June 17, 2013
I’m currently reading a collection of essays by novelist Jonathan Franzen titled “How to Be Alone.” It was published in 2002 – a mere eleven years ago, but a time in which I think it was much easier to be alone. Interestingly enough, I recently came across the commencement speech that Jonathan Safran Foer (also an acclaimed author, and one I very much admire) recently gave at Middelbury College, titled “How Not to Be Alone.” (Note the ‘not.’) Then, last week in the New York Times, I came across the adapted essay of that speech (with the same title) that Foer just published as an op-ed piece.
I hope one of these two Jonathan’s picks up on this coincidence and casually mentions it to the other; I actually hope they’re already friends, because if they’re not, they should be, if only for the many J’s and F’s in their names, the titles of these two pieces of theirs, and just their writing talent in general.
This coincidence, these seemingly opposite titles, and the issues both Jonathans bring to light in their respective pieces have been on my mind all week. And so, in honor of the theme of this blog, this is what I’m wondering about today.
Teaching literature means that books been a big part of my everyday life lately. Over the past many months, I’ve thought a lot about access to books and how much we in the West take for granted the titles available at our fingertips, the fact that with a click of a button, Amazon will deliver any number of its thousands of books to our doorstep in a matter of hours. Most of the books I’ve taught while in Sri Lanka are not available on the island (I brought copies and had others shipped here through the US Embassy); even the best bookstores in Colombo are lacking. Amazon cannot get books (or anything else) to Sri Lanka easily or inexpensively. If my students cannot access a physical book or text they need for a class, they will turn to the Internet for a copy or sometimes be forced to settle for the book’s (free) Cliff Notes.
But my students see the value in books and are hungry for them. In class, my students are (for the most part) active participants and extremely focused. For better or worse, technology has not yet invaded the classrooms of Sri Lanka as it has in other countries.
In his recent commencement speech, Foer said: “In many ways, books are the opposite of the kinds of technologies most of us are becoming increasingly dependent on every day. They require solitary concentration, calm and attentive thought, as opposed to the desktops of our Macbooks, which inspire us to work with multiple screens open, multiple forms of media and communication competing against one another, our brain activity given over to deciding which links to pursue. Books celebrate ambiguity as an opportunity for revelation, as opposed to Google, which sees it as something to be overcome. Books require us to make rich and unlikely mental connections. … What are the best uses of our brains? What is the value of a literary mind, of thoughtfulness?”
Foer spoke these words to thousands of graduates who he felt needed to be reminded of the powerful role books play in our lives, probably because he realizes that for most of us, technology plays an even bigger role, and receives much more of our attention. I hear his words in the context I am living and teaching in today, which in some ways feels worlds away from the context I was in when I graduated from college. And when I hear these words today, I think to myself, How fortunate I am to be able to be part of the journeys my students are on in developing their literary minds; how fortunate that I get to watch and help them grapple with making rich mental connections as a result of books.
And that reminds me something I wrote on this blog a long time ago: that I read precisely because I crave those connections, the sentiments that orient me, the sentences that serve as my trail markers. Some people see magic in numbers, some in buildings, some in a pitcher’s perfect game. I see magic in words; in breathing, shifting, sentences. And in books. Above all else, I see it in books.
In his essay “Why Bother?” (more commonly known as “the Harper’s essay”), Franzen writes: “Readers and writers are united in their need for solitude, in their pursuit of substance in a time of ever-changing evanescence; in their reach, toward print, for a way out of loneliness.” By finding solitude in the right places and through the right means — by being alone — we leave loneliness behind.
But then there’s Foer in his commencement speech speaking about how NOT to be alone. Which is it? Do we need to learn how to be alone or how to not be alone? At the intersection of books and technology, this theme is something we keep coming back to. And I think it’s here we understand that, alone or not alone, we must always find a way to be present.
“Each step forward in technological communication has made things more convenient,” Foer continues.”But each step has also made it easier, just a little bit easier, to avoid the emotional work of being present. To write ‘LOL’ rather than to actually laugh out loud; to send a crying emoji rather than actually crying; to convey information rather than humanity.”
I think as a society, we’ve become lazy with our emotions. Foer’s right: these days, it is remarkably easy to avoid doing the sometimes grueling, sometimes electrifying work of truly feeling; to put a Band-Aid on emotions we’d rather find a way to distract ourselves from — which we are able to do with such ease, it’s scary. I think the important question here is not just why this is the case, but rather, why have we become so comfortable operating this way? Is shying away from genuine emotion, deep empathy, complete presence, and what Foer calls “human computing” becoming the norm? If so, what do we do about it?
Foer concludes: “I worry that the closer the world gets to our fingertips, the further it gets from our hearts. It’s not an either/or, but a question of balance that our lives – alone and together – depend on. … Everyone is always in need of something another person can give, be it undivided attention, a kind word, or deep empathy. There’s no better use of one’s life than to respond to those needs. There’s as many ways to do this as there are kinds of loneliness, but all of them require presence. All of them require a will to do the necessary hard work of human computing, of making the choice to engage, of struggling for language, of risking getting it wrong, of discarding shells and making the empathic leap. This is the work of being human. It can be messy and painful and almost impossibly difficult, but it is not something that we give; it is what we get in exchange for having to die. And it is beautiful.”
June 12, 2013
In mid-May, my friend Hannah came to visit. She’s currently getting her Master’s at St. Andrew’s in Scotland, but is from Vienna, Austria, where we met in the summer of 2010. We were both working at The Vienna Review and our editor barely had to introduce us before we hit it off and were out the door for an afternoon of exploring (read: the American got shown around town by the Viennaese!) Before long, we were working late in the newsroom together, enjoying some nights out in the glorious city that is Vienna, and even got to jointly research, report on, and write a cover story about the XVIII International AIDS Conference that was being held in Vienna. (You can read more about that cover story and that summer — one of the best of my life — at this post and ones below it!) A year and a half later, I saw Hannah a few times in D.C. while she was interning at the Austrian Embassy. And now, she came to Sri Lanka! Talk about a global friendship :) We had a really great and relaxing week together, traveling to Nuwara Eliya, Ella, and all the way east to the surfing hot spot that is Arugam Bay. I hadn’t been to Ella or Arugam yet, and was really excited to explore these new places.
