Fleet of Heart

“Maybe I’m just this kind of person — the kind of person who connects with people fleetingly and leaves that connection open but moves on from it. From place and from time, to new and more people, to new experiences, more connections, more love. And there is nothing at all wrong with being that kind of a person. I feel more inured to that version of myself, to that kind of life, than ever before.”

 

It’s Friday afternoon. I’m at the provincial administrative office, referred to by most simply as jangwat. The four-story building is arranged like a big square with an open courtyard in the middle and offices only on the outward-facing side.

Me and three interns from the municipal office where I work are riding the elevator up to the top floor. I’ve been asked to keep them company while they deliver some documents. “Why am I so nervous,” I hear one of them ask herself. I ask them if they’ve ever been here before, and they all answer, “No, never.”

The elevator dings at the fourth floor and we step out of the open doors into the long hallway. One of them is reading directions off of a neon pink post-it note scribbled by her supervisor. “Go right, walk straight, it will be on your left,” I hear her say under her breath.

I’ve been to the building many times, but never to this specific office, so I follow their lead. We take a couple wrong turns and walk almost all the way around the square. “Maybe we should ask for directions,” I suggest to them. We soon discover that we passed the correct office two turns ago and start walking back the way we came.

The giddiness and excitement of being somewhere new, set on an unfamiliar errand, radiates off of them. The stakes are different for everyone, and everyone reacts differently to the situation. Nervous energy bounces between them and I try to observe their reactions. One is confident, and walks as if she knows exactly where she is going, even if she doesn’t. Another is a bit more nervous — she keeps checking the paperwork to make sure it’s right, and repeating the directions to herself. The third is more reserved, pensive. She waits to see what will happen before she reacts.

 

I can’t help but think about my own journey here as I follow them on their adventure. I look at them and I see us. I see a group of people with very little background knowledge being thrown into an unknown situation with vague directions and an expectation to come up with some kind of result that is not fully understood. I also see how far I have come. Here I am, taking an unfamiliar situation in stride, and feeling more at ease than the group of Thais I am with. It’s astounding to me.

Their excitement and nervousness about the newness of their situation is intoxicating. Imagined stakes that may or may not be there, trying different tactics until they get it right, desperately seeking help from anyone who may offer it, figuring out how to get along with the other members of their cohort and what roles their skills and personalities fit best — it reminds me so much of those first months in Thailand as a naive little trainee trying to run before I could crawl.

The whole day is just another opportunity for me to see how different things are now. The arc of my journey here astounds me. I imagine that I won’t fully understand it or grasp its significance for many years to come. What do I know, however, is that it has left it’s mark on me. Each person I have met and each experience I have had have left their fingerprint on my soul.

I don’t know where I will be two years from now — I can’t even begin to imagine it. Despite the fog of uncertainty, I do know that whatever happens has the capacity to have an impact on me if I let it. During my time here I have learned how to be raw, how to need, and how to take the seat of the observer. Every experience, big or small, has this same capacity to leave its mark. The length of time that I have it seems kind of irrelevant.

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I’ve been thinking a lot about existentialism lately (thanks to a friend who sent me this article recently). It occurred to me as I was laying in bed reading one night how very much we care about this little world that we live in, despite our occasional attempts to convince ourselves otherwise. I lay there reading my book and realized how much I cared about this stupid, little, made-up story, and how much everything in our lives is just a made-up story. The innocence of youth permeates our entire existence.

To those existentialists who wonder whether or not life has meaning I would answer simply; of course it does, because we are here to make meaning of it.

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Divination

To live… to live would be an awfully big adventure.”

I used to feel like my life was so small. The circle of people and things that I cared about was cramped and lonely, but it was a known entity. It was easy.

Now my life feels so big. The number of people that I know and care about, and who care about me, has expanded exponentially. Full of love and connection. When I start to think about all of the people who have come into my life over the last two years my heart swells with gratitude.

The present is clear — love, fulfillment, connection, people. I know there is more connection and love ahead of me but that is so hard to see now. The future remains shrouded in uncertainty. I can’t see it yet, so my heart keeps screaming at me, “why are you taking this away from me?” I know the answer, and I don’t. I can’t explain it, even to myself. I’m trying to quench that fire every day, and it makes my heart so tired.

I have no idea how to do this. I have no idea how to move forward from here.

I thought recently about the heartspace again.

