Practice Makes Perfect

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Candid photo of me doing Warrior III on the rocks in New Zealand.  Clearly I need a little bit more practice there.

When I started this blog, I warned you that there would be clichés. And now, looking back on my experiences and the lessons I’ve learned – especially over the past year – I would agree that clichés are clichés for a reason. For the most part.

Today’s cliché in question?

They say practice makes perfect.

And that makes me laugh. Perfect – what a funny word.

I’m not saying that this cliché is wrong, per say. Surely there’s a reason it’s in the cliché bucket with the best of them. However, it’s a controversial one and worth a beat of consideration. At the very least, it would appear that this cliché has some fatal flaws, because as much as we practice whatever it is we’re practicing, life will never be “objectively perfect”.

That’s easy enough to grasp. Case in point: You like racecars and I like unicorns. You request that we spend the day together at Racecar Land, and since I care about your Happiness, I agree. Hardly perfect, because I’m not getting my unicorn fix.

Or, wait a minute. Maybe I’m missing something. Maybe it is perfect in some respects because I clearly value my time with you and you’re happy and I’m happy and everyone’s happy so we can enjoy the day together. And next time we can go do unicorn things together.

And that will be perfect, too. Unless I’m too tired or broke to go to the Unicorn Park, in which case the perfect scenario might be sipping some wine and just watching unicorn animated series clips on You Tube…?

Or maybe I’m overthinking all of this…?

Clearly, the more we think about the concept of perfect, the more “perfect” seems to elude us. This isn’t rocket science, and I’m certainly no genius for proposing that overthinking is a common source of human agony.

But here’s an idea – another no-brainer, pun semi-intended – what if we just turn off the mental ignition? What happens then? And what happens to our naïve, limited, and rigid notions of what perfect could or would or should be?

Here I’ll pause and take a moment to reflect on some recent personal experience that has led me to flesh out this topic in a blog post.

#currentstate: Just arrived back to the USA after nearly a full year of solo international travel. Much of this travel unfolded organically and involved limited advance planning, if any at all. During the course of this year I felt like I learned and grew a lot. My journey included all of the good stuff you might expect me to say – I tapped back into joy and curiosity, learned about patience, humility, and gratitude, learned to like myself more, go with the flow, test my limits, etc. It also included a lot of the “bad” stuff that you might expect me to say but no one really wants to hear about – at times I felt lonely and scared and completely confused, I got sunburned and sick and got bed bugs more than once and found myself in a few hairy interpersonal situations.

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A setting where one might think a hairy situation could crop up…but in the end, it was just a fun photo op.

But then that takes us right back to the former list of “good” stuff, because the “bad” stuff isn’t really bad at all. You learn from it and grow from it and all the other good stuff you might expect me to say. And relatively early on, I felt so excited about all this good stuff that I started this blog to gush about my feelies, which is what brings us here today.

I don’t mean to sound sarcastic, because I’m eternally grateful for all of these experiences – good, “bad,” or otherwise. And at the end of the day, I wouldn’t trade them. However, coming “home” has been a reality check and a half, and I guess part of me was hoping that it wouldn’t be.

Toward the end of my year on the road, I thought that I’d arrived at some higher mental and emotional state of “consciousness.” I felt peaceful and balanced, and I was usually able to get a mental distance from the constant noise that used to blast through the loudspeaker on my overthinking machine. I had more clarity on what I value and I felt that I was getting good at being the best version of myself.

While I certainly had grown and changed, it’s clear that I was seriously mistaken about a few things. Consciousness is not a state of arrival – it’s a staircase, as Tim Urban beautifully articulates in the blog “Wait But Why” (see link at bottom of post for further reading). Not only are we all standing somewhere on the Consciousness staircase, but also it’s pretty easy to take a step up or a step down at any given moment.

In any case, going home is a big event among long-term travelers, and I’d heard a lot of talk about it. Most people said that it was interesting – that things were mostly the same and that you just looked at your life situation a little differently. Some people warned that it was depressing and that I’d feel like everyone around me was constantly stressed and that hardly anyone ever smiled. I was warned that it was a difficult transition – I’d have to be careful not to get caught up in others’ drama, chaos and negativity.

While I expected to experience a tangible transition of some kind, I thought these warnings were a little extreme. I didn’t appreciate their tone, which seemed a touch negative. It’s not like there are only two classes of people – the travelers and the “reality dwellers” – there are happy and sad and peaceful and stressed people anywhere you go all over the world. Aren’t people just people, after all?

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A beautiful scene from the beaches of New Zealand, South Island. Photo taken July, 2015.  Proof that lurve is all we need.

Furthermore, even if my surroundings were negative or stressful or chaotic, surely I was above all of that now. I was a seasoned traveler with a hard shell. I was positive and adaptable. I was self-sufficient and I enjoyed my own company. Regardless of what was around me, I wouldn’t just survive – I would thrive!

It’s not that I was being cocky – after a year of throwing myself to the wolves, my ego was more in check than ever. I just couldn’t wrap my head around a state of being other than the confident and calm one that I’d grown into. With what I can best describe as optimistic curiosity, I pondered what my own return home would be like from a mental distance.

Sure enough, and just as any reasonable person might expect, my familiar old stresses and anxieties were there to greet me when I returned home. It didn’t happen immediately, but after a few weeks of shifting back to “normal” life, things caught up to me. I observed my peers with their Masters degrees or their stable careers or engagement rings or their children or whatever else society might think an educated 28 year old woman should have, and these crippling comparisons eventually found their way to my front door.

What was I going to do now? Where did I want to live? Now that I refused to “settle,” what kind of work would be worth pursuing? Who would I end up with – or would I remain a lone wanderlust forever? On and on.

However, no matter how often these thoughts cropped up, I refused to indulge them – I knew better! Didn’t I? Surely all of those hours of meditation had been for something. So, when worry came knocking, I quickly seized up and rushed to slam the door. And then lock it. And then triple-bolt it.

What I didn’t realize was that I’d left the back door open.

Flashback to another recent experience that helped inspire this heifer of a blog post. During the last two weeks of my travel, I stopped in France to visit my good friend Greg who had just returned home after a year of travel. Needless to say, we had a lot to talk about as my own Big Event drew near.

