Adventures at Home: Trying Out Mountain Biking

 Earlier today I was talking with someone about how I love to write about my experiences but that lately I’ve felt like I haven’t had many exciting experiences to write about. His response: “write about the unexciting ones.” 
 
I attempted mountain biking for the first time without any prior experience. I ended up walking most of the trail, dragging my muddy bike along side me, because I had no idea what I was doing, until I came to a deep ditch full of water. This ditch stared at me, and I at it, for what felt like an eternity. All at once a blue blur of a mountain biker zipped through at high speed, leaving me and my self-doubt behind. Suddenly I heard a voice. “Do you need help crossing that ditch?” The blue blur had stopped. I hesitated, looking around nervously, and shook my head. “Uhh, no, I’m alright,” I stammered in response.  Of course I wasn’t, but I didn’t want to tell her that.
 
But she ignored my obvious lie, turned around and biked back down the hill to where I stood, my weight shifting awkwardly to one side. She zipped past me, splashed easily through the ditch, and came up on the other side. She dismounted. “Don’t look at it,” she said to me. “That’s the key. Whatever the obstacle is, whether it’s a pond or a log or whatever, don’t look at it. Look ahead of it. And just keep pedaling.” I nodded, listening intently to her instructions, debating my options as she spoke. I could just turn around and climb back up the hill, I thought to myself, but that might be awkward. This woman had stopped what she was doing to help me. She was the first mountain biker I had met that day to have done so. I had no choice. I had to go through with it.
 
“Go back a little ways so you can gather enough speed,” she instructed. She was being extremely detailed and thorough. She spoke with confidence. I trusted her advice. “Aim for my bike tracks and look up here.” She raised her hand to her shoulder. Ignoring all signs of impending disaster, I mounted my bike and started pedaling, gathering speed as I rushed down the hill on two wheels, my confidence disappearing like the wind. I looked up at her hand and kept pedaling. The wheels moved like air, without any pressure or resistance. The front wheel dipped down–zippp–and whoosh. Suddenly, I was up on the other side. 
 
“Yeaaaaaah!” I heard behind me. I stopped and turned around. My spontaneous coach was cheering me on with a big grin on her face. “Whatever the obstacle is, just look ahead of it and keep pedaling,” she reiterated through her grin. I was speechless. I couldn’t believe that had worked! “Th…thank you!!” I stammered. She gave me a hearty thumbs up. I turned away and just kept pedaling.
 
The “Tour de Wolf” Trail, Shelby Farms, Memphis, Tennessee
 
 
 

Memphis Time: On Slowing Down (A picture book)

I took a walk on the Mississippi River and saw a fisherman in his boat.  I watched him circling around the river, directing his floating chariot, unaware of passersby or stalkers like me, content to float downstream.

Memphis, Tennessee
I thought of the fisherman in Myanmar fishing, alone for hours. The water might not be as blue here, but I suppose fishing in Myanmar has the same basic objective as fishing in Memphis: to catch a fish. 
I sat by the Mississippi, letting the wind kiss my face and creep up my shirt. It took me back to boating on the Inle Lake and the wind ripping through our hair. We spent hours on that boat, getting sunburned, watching the chorus of fisherman dance their way downstream, casting nets with the grace of ballerinas.  
Inle, Myanmar
The scenery is certainly different in Memphis; it’s very flat. But the company is more consistent. Maybe because of that, life feels tangibly slower. It’s definitely more predictable, which I always thought I would hate, but I’m starting to see the wisdom in a slower way of living. It’s not nearly as stressful because you know what to expect. You get a lot of time to snuggle with these:

It’s difficult to stop planning my next move. But who knows, it may come sooner than I expect. 

On Being Home, Awake

One of the biggest life lessons I keep coming back to from all of my travels is that life hits you in the face when you least expect it, and it hits you in a very big, very real way. Life is uncomfortable. Travelling is uncomfortable. It’s new and different. It can be very strange.

People have always been afraid of what is different. I don’t know why. Perhaps it’s a “chicken and egg” conversation: which came first, the fear or the stereotypes?

I’m living in Memphis now. But I’m not living in the same Memphis I grew up in, and sometimes, I feel really ashamed that I never knew my current Memphis when I was young. My Memphis is Black; 60 percent African American to be precise. But that’s not the Memphis I knew growing up, which evidences the other reality of my current Memphis. My Memphis is segregated as hell.

