Habits

Today’s featured image: Except for a duffel bag of clothes and a guitar at my parents’ house and the clothes I’m wearing, everything I own is in this photo. I’m not trying to brag, but it’s a reaffirmation of a lifestyle that I enjoy. I don’t get too attached to things. I have no need to own a houseful of stuff. I have what I need and little more. It’s a frame of mind, and it makes me feel free.


I’ve (almost) done it. It has been 30 days of writing. I’ve not written my full quota every day, and several days’ posts are still in my journal, but I have written something every day. Though it has not been my most successful 30-day challenge, it has accomplished its mission: I have a new habit.

The habit is not only the daily urge to write, but it’s also a new mindset. My brain is now in the habit of looking for a way to turn some event or idea I have encountered each day into a 500-word story. I look specifically for details of my environment and consider the words I would need to describe it most accurately and in a way that best reflects the feeling of the moment.  I’m not always successful, but such skills come with practice.

Tomorrow, the habit will take on a new form. I will begin work in earnest on stitching together my travels during November and December 2015 into a coherent story that I hope will one day be published as a book. I will have about six weeks to generate the content, but I expect I’ll need to do some significant editing after I leave Poland. I’ll try to keep posting occasionally on the blog as I explore Krakow and the surrounding areas. I may make a couple jaunts out to Slovakia Hungary, or other cities around Poland, but I have no plans yet. Staying put for a few weeks actually sounds pretty nice right now.

It will be nice to build some other habits. My fitness and diet routines have been rubbish for the past month, so that will definitely need to change. I’d also like to start building some other habits, ones that can help me go a little deeper into my own mind.

Just as this habit of writing has started to train my brain to think in a certain way, other habits can have similar effects on our intellectual minds. For example, building the habit of meditating every day can have noticeable effects on the ability to concentrate throughout the rest of the day. I’m sure there are deeper benefits to meditation, but I have not yet experienced them.

I’d also like to rebuild the habit of eating a plant-based diet. I stayed with a guy last night who has explored the philosophical ideas that have come up on this blog much more deeply than I have, and a particularly interesting insight was that he actually started eating a fully “vegan” diet before he had the ethical impetus to do so. It was a rational decision not to support the animal agriculture industry even via egg/dairy consumption, but his ceasing of eating these products allowed him to open up to his connection to the rest of the animal world. Now, eating any animal products just feels wrong because it depends on the causing harm to sentient beings that are not just anonymous unseen animals in some distant farm, but another feature of the universal self. To participate in such harm is harming oneself, which is not only terrible but unnatural and irrational.

It’s a bit of a tough concept to grasp, but our rationalizing minds are very good at finding ways to justify our current behaviors. Our mind doesn’t want to believe that our current habits are self-destructive. If we cease the habit, perhaps our mind will open up to the idea that those behaviors were wrong.


sidenote: I’m really trying to get into this whole tolerance and oneness thing, but there is one type of person whom I don’t think I will ever be able to relate to, tolerate, or have one iota of respect for: loud eaters.

What I want.

With the sails full and the seas calm, we could talk easily as the boat cut across the shallow waters between the characteristically eastern Norwegian islands. Nina and I sat on the bow while the others crowded in the open stern around the wheel. The light breeze left a deepening chill, but the cool evening air was refreshing enough that we didn’t care. We watched the brightly lit islands float slowly and peacefully by as we shared a moment of silence to revel in the view.

“So you really don’t want to stay here?” Nina asked to break the silence.

I smiled silently and hung my head. I’ve gotten the same question half a dozen times since I returned to Tønsberg for WindSim’s annual user meeting. “I never said I didn’t want to stay here. I would love to. But I know I need to go back,” I tried to explain courteously.

“But how can you go back if you want to stay here?” She pressed, confused by my contradictory answer.

I paused for a moment as I considered the most concise way to explain my confused position. “I would absolutely love to stay here, and I definitely will be back, but right now, I just wouldn’t be comfortable hiding out in my little Scandinavian paradise while there’s so much work to be done back in the US.”


Tomorrow ends my stay in Norway for what will probably be a period best measured in years. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t a bit sad. I have absolutely loved my time here, and unless I discover some new part of the world that attracts me more (and there’s plenty left to explore), I will find a way to be in Norway more permanently at some point in the future.