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Me and my wise friend, Greg Griot from France

For the most part, what Greg shared with me was interesting but not surprising –he said that many things were the same, and that he’d just grown up a lot.

However, somewhere in the stream of conversation, he said something that really stuck with me. We were talking about mindset and attitude, and Greg commented on how he didn’t think most people had the courage to put their brains in park.

I don’t think Greg meant this as some colossal conclusion, but the statement was so beautiful and simple and true. The concept of putting one’s brain in park, like a car.   I liked the idea and I liked the way it sounded rolling off my tongue. I knew the quality of my experience moving forward might largely depend on my ability to “put my own brain in park,” and I hoped I would have the courage.

Anyways, when I did finally return home just over a month ago, I kept Greg’s words in mind.

Hear ye, hear ye! It was decided. From now onward, my old buddies Worry, Regret, Fear, and Anxiety would have no place in my mental space. I would live peacefully and openly in what would become a life-long series of perfectly present moments…

I knew this goal sounded lofty, but all I needed to do was practice! After all and as we all know, practice makes perfect.

And that’s when I started chewing on this absurd concept of Perfect that many of us hold so dear.

Clearly, I have a tendency to romanticize and glamorize and future fantasize. But, I think it’s safe to say that I’m not alone here. I also think it’s safe to say that I’m not alone in being hard on myself.

Before I continue, it’s also important to acknowledge the huge value of living mindfully and being Present. It’s no wonder that yoga and meditation are growing ever more popular in our busy, busy lives – I know they are lifesavers for me.

However, with all the talk out there about Living in the Now and Being Present and Mindful Living, it seems wise to address how exactly we go about doing this. Which brings us once again to the concept of Practice.

The other day, I was in deep conversation about all of this juicy Life Talk with my dear friend Kendall. She tossed a new idea onto my plate that was good food for thought. In discussing what had effectively become a crusade to Live in the Now, Kendall asked why this should involve stuffing away my “unwanted” emotions. Instead of locking the door on Worry and Anxiety, why didn’t I just let them sit in my mental living room when they paid a visit?

I had to sit with this concept for a while. How could I be here enjoying the Now if my mind was in the future or in the past? However, what I hadn’t realized was the paradoxical pressure I was putting on myself to live in some absurd utopian mental state. The more I let her words sink in, the more unnatural it seemed for the path to peace to be so…stressful.

Kendall had a valid point – there was a clear difference between letting my emotions sit and allowing them to control my reactions. The other option of ignoring my emotions completely hadn’t gotten me very far.

When I first returned home and people asked how I felt, I slapped a smile on my face and cheerfully said, “it’s great! It’s just the beginning.” I meant these words and knew there was truth to them, but in many ways I was also trying to convince myself that “things would be ok.” I’m pretty sure I looked like a lost puppy half the time.

Now, I realize that these words are true in ways I didn’t initially intend.

Living peacefully does take practice, and it is a practice of it’s own. It’s important to be present when focusing on the tasks at hand and to feel gratitude for our blessings. However, in each of our daily practices towards being the best versions of ourselves, it’s also critical to re-evaluate our skewed concept of Perfection.

Newsflash: life is imperfect and so are we. Surprise!

If perfection does exist, there seems to be a catch.

The Perfection Paradox: judgment and expectation are often what craft our ideals of perfect, in some way or another. But, it’s only when we strip these away and enjoy our experiences for what they are that we get closest to whatever perfection might look like.

Effectively, we come closest to perfection when we put our brains in park.  Sometimes this means allowing whatever emotional passengers may be along for the ride to just relax right there with us.

It sounds so easy, but I think Greg was right when he said that it takes courage.

Do you have the courage to put your brain in park?

I bet all it takes is a little bit of practice.

 

As promised, here’s the link to Wait But Why and the wonderful writings of Tim Urban along with Andrew Finn and supported by Alicia McElhone: http://waitbutwhy.com/

Click here to read the specific post about Consciousness and its many stairs.

Cheers and happy reading.

My Favorite Place So Far

 

One of the most common questions you’ll get as a traveler is “so, what’s your favorite place so far?”

There are several ways to go about the answer if you’re like me and love all places “equally but differently,” as if each country were one of your children. (My mother always said that about me and my brother, though I don’t know why she insists on perpetuating this foolish lie since, Stephen, we all know who’s the fave. And she’s writing this post!…)

But no, really. This “equal but different” answer may be true, but it’s the safe non-answer that no one’s looking for. As in life, I find that people prefer an actual answer. Any specific answer is sexier than a generalization.  You may be wondering, “Okay, Alex, then what’s your specific answer?” Ahha! This is where I keep you hanging. I’ll come back to this idea, but first a brief-ish detour.

Back in March about 6 weeks ago, I was in Poland.  I stayed with a (wonderful, fantastic, AMAZING – Wolskis, I love you all) family where I had the rare opportunity to sit at a desk and work at a real computer. This is the kind of thing that happens when you “only plan to travel for 2 months” – I figured I could live for a short while without my laptop and instead opted to bring my clunky old tablet. Anyways, a computer and a keyboard and a big wooden desk – and privacy (!)- it was better than Christmas morning or meeting the Hanukkah bunny.

Thus far, I felt that I’d done a decent job of keeping up with my blog. Though at first back in September I’d steamed ahead at a post about every 10 days, I was satisfied with posting every 3 to 4 weeks. At this point in time, my last post had been about a month prior, and I didn’t want to let too much time start slipping in between posts out of fear of being that “blogger who starts out super excited and then let’s everything slip through the cracks and becomes the person who keeps telling everyone how they need to get back to updating their blog.” Nothing wrong with this, but I wanted to get back at it anyways because I enjoyed the simple act of writing. Not to mention, what would my reader base (cough, Mom and Dad….I love you) do without new monthly reading material!?

I figured it was time – I was filled with energy and good ideas. Writing a post seemed easy enough. I had something in mind about energy and balance – about how everything in life carries energy, and your energy has the power to attract and repel the energy of others. Something like that. About how life doesn’t always give us what we think we want, but it gives us what we need. Which are words to live by and which I truly believe….

So it’s not like I was putting any pressure on myself or anything. And we all know how pressure and obligation make hobbies even more fun.

