Monday, November 9, 2015

Memphis Time: On Slowing Down (A picture book)

I took a walk on the Mississippi River and saw a fisherman in his boat.  I watched him circling around the river, directing his floating chariot, unaware of passersby or stalkers like me, content to float downstream.

Memphis, Tennessee

I thought of the fisherman in Myanmar fishing, alone for hours. The water might not be as blue here, but I suppose fishing in Myanmar has the same basic objective as fishing in Memphis: to catch a fish. 

I sat by the Mississippi, letting the wind kiss my face and creep up my shirt. It took me back to boating on the Inle Lake and the wind ripping through our hair. We spent hours on that boat, getting sunburned, watching the chorus of fisherman dance their way downstream, casting nets with the grace of ballerinas.  

Inle, Myanmar
The scenery is certainly different in Memphis; it's very flat. But the company is more consistent. Maybe because of that, life feels tangibly slower. It's definitely more predictable, which I always thought I would hate, but I'm starting to see the wisdom in a slower way of living. It's not nearly as stressful because you know what to expect. You get a lot of time to snuggle with these:

It's difficult to stop planning my next move. But who knows, it may come sooner than I expect. 

Monday, October 26, 2015

Are Christians resigned to wander?

"'They straightway left their nets and followed Him' (Mathew 4:20). The Apostles did not grudge leaving their nets for the Lord's sake, although they were perhaps their only property...we, likewise, for the Lord's sake, ought to leave everything that hinders our following Him...all the many and various nets in which the enemy entangles us in life.'"
St. John of Kronstadt

Are Christians bound to wander?

I heard this a lot growing up. "Christians are just...different. Being a Christian means you are different from the world." I never really liked that feeling. I didn't want to be different from anyone else at school, awkwardly saying prayers before lunch, skipping half days to go to Church on Great Feasts, not eating pepperoni pizza at a friend's birthday party because it was a fast day. Perhaps that was too much for me, too many rules for a little wandering soul to understand and pray about.

Even though I fought the Church inside, and I warred with it for many years, I never stopped being different. Orthodox Christianity stopped being how I differentiated myself from others, but other things replaced that "label" or frame of mind: my love of theatre, my being "Mediterranean," my being from Boston, et cetera, ad infinitum. It never stopped, because I never stopped intentionally separating myself from a group.

Thinking about it now, it actually seems like I looked for any excuse to drive a wedge between myself and others. Maybe it was a defense mechanism. Maybe it was just me having unrealistically high expectations for my life.

But this isn't what the Church actually teaches us. It teaches us to bind ourselves to Christ, and by so doing, loose ourselves of whatever else is standing in the way--tools of the enemy. But it doesn't say to demonize those things or those people, because we can only "worry about the log in your own eye."

Worrying about twigs up North.
Yet when I turn my gaze inward at the giant log in my eye, I feel the urge to run again. Not from God, but from everything around me that is casting me in a fishing net into the sea. I thought somehow that, by coming back to Memphis, by linking myself to one physical space, I would seamlessly melt into the fabric of this city, of Church life, of family and relationships. But that isn't really happening. And I wonder if this has a little to do with the distinctions between Orthodoxy and other denominations of Christianity. Now please understand I am not a theologist or an apologist or any kind of "ist." But it just seems to me that in the Orthodox Church there is a constant emphasis on the ephemerality of our current life, almost on a daily basis. The whole Church calendar goes from birth (Nativity) to death (Crucifixion) to eternal life (Resurrection and Ascension) and beyond in the course of one calendar year. And we celebrate those transitions every single year. So every single year, we are born, we die, and we come back into life with the Church feasts, the fasts and songs and celebrations. It's so beautiful, but at the same's shaking. Because when you connect the fasts and feasts to the meaning behind them and the constant reminder that "there is a war for our souls" going on, it's very, very easy to feel afraid and shaken.

I know in my head and a corner of my heart that those things are overcome, but still, life is a war for our soul,  a journey towards Heaven. And yet at the same time the world starts whispering little things about family and assets and job security. Now, those are wonderful blessings, which I pray that I might actually have on day if I live that long. But right now I feel slammed by voices that are telling me that I don't belong, and I'm listening too much. Because, what am I trying to belong to? Christ, or the world? And does the former require me to stay in one physical space?

I wonder if any of my Orthodox Christian friends, whatever age or phase of life, feel that same shakiness and urge to run, because, in the end, that's not what life is really about.

Or maybe I really am just that different.

Or, perhaps, we are made exactly as God intended us to be, unique and "quirky" and constantly asking too many questions.