I thought about divination. The reading of bones, astrology, reading palms, astral projection, the Great Spirit, and peyote. Life after death, heaven and hell, your loved ones live on, death is only the beginning, “To die would be an awfully great adventure,” spirit returning to the Earth

Humans are compelled and hardwired to make order out of chaos, and to recognize patterns even where none exist. This is a great strength, but also the source of so much of our suffering. So, we throw the bones. We literally create a random pattern out of nothing for our minds to interpret in order to explain our inexplicable, painful, short, little lives. 

As I thought about all of these things that I do not feel are truths within my subjective reality, I thought about my own truths, and the heartspace. All of these divination techniques, these religions, these supernatural explanations — this is just a list of all the different ways that we reach the heartspace.

There are an infinite number of doors, but they all open to the same place. That human place. The place where we are all connected. The place where we can take comfort in knowing that we are not alone in our suffering. The place where the discomfort of existence is not to be explained, but accepted and shared by every being that draws breath. 

Holding two opposites in our bodies, our minds, and our hearts, at once without being torn apart. Love cannot exist without grief and loss, peace without fear, acceptance without resistance.

It is my essential truth of human existence that tears at me every day. In order to let in the love of the world, I have to let in everything else. I can’t think of anything harder. I cannot imagine a more impossible task to ask of myself. 

But I am not alone.

People

The shutter of the camera snaps and clicks. The image on the screen pales in comparison to what I see with my naked eye — ancient temples lit up with colored lights across a placid pond, hanging smoke illuminated by the spotlights, a few dozen lanterns being swept up high into the sky by the swirling winds. 

It never looks as good as the real thing, I think. Then I think that the photo isn’t meant to show the real thing. It is merely a reminder. It is something to look at that allows the memory to blossom within our minds, a memory that is more than just images, but sounds, smells, and the way we felt when we were standing there taking it, and who we were with. 

I think about how good it feels to be here. The feeling, like an energetic motion seeking expression, branches through my chest and into my limbs. The energy of it is overwhelming. There’s something else there, though. A sadness that hangs heavy. A loss. Grief climbing in around the edges. 

Simultaneously embodying two contradictory feelings strikes me as incredibly strange, and yet somehow makes complete sense.

Never before have I felt so connected to so many people at once. People have become more important to me in my life than ever before.

I sit around missing people I saw hours ago. I look forward to Mondays because of the people I get to see. I go to the coffee shop that’s “just okay” instead of the really good one because I enjoy the people there so much. These are not things that I used to do.

How will these people remember me when I’m gone? How do they see me now?

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I am so much a creature of habit. My brain is so good at scheduling things for me and reminding me to do things at the same time every day, or on the same day every week. Routines, schedules, and habits. 

Habits and routines in and of themselves lack any kind of moral content or value. Sometimes a habit is doing yoga every morning. Sometimes it’s smoking cigarettes after a meal. Sometimes it’s eating a certain snack when you get home from work. Sometimes it’s getting high. Sometimes it’s watering the plants. Sometimes it’s going for a run.

For me the struggle is to try and develop those habits that are nourishing to me in the long run, the ones that will help lead me to a place where I feel healthy, present, and accepting.

What so often happens for me is that I will develop a habit, or a routine, and then if that habit is one that helps me escape, or deaden, or distract, I find myself ripped out of the present moment when things are uncomfortable or challenging, simply looking forward to that time after work when I can get home and play a video game by myself for an hour, or listen to a podcast, or whatever my newest routine is, because they always change.

Regardless of what the routine is, not being present is something I do not like being. There is nothing wrong with the habit to me as long as it does not keep me from being present, and as long as it doesn’t provide me with a convenient distraction to keep me sedated. I want to wake up, and be awake as often as possible, especially when I am with the people I care about.

Especially when my time with those people is running out minute by minute.

Out in the garden where we planted the seeds
There is a tree as old as me
Branches were sewn by the color of green
Ground had arose and passed it’s knees
By the cracks of the skin I climbed to the top
I climbed the tree to see the world
When the gusts came around to blow me down
I held on as tightly as you held onto me

-The Cinematic Orchestra, To Build a Home

 

Tree

I stood there holding my tree pose, focused on the drishti that was the reflection of my own hands pressed together at heart center. Pride swelled as I thought about how easy it was to hold the pose, and how long I might be able to hold it. As my focus shifted, so too did my balance, and the tree swayed lightly in the breeze of my errant thought. I tried to let the thought go gently, without judgement, and return to my breathing and the drishti, but not before I thought to myself;

“Every tree will eventually fall.”

 

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The support I feel here is overwhelming. When my heart feels heavy, I reach out, and I get support and love in return. It takes many forms. A few words of encouragement. A warm embrace. A listening ear. A light in the darkness. How incredible is that?

