Hope For the Guest

If you don’t break your ropes while you’re alive, do you think ghosts will do it after?


April 2016

Where the Hell are you Michael?

Sometimes I just have to ask: Where the hell are you Michael?
I have found myself in so many situations that are almost unbelievable even for me.
Not because I don’t believe these situations don’t exist but because I never saw myself as the character in the situation. I never imagined I’d go so far or so strange.

This is where my mind wanders lately. As the return home rushes forward silently I remind myself of some of the strangest situations I’ve experienced along my 8 months abroad. I know now that 8 months of travel is not so unique among Europeans or many of the other western nations of the world. There are many places where most people travel and the stranger thing is to stay home.

For me though 8 months is a lifetime of experiences and each one is significant in its own right.

The other day I was drinking beer in an elegantly grungy hazy bar. The bartender dressed like a cowboy and if he had a horse outside he would have been too drunk to ride home. His hat matched his suspenders and the mustache really lit the picture perfect scene. This is when I began to think about how many odd scenes I have been a part of. It became apparent after some thought that a Danish cowboy serving me a beer was not the oddest thing I’ve seen.

I look back at these scenes as examples of how my ability surpasses my belief. This is true not because I am great but because when I look at the steps I don’t see the door. I have found that the way life moves is far more mysterious than I can see in front of me. At times some of the blurry story can be seen looking back but the ahead-of-time is a Rubix cube of complexity. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to solve a Rubix cube without touching it, it might be difficult.

I keep wondering what the simple story of this journey is. I think that I don’t really understand something until I can tell it in a simple way, and in multiple ways. So far the words aren’t there for me but I remind myself that the journey isn’t over. It may take seeing the end in order to see the pieces fit.
The only problem is that there is no end to my journey.
Coming home is no end, just as leaving home is no beginning.
These ideas are ideas I made up. Sometimes I need to think of things as separate so I can give myself a more special place. This trip was separate into a single adventure because of my need for this trip to be a special opportunity to grow and learn. I didn’t believe I could get what I wanted at home so I had to leave and something made it necessary for me to look at the first day of my trip as a new day. I had to leave some things behind in order to go forward. I think its hard for me to always feel like I’m on a journey.
Because of this I think of home as a non-moving sort of place, a comfortable place where I can relax in who I am.
But the journey is released from this place of calm, it is separate into a space of misty seeking and sparkling discoveries.
This is probably made up and since it is made up I may not find any end at the so called “End” of my trip.
I might not know how I got here but I am happy here.
The journey doesn’t end, there are no mistakes and all directions of motion are forward.

Chaos to Order

The little human effigy goes green and I look left and right twice just in case. I start to remember how the tangled, roaring streets of Saigon or Kathmandu didn’t cause me this tension. I felt some initial stress but that quickly subsided as I grew to understand the system-less system. This is different for me. The cars are quiet, the symbols are uniform and the humans interacting with the systems behave in a routine way. This somehow disturbs me.

I feel as if I’m standing in a railway yard with a hundred tracks. No train will stop, each train will move in a predetermined routine that is not interrupted by anything smaller than a large scale collision. If I step onto the wrong track out of time with the system in place I will be run-down. It takes planning and knowledge of how the system is set up. Its set up so that you can learn a set of rules and if you follow the rules you can avoid harm. However if you don’t know the rules it is easy to end up in the wrong place at the wrong time.

This is how Denmark feels to me after 7 months in Asia. Its an extreme example but sometimes its simpler to understand through extremes. The Asian countries I was in mostly ran on a kind of individual interaction system. Each person knows its their job to take care of themselves and all other people know that too. When driving a motorbike the driver does not look left or right or behind them, they only focus on what is in front of them. Each driver avoids running into something, they don’t concern themselves with who might be running into them from behind or the side. They simply know that those drivers don’t want to run into them. In Denmark it seems like there is a system put into place everywhere and these systems are planned, it means the people in the system can avoid certain uncomfortable aspects of a system that only relies on natural tendencies. It means there can be roads just for bikes so the bike riders really don’t have to worry about running into a walking person. In Asia people would probably walk on these roads just because it’s easier, in Copenhagen no one walks on these bike roads because it would ruin the system.

If you can imagine it, its like those lines at airports or movie theaters where there are little dividers so you have to walk back and forth in order to reach the end of the line. I have walked the whole way many times even when there is no one else in line, I see there is no reason to walk in that longer path but I do because it is the system. I suspect that this behavior would be rare in the more rugged areas of the world. Each person seems to feel the constant self-responsibility, they are used to making the easiest choice for themselves and because there are not as many of the abstract systems they will act to their own self-interest. It looks like everyone expects this. I have only seen a few drivers in Asia get upset, even in the most annoying traffic most of the drivers seem quite calm. I don’t know about all of Asia but in most of the places I’ve been it seems this way.

