Don’t chase cool, chase snow.

These days I meet a lot of guys who are living the digital nomad dream, who are in open relationships, dating multiple women, flying off to cities on different continents on a moment’s notice, on a whim, because they forgot their luggage, because they wanted another excuse to see that girl they met, because the food is excellent, because the nightlife is amazing, or the fashion, or whatever.

It all seems so… pointless. What are they doing all that running around for? What’s the point? Everything feels so special, when you talk to them, so amazingly cool: that gorgeous alluring exotic perfect girl, that hip-yet-timeless city, that club, oh my god it was the coolest thing, finding that secret nightclub hidden behind a vending machine and miles of abandoned hallways. It’s easy to get pulled into their tales of their crazy wild life, be in awe of how cool they are.

It took me a while to figure it out. These people (not only guys, I guess I just talk to guys more), they’re insatiable. They just follow their appetite wherever it will lead them. And their appetites are never satisfied. They’re always taken in by the next thing, anything that will make a good story later, or seems appealing in the moment. And especially in chasing women, always the image, never the reality. They chase the high, but nothing substantial.

Compare to a different guy I met, many years ago. He was on his way to New Zealand for the summer. I asked him, why New Zealand?

He said, “For the snowboarding. I’ll go to New Zealand for the summer, work at a ski lift, and come back north for the winter, and just keep chasing snow for as long as I possibly can.”

He never told me any “cool” stories. The only story he told me in our brief acquaintanceship was a rather humiliating story about how he was so broke this winter he couldn’t afford a pass to the mountain, and tried to sneak onto the lift, and got caught and had to talk the workers down from banning him, buying them all rounds of beers.

Yeah, snowboarding is a high, like any other. But everything in this guy’s life was aimed at that one singular purpose. That’s not a “high” anymore. That’s passion.

Living abroad these past few years (and actually making a decent living) has opened my life up to incredible possibilities. There are so many paths I could explore. Having been broke my whole life, it’s been tricky having extra money, and deciding what’s meaningful to spend it on.

“The universe is so abundant,” one of my digital nomad acquaintances waxed poetic, “It’s absolutely limitless. There’s never any end to the things you can do.”

Well, yes and no- there’s incredible abundance, yes, but there’s an incredible limit, too: your time, your youth, your life (not to mention money, for those of us less solvent).

Yes, of course, there are so many places I want to travel, so many things I want to see. Of course the list is endless.

But there’s a difference between chasing cool, and chasing snow

Because in the end, flitting around from one thing to another, you’re not listening to your own voice, you’re just chasing what others have deemed cool. How can you tell? The cool-chasers are all exactly alike. The passion chasers? Each totally different, with a unique story, their life a unique fabric that feels different from everyone else- unique and authentic.

I don’t want to be taken in by every beautiful-looking place, idea or person. I want only the things that I hunger for deeply- the things that haunt me year after year. I want to chase the dreams that have waited for me, all this time. The dreams that pull me wholeheartedly into my future.

In other words, I want to chase snow.

 

It’s the people you will meet.

A well-known traveler was once asked, “What’s the most important place you’ve ever traveled to?”
The traveler answered, “The next place.”

I’ve always been too loyal. My six closest friends- one of them my brother, three of them from childhood- their names are like a mantra I’ve recited my whole life. I love them more than anyone. But I haven’t seen any of them in years and some of them I only talk to twice a year. Why am I so loyal? Why are those names burned into my heart?

Yes, they deserve it- yes, they’ve seen me through my worst years.

But I’ve realized recently, my philosophy about friendship needs to change.

None of those friends share my life path anymore. So, in considering them the most important people in my life, I consider my past to be the most important part of my life.

I can always love them and always will, but my loyalty needs to be to the future. My actions are loyal to the future. I chase dreams and am unafraid to leave everything behind.

But if you asked me, who are the most important people in your life? I would name my Six.

Somehow, I must unlearn this truth.  

If you ask me, who are the most important people in your life? I must answer:
“It’s the people I will meet.”

I get why people don’t chase their dreams.

Life feels rough, these days. Rougher than I expected.

I am in Seoul for one more month. I moved to a tiny dorm-style room south of the Han and am free of obligations (except preparing for my black belt test) until I move to China in November.

No job, for a whole month! I haven’t had a month off from working, since I was fifteen.

But every morning I wake up with a sinking heart.

In pursuit of my dreams, I’ve left my job, my life, everything I’ve become accustomed to: my colleagues, my amazing students, my beautifully lit apartment, the mountain just up the hill, where a buddhist temple hides. My neighborhood with the gorgeous views; the sound of the crickets along the tree-lined pathways. The skyscrapers, huddled together in the distance like the shy kids at school.

Dream-chasing often comes with a price. You can have everything you ever wanted, you can have it all- you just have to give up everything. 

A lot of people express envy or fascination at my life. I lived in Paris at 19. When I was 22 I left my home and everyone I knew to move across the continent with nothing but a car and a thousand dollars to my name.

Then, two years ago I moved to the other side of the planet, to pursue my dream of teaching abroad. Now, I’m moving again.