However, that future is not yet here because the truth is that I want to go back more than I want to stay. I don’t want the uncomfortable reintegration into my home state. I don’t want the ultra conservatism that permeates so much of American culture. I don’t want the automobile infrastructure that defines American cities. I don’t want the ignorance, the cockiness, or the laziness that I find so hard to escape.

But I also don’t want the guilt. I don’t want the weight hanging over my head of the knowledge that I could be doing more. I don’t want the shame of having abdicated yet another responsibility.

I do want the opportunity to make a difference. I do want the feeling that I’m contributing to the best of my ability to the solution to a problem that will define the future of our species.

Every time I face the question, “Why don’t you want to stay here?”, the ceasefire of the war inside me breaks down again. However, despite the continually recurring opportunities to make an excuse to stay, my rational mind wins out with the argument that I won’t be truly happy here. At least not yet.

Desire

It still smells like an ashtray in here. It’s distracting. I certainly can’t say that it’s clean, but at least it seems sanitary. It’s not disgusting, but it wouldn’t be acceptable if I were staying longer than two nights.

I’m only a few meters from the room that I was a bit sad to leave almost a month ago. I’m so close, my computer can still pick up the internet signal. That’s also distracting. It’s electronic misery. It creates a desire. It reminds me that I have had better, that life has been better, that I can do better. It insists that the past is a real place where things were different, where they were desirable. Compared to this moment, it seems like paradise.

And that train of thought leads only to misery. The incredible human ability to remember creates an entire universe that does not exist. Neither future not past exist, but we can imagine that they do, and the desire for the present to transform into that image leaves a wish unfulfilled and leads only to anxiety, frustration, and anger.

Yet this seems to be the default human condition. How much unrest is caused by a longing for a past that can never be retrieved or a future that is unlikely to come? All of it. Why do citizens complain about their governments? Why do people march in the streets? Why do extremists start revolutions? Why do politicians send their men and women to war? Why does anyone fight?

They want something they don’t have. They can’t accept the fact that their present situation is as it is. They want to bring into reality an imagined world.

We all do, don’t we? We honor those who have fought for a belief, and idea – a fiction. We follow those who dedicate their lives to causing change. We admire those with the courage stand up. We envy those with something to stand for. If we don’t, those who do call us complacent and defeatist.

But why should we fight? Why should we want “hope and change”? Hope only brings us the misery of realizing that things are not different. Change only brings us something different to hope for. Wouldn’t we all be better off if we just accepted the way things were? Wouldn’t we all be happy if we understood that the past will never return, and the future can’t be controlled?

Of course not. That’s silly. That’s impossible (for the vast majority of us, anyway). We do remember, dream, hope, and desire. It’s the human condition.

As hard as I try to focus only on the present moment – on what is, what really exists – that damn smell is too distracting. We all suffer from this affliction. We can certainly lessen the amount we suffer, but it can never fully be cured. In many ways, we don’t want it to be. There will always be some circumstance that breaks the meditative will of even the most practiced monk. Pain, fear, hunger, or thirst are beyond our control, and to fight for a world in which these feelings are minimized is honorable, admirable, enviable, and worthy of pursuit.

Positive frame of mind

Though midnight approaches, the cracked and weathered bark high on the sparse evergreens glows like the flames of towering candles flickering slowly in the breeze. Rhythmically, the cool summer air pushes and recedes, swishing through the swaying needles. The distant cawing of a gull breaks the calm, but it quickly quiets as if embarrassed for intruding on the peace. The dark purple leaves of the weeping tree on the far side of my pleasant, yet temporary, patio, rustles to call for attention but competes with the surging laughter of the trio inside the house behind me. They pass the bright evening hours fully absorbed in each others’ unexpected company, unconcerned with the impending tasks of tomorrow. For the moment, a careless laugh and the voice of someone new are enough, and the future and past are not.

I’ve found myself in this situation at the end of a string of unfortunate events. Having ended the day exhausted and impatient for sleep, I entered the small student room Pablo and I were to share for the week. Immediately recognizing the stale odor of cigarette smoke, I knew something wasn’t right. As I crossed the inner threshold, my uneasiness swelled to anger. Dirt and a suspicious white powder scattered the countertop, cigarette butts and an array of party filth littered the floor. As disgust and frustration welled toward fury, I focused on my breath and the thought that the emotion was only a thought. Rationality kicked in, and I knew that there was nothing that could be done at this hour. However, at Pablo’s insistence, I called the number on the welcome sheet left on the counter. As expected, we would not be getting a new room, but the phone call led us to call our supervisor, who had arranged for the room and who promptly offered to pick us up and host us in her home.

