“Watching a coast as it slips by the ship is like thinking about an enigma. There it is before you, smiling, frowning, inviting, grand, mean, insipid, or savage, and always mute with an air of whispering, ‘Come and find out’.”
~ Joseph Conrad
The perspiration burning my eyes and rolling in tiny rivulets down my back seems to bother me little. And the view in front of me justifies the 19 hour flight which began my journey to this small, remote beach facing westward from an island into endless seas beneath a glorious sunset. I’ve yet to find the ends of this earth, or so I presume. But I hope and trust what I discover there instills in me the tranquility and peace I’m feeling as I perch in the sand, observing the endless changes in color as the sun steadily slips behind the horizon.
I vividly remember as a child exploring dry creek beds near my home – my favorites being those densely covered in bamboo – driven by an innate curiosity for discovery of the unknown. And nearly four decades later the same experiences and stirring of spirit would reawaken as we sped out of Bangkok into the Thailand countryside, marveling at thick canopies of rain forest and immense stands of elephant grass. Rutted, narrow dirt roads quickly disappeared at random angles into thick fauna behind weathered and shadowy huts lining the highway. I’d be less than honest if I didn’t admit to a desire for wanting to exit the highway and explore what lay within the thick canopy of grasses and rain forest, recalling the mock creek-bed reconnaissance missions of my childhood.
For many it remains a want for hope, a never-ending optimism that life can, and perhaps should, inevitably provide an opportunity to escape the tedium and pressure of merely living. In a perfectly fair world I’d argue this isn’t always justifiable, yet a tangible reward for a life well and fairly lived certainly is. And yet for some it transcends the restraints of time-lines, goals and rewards, instead forming the under-pinning’s of purpose and desire. For these restless and curious souls, the journey defines the purpose, relying on nothing more, or less, than the pursuit of an unrealized experience.
For those curious enough to seek and wise enough to act, there are experiences in life which simultaneously sooth and invigorate. And it is often these same experiences which bring a new and profound awareness, which once realized have us suddenly viewing our lives as lacking and inadequate. This does not have to be a situation to dread, of course, but it does necessitate the burden of decision making, determining the course of our lives from this point forward and aligning our actions with desirable outcomes . And so it was during the subsequent weeks upon returning home from my first journey to Southeast Asia, that I realized my energy and enthusiasm surpassed even that which I experienced while away. Buoyed with enthusiasm and sustained by possibilities, the realization gleaned from my experiences in a foreign land illuminated a life never before known by me, forever altering my thoughts and philosophy on how I should live out my remaining days.
“Not all those who wander are lost”
~ J.R.R Tolkien
I am frequently distracted with reflections of endless days, entirely unencumbered by the musings we deem appropriate for a life “properly lived”. This would of course explain my unrelenting willingness to relinquish employment and liquidate meager belongings, beginning anew on a remote island where concerns rarely stray beyond how best to catch and grill ocean fish, moderate beer intake and apply sufficient sunscreen. Such idealism can stand alone in the cosmos separating emotion from intellect, but when buttressed by external factors such as social disparagement and reactionary dogma, I’m thinking ideals enter the arena of necessity.
My own reconnaissance suggests that my idealistic thinking is perhaps viewed as irresponsible in our contemporary and overtly contemptuous society and, even worse, is by ever-increasing numbers symbolically associated with unpatriotic sentiment or civil disobedience. And yet even now, amidst this sea of baseless intolerance, there are those who claim it ironic that I associate my underlying source of frustration, disappointment and dissolution of faith in our collective ability to find tolerance and harmony as reason to seek more habitable surroundings elsewhere. These same folks are quick to advocate for “saving our country”, yet are steadfast in their unwillingness to sit down at the table of good faith and provide evidence which support their convictions.
