Flow

Have you ever gotten so wrapped up in a task that someone had to interrupt you to stop? You looked up from your project as if being woken from a dream. It was slightly disorienting as if you had forgotten where you were. You’d forgotten the world outside of that task existed.

I hope you’ve experienced that because it’s an amazing feeling. People often find similar experiences in performing arts, in athletics, or in artistic expression. I’ve found it in things as diverse as the final minutes of a lacrosse game or the home stretch of a race to the deepest states of meditation I have achieved. It’s the point when you’re perfectly balanced on the edge of chaos, at the limit of your ability, when your mind is so focused on one thing that it doesn’t even have the capacity to keep track of its own existence. It’s the feeling of being exactly where you belong.

The question becomes, how do we produce this feeling more often? Why do we enter this state only on those few euphoric moments of our lives? Why can’t this be a daily occurrence? Sure, we probably can’t live there perpetually, but getting there for a few hours a day should be possible. Hell, that would only get us through a fraction of the workday, which practically demands that we have such focus!

I’ve learned some practices that have helped me get there more often, but like with anything worth having, it’s not easy. I used to be much better at it, but I’m cultivating those habits again, and today I started to see the fruits of my labour.

On Chickens

The title should say it all.

Not really.

Here are some valuable links:

Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation

A great podcast from the BBC’s The Inquiry about meat consumption and climate change entitled “Can we eat our way out of climate change?

And for those of you who still aren’t sure how I managed to convince a random Norwegian family to pay me in food and housing for three months, here’s a link to the WWOOF website.

Onto the vlogging!

 

 

Connected

Gently, the ripples of the surface of the fjord water splash against the jagged rocks of the seawall. On my perch atop the round dyke of dark rock, I gaze out to a mountain reaching out of the sea, its flat peak blanketed in downy white cloud like the tumbling snow of an avalanche frozen in time. But I struggle to remain with it in this moment. My mind yearns for a touch, a signal, a confirmation that I am not alone. It needs a Facebook notification. I reach into my pocket almost reflexively to give my reptilian brain its fix, but my evolved prefrontal cortex intervenes. I don’t need it. I now theres nothing there anyway.

My attention returns to the water. Beneath its surface, strands of kelp sway in the gentle current. My mind eases back into the slow rhythm of swishing water amidst the rocks, the murmur of passers by at my back, and the pulsing whirr of traffic. Yet underneath my forced calm is a thick, tangled anxiety, stretching deep into my psyche. The weight of its primitive nature holds it down, but when the tide goes out, it will smear the exposed surface with its unsightly, torpid weight.


I’ve been abroad for over two weeks now, and I’ve yet to be disconnected. My international phone service from Google has brought a new luxury to international travel, but it’s also taken out some of the adventure. The last time I was in Iceland, I needed to jump from wifi to wifi to connect to the outside world. Not wanting to pay the high prices of cafes for a secure connection, I either found public buildings or stayed at the hostel. If I left without a plan, it was up to pure chance to happen upon something out of the ordinary. Being such a touristy city, Reykjavík offers little for the stingy backpacker. Very rarely did I find anyone with whom I could connect. Podcasts and music blocked out the world through my earbuds as I wandered alone and snapped the occasional photograph of an unsuspecting stranger or non human landscape. I was alone with my thoughts and feelings even in the buzz of the city.

This time, however, I returned to a comfortable place by the water and, with my mobile data active, arranged a meeting on the fly. Although I’m very glad I made these acquaintances, this expedited form of rendezvous has set the tone for my current travels. As some of my family has noticed, I’ve been rather silent about my new life abroad. When I first cast off last year and during my winter travels, I seemed to have much more to say. This time, however, I just don’t have much to share.

This is not because my time has ben uneventful. Like in Iceland, I have been able to arrange multiple meetings with minimal effort. The difference is that I have already recapped the adventures. My host always asks about the plans I have made and my explorations of the city. My classmates engage in the obligatory smalltalk when I can share the travails of adaptation. I’ve even had my fill of intellectual discussion from the cultural and genetic aspects of libido to the precarious geopolitical landscape. This is not a place where signs read in a strange string of characters or where servers struggle helplessly to decipher my memorized and butchered phrases. No, this is a place of only slight discomfort in learning new customs and where my self-deprecating joke to follow my mistakes get a sincere chuckle. Though I’ve had to listen carefully to understand new accents and limit my use of idioms, I have mostly found ways to express my thoughts and feelings.

