Wednesday, December 24, 2014

The Old and the Young

You didn’t want to be home for Christmas.

Lordy, did you not. You spent one Christmas abroad - a guy you were dating in the UK invited you to stay with his folks - and gosh darned if it wasn’t the best. His parents showered you with love, cheese plates and gin. His mother cooked a spread worthy of an oil painting. There was no arguing, no resentment, no tension over an uncle drinking too much or a brother sneaking out back for a joint. You spent the afternoon at a pub on the beach, sipping cider in the sunshine, wearing nothing but a sweater (well, and pants,) wondering why, exactly, you’d ever spend Christmas with your own family again.


image from www.comedycard.co.uk/blogs/news with the hope that they don't mind too much.

And yet, for many reasons, you’ve found yourself back home for the holidays every year since. Even this year, although less than one month ago, you were on a white sand beach in the Coromandel, New Zealand, wearing shorts and flip flops, wondering how early in the day was too early for ice cream.

You had to come home. You had things to deal with. And when you booked the ticket, you had a strange feeling that there would be reasons you'd want to be around this Christmas.

At the beginning of November, you learned that your aunt, the woman who used to tape record made-up songs with you when you were a kid and give you the rings off her fingers, had cancer. At the end of November, you found out that your dearest friend’s dad – a man you’ve known three quarters of your life – had been in the hospital for a month with a failing heart. And then there were the issues you had face in your own life when you got home, issues you’re still not ready to write about on this blog.

Stop being so dramatic, you told yourself. What about the families of the children in Pakistan? Syria? What about Uganda, for godsakes? What would they have to say about you and your aging loved ones, struggling along with their first world diseases and emotional angst? And yet, as you re-enter the “real” world, you find yourself watching people – neighbours, families in strip mall parking lots, moms pushing strollers in supermarkets – and being certain that they’re having the Christmas you’ll never get, all love and laughter and cable-knit sweaters and fluffy snowfalls. When you reunite with friends, you try to be upbeat. You remind yourself how much worse it could be. And yet, despite everything, you can’t shake the feeling that this is not fair.


*

Two weeks after you returned, your aunt had surgery to get part of her colon removed, as well as all of her reproductive organs, in case the cancer has spread.

Now, as you walk into her hospital room, you have to physically force your mouth from dropping open. She looks as if she’s aged 20 years. Her normally animated face is drawn and gaunt, her once-sparkling eyes are shadowed. She is hunched over and frail, and so drugged up she can barely speak.

You hold her hand, now ringless, and try to think of things to talk about. You ask how she’s feeling, whether she’s sleeping, and if she has any appetite, even though the answers to all these questions would be obvious to anyone with more than two brain cells.

“At least you’ll be home soon!” you chirp. 

One of the other women in the room doesn’t make it to the bathroom in time, and the stench is otherworldly. You and your aunt roll your eyes and attempt to laugh, and she winks and covers her nose with the top of her hospital gown.

She takes your hand again. Finally, you look her in the eyes.

“This really fucking sucks,” you say. 

Silently, she nods.

*

Despite everything you’ve seen, you sometimes can’t shake the belief that bad things shouldn't happen.

People shouldn’t get sick. They shouldn’t get hurt. They shouldn’t leave each other, and they shouldn’t die – especially not at Christmas.  And if, god forbid, any of these events should occur, you still struggle to look on the bright side of life. Right? Talk about how it’s not that cold yet. About who won the game. About Michelle Williams’ hairdo. Even if, once in safely in the car or in the closet or under the covers, you crumble.

You once read that depression isn’t actually sadness. It’s the depression - the literal pushing down of - emotions we deem to be undesirable. It’s the belief that we shouldn’t experience fear, pain, anger, even hatred. That, simply put, we should not suffer.

*

Moments after you leave your aunt in the hospital, your friend’s father dies.

You soldier through the next couple of days, and, then, finally, find yourself reading young adult fiction and eating stale oatmeal cookies in your pyjamas until 4pm. You avoid or cancel most social interactions. Instead, you bake.

When people ask how you are, you start to respond with, “I’m glad to see you, but I’ve been better.” Amazingly, this doesn’t scare most of them off. You put aside the youtube videos and books you’ve amassed about positive thinking. Fuck positive thinking. You'll get back to it later. As Augustus Waters said, That’s the thing about pain. It demands to be felt.

