Heart Ripples

Archive for the month “March, 2014”

Africa. I am Free.

Africa. You pulled me.

For my edges once curled- pieces of wholeness hid within.

The familiar, the comfort, the predictable, once the prison of my soul,

How could there be empathy locked within a prism of the known?

Africa. You pulled me. Now it is We.

 

Africa. You stretched me.

For my mind once reaching- lessons once and twice learned,

I’d been there, I’d done that, Oh! A mind needs more,

How could there be vision along roads traveled before?

As if you knew you’d teach me, you stretched me.

Africa. You stretched me. Now I see.

 

Africa. You blessed me.

For my passions once yearning- space, time, and harmony,

The distractions, the illusions, the material mundane,

How could there be liberty trapped within delusions of safe?

As if you believed in me, you blessed me.

Africa. You blessed me. Now I am Free!

 

 

 

&nbs

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Attunement and the Art of Fearlessness

"Amanda, "To the People!"

“Amanda, “To the People!”

 

 

South Africa Peace Corps Update Months 8 and 9
“I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”
 -Nelson Mandela
The look in his eyes is calm intensity. I can sense thrill beyond the windows to the mind-space, where it vibrates with still vigor. He meditates his next careful move.
I watch him. I feign calmness to reciprocate his composure. Am I fooling him? I can’t be sure, but a mask of confidence may create the illusion I’ll need to hide the uncertainty within. So I do it. I feign and study the game pieces, anticipating all the ways my next move can lead to failure.   I cannot remember how those chess games of childhood’s past ever ended. My dear brother seems to think we always gave one another an equal challenge.
  Recently a friend photographed me tip-toeing my way between life-sized black and white chess pieces. When sharing the photo with family and friends, I added a caption to reveal my current state of mind; “Carefully planning the next moves for the Takalani Empowerment Project.”   My brother, Jesse Daniel, responded by stating, “It looks like you are the queen in a giant game of chess.” I admitted I hadn’t thought so creatively about the photo. However, what I realized moments later would become the new season of my life –
Attunement and the Art of Fearlessness.
***
None of it matters. I know this down to my core as I push open the front door of my home. The sultry air within the walls has had all day to grow hotter and hotter under my tin roof. It doesn’t matter how many times I’ve stepped into this hot bake oven after a long day, there is always a part of me that forgets the discomfort.
During that walk up the mountain in the afternoon sun, as beads of sweat drip down my chest and my hair becomes matted and wet, as I wonder if I’ve applied enough SPF 90 to protect my skin from the unforgiving sun of the Southern Hemisphere, as I push along the incline while balancing bags of books on either shoulder, as I decline propositions from interested men, as I return smiles and answer questions of curious children, as I remember to stop, bow, and greet elders who cross my path, there is a part of me, in the back of my mind, which thinks I am on my way to comfort-a place where I can lay it all down and let it all go. The truth hits me in the face as I walk into a room which is barely breathable.
Immediately, I remind myself of my fortune. Other volunteers would love to have the amount of space that I have. Not a day goes by that I don’t express gratitude for my accommodation. However, those gratitude exercises are serving aspects of my life and my flow in the universe which have no effect on the temperature of Northern Limpopo. So, gratitude in tact, the truth remains that in all of this space there isn’t a comfortable place for me to dwell for now. One could hope for rain to cool things down, but don’t hope too much, for the heavy rains create more work.
No, there’s little relaxation involved in moving furniture, finding enough towels, pots and buckets to prevent the loss of valuables and ensure a dry spot to sleep, or sit. I walk inside, and affirm, “Home Sweet Home.”
I place my bags on the floor and replace my free arms with large water jugs. I walk across the yard, the sun still tormenting my skin, and turn on the outdoor tap (my Peace Corps colleagues would tell you the outdoor tap is a luxury). I fill the five liter jugs. I carry two in each hand back to my house. I repeat this exercise a second and sometimes third time. I have only had a water outage twice since arriving (again nothing compared to my counterparts) but want to be prepared. In this heat, one needs a full water filter, water on reserve, and enough to cook, bathe, and clean.
On occasion, the mind-piece which compares, judges, and sometimes creates pain from life’s situations, will activate. “What would my mother or my friends think if they saw me in these conditions?” I throw it away as soon as the chatter arises. It doesn’t matter. None of it matters.Upon release, I scan my home and my mind, asking myself how I can create the most comfortable environment right now, within the discomfort, so that my energy is free to thrive. What steps can I take right now to create harmony from disharmony? And if none of this matters, what does matter? As I deflect my attention from the heat, images of children dance in my head; one in particular, Siyabonga.
  The young man is age 12. He wrote an essay about what he does after school:
“I fetch my sister from creche (pre-school). I go home. I fetch water. I feed my plants. I pick plants for dinner. I boil water. I cook food for me and my sister. I go to play soccer. I come home. I boil bath water for me and my sister. After I bath, I do my homeworks, I pray. I go to sleep.”
   I think of Siyabonga often. Many times I dream about him. At first he seemed outgoing and confident. Then, one day I talked with the youth groups about their families.     I learned Siyabonga does not have a mother or father at home. He stays with his grandmother who doesn’t seem able to fill the roles of a conventional mother or nanny as I am accustomed to relating to in the US. After sharing his circumstances with me that day, something changed. I don’t know if it was my response, or perhaps Siya just felt vulnerable-like his social mask of confidence had been torn away, leaving him raw and exposed. It concerned me to see his lightheartedness seem to disappear. I noticed him being disengaged during classes. He was not alert to the class activities, but always working on something in his notebook. Walking around the stuffy classroom of nearly fifty kids on another day of sweltering heat, I looked over his shoulder. He was drawing.
