Not just a Taembili

I know I haven’t written much about my time in Sri Lanka here. I think there’s a certain clarity of mind I crave when I write, and to be honest, these past (almost) three months have been filled with so much dynamic experience everyday that I’ve made an conscious and often unconscious decision to ride the waves and live it rather than focusing on putting it into words.

That said, I can try. And that’s what I hope to do to keep meaningfully connected with friends and family both close and afar.

I’d like to recount an experience from my very first day in Sri Lanka that sheds light on some of my broader perceptions of people and place here.

I woke up shortly before landing in Colombo, and looked out the window into a backdrop of darkness as the Indian Ocean gave way to the western land mass of Sri Lanka. We passed over the proliferating lights of the capital city, and proceeded inland so as to make a U-turn back to the airport in Negombo.

I remember looking out at a blanketing darkness spotted with the humble lights spotted here and there. It looked like the night sky. I remembered this feeling from two years ago, when I also flew into Sri Lanka at night. I knew there was an overwhelming presence of greenery and life that lay below, and that this darkness was only holding a transient cover over a place that I loved.

I got situated on the ground in a house which I was sharing with the other Fulbrighters in Dehiwala, a city next to Colombo, and I decided to take a walk to drink a taembili, or king coconut, which was and remains my absolute favorite beverage of choice during my time in Sri Lanka. I drink either one or two of them almost everyday.

I walked to a local shop and asked for one in the Sinhala I could remember. The shop keeper chopped it open, and I sat down on a step chatting with him as I relished in the simple pleasure I had craved from years past.

After a few minutes, an older, barefooted woman who must have been in her 80s walked up to the shop — I think she was buying a small amount of dhaal. She turns to me and gives me a smile, and we strike up conversation.  She asks me how long I’ve been in Sri Lanka — only a number of hours — and if I am married.

We speak for some time before I approach the shop keeper to pay. Before I can take my newly exchanged rupees out of my pocket, she says “epaa” (don’t) and insists on paying for the taembili. She reaches into her pocket and hands 35 rupees to the shop owner (about $0.20). I tried to express my thanks by saying bohoma istuutiyi, a formal phrase of gratitude but not used too often, but I realized that words could not do justice to the ethic of giving and reciprocity manifested so clearly and beautifully here.

It was my very first day in Sri Lanka, and I recognize the privilege associated with being a white foreign male in this place, especially in a place that was colonized by white males for almost 300 years. And here is this woman who is barefoot, who probably doesn’t have much money at all, insisting on paying for my taembili. She didn’t ask for my phone number, or have some ulterior agenda she hoped I could follow through on. In fact, I never saw her again.

Yes, there are people with good and bad intentions everywhere, and there certainly are in Sri Lanka. But in this place, as I have experienced time and time again, there is an ethic of giving and taking care of another that is infectious and unparalleled by most any place I have experienced before. If people are not giving with their money, they give with their time, with their tea, with their prayers, and with their smiles.

I often wonder why it seems the more we have, the less we’re likely to give up. Is it because the more possessions we have, the more we feel like we need to protect? Is there a certain amount of anxiety that comes with guarding what is mine, holding up a shield against the world to stay out? A recent NY Times op-ed cited that the top 20% of American income earners give ~1.4% of their income to charity, while the bottom 20% of earners give ~3.5%. Are the rich people we often hear about with their “foundations” really the most generous?

Only the shop owner witnessed this act of gratitude, and I’m sure the woman didn’t think I would pay tribute to her action in writing. But for her, I’m sure it doesn’t matter — I could see from the smile on her face that what mattered was the intrinsic value of giving and the sense of inner peace that comes with arriving a little bit closer to nibbana. 

Pope Francis’ Historic Visit to Sri Lanka

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This is an opinion piece I wrote about the Pope’s history visit to Sri Lanka, followed by an opinion piece on the same event by my friend and fellow Fulbright scholar Amiya Moretta below:

Yesterday morning, I had the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to experience Pope Francis conduct a mass in Colombo, Sri Lanka, addressing a sea of about a million people and confiding sainthood on the 17th century Sri Lankan priest, Joseph Vaz. The arrival of the Pope has been a highly anticipated event in this island nation, and its importance is only accentuated by the recent election of Maithripala Sirisena as the new president on January 8th. The event was an emblematic moment in Sri Lanka’s tumultuous recent history, signaling the collective embrace and celebration of a religious tradition residing outside the hegemony of Sinhalese Buddhism, which has been the predominant idiom of moral and political legitimacy in recent years.

The presence of Christianity, and Roman Catholocism in particular, has retained a notable place in the pluralistic religious landscape of Sri Lanka for several centuries. Indeed, the island has long been a seedbed of diverse cultural influences, arising largely from its strategic economic and political locale off the southern tip of India.

Archeological evidence has traced the existence of Christianity in Sri Lanka back to the 5th century CE with the discovery of a cross in the ancient kingdom of Anuradhapura, and an elaborate baptismal pond farther north near Vavuniya.

It wasn’t until the arrival of Portuguese colonialists in the 16th century, however, that Christianity gained traction as a substantial and organized presence on the island. The Portuguese were primarily interested in exploiting the island’s rich cinnamon resources, though the introduction of Roman Catholicism constituted an indispensable aspect of their agenda-driven enterprise.

The Dutch later ousted the Portuguese in the mid 17th century, and ushered in even more aggressive Protestant missionary efforts to gain loyalists in its attempt to monopolize the spice trade in the Indian Ocean. Nonetheless, it was Roman Catholicism that would persist as a comparatively larger presence in Sri Lanka through the subsequent British colonial period into today.

Catholics account for 8% of the population, representing both ethnic Sinhalese and Tamil communities. Nonetheless, their presence in public discourse has largely been overshadowed by the recent, 26-year long ethnic conflict between the Sri Lankan government, comprised predominantly of Sinhalese Buddhists who make up about 70% of the population, and the separatist Tamil militant group, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The Tamil minority has expressed sentiments of continued marginalization after the controversial end of the war in July of 2009, where the Sri Lankan army is under intense international scrutiny for alleged war crimes committed against Tamil civilians.

Mahinda Rajapakse, the recently-deposed president, has been further criticized by Tamils for centralizing power and retaining a heavily militarized presence in the north, while rendering infrastructure projects that quite literally and figuratively “skim the surface” of underlying ethnic grievances as meaningful concessions.

Meanwhile, the Rajapakse regime presided over an increasing anti-Muslim furor among Sinhalese Buddhist extremists, with reported links to groups like the Bodu Bala Sena, an organization of militant Buddhist monks that fomented violent attacks against Muslims in the southern city of Aluthgama in June of last year.

The Pope’s arrival comes at a seemingly auspicious time. The former health minister, Maithripala Sirisena, defected as one of Mahinda Rajapakse’s most trusted adivisors to become the common opposition candidate and pulled a remarkable upset victory to dethrone the incumbent.  Sirisena campaigned on a platform of decentralizing power, combating corruption, upholding freedom of expression, and reconciling differences across ethnic and religious communities. In so doing, he managed to secure an overwhelming majority of the minority vote critical for his election.