Ella was as beautiful as everyone promised it would be. We ate our breakfasts against a backdrop of waterfalls, and later hiked to those falls and beyond. The only consolation to leaving was knowing that in exchange for the cool nights and lush mountains, we’d get a sunny, uncrowded beach. In Arugam Bay, we stayed in a lovely ‘folly’ (see photo below) and spent hours reading, hanging out in the ocean, and enjoying meals with fellow travelers. It was so nice to have a friend from such a memorable period of my recent past come to Sri Lanka — it was so fun recounting our Vienna adventures together and discussing journalism, our shared interests, and the traveling life. This was my last extended trip out of Colombo, and it was one of the best weeks of the past nine months for me. I’ll let some of the photos from our vacation do the rest of the telling.
June 10, 2013
I’m well into my second semester of teaching at the University of Sri Jayewardenepura here in Sri Lanka. This semester, I’m teaching the same course – “Academic Reading & Writing” – but am teaching only second year students. (Who, last semester, were first year students. They’ve since had their summer vacation, which is why I wasn’t teaching for a few months – and is of course something I found out about a few weeks before break started. Aiyo, as we say in Lanka Land!)
While this semester is much shorter than my first one, it’s already been more enjoyable. I’ve felt less pressure since I knew I only had a short period of time with my students. (And, while we did need to do very academic things like review MLA this semester, I got those more difficult lessons out of the way last fall/winter!) After doing much reflecting since finishing up the first semester and getting feedback from my students, I decided my two biggest goals for this semester were to: 1) expose my students to as many well-known and diverse American writers as I could, and 2) help bring my students out of their shells as much as possible. These goals meant I spent a lot of time learning about some wacky writers and acting very wacky myself – I learned early on that if I get a little silly in the classroom, my students see that they can be silly, too. And I firmly believe that being silly is part of the learning process. And silly in the classroom can often equal success. If you can get a student to get out of their comfort zone, you can see they’re learning something — and that they’re comfortable enough to share the fact that they’re learning something.
When I came back to work, it was really nice to see that my students from last semester were happy to see me and were eager to have me teach them again. And I was so pleased that in the classroom, the level of discussion was significantly higher than last semester. When my students began reading Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer, they came to class armed with questions. I was just really happy they came with questions, even when I realized that their questions were mostly about South Dakota and Alaska and what it’s like to go hunting and to hitchhike and to not talk to one’s parents for months at a time. I have no personal experience with any of these things, which in their eyes apparently made me not very American or adventurous (you can guess which I was more offended by), but I did my best, and we had what I think were some great discussions about things that make life on the other side of the world unique. I’ll never forget, though, when one student raised his hand while we were discussing the protagonist of Into the Wild in depth and asked, “But, Madam, I just don’t get it. Why would anyone WANT to go to Alaska?”
This short semester means I’m not able to assign and discuss as many books with my students as I’d like. So my shortcut to broadening their horizons of exposure in terms of American authors is having them spend the first twenty minutes of class reflecting on a quote by an American author. As their teacher, it’s a lot of fun to read their responses to quotes (which, yes, are some of my favorite literature/writing quotes that I’ve collected over the years) by writers such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Barbara Kingsolver, Dr. Seuss, Maya Angelou, and Walt Whitman, to name a few. When they’ve finished writing, I spend a few minutes telling them about the quote’s author, their life, what kind of writing they’re known for, etc. This is basically just a writing practice and name dropping exercise, but they seem to enjoy it, and I’m glad I can share with them some memorable thoughts by some wonderful writers.
My students are currently reading The Help by Kathryn Stockett. Last week, when I sat down to think about how to introduce the novel and the issues that are addressed in it, I posted the following on Facebook (and thought I’d share it here since it sort of captures that moment for me):
sitting in a colombo cafe, surrounded by papers and books, lesson planning for tomorrow’s classes. creating an activity in which i introduce the civil rights movement to my university-level sri lankan students, who are about to begin reading “the help.” feeling part of more than a few different worlds and pieces of history right now, as i recall historical moments of injustice in my country while living in a country currently struggling to come out of civil unrest and injustices of its own. will my students grasp this? will they appreciate the significance? i don’t know. but we’re gonna have fun with it, and maybe some flashes of comparison and understanding will strike. because this is literature, and life, as summed up by one of my students last week when i asked her her why she loves literature: “because, ms. natalie, it’s just so alive.”
And we did have fun with it. And sparks of understanding did strike. And literature is so alive. As I watched my students sit in small groups and plan skits while flipping through pages of The Help and smiling, I couldn’t help but smile myself – I think I could be a teacher for fifty years and never get tired of seeing students engage with books and demonstrate that they’ve made important connections between the books they’re reading and the lives they’re leading. When, in one skit, a group of students reenacted the story of Rosa Parks on the bus and had the young lady playing Rosa say MLK’s famous line (I had them watch his “I Have a Dream” speech for homework) to her bus mate – “We should be judged not by the color of our skin, but by the content of our character” – I got chills. My students were getting it. Maybe not completely, but they were starting to grapple with the Civil Rights Movement, with racism as it played out in the not-so-distant past, with acts of injustice and with the courage required to take a stand. They were taking this piece of literature and struggling with it and enjoying it. They were making connections and asking me about things like ebonics and who says “y’all” in America and telling me about why it’s considered “better” to be a light-skinned Sri Lankan than dark-skinned and what they think about that. My classroom has seen the best discussions it ever has the past few weeks, the kinds that consist of more questions than answers, that bring up tough things and make us all a little uncomfortable for a moment or two. I’m humbled every single day in that classroom, and even though my time teaching here in Sri Lanka is coming to an end, I know I’ll stay humbled by this experience for some time to come.