This brings to mind the duality of human kind, often cited as the innate ability for each of us to possess both good and bad tendencies. If we accept this as the irrevocable nature of human-kind, then our mission should be no more complicated than this assertion. History is, of course, permeated with events which demonstrate the evil nature of those seeking malice against the better angels of society. We can – and do – find comfort in knowing that the better angels typically prevail, yet usually not without there first being Hell to pay.
The extraordinary provides content for front pages and history books, reflecting the essence of our instincts to recognize that which we fear most. Understandably but regrettably, the cost for this association is the subordination of evidence acknowledging good deeds, these being relegated to back-page filler material and ancillary information. Knowing this, perhaps we still have an opportunity to reflect on the angels of our nature and convene on behalf of logic and reason. But quite frankly, given how fear, anger, aggression and dogmatic political agendas have gripped our society, I don’t see us having this conversation. In our quest for happiness, as defined in our modern, consumer-driven culture, impatience has spawned intolerance, manifesting itself through an externalization of epidemic anger. From this volatile cocktail of human emotion, knee-jerk reactions and pseudo doctrine too often carry the day, and I’ve conceded my idealism to the reality of on-demand, reactionary and mock solutions. Our culture, and by extension society, no longer demands diligence of governance, and ignores the reason, justice and fairness of its actions. We are simply too pre-occupied.
“The greatest tyrannies are always perpetuated in the name of the noblest causes”
~ Thomas Paine
Curiously, my introspection finds no relevance to any of this in my decision to relocate somewhere off the grid. It does, however, underline the due diligence we must pay to monitoring how we choose to dispense time and energy. These days I certainly notice the goings-on of our world, but pay them nothing more than a passing glance as wisdom steadily guides me beyond the fray of a world I recognize even less with each passing year. This has less to do with a lack of caring, and is instead a realization that with the progression of time there is an ever diminishing relevance in the events which at one time clouded the lucidity of our perception.
Perhaps it is simply the process of aging, where the gradual distillation of information leaves behind a residue of wisdom and enlightenment. Youthful idealism generates its own perpetual energy, propelling us forward into the infinite depths of information and possibilities. It’s a wonderful time in life, when crossing the threshold of desire delivers us into the realm of possibility. And how unfortunate is it that, with time, life gradually softens the edges of our romantic visions. Looking back, I now recognize this evolution as being necessary for the preservation of mental acuity, yet at the cost of diminished and lost dreams, which certainly lessen the experience of what is otherwise attainable.
The human spirit is sustained by our innate desire to find contentment and happiness. These are qualities which most of us easily recognize without much thought, even if we scarcely realize the need. Perhaps it is both ironic and sad that a better part of our lives is behind us before we recognize the need to nurture the sustenance of our finer spirit. And isn’t this just the nature of being human? We replicate what we know and are taught about living, and then get on with the business of repeating the process through the next generation. This is a good life, one that is never questioned or scrutinized, worthy of recognition and deserving a pat on the back. “He is a good man” they probably say, and he undoubtedly is, yet for many of these good folks there is a hollowness to life which lacks explanation through accepted measures.
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“Surefire things are deadening to the human spirit”
~ Dorothea Lange
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Skimming across the rolling waves spanning the seven miles between mainland and our island destination almost seemed too quintessential to fully comprehend. Of course the Starbucks I was failing to balance in my hand due to the constant pitching of the boat as waves thrashed against its hull reminded me that I wasn’t entirely outside the tentacles of civilized society. Our Thai powerboat captain – obviously more businessman than tour guide – was clearly more interested in turning a quick Baht than sharing information on what was, quite frankly, some of the most beautiful scenery I’d ever seen. Gliding into a shallow cove, our captain skillfully slid the hull into powdery white sands which appeared to encircle the island. I canvassed the shoreline from the open bow, quickly realizing this was not somewhere too many folks ventured too. Wanting with all my will to experience a Crusoe-worthy moment, all hope was dashed as my eyes focused on a small but neatly arranged collection of sun umbrellas, two or three wind-battered beer signs and a loose assortment of weather-worn beach furniture. I consoled myself somewhat with the thought that, surely, even Crusoe and Cook must have enjoyed a bitter Ale after a full day of exploring.