As we stood in the parking lot, waiting for her to arrive, we giggled childishly at our misfortune.

“Eventually, we’ll tell this story and laugh about it,” Pablo commented.

“Eventually? Like tomorrow at lunch,” I corrected.

“After lunch!” Pablo insisted.

“Right, at least no pictures during lunch.”

But we were already laughing. There was nothing else we could do. Indeed, that’s why we laugh. There’s nothing we can do about the constant curveballs that life throws us.

All we can do is smile, laugh, and move on. There is always something brighter on the other side.

And now, I sit here scribbling in this sanctuary while Palo chats with our hosts. In the end, the night turned out quite alright.

Unplugged

Today’s featured image: Uppsala. It’s good to be back.


Bare skin littered the thick grass, brilliantly green in the afternoon sun. From the other side of the park, a salsa dance class laid a tropical background theme to the shouts and calls from the soccer fields. The heat of the sun brightened the transporting music, and I could hardly believe that this was Stockholm. The park bustled with the smiling faces and chatty groups of friends out for a Sunday stroll. The abundance of sunshine was not taken for granted.

I sat between my friends who had treated me to a delicious brunch at a classy little joint that allowed us to begin our day outside, and we had continued to soak up as much of sun as possible. Our conversation often lapsed both because of their severe jetlag and because of my frequent mental departure, my mind drawn away to the soothing sensation of the sun’s warmth and the shining beauty of the park’s colors.

Then Alex said something that brought a sudden realization. “They pick the sunniest day to sit in the shadow.”

“Huh? Who?” I asked, trying to figure out whom he was referring to.

“That couple,” he answered, nodding toward a couple that had huddled together behind a thick tree on the low cement wall.

“They wouldn’t be able to see their phones in the sun,” Gabriella chided. “They need to do their social media.”

My obligatory laugh came from the self-satisfying habit of mocking the social media addicts always glued to their phones. Though I often fall prey to my devices, I reserve a bit of superiority when I spot a group of friends ignoring each other to browse the lives of others. My train of thought sent me looking for another of these groups.

I didn’t see any.

Of the dozens of sunbathers, walkers, and diners of dripping ice cream, only a small handful was plugged into their mobile device. Almost all who were sat alone. Only one other pair stared at their phones instead of each other, and I couldn’t even be sure that they were, in fact, sitting together or if the angle just made it look that way.

“They’re all unplugged,” I muttered in disbelief. “For the first time in a while, I actually have a bit of hope for humanity.”


Just last week, I had discussed with my host in Malmö the topic of our technological infancy. We have only had these newfangled devices that keep us incessantly connected to the world of not-here for perhaps a decade. Can we really expect that people are just going to figure out how to harness this technology for their own benefit without falling into destructive habits? Of course not. But the constant chatter in many media circles about the perils of over-connectedness and the rapid rise of mindfulness indicate to me that the trend away from self-destructive social media consumption is reaching a broader swathe of the population.

Today, I found more evidence of my hypothesis. Droves of unplugged Swedes flooded the natural areas of the city to disconnect from their digital lives and experience the real world with real friends.

Occasionally, I see glimmers of hope for our species.

Home is everywhere; home is nowhere

Today’s featured image: Sunset over Copenhagen from Malmö.


There is a palpable, if ineffable, sensation that strikes when coming home. It’s in the way the scenery flows by from a vehicle, the familiar shapes and shadows of a home, and the unique scent of walking in the front door. It strikes immediately, deeply, and unavoidably.

It has been almost 10 months since I departed my first long-term home in Sweden, but yesterday I returned. The view from the train as I crossed the Swedish countryside elicited a feeling of comfort in the familiarity. The seven-week stay in Norway was not enough to instill this feeling for the distinct western half of the Scandinavian peninsula. Riding back to Flogsta, where I sincerely felt at home for the duration of last August, brought me right back to the mechanical motions of navigating the maze of trails that criss-cross Uppsala. When I stepped inside of the small apartment where I had started to build routines, I unconsciously stated in a dreamy tone, “Smells like home.”

