On Respect (Part 1)

Where to start on such a profound a subject?

For some time now, I’ve suspected that something very fundamental and simple is missing within most of us.

Several months ago I wrote a blog post called Eyes That Were Made to See. I remember well both being at that point in my life, and also the joy I felt in finally being able to produce such a piece. It was a marker of a turning point in my growth.

First, let me say one thing. I am tremendously privileged to be able to not only write about my explorations into understanding myself, but also to have the capacity to even see myself from the view point that I do. When I write these pieces about myself, I am doing so from a relatively removed perspective. My intention is to better understand the idiosyncrasies that make up this ‘wild beast’ of a human that I am. I realize that this is the kind of undertaking that takes time and patience. Steadiness. This why my blog posts are generally infrequent. In the time in between them, I am doing a great deal of growing. A great deal of confronting myself.

This is my privilege.

That I have both the courage in my heart and the capacity of mind to see myself falter, fail, and suffer. Without taking it too personally.

Before I get too far, I want to share a metaphor.

There are many traps in life. Some we walk into knowingly, and others we don’t realize are traps until we have already gone far. One of the worst traps I have come across that I would advise anyone seeking a deeper understanding of themselves and the world around them to stay aware of is best described by metaphor.

Swimming. Imagine you are looking out across a vast sea and there are people in the water swimming. The breeze is crisp, the waves gleam in the sunlight, and the swimmers are strong and full of life. But you yourself have never swum. In fact, you don’t know how. You’ve been trapped on shore all your life, longing to know this ocean and to have the skill and confidence to navigate the waves. But all you have ever done is watch. Perhaps at some point you decided to read some books about swimming, you engaged in lively debate about it with your friends and family, you thought deeply about swimming, and maybe you were so fortunate to once even meet a swimmer. But if all you’ve ever done is read, think, and debate about swimming, will you ever learn to swim?

This understanding is the very first step.

Life is a practice. It is not meant to come easily and without effort. But the kind of effort matters. If what you desire is to know the ocean and navigate its waves with steadiness then be sure that every step you take in life is with this intention in mind.

Absolutely easier said than done. But it is possible. Take inspiration from the swimmers that it has been and can be done.

***
What is respect and why should I care? 

From what I have seen, respect, both for the self and for others (as well as all living things), is the basis on which everything else is built. If this foundation is faulty, all else built on top is at risk. In fact, it almost doesn’t matter what one builds on top— a person can be kind, generous, intelligent, strong, brave, funny, thoughtful, loyal, inspired, persevering, understanding, tolerant, self-aware, mature, and have any number of other positive qualities— but without respect, it is only a matter of time before a challenging situation in life can bring the entire structure tumbling down.

And what is this structure exactly?  

This is the self; this is our character. The structure is made up of the positive qualities within ourselves from which we draw our confidence. Confidence is like the roof of the structure.

It is confidence that allows us to take a step toward the sea for our first swim. Confidence is a quality that is cultivated by learning to be kind, generous, intelligent, and so forth. The more we see ourselves grow in these positive qualities, the more confident we become. A false sense of confidence is called arrogance. We can all spot this from a mile away. True confidence is humble. It doesn’t need any validation. It is unfazed and does not falter in the face of failure and suffering. Confidence is built on strength of character, and this cannot be faked.

The more we work consciously to strengthen the integrity of our character, the better the swimmer we become.

***
But back to respect, which is the foundation.

I’ve met a great many people in my life who have many admirable qualities. But what nearly all of them lacked was a fundamental respect. I include myself in this observation, by the way.

The foundation of respect has two layers: the deep layer is self-respect; the surface layer is respect for others.

If there was a single quality I would wish for all of us to gain overnight, it would be deep and profound self-respect. Everything else built on top is relatively straightforward.

From where can we gain this fundamental quality?  

This is a question I am working on answering myself at the moment.

What I know is that this quality I am calling self-respect here also goes by other names: self-love and self-compassion. I know that when one has gone deep in self-respect, the world becomes a playground. Fear and insecurity are not so threatening. And are replaced instead with knowing.

Self-knowing.

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On ‘Knowing thyself’

One of the most important insights I’ve ever had into myself was about five years ago when I came home from a party and found myself inexplicably exhausted. In fact, I had left early after someone I was trying to engage in conversation with told me I looked like I wasn’t interested. I was actually surprised to hear it.

