Connection

A couple of months ago, I moved to Phnom Penh, Cambodia and felt again that great rush of excitement as any new chapter reveals itself. This excitement hasn’t dissipated – it’s been an incredible experience so far. But it’s also been accompanied by a sense of real isolation from friends and family.

I am living alone for the first time in about 6 years. My friends are constantly posting photos of their lives in places that are not Phnom Penh. And for the first time, I’m starting to see really big changes happening within my immediate family – new members are being ‘recruited’ or born, homes are changing and we are all ageing. It’s provoked in me some existential questionings – if I’m feeling isolated, am I where I am supposed to be? Am I making the right life choices? Would I be better off abandoning my love of life abroad to return to my Australian roots? (i.e. What am I doing with my life?!?)

Last week I visited Germany for a close friend’s wedding. It was also a chance to rendezvous with Brighton-based Michaelle in Munich. We took a morning walk through the city. We sat at a cafe and over a spritz, we talked. We really talked. She listened and I talked. I talked and she listened. We talked about our relationships, our work, our families, our fears and our ever evolving philosophical ponderings. We could have continued just talking for hours, if I didn’t have to catch a flight.

Having returned to Cambodia, the fears I felt have started to ease and not because anything has actually changed, but because it felt so good to talk, to feel listened to and to feel understood by someone so close, someone who could relate. I felt real connection. ‘One of the most beautiful qualities of true friendship is to understand and be understood,’ said Senaca. And so I question whether the source of our fears might sometimes stem not solely from our problems themselves, but largely from the fact that we feel our problems go unknown to others, that they are un-shareable, and therefore that we are not understood, that we are alone.

It was a blessing then to see Michaelle in Munich, a reminder of the depth of our own friendship and how incredibly important friendship is. It was also a personal reminder that it’s so important invest time in the great friends and family I have regardless of the geographical distances between us, because feeling understood, feeling connected, feeling loved is so undeniably fundamental to feeling well.

Quality friendship helps ameliorate those seemingly un-shareable fears and it replaces them with perspective – nothing is more important, in my opinion, than the good we bring into the lives of the people around us and that starts just by listening. So for getting up at 3am to catch a flight into Munich, ‘just’ so we could talk, thanks Tauson.

Reunited over spritz in Munich

Reunited over spritz in Munich

The Best of 2014

We started this blog in May 2014 when Michaelle was living in Bangkok, Rachel was living in San Fransisco, and Jennie in Rwanda. Now eight months later, Michaelle is in Brighton, Jennie moved to Tanzania and Rachel is keeping us represented in Bangkok (the place we all met).

To celebrate the fantastic year of 2014, we thought we’d do a joint Christmas post looking back on the highlights of year, what we’ve experienced and learnt.

We always hope that by sharing our experiences we are creating a space where people, especially people away from their families and homes of origin, can find some reassurance, comfort, empathy, or just some amusement. We hope you have been enjoying our random posts this year and will keep up with us in 2015, we promise to get into loads of trouble, maybe even jump out of an airplane again.

Without further ado, The Best of 2014!

The most valuable thing I learnt

Michaelle: It was the year of learning, but I guess the number one thing I learned is that life has a way of working itself out; the answer presents itself eventually to all perceived problems. This year I am going to try to keep that in mind instead of worrying so much!

Jennie: It was without doubt the best year of my life for new learnings, but the most valuable thing I learnt must be that it’s never exclusively a bad thing to find yourself in a difficult situation. With some determination and courage, hardships can open up doors to fantastic new opportunities and possibilities.

