N’aie pas peur – Don’t be afraid

It’s been two months since heading out from Minneapolis for Seattle, and an entire month void of anything of substance concerning a trip out West that I have been wanting to write about. Believe me, I’ve tried. I couldn’t tell you how many hours I’ve spent in front of my computer screen long after I should have put it and myself to sleep. Drafts have been produced, and more drafts, unfinished entries that have been placed on the backburner for so long that by the time I actually get around to working on them again, they’ve begun to mold they’ve been forgotten so long, my taste for whatever it once was, long gone. Not this time, or so I hope.

You know why this will be the one to survive, to make it to the window in time to be taken out? Because expectations have been drastically lowered from this idea concocted a month ago about how I would write the next greatest adventure/travel novel. I would call it, On the Road 2, or The Motorcycle Journals, maybe Zen and the Art of Holding Your Bladder. Bad joke, I know. I’ve never been the super witty, quippy type, more of the physically demonstrative, semi-big-gestures, dry humour kind of amateur comedian, seche like a picnic orange forgotten in the sun, like a pair of chapped lips that have been licked and licked until they’re cracked right down the center and the person owning those lips will do anything to avoid laughing. This book was even going to have an introduction, chapters, and maybe even a dedication page in which I’d be able to write something so personal and nonsensical that only I and one or two other people would feel warm reading it.

BUT, as you can see, that idea has been balled up and eaten.

Here’s the trip:

I left by myself on July 15, 2013 for the west coast by motorcycle, and after spending a few days in Rapid City, SD, a night in Bozeman, MT, and another in Coeur d’Alene, ID, I had reached the Puget Sound. There, I was able to stay with a good friend from school, a musician and photographer with a shock of brown tangles and a soulful voice that makes the stoic, teary-eyed, and the weary, sprightly and nimble. Seattle passed beneath my feet, before my eyes, I sat on it, sang to it, wrote to it, and drank it in one glass of unabashed hard cider at a time. Not a single rainy day to report.

Puget Sound was great, but when I had envisioned myself and the west coast, camping on the beach is what I had imagined. Thus, after spending six days in Seattle, I made my way to Lookout Cape, stopping in Portland briefly to catch a glimpse of the utopia that I had heard so much about and pass up the opportunity to get a tattoo; I didn’t know what of, and there was also a high risk of infection being on the road. Misjudging the distance from Portland to my destination and attempting to camp off the side of a logging route, and then bailing, I found myself dancing with death as I road through 50 degree weather in the dark on deer-clustered roads to Lookout Cape. Eventually, I made it and spent the next day poking squishy sea life clinging to rocks at low tide, chasing seagulls, holding warm cups of coffee in hands that were hard to open, and taking oodles of good pictures.

After two days of doing this, I decided to head back to Seattle, but I didn’t make it back right away. A sign off of the highway for Skydive Toledo caught my eye, and that old phrase from France took over, profites bien, profit well. 10,000 feet up, I fell from the sky, and from there, I was treated to a royal view of the PNW, a truly intimate glimpse of being able to see it all at once, like a lover who finally bares it all for you in the daylight.

Then, I made my way back to Hanna’s house and the familiarity and warmth of its interestingly colored walls and artistic nuances to be found in every corner of the house, a plant hanging from Gabe’s ceiling whose vines had grown out onto and down his walls, the cowboy lamp in the upstairs bathroom, the neon green door to the downstairs bathroom, gold-colored, board-eating, great whites outlined on her faded purple living room walls, and the wood chopping axe for wood chopping parties in the corner. In six days of living there, of being greeted warmly every morning with a hug and a “how did you sleep?” it became a place of great comfort and a reminder of how important people are concerning one’s sense of place.

Last summer, an idea popped into my head to experience monastic life, and this was before I had known anything about Buddhism other than the fact that shaved heads seem to be in style, and with its gardens and residents always sitting in meditation or going for walks, a monastery seemed to me like a peaceful place to visit. Thus, while I was in Seattle, I attempted to find the monastery in California that I had located and wanted to visit a year before. With no luck and little money left to spare for gas, I found another in a small town in Oregon that graciously took me in for an indefinite period of time. “Come, please,” they told me in response to a lengthy email that I had sent outlining all of my reasons for wanting to visit and current circumstances. I ended up staying there for five days during which time I was able to meet Karen, really feel what hunger and discomfort felt like by giving it attention, and spend five days in a simplicity so unlike anything I’ve ever felt that I often revisit in thought to quiet my heart when it begins to beat too fast.