It was true that I was filled with some kind of inspiration, though it felt more nebulous and intangible than ever before.  And I wanted my blog post to reflect just how deeply I felt the importance of this vague “energy/balance/good vibes” message.  I spent a few days typing away, adding and subtracting, taking my time. Maybe it was more out of enjoyment of typing on the pretty silver keyboard in front of the big, shiny computer screen, because in the end I didn’t even finish the draft.

This was okay with me – I know you can’t force brilliance. I’d just send the beginnings of this Microsoft Word document draft to myself via email and continue in the following days.

And then a familiar looking Microsoft Word dialogue box opened up on the screen, except it was in Polish. And I figured it was asking me something non-consequential,  except it was in Polish. So I clicked what I thought said “ok.” Except it was in Polish. And all of my brilliant ramblings vanished.

The document was empty. Gone. Finito.

At first I was bummed. It wasn’t a huge deal, but it was several hours of work and about 1500 words.

Then, I thought about what I was preaching in the first place. About energy and how I always say that life gives us what we need.  So I took a step back before getting too bent out of shape over my supposed loss.

If I was being honest with myself, I’d clearly been having trouble getting to the point. Maybe it had been helpful to write those thoughts out, even if just for the sake of it. Maybe they weren’t meant for the blog.  Maybe a monster-size reflection of a blog post like this one was the way to my readers’ hearts after all (hi again, Mom and Dad. Except you guys have to love me, so even if I write 100000 words, it’s ok).

Anyways, I figured life might be giving me something I needed with my deleted draft. As much as I feared the fate of my blog if laziness took over and it got abandoned, it made sense to me that a post should come from the heart. Maybe I had a better blog post coming just around the river-bend, and maybe it would pay off to lay off writing out of a sense of duty or obligation. To take the theory of not forcing anything and put it into practice.

Regardless, I didn’t really have much of a choice. I could sit and cry about it, or I could let go and move on. I quickly chose the latter option, and decided that this was an opportunity to rethink, regroup and create something even better. Something that felt organic, natural and inspired. I would listen to myself and write when I was good and ready.

And then one week passed, and then two weeks. And now it’s been over 6 weeks since that polish computer ate my last blog draft and easily over 2 months since my last post.

I didn’t expect it to take so long for me to sit and type again, but here I am – at my tablet once again – and it was important that I waited until I was ready.

It was especially important for this post because of the nature of my subject – “My favorite place so far.” Drumroll.

I had the idea for this post shortly after losing the last one, but I wasn’t ready to write about it. It was necessary for me to actually feel the truth behind what I was going to say before saying it – to practice what I was preaching. I’ve spent a lot of time in the past giving decent advice without actually taking any of it myself.  I’ve had my fair share of days being a big, fat hypocrite.  This post of all posts could not be hypocritical.

It didn’t take long before an idea struck me and I knew I had it. I would write about my favorite place. And after that brief-ish detour, here we are.

When I have the energy to give a logical rationale behind my answer, I usually pick New Zealand as my overall favorite country. New Zealand is easy to explain, and it’s largely true (though Savoie region in France may have just taken the lead…).  New Zealand is a fantastic place with breathtaking landscapes, friendly faces, and happy cows – I look forward to returning there someday and exploring it further.

However, the truth is that I do love every place equally but differently. Each country holds personal lessons for me that have been critical to my journey over the past year.

It was Australia where I first launched and started to do things that scared me most. In New Zealand I felt Joy again for the first time in perhaps a decade. In Indonesia I opened my world to the beauty of teaching English and living in a rural Balinese village. In Singapore I learned about balance when it comes to 1st-world conveniences and luxuries. Malaysia was where I began to understand what worked for me and what didn’t – in general. Malaysia was big for me and I love it there.

Thailand showed me that the opinions of others don’t shape my experiences. Myanmar was where I joined forces with Cindy, a fellow traveller from France, who helped show me the importance of enjoying my moments and listening to how I feel. Every place I’ve stopped in Europe so far has been magical, inspiring, and fresh. For me, Europe has been the place to reconnect with friends, tap into my artistic side, and to put some earlier lessons into practice before I return home and face “the real world” again.

So my favorite place? It’s possible that my answer will infuriate you even more than the vague and easy “I love everyplace” cop-out answer, or the somewhat sexy “New Zealand rocks.” But, at least my answer comes from the heart, so I’m sticking with it.

Something I’ve been learning over the past several months is how to enjoy the moment, wherever I am. I’ve understood this concept for a long time now, and it’s an easy concept to know in theory. Putting it into practice has been a whole different experience.

It was in Myanmar traveling with Cindy that I first began to actually feel the truth behind this statement, beyond understanding the concept intellectually.

I’d talked about it enough, and if you’d asked me about the reason for my 11 month Odyssey, it would have easily rolled off my tongue – I was on a quest for balance and peace. However, I spent very little of my life, if any, experiencing peace on the physical, mental or emotional level. I was a ball of unconscious stress, whirling around in a futile effort to be perfect.

Eventually, I realized I didn’t care where I was or what I was doing or what anyone else thought I should or shouldn’t be doing. I wanted peace. I wanted to take the lessons I learned about living in the moment and to practice enjoying my moments, wherever I found myself.

Slowly but surely, with practice and with seeing again and again how life has a way of working out organically, I began to see things differently. Wherever I was, I was enjoying my moments. Regardless of what other people thought I should or shouldn’t be doing, regardless of whether I was seeing all the “cool” spots. I felt gratitude for my experience as it was, without judgement of what it should or would or could be.

This feeling was true freedom.

For months now, I’ve said that life gives us what we need. And while I believe this to be true, it’s taken practice for this to be something I actually feel on an experiential level. For me, it still requires conscious effort on a daily basis.

However, the point is, that while life may or may not give us what we (think we) want, it has a way of giving us what we need. This includes wherever I am right now, whatever I am doing at this moment.

My favorite place so far is a new state of mind, a fresh lens through which I see the world. A lens that makes all of my experiences great, and allows me to enjoy my life with less pressure, less stress, less judgement. If you are enjoying your moments and feeling your life, then every place is the best place.

I know this answer is the least sexy of them all.

As dopey as this conclusion may sound, and as sexy as it may be to rattle off the names of actual destinations and give you reasons why they are great or cool or exotic, this is the truth as I feel it today.

It’s not about where you are, or what you are doing.  It’s about How you are there and How you are doing it.