     I’ve seen students (referred to as “learners” in South Africa until they study at university) receive lectures, scolding, and punishment for drawing during sessions. I decided about a month ago that I would not be taking that approach. I’m a believer that it is the quality of my attention which can create a “good” or “bad” from a situation. If I control the quality of my attention-what I attune to- then, and only then, am I fulfilling my responsibilities as prescribed by life. So, I lean over until he feels my presence. His eyes look up at me. Those pretty, squinty brown eyes that look more tired by the day look into mine. At first I feel his anxiety as he anticipates a scolding. When I look back at him and smile, he settles in his chair with a look of confusion. I point to his drawing as our eyes stay locked. I lean closer and tell him, “You are really good at that.” His confusion withers and I feel him at ease, and maybe even pleased. I turn and walk away, continuing my session on what the English word, “purpose,” means.
   The next time I collected class work, I noted Siyabonga’s participation in class had increased, that he was completing all of the assigned work, and that he is actually quite good at writing English, despite living in an exclusive Tshivenda speaking home. As it is my goal to see a leader in everyone, despite strengths, weaknesses, personality types, or behavioral factors, I keep a profile of all my kids. I note various details about them so I can attune my attention to their specific and complex attributes as individuals. Once someone begins to climb out of the shell and reveal a little light to me, I write “LEADER” atop their profile. This indicates to me that we’ve identified areas to hone and build upon. I wrote Siya a personal note in his book, just as I had done for all the others before and after him. I praised his work- even his drawings- and let him know I believe he is a leader. I knew he was awaiting my feedback. I had watched him the day before excitedly await the return of his notebook as I passed back some of the others. “Tomorrow,” I told him as I smiled inwardly at his enthusiasm.
   Two days later, I held an empowerment workshop for the group. It was my second successful workshop as part of my Takalani Empowerment Project. “Takalani” is a Tshivenda term meaning, “be happy.” While it is the name I am commonly referred to as within my community, it has taken its proper place as the name of my project. The name reminds me of my first school visit in South Africa.     I sat in a student’s desk while observing class at a rural school in Mpumalanga. My attention drifted to the carvings in the wooden desk. The first carving I read said, “There are many challenges in life. Being happy is not one of them.” I was taken back when I saw it. Here I was on the property of a school where children lack shoes, proper food, and even parents, and some young shining light carved this! Several weeks later, I would receive the name Takalani. However, because I am keen on my individuality, I still introduce myself as Amanda. I’ve sacrificed so much of my culture. Please, let me keep my name.
Amanda is often mistaken for “Amandla” however, which is an isiXhosa term meaning “power” (isiXhosa is the language of the Xhosa tribe of the Eastern Cape, and also the mother tongue of the late Nelson Mandela). So sometimes I am “Amanda”, often “Amandla,” and more often I am playfully referred to as “Amanda Awethu.” Awethu is an isiXhosa term meaning “To the people!” During the Apartheid regime, opposition groups would shout, “Amandla! Awethu!” at their gatherings. The evolution of my name to “Amanda Awethu” has fostered a deeper meaning for me regarding my purpose in South Africa.
  My parents named me after an American country western song by Don Williams. Imagine my surprise when South African natives began singing the words to me, “Amanda, light of my life. Fate should have made you a gentleman’s wife.” Never in my wildest expectations had I dreamed of country western music being alive and thriving in South Africa. It is actually quite popular here. I can recall the neighbors of my former host family regularly blasting Dolly Parton. I’d swell with warmth as the sound of her voice conjured fond memories of my late grandmother, Lulu (what were the chances of feeling so close to home, so far from home?). A brother of that host family surprised me further one day by stating, “Amanda. Worthy of Love.” He had investigated the meaning of my name because South African names often have significant meanings themselves.   Thus, Amanda Awethu, or “Worthy of Love. To the people.”   In fact, my intent here is to instill a sense of self worth in the people I serve. However, I hadn’t thought about the name correlation at all until I came across a note I wrote on the inside cover of a small pocket journal, “For to teach self love, One must Be self love.” Amanda Awethu. It could not have been planned better unless by God Himself.
Back at the Empowerment Workshop, I began my session with some yoga to get the group livened up and separated from whatever concerns or troubles they may be carrying with them. One child in attendance was nine year old, Awle.     Awle is suspected of having HIV. I am currently building a relationship with his father to guide them in a decision making process which can lead to proper diagnosis and treatment. I must be cautious in my approach however. The father is very traditional and has been known to completely shut down when confronted with the concern over his son’s health. It was only five years ago that he buried his wife. She was age 27. She had symptoms that were described by Awle’s father as “allergies.” The allergies progressed into a large mass on the side of her head. Traditionalists, the family did not seek assistance from physicians, but attempted to remove the mass at home. She died one week later.
People with AIDS often develop large masses on the head and throughout the body. The growth is referred to Kaposi Sarcoma, an AIDS related cancer. According to his father, Awle has the same “allergies” as his mother. Awle’s full Venda name means “rest in peace.” (At this point in the reading, I’d like you to take a few moments, pray for Awle, and send all the hope you can muster for this delicate situation).
     As we move through yoga poses, I encourage smiles from the group. “And we smile at the sky. And we say, ‘I love you, life!’”     “I love you life!” The voices of nearly thirty participating children ignite my spirit. I stand there, my own smile to the sky, my eyes taking in the sunlight reflecting off the green leaves dangling from the tree branches above. “I love you life!” their voices sound again, and I can hear their smiles. A surge of love runs through me. It enters me from nature’s light shining overhead, and from the sound of those voices surrounding me. We become childlike in unison. For this moment we are suspended in carefreeness, and the harshness of our environment cannot touch us. We are Fearless, if only for now.