I know that Sweden is not a permanent home. Next weekend, I will pass back through Sweden with no plans to return. This country has, however, played a generous and welcoming host, and I look forward to the day that plans for my return do materialize.

Last week, I realized that I have now been abroad for the longest stretch yet. It has gotten to the point that it just feels normal. As excited as I am to see my family, my friends, and Fort Collins again, I know there will be some readjusting.

The differences are subtle but they’re real, and they add up. From the change from cooking on the almost ubiquitous induction stoves in Sweden to the fact that almost everyone around me will be speaking my native language in a dialect that is almost annoyingly understandable, the adjustment will take time.

I still have about 10 weeks until I see Fort Collins again, but I’m already thinking about my reintegration. It was difficult last time. Coming back from eight months in East Asia and six weeks in Europe, I wasn’t ready for a reintroduction to American culture. Nothing had changed back home, and that was probably the hardest part. Everything was exactly the same, but I had changed. I had become a professional in a career unlike anything I had ever done. I had started to learn a new language and communicated daily in conversations in which either I, my counterpart, or both of us needed to speak in a second (or third, or fourth) language. I had learned myriad new customs and bits of etiquette significantly different from the ones I had grown up with, and I had developed a sensitivity to them from consistently embarrassing myself through my ignorance of them. The most mundane and banal bits of American and even Coloradan culture that I had overlooked for years suddenly stood out and became foundational aspects of an ethnographic analysis of the people whom I grew up with.

The feeling of familiarity in coming home at the end of 2015 was wonderful, but it was also unnerving. I had left that land behind, and by the time I returned, I had become a stranger, a visitor. As a friend once told me, once you’ve lived abroad, nowhere is really home again.

What was I thinking?

With a full belly and clean clothes donned after a good night’s rest indoors and a hot shower, I sit among the tourists. Their heavy suitcases clatter noisily over the bricks amidst the slowly trundling masses of swinging cameras and false knowledgeability of this foreign city. My phone sits beside me with full LTE connectivity. My emails are answered, messages checked, and next Facebook photo ready for upload. I am no less connected than I was three days ago.

I came to Bergen in an attempt to unplug from civilization. It was a fool’s errand. But what could I really expect?  My original tentative plan to get off the grid was to go far from any big city and get lost in the mountains. But I knew I wasn’t ready to spent six days in the wilderness alone. I can’t trust myself to wander out again in any reasonable health. Not yet, at least. I will learn.

But I decided on Bergen because I had contacts here. So why would I seek solitude here when I have such an excellent opportunity to couchsurf and make new friends?

I got my day of suffering, hunkering inside my slowly dampening tent for 18 hours through a sideways downpour, but I never even got out of cell phone range.

So, I’ve failed. I did not unplug. I have kept up my writing. My travel journal is filling up nicely, and I’ll share some stories when I have my computer again (typing this out on my phone takes forever). I’ll give this solitude in the wild thing a shot later, but now I’m just enjoying my post-thesis vacation in one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been. It’s already been wonderful, and I’ll share more next week.

Speak soon.

Unplug

This week is going to suck.

At least by any objective standard, this will likely be the most miserable week of my life. Food will be scarce, everything I have will be perpetually wet, I will have no access to any modern amenities, and my only form of shelter will be a thin sheet of fabric that doesn’t even keep out a draft. At least the constant drizzle will mean that collecting clean water will be as easy as leaving out a bowl.

Yet, I am so excited for this next adventure that it’s hard to believe this day has finally arrived. This afternoon, I will board a train from Oslo to Bergen on the west coast. I’m not yet sure if I’ll have a host for this evening, but either tonight or tomorrow, I will wander out into Bergens fjellstrekninger, a national park on the north side of the city, where I’ll pitch my tiny one-man tent (I’m trusting that “night” in Bergen this close to the summer solstice is still moderately light). In the middle of the week, I’ll reemerge to meet up with a friend of a friend to do some structured hiking, but otherwise, I have no plans. I just need to be back to the train station by noon next Saturday to catch my train back to Oslo.

I will have my phone, but other than navigating my way out of the city and for emergency navigation/communication, it will remain off. That, of course, means that I will not be able to post for the next few days. I’ll still be writing. I have my travel journal and a few pens in my bag. I’ll transcribe anything of note when I get back.

