allowing myself to wonder

When you fail at your religion, what do you do? Where do you go from there? These questions are ones I’ve sought to answer over the past decade and a half.

I used to think there were two options: be a religious zealot or be a militant materialist. No matter how much I tried at the first, some of the fine print of the brand of Christianity that was available to me didn’t resonate with me. My conscience couldn’t allow me to live peacefully with some of the core tenets of my (so-called) faith.

For example, I  couldn’t subscribe to the idea that there is one right religion or spiritual philosophy and everybody not in that group was going to hell to suffer eternal wrath. This idea was probably easier for people to believe when globalization wasn’t a reality. Instant access to information and communication through the internet has made us conclusively aware that we are all humans. Also, international travel has become so common too. We just book tickets online and get on a plane. We go to other countries, experience different cultures, and realize—it’s all one world. After traveling to Thailand and experiencing a largely Buddhist culture, I was convinced that Buddhists have God inside them.

I couldn’t believe that God thought being born gay was sinful. You can give me Bible verses all you want, even though there aren’t many that address this specifically—but even so, I can give you some about shellfish and women not having braids or speaking in church. Every denomination of Christians picks and chooses what they think is essential to being a true believer and what they dismiss as “oh, that was cultural back then.” I remember once someone telling me that people couldn’t drink water because of lead poisoning and that’s why Jesus was making water into wine. It was a party—a wedding—and providing your guests with good wine was considered polite and fun. Religion and culture are integrated and affected by one another and always have been.

I couldn’t believe that God had pre-ordained gender roles (i.e., God wanted men to be spiritual leaders and women to be subordinate). I just couldn’t believe that an all powerful, all wise Being whose infinite knowledge transcended time and culture and space would set up the foundation for Truth on such culturally defined norms–and bad ones at that. Or on such seemingly arbitrary biological terms. As society was evolving beyond such negative norms (now known as prejudice) I wanted to be on the side of history that empowered the socially weak, not oppressed or excluded them.

Throughout my childhood, I didn’t have exposure to ideologies outside of evangelical or pentecostal Christianity; I went through high school just before having a computer and the internet was a common thing. So at age 19, I stepped into my first anthropology class and my heart and mind swooned. I finally found a more similar tribe of people. Social and cultural anthropologists!!

Finally people with doctorates from reputable universities were not only saying that gender roles were all cultural but also giving me studies upon studies that suggested evidence of such. The importance of culture and how that affected everything one thinks and believes and experiences— oh, they were such kindred spirits on so many levels.

Except in as much as most of these kindred spirits didn’t think we had spirits. As time went on, I realized that I diverged from some of my most respected professors in terms of spirituality. Most of my professors thought the very notion of God was ridiculous and a relic from when humans were still fatalistic and far more at the mercy of predators, natural disasters, and crops.

So, as I aged into my later twenties, and was at that time working for a philosophy association I tried on atheism for a while. This was only sometimes in my mind, though. I was far too fearful to admit this on a social level. I was afraid of what people would say and think of me. “Oh, she’s so deceived. So backslidden” I could imagine people would say. And honestly, I had always related to God and was in the habit of relating to God constantly. I kept praying without thinking and then I’d have to remind myself I didn’t believe in God; it was a lot of work.

I quickly realized that atheism didn’t work for me. It, too, took more faith than I had. There was too much of a spiritual place carved out in my life that needed to be filled with something more than just what we see and touch. I needed meaning to be more than just life and death here on earth; I needed purpose, and I needed love to be more than just chemicals. I needed something bigger than I was to hold onto when life got scary.

But, I wasn’t convinced of anything specific like my parents had been when they had radical conversions to becoming Christians. Most of the adult leaders in my life had been hippies or at least partiers in the 60’s and/or 70’s and so had these drastic “come to Jesus” experiences where they honestly became like different people because of authentic spiritual encounters with God.

But I was 3 when I became a Christian. I didn’t have much of a past—at all—let alone a bad one. I didn’t have any radical conversion moment that left me convinced when my mind started to really criticize and analyze. So once I became a critical thinking adult who wanted to truly step outside of the faith to get perspective on it, I realized that I didn’t know anything for sure about my authentic, volitional spirituality. I really didn’t know if I believed all this—or any of this—at all.

Admitting I didn’t know meant admitting I didn’t believe what I was supposed to believe. And that felt like failure. So much so that I couldn’t think past the failure. So I remained stuck in this state of feeling like a failed Christian. But knowing what you’re not is very different from knowing who you are.

But then, I moved to Topanga, an open minded mountain town in southern California known for being inhabited by eclectic and creative residents. Nestled in the dramatic Santa Monica mountains and overlooking the Pacific Ocean, it immediately captured my intrigue and quickly my heart. The open mindedness and vastness of opportunity there made it apparent that no one was going to care what I did or didn’t believe. It wasn’t going to matter to anyone if I wasn’t a Christian. And that was the first time I started to feel free.

There was no shame in Topanga. No shame. A culture without shame! How amazing. How freeing. As I started to really let myself live and be in this new reality without shame, I was able to move beyond what I didn’t believe and toward what I wondered. I was able to be curious. I was able to feel intrigued by the ideas and hypotheses I had about the Universe, Divine reality, and how humans fit into the greater whole of being. It allowed me to slowly feel free to leave the intellectual and spiritual prison I’d been remaining in for so long out of fear and shame. Just like the mountains and sparkling blue ocean stretch as far as the eye can see, the spiritual and cognitive space is also vast. And in that wide and open environment, I was finally able to emerge from my chrysalis of doubt and emerge into a state of curious, hopeful wonder.

Allowing myself to wonder led me to hold this thought in my heart and mind long enough for it to take root: what if we are all born with God in us? What if we all have a Divine spark inside of us? And what if, because of that, we also are born with an innate yearning to be reunited with the Higher source of that spark?

In Hindu religious thought this concept of innate Divinity and also a Higher Being is known at Atman and Brahman, God Immanent and God Transcendent. In Quaker religious thought, it is known as an Inner Light, or God within. In fact this very idea of God being within every person that comes into the world is what the founder of Quakerism, George Fox, suffered persecution to promote.

And that’s at the heart of my complaint with some sects of religious thought; religion, without love, can be exclusive and shaming.