That said, the president is still a Sinhalese Buddhist who has pledged to uphold Buddhism’s privileged status in the constitution and in the affairs of the state. It remains to be seen how successfully he can navigate across the contours of a pluralistic society, and foster the kind of national and inclusivist unity he championed in his campaign.

It is in this landscape that the Pope arrived in Sri Lanka. As I walked down Galle Road toward the Galle Face Green, the momentous nature of the occasion was apparent. Hanging posters read, “Holy Father We Salute You,” and the heavy police and military presence, coupled with the closing of major sections of road, testified to the collective importance and publicly-anticipated ritual occasion.

I descended upon a sea of patrons who had eagerly positioned themselves against the beautiful backdrop of the Indian Ocean. Catholic hymns resonated through the loudspeakers, as I weaved my way through the bustling crowd under an intensifying sun, hopeful for a mere glimpse at His Holiness himself.

The emergence of Francis was apparent, as the crowd sprouted up in an expression of collective exaltation and excitement. The Pope commenced the ceremony with a prayer, as the great expanse of Catholic devotees bowed their heads in deep reverence. He then conferred sainthood upon the 17th century Indian-born priest, Joseph Vaz, who came to Sri Lanka to preach among the poor. Francis recognized St. Joseph as an embodiment of the peace and reconciliation necessary for Sri Lanka to move forward:

“Each individual must be free, alone or in association with others, to seek the truth, and to openly express his or her religious convictions, free from intimidation and external compulsion,” he said.

The Pope ended with a homily that extended his blessings upon the people of Sri Lanka, regardless of ethnic background or creed. The crowd applauded in humble solidarity, an apparent display of common aspiration and unity in this historically divided yet collectively recovering island nation.

Francis’ message was decidedly inclusivist in nature, and reflected his emerging role as a peace builder in an increasingly pluralistic world. He has been heralded for his progressive attitude toward issues such as homosexuality, stating that “if a person seeks God and has goodwill, who am I to judge?” More recently, the Pope played a critical role in working with both members of the Cuban and American governments to normalize diplomatic relations after many decades of hostility. His leadership and influence have extended well beyond the confines of the Catholic Church, and have elevated him to the status of a great moral leader of our time.

But in Sri Lanka, Francis’ presence represents a whole lot more. Between the epic ceremony at the Galle Face Green, and President Sirisena’s welcoming remarks that asked for the blessings of Francis on this island nation, it is evident that this was an event of tremendous historical importance in celebrating the contributions and guiding insights of a tradition residing beyond the realm of Sinhalese Buddhism, which has long delineated the bounds of conventional moral and political truths in this country. Despite the controversial history of how Christianity may have come to this island, or its precise ideological compatibility with the traditions of Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam, the people were able to take a step back and appreciate its indispensable place in this beautifully diverse land, and to ruminate on a message with relevance to all. Let’s hope President “Maitri”, whose name means “compassion,” will build on the pope’s timely message to nurture an expanding idea of what it means to be Sri Lankan.

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The following is an opinion piece by my friend and fellow Fulbright scholar Amiya Moretta:

Ceremonial Hypocrisy

Observing Pope Francis today (January 14, 2015) in Colombo, Sri Lanka ordaining Joesph Vaz into sainthood was an interesting historical moment. However, my interest was not necessarily in the ordainment itself but instead, in the 60 or so male priests adorned in black robes while not a single woman was elevated to the platform alongside of them.

This proved especially surprising given that hundreds of nuns had traveled near and far to be in the presence of His Holiness and after devoting every facet of their lives to the Catholic religion, were not considered stage-worthy.

As I listened to the ceremony that spoke of human rights, social justice, and equality, I found myself questioning the situational irony of the expression of Christian teachings that hail the worth of every human being and the oppressive, misogynistic ideas that arise from cultural conditioning in the Church. As the ceremony concluded, l decided to capitalize on the opportunity to speak to a nun who happened to speak English.

Draped in a navy blue robe with the cross of Jesus resting around her neck, I asked her, “Can women be ordained to priesthood within the Catholic Church? She looked at me as though I was an idiot. Even though I already knew the answer to this question, I wanted to talk about the women’s role in the Catholic religion and in particular, how she felt about the female’s lack of mobility under authority to be ordained as priests.

Answering with the conviction of Newton proving the existence of gravity, she told me, “Mothers can’t be fathers and father’s can’t be mothers. Women were made to be mothers. And a Mother would not want to be a Father.   I looked at her and did not respond as I had met some “Mothers” who wanted to be “Fathers” in America (where the nun and I both happened to be from), some of which who had been denied ordainment despite beliefs that they were being called to priesthood by the Holy Father himself.

After attending a ceremony in a country at the beacon of transition, with the new President Maithripala Sirisena in power, a fresh new year, and a visit from the first Pope to endorse homosexuality, I couldn’t help but wonder why no changes were being made for the women’s movement of equality within the Catholic Church. People who are apart of the women’s movement for equality, such as Mary Daly in The Church and the Second Sex had this to say about the Catholic Church, “those engaged in the struggle for the equality of the sexes have often seen the Catholic Church as an enemy” (105).  Although the nun I spoke with did not share the same position, many who are considered “outsiders” in the Church are trying to create the credibility and leverage necessary to fuel the momentum that would stimulate a push towards women’s equality within the church.

As I continued listening to the nun she said, “Men were made first and women were made second. They are the supporting role and that’s why women have motherly instincts- to take care of others.”  As she left her last words were, “ you know, I know this has been said before, but a women’s place really is in the home.”

As I reflected on this  conversation and her blatant acceptance of her position as “created second” and “supportive,” I couldn’t help but think of the words of Rosemary Radford Reuther, who writes in Gaia and God: An Ecofeminist Theology of Earth Healing, “Western cultural traditions…, of which Christianity is a major expression , have justified and sacralized…relationships of domination”  (191). The hierarchy of patriarchal domination within the Catholic Church that was so clearly expressed visually in today’s ceremony with regards to physical proximity to His Holiness himself and the physical display of power through the stage of priests and hundreds of nuns below it could be felt in the words of this woman.

Was this glorification of female inferiority as the “woman’s role” one that other Catholic followers submitted to and then projected in their every day life?  What could this nun be teaching the little girls in Sri Lanka about their personal worth, their potential, and their value as human beings if she herself believed the role of a woman was second to a mans?

Despite this nun’s acceptance and dispersal of agenda driven beliefs passed down by patriarchal domination, many within the Catholic Church are choosing to opt out.  So, what happens to the “Mothers” who wish to be “Fathers” and others who choose not to prescribe to the structural inequality present in the Catholic Church?

