How to Live Beyond Time

A rooftop in Seoul with a cityscape and mountains in the distance. It's sunset, with purple clouds and a yellow horizon.

The coffeeshops in this new neighborhood are full of students knee-deep into the fall semester. I peak at the textbooks the couple next to me are studying: calculus. The guy to my right, programming. The girls across the way are discussing grammar in Korean, English and Spanish, cycling though the languages every few sentences.

I’m south of the Han now, close to one of the major universities in Seoul. The energy of the cafes these days crackles with excitement- not yet the frantic stress of the weeks approaching midterms. Me, though? I’m sinking deep into the dreamtime of fall, contemplating October’s mysteries, missing the deep reds and oranges of the woods of my New England hometown, thinking about how I’ll be spending Samhain on a plane instead of calling on dangerous restless spirits- or at least engaged in masked shenanigans 😉

In a book I’m reading (I’ll keep the book a secret since I’m giving away a spoiler), twenty years pass suddenly and I’m angry that I’m expected to just accept such a large passage of time slipping away before the characters are able to act once again on behalf of what they love and believe in. But then if I look back on twenty years ago, it feels as if no time has passed at all, and I’m still a fourteen-year old, just beginning high school. There are certainly things I’ve dropped for twenty years- martial arts is one of them.

And the richness of the fabric of time just astounds me these days- how real memories feel, textured and complex and full. But the future- which is not even real!- feels just as much so to me. I confess I’m a schemer and a dreamer, and I’m guilty of spending a great deal of time unnecessarily plotting my next steps, searching like a lost soul for my destiny.

Here are some thoughts, therefore, on time and its meaning:

-My dorm-style accommodations give me access to a rooftop, so I’ve been going up morning and night to practice taekwondo. A week into this habit, I remembered a story I wrote as a twelve-year old, about a warrioress protecting her best friend, who was a princess. In one scene, she practices on the castle roof in the moonlight. And I remember thinking, that would be the epitome of cool, to spend your days on a rooftop practicing martial arts. Ha! And here I am.

-Putting aside comments that could be made about my definitions of cool, this memory brings up another thought- the idea of how we age mentally. Some of us are natural 50-year olds; others never seem to leave high school. Am I mentally a twelve-year old? When I posed this question to my coworker, she said, “Well, moving to China to study kung-fu is something a twelve-year old would do.” She herself is probably mentally somewhere in her twenties, still clubbing and staying out all night (I seem to have missed that stage altogether- except of course, on Halloween :P). I think in her heart, she’s still a DJ, something she set aside to have a more practical job.

Why is it that we drop ourselves, sometimes, when we age? We’re not allowed to dream crazy dreams once we turn 14, as in my case, or 35, as in hers. How can we get good at recognizing this when it’s happening, so we can do something about it?

-A similar idea to mental age- I’ve heard it considered in terms of seasons– there are Spring people, who flower most beautifully in their youth, and later on tend to look back with great nostalgia, feeling those were the best years of their lives. Then there are Summer people, who blossom in their twenties and thirties, working hard with great energy and enthusiasm, strong of body and mind. And then there are Autumn people, who are shy in their youth and take time to come into their confidence, or pull their energies together into accomplishments and develop strength of character.

What about winter? There was no description of winter people, in the book that I read (sadly, I no longer remember the book where I heard this idea)- perhaps they were the wise elders, a role tragically lost these days. Perhaps they were always rare, since people for so long, didn’t live past “autumn.” But I like to think there are winter people. They’re the people who share a closeness or a kinship with death. Perhaps they lost someone beloved early in life, and so for them, death is real- death informs their every move, reminds them often of its presence- never far, unforgettable.

These Winter people, they have an extra pair of eyes, always seeing the end of things. They remember the preciousness of each breath, the suddenness with which everything can be taken away. They remember: we own nothing, in this life. It’s all borrowed.

-Bringing that back to my dilemma, where the past and future are so alive- my task, then, must be to be here, in the present, and use the present to create the future that I daydream about so much. Use the present to honor the past I was gifted: both horrors and triumphs, pain and beauty. In this way I can pull the aliveness of both the past and the future into this moment- ground them in the here and now, express their realness not with daydreams but with action.


 

Friends, what are your thoughts on these ideas? On time and timelessness, on the realness of the future and the past, on pulling them into the present? Do any of you relate to the idea of mentally or spiritually being a different age? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below 🙂

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.

The Mess of Minimalism

It’s Sunday morning- outside my window, crickets sing a sweet tune under an overcast sky, a melody over the distant hum of traffic. A gardener somewhere nearby is digging into soil with a spade. The sound of the spade hitting the ground seems to echo.

Outside, the day will gain heat and strength with the afternoon sunshine, but the wind will keep it cool enough to walk around all day, adventuring around the city. Summer’s dragonflies still zoom and swirl, but the cicadas are gone. Outside sings the lush beauty, order and balance of the Equinox.

Inside my house, however, I am surrounded by mess. Getting ready to move, I’ve taken out everything hidden away in drawers and closets, preparing for a reckoning of all my items.

And I’ve realized, most of my “mess” comes from unfinished projects. Bits of stories started on scrap papers. Packages half-prepared to send to friends. Language textbooks unfinished. Half-used bottles of vitamins, make-up; sewing projects- even paperwork for back taxes needing to be filed.

