The State of Bother-dom: Meteorological Parables from Malaysia — By Jennifer Shipp
Asia Malaysia Southeast Asia

The State of Bother-dom: Meteorological Parables from Malaysia — By Jennifer Shipp

From the ground, I experience pollution. It surrounds me and I become one with the pollution. But from a high place, I look down on it and marvel at how awful it is (or maybe how it’s just not that bad–I suppose that depends). But in both cases, the pollution is the same. All that’s changed is my perspective.

We’ve been in Mexico for two years this January. With the exception of three trips back and forth to the U.S. for various reasons, we’ve been stationed in one place for what seems like a long time. Yes, we’ve traveled within Mexico quite a bit. We’ve been to every state in the country except two, I think. I’m not really keeping track and I’m not really trying to see every state in Mexico. No one cares how many states I’ve been to. (I don’t even care anymore.) But the fact remains that we’ve been traveling, but not outside of our (now) home country.

I love Mexico. I really do. But being in any country for a long time without leaving is hard on all of us. It’s dehumanizing. In fact, I think that being stationed for too long in one place is hard on everyone in the world who lives a stationary life. The impact is subtle but chronic, like a nagging cough. After you have it for a while, it starts to really bother you (it = a stationary life). You start to think about death more than about life. The worrying begets more coughing (paralysis) and on and on it goes until one day you hold your breath to avoid the cough and then…

…I wonder, what is it that’s bothering me?

Everything is bothering me.

Nothing is bothering me.

Then, I just live in a state of bother-dom—a state that consists of chronic bothers and a chronic ongoing denial that there are bothers.

I stop having a sense of what’s dogging me when I never stand back and look at my life the way that an artist steps away from their work to evaluate what’s out of place or what’s missing. The picture becomes pixelated and muddled. The closer and deeper I get into Home and all the minutiae of daily living, the more meaningless it all becomes. The neighbors are angry. The water bill is overdue. It’s hot. It’s cold. The dog outside won’t quit barking. That sort of thing.

But on the other hand, if I step too far away for too long, Home disappears and becomes ephemeral like fairy dust and magic beans. I become cynical about Home and the people who have homes because I’m detached and rootless and I forget the subtle virtues of long-term, ongoing connections with difficult people. It’s hard to appreciate certain works of art that display vulgarities and the ugliest parts of life on earth and yet, these are the pieces that often have the strongest emotional impact on people. Do you get the metaphor? Like creative photos of dead birds against a backdrop of Mother’s Day Hallmark cards, the shitty neighbor and the dog that never stops barking next door aren’t exactly the most endearing parts of Home, but they’re part of a longer more complex story that has depth and importance. While perpetual travel over a very long period of time can become like a series of children’s books that are all about a peak of discomfort followed by escape without ever developing into something deeper or more meaningful, Home is a place where my demons come out to greet me and by pivoting around this sacred place I’ve created in the world, I’m comfortable enough to spar with them.

One of the motivating reasons why we left the states was because there were no demons and so there was no story. Travel for us was the story. Home in the U.S. was a place where we confronted ourselves almost exclusively. The story was about isolation and loneliness. Our whole American existence was about confronting shadows and reflections. But Mexico is different. We knew it would be. We hoped for it. But after years of sparring with ghosts and phantasms, it’s been challenging to go up against real people day-after-day.

On our way to Singapore, I had 27 hours to contemplate things…everything and nothing-in-particular. The first part of the trip from Mexico City to San Francisco was a fantastic display of a wide variety of different types of clouds. On take-off, we first emerged from the huge cloud of pollution that covers CDMX and I looked back down from the bright blue sky above the haze down into the gray below and thought about pollution and related to it on an emotional level. I’d stopped noticing the pollution in Mexico City when we were there. The gray seemed like a legitimate weather phenomena and not a preventable feature resulting from the overuse of fossil fuels. I supposed that most of the ciudadanos have stopped taking notice of the gray skies. After years of living on the ground, down-in-it, they’ve stopped trying to get up above the clouds. They’ve stopped trying to get out beyond the polluted city to a place where the sky is clear.

But there I was. Up above it all, looking down on the pollution. It was a metaphor of insight. And as the plane continued onward toward San Francisco, we passed a set of clouds that was nothing short of a Wonderland of Shapes and Transformation.

These clouds were playful and bubbly. They were like ideas that were ripe to become real things. Ideas on the verge of manifestation. And I thought about my own ideas and how fragile they all are in reality. These clouds outside the window looked solid, like sculptures. The illusion was powerful and convincing. But all of the blue/white forms were changing slowly as we flew by. And in reality, they were nothing but water vapor.

As I thought about these clouds and how clouds and ideas are similar things, I felt better. I always have ideas. John and I see ourselves as serial entrepreneurs and we love to give form to formless things to see if we can also give them life. But seeing the clouds, I realized that all our ideas had somehow become Inner Oppressors. I felt obligated to bring life to imaginary things. But it isn’t obligatory. Observing these clouds and realizing how they were like ideas released me from having to perform grand acts of alchemy as a pre-requesite to my mostly mundane existence. Changing an idea into a real thing is not a requirement. I don’t have to make water into wine or feed 2000 people with 2 loaves of bread and a small fish or whatever.