Friday, October 16, 2015

National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) Challenge

My new adult-like job has kept my thoroughly busy and happily distracted from the pangs of reverse culture shock I find creeping up at night alone or when attempting (and failing miserably) at small talk with strangers. So I haven't been blogging consistently like I always intend to, and part of that reason is I think it is more difficult for me to drag myself into exciting situations now that I'm "home" and everything seems "familiar." I'm becoming lazy and starting to understand the term "binge-watching." I don't like those things.

The days are getting shorter, colder, more Northeast USA-like..
I miss the Northeast. And I miss Bangkok. And I miss Europe. And I miss my friends very, very, very much. So I spend a lot of time feeling sad and then starting to feel sorry for myself.

I don't know what my future holds. I don't know if I'm ready to call off my travelling or if Memphis is where I need to settle at all. Right now I am enjoying my job, enjoying the crisp fall air and welcoming the sights and smells of Autumn. But I'm a bit anxious about how long that feeling will last. I'm hoping to find deeper attachments inside myself, with God alone.

I started this blog over four years ago, before I had ever been to Israel or even New Jersey. I started it at a time when life felt weightless, bottomless, and oppressively overwhelming all at the same time.

I'm not a good blogger. I don't use social media all that well, and I suck at online communication. I don't do a good job of "building my audience," but I do hope that I can reach whomever stumbles over my words with a dash of humor or, even better, a twinge of understanding. I like writing, like I like travelling and meeting new people, for the connections and the similarities.

That being said, I'm signing up for National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). The challenge is to write a novel in one month, from November 1 to November 30. The goal is to reach 50,000 words. I'm not much of a fiction writer, but I learned to my delight that I can still participate as a Nano "Rebel." My project therefore will be non-fiction, probably some type of memoir or personal narrative about my travels over the past few years.

I hope this will be a fun way to relive some of those adventures and to really curl up into them again. I've been feeling sad lately, and empty, and wishing I had attachments. I'm hoping that this adventure, one happening in my own bedroom, will take me places I yearn to go and teach me new things about life and myself and other people. Those are the best adventures after all.

I'm going to use this blog and the NaNo website to track my progress starting November 1. If you're a writer, or aspiring to be one like I am, I hope you'll consider joining me on this crazy quest. If you've already been doing NaNoWriMo, I need your help! Find me at

There is no competition here, only good spirits and encouragement to put one foot (or finger, in this case) in front of the other and keep on going! I'll be "prepping" for the next two weeks, and then the big day starts November 1! I hope you'll join me! Let me know--I would love to hear from you.


Friday, September 25, 2015

On Being Home, Awake

One of the biggest life lessons I keep coming back to from all of my travels is that life hits you in the face when you least expect it, and it hits you in a very big, very real way. Life is uncomfortable. Travelling is uncomfortable. It's new and different. It can be very strange.

People have always been afraid of what is different. I don't know why. Perhaps it's a "chicken and egg" conversation: which came first, the fear or the stereotypes?

I'm living in Memphis now. But I'm not living in the same Memphis I grew up in, and sometimes, I feel really ashamed that I never knew my current Memphis when I was young. My Memphis is Black; 60 percent African American to be precise. But that's not the Memphis I knew growing up, which evidences the other reality of my current Memphis. My Memphis is segregated as hell.

Why didn't I see it before? On some level I think I knew, but I never thought deeply about it, nor cared enough to do so. My school was white, my family was white, we were all middle class, we were all the same. So what did I have to be afraid of?

Injustice hit me like a brick to the face the first time I saw the terrible cement wall separating Israel from the West Bank. That's injustice, I thought. A cement wall. Well, we don't have one cement wall in Memphis, but we have a lot of little walls. They're called neighborhoods. They're called schools. They're called 201 Poplar.

It's not fair that I got to go to a great school and get in to college, when the average ACT score for this city is 17 and the percentage of those in poverty is almost 30 percent, with 45 percent of all children in Memphis living in poverty. Memphis' poverty statistics are shocking. Why didn't I learn this in school? Maybe I did. I just wasn't paying attention.

What do we do about it? What did I do in Israel? What did I do in Thailand? What do I do here?

Of course there is injustice everywhere. But knowing that, accepting that, and letting that pass unaffected is only perpetuating that injustice. Compassion necessitates action.

Why am I struggling so much with this right now? I think because suddenly I feel responsible. I know I'm not personally responsible for the systemic racism in this city, but I feel a sense of responsibility towards my city and everyone in it. It's easy, when you're living abroad, to pick and choose what injustices to invest your time in, because there is so much that is unfamiliar. You can use that barrier as an excuse to hide away. And as I'm learning, there is still so much that is unfamiliar to me about this city, this city I grew up in and so arrogantly thought I had figured out. I don't. I don't. I can't.