Being here is teaching me how to let go, open up, and ask for help when I need it. I feel I am coming to accept myself more and more as I truly am, and not the way I thought I needed to be, should be, or was somehow destined to become.

The pain, the anxiety, the suffering.

The love, the warmth, the connection.

All so needed, one impossible without the other, the scales balanced out. In, out. Hot, cold, Darkness, light. To be able to see value in the things I shunned and avoided for so long feels like such a gift.

Once again I feel that incredibly odd and unexpected feeling — gratitude for my suffering, and for every painful step that brought me here, and all the good ones, too.

The multitude is so beautiful. If I only allow myself the “good,” then I am only living half a life.

Lately, my struggle with selfishness has resurfaced. It’s so hard for me to remain unaffected by things that have nothing to do with me, things that are so far removed from me.

What other people do is of no real concern to me, and yet it is. We all impact one another. Our actions, our words, the way we treat people, the way we take up space in the world — they all matter.

I think that when I see others behaving selfishly it reminds me of my own selfish behaviors. As I thought about this the other day, seeking some peace within the turbulence caused by not being able to let go of these frustrations, it occurred to me that I probably still haven’t fully forgiven myself for the things in my past that I wish I hadn’t done. The things that caused pain to people I loved. The neglect. The fear. The constant dismissal, avoidance, and distraction.

There are yet others that I have still not been able to forgive for their selfishness — people from a life long ago that feels like someone else’s. No matter how long or how many times I avoid this road I keep finding myself walking on it again.

So, I turned again to the tonglen meditation practice in an effort to cultivate the ability to let go and accept the duality of all things.

Breath in SELFISH // SELFLESS Breath out

Breath in BROKEN // WHOLE Breath out

Breath in RESISTANCE // ACCEPTANCE Breath out

The beauty of this to me is that we are simultaneously both and neither of these things. We are sometimes one and sometimes the other and always and never both at once. Neither is good, or bad, they are merely opposing forces. Sometimes we need to resist. Sometimes we need to be selfish. Sometimes we need to break.

This is the essence of being human. The source of my suffering lies in trying to be one instead of the other. The path to my peace is in accepting that I am both.

I once had a waking dream. In the dream I died and went down, down, down, into the warm core of the earth. Only colors, warmth, and echoes of sound.

With me there were others who had died. A voice spoke to our collective hearts. The voice told us that we would all be reborn as trees. It told us that the more we had suffered in our lives, and the more pain we had felt, the more beautiful our tree would be.

After I had this dream I cried at the beauty of human suffering — the suffering that connects every broken heart, everyone who feels alienated and alone, every grieving parent, child, friend, and person on this earth.

What if the thing that we fear the most, the thing that we avoid with every fiber of our being, is actually the things that brings us closer together?

-W.

 

ปล่อย/Release

One day while talking about why it is that I seem to have such a hard time letting things go, a friend here told me;

พรุ่งนี้ก็ไม่แน่นอน วันนี้ก็ไม่แน่นอน”

“Tomorrow is uncertain. Today is uncertain.”

She went on to explain how her religious upbringing instilled within her the practice of letting go. It’s not that she is less affected, or more poised than I am, but rather that she is more practiced at letting go.

I think about this often in the context of my relationships here, and this experience as a whole. Despite my best efforts, I so often find myself trying to grasp things, to hold onto them and keep them.

The question isn’t, “should I hold onto this?” Rather, the question is, “can I?”

The answer I am trying over and over again to accept is, “No.”

I think a lot about my connections to the people in my life. Many days I still feel uncomfortable, anxious, seeking, and scrambling;

Are my connections strong? Can I be doing more? Do people know how important they are to me?

I try as often as I can to let go, to just accept those connections as they are. They didn’t get this way by being maintained or forced — they got this way through gentleness, openness, and vulnerability.

It feels like I am always trying to create opportunities, worrying about those connections instead of just being. That is such a huge source of anxiety for me — constantly seeking instead of finding, constantly feeling what isn’t there at the expense of what is.

I want to practice letting go and being present. If I keep this intention in my heart every day, I can practice opening myself up to all of the things that are there, instead of just the things I feel are missing. If I can stop resisting life. If I can drop the story lines.

That letting go often doesn’t feel as good as I imagine it will. Somehow the idea of release feels more exciting than the release itself. I think a big part of that is because I anticipate letting go — that I will be able to let go at that time, on that day, in that place — but when that day actually comes, I can’t do it.

No matter how diligently I try to keep the intention to practice letting go in my daily life, the desire to feel connected still aches within my chest. I seek and I reach out, and I so often forget that those connections will come as long as I am open to them, as long as I allow myself to see what is already there in each present moment, and not just what isn’t.