Here’s how the monastery went:

I usually wore the same thing everyday, a borrowed, comfortably-too-big, knitted, mint green sweater and a pair of baggy grey wind pants. I only wore shoes when I would work in the garden, and only sometimes. I worked in the garden pulling weeds and watering the crops twice a day for three hours at a time. We would wake up at 3:50 am everyday and begin meditation at 4:30 am, ending around 6:30 am for a half an hour of studying script. Then, we would proceed to the cafeteria for a communal meal, much of the ingredients either from the garden or donated. We would show appreciation every meal for what we were given through an offering to the Buddha. Aside from meditation, work, and sleep, there was a festival that I had arrived in time for in which we made paper lanterns that guided us through the woods to find and bring back lost souls; we picked blueberries for a day from a local blueberry farmer, and we, the residents of the monastery, got to know one another well. In essence, everything that we did came down to mindfulness and being present. Life at the monastery was about being present for it, no phones, no facebook, no to-do lists, no money concerns, no jobs. I can’t describe it for you anymore than this. Just know that it was the most pure and elucidating experience of my existence, and I can say with 100% certainty that it wasn’t fabricated out of subconscious desire; it was real.

After those five days, I had decided that it was time to go home, and over the course of three days after leaving from Seattle, I pulled up next to my house in Uptown, unloaded my things, and gave my roommate, Rory, a hug. From there, I don’t remember what happened next, but a lot of processing and adjusting.

I had set out looking for something to change my life. I had wanted it so badly, and it was constantly in the forefront of my mind, intruding on my experiences and tampering with them. The problem was is that there are only so many factors that can be controlled by the individual. Deciding to do the trip was a positive move. Trying to control the outcome became a hindrance. Luckily, the questions that I had set out hoping to answer were answered. I’m not just saying this to write a good story. Somehow, it actually happened the way that I had hoped for from the beginning, the way that I had pleaded for when I was left in the parking lot of the Whole Foods Market with $6000 cash in my hand watching a stranger drive my car away, as I was stranded due to mechanical issues on the side of the highway in Albert Lea, MN the first day of the trip, not having even left the state, as I was longing for someone to be there when I was wearing all of my clothes in my sleeping bag on the beach in Oceanside, OR and thought I had nowhere to sleep for the night.

When I came back to Uptown, I got that tattoo that I didn’t get in Portland. It is of a picture that a friend of mine found, Annika, of a boy riding a whale. Beneath it is written, n’aie pas peur.

Don’t be afraid.
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Home N Arrow

It feels like the most vivid dream that never really happened. All of the feelings feeling fabricated and nestled somewhere I can hardly reach in the past. My fingertips can just graze those moments through an arms-width crack in an obstructed doorway. A brown eye peers through to guide a groping arm, and every now and then, something sticks and I’ll pull it out to remember a face, a feeling, a taste.

Most vividly, in vibrant color and emotion, I remember a girl that I met at the monastery, Karen. She had two small tattoos, one on the underside of her left wrist of a rudimentary home and the other an arrow drawn on the back of her left arm just above her elbow. I can only guess at what they might mean, but when she spoke of feeling displaced this past year due to all the travel (three months living in New York and working at a shady bakery infested with roaches, six months in India, and I was catching her at the tale end of her four-week stay at a Zen Buddhist monastery in Oregon), my best guess is that the home permanently inked into her wrist gives her a feeling of stability while the arrow represents the sense of adventure tugging at her heartstrings. It’s an interesting combination, the two, and deep down, or perhaps not so deep down, we all desire both at the same time, to see the world and continually reinvigorate ourselves with new experiences while forever clinging to the familiar roots that keep us grounded and feeling connected to something or someone.

She was subtly beautiful from the quiet way in which she spoke and moved down to the hardly noticeable details of her curly brown hair that was partially bleached in back and shaved on the right side near her temple. One doesn’t notice these things unless talking to her, nor the deep brown of her eyes and the paradoxical way she could wield them to leave you wanting to inquire more about her and shut up at the same time.

And when she told me about her depression and anxiety and feeling displaced this past year, it really hit me that we’re all just human. It was not a coming down of sorts to learn that she was dealing with these issues. Rather, I felt more connected to her in the heave and ho of this big world, and it was a simple, yet poignant reminder of our shared experience as human beings. We’re motivated and moved by many of the same things, and our desires are the same.