Ideologies that focus on the depravity of the human soul are unhelpful at best. Shaming people about the core of their being is not an effective way to produce creative, inspired, and loving people. I know that for believers of Christianity, this way of thinking ideally all resolves in the good news that Jesus is the Savior. But it also implies an almost necessary self-hatred on the nature of one’s being.

I believe that there is light and dark, good and bad, in all of us. I don’t think we are born gods. But I do believe we have God in us and that if we foster that part of our being and find ways to plug into the God that transcends us and unites us all, then we can find Truth and Love and Life right here and now.

Richard Rohr calls this unitive source of Life the Cosmic Christ. And He is one of the only Christian-oriented writers and thinkers that I hear and think, “wow! I believe this! I can believe THIS!” He and many of the spiritual leaders from various paths that I respect suggest that the Divine reality, this transcendent Truth is all around us if we can only learn to truly see. And that’s the part I’m trying to learn now. 

Dusting off and practicing my spiritual skill set (meditation, prayer, and transcendent experience), however, is not the easiest task. I’ve been able to connect intellectually with these ideas about opening my mind and heart to hopeful, curious wonder about God, but I haven’t yet been able to get the spiritual muscles, so to speak, back in shape yet.

So, as always, I continue the journey.

Posted in religion, spirituality | 17 Comments

the summer of 1992

I’ve been thinking a lot lately (roughly the past 10 years) about religion, faith, spirituality, and all the many twists and turns that my own personal journey has taken over my lifetime. After spending a good 8 years deconstructing all that I don’t believe anymore, I’ve spent the past 2 gradually reconstructing what it is that I do believe.

Writing is my therapy, and it’s how I untangle my thoughts. I’m going to start journaling through my journey of spirituality in weeks and months to come. For now, I’m going to stroll down memory lane to a pivotal and defining era and a few events that shaped the course of my spiritual identity.

I, like basically all of my friends from my childhood, was raised as a Christian. I was taught to see the world through a moderately conservative Christian lens. I use the word “moderately” because most of my peers were from families far stricter than my own. Though my mom converted to Christianity before I was born—and had thus left behind many of her wild ways of the 60’s and 70’s—she could never let go of music with a good beat or M*A*S*H and Jeopardy. So, unlike many of my fellow Christian homeschool friends, we listened to the radio and were allowed to watch some television. Also, my dad, (whom in recent years has been diagnosed with Asperger’s) had a bit of a temper and would use some rather colorful language whenever frustrated. Also, he taught me to defend myself and anyone weaker than I was, so I had knocked down a handful of bullies in my day. So, between the radio, the tv, the fact that I knew all the basic curse words, and had been in a few fist fights—I felt like I was a pretty normal American kid.

I guess I always sort of knew that I resided rather on the fringe of the conservative world in which I lived. My mom, while staying squarely within a Christian framework, always questioned (and still does) everything being taught from the pulpit. She would dissect the teaching with her own understanding of the Bible (which was deep and vast as she woke up before the sun every morning to pray and read said Bible—and still does). So, it was modeled to me to ask questions, challenge what people—especially patriarchal, loud, authoritative leaders—said.

So, I had this idea that I was a little bit different than the other more sheltered and obedient Christians, but I felt like I had my place among them.

But then just as the summer that I was 11 years old began, we were informed that my sister, Merry, 16, and I were not allowed to return to our homeschooling group in the fall. We were uninvited back to our co-op on the grounds that we were “too worldly.” Merry peaced out back to a brick and mortar school the following year, and my mom cobbled together a handful of loyal friends who agreed to remain in a group with me for another year. 

For anyone who isn’t familiar with the ways of conservative Christianity, you may be wondering what “too worldly” means. I’m still not entirely sure either, but I think our exposure to media was frowned upon. Additionally, we were judged to be too self aware and we laughed too much (often at each other because our relationship was laced with humor always; Merry was super cool and popular in her days at a regular school, and in homeschooling life, sometimes we were re-enacting the civil war or dressed like Pilgrims and we’d catch each other’s eye and have to laugh. Another thing my mom taught us was to not take life too seriously).

That was the first time that I felt like my very character was in question because my Christianity wasn’t pure enough. I definitely got the message that something wasn’t okay about me. The consensus was that the other children needn’t be tarnished by our worldly ways of listening to U2 and Pearl Jam and having a sense of levity. 

I was sad about that because I was a great athlete when we’d play soccer at lunchtime on our co-op days. I also was one of the most prolific and interesting writers during our creative writing workshop. I also nailed my recitation of both the Preamble to the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, and I knew all the Presidents by heart. In my opinion, watching TGIF didn’t diminish my intellectual capacity and listening to Ten didn’t ruin my contribution as a valuable homeschooler. And apart from the time that I knocked one of the boys almost unconscious (for spying on a few of us girls while changing our clothes and then talking about what he saw to the other boys) I was a very sociable and even gregarious member of the group.

It hurt to be rejected for being different and wrong. Especially, I think, because the only world I knew was a conservative Christian world. So, for me, it was as if the whole world had said, “you’re a bad person with loose morals and a rusty ethical compass.” And that really hurt because I actually tried from a young age to take ethics to heart and to practice consistent living with my values.

I have early memories of leading my neighborhood friends (of whom, I was the oldest by at least one year) down the street and talking about how materialism and consumerism was rotting the souls of humans. I took a dollar bill and ripped it and said it was a symbol of my protest against materialism. I ripped off any labels on my shoes and clothes as a protest to big corporations (this, too, was largely just symbolic since I basically lived in my bathing suit in the summer anyway). Also, I hated gendered stereotypes and would rant on and on to my neighborhood friends about how outrageous it was that pink was somehow a “girl” color and blue was somehow a “boy” color. Did colors have genitalia? I think not. On protest, I avoided all pink for years.

Then the summer that I turned 12, someone came into my life who changed it forever. He was a fleeting, yet entirely intriguing and formative character. He was a philosopher-poet and an artist, and he just came walking down the street one day toward my house. He was 21 years old and had just moved from Naples, Florida, which happened to be where my family spent a couple of months out of every year to stay with my grandparents whenever the weather got bad (and my mom needed some sunshine and a good road trip). So, he struck up a conversation with me about the Naples license plate in our driveway (my grandparents happened to be visiting that week). One thing led to another and before we knew it he became a good friend of our family.

Also, he fell in love with my oldest sister, Darby.