I’m sorry, readers, but you’re not my only audience anymore. I have listening ears all around me. What little my reflections produce find an outlet long before I can get to my keyboard, and I don’t have much to wrestle with that would demand the kind of reflective organizing I used to turn to. I’m comfortable here. This is now the second time I’ve lived abroad, and my new home is far more similar to my origin than my stint overseas. As well as externally, internally my life is in order. My priorities are in place and are congruent with my actions.

I just don’t have much to say, but I have a lot to do. I’ll do my best to recap the most eventful adventures, but for now, just know this:

I am exactly where I want to be. Just about a year ago, I mentioned to a close friend in all sincerity that I was the happiest I had ever been. I’ve returned to that state of mind. The daily challenges I face are only the welcomed exercise I must endure to continue on the path I have chosen. The life I have dreamed of for the past year is now a reality. This is literally a dream come true.

 

Finding Comfort

The cobblestones continued to rise up between the ancient stone wall on one side and the tall row of facades on the other. A straight and smooth steel railing split the path. At the top of the hill, a wrought iron gate stood open beneath a white stone archway, the sign beside it clearly welcoming. Each rising step brought into the view the contents of the shops inside the windows of the facade. In one, mannequins dressed in snowflaked wool sweaters and knit caps. In the next, painted trinkets and memorable souvenirs. In the last, a long wooden table in front of a typical bar devoid of patrons at the early hour. As I approached the gate, I began to pick up the faint sound of music. Passing under the arch, I noticed that a sign beyond advertised a now-closed cafe. The shadows chilled the narrowing passage, but the sound of festive melodies drew me on. Beyond the cafe, the stone alley broadened into a long courtyard, and the music revealed itself to be of a genre lost centuries ago. Rising to my right, an ancient castle wall betrayed the medieval origins of the place. The cold, still air carried the faint scents of a smoldering hearth pouring its white smoke into the damp autumn sky. The sound of the jubilant music, a laughing child, and the whispering of the torches that flanked a stone staircase mingled in a gentle harmony. The smell, the sound, the sight; they transported my mind to that romanticized era of knights and kings, of myth and legend. Regardless of the facts that kerosene powered the torches, the stone steps led to a themed restaurant, and the far arch of the castle wall sported a neon sign advertising the museum inside, Tallinn had cast its spell on me.

I set off from the United States nine months ago on a journey to find a place where I felt at ease. Before setting off, I had identified the nations of Northern Europe to be potential future residences, but I knew that it would take personal experience to make any educated assessment. I knew it was highly unlikely that Asia would offer any of the cultural aspects or social structures that I sought. i held out hope that I would be able to recognize the difference in Europe. By most modern maps, I have now officially departed Asia, and the change was palpable.

More than once I have found luxury along my travels that to me had cost very little, but the Estonian bus that carried me from Saint Petersburg rivaled any business class flight. Arriving in Tallinn, I immediately noticed the cleanliness of the bus terminal and the coziness of the adjoining cafe. With my host, I experienced the affordable yet efficient and attractive public transportation as we rolled along through the capital city that feels more like a small town. Reaching his neighborhood in the suburbs, I felt immediately at home among the large parks, low wooden fences, and quiet streets. The damp air and cold overcast sky couldn’t shake the feeling of comfort that just felt so right.

After separating from my hosts this morning, I met with a couple researchers at the technical university to discuss a potential graduate program, and then set off to explore the city alone. Eero got called away from class for a full day of work and was unable to meet for lunch but suggested that I go to the old city and find a vegan restaurant, minimally named V. After a bit of confusion in getting on the right tram, I wound my way into the relaid cobblestone streets and medieval stone walls of this ancient city. Though well after a normal lunch hour, the small restaurant was full, and I had no desire to compete with other patrons who had intelligently made reservations, so I went for a photo walk. Around each corner and down every stone alley, the excellently preserved city astounded me.

After getting thoroughly lost, I stumbled upon the restaurant again to find multiple open tables. The waitress greeted me in perfect English and showed me to a small table with a pillow-lined bench seat on one side. I unashamedly took my seat alone at the table, having grown accustomed to dining alone over many months in a part of the world where communication was always a struggle. After giving me a few minutes to look over the detailed menu, she politely took my order, given in full, proper English sentences. While waiting patiently as soft indie cult classics played in the background behind Finnish and Estonian conversations, I got lost in a well-written long form article in from The New Yorker about the immigrant communities of Paris and munched on soft multigrain bread and olive oil.

