Friday, June 22, 2012

Mai Bpen Rai


 I had a dream about Out North Theatre the other night. Last year I wrote and performed a thirty minute play at this theatre about the dynamics and tension of the opportunity to do something different. At that point, I was torn between living a creative, free-spirited life and embarking into another “real job” with an office and benefits.   Here I am again.  My teaching contract ends in September and my house is rented through the end of June 2013.  In the past week or so, I have been struggling mightily with the predictable realities of life here in rural Thailand and wondering about what's next.

Water Monitor. From
Water Monitor. From
Once I recovered from my illness last week, my daily schedule has become predictable and seemingly mundane.  The little things seem to take on significance:  biking by a heron carrying what I thought was a freshwater snail shell the size of my fist, the long tailed skink that was hanging out on the front porch, or finding a massive tree and spirit house hidden in the far reaches of the Ancient Forest Temple Across the Street.  On my way home from the corner market, I pulled over on the bridge over the moat that surrounds the old city walls to watch an enormous water monitor paddling around.

 This morning I got a kick out the chicken from next door squeezing underneath the gate in front of the house to forage in my front yard.  When I got home from work today I mentally berated the feral neighborhood cat for leaving a headless gecko, now covered with a swarm of ants just outside the front door.

The children in my class are predictable (four are great learners, four are really slow and the middle seven are somewhere in between) and each day goes without great successes or abysmal failures.  I’ve moved from being hyper-aware, observant social commentator and a voracious reader to relishing the air conditioning in my bedroom and watching downloaded episodes of Modern Family and The Wire.  With this humdrum passage of daily life, I’m torn between “it’s a restful sabbatical away from the pressure of my career” and “I’m losing ground professionally and will never be able to recover.”

As each day moves toward the end of my contract here at Supsathit Wittayakarn, I’ve started to explore other options.  A job posting in Alaska looks alluring until I think about going back in the throes of the race to darkness in October.  I went up to the Burma border to network with an NGO worker last weekend and left with a realization that my skills as a non-profit management generalist are only transferable if I volunteer on the ground for a few months.  I’m considering moving to another country for another teaching job where I can make more money, even though I am not really passionate about teaching English.

It’s a daily vacillation between  wondering if just staying here until the end of the school year in March 2013 would be a cop out, or just convenient and cost effective.  My life feels like it’s stagnated a bit; that I’m mired, swirling around in internet-fueled distraction. I struggle with mustering the drive and energy to focus, particularly in the clouds in the overcast afternoon pregnant with the unrealized promise of rain.

To bump myself out of these days of listless mediocrity, I re-read the 100 days post that I wrote about five months ago.  In that post, I outlined some goals, many of which have become habitual.  Others (learning Thai and meeting foreigners) have been eroded by repeated obstacles.   Two practices--committing to meditation and drafting my memoir—have not yet been realized and need some serious attention.  For one reason or another, I am feeling remarkably lackadaisical about achieving the short term goals I outlined in February, let alone reaching closer to the vision that propelled this international adventure in the first place.

I can attribute this to ‘Mai Ben Rai”.  MBR, as I’ve abbreviated, is a fundamental element of Thai culture.  It’s a response, an approach, a cultural norm and, as some would say from a Western worldview, an excuse for not doing anything.  MBR is generally translated to mean, “it’s okay. It doesn’t matter. Nothing can be done about it, so don’t worry. No problem. “

MBR provides a rationale for the legions of standing concrete pillars in suburban Bangkok, waiting for another highway overpass that ran out of funding. When thousands of Bangkok residents were displaced due to floods last year, people MBR’d their way through, all the while accepting their current situations with patience and perseverance. Car accidents, illness, disasters resulting from building code shortcuts, epic traffic and setbacks in general are all dismissed with an MBR.  When circumstances are beyond an individual’s control, MBR provides a safe haven for retreat. It means letting go of attachment. Giving over to forces unseen and letting it all work out.

In this current state of passive acceptance of my current reality, I’m cognizant of the need to both go with the flow and dip an oar in the water to avoid crashing into the riverbank.  There are small steps to opening up opportunities and learning- making sure I try at least one new food item a week, finding a new place to hang out on an unplanned Saturday afternoon and planning at least one trip out of town each month.  There’s research to be done on volunteer programs, a desire to stay focused on writing and meditation and the overall plan to using this “sabbatical” to achieve both tangible and intangible goals. My time in Thailand has moved beyond a grand adventure to become a very quiet, introspective and peaceful life.

 In his book, Letters to a Young Poet, Rilke provided advice about how to "live your way into the answer".  Perhaps the greatest lesson of this journey is to relax and enjoy the time away from big pressing questions. Find out if the Affordable Care Act will pass.  See who gets elected. Keep pushing myself to make connections and continue the internal and external dialoges.    One never knows what may unfold.

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