December 15, 2012: Oregon, Moving Again, and Being a Kid

(A plane, going home to Houghton)

I am moving out of Oregon today, after living here for two years. As with near every experience, the things that I loved feel most alive in my memory. Much more so than the things that were hard. I don't understand why my memory works that way, but it does. The happiest times are the ones that are preserved with the most clarity.

Most recently I lived on the coast, where I was for the last six months. One old bartender said she loved Oregon because of all the shades of green, and I see what she means. The trees are covered in moss, and the green of the forests run right into the ocean. I first lived in Eugene, about an hour from the coast, and from the first day I reached there I felt pulled to the ocean. I first started dreaming of living by the ocean when I was in second grade and falling in love with whales through books. It's an interesting thing, because the same time, I also have a great fear of the ocean. I have dreams of drowning at night. It is strange to feel pulled towards something I fear so much.

Maybe it's the mystery of it all. In reality, it was more massive than I imagined. The weight of the waves when they crash is crushing. The moment the weight of the ocean set it was an afternoon when I was struggling to adjust to life after graduation. Feeling not part of what I knew, but not into the next part of life either. I went out on a little rocky outcrop and let the sensation of the wind and heavy thud of the waves numb me until I felt empty.

My most recent memories are of the coast, but I also had changed a lot while living in Eugene. When I reached Eugene, I was six months out of electrical engineering and feeling like I was shot out of the undergrad canon. The first year was very cerebral. A lot of rapid expansion that became uncontrolled. I thought I was ready for nonengineering studies, but it was a painful process. I had gotten through undergrad by working hard, through sharpening and sharpening my thoughts til there was clarity. That approach didn't work as well anymore.

And then in between the first and second year, a shift happened. I felt the wild energy that I thought of as motivation start to slowly seep away. I started to calm down, sort of, but didn't feel settled. As a result, I began to wonder if I was just slowing down and began to worry about coming to a stop. But no, that wasn't it, I was just redirecting and starting to do things like cook and think about money in a more real way. Sort of filling in the parts of life that I had previously dealt with by ignoring. A bit more balanced, but at times missing the chaos that I was used to. And now I'm headed to India for seven months, and after that, I don't know what's next.

I was surprised to see that a close friend's return address was in Lansing. For some reason, I would have guessed she would have moved. Well, maybe that's because I have moved a few times since Ann Arbor, and assume that people like me move a lot. I don't feel like I'm running away, but I do feel in motion. If I could find a place that preserved that sense of motion, I would be happy to stay longer. I have a feeling, though, that right now in my life that place doesn't exist. I'm connected to the physical side of things, and without changing scenery things slow down inside.

I don't think it will last forever, this stage in my life. But I am enjoying it while it's here. I feel I have reached the end of my structured life. Things that were figured out for me and gave me comfort for reasons I didn't understand. I suppose it feels like childhood is now over. Not gone, but not the current state of things. It's strange to say that at 25. I think most people get there a lot earlier, and yet who am I to determine when I start to grow up?

Have you heard the band Dawes? I admire how honest his lyrics are, and how well they blend into the melodies. I always appreciate when the message in the lyrics matches the feel of the song, and Dawes' songs do that well. My current favorite is Western Skyline, but as with all my favorite bands, favorite is a temporary label that moves around a lot.

Feb 5, 2012: Language, Monkeys, and Starwars

(Avani's office in India)

Earlier this morning, I had a great experience with a guy here named Diwan. He was practicing English by saying things like “the Indian Prime Minister is Monmohan Singh“ and came into my room when the lights were off, turned them all on, sang “No problem, no problem,“ grabbed a blanket from the extra bed, and then left. And because of his attitude, it was no problem. Another time he came into my room, shook my hand (which he does a lot) and because it was sort of organized, said “you systematic lifestyle is suitable to this arrangement.“

Have you ever noticed how people who speak English as a second language use it better than native speakers? It seems like by not following “rules”, they break through the polite nothingness and say what they mean much more clearly. I remember in my senior year, our alternative spring break group was meeting a person who counsels refugees and was one himself. We asked “when you counsel, do you talk more or listen more?” And he (who wasn't a native speaker, which I guess was implied) said “Counseling isn't about talking or listening. It's about traveling with someone to a place they've never been to in their lives before.”