"For this moment we are suspended in carefreeness, and the harshness of our environment cannot touch us. We are Fearless, if only for now."

“For this moment we are suspended in carefreeness, and the harshness of our environment cannot touch us. We are Fearless, if only for now.”

 The workshop opens with a recap of information we discussed during the week. Staggering truths about the health and safety of the Limpopo province present a wake-up call to these youths for perhaps the first time in their lives. It is not an easy thing to do, but if I don’t tell them, who will?
  In Limpopo, 17% of the population is documented as HIV positive. This figure cannot account for those individuals who choose not to get tested. In my personal experience, I have learned that the number of people who choose not to know must be high. I have conversed with many women who are a few years younger than me. “It’s too scary. I’d rather not know,” they tell me. The older populations are even more averse to finding out. The idea of prevention, intervention, and simple regard for others’ lives whom they may infect seems to have never occurred to them. This is especially sad as in 2014, early detection, proper medication, sound living habits, ample monitoring, and safe sex can mean a typical and comfortable life span for an HIV or AIDS patient, with minimal chance of further spreading the disease. Somewhere in the psyche of these communities, a link is missing. Is it an absolute lack of value for human life? Before gaining the courage to investigate the answer to my burning questions directly from the community, I gathered data from other experiences.
   Taxi ride or roller coaster? The public transport options in South Africa are commonly referred to by the locals as “death traps.” In fact, when I tell locals that my transport option as a Peace Corps Volunteer is a public taxi, their faces actually lose color and you could hear a pin drop. These vans seat about 12-16 “legally,” and usually don’t depart for any destination until that number nears 20; this may or may not include the children and babies which bounce on the laps of the elders who look after them. The sight of a child’s car seat would likely mystify the rural populations as much as an UFO sighting. The only seat belt available is in the front passenger seat, which I plea for every time I find it necessary to take the taxi (lucky for me, I have met many locals who are always willing to provide me with a lift when possible).
    My first taxi ride alone resulted in the passenger side mirror breaking off as my driver collided with the taxi van in front of us. The glass shattered through my open window and landed in my lap and in my hair. The driver was in a hurry to weasel his way through the thick traffic which had accumulated due to an auto accident ahead of us on the windy, mountainous, N-1 through Venda. I prayed for dear life for a safe arrival after negotiating with myself over the perils of continuing the ride, hitchhiking (prohibited by Peace Corps), or exiting the taxi and seeking help. I was new to Venda. There was no one I could call at the time.
    Traffic accidents are a leading cause of death in South Africa. Every Saturday, at least one person I know attends a funeral of someone in their community. Losing a head of household means increased poverty on the home front, fewer meals, and even fewer medical consults. Despite this disorder, people still refuse to get tested for HIV, and the babies bouncing on the laps of community elders will grow up looking at car safety belts as foreign objects. In nature, scientists observe that chaos brings about evolution. In rural South Africa, I sometimes wonder if I’ve transmuted worlds.
  From my chaotic experiences within the taxis, how can I evolve? What can I attune to to advance from these scary situations? I can challenge myself to increase my fluency in Tshivenda so that my safety talks are better received. I can work with local media on safety campaigns. When using attunement as a tool, there are no limits. And when seeing through spectacles of potential, one can effectively channel the right energy to the right places.
  Craving understanding about the community’s value of life, I decided to learn more from the people within the culture. I could stew about my first-hand frustrations, or I could release them to the Universe, and attune to the fact that some new stimulus is needed for evolution, and that I am not afraid to be that stimulus. I am already here, aren’t I? Let me then be used to the fullest of my capacity. I’ll not come this far and leave purpose out of the equation at any moment. My project counterpart became a vehicle for some progress in the unlayering of the issue.
     Mr. Hope told me he presented our goals to some key community members, including the school faculty. He said that most people seemed to shut down when he explained part of our efforts would center on HIV in the community. “They didn’t even want to hear it, “ he told me somberly.
   “The whole world knows though, Hope! It is not like it is a secret! They can choose not to talk about it, the truth remains; South Africa has the highest number of HIV infected people in the world!” I am firm and unwavering in our intent. By my watch, as long as I am here, departed from my culture, comfort, and safety, the issue will remain in the spotlight.
Whatever reasons for the community to avert their attention from the HIV/AIDS crisis, I know it is based in fear. But fear of what? What could be scarier than the death sentence of untreated illness? What could be so frightening that inaction takes precedence over the available choice of life? Another man from the Venda region would give me insight into the confounding attitudes about HIV.
  I met him a couple weeks ago. A cancelled phone call with a coincidental acquaintance from the past led me to a glass of wine at the lodge where I was staying. Seated next to me was Fulufhelo, whose name coincidentally translates to “Hope” in the English language. Fulu inquired about my Tshivenda fluency and thus began the explanation of my purpose in Venda (the region of Limpopo in which I serve, inhabited by the indigenous Vhavenda tribe). He was curious about why an educated and professionally apt woman from the US would choose this kind of work over the abundance of options available to me. I explained further, and then Fulu shared his story with me.
    In perfect English he explained that he had come from a privileged background, his father being an owner of a professional South African football team (soccer). He resides with his wife and kids in the city a few hours away from the Venda region. He and a group of peers are venturing into entrepreneurship, but want to do something which compels more than their purse strings. Fulu shared, “Someone asked me recently, what is my purpose? What is the one thing I could wake up and happily do each day without thinking about the money? I couldn’t answer it.”
 We continued talking, and I shared with Fulu about the resistance I’d encountered during my recruiting efforts for project counterparts from within the community. “It seems there is a lack of sense of social obligation,” I told him. “People aren’t seeing a better South Africa is satisfactory reward. Many cannot understand why I would ask them to do something without receiving money for it.”
"Johannesburg’s notorious Old Fort Prison Complex, where thousands of ordinary people, who wanted only equality for all mankind, were brutally beaten.  Many of South Africa’s political activists, including Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, and Walter Sisulu were detained here. Where is South Africa's sense of social responsibility now that freedom has been won? What would these former activists say about the current prevailing attitudes about social justice and service?

“Johannesburg’s notorious Old Fort Prison Complex, where thousands of ordinary people, who wanted only equality for all mankind, were brutally beaten. Many of South Africa’s political activists, including Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, and Walter Sisulu were detained here. Where is South Africa’s sense of social responsibility now that freedom has been won? What would these former activists say about the current prevailing attitudes about social justice and service?