Why didn’t I see it before? On some level I think I knew, but I never thought deeply about it, nor cared enough to do so. My school was white, my family was white, we were all middle class, we were all the same. So what did I have to be afraid of?

Injustice hit me like a brick to the face the first time I saw the terrible cement wall separating Israel from the West Bank. That’s injustice, I thought. A cement wall. Well, we don’t have one cement wall in Memphis, but we have a lot of little walls. They’re called neighborhoods. They’re called schools. They’re called 201 Poplar.

It’s not fair that I got to go to a great school and get in to college, when the average ACT score for this city is 17 and the percentage of those in poverty is almost 30 percent, with 45 percent of all children in Memphis living in poverty. Memphis’ poverty statistics are shocking. Why didn’t I learn this in school? Maybe I did. I just wasn’t paying attention.

What do we do about it? What did I do in Israel? What did I do in Thailand? What do I do here?

Of course there is injustice everywhere. But knowing that, accepting that, and letting that pass unaffected is only perpetuating that injustice. Compassion necessitates action.

Why am I struggling so much with this right now? I think because suddenly I feel responsible. I know I’m not personally responsible for the systemic racism in this city, but I feel a sense of responsibility towards my city and everyone in it. It’s easy, when you’re living abroad, to pick and choose what injustices to invest your time in, because there is so much that is unfamiliar. You can use that barrier as an excuse to hide away. And as I’m learning, there is still so much that is unfamiliar to me about this city, this city I grew up in and so arrogantly thought I had figured out. I don’t. I don’t. I can’t.

But I can try. I can get outside my comfort zone, like I’ve done before in other places. I can keep going outside of my own yard to see new things, experience knew events, meet new people from different backgrounds. Isn’t that life, anyway?

My goals for my time in Memphis (however long that may be) are these: first, to learn more about the social injustices in the city and to get involved in active solutions. My current job is a great place to start, but that’s only a little of myself. We can always go deeper. We just can’t ever give up. Second, I want to explore. Build a bike, ride the MATA bus, and get out and about. There is a lot of beauty in this city.

Just because I’m back in the same place doesn’t mean I’m the same person I was when I was last here. I’m not. I hope I’m not. I’m still only one person with no answers and irritating questions, but I’m still going. I hope you’ll help me along.

Post-Grad: Making the Best of The Time You Have

A cliche title, but this is how I feel right now…

And once again, boxes are packed and suitcases are standing in my bedroom. Where I am going this time? It’s tempting to say “nowhere,” but that isn’t true. I’m moving back home.

Such a short sentence carries with it so much weight and societal pressure, doesn’t it?

I’ve been blessed to spend some time with my wonderful college friends this weekend in New Jersey, where I’ve been for the past week, packing boxes, visiting family and tying up loose ends before I move back to Memphis. One of the things we talked a lot about is how odd it is not to have that structure of school looming over us. This time of year is when students move back to campus, start planning their courses and their extra-curriculars, and begin that carousel dance of “what ifs” and wishes for their still mostly ethereal futures.

Only this time, and for the first time (since I graduated college and then went straight to teaching at a university), there is no class schedule to pick! No courses to look forward to, no projects to plan, no books to check out or social events to make. I try and tell myself that I’ll still be as studious, reading for pleasure and edification and cross referencing everything I see on paper. But the truth is, even in the month and a half since I’ve been jobless in America, it’s been really difficult to create any sort of routine that challenges me.

All of my caring older adult friends and family will smile and shrug and say encouraging things like “you don’t need to know what you’re doing forever; you just need to know what you’re doing next.” And this is true, and I’m very grateful for their understanding and support. Yet I’m wondering if this is the part of life, that dreaded post-college part, that people don’t really explain in detail because it’s different for everyone, and maybe uncomfortable as well.

And so I’ve been spending this last week living a bit in nostalgia-land, which I believe every person is entitled to at some points in life. I visited my old college and church, had lots of lunches and coffees and lots of talks, and started going through my old belongings, at which point I realized that I’m a book hoarder. I also discovered this insert from my old environmental biology book, which explains a lot:

A fold out map I found under my bed today.

