Saturday, August 18, 2012

Making comparisons

I met once again with a feeling I hadn’t had since school days. Then, we’d sit down in the classroom and one student would inevitably ask another, “Did you do the homework?” “What homework?” asks one. “Yeah it was easy,” boasts another. Everyone’s ears perk up and they start to compare answers. “Wait, some of my answers are different,” I think, but am too shy to speak out. In my quiet corner in the back of the classroom anxiety starts to simmer. I dread when the teacher comes to collect the assignment because my work seems all wrong.

I understand a little better now that just because your answers are different doesn’t mean they’re wrong.

Nonetheless, having been blessed with the luck and resources of life to put my energy toward more options than bare survival, I find myself second guessing the choices I make. I continually ask, “What should I strive for in this life? What’s more, am I sufficiently striving for that goal?”

Two mornings ago I assessed the past decade. It’s been colorful and not lacking in formative experiences. However, when I scan those years for outstanding accomplishments, the kind that you see in biographies, I saw nothing. Suddenly I became two people; myself of the last ten years, and a present observer shaking a finger and reprimanding me for not making the most of my time. When aware of the limited nature of all things, one spends wisely. According to societal norms, I haven’t.

Our society equates success with marriage, parenting, money, titles, and fame. Thus the relative worth of my experiences to these more definitive ones appears meager.
Time is as precious as the water we drink. When I realized that ten years had slipped by, I felt frightened because I had poured out time and with that, opportunities.

Or at least that’s true if the efficiency of life is measured by what we see other people do.

I went for a walk to quell my angst and found myself in front of a café. As I entered from the muggy August heat the realization hit me as sharply as the chill of air conditioning that maybe no one feels fully secure of their path. I looked around at surrounding faces, attempting to sense the same rumblings of insecurity about life that I was having.

Does anyone really know what to strive for in life or even why they are working toward these goals?

The girl I see over there studying...does she know? Does that man making business calls know? Does this woman serving me coffee know? Does that couple outside getting into their car know? Can this woman admit to her teenage daughter sitting across from her that she doesn’t know? All of us are students sitting here in life’s classroom and wondering if our answers are correct. Many are masking that they know while most are just are keeping quiet.

I’ll be the first student to stand up and confess that I’m completely uncertain. And I’ll content myself with the absence of absolute answers to life’s homework.

I’m starting to think that the appeal of marriage, parenthood, and fancy titles for me lies in the fact that I’m not married, not a parent, and don’t have a fancy title. We often think that what someone else has or does can make our lives complete. Still, if I stood atop a mountain of prestige and fame, I might look down and see that the majority of happy individuals are below, simply enjoying the experience of living.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Weightlifters and waifs

My lover looked down at his arms frowning. He expressed his regret for the weight that he had lost over the months, and how he wanted to gain weight. I remained silent, only thinking that his long, lean body appeared perfect in my eyes. Not long after I was in a friend’s home and as I tried to sneak between a counter top and an open washing machine door I only narrowly escaped the passage, because my rear lightly bumped against the counter top and I tapped a glass. The glass's clink as it was ever so slightly displaced attested to my perceived crime. I laughed from mild embarrassment, as did my friend, who joked that the apartment was built for her. She is middle aged, Caucasian, and has a small frame. She is what they call ‘skin and bones.’ She tried to make me feel better, sharing that she had been the subject of teasing for her skeleton like frame, for not having anything in the rear to bump anything.

Once more the light of my highly critical eye turned itself inward toward my body and began to burn into it. I’ve been disapproving and unloving of my body since I was girl, but I am certain that I am not alone in this way. The majority of us have meager respect and acceptance for the bodies that we have.

I’ve always been told that I look healthy and strong. Through the nebulous cloud of thought that message translates as, "I’m overly muscular, stalky, unfeminine, equestrian." "I would give anything to have nice round muscles like yours," another slight and slim friend of mine once said. When thin people try to compliment me in this way it usually makes me more horrified at how they must see this body which, when I actually look at myself in the mirror or in photographs, strangely doesn’t seem so bad. But when I step away from talking to thin people I look in the mirror and see, the Hulk.