Pursuing your dreams, pursuing the things you believe in, is so exciting, such a huge adventure- but the separation from your former life is like being punched in the stomach over and over. Your net, the things that grounded you, that gave you purpose, are gone.

I do it without fear- because I’ve done it many times before. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t grief.

My adorable kindergartners- their smiles, their laughter, their progress, their play- I’ll miss that the most. My older students- their wit, their enthusiasm, the gears turning behind their eyes- that’s next. And my colleagues, their antics, their support, the idea-exchanging, the rapport, the decompressing over soju, the memories.

Now, I’m alone again, starting from scratch. Until November, when I move to China, there’s nothing but me, my tiny goshiwon apartment (66 square feet!), taekwondo, and my thoughts. And time, lots and lots of time to think about everything I’ve pulled myself away from, to pursue an unknown future.

What is this strange space? Not regret, not fear- but so much that was meaningful in my life is now gone.

I get why people don’t do it. Why they don’t make that move that they dream of, whether it’s a job or relationship or physical move. Giving up everything you’ve worked so hard to build is not easy, and maybe not worth it.

Me, though? I’ve done this before, I know what comes next.

Build new meaning. Build from scratch, a whole new life. And don’t look back.

And I know, like so many times before- I’ll find my heart again.

Remaining Vigilant to the Weaknesses in our Hearts

Another paradigm shift this weekend, as I scheme and plot the year ahead, as I wait out these final weeks before I can take action on my next set of dreams.

As I put my full heart into these last few weeks of teaching, knowing I’ll likely never see most of these children again.

It’s a strange thing, but over the years, I’ve noticed my loyalty to others actually works against me.

People take advantage, consciously or unconsciously. They trample on my boundaries, most of the time never knowing. I was always too devoted to speak up, too in love, too quick to make excuses for them.

The same goes for ideas. Beliefs, ideologies, even sets of knowledge that should turn into skill sets, that should benefit me and bring me profit, security, abundance- these fail me as well. I become too entrenched and I drown under the lifestyle, the expectations.

My problem is, I trap myself, with my loyalty. I fall in love- with a person, with a philosophy, with a culture, with a group of people in my life, with a community- but then somehow, I always trap myself, I limit my opportunities in order to continue in that world.

So the solution for me has to be: walk away. Walk away even though you are committed. Walk away from the undeserving boyfriend. Walk away from the community who at first offers all these wonderful ideas and friendships, but then inevitably starts leaking their secret opinions about how you should live your life.

Walk away, even, from the city and the culture you have fallen in love with, the job you love, the children you adore and who adore you, the lifestyle you have cultivated over the past two years. Walk away, even though you are in love, even though you could see yourself here forever.

Because the truth is, though you can see yourself here forever, though you love it with deep loyalty, and though this place is more deserving of your love than any other has ever been- in spite of all this- your nature is to be restless.

Walk away now, because this place has not yet betrayed you or disappointed you. Walk away because you’re still in love.

Walk away before you’ve been here too long, and given up too much to be here, and end up resenting this place, just as you resent the other places and people you spent too much time with.

This is my choice, that I must always contend with, must always remain awake to.

Waiting for the Beloved

When you can’t have the thing you want most, you become creative about using the undesired at hand. Limitation molds you. You are forced to focus in one direction when you can’t explore other options.

You can taste that which you desire, when you want it so bad and you have no choice but to wait. The energy of your desire becomes harnessed. Can you direct it into productive channels? Can you work with what you have? Can you squeeze every tiny drop out of your time, building the space for the desired thing to one day flourish?

Because every hour is precious for it. Every hour, bring your presence. 

Like waiting to see a lover again- you can feel all the sorrow of their absence, or you can know that you will see them again and burn with that knowledge.

How to Show Up to Your Life

Show up sleepless, with the waking thoughts still in your eyes. Coffee in one hand, outdated beliefs in the other. Show up with your scars and your trophies, your playlist, your tea and scone, clutch and tumbler. Bring your crazy dreams to this war. Bring your rage and your gunpowder. Bring your apologies, half-hearted and otherwise.

Bring the smile from that guy on the bus, the gust of fresh air, the sudden showers, cicadas in the afternoon, crickets in the evening. Bring your cramps and your bleeding, bring candy or alcohol to bribe your underlings for their cooperation. Wear your mother’s brooch, or not- show up clothed, show up naked. Show up ornate, show up unadorned.

Show up lost, show up utterly, completely, dizzyingly, hopelessly lost- show up hopeless, show up happy, show up at the very end. Show up just in the nick of time, show up too late. Show up, fat parts, ugly parts. Show up still reeling from your break-up. Terminally in love. Wishing you hadn’t said the things you said. Show up still missing him, even after all these years. Show up breaking the rules. Obeying the rules. Enforcing the rules.

Think of the graveyard you walk through every day to get here. Don’t do it for you. Do it for them. And then do it for you, when no one’s looking. Show up despite the work piled up on the desk, despite your unwashed hair, despite your heart’s so shattered, shards of it stab your lungs and you can’t breathe. Show up, though it feels like you’re drowning- it will be your beginning.