And the weird thing is, the more you stop trying to be anything other than how you really are, the more moments of pure happiness pop up out of nowhere. They last a few minutes or a few hours, then dissolve like paper boats in a stream. 

You visit your friend, a few days after the loss of her father. She tells you how sometimes she’ll be carrying on through her day, and then suddenly drop to the floor, crying so hard she can’t even find the strength to move onto a piece of furniture. As she tells you this, her eyes fill with tears. You reach over and take her in your arms, and she sobs. Your tears fall, too. You remember, again, that no matter how good the weather, how comfortable the couch you’re sitting on, and how much worse other people have it, you can’t take her pain away, just like nothing and no one can take yours. So you just hold her and say, again and again, “I’m here. I’m here.” 













Wednesday, November 26, 2014

A Hitchhiker's Guide to New Zealand

There’s this awesome thing in New Zealand. It’s called car relocation.

Yeah, they probably have it in other parts of the world, too, but I guess since people come here specifically to drive from Point A to Point B (and with good reason – if you want to feel like you’re in a car commercial, come drive in NZ,) there’s a ton of rental cars floating around that need to get back to Point A. Which you can do for free, or almost free, with just the tiniest bit of planning ahead.

This is how I find myself, one rainy October morning, driving a brand new, sparkling white RAV 4 from Queenstown to Christchurch.

I've only just picked up the car, sorted out how to use the important bits (hook up my phone to the stereo so I can blast tunes) and am making my way out of the city, windshield wipers a-swishing, when I pass two people, a girl and a guy, standing on the side of the road. They’re holding a huge, hand-lettered sign that reads “CHRISTCHURCH”. And they are both utterly, completely soaked.

Out of instinct, I keep driving. I am Canadian, after all. It's actually part of our primary school curriculum that anyone with their thumb out on the side of a road is going to chop us up into little bits and hide us in a basement meat freezer. 

100 meters on, I pull over. 

It’s freezing out. They were shivering.  I’m in a free, brand new giant car with 4 empty seats. I turn around and drive back to the gas station where I’d seen them.

Still, I’m slightly relieved when they seem to have gone.

Then I look over spot two drenched figures, heaving backpacks, bicycles and bags under the gas station awning.

That's the thing about traveling. One minute, you're on a solo road trip to Christchurch, practising your steering wheel drumming and shouting along to The Battle of Evermore, and the next you’re sharing a 10 by 6 foot space with a 20-year old and a 23-year old, who are headed to the north island to a festival called (are you ready?) Cosmic Forest. 

We don’t stop talking for the next 7 hours.

Lucy and Conrad are more mature, thoughtful and articulate than I probably was at 33, never mind at their age. But it’s more than that. Something about the meeting of their wonder and my cynicism ignites sparks. Their enthusiasm, their curiosity and their openness fill up the car, and we discuss the Beatles, travel, religion, marriage, and Lord of the Rings in great and detailed depth.  By the time I drop them off that evening, we’ve made plans to meet up again the next day, and make our way north together. Which we do, in an even bigger, shinier, possibly whiter SUV.

"If you don't settle down, I'll turn this car around RIGHT NOW!"

For the record, hitchhiking is commonly practiced in New Zealand. If it weren’t for a few bad travel experiences in my past, I probably would have done it myself. Of course there are always risks, but there is a kindness here that is part of the fabric, a trust that goes without saying. This is a place where people turn an old schoolhouse into library, open 24 hours a day, with books loaned and returned on the honour system. One day, I woke up to a full breakfast, cooked and left for me by people I’d met the night before, who had already taken off and whom I’ll likely never see again. A man I met on the beach stopped me to make sure I headed back to my car before sunset, as the paths here were confusing and I might get lost in the dark. It's what I imagine North America might have been like 1940s or 50s – friendly, innocent, warm. Unlocked doors. Strangers lending a hand.   


The schoolhouse library. Wakefield, NZ.





I drop Lucy and Conrad off as near to the ferry as I can, and check in on them later to make sure they made it. Over the next couple of weeks, we text and email every so often, and finally, we meet up again. They are camping on a piece of land that some farmer has set up for travelers to use for free, and I’m driving a sexy gold minivan from Wellington to Auckland. They cook me powdered mashed potatoes and frozen peas and we catch up late into the night. Conrad sleeps in the van, while Lucy and I share a tent the size of a piece of toast, me preserving warmth in a sleeping bag zipped up to my eyebrows. The next morning, Lucy's phone alarm wakes me up, and, disoriented and unable to unzip myself, I crash around like a giant caterpillar, swearing and knocking things over.