I also found some old travel pieces from The Inquirer, old essays I wrote for school and lots of notes about random ideas in life. My brain, it seems, has always been running overtime.

One article I had saved was a piece by Rick Steves on the relative simplicity of backpacking in the age of technology, with which I wholeheartedly agree. His last bit of advice was to always keep a travel journal. He observes:

One of my favorite discoveries is that the journal entries I wrote as a scruffy 20-year-old in 1975 still resonate with the…20-year-old American exploring Europe in the 21st century.

I find this encouraging and inspiring. There’s something so liberating and magical about being your own Robinson Crusoe or Sherlock Holmes in a foreign land, even if you can now follow that land on twitter. There’s nothing like being there in person.

And this is why, as a newly jobless post-grad, joining the ranks of the wandering millennials, I feel hopeful about my future. Yes, it is so much more challenging to make things happen now. In college, everything is arranged neatly for you; you have endless options from which to choose. You see your friends all the time. You have access to databases, free Zumba classes, trips to the beach, and all the ice cream you can eat. Those things still exist in life (maybe not the free Zumba); you just have to find them for yourself now.

Look at the map. Look at Rick Steves. We have a whole world still to explore, and even in our own backyard or old college town, we can find uncharted territory. Everything and everyone has a story, and since human beings are naturally curious, it is only fitting that we seek to uncover those stories, no matter where we are physically. If you’re looking for a place to start, try your old journals, essays, or random scraps of paper stuffed under your bed.

🙂

Note:
Rick Steves, “It’s Easier to be a Backpacker,” for the Inquirer, Sunday July 28, 2013. Inquirer.com


The Art of Calm (A trip to Kentucky)

Kentucky is a beautiful state. I never appreciated this growing up, because (and I honestly have no idea where this came from) I had a deeply-seeded resentment of anything south of the Mason-Dixon line. Still, late fall, stress from school and eventual early adulthood brings with it dreams of hibernation, home and pie. Being able to  spend all day in pajamas is also high on my list these days. So after coming back to Memphis to visit my family for fall break, we took a road trip to Kentucky. The entire drive, I stared out the window, slightly out of breath over the forgotten beauty of so many rolling green hills. It seems I’ve developed some kind of armor to protect me from life in the northeast and, in the process, I have neglected to look up at the sky. Like Icarus, I flew too close to the sun. It takes coming home to realize you never needed wings in the first place.

I won’t pretend I’m a sophisticated northerner. I speak more slowly than many people I know; I don’t own any Ray-Bands or black high heels or know all the subway lines in Manhattan. Still, I’m noticing some stark differences between the vast, expansive south and the busy, densely populous northeast. For one, in the drive from Memphis to Kentucky, I saw more trees than people. More trees, more leaves on the trees, more blades of grass, more fish in the lakes, even more clouds in the sky. There is somehow more sky.

When the only thing you have to contest your existence against is something that’s existed for hundred of years, like a tree, you suddenly feel very, very small. It’s almost impossible  be existential in a city! There are too many people telling you you’re wonderful, and not enough reminding you that the trees were here first.

Also down south, people…are just so friendly. I always thought this was a myth, that people in the south are friendlier than in the north. “Just because people down south smile and wave and say ‘hello’ as if they mean it doesn’t make them more friendly.” Perhaps I will test this some time and see how long I can talk to a stranger in Memphis or Bowling-Green before he or she gets bored or scared of me. But at least when people greet me with a boisterous “hello,” I know they really mean it. You know that awkward semi-acknowledgement of a stranger’s presence, where you’re too shy and too busy to be genuinely interested in someone else’s day, but you don’t want that person to think a bad thought about you so you smile and eek out a timid “hi,” and the other person blurts out, “Hihow’sitgoin’?” and then just keeps walking? Yeah. In the south, strangers greet strangers with genuineness. And they separate their words.

Perhaps what I’m experiencing is a bit of rose colored glasses syndrome, that feeling you get when you’re in a new place, when you’re exhausted from what you’ve left behind, and you look at your present surroundings with admiration and bliss. To tell the truth, I never thought so rosily about the south when I lived there.