I was living in Nairobi at the time, and there were always fascinating people around to meet— entrepreneurs, world travelers, athletes, and journalists. Every weekend and nearly every night of the week you could take it for granted that there was a group of people getting together, and nearly everyone was exceptionally warm and friendly. You could generally expect that the invitation was open and that the group would be intelligent and engaged. 

It was also a favorite conversation topic: how easy it was to meet likeminded people and, if you put in the effort, to build lasting friendships. Even after moving back to the U.S., many of my dearest friends I know from my time abroad. 

On that particular evening, I was still somewhat new in Nairobi myself. I had decided that I ought to go out often and take the opportunity to meet new people. So, although I felt a bit drained from work that week, I convinced myself I’d feel fine once I was talking to people and soaking in the scene. 

In just a few short years from that night, I look back on myself and smile knowingly. If I could write a book on what I know now and share it with my slightly younger self, the advice would fill several volumes. I suspect most people feel the same. 

And while I think that life delivers most lessons through experiences when we’re ready for them, there is one thing I wish I had known earlier about myself: that I’m an introvert.

That night, the comment from the person I was talking to triggered some realizations. There was a part of me that was interested, and that was why I was at the party at all. But there was another part of me that was terribly exhausted and irritated. It dawned on me that the mild headache I had developed while I was out wasn’t generic. I realized that I had become quite skilled at ignoring what my body and mind were attempting to communicate to me (although it had become plainly obvious to my companion).

From then on, I made it a point to respect my own boundaries for socialization. I read a few articles about introversion and I learned that introverts generally prefer socializing in smaller groups or one-on-one. It was certainly the case for me. So, whenever I received an invitation for a larger get-together, if I didn’t have the energy, I would explain to my friends that I’d love to spend time with them but large groups could leave me feeling completely drained. I was grateful for the realization at the time, and as a result I was able to choose social settings that I found relaxing and invigorating. I even figured out what worked for me at big parties.

Now, I’ve found myself diving even deeper. 

What exactly is introversion? And in what other ways does it show up aside from the way we socialize? If changing the way I go out had that much of an impact on my wellbeing, what other areas of my life and my routine could I bring awareness to? And most importantly, why had I been so unaware that I was exhausted?

On recent a trip to visit my family, a book on the bottom shelf of a bookcase happened to catch my eye: The Introvert Advantage: How to Thrive in an Extrovert World. My sister, also an introvert, had used it as a reference to write a paper for school five years ago. I was quickly absorbed. 

A few things became apparent to me as I read the book and reflected on myself. First, when I think of what is ‘normal’ or ‘typical’ behavior— it is most often that of the majority of the human population. Extroverts outnumber introverts 3 to 1. 

Even after a long work week, some of my extroverted friends can go out to happy hour, dinner, and a party. They enjoy networking. Banter and debate are energizing. Bar hopping is a great time. Naturally, growing up, I thought I ought to learn how to enjoy all of these things too. If I was feeling a little low, it was because I wasn’t putting myself out there enough.

This was the very first myth that I busted.

In my view, the most intelligent thing we can do for our happiness and wellbeing is to pay attention to the signals that we’re constantly getting from within. 

Since I was a kid, I had felt uneasy in large group settings, including in many classrooms. In my twenties, I noticed over and over that despite having studied a topic at length and having a great deal to share, I struggled to explain verbally the wealth I had inside. There were so many instances I felt overlooked and ignored because I wasn’t able to keep up with the quick pace of a conversation. When I did speak up, it could feel forced and forceful. What I wanted to do was speak softly without interruption. Instead, it seemed that in order to be heard, I had to adapt myself to a world that was speaking loudly, quickly, even aggressively. 

Socializing and conversation— it all seems relatively harmless enough— after all there is a great deal to be gained by going outside one’s comfort zone. This was what I would tell myself in these situations. Yes, you might feel strained at times, but challenging yourself and taking on things that don’t come as naturally is healthy…right?  

The experience that night when I left the party early carried with it an important message— one that I only started to decode in its entirety relatively recently.  

We are not all the same.