When the dish arrived, I fought the urge to take a picture of the culinary masterpiece – my  shamelessness only goes so far. On the large white dish, two slices of firm tofu, slathered in a spicy ginger sauce, laid on a grilled pineapple ring atop a tower of quinoa and green beans in the center of a sea of creamy Thai sauce. That description is the closest you’re going to get to understanding how delicious it was – yet another example that we can create fully satisfying and nutritious meals without animal products.

Wandering back out through the darkened streets of the early evening, the sun having set early in mid-November, I got lost yet again among the mystical alleys and towering castle walls and church spires. There are some historical cities that, when introduced to modern business, become an unappealing clash of time periods that makes what should be wondrous ancient architecture feel fake and artificial – the random and unsightly pieces of history in Seoul or the filthy and disrespected (even if insanely fun) French Quarter of New Orleans. Then there are cities that have retained the beauty of a time long lost even as upscale eateries and clothiers move into the outmoded structures. These are cities like Prague and even the much younger Annapolis. I confidently assert that Tallinn is among these cities.

I have been in this city for less than 24 hours, but I already know that it is a place I could live. Whether Estonia will offer the life I am in search of or if the university here will provide the type of education best for my goals are far from settled, but I can safely say that this is the first place I have felt truly comfortable since I left my birthplace. At the end of this little adventure, I will return to the United States for an undetermined amount of time, but Tallinn will remain in my heart with this small taste of home on the road.

 

Half Way

It has now been six months that I have lived abroad. Not only is this now my longest sojourn away from my birthplace, but I mark the halfway point in my life in South Korea. If plans don’t change drastically, it will be another eight months until I return to Colorado, but I will save discussion on those particular plans in hopes that I will be able to share them with you as I live them.

As my last few posts have noted, this segment of my life has been a bit crazy. I’m actually not quite sure how this situation has developed, but I seem to be as busy as I was back in college, and those were the longest days of my life until now. I can’t blame it on work because technically, I am only working about 32 hours a week. That’s a part time job. If I were as productive as so many working class Americans, I would be able to hold a parallel job. In a way, I’m trying to prepare myself for my next career, but this post is not about the future. For a few minutes, I’m going to look back.

For the past few weeks, I have been consumed by an idea. It involves a life that is effectively eons away, but that will require my constant preparation until it begins. In my efforts, I have completely abandoned one of the most important parts of progress: recognizing how far we have come. I set off from my safe shoreline not purely to run from the things that scared me (though that was part of it) nor did I seek out new areas of the world for the sake of pure curiosity. I set sail in this new life as a way to force upon myself a growth that was impossible in the stagnation of my old ways. At first glance, the changes have not been so fundamental. In fact, many of the changes I experienced during my break from the old life I led over a year ago have drifted strongly back into this one. Some of my old tastes in music have returned, my addiction to Facebook and social media is flaring up, and my tendency to find a quiet corner of a cafe to plug in my earbuds and shut out the world has become routine. These things though are quite superficial in light of the ways that my entire life has changed.

During my final year at the Academy, I had settled into a twisted sort of comfort in the routine. Wake up around 6:00 am, get dressed in the dark because my roommate was the night owl, go to formation at 7:00, go to breakfast, go to class, etc., etc., ad infinitum. It was strenuous and demanding, but it was comfortable. When I describe my life to people who have never seen the inner workings of a military college, they are astounded that I endured four years of it. By the end, though, it was just another daily routine. Honestly, sometimes I miss it.

I have started to reach that point again with my new life. I recently read my the first two posts that I published from Korea on this blog. I was still one of those outsiders, amazed by everything and unable to imagine life as a local. Though I still try to stay in that space between tourist and local, the comfort that comes with even the most draining of routines has set in. In the same way, the days are long, the weeks are fast, and the months run like water through my fingers.

Finally, the madness has stopped for just a moment. I will take this moment to look back in critical evaluation of where I have been and how far I have come.

There is a feeling associated with the two weeks of orientation I attended when I first arrived in Korea. It’s the rush of excitement slathered in pure anxiety. Over a few days of rushed, over-lectured training sessions, I had to mentally prepare myself for a life of what many people have listed as their greatest fear: public speaking. Though I had gotten small bits of practice in college, the idea of leading half a dozen classes of business professionals through lessons in a subject I never seriously studied terrified me.

As I sat on the second floor of what would become my favorite cafe in Keondae, I stared out the window at the scores of coupled college kids strolling the brightly lit street, my pulse unsteadiable and my mind ungatherable. In less than 10 hours, I would meet my first class, and I had no idea what I was doing.

