Not the End

I started this post with the intention of it being my last. I felt the blog’s lifespan was drawing to a close because I needed to get bigger and, at this point, the world knows a lot about me and I want to know more about the world. Not necessarily its facts or sights, but the essence, in the way that truly knowing someone is a deep, un-nameable sensation, characterized by small discoveries and shared, hidden giggles different from recognizing their face or growing up in parallel. I want to realize and manifest the joy or even absence of pain I can bring others by being present and soft and pushing the boundaries of my compassion. And though this blog was always intended as a connector and a means of breaking barriers, it began to feel like another self-indulgence.

Because after the unbelievable fortune of having been able to catapult myself across the globe during the past year and a half, it seems natural and expected that I would have gained perspective. That I would have developed my sense of self and what’s important, have experienced new challenges and surmounted old ones and deepened interpersonal connections and continued to expand and think new thoughts. All of which has happened.

But sometimes I feel unsatisfactory. That I turn around to find exactly the person I left, still quivering in existential questioning and unable to relax into the ebb as the waves inevitably roll, caught in a bouncing bubble with walls that thicken and constrain the longer I remain inside. So I convinced myself I have nothing more to say. That continuing these posts is really just an exercise in extending my stubborn stuckness, allowing myself to expound more and listen less. And I convinced myself that others, too, expect a more worldly and broadened Barae, open and humbled after the blessing and privilege of travel and the soul-searching by which it is accompanied.

And I do need to get bigger. Service and justice work are potent antidotes to internal struggle, empowering and healing and providing a tangible, grab-able rope to reality and community. Listening and adapting rather than declaring and demanding allows compassion and perspective that can help wrench me out of my cocoon. But I missed the blog, its fluidity and inspiration and catharsis. I missed the community of it. Of course, that community is extremely limited and Barae-centered, with me at the helm and the prow and therefore really more of an audience. But this tool for sharing feels more important and valuable now than ever.

As part of our human affection we struggle. We all wage internal wars and navigate stagnancy and disorientation and anger, and even though we know it’s harder alone we are taught it must be stifled, trapped, and hidden. In exploring vulnerability and euphoria and insecurity and realizations in a public space, without shame or stigma or judgment, I can at least open my own borders. I can establish that these are universal experiences and truly not wrong, not broken or disgusting or shameful. That by acknowledging and revealing and discussing we can wear away at the isolating barriers and dismantle the notions that tell us we must wrap ourselves tight until we are choked and already burst.

I am proud of but mostly grateful for this blog. I’m grateful for reception and encouragement and feedback and the opportunity to release, and honored to hold the trust of reciprocal listening and sharing. In the high-stress, no-pause whirlwind that is college I don’t foresee frequent blogging, but I’m allowing this creation to hover, leaving room for new growth and new directions and hopefully to emerge as a positive ingredient in supportive communities. If you feel comfortable and the desire ever strikes, please know that I am available, eager and open for questions and connections. Thank you for journeying with me.

 

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Keep Breathing

I’m constantly nostalgic for places I just left. Even when the moments themselves were less shiny than my clinging brain has polished them to be, there is a sense of loss, a sigh of longing for a feeling I’ve cultivated and attached to a place and a time that isn’t this one. It’s funny, the way each moment seems to appreciate in value the longer it falls into the past, even when its true worth was to be reaped in the instant of its occurrence. But I glance behind me and there stretches the Chugach Mountains dotted with countless days spent among them and mango smoothies in Thailand and the steep roads winding around a mountain in Peru with one wheel of the van nearly off the cliff, our breaths caught in our sleep-deprived throats as we fight the urge to look, and my seat in the bus climbing up a winding mountain pass in Southern Spain suddenly seems familiar.

The afternoons that dragged on, the points of frustration and pain and discomfort that then seemed suffocating now look… not inviting, but necessary, cushioned with a kind of motherly fondness now that they’re past and polished. Because in those moments in South America or Shishmaref I was certain that learning wasn’t really happening, or at least at great cost of near-misery in that minute. But steadily, inevitably, irreversibly, my frame of reference reached and continues to grow, letting in these new experiences in an ever-expanding web of realizing that maybe instead of the center I’m just another speck of silk extending my toes and fingers to form one side of one hexagon in an infinite connected expanse.