My top notch camping skills, combined with the cars I've been driving and our age difference, have us joking that I could be their mother. As weird as that is, it’s a role I find myself enjoying – worrying about them, answering their questions about meditation, giving them any advice I think would be useful for their journey. I hook them up with a place to stay in Auckland, and one day we meet up to go to an exhibit at an art gallery. It's a series of light installations, many of them interactive. Being with "the kids," I give myself permission to float around from room to room, lie on the floor, play. It is the kind of afternoon Ferris Bueller would dream about. 

Afterwards, we sit at a picnic table, talking about their future plans. They may stay in Auckland, or they may return to the south island, or they may head to Australia. They may get jobs on farms, at hostels, or at restaurants.

“We can't decide,” says Lucy."And we don't want to make the wrong choice."

I tell them – in my ancient, 37-year old wisdom – that it doesn’t matter. That there is no set course from A to B to C, and that whatever they do, they can’t regret the path not taken.

I so wish someone had told me this when I was their age.

We walk down to the port, and there, we part ways. There are hugs and smiles and love, and promises to meet up again. I walk a block or two in a cloud of gratitude, and suddenly, I hear someone shouting my name. I turn to see the two of them flying back up the street towards me.

“We’re not good at goodbyes,” Lucy gasps, as they stumble to a halt."We just wanted to say that you changed our course. We’ll never forget you.”

“We didn’t know you before you left,” Conrad adds. “But you should be proud of yourself for how far you’ve come.”

I’m not sharing this to honk my own horn. I’m sharing it because, for me, this is New Zealand. It’s not perfect. It’s not paradise. It’s really expensive, for starters, and has insanely unpredictable weather. But it’s a place where goodness seems to shine brighter. Where kindness begets kindness. Where even a diehard cynic might come to see that despite all the mistakes, wrong turns and regrets, there was always only one path – the one she’s on. And that the only way up is forward.

I won’t forget Lucy and Conrad, either. That they reminded me to be more open, to take things less seriously, and to start believing, a bit more, in things happening for a reason. We hug again, all three of us together. And then, with the familiarity and affection of people who have known each other for years, we say goodbye.


Tuesday, October 14, 2014

No, really – where?

Blogging is so weird.

I don’t mean blogging about gluten-free baking, or luxury dog wear or organic cosmetics. Those people are the smart ones. They’re doing something sane and steady, instead of writing about family issues, Mama Greek and not being able to get knocked up. 

I had a thing going, writing about all that stuff on a (fairly) regular basis, and I loved it. I loved the responses I got, and I loved the sharing that came back. But I haven’t written in a while. The astute among you might suspect reasons for that, but I’m not going there now. Suffice it to say, I reached a place where I had to either allow myself the time and space to process what was happening, or give you guys, who have been reading and supporting and cheering, An Explanation. Or just fake it. Which I suck at.

So please, be patient.

I’m in New Zealand.

I arrived two weeks ago, after two amazing months in Australia.

I didn’t want to come. Well, I did, actually, really badly, but I had a good thing going in Aus and it was hard to leave behind. I met amazing people. I ate great food. I ran along the beach almost every day. It was, in a lot of ways, paradise.



But New Zealand has been calling to me for a long time. One of the reasons I took this trip was to experience a different way of living: a way that embraced community, that was more connected to the planet, more about helping others, and that moved at a slower pace. These two little islands seemed to uphold a lot of those practices, and so here I came.

I’m spending my first month volunteering at a meditation retreat center an hour and a half outside Nelson. Since Nelson has a population of less than 50,000, I am, if you’ll allow the Aussie turn of phrase, in the back arse of nowhere. There are way, way, WAY more sheep than people out here. Also wild pigs, a ton of colourful birds, and rabbits that hang around like they own the place. This centre was built by a meditation community that I’m part of – a community that supports and learns from two teachers I’ve written about before.

Uh oh, you might be thinking. Granola alert - soon she’ll be talking about chia seeds and chanting. I’m getting a latte and going read the New York Times.

I still have two pairs of heels in my backpack, I promise.