It is a myth that if something is difficult or feels uncomfortable, you just need to try harder, practice. While some challenges are healthy, without realizing that as an introvert both my physiology and psychology predispose me to a temperment that is less common, I was constantly overexerting myself. Both my professional and personal life seemed to demand more than I could give. I felt exhausted and under-appreciated. As the patterns deepened, I felt worse. I started to feel that I didn’t have power to respond to people and situations in my life, that what I felt didn’t matter and that I didn’t have the option to decide what was best for me. 

That was exactly the reason why that night at the party I hadn’t even noticed that I was tired— I was so used to ignoring the signals. I was used to the feeling of being drained and stretched beyond my comfort zone. It might seem obvious to some, but I never knew that it was perfectly alright to stay in as often as I like; to spend many nights in a row reading, writing, contemplating. I also didn’t know that at work, I had the right to ask for the space and the time I need. I didn’t realize that it was ok to speak softly and ask people to stay with me when I took time to explain something. I didn’t realize that it was ok to be different. Or that there were a lot of other people who felt just like me. 

The Introvert Advantage, written by psychologist Marti Olsen Laney, is extremely useful, especially if you or someone close to you is an introvert. In it, Laney dispels a number of myths around introversion— including that introverts are shy or socially awkward (which both introverts and extroverts can be). Some of these myths are the reason I didn’t realize I was an introvert until my twenties. 

In one of the most interesting chapters she examines the physiological differences between an introvert’s brain and an extrovert’s. Using PET scans, researchers have been able to track the flow of neurotransmitters, which are the chemicals that relay messages across the brain. Of the dozens of neurotransmitters, there are ten that do most of the work. 

It’s relatively well known that the release of dopamine signals a pleasurable experience. When researchers examined the introverted brain, however, it was another neurotransmitter that was dominant in signaling pleasurable experiences: acetylcholine. When dopamine was released, the introverted brain did not need as much of it as extroverts did. For introverts smaller bursts of dopamine from external stimulation were satisfying; too much was quickly overwhelming. The extroverted brain on the other hand craved more hits of dopamine, and the release of acetylcholine was not pleasurable in the same way. 

Likewise, the pathway acetylcholine took in the brain was longer and slower and passed through the regions of the brain involved in contemplation, problem-solving, and long-term memory. Dopamine on the other hand took a shorter path through regions that process sensory inputs from sight, sound, touch, and taste, as well as short-term memory. It seems apparent from the differences in brain chemistry why introverts find time spent quietly and reflectively so rewarding, while extroverts are excited by external stimulation. It also explains why banter might come more easily to extroverts— the information in their short-term memory is more accessible via their shorter dopamine circuit. 

innie-outie-brains

Image from The Introvert Advantage: How to Thrive in an Extrovert World

Laney goes on to make more points in the chapter on other physiological differences between introverts and extroverts which result in additional key differences in temperament and behavior. It is well worth a read. It’s helped me understand that there is an entirely different ‘normal’ and it’s perfectly alright to be that way!

This process has been illuminating, to say the least. When you’ve spent your life convinced that you ought to be different than you actually are— it’s bound to result in tremendous frustration. I’ve had the fortune of realizing that qualities I thought were flaws are actually unique assets of mine. Introversion is a single example— I’m sure there are many other as of yet undiscovered facets of myself that will reveal themselves down the road.

 

A love letter

For Kevin.

When I came to visit you at your art studio that very first time, I was enamored. I still remember so well when you told me the name of your website. We were in front of the skeleton and I was standing to your right side. You tilted your head when you looked at me and said ‘lie to me harder’ with a twinkle in your eye. I knew then that I had never met anyone like you in my life.

I still vividly remember standing in front of the skeleton for the first time. Do you remember what I said? That it reminded me of Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase. It was a work I saw first in print back in grade school– I was probably 8 or 9. All the art I had ever seen until then was frozen in time. Mere attempts to capture an ephemeral moment, a fleeting rhapsody. But that one was different.

Do you remember when you brought your study of the Buddhist scripture from the temple on 8th St. out from under your drawing table? You showed me your attempts to translate what seemed to be incoherent sentences. You asked if I could make sense of them. I was in awe of your sincerity.

And do you remember when you asked me what I would do with my life if money wasn’t a thing? I gave you an answer then.