This was no new phenomenon to me. Darby had long, brown beautiful hair that shone with gold highlights in the sunshine, and she wore flowing, hippie skirts over body suits with long necklaces and doc martens. She was kind to everyone, a great listener, and people just fell in love with her everywhere we went. Meanwhile, at that phase in life, I literally had bugs in my hair by the end of every day from basically being feral. I loved being outside; I’d go out almost as soon as it was light in the summertime, and I would only come in for meals and bedtime. And I only took a shower when my mom made me (making the ever so compelling argument that swimming or playing in the sprinkler was just as good as a bath) which was basically just before church on Sundays.

So, I wasn’t oblivious to the fact that often older guys befriended me—again, like countless others—to win the affection of my oldest sister. She and I always had a special bond, and I guess they thought if they got in good with me, I’d have some sway in the boyfriend approval department.

But meanwhile, for that whole summer, he and I formed a special friendship. Daily he would write poetry with my friends and me and philosophize with us about the universe and the quest for meaning and the purpose of existence. He genuinely respected my thoughts and what I had to say. When I was sad, he would help me to write about it. When I was angry, he would make me own my feelings and not blame it on others. When he heard my parents fighting from across the street, he would take me and my friends on walks to explore abandoned farmhouses. It was a magical summer, and one that changed the course of my life forever. Instead of feeling like a failure at being what I was “supposed to be”, that was the beginning of embracing the aspects of who I am. Having someone older that I admired see me for who I was and say, “hey, you’ve got potential. Don’t ever lose your insight and your quest for wisdom” left a lasting mark on me.

After that magical summer ended, this guy realized that Darby was in love with someone else just as he went off to college. But before he went away, he gave me a copy of Walden and On the Road. And then he vanished from my life just as quickly as he had appeared. 

Posted in family, religion, spirituality | 7 Comments

Leaving 2016 with these thoughts on relationships

Humans need each other. Emotionally, spiritually, neuro-biologically, and physically we need to have meaningful relationships in order to be healthy. Learning how to meaningfully connect with others will continue to be a lifelong journey for me. I’ve spent the past decade learning a lot about authenticity. As Brené Brown writes, “true belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world.” I have found authenticity to be a vital component to living a fulfilling life, but it’s not the only vital element to social health.

The past year and a half I’ve also spent time learning about vulnerability and how distinctly different yet equally important it is when compared to authenticity.

Vulnerability is defined by Merriam-Webster as “capable of being physically or emotionally wounded.” I prefer Brene Brown’s definition on the subject; she writes that vulnerability is “uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure.” They are similar definitions, but the first one defines vulnerability with the tone that it is an accident or a weakness with the potential for harm. The latter is a definition that resonates with me as something that a person chooses when there’s worth to that choice; her definition leaves the outcome undetermined and one could hope it would result in something good. In relationships that matter and need to nourish our souls, vulnerability is worthwhile. It’s scary and doesn’t always feel comfortable, but it’s necessary if we want to have real connection. I take a risk when that risk means living within my values.

That is not something I want to offer everyone in every relationship, though—even the ones where I care deeply about the person but have seen that we aren’t vulnerability-compatible. If the person has a tendency to judge me or make me feel wrong when I show who I am, then I won’t want to continue to be vulnerable. And if the other person in a relationship doesn’t respond well to my vulnerability, then they may be happier without that element to our relationship too! It can feel like a gross over-sharing in a relationship when the other person bears their heart, soul, or some deep part of themselves without it being mutually consensual. Some relationships are meant to be primarily about companionship. You do stuff together, and that fills an important social need too! Not every companion needs to be a soul-sharing confidant or even someone who really knows the deep, personal you. And vice versa.

So the lessons I’ve learned over the past decade have been about how to always be authentic and when and with whom to be vulnerable. It sounds simple, but it has taken me a very long time to feel connected in a deep, meaningful sense with others while also knowing my limitations in different relationships and communities.

Learning this on a community-level has been quite a journey. I felt very isolated inside myself in faith-centered groups for many years; having others assume that we shared in common a lot of the specifics—when in fact my spirituality was undergoing a lot of analysis and evolution—made me feel caught in an awkward set of options. My choices seemed to be that I could be inauthentic to preserve the other person’s feelings or I could be vulnerable and risk being misunderstood or judged. By default I chose option 3: be kind and remain unknown. I didn’t feel that I could share my true self without being judged.

Yet, I kept going to church because it was all I knew in terms of how to have community in a rural or suburban area and I genuinely liked and loved the people there. But I couldn’t help but feel that at the core level of who I was, I would be rejected, shamed, and told I was wrong unless I conformed back to the right way of being.

If anyone reading has been in this type of situation (regardless of the social context), then you understand the depth of these words and how lonely it can feel to be unknown. If you have ever had a part of who you are that felt non-negotiably true (either you don’t believe the faith you were handed and were supposed to accept, you have a different sexual orientation than your parents and friends know or would support, or you feel drawn to a different path than the one you were supposed to take) then you know what being isolated and unknown on a core level feels like. And it doesn’t matter how many people like you (i.e., the you you let them know). The outer surface of yourself that you work diligently to make as authentic as possible so that you aren’t a liar can be genuine, but if you don’t connect with at least some people on a deeper level of both authenticity and vulnerability, then you won’t feel fulfilled or connected.

And just to give some balance so people know I’m not being unfairly rough on church, I felt the same way in my super liberal, atheistic undergrad program. Having any spirituality at all in that program was often greeted with disdain and a funeral for my potential as a credible student or a person with a reasonable mind. I loved my academic program and the people in it, but I felt there too that if they knew the core of who I was they’d reject me.

I felt like I belonged nowhere for a long time.

Over time, I worked to learn how to be myself and let others know me, the deeper version of me, when I felt safe enough to share. I developed some mechanisms over time to do this with pre-existing relationships that remained important to me though I felt that on some levels I had changed from the person they had first known. Stepping out in vulnerability to say, “hey, this is me and I’m different than you may want me to be, but I hope you still love me” is a terrifying and brave act. It doesn’t always go well, to be sure; when it does, though, you end up with some very meaningful relationships that truly fill your heart.