Fulu suggested that I may encounter less of these attitudes if I approach financially thriving youths (age 25-35) rather than those out of college seeking employment. This is not an easy undertaking however, as 46% of Limpopo is unemployed. However, I thanked Fulu for his brilliant contribution, and for pointing my compass in a new direction. I was grateful for his input; freshly attuned with my gift of new Hope.
    The following day, Fulu provided me with a ride to the school for the second workshop with the youth. On the ride over, it was decided that I would soon deliver an empowerment session to his network of peers. All of them are financially sound and have an understanding for social responsibility. Some of them are working and developing projects of their own within nearby communities. I told Fulu about my recent interaction with the program manager of Operation Hope.     I met the program manager at a Peace Corps training funded by PEPFAR (The US President’s Emergency Action Plan for AIDS Relief). The two-day intensive illustrated the process of ensuring sustainability of the volunteer’s project.
  Operation Hope pairs aspiring entrepreneurs with professional mentors to bring their ideas to fruition. The core goals are increase in jobs, improved economy, and community building. Fulufhelo, “Hope,” agreed that it would be a good idea for me to introduce him and his peers to Operation Hope.
To my surprise, Fulu decided he would stay to observe the workshop.   During the session, we discussed the work of Nelson Mandela. The group agreed Mandela, like Jesus, performed his great work simply because he cared for others; nothing forced them to heroism- they were driven by love and vision. We agreed that a hero can be anyone who helps or saves
others simply because they care for people. In fact, anyone in our group could reach hero status. Their eyes twinkled at this discovery!
Next, we discussed the youth’s feelings about statistics of disease and crime in Limpopo. Having vowed never to assume a leadership initiative from a root of fear, I decided to shift the group’s focus to the joys of performing good works. We collaborated on a vision for a healthy and safe South Africa. We made plans to use our unique skills and talents to perform a good work in the community. One young leader, Azwi, said she would use her speaking skills to talk to people about HIV. Her plan included gaining the support and resources this would require. She even made a list of organizations she would contact. It was brilliant- never mind that she is 13! The next day, a synchronous occurrence affirmed it a good approach to first acknowledge grim realities, then attune our attention to progressive outcomes, while creating a positively charged atmosphere as we developed plans for our future.
     I stood in front of Mr. G’s book shelf positioned in the corner of the sitting room of his home. He and I met September 2013. I had just read an article about the plight of the honeybee.
The article discussed the bee’s role as pollinators of a majority of the world’s food sources. Colonies of bees continue to collapse at rapid rates, creating a threat to the availability of sustenance for the human race. The article provided one explanation for colony collapse. It is fact that bees attune to the earth’s electromagnetic field (EM field) to navigate from their pollinating work back to their hives. The bees also rely on the earth’s vibratory rate to maintain their vitality and efficacy in the ecosystem. Bees’ receptivity to the information and cues stored in these forces of nature (EM field and vibrations) allow them to fulfill their intrinsic purpose. The higher purpose, unbeknownst to the bees, is keeping the human race alive. (What if amidst all of the busy-ness of human endeavors there is also a grander and more mysterious purpose of our existence?).
  The article suggested that increased industrialization and technology use have compromised the bees’ receptivity of the electromagnetic field, and the earth’s vibration. There is a suggested interference with the bees’ attunement to the once perfect guidance of nature. After reading the article, I took a trip to my nearby town.
  During my voyage around town, I stopped at a used book stand. I stood before the stand, inhaled, and exhaled deeply. I asked the Universe (or God- remember these are interchangeable terms for the same force, explored further in my book) to guide me. “Show me what I need to know,” I whispered. I walk to the stand, skim the titles, and then there it was. My hand rested on a book with bees forming the shape of a heart on the front cover. On the back cover, I learn the book is about a woman writer and a venture in traditional healing in South Africa. I purchase the book.
The next day, I attended a conference back at the nearby lodge. After the sessions, I ventured to the lounge for a drink. A handsome man drinking gin and tonic noticed my American accent and sparked up conversation. After explaining my purpose in South Africa, I asked Mr. G. about his own endeavors. “I’m a bee keeper,” he said. “I own a business. I transport bees to various farms so they can pollinate. In the off seasons, the bees make honey we sell to local restaurants and grocers.”     I reached into my purse and remove the book I’d bought the day prior. I place it on the bar. He looks down at the book. He cracks a smile. We laugh at the coincidence. I then opened up to him about the book I’m writing about my adventures in inner peace, outer peace, and world peace, and my keenness for synchronicities which seem to guide my endeavors. He then agreed to interviews regarding the attunement of bees to the earth’s energy field (many other bee coincidences before had revealed the need for this research to me). This would become the beginning of a great friendship which gave me insight into the connectedness of all things in the universe.
 Having gone to a racially integrated, rural South African school, Mr. G. would also provide perspective on the challenges I face as part of my assignment.   So, on that Sunday after the second empowerment workshop, I stood in front if Mr. G’s book shelf. I once again asked the Universe to guide me to the right book. Mr. G. and I had just been discussing my approach to overcoming adversity and resistance from the community in order to spawn evolution toward healthier living behaviors. He did not however offer a recommendation, and stated, “I haven’t read any of those books in years. They’re all random finds at a used book stand.”   My eyes skimmed for a moment, and then I made a selection. I opened to a random page. The first words I read were:
   “The non decreasing behavior of a black hole’s area was very reminiscent behavior of a physical quantity called entropy, which measures the degree of disorder within a system. It is a matter of common experience that disorder will tend to increase if things are left to themselves. One can create order out of disorder, but that requires expenditure of effort or energy available.
“…The positive energy of the outgoing radiation would be balanced by a flow of negative energy particles into the black hole” (Stephen Hawking. A Brief History of Time).  
When I read these words, I instantly drew a correlation to my strategy as stimulus for evolution within my host community. Attunement as a discipline can keep my energy free and focused on the creation of order within a disorderly system. Just like with Siyabonga; when choosing to focus on his talent rather than his seeming defiance of my efforts in class that day, something changed. With little effort, the positive energy poured into him that day, balanced by the negative energy being completely tossed aside, sparked a positive response. No energy was expended by placing attention on aspects of the situation which could have been perceived as negative. No time was wasted on scolding or punishing, just a little time spent in praise, and within days, he proved a top performing student. This was real life proof that what I read in the book from Mr. G.’s shelf was very relevant. As I reread the words, “the positive energy of the outgoing radiation would be balanced by a flow of negative energy particles into the black hole,” a memory of another day of coincidence came to mind.
   It was April 27, 2013 (what is known as Freedom Day in South Africa-which I only discovered recently). I was sitting under a tree listening to the sound of Lake Michigan. I had just resigned from my job in preparation for six weeks of travel and farewells to family and friends leading up to Peace Corps departure. I decided to spend this particular day alone, saying goodbye to one of my favorite places in my beloved Chicago-the place I’d called home for the past several years. I journaled about some of my last moments at the lake with some very special people. I finished my journal entry and began walking home. As I neared Belmont Harbor, I received a phone call from a dear friend.
    I picked up the phone and sensed distress on the other end. I decided it was best for me to have a seat on the nearby bench to continue the conversation away from the rush hour noise. My suggestion to bring peace and clarity to my friend was meditation. It was apparent he needed to re-attune himself, releasing pain and negatively charged energy, and focusing on the opportunities presented by the situation. I urged the importance of being free from beliefs which only bound and limited his growth. I was able to provide such insight because I’d spent a year undergoing a similar process. He told me he would try the suggested meditation and we ended our call. When the line went dead, I noticed some graffiti on the pavement situated about 12 feet in front of the bench on which I sat. “LIVE FREE,” it read.
April 27, 2013, known in South Africa as "Freedom Day." Photo taken at Belmont Harbor, Chicago, Illinois, USA

Photo taken April 27, 2013 at Belmont Harbor, Chicago, Illinois, USA. Coincidentally, April 27 is known as “Freedom Day” in South Africa, which I only discovered after moving here.