Rachel: I’ve lived in three countries this year – Australia, the United States and Thailand. This experience exposed me to three very different cultures, very different communities of people and the very different values and beliefs of individuals living very different lives. What I’ve learnt is that our interests (and our obsessions) are not a given; we weren’t born with them, we were born into them – they are largely shaped by the environments in which we live. This is not surprising, but what is surprising is that despite the circumstantial (and therefore, arbitrary) shaping of our own values and beliefs, we cling to them with conviction, so much so that we often cannot identify with contradictory or differing perspectives. Many of us are willing to openly persecute, vilify or denigrate others to defend our own perspectives. Of course, civilized disagreement is good – it can lead to healthy debate, the readjustment of our thinking and ultimately, the advancement of human consciousness. My point is that we are pretty bad at adjusting our perspectives and even more simply, at respecting different ones. In 2014, I’ve witnessed the “great human disconnect” (which is arguably made worse communication technologies and social media platforms that seem to fortify communities of shared values). The most valuable thing I’ve learnt then is that at least on a personal level, I’ve really got to work on my listening skills.

2014’s Most Unexpected

Michaelle: I never would have expected to gain a brand new family. In 2014 I was so welcomed into the Palestinian-Syrian refugee community in Bangkok  and  I never could have expected so much love from a group of people. Also, after having faced a war in Syria and innumerable hardships in Bangkok, you could never imagine how much love they still have to give. They make me believe in the good in the world and I am proud and inspired by their strength.

Finding family everywhere

Finding family everywhere

Jennie: Everything about 2014 was unexpected. I started it off rather miserable, having recently split with my fiancé, more or less unemployed and temporarily living with my parents in a snowy and dark Sweden. I remember watching the fireworks on my own on New Year’s Eve – my parents at a party and my guests already home with their two small children. The future seemed a tad gloomy.

In the midst of it all, I had this nagging gut feeling telling me that I needed to go back to Rwanda for a volunteer opportunity. I didn’t have much money and no real plan B, but went anyway. Now, a year later, I’m looking back on 2014 and seeing some of the best times of my life. I have made a ridiculous amount of new friends, many which I’ll keep for life, and I’ve landed a dream job in Tanzania.

This New Year’s Eve, I spent in Dar es Salaam cooking up a storm with three (2014 new) good friends. I couldn’t be happier.

Jennie nye 2013

NYE 2013, not quite the party we had this year.

Rachel: Late one Monday night, I was lost in Los Gatos, California, with Terry Hershner. There was almost no charge left on his electric motorcycle – our only mode of transportation on a public holiday in this small isolated city. Cold, hungry, grumpy, lost, we stumbled across the only bar in town showing any sign of life – a group of beautiful, middle-aged women enjoying the remnants of a lavish meal. The restaurant had closed, but out of kindness, these women invited us to join their table and before we knew it, we were the centre of their attention, eating their leftovers, drinking their wine and sharing stories of our journeys across California on Terry’s electric motorcycle. This was the night I met Durga, an Indian, cricket playing venture capitalist with a gapingly open heart and open mind. After we’d finished eating, she invited us back to her house and almost 24 hours later, several Indian meals later, we were still there, sharing stories, exchanging beliefs and how we each hoped to impact the world. It was the most unexpected encounter of my life to date and it’s a day I’ll never forget. I think of Durga often and how wonderful it is to live so openly and without judgment to the strangers around us.

I spent too much time worrying/thinking about…

Michaelle: Men. They take up entirely too much time. On top of that, I have the worst taste in men. If I were the statue of liberty my sign would read “Give me your passive aggressive, your emotionally unavailable, your masses of idiots”. I have no general solution on the topic, however.

Jennie: Contract extensions. Job applications. Written tests for jobs. Job interviews. Those stupid things I said in job interviews. Hearing back from job interviews. Whether or not I would get job A, B or C and move to X, Y or Z. Whether or not I would die unemployed and penniless of exhaustion.

Rachel: I want to help create educational resources for kids. At some point in the process of creating these resources, I started to question my own motivation  – was I doing this because I believed in the cause, or because I wanted to prove myself and my own capabilities? I had definitely taken a fairly significant stand in moving away from the UN system to go it on my own. But was this about ego or conviction? Once the idea entered my head, I found it hard to erase and I could not easily separate these two driving forces. In the end, worrying about this has held me back from doing something important. As Mark Twain famously penned, “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” There is no point stalling. In 2015, it’s time to start creating.

I particularly remember this one happy moment…

Michaelle: I was getting into bed one night in Bangkok in the flat I shared with a wonderful woman named Erin. I yelled goodnight to her through my open door into the neighbouring kitchen. She responds with, “Did you just say I love you?”