Some are leaving their faith all together and looking to something else for spiritual connection. In Carol P. Christ’s, Why Women Need the Goddess she expresses the unique power of the Goddess as it deters from a “woman’s will being subordinated to the Lord God as king and ruler, nor to men as his representatives” as in the case of the female priests, yet provides a different understanding of the will as one that can be “achieved only when exercised in harmony with the energy and will of other beings” (171). Thus, a woman is not reduced to waiting and acquiescing to the wills of those in a patriarchy but instead, encouraged to recognize that all wills can be achieved in their own time.

A myriad of emotions arise when something as sensitive and close to people’s hearts as religion is seen as needing reform by some and yet, is perfectly acceptable to others such as the nun I spoke with. However, as the mission of most Christian churches is to bring as many people to God as possible, it seems necessary that they become open to change and in particular the insistence upon equal treatment among all peoples, especially if they are going to be preaching social justice and equality on an international platform.

Opinion Piece: Amiya Moretta

 

On Memory, Friendship, and Carrying On


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I  returned to the New York area toward the end of October, where I would spend time with family and friends before taking off for Sri Lanka. My Fulbright grant was slated to last nine months, but quite honestly I didn’t know when I’d come back again. I cherished this limited time I had with those who had supported me through such formative common experience, and who constituted an indispensable part of my journey up to this transitional point in my life.

I want to share a few stories that shed light on some of the powerful experiences I shared with family and friends during this time. But before I do that, I’d like to take a step back and reflect on the function of memory and retrospective in inspiring my writing. For one, I realize that much of my creative nonfiction narrative has been produced a considerable time after the events I describe herein. My recollection is therefore inevitably filtered through the prism of my present experience–informed by the contexts of relative equanimity in which I often approach my writing, as well as an evolving perspective conditioned by subsequent life experience. I’m already naturally critical of language as a vehicle to accurately encapsulate or even “do justice” to the complexities of what we positionally encounter everyday. But even more broadly, I admit that my own position of hindsight in  writing about the “real world” can serve to situate and appropriate experience so as to fit more neatly into a broader narrative. When you have some idea of where a story is going, it’s tempting enough to instrumentalize past experience to have some teleological bent toward what is to come. You might obscure or further delude the essence of what was experienced in a given moment.

I am conscious of that, and I hope to bracket my position of hindsight so as to better illuminate what really went on. But at the same time, I want to emphasize that it’s often not just the “what” that is sown in the story of human experience, but what people make of the “what” and internalize both individually and collectively. More relevantly for my writing, it’s often not the ins and outs of what’s happened to me in the “real world” that matters, but how the contours of my experience have informed the broader mosaic of self-actualization and growth in my life, and how they might resonate in the life of others. I don’t want to suggest that we are entirely conscious beings making wholly conscious choices that define who we are and who we aspire to be, but that the subjective prisms of self-concept, perception, worldview, and value through which we experience the world are perpetually affected by both conscious and unconscious appropriations of what we’ve been through. And that is what I hope to illuminate in my writing–not just the cards I’ve been dealt but the hands I come to play. Perhaps memory and retrospective are not so obscuring after all.

And so, my first story involves my mom. Days before I left, she and I decided we wanted to go for a hike in the area. We dawned a few layers to confront the brisk chill of the fall afternoon, and headed to the Greenwich Audubon Society just a few miles away. We walked into the nature preserve, and glanced over signs at the main trailhead in an attempt to get oriented to the area. It didn’t take long before the trail we had chosen became obscured by the colorful leaves blanketing the forest floor, but it didn’t seem to matter. We headed in a general direction forward into the heart of the preserve, lost in conversation about this transitional point in our lives. My mom was navigating a change in her career path, and I was about to embark on a 9-month journey on the other side of the world. I felt like we could connect on a real adult level–two people at a rather vulnerable place in our lives, trying to make the most of the cards we’ve been dealt.

IMG_1686We made our way to a quiet pond toward the outer perimeter of the preserve, where we came upon a small row boat resting on the edge of the water body. In a moment of spontaneous revelation, I suggested we take the boat for a spin out on the water, propelled by a broken oar that lay by its side. Of course, I neglected to mention the far side of the boat read, “staff only.” My mom was game, so we flipped the shell over and headed out from the grassy shore. We paddled across the still surface of the pond, parting a colorful layer of leaves to reveal the still darkness of the water below. The absurdity and novelty of the experience was beyond words, and left us laughing in an expression of simple joy as we commandeered the extents of the pond in this humble vessel. At this common juncture in our unique life trajectories, we embraced the intrinsic beauty of paddling along to an unknown destination.IMG_1683

My next story involves my good friend Alex, or Schmal as we like to call him. Schmal and I go way back to our days at Julian Krinsky Tennis Camp in Haverford, Pennsylvania back in 2006. He is probably the most energetic person I’ve ever met, and his general enthusiasm about life is infectious. Schmal has always been intentional about sustaining our friendship across distance and time, as he is one of those unique individuals always finding new opportunities to bring people together. Sure enough, when I returned back to the New York area after several months away, we were quick to reconnect and catch up on on where were in our respective journeys.

After much challenge and time since graduation, Alex had just landed his dream job working for Major League Baseball in New York City. He was eager for me to see him in his new office, and we decided upon a day I could come in. I took the train into New York, and walked a short distance from Grand Central to a towering office building a few blocks away. I checked in with the front desk to get the requisite credentials, and walked toward a set of golden elevators that would take me up to his floor. Sure enough, I exited one the elevators and encountered a crisply-printed “Major League Baseball” sketched on the glass door of the office. Alex soon greeted me in the lobby, impressively “overdressed” with a dapper sport coat secured by his dad, Big Mike, and was thoroughly excited to show me around.

He took me past a hall with mannequins representing every team in the league, and autographed memorabilia behind glass panes marking the perimeter of the office. He showed me his desk, his current work assignments, and introduced me to some older employees who clearly appreciated the joviality, energy, and sports knowledge he brought to the office. I had always known how passionate Alex was about sports, but to see him tangibly pursuing his dream in this place was an amazingly gratifying experience. It gave me the equanimity to know I could take off for a distant world in Sri Lanka, and rest assured that my good friend was thriving in a unique element of his own. After all, I realized with friends all over the world that this was most important — that despite the physical or experiential difference between us, what is most important is providing the support and affirmation to pursue these different life journeys, and if our shared experience and/or energetic wavelength was strong enough, our paths would surely cross again.

My third story involves a trip up north. Before I left the country, I was intent on spending a few days with my grandparents in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and catching up with the rest of my extended family close by in Newton. I made the three and a half hour drive, and settled in on the familiar street my grandparents have occupied for several decades. It was an absolute gift to spend this brief period of time with them, and so gratifying to hear their perspectives after a significant amount of time in the world of adulthood myself. I felt like I could relate to them on a whole different level, and situate the unique path I was about to undertake within a rich family history. My family in Newton came over with barbecue one evening for a dinner, which was particular kind since my cousins were in the midst of a busy school week. My cousin Hannah was in the process of applying to colleges, which was fairly baffling to me given that I’d always considered her my baby cousin. Nonetheless, it was a tremendous gift to spend time with them, and affirmed our enduring connection at this transitional place in several of our lives.