I am still, however, trying to answer that question– but with much more honesty and courage. It seemed to me that you weren’t merely posing a hypothetical question, like a brain teaser or a ‘would you rather’ scenario. For you it was real life. It was a question you were asking yourself, perhaps monthly or weekly. And it wasn’t that I’ve never been asked that question before, but rather that the person asking me has never been as true. As you.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve begun to understand why it’s ever more important to watch what people do, rather than what they say. We live in an age where it’s easier than ever to project an image: a click of a button or a swipe of a card can transform. Just as we can adorn our bodies, we can now also adorn our minds with information. But I want to ask: what’s the use if we are still unwise?

Wisdom. It’s hard to see, even in plain view.

Probably by design, I guess.

Your garden says otherwise about you, though.

In your studio, you offered me tea from your collection of loose leaf varieties stored in jars on a miniature bookshelf. You heated water in a kettle and poured it slow. It steamed inside the small clay pot. You served it to me in a blue and white porcelain cup.

I’ve never had tea like that.

For my sister, after the election

“Today, after the 2016 elections in the U.S., we are living out the example of what happens when what goes unacknowledged surfaces and it feels like a new reality but you know in your heart it is not. To suffer based on expectations is to live haunted and hunted. But we are fortunate. There could be no other answer to our meditation and prayers in dissolving hatred than to be placed front and center with it and be exposed. When a shift in a system has occurred, especially one that causes fear and discomfort, it allows for something strikingly different to appear, furthering our evolution as people. We can only know where we are going when we get there…

Our rage, pain, and anger are to be exposed if only for us to transform and mature with it. In Buddhist practice we say congratulations because now is the time we have been practicing for. No more just practicing the dance. We must now dance. And this is not a dress rehearsal.”  

Zenju Earthlyn Manuel

My sister Nadia is 18 years old and in her last year of high school. She lives in Florida with my parents, where we grew up in our family home on a tree-lined street in our sunny Tampa suburb. On November 8th, my sister sent me several photos of herself beaming in front of their local polling station. She had exercised her right to vote for the first time in her young life. 

Nadia is the first one in our family to have been born in the U.S. The rest of us are naturalized citizens. My parents are first generation Indian immigrants, and I consider myself something in between first and second generation— generation 1.5, if you will. 

There are a few things I know about my sister— like the fact that she took an entire extra year and half before applying for a learner’s driving permit, and that she isn’t all that concerned about grades or college. She’s respectful and kind. She’s a musician. She keeps a photo of a child from Syria in her bedroom. She sends me handmade postcards. What I admire in her the most is that she knows her priorities— she’s got laser beam targets on the things that matter to her, sees through bullshit like a boss, and she holds herself with the sort of confidence that make the rest of us wonder its source. 

On November 8th just a few short weeks after turning 18, she had the opportunity to exercise her rights as a citizen in a presidential election– one for the history books no less! This ballot even carried the name of the first woman running for president as a major party candidate (hat tip to Shirley Chisholm).  

It was a clear choice for Nadia when she showed up at the polling station. She had spent the past eight years of her life in a liberal echo chamber. Since age 10, President Obama had been in office— and despite growing up observing the consequences of bigotry and fear across the world, Nadia had mostly known the effects of what appeared to her to be a system that was mending itself. Reforms in the right direction, inclusiveness, a political discourse that was starting to make sense— a kerfuffle here and there, but positive movements overall, right?

So when I received a message from my mom the day following the election on November 9th, that Nadia was in tears and had come home early from school— I can’t say I was entirely surprised. 

Let the present state of the nation not be a surprise to any of us. 

I am grateful to be a citizen of a country where I do trust the political process. The election was free and fair. Despite 43% of the American population not voting— those who did cast their ballots have made a clear choice. That is what I told Nadia. That what we are seeing today is the honest-to-God truth. I would not have it any other way. 

Nadia, as real as your experience in life has been, half of this country has had the opposite experience— and their’s is every bit as legitimate as yours. I urge you to ask questions, and not make assumptions. They too have perspectives and stories that deserve to be heard. May you exercise your capacity to listen without judgement, just as you exercised your right to vote earlier this week. 

