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.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

25 Pounds

Over the past three months I hoped that I could share that I lost 25 pounds. It hasn't happened.  But I’m close. In the daily ups and downs that can often keep us drifting from goals,  I’ve been impaired with another upper respiratory infection for the past ten days.

This condition impedes so many elements of my life in Thailand that it consumes my energy and generates the “what was I thinking?” mentality.  Suffice to say, after a low-grade fever that lasted for days I finally got the butt shot and an array of meds.  I’m on the mend, but it’s an arduous journey.

Thai people are fanatical about health and physical fitness.  When I was returning from the Temple in Chiang Dao last weekend with the Director, Kim and Maedaeng, a tiny, elderly, devout Buddist who habitually dresses in white, they all expressed concern about my cough and pulled a paper facemask out of the glove compartment for me to wear in the car.

I’ve heard “Don’t drink cold water” as the primary advice for the cough.  When I lost my voice a few days later, my favorite carrot smoothie guy wouldn’t  fill my usual order and put together a warm concoction of fresh squeezed lemon juice, heaps of salt and sugar and made me drink it on the spot.   Supplements for energy and health abound in the 7-11s.  The local banana jelly produced here is cut into bite size pieces and served over ice at the school cafeteria.  “Good for health”, Tua says.  When the Thai teachers and students are merely sniffling their way through the day, I am suffering from thunderous reaches deep in my lungs.   One of the greatest losses of my sickness experience is the inability to exercise.

 In the late afternoon of the workday, legions of Thais in all shapes and sizes emerge to move in various ways around town.  Here’s a highlight of two favorites:

1) The uber-fit runners and bikers in the Ancient Forest Temple Across the Street. The Forest Temple is one of the best elements of my life here.  In the waning light of the day the place retains the cool tranquility and explodes with bird activity.   The runners gather in groups and then take off on their jogs on the paved roads that circumnavigate and bisect the park around the stone ruins, finishing  sleek and shiny with sweat to rinse off under the hose at the entrance. The bikers have similar MO, although outfitted with lycra outfits, fancy bikes and helmets.  They do lap after lap, leaving me in baggy t-shirt and nylon shorts standing on pedals and pumping my way up the one hill on my one speed.  One older guy habitually signals with a single chime on the bike bell as he passes me, with a friendly sawadee (hello).  On one “pedaling past sunset” experience a few months ago, the female of a jogging couple asked me what I was doing out there. In English!   Since then, we’ve exchanged pleasantries when we see each other.

2) The Sirijit Park along the River.  This park has a swimming pool across the street but the main attraction is the daily “Thai aerobic dance” program held every evening, complete with spandex-clad routine leader with wireless head mic, booming disco music and a confounding series of steps, arm movements based on an eight-count beat that I have yet to master. Here's a sample of Thai aerobic dance footage I took in Phitsanulok. The park is enclosed by a five foot cement fence with iron decoration, just inside the periphery is a sidewalk where people walk and run in loops around, some talking on their cellphones.  The men gather to play basketball or engage in Takow Lat Huang. (Google it for videos if you are interested.) Others use the completely mechanical iron exercise equipment that is scattered around many parks in town.   On one evening,  I met Mon, a nurse my age who sees me as the primary conduit for practicing her English.  It is always delightful to run into her and exchange a few bits of conversation.

There are the other joggers along the river, the a/c fitness club that I have reconnaissanced but not actually used, the elderly walkers that circumnavigate the park that’s across the street from the corner market closest to my house, and the men who fly their model airplanes in the park surrounding the old city walls.  In all of these situations, I have never encountered a fellow caucasoin exerciser.

Just two weeks ago, I sensed a shift in my life here. My new, next door, English-speaking neighbor invited me to his housewarming party on Sunday night. The next night I had a dinner invitation from some school colleagues.  The night after, I ran into Mon at the night market when we’d both skipped aerobic dance because it was raining;  she invited me to go to P’lok with her husband sometime in the future.  I was feeling giddy with the new energy, had a couple of sleepless nights, feilded a few problems and went shoppig after work.  By the end of the week,  I was sick.

Maedaeng told me that foreigners did not have the immune system to manage the Thai climate.  When I overcame my first reaction (what? Are you saying I’m inferior?” ), I realized she was right.  I'm not adapated to this place.    In Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert describes a harrowing night of the soul on her bathroom floor.  It was then that she heard the voice of her true wisdon, which said, "Go back to bed."

 I am learning how to go to bed.   If nothing else, the lesson of this bout of illness has been to listen to myself when I am ramped up, carried along on an energy wave that can sweep up all around me.  Anyone who has worked with me on a big project knows the mentality from where I speak.  The rallying cry of "do what it takes to get the job done!"  has far more profound consequences in this unfamiliar land.

It’s easier to find clothes that fit, but not that often that they are something I like.   Getting an appointment with a primary care provider on a Saturday was easy with some help from school, but watching him flip down the mirror on his forehead as he sterilized the instrument with a Bunsen burner and probed the inside of my nostril was a bit disconcerting.  The daily routine of dinner is never an easy task.  With my penchant for trying new foods at the night market, the losers can be a real downer.  These are all factors that have a slow, steady drain on the energy it takes to conduct the business of daily life.

Last night,  I rode my bike to the corner market for the first time in days.   I wasn’t strong, but I was steady.   Experiencing a complete change of life, particularly in mid-life, has had impacts I have yet to realize.  In the weak, self-doubting moments of illness, the fears arise around what this will mean for my career, my health and emotional self?   In March, I subscribed to Mike Dooley’s  Mom had sent me a calendar for Christmas that had a nice meaningful quote from him.   Just yesterday and after I finished the first draft of this essay, this quote came in the emailbox.

For every setback, disappointment and heartbreak, Ellen, ask yourself, "What does this create the opportunity for?"

And therein you will find its gift.