I also got together with my high school friend Gus, who is a senior at Harvard. I thoroughly enjoyed catching up with him and hearing about his ambitious pursuits in the field of medicine, as well his infectiously adventurous spirit in developing plans for after his imminent graduation. His intellect, drive, and compassion have always inspired me, and it was a true pleasure to see him and to meet his girlfriend, two people I look up to and inspire me to be better everyday.

IMG_2029I also got together with my good friend and freshman year roommate Nick, who was in the process of settling into his first job and newfound life in Boston. I felt a similar wavelength of experience to my time seeing Alex in his office at MLB, as it brought me such happiness to see Nick thriving in a city he had set his sights on for some time, and embracing a reinvented identity in the adult world.

And finally, I connected with some of my former tennis team teammates living in Boston for dinner in Harvard Square. It was amazing to see these guys, who could uniquely relate to such a formative common experience we shared unlike so many new people who would enter my life. It was also incredibly inspiring to see them thriving in their lives beyond Bowdoin — Casey at Fidelity Investments, Andrew who spearheaded and successfully secured the 2024 U.S. Olympic bid in Boston, and Nico, who had returned from living in Shanghai to attend Harvard Kennedy School of Government. It gave me the hope during this transitional period of time before I took off for Sri Lanka that I, too, would get grounded in my own sphere, and ultimately thrive in this next chapter of my life.

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Before heading to Boston, I had decided I wanted to visit Bowdoin one more time to connect with good friends before taking off for so long. I made the trip north on I-495 with the sort of nervous anticipation that comes with returning to a formative place of the past, while knowing that my identity within that place had profoundly changed. As I reached campus, I could physically feel my heart wrench as I contended with an evident void between the power this place had constituted in my life, and my position as a relative outsider negotiating a newfound sense of identity to situate myself in this place.

Nonetheless, I was quickly reminded of how inextricable of a connection I maintained with people and place at Bowdoin. I met up with my old tennis coach, who was eager to hear about my latest adventures, and to fill me in on the new team dynamic this year. I also connected with my younger teammates and our new freshmen, and I cherished the opportunity I had to spend time with them and share a new perspective having left this place for some time.

Perhaps my most memorable experience was reconnecting with my friend and mentor, Bernie, along with my friend Will, who had returned after graduation to work in the Center for the Common Good on campus. When I reached out to Bernie to see if we could get together, he quickly responded with enthusiasm and asked me if Will and I wanted to join him for dinner. We ended up driving to his place in Freeport, where we had an amazing time catching up over dinner and wine on our various adventures over the last six months. Bernie actually told me that he had been practicing meditation that very morning before I reached out to him, and I happened to come into his field of consciousness, where he extended compassion toward me. Sure enough, despite all the diverse experiences we had undergone over this period of time, it felt like we were picking up on a conversation we had never left. Everything simply flowed. It is good friendships like these where I know that no matter how much time or divergence in experience may pass, we continue to occupy the same energetic wavelength and connect on a substantive level that will sustain our friendship moving forward

These experiences with friends and family combined to remind me that my unique life trajectory has not unfolded in a vacuum, but has been inextricably shaped by the people, places, and ideas I have encountered across many years of living. I returned back to the New York area, and prepared to ship off for Sri Lanka with the reaffirmed sense of equanimity that comes with knowing I was carrying a whole lot more with me than that single black duffle bag that lay by my side.

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A Journey North to Pelican Lake

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During my years at Bowdoin, I had promised my close friend and teammate Eric that I would visit him in Minnesota. For those that don’t know him, Eric is a man of the wild. He’s been known to go off the map for months at a time on epic excursions into northern Minnesota and Canada, embodying the antithesis of the semester’s-end platitude, “keep in touch.” During opportune times at Bowdoin, Eric would wake up at 3 am and head to strategic areas in the Maine woods, huddling in the brush and making turkey calls to summon his prey. While many of us might show up to tennis practice stressed by a particular workload or personal issue, Eric would lament over the morning turkey that got away.

Eric isn’t just a man of the wild. He’s a man of the Minnesota wild. (Not the hockey team, though he probably could have been given his athletic ability and, well, his favorite adage that “anything is possible” [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zyjOy7fRzs0]). In fact, Eric wrote one of the most resonant narratives I read as an undergrad about the environmental history of his family’s ancestral home in Minnesota. I’ll include his introduction here:

Time off in Minnesota means going North. It might mean driving six hours from your place of permanent residence in the Twin Cities or fifteen minutes to an isolated lake from an already isolated lake that you call home, but no matter the distance, the important thing is that you are going North. In the minds of many, a trip South is reserved for college students, the elderly, and those of weak constitution who can’t handle the weather. Whether journeyed monthly or once a decade, a trip North is a pilgrimage traveled by countless devout Minnesotans across the state. North was a place to escape the pressures of home or the congestion of city life. Born and raised in the North Star State, my experience and the experience of four generations of my family that have preceded me have been no different.

Pelican Lake sits at the center of my family’s ancestral geography. On the Southeastern shore of Pelican Lake, 8367 acres of deep blue, gin clear water spilled onto the landscape of central Minnesota, my family’s cabin sits nestled on a short ridge dotted with oak and white pine. When my great-great Grandfather Willard Sparks spent his summers there, the cabin was described as quaint, or primitive, depending on your outlook; a single room opening out the back to a golden, sugar sand beach. The color of the grains seemed to be stained by the thousands of setting suns that have bathed our shore in a cascade of gold, yellow, and red light every day during dusk of clear summer days since it first emerged from the cover of glaciers. Together the sand and light gave our stretch of shore its namesake, Sunset Beach. Ninety-one years later, when I walk out the back door of my cabin I leave a four bedroom, three bath, all season home with a two car garage and full kitchen. Yet, I step onto the same golden sand. The lake rests quietly, exhausted from a day of playing with the wind. Rings of water emanate where fish have broken the still surface, and loons lure each other closer with their stirring calls. All of this growing stillness and subtle activity set to the ephemeral cascade of colors that accompany a falling sun. It is a scene that my great-great grandpa Will saw hundreds of times all those years ago; it is a destination for my family’s northern pilgrimage that connects me to a man I never met and rarely hear of. He created a place to go North, and I continue to follow in his footsteps, arriving at a place that has in many ways stayed the same, but that also has been profoundly changed over the last century.

To really understand Eric, or attempt to understand Eric, I wanted to experience him in his element. I knew this couldn’t just happen in the confines of Lubin Squash Center, home of the janky tennis stringer of years past, or the beer-soaked halls of Coles Tower. I would have to make the journey to Pelican Lake and see Eric in the Land of the Golden Gophers myself. And so I did.

