Untitled – Not Sure What We’re Doing Here — By Jennifer Shipp
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Untitled – Not Sure What We’re Doing Here — By Jennifer Shipp

About a month ago, we arrived in Singapore following about 44 hours of land and air travel over the course of three days.

Our mission: to figure out our mission.

We’ve seen the colisseum in Rome. We lived next to the pyramids in Egypt on our first trip there (we’ve been through Egypt 3 times). We’ve laid our eyes on all the requisite tourist destinations that have been prescribed for us through marketing channels that specifically target Americans. And now, in order to glean something out of traveling, we have to come up with our own “destination” which is not nearly as easy as you might think.

Indeed, we now live in Mexico, which used to be one of our favorite destinations. It still is one of our favorite destinations, but now we call it “Home”.

The whole project of travel has been up-ended and twisted into riddles. And yet, I’m still interested in it. And John and Lydian are as well, which is how we ended up in Malaysia, a country that barely registers on the tourist radar for Americans. We chose Malaysia specifically for it’s modesty in the Southeast Asian repertoire. After two years of not-traveling (officially), we weren’t sure where we wanted to go or what we wanted to see. We’ve been bombarded with Mexican culture for nearly two years and all our disillusionments about states-of-being that involve “foreign-ness” and states of being that involve serendipity have been deeply challenged, then integrated into our everyday lives as an experiment, and finally shelved for sanity’s sake with a collection of other trite and ego-centric keepsakes that are completely useless pieces of junk to everyone else in the world.

But there’s more.

I stopped interacting with people through Facebook except in emergencies. The proverbial camera is no longer on my shoulder. All of us have stopped taking pictures of everything we see when we travel. This was inspired by several important transactions that we’ve had over the past two years with Millennials who were almost rendered useless (for all intents and purposes) by their own sense that everyone is watching them all the time. Facebook, it seems, can create a sort of schizophrenia, which isn’t that hard to believe given that dopamine is often prescribed to treat this mental illness and dopamine is precisely the neurotransmitter that’s most affected by the use of social media. Within several months of boarding up the Facebook window that looked directly into my life, I noticed that my imagination was mine again. A new set of emotions and memories played along the horizon of my thoughts, like UFO’s or strange weather anomalies. The experience hasn’t been entirely comfortable because, like the person who spots a UFO at sunset, if no one else shares the experience and the strange, glimmering disk is my experience alone, it can be both illuminating and isolating.

Perhaps most important in this mix of strange new experiences and horizons is Lydian’s adulthood. She is still traveling with us, but she’s not a kid anymore. Her presence is no longer urgently demanding. She projects herself into the world as a fully formed human being. And we all know that she will soon go her own way. That’s not to say that she’ll leave, or that she won’t be present in our lives anymore, but that her life will take form and become something of her own design. To the extent that we want to continue to fit together, all of us have to reshape and conform to something that we’ve never seen before. There are no role models to follow. How we design the next phase of our lives is entirely up to our imaginations.

And finally, John and I have worked feverishly on the project of partial, early retirement for the past 5 years. This process has moved forward in fits and starts. Officially it began when Lydian hit adolescence and the word “retirement” took on a palpable meaning. In reality, I’ve never liked the idea of retirement. I want to work until I die, but not because I have to in order to pay my bills. I want to work because I’m enjoying whatever it is that I’m doing. Like most people, John and I have never had that luxury and we felt like it was a worthy goal to shoot for.

That’s not to say that we don’t enjoy our work at all. We do. And as our house construction project slowly drew to a close (for the most part), we started to realize that it might be hard to let our work go. That perhaps we enjoy it more than we realized, or at least that we enjoy certain aspects of our work more than we realized. I like to go after clients and win them. And I like it when my clients are happy. It’s cool to get paid to do this kind of work from the comfort of wherever I am in the world.

But sometimes I’ve wished that I could just write about whatever I want. Rarely, a few times, I’ve passed up client work in order to stay focused on projects I felt were important, like our cancer cure books. And I know I could write other books like them on similar topics, but it takes a certain kind of focused passion to really stick to a project that’s self-created like that. Especially if I know that The Establishment is mostly going to push it down and cover it up.

This trip to Southeast Asia has been exploratory, but not in the sense that we needed to see landmarks or tourist sites.

Nope.

Here we are in Malaysia. In Kuala Lumpur. And it feels considerably less foreign than Mexico to me. This country is an industrialized car culture like the United States. Most of the people here speak several languages including English. They look at us strangely if we try to speak one of their other languages because language is a line in the sand here. People use it to create boundaries between the various ethnic groups that live here, or at least this is how it seems. Legally, people are forced to get along, and mostly the Malaysians have been very friendly to us. But this country is definitely not a melting pot.

And it’s kind of expensive here in comparison with Mexico.

But I’m glad to be here nonetheless. John and I booked 5 weeks in Malaysia for reasons that weren’t entirely clear to us. We tried making other plans, but nothing took shape. Retrospectively, this was in our favor since a tropical storm is taking shape just north of where we’re located right now. That’s serendipity and I feel very blessed to have intersected with it on this trip.