Show up, always. Show up to what is and what could be-

and everything under the sky

will show itself to be

worthy.

Why do we Travel?

Why do we travel? Why do we need to travel, why is the yearning in our hearts?

Where can we go to hide from the Self? It cannot be done.

Traveling is best done to confront, not hide.

In this way travel becomes a double-edged sword: you confront not only what is ahead of you, but what you left behind.

What, of the world you left behind, do you miss? And what still angers you?

In what ways did your friends, your family, or your society betray you?

What aspects of your society, your family, and your friends, utterly irreplaceable, and cannot but be longed for, deeply missed?

These are the things you find out when you move away to another part of the world. The answer to both questions is eerily similar.

The thing that society, and even sometimes your family and friends tends to reject, is your uniqueness. They want you to be things you are not. Society regulates for orderliness and safety. Your family and friends have hopes for you that don’t speak to who you really are. Out of love, you are rejected. Strange, no?

And the things you miss are always unique details. The smell of your mom’s hair, your best friend’s smile, which lovely strangers on the street can approximate but never duplicate. The way the smell of rain lingers in your hometown. The way the vines fall from the trees in the woods. The way the old buildings feel haunted. Or the glitter of the new buildings in the afternoon sky. The glimpses of sunset you can catch on your commute and the feeling you will soon be home, to see your parents, or your roommates, or your cat, again soon. These cannot be found anywhere else. And it’s these details that ground us and give us the rhythm of our lives.

Love can be found very particularly. The details are what ignite the heart.

But let us say these details are mired or lost in the intense stress and murkiness of daily life. You cannot run away from your problems, for they will surely follow you. So if you can’t travel to run away, what do we travel for?

We travel to find the uniqueness in ourselves. To find again the parts of us that we buried because they were rejected by loved ones or society. Many of these are small things, little details- that got stuffed in a closet and forgotten about when we were young, and have thus grown big and ugly and overwhelming in the shadows. Others were huge to begin with, and always set us apart. These are the parts of us that need parenting, loving and accepting.

Some things I’ve had to learn how to tell myself, big and small:

You don’t need to wear make-up, even if everyone around you does, and by wearing no make-up you’re considered ugly and you get mistaken regularly for a guy.

You don’t need a practical job. You don’t need a career, you are not built for just one thing.

You don’t need to save for retirement. You don’t thrive when there’s too much safety, and you don’t want to retire, anyway. And yes, you can know that about yourself at 34.

You don’t need to wear dress shoes. You need shoes you can run, jump and kick in.

Same goes for dress clothes. You’d better be able to do a high kick in that outfit.

You can love a city and still move away from it. You can love a boyfriend and still break up with him. You can love everything and still leave it all behind- not because you’re looking for something better, but because you know that nothing is for keeps, anyway.

 

You can do this without traveling, you can go through this process of finally giving yourself permission to be different from society, different from how your parents and loved ones want you to be. But traveling and living abroad can certainly help. And more importantly, when you travel, if you travel, keep this search in mind, this endless internal search for the yet unaccepted and unloved details of the self. I am convinced that when we travel, when we go on a quest of any kind, this is what we’re looking for.

Life-Changing Words in Liminal Spaces

When I want to feel summer, when I want to hear the voice of nature whispering,  and feel the edge of my soul, I go to the Han.

There’s a spot at this river, under a bridge where two blues- water and sky- mingle with gold of city lights in the evening. Sometimes the sunsets are spectacular; and riding a bus crossing one of those bridges, I can stare out at a cityscape dominated not by city but by water- by this river, disproportionate: too wide for such a short journey from headwaters to sea. The river dwarfs the city- the skyscrapers, underwhelming. Great state buildings, humble.

At the river’s edge, the voice I come to hear is the water, lapping gently against the concrete slope, the bridge pillars.

But I also can’t help bringing friends here, when I want heartfelt discussion. Something about the water, perhaps, brings forth our depths.

A few weeks ago, I brought a friend to the river, and he mentioned an opportunity I have dreamed about my whole life but never thought possible. Not only is it possible, I can pursue it in a matter of months. I won’t say much for now but I will say- suddenly, my whole life is at the river’s edge, about to sail out upon unknown waters.

Everyone has a dream that they keep so deep they hide it from themselves. Because it’s so terrifying, so haunting, so incredibly big and impossible, bigger and greater and more wonderful than one mere person can ever be.

If we are vigilant, if we make a practice of staring through the hidden terror that comes with being alive- if we strive to maintain a dialogue with our innermost souls, through everything that happens in life- but most importantly, if we are lucky, if we are so so so so so so very lucky- sometimes we learn that the dream isn’t quite so impossible after all.

In the end, our dreams are humble- make art, raise a child, travel, dance, whatever the dream is, once the veil of terror is taken away, the dream is seen for what it is- a beautiful consequence of being human, the inevitability of each of us having a unique soul.

Mine is no different- it’s humble, it’s beautiful.

Stay tuned.