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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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Foray into the “Real World”

After years of dormancy, I’ve decided to relaunch my blog, www.samking.me. It is my hope that this site will provide a platform for me to process thoughts and experiences as I enter the world beyond institutional academia, as well as to connect meaningfully with others both near and far by conveying where I am physically, emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually in my journey. This is my “Foray into the Real World,” and I hope you’ll come along for the ride!