There was no screaming cadre or running classmates as there had been when I arrived at my military college, and that almost made the experience worse. I’ve learned how to take a stern correction, but in my classroom, there would be no one to make those corrections. It would just be me, completely dependent on my own preparation (which proved to be useless) and my ability to improvise.

At this morning’s daybreak, I sauntered out of my apartment relieved that I would only have to speak in front of college kids, engineers, CEOs, and housewives instead of handling a roomful of kids. When I left the military, I knew I needed to learn some new skills. Language fell through, and writing is to me a basic necessity for anything I want to do. I had never considered how useful six months of public speaking could be for if not mastering, at least becoming comfortable with the task most people fear more than death.

I have also come to view money and time in a vastly different light than I had before. Sometimes I think back to my college days or even the months after, and I remember how damn stingy I was. I often didn’t have a good reason, but I was always saving for something at some indeterminate time in the future. In my life of pseudo-nomadic travel, I have learned new principles of spending currencies of both monetary and temporal value.

When I spent a semester on exchange at the US Air Force Academy, I was only 100 miles from my home. That’s about half the distance from Seoul to Busan. Yet, I was acutely aware of the fact that each journey would cost about $40 and four hours round trip. I made the journey maybe half a dozen times over the semester. I recently, without hesitation, spend double the time and money for half the vacation to meet an acquaintance whom I had met only twice before. Granted, Felix and I got along quite well, but the deliberation was somehow always harder when visiting my family and the woman whom I had recently asked to be my wife.

In the commodified world of the stable consumerist society from which I come, money was the great determiner, and time was only money’s ever-passing manifestation that must be harnessed for optimum productivity. Today, there is no such definition. Though my work, my studies, and my preparation demand me to be responsible with both my time and money, a moment of mindless leisure or a brief meeting with a friend is always worth the cost if the resources are available. Leisure should not be something we schedule around work, but precisely the converse. A jaunt across the city to see a friend for a few minutes is always worth the cost of travel because a friend who only comes when it is convenient is no friend at all.

In a similar vein, I have set myself on a path consistent with a goal I had set before I began this journey. In college, I was an exceptionally successful student. I mastered the subjects my instructors told me to, and I succeeded in just about every challenge the Academy threw at me. When I graduated, though, I may have had a pretty resume and some extra fancy pieces of paper, but was conspicuously short on friends.

In a way, I was extremely lucky to have graduated when I did. With the condition of the military, training moved slowly, and I had a lot of time to kill while I waited my turn to start. I used that time to contemplate such questions as secular morality, religious belief, and the meaning of life. I came to the conclusion that we, as sentient beings with no definitive predestination, must determine our own purpose. Though a full development of the idea is beyond the scope of this post, our evolutionary origins, modern progress, and future potential lead me to believe that our purpose is inherently social. To arrive where we have today and to go where we can tomorrow, we must have worked and must continue to work together.

When I set off, I recognized that my new life would no longer be one in which I must choose between work and society. It must be one in which one is inextricably intertwined with the other. Now that I have begun a career in education, my days necessarily lead me through hours of intimate social interaction with my students, colleagues, and other friends. My constant participation in Couchsurfing has helped me make close connections with friends around the world. An explanation is necessary and soon to be forthcoming, but my next career almost certainly will involve science education.

These days, I am constantly looking forward – I have much to look forward to – but my gaze has caused an inability to focus on the present. As has been spread through many progressive circles and as I have experienced myself, living in the present is the surest method of maintaining a satisfied and comfortable life. However, unvarying focus on the present misses out on life attributes like fulfillment and accomplishment, two things that I know make me a happier person. The best route, as in almost anything else, is balance. This has been an attempt to balance my obsession with the future with a motivational look at the past.

I have come a long way, but I have a long way to go. Soon you will read of my new direction, and in a few short months, I will be casting off for yet another new horizon. This is, though, only the halfway point in my current adventure. There will be plenty more stories to come, hopefully each one even more amazing than the last.

Change Is in the Air

Korean summers are hot. Especially here in the city, the damp air from the shoreline of this small peninsula stagnates between the surrounding hills creating a natural sauna in which the sun, cars, and hot earth below heat us poor pawns who must crawl about at its mercy. In a sick pretense of decorum, I slog my way to the school every morning, afternoon, and evening, arriving with my decreasingly professional attire drenched in sweat. In a temporary kind of mercy, I escape the heat in the air conditioned building to face a whole new set of challenges. As I bounce from room to room for my obligatory time with mangy herds of rugrats, I thank the dear technologists who have kept the air conditioning unit above my head in working order. Allowed to bake in what would become a veritable oven, I would not survive the day without strangling one of these little monsters.