June 1, 2013
Most days, living and working in the country that celebrates the most holidays of any nation in the world is a wonderful thing. Who wouldn’t be more than happy to celebrate the birth of Buddha, the birth of Christ, two New Years and Pongal (not to mention countless other special occasions) all in a span of nine months? And sometimes you just never know when you’re going to have the day off. When I asked my friend Chamindha last month if we could together on a Wednesday (it was the Monday prior), he said, “No, that’s going to be a holiday.” “Since when?” I asked him, not having heard that there was an official holiday that week. “Since yesterday,” he replied.
In Sri Lanka, there are official holidays, and there are unofficial holidays. Almsgiving, or giving alms, is a religious rite that feels very much like a holiday, at least to me. I attended my first almsgiving in April, having been invited by a colleague who was holding an almsgiving at her house in honor of her mother’s 70th birthday. In Buddhism, monks and nuns go on almsrounds to collect food. People invite monks or nuns to their homes, often in observance of a birthday or funeral, and serve them a well-prepared meal which the monks bless before eating. Once the monks have eaten and left, the gatherers all share in a feast as well.
I showed up at my colleague’s house at 10:30am the day of the almsgiving (monks cannot eat after noon). As the other guests (mostly family members and neighbors) began to show up, I counted two sets of twins, thirty adults, eleven monks, and one ‘sudu,’ aka foreigner/white person – me :) The atmosphere was one of a bridal shower or wedding, with many women running around making preparations and a general buzz of festivity in the air. Instead of a single person being the center of attention, though (even though this was technically a birthday party), all eyes were on the monks, with their shaved heads, bright orange robes and quiet, commanding presence.
When the monks were all seated, my host and her family members began serving them while everyone else sat on the ground and watched. The monks were served rice, ‘sweet meats’ (which are just sweets), an array of curries, and fresh fruit. After eating, guests offered the monks neatly-wrapped packages of books, pens, and robes. (The host, Shumara, handed me a wrapped bundle and showed me how to properly offer it to one of the monks; as I bowed down to do so, he blessed it and gave me a hint of a smile, probably because I smiled at him, which I probably wasn’t supposed to do. I’m still figuring out the rules of interacting with monks!) The monks chanted blessings throughout the whole ceremony, and when they were done, they filed out of the house, and all the gathered guests enjoyed a delicious catered buffet. I sat in a chair in a corner of the room eating my plate of yummy rice and curry with my hand (I worry I will forget to use utensils when I return to the States) and watching people around me chat, eat, and laugh. Finishing my lunch, I thought about how to carefully word a burning question I’ve had since I moved to Sri Lanka: do monks wear underwear? Under those heavy robes, there’s gotta be something, right?? Another colleague of mine from the university was sitting nearby, so I made some small talk about monks and then asked her my question. Turns out they do wear underwear – sort of. Not sure I should go into detail about that here, but I was glad to have that burning question answered!
Here’s a quickly-put-together video of some low-quality iPhone pictures put to an audio clip of the monks chanting:
In the middle of April, Sri Lanka observed the Sinhalese New Year (සිංහල අලුත් අවුරුද්ද). It’s a major anniversary celebrated by not only Sinhalese people but most Sri Lankans, and the timing of it coincides with the New Year celebrations of many traditional calendars of South and Southeast Asia. The holiday marks the end of the harvest season and spring, and it’s the most celebrated day of the year.
It’s not always rainbows and butterflies in Sri Lanka, but there are always, always fireworks. And during the New Year holiday weekend, fireworks were fired off constantly. I’m talking middle-of-the-night, there-are-gunshots-going-off-next-to-my-head fireworks. A few friends and I spent the holiday weekend at my friend Chamindha’s house in Nuwara Eliya, and it was a blast spending the holiday doing traditional, festive things with a lovely Sri Lankan family.
It was also very tiring. This year, the specific, auspicious time of the New Year – like our New Year’s midnight – was 4:30 am. The day before, we spent the morning in the kitchen with Chamindha’s mother and sisters making and eating traditional New Year sweets, like kokis and mung kavum. For the first time in my life, I ate so much sugar (read: ran out of ways to politely decline the copious amounts of sugary tea and sweets) that I could not sleep that night. Lying awake in the dark, listening to all the celebratory fireworks, I could actually feel the sugar rushing through my veins. There are certain things I like to feel rushing through my body, but sugar, I’ve decided, is not one of them.
At 4 a.m., the household woke up, and we gathered in the kitchen for the lighting of the hearth. At 4:30, Amma (Mother) lit the fire under the pot of milk on the stove. As we watched the milk froth and bubble over on the hearth, Chamindha explained to us that having the pot of milk overflow ensures good fortune and prosperity in the coming year. Amma poured us each a cup of warm milk, we Americans “cheersed” (that’s what we’re supposed to do on New Year’s, right?) and with that, the New Year had officially begun. The warm milk settling in my stomach, I promptly went back to bed.
Later that morning, celebrations resumed, and neighbors came over to eat and play games. The town of Nuwara Eliya was full of crowds that weekend – turns out this little town in the hill country is the Times Square of New Year’s celebrations. Walking around town with my friends, I breathed in the cool, festive air. I’m one of those people who really enjoys watching other people enjoy themselves, and it was really nice to see families out and about, celebrating and having a good time. Holidays are special for so many reasons, and even though I don’t always know what to expect with Sri Lankan holidays or understand all of the traditions, it’s always fun to get wrapped up in the joyful holiday atmosphere.