“What a perfect conclusion to the phone call,” I thought, as I continued home.
   I walked down Belmont Avenue on this busy day in the city, but was not attuned to the people or the traffic. The sun was shining, the weather was warm, and I was grateful to see new life budding on tree branches after a long winter. Soon it would be summer- Chicago summer, how I would miss it! But, as long as I had that moment, I would take in as much of the summer-like day as I could. Suddenly, I saw a beautiful woman weave her way through crowds of people and walk right up to me. In her hand was a pamphlet on meditation.     “What a coincidence!” I exclaimed. I explained I had just finished a conversation about meditation. The radiant woman laughed about the synchronicity. Later, she would tell me she marched past all the other people on the street that day when she saw me.
   “You just looked different. I could see you are open. I was pulled to you,” Yu Jeong explained. She told me she was from Seoul, South Korea, where the meditation center was headquartered. They now have centers all over the world, including South Africa. This entire scenario being full of coincidence, I decided to try their meditation technique.
The technique is different from most meditation I’ve done. Instead of absence of thought, this technique requires the acknowledgement of negative thoughts, often memories from the past. Many times our past experiences create thought patterns or beliefs which create chains around us, binding us from the freedom to live fully, explore our potential and passions to the fullest, and keep us from loving ourselves and others on a non-conditional basis. Often these beliefs about ourselves and the world are not true; they are simply the byproduct of previous experiences which can never be relived. These beliefs only mirror the level of emotional and mental awareness of a person that existed in our past, and not the person we are now. By throwing away these beliefs, one can truly live, and Live Free. The meditation exercises the release of those negative beliefs, releasing the energy to the “black hole of the Universe,” as illustrated in meditation sessions.     The meditation would prove beneficial for me, but challenges would arise which would test my progress.
On March 17, 2014, nearly a year after learning more about how to live free and the use of attunement, I wrote the following in my journal:
  “Nothing about this experience is getting easier. The newness of being a stranger of another color in a village of people not accustomed to integration has worn off. The newness of my life situation has worn off. The stares, the differing concept of privacy, the sexual harassment, the requests for money and clothes off my back has not stopped. I just attempted a walk around the village for some stress relief, but turned back within 10 minutes. The roads are packed with people of all ages and the stares have pushed me back into a cocoon. I don’t want to be interrupted from my attempted peace or decline anymore propositions from the men. I just want to be!
 I know things are getting hard when I have to force my smiles. Yes, it was just time to return home and remind myself that no one has forced me to be here.     Nothing becomes easier though.
Currently, I’m battling resentment. I arrived to my workshop on Saturday to find only one person had arrived on time. This happens after my ride fails to pick me up. I hauled ass down the mountain and paid for a taxi to arrive on time. After waiting 40 minutes and only five others arrived, walking at record slow paces, and stopping to chat with others before they report to me to sign in, I decided I was leaving. This wasn’t the first time I chose to spend Saturday away from friends and colleagues to volunteer my time for a habitually late group. “It is a disease among my people,” my Venda friend, Londi, would say, “we can’t be on time. You say 10, we know it is 12 before anyone arrives.” In many cases, awareness is the catalyst for evolution. Not in rural South Africa. But my personal issue with this is about respect.    
Part of my distraction from peace and privacy is the fact that it is considered rude to not greet everyone you pass in the village. Greeting means to have a conversation. Natives often claim this is why timeliness is impossible. As a visitor in the community whose soul purpose is to build leadership from within the region and create a self sustaining imprint beyond my presence here, it is crucial that I am respected, respectful, and obliged to the culture. A trip around the village in which I am closed off to interactions could be detrimental to my purpose. As I recently decided I will not extend this assignment beyond 2015, my every move must be filled with purpose. There is no room for action – or inaction – which could stagnate progress. I would be lying to say I have not erred on occasion.  
  With all of these cultural rules to abide by, I sacrifice a great deal of my individual freedom. However, I know that freedom can be had anywhere, depending on how I tame my mind and to what I attune. I even swallow my pride when neighboring women laugh off the harassment I encounter from men. To them, it’s just how things have always been. The locals are shocked when I educate them on women rights and harassment laws in the US. Some women derive empowerment from the information while others look at me like I’ve insulted their way of life. At times I feel little reciprocity in the exchange of culture. I’d be lying to say this does not irritate me, as part of the Peace Corps mission is culture exchange. What is beyond irritating to the point of perplexing is the seeming contradiction of the value of respect from within the culture.     Not greeting is disrespectful. Not answering questions about your personal life such as religion, relationships, and even sex means that you are not an open person. However, no- showing planned commitments, arriving late without reason or apology, cutting in line at a shop, bank, or dinner, and spreading HIV are commonly acceptable.    
As I write this, the role of attunement in evolving human consciousness becomes even more needful for me personally. If I spend time creating pain or frustration from what is, then I am absolutely wasting my time here in South Africa, and in my life. For my own sanity, to live each moment with purpose, and for the hope of evolving minds of these children I’ve grown to love, I’ve got to toss the negativity into a black hole, allow the Universe to guide me to those I can reach and those who can help me reach, and radiate positive energy throughout my endeavors. And beyond all the complaining about personal privacy, I’ve got young minds wide open, hanging on my every word. If I don’t attune to that first and foremost then I’ve failed miserably-myself and all of these children.”    
  After writing that, I received a message from Fulufhelo. “Amanda, I’ve been thinking a lot about what you said about people going sour once HIV/AIDS is mentioned. It is all around us though. Our family and friends are dying. I recently went to a funeral. Everyone said it was liver disease. We all knew it was AIDS, but no one said it. I don’t have all the answers, but I feel like we have AIDS fatigue. We don’t want to be defined by it.” Now I have some answers from a voice representative of South Africa.   What do I do with this knowledge?
 Trying to evolve minds within a community that is too afraid to confront the issues which plague them is not an easy task. Further, recruiting dependable counterparts to bring forth change has proven challenging. Where do I turn? When asking questions such as these to the Universe one night before bed, I fell into a dream about lions.
   The next day I wrote down the details of the unusual lion dream. After writing, I took a trip to the nearby lodge to clear my head.       I sat with a couple I had met a while back. They are from the US and also have a daughter named Amanda. Amanda and I have become friends. Our friendship led me to a book about how the cells of our body react to our thought processes (a treasured source of information, fully relevant to research for my book and my purpose in life beyond South Africa). Amanda’s mother is coincidentally referred to as “Lulu,” the name of my late grandmother, and their birthdays are one day apart.   When I walk into the lodge on this day, the couple extends an invitation to me to accompany them to a private game reserve, and “see some lions.” I decided then I should investigate the dream symbolism of lions.   In my research, I found the following explanation:

 

“The lion symbolizes increased community responsibility, cooperation, cunningness, fearlessness, expert timing, and he shows us rest is needed before continuing.”
Thorny Bush Game Reserve near Kruger National Park. Mpumalanga, South Africa.

Thorny Bush Game Reserve near Kruger National Park. Mpumalanga, South Africa.

The next morning, I vowed to Fearlessness. I shall not be paralyzed by the same element which has allowed the entropy within the community I am here to lead. After writing about my intent to relinquish my fear and trust the Universe would guide me to the right people and places, I received an email notification from an online subscription to a Deepak Chopra network. The subject read: “On Becoming Fearless. A 21-Day Meditation Journey.” I smiled at the coincidence.
After boiling bath water and hiking down the mountain, I was relieved to find an empty office at the school. At least today, I would have a desk to sit at while I worked.
Halfway through the morning, a man arrived in an athletic suit. A patch on his right shoulder read, “love Life.” Love Life is an HIV/AIDS outreach organization. I had heard about them, and intended to make contact. But here, the Universe had placed a loveLife facilitator right in front of me. I learned he was from Venda, educated in engineering, and had decided to work with loveLife because of an inner pull and sense of social responsibility.
I flipped through the program material and was elated to find many synchronicities in their approach to battling the epidemic by creating a sense of self worth in the individual. Through a process of throwing away old, limiting beliefs and the resulting negative energy, positive outcomes could be achieved. Khuliso and I firmed up plans to meet on a weekly basis and collaborate on projects. I will also be meeting with his three counterparts.
A few hours later, I left the office. I ventured into a village shop that I’ve only been in once before. A voice behind me spoke, “We meet again!” I turned around to see Khuliso standing there. He introduced me to a woman wearing the same suit as him. She is one of the counterparts I will be meeting with on a weekly basis. As they walked away, I read the patch on their jackets. “love Life.”
Then, I heard an echo of children’s voices, “I love you, Life!” In that moment, I removed the mask of confidence. Only truth was exposed underneath. I am simply Fearless.
As I watch my new counterparts walk away, I whisper, “Siyabonga,” to the Universe (the name is an isiZulu term meaning, “thank you”). In a few long days, I would be off to Durban, in the land of the Zulus- a place where I could lay it all down and let it all go.
***
Days later, March 24, 2014, an email from the “On Becoming Fearless” meditation challenge would include a Nelson Mandela quote:   “I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”
“Again you can’t connect the dots moving forward; you can only connect them moving backwards. So you have to trust the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust something -your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.”
-Steve Jobs
Disclaimer: The content on this webpage is mine personally and does not reflect the opinions or positions of the US Peace Corps or US Government.

