Enter the Brave House

We continued through California as the desert landscape became ever more populated and distinctly greener. After several hours of driving, we descended upon Venice Beach, where we encountered an eccentric hub of people that rendered our arrival to this place that much more surreal. We walked down to the water line and waded into the cool ocean wake, gazing out at the endless horizon in a state of reflective calm. We had made it, driving across the entirety of the country to reach this westernmost reach of the land. It felt good to have come this far, but though we had reached our geographic destination where we would drop off Soichi nearby, I knew this attainment was not an end in and of itself but one transitional point along a larger journey of personal growth and self actualization.

We spent a few days in Soichi’s new apartment, where we had the chance to slow down and seek closure before Dan and I would go our separate ways and continue on north. In hindsight, I realize it took a whole lot longer to process the depth of shared experiences we had just undergone, as we resided in a transitional juncture between a path we had planned out and an uncertain future yet to be realized. But reflecting back on it, the road trip constituted an indispensable rite of passage into the world of adulthood. I was able to physically and psychologically detach myself from the comforts of my former home and rebuild my life anew, while sharing that experience with some of the best friends I could ask for. And that made the journey that much richer–that this was not only my own story, but the story of those I carried with me, and who in turn carried me. The road trip reaffirmed that no aspect of my life or my personal identity has arisen in a vacuum, but has been shaped and molded by the people and places who have left an indelible impact on who I am. Dan and Soichi are two of those people. When I think of these guys, I can’t help but recall some of the teachings of the Hua-Yen school of Buddhism, which is an interest we all share. According to these teachings, all existing phenomena in our universe is not only interdependent on all other phenomena, but inter-causal. That is to say that all things not only depend on one another for their very existence, but actually cause each other to be indispensable parts of the whole. I don’t just think that I depend on Dan and Soichi in my life, or that they depend on me, but that they have directly caused and given rise to core aspects of who I am throughout our experiences together. I know I’ll continue to carry and negotiate those aspects of myself despite the places I go or the time that passes by, and these guys will always be woven into the complex mosaic of my life story. I hope I’ll have a place in theirs. After all, the open road of adulthood is better shared in the company of others.

IMG_1342We said our goodbyes, and Dan and I parted ways for our destination in the town of Orange, where my good friend Amiya from a study abroad program in Sri Lanka had invited us over for dinner. She mentioned something about a talk on “entrepreneurism” that afternoon, but we felt it more appropriate to come just before dinner. We arrived at a residential culdesac, and naturally got lost finding the precise address of the house. Eventually we located ‘247’ written on the curb and proceeded up to the pleasant-looking home at the base of a hilltop. Amiya had told me she was living with a number of interesting and highly motivated people in this place, and though I was excited to see her in her stomping grounds, we felt it best to give her a call before ringing the doorbell. Sure enough, Amiya emerged from the door with the same positivity and energetic spirit I had known from our daily tuk-tuk rides to school from our home village in the lush hill country of Sri Lanka. She showed us inside and introduced us to a diverse group of people who were here to attend the Sunday dinner, aweekly tradition open to anyone inclined to come. Very quickly, I experienced the comfort and welcome-nature of home as people asked me candidly about my past, my present interests, and my future goals. One of the residents I had just met, Shawn, promptly asked me what I would do if he handed me a million dollars right then and there. Not long into the dinner, Dan had already been encouraged to break out his cello and play some tunes for the group. It was a welcome refuge from the relative anonymity of the road, and a great opportunity to meaningfully connect with new people.

We said our goodbyes, and Dan and I parted ways for our destination in the town of Orange, where my good friend Amiya from a study abroad program in Sri Lanka had invited us over for dinner. She mentioned something about a talk on “entrepreneurism” that afternoon, but we felt it more appropriate to come just before dinner. We arrived at a residential culdesac, and naturally got lost finding the precise address of the house. Eventually we located ‘247’ written on the curb and proceeded up to the pleasant-looking home at the base of a hilltop. Amiya had told me she was living with a number of interesting and highly motivated people in this place, and though I was excited to see her in her stomping grounds, we felt it best to give her a call before ringing the doorbell. Sure enough, Amiya emerged from the door with the same positivity and energetic spirit I had known from our daily tuk-tuk rides to school from our home village in the lush hill country of Sri Lanka. She showed us inside and introduced us to a diverse group of people who were here to attend the Sunday dinner, a weekly tradition open to anyone inclined to come to this place. Very quickly, I experienced the comfort and welcome-nature of home as people asked me candidly about my past, my present interests, and my future goals. One of the residents I had just met, Shawn, promptly asked me what I would do if he handed me a million dollars right then and there. Not long into the dinner, Dan had already been encouraged to break out his cello and play some tunes for the group. It was a welcome refuge from the relative anonymity of the road, and a great opportunity to meaningfully connect with new people.

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We had arranged with Amiya to stay for a few nights, but as we experienced how open and engaging the people in this place were, we were interested in staying for a longer period of time. After all, we had been through a more transient “travelers'” phase during our road trip, and were looking to put our footholds down and get settled in a particular area on the west coast. This place felt right. To give some background, the house is owned by a man named Jaipaul, an entrepreneur and “life coach” who emigrated to the United States from India as a young man. Jaipaul was born into a lower caste in India, where he struggled to excel in an education system in which he was illiterate until the 10th grade. He overcame great obstacles to become an engineer and a Captain in the Indian Army, before coming to the United States and achieving overwhelming success in the mortgage real estate industry. More broadly, Jaipaul has dedicated his life to coaching young people to overcome self limitations and realize their full potential to connect with a greater purpose in the world. Opening his house for people to live in is a tangible example of that vision. Amiya had met Jaipaul in a coffee shop in Seal Beach and ultimately found her way there.