Late in the afternoon we are rolling across an undulating, narrow roadway of hand-laid brick on rented moto-bikes, venturing deeper into the island’s interior, ever curious as to what lies around the next corner, over the next hill, within the shadows beneath the jungle’s canopy. Even here, I thought, I’m trying to escape over roads laid by those who came before me. Cresting a hill near the island’s center, I find the area essentially barren of human activity. (Apparently the locals knew something about this place that we didn’t, or were simply too preoccupied with more pressing issues than piddling away the afternoon). I stop on a narrow shoulder separating the road from thick, dark forest, and walk beyond my peripheral view of our brick pathway. We continue walking and soon find a small area of the forest illuminated by grey sky. The island’s sloping topography provided a narrow window through the canopy above where we could view the horizon beyond us, as though scanning for land through the portal of a small sailboat. I look north into the gulf and gaze upon a small island, surrounded by an ocean of reflected sunlight diffused through thick, moisture-laden clouds. “This,” I whispered to no one, “is getting closer.”
“You can’t recover memories of a missing event”
~ Betty Hill
I’ve often attempted reconciling fantastical dreams against the realities which – inevitably – surface once inserted into the frenetic experiences of actually living, and the realization that fantasies often implode under the pressure of harsh realities. And yet we continue – unabated – as casual interlopers into the realm of fallacy and false promise. My own experience tells me this is not a conscious decision to entertain unattainable ambitions and – perhaps more revealing – reveals a quandary of what human nature desires, and the finite capacity of life to deliver the goods. And so the natural progression extends the obvious question – just what is it that we desire?
Critics and the cynically dispositional are quick to say dreamers and fantasizers are “running from something”. Experience tells me this is not a universal maxim. And though I’ve no intention of pissing people off, this dismissive attitude regarding moving beyond what we are familiar with is often nothing more than defensive posturing, and entirely ignores a reality that is far more attainable than many realize – or wish to consider.
Not so long ago my sweetheart and I were sitting on the deck of Bigg’s, which overlooks Montego Bay and is a popular destination on the northern coast of Jamaica. This was a moment I consider worthy of being categorized as a near-idealistic experience. All the components were in place; a setting sun reflecting off the Caribbean, my beautiful girl beside me, sipping tea while enjoying a breeze cooled by the sea, a beautiful view awash in rays of sun colored by thick clouds hovering closely overhead. There was not much that could be added to enhance the experience, regardless of who’s fantasy we might call upon if trying to build a comparable moment to remember. The only anomaly might have been the mix of American Pop and Classic Rock music playing over the outdoor sound-system, but this I suppose was a concession to the clientele most often filling the chairs scattered across the deck.
Returning from an evening boat tour of the bay that same day, we again stopped into Biggs before returning to our hotel only a few blocks away. Within a few moments we were joined at our table by both Mr. Bigg’s himself and our boat captain from the bay tour. We quickly discover that both were expats from America. Curious by nature, and of the possibilities of living abroad, my sweetheart and I quickly – and shamelessly, I might add – engaged both in a conversation about living, working and conducting business in Jamaica.
The conversation that evening would not have provided the cynically inclined much to support their contention that those living abroad are trying to either escape the realities of home or quell the demons residing in their conscience. Nah, nothing like that ever came up. What we did discover is that these two gentlemen (and they are gentlemen) are true entrepreneurs, residing and conducting business in a part of the world they discovered while pursuing their own travels years earlier. And they will quickly tell you that doing business in this part of the world is not always easy, that it would be more business friendly if done differently, and yet, despite these realities, continue to feel comfortable as American’s doing business in a foreign country. And no, they were never trying to “escape or run away” from anything, but instead were “running towards” something they found attractive and seductive.