Learning this on an individual level, has also been a big process. Fortunately, I had some very close and accepting relationships all throughout this time where I felt like I didn’t have a larger community to which I belonged. My primary core friend was Collin, although we had to both learn a lot about being vulnerable in our own relationship. It’s always been easier for me to get angry instead of feeling hurt. So, for me, that’s been the biggest journey of my vulnerability with Collin. Not shutting him out when I felt hurt or disappointed was the most torturous exercise of self-improvement I’ve ever done. Talking about it sincerely without exaggeration or guardedness was even worse. In the end, though, it has been so worth it to re-learn the way I handle hurt in our relationship.

I’ve also been brave about showing my true self in this way with my mom this year, specifically about my spirituality, and that took courage! My mom is kind and loving, but she dedicated her life to raising us to have some very specific beliefs. Letting her know some of my own differences on certain points was scary, but she was very kind and accepting. It made me feel truly, deeply known and loved. And that kind of love from a mother is a treasure.

Richard Rohr suggests that we won’t truly learn love unless we develop a spiritual practice that teaches us how to keep our hearts open in hell. Learning to meditate isn’t something I’ve mastered (though, if anyone claimed to have mastered mediation I may question their character for bragging about their meditation skills). But I do like to run and write and pray and think and work on making my heart and my actions consistent with love. Oh, and most of all, I love being in nature. These are my spiritual practices that help me develop the strength to keep my heart open in hell.

If you’ve been married, in a serious romantic relationship, if you are a parent, if you have a sibling, or a friend, or a dog—if you’ve ever truly loved another being—at some point you will have to decide to shut down your heart to feeling or to let it remain open through hell. Because true love hurts. Vulnerability hurts. People disappoint us. They leave. They die. Dogs too. They aren’t who we wanted them to be (not so much dogs, but people do this a lot). We aren’t held in the esteem in which we want people to hold us. Relationships are hard. And not every one is worth the intense amount of deep, emotional work that it takes to make the relationship successful and fulfilling. Some relationships are healthier when they end. I truly believe this. But the ones that you want to keep, hold them dearly. And the ones that you end, work hard to not get caught up in bitterness, resentment or self-preservation. Do what it takes to confront your own fears and weaknesses so that you can be love in the relationships that do matter to you. And that necessitates being authentic AND being vulnerable.

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We are not lost.

Life has some elements that feel uncertain right now; mainly the house we rent is for sale, so we need to find another place soon. This can be a real challenge when you’re looking in a certain price range in Topanga. The idea of not knowing where we are going to set up our stuff and call “home” is still uncomfortable for me sometimes.

By the time Collin and I were 23 we owned a gorgeous, yet cozy house on a beautiful, wooded property with a tiny stone wall out front that enclosed a grassy dell. I thought we’d raise our kids there one day. This day. I thought we’d be there this day and all the days when Senya was learning to talk and when we brought Juniper home from the hospital. I thought we’d be having family birthday parties each year and celebrating the passing of time in that same home.

But life doesn’t follow the script we write. It doesn’t always follow the trajectory of our hard work or dedication or carefully calculated choices.

Some things fell apart there (think jobs, think real estate, think crooks disguised as property managers stealing your rental income, and so on and so forth), and so we had to change our course.

Collin assures me he isn’t lost when we are hiking. Ever. Even when he doesn’t know where we are. Once we set out from the frontier town of El Chalten (kind of like Topanga in Argentina) into the Patagonian wild. After hours of hiking, I started to realize that we weren’t on a trail, and he confirmed that we had gotten off trail at some point. Of course my vivid imagination immediately flashes to our two skeletons—hand in hand—discovered years from that moment, and he knows this look on my face. So, he assures me, “we’re not lost.” “But we aren’t on the trail” I argued, “So, we’re lost.” And then he goes on to explain things about the sun and the shadows and the water and the westerly winds or whatever. “I’m never lost because I can see where I am in reference to things bigger than the details of my exact location.” 

So here I am living in a house we rent in Topanga with all the quirks that are standard for a rental in Topanga (including but not limited to a shared mailbox, power outages with nebulous causes, squatters who sneak into other neighbors’ houses and use their showers while paying tenants are out, and of course the occasional unidentifiable yet horrific smell). And we are not on the trail. Sometimes we see the look on each other’s faces and we know we’re wondering if we are lost. And then I think, “No, we are not lost. We are not on the trail, but I can use the measures of love, and flourishing, and laughter, and creativity, and connection, and meaning, and hope. In the bigger context of what matters most, I know where we are. We aren’t on the trail, but we are not lost.”

Here in this life Juniper Sky is running wild through the wind where a creek meets the ocean. And here in this life Senya runs barefoot through the dirt and onlookers smile in appreciation of her untamed childhood. Here Collin runs miles in the mountains and goes on playdates with the kids. Here we have friends who understand us and share the same perspective on reality that we do. Here we are more than how we do or don’t make money; we are valued for our ideas, our creativity, our interests, who we are. Here we share in each other’s lives, we live in intersecting spheres, we are not so divided by gender, by division of labor, by income.

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And I’d love to be able to draw a circle around our life and make it out of stone and call it home forever. But for now, home is not a monument; it’s an experience. It’s when our hearts are connected and we find meaning together. It’s when we do highs and lows at dinner time and report to each other the best and worst parts of our days. It’s playing hot lava and jumping from sofa to sofa and on coffee tables and swinging from hugglepods to avoid the fiery magma that is the living room floor. It’s Thai-day-Friday family-movie-night or camping under the brilliant stars in the desert. It’s sprinting down Topanga Canyon Boulevard because we’re running late (literally) to school again. It’s finding miner’s lettuce in the park and calling that the vegetable for dinner tonight. It’s sharing experiences and meals with friends and family, and keeping close in our hearts those we love that live far away. And it’s engaging again and again through the pain, the beauty, the triumphs, the failures through the gains and the losses and the day to day. And in these hearts within my care, I hope I’m laying a foundation made of more durable and precious stuff than any building made with stones and bricks: hope, resilience, worthiness, joy, wonder, and most of all love.

sen laugh

May we all find home wherever we are.

Peace.

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“Imagine all the people living life in peace.”

I started writing these thoughts before the recent tragedy in Paris; my heart grieves with all affected. I hope that we can move toward a world of love, empathy, peace, and authenticity. I dream of a world where we focus on our universal bonds as humans instead of drawing such harsh divides between our beliefs, our gods, and our political agendas.