So much of my writing is full of metaphors. Water, stones, circles, cycles, orbits, strings, trees, and visions. Even the idea of letting go, of the open palm, is a metaphor for an emotional and entirely internal experience.

A feeble and futile attempt to quantify and clarify the human experience, to paint a picture of the inside of our hearts for others to see and therefore understand us. It’s all an attempt to explain something that was never meant to make sense in the first place. Cells given cognition by Lady Luck and Father Time, stardust with consciousness capable of contemplating itself.

Here we are pretending it all makes sense.

The world we as humans have created is so spectacularly odd. To think that any of this was intended strikes me as so incredibly arrogant, as if a mote of dust is the entire universe fabricated for our benefit.

We attempt to sift meaning out of the neutral chaos that is nature because our brains evolved to detect patterns because it was advantageous to us in some way. I suspect this is part of the reason that I see so many patterns when I look at my own life.

Maybe the only thing that keeps that pattern going is my belief that it exists. A prison of thought created to try and explain the indescribable, because being free and open to the truth that nothing is certain is too terrifying to bear. So I build comfort out of explanations willed into existence only by the belief that they are true — and they are as much as they aren’t.

A couple weeks ago I went to the local election for the Youth Council in my province. About ten minutes into being there my mind started to run along the course that has become so familiar to me during my time here — frustration, annoyance, disbelief, exasperation, and resistance.

“They should be doing this, not that. Why aren’t they doing this other thing? Oh, no, they’re doing that all wrong. What are these kids even doing here? How is this still happening?”

After letting this run its course for a while, fairly inured to the feeling at this point in my service, I remembered my intention to let go and allowed myself to look beneath the surface. I tried to feel into that initial frustration without judgement, smooth it out, and then just let it go and drop the story line that I was telling myself about it. I tried to tune myself into the present moment. I let myself slow down for a moment to ask, “What is happening here?”

“I see students who are doing something productive on a Saturday. I see adults who care about the youth in their community. I see the desire for change. I see effort and perseverance. I see people who recognize what the problems in their community are but often have no earthly idea of how to begin fixing them. I see youth daring, exposing themselves, trying new things, and making friends with other youth who believe that they can take an active part in their community, even if they are not yet sure what that means.” 

When I allowed myself to let go, the totality of the experience became available to me. It’s so easy to focus on those initial feelings of frustration, anger, or sadness, but if we are able to not grasp onto that we are left with all of the parts of that experience that make it so rich, so whole, and so human.

Inexplicable. Stardust floating through space.

W.

Memory

We encourage ourselves to develop an open heart and an open mind to heaven, to hell, to everything. Only with this kind of equanimity can we realize that no matter what comes along, we’re always standing in the middle of a sacred space. Only with equanimity can we see that everything that comes into our circle has come to teach us what we need to know.”

-Pema Chodron

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I dragged my laptop over, flipped it open, and clicked on the folder of photos from two years ago, the time right before I left to come to Thailand. I showed her the photos of mountain vistas and placid lakes in Yosemite, the sprawl of San Francisco, of Mt. Tabor sunsets, sky-scrapers in downtown Portland with wind turbines on top of them, and the view of Hillsdale from the stairwell in The Watershed. I told her a little bit about each of them. “This is where I used to work. This is the lake my brother and I hiked 12 miles to get to. This is where my best friend lives.” 

Afterwards I asked her how she felt and she said, her voice wavering, that I have to go back to where I was. Now that place I had to go back to was real to her. The specter of our future parting coalesced into physical form within her mind, given a name and a face. A real place, with real people. Trees, mountain ranges, city lights, sunsets, cows, family, friends.

I felt hot tears roll down my face as I thought about how one day this would all be a memory. Far into my still uncertain future I will lay in bed late one night while the fan blows cool air in through the window, or sit on a bench on a sunny day reading a book, or ride my bike through a quiet park, and I will remember this part of my life.

The house behind the lime orchard. Four walls with the bathroom carved out in the corner, pink bed sheets, the whiteboard with Thai vocabulary and motivational phrases scribbled on it, the frogs outside after a rain, the shitty washing machine that keeps breaking, the oft-neglected kitchen, breakfasts of bread and peanut butter, reading on the front porch, playing ukulele on the bed in the dark, lonesome yoga sessions on the off-white tile floor.

I have such a hard time imagining a life that isn’t this one, or what the next one will be like. 

We cried together, and I told her that I sometimes forget that the person she knows as me doesn’t extend beyond the last year and a half. I carry around all of those memories that make up my past.