I mention this because I’ve no interest in burying my head in the sand – regardless of beach, sand box or land-fill – and pretending that “escaping” is not the intention of many whom choose to reside in a part of the world outside their native land. I’ve met several while traveling, and quickly surmised that these folks were less than stellar characters. Many are simply down on their luck and looking to reinvent themselves. Others are single-minded, shallow, dishonest, lacking substance, bereft of integrity, unable to grasp reality and, quite frankly, downright scary. These are not the good-natured characters most of us would want to spend our discretionary time with. And though at times I find them oddly fascinating, it is quickly evident that most of these souls no longer reside in their respective home-lands because, to put in plainly, they don’t play well with others. But these examples, if we must affix labels, are the anomalies in a much larger population group preoccupied and engaged in the act of travel and exploration.
So we run towards the unknown, believing, trusting, …… hoping that within its corridors we may find that which has eluded us thus far. It is probably foolish to think we all seek identical outcomes, yet equally foolish to not recognize the shared commonalities which exist for us all that underlie and fuel our passion for discovery. Is it really a mystery why, or is it unrealistic to expect that – at some point, anyway – we simply want a new perspective?
We’ve lived – and aged. This, I will argue, is good. It means we’re survivors, having experienced the harsh realities endemic with the passage of time – and then simply kept moving forward. Hopefully the experiences were processed for the purpose of creating an asset – wisdom, for example – which may assist us in living a richer and fuller life. Hopefully…. If nothing else they taught us how to live while being miserable, and still keep living.
Life’s setbacks begin with scraped knees and broken bones, progressing to wounded pride, damaged egos and attacks on our delicate self esteem. For many, there is a the added blow of disillusionment. And we rarely, if ever, stop to ask why. We may acknowledge the strikes against us, but will never admit – or understand – the depth of the wounds. The former, I suppose, is acknowledgment of that which may hurt us, while the latter is set aside as that which may clutter our capacity for quickly administering to life’s demands. Life is a never-ending quandary, a journey of peril and uncertainty interrupted on occasion by joy and euphoria and, if we are lucky, enough time to reflect upon our experiences and find purpose and meaning – or to just take it all in and marvel at the chaos…….
“To be everywhere is to be nowhere”
Rolling north along Highway 101 we cross the border between California and Oregon. Up here the lines between winter and summer are blurred, the ebb and flow of seasons deviating from what a calendar would otherwise suggest. Coastal fog shrouds the highway and clings to the tree-line, obscuring the depth of the Redwood forest beyond. Recessed into a small turn-out on the coast side of the highway, a barely visible sign identifies a trail-head. As we enter a trail it is impossible to ignore the steady sound of heavy drops of water falling to the forest floor. Damp coastal fog carried by an on-shore breeze follows a meandering path through the trees before collecting on branches, needles and leaves, pooling heavily before attracting the pull of gravity. The process is steady, unrelenting, fascinating and distracting. It’s wet out here.
We walk to a sea cliff without at first noticing. Beneath us we hear the ocean crashing against the shoreline. Thick, wet fog obscures what we suppose would otherwise be a spectacular view. After several minutes I notice myself becoming impatient, quickly progressing into irritation. What the Hell is this? I’m asking myself. Not in reference to the wall of fog obscuring everything in our midst, but to the emotions I’m experiencing as I stand in one of the most beautiful places on earth. Where did this come from? I continue my unscientific inquiry into the most cynical recesses of my psyche. It’s as though I was standing at the ends of the earth, awaiting mother nature to grace me with something worthy of marvel, to be entertained, and the procession wasn’t measuring up to my expectations.