Actually, this guy is not really the same thing as Diwan, because he was speaking from a deep wisdom where as Diwan was more trying to express things in funnier words. But anyway.

Life here is good. I guess I pretty much always have that reaction when asked “how's it going?” but in this case, it's true. It's good. The view is mind blowing, and I still haven't gotten used to it. The first couple days, I would go for walks and start laughing because it's just so amazing. Mountains and valleys and terraces in every direction. I've never lived on a slope, and it's interesting how dynamic it feels; the land feel like it's in motion, and as a result, so do I. I've also been thinking a lot about how my physical environmental affect's my mental one.

I'm doing an alright job of integrating into life here. I opened the tea you gave me yesterday. it tastes good, although it's hard to get hot water here, so I don't think I'm getting the full flavor. It sort of feels like camping, in that there's no central heating or hot water. I'm surprised at how little I missed the internet when I didn't have it. And at the same time, it wasn't as though I was like “I'm FREE WITHOUT THE STRESS OF THE INTERNET!“ like part of me was expecting. It wasn't really either; it just wasn't an issue. I've noticed that several times on this trip. When something isn't available, I haven't felt sad for missing it, or relieved for not having to think about it; it's just different and I don't think about it.

I've also developed a minor phobia of monkeys. It wasn't bad a first; I was just scared of the bigger ones. They swarm the campus in packs of 20-30, and raid the compost. An embarrassing story: I was going to go hang up my laundry to dry, and there was a monkey sitting below the clothes line. I hesitated for a second, and it saw my fear, and barred it's teeth at me. I tried to recover and sort of half-shouted at it, but it saw right through me. Making eye contact with those things is so rough. So I backed away, and then this 7 year old barreled past me, hurled a rock at it, and it ran away.

He was pure confidence, and it got me to thinking about fear. I was thinking about how I believe that happiness is a choice, so does that mean fear is a choice? It seems like happiness as a choice is easier to think about than fear as a choice. But I think it's probably true. To get past this monkey phobia, I don't slowly gain confidence; I just stop being afraid. That might take a few takes before it becomes natural, but it seems more likely than plotting how I'm going to handle the situation. It's like Yoda said, “there is only do. There is no try.”

Have you seen Star Wars? Another line I like from it a lot is when Luke first feels the force, and gets all pumped, and Obi Won says “You've just taken you first steps in a much bigger world.” The other line I like is “travelling through hyper space ain't like dusting crops, boy. Without careful calculations you could end up in a black hole, and that would end our trip real quick.”

Yesterday Rajnish (founder of the org I'm working with) asked me what I want to accomplish in working with Avani (the org), and I just sort of sputtered. I realize that as time keeps moving, my interests grow more broad. Or rather, I feel myself letting go of what I thought were my passions. Passion. It's an idea I am questioning. Do we have only one? Does spreading yourself out limit your options, especially in a such a specialized world? I used to think renewable energy was my passion, and then that rural development was a passion (replacing THE passion), and most recently travelling.

But as soon as I start thinking about any of them in the long-run, I lose interest. And my overall feeling of “motivation” has been sapped away. But that implies a sense of loss that isn't right; my energy is turning towards things that I can't articulate, but are different from wha I've paid attention to in the past. I was talking with Keats about the difference between motivation and dedication. Dedication seems longer and less fueled by a sense of urgency that motivation carries. I used to be motivated, or thought I was. I don't know if I'm dedicated to anything. Yet. I feel energized, but not in a direction - I feel myself sliding between “I should plan” and “I should be”, and right now, I'm moving more towards the second. I do know that in the immediate future, I want to travel.. I want to be moving for the next few years, but not a chaotic motion. I want to feel dynamic, but I don't think living on adrenaline is sustainable.