Climbing up the winding roads of Mt. Tabor at sunset. Drunkenly bombing down the hill on NE 15th at 3:00 am and then flopping into bed, still sweaty from the ride. Coffee and conversation with dear friends. Sunday morning basketball. The flower farm in Corbett. That lonely night on the park bench, chain-smoking cigarettes. Sitting hungover on Avery’s front stoop, the sky blanketed in soft, gray clouds. Watching John Carpenter movies on my couch in the dark. Early morning therapy sessions. Drinking an IPA in the summer sun.

When I was living that life I would have had such a hard time imagining a different one, and I certainly never would have imagined this one.

All of those things are just stories to her, if she’s heard them at all. They’re not real places, or real people. They’re a figment — someone else’s dream painted into her mind with a description that pales in comparison to the lived experience.

He thought each memory recalled must do some violence to its origins. As in a party game. Say the word and pass it on. So be sparing. What you alter in the remembering has yet a reality, known or not.”

-Cormac McCarthy, The Road

I gave that story a life, and a stark reminder that that is a place to which I must one day return. My life has been immeasurably altered by this experience, as it will be altered by others that lay before me.

 

She made a little vice shape with her thumb and forefinger and held it up in front of her eye. “Just a little bit,” she said. Her picture of me is so small. I thought then about the path that my life will take from here. Who else will I meet? What else will I do? The trail behind me will stretch out longer than the one in front, and I will be at a loss for how to explain it, how to give it life, a voice, and make it real to them.

It makes me a little sad to think of it. I feel a bit like a ghost, floating in and out of people’s lives this way, staying just long enough to imprint a handful of experiences that will stand the test of time. Just a whisper of a memory. To some, I’ll just be that foreigner who used to live here

Certainly, to others, I will be much more than that, and they to I.

It also makes me smile at the thought of who else I might meet. Who else will I meet that will change my life beyond all recognition? Who else will impact me in a way that leaves a permanent mark on my soul, who plants a seed that will grow for the rest of my life?

 

I’m going to keep getting farther and farther away from those life-defining experiences that made me who I am now. A sword forged in forgotten fires.

The core remains. Always, it remains. Through the seasons, and the years, and the growth, and the fires, and the rain, and the wind, the tree remains standing until it doesn’t. What I am, what we are, is not so easily lost.

The seed is still there, pulsing at its heart, a beacon of light, and a promise of what is yet to come.

W.

Scraps

It’s been a long time since I have had the opportunity to just sit down and write. As a result, my notebook is full of post-it notes and folded-up index cards, hastily scribbled scraps of emotions blooming in my chest, realizations dawning on a suddenly quiet mind, and pointless ramblings given physical form with ink and paper.

Coherent narratives are overrated;

Love is the coal that makes this train roll.”

-The Black Keys, Everlasting Light

There is value in your struggle, in my struggle, in our struggle. So much value and so much beauty in that swirling maelstrom of chaos that sometimes feels so impossible, so unfair, and so pointless. Every once in a while a light shines through, someone shows us a mirror, the connections and patterns reveal themselves to us for a brief moment, and we know that not only is there something beyond this struggle and that it won’t last forever, but that the struggle itself is enriching us in ways we never could have imagined. The yin and yang swirl together, the lines blur, and we begin to question the absolute story of our lives that suffering is bad and pleasure good.

Suffering is the most human thing we can do.

Others can show us the value in things we never would have considered. The way we do things and the things we value are not the best, we only believe they are. Context matters. Value is relative. For everything we know down to our bones to be an absolute, universal truth there is someone who feels just as strongly about the opposite truth.

What would a world where people don’t value freedom be like?

Sometimes I feel like more and more of my life goes into my phone and I don’t have the willpower to pull myself back out.

We talked at lunch today about discomfort. I realized that I haven’t been allowing myself to be uncomfortable in a while. I abuse the phone, spend time with people, watch Netflix. Less introspection, less pushing the edges, less growth in some ways but maybe more in others, less patience for myself. I’m still finding those lines between healthy and unhealthy. It shifts a lot. Back and forth, side to side.

I miss the feeling of oneness.

I sat across the table from them, elbows propped up on the marred wooden blocks, three empty bowls with a little bit of broth still on the bottom sitting in front of us, listening to them talk about relationships, partners, and family. It’s such a gift, being able to talk to them, to share our stories, to know one another. I’m so grateful. I wanted to capture that moment and hold onto it forever. The way we talk to each other, the words we use.