Same Same

All over Aisa, this saying is a thing. “Same, same.”

Here in Thailand as well as parts of Malaysia, I’ve noticed people – both Thai/Malay natives as well as tourists – wearing a popular tank top that reads “same, same” on the front and “but different” on the back. Several months ago, when I started my Southeast Asia route in Indonesia, I noticed the Balinese saying “sama, sama” all the time.

In Indonesian, the literal translation of “sama” is “same.” However, the phrase “sama, sama” has two colloquial uses – it is a common way to say “you’re welcome” when someone says “thank you,” and it also means “same, same”. A good example might be when you are explaining something in two languages. For instance, Alex Gila (Indonesian), Alex crazy! (English). Gila, crazy, same same.

In nearly nine months traveling through different countries and cultures, I’ve found this idea – same same – to be a major theme. The reason for this is that, at least in my experience and opinion, people are fundamentally the same. I am also pleased to report that people are, by and large, fundamentally good.

I should be clear when I say that people are the same, as I realize that I am making a bold statement that could easily be misinterpreted. I mean that regardless of where you go in the world, regardless of religion or politics or custom, the same motivators drive us all. Happy is happy, honest is honest, genuine is genuine, and a smile is a smile and often is all you really need to communicate.

Back in December, I thought to blog on this topic and mused about this idea of same/same to my travel buddy. He agreed and disagreed with me, saying that while he believed all children are children, he did not believe that all people were people beyond the basic necessities we all need met – eating, sleeping, etc. Once people are affected and influenced by the various dogmas and ideologies that cause so many conflicts all over the planet, he said that people were actually quite different. I saw where he was coming from and tucked the idea of same/same away to marinate for a while.

Since December, I’ve come back to this idea many times. While I understand my friend’s point of view, I still believe in same/same, with the appropriate addition of “but different,” just like that silly T-shirt says. This applies to children and adults alike, simply in different ways because children generally act in a more free and raw way than adults do. I agree with my friend that as adults we’ve been conditioned to act and react in certain ways based on our upbringing and surroundings. We act with more calculation and more inhibition than children do. But the basic truth remains: good is good and bad is bad and grey is grey across the world in all of its many shades.

It’s been interesting to see the ways in which people are same/same, but different. Of course we all need to have our basic needs met: we need to eat, we need to sleep, we need to use the toilet (toilet is one word you pretty much never have to learn in another language, at least not in Indonesia, Malaysia, or Thailand. I’ll keep you posted if this differs when I get to Myanmar…). However, I believe that more than those basic needs bind us.

It doesn’t matter what we wear on our heads when we pray or what kind of meat we may or may not eat or which political party we favor. Pushing in line is never appreciated. Letting the customer slide when they are 5 cents short is always appreciated. Nosy in-laws always make for funny movie characters. No culture is immune to selfies or the selfie stick.

I’ve already blogged about the kindness of strangers and my gratitude to the various Guardian Angels who have helped me along the way (and now I have many more angels to add, since two months have passed since that post!). When I try to recall one prime example of humans being Same/Same, it is difficult to narrow down the results. It’s truly an everyday occurrence, and no singular example comes to mind.

For the sake of argument and clarity in making my case here, I will provide a couple of instances that illustrate my point.

The other evening, I went for a jog on the street in the sleepy town of Pai, northern Thailand. I didn’t think much of it, aside from my enthusiasm to hit the open road and clock several miles in before dark fell. Things were going great on the way out and most of the way back, until I hit the dog pack. For those of you who have been in Asia, you know what I mean. All over Southeast Asia, there are semi-stray dogs roaming the streets and sleeping in doorways. Most of the time, these dogs go their way and leave everyone else alone. However, sometimes they get loud and grumpy, especially when they are hungry. And like any other creature, they can smell fear.

I was far away from a small group of dogs at the bottom of a long hill, but even at a distance I could sense their aggression. They barked at me and started to approach fast, even though they were at least 50 meters away. There weren’t many people around, and twilight was already upon me, so I erred on the side of caution and turned around. I didn’t care to test the dog pack or show them who was boss – I am small and I was nervous, and I knew that they could sense my hesitation.

I also knew that I would be fine without having to face any dogs, because there were a few people around. None of them spoke a lick of English, but this didn’t bother me. It was more important that one of these people was willing to listen and lend a helping hand. I was far enough away from the dog pack that I’d bought myself some leeway and some time, so I backtracked towards a cluster of driveways. I saw a pick-up truck emerging towards the road and I waved it down.

The driver rolled down his window and I pointed to the dogs down the hill. I barked out loud and then mimicked a scared face. It wasn’t rocket science – he understood. The man smiled kindly and motioned for me to get in the back of his truck. I’d only intended for him to get me safely past the dogs, but he drove me all the way back to my guesthouse. All he needed to do was point in our direction and give me a quizzical look. I understood that he wanted to know where to drop me, and he was glad to do it.

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I wish I had thought to take more thoughtful supporting photography.  The idea for this post arose after I already parted ways with most of the characters I mention.  Here is a view taken during my jog along the beautiful countryside in Pai, just before the dog pack encounter.

Here’s another instance: last week, I was walking through a crowded night market. There were hundreds of people, locals and tourists alike, but the majority were locals. And in true night market fashion, no one was looking where they were going – their eyes were glued to the tasty goodies and colorful wares that vendors had lined up along the sides of the street.

I suppose the zipper to my purse wasn’t fully closed, because a kind woman who only spoke broken English touched my arm and said, “be careful your bag!” Being from the New York area, I am constantly aware of the space around my purse. But no one else knows that, and this random lady kindly thought to help me avoid any trouble. She did what she would have wanted someone to do for her, and regardless of whether I needed a reminder or not, I appreciated her effort.

One last example, because the kindness of strangers doesn’t always revolve around my being in danger.  Yesterday I went to Doi Suthep, a popular hillside temple with a great view overlooking the city of Chiang Mai.  Like other Buddhist temples, Doi Suthep boasts many beautiful shrines of Buddha before which people often stop to kneel and pray.

I am interested in Buddhism and sometimes stop to offer a prayer myself, though I do not consider myself Buddhist.   For now suffice it to say that I am spiritual in my own way, and I “pray” if and when the occasion feels appropriate to me.