I wonder, is anyone happy with who they are? We handcuff our minds to a shared image of the physical ideal, usually what we have seen in the media. But when it comes to who we are on the inside, there is no image against which we measure ourselves. We simply strive to be the best people that we can be. We don’t beat ourselves up when we are not the carbon copy of Mother Theresa. We try to do well in school, to obtain successful jobs, to learn languages and arts, to donate to good causes and help the less fortunate. But when it comes to outer ideals, somehow for most of us there is a perfect body type, and we put ourselves in a prison each day of our existence that we fail to meet that type. We drink protein drinks to gain muscle or deny ourselves food. Before the mirror we inspect, flex, and pinch at our bodies.

Why do we always talk about how we look with our friends and relatives? Or why is the mark of success or failure after not having seen someone for some time often how much weight they have lost or gained? Why don’t we talk about the people that we are and want to be? And when will we measure our patience, gratitude, knowledge, motivation, dedication, honesty, and kindness, instead of our thighs, waistlines, and biceps?

Whoever I talk to it seems that half of them want to lose weight and half want to gain weight. I know so few who are content with who they are and don’t seek to be weightlifters or waif models.

Occasionally the veil of vanity does fall away from my thoughts and I realize that there is so much more to all of us than our flesh. While it is true that one should be healthy, that healthy and unhealthy life choices are reflected in the body’s appearance, it is but a lump of flesh that no one will remember after we expire. No one will remember our measurements but what we did and said and contributed to the lives of those around us. I remind myself of this and find myself a few more shakes of the handcuffs closer to freedom.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Breathing underwater

With encouragement from a friend and a beer I agreed to join our friends who were snorkeling in Costa Rica last summer. Being a person who runs out of the ocean when seaweed brushes past my skin, I hesitated to venture into the water. Not knowing at the time that fish actually scatter in the presence of a foreign body, I was afraid of hundreds of strange fish nibbling at me. Layered upon those imagined fears was the task of mentally adapting to breathing with a snorkel.

I geared up and jumped into the water. Soon after I found myself independent from my friend, breathing calmly, and exploring at a distance far from the security of the boat. I first noticed that in that world just below the surface I felt like an awkward visitor. The schools of fish that swam by were fascinating, dynamic, and colorful. Compared to their size and the grace with which they navigated the waters I felt large and clumsy, almost embarrassed.

Amazement with this new strange world eclipsed my awareness of the fact that I was breathing in a manner completely unnatural to me. I would occasionally remember that I could not breathe through my nose, but would immediately redirect my thoughts so as not to panic.

I find similar thoughts appearing and fading sporadically as I live my life in a foreign country. Day to day life is a peculiar blend of the unusual and the mundane. That is, I am no less sensitive to the richness of new sights, sounds, smells, and tastes than when I came here for the first time. But in many ways I have ceased viewing life with a tourist’s zeal. Despite the attention that I receive, I don’t feel excluded. My sentiments may just speak for the overflowing warmth of Turkish people, but I feel at home.

Conversely, there are moments when I say to myself, stunned, “Shit. I am in Turkey.” Often a sight seen while walking or from the seat of a train reminds me that I am far away from all things familiar. Like suffering the dark effects of a hallucinogen everyone suddenly appears alien and the language seems strange. For just a few seconds I become uneasy and succumb to an alienating sense of loneliness.

Now, like when I was underwater and suddenly became cognizant of my altered breath and the strange beauty of it all, there are fleeting feelings of anxiety. I find myself aware that living in a foreign country is like I am breathing in a different way. But I know that the more I engage in such thought, the more it invites disquiet into my mind. I prefer to divert myself away from dark notions that nothing is familiar and everything is frightening. I choose to forget about being foreign and to swim along instead, assuming I am one of the fish.