There was no mystery to unravel, no layers to peel back revealing a mystical system of emotions and intellect that had gone awry in the face of nature’s bounty. Nope, my little outburst was simply a manifestation of long-term stress, frustration and yes, some ever-evolving disillusionment. As we do, I’m getting older, and though I’ve long forgotten what my youthful idealistic vision of life had projected for me, I’m certain I’ve not achieved the objective. But more importantly, I now realize that at this point in my life I want something different than what I’ve grown accustomed to, the routine, the ‘norm’. And the truth is I have a good life and feel very fortunate, yet realize there comes a time when it’s okay to step out of line and untether ourselves from that which quietly anchors us to established, unfulfilling patterns. It’s time to acknowledge and administer to the growing pains.
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We continue exploring the coastline on narrow trails, ducking beneath ferns and canopies of branches. Entering a clearing we notice the fog has began to clear, revealing a large cove with several arched rock formations. The sun, no longer diffused and obscured, provides color, depth and contrast to what was only moments earlier a vague and impenetrable setting. The blurred backdrop was now the center-piece, and clarity now displaced any ambiguity of the unknown. And then I notice the peculiar sensation of relief, as though a burden had somehow quickly faded away. If I were more clever I could pull the quintessential metaphor from this, but to be honest can only speculate and am otherwise at a loss to explain it. Sadly, it is perhaps simply feeling the effects of finally getting what I expected in the midst of dealing with on-going frustration.
In our quest to find reason it seems easy enough to quickly dispatch an analogy that superficially justifies our behaviors and reasoning. Unfortunately these knee-jerk analysis rarely expose the underlying sources of our discontent, and even less of the direction towards serenity. Such cursory reflections are as hopelessly insufficient at finding truth as are the temporary getaways we undertake in our futile attempts to escape the machine of modern civilization. New tactics are required, necessitating the willingness and courage to make permanent changes.
Perhaps we should also employ new analogies and perspectives. For example, our peace and serenity may have little to do with geographic location, and may be entirely obtainable with a shift in disposition and a proper state-of-mind. The classic “paradigm shift” of course. But even here, I would argue that in most circumstances a change in scenery and atmosphere would prove entirely beneficial in fast-tracking our respective transitions. Our unsatisfactory disposition, or displeasure with how things are, requires breaking free from the restraints that hinder us from seeing and moving forward. And these restraints are disguised as many things, frequently being devices – or vices – used by us as a tool for the purpose of distraction.
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“All that we are is the result of what we have thought”
My youthful fascination with discovery and mystery has undoubtedly been tarnished and curbed by the un-pleasantries and realities of living in an often callous world. Time has taught me that the business of living can, at times, be a brutal endeavor. And I now realize my early fascination for discovery was sustained by the mystery of the unknown, where ignorance provided infinite possibilities within the imagination of an inexperienced traveler. Conversely, these days, with a new destination comes the realization that any foregone assumption I consider to be true will likely be proven false, and surpassed by each new discovery. Out of necessity I’ve matured, realizing it’s okay and prudent to relinquish the innocent ideals of imagination in favor of patience, knowing the authentic experiences of first-hand encounters will quench our desire for discovery. Yes, we frequently attain wisdom through unpleasant experiences, yet what we gain is insight into that which we most value and are willing to strive for.
Within an our of leaving the Suvarnabhumi air terminal outside of Bangkok I was reliving a part of my childhood. Reminiscent of the bamboo-lined creek beds near home, I attempted in vain to see beyond the bamboo and elephant grass crowding the fields and roadside. It was both reassuring and surreal, strangely familiar, and as comfortable as being home – though my actual residence was several thousand miles away. These feelings would persist – and grow – in the subsequent weeks as I continued exploring this foreign land. Weeks later, standing in the boarding area waiting for a return flight, I remember feeling the despair of leaving what I’d grown to love.
It was more than simple fascination or preoccupation one feels when experiencing something different and new. Quite unexpectedly, what I found was genuine, and something I had unknowingly been seeking for several years. I was surprised to realize that without immersing myself in time and exposure outside my realm of familiarity, I would have never realized the need for new environs. Had I not been invited to visit a land that I had little interest in prior to my arriving there, I might still be seeking the source of my discontent. I had found something that agreed with me, and I with it.