พี่, หนู, เค้า, แก, ตัวเอง

The intimacy shows. The care for one another shows. I wish I could transmit that feeling, that image, that moment, for everyone in the world to see, to feel, and to know what love and connection can be, and how easy it is to find it if we let ourselves see it, if we tug on those strings a little.

I feel so much more at peace with the next step of my journey. I’m not totally sure how that happened, or how I got here.

Do you ever look at someone and feel like you’re really seeing them for the first time? They laugh and suddenly you can see everything they are in their face. The laugh lines, the smile, the eyes, a tilt of the head. You can see every decision they have ever made that brought them to this point in their lives. You think about every time that person has looked at you and what they have seen, about every time they have cried, how deeply they have loved. It’s almost as if they become a whole person for just a moment, the secret truths of the universe available to you for just a fraction of a second.

What causes that?

We all have evil within us. Sometimes we want to believe that the actions of others are the result of a particularly heinous or rare kind of evil. We have all the same things within us, the same potential to cause pain. We flail, we falter, and we fail to understand. Not malicious. Not evil. Just human. Let us not trick ourselves into thinking these actions are not human, lest we forget how common they are.

 We are mortals all, extravagant in our weakness.”

-Vincent Brand, Penny Dreadful

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It feels so good to be back.

It feels like putting the last puzzle piece into place.

It feels like coming home.

W.

Friendship

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I was talking to a friend recently about the relationships we have with people back home, wherever that is for us. It made me realize that I have this tendency to imagine time as kind of just frozen in place back there.

The experience I am having here is so new. I’m being challenged in ways I never anticipated or prepared for, seeing new things, meeting new people, growing, changing, hurting, and loving.

It’s important for me to try and remember as often as I can that all of these same things are happening to the people I love back in the place I once called my home. People are dying, struggling with addiction and depression, fighting hatred and oppression, loving, losing, getting together, breaking up, having children, getting married, losing jobs, starting careers, going back to school, having their hearts broken, wondering what their future is going to look like, and having life-changing experiences every day.

As I always try to remind myself when panic and anxiety start to take hold — whatever happens, the world will continue to spin;

Love is the coal that makes this train roll

The Black Keys, Everlasting Light

Navigating opposite-sex friendships in Thailand can be challenging. Things that I would consider to be absolutely devoid of romantic intent have different meanings here. It’s also really hard to tell whether or not someone is joking, whether or not they’re teasing or they mean something more than what they’re saying. The answer is usually All of the above.

People are incredibly cautious of potential misunderstandings involving opposite-sex friendships. I think a lot of this has to do with the type of super-possessive and gender-imbalanced monogamy that is so common here in Thailand. I know women here who actively avoid being alone with a man they know just in case their partner gets the wrong idea and gets upset about it (I’m sure they have other reasons, too, but this is one that has been expressly stated to me).

Since most of my friends are women, it can sometimes be challenging for me to feel as close with them as I want to be with my friends. I also have to try and understand that the way my friends here show love, affection, and care is not the same way I am used to seeing it. Everything is laden with meaning, and some of those meanings still escape my notice.

The most incredible thing about the friendships I have been lucky enough to forge here is how connected everyone feels. My group of friends here feels like a big family. Many of them have known each other for decades. They support each other, they spend so much time bonding, and they have been gracious enough to fold me into their family, in a way. This is something I have never experienced before in my life.

There’s an intimacy that feels so genuine and natural. It just exists in the background and coalesces into little moments here and there. Crowding around the table to share a meal. Laughing together. Finding ourselves all clustered together in a group even when we have no cause to be.

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I’ve had many partners since my first girlfriend all the way back in high school. Some of those relationships lasted as short as a couple of months, others as long as a few years. Through those relationships I learned how to love a partner. I have learned what I want from a relationship, how I want to feel, and how I want to make others feel.

Here, I’m learning how to love a friend. I’m learning how to share my heart with someone and love them without grasping, without over-indulging, or obsessing. It’s a struggle that I never expected to face, but it has allowed me to grow in such a beautiful way and explore new kinds of connections.

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A good conversation with a friend here will give me an emotional high that makes me feel so connected, energized, and activated. After a day or two it fades and I find myself craving more of that reassurance. You are important to me, you will be missed, and I care about you, too. I often find myself wishing I didn’t feel the need for it.

I once told one of my friends here that I feel she is so much more important to me than I am to her. I said it like it was a joke so she wouldn’t feel bad, in the same way that Thais often do, but I really do feel that way. I just want to be as important to the people here as they are to me.

I don’t think I ever will be, but I think I can accept that.