Nadia, I know those tears are a result of the hateful and ignorant words and actions of our nation’s President-elect. Again, I would not have it any other way. You will see as you get older, fear is the second most powerful force in the world. And out of fear, people will act with hate, with ignorance. There is a great deal of hate. Better it comes out in the open than be covered up where it can fester and spread deeper. There is no ignoring the wound when it is in plain sight. 

Nadia, you will find as you grow in self-awareness that there is also a great deal of fear within yourself. That the divide outside is nothing but a reflection of the inside. May that realization, whenever it comes, inspire even more understanding and patience. 

Nadia, know this— there is at least one person in the world whom you have moved with your love.

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A poem. For Rosario and Kevin.

Damn your honesty. Damnit.
Tell the soothsayers to go home. They’re not wanted here.
Don’t you ever utter those words. Not here. Not now.
You see, we didn’t have the heart to tell you.
When you arrived, the light was so bright.
So bright, it burned.

You.
You tumbled straight down from the sky.
Beauty so rare, the very heavens quivered with delight!
Who is this child?, they cooed.
O innocent one!, eyes filled with tears.
You will choke a thousand times.
On your own spit.
Crystalline eyes, and
Lips red like crow’s blood.

They will lie to you, child.
They will hold your face in their palms with the intention to deceive.
They will speak to you in absolutes,
But their actions will be murky.
They will say, “God blessed you.”
But at what cost?
There is always a cost, child.

Doubt.
A cradle, riddled with holes.
Seeds, sown in the sand.
An audience rapt, with disgust.
Dead men, walking.

Seer, you.
Sorry, you.
Silent, you.

This.
This elegant knotted throbbing mass of blood, sinew, and flesh– not owned but on loan.
A fistful of existence clutched fearfully to the chest.
A thread-bare delusion. A life-sized wrinkle.
An inconvenience.
What would you say if I could give you a glimpse of the beyond, O loved one?

O loved one.

Eyes that were made to see

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Rays of sunlight pierce through rainclouds over Kenyan farm country. Over Aberdares Mountain range, 2013.

“What is that you express in your eyes? It seems to me more than all the print I have read in my life.” Walt Whitman

Yesterday, someone proposed a beautiful idea to me that has changed the way I choose to view many of the actions of those around me and of my own.

I’m in a very interesting phase of my life– marked by transition, growth, and self inquiry. What have I learned in my life so far? What is important to me? What is my personal truth? And how does that crystalize into the life choices I make in the coming months and years?

At 21 there was perhaps only a single thing I knew for certain. A single truth in my existence: that I knew very little about life and the world at large. School had taught me a few things — and somehow looking back, I think the most valuable things I gained from 17 years in a classroom were not academic in nature but human, rather.

As a kid, I had caught a rare glimpse through the matrix– and I couldn’t ignore what I had seen. I had gazed long into what seemed murky, shifting waters, but once, I glimpsed the stillness underneath.

Let me explain.

As a child I had the feeling that we as humans have always searched for some truth to hold on and cling to. This truth might take any “form” — a person, an institution, a belief, a cause, an idea. The form is just a placeholder, a proxy for something far greater and more valuable– truth. Growing up I asked myself, ‘What can I put my full and complete trust in? What never changes its nature; is never subjective, situational, or conditional; never falters; never ends; never dies?‘ Because if there were such a truth, surely that would mark the end of this universal restlessness I was observing.

My personal attempt to understand what is true in this life is what led me to East Africa in 2010.

Another observation I had made growing up was that despite experiencing deep discomfort and a particular variety of torturous doubt — I perpetually felt like nothing was real and everything and everybody was an impostor, including me– facing adversity had helped me uncover some realities about myself, and about what my mind and body are capable of. I suppose that was the logic when I thought to myself, What is the hardest thing I could possibly do after graduating college? Could intentionally choosing to challenge myself show me truth, and hopefully in the process relieve my discomfort and doubt? Why do difficult things seem to open our eyes? And why can’t comfortable things do the same?

Again, I looked for evidence in the world around me. There seemed to be three sorts of people: those whose eyes were wide open, and those whose eyes were closed.

Those whose eyes were closed fell into two further categories– those who were attempting to open their eyes, an occasional fluttering of lashes, sincere, concerted attempts to wake; and those who chose to keep their eyes shut– resignation, numbness.