“Haha, no,” I said, “but I do!” And we started saying I love you before bed each night. It sounds ridiculous, I know, but it always felt like a real home there, and when you are so far from your roots, it is all you need.

Jennie: 2014 was the year of road trips. I think it was in September, three good friends and I travelled up to Musanze and Burera in Rwanda. We found some stunning spots with views over lakes, mountains and volcanoes. We took silly photos of ourselves surveying the lands and came up with inside jokes we’re still laughing about. We ate home-made pasta at a small Italian restaurant, drank tequila shots and played semi-drunken “would you rather”. Having recently gotten a new job, I knew I’d soon have to leave beautiful Rwanda and these friends behind. Rather than feeling sad, it made me appreciate the time we had together so much more.

jennie tanzania

Rachel: I was in Barcelona on the Feast Day of St Joan, the start of Summer and the longest day of the year for the Spaniards. It was also my final day in Spain after a three week holiday. I remember reflecting on my state of mind and I realized that I could not remember feeling happier than I had over those past few months and especially those past few weeks holidaying in Spain. My happiness was tied to the beautiful company, the weather, the tastes and smells of Spain and then also the perfect dosage of alone time for necessary contemplation and appreciation. As I wrote then: “It’s late and I’m sitting beside an 85 year old women in a wheelchair who is drinking wine and laughing her head off. I don’t understand a word she says. Sometimes I fear that I’ve reached peak happiness. Watching her tonight, and with all that lies ahead, I doubt that could be true. So with firecrackers all around, salud to you Espana, for reminding me that happiness is always right here right now and that life – for it’s a jagged edges – is beautiful.”

Three people I would like to thank and why

Michaelle: There are too many. Can I group them into threes?

1.Fouad, Shouaq, Ibrahim for helping me with my PhD and becoming my family.

2. Dave Green and Erin Bodnar for emotionally supporting me through a super tough year.

3. Jennie and Rachel for always, always listening.

There are too many more people to thank and I am so grateful for all of them.

Jennie: I will only mention two: Michaelle and Rachel. Although I could easily write a 10 page essay about why, I will settle with them just being there, every step of the journey, always. Crying with me, laughing with me, telling me off, giving me advice and letting me do the same for them.

Rachel: Aside from Jennie and Michaelle, you have become like sisters to me, here’s mine:

Terry. In 2014, I spent two months with the wonderful Terry Hershner, helping promote the film Kick Gas and also learning a lot more about electric vehicle technology from one of the greatest EV enthusiasts in the world. Intellectually, Terry is far superior to me – I could not pretend to keep pace with his brilliant mind. Nonetheless, we have a beautiful connection and he has a beautiful heart. For all that he hopes to achieve in pushing electric vehicle technology and for all his crazy ideas, I admire Terry immensely. My life is richer simply for having met him.

Azin. Michaelle and I were playing tinder one night in Bangkok when Azin popped up as a match. She grabbed my phone and starting texting him. We met Azin that night and while he was only passing through the city and looking for friends to meet, for us, this was anything but a momentary passing. Since we met in July, I’ve come to regard Azin as one of the greatest listeners I’ve ever known. He’s also one of the most driven and most ambitious. For the something within that drives his entrepreneurial spirit, Azin has inspired in me a greater confidence in my own capability.

Ibrahim. If my year has been wild and carefree, Ibrahim’s has been the complete opposite. Some people have real problems and I am not one of them. But some of those that do have the inner resilience to not only overcome real challenges in their personal lives, but to pull the rest of us along with them, empowering us and inspiring us too. Ibrahim doesn’t judge a soul and in his humility and openness, he inspires me to be a better person. I don’t believe it’s coincidence that he and I have crossed paths in this life. Ibrahim has taught me a lot about the real challenges of so many in this world and about human connection.

Rachel and Terry on their many adventures

Rachel on one of her many adventures

2014 described with three words

Michaelle: Challenging. Eye-opening. Over (thankfully).