The concept of authenticity is ever present on my mind. I recently saw online an article that was criticizing my generation with caring too much about authenticity. To me, that’s like criticizing someone’s perpetual need for water each day.

Authenticity is important because it’s the basis of genuine, human connection. As I wrote in one of my previous posts about Self Determination Theory, authenticity and belonging are two basic, psychological needs. Neurobiologically, spiritually,  and physically we are hard-wired to need connection to thrive. As Brené Brown (one of favorite researchers) writes, “true belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world.” Thus the two are connected and both essential to thriving.

From this point of authenticity I started thinking about how the particular criticism I saw online was regarding religion and how it should be prioritized over authenticity. This got me thinking about the Latin root religare and how it means “to bind together” and how the Latin root spirare (related to the modern English word “spirituality”) means “to breathe.” I was thinking about how religion does purport to bind people’s thoughts and behaviors together and thinking of what a world would be like where we could all just breathe and be and let others breathe and be.

The reality is, we have hard time just being and breathing; we are drawn to categorize, to bind people and things together. To separate them into groups. Label them. And often generalize and stereotype them.

Henri Tajfel posits that humans have a tendency to categorize people and things in an attempt to understand our place in the universe (my wording, others would say “part of a normative cognitive process” (McLeod, 2008).

It’s less complicated and overwhelming to start grouping data together into categories. We make broad assessments about what we encounter, and then we can go back and fine comb for details.

We also want to know what our groups are. Where do we belong? We find positive self esteem and a sense of belonging by identifying with a group or a number of groups.

We also draw the boundaries of what’s acceptable or normal behavior according to the script of the groups to which we belong. It gives us a very secure sense of place and self concept to have these lines drawn (albeit artificially) of what’s possible and what we wouldn’t even consider doing.

For example, where I spent the better part of 3 years recently, Northwest Arkansas, most people who are part of the groups like “Southerner” and “Wal-Mart corporate” and “middle class”  wouldn’t consider leftover bagels in a garbage bag outside of Einstein bagels edible. But my brother-in-law Shane (an intellectual, authentic person who tries to live apart from any arbitrary, categorical norms) would definitely eat those bagels with good reasons (they are perfectly edible, free, food that need not add to the extravagant wastefulness and excess that is typical in privileged societies).

After we categorize ourselves and the people and things around us, we start looking at the differences between groups and the similarities within our group. This is where we tend to exaggerate. This is where I tend to get anywhere from annoyed to outraged when I hear people doing this.

For example, the whole “Men are from Mars women are from Venus” perspective really bothers me. If we focus and perpetuate these artificial social differences between us, then yes, we will see them; they will be there. But if we, instead, choose to look at each other with empathy, respect, and as few stereotypes as possible, perhaps we can connect on a more meaningful level. Or at least we could try to understand how and why the social environment has played a very large, determining part in shaping whatever differences tend to be there between men and women.

Likewise, I saw on Facebook this morning someone arguing with my brother-in-law, Mike, about how Christianity could never be as violent as Islam based on the fundamental principles. Despite Mike’s well-articulated points on how individuals and sects of any religion can distort its texts for their own, violent agenda, this person could not concede. It’s hard for me to be empathic toward people with this level of ignorance and in-group denial (what about the Crusades? What about the Conquistador Priests who would behead indigenous people if they didn’t convert to Catholicism on the spot? What about right now and the Ugandan government trying to Biblically justify the murder of gay citizens?) but my best guess is that people are afraid. People are afraid of what is different and what they don’t understand.

But instead of perpetuating the loop of fear, stereotype, bigotry, and hatred, we should try to understand. Have empathy. Truly trying to understand from someone else’s perspective is an effective way to stop fear and hatred. Look at the lens through which you are categorizing the world; ask yourself whether your filter is one of love and a pursuit to live in peace and empathy or one of fear that would lead to a desperate reaction to squash that which is threatening and different from you.

I understand that social identity is a vital and real part of a person. I understand that categorization is a normal cognitive process. That is, it is useful and easier than thinking through every phenomenon as novel. What I wish, however, is that we would be more empathic and realistic when examining the differences across and between groups. Rather than look at how other and different out-group members are, look for similarities that bond us together in an overarching category (if we must use categories).

John Lennon’s Imagine basically sums up what I wrote here.

McLeod, S. A. (2008). Social Identity Theory. Retrieved from www.simplypsychology.org/social-identity-theory.html

Posted in intellectual, mental health, personal reflection, political | 7 Comments

Memory Lane…

Summer of 2009.

We were camping in a small backpacking tent surrounded by large, hunting lions. They were so loud that their roars shook the ground beneath us. Surprising to me was the discovery that the powerful, loud roars weren’t quite as frightening as the shorter, softer grunts they would make; worse was the sound of them gently lapping water from the stream just below the hill where we had pitched our tent. The most terrifying yet, however, was hearing them breathe just outside our tent. Hearing the breath of a wild lion mere feet away is one of the most perspective-shifting experiences I’ve had.

My whole life until that point, I had viewed myself as the protagonist of a very complex and poignant story. At that moment I was fodder. All I could do was hope that I was the uninteresting iceberg lettuce of the savannah buffet.

The first night out we both were relatively confident that we were going to die. So, we said a prayer and held each other close knowing that it had been a beautiful–albeit short–life together. At any rate, we agreed, it was a better way to go than slipping in the shower or choking all alone.

Yet, after many long hours of darkness the sun rose. As it did, we slipped outside of our tent to find brilliant hues of peach, orange, red, and yellow painting the horizon of Masai Mara. The silhouettes of acacia trees gradually became illuminated by the morning sun.  We peeked around the nearby premises, and we found those hairy buggers who had kept us up all night. They were just settling down to sleep all day.

The second night in our tent I was inclined to think we would be fine. After all, with hundreds of wildebeests migrating the lions weren’t hungry. So, barring a rogue, human-eating lion, we’d probably be fine. This is the logic of an extremely tired person.

I was exhausted from not sleeping the previous night, so I asked Collin (desperate for reassurance to my proposed logic), “do you think we’ll be alright?” and he replied with badly masked uncertainty, “yes…[pause. hesitation.] I do.” And that was good enough for me. I put in my ear plugs, rolled over, and went to sleep.