It was October 26th, 2014, and I looked out from an airplane window at the rolling expanse of Minnesota wilderness. I remember thinking that the landscape reminded me of Maine, except with the prevalence of lakes substituting for rivers and ocean. It was late in the unfolding of fall, though the trees held to their leaves of orange and yellow and red with conviction. I could sense that the natural environment was much more saliently a context for human life here, a distinction I could draw from other parts of the US having lived in Southern California for much of the last four months.

I landed at the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport, and navigated my way to the shuttle service that would escort me the 2.5 hours north to the town of Brainerd where Eric would meet me. I couldn’t help but recall the opening line of Eric’s environmental history piece–“Time off in Minnesota means going North.” I was a fish out of water–or a fish out of lake more aptly–but all I knew was to make my way up north.

In the van, I struck up conversation with an old man who had grown up in central Minnesota. He told me he now lives in Alaska, where he spent most of his working career as a fireman. In fact, he had served as a guard at the entrance to the site of the Exxon Valdez oil spill, which he said was a place of precipitous crime and disorder. The man gazed out the window and narrated much of our journey up north, commenting on the flora and fauna and some of the stark changes he observed in the built environment along the way. It was clear that this place evoked  great deal of memory. He told me had come back to visit a former girlfriend of his childhood, a person who has undergone a number of broken relationships in her life. I inferred from his drop-off location that he was staying in a hotel, but planning to be here for at least a few weeks, and so I gathered he was pursuing a substantive connection with this important person of ages past. People, place, memory–and so this man made his journey north.

 Eventually, darkness descended upon us. It wasn’t your typical half-mitigated darkness characteristic of most of the developed American landscape, but an overwhelmingly dark void obscuring most any vision apart from the immediacy of the highway and the luminous stars apparent above. I proceeded through an unfamiliar land, but Eric’s land no less, and I was excited to gain some vision in the dark with the help of his local stewardship.

We reached the town of Brainerd, and pulled into the parking lot of a small restaurant. Sure enough, Eric was leaning against the hood of his car, set to receive me with his flannel and backwards hat. I gave him a big hug, and he helped me schlep my excessively heavy bag into his trunk. His car was filled with camouflage gear, fishing supplies–I was glad to see some things hadn’t changed. We went to a local restaurant-bar and caught up over food and beer, before heading back to his family’s cabin. The cabin is a cozy, wooden-furnished home with the amenities to combat the extremities of Minnesota’s seasons, while enveloped by an ethos of history and ancestry. Taxidermic largemouth bass and old photos hang on the wall, while one particular doorframe is marked with the height measurements of countless family and friends who have graced this place over the years. We walked down a set of stone steps to the edge of Pelican Lake, whose massive expanse was barely comprehensible in the darkness, aside from the spotted lights dotting the distant shore. I realize that deep in my subconscious, I had harbored an instinct that told me I needed to be close to the ocean to feel truly grounded in my life, but in this place, I could experience the real solace of home.

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I arose early the next morning as sunlight illuminated the cabin, and looked out at the beautifully vibrant lake before me. Eric had already prepared breakfast for us, which only made the experience that much richer. We decided to go on a walk with his dog Boulder, a tranquil yet loyal companion who very clearly constitutes an indispensable aspect of Eric’s identity and rootedness in this place. We trudged through the surrounding woods, where Eric showed me his hunting camera set up with night-vision images of bucks and other critters that had found their way here. He was intent on getting a buck one of these days, and a picture message I would receive weeks later confirmed my intuition that he would. We talked about our realities beyond college, and how great of a challenge it was to reconcile these different chapters of our lives. Selling fruits and veggies in California, living and working in the woods of Minnesota–what people and experiences and ideas would we carry with us across these distinct realms of existence? What’s the right balance between holding on to emblems of the past and embracing the novelty of the present? How do we meaningfully sustain relationships with people and places in a time when individual mobility is such a common phenomenon in our circles, and things so quickly change?

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We returned back to the house and made a fire on the beach, over which we barbecued our lunch. I cherished how connected I felt to Eric, the food we prepared, and the beautiful environment situating our experience in this place. I asked some questions about Pelican Lake’s fish population, and Eric responded with his keen insights into the ecological state of the lake. We decided to spend the afternoon fishing off his boat, with the hopeful prospect of providing dinner for the night. We gathered warm layers to confront the cool chills of the late autumn wind, and set out on the lake. Naturally, Eric ramped up the motor and sent us cruising over the surprisingly choppy surface of the water, and I rejoiced in an overwhelming state of freedom, joy and connectivity.

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We spent some time fishing in the shallow, vegetated waters of an inlet on the far side of the lake, where Eric snagged a few largemouth bass. These were beautiful freshwater fish that would make for a great dinner, and providing our own sustenance for the night was a rewarding prospect.

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We relocated to a deeper section of the lake, where Eric wanted to troll along a particular ridge at which the vegetation drops off to a more barren abyss. Here, he told me, was a great place to catch the big guys. We motored along for a while as our lines dragged behind us, and I stared up at the unbelievable expanse of open sky presiding over the rim of the lake. What an amazing place to be on planet earth. Suddenly, I felt a bite. I jerked my rod to set the hook, and started battling what I could feel was a powerful creature dwelling in the depths of this lake. My adrenaline was pumping, and Eric came to my side to help land the unknown fish soon to reveal itself. After an arduous struggle, I summoned this remarkably large freshwater pike to the surface, and Eric grabbed the line and brought it into the boat. “Wooooooooooooo” he yelled, and I responded with a blaring “yeeeeeeeeeppppppppp” as we shared this epic moment of utter elation out on Pelican Lake.

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We navigated our way back to shore, where we would fillet the fish in preparation for dinner. The pike was still alive, and I decided I wanted to be the one to put it out of its misery. It was a strange sensation of asking to kill the fish myself, especially since Eric had been relatively more used to this aspect of hunting and fishing, but I wanted to experience the visceral act of taking something’s life that I intended to put in my stomach. I thought: how often do omnivores pick out meat from the butcher, or the frozen food section, and completely dissociate from the inevitable death that creature had to undergo? The suffering and death of these animals is so distant from our realm of consciousness that we hardly think about it, often choosing not to think about it as a justification for particular dietary preferences, or an aversion to unappetizing “morbid thoughts.” Meat is so often considered a replaceable “product” occupying a particular space in these commercial establishments, not a remnant of a living being that lost its life and quite often suffered in finding its way onto our plate. As I bludgeoned this creature with a piece of driftwood, I could see the life leave its eyes before me. It was a powerful experience that was much more rattling than I could have anticipated, but so damn real in putting me face to face with the real sacrifice of what I chose to put on my plate. I would eat our pike dinner that night with profound gratitude, and deep sense of respect for the life of this beautiful creature.