Jennie: Metamorphosis. Friendship. Adventure.

Rachel: Painful. Exhilarating. Joyous.

Michaelle's 2014 summarized here.

In Summary: Michaelle’s 2014

What I’m looking forward to in 2015

Michaelle: Finishing my PhD, writing a book, the conflict ending in Syria. I also hope to just go with it a bit more this year, I am on the right path, this much I am certain, I just need to stay on it and enjoy the ride.

Jennie: Seeing my parents again after more than a year and taking them on an epic holiday through East Africa: gorillas, safaris, craters, beaches, mountains and lakes. Showing them where I’ve lived and where I’m living, watching them also fall in love with these stunning places. It’s long overdue.

And while 2014 was a year of personal growth, transformation and change, I think 2015 will “institutionalise” these changes, slow things down and make the ride a bit more comfortable. Yet not any less fun!

Rachel: In 2014, I existed like a feather in the wind, floating by observing the lives of those around me, and occasionally getting sucked into them. I’ll be 30 in 2015 and I consider that an age of marked maturity and a time to transition from the role of passive student to proactive instigator. I’m feeling wiser for my wild and carefree 2014 and I think I needed this year off to reevaluate my values. Floating through so many very different communities in so many different countries has been critical to this. Ultimately it’s strengthened the convictions I’ve always held and with a stronger sense of self, I’m excited to see what I’m capable of creating.

In Memory

This piece was performed at the Bangkok Poetry’s Event entitled “In Memory.” It was held May 22nd at WTF Gallery in Bangkok. The audience turnout was low due to the coup, so I thought to share it here.

Earlier this month, a friend of ours was killed in Cambodia. What struck me so hard about losing her was that, while I only knew her from a few encounters, quite a few years back, I felt her loss very strongly. My sense of loss was so intense that it got me questioning what really makes a memory? When I saw the “In Memory” theme come up just a few days after, I felt compelled to write and perform something in her honour. I am not much of a writer or a performer, but I felt the need to do something. So this is for Daphna Beerdsen and her daughter Dana. May they live on, not in our memories, but in our DNA.

“In Memory”

I don’t care for this term, this idea that we carry people in our minds after they leave us, it just doesn’t sit well with me.  You see, memory is the retrieval of encoded and stored data from the hippocampus located in the temporal lobe of the brain.

The way I feel when I think of the people that I have lost, I am sure that this description is less than sufficient.

Every day, in one way or another, we interact with 100s, maybe thousands of individuals- all day, every day, for most of us- from grocery store clerks to fellow commuters. This does not even take into account friends, family and acquaintances.

We see people, we hear people, and receive numerous electronic messages from people all day long, every day. Roughly, if you were to add it up, you would count, at minimum, 40,000 encounters a year. At the end of our lives we will have experienced millions and millions of interactions with other humans.

I have come to realize over the years, that when you interact, in anyway with someone, whether you pick up their change on the side of the road, yell at them for jumping the queue, or tell them your life story, you make them a part of you. What I mean by this is that these interactions shape us, they build us, as if they were restructuring our entire DNA sequence, whether we remember these individuals or not. These interactions are embedded in our subconscious forever, resulting in how we see the world.

With all these interactions, we remember some so strongly. THAT “data” is stored in the conscious mind, but for others, these encounters will slip by unnoticed. By this logic, if every interaction is life changing, and so damn important, why do we only remember a select few?

Now, over the course of my life I have lost many people, in one way or another, just due to prolonged travel, arguments and obstinance, and when people leave this life for good. What I have come to realise is that, when these people leave us, we can hold onto memories, and that is all well and good. We can retrieve all kinds of encoded and stored data: names, faces, laughs, smiles, acts of kindness, conversations, etc. But for those that we miss the most, is it the remembering itself that causes us so much anguish? Or is there something else?

In life there are times when you truly let someone in, when you are truly open to people, whether you interact with someone on a continual basis or just once. What’s left when they’re gone is more than a memory, more than data. There are these people that are open to us, that let us in, that let us take parts of them, even though the risks are great. These people will receive you, they invite you in. You don’t have to know them for long, sometimes you can spend a night drinking with them, or meet them on a long bus ride. These people are open, and ready to let you transform their DNA, for better or worse. And when this happens, they don’t just remain in your brain, they take over your whole heart and soul.