The collapsible poop shovel unused in my closet tucked away beneath a National Geographic Adventure Atlas curling at the corner. A chipped and slightly bug-splattered helmet. A lent sweatshirt from a friend’s days at Indianola High School. The Elliot Bay Book Company.

Scoop up the armfuls of maps long poured over, scribbled on, and annotated in our names. There’s a Cliff bar in every pocket of our naked packs waiting to be patched up by emblems of our favorite places and times, slept against in the wee hours of the night, and tossed around in the dirt, sand, and sweat of the world. Travel pants house our young legs as we begin to sidle on down the asphalt in slow motion.

Are you ready? you ask me.

Sure, I say. Why not?

Crossing Puget Sound

A stout woman with a deep, booming voice yelled, “Bikes!” and to my left, at least 60 cyclists whizzed past, one after another, as if the woman in neon were our general and we, her fleet. “Motorcycles!” was the second command, and with that, twenty of us started up our bikes, a loud, synchronized roar resounded weakly before the three-story ferry that towered before us, as if we were a pack of wolves doing our best to look tough in front of a wooly mammoth, and this ferry was an enormous, prehistoric metal creature. A parking lot’s worth of cars, motorcyclists, and cyclists were able to board the ferry with ease.

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I made my way to the middle deck, to the bow of the ship, my arms giddy to spread like Rose from the Titanic. It was a spectacular view: the Olympic mountains to my right, enormous, cheddar-orange, brachiosaurus shipping cranes to my left, and the magnificent Mt. Rainier looming majestically in the background, slightly faded by the distance, all the colors of the horizon shades of orange, purple, and blue pastel. As the ferry began to take off, you could feel its enormous bones creak themselves into motion, and slowly but surely, we began to move towards Brisbane Island across the Puget Sound.

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To my immediate left, there was a woman with a white sweater, off-white pants, and white hair. She must have been 80 years old. Her eyes were closed and her mouth gently curved into a smile, an almost private smile that betrayed a humble happiness and a certain contentedness that said, “I could die right now and it would be okay. In fact, if I were to have control over how I were to leave this world, I would want it to be like this: crossing the Puget Sound with mountains to my right and left, Seattle behind me, and Brisbane before me, the ocean below me, and the sky above me.”

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The drumming of the ocean waves hitting the bottom of the ferry was a rhythmic hum-roar, somewhere in-between the two noises, and depending on which way you anchored your head, the wind would catch in your ears to whisper or scream. Either way, the symphony could have been labeled, “Storm.” As I closed my eyes, a gathering of wild men beating empty trash cans with dinosaur bones around an audible flame amidst the storm was taunting mother nature, provoking her into a colossal storm fit to break even the most determined of ships.

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I opened my eyes and the scene changed. I retreated to the base of the cabinet in which passengers could sit comfortably inside on all three levels, and as I sat there with my back against the wall, I watched the couple who had asked me earlier to take so many pictures of them, holding and planting kisses on each other as if they could heal the bite marks of the cold Puget breeze. Despite the impossible nature of such an act, somehow it always seems to work.

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Her smile, unlike the woman in white, was of a completely different nature. We all recognize it when we see it because it is one of the most desired smiles yet hardest to evoke naturally. Her smile said, I am in-love; I am loved and I am loving. Touching your hand is better than the smell of freshly brewed french-pressed coffee on a groggy morning for a coffee addict, better than the feeling of sleeping in your own bed after two weeks of scrappy motel springs sewn between bits of cloth, better than anything you could ever taste, smell, hear, or see. To complete the picture for you, there was also a single sunflower resting on top of her purse. No wonder he wanted so many pictures of their time together. I would too.

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That was the ferry ride across the Puget Sound.

“I hope you live a life you’re proud of. If you find that you’re not, I hope you have the strength to start all over again.”

Say, “yes.” Just do it. Don’t think too hard about it. No need to get out the scales and the +/- lists. Just say, “yes,” and launch yourself over any barriers that may be preventing you from experiencing something new.

I have met some really incredible people on this trip, and with one of them we had a conversation about self-actualization and the mental barriers that we construct preventing us from pursuing what we truly desire.

I could never start my own business.

Really? And why is that? You have all the tools that you need.