At one of the Buddhas at Doi Suthep, I knelt down in “metta” prayer, as we had learned in metta meditation during Vipassana (metta meditation is when you send good, positive vibes for the wellbeing of others).  I like metta prayer because it feels focused and purposeful without being specifically religious.  Anyways, since I still don’t know a whole lot about Buddhist prayer or ritual, I often look with curiosity at others offering up their prayers to Buddha.

At this particular shrine, everything was written in Thai and I didn’t know much about what I was looking at.  I noticed a tall, narrow cup with a bunch of red sticks that the woman next to me shook vigorously after she finished her prayers.  She then stood up and proceeded to the side wall on the left, which had an array of sheets of paper, almost like a calendar.  I wondered how one knew which paper to pick…perhaps the sheet that corresponded with one’s birthday?  But there was no month written anywhere…

Another kind woman interrupted my reverie.  She must have noticed my look of curiosity, because she instructed me to shake the can of sticks.  She told me that it was important to my prayer and for good luck.  I needed to shake the sticks until one fell out and then I could pick a fortune from the wall based on a number written on the stick that corresponded with a fortune.  Ok! Mystery unraveled.  This seemed fun! I was glad the friendly lady had thought to stop and teach me something new.

We laughed together as I failed miserably to shake a single stick out on my first try – nearly one third of them spilled onto the ground.  The woman and her family members cheered me on, and on my second attempt I got it. My stick read number 12.

She told me to pick up my fortune, and if it was good I should keep it.  If it was bad, I should leave it.  I was happy with my fortune, so I kept it and pasted it in my journal.  Hopefully my sharing it here won’t spoil my good luck.

imageNeither of these instances may seem particularly outstanding, but they’re not supposed to be. My point is that people are people.  Strangers all over the world have gone above and beyond to lend me a helping hand.  Time and time again, they invest themselves in sharing seemingly small or insignificant moments with me.  These moments often keep me going, even when the going is easy and I’m already feeling good.

People across the world may seem different from you in many ways, but judging them for their supposed differences rarely serves you well, if ever. That guy/girl over there? Probably just like you. Wants another guy/girl to like him/her. Wants to have plans this weekend. Wants alone time. Wants his/her kids to be smart and healthy. Etc. People want to be comfortable, they want to be happy, they want to be peaceful, and everyone wants love.

You may be thinking, “yea….Duh, people want to avoid pain and Duh, people gravitate towards pleasure. So what, Alex?”

Well, frankly, it’s refreshing to feel this sense of sameness, because wherever you go in the world it feels a little more like home. Even as a 27 year-old, 9 months ago I felt nervous to set off on my own as a solo female traveller. Now, solo female traveller has taken on a whole new meaning. Yes, I need to exercise caution, know my limitations, and articulate my boundaries. But who doesn’t? I love traveling solo, and I meet many friends along the way.

Before traveling and even during my journey, I’ve heard grave words of caution from family and friends about the dangers that lie ahead of me. Yes, danger exists and it’s important to be aware and mindful at all times. It is crucial to check in with yourself and listen to your gut.

However, these “dangers” are everywhere in the world, really no different in Asia than in America on many levels.  And I’m happy to report that the dangers are rarely people. People are people, and mostly they are good. Or at least they are same/same.

Same/same, but a little bit different.

What do you need?

After 10 days in silence with only your thoughts to keep you company (unless you count the other meditators who have also taken a vow of silence and renounced any form of human contact, including eye contact…so yea, pretty much you’re alone with your thoughts…), I expected to have thousands of words to type.  And I did.  And I still do.  A lot happens in 10 days, even when you’ve let go of Instagram and Facebook – and reading and writing and talking and exercise.

However, I figured I’d let the experience marinate for a while and see if I could provide more of a 30,000 foot view instead of jumping into all of my immediate reactions. Fortunately for all of us, I think I can.

Let’s see. Vipassana….

In a sentence, Vipassana meditation was one of the most intense and rewarding challenges of my life.

I am grateful for the experience, and I am glad that I did it. For many reasons, it was what I wanted and needed to do. (Though, I do smile at the irony that one would undergo such an “extreme” experience in a quest for balance).

For me to explain Vipassana meditation objectively would be doing the practice an injustice, since there is more clear and helpful information online.  And I’m not just being lazy in saying that – as much as I’ve worked on my ability to simplify and get to the point in the past months, the explanations of Vipassana online are better than what I’ve managed to parlay to others, though I am always eager and happy to share.
I’m working on it, but Vipassana meditation has layers and is complex on an experiential level.

Some main take aways are that it is non-religious, it is based on the meditation methods Buddha practiced on his path to enlightenment, it is a sensation-based way to experience reality in the moment, and it is fundamentally a means to welcome harmony, balance and presence into your life.  Everything in life is impermanent, and equanimity is paramount in facing the ups and downs that life inevitably throws your way.  For anyone genuinely interested and physically/mentally capable, I recommend it.

That may sound pretty broad, but Vipassana is a different and highly personal experience for everyone, as it should be.  So, while you may be able to read about Vipassana online, you won’t be able to read about my experience with Vipassana anywhere but here. This is where I will elaborate.

Where to start? It was the best of times, it was the worst of times… But no, really, my 10 days on Penang Hill East in Malaysia was both a prison and a playground.  Apparently, I think I’m hilarious and I’m excellent at entertaining myself.  I am also great at torturing and scaring the bejesus out of myself.

The breakdown: I spent about 75% of the time either daydreaming or drowning in anxiety. 20% of my time was dedicated to honest attempts to focus my attention on my breathing and my sensations. 4 % was actually (probably) spent in a meditative state where I felt completely relaxed, present, and aware. I have no idea what happened with the other 1%.

The daydreaming mostly included pleasant thoughts and ideas about art that I want to create, food that I want to cook, places I am excited to travel, and activities I am looking forward to enjoying with friends and family.  Dad – we need to hit up some yoga classes together and put that dehydrator to use! Mom – get ready for me to experiment cooking dinner for you with all of the delicious inspiration I’m gathering from people and places. Stephen – I can’t wait to come visit DC.  Friends – who’s up for joining me at Burning Man in the near future?