A monistic clarity.

During the rest of the flight, the various types of cloud cover that we encountered brought to mind Buddhist and Taoist thoughts. I saw what looked to me to be two different types of clarity: one where the sky and the ocean met with seamless tranquility and the other where a white blanket of smooth clouds drew a stark line between above and below: monism and dualism. Both seemed legitimate. As a knee-jerk reflex, I preferred dualism. I supposed on some cosmic level that this was the wrong answer to a major existential question, but I forgave myself for it. It’s been a hard year.

Dualism.

I saw wispy white clouds casting their shadows onto the ocean’s surface below.

To me, looking out into the air and the sky through the small airplane window was like looking out into a short tutorial on my mind.

I supposed that Buddha would say that I’m too attached to the shape of the clouds in my mind. “They’re nothing but water vapor.” He’d say and then encourage me to make my mental meteorology calmer (by letting go of all that fiery desire, of course) so that earth, air, and water can meet peaceably in a sterile sunset of total clarity that resembles (in my mind’s eye), near nothingness.

Clouds casting their shadows onto the ocean’s surface below. A Yin-Yang moment.

In my reverie, I imagined Lao Tzu, the originator of Taoism would congratulate me on recognizing the yin and yang of the clouds and their shadows. The floating white cloud looked as real as its shadow. Which is more real? Water vapor or the shadow that it casts? I’m not sure. But they were pretty to look at. And maybe that’s all that matters. Sometimes, it’s fun to take the idea of the dark and the light and give them a real, solid form and that’s okay, I decided on no basis whatsoever. Everyone has to follow his or her own path. Lao Tzu was big on paths, particularly the middle path so he’d understand and maybe even agree with me. I figured that the following of one’s own path is a global type of forgiveness of all sins like what happens in Christianity when people say that all you have to do is believe that Jesus died on a cross and then you’ll be forgiven for even heinous, awful sins. There’s no value judgment here in terms of religion. No, not really, but I suppose that it might be tempting to send me off to the Inquisition and throw me in a canvas bag to see if I sink or swim for these kinds of statements. It’s risky to talk about religion in regard to clouds, after all. But these are just thoughts and like clouds, they come and go, change shape, and sometimes turn into massive storm systems (or clear skies). As a general rule, I take a very live-and-let-live stance in regard to my clouds and other people’s clouds. I don’t care if you have puffy cumulus clouds along all your warm fronts or high-flying cirrus clouds along your Gulf Stream. I like people with nimbus clouds in their low-pressure systems as well as people who have primarily clear skies all the time. Personally, I like to build tall, towering thunderheads and that tends to scare people off, I think, but they have to admit that the sunsets are beautiful in my wake.

By the time we landed in San Francisco, all this nonsense had added up to something very sensical in my mind. I felt calmer. Not calm. But calmer. Not clear. But clearer. The distance and the view from a high place was helping.

We arrived in Singapore for a four hour layover, 27 hours into our trip. John and I were still coherent enough to converse with a man from the UK named Gary who’s trying to find his way into the Digital Nomad world. We stood in line with him at immigration and later commentedto each other privately that he seemed like the type of guy who would fit well into co-working spaces in far-off lands. When Lydian went up to the immigration booth with her passport, she automatically started speaking in Spanish and then she caught herself and looked back at me and laughed (her hair all wild from the long flight like someone who’s been living in a forest for a long time).

By the time we got to Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia, I felt the anticipation of evening, like it was time to wrap things up and crawl into bed, but it was only about noon. John, Lydi, and I made a commitment NOT to go to bed until at least 3:00 PM. It seemed like a lofty goal. Should delirium set in, we decided that it would be okay to break the pact.

I couldn’t get the hot water heater to work at our vacation rental in Kuala Lumpur, so I reluctantly took a cold shower. John and Lydi went out to get fruits and vegetables for dinner? lunch? breakfast? For sustenance, we decided. The food was for sustenance. There was no need to know the name of the meal we were eating in order to eat it.

About 24 hours later, I developed a fever. I suppose it was just jet lag because I never felt sick except that I had a fever. And the fever was comfortable in that I could just close my eyes and see whatever I wanted to see and go wherever I wanted to go inside my own mind. I wasn’t restless or uncomfortable. So for about 12 hours, I stayed in bed and turned over my own thoughts gently, playing each one like a guitar string until I had them properly tuned each with all the others.

And at the end of all that, I felt better. My mood lifted. I looked back on our big building and all my bubbling ideas swirling around back in Mexico and I felt like it all made sense. The sky cleared and I felt a shudder of enthusiasm, like a convulsion or a minor earthquake that you could almost ignore if the pictures on the wall weren’t out of place…

…Enthusiastic Earthquakes (I’ll save that metaphor for another time)…

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