 

Palació Nacional da Pena, Sintra, Portugal

Palació Nacional da Pena, Sintra, Portugal

It’s okay not to always enjoy. Away from home and set on “a good time,” we can feel that real life is on hold and that vacation-burden dictating that every breath be an ahhhh of pleasure may instead leave pockets of guilt because we must also inhale. Gratitude can be constant and present even in the pinpricks of missing the train or heaviness of realizing that this is all that real life has to offer and we might as well nestle in.

We travel to expand our worlds and build our compassion and also to love our homes, to know where we come from and who we care for and to feel, deeply and in a place we previously couldn’t access, the ache of not belonging and the ease of when we did. We watch as each little thread of experience that arrives without our directional needle-eye but allows us to believe ourselves the guide align themselves in a pattern that does indeed resemble the skin we woke up in today. Somehow, even when they were unbearable, we look with our crusty, morning eyes at threads already irrevocably woven and smile sleepily, because we know everything was going to happen anyways whether we pretended we were in control or not.

Gallery of Urban Art, Lisbon, Portugal

Gallery of Urban Art, Lisbon, Portugal (graffiti on a tram underpass)

Today I ran along the Seine and yesterday, all of a sudden I was under the Eiffel Tower and before that I finally figured out how to use the WiFi in Spanish airports and between those two I found myself at the center of a capoeira circle in Lisbon, flinging my body around like a smiling fool because I had nothing to lose and something about the drumming and chanting words I didn’t know felt nourishing and for a second I was overwhelmed by gratitude to be in that body unabashedly and I knew that I was there because the whole world knew I’d be fine. My biggest breaths of wonder have been in the trees or the mountains, but near the river in Lisbon I nearly cried at three young men dancing in the street in their maroon crewnecks, reveling in the undeniable beauty and pure urbanity of it. Sometimes I just wonder what the hell I’m doing.

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I just read When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chödrön (highly recommended to everyone) and am thoroughly on her Buddhist bandwagon. I’ve been working on practicing tonglen, the practice of, instead of avoiding pain at all costs, breathing in my own suffering and the identical suffering of everyone else in that second, and breathing out contentment and joy so that other people might experience some of that happiness. I try to remember it in the hard times and the light moments when everything seems to be going my way (they’re not all too common) because we can only exist in both. Yeah, I got spiritual in the last week.

I’m ready for my mom to come and take care of me (T-minus… 10 minutes? She should arrive any minute now) and I’m grateful for this time to grow, because that’s really my only choice. The more I learn and center and breathe, I find ways to peel open and expose my inner layers to their mirroring ones reflected in the rest of the world, and continually realize that there is always further to go but the only reality is now.

 

A Bouncing Sphere Becoming a Venn Diagram

It’s vacation, really, what I’m on. I didn’t quite think of it that way, but traipsing through Ireland and then England for two weeks with no job, no obligations and only my ability to stay within budget as limitation constitutes nearly a textbook definition of vacation. So, naturally, I find things to worry about. That’s partly human nature, partly my own neurosis, but those nagging perturbations that have a knack for popping up as soon as the preceding one diminishes in importance present a near-constant opportunity for growth. In fact, finding pockets of peace within those worries is kind of the whole idea of this year for me.

People ask and I’m still not entirely sure why I chose this particular corner of the world as my first stop, but both Ireland and England have proved soft entry points into a year of solo travel. Lack of a language barrier, for one, removes a major challenge. So, too, does the similarity of culture and the extensive tourism industry that renders much of both countries extremely receptive to (especially American) tourists. Really, besides being more expensive (London = $$$) and discrepancies in pronunciation and vocabulary, I couldn’t have picked a more comfortable place to travel. Which leaves me to contemplate, to reflect, to wander, and, yes, to worry — but also to sit with those worries and trust myself to progress through them (maybe aided by an occasional text to my mom).

The Cliffs of Moher on the west coast of Ireland

The Cliffs of Moher on the west coast of Ireland

Because the human experience exists on a very, very expansive spectrum, some days or hours or moments I feel good, and some I don’t, and sometimes they occur right after each other or within each other or mix in a confusing swirl of faded trails left by watercolors after the color has run out. I’ll go to sleep wishing so many of my decisions had followed the left side of the T instead of the right and wake up with the sun peeking over the windowsill, and my good-feelingness is welcome but invokes a sense of myself as an imposter. Sure, I’m fine now, but yesterday I made a mistake, I was negative or mean, I didn’t appreciate the present moment, I cried and felt hopeless — so I don’t actually feel good today. I really shouldn’t get too comfortable in this repose.