I got so used to only being concerned with my own well-being while in Southeast Asia. I would walk out into the street without looking or with a short glance one direction. I only had to know if I was stepping straight out into someones way, I knew if they had a couple seconds to avoid me they would. I didn’t feel like I would be yelled at or shamed in some other way for breaking rules. Each person just does what they have to do. Now I’m seeing that my stress level is higher in a place with systems, even though these systems are the best I’ve ever been in. So far one of the biggest differences between the US and Denmark is that the systems here are better followed and way more comprehensive then in the US.
Taxes are high and things are expensive but its also easy to see what Danes are trading such a high proportion of their incomes for.

It has been the most strange culture shock for me to go from Nepal to Denmark. From one of the poorest and least organized to one of most organized and richest places in the world. Its more shocking then beginning my trip in Malaysia and its more shocking then going from Thailand to Myanmar. Somehow I expected that it would feel more like Seattle or the US but Copenhagen does not feel like that. I still feel foreign, I still don’t speak the native language, I’m still paying with currency other than US dollars and I still don’t look like I fit in here. I’m a little short, a little dark haired, dressed a little differently, talk differently and even after all that there is some ethereal non-Danish-ness to me.

Denmark is a magical land.
If magic is made out of butter, bread, unspeakable vowels, gorgeous people and common sense. Personally I’m feeling pretty good about my breakfast fresh from the bakery down the street. Some culture shocks are more pleasant than others.

Love to Hate

I don’t know how to love. I love many things and a handful of people but I’ve found an inconsistency that so far I cannot reconcile. At first I thought it was other people, not something I do but something that only the other sides do. It barely mattered which side I was on, it always seemed more correct then whichever was the opposing side. Sometimes the choice was arbitrary like the time I worked as a security guard and found that my job was to keep a bunch of hippie-types away from a Shell oil drill. I’d come home from work and tell people about how silly it seemed to me for them to do what they did, it seemed so misguided. Weeks earlier I might have had a conversation about how bad the Shell corporation is for the environment, I would have felt totally justified in saying that they shouldn’t be allowed to do what they do. Still despite caring whether or not the earths ecosystems are destroyed I protected an oil drill and felt totally fine about it.

Something changed recently, my priority for love. I had been letting love sit on the back burners for years, it just seemed as ethereal as smoke. It hadn’t been a great friend to me and so I left it in the category of “I’ll deal with you later”, the same place I’ve put all the pieces of life that were too big for me. Now I feel capable of picking it back up and giving it a closer look. Spreading love in the world has become  my highest priority.

One of the first things I learned is this crazy way many people including myself have of being okay hating just as long as its the bad guys they hate. I think most of us believe hate by itself is harmful but sometimes we are too close to notice where we’re standing.

And here’s the part where I talk about Donald Trump’s campaign. I’ve been noticing lately that I don’t know how to respond out of a place of love when it comes to the prime example of Republicans vs Democrats. How do I react when I am faced with someone I disagree with? How do I respond when someone says unfounded, hateful things about people I care about? It is a kind of violence to attack someone with words, its a bloodless assault that can easily leave deeper scars than the physical fight could have. It is real.
I’ve seen many loving people be offended or outraged by Donald Trump’s words and then I’ve seen many of those same loving people belittle and attempt to shame Donald Trump. I have done this, I have empathy for this. I can understand why I’m not the only person who has been upset but the problem for me comes in when I try to decide how to act oppositely of Donald Trump. I can’t stand by my actions if whenever I hear hateful, offenses I return the attack. I don’t believe in that anymore but I haven’t yet found my answer to this circumstance.

Not to say that I don’t believe in fighting or in avoiding violence at all cost. I think nearly all possible actions have uses, sometimes the use is just to enable the opposite to exist but still that is important. I wouldn’t call myself a pacifist. I wouldn’t say that returning a verbal attack is wrong even, its just not what I’m choosing for myself. I don’t want my only option in response to hatred or violence to be a violent reflex. That’s what it often is, feeling some anger and then saying something or doing something intended to harm someone else or justify my own anger. It has made me angry many times the way Donald Trump talks and then it even makes me angry the way some people seem to listen. I feel outraged that this is possible and ashamed that Trump’s voice can be any part of the voice of America. I know what other countries think of the US, its not always high praise I hear. So I’m angry and that could lead to more hate or more love.

When I say hate I mean it in very general terms. I mean being willing to harm someone in some form of attack. I mean being willing to disagree with someone simply because of who they are. I mean seeing someone as evil, inferior, or separate. I mean to hurt someone without knowing them or their intentions. Usually the word hate sounds like an intense dislike of something or someone, this sounds very general, but the connotation we associate to hate is more then this. I don’t strive to like everything, I strive to allow myself to enjoy more aspects of life, to be grateful for and appreciate more. This definition of hate is pretty general but still this is where I’ll leave it for now.