Dan and I talked it over for a while, and came to agreement that spending time in this place could be a highly enriching and enjoyable experience. Here was a group of diverse, interesting people who were all about living intentionally to do big things in the world, and what better environment could we think of to be so conducive to our development into the “Real World?” There was Tim, who speaks of his own transformation from an irresponsible early 20-year-old to a prominent IT consultant and a real mentor for others similarly conditioned with self-limitation. And there was Sydney, a highly perceptive writer and wonderful cook who fostered a real sense of community in this place. And Sydney’s husband Shawn, who is an account manager for Microsoft and a visionary for using technology to help ameliorate educational problems in the world. And there was Nadia, a single mom and consummate professional who worked her way out of poverty only to give back by work in a prominent position for the very non-profit organization that helped her. And, of course, Nadia’s son Luke, an adorably intrepid spirit who added a real sense of energy and humanity to the place.

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We decided to ask Jaipaul and the other members of the house if we could stay for an extended period of time, and sure enough, they were very receptive and said yes. It felt great to have a deliberate stake in creating “home” in another part of the country surrounded by a host of new people, and this was an instance where following my intuition and embracing shared experience felt right.

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We got situated in a small room upstairs where we were living in rather tight quarters and staying in a bunk bed. Honestly, it was all we needed, and I realized that what constituted “home” for me didn’t require particularly lavish sleeping amenities. More importantly, we had an open downstairs area conducive to having people over and facilitating conversations, as well as a well furnished kitchen to prepare meals in. We also had a beautiful backyard with banana trees, guava trees, a lemon tree, flowing water with a pocket full of koi fish, and an aviary host to dozens of parakeets. The place was highly animated with the presence of endearing babies, intense and spontaneous intellectual conversations about life, and the occasional turtle crawling into the house. It’s honestly difficult to encapsulate the ethos of this place, or an “immersive” household as Jaipaul would call it, but it never ceased to captivate and offer a real experience of community, something that was an integral component of my love for Bowdoin.IMG_1392IMG_1364

Much of the backdrop of the “BraveHouse” is the BraveLife program, which has constituted the main visionary pursuit of Jaipaul as well as Shawn, Sydney, Tim, Nadia, Kyle, and others who help in other capacities. BraveLife is a program dedicated to helping people overcome self-limitation and achieve the inner freedom necessary to reach their full potential in life. A central component of BraveLife is BraveLife Academy, an online education program Jaipaul and Shawn are spearheading that aims to integrate a K-12 curriculum, student life skills training, and parent coaching in a way that transcends some of the flaws they perceive in conventional education systems. They hope to market the program to students in the United States, and reinvest the profits into providing free online education to students without access to educational opportunity in places like India. A central piece of the education system is the weekly lecture series that Jaipaul gives on topics like identifying and overcoming limiting voices, entrepreneurial skills, spiritual fulfillment, budgeting for your future, and purpose-driven goal setting. So every Sunday, Jaipaul would give a morning and afternoon lecture, after which we would have a discussion on the content matter. I really valued how BraveLife provided a regular baseline of engagement and introspection that made it difficult to be anonymous or “float around” without living out intentionality and purposefully in everyday life.

That said, I would be lying if I said our experience in the Brave House was always easy. I would later come home after long days at work, content to chill out and pass out on the couch, but be challenged in an animated discussion that I’d sometimes want to forego altogether. And given the intensity and adulthood-focused content of much of our conversations, I felt a definitive need to express my relative youthfulness to remind myself that I didn’t always have to take life so seriously. We would go surfing on the beach, drink beers on the hilltop behind our house, and play around with the two babies who graced our home every morning. In contrast to my time in Las Vegas, which felt more like escapism than a beneficial cathartic experience, I valued this kind of anti-structure to balance out the intensity of everyday life and to manifest the independent, fun-loving, and adventurous aspects of youth I still valued at this point in my life. I had to be deliberate about listening to and acting on my own needs in such an intimate environment, where privacy was never a guarantee and it was easy to find myself on someone else’s time schedule rather than my own.

I also grappled with a central idea of BraveLife that stresses the importance of finding a “vision” for the future connecting with a greater need in the world, then working deliberately in the interim to realize that vision. How could I anticipate precisely where I wanted to be or what I wanted to do in 10, 20, 50 years? And would I be somehow limited in my own personal and professional development if I confined my own unique life trajectory to a rather narrowly defined, teleological end point? Looking back from where I was in life, I couldn’t have possibly anticipated all the rich yet trying experiences, attainments, and changes that shaped me into the person I had become at 22 years old. But were those choices and life events simply haphazard? No way. I knew some of my most enriching experiences–in addition to those in which I learned through failure or making poor choices– were those in which I made an informed decision uniting what I knew to be true in the world with what I was naturally gifted toward, and applied that understanding to an environmental opportunity that nurtured that “why” motivation. I may not have known exactly where it was taking me–what child or adolescent really does–but I knew these decisions changed me for the better and gave me a clearer idea of who I am.

Navigating some of these questions was some of my most formative experience at the Brave House. After long days going about our own pursuits, Dan, Amiya and I would come together and share our thoughts on BraveLife and the kinds of questions this place provoked us to think about. We would regularly find ourselves fixated in conversation until 3 am, and sometimes I would drift off into spells of sleep only to wake right back up and keep talking. This was a cathartic experience for all of us as we had an endless array of thoughts bottled up surrounding the launch into adulthood we all shared. My time with these guys was an absolute refuge of insight and solidarity, as we were all struggling to reconcile our youthful and adventurous spirit with a more mature resolve to cultivate a foundation of responsibility and independence from our parents. I think it was our drive to attain a real sense of rootedness and personal identity amid these tumultuous changes that prompted us to stay up so late and often contend against the receding will of our physical selves to get greater clarity on these issues.

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We ended up staying at the Brave House until mid October, at which point Dan and I had planned to take off for a week in northern California. The experience was an absolute roller coaster filled with excitement, inspiration, and frustration, but at the end of the day, the people we had come to know and cherish became a second family. Here was a group of people who invested their time and energy in helping us understand ourselves and the world around us better so as to live out purposeful and impact-oriented lives. As Dan and I packed up our noble Subaru and took off for our next horizon, our friends from the Brave House stood outside and waved farewell in a powerful tribute to the depth of our shared relationship. I left with renewed clarity in my resolve to do great things in my life, and profound gratitude for having experienced a newfound sense of home.

