Monday, December 29, 2014

Dark Times

I am so glad Christmas is over.  I know people get worked up about the whole thing—Baby Jesus, music, rituals, gifting, food and drink-- but ever since the days when I worked the streets of downtown Boston reaching out to homeless youth I have found myself increasingly jaded by the hollowness of cheap Santa hats and old-timey carols.  Naturally, being in a different country, separated from family and with the really good friends all far away... it is challenging.

I've coped with an all-alone boozy fest for the first time in years.  In the past three weeks, I appear to have gained 5 pounds. The  wonderfully cool crisp weather of late keeps me away from the pool and with no interest in going to the gym, I try to get out and lumber around the streets for a bit of perspective. A couple evenings I came home exhausted from tribulations at the office and simply rested on the couch immersed in another secret addiction: Pet Rescue Saga.  Now at level 457.

In Alaska, I struggled with the winter solstice time.  There were mornings when I emerged from stuporous sleep like swimming through warm jello.  I crawled out of a warm bed in a very cold house, groggily put a down coat and fleece pants over the pajamas and stumbled along with the dog in the morning dark in an attempt at routine exercise.  I then drank my first cuppa hovered over the bright blue florescent light therapy gizmo.  On bad days, I pulled up to the the coffee shack on the way to the office.  The barista kindly thawed/cleaned the go-mug with steam and set me up with the sludge cup of drip coffee with a shot of espresso. Life seemed to lighten with the sun of midday. 

 Winter Solstice in Alaska,
This year's coping mechanism is a troubling throwback to days gone by.  Please don't worry- I'm not diving deeply into old patterns, but I have found myself wading around a little more frequently through the holiday season. This pattern started with the crazed substance abuses of the late '70s,   I had a fake ID at 16, forged from a friend of a friend whose mother worked at Vassar College.  A photo, some typing and a hot iron made me instantly of the drinking age of the time.

In the tame suburban idyll where I spend adolescence, there were keg parties in the far reaches of the woods owned by IBM where many fathers worked. In the night,  groups of males teenagers would gather around a fire, singing bawdy songs likely learned at Boy Scout camp  and coping with overly foamy beer from the haphazard keg transport.  There were vehicles that went off the road and incomprehensible dramas in homes with no adults present. Holes were punched in walls. People peed and puked and intercoursed in inappropriate places. Pot was laced with paraquat or PCP or Angel Dust. We were obsessed with the Doors and Pink Floyd.   It was a glorious blaze of rage, angst, ennui and discomfort.  Some died.

It wasn't until after I bought my house and lived alone that I began to drink by myself more frequently.  In the wintertime, there was an enormous bottle of whiskey in the kitchen cupboard, boxes of wine that I learned not too buy. I was smoking then-- as I had since my teens.   On some mornings I awoke feeling like a booze processor.  The pounds escalated in bouts of 5.

It was then time to stop.  There were evenings when I had to clutch the steering wheel and drive by the Brown Jug on the corner.  In the early days of the therapy that took me from the crazed denial of my youth to the self-aware and thoughtful person I am today, I remember drawing an image:  my battered and beleaguered spirit at the bottom of a dark well, standing upright and reaching to lightness, seeking small toe holds of security and progress to a better emotional place.

On Solstice day this year, I spend the day out at Takeo province with my friend Karen. Under the guise of a cheap and convenient bus ticket, we went down to a music festival at a children's orphanage in the region.  The music program wasn't all it cracked up to be, but fortunately I had a back up plan to visit Wat Phnom Chisor. With some relatively easy negotiation with the local motodups, we were soon climbing the steps to the temple.

On top of this small hill lay one of the oldest sites in Cambodia's cradle of civilization--predating Angkor Wat by 100 years and dedicated to the dieties of Brahma (the creator) Vishnu (the preserver) and Shiva (the destroyer).    Ancient crumbling laterite bricks were propped up with 4x4s and Cambodians of all ages walked around and looked out at the vast vistas of  palms and rice fields.  The huge Boddhi tree housed a spirit house and more than one long-tailed macaque.  I distributed riel to various stops and received small tokens and big smiles.  While Karen explored in more depth, I simply looked to the north and let the elevated breezes buff me while temple boys made small inroads at conversation.

If all goes according to plan, 2015 will bring some changes for the good. My proposal to reduce work hours and responsibilities  has been agreed to.  I will use the new found time to write the checklist of stories from last year's writers retreat.  Alaskan friends are coming to visit.  I will look and scheme to 2016 and the promise of another major life shift.  This New Year's Eve, I am going out to celebrate and stay up late for the first time in many years.   The light is returning.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Not Really My Homeland

After landing at the Dallas airport after about 20 hours of transit time, I ordered a small coffee at the bagel shop and was presented with a huge cup of hot, steaming brew. I was stunned and overwhelmed for a moment  This was the small option.  I was back in America.

Our rental house, just like all the others
down the block. Our immediate neighbor
had fruit trees in the backyard. The small
swimming pool was encased in a huge steel
cage to prevent both human, and animal

My sister planned the trip: a week in Disney World in Orlando Florida, a large rented house with my parents, her family and my brother-in-law's father. Three rental cars. A pool and a trip to the discount mega store for provisions.   I spent the first few days trooping along with my nephews and sister in a daze of jet lag, exhaustion and motion-induced/overkill of western food nausea.
Morning at Universal Studios 

 My sister, in her unparalleled planning and efficiency, declared that we must enter the gates when they opened to secure shorter wait times for the best rides.  As we pulled into the parking lot the first day,  families streamed  board  the monorail to the park.  There were trends obvious then: mouse ear headbands, shorts and black socks, strollers.  By the end of the day, I counted 21 girls in princess dresses, 11 teams of family team jerseys ("Smith Family Reunion 2014" with "thanks Gamma Jo and Big Bob" on the reverse or "We WILl always rememBUR you" and a photo of Wilbur on the front.   There were 9 meltdowns, including a woman my age with her forehead resting on the picnic table.  And there were only 3 Caucasian-looking cleaning staff.