And now it’s near the end of May, and Colombo is covered in white paper lanterns. Bright strings of lights drape the streets; big, lit-up lotus flowers are everywhere. It’s Vesak, or ‘Buddha’s Birthday,’ here in Sri Lanka, and the capital city’s humid streets are filled with people commemorating the birth, enlightenment, and passing away of Gautama Buddha.
Sri Lanka has been a stronghold of Buddhism since the fourth century BC, and if any occasion on the island illustrates this, it’s Vesak. The joy that accompanies Vesak is palpable; walking around Beira Lake – located in the heart of Colombo and near my house – I see more smiles than I ever have on these city streets. Buddhists make special efforts around Vesak to give to charities, serve the less fortunate, and share goodwill and happiness, so these smiles are a natural result of celebrating a very holy day.
The lights are what really get me, though. Christmas in the States (our Vesak- equivalent in many respects) doesn’t come close in comparison. During Vesak (like Christmas, it’s officially a two-day celebration/holiday, but the decorations and spirit last for weeks), Colombo shrugs off its rough-around-the-edges feel and blossoms with paper lanterns and strings of colorful, tasteful lights that adorn almost all the city’s offices and homes. Ignoring the fact that the lanterns swaying in the hot breeze look a bit like jellyfish wiggling their way through thick air, riding tuk-tuk’s and driving through the city just became a whole lot prettier.
And, this weekend, the city itself – home to a melting pot of religions and nationalities – really feels like one big community. I see no individual showcases of lights, and the only commercialism comes with all the lovely lanterns for sale on the side of the road in the days leading up to the holiday. For the first time that I can remember, I’m observing a holiday that – at least from where I’m standing – seems to be being celebrated truly in accordance to its holy roots. The message is not buried under heaps of presents or food; it’s being lived out along these lights and lanterns, under the moonlight, on people’s faces all over the city. And it’s really something.
Here’s to you, Buddha.
May 10, 2013
I’m standing on the balcony of a friend’s Colombo apartment, listening to the Indian Ocean. The night air smells like a city that I know too well but also not nearly well enough. The nearby waves are being drowned out by the latest episode of Game of Thrones being streamed by my friends inside, so I’m being serenaded by battle cries instead of by crashing water (which makes me smile). The cozy kitchen light is sneaking through the open doorway behind me and when I wiggle my toes, I see shadow puppets. Shadows of seven months of ups and downs, of lessons well-learned and nights ill-spent. Shadows of loved ones that came and went, friendships that formed and faded, pieces of me that bubbled to the surface and got slowly pushed back down.
But shadows are also glimmers, truths that came and stayed. My people who visited, my students who learned – these small ways that the world was permanently changed. I know mine has been. And it’s the glimmers that have me loving this place in ways I cannot say, ways that I don’t even understand yet. This salty air. This stench of trash. This harsh light, these howling dogs, these noisy tuk-tuks that have taken me in zigs and zags all over the city. The languages, the curries, the smiles and the scowls. The beggars and the briefcases. In this moment, wrapped in this warm air on this welcoming balcony with the ocean to my left, the city to my right, arms resting on this rail and my friends nestled on a couch inside behind me – in this moment, I know if I can call Colombo home, I can call anywhere home.
May 5, 2013
Imagine the lightest you’ve ever felt. The most carefree, the most full of joy. When’s the last time you felt like you could do anything in the world? When’s the last time you felt so light that you could fly?
Now imagine the longest you’ve ever sat still, the longest you’ve ever gone without speaking or making eye contact, the longest you’ve gone without reading anything. Imagine sleeping on a very thin cushion on top of a wooden board for ten nights; eating two vegan meals a day and not eating anything after noon; getting so accustomed to waking up at 4 a.m. and using a squat toilet that you come to prefer it.
I recently completed my second ten-day vipassana meditation course. Since sitting my first ten-day course with Jesse a year and a half ago, I’ve attended a three-day course in Blue Ride, Virginia and have tried hard to maintain my practice of meditating regularly. When I found out I would be returning to Sri Lanka to live and work for nine months, I knew I would do a second ten-day course. I’ve now been here seven months, and I knew it was now or never. So here I am, in the rolling hills of Kandy, feeling nervous and excited and ready to work.
Day Zero. Upon arriving at the meditation center, I notice the first big difference between the first course I did alongside Jesse and this one – this time around, instead of being one of only two Westerners, I’m one of many non-Sri Lankans here for the course. Since I couldn’t ask anyone where they were from and why they were in Sri Lanka, I had to spend ten days superficially guessing nationalities based on physical appearances and clothes, but I’ll spare my readers the suspense – of about fifty meditators, there were men and women from Scotland, Italy, Norway, Finland, Sri Lanka, India, Canada, Russia, Macedonia, and the U.S. (me). Many had come just for this course; some had quit their jobs and were seeking peace and quiet; others were experienced meditators; still others had been traveling the world for years and just sort of ended up here for a little while. Needless to say, when we were all allowed to talk again on Day Ten, I had many inspiring conversations with some very interesting people.
Before going to bed on the first day, I reacquaint myself with the vipassana schedule, the same schedule that is followed by all vipassana course attendees, all over the world:
4:00am Morning wake-up bell
4:30-6:30 Meditate in the hall
6:30-8:00 Breakfast & rest
8:00-9:00 Group meditation in the hall
9:00-11:00 Meditate in the hall (old students may meditate in cells)
11:00-1:00pm Lunch & rest
1:00-2:30 Meditate in the hall (old students may meditate in cells)
2:30-3:30 Group meditation in the hall
3:30-5:00 Meditate in the hall (old students may meditate in cells)
5:00-6:00 Tea break
6:00-7:00 Group meditation in the hall
7:00-8:15 Teacher’s discourse in the hall
8:15-9:00 Group meditation in the hall
9:00-9:30 Retire to room; lights out
And some members of my family don’t think I could have made it in the military.