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Getting “Real”

We continued through the endless expanse of Nevada desert toward the California border. As we drove, we listened to an audio recording of “This is Water,” a graduation speech given by the late writer David Foster Wallace at Kenyon College in 2005. In the speech, Wallace talks about the function of a liberal arts education as less “teaching you how to think” and more “teaching you what’s worth thinking about.” For him, the goal is to elicit simple awareness of the reality of the world around us despite our subjective “default setting” that tells each of us that we are at the absolute center of the universe, over and over again. The message really resonated with me. After all, I had already forgotten much of the content and detail and precise subject matter of all of the courses and lectures and interactions I had experienced at Bowdoin. What I did take with me, though, was an expanded field of consciousness in which I became more engaged with the world around me, and more committed to internalizing the realities of others as my own. I was able to look beyond the “prison of the self,” as Wallace calls it–understanding the world as it is from other perspectives and cherishing my own interconnectivity with all that abounds. In many ways, my collegiate experience was structurally conducive to that development–I did not have to worry about supporting myself at school, preparing three meals a day, or tirelessly looking for a place to live. It was all provided for, giving me an incredibly privileged platform to think and engage and expand. I was able to take a step back and ruminate on my humble existence on this life-giving rock floating through space, and to have some real choice about what I want to think about while I’m here.

As I graduated to the world beyond, and embraced my relative independence on this road trip, I realized I had to fight every single day to cultivate the expanded field of consciousness I had developed and learned to cherish at Bowdoin. Very quickly, the immediate necessities of everyday life became that much more apparent. Where would I eat my next meal? Where would I sleep? How much money is all these choices costing me, and how much labor and time and energy would it take to make up for it? On the one hand, I embraced the kind of raw experience this provided, seemingly more “real” than the kind of artificial institutional environment I had been coddled in at Bowdoin. Though I was not fending for food and water and shelter in a state of nature, my next meal or place to stay was not readily apparent. That’s what it takes to be an adult, I told myself, and I was committed to building independence and self-sufficiency at this point in my life, as the generosity of others had given me enough knowledge and tools and resources to take off.

But at the same time, I questioned the importance of consuming myself with everyday necessities when the scope of awareness and ultimately influence I want to have in the world is much larger. I was certainly not abrasive to work, and planning to find a job when we landed on the west coast, but would I really ever have to worry about meeting my most basic needs in life? I realized it was a highly privileged perspective, but if I defined my absolute necessities most narrowly, I thought I could get by alright. After all, the time I spent concerned with when I would eat and drink and sleep was time that I would not be engaging on a higher plane of consciousness–time not simply spent in a realm of abstraction for my own gain but working toward a greater purpose for the good of others. Does that suggest that the time I spent concerned with basic necessities was unimportant, or more narrowly, unfruitful toward my greater development as a person? I knew the answer was no. I knew these experiences were essential in both building my independence, and understanding the real costs of the lifestyle I lead in a way that would allow me to be more intentional with my time. As much as I had recognized the privilege I enjoyed throughout my years of formal education, I realized I had not actively internalized the true costs and sacrifices of others that made those experiences possible–whether it be my parents who financed it, the staff members who stayed after hours to help me, or the dining hall workers who provided an immaculate array of food day in and day out. This was the “Real World,” and I needed to understand the true costs of my own life in order to situate myself in the world around me, to build a lifestyle that would fulfill my real needs, and to be intentional with how I use my time moving forward.

I gazed out the window as the desert landscape gave rise to vegetation and signs of human life in California. I sat with it. How would I reconcile my value for self-sufficiency and meeting my basic needs with my value for broader-scale engagement and influence? Well, I didn’t really know. But what I did know was that these values were both absolutely essential to me. I would have to be realistic, intentional and responsible for providing for my basic needs moving forward, while fighting hard to manifest the expanded field of awareness, understanding, and compassion that gives my life meaning on an everyday basis.

 

Taking on Las Vegas

We had originally planned to stay in Zion National Park another night, but expecting evening temperatures into the 90s, we decided to take off for Las Vegas–an “oasis” en route to California and a spectacle none of us had ever experienced before. We secured a hotel room for a bargain price, and braced ourselves for a respite from the more rugged lifestyle we had come to embrace on the road. Through endless miles of desert in Utah and into Nevada, I was once again astonished by the vast amount of open space in this part of the country. Barren stretches of sand rolled into mountainous reaches of parched rock face, conveying an even greater hostility to life than we had experienced thus far on our journey. Our noble Subaru in the company of my good friends became a familiar refuge from an unknown and inhospitable world. I was content to keep moving.

Out of the desert there came a mirage, or what might has well have been a mirage. It was Las Vegas. In stark contrast to the anonymity of the endless moonscape we had traversed, the civilized world emerged in an emphatic display. Signs of Boxing fights and Gentleman’s Clubs and gourmet restaurants contended for our attention, while the flashing lights of nearby establishments beckoned for our patronage off the nearest exit ramp. As we proceeded to the Las Vegas strip, I felt myself internalize a sense of reactionist consumerism–thoroughly at the whim of a grand display of hedonism and pretension. I was challenged to affirm my sense of individuality and intrinsic self worth as an alternate set of values defined the ethos of this place. Transience, debauchery, sexuality, gluttony–I couldn’t help but think about the irony that this 21st century built environment reinforced some of the most primal urges of human kind. Have we really come as far as we might think?

We got situated in our hotel room, which looked out on the MGM Grand casino and the greater Vegas strip. I had to remind myself that this was really our reality for the night. As day turned into night, we gazed out of our window and watched as the flashing lights filled the void of the retreating darkness, surely a human construction in which our very circadian rhythms were rewired to thrive in the night. I sat with the irony that this city was both altering a biological disposition while also appealing to the wants of our most biological selves.