But I can try. I can get outside my comfort zone, like I've done before in other places. I can keep going outside of my own yard to see new things, experience knew events, meet new people from different backgrounds. Isn't that life, anyway?

My goals for my time in Memphis (however long that may be) are these: first, to learn more about the social injustices in the city and to get involved in active solutions. My current job is a great place to start, but that's only a little of myself. We can always go deeper. We just can't ever give up. Second, I want to explore. Build a bike, ride the MATA bus, and get out and about. There is a lot of beauty in this city.

Just because I'm back in the same place doesn't mean I'm the same person I was when I was last here. I'm not. I hope I'm not. I'm still only one person with no answers and irritating questions, but I'm still going. I hope you'll help me along.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Post-Grad: Making the Best of The Time You Have

A cliche title, but this is how I feel right now...

And once again, boxes are packed and suitcases are standing in my bedroom. Where I am going this time? It's tempting to say "nowhere," but that isn't true. I'm moving back home.

Such a short sentence carries with it so much weight and societal pressure, doesn't it?

I've been blessed to spend some time with my wonderful college friends this weekend in New Jersey, where I've been for the past week, packing boxes, visiting family and tying up loose ends before I move back to Memphis. One of the things we talked a lot about is how odd it is not to have that structure of school looming over us. This time of year is when students move back to campus, start planning their courses and their extra-curriculars, and begin that carousel dance of "what ifs" and wishes for their still mostly ethereal futures.

Only this time, and for the first time (since I graduated college and then went straight to teaching at a university), there is no class schedule to pick! No courses to look forward to, no projects to plan, no books to check out or social events to make. I try and tell myself that I'll still be as studious, reading for pleasure and edification and cross referencing everything I see on paper. But the truth is, even in the month and a half since I've been jobless in America, it's been really difficult to create any sort of routine that challenges me.

All of my caring older adult friends and family will smile and shrug and say encouraging things like "you don't need to know what you're doing forever; you just need to know what you're doing next." And this is true, and I'm very grateful for their understanding and support. Yet I'm wondering if this is the part of life, that dreaded post-college part, that people don't really explain in detail because it's different for everyone, and maybe uncomfortable as well.

And so I've been spending this last week living a bit in nostalgia-land, which I believe every person is entitled to at some points in life. I visited my old college and church, had lots of lunches and coffees and lots of talks, and started going through my old belongings, at which point I realized that I'm a book hoarder. I also discovered this insert from my old environmental biology book, which explains a lot:

A fold out map I found under my bed today.

I also found some old travel pieces from The Inquirer, old essays I wrote for school and lots of notes about random ideas in life. My brain, it seems, has always been running overtime.

One article I had saved was a piece by Rick Steves on the relative simplicity of backpacking in the age of technology, with which I wholeheartedly agree. His last bit of advice was to always keep a travel journal. He observes:

One of my favorite discoveries is that the journal entries I wrote as a scruffy 20-year-old in 1975 still resonate with the...20-year-old American exploring Europe in the 21st century.

I find this encouraging and inspiring. There's something so liberating and magical about being your own Robinson Crusoe or Sherlock Holmes in a foreign land, even if you can now follow that land on twitter. There's nothing like being there in person.

And this is why, as a newly jobless post-grad, joining the ranks of the wandering millennials, I feel hopeful about my future. Yes, it is so much more challenging to make things happen now. In college, everything is arranged neatly for you; you have endless options from which to choose. You see your friends all the time. You have access to databases, free Zumba classes, trips to the beach, and all the ice cream you can eat. Those things still exist in life (maybe not the free Zumba); you just have to find them for yourself now.

Look at the map. Look at Rick Steves. We have a whole world still to explore, and even in our own backyard or old college town, we can find uncharted territory. Everything and everyone has a story, and since human beings are naturally curious, it is only fitting that we seek to uncover those stories, no matter where we are physically. If you're looking for a place to start, try your old journals, essays, or random scraps of paper stuffed under your bed.


Rick Steves, "It's Easier to be a Backpacker," for the Inquirer, Sunday July 28, 2013.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

An Ode to My Tevas

One of the weird subjects you end up discussing when backpacking are your own feet. Specifically, you talk a lot about footwear. For example, I figured out many years ago that I hate flipflops and would rather go barefoot than wear uncomfortable shoes (which I have done many times). Nothing ruins a trip faster than blistered feet.

The best travel investment I ever made, hands down, was my pair of Teva Women's Tirra Athletic Sandals (which I have conveniently linked here for you in hopes of getting a kickback from Amazon. Just kidding.) I actually didn't buy them at Amazon but at a local store in Princeton. I'm sure you can find them at boutique shoe stores and most outdoor stores, too.