The lash flutterers, the restless, the truth seekers — the pursuit, the search– shallow or deep, depending on ones own capacity for courage; I knew them all too well.

And the resigned? I feared them deep down. Life’s breath and blood coursing through a corpse? I was young (and restless), I hadn’t given up yet.  I was terrified of becoming one of them.

But what of the ones with their eyes wide open? I couldn’t say I knew any, very well at least. But I knew of their existence. Are they real? Are they human? Are their eyes really wide open? And if so, how did they manage to open their eyes? What truth did they know that they rest of us didn’t?

The hardest thing I could imagine as a 21 year old was to move to a foreign country in a very far away part of the world where I was forced to challenge my every assumption, could take nothing for granted, and where I would have just my own self to rely upon– nothing more, nothing less. I hoped that if I walked outside with the courage to see reality as it is and try my hardest not to run, perhaps some truth might be revealed to me.

***

Yesterday, I had the great fortune of receiving some wisdom from a young teacher. Her name is Keri and twice a month at the Seattle Insight Meditation Society she offers groups of young people a chance to use creativity and curiosity to challenge their notions about what it means to be human. We do meditate together. But we also engage in insightful dialogue. A roomful of (mostly) strangers sharing some of their deepest and most treasured thoughts and emotions.

A young man in the group yesterday remarked how someone else can forcibly take anything from you, except your thoughts and emotions– those are two things which can only be offered willingly, and are therefore the most valuable things a person can offer to another. I could have hardly appreciated how rare and precious such a group is even just a couple of years ago.

The topic of the evening was generosity. Keri offered some provocative questions: ‘Could we try to look at generosity beyond the concept of the word or from a perspective outside of our respective cultural lenses? What is generosity actually? How do you receive generosity? And what prevents us from being generous?‘ She asked.

To offer something to another– be it a material object, a service, a favor, a hug or kiss, or to share a thought or emotion for that matter is an act of generosity. Even if that act is coming from a person who is fulfilling a role (for example, a mother feeding her child) or a person doing a job that she is paid to do. Keri explained that each and every thing that we offer to another is an act of generosity, regardless of whether we “feel” generous or giving in the process. We might feel mixed emotions or be unsure of our intentions while making an offering, this became apparent during the group discourse, but the action remains an act of generosity.

Generosity is something I have not understood and at times found uncomfortable in the past. I derive a great deal of joy in offering what I am able to those around me, especially my close friends and family– be it a gift, a homemade meal, a hug, a kiss, a joke, or a word of support or encouragement. What’s life if not to share these things? Simple acts of love. They make life worth living.

But I have also struggled with the idea of having the right intentions behind generosity– Do I sometimes give out of a sense of duty or obligation? Do I expect something in return deep down? What if my act of generosity is misunderstood or goes unappreciated? Will I make the recipient of my generosity feel obligated to reciprocate? When I am being paid, does my hard work count as generosity, or am I fool to do more than what is expected? Is there such a thing as being too giving?

I read a book a couple years ago called Give and Take by psychologist and professor Adam Grant, which brought me to tears. It’s the only piece of non fiction, aside from Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, that utterly moved me and created an irreversible change in my perspective. It did put to rest my fears about being too giving.

Keri however helped me see generosity itself in a completely new light– that we can be generous even when we don’t “feel” like it, that conflicting intentions can be separated from the act of giving. Like a painter or writer who sits down to create art even when inspiration has not yet struck, we can be generous even when we don’t feel it inside– the act of giving can inspire the emotion, the emotional connection can come second. This was truly a revelation.

Afterward I felt a tremendous amount of gratefulness towards Keri and the rest of the group. As I’ve grown older, I have also grown in my capacity to appreciate the things that, when I was younger, I only appreciated casually.

***

It’s shifts like these that cause our lashes to flutter. When we are ripe for understanding, the truth bursts forth, it’s unstoppable.

Today I know something else for certain–

That I have eyes that were made to see.

May we all grow in truth.

Introducing: Tales from the Deep (or A Retrospective Recounting of my African Debut) 

Balinese man in prayer at Hindu temple on Mt Batukar

Balinese men in prayer at Hindu temple on Mt Batukar

In 2010 at the age of 21, I graduated from college with a bachelors degree and moved to Zanzibar, a semi-autonomous island nation in the Indian Ocean, off of the Tanzanian coast.