Dreams, Callings, and Coincidences: South Africa Months 6 and 7

You may rarely end up where you intend to go, but you may often end up somewhere you need to be...

You may rarely end up where you meant to, but you will often end up somewhere you needed to be…

Dreams, Callings, and Coincidences: Update from South Africa- Months 6 and 7

“But it wasn’t a dream. It was a place. And you were there…and you were there…and you were there too!”

Overwhelmed? Maybe if this were at a previous time in my life. The timing of all the challenges and opportunities before me is perfect. I’ve had an ample adjustment period. It is not so much that I am blending in as part of the culture as I am in total acceptance of the world around me.

Yes, call it a lesson in unconditional love for life. This love has freed me to be a part of something much bigger than only my personal and professional aspirations. Like earth debris in the wind, I flow with the forces that push and pull me to the places I am needed, settling for a while, as preparedness enables my imprint on life. And then again the wind blows, lifting me, carrying me, and scattering me, only to land me for another moment in time, for another impression in someone’s mind-maybe even in their hearts.

I’ve had recurring dreams nearly every night for two weeks. I’m always in a faraway place; sometimes another country, sometimes a familiar city, sometimes my grandmother’s old neighborhood. I am always moving; traveling sometimes by bus, sometimes by plane, often a car, and more often a bicycle. I’m always off to do some seemingly urgent work of significance that can only be described as a calling. I stop temporarily in homes I recognize and some I do not, in hotels, hostels, and airports-and sometimes in huts or shacks in foreign lands.

In all the dreams, I am saying goodbye to people in my background; sometimes a farewell, sometimes a “see ya later.” It is always evident however that wherever I am off to, they cannot come with me. It is as if my subconscious is severing ties to old relationships which no longer serve a purpose, or recognizing the importance of physical separateness from some of my nearest and dearest as a means for mutual growth. Yes, one thing I’ve learned in my journeys, both dreaming and waking, is that there is hidden value in time, space, and distance-value humans often run from, but don’t let me get ahead of myself.

In the dreams, there are those who re-enter the scene- as if to stay. They only re-enter once the familiar scenes dissipate. They linger with the new and uncertain aspects of my dream world. In waking life it may be they are distant friends or coincidental acquaintances. But one thing seems consistent; they arrive and appear to me ready to flow, drift, and effortlessly imprint the world, as if by calling.

There is often chaos under the surface of my dreams. In one episode, I was fare-welling childhood friends in my parents’ backyard in rural southern Illinois. Upon the farewell, I heard gun shots in the distance and watched gun smoke surround the town. In another dream, I am standing before a pyramid in Egypt, noting every detail and marveling the complexity of the structures, and then drones appear and missiles fly into the pyramids. Sometimes I am flying away on a discreet mission, and other times I am speaking in foreign languages in dimly lit rooms of small homes in India.

In all of the dreams, I am on a mission; answering to a calling, always physically detaching from the familiar, though maintaining the deeper abstract bonds with those I love.

There is never any reservation about coming or going. I just do it. An inner stillness soothes me. In my waking life, I have described this peace in a former journal entry.

It was over a year ago, on December 22, 2012. I was traveling by train from Chicago to southern Illinois to see my family for the holiday. It was a few months before I found out where in the world I would be asked to go as part of the Peace Corps assignment, as part of the Universe’s design (“Universe” or “God” – whichever term you prefer- I am referring to the abstract yet real force at the core of our existence, which has the power of creating perfection in our lives when we choose to quiet our obsessive human mind and all its thought compulsions which stress, judge, and leave us never at ease for long. In my book, I will explain my interchangeable use of the terms further, but for now, insert your term of choice for the force you know I am describing).

On this day, December 22, 2012, it was becoming real to me that I would soon take departure from my family and friends for a minimum of two years. At that time, I had accepted the possibility of landing in a place without access to any form of technology; thus anticipating extremely limited communication: no phone, no facebook, no blog (as you now know, I got lucky). I was making peace with this possibility as I wrote the following:

“I get a little sad thinking about the fact that in less than six months I will not be in real time communication with any of my loved ones. But I think it can be a valuable time for growth.

When a person dies, it seems their example, their teachings-their legend take on new meaning forthose left behind. It is as if all the values the person stood for are no longer shadowed by the person, but illuminated in the world- in the hearts and minds of those left behind. Perhaps death, or absence, allows for reflection which is not possible when the person is still around. When people have no choice but to reflect in order to feel close to the one they’ve lost, that is when the legend resonates truer, fuller. That is when people stop and think, ‘Oh! This is how she would encourage me’ or ‘this is what he’d say in times like this.

I’ve been a coach, a mentor, a sister, a daughter, a friend, and always a cheerleader. What happens when I am gone? In my absence, I can only hope for the value and gifts that death brings. I can only hope that the silence will pull those I’ve left behind to move on without me, yet With me. What a unique opportunity I have to die in my waking life.”

–end journal entry–

Today when I am asked by friends when I’m coming home, I don’t know how to answer that. All I can say is, “the world is my home, everywhere I go, here I am.”

Our actions and contributions in love and life are our conversation in times of absence. There is no better conversation than a life that speaks for itself, and there is not a piece of me that works without a piece of my loved ones in the sweat and the tears.

Our actions and contributions in love and life are our conversation in times of absence. There is no better conversation than a life that speaks for itself, and there is not a piece of me that works without a piece of my loved ones in the sweat and the tears.

 

Our existence is beyond the physical world. It is my belief that this human life is a mere experience- a short one in the grander scheme. And while I would love to wake up to familiar smiles, and the smell of my mother’s food, or dance to country music with my dear grandma, or hear the sound of my father’s laughter, and watch the youth of my family grow, I am whole right now-even in my physical separateness. I feel, sense, and know, that my imprint in their lives will be best kept as my spirit flows freely to where I am needed. Our actions and contributions in love and life are our conversation in times of absence. There is no better conversation than a life that speaks for itself, and there is not a piece of me that works without a piece of my loved ones in the sweat and the tears.

When the voice within me spoke, “Come this way,” I knew it was best for me and all those affected by my decision.

During the recent holiday season I had my first bout with loneliness. The summer temperatures and absence of all the festive traditions which are characteristic of an American Christmas and the lack of Hanukkah parties with friends had me feeling aloof. I was adrift in a sea of time, wondering if the snow and the lights and the food and the family were only a dream I once had.

A few days before Christmas, my mother called and we sang Christmas carols together. I time traveled home in those moments; realizing I can be there whenever I want. Mother put me at ease. Mothers are so good at that!