If I count these things as projects, I have dozens of unfinished projects.

The truth is, I kind-of hate the term minimalism, and associate it with the judgmental tone of its most popular gurus and promoters. But perhaps minimalism is, by nature, judgmental. Because here I am, facing so many poor decisions I’ve made in the past two years I’ve lived here, being silently judged by the mess around me.

So in reducing my life once again to two suitcases, it looks like I have two options for these projects: finish them, or abandon them.

Except I’ve run out of time. I move in a matter of days.

So I need one more thing: forgiveness.

Forgive myself, and abandon the project. Appreciate what I was trying to accomplish- the cool project for my students, the desire to be healthier (vitamins), or to look more professional (make-up), the feeling I was trying to convey with the aborted story.

Minimalism is dirty work. I have to confront my failures.

Everything I want to keep can fit into two suitcases. The rest? It’s the mess of minimalism.

(By next year, I will pare down my possessions to a carry-on and a backpack.)

 

Dragon in Progress

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Sketching out the enemy- a beginning

As I re-work draft one of my novel and wrangle it into a readable story, I’m re-imagining the enemy as a dragon.

I always think of dragons as good and had a hard time thinking of them as evil. But then, they represent chaos, and chaos and I have always danced quite close.

Writing compelling evil in a fantasy is much harder than I thought. The idea is, it’s a fantasy- do we really want to explore all the atrocities humans are capable of, when we read a fantasy?

Of course, I say this in the era of A Game of Thrones. But how much do want to explore the evils of life, how much do  want to break my reader’s hearts, or mess with their trust, the way George R. R. Martin does?

How much evil has to be done, to get the point across? That’s the question for any story, I guess.

That’s also the question for life. How much evil has to be done, before we wake up?

I guess that’s why we write stories- to find the answers to questions such as these.

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.

Bus Ride to Boramae

Evening. Sunset. Around me gather and disperse the commuters- the students, the travelers, the aged. Out the window: fabric, sandals, small dogs, nose rings, girls and guys flirting, school uniforms, light reflecting off the buildings, shimmering gold.

Dresses on mannequins outside, hems lifting gently in the wind. Young men having a serious conversation over a cigarette, leaning on an old railing too close to the street. Construction, skinny trees, fountains, street food.

People having experiences, or searching for them. Bearing the crowds, rushing through the crowds- laughing, texting, carrying gifts, making choices. Leaving not-taken paths on the ground like discarded flyers.

For the time that you are alive, what will you do?

What do you want to be remembered for?

I don’t want to be remembered. I want to be forgotten. 

As long as I want to be remembered, I will always have those loved ones, those friends, or those strangers in mind, and I will have to be a certain way.

If I rejoice in one day being forgotten, I can be anything I want.

The Experience of Forgiveness

I used to be very anti-television, especially in the days when my loved ones seemed to consume it mindlessly and continuously. I was one of countless children, I’m sure, who grew up with the TV constantly blaring news and violent dramas.

These days I’m not so triggered or judgmental. We crave experience. Our subconscious doesn’t know that it’s not really having an experience, when watching TV. And isn’t it? Though it’s not our body, though it’s not our story- even our bodies get tricked, even our muscles fire off the corresponding neurons, if that’s what our brain is imagining.

I recently heard of a technique you can use to release anger and resentment, especially towards people who have wronged you. Write a letter to yourself, from that person. Write everything you wish they would say to you. It plays upon the same idea- your subconscious doesn’t know it’s not real. Because you tap into the deeply rooted volatile emotions that live under the conscious mind, and provide release for them through the writing of that letter. So the subconscious renders it as an experience.

We all have at least a few people from whom a letter of apology- full, heartfelt, saying everything that needed to be said- would be beneficial, useful to our psychological health, to receive. I can think of three right off the bat. I’m curious at my own behavior though- this kind of exercise, I would normally dive into- why do I hesitate?

When we are given the opportunity to forgive (even if it’s just a psychological trick), why not take it, unless the anger we hold has some use to us? Often, our identity crystallizes around our pain. To give up our pain is to give up our identity. Or perhaps we use the rage as fuel for great accomplishments. What happens to the accomplishments, if we let that rage go? What happens to future accomplishments?

Perhaps, for my part, I’m just too busy. I’ve been working overtime for six months. I can’t give it my attention. I can’t relax long enough around the exercise to give it true power. I can’t stop the treadmill- maybe I don’t want to stop the treadmill- long enough for this. And yes, my accomplishments this past year are absolutely fed by rage.

Or maybe it’s that I secretly believe that one letter of forgiveness- however long, however deep- wouldn’t be enough?

The thing about forgiveness is it never ends. I’ve forgiven a great number of things, a number of people- and I’ve been forgiven, as well. But more people come along who offend, who hurt, who lie, who betray. So the process must begin again and again. And I will hurt others as well- in my flailing, in my clumsiness, in my anger, my short-sightedness, my selfishness, my laziness- in all the usual human ways.

When we realize we need forgiveness, too, the game changes. And we see that forgiveness must be a lifelong companion- we must regularly pay tribute. So we must be willing to engage, to process, to call a truce here and there, to negotiate. To redraw battle lines. To give up that old territory while we claim other territory in new ways of living, growing like some wild thorny juicy brier.

Love,

Laurie