The retreat centre caretaker, a Scotswoman who’s my age, picked me up at the airport, welcoming me with the kind of warmth and delight normally reserved for dear friends reuniting after decades apart. On the ride back, she shared her own quest, which was startlingly, eerily similar to mine. This cheered me, as did my new digs - a little cabin perched on the side of a mountain, which looks out onto variations of this view:




The next day, I was cleaning the men’s toilets.

As you might imagine, this brought up a few thoughts. How I’ve written for some of the most prestigious companies in Canada. How I’m 37 and childless and living on the side of a fucking mountain – by choice. How, when I tried to explain meditation to my Dad, he asked, “Well, isn’t that just common sense?” How I’ll probably never be normal, how many people I’m disappointing, how soon I’ll be even older and closer to death and -

The door squeaked open and my Scottish friend popped her head in.

“What are you doing?” she laughed. “It’s time for tea!”

They have a lot of tea breaks in New Zealand. I kind of love it. If you happen to be the sort of person who gets lost in their head a lot, it helps to interrupt that momentum of thoughts that have you, say, at 10am on Tuesday in one of the most beautiful places on earth, questioning every single decision you’ve ever made and imagining your own funeral. Meditation has a similar effect. It’s just about not believing your thoughts – recognizing that the vast majority of them don't actually mean anything. Which, to me, is a huge relief.

*

Almost without exception, the Kiwis I’ve met so far have been freakishly kind, gentle and open.

Meditators tend to be pretty up front, too, so mix the two together and you’ll suddenly find yourself sharing your darkest secrets over a cuppa with someone you met three minutes prior. At the centre, there is an unspoken generosity that people seem to take up the minute they walk in in the door. Food, possessions, any talents or skills one might possess  - all become something to share, offer up, collaborate on. I realize this is starting to sound even more hippie dippie than it already did, but I am also wondering when it became normal to do everything ourselves. To have people living above, below and next to us, and yet to try to balance child-raising, working, learning, cooking, cleaning, finances and emotional support between two people – or by oneself. Who’s idea was that, exactly? Is it working for anyone?

I got into the swing of things pretty quickly over here. I work 4 hours a day – which ranges from chopping wood to cleaning (usually not the men’s bathrooms, thankfully) to starting fires. (In fireplaces.) In exchange for this, I get to sleep in my beautiful little cabin, pick fresh vegetables from the garden, use the library, sit in front of the fireplace at night, go on walks that would blow the most avid hiker’s mind out of their head, and connect with people so supportive and so generous I don’t know what to do with myself. At night, I fall asleep to the sound of the rain against my roof or the wind whipping through the trees.

As idyllic as this may seem, living in a cabin on the side of a mountain without Internet or mobile access does interesting things to your brain. I’m learning, with whiplash-inducing intensity, how much sadness, fear and shame I’ve been unknowingly dragging behind me for I-don’t-even-want-to-think how long. I’ve faced some truths about myself that had been totally invisible to me until now. But I’m also reminded daily, if not more often, that I’m not the only one. Ours isn’t a world where, when someone asks how you are, you’re likely to answer, “Well, Barry, I’m so heartbroken about my love life and worried about my daughter’s cocaine habit that I could barely get out of bed this morning. Yourself?” We so rarely admit to feeling small, terrified, or – worst of all - lonely as fuck. Sometimes we do, with close friends or in a therapist’s office. The rest of the time we take medication, drink, do drugs. We slap a smile on our faces, buck up, and cheerfully talk about bathroom renos, vacations, last night’s game, tomorrow night’s barbeque. There are so few avenues that help us find bliss, connection, and freedom from our thoughts. Most simply tell us we’re living life wrong, but if we just buy this car, redecorate the master bedroom, tone our abs and find a new partner, we’ll definitely sort it out one day, soonish, in the not-too-distant future, and on sale RIGHT NOW. The funny thing is, and feel free to prove me wrong here, that hasn’t seemed to work so far, for anyone.




More views. Yes, if you can be neurotic here, 
you can be neurotic anywhere. (On sale right now!)

I wonder if, whether it’s through meditating or walking or sitting on a park bench or lying under the covers in the fetal position, the more honest we were with ourselves, even if it was for 5 minutes a day, the more honest we could be with each other. And the more honest we were with each other, the stronger our bonds and the lighter our hearts would be. Our culture is how it is. It’s up to us to find ways to connect, and to accept ourselves – not just the Facebook-worthy moments, but the fear, the sadness, the loneliness, the ugliness. To question whether the stress and overwhelm and pressure is really because we’re doing it all wrong, or just because the system is broken.