The anxiety was a little less glamorous. In true form, where there were no problems, I managed to create new ones.  At one point, I was smoothly gliding through my inhalations and exhalations when my mind started to wander and all of a sudden I questioned whether I had checked my visa entry stamp into Malaysia. I was pretty sure I had been given 90 days upon entry, but… How sure was I?  Had I checked my visa?  Like, actually looked at the stamp?  I couldn’t remember anything beyond waiting in the immigration line after the bus from Singapore.

I’d entered Malaysia by land. Was I sure the rules were the same if I entered by land or by air?  The Thai visa only gives you 15 days if you enter by land, but 30 days if you enter by air… I didn’t remember checking!  Surely I was fine.  I am a (semi) responsible adult…

But, was it 90 days? Or 30? Or maybe 15?

Surely I was fine… but, was I SURE!?

Had I checked? Had I checked? HAD I CHECKED!?

For those of you that have seen “What Women Want” with Mel Gibson, I felt a bit like Marisa Tomei’s character when she’s screaming thoughts in her head but not saying anything on the outside.

Where my mind ultimately found itself? “Alex, have fun writing postcards to your loved ones from the inside of Malaysian prison.”

Clearly, this sounds a bit over the top, but I promise I’m not exaggerating. I might even be under-exaggerating. When I brought it up to the meditation teacher, Ms. Radhi Raja, we agreed that worry wasn’t serving me and that there was no need to check my passport right away (while all other speech and forms of communication were suspended during the course, we were allowed to speak with our meditation teacher as well as management).

Naturally, after holding off for 24 tense hours, I finally caved and asked to see my passport.  Since I’d included my passport in the bag of valuables that had been locked away in some safe at the start of the course, this meant that our course manager had to go dig the thing out of a locker somewhere.

Which she did.

And of course 90 days it was.

As for the time spent in a meditative state or “trance,” (no out-of-body experiences to report as of yet), it was best described by one of my fellow meditators, Dr. Citra (pronounced Cheetrah). Before the course started, we were all allowed to speak amongst ourselves, and Dr. Citra likened her experiences in the meditative state to the beautiful moment when you are in an airplane and there are clouds above you and clouds below you but only clear air in-between. And you’re coasting through that clear air space, able to see the clouds above you and the clouds below you, but you’re just gliding and observing.

Dr. Citra nailed it. If I ever hear a better description, I’ll be sure to let you know.

Another big thing for me during Vipassana was that I felt physically present for the first time maybe ever.  It lasted briefly and sounds rather simple, but while I’ve long known on an intellectual level that living in the “now” is a goal, I don’t think I’ve ever physically experienced the sensation of living in the “now” until I spent 12 hours a day for 10 days focusing my attention on my body’s physical sensations. It was pretty cool, although it was extremely short-lived.

The truth is that while Vipassana may sound like an intense undertaking, the real work really starts after one has completed the course. For me, the challenge will be my ability to incorporate meditation into my day to day as I move forward.

Going back to the panic attack I mentioned about my Malaysian visa, I smile. Even at the time it occurred, I was fully aware that my worrying accomplished absolutely nothing. While I panicked and sweated for nearly a full day (some daydreams may have managed to sneak their way in there at some blissful moments), nothing changed the fact that my visa sat in a locker in a room somewhere and had a stamp for X amount of days. Nothing changed the potential repercussions if I had totally effed up and “not checked” the days. Nothing changed the ink on the paper on my visa.

Where am I going with all of this?

At some point in the past several months, the lens through which I view the world has undergone a huge shift.  I fully believe that life gives you everything you need.

This wasn’t always the case.

Just several short months ago in July when I was newer to travel and still smarting from the pangs of self-doubt and anxiety that often weighed me down, I questioned the importance of attitude in facing life’s vicissitudes.  I literally wrote in my journal, “I understand that having a positive attitude is important, but sometimes I can’t help but wonder if this is something people just tell themselves to make themselves feel better…?” Intellectually, I understood that being positive (or at least equanimous) was supposed to make a huge difference, but I didn’t feel it.  I didn’t get it.

And here I should make another important point before I continue: ‘life giving you everything you need’ does not mean that everything is going to be easy or pleasant. Quite the opposite. It simply means that whatever you need at a given moment in time, life will bring it to you in some shape or form. Maybe what you need is a lesson, maybe you need to check yourself, maybe you need a change of heart, maybe you need to get knocked down, maybe you need some inspiration or words of encouragement.  You get it.

Anyways, my time in Malaysia proved to be a great illustration of this theory. Especially after hearing form many other travelers that Malaysia was only worth a brief visit (word of mouth tips from other travelers are often invaluable and are generally my favorite way to plan, though on this one I must strongly disagree – Malaysia is awesome and I wholly recommend exploring it fully!), I’d only planned on being there for a few weeks, tops. And this included my 10 day retreat.  So, I budgeted a few days for some major points of interest and then after the Vipassana I’d move on.

As my travel plans unfolded, it happened that I entered Malaysia on December 17. Since Vipassana didn’t start until January 6, this meant I’d have some time to kill between December 17th and January 6th – three whole weeks! Maybe I’d hop over to Thailand and then come back in time for meditation…

One can plan, but then life happens.

I won’t go into too much detail, but suffice it to say that I got to know Malaysia pretty well. And no, I didn’t “hop” over to Thailand. Between the cancelled Visa credit card (result of some mass fraud compromise in which my credit card was included), the not one but two attempts it took Bank of America to get a working credit card back in my hands, the simultaneous cancellation of my back-up Amex card (American Express finally caught the trend of other credit card companies to install a security chip in their cards, though unfortunately this meant that my old one – sans security chip – would be useless and I couldn’t delay getting the replacement card any longer. Subnote: had I initially planned to travel longer than 2 months, I would have just opened an account with Charles Schawb, apparently the bank of choice for Americans traveling abroad long-term), the fact that this happened over Christmas and New Years, and add bed bugs and food poisoning (no joke) as the cherry on top…in the end it made the most sense for me to stay put where I was in Penang, Malaysia and hold tight while everything got sorted.

And you know what? It was awesome. It was just what I needed.

Sure, initially I was annoyed.  No working credit card?  Why couldn’t Bank of America get their S*** together?  Why did I have to “waste” time in this random Malaysian city?
What about my other plans!?  Really, bed bugs???