Collin, on the other hand, laid awake all night wide-eyed and armed with a tiny kitchen knife we bought for 70 bub in the market. I’m not sure what his plan was…to poke it in the eye? The illusion of self defense made him feel better, I guess. I don’t know. If anyone could fight a lion almost barehanded, it would probably be a Palkovitz. Of course, they’d just as soon try to lull it to sleep with beautiful songs they’d written on their guitars, but if that didn’t work…

I often think back to those nights and days on the savannah. Our life was completely just ours. We made it a point back in those days to get as far away from other humans as possible to experience extraordinary things in nature. Often our excursions would last for a week or more at a time. We’d come out of the woods or off the savannah looking slightly more like animals and feeling much closer to God.

Some girls prefer diamonds. Some people like to have their lives figured out with dishes that match and drinking glasses that aren’t primarily comprised of mason jars that were former gifts of jam.

As for me, my wealth comes from other sources. I love knowledge and the exchange of ideas between people. I love people and relationship. And I love experiences and sharing those experiences with the people I love. I’m not going to pretend these experiences are always free or even inexpensive; it costs a pretty penny to fly to Thailand and spend a month there as a family of four. But we put our money and time into these experiences because they matter to us.

When I am about to die, I doubt that I will say, “I just wish we would’ve had nicer things.” When I die, I will have lived and I will have loved, and I won’t regret that.

Posted in personal reflection | 6 Comments

Know thyself. Be thyself. Live well. Love well.

I recently read an article by Richard Ryan and Edward Deci (2000) about Self Determination Theory (SDT). Herein I summarize and respond to some of the main ideas in the paper.  At the end, I come up with some of my own suggestions for practical application.

Authenticity: why is it important? Because people who live authentic or self-endorsed lives are more likely to remain interested in the decisions they’ve made and the consequences those choices have. They are also going to experience greater well being over the course of their lives.

Basically speaking, people who live authentically will be more engaged and invested in the lives they live. Consequently, it stands to reason to think that living a self-determined life will lead to more life satisfaction because an individual’s core values will be directly linked to the life s/he is living. People living authentic lives are more likely to be intrinsically motivated more often than those who are not.

Conversely, people who primarily live by external motivations (by social pressure or otherwise) may end up living a life that does not keep them interested.

This is sad to me, and I’ve seen it happen up close from time to time. That sad, winding road of people who defer, defer, defer making authenticity and competence priorities. I’m not blaming…sometimes these psychological needs are at odds with another one we deem more important: belonging.

Belonging: It’s our desire to connect to others, to be loved and to love, that is a powerful motivator. It can internalize extrinsic motivations as self-endorsed ones. That love can attach us to the behaviors that aren’t exciting or naturally interesting to us. It’s important, however, to remain authentic in this pursuit of belonging.

If we feel that we need to deny ourselves authenticity and a sense of competence to be accepted by those we consider “our people” then we let ourselves erode until one day it’s all too much. People snap. Or people don’t snap, but they rely on unhealthy coping mechanisms (overeating, alcoholism, addictions of various sorts, etc.) until they aren’t experiencing well being; they are merely coping with their life.

Of course it’s impractical to think that every behavior in life should be intrinsically motivated. Some things have to happen. There are seasons where we do things we’d rather not day after day because it’s what we have to do. What then? Live an alienated life like machines in human flesh? I hope not because there is an alternative. It is possible for people to internalize an extrinsically motivated behavior as self endorsed. If you can do this then you will remain attached to your life, so to speak (meaning your life will feel volitional, self-endorsed, and purposeful).

To do this, you’ve got to tie your immediate behaviors to values, beliefs, or goals that do matter to you. So this way, you are being authentic even if your actions aren’t intrinsically motivated. This will make you much less likely to become disengaged from your life, your behaviors, and the commitments you have.

Examples of extrinsic goals would be working a job to get money to live a certain lifestyle or doing homework to get good grades to eventually land a good job. Extrinsic goals alone (wealth, fame, beauty), however, do not meet basic psychological needs directly.

Better yet is if you can tie the behavior to intrinsic goals (connectedness, a sense of belonging, or personal growth) because these do meet psychological needs directly. Thus it stands to reason that this would lead to more fulfillment overall. An example would be that maybe someone doesn’t love running for exercise but they have friends who invite them to go running. The running part might sound dreadful but the friend part triumphs in the end.

But we do need to make sure–to experience well being–that we are working toward a life (if not already living one) where all of our basic psychological needs are met. If we keep deferring our other very real needs (i.e., to be authentic and competent) in the name of “it’s because it matters to so and so,” we end up doing “so and so” as well as ourselves a huge disservice.

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competence

According to Ryan and Deci (2000), the above are the three basic psychological needs that must be met over the course of the lifespan to experience well being.

Extrinsically motivated behaviors can become self-determined (authentic and self-endorsed) when all three of those basic psychological needs (competence, autonomy, and relatedness) are met in the immediate context of one’s life.

All three needs must be met for someone to thrive. You wouldn’t expect someone to flourish with water and oxygen but no food; furthermore, if needs are at conflict with each other, it can lead to ill mental health. If someone is expected to conform to someone else’s prescription for how to live or to hide who they truly are to be accepted, that would mean that autonomy and relatedness are being put in mutually exclusive terms.

So, what’s the practical application for this? I think it’s important to believe that it’s never too late to start trying to be well, to live well, and to start living a self-determined life. Here are some of my thoughts on how to work towards living a self-determined life if you feel trapped and alienated in a life that feels somehow boring and overwhelming all at the same time:

Step 1: Don’t panic. No, really. People freak the heck OUT when they hit some milestone in their life where they start to wonder if their dreams have passed them by. Before you do anything stupid that could hurt yourself or others, take a minute. Perhaps go to therapy or a trusted friend to talk openly with them about what you are experiencing.

Step 2: Be authentic. Do the work that it takes to figure out who you are. What do you value? Why do you have those values? Who do you love? What decisions are you making because you are intrinsically motivated? What decisions are you making for externally motivated reasons? In the case of the latter, if you are thinking it’s for someone else’s good, ask yourself if you are sure the people (for whom you’ve been living a somewhat alienated life) are requiring you to do so. It’s unlikely there aren’t any improvements that can be made in your situation if you are honest about your needs. If there is absolutely no possible way you can change anything about your circumstances (this is very rare in my opinion), how can you tie your values into the commitments you must keep?

