite spot, under my trampoline. I called her a “love bully” because she would jump into your lap, nuzzle right into face and lick you with abandon. Other times she’d paw at you and bark, demanding to be played with. She was such a character! During my Skype interview the night before, she kept dropping a toy at my feet and begged to be played with. She was relentless. I had to give in and play a tugging game with her all the while trying to sound intelligent, confident and focused. We buried her with that same toy.

I had looked so very forward to Star growing up with my daughter. She was our “forever” dog. She really loved us. She loved us when we were sick, when we were grumpy and when we were neglectful. She loved us no matter what. And we really loved her too. I think that is what I will miss the most about her. Her stubborn and forgiving love.

Although our lives will not be the same without her, they have been changed. Her gift of unconditional love and sheer delight for life is one that I hope to strive for. She made me a kinder, more patient and gentler person. Even though she is no longer here to help “train me to be a better human”, I hope these lessons in love will remain. Perhaps then she will truly be our “forever dog” after all.

Rest in peace, Star. May your joy still shine brightly upon us.

“A Japenese Way of Looking”

I confess I am not an artist, but it doesn’t mean that I cannot experience a love of the aesthetic. And I find such importance and value in exploring these perspectives because it helps me to recover and experience the beauty that is ever present in our lives. It doesn’t matter if it’s through poetry, wine tasting, bird watching or photography—there are so many ways to experience, to zoom in, and elaborate on these small elements of life which add so much fullness to our humanity.

Recently I visited the Hague, Netherlands and took advantage of visiting the Van Gogh Museum before jumping on my plane back to Laos. There was a  whole exhibition dedicated to Vincent Van Gogh’s obsessive study into Japanese prints and how he took those elements into his own style of art.  I had never really thought much about the subject and composition of works. Truly, I had always thought it was VanGogh’s brush strokes that had defined him as an artist. But as he produced a painting a day, he worked diligently to incorporate this style into his own. And when you looked at Japenese prints and then turned your eye to VanGogh’s work, you could catch a glimpse of how he had achieved a “Japanese Way of Looking” in his portraits of the people and places within the south of France. However, what struck me the most was how strongly he felt that the Arles, France was “just like Japan” because of the light and color of the landscapes he saw there. He had only explored Japan through those prints–he had never heard its language, seen Mt. Fuji or tasted sushi– so I was so deeply amazed that he had made that strong connection just thinking about light and color depicted in those prints. VanGogh, in my mind, definitely had a unique way of seeing the world.

van gogh 2And it was this idea that I connected to the most and made me question whether I, in all my travels, had truly appreciated the perspectives and features of the places that I had been too. Yes, of course, I had “assimilated” the culture in the places I had lived abroad but had I truly appreciated them and studied them in the way like VanGogh did. As an expat, I had simply lived among the culture rather than steeped myself in, floating at the top of its surface, trying to maintain the integrity of my home culture rather than allowing my eyes to completely view a different context of life.

As I bring my first year of life in Laos to a close, it makes me deeply reflect how I might integrate VanGogh’s determination to view life through another lens. In the past, I had pursued awe but it has always been around me. It’s not trying to evade me. It is just my sight that needs to shift. It is as if my camera’s lens has been out of focus and if I turn my attention towards something connective like Van Gogh’s “light and color”, perhaps life can be less blurred from the “could haves” and “should haves” that blind me, seeing, not only people and nature in a whole new way, but the circumstances in life.

What a wonderful experiment this can be.

 

The Pursuit of Awe

The other day I was doing this tortuous hip and thigh exercise routine when the instructor said ” You are going to feel a burning sensation. You’re really starting to engage here.” That word, engage, hung in my mind for awhile and I laughed out loud, thinking how she was trying to frame the pain I was experiencing in a sort of positive light. However, my thoughts bounced in another direction: what does it mean to engage anyhow? I wanted to go deeper into this perspective she was sharing and what it means for me in my life.

Anytime I really “engage” in something, I emotionally connect and focus on it. Often, I experience discomfort, sometimes outright pain. My mind started to list the moments I felt discomfort with “engaging” in life, and by and large, they were times when I was in the process of growth. alivenessEven when my thoughts were dark, it seemed like a seed had taken sprout within me and was breaking through the soil to reach for the sun, as I fended off worry and doubt. But then I realized when I experience some sort of reverie with life’s hidden wonders and was seized with joy, this too was a wonderful form of engagement. It felt like a glorious moment of magic and I become captivated with the endless miracles that orchestrate life.

I recognize that most of the time I am disengaged, absorbed with the routines and mundane habits I have created, the middle between those extremes of pain and joy. Which leads me to this ridiculous goal that I set last year–to experience and document over 100 acts of pure miracle and magic that occur in my life. The point of this goal was to develop a mental practice of detecting the good of life, to bear witness to all the ways that the universe conspires on my behalf with my experience. It’s not the same sort of thing as gratitude, but it was more to do with being captivated and in awe of life. I just called it “ridiculous” because it’s probably been the most difficult goal I ever set. I have 14 moments of “awesomeness”  that I have collected as I strive to develop a “miracle mindset”, and I’m supposed to get 100 by December 22nd (my S.MA.R.T. deadline). Clearly, I have not been engaging with this goal.

So, now that I have put my attention on this goal, I realize that I have a choice. To brood over this deficiency or to become absolutely obsessed with it. As you might imagine, sitting at this crossroads in my mind, I am experiencing discomfort–who would I be if I was to really take this seriously for the next 2 months of this year?   Would I become annoyingly optimistic and giddy? Is this why I am resisting this? Or am I using other people as my excuse to not make this shift? 