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We woke up the next morning intent on going for a run. Eric had heard of some nature trails in a small town about a half hour away, and we decided to go there to get our exercise for the day. We stepped out of the car in the brisk morning air, and I had to make a conscious commitment to move my body around. Soon after taking off into the nature preserve, I relived my many experiences chasing after Eric on the various gnarly workouts of our college career. The notions of “a jog,” or “easing into it” were not in his vocabulary, and I had to book it just to keep pace. We weaved around on these narrow trails that ascended up to woody vistas, looking out on the expanse of former mines that had filled in as lakes. I reaffirmed my motivation to run in reaching these beautiful spots, but as we doubled back the way we came, we quickly learned that our main route back was blocked off. Of course it was. A cathartic few mile run turned into a cumbersome slog navigating back and forth around a series of nature trails, getting found only to get lost again. I suppose this was part of the Minnesota experience, and I had to embrace it at that.

We spent most of the rest of the day fishing on another lake behind Eric’s house, and caught our dinner for the night. I continued to be impressed by the depth of his understanding of the ecology of this place. At one point, Eric threw back a particularly large largemouth bass back into the water because he thought that it was probably a strong progenitor of the species in the lake, and ought to be present to sustain the health of the ecosystem. I realize that hunting and fishing are often considered brutal activities, and I recognize they involve quite a bit of suffering, but I do think they can provide a unique platform to connect deeply with the natural environment. They can induce a greater understanding of humans as a part of the natural world–something often lost in today’s circumscribed understanding of nature as somehow apart from ourselves–and a more intimate awareness of the implications of how we cohere with that world. It’s a complicated issue, one with which I continue to grapple today, but I feel more ethically grounded when I fish (I have never been hunting) with an appropriate ecological awareness, the intention to eat what I catch, and the compassion to minimize suffering when possible. As an avid fisherman and hunter, Eric embodies all of these qualities, and I am confident he is one of the most conscientious stewards of this Minnesotan environment you could find.

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The next day we drove down to Minneapolis, which offered a change of pace in meeting up with Eric’s sister and experiencing the surrounding city. Eric suggested that a great way to see the place would be to go for a bike ride. I should have seen it coming. A leisurely, “touristic” ride turned into an over 40 mile arduous trek through the cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul and surrounding suburbs. I struggled to keep up with Eric as he careened around the dips and turns of the road, which for a good long while paralleled the Mississippi River. Surely my calves were not built for this kind of long-twitch muscle exertion. Nevertheless, I enjoyed seeing a number of public parks, the modern cityscape, and the interaction of the built environment with natural water bodies, things I felt I could experience that much more closely through the physical activity of riding a bike along the way. Riding in the trail of Eric encouraged me to test my own limits, and to gain a glimpse of a lived interaction with this place through his eyes.

We said our goodbyes later that day, as Eric was waking up at the crack of dawn to drive back north. It was one of those inevitable points of departure I had come to know in the “real world” where Eric had a duty to head back to work, and I had a duty to visit my family back east before leaving the country for 9 months. I was definitely saddened to realize we wouldn’t be heading to practice the next day, or procrastinating on homework in the dining hall that night. This wasn’t a semester’s break where I knew Eric would head off the map for some time, only to return to our familiar stomping grounds soon enough. I didn’t know when I’d see my friend again. But at the same time, I felt a deep sense of contentment that I could share this experience with Eric. In some ways, I cherished our time together that much more because I knew it was limited, but also because I could experience him in the context of his home in Minnesota–a physical and psychological realm in which Eric is truly Eric. And for that, I was immensely grateful. I boarded a plane the next morning back to New York, but inside I knew my life journey would continue to bring me back north.

High on Life at Rainbow Falls

Dan and I concluded our “foray into the real world” together in mid October, where we headed up north to spend a week in Mammoth Lakes, CA and Yosemite National Park. Rather than include a written synopsis, I’ve decided to share this “high on life” moment filmed at Rainbow Falls. The journey continues!

The Veggie Man

 

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Soon after settling into life at the Brave House, I felt real pressure to get a job. As a senior in college, I had intellectually understood the importance of finding work after graduation, but did not entirely internalize that pressure until taking off on an independent life. For one, I realized that I had to be much more intentional about how I spent my time outside of the confines of an institutional academic environment. Nobody was scheduling classes or meetings or imposing deadlines I would be held accountable to, so the onus was entirely on me to build a lifestyle that would reflect my needs and values on an everyday basis. It was almost uncomfortable to have that much freedom in my day to day choices–there were no “right” and “wrong” answers that a educational environment might implicate, or perhaps more relevantly to my experience in college, much less of the affirmations and negations imparted by peers, faculty, and staff that might help guide my decisions. Finding work was one tangible means of constructing my own cosmos and building a baseline of purposeful structure on a day to day basis.

It was also a change in consciousness. Over the course of my cross-country journey, I became increasingly aware of the countless Americans who worked in seemingly unremarkable ways to make it possible for my friends and me to engage in such formative yet admittedly privileged life experience. At one point, we had stopped for food in the small town of Tonopah, Nevada, which emerged out of one of the most barren and lifeless landscapes I have ever experienced. The town seemed like a quintessential old western ghost town just holding on for relevance in the 21st century. A single lane road snaked through a series of built attractions conveying an almost desperate plea for our patronage, most notably the ‘Clown Motel,’ which caught my eye with creepy images of clowns glued to the facades of its tackily-colored rooms. This place radiated an ethos of perpetual transience, which was only confirmed when we took refuge in a roadside Subway. Inside the establishment, an endless procession of unexcited and road-weary travelers descended upon the sandwich window, mumbling and gesturing toward particular ingredients as if hunger was an inconvenient annoyance along a necessary yet overwhelmingly mundane highway route. A notably tall, adolescent clerk no more than 17-years-old conformed to their wishes, time after time, and fought off the face of death every time a patron insisted their sandwich be “toasted.” Thus commenced the inevitable 30-second microwave waiting period whereby the next patron would gesture toward another one of the unremarkably uniform sandwich buns and restart the process all over again. The tired-looking man at the cashier would wearily wrap the sandwiches in the same folding motion, time and time again, followed by a mechanical exchange of plastic, at which point the patron would set off with the same unappreciative, tunnel-visioned resolve to dispose of that sandwich and get on with the monotonous trek out of Tonopah.

As I navigated my journey across the country, and relied on the toil of more and more people along the way, I came to value the humble sacrifices of time and energy and wants of hard working people that made this journey possible. It was these seemingly insignificant actions that allowed my friends and me to embark on such rich shared experience without really contending for survival, and though I’d worked hard for the requisite savings, I knew that the sacrifices of others were critical to helping me build certain skills, find work, and cushion me from personally significant financial burden in order to accrue these savings. I realized that people like that young young Subway worker from Tonopah, Nevada constituted the backbone of my life and of American society more largely, and I was determined to have a stake in the working world myself.

Perhaps more tangibly, I was losing money. It didn’t take long to notice that most every personal demand came with a monetary cost. Things like food, drink, the gym, gas, tolls, toiletries, and leisurely expenses that had mostly been absorbed or rendered unnecessary by my lifestyle at college became a quick pocket drain. Whereas “fun money” was a largely a paradigm of the past–for things like eating out, going to a movie, or taking off on a trip with friends–spending money was now an indispensable aspect of meeting daily necessities in a way that wasn’t so sexy or readily enjoyable. Finding a job would allow me to support myself and help alleviate some of the anxiety associated with financial uncertainty.