These days I realize what I desire, more than anything, is a continuance of experiences more suitable to my disposition. And some down time….. More specifically, the simple pursuit of living and observing, reflecting upon our existence and life experiences, attempting to understand how it all collaborated to embody us as the unique individuals we have become. This is not a noble pursuit into the profound, and can probably be resolved within the time-line of consuming a few brown ales. But it is consistent with where I am in my life and, I believe, where most of us arrive at some point in life – if we are being honest with ourselves.
I’ve no idea where my destiny lies, though I know of a place I’d likely begin my quest. At this point it’s too early to make a final decision, though I doubt a determination of any rigidity, or permanence, is actually possible. After all, the objective is to release the tether, so why discard one link only to lace on another? And perhaps destiny is a fluid existence, a dynamic vehicle not intended to stand still. And it is this fluidity, a continuum of ever-changing and unpredictable events, which so many find irresistible, particularly within the final quadrant of life.
I want to look beyond the waves of repetition and peer into the unknown waters beyond. It is the act of seeing beyond our immediate concerns which initiates the freeing of mind and spirit, mobilizing the innate but latent energy which, if allowed, will guide us to happiness and contentment. Even writing this sounds idealistic and naïve, yet this too is probably an outcome of decades of social conditioning intended to make us “successful”. This is okay, but let us recognize it for what it is and be wiling to ask if the parameters remain valid and useful throughout our lifetime. For me, they haven’t for a long time.
It’s not easy letting go of what we have grown accustomed to. This is particularly true of ideas, habits and beliefs we’ve relied on to provide our sustenance. But I’ve realized that change is inevitable. My values and priorities have evolved, and continue to do so. Setting aside past practices alone will not avail us to new opportunities and realities. We must also dismiss outdated thinking, which tends to guide our behavior. It’s a powerful duality which can be a beast to overcome if we’re not prepared for the task.
So are we ready to change direction? Are we prepared for an undertaking which requires us to reconsider essentially everything we consider normal? I honestly believe most of us are not willing or capable of doing so. It’s simply too much to ask, either as an effort or foray into the unknown. I have a first-hand understanding of these realities due to my similar struggles, yet now realize my unwillingness to change created an even larger, more insurmountable entity. This of course is the profound disillusionment and unhappiness discussed earlier.
Desire and fear are emotions with a shared potential of unlimited energy. The motives of each may be different, yet we have at our discretion the ability to harness and direct the shared energy. How each of us choose to proceed is unique in both need and motivation. Perhaps then the process is also unique in its complexity. If this is true, is it fair to say that each of us has the opportunity to choose our destiny? Energy can restrain us, hold us down against our will, banishing all thought of stepping through the threshold of what life would be if given a choice. Conversely, energy can drive us, push us beyond self-imposed limitations, creating possibilities and options available only to those with resolve, purpose and direction.
Quite frankly I don’t know what I’m capable of. I’m not certain I even know what is possible if I were to actually undue the shackles restraining me to life as I’ve known it for the past three decades. I suppose this can either excite me or scare the Hell out of me, and which emotion I choose to follow is in itself probably revealing. And though most I’ve spoken with share my uncertainty, I take little comfort in knowing I’m in the majority when I currently reside in the category of restless, bored and disillusioned. I know many share my disposition, but why are so many unwilling to change when the circumstances of life have changed around them?
What I do know is I’m preoccupied with the idea of moving on. More than a curiosity, it’s a never-ending desire to rediscover the fascination and wonder which consumed so many years of my young life. Buried beneath the demands of adult life lie the necessities of adventure and exploration, probably linked in some way to survival and renewal. The need for new challenges is real and tangible. The activity of pursuing new objectives provides a life-giving vitality, often revealing its spirit through passion and creativity. Perhaps what I seek is more than change, and is in reality nothing less than engaging in the very purpose of life itself. I truly hope so, as I can live with that.
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