Day Two. This is hard. Even though I have a good idea of what to expect, even though I am here sans-boyfriend this time and thus without a significant (though lovely) distraction, it’s hard. It’s hard not communicating; it’s hard coaxing my mind back to the present moment when it’s off dreaming and planning and creating; it’s hard not moving a muscle during a two-hour sitting. Most of all, though, it’s hard feeling this light. Don’t get me wrong – it feels incredible, and I can’t remember the last time I felt this refreshed. But letting go of worries, anxieties, negative feelings of all kind… good or bad, it’s hard to let go of things we’ve become attached to. It’s hard to let yourself feel light.
Teacher calls it “mental surgery.” I call it “mental bootcamp,” or on the days when I’m feeling lighter and more positive, “mental spring cleaning.” I guess it’s all of these things. As I meditate, I can feel my mind becoming clearer. But it’s tough and painful at times, and there are moments where I wish I could be curled up in my big bed in Colombo, eating pizza and reading a book. But I’m here for a reason, because deep down I need and want to be here, and I’m not a quitter. And I know from experience how great I’ll feel by Day Ten. I continue working.
Day Four. When your mind is quiet, you pay more attention to everything. You stop walking to watch the clouds part after an afternoon thunderstorm, pausing to appreciate the sun setting in its humble, glorious way. You sit still long enough to realize that the crickets, who fill the balmy nights with their incessant chirping, are actually having a lively conversation that you can sort of follow, if you listen really closely. When your mind is quiet, the little things matter more. The bright orange of the monk’s robes. The forty-five minutes after breakfast that quickly, easily become blissful nap time. The Werther’s Original caramel that is placed next to your evening cup of tea on Day Three, giving you a tiny piece of home at a time when you feel the farthest from home you’ve ever felt. One of my favorite phrases, “It’s all about the little things,” takes on a whole new meaning with every passing day of this course so that by Day Ten, I’m so very appreciative of the thriving colony of ants that has taken refuge in the corner of my room because they, too, have a place to sleep at night.
Which brings me to the feeling of going a little crazy here. (If you know me at all, you know I do not like ants or insects of any kind.) But I think you know your meditation is going well when you feel a little crazy, because you truly get outside of yourself – it’s not about you anymore. As an old student (defined by having done at least one ten-day vipassana course), I now have the option of meditating in what’s called a ‘cell,’ a very small private room surrounded by other tiny meditation cells near the main meditation hall. (I wish they didn’t call it a cell, because it automatically makes me think of a prison cell, but it is what it is.) I’ve been assigned Cell #3. Cell #3 has a bright blue meditation cushion, a little light bulb (which I never turn on because the light it emits is awful), and is brimming with complete silence. The cells around me are also occupied by old students, and so it’s eerily quiet in these cells, which makes it easier to mediate, but also drives you crazy after a while and has you missing the birds and the clearing of throats and the far-away music coming from the ice-cream-man’s tuk tuk.
But with that quiet comes the good stuff. The silence makes it easier to remember why I’m here, what I’m practicing, why I care about this and how it fulfills me. To practice vipassana is to observe things as they really are (as opposed to how they may appear or how one may want them to be). To truly understand vipassana meditation, one must observe it at the most basic, experiential level – through the framework of the body. Vipassana is observing, experiencing, and ultimately understanding the constant changing nature of both the physical and mental structures. This is what I’m being reminded of. This is what I am re-learning.
Day Five. Theoretically, we all understand constant change. Rushes of emotions; stages of a relationship; life itself. On the surface level, we grasp impermanence – we know that anger and sadness fade away, that people and pets die and don’t come back. But we are creatures of habit, creatures of reactions, and while on some level we may “get” that old proverb – “No man steps in the same river twice, for he is not the same man and it is not the same river” – it’s very difficult to truly know this on the experiential, primal level. Vipassana teaches us to simply observe the ever-changing sensations constantly occurring on our body, to experience them but not react to them. Only then can we slowly come to a true understanding of impermanence, which is – I think – the ultimate law of nature. And only then can we accept the ephemeral nature of everything in life with peace, instead of with bitterness and misery.
Does that sound “so Buddhist” or what? Vipassana, an ancient form of meditation, has Buddhist roots, but is nonsectarian and is practiced by people of all faiths, all around the world, every day. That’s one huge reason I love it – it’s not a religion, it’s a way of life, no matter what god you pray to (if any) or what kind of afterlife you believe in (if at all). I enjoy the physical act of meditating, but I also enjoy making connections between the practice of vipassana and how it applies to nature, to human habits, to our intellectual understandings of change, peace, and harmony. I believe in those things and therefore I find it important to practice those things. This is my way of taking a big idea (or many) off the shelf and playing with it in my hands, tossing it gently to and from while I observe it. I don’t like just staring up at ideas or beliefs high up on an imposing shelf. I like to grapple with them, hold them up to the light, come to my own personal and individual understanding of what it is and what it means and how I experience it and relate to it.
That’s what vipassana is to me. It’s the ladder taking me up to that shelf of ideas and theories and all the things I need to experience and grapple with before I can accept them. There is a lot of truth here, in the meditation hall, in this practice. “The nature of seeing things as they truly are.” That’s powerful.