And so, I was on the hunt. A fellow resident of the Brave House happened to come across a job posting on Craig’s List for a Sales position with a home delivery service of organic produce. That sounded interesting, I thought–after all, I was personally interested in food as an integral component of a healthy and environmentally sustainable lifestyle, and had taken a course in food systems the spring semester of my senior year. I decided to apply. Soon enough, I heard back from the company asking me to come in for an interview. I dressed up and headed over to the office, only to feel overdressed once I realized the ethos of the place was much more casual. I liked that. The interview went well, and I appreciated the mission-driven nature of the company in connecting consumers to healthy sources of food and building awareness about where that food comes from. I received an email from the regional sales manager later in the day asking if I could start on Monday. I said yes.

I reported to the office on Monday morning for orientation, balancing a strange mix of excitement and nervous anticipation. I was joined by a small yet diverse group of new hires, which presented a welcome opportunity for me to cultivate closer relationships with new people from the Orange County area. We were given a break for lunch, and asked to report back at 2 pm for our debut into the world of sales. I dawned my new t-shirt and consciously hydrated as the bedrock of my responsibilities would be door-to-door canvassing. I was excited and geared up for the opportunity as it felt like a “raw” and authentic inauguration into the working world. For one, my job was physically demanding as I had to walk as much as 5 or more miles under the grueling California summer sun, presenting a steady physical challenge I craved. I was also making a tangible difference in in the lives of others–no matter how small–by selling a service that would bring organic fruits and vegetables directly to people’s doorsteps. Moreover, the entirely commission-based compensation structure meant that I had to really “show up” everyday, as I would only go home with as much work as I put in. As we set off for a residential area in the company van, I relived the nerves I used to experience before a big college tennis match. I was up for the challenge.

To kick off the day, I was encouraged to shadow a co-worker with whom I was partnered in a particular area of the map. We were dropped off in a quiet neighborhood with clipboards and a few laminated materials, and it wasn’t long before beads of sweat began gluing my backpack to my back. I accompanied my co-worker as she knocked on the first few doors, self-conscious that my presence as a young male creeping in the background might somehow thwart the prospects of a sale. The responses ran the gamut–nobody home, older woman who can’t speak English, frenetic pit bull, you name it.

After hearing a few sales pitches, I was determined to try it out myself. I walked across the street propelled by a strange fusion of confidence in my prospects and humility in thinking that my many years of formal education had culminated in this vulnerable and lowly exchange at the door of some unsuspecting, middle-class inhabitant of some random cul-de-sac in Orange County, California. I rang the doorbell, backing down to the bottom step so as to communicate the persona of a nonconfrontational “veggie man.” Clipboard in hand, my hopes of “fruition” hung on this awkward period of time between ringing the doorbell and the unknown prospect of an answer to come. No response. I knocked again. No response. I should have known from the shuttered windows and the empty driveway.

And so I kept going, over and over again. Eventually, people began to answer. And so I threw out my best change-up:

“Hi…uhh…my name is Sam and I’m from a…uhh…family-owned organic farm in the area…I mean we…uhh…deliver fruits and vegetables right to your–”

Before I could get through my nervous and embryonic sales pitch, I would often encounter a swift “Not interested,” or even worse, the “get the F*** out of here you F***ing solicitor disturbing the sanctity of my home” look that made the rest of my pitch feel like a fart in the wind.

And so I was rejected. Over and over again. The door-to-door journey was a true test in fortitude–it only took a few sales to make a day’s pay worthwhile but damn did some of those rejections sting. I discovered the hard way that my clipboard doubled as a defensive shield proving mildly effective in fending off the ferocious canine coming after me from the not-too-careful grip of the not-so-enthused homeowner. And perhaps even more disheartening, the 20-minute long conversation full of intrigue and enthusiasm and dietary soliloquy that would culminate in a, “oh…well…I think I’ll just check out the website but thanks so much for coming by.” I tried to console myself, I mean hey, at least I had a peanut butter and honey sandwich waiting for me at the van regardless of my output, not to mention my notoriously large calves were getting their fix for the day…

I kept going, trying to negotiate a proper mentality that would move me forward amid my struggles: ‘Cut yourself some slack, Sammy–who really expects results on Day 1?’ I thought. ‘It’s all about practice and experience to get better over time. Remember, it’s the journey not the destination that counts…’

‘Bullshit. That’s quitter talk! Get out there and sell me some Goddamn veggies,’ another voice told me.

I pressed on. It was all I could do during this allotted period of time before my ‘7:55’ pickup time in the van. Eventually, in a state of enormous fortune and triumph, I managed to pull my first sale. It was an older man with an interest in horticulture who was compelled by the convenience and affordability of our organic produce. He invited me into his home and showed me a small vegetable garden in the back, expressing excitement that he could diversify his access to seasonal fruits and vegetables through our service. He was incredibly gracious and commended me for what I was doing, in stark contrast to the perspectives of many of his neighbors. I left his home with a reinvigorated sense of purpose and spirit. I was the veggie man.

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Slowly but surely, I refined the art of the pitch. I would show up to the office at 2 pm, pound a cup of coffee, and knock on nearly 100 doors until daylight subsided and my voice grew hoarse. I spoke to young mothers, high surfer dudes, dog walkers, sketched-out children, shirtless old guys, and infuriated dogs when an owner was absent. I learned to study the perimeter of a house so as to gauge the demographic I was dealing with, and calibrate my pitch accordingly. I learned to adjust the pace of my voice and regulate eye contact so as to contend with looks of skepticality, impatience, enthusiasm, and an aversion to commitment. I learned to gauge whether Hispanic residents were conversant English speakers, and to redeploy my pitch in Spanish accordingly. I even learned how to balance my need for hydration with my knowledge that there were very few public restrooms in residential areas, not to mention the legal reality that getting caught urinating in public can render you a sex offender in California.

I had owners threaten to call the cops on me. I was offered jobs. I was told through a closed door that there’d been a number of recent murders in one area.  I had an older lady hug me thinking I was her grandson. I was offered beers. I had people give me advice on where I went wrong in my pitch, and how to improve it. I fended off dogs with my clipboard, and later, my iPad. I was told, “if this stuff will give me calves like yours, I’ve gotta try it.” I was told through tears that a resident just lost a loved one. I was asked if I could get people a job. I was greeted by a woman with a talking parrot on her shoulder. I saw the dispirited looks in people’s eyes when I told them our company didn’t accept food stamps.