Just outside of Frontierland, I'd seen more than one elderly black man in a pristine white suit cleaning the area.  This observation, combined with the news of the verdict in Micheal Brown's death and the ensuing riots in Ferguson, and the Splash Mountain log flume ride that featured the characters from Disney's Song of the South felt like a complete validation of the  pervasive racism that characterizes my country. America's  history- nearly 100 years after the Emancipation Proclaimation, blacks were finally granted the right to vote --and still men in particular still suffer considerably at the hands of the law, educational policy and social stature.  The current events ares generating a long-overdue firestorm of opinions, questions, demands, violence and pleas for thoughtful dialog.  

A recent editorial from the Hass Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society at Berkeley, author John Powell writes,"  It is important to understand that the continued debasement and dehumanization of all those who are marginalized is not just to the detriment of individual communities, it is unhealthy for the health and well-being of our entire society at large.

The multitude of other black and brown people killed by police calls for more than a conversation. It demands a deep transformational  movement, one that recognizes the unequal experiences of people of color and their white peers."    The issues of disenfranchisement and of truly understanding the situation of people who do not have born priviliedge also starts with a conversation about class, as article by Gina Crosley-Cocoran explains here

A pivotal part of my experience with Leadership Anchorage in 2006 was an exercise called the "Priviledge Walk", in which all of us: Alaska Native, Blacks, Hispanic  where lined up on a single line.  For each question that was affirmative for us, we took a step forward.  After the exercise was over, we were asked to turn around and notice where our classmates were.  I will never forget the feeling of looking back at my friend Tammina, whose skin was deeply, stunningly black, standing at the absolute back having barely taken steps from her place at the beginning.  As I noticed all of our positions, progressively the people with lighter the skin color where at the front.  Our answers to the questions were based on our personal experiences.  So how can we judge how others feel from the things that they perceive?     That experience has made me forever conscious.   
Found while gift shopping amid
an overwhelming aroma of PVC and
schlock.  Another bumpersticker
"Know Guns. Know Peace. Know Safety.
No Guns. No Peace. No Safety."

In Disney World, I saw the masses of middle-class white Americans that were as foreign a culture as the Middle Eastern people that were milling all around Bumrngrad hospital during my visit there in early November.  I was surrounded by different accents of English, enormous people with the characteristic rectangular bodies and rolls of flesh on their bones, giant portions of food and the people infatuated with the Mouse.  I was truly in a different world and was not altogether comfortable there.  I am American, but not this America.

In most moments, I appreciated the happenstance encounters with song and dance revues in front of the castle, the way we always seemed to score the best seats on the rides and serendipitous encounter with a very smiley baby and her family who sat next to us on both the Indiana Jones review show during a rainstorm and the steam train ride around the park the next day.  It was wonderful to see my family, especially my nephews, and wait in a line with them undercover during a phenomenal tropical rainstorm that rivaled those here in Southeast Asia.  I had fun. 

After all my other family members left for their destinations, I forayed into the "real world" and went to the Florida Mall on the second busiest shopping day of the year in America.   I heard Spanish all around me, people laden with multiple paper shopping bags, bright lights and provacative displays, a frenzy of activity and loud music not unlike some of the street markets I have traversed here in Southeast Asia.

A quick run through Macy's offerings revealed styles that didn't really work for me from the lineup of garment producing countries: Bangledesh, Guatamala, China, Cambodia.
The mall security workers having lunch.
One was complaining about the divorce. 
After checking the items off my list that was carefully crafted over a period of a couple months, I had lunch at a place with a sushi conveyor belt.   Then I found my way to the bus stop for my trip back to the hotel before my 4am departure the next morning.

It was there that I saw the real face of Orlando..  At the bus stop, I saw a family get off the bus.  The kids were wearing weary clothing.  The mother had a haggard, sagging face, blowing the smoke from her cigarette to the side and looking distantly into space.    There were a number of folks muttering to themselves, others waiting in the weariness of uniformed service jobs and a $2 bus fare each way.  I got off the bus with a few hotel workers and made my way to the fancy hotel my parents gave me for the night.
One of many nice small lakes in the
 region around the hotel. Sign says,
"No Swimming. Alligators in area."

48 hours later and on the first day back at work, I was returning home from work a little later than usual and couldn't find a tuk tuk.  I started walking.  Down the street in front of me, a 5 year-old girl was dragging an orange plastic basket.  Clutching the basket, her father lay flat on the pavement and in an adaptive leopard crawl slithered himself behind her pushing with his elbows and ankles.  I could only do a short Metta for them at that moment, just as I had for the two morbidly obese sisters that I saw chain smoking in the special section at Disney World.  

There is so much suffering the world. We have to speak of our compassion, our anger, our pain and our memory.  By acknowledging and sometimes speaking of our suffering, we can develop the understanding to move beyond it.  And, for us to find our places of power and solace to renew and heal our pain. The bird titters outside of my apartment in the morning, the alligator swimming in the canal behind the  sealed, air-conditioned house that we rented, the injured manatees eating romaine lettuce at The Living Seas at Epcot and this vast and fantastic sunset on the shores of Cape Canaveral.