But I don’t have the funds, the know-how, a charismatic type A personality, blah blah blah.

I’m beginning to realize more and more on this trip what potential there is to live one’s life intentionally, whatever that may look like. You can do whatever you want! Meeting people who are pursuing some really incredible things has helped me to see the unbounded potential to realize whatever it is that we want.

If you want to be a painter, then paint. If you want to learn how to sail, become a Hungarian folk artist aficionado, proficient at cooking good pad thai, then do it. Say “Yes!” to yourself. One of my favorite lines of all time is a quote from the film The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. At the end of Benjamin’s life toward the end of the movie, a voice-over comes on as his daughter is reading from the journal that he had left for her. He writes:

For what it’s worth: it’s never too late or, in my case, too early to be whoever you want to be. There’s no time limit, stop whenever you want. You can change or stay the same, there are no rules to this thing. We can make the best or the worst of it. I hope you make the best of it. And I hope you see things that startle you. I hope you feel things you never felt before. I hope you meet people with a different point of view. I hope you live a life you’re proud of. If you find that you’re not, I hope you have the strength to start all over again.

It’s such a beautiful paragraph, especially the very last line: “If you find that you’re not, I hope you have the strength to start all over again.” It’s easy to become complacent when you’re comfortable, but you risk becoming stuck in familiarity. If you’re always doing the same things and having the same thoughts, some of the greatest joys of being human, experiencing growth and seeing yourself change, mature, and screw up, are missed.

A number of people have told me that this motorcycle trip, or a trip of this nature, is something that they would like to do but could never see themselves doing. When I say that you can do it, or something similar, as well, I mean to communicate it humbly and sincerely. I feel compelled to say it because I see so many who limit themselves for no reason, constructing non-existent mental barriers, and because taking this trip has already been such a big learning experience for me.

Self-doubt is a starved, convincing, skinny bastard that slinks around in the shadows, slipping in unseen and blotting out our hopes with a crude hand and black ink. Everyone feels it from time to time, suffers from a lack of motivation, but there is no greater tragedy than giving up on something that you really want.

Still Suspected of Espionage: The Past Four Days

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It’s been four full days on the road making this morning, at 6:09 am, the beginning of day number five.

I’m sitting in the kitchen of a friend whom I met my first year of college at the U of M. I had called her on the road two days ago as I was pulling into Rapid City, not having a place to stay, only having planned on going half the distance that day that I actually ended up covering.

Sofie, like Tarantino’s beautiful but deadly Japanese-American assassin, and I were in the same college at the U, for the first semester at least, the College of Biological Sciences. It’s funny how we met; we met through a mutual friend, one of her friends from high school, named Stefano Shpeely.

There is a summer camp/workshop for all incoming CBS freshman called Nature of Life. Some people say that it’s Bio 1 and 2 that weed out the med students from the non med students. Let’s just say for me that Nature of Life was probably a really strong indication that I shouldn’t have continued with the introduction course that I had tested into for Introduction to Chemistry. Let’s call it Chem .5 as in you’re halfway there.

I say this because my group failed miserably at one of the activities. “How do you fail at an activity,” you might ask. Well, the task bestowed upon us was to observe some slides of something so uninteresting to me at the time that I could not tell you what it was for any grand prize in the world, and then we were supposed to snap different images of these microscope slides and determine if it was A or B and present it to the class.

What ended up happening is that we ended up staring at the slides unable to focus the lens so that we could see anything. Personally, I had no idea what we were looking for, and the blurred images in the microscope seemed to me as if that’s what we were supposed to be finding.

The images that we presented to the class were blurry and some missing, our results inconclusive, our enthusiasm not there. The professor leading the activity was speechless, and managed to conjure up the advice that we should have asked for help sooner, and that was that.

Right, so I was at the bus stop waiting for my parents to come pick me up at the end of camp, and there was one other guy standing around, Stefano. In the fifteen to twenty minutes that we were standing around together, we struck up a conversation about medical school and Scrubs, naturally, and completely hit it off.

There are people that you come across that you identify as being one of “your people,” not in a pretentious way like, the-blue-whale-blue-silk-scarf-you’re-wearing-with-our-mutual-country-club-logo-identifies-you-as-one-of-my-people kind of way (what are the rules on hyphens? Is this considered abuse or creativity?) BUT (there’s the but!) more like an  I-get-you-you-get-me-we-have-a-similar-way-of-thinking-and-I-like-you kind-of way. Stefano was like that for me, and it was through him that I was able to meet Sofie. Four years later and Stefano is still pursuing med school, pursuing like hunting down his prey meaning that he has plans to get a master’s degree within a year in a medical something-something program in Florida. What a guy!