I’ve heard Donald Trump say something hateful and then I’ve told someone he’s an idiot. This bothers me. It seems awfully hypocritical for me to be angry with someone for making a hateful comment and then for me to respond by saying some belittling comment of my own. My verbal attacks aren’t founded, they aren’t anything more than reactive, anger based opinions. This isn’t how I want to behave.

So far all I can figure is trying to find ways to be thankful for Donald Trump. I stopped trying to make up opinions about how screwed up he is and started focusing on the possible positive benefits of his campaign. The way he’s led me to care more about this election, how his campaign has shined an interesting light on the American people and how he has given an incredible example for so many people to use in efforts to increase understanding.

I don’t know how to react better than this at the moment. This one example in the US election process is not the only example, there are so many places I see this cycle of hate and violence multiplying. It feels very real to me and I have no answer but at least now I’m thankful for the rich opportunities to choose love over hate that are presenting themselves all around me.

Not a Picture in Sight

I haven’t taken a single picture this week, Nepal just feels like a secret better kept, a secret better seen for yourself. I don’t want to show a reflection or shadow of what I’ve experienced here. I don’t want to give a false impression or afford anyone the comfort of believing they have seen Nepal without being here. It isn’t fair to the dirt swirling in the streets or the dingy restaurant I had lunch in. Yes my words or pictures might inspire some kind of desire to see for yourself but how do I reconcile the possibility that you might think you know what its like. That would be a shame.

Imagine, dream and gaze into the distance but don’t expect your imagination to give you a visceral experience. Sometimes you have to choke on the dust with your own lungs. Sometimes the pretty picture is hiding the sweat given for its sake.

On my first trip abroad I had no camera other than on my phone and because of that I have a handful of pictures. I believed in the power of experience and for me at the time trying to capture the experience was a great way to avoid a deep experience. Trying to hold onto something seemed like a way to escape going deeper. I didn’t want anything between my eyes and the world. But everything is an experience, it only matters what I’m choosing to experience. Do I want to experience taking a picture or simply seeing the scene. One might be more effortlessly remembered and one might fade as it loses importance to me. Right now I’m choosing to be without pictures because it affords me a different motivation in my last few days in Asia before heading to Denmark. It gives me a sense of impermanence and shows simply that each experience is for its own sake. I’m eating each meal knowing that its my attempt at the best meal for me at the time, its not to be remembered or to add a check mark to some bucket list. Its just what sounds good at the time.

Its important to try this tactic because of how hard it has become for me to notice my feelings. I know in my mind that this is an odd time in a trip, not heading home but heading into such a different part of the world. I feel numb, not in a terrible way. Its just hard to feel fully excited, nervous or content. I think I am able to feel so many different ways about this portion of my trip that it has become hard to choose. So I don’t want to focus on capturing what I’m feeling, I want to focus on feeling it. I want to be aware of my internal workings in this crucial time. Just a little more writing, a little fewer pictures and a slower walking pace.

Gazing Through the Smoke

I saw a dead person today, I haven’t seen one before. I’ve been wondering when I’d seen my first for years now. Months ago someone told me about how they saw a mother and child who had been in a car accident, the child was dead. When I listened to this story I tried to imagine how I would feel. I knew that no matter how much I thought about it I couldn’t reach into the future and feel how it would really feel for me. I’ve heard that humans have the unique ability to pre-experience things, this is why we don’t have to make every mistake possible in order for us to know that it will probably be a mistake. We don’t need to add a pound of salt to our breakfast, or fall off a two story building in order to know these things would be unpleasant.

There’s just one problem with this for me: I don’t think it works. I can’t pre-experience things accurately. I don’t know how I will react ahead of time, I can guess for some things but with things that are really different I’m blind. When I saw this dead stranger burning in the Hindu ceremony It was sneakily odd but not intense. I had thought that maybe seeing a real life dead person would effect me more than I could guess. It didn’t, not with this stranger in this funeral I was no part of.

I think many people tend to have more faith than they should in their ability to predict the future. Many of us have had the experience of dreaming about some goal and then finding that reaching the goal was hollow. I thought that I could escape my depression by traveling, I thought adventure and new experiences would help me to be happy. The interesting thing is that I am happier now, but not because of the external things. Traveling was the right choice for me but not because traveling is any kind of cure. Actually one of the most helpful things traveling did for me was to give me an enormous amount of time alone, far away from anyone that knew me. I have had days where I didn’t leave my hotel room because I was too depressed to see a point in it. I was right about traveling despite being wrong.