When I hung up the phone, I climbed into bed under my mosquito net. I was forced to remove all of my clothing due to the heat. I acknowledged that this was only the first Christmas away from my family, and next year would be no different. A gust of mountain wind blew open the curtains of the window over my bed. The light of the moon reflected off my skin and I glanced up at the night sky. “Yes, those are the same stars and that is the same moon that rise and fall in my parents back yard. Connected. We are always connected.”

The next day, I met a man visiting his family in the village for the holiday. He was confused by my presence, whiteness, and fluency in Tshivenda. When I explained the work I’ve come to do, he stated, “Oh, like a calling.” I was surprised at the use of this word to describe my aspirations.

The next day came. It was December 22, 2013; one year after realness of my departure had set in, and here I was, the lone mukuwa (Tshivenda for “white person”) in a foreign land, in a village celebrating the month long holiday break from responsibility. With much time on my hands, I was free to roam and better acquaint myself with my community. It was a challenge. I found streets abundant with drunken men by 8am each day- often making proposals or shouting inappropriate comments which they assumed I could not understand. I’m not sure they would care if they knew I could understand. I grew tired of hiding in my house or fleeing to the nearby town and decided to venture to the cafe down the mountain for some journaling therapy. I sat and wrote the following:

“Living in the village is a huge test of my spiritual strength. I am irritated still each day. I am patient with me, because I know if I keep working at it, I will be untouched by the differences. I need to remind myself that this is a gift. No one asked me to be here. I chose to. I do think spending time with various cultures and listening to their views of this country and the communities I serve has fueled ideas of how different I am from the community. While this may be true on the surface, I must choose to see beyond that-to simplify-to see on a basic level people are the same. I also must commit to seeing things differently. I am not going to impact anything if I allow the past of this country and other people’s experiences and perspectives to dirty my pure lens. No, if I do that I will not bring forth change. There is no playing small. So, I must be a stranger at all times; seeing things differently. It is the only way to transcend stereotypes and the past and create something brand new.”

“I used to talk about seeing with my new eyes. That’s exactly what I must do to create new. Maybe that’s what I’m being called upon to do…”

"I used to talk about seeing with my new eyes. That's exactly what I must do to create new. Maybe that's what I'm being called upon to do..."

“I used to talk about seeing with my new eyes. That’s exactly what I must do to create new. Maybe that’s what I’m being called upon to do…”

At this moment, a young man interrupts my writing and sits next to me. I can see him peek at my journal. Part of me is irritated by this. I release the irritation as he asks me “What are you writing?”

That mind-piece again wants to tell him, “None of your business,” because the mind-piece gets annoyed by folks being so interested in everything I’m doing. Some people even look in my shopping bags as they pass me; they stick out their hands and pull open my bag to see what I’ve purchased. My private American self is wildly irritated by this. However, I decide I am willing to accept people as they are, and love them unconditionally. I understand these folks are not trying to infringe on my privacy, but they are just curious, and their culture’s concept of privacy is a world apart from my own.

Choosing to accept people as they are, I decide to open up to the young man and engage with him, “A book,” I reply.

“About what?” he asks.

“About my life,” I reply.

He then begins to ask about my story. “Why do you stay here? Most of the white people live in the cities.”

“I work for the United States government. I am a volunteer. We assist developing countries in meeting their national priorities. I will be assisting with community development, education, health…”

“You are a volunteer. So you don’t get paid?” he asks.

“No, only to eat,” I respond.

“What about your family? Are you lonely?” he continues, “You are a woman, so you know you have to get married. What about that?”

I tell everyone I’m married to avoid proposals and advances. So, I stick to my story, “There is someone, but he lives far away,” I explain.
“Oh, so you both decided to do your own thing?” he asks.

I have grown tired of my story at this point and tell him, “I don’t need to be married now.”

Being single at my splendid age of 29 is nearly unheard of in Venda culture. His look of confusion makes me laugh. He does not understand, but accepts it. He then asks, “Not that you must compete, but your friends in America, aren’t they making lots of money at their jobs and having things and you are here not getting paid?”

I explain to him a little about my career and previous professional endeavors. He gives me a puzzled look, wondering why anyone would leave it all behind.

“I’m crazy,” I tell him with a smile.

“So you decided you are not worried about money and this is what you want to do?”

“Yes,” I affirm.

We talk further, and I enjoy listening to him speak. He’s sharp and ambitious. At the end of our conversation I ask for his name.

“Mbidzo,” he tells me.

I practice saying it a couple times and jot his name down in my journal. He is curious, and looks over my shoulder as I write. “So I remember,” I explain.

“Here,” he points to the top of my page, “write ‘calling.’ In English, my name means ‘calling.'”

Another smile forms on my face. “Like a calling in life?” I ask.

“Like God is calling you,” he replies.
Wow. The last words I had written just before he sat down were, “what I’m called to do…”

 

"Like a Calling in Life?"  "Like God is calling you."

“Like a Calling in Life?”
“Like God is calling you.”

***

Before I left for holiday travel, I asked the Universe and affirmed that new teachers would enter my life to prime me for the work of 2014. Days later, my first teacher appeared- a successful rural South African native who currently lives in Johannesburg. He is the son of the family who got me acquainted with SA culture back in July. Here we sat at the home in which I spent my first two months in country, having our first conversation. We discovered that the last few books we read were the same books! This is a rare find in a country which has libraries in only 8% of its public schools and only 5% of families read with their children. Not only was Simon able to provide depth in interpretation and application of our shared knowledge, but his spiritual alertness allowed him to answer questions in my mind on nearly every aspect of my humanness- as a sister, as an aunt, as a woman confused about whether love and a family will ever fit into my unconventional life, as an ambassador of peace, and as a model for a nation’s youth. All the questions which seemed to burn beyond my peace were answered- a clear canvass yet again; Absolute Potential.

Next, I would spend Christmas night listening to traditional American carols and having dinner with a man who is from the poor communities I serve, who is now working at Harvard Medical School. His story revealed to me the possibility of transcending limitations in this part of the world. Once again, Absolute Potential!

The only familiar face I saw during holiday travels was my dear friend and former co-worker, Craig. This was also by grand design, as he was visiting from the U.S., and this was his first time home in five years. I received such encouragement from he and his family for my efforts, despite our many conversations about the corruption and apathy which is prevalent throughout the societal, political, and cultural systems of this beautiful land. But within conversations of realism, my friend says to me, “Don’t let other people’s experiences influence you. Maybe you can do things differently, and even if you do the same things, maybe no one has done it the way that you will.”

Absolute Potential.

Craig’s brother, with whom I closely bonded encouraged repeatedly by stating, “You may rarely end up where you intend to go, but you may often end up somewhere you need to be,” (referencing Douglas Adams, The Long Dark Tea Time of the Soul).

A few days later, I landed in Durban by default. My other two preferred travel destinations were impossible to coordinate at the last minute.

Upon my arrival I met Rob. He caught my attention immediately. As I laughed about some of the day’s coincidences, he remarked, “You’re one of those high vibration people.”