Not long after I left the U for a different school, Sofie changed colleges within the U of M to become a forestry major, and now she is in a program to become a naturalist. I’m also sitting in her kitchen and she’s not here! Go figure.

Luckily for me, Sofie has a really wonderful family with whom I’ve been lucky enough to stay with and get to know over these past two days despite ongoing suspicions, dimming suspicions her father might argue, that I am a spy. They’ve introduced me to their closest friends in Rapid including a woman I met on the first night who lives in a canyon. She has incredibly long, beautiful silver-grey hair with lighter streaks of brown running through it. Her house is a small fairytale cabin in the woods. The interior is decorated like nothing that I have ever seen before. There appeared to be only lamps that cast all of the rooms in a dim glow, all of the artwork on the walls, all of the everything. To add to the scene, she named her small dog Frodo, and there is really beautiful stream running behind her house that one can swim in. It’s positioned right against the side of a massive mountain face.

I was able to attend a free production of Shakespeare downtown and hear about the city’s rejuvenation after three years and attend a birthday celebration of Mr. and Mrs. Dicknmary. So many interesting people – artists, writers, extreme backcountry/lichen experts, some awesome neighbor kids who taught me this last night:

Anyway, it’s been four great days so far. I now have a windshield so I won’t be blasted by 80 mph winds and bugs that spew green juices when they explode on my jacket and helmet, the Dicknmarys have pampered me with delicious food, laundry, warm showers, and plenty of rest. Sofie’s brother, who lived in the Portland area for 6 years and is the lichen specialist, backcountry explorer, spent a good amount of time pointing out the best camping places and roads to take from here to Seattle.

Mmm… smells of pines :) Here we come Bozeman!

Here’s to uncertainty, to adventure, to life.

My family and friends, beloved co-workers and incredible roommates:

It is the eve of another great adventure. Tomorrow morning marks the beginning of a three to four-week excursion out West. I’m heading out alone as many of you know. In so doing, I hope to grow and learn more about myself.

I am afraid, without a doubt, but facing such fear, the unexpected, and all the obstacles that will arise, is the only way that we are to learn more about ourselves, the world, and what we want out of life.

To those whom I have talked with at length about this trip, in particular, Laura, Miranda, and Delilah, a million thank you’s for your support, encouragement, and friendship. I truly appreciate every minute you have set aside to help me wade through my thoughts concerning this trip.

Well, here I go…

Wish me luck!

M

To: My 32 Year-Old Self

To my 32 year-old self:

This is your 22 year-old self, and I want you to remember a few things:

A little over a month ago, you wanted a motorcycle. You printed off a DMV motorcycle manual from online that you read for 40 minutes and then walked out of the DMV that same day with a permit in your hand. You registered for a basic rider course two weeks ago, and two days ago, learned how to operate one for the first time.

In less than two weeks you managed to sell your car, and two days after finishing the course, you managed to purchase a used motorcycle that you dreamed would whisk you clear across the country as you ran your fingers across the bike’s white paint and yellow saddlebags.

You ran your mouth off every time anyone asked you what you were up to: “A great motorcycle adventure,” you’d say, and spent more time than healthy considering your finances and the monetary value in things rather than focusing your attention on those around you.

And you were freaking out because of how scared you were, how fast things happened, and how far off things had turned out from what you had ideally imagined.

But then you went for a run, and you remembered how good it felt to run in the evening as the setting sun is still warm on your back  and the cool  accompaniment of the approaching night. And you sat beneath a tree and realized that there is no true value in our things and that you already have everything that you need to be happy.

You called up a friend and remembered how nice the little things are throughout the day that we may not give enough attention. A French Quebecois by the name of John and his friend Robert introduced themselves to you because of your shared love for French. An older gentleman celebrating his 70th wedding anniversary came in and shared his story of living in Algeria for 2 years, and a little girl smiled at you because the straw you handed her for her water was received as an unexpected gift. You are lucky enough to work with 12 very interesting, intelligent, thoughtful, and kind women at a French bakery, and it didn’t rain today.

Remember this.