Anyway. That’s all from me, for now.

Let the sheep jokes begin.



Thursday, July 31, 2014

Bali

I had some explaining to do when I said my goodbyes in Uganda.

And there were a lot of goodbyes to say. Ugandans, or at least the ones I had the good fortune to meet, send you on your way in style. The kids wanted to learn how to sing “O Canada.” The teachers wanted to know when I was coming back. I had to give a speech at the morning assembly, which I fortunately made notes for ahead of time, because thinking on my feet in front of 300 people is not really my forte. It won’t surprise you to know I broke down halfway through. Thankfully, this didn't phase anyone.

"Miss? What's true patriot love?" 

They wished me the safest of journeys, and prayed for me, my family, my loved ones, my friends and my entire country. So it was with some trepidation that I admitted to them that I wasn’t actually heading back to Canada just yet.

Nope. I was bound for the Island of the Gods.

To alleviate my white person guilt keep it simple, I just said I was going to Indonesia.

“You mean, with the money you could use to feed and educate several hundred children?” they asked. 

No, of course they didn’t. They just wished me well, prayed for me again, and check in regularly to ask how it's going. 

I don’t have an answer to that question. Aside from that Indonesia – Bali – is stunningly beautiful. But I’ve just left a place where many people live their entire lives (until the ripe old average age of 58) without seeing their own capital city, and here I am by the sea, drinking watermelon juice. Do I honestly deserve this? What about the people who are coming here for months of long days at the office? Do they deserve it less? More? I’m not judging, just asking. I am here, after all.


The first of many sunsets on Jemeluk Beach. Don't hate me.

I've been lucky enough to have traveled quite a bit. But I’ve never been to a beach and just hung out alone. As I pass couples on scooters, families laughing over banana pancakes and girlfriends sharing bottles of wine, I sometimes feel really lonely. I expected that. I also expected the gorgeous scenery, and that I'd be spending as much time in the water as humanly possible. What I did not expect was that Bali would have me digging through old, worn out layers of myself, uncovering habits long overdue for the trash bin, and mourning things that needed to be mourned - things that have been sitting there for years or more, patiently biding their time before I looked them in the eye and acknowledged the homes, with half-paid mortgages, they’ve set up in my heart. If I had company right now, I wouldn’t be doing any of this.

Ugandans often asked me to tell them about Canada. At first, I gave the typical answer: “It’s cold.” Then I’d add that it’s peaceful and prosperous. Sometimes, though, if the mood was right, I’d try to explain that despite everything we have, lots of us aren’t really that happy. We’re busy all the time. We never feel like we’re doing enough, or like we have enough. We don’t sing or dance nearly as often as they do in Uganda, and most of us don’t spend much time with our families or communities.

They found this totally shocking.


Another Nyaka dance performance. They'd put one on every day, if they could.

Look. I’m not going to be the 609 millionth person to blab on about how happy African people are, how we Westerners don’t know how to be content, and how the constant chasing of the carrot on the stick really isn’t working for us. I’ll just say this: aside from what I’ve learned about Uganda's problems, its beauty and its people in the last 2 months, I've also learned from just being without my creature comforts. From spending time with people who have “less.” And from being here in paradise - although there is extreme poverty in Bali, too, hidden away behind the raw food restaurants and detox packages.

My meditation teacher once said that it’s hard to be of use to others when you yourself are suffering. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try, of course. I guess what I’m trying to say is, I don’t think I have more than the people of Uganda or Bali or anywhere else. I think I have different, but not necessarily better. Yes, I’m on a beach, but so are my pain, and fear, and anger – and, and here’s the kicker – my resistance to feeling that pain, fear and anger. But as I sit with all of them, with just a little bit more patience and resilience than before, I’m uncovering moments and bursts of happiness I’d only ever just grazed the surface of.

I’m not saying I had to come to Bali to do this. I’m so lucky I could. But I’m more lucky to be learning that pain and fear and anger don’t have to mean suffering – that in fact, if given the attention they want, they can transform into singing and dancing. Even if it’s alone, to ABBA, in a cheap little hotel room, feeling raw and ripped open and wide-eyed, and ridiculously glad to be alive.