We walked down to the lobby, where there was a casino extending to the front entrance. Fluorescent lights and music and fancifully clad patrons combined to form a world of extravagance. We had entered an alternate reality in which money was not an intermediary to fulfill basic human needs but an addictive object of play ushering in the highs and lows of emotive consciousness. I decided to try my hand at the slot machine, and within a few seconds of entering a bill into the machine it was unremarkably gone, swallowed into the abyss of insatiable money gain. We kept going.

For the rest of the night, we resolved to explore the city and make the most of our time there. It was a strange balance of retaining a sense of individual integrity and intention while realizing that everyone and everything had an agenda for you. We navigated this by trying to manifest at least some semblance of our unique selves in this place. At one point we had an animated discussion with a man preaching from the Bible in the streets, while two women in lingerie posed for pictures with passersby right next to us. Later on, Dan joined a classical music trio in the streets by strumming some cello as pedestrians passed by. But in one memorable instance, our incompatibility with this place became very tangibly clear. As we attempted to enter a particular bar/club, a bouncer sharply informed us that we weren’t wearing “appropriate shoes” for such a venue. We had been amused by the novelty of it all, but were content take ourselves and our disagreeable shoes elsewhere. We got some food and called it a night.

I left Las Vegas the next day thinking a lot of about our experience, and trying to understand why I reacted to this place in the way I did. Is this city meant to be taken seriously? Why did I have to be so analytical of myself and our actions that day? I do have a value for anti-structure, and I know it can provide catharsis and welcome relief from the tedium of everyday life–even reinforcing my resolve in that life–but I realize that for me, anti-structure needs to be an intentional retreat from a grounded foundation of purpose. Without an idea of what constitutes home, that anti-structure is an expression of escapism and for me a rather empty pursuit. I had a real sense of purpose in taking off on the road trip and fighting for a redefined conception of home, but I was too physically and existentially adrift from any real sense of rootedness for our experience in Vegas to sit right. I even harbored a latent sense of fear that the pervasive and manipulative value systems of this place might seep into my own psyche and somehow blemish my clarity of meaning and purpose moving forward, making it ever more hard to find home. Sitting with this ambiguity, I turned my sights on the open road.

Into the Desert

We spent an extra day with Will and his family in Denver before taking off for the next leg of the journey. Despite our setback the day before, I really cherished our time with Will, and left inspired by how tangibly he was manifesting the growth he had incurred at Bowdoin by returning to his old high school to teach underprivileged students from the Denver area. It was a beautifully cyclical process of growing and giving back, and merging one’s “why” motivation with a grounded understanding of “who I am” and “who I want to be.” It left me with renewed confidence that if I continued to cultivate and follow these core aspects of myself, the “what” would intersect with circumstance and fall into place.

We were headed to Zion National Park in Utah, but took a hiatus en route to watch the US-Belgium soccer game. At this point we were thoroughly hooked on the World Cup, largely because it was such a global spectacle that brought so many different people together. I could feel the energy emanating off the field in most every game, and the excitement was infectious. We found a place that was broadcasting the game–a dive bar in Western Colorado–and comforted our nerves by going to town on an all-you-can-eat salad bar. My emotions vacillated with the ebbs and flows of momentum, and my heart clenched every time Tim Howard made a superhuman save. To my dismay Belgium pulled away with the lead, but as I was beginning to undergo the grieving process of defeat, the US scored a late goal. I was borderline spastic at this point, yelling irrationally at the television in a state of neurotic optimism. Eventually time ran out, and our World Cup run came to an end. We exited the bar in a state of dejection, and I resolved that I wouldn’t drink a Stella for a good long time…

As we made our way through western Colorado and into Utah, I was captivated by how the dramatic topography of the landscape persisted yet became enveloped in a ubiquity of dryness. Imposing mountains covered with the woodiness of coniferous pines gave way to jagged precipices of bare sedimentary rock, and I couldn’t help but wonder if I had entered the surface of Mars. I was amazed to see how much open, undeveloped space we have in the United States, but humbled to observe that this place seemed so hostile to the existence of life. I realized that throughout my life, I had an implicit presumption that I could easily adapt to the dynamic temperament of nature, even without clinging to the comforts of civilization. I retained a sense of adaptability through some the coldest winters in Maine, and some of the hottest, most insect-ridden parts of Sri Lanka. But in this place, I experienced a real sense of fear of the endless abandon that surrounded me. Wherever home may have been, it was surely far from here.
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After a long day of driving through the unforgiving desert heat, we arrived at Zion National Park on July 1st. The dramatic cliffs and explosive red coloration of the rock became that much more accentuated, converging together to frame a beautiful valley with a flowing river that provided vitality to the barren landscape. From the entrance of the park, shuttle buses escorted visitors to a series of stops along the way, with a dramatic narrative providing a slightly informative yet awkward backdrop to the ride. Eager for some taste of adventure away from this trodden path, we headed off the road to go swim and mess around in the river. We attempted to build a dam, had a rock throwing competition, and rode down the current on a giant log. In retrospect, I think our antics were large an expressive embrace of youthfulness—a way of rebelling against the formality and expectations of how to engage with nature in this place, as well as an affirmation of our adventurous spirit that could not be suppressed or tied down by the pressures of the “Real World.”

We found a campsite for the night, though were discomforted to witness the temperature plateau around 90 degrees. We arose the next morning committed to finding a respite from this treacherous desert sun, and decided to take on a trail called the Narrows. The Narrows is a hike in which you trek up the Virgin river—at times piting you as much as chest deep in the water—with canyon bluffs spanning thousands of feet in the air on either direction. As we embarked on the trek and towering walls of rock converged upon us, I realized this was a landscape unlike any I’d experienced before.

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Ethereal beams of light descended from the sky as the morning unfolded, interplaying with shadow and the contours of the surrounding rock to dramatize the experience of trudging through the river. And as the sun grew stronger, our refuge in the cool riverflow became that much more welcome. I thrived on the raw feeling of fully immersing my mind and body in this place, with the trappings of technology and the modern world tucked away from the unforgiving will of the river.