Friday, February 5, 2010

An orange, a day...

I had an image of heaven as a child. God’s head, a large scale version of an evangelist often on our television while I grew up, ethereally hovered above an industrial waste land. Large steel towers puffed grey smoke as if on a timer, and stood upon dry and colorless land. Above the horizon was a cloudless and pale sky. I often pictured myself peering at this scene, which lay before my young eyes drab and spanning onward spatially and temporally without end. I hoped never to die if this was the experience of heaven. It seemed more like hell. I dreaded the afterlife and eternity. In adulthood I have come to see the roots of those fears, a fear of boredom.

At nearly thirty years old I find the same sensations of dread resurfacing that my thoughts used to invoke when I was a young child. Adana life has come to feel painfully routine. I am starting to ask, have I died and gone to the heaven of my childhood?

In my kitchen there is a purple glass bowl in which I put oranges. I had started using the bowl for fruit because I liked the visual contrast of the purple with the oranges. After about a week when I have eaten its contents I go to the market to buy more and refill the bowl. A video recording of the kitchen table played back in fast forward would reveal a cyclical pattern; the bowl fills, empties, winter, fills, empties, spring, fills, empties, fall, fills, empties, summer, fills, empties, winter, fills, empties, fills, empties…

Second to kebab, oranges are probably the most abundant food here. Orange trees line the streets and parks overflow with them. When walking I often see a stray orange, one that has fallen from a tree or someone’s shopping bag. Sometimes they are whole and unblemished, sometimes squashed, occasionally they are decayed. They are a reminder of the choice I made to leave Istanbul for Adana. The omnipresent orange has become a symbol of a stagnant, seemingly inescapable existence.

As the days collapse into each other even the people have taken on a static appearance, like in a painting or figures in a small town diorama. They live the same day, the same moment eternally, as am I. The fruitstand owner waits outside of his stand in his vest and apron. The restaurant worker is outside with a cigarette that never extinguishes and a glass of tea that never empties as he waits to escort customers into the phantom restaurant. The old man is hunched over his tray of chestnuts and turning them in the fire. And the hefty man with the five o’clock shadow sits on a crate on the street corner continuing to pop popcorn, although he is already neck deep in bags of it. I get the impression that he is as fed up as I am.

But how much of this is a projection of my own boredom? And is the remedy for this illness a change of location, or a change of attitude?

Contemplating this, the worn and jaded faces of these men enter my mind and I decide that at this time I am their companion in existential misery, and I toss an orange peel aside.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Searching coffee

I wrapped my fingers tightly around the coffee cup to experience the warmth it emitted. Between sips I watched the steam exit. Suddenly, as one becomes aware that someone has been staring, I saw my reflection in the hot liquid. I peered in to see what else I could discover about my world. I noticed a portion of the ceiling above my head. Its bright white color looked darker and its irregular surface became softened in the coffee. I suddenly had the feeling of waking from one of those vivid dreams during a day time nap in which I rise and ask, where am I?

As if to answer myself, I looked into the cup. I became a medium searching the smooth surface of a crystal ball. Who am I? Where have I been? Why am I in Adana, Turkey? And where am I going?

I read once, perhaps in a physics text in university, that frogs placed in a pot of water on a stove will not know they are boiling if the temperature is increased gradually enough. They never try to leap out, and instead stay in the pot unaware of the change until they transpire. If time were my temperature and Turkey my pot, how long before I start to boil? And would I notice?

In recent months I have been making an active effort to live in the present, addressing only the demands of the day and appreciating the richness of the moment. This mentality sheds a brilliant light on what is positive in each day. But time escapes easily and I wonder, could several years go by without my knowledge?

I am fearful of living a life rich in experience but lacking in progression… trying new cities and lives without finding the one that was intended for me since birth. If opportunities were a banquet table of tantalizing foods, I am standing with a watering mouth and admiring the variety. But my excitement makes me forget that at any moment this food is destined to vanish, leaving me to mourn for time lost on deliberation.