And then I met nearly a dozen amazing new people from all over the world. And within a few short days, they became my friends. And together we explored the hidden gems of a new place. And I/we got to have a favorite hang-out spot with nightly live music and the best cake and espresso martinis I’ve ever had.  I had the best New Year’s since I can remember, and I laughed a lot and I was happy. And the credit cards and the bed bugs? I could stand to learn a few lessons in patience and stress management.

At the end of the day, especially after Vipassana and my time in Malaysia, I truly believe that life gives you what you need. I needed to travel. I needed to get out and stretch my wings and see what I could accomplish on my own terms, with my own means, in my own way.  And here I am now, in Thailand, just taking the days as they come. Usually I’m really sweaty (welcome to Southeast Asia), and I’m not always comfortable. But it’s what I need. At least for now.

So here I beg the question, what do you need?

Ask yourself honestly.

Learn about Vipassana better than I can explain it: www.dhamma.org

See You on The Other Side

Kek Lok Si temple's lookin' fine!
Kek Lok Si temple is lookin’ fine! View from dormitories of the meditation center. 

I hoped to have more time to collect my thoughts and sit to write for this one, but as the situation has it I find myself with twenty minutes to spare before catching a bus to a 10 day Vipassana meditation retreat. What is Vipassana meditation and why am I doing it? I asked myself very similar questions not too long ago.

 
When I began travelling in June, I volunteered at Swami, a beautiful yoga retreat center outside of Sydney, Australia. Here I met Marcin Kumiszczo, a world traveller from Poland who has been an important character in my story thus far. Suffice it to say for now that Marcin is someone I admire greatly, and he’s part of the reason I am here in Asia instead of back in the USA already. I am so grateful I met Marcin, and yes he is just a friend.

 
Anyways, it was at Swami that I first heard of Vipassana meditation – a volunteer from Belgium was talking about it and wanted to do it. When I discovered that Vipassana involves ten days of silence, I nearly scoffed (if you know me and how much I like to chat, you might scoff at the idea of me doing Vipassana, too). I set the idea aside as something I’d probably never do and let it marinate in the far corners of my brain.

 
When I rejoined Marcin later in September to hitchhike Western Australia, he was the one applying for Vipassana at the time. He was applying for a course in Penang, Malaysia, which was on his travel route. The idea resurfaced in my mind while I briefly (very briefly) considered if I would ever be able to do Vipassana myself, let alone want to do it. Once again, I shrugged it off and continued with my life.

 
Not too long after that, I found myself bound for Southeast Asia. Malaysia would be on my way after Indonesia and Singapore. Once again, the voice of Vipassana beckoned to me from where it was hibernating deep within my brain. This time, I found myself looking up the information online.

 
It was November 18th that I quietly submitted my application for the 10 day Vipassana course in Penang, Malaysia. Coincidentally, it was also the same day that Marcin returned home after nearly two years of travel. It was a big day for both of us.

 
Today, January 6, 2016, is the day that I begin my Vipassana meditation experience. For 10 days, I will sit quietly and meditate among peers. I will set aside all electronics.  I will not talk, I will not read, I will not write or even listen to music. Not because I won’t want to – I’m sure I’ll be near tears because I want to so badly – but because that is part of the deal.
For me, this is a necessary part of working towards peace, happiness and balance in my life.  I’ve heard many positive things about Vipassana from others who have experienced it, but the only way to know personally will be to get through it myself.

Here goes nothing…

Wish me luck!

Calling All Guardian Angels

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Photo courtesy of the very talented Isabel Margarita Corral.  We saw these gorgeous mantas during our scuba certification course in Raja Ampat.  You never know how new people will lead you to new experiences.

This one goes out to all of the Guardian Angels out there. If I didn’t believe in them before, travel has changed that for good. Looking back to the beginning of my journey in June when I only planned to be abroad for 2 months, so much has changed. Throughout my travels, guardian angels have emerged to guide me along the way, step by step, and literally steer me to where I am sitting now.

Sometimes when I meet one of these Angels, I am aware that it is happening in the moment. Other times, it becomes more clear to me in hindsight. Sometimes my luck or the coincidence surrounding these chance meetings just seems downright uncanny.

Right before Thanksgiving, I was preparing to set off from my volunteer experience in Bali and continue up through Southeast Asia on my own. I spent a weekend exploring the Gili Islands with friends and had one night with a room to myself since my friends were departing a day earlier.  I had a weird encounter with the guy who ran my homestay – he suggested he accompany me for the night (EwEWGROSS. The smirk on his face made me cringe. And he had a key to all the rooms…) For the first time since leaving home, I felt the creepy crawlies up my spine.

This left me ungldued and feeling vulnerable.  I was aware of being a ‘solo female traveller,’ which thus far I’ve loved, and considered how best to proceed. Before I knew what hit me, I’d run into Rob. Literally. He was wearing a crazy Cat tee shirt and flamingo pants and I stopped him because I wanted a photo of him. And we ended up traveling together for over a month through West Papua, Java, Singapore and much of Malaysia.

Rob, the marine from Charleston, SC, who served two tours in Iraq and wears a Purple Heart. The fireman and policeman who spent years heading up the D.C. gang unit.  The crazy Captain America who must be in 1000 family photos across SE Asia (at their request).  You were my guard dog and 500 words can’t do justice to my gratitude.

Considering all of the wonderful people who have touched my life in big and small ways during the past six months, there are too many to count. However, here I will do my best to offer a heartfelt thank you to everyone who has fallen into my life, swooped in Angel-style, and helped me forward.

This is for Marcin, who took me under his wing when I needed it most and hitch-hiked with me through Western Australia. Greg Griot and Agathe, who toured New Zealand with me. Greg Clemmer who possibly knew me better than I knew myself.

Melinda, who lit the way.  Holly Marsden for igniting my fire.  Emily Alice Garside for getting me through Sue’s alive.  Koral Kaplan for passing the torch.

Steven and Debbie McAdams, each and every person from Yayasan Widya Sari, Rebecca from Penang.

Angels, Thank you.

The Village

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Kadek from Pre-School class 1.  Total trouble maker and impossible to dislike.  Just look at the mischief in his eyes.

I figure it’s about time that I told you a bit about where I’ve been living and what the heck I’ve been doing since I arrived in Indonesia.  Specifically, Bali.  One of the best places on earth and one of the only places during the past five-plus months of travel that I’ve been able to call home for an extended period of time.