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We reached a distinct high water point in the trail, and decided to turn around so as to abbreviate the 16-mile round trip hike. As we returned back to the head of the trail, I was startled to encounter a bustling crowd of visitors bathing in the river. My fixation on the beauty of the landscape subsided as I tried to reconcile the irony of people delighting in this place en masse and the ostensible retreat from civilization it provided. As we weaved through the crowd, I couldn’t help but think we had found our way into a waterpark.

Our time in Zion prompted my friends and I to think a lot about the ethos of a National Park, and the kind of natural experience it really provided. On the one hand, we were somewhat disappointed that such a remarkable land area was subject to such a paradigm of consumerism–ogling rock formations through the glass of a bus window as a narrative voice offered an awkward semblance of suspense, snapping photos incessantly to encapsulate an image of perfect equanimity between (wo)man and nature, and chowing down in a food court as the kitchen churns out pizza and hamburgers and ice cream and all the culinary indulgences of the modern world we enjoy that bear little resemblance to the fruits of a place like this. In addition, we were very much “unnaturally” sheltered from nature in the confines of an air-conditioned shuttle bus and under the surveillance and protection of the National Park Service. Zion offered less of an escape from civilization and more of a civilized objectification of nature itself.

Perhaps less romantically, however, we appreciated the pragmatic access to the natural world that Zion National Park provided. In a “Real World” of consumerism, this place offered a glimpse of the undeveloped world as it is, and as it can be. The park constituted the use of a modern paradigm by delineating this land area and providing an accessible means of experiencing it, while also preserving it from development in a way that transcends this paradigm. In that way, it was a feasible means of reminding us of our origination from the natural world, and prompting us to reflect on and appreciate our relationship with it. Those who might not have otherwise had access to the outdoors were able to experience this place, and were thereby given a stake in understanding how we Americans navigate our complex relationship with the environment in the 21st century.

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Lessons on the Mountain

 

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We arose early the next morning to the soothing resonance of the river beside us. We packed up our things and headed to the base of Mount Princeton, where we began trekking up a four mile dirt road. It didn’t take long before I became notably short on breath, as we were heading into the range of about 11,000 feet. Shrouded by towering pines, I was daunted by the length of the trek ahead of us, and the lack of a clear vista to look out upon contributed to an excessive focus on the monotony of these heavy steps. Our friend Will, of course, cruised along unfazed. I was in for a long day, but the presence of great friends committed to the pursuit helped me put one foot ahead of the other and press on.

10344143_10203156729894145_7580869892798530535_oEventually, we came to the main trail where we followed a series of seemingly endless switchbacks. At this point, we could situate ourselves and our stature on this mammoth of a mountain as we ascended above the tree line and looked out upon an endless expanse of alpine landscape. I could feel the adrenaline pumping   inside me as I resolved to make it to the summit.

905847_10203156728174102_6877683098474248637_oAfter some hours of hiking, we came to an ice deposit sloping down hundreds of feet on the side of the mountain. The path proceeded directly across with some trodden footprints marking the way. The fear of heights I had combatted throughout our journey reasserted its ugly head, and I reluctantly crawled across on all fours, cognizant that one misstep could send me to a fateful end down the mountain. Fortunately we made it across in one piece–some of us more assertively than others–and proceeded to a steep slope face of loose rocks that pointed toward the summit.

10514218_10203156725014023_1642713522778671917_oAt this point we were nearing 14,000 feet after a near 8 hour ascent, and our shortage of oxygen was apparent. I struggled to grapple up the loose rocks, laying prostrate on the rock surface every few strides in an attempt to catch my breath. My friend Soichi was hurting even more, and our attempt at conversation revealed that his exertion at this altitude brought him into a state of delirium. We shared our dwindling water supplies with him and slowed our pace in attempt to help him stabilize, but eventually he told us he had gone far enough. The summit was about a hundred more feet up the mountain, and we decided we would try to quickly head up there and turn back around to meet Soichi and descend down the mountain.10535634_10203156722533961_3897993596234885310_o

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Will, Dan, and I made it to the top, which was one of the most sublime experiences of my life. We looked out in awe at an endless panoramic view of snow-capped mountains, and spent a few minutes in quiet meditation to sit with the experience and simply be. We headed back down to meet Soichi, and that euphoric sensation we had experienced on the summit quickly receded as we observed that his condition had gotten worse. He was increasingly less responsive and dehydrated, so we gave him what was left of our water and carried his bag in an attempt to get down as efficiently as possible. Out of water and thoroughly exhausted myself, I grew more and more light-headed and began to hallucinate. I wondered whether I would ever make it down this treacherous mountain.

10293837_10203156724334006_8155788528529901144_oAs we reached the end of the switchbacks toward the dirt road, Soichi was so incapacitated that he collapsed on the side of the mountain in an ultimate state of exhaustion and incoherence. I was so out of it myself that I collapsed alongside him, and Will and Dan, who were in relatively better condition, decided to sprint down the mountain to get help. We were panicked. I struggled to keep conscious, but resolved to pester Soichi with questions about his family, his future in graduate school–anything to keep him from passing out. He responded with mumbled noises, but at least I knew he could acknowledge me.

Some inconceivable period of time later, a pair of hikers descended upon us, and I desperately begged for water. They were kind enough to give us a 32 oz gatorade and replenish one of our water bottles, while one of the hikers identified himself as an EMT and insisted on checking Soichi’s pulse. He was still with us–though his heart was racing–and I kept getting him to consent to pouring small quantities of gatorade and water in his mouth. They told us they would try to find a car to come get us, but I was discouraged to learn that the rangers’ station was closed this late in the day.

In my own state of delirium, I was enlivened to hear the sounds of ruffling in the trees–surely a car was on its way! As the mountainous winds receded, I was disheartened to realize it was only my wild imagination at play. I despaired thinking about whether we would ever get off this damn mountain. I deluded myself into excitement on a few more occasions, only to discover my enslavement to the impersonal transience of the chilling alpine wind. I resolved to keep calm and get us rehydrated–clinging to a small semblance of control in the midst of turmoil.