Seventeen years spent in a classroom had left me starved for real life. Enough with theory, I wanted practice. 

Boy, did I get what I asked for. I spent the next few years as an ardent student of the School of Life, matriculating at classrooms in Zanzibar, Uganda, and Kenya, and accompanied by an unforgettable cohort of peers.

Within my first month in Zanzibar I pruned my long curly hair into a short boyish cut because I thought I could avoid catcalls on the street that way. I spent those days at the local hospital managing a research study on family planning and abortion. A year later, in Kampala, Uganda, my housemate Paul the OBGYN, would come home to share new tales from the maternity ward at Mulago Hospital, the same one featured in the Last King of Scotland. While riding to work one morning in Kampala, I was followed down the street by a tank with a soldier firing warning shots into the air– a clear message to opposition party supporters during election season. One chance August afternoon in Nairobi I found myself sitting across a table on a date with Sibongiseni Shabalala, a member of the South African a capella group, Ladysmith Black Mambazo. Within a couple of years, my work would take me from Rwandan maize fields to negotiations at the Ministry of Agriculture, all within the same frenzied day.

You really couldn’t make this stuff up.

The more I have thought about these past few years, the more I realized that I really ought to recount these tales in detail. This past year has marked a turning point in my perspective– these stories have started to provoke just slightly less emotion and a little bit more laughter. Thus, today marks my embarkation on a new set of vignettes for this blog I call– Tales from the Deep (or A Retrospective Recounting of my African Debut) .

Tales from the Deep could be considered, among other things, a coming of age story. I was after all just 21 when I first moved to Zanzibar; green behind the ears, a spring chicken, Dr Sultan called me.

As I first sat down to write this series, a quote by Robinson Davies came to mind: “There is absolutely no point in sitting down to write a book unless you feel that you must write that book, or else go mad, or die.”

I‘ve felt an unsettling gnawing from within for a very long while that I thought might be helped by writing, but did not know what to write or how to express the knotted tangle of thoughts, emotions, and experiences swirling in my mind. I thought perhaps a story, a work of fiction, could serve as a metaphor for the journey I have taken and would help me unload the volumes I have accumulated.

My attempts however, were shallow and felt to me entirely too contrived. It wasn’t until a trip I took to Indonesia in December last year where I encountered an Englishman, a fellow of 34 years, who had spent the past three years living in a Balinese village atop a mountain, that I realized fiction was entirely unesscesary– my reality without any embellishment was entertaining enough. Simon seemed to me like a 21st century Paul Gauguin (minus the paintings and death by syphilis). Replace banker from Paris with IT start-up guy from London, and Tahiti with Bali, and you have Simon.

Simon could recount to me endless stories of village life in Bali. He lives on a small farmstead on Mt Batukar in Bali’s Tabanan province, and runs an ecolodge where I stayed. He cares for a rescued Sumatran pig tailed macaque, and several dogs, cats, and ducks all of which he acquired purely by accident or happenstance. For example, his dog Walu, which means pumpkin in Balinese, he explained to me is a sacrifice dog who would have been otherwise slaughtered in a ritual had Simon not made him his own pet. Lola the macaque on the other hand, was poached from her jungle habitat and raised in a dress as a little girl by a childless lady before Simon adopted her. She has a grave aversion toward all women due to the early trauma she suffered in her monkeyhood– I can attest to her loathing.

Simon’s world ran tangentially to mine, however we differed in one critical way. His ability to not only see the comedy in his daily tribulations but also maintain a sense of wonderment long after the romance of Bali was no longer so fresh and the mundane had settled in was so very refreshing to me, and it was exactly the example I needed. I also needed the necessary distance from my time in East Africa to be able to understand it and comment on it from a slightly more neutral and removed perspective.

In fact, what being in Bali did for me was exactly what I had hoped for: I could suddenly see the past five years of my life through a new lens, and it started to make a little more sense. I suddenly had a moment when the immortal words of Johnny Nash rung loudly and clearly in my ears:

I can see clearly now that the rain has gone, I can see all the obstacles in my way.

Here’s to new beginnings and clarity. Stay tuned, my friends.