Day Eight. I can’t stop smiling. I literally have to come up with reasons to thank the volunteers serving us just so I can have someone to make eye contact with and smile at. (“Thank you for the water,” I whisper, because we are allowed to talk to the servers if we need to. “Thank you for offering up your time to serve us.” “Thank you for holding the door open for me on Day Six.”) I am genuinely happy. And it’s a powerful feeling, this happiness, because it’s coming from within. I am cultivating it, not reacting to something making me feel this way. It’s amazing, once you think about it, how much we rely on external things to make us happy. But we are in control of our emotions, we get to choose our attitudes and how we feel about things, and it’s so easy to forget that in everyday life. Vipassana doesn’t directly teach cultivating happiness – I think it’s a byproduct of going within yourself, exploring under the surface of the mind, peeling back the layers. It comes with purity. And it feels incredible.
Day Ten. I’m an emotional, spiritual, romantic person. My head isn’t always in the clouds, but more often than not, I’m dreaming or wondering about something. My heart, not my head, has the final say on most matters; I am hopeful and idealistic to a fault. And when I seek advice or words of wisdom, I usually go to my external world for truth and counsel, not my internal one.
Vipassana is objective observation. It is not at all intellectual (in its practice, at least). It is no cravings and no aversions; it teaches you NOT to react to things you are feeling. It is so completely different from the way I live my life, so seemingly out of line with my habits and aspects of my personality, and yet it is one of the most fulfilling and satisfying things I’ve ever come across.
That physically manifests itself on Day Ten, at 9:42 a.m, when noble silence is lifted and we all stand up from our meditation cushions and walk out into the morning. Everyone is smiling; many have tears in their eyes. We walk around bowing our heads to each other, saying “May you be well and happy.” I walk up a path near the meditation hall and sit for a while, taking in the beautiful scenery.
In a little while, I’ll go collect my cell phone from the office and call Jesse, grinning nonstop when I hear his voice. I’ll enjoy my simple rice and curry lunch over conversation with an Italian girl my age who left Milan with her boyfriend on a motorbike two years ago (they plan on returning to Italy to live “when the country has money again.”) I’ll take a short nap and return to the hall for afternoon meditation and the final evening discourse. Before bed, I’ll call my parents, and my mom will start filling me on everything that’s happened with the Boston Marathon bombing until I tell her I can’t handle hearing all that sad news right now. Tomorrow morning, I’ll say my goodbyes and head back to Colombo. I’ll get a headache from all the noise and heat and chaotic streets. I’ll arrive home to happy housemates, a dirty kitchen, and over a hundred emails.
But the lightness will last; the happiness will remain. A week later, my head is less empty but more calm, my thoughts more steady, my reactions more intentional. And I’ll realize, for the hundredth time, why I keep coming back to this, why vipassana is something that’s becoming a big part of my life. Because we all need a little quiet time, a chance to get away from it all. Because in our crazy, busy, exciting, boisterous, demanding, productive lives, we all need a chance to disconnect from the external world in order to reconnect with our internal one. Because so many of us think we can’t, but we can.
April 10, 2013
I have a little under three months left in Sri Lanka. I had planned to write a post at the halfway point, but that day came and went and I was too busy having fun to even really notice! So now it’s the 2/3 mark of my time here (determined by the length of my Fulbright grant, nine months), and I find myself sitting on a couch in a house in Trincomalee, roughly 180 miles from my home in Colombo, typing quietly because there are three Fulbrighters taking naps around me (I just woke up from mine). The heavy air promises a warm evening, and the whir of the overhead fan and sounds of the birds out in the yard echo home, or something like it. We’re making pumpkin curry for dinner.
Maybe it was the nap, maybe it was taking in the sight of a golden Hindu statue against a backdrop of the aqua-colored Indian Ocean earlier today, or maybe it’s just a result of being on the other side of this island I call home for the weekend – whatever it is, at this 2/3 point I’m feeling refreshed and clear-headed, grateful for my adventures so far and ready to make the most of this final stretch.
It’s funny how just a day, just a weekend away can change one’s perspective so much. When Jesse was here, he told me about how he likes doing something really intensely for a little while and then shaking things up and doing something that takes him out of his comfort zone and challenges him in a whole new way. In my last post, I wrote about routine and everyday life, but this weekend, life in Sri Lanka was delightfully shaken up. And I realized I love that. I enjoy small daily constants – waking up to a familiar face, a morning commute, reading before bed – but shaking things up really makes me appreciate those routine things even more.
The Trinco town adventure started with an overnight train ride – my first! – from Colombo to Trincomalee.
I felt like a little kid going to Grandma’s for the first time. If you know me, you know I love public transportation – especially trains. I was so ready for this ride; I had packed snacks, magazines, plenty of water, a blanket, my headlamp (and here I am wondering why my backpack is always the biggest when we leave the house). My friends and I shared two sleeper cars, each of which had a set of bunk beds, a small sink, and shared a bathroom. The train left at 9 p.m. and the four of us stayed up talking and hanging out until past midnight. The train was rickety, the compartment was smelly, and there was no sleep to be had amidst the shrill train horns, but there’s nothing quite like crossing an entire country in the middle of the night. I lay on my side in the bottom bunk, hands tucked underneath my head as I stared out the open window that my feet almost touched, the night air swirling around me. At its fastest, the train was going about 60 mph, but when we slowed down to pull into stops along the way, eerie silence enveloped the compartment and I couldn’t help but feel like I was on the Hogwarts Express and about to be overtaken by dementors. At 5 a.m., we pulled into the Trincomalee train station, stumbled out into the warm morning, and got in a tuk-tuk to head to (fellow Fulbright ETA) Sean’s house, where I promptly crawled into a bed and fell asleep.
I woke up a few hours later to seven of my friends under one roof! We had all come from different parts of the island to meet in Trinco for a couple of days (some of us stayed longer and some took scooters up north to Jaffna). Our group is a very proactive one, not prone to sit around doing nothing for long… so, by 10 a.m., we were out the door en route to Pigeon Island.