A ruffling sound emerged again, and some measure of regained consciousness from the fluids sheltered me from another impending delusion. This time, however, the sound persisted and out of the corner of my eye I spotted a jeep laboring up the rocky, dirt road toward us. In the back seat appeared Dan and Will, who had sprinted 4 miles down the mountain to find a kindhearted couple who would relieve us from our plight.

The experience rattled all of us, and I couldn’t help but question my intentions on that day. Why was I so set on conquering Mount Princeton after being at high altitude for only a day? Why did I press on to the summit when Soichi was clearly in such bad shape? Why did I assume that 2 bottles of water would be enough for me on a trek up a 14,197 foot mountain? I sat on it for a whole long while, but it wasn’t until weeks later that I gained real clarity on my intentions that day. I was with my good friend Amiya and Dan at a hilltop restaurant in Southern California, reminiscing on our cross-country journey. I recounted the story to Amiya, and instead of responding with some superficial bullshit, she actually pressed me on it. “Why do you always expect yourself to do everything to the extreme in your life?” I sat on it for a minute. And I realized she was right–every time I really committed to an undertaking throughout my life, I always had an expectation that I would do it to its logical extreme, even if it was actually to the detriment of my own well being. I realized that I had constantly tied my self worth to an expectation of accomplishment by outdoing anything and anyone–whether it be winning that tennis tournament, getting straight A’s that semester, or reaching the summit of that mountain. Not even to prove my worth to other people, but to myself–over and over again. My paradigm was such that if I had turned back on that mountain, and actually done what was probably best to take care of my good friend Soichi and my own health, I would have felt worse about myself, as reaching that mountaintop was the only thing that would have made me feel worthy that day.

And that wasn’t right.  I walked away from dinner with a newfound understanding and acceptance that I am worthy of self-love and compassion regardless of the tennis matches I win, the grades I receive, or the mountains I climb. This may be my next chapter called the “Real World,” but if I continued to tie my self-worth to new sources of external validation–whether it be how much money I own, what kind of job I have, or how beautiful my girlfriend may be–I would never be good enough. And you know what, I am most certainly enough and a whole lot more.

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On the Road

10492434_10203104254342289_4611224841618212898_nI learned shortly after Graduation that my good friends and fellow graduates Dan and Soichi were planning a road trip across the country. I had told them about my struggles at home, and they kindly asked if I wanted to join them on the journey. After a great deal of thought and introspection, I decided to take them up on their offer. I knew this would be a phenomenal opportunity to both literally and metaphorically launch into the next chapter of my life, while forming meaningful, shared experiences with good friends who were also grappling with how to translate their experiences at Bowdoin into the unknown character of our realities ahead. The road trip also represented a way to reconcile my yearnings for the independence, intentionality, and responsibility of adulthood with a more youthful embrace of adventure, openness, and spontaneity. I was fortunate enough to have some money saved up and no definitive commitments through November, which gave me the financial support and flexibility to go for it. This was not a linear step on a trodden “career path,” but a creative chapter along my own  unique “life journey,” in which an underlying “why” motivation coupled with an emerging understanding of “who I am” and “who I want to be,” were my catalysts to take off. I was confident that the “what” would intersect with circumstance and fall into place.

On Monday, June 16th, Dan and Soichi arrived at my mom’s house in New York. We had so much energy and excitement and anticipation bottled up that we decided to go for a workout, where we ended up careening around a basketball gym causing havoc in an ultimate state of catharsis before our impending departure. We then loaded up the car and stuffed the roof rack to the brim before taking off for our first stop, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. I cherished the experience of freedom out on the open road, and reconnecting with friends who had undergone such powerful shared experience at Bowdoin was like a breath of fresh air.

We arrived in Gettysburg later in the day, where we were staying with our friend Nick’s mother and stepfather. I felt instantly welcomed by their warmth and hospitality, but perhaps more meaningfully, I really valued the honest portrayal they gave of their familial past and the environment in which Nick was raised. This marked the first affirmation of one particular realization I’d cultivate in the “Real World”–that experiencing the people I carry in my life in the context of their homes, their families, and their friends and not simply within a shared context like Bowdoin is a powerful means to understand someone on a deeper level, gaining more intimate  acquaintance with the complexities of life experience that have shaped a person’s identity.

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The next day we took a bike ride around the battlefield of Gettysburg.  The sun was glaring down on us in the exposed stretches of abandoned farmland, and the physical exertion of peddling around the site offered a more holistic engagement with the place. I had experienced other historical sites in my life, some of which I had been disappointed to consider cheapened appropriations of the past, conveying a particular “triumphalist one-sidedness” or “touristic money trap” or “objectified good to be consumed.” My experience at Gettysburg was different. For one, there was no grand entryway to signal an overtly commercialized or artificially delineated land area, contributing to an experience of dynamically arriving upon the battlefield in a way that stimulated imagination in situating myself in history. In addition, each state involved in the battle had erected their own monument to commemorate the respective soldiers that fought for them. This collective mode of commemoration resonated with me, as this was a story being told from a number of different perspectives and not from a dominant cultural narrative that can sometimes serve to appropriate the American past in one particular way.

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As we struggled to ascend up the famous Little Roundtop, and looked out at a gloomy expanse of bare grassland, I experienced a deep sense of connection and reverence for Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain (later General), the Bowdoin student, professor, and later president who courageously defended the extreme left flank of the Union Army at this strategic stronghold. I remembered a speech that Senator Angus King had given our freshman class during our orientation at Bowdoin, proclaiming that, “You now walk these same paths that Chamberlain once walked…” It was a powerful experience of both humility and empowerment–one in which I affirmed my own resolve to make a meaningful mark in the course of history.