 

Well, at this juncture, I may not feel overly confident of transforming my mental landscape but maybe trying to do something so daring and failing may be a miracle in itself. To stop wading in the shallows of life and go into the deep end, becoming more mindful and devoted to experiencing what seems ordinary in a new light. To have the courage to live in a state of astonishment, cultivating a different and more fascinated perspective, might be a subtle form of insanity, but I shall try to pursue it nevertheless. And now that I have shared this confounded idea with you all, I have the responsibility to make the effort to become awakened by the profound and interesting things that make my life worth living.

Thank you for holding a light of hope for me, as I become okay with the discomfort that awareness brings through this pursuit for awe.

When the Road I Traveled Becomes an Open Path

Do you ever wish you were a better person than who you are? Me too. Like all the time.

A couple weeks ago we had a terrible thunderstorm with torrential downpour and lightning that sparked the night with a purple white glow. Since the street to my home is riveted with deep muddy potholes, I was nervous that my friend’s car might get stuck or damaged when she dropped me off, so I decided to walk. At the time, it seemed like the right thing to do, but as soon as the car sped away, I felt a real sense of stupidity and fear.  I was going to have to wade through knee-deep water to get to my home. The story of a colleague’s neighbor getting bit by a baby cobra was stuck in my head and it too added fuel to the fear that was sloshing in my mind. I realized that these flooded waters could very well be full of water snakes and other creatures that could cause harm. But if I was going to return home, I really had no other alternative but to walk through these deep “puddles” that were a block long. I chanted “Please God help me” as I entered the road and stepped into the dimly lighted water, my flip-flops searching for an ounce of high ground. 10 minutes later, I arrived at my gate, very wet but very relieved that I somehow managed to make it through to dry land.

the truthAs I stripped off my wet and muddy clothes, I recanted my daring act to my husband and realized that I may very well have this experience again. This is Laos and I have signed up for an adventure, clearly. Why did I think this was a good idea? I wanted a postcard type of experience, you know–coconut trees swaying in the breeze and an easy going pace to life, but this is what I chose. I had the luxury to choose to live in a developing country and now I faced the reality of what is it like to live in a country that is so poor that most of the streets of its nation’s capital aren’t even paved.

All of sudden it got me thinking, if this experience was a lesson, what did I learn? How am I going to meet this “road”–My attitude? Am I going to go running and screaming down it (kind of what I did) or can I manage this experience a different way–My actions? How else could I go down this “road”–My opportunity? And who do I have to become in order to travel on this “road” that I have chosen–My identity?

I am in the process of answering these questions and was reminded recently of a poem by a famous Indian poet,  Rabindranath Tagore, whose message made me awaken out of self-absorption and see the truth that I am not alone on this journey. (None of us are.) Although I am unique, I am not different, because we all wrestle with the circumstances and the choices that create change in our lives.

Closed Path

I thought that my voyage had come to its end
at the last limit of my power,—that the path before me was closed,
that provisions were exhausted
and the time come to take shelter in a silent obscurity.

But I find that thy will knows no end in me.
And when old words die out on the tongue,
new melodies break forth from the heart;
and where the old tracks are lost,
new country is revealed with its wonders.

I connect deeply to this idea of  “new country”; this experience is revealing how much of me is a work in progress, as I reflect on who I am and how I see the world. There’s quite a bit that I can improve upon, let’s just say. However, to meet this challenge with self-loathing of all the things I wish I could be would be squandering the possibility for serious transformation. I still haven’t sorted out how to approach this task but I know that this discomfort is the first sign of the real potential for change. And if I keep focused….well who knows where this road I traveled where lead me.

Taking a Beginner’s Class in Life

monk paradeCall it synchronicity or coincidence, but when some image, item or theme repeats itself, I pay attention to it.

It’s 5 am and the day is breaking on my first day in Laos. I hear dogs barking outside my hotel’s bedroom window and as I look outside, to my amazement, I see a parade of Buddhist’s monks doing their daily ritual of alms giving. To see their bright orange robes in the pale morning sunlight sparked joy and excitement in me. Then fast forward later to an introductory ice breaker at my new school when I am asked to select one picture that I resonate with and explain why. I saw an image very much like the one here in this blog post of the monks.  Obviously, the morning experience had left an impression on me, which is why I believed I was immediately drawn to it, but then as I started to explore it more deeply,  I thought it is what the monks represent to me: contemplation and discipline. But to what?–that is what has plagued me and woke me up this morning at 4:14 am.

If I believe that every detail in my life has a message of the divine in it, then what would this repeating image of parading monks mean to me? This urge to understand is what got me leaping out of bed this morning. As soon as my feet hit the ground, it occurred to me that it is the ideal that monks strive towards, a  Beginner’s Mind:  having an open mind and heart, allowing for the mundane in life to become a fresh experience and to invite the magic of living back into awareness.

Moving into a new country, it is easy in many ways to have a Beginners’ Mind because there are all these new “adventures” that you get to explore like food, culture, and scenery. thich-nhat-hanh-quote-beginners-mind.jpgBut what about other elements that are not as novel, like our attitudes towards things, in particular, relationships. These relationships could be anything like how we feel towards our loved ones or how we feel towards mosquitos. It’s hard to enliven these stagnant attitudes with a new point of view. But for me, I think seeing these monks reminded me of the importance of the commitment to keeping open to the possibility that maybe something that I believe to be true may have another version worth exploring. Ideas that popped immediately to my mind were my personal relationships, how I feel about aging and my ideas about living with nature. Can I examine these ideas with a fresh perspective, remaining deeply curious and in awe of its presence in my life?  Although I am not sure what benefit this approach may yield, I am setting an intention to examine the dogma in my beliefs and observe how it impacts my decisions and feelings. I am going to liken this introspection as a taking a  beginner’s course in life. And today my course starts.

 

 

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?