The same pair of shoes lasted me through all my hiking in Israel, my fall break in Europe, my walks to class in the US, and all over Southeast Asia until the very last trip I took, to Myanmar, where they finally said "enough." The stitching between the sole and the ankle strap on the right shoe had unraveled. Even so, I managed to wear them for the remainder of my trip by just velcro-ing the ankle strap around itself. But I decided to leave them at my hostel in Shwan State in order to save room in my backpack. I still think of them there, stuffed in the trash can. It was a very poor ending for a very noble pair of footwear.

I really can't recommend these shoes highly enough. Many people over the years have asked about them, and I always say how much I love them. We've been through a lot together. They are currently in five of my facebook profile pictures. Clearly, I'm obsessed.

So here is one final eulogy to the most comfortable, durable, reliable shoes I've ever had. Rest in peace, Tevas.

Dancing with my Tevas in the Golan Heights.

I found you in style, inside a new store
Where brown paper shoe linings littered the floor.
You cost me much more than I then could afford
Yet you tempted me, won me
With cushy, soft soles.

Your velcro and criss-crosses gave me a tan
That's stayed on my feet through summer and winter,
tatooed shadows reminding me
of hot afternoon climbs.

With socks, you warmed me
in Autumn in Prague.
In water, you carried me
through rocks and through fog.

Up mountains, down valleys,
down cobblestone alleys,
Your grip made me sure
I'd not slip nor unravel.

We spent four long years
foot by side,
we saw ten fine countries,
and a lot of goodbyes.

Till one fine day in May,
your crevices caked with clay,
your velcro delayed

Farewell, dear friends,
my trusted travel companions.
I'll miss your reliability,
your light-weight portability,
your eternal tan-lines.

I hope you enjoy retirement in Myanmar.

With love,

PS-Sorry for the stinky feet.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Is Writing Selfish? Or Is It Service?

When trying to live a life of service to God and to others, what room is there for egotism? Where does egotism end and our God-given gifts begin?

I've been state-side for one month now, with little to occupy my time other than my own thoughts and the warm comfort of friends and family. As I sit in my little, cluttered home, replete with dog hair and worn-down magazines, I think and pray a lot, maybe too much, about my own future.

I long to continue my education, which leads most well meaning folks to ask me, "what do you want to do as a career?" My usual response is "I don't know," which elicits sighs and confusion, mostly from myself.

The truth is, I think I do know, but I don't feel like admitting it. I want to write. And read. And study. As a career. That seems like something that's impossible to One man can't ever know everything so how much more can we use this life to learn? I think now of one of my favorite little memoirs, Twenty Years A Growin,' where the narrator gleans this advice to me:

"What good are you unless you study and travel the world while you are in it?"

I take these words to heart and often feel that there's so much to see and do and learn that I couldn't ever possibly choose just one path and stick to it. But maybe this is just naivete.

As I contemplate the possible paths before me, I try to see into the future and imagine what would be required of me in a certain setting. How much of myself would I be required to give? How much of myself would I have to die to? In the Christian context, walking with Christ means dying to yourself, taking up your cross (your burdens--see Pilgrim's Progress) and following Christ.

But how much of me is what I need to die to, and how much of me is given by God to fulfill?

If God gave me a talent for writing or speaking (not saying He did, but I'm certainly no accountant), then shouldn't I use it for Him? But writing is a very personal activity, and these days I feel like I'm spending too much time alone, in my own head, instead of being present with others.

How much of me needs to die to be filled up instead with Christ?

It's easy to discern external sins: avarice, greed, addiction, egotism, things that we all struggle with. Sometimes our failings manifest themselves externally in our relationships with others, our addictions to material things, or something else. But sometimes they sink deep inside our skin, and we don't realize they are there until we try to break ourselves free and instead feel chained to our own sloth, our own internal egotism that sits quietly beneath our breath.

Is this my cross?

If it is, how can I follow Jesus on a path that would confront me with more of the same...the long, solitary afternoons, alone with my books and my thoughts? Our thoughts can sometimes betray us.

Maybe I'm giving myself too much credit. I'm not a hermit...not yet, anyway, and I do love the great outdoors. It's just that sometimes I love my pajamas more.

Is writing an inherently selfish endeavor? A good writer writes with an audience in mind, with a story to tell, with an argument to posit. Sometimes I just write because I can't sit still unless I do. Oh, the novelty.

I wonder what it would be like to follow a path of academia, of writing and thinking and listening and learning and trying to convince others I'm right when I secretly know I'm not. Or what if I know I am? Maybe that's even worse. Or maybe academia, like any other path, is not about being right or wrong but about growing and discovering and being present with others as you walk the road together. Is that naivete again?

What do you think, sage bloggers or writers? How do you reconcile your time in your head with your time serving others? Is writing selfish, or is it a form of service?