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We proceeded to Columbus, Ohio on the next leg of our journey. A memorable experience came in heading to Cincinnati to attend a live viewing party of the US-Germany World Cup match. As we attempted to enter a downtown parking garage , we realized that we had to do something about our forgotten roof rack that became suddenly wedged against the yellow crossbeam suspended at the entrance to the garage. We pulled off to the side of the street and took it down, lugging the heavy shell down to a storage area within the garage, and proceeding to park in there. The game was a real thriller, and though Germany pulled away with the 1-0 win, the crowd was excited to know the US had advanced to the knock-out rounds. I remember remarking to Dan and Soichi that I was getting “good vibes” from the friendly people we encountered in the area. Well, that was about to change. After the game, we pulled the car off to the side of an exit area in the parking garage, appearing to block traffic but offering a clear passing lane to our side. As we struggled to remount the roof rack in the unforgiving heat, an older gentleman pulled up next to us in a flashy Mercedes–“Hey I’ve got another package for ya,” he remarked. I gave a forced laugh, assuming he was making a light-hearted but consoling joke. He then pulled out his middle finger from his cupped left hand and flipped us the bird as he drove away. So much for that midwestern courtesy…

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We enjoyed a pleasant overnight stay with family friends in St. Louis, finding peace and the comforts of home in a beautiful suburban setting with an enchanting garden, which was a welcome respite from the anonymity of the open road. We embarked on the next leg of the journey, a long 9-hour trek through the state of Kansas toward Denver, Colorado. Through the lens of the car window, I was captivated by the subtle changes in the American landscape as we made our way along. From the dark coniferous woods I had endeared in Maine, we journeyed through deciduous forests and sprawling expanses of development in New York, to a mixture of forested undulations and flat, open farmland in Pennsylvania and West Virginia, to wide open skies and pleasant built environments of Ohio and Indiana and Missouri, to an endless, dry moonscape of Kansas, and to the imposing Rocky mountains rising up from the earth in Colorado. In many ways, we were able to experience the diversity of spatial environments that constitute home for so many different people in the United States.

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In places like Missouri and Kansas, I was particularly intrigued by the cultural expressions of highway billboards, souvenirs, and signs beckoning attention off a given exit ramp. Some of the most recurrent signs read, “Jesus Loves You,” “Gun Store,” “Adult Superstore,” “Fireworks Exit __,” and “Heaven or Hell: Which Will You Choose?” I thought about being a child growing up in this area, and how challenging it might be to reconcile the different value systems being represented in these cultural expressions.

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As we made our way across Kansas, a dark, ominous-looking storm cloud began to descend toward the ground in the western sky before us. We decided to turn on the local weather station, where a man rather nonchalantly remarked that there was a “tornado watch” issued for the western reach of Kansas. No worries, we thought–this must be an everyday reality on these windy plains. But soon enough, the weatherman’s voice grew increasingly brusque as he warned that there was now a “tornado evacuation zone” issued between miles 25 and 38 of Interstate I-70, demanding that listeners, “Head inside and take refuge in the nearest basement, folks, do not stay outside!” Well, we were on mile 40 of I-70 West heading right into the thick of it. Our adventurous spirit and intrigue quickly gave way to urgent concern. I had the brilliant idea of foregoing an upcoming “rest stop” because it did not appear to provide sufficient shelter in its simple bathroom establishment–of course, the next exit wasn’t for many miles ahead. Soichi, who served as a voice of reason for much of the trip, decided to pull an aggressive U-turn across the grassy, caving median and head back toward the last exit behind us. He managed to pull off the maneuver, and we took refuge in a roadside food court as the winds and violent rains picked up. We were able to re-cultivate our adventurous curiosity as we spoke with other storm enthusiasts, including one man who told us he’d seen the tornado touch down in front of him a few miles further down the highway.

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We finally made it to Denver, where we were set to stay with our friend Will and his family. They were nice enough to serve us a great dinner with buffalo burgers upon our arrival, and enjoyed hearing stories of our adventures over the past several days. The following day, we decided we wanted to go on an epic hike together to maximize our Colorado experience, and committed to tackling the 14,197 ft. Mount Princeton. We drove to the foot of the mountain, where we scrambled around to find a campsite, but ultimately arrived upon an untrodden place next to a river that we could call home for the night. We combined ingredients to make a simple bean and rice stew, and shared our post-grad experiences over a campfire as the cool mountainous temperature plummeted into the 30s.

There’s something about experiencing nature in the company of others that brings out an authentic, unrepressed expression of ourselves, and in this place, I certainly felt that. Amid our tumultuous transition into the “Real World,” we were able to take a step back and ruminate on our new realities, both exciting and terrifying, and find solace in the midst of the uncertainty before us. I can’t help but compare the experience with that of Graduation Day–a rare convergence of unique life trajectories wherein time retreated in this blanketing darkness, and space proved to distance ourselves from the activity of the everyday world but almost be transcended in offering us this simple place to just be–underneath the expanse of an explosively starlit sky. This was an alternate reality of meta-reflection in which I was both humbled by the inconceivable vastness of the universe around me, and empowered in the raw sense of connectivity I experienced to a most honest, vulnerable aspect of myself and the friends who sat beside me.

 

Discontent

I returned back to my mom’s house on May 25th, the day after Graduation. I had known since late April that I had received a Fulbright grant to teach English in a university in Sri Lanka beginning in November 2014, and so I had six months without any definitive commitments. I was just coming off of my fourth and final collegiate tennis season, which was in many ways a capstone on my athletic experience at Bowdoin and the culmination of many years of ardent dedication to competitive tennis. Throughout the season, I had struggled to keep focused on the present and “leave everything on the court,” while preparing for the inevitable next steps in my life. Given the immense allocation of my energy toward tennis, I tentatively decided that I would use this interim period of time before my Fulbright grant started to compete in low-level professional and prize money tennis tournaments. There were three Futures tournaments in the greater New York area in the month of June that I had my eyes on, and I was planning to use my mom’s house in New York as a home base for my training.