Part of my life’s exploration and research for my book is concerned with our vibrations as organisms. The earth has its own vibration, which bees and other insects use to pollinate and sustain life on this planet. When humans vibrate at high frequencies, we are said to enjoy a state of grace, good health, and experience the flow of all we need to us at the right time. Establishing such a vibration is a lot of mind work and a great balancing act. It is extremely rare that I meet someone familiar with these ideas. And before Rob, I had never met anyone so well studied in these areas.

Rob shared as much as he could from his 19 years of spiritual and metaphysical studies as we adventured for four days enjoying one coincidence and lucky happening to the next. When my Durban stay came to an end, I joked with him that he was either an angel sent to me to encourage me on my path, or he was a most perfect imaginary friend I had dreamed up.

“I’m not sure you’re even real!” I’d laugh with giddy for moments on end.

Soon it was farewell to the road and my final teacher of the journey. I arrived back to Venda in a state of pure love and gratitude for the teachers which I had called.

And here the winds have carried me, I settling like earth debris in a sea of absolute potential… And I now the teacher.

Am I overwhelmed? Not in this dream.

World's Biggest Boabab tree in Magoebaskloof in Tzaneen in Limpopo Province, South Africa. The large and resilient tree reminds me that there is no playing small here.

World’s Biggest Boabab tree in Magoebaskloof in Tzaneen in Limpopo Province, South Africa. The large and resilient tree reminds me that there is no playing small here.

***
“But it wasn’t a dream…it was a place! And you were there…and you were there…”
-Dorothy, Wizard of Oz

“When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.”

-Dr. Wayne Dyer

“The connections between causes and effects are often much more subtle and complex than we with our rough and ready understanding of the physical world might naturally suppose.”

-Douglas Adams, The Long Dark Tea Time of the Soul

Disclaimer: The content on this webpage is mine personally and does not reflect the opinions or positions of the US Peace Corps or US Government.

Stranger – South Africa Month 5

“…always looking beyond what is already there, measuring life only in increments of impermanence, and then death. But as I die, I realize I was dead already.”

 

I struggle to see through fog as I gather my surroundings. I don’t know how I got here, but I am here. The sights are familiar. The emerald colors swirl around me and take on the form of tree tops, extending from some of the oldest life that is earth. The mountains surrounding me from all angles remain my greatest teacher since arriving in this strange land. Or maybe it is I who is just a stranger.

Either way, I’m saddled into this ride, bending and curving around corners with no ground in sight. My feet dangle below me as my bottom stays firmly seated in the small roller coaster car. I am alone. In this moment, I feel nothing. Not excitement and not a fear. And then something arises. I remember; I got here by choice-by conscious decision and intent. This is what I wanted. And then I awake, in a stupor of serenity.

Sometimes the stupor is the most powerful of dwelling places. My head removed for a while, I am free to be, to flow, to ingest the world without judgment. I co-exist without a head to resist what surrounds me, and without that mind-piece as a barrier to the richness of all that occurs.

I can recall a life quite cozy not long ago. All my needs were seemingly met and mundane desires gratified at the drop of a hat. But even in that comfort, there was a piece of mind constantly reaching for the next, and the next.

A runaway train inside of me, controlling my every move- seeking, reaching, filling up, but never full. While writing this, it’s as if I’m describing a monster. Maybe I am. A monster that gobbles life too quickly to taste and be grateful for flavors. It is frightening. That thing could have run my whole life. I can picture it now: always looking beyond what is already there, measuring life only in increments of impermanence, and then death. But as I die, I realize I was dead already.

One thing about this stupor, is that anything that occurs, whether favorable or not, can be appreciated. Yes, life looks much different through spectacles of gratitude, even when you and your every move are the spectacle of the community.

It is inaccurate to think by my change of environment (moving far from anything familiar) I have somehow squashed the monster. It had nothing to do with where I was or what I was doing. It will feed on anything, anywhere, anytime. I became a stranger well before South Africa.

My current life situation is the effect of tearing away layers of paint to see what the original looked like. Tear away the stories of the past, for they are not the story of me. Tear away attachment to experiences which can never be relived, tear away pressure to fulfill expectations which were created by a mind less mature and less alive than I’d become, tear away heart-less commitments without regard for what “they may think.” To tear it all away, and just be…like those mountaintops. When I tore it all away, I found something amazing.

I was only a small piece of the original painting. Surrounding me was a canvass of world that I had never seen before.

Somehow bitter cold Chicago mornings became bliss. I’d gaze lovingly from the train windows to bare tree branches and appreciate the sketches they’d create against the gray sky.

In my stupor, I’d effortlessly choose to believe in the purpose of my surroundings. The distressed man on the bus would become the object of my smile, and our conversation would leave him in his own hopeful stupor. Coincidence would reunite us later to find his circumstances somehow improved. Scenarios like this became a common theme.

Sometimes things would go differently. Two months before I departed for South Africa, (the day I resigned from my job), I refused to give money to a woman on the train. I tried to offer her information on resources, to maybe provide a more sustainable impact. She ended our conversation by screaming, “I hope you die over there in Africa!”

No, not the send-off one would hope for, but a gift nonetheless. I learned something valuable that day. Not only did I realize it is not always ME who has something to offer, but that sometimes ugly is beautiful (and let me be cliché here, because I believe the quality of attention given to something can demean its value, not simply use and time…clichés are like used records…I digress), and Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder.

The disgruntled woman that day taught me that getting rattled is a choice. Her words did induce tears, and that monster mind-piece asked myself why I commit to connection and humanity when so many people could not care less about the effort, or value genuine concern. I released that noise as quickly as possible.
When I tore away all those layers, THIS was the Original. I’ll not have some ugly words on the train send me running for new paint. No, I’ll remain untouched.

How fortunate was I for an occurrence like that to help me look within and check my status! What a gift. Beauty…the Beholder.

Later, I silently blessed the woman with peace and clarity. That was a nice use of my time. It saved my heart from beating rapidly and spreading negativity by sharing a story of, “you won’t believe what happened to me…” No, I was just given a gift. In the stupor, you are never the victim.

I’ve met other strangers on my path. Recently, I was educated by an incredibly intelligent and vibrant man. It so happens that he has been living with AIDS for over 30 years. David Patient was diagnosed as ill in the early 1980s before medical professionals knew what AIDS was.

David and his colleague have since won a National Geographic award and various international honors for their victories in sustainable development, and are called upon to help execute UN health initiatives.
Some of his first words to my Peace Corps group were, “AIDS has been my greatest teacher.”

Strangers see things differently. And sometimes the world benefits.

I heard recently, “reality is perception.” I feel this truth from a place of experience. I can CHOOSE to view the world and life’s situations in any way.

I proved this by placing myself in an extremely unfamiliar and often ugly environment. Everyday is a roller coaster, but as a stranger in a stupor, I always get to see the beauty of the Original painting.

It’s a gift I want to make contagious!

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