To get there, we hopped on a bus from Trinco to Nilaveli, got off after about forty minutes, walked down a sandy lane, and paid a man to drive us in his speedboat to the island. (It felt kind of cool to leave one relatively big island for another much smaller one!) Pigeon Island National Park is home to coral gardens, rock pools, and a tree swing to die for. Its shallow reef, we quickly learned, makes for incredible snorkeling, and the underwater landscape was like nothing I’d seen before.
Well, except for when watching Planet Earth.
How do I explain this? Snorkeling that afternoon, I saw every single fish from Finding Nemo (actually gurgled “Gill! Gill!” at one point). I saw fish longer than my calf; I saw fish that were literally every color of the rainbow. I swam with schools of neon-colored creatures that weren’t at all bothered by a huge human paddling among them. I floated on the surface for what felt like hours, just watching and taking in all that was occurring below me. Coral reef, starfish, entire ecosystems doing their thing while I just watched life happen. I know it was just snorkeling, but it felt bigger, it felt like life on a grander scale. Every once in a while, I think we all get a glimpse of that, that feeling of being so insignificant yet so interconnected that you can’t help but smile through your snorkel at it all.
And then it was a tuk-tuk ride back to Trinco and an evening of home-cooked food with friends. Pasta with REAL FETA CHEESE and sundried tomatoes; talks with Annelise & Jake about the best restaurants in Asheville that we’re hitting as soon as we’re home; discussing Sri Lankan politics and the Monsanto Protection Act. All in all – a pretty great day.
Oh, another highlight — I learned how to drive a scooter! (Thanks, Jake!)
The rest of the weekend was spent exploring Trinco, a place that was heavily affected by the recent civil war, but is starting to thrive again. Trinco sits along one of the world’s deepest natural harbors, is full of history, and is charming in its own way. I love that two of our Fulbrighters live there, because it’s a town that sees few tourists (most just pass through to head up north a bit for the nice beaches), and we’ve all lived in Sri Lanka long enough to be tired of feeling like a tourist when we travel around the country.
We walked through streets lined with colorful old houses, enjoyed a rice and curry lunch, stopped by the train station, and just felt out the town for a bit. In the afternoon, we meandered through Fort Frederick and saw the Buddha statue at the Gokana Temple, as well as the famous Koneswaram Kovil, one of Sri Lanka’s most spiritually important Hindu sites. My favorite was walking up to Swami Rock, a scenic 130 meter-high cliff that offered beautiful panoramic views of the aqua-blue Indian Ocean.
(Note: It’s considered culturally insensitive to be photographed with one’s back to Buddha, something I’ve remembered when visiting lots of other Buddha relics but unfortunately forgot on this hot day in Trinco. I still wanted to share it, though, and I do so with an apology to Lord Buddha for any unintentional disrespect!)
So, it was a fantastic weekend exploring a part of Sri Lanka I hadn’t yet adventured in. On the long bus ride back to Colombo, as we chased the sunset across the island, I had to laugh when I saw something that you’ll only find in this part of the world, when West meets East sometimes a little too abruptly: a run-of-the-mill Pizza Hut next to a grand, pristine, towering Buddha. I didn’t get a photo of it, but maybe that’s a good thing.
April 6, 2013
“Look, the point is there’s no way to be a hundred percent sure about anyone or anything. So you’re left with a choice. Either hope for the best or just expect the worst. So fail. Be bad at things. Be embarrassed. Be afraid. Be vulnerable. Go out on a limb or two or twelve, and you will fall and it will hurt. But the harder you fall, the farther you will rise. The louder you fail, the clearer your future becomes. Failure is a gift; welcome it. There are people who spend their whole lives wondering how they became the people they became, how certain chances passed them by, why they didn’t take the road less traveled. Those people aren’t you. You have front row seats to your own transformation, and in transforming yourself, you might even transform the world. And it will be electric, and I promise you it will be terrifying. Embrace that, embrace the new person you’re becoming. This is your moment. I promise you, it is now, now, not two minutes from now, not tomorrow, but really now. Own that, know that deep in your bones, go to sleep every night knowing that, wake up every morning remembering that. And then… keep going.”
- author unknown
April 3, 2013
Life in Colombo is settling again. While I usually like routines, it’s taking some effort to come off of four months of visitors and get back into the swing of daily life. I spent most of this past week going to work at the publishing house, doing errands, cooking, reading, and attempting to start lesson planning for my next semester of teaching – normal activities that bring a certain level of peace to daily life here, but that I haven’t done much of on my own time in months.
Jesse was here for most of March (!!!), and we had a really wonderful visit together. It was pretty special to be reunited in Sri Lanka, where it all began for us, and to be adventuring here for the third time in two years! We’ve already shared some stories from his visit on our blog (Stories from the Dusty Road) but I wanted to post some more photos from his visit here.
After a few fun days in Colombo, we started adventuring by heading to the Kelani River where we spent an afternoon white water rafting and canyoning. I’ll be honest — paddling through rapids and diving from cliffs into naturally-formed pools of water with my boyfriend made for one of the best afternoons I’ve ever had in Sri Lanka. We spent the night in a tent next to the river, and the next morning, headed to home-away-from-home Nuwara Eliya. We visited Seetha Eliya, a school that we taught at for a bit in the fall of 2011, and it was so good to see some of the kids again (who have ALL gotten taller!) We had promised them we’d come back someday, and we did, if only for a little. It felt good to keep that promise. And in true Elon fashion, we participated in a Periclean-sponsored tree planting ceremony at another local school.
A few days later, we took my favorite scenic train ride back to Colombo and came home to almost all of my fellow Fulbrighters at the house! We all had to give midterm review presentations at the Fulbright Commission the next day, so everyone was in town.