In fact, all I remember dreaming of (aside from other planets) was my fantasized, grown up life in New York City. So perhaps now as a young adult, I’ve begun to reverse the fantasy and trade skyscrapers for landscapes and subway lines for tractors. Or haystacks…

Our time in Kentucky was full of farms, animals, fresh air and Mennonites markets. I overheard the boy pictured at left (click to see the detail) speaking Dutch with his father, owner of the first Mennonite farm we visited, where my own father proceeded to buy over a hundred dollars worth of squash! Seriously.

I watched this boy, about ten, grab a basket and pluck a few leaves of kale from the stalk and then mosey on back up to his house, to sell it or to eat it.

I admit I was jealous. When I want to cook kale, I need a car, a shopper of the month card, cash, car keys, a wallet, and the patience to walk under halogen lights and stand in line at a conveyor belt while trying to ignore all the celebrity gossip and “HOW TO LOSE TWENTY POUNDS IN TWO DAYS!” advertisements.
.
Perhaps this trip was exactly what I needed. Blue skies and sunshine. Apple pie, baseball games, harmonicas and dogs on my lap. I had no idea I was so…American.

“Country rooooad, take me hoooome, to the place I beloooong!”


Working with Conviction

Can art change the world? Or which came first, the art or the world? Does art reflect the conditions of the world, or does the world reflect the conditions of art?
I used to believe so vehemently in the latter. I lived for the stage. Who I was was defined by the spaces in which I moved, like a chameleon, between the black proscenium floors and the red velvet audience seats—I was neither actor nor audience member, neither performer nor–what is the word or a non-performer? Laity? That seems horribly blaspheming, though I suppose it would not be far from the truth. When we worship ourselves, we become broken gods.
I feel a painful polarity in me when I act on stage. The irony, I suppose, is that in those fleeting moments of live energy, I feel so alive, so joyous, as if I’m tapping into the mind of another human being and living in her shoes. But when I leave the stage and cease being a pretend character and become just me again, sometimes I don’t want to give up the glamour of being able to get away with things on stage that I otherwise would be appalled by—my behavior, others’ behavior—in “real” life. In those brief moments when I am transforming from my character back in to myself I cling longingly to the self-love of feeling everyone’s eyes transfixed on my being. I did not do anything to deserve it. Is that even praise worthy? Does praise even equal worthiness?
I don’t always think so. The longer I live in those transitional spaces between a character and myself, the less I feel like myself and more like one amorphous being who is poked and prodded by the challenges and praises of her peers. This is not a real being and slowly these clouds seep into my skin and challenge my autonomy and my humility, which doesn’t really exist in the first place, unfortunately. I live less like a child in wonder of the world and more like a bump on a log, or as CS Lewis once put it, no longer a grumbler but simply a grumble.
I cannot lose myself again. The funny thing is that I struggled with this same sinking self identity in Israel, as I felt myself getting swept away by the sand and the rush of such a complex and confusing country. I felt like I must change myself in order to fit in in order to be happy. And here I am again, changing before my very eyes.
Change can often be a good thing. But when I begin to question the words that come out of my mouth and the people I project myself towards, I wonder if I am being true to myself or if I am clinging to this invisible space between acting and life. I always wonder. I must be true.

My goal for myself is no longer to become anything, or anyone, or change myself or force myself into being something different. I suppose my goal is just to live every day with conviction. That’s hard when you’re trying to please someone all the time. It just won’t work. Sometimes you have to give.
Theatre has always been for me a form of escapism and I know many actors and audience members alike who flock to shows to escape reality. This was what primarily appealed to me about acting, that I could escape, first from a rough childhood, and then in general, from anything that bothered me. I could leave my real self at the door and pretend that life was anything I wanted it to be…and it was.
When I came back from Israel, I realized I no longer want to escape from the world. I want to embrace it and help shape it. But what was so wonderful about being in a play again is that for a little while I found such an enjoyable way to pass the time without worrying about bettering myself or changing the world. I could simply be and laugh. I laughed so much.
So here I am now, somewhere between resplendent escapism and harsh reality. Truth be told, I think I’ll always be a bit of an escapist. I don’t think anyone can be “on” one hundred percent of the time without being an automaton. Perhaps my mode of escapism is changing. Perhaps I crave a more active escapism. Who knows.
(These vegetables have nothing to do with the play I was just in, or escapism, or anything else for that matter. I just think they look delicious and very simple. They are from the Cooper Young Farmers Market back in May. Oh, to be a radish in the earth.)