Step 3: Do things that matter to you. Even if you feel alienated in one area of your life, find a way to get yourself into some activities that give you a chance to feel and be competent. Learn a new skill. Help others. Get a better job.

Step 4: Get connected to others. You do not exist in isolation nor do you need to pretend you do. Humans are social and relational beings. Find a way to get social support if you don’t readily have family and friends already surrounding you (common interest groups, church, sports, etc). If you do have family and friends around you, be honest and authentic with them. Take the plunge. You must be known to feel loved. And you must love and be loved to be well.

Reference:
Deci, E.L., & Ryan, R.M. (2000). Self-Determination Theory and the Facilitation of Intrinsic Motivation, Social Development, and Well-Being. American Psychologist. 50, 68-78.

Posted in behavior change, health, intellectual, mental health, personal reflection | 3 Comments

hold onto love.

Friday I’m in love. With Bangkok. With Thailand. With my family. With new adventures. With pushing myself beyond what I used to think I was capable of doing. With knowing that inner growth has been inspired by motherhood.

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Ten and a half years ago, Collin and I came here to Thailand for our honeymoon. We spent one month traveling, backpacking, hitch-hiking, rafting down rivers. We stayed in thatched-roof bungalows with (harmless) (but HUGE) coconut snakes living inside in the rafters, and venomous cobras dwelling underneath. One of our first days here during that trip, we were on Khao San Road (an international, backpacker scene) and we, newlyweds that we were, spotted a young family of four. The parents looked to be in their early thirties, the kids both under the age of 4; I remember it so vividly. Coldplay’s “Clocks” was blasting on the street, and life felt magical, infinite. Time stood still for a moment. The smells, the sounds, and that little family sparked something inside of me. I wanted that to be us in 10 years. And now it is.

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During that same trip, we traveled south to a tiny island named Koh Jum for our last week in Thailand. A woman named Delia gave me something and called it my lucky bean. I never knew exactly what it was; a bean, a seed, a shell, or otherwise. I kept it these ten years, and I brought it back here on this trip for sentimental reasons.

 

Last week, on our last morning at that beautiful beach where we stayed, I had about an hour to myself. I walked the shores and decided in my heart that I wanted to find something significant. “It seems like the kind of thing that should happen on my last morning at this beach” I distinctly thought to myself. “Send me something God, please, that will give me direction for my life.” Within moments, I heard tiny, little footsteps getting closer and closer behind me. It was Senya. My eyes filled with tears. Yes, this was something special indeed. And yes, this is what I’m doing with my life right now.

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Senya and I combed the shores together for beautiful shells and coral. Guess what I found? Another lucky bean. A bigger one.

 

I may not know where we will live in a year from now. I may not know what ten more years from now will look like. But I do know this; I have been blessed beyond all fathomable belief with true love. Love that brings life. Love that has, at times, cost us everything. Literally, we lost all our dollars (and more) at one point pursuing dreams that didn’t quite work out as planned.

We moved from our cozy, dreamy cabin on our 2.8 acres of wooded property to live in a rustic 450 square foot cabin in Topanga for a year. I drove a crappy car that I had to fill up with water every ten minutes so it didn’t overheat in hot weather. On cold mornings, I had to open the hood and bang the starter with a hammer to get the engine going…in one of the wealthiest places in the USA.

I quit my job and finished my Master’s and traded it all to be a stay at home mom in a culture that considers that Nanny’s work. I learned to drive and navigate my own way for the first time in a land of 5-lane highways that all warrant an article before their names because of how intense they are (THE 101, THE 405, etc).

And THEN. I moved to Arkansas.

That’s love, folks.

No, just kidding. Northwest Arkansas isn’t bad at all.

Here in Thailand, I’ve realized how strong all that has made me. I navigated my way all over this place with Senya and Juniper while Collin worked in Bangkok each day. I took public transportation–the Skytrain–and even used a map to figure out the route and everything. What? Who am I? I’m a mom; that’s who. A mom who would rather get lost in a city where I can’t speak the language than sit around bored in a place full of opportunity for my kids to live, experience, and fall in love with traveling.

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And I’m a soul mate. A soul mate promised to my true love forever, whatever that looks like.

 

I guess all those little anecdotes I noted above are bragging rights now…scars of which I’m proud. I’ve always liked scars; they tell stories of what we’ve accomplished, what we’ve survived, what we’ve overcome. I’ve gotten my most impressive ones living. Truly living. I won’t get any new ones when I’m dead, probably.

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Collin’s got his own story of the past ten years of sacrifice, facing fears, digging deeper for meaning and truth than he formerly knew how. He’s worked on himself, on his life, on his career, and in every way possible. He has worked extremely hard. For what? For love.

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We are probably some of the happiest people on the planet. We truly love our life. But it would be dishonest if I didn’t say that we’ve worked for it. It would be like presenting a photoshopped image of a magazine model as reality for me to pretend that happiness doesn’t take effort. Happiness and love take work, take strength, and perseverance.

 

I had this dream once right before we were married. Collin and I stood hand in hand facing the ocean. Others were there, standing in the water scattered around. We were watching, waiting for a tidal wave to come. We could see it coming in the distance. We were bracing ourselves, but not terrified. It came; it crashed over all of us. I saw Collin and me together, under the water…the power of the water above thrashing us violently underneath. Yet our hands remained clasped together securely, and we were okay. It felt so real and so deep. The memory of that dream is as vivid today as it was the morning I woke from it.

 

Hold onto love, folks. It’s our best gift. It’s a gift that’s meant for more than keeping in a glass case. It’s meant to be used, spent, and allowed to work its magic. The magic is it never fails, it never runs out, it never ultimately disappoints us as long as we Keep. On. Going. It’s strength. It’s life. It’s inspiration.

 

Believe in Love. Fight for it. Sacrifice for it. Follow the road wherever that love takes you. And don’t be afraid. Oh, and enjoy the adventure…because this is life.

 

 

Posted in family, personal reflection, travel | 19 Comments

Why it’s worth a difficult day of traveling…

Two days ago was a doozy. Picture violent fits on a tiny airplane. Picture little pals screaming and spitting and yelling at well-meaning strangers (flight attendants, taxi drivers, and anyone who looked in our direction, generally). Picture a long day of traveling and waiting to travel and being out of our hotel room hours before our flight, a delayed flight, and then taxi drivers who insist on driving you even when they have absolutely no idea where to go (and yet they just start driving).