And that realization, albeit twisted, really has a spark of truth in it. No, I’m not an imposter when things look rosy, and that feeling is totally valid — even if it is because of caffeine or that early morning possibility. Simply, it’s all temporary. Though maybe I’d like my default to shift further towards the lighter end, we so often hail happiness as the end goal, the constant expectation. And by this point I think it’s pretty clear we gotta feel alllllll the feelings. There really is room for the whole of it.

Which is to say, there’s room for vacation and adventure, challenge and relaxation, staying informed and tuning out. I can work on expanding my worldview and nurturing myself and, simultaneously, I can applaud high profile American athletes joining in yet another stage of necessary activism manifesting itself in NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s valuable protest. I can watch incredulously and then with relief when President Obama listens to the people and acknowledges the disrespect and cruelty of the Dakota Access Pipeline. And then, as I’m continually discovering my place in the world, I can notice how unnerving it is to be right smack dab in the center of colonialism. I absorb all of this in a privileged, relatively easy situation and my ponderings only grow deeper — because they incorporate my entire sensory comprehension.

I have never really traveled in Europe before, excluding a short family jaunt through Spain many years ago. My life has been spent almost exclusively in the New World. Thoroughly all of the United States is populated by people whose ancestors did not originate there, with the preeminent exception of Native Americans and Alaska Natives. Though I am constantly fascinated by and grateful to live in America, there is always the underlying truth that the people and America I see around me is not the natural outgrowth of what has always been. Especially in Alaska, where colonization is relatively recent and Alaska Native culture is so vibrant and present and central to the collective future of the state, I am always aware that people came before me. Even in South and Central America, where a majority of the population is indeed descended from ancestors who called their same land home, they speak a language and practice a religion forced upon them by the early Western world and look very different from the people who colonized them.

Here, however, surrounded by ancient castles and churches and the native language still the primary one and that from centuries past, with a few difficulties, maybe even I could understand, I feel the novelty. Of course, Ireland was invaded by the British and made to switch languages and religions. But even with that history of incursion, the pigment in the faces that primarily populate Ireland and England has not changed or been subjected to unspeakable cruelty, they have not been ousted from their traditional homes. This is the original West.

Years have passed, it’s not just Britain and England, and many other countries — notably the U.S. — have done their fair share of colonization, destroyed enough cultures and committed copious crimes against humanity. It’s worth feeling the vestiges.

St. Fin Barre's Cathedral in Cork, Ireland

St. Fin Barre’s Cathedral in Cork, Ireland

Guess where? (London)

Guess where? (London)

My extremely fortunate opportunity to explore all of these thoughts for myself is nonetheless operating on a one-way cash flow, and it’s not in. By the grace of hospitality and priceless connections I have stayed with friends of friends and am indebted to their generosity, and am definitely on a budget. I’m doing my best to be a responsible and stingy adult and make calculated decisions, so when I entered the Camden Market I nearly dropped into the gaping jaws of that insidious capitalism. Mainly stemming from my own ineptitude at balance, simply gazing at the stuff can be difficult for me to enjoy with no strings attached. But shopping can be fun, especially in foreign spaces and when viewed as an activity to explore the endless variety and ingenuity of the market. Sometimes I can appreciate it, but my inherent desire, my girlish want for the pretty thing makes me ashamed. I’d prefer to avoid shopping altogether and condemn capitalism without nuance than linger in the in-between where I marvel at things I don’t need, acknowledge the system we live in, and allow myself some room for whim purchases. And now that I’ve written that sentence, I realize that’s exactly where I’m headed. Ah, self reflection.

Getting acquainted with the Atlantic through the English Channel (Brighton, England)

Getting acquainted with the Atlantic through the English Channel (Brighton, England)

So I’m hopping around in a forgiving yet still terrifying first step of attempting to manifest independence, staying nearly exclusively with people I’ve never met but contacted from across the world, and each one tells me that they were warned karma would come for them. That they were hosted, treated, welcomed as young clueless travelers themselves, and now it’s their turn. I don’t know if the generosity, warmth, and support I’ve received can be justified by just karma, because I have an inkling I really ended up with some good ones. It looks like I’ll be hosting a lot of travelers in my day.