But I don’t think I’ll be writing too much. This is an excellent opportunity to do uninterrupted thinking for which having a pen and paper can definitely help keep the thoughts on track, but it’s also an opportunity not to think. These days, my mind is too full of random thoughts and ideas bouncing around in a jumbled and confused mess. Some of these thoughts ought to be organized and made sense of, but most of them ought to be simply let go. What a perfect opportunity to clear the mind. I’m not trying to push Alan Watts as some particularly enlightened sage, but he said a lot of things that are real thinkers. Ironically, one of those was that we think too much. We can never fully turn off our brain, and concentrated thought is a necessary part of life, but why does our conscious mind need to be filled incessantly with the words of our contrived language? Are not words merely a representation of the reality around us? Or even of an imagined reality? Can we not just experience the reality as it is without the endless chatter trying to catalog every moment before we can even enjoy it? It’s a bit like going to a concert, but watching the entire show through the screen of a smartphone as one records every minute. I fully encourage people to utilize our new technology to take a clip of a good show (I’ll soon share a clip from Oslo’s Musikkfest), but this should be only a short repose from simply enjoying the rhythm and melody of a good jam. Life is exactly the same. These writings are a way to share a bit of the universe’s experience from my point in space and time, but they capture the smallest bit of it.

A few days of silence ought to give me the chance to unplug, not only from the technologically interconnected world, but from my own inner monolog. It’ll be my own personal meditation retreat. I’ll almost certainly need to tap that power if I’m going to manage the wet and cold for five days without going mad.

Speak to you next weekend, readers. I’m sure I’ll have lots to share.

Departing

I promise that I wrote this yesterday. But I haven’t slept, so it still feels like the same day to me. Actually the sun never properly went down, so it’s not just a lack of sleep. Anyway, this is my post for June second. That means I still owe 500 words for June third. I’ll make it.

The question seemed rather morose, but her bubbly demeanor softened the tone. Her thick South African accent and air of unspoiled innocence elicited a feeling of condescending pity for her ignorant misconception.

She had asked, “So, when are you leaving Visby for good? Like, forever?” Her bright smile clashed with the falling tones of depressive sentimentality.

“Bright and early tomorrow morning,” I responded with confident excitement and a smile to match hers.

But my attempt to act cordially and match our expressions quickly backfired when her smile melted into a knitted brow and hanging mouth that actually did align with her words: “Oh, that’s sad.” The heavily accented final syllable dragged on as if begging my cheery expression to come along into the sudden pit of despair.

Instead, I found myself stumbling in confusion. That was not at all the response I had expected. “What? No, it’s not,” I quickly retorted. “It’s exciting,” I pleaded, subduing the argumentative tone.

 

———-

 

In about 14 hours, I will step onto a ferry that will take me from Visby for what may be the last time. I feel no sadness about that. I spent seven wonderful months in this lovely little city, and I thoroughly enjoyed every beautiful morning that I walked to class as I looked out over the Medieval red rooves that glowed in the early morning light (or of that of the ubiquitous ornate streetlights in the depths of winter).

However, it’s time to move on. I hadn’t spent more than seven months with a continuous address since I graduated from the Academy just over four years ago. These potentially permanent goodbyes have become a natural part of my life. In that time, I have cultivated some of the strongest relationships I have ever had and recognized their value, but I have also grown out of that sense of loss in saying goodbye. Perhaps it is a more concentrated focus on the present moment and a feeling of gratefulness for having had these people in my life even for as long as I did. Compared to any other of the paths my life could have taken, that I took the one that brought me in contact with the people I have met here in Visby carried an infinitesimally small probability and could in no way be predicted. The fact that I know this joyful and talkative young South African woman is a coincidence of the most startlingly low likelihood, so whatever the prospects of our ever meeting again, there is always the positive turn on the situation that we should be grateful that we have met at all.

However, I think there is a more salient reason for my excitement of leaving this island. I know that the result of this next relocation will be even more fulfilling and meaningful connections with new people, places, and moments.

Though it may be cliche, it is true: every ending is just another beginning. This week, a stage of my life comes to an end. I defended my thesis this morning, and once I submit some final corrections later this month, I will close the chapter of my life that contained my time as a master’s student at Uppsala University, and I will begin a new one that contains a new story with new characters. Indeed, all the characters will be new. Even the protagonist in this epic, though quite similar to this last, will inevitably be someone new.