I am happier than I could have imagined, but feel I am being neglectful of a higher purpose. Thus, is action needed? Or am I to patiently wait for the right things to happen at the right time,..for 'the signs' to become clear?

In Turkey, fortunes are often read in the coffee that remains in the cup. It is done amongst friends as well as in cafes by wandering tellers. Do coffee grounds have the answers? With seemingly no other choice, I peer even more deeply into the cup with attentive eyes and ears.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Lost in smoke

When the first holiday from work came, I decided without deliberation to spend it in Istanbul. I have started to notice that when I am here, I am reminded that each moment overflows with possibility for a new experience and to see the unseen. And often when I observe I am overtaken by an odd feeling of both wonder and melancholy.

I stood on Istiklal street this morning to meet a friend. As I waited I noticed three quarters of a cigarette that had been tossed to the ground, but the smoke continued since it was not stamped out. I watched all sorts of shoes, sneakers, heels, and boots walk near it, oblivious to it. The smoke continued, although it weakened over time as the cigarette’s fires were slowly extinguished in the chilly winds of a winter morning.

Except for my passive observation the smoke’s diffusion went unnoticed, like a passionate person shouting in the streets whose voice drowns in the indifference of those that pass by. The cigarette would go on preaching its message to no one as it turned to ash.

Soon, I thought, it will be flattened and sullied by footprints. It will appear as the remnants around it, whose history no one considers.

Monday, November 16, 2009

When life gives you bad wine...

I rested in Savasana after practicing yoga in my bedroom. Sounds from the street wandered into my perception like the scent of food from another room that has just started to sizzle. I heard fragments of conversations, shouting vendors, dogs, and traffic..sounds that summated to a symphony of insignificance.

I heard my flatmate speaking on the phone. However her voice was distorted by the walls between us and submerged in the deep waters of my relaxed state of consciousness. I understood that she was commenting on the drabness of Adana and our apartment. Several moments later I opened my eyes, sat up, looked at the floor, and thought about how the apartment wasn’t really that bad. It was not unlike any of the old places I lived in the past that were provided by the school where I taught in Turkey. It simply looked like a free flat, and far from the Amityville that my flatmate lamented about inhabiting.

Adana is not a bad place. Most people are quite kind, the cost of living is low, and life is relaxed. However it has admittedly taken much adjusting to accept that this city is not bustling, cosmopolitan, and magical Istanbul.

In addition to the city, I have had to acclimate myself to teaching children. Attempting to maintain the attention of children is often like standing in a room where gravity has started to leak out. Suddenly the objects in the room and the furniture begin to float up one at a time, as if in the beginning only a few objects have figured out that they are freed of the earth's pull. Slowly the others figure it out and they too follow until all are out of reach and in a preferred state of chaos.

After much suffering I decided to stop trying to anchor everything down. Rather than laboring to secure what will inevitably fall upward into entropy, I must let everything happen. Until I surrendered to the restless nature of children I ended each day frustrated. As with my impression of Adana, I had been getting upset because I held firmly to a mental image of the way things should be, and continuously reminded myself of their dissimilarity to the way things were.

I am learning to think and act based upon exactly what is before me and not more or less.

I recently bought an awful bottle of wine. Its price first warned me of its dubious quality. But I hadn’t known it was unpalatable until I poured it into the glass. I observed its rusty hue and nearly felt the headache I would feel the next day if I drank it. The Turkish have a term for this very low quality wine, ‘dog killer.’ But rather than pouring this dog killer down the drain I spontaneously decided to try it in my favorite recipe for Italian red wine cookies. I reasoned that I had nothing to lose.

They came out fantastic.

You could say that every moment I live here I am making shoddy wine into sweet biscuits. It is not an easy thing to do. But for now the labor seems minimal compared to the appreciation generated for my daily experiences.