How could I be? This experience is totally different for them than it is for me. They never had to rely on me for survival, they never needed me to do anything for them, they never needed me to guide them through something difficult or hard to understand. Earlier in my service, when I felt so lonely I thought my heart might burst, my friends here saw me, reached out to me, and supported me. How could I ever repay that kindness? I’ve tried to do that for them, but I don’t think I could ever feel like I’ve balanced out the scales.

One of my closest friends here recently reflected to me how lucky we are to know each other. The odds against it are staggering. They went on to say that even though saying goodbye will be hard, we will always know in our hearts that we still share the love of friends and family.

I will keep trying as hard as I can to be present, to not grasp, to listen to the love in the background, and to accept the things that are hard to accept.

I will also try to be gentle to myself when I fail.

Fabric

The day I wrote this (in bits and pieces throughout the day, as I often do), at least three people in three separate, isolated settings asked me how much longer I was going to be here and commented about how quickly the time is going.

By the third time I just smiled and laughed softly to myself before responding. All I could think was; I am so goddamn lucky to be here.

Life isn’t something you possess. It’s something you take part in, and you witness.”

-Louis CK

Last week;

It’s supposed to be a holiday, but the government workers I spend my time with don’t usually get these days off. They spend them organizing events, going to ceremonies, and driving around to different villages. As such, I am tasked with going to a tree-planting ceremony in a nearby village. I admit to being a little grumpy about it, but I try to put on my best face and just go with it.

Before we have even left the government office, two of my counterparts are asking me if I will cancel my classes on Monday to go dance in a performance for the governor’s visit. My annoyance flares up and through my (admittedly very thin) facade of calm.

I resist. I tell them I can’t, I tell them I don’t want to cancel my class, I tell them it’s not convenient, but they won’t let up. Eventually one of them calls up the teacher at my Monday school to move my class to the morning so I can go. Oh, also we will be spending the afternoon practicing for it, so there goes the rest of my so-called holiday.

My counterpart accuses me of being childish and petulant. I think she’s right, but I also tell her I can’t accurately explain why I don’t want to do it, and leave it at that. The real reason is that I don’t like being used as a prop — I would imagine that very few people do. I know that that conversation would not lead to anything meaningful or productive, so I just drop it.

Fast forward a bit;

The weekend is over, Monday has come, and so has the dance. My annoyance has subsided and, although I still don’t like the way I was asked to participate, I appreciate having been a part of the event. We’re back at the government office and I’m sitting at my desk waiting for my ride home to be ready.

In the room with me is one of the mayor’s deputies and the public relations coordinator. In the midst of a normal, everyday conversation, the deputy asks me the same question I have had to hear almost every day for the last six months; “วิลจะกลับเมื่อไร,” “When are you going back home?” I tell him the month and he proceeds to count the remaining months on his fingers. He reaches eight and says what most people say, “ไม่ต้องกลับแล้ว,” “You don’t have to go back anymore.”

It seems odd that this would annoy me so much, but I think I get so annoyed because I don’t know how to answer these questions. “What will you do? Where will you go? Why are you leaving?” I think the annoyance covers up the fact that they’re asking me this because they care, because they’ll be sad to see me go, because they would rather that I stay.

He ends by asking me if I will cry when I leave. I say, of course I will, as I always do when people ask me this. I tell him it will be very, very hard for me to leave. After that he asks me, “จะกลับไปทำไม,” “Then why are you going back?” I can’t explain the reasons to him, partly because I don’t have the words to do it justice, and partly because I don’t rightly know the answer myself. I think about it for a moment and just respond with something like, “Sometimes we have to do things even though they are difficult to do.”

I’m not special here anymore.

This is something I have only recently realized I am struggling with. I am just a part of the fabric of everyday life. I’m not The Foreigner, I’m just Will (or Weeo, to be more accurate). I don’t need special attention, I can take care of myself (mostly), and I can solve my own problems. I think I often take for granted how strange it is that I’m here, that I’m such a fixture here. Guests and visitors will walk into the office and look at me like I’m some kind of alien, sitting behind my desk like I belong there or something. The people I see every day, my friends and coworkers, expect me to be there. I do belong there.

It sounds really selfish, but while being such a normal part of things here is a heartwarming and incredibly unique feeling, I never expected to feel so slighted by not being a priority anymore. When it rains in the morning, no one calls me to see if I need a ride. They know if I need one I’ll ask. I don’t have people texting me while I’m on the bus to ask if I made it to wherever I was going. People don’t invite me to things directly as often as they used to. They assume I know what is happening and that I will find a way to get there if it’s important to me.