The job exposed me to all sorts of realities in Orange County, and certainly complicated the preconceptions I had of the area from pop culture. I felt like I got a real pulse on distinct vibes of different parts of the county, all from the sheer act of knocking on someone’s door and seeing how they’d react. I was surprised that the wealthiest communities were often the most stand-offish and abrasive towards me. I got the sense that knocking on doors in these areas was perceived as a foreign challenge to the peace and sanctity of a home, and that these residents were above petty door-to-door salesmanship no matter what I had to offer. Indeed, I encountered many a sign that read, ‘No Soliciting,’ and proceeding was often a sure bet to get a good berating. I have to admit, I was sometimes self-conscious about permeating the private sphere of the home with my agenda-driven enterprise. But I’d remind myself of my purpose, and try to leave every door on a positive note no matter the outcome.

On the other hand, I had the most success in lower-middle to middle class communities. These people were almost always willing to hear me out, and very often enthusiastic about the prospect of convenient and affordable access to organic produce. I think these people would also more visibly empathize with my hard work out in the sun, offering me water and wishing me well even if they ultimately didn’t want to sign up for a box. It was easy enough to define my day by the number of sales I made, but these simple moments of human connection proved that there was intrinsic beauty in the daily door-to-door journey itself. I loved being the veggie man.

I produced better and better results over time, and started to feel real mastery over the art of door-to-door sales. Pretty soon my boss starting asking me to work a number of prominent events throughout Orange County. Health fairs, green expositions, beer festivals, corporate health fairs — these venues offered a welcome change of pace from the daily door-to-door grind, not to mention a more lucrative opportunity to sell. I would haul tents, tables, boxes, and samples of organic produce all over the county, packing and unpacking the supplies to market the product. My boss would give me advice and strategy in taking on these different events, and I refined my pitch to reflect the different environments in which I worked.

It was interesting to observe how these venues changed the dynamics of the sales process as well as my own psyche. For one, selling in a booth provided a much more credible platform than the more vulnerable proposition of knocking on a door. I was more empowered in the dynamics of a sale because people would more readily associate me with something bigger and viscerally appealing. Quite often they would take the initiative in coming up to me because I had the allure of the booth aesthetic, as well as the trigger words of “organic,” “food,” “local,” and “farms” to catch the eye. This was an interesting phenomenon as these usually uninformed passersby would assume a degree of vulnerability in deferring to me to give them my pitch, putting power in my hands, as opposed to the door-to-door paradigm in which I was more or less an intrusive problem until proven otherwise.

At the same time, I noticed my own psyche change as I navigated the high energy hustle and bustle of the event game. For one, I almost subconsciously accelerated the pace of my pitch to adapt to the cadence of events, as interactions became much more of a hit or miss commercial transaction than the relatively more purpose-driven and cultivated connection I might form with someone at the door. People were interested in what I had to offer, but wanted to get on with their lives, and I so had to be more and more of a hustler to close out sales there and then. I began to filter all the lively and diverse stimuli around me through the rather narrow prism of making sales, and in this realm of consciousness, I largely saw people as opportunities to make money. When I interacted with someone and it did not result in a sale, I almost always felt a sense of loss or insufficiency.

It was somewhat startling to introspect and see how tunnel-visioned I could be. Was this what it took to succeed in the world of sales? Indeed, my results spoke for themselves, as I’d risen to the top of our sales team, and managed to exceed 200 sales in consecutive months. But I wondered: can a motivation of rather narrow agenda-driven enterprise and self-centrism be a good thing for the world, even when I ultimately believe in the larger purpose that that self-centrism is channeled toward? To what extent is that self-centrism always connected with that purpose, and at what point could it obscure or even undermine that purpose? More immediately, is that mentality ultimately good for me? Would more sales bring me more happiness and a greater sense of self worth? If my sales were ultimately tied to my happiness and self worth, would I ever be content or good enough? After all, there was always that one couple on the fence that managed to get away. To the extent that I produced enough sales to cover my basic needs in life, which I did, what threshold of output was actually most conducive to my well being? After all, I was paid entirely on commission, and so the decisions of where and when to work were largely my own.

I never quite answered these questions, but I’m glad I took a step back to ask them in the first place. After all, it didn’t take long to realize that the day-to-day world of sales produced an infectious breed of self-centrism and hyper-competitiveness worth questioning before internalizing as my own, even if those values were ultimately bringing people organic fruits and vegetables. Much had changed since my humble first day fumbling words at the door, but sometimes I wondered how far I’d really come.

At the end of September, I gave notice of my intention to leave the company. This wasn’t fueled by disillusion, but because I wanted to take a trip up to northern California before returning to the East Coast to visit my family, as I was set to take off for Sri Lanka in mid November. I worked a 55-hour week to “max out” on my last of opportunities to finish on a strong note and save up money for my imminent travels. I raced around the county setting up for events, went door-to-door when I could, and pitched as many as a hundred people each day. Needless to say, I was exhausted. I understood the opportunity I had seized and was proud of my hard work, but I knew I had tipped the scale a little too far to the detriment of my health and  equanimity. I was ready to move on.

My last day was on Friday. I had worked a number of events lately, but was intent on one more day at the door. I showed up to the office bearing the weight of my emergent nostalgia, and tried to stay present as my mind cycled through the depths of my first “real world” work experience. As I left for the van, I hugged my boss and our assistant manager. They had believed in me and supported my growth in this chapter of my life, and I struggled to express my gratitude sufficiently. We took off in the van for a nearby suburb, and as we made our pilgrimage, I gazed through the window and watched time pass by.

We came to a neighborhood full of townhouses, and our team leader informed me that he was pairing me up with a new hire in the hopes that I could train him. He was a tall, middle-aged man wearing a rather ratty button down shirt. I figured the company was short on t-shirts, so this would have to suffice for the day. He had a pleasantly friendly demeanor, but harbored a discernible anxiety about the uncertain journey to come. He told me he was a recovering alcoholic, and that his family had undergone some troubling financial hardship as of late. As we stepped out of the van, he pulled out a cigarette and initiated small talk as we proceeded into the community of townhouses. He followed behind me as I knocked on doors and started giving pitches, intermittently sharing advice and reflections on the shortcoming I endured. I kept on going with the abiding resolve and meta-perspective that came with my last day, and eventually landed a sale. My partner was elated to share this experience with me, expressing his excitement that the product seemed to sell itself unlike the Kirby vacuum cleaners he’d sold in years past. He was determined to try it out for himself, and eager to adapt some of my technique as his own.

I decided to shadow him for a bit, and offer insight and support where I could. We approached a townhouse with an open garage, where a bald older man was tending to his pickup truck. My partner proceeded:

“Hello there, I’m…uhh…with a family farm and what we do is…uhh…bring fruits and vegetables and they’re…uhh…organics you know…I’m sorry this is actually my first day on the job.”

He froze up in an ultimate state of awkward uncertainty–a middle-aged man with a confused message for a confused inhabitant of this townhouse community. I stood behind him and I stood my ground, channeling the kind of retrospective affirmation of my own journey on the tremendous worth and potential of this man. This was just one door, and there were many more to come. And so we kept walking, and knocking, and hoping. That was all a Veggie Man could do.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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Foray into the "Real World"