Today, however, is different. It’s warm, yes, it’s always warm. But today, the air of this sauna does not stand still. Mentally preparing myself on the patio of a nearby cafe, I can feel the steady breeze shooting between the buildings dry the sweat that had gathered under the stifling straps of my backpack. The air is changing. One muggy mass of air is giving way to another, but the change is pleasant. I can only hope that the incoming volume of air will be just a bit milder than its predecessor.

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Given that I have so few things to keep track of, it should follow that I indeed can keep track of all of them. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. A couple of months ago, I lost a notepad and an umbrella because I left them outside of a store. Last week, I nearly lost my day pack, which was carrying my computer and camera, because I forgot I had placed it on a chair as I was taking a rest at a convenience store near my apartment. Today, I lost the camera. On the bleachers by the field where our latest pickup soccer match took place, it must have sat undisturbed for hours, receiving the attention of none, including me. Upon realizing that it was not in my bag when I returned home, I felt an immense pang of loss. Strangely, though, that thought was not of the money it would cost to replace such a camera or even of the object itself. The loss was that of the photos held on its memory card. Not merely just bits of data or rows of pixels, they were a representation of a part of my life. Though relatively uneventful and certainly not my best work, they were a tangible piece of how I had spent the most precious of commodities, time. Certainly I can capture the much of these sentiments in writing, but despite my best efforts to paint pictures with my words, I will never capture all of them. The photographs serve as both complements of my memories but also cues for the memories that have faded below the realm of consciousness.

A year ago, I owned a home and nearly enough stuff to fill it. I owned two cars and a garage full of lawn-care equipment. I owned shelves full of knick knacks and a closet full of clothes I hadn’t worn in years. Over the course of several months, I liquidated almost all of these things to the point that I could relocate myself to the other side of the world with all of my worldly possessions (discounting the small handful of things I left at my parents’ house) hung from my shoulders. In fact, I can inventory every item, save maybe the exact numbers of socks and underwear, from memory if I need to. With only a small fraction of the items I once had, I find that I am even happier and my life more fulfilled than ever.

I will not try to argue that things cannot make us happy, but I will argue that it is not the things themselves that make us happy. Instead, it is the experiences they enable. I may say that I miss my bike, but it is in fact the feeling of pulling its chassis and machinery up a long climb that I miss. I may say that I miss my car, but it is in fact the sensation of a smooth operation of the gearbox and the force of acceleration against my back that I miss. I may say that I miss my snowboard, but it is in fact the feeling of soft powder under my toes as I engage my full concentration on the conquering of a difficult bit of terrain that I miss. What I long for are not things, they are experiences.

After beginning a new life in a new country with a new profession and new hobbies, I have had no shortage of these experiences. It has been this experience that has led that change in me that explains the reason why my first thought upon losing my camera was not of its monetary value but of its experiential value. It has proven to me the folly of my old values. Whereas once I would think of my expenditures as investments in things from which I hoped to reap further monetary benefit in the future, now I see my paycheck as the enabler of experiences that give value to my time.

However, these experiences are not with us all the time. We can hold many in our memories, and many we can recall instantly. For others though, it will take some assistance. Over the course of our romantic relationship, Luisa always insisted that I take more pictures because I would want to look back on them one day. I never really understood. Though it made sense, it took me a long time to build the habit of recording things that I knew I would want to remember. As imperfect as I am about having a camera ready, I have greatly improved. In fact, I recently realized just how many of these memories I have stored with my little digital companion. Last week, as I was uploading some of the newest photos, I took a look through my library. Brain-dead tired, I just held down the right arrow and let the photos flash by at a dozen frames per second. In a powerful time lapse of my life over the past couple years, each frame brought back the memories of a hundred different moments, the emotions tied to them piling up on top of each other. From Poland to Annapolis to New York City to Pensacola to Korea, each shot carried with it a story from the life I had once lived and the life I am currently living. If someone were to ask me to tell my life story, I might be able to give a brief answer of where I grew up, where I went to school, and the jobs I have done, but these are not who I am. They are simply categories that represent where I have existed. If instead I were to use my photo album as the basis for my story, it would last for days as I explained the context, meaning, and outcome of each frame that represents a piece of who I truly am.

Over the course of the past year, I have undergone a litany of changes. Today, I found out just how thorough this change has been. I have realized that my ability to capture my life with the lens is an invaluable tool for the storage of my life and its stories. Though I will continue to exploit my passion and skill for writing, sometimes a picture is worth more than a thousand words.