Since arriving to Bali in mid-October, I’ve spent the majority of my time as a volunteer teaching English in a small village called Tianyar on Bali’s northeast coast.  Here, I recently lived and worked at Yayasan Widya Sari, a local non-profit situated in the middle of this village, the first genuinely primitive place I’ve set up camp in my entire life.

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Children on Tianyar Beach

For a while, I didn’t know how to write about Tianyar.  It is dusty and dirty, the air often permeated by the smell of burning trash because there is no organized method of garbage disposal.  Life in Tianyar is simple, to say the least.  Villagers live in huts made of basic raw materials – wood and cement.  Laundry is done in buckets and often dried on convenient, low-hanging tree limbs.  Head lice is a thing.  Postal service delivery is not.

But Tianyar is a happy place, and I cannot emphasize this enough.  Despite the dirt, the dust and the grit (or maybe because of it), what puts Tianyar on the map is an undercurrent of Joy.  In Tianyar, the sound of children’s laughter punctuates the air, riding a certain, almost tangible Good Energy that transcends financial means or limitations.

It seems funny to me now that I had ever doubted the place – before arriving to teach at Yayasan (as we volunteers fondly called it), I was wary.  I was concerned about associating with some sneaky “non-profit” that targeted well-meaning westerners or abused outside funding.  At first, I only committed to the minimum stay of two weeks, even though I’d done my research to ensure I wasn’t supporting any shady volunteer shenanigans.

You may already guess where this story is headed.  Of course, I ended up staying five weeks, and I would have stayed longer if my travel plans or visa allowed it.  It’s a testament to Yayasan how quickly and easily I fell in love with it.  The people, the buildings, the sounds, the smells – in some wacked way, I even include Eau de Burning Trash in there, because it was part of the experience and I wouldn’t have had it any other way.

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An amazing group

I could go on in 1,582 different directions about Yayasan and reflections on my time there.  But, that would be difficult to do in 500 words or less.  So for now, I’ll leave you with this closing thought…

I may have been the one there to teach, but Yayasan taught me more than I could have hoped.  On gratitude and on laughter. On patience. On empathy. Friendship. Self-respect. Nature vs. Nurture. Balance and Flow.

More on those thoughts to follow, but for now I thank you, Yayasan.

** For questions, inquiries or to get involved with Yayasan Widya Sari, please see website and contact information below for both the organization and for Ketut, owner and founder.  I have not been asked to do this, though Ketut has approved this message.

website: www.volunteerinbali.org

Ketut De Sujana Mahartana (on Facebook): volunteerinbali.apply@gmail.com

Instagram: @volunteerinbali

Writer’s Block

 

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Candid photo taken by travel buddy, Rob Haseldon, as I shoot the sunset on beautiful Raja Ampat

When I challenged myself to write five blog posts under 500 words, I silently promised myself that I wouldn’t make a thing out of writing about or discussing it.  Writing about writing about writing seemed a bit excessive.  But, it’s almost been a month now and I realize I haven’t posted anything since early November.  It seems that I have intimidated myself with my own challenge…! Ha.

Though the past month has kept me pretty busy otherwise, my blogging inactivity isn’t for lack of interest or inspiration.  I have tons of thoughts and ideas that I’d like to put on paper (or the internet).  Somehow in the last thirty days, this intention has managed to remain just that: an intention.

If you know me personally, it probably won’t come as a shock to you that the proposal to condense down is what has, ironically, caused me a temporary case of writer’s block.  To be fair, I think the act of paring down is a challenge for many – if not most – people, and I won’t bother to beat myself up about it.

I’m working on being more impeccable with my words in general, so here I continue.  Though the word impeccable certainly sounds like a tall order, so I’ll go with the more casual goal to simply … Simplify.

Ah, that’s better 😉

 

 

 

 

Hakuna Matata

Sketch in progress, started October 2015
Sketch in progress, started October 2015

Isn’t it ironic how difficult it can be to Just. Be. Still? Seeing as the act of being still literally requires you to do absolutely nothing, you would think that stillness would be the easiest thing in the world to achieve.  And in theory this makes sense.  But for most of us, putting this theory into practice can be a real B*tch. Many of us spend a lot of time, energy, and money in the forms of holistic treatments, yoga classes, meditation guides, massage, vitamins, you name it, to quiet our minds. To Simply. Be. Still.

Recently, I’ve been setting time aside to meditate for twenty or thirty minutes on some/most mornings. When I meditate, I usually fight myself for the first 10-15 minutes at least.  The best analogy for my brain would be a racehorse chomping at the bit, raring to go at the starting bell.  My mind rushes off on all kinds of thought tangents before I’m finally, finally able to quiet down. Then, it’s almost been twenty or thirty minutes and sure enough my meditation session is nearly complete.

A quiet ray of sunshine
Quiet, early sunshine

Anyways, something big recently dawned on me during one of these daily attempts to switch my thoughts off: I am constantly making problems for myself and I don’t even realize I am doing it!

The fact that I make a terrible habit of worrying in general is old news to me. Even if everything is going smoothly, I somehow find a worrisome thought to fixate on.  And I’ve done this since I can remember.

Now, I am making a conscious effort everyday to move beyond this destructive behavioral pattern. However, it never before occurred to me how finding comfort in the familiar act of worrying was pretty much the same thing as creating my own problems.

And who really wants to create more problems for themselves? I understand if your initial response is a sarcastic, “brilliant question, genius blogger! Clap clap clap..” But hear me out.

I’m confident that many people actually do subconsciously want to create their own problems, especially if they aren’t aware of it yet. If you’re always fixating on worry or breeding phantom issues that don’t need to exist, doesn’t it make sense that in some way you are welcoming more problems into your life? By asking for more stress, you’re showing that you want these issues…at least on some level.

Or maybe not. It’s just a theory.

Regardless, one major lesson I personally hope to learn overtime is how to be still. Really and truly still, in my mind and my heart and my body.

I remember when Facebook first hit the Internet and I was trying to pick my favorite “quotation” for my profile. I felt stressed because there were so many good ones I liked!

A few weeks ago I realized I have a favorite by far: Hakuna Matata. A lifelong goal for certain, but worth working towards.

What is your favorite quotation?**

**note: a friend and fellow traveller has a great blog that inspired me to ask questions to readers – I recommend Path XO by Dan Saba