I’ve been learning the simplest plan I’ve heard of, it doesn’t involve hardly any prediction. I will now do things that I want to do based on what makes me happy, when it stops making me happy then I do something else that makes me happy. When I say that I will do what I want I do not mean a childish version of this. I mean that I will take out the trash because I enjoy living in a clean house more than a dirty house even at some expense of energy. I think that the things that make me happy could be simple things like good food or wider things like supporting a friend or my community. What I want and what makes me happy will guide me to the best path in a spiraling upwards kind of way since I believe that what makes me happy will include more and more things that help others.

The idea is that a wrong path is not possible, a wrong path is hard, a wrong path is self evident. I think a wrong path is as senseless as burning my hand on the stove repeatedly. A right path is effortless, not to mean there is no work involved but this means that all the motivation needed is inherent in the path. To follow the path provides so much happiness and excitement that to not follow the path is the harder option. I don’t want to try to predict far into the future, I still have to guess but now it is far more okay for me to change direction. I think that as I go further forward I will know myself better and better. I will know my needs and desires so well that paths that align will be easily sorted.

As I looked down at the burning body I wondered if the bones would be left or if they too would be turned to white ash. I left before finding out. Somehow breathing in the thick smoke from the body of a stranger felt a little too intimate for me, who would have guessed?

Passing By

I kicked another step into the snow and raised my gaze to see how many more steps it would take to the top of the hill.
Putting one foot in front of the other is harder at 5ooo meters in elevation.
I had said goodbye to my two other trekking companions at two different points already. They had to turn back because of altitude sickness but miraculously I was still fine. Maybe it was because I drank two liters of water during the night or maybe it was the half a tablet of altitude sickness medication I took after waking up but whatever it was it still felt odd to continue walking alone in that barren landscape. The height of the pass was higher then all but two of the highest peaks in the US. Not just the passes and highlands but the actual tops of those two peaks were only between 100 and 500 meters higher then the pass I was walking towards.

I started thinking about how years before I was on a school trip to Utah and as we passed through some particularly high mountains around Salt Lake city one of the instructors asked me to guess how high the mountains were around us. I answered “13000 feet” I apparently was pretty close to right at the time. Now years later I realized that I was nearly a mile higher then the peaks of those mountains that I thought were so high.

It was odd to look out at the mountains surrounding me from that angle. I’m more used to looking at mountains from much further below them. It just looked like I was high, something in the way the sun shown or the blue of the sky made it feel high up.

I reached the top of the hill and saw another little sea of snow, it felt more like an ocean with how hard it was getting to keep my breathe. Every fifteen steps I had to pause and kept my breathe. When I first started trekking more than a week earlier at 800 meters walking was easy, I wasn’t sore yet and the air had plenty of air in it. I remember running up a couple of the hills, I wasn’t in terrific trekking shape but still a step was just a step. Now a step was heavier. It all became a metaphor for the way I’ve been learning to judge myself by a self-centric standard. If one step is as difficult as ten steps then I want to be as proud of walking one mile as I would otherwise be of walking ten. Its not easy for me to judge myself gently, its generally a mind flip flop kind of experience. My first thought might be negative but I correct it with a more compassionate way of looking at myself. The first thought isn’t always the most helpful so sometimes its exhausting to remind myself how I want to be.

The top of the pass was 5416 meters or 17769 feet. I enjoyed the journey more than the destination, this time I suspected that the goal of reaching the pass would fall short. Its not also the case for me, usually the goal is very important to me but this time I started my trekking with the idea that each step would be enjoyed or not enjoyed and that was the point. I didn’t want to need a grand goal to enjoy the rocks under my feet or the wind in my hair. I have always had a weird experience with hiking, I love almost every aspect of it. Still I usually haven’t enjoyed hiking, I get so caught up in getting there that I walk faster than is comfortable and I ignore the beauty that is along the journey. I wanted this trek to be about enjoying the whole path. Its been interesting to me lately how I don’t understand something until I do, no matter how many times I hear it or are taught it. I have heard all the quotes about enjoying the moment and living for the journey not the destination. I have told many people to enjoy the moment and many times I think that I understand exactly what that means. I’m sure I have understood these quotes in certain circumstances but not totally. I still fixate on the destination in almost every aspect of my life. I still miss the point as if I’m blindfolded.

The pass was beautiful, some beautiful things can’t be captured. I couldn’t use words or pictures to explain why, I don’t even know why. I’ve heard things like “it was the quality of the light” but most of the vague poetic expressions of beauty seem to be intentionally vague so that the readers will be reminded of their memories. The last couple weeks I’ve struggled to want to take any pictures because of the feeling that seeing something with your own eyes is what matters. I think there are many mysteries that only exist in a singular experience, no one ever speaks of them, no one remembers them. They happen almost without a trace but are still fully and intensely experienced in the moment they exist. The only trace they might leave is a kind of feeling that you forgot something, the way it feels when you walk into a room and you know at some point you chose to be there but you’re not sure what your purpose was.

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