Last Saturday, while out with Gabi on our afternoon neighborhood constitutional, I happened upon a garage sale. The sale was of outdoor stuff, mostly, spread out over the grassy front lawn of a classic, recently refurbished Portland home: a rack of musty, well-loved Patagonia jackets and vests; a jaunty collection of straw hats; a smattering of high-end camera bags and camping gear.
These items, surely, had a wealth of stories woven into their textiles. Curious, I got to talking with the woman sitting out front. As her cast-off items would suggest, she was sporty and laid back, and we had one of those rambling, intense conversations that inexplicably jumps camps from the mundane to the deep within a matter of seconds.
She squatted to admire Gabi, and I found myself telling her about how hard our first year had been: the colic, the sleeplessness, the paroxysms of self doubt. She, in turn, confessed to me that she and her husband were selling all their possessions to move back to Cambodia. They’d already spent the better part of a decade working around Southeast Asia, she said, doing something related to non-profit work and supply-chain accountability and soccer, and they’d moved back home to Portland last July in a flush of optimism.
They’d since had a change of heart.
“This isn’t where we want to be anymore,” she announced flatly.
She didn’t need to explain; I think last July feels like 8,000 lifetimes ago for many of us. We were on the verge of electing a woman president, of granting our people universal healthcare, of showing a doubtful rest of the world that the grand democratic experiment our country represented was still tenable, still worthy, still noble, still possible.
Other stuff happened instead. Bad stuff. Sad stuff. Dangerous stuff that’s only just begun to play out.
The sporty woman and I talked a bit more about Asia, and we were soon joined by her husband, who looked like a cross between the Crocodile Hunter and John Denver, plus a Vietnamese man in sunglasses who happened to be wandering by and stopped to join our conversation.
He hadn’t been back to his home (Hao Long Bay, I think it was) in a decade, and so he politely grilled the couple on the current cost of living, how hard or easy it might be to purchase a home there, and how many U.S. dollars a day it took live well.
Having never visited Vietnam, I mostly just listened. And thought: about escape, about faraway places I might never see, about faraway places I had seen, about home.
I eventually purchased a camera bag and a fistful of hand-embroidered napkins (from Vietnam, as it happened) from the sale for six bucks. Then, I wished the sporty woman well.
“I hope you find what you’re looking for in Cambodia,” I told her. “I hope you do good work there.”
She must have seen something wistful in my eyes—my tired, pink-rimmed new-mama eyes—because she smiled at me, looking almost guilty, and said, “I know not everybody can just run away…”
“Our work is here,” I called over my shoulder as I headed back toward our house, feeling as sage as a fortune cookie, and rather too cheesy, but just deciding to go with it.
Then I went home.
And I thought some more.
I thought about what it means for her work to be there, and for my work to be here, in this place I call home, raising a daughter in such a dark, difficult political moment. I thought about essential it is, for my sanity and my baby’s and everybody else’s, too, that I remain calm, that I cultivate a beginner’s mind.
But how? How do I accept and embrace this grounded life I am choosing, after so many years of bouncing around?
Above all, I think that I need to work on being fully here, not half-spirited away by fantasies of another life I didn’t choose, one in which I, too, would up and move to Cambodia upon the election of a dangerous buffoon to our nation’s highest office.
And being fully here means re-remembering, every day, that all that’s happening right now is happening for me on some level. Not to me. And certainly despite or to spite me.
It’s happening for me! And so I need to take ownership of it, which is a nice way of saying that I need to stop bitching.
Life isn’t trying to teach me a lesson about how the world is or how other people are; it’s trying to teach me a lesson about how I am.
And there’s a vast kingdom of difference between the two.
Think about that for a sec. It’s so profound! Everything we do: how we react, how we love, how we judge or refrain from judging others, is fundamentally about us and not about the external stimuli.
It’s sorta like the relationship between a car key and a car ignition: stick the key in, and you start a chain reaction that ultimately causes the car to start up (it’s got something to do with a carburetor or something, maybe? I don’t know anything about cars).
The key is important to the process, but it’s really only just a key and nothing more. It is, in a sense, totally independent and non-essential to the engine, which is where the magic of a running car happens.
Throw the key away, and a new one can be cut rather easily.
Recognizing that all this stimuli around us is just a whole bunch of jangly, noisy keys that serve as portals to our connection with a bigger truth is the first step in staying open to the lessons the universe is offering me. Offering us.
When we don’t remember that truth, when we stubbornly externalize our experiences, when we project our emotions onto other things and other people—the man is evil, the shoes are good, the president is wrong, I am right—we are not so subtly telling the universe to stick the teachings it has prepared for us where the sun don’t shine.
And if you blow off the universe for long enough, you risk forgetting how to speak to it in your shared animal language. You forget how to receive its messages, and where it once screamed its deepest truths at you, it will now seem barely to whisper. You’ll get resentful. You’ll get sad. You’ll get angry. And you’ll start to feel pretty damned powerless.
Whether our home is in Phnom Penh or Portland or Pittsburg or Paris, we must stay awake, even when writhing around inside this this earthly coil leaves us so dead dog tired. Even when the coil’s particular stricture leaves us beaten us to a weary, mangled, uninsurable pulp and we begin to suspect that the only thing on this earth that stands any chance of outliving us—the only tangible legacy we’ll leave behind for whoever comes next—is our fucking student loan debt. Even and especially then, we must not sleep, or the Nothing wins!
We must not bridge the distractions and excusals that keep us from the profound task at hand: to see ourselves as Zen warriors sent here to combat the sensation that all of this is fucked up and totally meaningless, a thing to be survived and nothing more, to learn, through practice and humility and listening and reflecting and moving and being still, to see ourselves and others are they truly are, which is to say as vessels through which the universe seeks to better know itself in its most elemental and unvarnished form. No more, and certainly no less.
In every passing moment, we must keep awake.
We must must must keep awake!