But when I came home, I experienced the feeling of retreating into a realm of stagnancy and co-dependence that was unfulfilling after my literal and figurative launch into adulthood. I remember muttering on my first day back that, “I can’t ****ing be here.” In addition, my motivation to train for competitive tennis had clearly waned. As I connected with local players and attempted to simulate a regimen that would prepare me for these professional tournaments, I realized that tennis itself as an individualized athletic pursuit was not what I’d been so viscerally passionate about for so many years. It felt empty. Rather, college tennis had been a platform through which I could confront immense physical, emotional, and psychological challenges with a group of guys I absolutely loved, and work together for something greater than myself and my own narrow aspirations. As I separated the sport of tennis from the experience of interconnectivity with my team and a common purpose with others, it became clear that the tremendous passion I had channeled toward my college tennis team reflected a more latent “why” motivation inextricably bound to the experience of interconnectivity, sacrifice, and purpose. Coupled with the reality that I could not get into any of those three New York area tournaments, I decided to hang up the racquet with my team and channel my energy elsewhere.

More existentially, I came to question my conception of “home” in and of itself. I had returned “home” to my mom’s house–the place where I had spent the better part of my adolescence–and yet I felt out of place and struggled to manifest the growth I’d undergone during my years at Bowdoin. I retreated into familiar habits within a realm of comfort, and psychologically tried to reconcile that launching point on Graduation Day with what appeared to be a withdrawal into a static appropriation of years past. This was not home anymore. I came to introspect – where had I experienced “home” before? In the bustling neighborhood cul-de-sac of my childhood home.  On the Armonk Indoor tennis courts with my Altheus Tennis Program training group. In my Peruvian host family’s mountainous abode in the shadow of Incan ruins. On the Bowdoin quad in the middle of the night after finishing a long paper. In my Sri Lankan host family’s home in the midst of the Kandyan jungle. In a candid conversation with good friends.

I realized that for me, “home” is not so much a static physical place but a dynamic interplay of space, the presence of people I love and value, and a worthy purpose invigorating my actions at a particular time in my life. As I develop and grow, I recognized that my conception of “home” will inevitable change along with me, and I knew that at this transitional time, I needed to fight for a redefined experience of “home” in order to experience contentment and fulfillment in my life. As a quote a friend would later share to me reads, “Growth is painful, Change is painful, But nothing is as painful as staying stuck somewhere you don’t belong.”

I was stuck, but willing to confront some of the “pain” of the “Real World” in order to find home.

Graduation

It was May 22, 2014. Two days before I would leave a place that had shaped my identity and the course of my life in ways I can only begin to understand. I had always grappled with the idea of the “Bowdoin Bubble” — that my collegiate community was distinctly an “island unto itself” to quote a phrase from the Buddhist Dhammapada–a bastion of critical inquiry, thought, and introspection both spatially and temporally divorced from the real challenges and necessities of adult life.  As I braced myself for the transition away from Bowdoin over the course of senior year, I couldn’t help but contend with an attitude of “well that was fun/thought-provoking/beautiful but it’s time to snap out of it and get real.” I still think there is some truth and responsibility to be gleaned from this understanding, but on this sunny day in Maine, it became ever more clear to me that the depth of human experience I had lived in the confines of this campus was too raw to dismiss as youthful frivolity, too analyzed and researched and substantiated to count as a mere abstract game of ideas, and too real to simply relegate to the rear view mirror and move on.

When I first got to know Dan Lesser in the context of my Mahayana Buddhism class junior year, it was very clear that he had an intellectual curiosity and reflective nature that resonated with me , and sure enough, he became a close friend throughout my time at Bowdoin.  As we anticipated the imminent arrival of graduation day, and grappled to find closure amid the controlled debauchery that largely constitutes Senior Week, we both felt a need to bring people together to reflect on what we had experienced both individually and collectively during our time at Bowdoin.

On the evening of May 22, a group of seniors converged on the “Thorndike Oak” on the Bowdoin quad, which, unbeknownst to us at the time, was a notable gathering place of students of years past (as our classmate Sam Burnim would illuminate in his Baccalaureate address). We modeled the ceremony on a Quaker meeting, where those compelled to speak or play or sing or recite could do so amid a backdrop of silence. As I sat in this circle of reflectivity, the beauty, authenticity, and indelible nature of my own Bowdoin experience was reaffirmed and very evidently shared in the expressions of others, as well as in a vulnerable anecdote I decided to relate. Powerful stories and poems and songs were met with laughter and nostalgia and tears in a way that encapsulated the range of human experience contained here, testifying to the power of this space and time. It was fitting that without prior planning we ended the ceremony by joining together to sing “Let it Be.” And so we did.

The following day was May 23rd, and my family was beginning to arrive in Brunswick for the graduation festivities. It was an ominously cloudy day with a forecast of rain, reflecting the uneasy anticipation with which fellow classmates awaited the day to come. The day was a bit of a whirlwind attending departmental events and ceremonies while balancing my desire for low-key time with good friends and the arrival of my family. But perhaps the most memorable part of the day began when I met my grandfather at the Amtrak train station. We walked uphill together from Maine Street and entered the northern end of campus through a subtle yet ornamentally beautiful gateway. As we walked along the perimeter of the campus quad, I experienced a deep sense of pride in this place, and my grandfather’s presence here lent affirmation to how my Bowdoin experience  constituted an indispensable chapter in my personal and familial history. And more broadly, this was a portal into an adult world in which I could relate to my grandfather and the rest of my family in a whole new way.

As I attempt to describe my experience on May 24th, I cannot help but recall a passage from the Tao Te Ching about the impossibility of truly encapsulating the essence of an experience through language or conceptualization:

“Words spoken about the Way have no taste. When looked at, there’s not enough to see. When listened to, there’s not enough to hear. When used, it is never exhausted” (Chapter 35).

My heightened awareness of the literal and figurative transition on Graduation Day elevated the experience to one in which I lost consciousness of space and time, submitting to a ritualized alternate reality marking the ultimate liminality in which I resided. Things simply flowed.

At some point Time reentered the fore and the ceremony came to an end. People quite literally dispersed. I walked around the quad eager for one final embrace with good friends, but amid all the bustle and agenda and partial goodbyes, it was clear that I had entered a new chapter of my life. This was what they call the “Real World,” and it remained to be seen how I would fare.

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