They’re right. I can do those things. It’s cool to be such a seamless part of the fabric of this place. I have to admit that it also stings a little bit, and that sting is unexpected. I also realize that this is the price of independence.

One of the things that makes it sting is that I sometimes feel I’m not special until they need me to be. When they have an important visitor come, you can be damn sure they make sure I show up to take photos and impress the guest of honor with my white skin, tallness, and nationality. They don’t ask me to share my work, or talk about how it feels to be a volunteer. They ask me to show up, speak some Thai, and be white.

What I have been realizing recently, however, is that these things are often one in the same. They ask me to do these things in part because I am a farang, and having a farang working in your office is impressive for some reason. They also ask me to do it so that I can take a part in their life. These things that we hate doing, that annoy the shit out of us, they bind us to the people here. I feel honored to take part in something so beautiful, to share life with these people.

These conversations will continue to happen. People will keep asking me when I am leaving, keep telling me the time is going too quickly, keep telling me I should stay, and keep making jokes that I’m going to cry when that day inevitably rolls around. Even though it is challenging on the days when the uncertainty of the future feels like a thousand ton weight resting on my shoulders, I want to try and get used to having them, and to try to have them with grace and understanding.

The trajectory of my time here is fascinating to observe. When I first started I retreated so far into myself. I was so afraid of making mistakes, of screwing up, of doing it wrong, that I kept most of myself hidden, reaching it out once in awhile when it felt safe. After a time I started to feel more like myself, more willing to risk, to dare, to challenge. Once I finally felt like I could be myself here, I started reaching even further, trying new things, challenging things within myself that I didn’t even know were there. Now I find myself trying things that seemed beyond possibility not too long ago.

So here is us, out on the raggedy edge.”

It’s beauty and scope is horrifying and full of possibilities. Who knows where I’ll be six months from now; what kind of things will I put out there? What kind of things will I take in? What will I want?

The answers will come with time. Or not. And that’s okay, too.

The only thing I know right at this moment is that I will never be able to make the people here truly understand how deeply knowing them has impacted me. I can only hope they are able to glimpse a fraction of its magnitude before our time together comes to an end.

-w.

 

Liminal Space

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The blues seem to be going around lately. Maybe it’s just that time of year. Maybe there’s something in the air. Maybe there’s a dip on this part of the graph. 

We start to wonder what it is we have done here. We start to wonder what it will look like six months from now when we are preparing ourselves for our final goodbyes. We question, we seek, we doubt. 

An old friend who is no longer part of my life used to support me in times like these. His thoughtful presence, intent, and attention made me feel seen, loved, and free in so many ways.

There was something that he would always say to me on days like these — days when it feels like nothing is going right and I heap the lion’s share of blame on myself. It was something I needed to hear, something that still echoes in my ears in his steady, soft voice when it needs to be heard;

You’re not doing anything wrong.”

Lately I feel as if the way people see me doesn’t line up with the way I see myself, or with the way I want to make people feel. I feel confused.

I feel as if I am losing myself. This is both good and bad. In that losing there are so many things to discover, and I can begin to let go of things that don’t serve me here in the present — relics from a time long since past, but not forgotten. I’m not fighting the same battles. I’m not facing the same demons. I’m not walking the same parapets.

Sometimes I feel there is no winning with me, like I’m fighting a battle against myself. When I’m alone I want to be with others, when I’m with others I want to be alone.
This is true and it’s not. I want so badly to show myself but I am still afraid. In spite of everything I am still afraid. I’m afraid that people will see me and think I’m weak. 

But what’s wrong with weakness? Where does this aversion come from? I want to cast it off. It doesn’t belong to me. I don’t want it and I never did.

In my most satisfying fantasies no one expects anything of me, especially not strength or composure.

So where are you right now?”

I feel like the adult.

I feel tiredness wrapping itself like a cocoon around my body.

I feel a weight settling on me and I don’t have the power to shake it off anymore.

Depressed. Into the ground. Energy and motivation are fleeting.

I feel like other people need me.

I feel afraid that no one will be there for me to need, for me to crash into.

I still feel lost.

I feel like I’m emptying out.

And nothing is coming back in.

I feel not myself.

But who am I?

Is this what letting go of yourself feels like? What is in that space between the person I was and the person I will be? That’s where I am and it’s dark and lonely and scary. I am afraid I will get lost here or that I’m not strong enough to endure it.

So break. So get lost. So flounder, drown, flail.

Drown, drown
Sailors run aground
In a sea change nothing is safe
Strange waves
Push us every way
In a stolen boat we’ll float away

-Beck, Little One