This openness, it is the key, it brings us together, it elucidates the infinite connections all around us, it reminds us that no matter where we are from, or what we are carrying around, we are connected. These people mark your soul and permeate your being. When these people leave your presence, something remains behind and it is not a damn memory, it is so much more.

The thing about memories is, they fade. When your brain no longer needs the stored data it shifts it just out of your reach to make space for things like Katie Perry’s song lyrics and other useless information. That, however, does not mean the indelible mark that people leave on your heart and soul will ever go away. Under this logic you can change the world by kindness, compassion and, by opening your heart, by not being afraid to give a piece of you away with every encounter. By doing this you will receive love in return, which will fill the void and that is the connection that makes life worth living, and that is what you are leaving behind.

And so to Daphna, and all the others that have left long before I wish they would have,

I am sorry, you will not live on in my memory, my data encoding and storing hippocampus will let you go one day, but you will live in every part of my heart and soul. I hope keeping a part of you here on earth is ok with you because you left behind a lot with me and with everyone else who was lucky enough to receive your love and kindness.

Fear Versus Simple Acts of Kindness

Walking through downtown Santa Cruz today, a man approached me and asked for 25 cents. Before I could process his request, I had turned away the begging hands instinctively. As I walked on, I wondered why I didn’t give him that small amount of money. I turned back to find him, but he was gone.

Later on, I was sitting at a café when a homeless man passed by. He was filthy, smelt terrible and was loaded with bags. He also appeared to be blind. Despite his long white cane, he was headed directly toward a lamppost. I could have run to him to ensure he didn’t crash needlessly into this obstruction, but I sat in silence, hoping that somehow he would naturally swerve at the last moment. He didn’t. He walked right into the post. He cursed it, found he way around it and meandered on. I wondered why I had been unwilling to help.

I’d agreed to talk about fear in response to Jennie’s “Fear No More” post and her excellent advice for overcoming its unfavourable effects. But as I sat at this café, I felt stumped. Nothing came and I walked home feeling disappointed in myself. As I walked, I thought again about these two characters I saw. One needed only 25 cents, the other needed saving from a lamppost. I didn’t help these men because I was afraid. My responses to their predicaments were based not on a logical assessment of risk, but on uncalculated, kneejerk reaction: it was fear of getting too close to somebody I didn’t know and was unsure if I could trust.

We often talk about overcoming fear in the context of important life experiences or major decisions. But we are also so often blind to the small fears that commonly influence our daily interactions with those around us and inhibit simple acts of kindness. (And somehow those small acts are often not so small at all – they can be most meaningful.) Fear is natural and serves an important evolutionary function. But fear is arguably also at the heart of our prejudices, our aggressions, our conflicts and even our ability to ignore the obvious needs – or defend the rights – of those around us.

This is not to suggest we should abandon our fears. Fear is necessary and helps provide important guidance to our decision-making processes. But perhaps we should try to abandon the type of more cowardice fear that underlies the careful distances we keep from others in need of our support. There is an important question then, particularly for females who I would suggest often juggle the natural desire to nurture with a fear of vulnerability: how do we know when to trust our instinctive fears and when to brush them aside in favour of being kind?

While our needs might be different, there is not one person on this earth who does not need something every single day. We rely on each other to service those needs, or in other words, our livelihoods are completely dependent on the actions of others, no matter who we are. With this in mind, perhaps it doesn’t necessarily matter who it is we feel able to help so long as we do and so long as we do not let fear blind us to the broad spectrum of needs we have, including the needs of those we don’t know.

While I trust that somebody else found it in their heart to lend 25 cents to this passing man, I hope that my blind homeless friend (who probably had a shining bump on his forehead and wouldn’t consider me a friend at all had he been able to see the situation through my eyes!) has somewhere comfortable to sleep tonight and that there is someone far more fearless than I to take care of him.