Serendipity is something that’s exceptionally rare in places we call Home. That’s not to say that serendipity is extinct in these places, but only that it’s much harder to identify than it is when we travel. When we leave home and put ourselves at the mercy of everything that could possibly go wrong, serendipity stands out topographically like a mountain range on an otherwise flat continent. And believe it or not, serendipity is a much-sought-after prize on every trip we take. In our travels, serendipity is like a fruiting, branching fractal, a hologram of a worldview that has its own life when we go away. Unfortunately though, serendipity withers under the petty day-to-day minutiae of Home.

I rank serendipity as high as some of the most spiritual experiences I’ve ever had in my life: the Hindu Fire Ritual in Varanasi, Sapito and other psychedelic experiences, watching an Ayahuasca Ritual in the Amazon, temazcals, playing ball with ghost at the Villisca Axe Murder House, etc. Serendipity reminds me that there is a Higher Power and that I’m not in control of everything. It’s the sense that I can find what I’m looking for without searching; that whatever I need or want or hope for is always there, right in front of me, but that I only have to open my eyes, refocus, or relax to see it.

John and I have taken our belief in serendipity quite literally in that we’ve both been taking off our glasses in order to see more. And slowly but surely, contrary to what we’ve always believed, our vision has improved. Often, whenever I’m stressed or tired, my eyes will be blurry. I can’t make out faces or read signs. Two years ago, this would’ve really bothered me in a foreign country, but I’ve gotten used to it. I believe that I’ll see what I need to see. That when I take off my glasses (or take out my contacts), my vision may be blurry, but I can see a broader view of the landscape. So far, this theory has panned out (pun intended). My vision went from -5.50 to -3.75 within a few months. When we get back to Mexico, I’ll lower my diopters even more. John is doing ever better than me. Soon, he won’t need glasses at all.

But this is just a metaphor. I mean, it’s real, but it’s also a metaphor. I’ve been waiting for what has seemed like an eternity for my personal metaphor to mesh with real life again. Without metaphor and magic, life is so dull. The metaphor and the magic is always there, but if I don’t tune into it, it disappears. And if I don’t tune in for a long time, it’s like magic-in-general does not exist. Travel is a kind of CPR or electro-shock therapy for a life that has stopped being magical. But on this trip, for us, there have been no spiritual experiences in Malaysia to breathe life back into my ultra-pragmatic view of things. Malaysia is a place of religion, not spirituality. But still, travel has had its effect on our lives. Lydian signed up all up for a New Year’s “thing” at a place called Hope here in Kuala Lumpur where people gathered to do some very cult-like rituals for a syncretic Christian-Muslim-Hindu belief system that was peppered lightly with miraculous healings involving “chi”. I had to bite my lip to avoid laughing when we did an “Amen” incantation in unison with the recorded voice of a man who sounded like he had a terrible sinus infection. The “Amens” sounded so much like “A bed” that John couldn’t even figure out what we were saying or what the hell a bed had to do with anything.  Lydian stared straight ahead, her eyes wide with a wrinkled-up, suppressed smile on her face. She refused to look at me because we were sitting in the front row and she knew we’d both bust out laughing if we made eye-contact.

There was no magic at Hope, but there was fertile ground for cynicism. And we got a glimpse into the weird mix of religions here in Malaysia.

The three of us have done long-walks in Kuala Lumpur on urban stretches that were not made for walking. We’ve hiked across construction zones. Outside of Chinatown, I can count the number of other pedestrians I’ve seen in this city on my fingers and toes. John and I jog in a parking lot each morning. These are not spiritually inspiring experiences.

We’ve searched for restaurants with healthy food, but alas, there are none. Still, the search has been interesting and it’s forced us into areas of the city that we otherwise wouldn’t have seen.

And at the end of all this, what I’ve noticed is that more than Malaysia, John and Lydian are my spiritual experience. This isn’t a new thought, of course, but it’s one that I haven’t really meditated on for a year or more. I’m very blessed to have such excellent travel buddies. It’s an incredible thing to end up in a shitty country where there’s nothing to do, but still have fun shacked up in a relatively small space with people who are working independently on their own stuff.

Not very many people in the world feel this way about their family. But I suppose they could if it were a priority them. If this was the thing they were looking for and focused on (or blurrily contemplating). I believe that anyone can make their life be what they want them to be, but the paradox is that in order to build a bigger, better version of life, we have to be grateful for what we already have. Ironically, this was the message we all heard at Hope, so maybe the cynicism was unwarranted in the end. I can’t deny that it’s impossible to seek “better” and be grateful for the status quo at the same time, so we oscillate, I suppose. Like being home and then being away. The practice of going from one state (in a country or in our minds) to another teaches us how to appreciate aspects of ourselves, our lives, and our neighbors that we’ve maybe never noticed before.

It’s good to change things up in order to figure out what parts we want to hold onto unconditionally.

For me, it’s John and Lydian.

So I guess I accomplished my mission and maybe by the time we get to Myanmar I’ll give a shit about things like temples again, but I doubt it. And that’s okay with me right now. It’s the new perspective that’s interesting, not temples or rivers or bridges or pyramids or whatever.

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