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Imagine after all that wanting desperately to just arrive at a comfy hotel where you can all fall asleep only to find that the room is approximately 90 degrees and there’s no baby crib; there’s just a dingy sofa mattress on the floor for your baby. And thank GOD that you decide you’re definitely NOT going to put your precious baby on that dingy mattress because mere moments after you resolve not to do so, a SPIDER THE SIZE OF YOUR HAND (not exaggerating. I promise.) runs across the dingy mattress. Imagine both kids screaming (mostly because *their mother* is screaming) and a desperate dad/husband running around chasing that large animal-esque spider with a random, large umbrella (circa 1975) that he grabbed from the corner of the room. Imagine that the spider is now jumping. JUMPING. At everyone. And landing on dedicated dad/husband from time to time causing more screaming. More screaming from everyone. It was more terrifying than any scene from Arachnophobia. Comical now for sure, but at the time…it was less than awesome.

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I did not sleep much more than a few uncomfortable winks that night. I clutched Juniper in my arms all night, and Collin held Senya. As I was lying in bed, I was wondering why we do this…why Collin and I always choose the path that is inevitably less easy, less comfortable, less normal. I was questioning my decision making skills and my wisdom as a mom.

 

And then.

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After a taxi and a boat ride the next morning…

 

We arrived to Railay Beach.

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This beach is amazing. It has gem-colored water, a wide, sandy beach with lots of space to play. It’s surrounded by large, limestone cliffs and tropical jungle. The ocean has a silky, soft sandy bottom, and the water is shallow, calm, and bath-temperature. It’s perfect for our family.

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Senya wears her awesome shark floaty vest (my friend Katie is a genius for introducing me to this kind of floaty suit for kids that makes them entirely water-independent) and can splash and run and swim in the water like it’s her own, personal ocean. Junes floats around in her floaty or crawls at the waters’ edge. She plays in the white, soft sand. The sun is warm and strong. Our private cottage is clean and comfortable with every amenity we could want. And as Senya observed on her own, “it’s just footsteps to the beach. Like no stairs or anything.”

This is awesome. It’s a life highlight. A dream come true. And today is just the beginning of a 9 day stretch here.

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And this is why, I remember again and again in my life with one Collin Russell Palkovitz, we seldom choose the easier path. It’s because the path with one or two giant spiders along the way may lead to a tropical paradise. A day full of fits accidentally making a plane-full of enemies is worth limestone cliffs that plunge into tropical waters. It’s worth hearing your daughter cheer again and again in the water “this is the BEST time I’ve EVER had!!! This is AMAZING!!!!”

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In other news, our Bangkok week last week was also really fun. We got to see Shane a couple of days, chase large monitor lizards that were wandering in a park, paddle in swan boats across a pond, have ice cream every day, and swim in the pool for hours at a time.

 

So far, so good, Thailand.

 

Posted in family, personal reflection, travel | 10 Comments

The Quest for the Funarium

Today I woke up a tad nervous. Here we were in Bangkok with a week sprawled out in front of us during which Collin would be working all day every day. I started thinking, “I’ve got two tiny pals, and I want to do more than just bide our time swimming in the hotel pool and playing on the hotel playground.” Sure, that stuff is fun, but I’d like it to be what we’re choosing to do; I don’t want to feel like it’s our fishbowl of activities that we can handle.

So, today was a day of venturing. First, Sen and I headed to Starbucks at 0’dark thirty. She woke up at 4:30 am and by 5:50, I realized that our day had begun. So, we threw on some clothes and got some drinks. Then we headed to a city park.

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Collin and Junes met us there; Collin showed up just in time to witness his little Sen chasing rainbows.

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We walked back to the hotel by way of a fruit stand. We put the girls down for naps, Collin went to work, and I researched what Sen, Junes, and I were going to do for the day.

When they awoke, I informed them that we were going to the Funarium. Yes, like a planetarium but instead it’s a Funarium. They were pumped.

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I googled the place and then took a screen shot of it on my iphone. I had the phone number and the address. I was set.

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I gave the cab driver the address: 111 Sukumvit 33 Soi, Bangkok, Thailand.

 

About ten minutes in, I had this feeling that we weren’t actually headed in the right direction. It felt like we were headed really far outside of town. So, I tried to use my Thai cell phone to call the number. It didn’t work. I asked the driver to call it for me because I was sure I was doing something wrong.

He assured me that he knew where he was going and that the phone call was unnecessary.

We arrived at 111th street about an hour later after fighting our way through stand still traffic.

There was definitely no Funarium at that address.

So, I asked him to try 33rd street.

About another hour later, we arrived to another non-Funarium address.

Finally, he called the phone number, and they told us that they had changed addresses. The Funarium is on 26th street now, in case you’re ever in Bangkok with a 31/2 year old who is hell bent on finding it (despite your low-moment attempt about 2 hours in when you may try bribing her with ice cream to forego the funarium).

About two and half hours later, we finally found it. Thank God it actually was fun. Sen and Junes were troopers, and they deserved all the fun that they had there.

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We played and played and ate dinner and then took a cab back to our hotel. I felt victorious! It’s so exhilarating to feel like we can do this. Sure, we got lost for a while. But I won’t make those same mistakes again, and our experience at the Funarium was so worth it all. I’m sure I’ll make new mistakes, but I’ll have even more confidence by then that it really does all work out in the end.

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It’s so empowering to travel my way around a busy, huge city with my two tiny pals where no one really speaks my language and vice versa.

I learned today that an address that reads 111 Sukumvit 33 Soi, Bangkok, Thailand is actually described to the driver as “Sukumvit 33.” Forget everything else in there.

So, when I gave the driver the address “111 Sukumvit 33 Soi” he took us up to 111th street, when in fact, we should’ve been going to 33rd street. But really, it wasn’t the right address at all because that info was outdated. So, the ultimate lesson is: learn how to use my Thai cell phone. Call the destination. Put them on the phone with the taxi driver.

 

But really what I learned today is: it’s an adventure. And people are just people wherever you go. And usually, there are enough kind souls along the way that you’ll get the help you need to eventually get where you’re trying to go.

Posted in family, personal reflection, travel | 14 Comments