Another fun weekend in Colombo (complete with dancing at a jazz bar and going out for some great Italian food) and then it was down south to Matara to hang out with our favorite Asheville couple, Jake and Annelise (Annelise is a Fulbright ETA like me). We spent an evening eating hoppers, playing board games on their refreshingly cold tile floor, and talking plans for Tiny Houses (Google it!) From there, it was Nat & Jesse beach time! We spent the rest of the week along the southwest coast, surfing, picnicking, doing crosswords, and playing in the waves.
Back in Colombo, Jesse and I celebrated two years together at my favorite restaurant in Colombo (Gallery Café). We spent an afternoon at the university I teach at and I got to show Jesse my work life, taking him on a grand tour and sharing a lunch of rice and curry in the faculty cafeteria (and having some photo shoot fun in the classroom!) On his last day, we visited Amma (our Sri Lankan mother) in Homagama, where we had tea (I don’t know how she does it, but Amma’s milk tea is the best in Lanka) and chatted for a while — somehow, only then did it feel right that Jesse was leaving. Amma has a way of putting everything in perspective. And soon after a last dinner of kottu on Galle Face Green, Jes was on his way.
That was a big sum up of Jesse’s time here, but I’m sure you get the gist of the great times we had! It was just so nice to be traveling and adventuring together again in a place we have a history in and have come to really love. And after a sad post-Jesse morning, it was back to normal life. But life in Colombo doesn’t stay mundane for long – last Saturday, I went to a French film festival with my friend Sarah and saw a very good but very disturbing film called “Incendies,” after which we decided there was no way we could each return to our empty homes and attempt to sleep, so we went out for a drink at a nearby bar. This bar happens to be attached to an outdoor rooftop swimming pool that is associated with a VERY NICE downstairs gym – Ben, you’d approve! – and I found out that if I join the gym, I get free access to the pool whenever I want, so guess who’s now set up with some very sweet fitness plans for the next three months? This girl!
And two days later, I went to my first Almsgiving, which I’m going to write about soon – it’s a cultural experience and special event that deserves its own post! All said, life in Colombo is settling again sans visitors, but it’s not without its everyday uniqueness. I’m learning to be grateful for all these routine-disrupters – after all, I’m not living in Sri Lanka for nine months to be settled and comfortable!
So on that note, I’m off to catch a overnight train to Trincomalee, a city on the northeast coast of the island. I’m looking forward to a fun weekend of shaking off the post-visitor-departure blues, complete with time with Fulbright friends, a new town to explore, and a trip to what is apparently Sri Lanka’s first water park…? :) Api yamu!
March 23, 2013
It’s been a while! I’m on the road traveling but wanted to post a quick update about what’s been going on here in Sri Lanka for me over the past month or so.
My very good friend Julie came from NYC to visit for two weeks in February! We had a fantastic time—from biking around ancient cities to cooking traditional Sri Lankan food in a rural village (the name of which, in English, translates to “milk rice paddy field”) to hiking to World’s End in a beautiful national park to having beers on the beach, our travels together were as diverse as the island itself. The nature of Julie’s and my friendship – since becoming friends seven years ago – is ridiculously global. We have visited each other in almost all of the places we have lived/studied abroad over the years, from Michigan to Greece to Washington, D.C. to North Carolina to Italy to Pennsylvania to New York (not to mention traveling together throughout Europe when we lived in Germany).. and now Sri Lanka’s added to the list! It was so, so great having one of my best girls here for a bit. (Here are just a few of many fun pictures from her visit!)
For a piece of random life news, I went to the dentist a couple of weeks ago. It was time for a cleaning and I had heard good things about dentists in Colombo. Sure enough, my teeth were thoroughly cleaned… in only thirty minutes and for a grand total of 1,000 rupees ($8). The dentist remarked to me that “you and your other American friends who come to me have better teeth than the models we practice on in dental school.” To which I laughed and replied, “There are some things we definitely do right in America — dental care is one of them!” Hooah.
I recently found out that my second semester of teaching – which I was told over and over again by my colleagues and head of department would be starting at the end of March – is not beginning until May 6th. I was disappointed when I heard this, as I really love my teaching job, but as we say in Sri Lanka, “What to do?” So, I found something to keep me busy – I recently started working/interning at the Perera Hussein Publishing House, located just around the corner from my house in Colombo! Right now, I’m helping the owners select and edit stories for a children’s book. The other day, I spent three hours surrounded by books, sitting in a wicker chair, drinking fruit juice, and marking up stories about elephants (and the human-elephant conflict in Sri Lanka), the ocean (and what we can all do to help preserve the environment) and a fun array of other things. I’ve been asked to work directly with authors when I’m helping to edit their manuscripts, and the owners are graciously opening up their office and minds for me to help me learn as much about the publishing business as I can. Needless to say, I’m pretty happy about this opportunity!
Speaking of open minds, I’ve signed up for another vipassana silent meditation course! I’ll spend the last week or so of April in Kandy at a vipassana center set high in the hills of tea country. With my string of visitors the past couple of months, I haven’t kept up my meditation practice as well as I could, but I’m looking forward to another challenging but blissful ten-day course.
The big news of the moment is that JESSE IS HERE! He arrived on the 7th and slept until the 10th. Just kidding – the man-who-can-sleep-forever surprised me by getting over jet lag rather quickly! I’ll (of course) be blogging about our adventures here after he leaves, but we’ve been having a great time catching up, traveling, hanging with fellow Fulbrighters, and just being together again. Sri Lanka is where we “began” two years ago, after all – so it’s pretty special to be reunited here.
We actually just got inspired to write a post on the blog that we shared when we were traveling around Sri Lanka in the fall of 2011 – it’s our traveling blog, after all, and while we’ve traveled around the U.S. since then, we haven’t posted on it in a while and thought it was about time :) Read our latest post at Stories from the Dusty Road.
And now it’s off to an evening swim in the ocean with my guy. This update in a nutshell: life in Sri Lanka is as good as ever.