April 22, 2010: Being Indian, Not Being Religious, and J. Krishnamurthy,

(The kitchen table in my housing coop in Ann Arbor)

Growing up in the Upper Peninsula, I always thought of India as “that place my parents come from.” Our family was not very involved in the small Indian community in our area, and I didn't feel any particular ties to what others called my homeland. It was just that place that we'd go to every other summer. I would never have said I was proud to be an Indian, nor would I have said it embarrassed me; it just was one of many things I didn't really understand, but didn't feel any desire to explore.

Throughout my first few years in Ann Arbor, things pretty much stayed the same. I didn't join any Indian centered student groups, and the Indians I was friends with were friends because of similar interests, not heritages. Again, my noninvolvement in the Indian community was nothing fueled by resentment, it just wasn't something that crossed my mind.

I think the tipping point in my interest in all things Indian came after my sophomore year of college, when I first read Inward Revolution by J. Krishnamurthy. While both of my parents are spiritual people, our house is not a religious one and beyond a few visits to my friends' churches, I never really dug into those thoughts. I first started reading Inward Revolution on the way to visit my grandparents' house in Bangalore, and it was like wildfire in my mind. Everything I read completely gripped me, and I found many thoughts I thought were very personal being resonated in a book written over 50 years ago. Although Krishnamurthy doesn't advocate many things related to India, I very closely associate him with the country, because my grandfather is an avid reader of his works, and he is also Indian. Plus, the first time I read the book was while sitting on the steps of my grandparents' house, so it was all tied together.

Two years later I began a project in my mother's ancestral village that has grown into the focus of nearly all my time and effort. The project, Solar Power at Jnana Bodhini School, seeks to use solar power to drive a computer lab in the village's school. The project was first supported by the Center for South Asian Studies here at UofM, and it was through the CSAS that I was introduced to Ms. Sreyashi Dey

When I went to the village to work on our project, one of the things I was keenly aware of was the spiritual atmosphere I was stepping into. Although I tried not to, I was definitely trying to “find myself” on my trip, in terms of cultural, family, and spirituality. I think that's a pretty dangerous thing to do, to go looking for those types of connections, because I think genuine experiences are most authentic if they aren't planned or expected. I knew I didn't want to search for myself in going to India, and yet, part of me wanted to find that connection. My own inward revolution so I would understand the full depths of the things J. Krishnamurthy described.

In my seven weeks there, I was surprised by how little that happened. I didn't find myself rocked to the core or compelled to live like an ascetic. There was only one time when I was blown away by what I heard, and that was when I asked my grandfather (who meditates for eight hours everyday) about the relationship between science and god or whichever word you use to encapsulate the spiritual world. He said “Science points to god, and where science ends, god begins. But scientists will never find it with their instruments; god is too subtle.“

I chewed on that thought for a number of days following our conversation. And yet, I still didn't find myself bowled over. I wanted to be, but when I was honest with myself, I wasn't. I don't know why. Maybe because I only get one chance at rapid spiritual development, or perhaps because the work we were doing at the school for the project was taking up most of my thoughts. Either way, for how much my grandfather's sentence made me think, I was surprised at how little I found myself shook up. However, while I didn't gain much insight into my own spirituality, I did learn a lot about others'. Life in the village I was staying in was completely grounded in religion. The group of five guys I hung out with were extremely devout and never missed a trip to Temple; school was cancelled because of religious functions; my grandmother lectured me on the prestige of our family temple, and the list goes on. The most complicated and pervasive example of religion was the caste system, a social hierarchal system that, as I understand it, says that you are born into a specific role in life. The caste system caused (and continues to cause) a lot of confusion for me, and I wrote about my impressions of it here.

It was very eye opening to see a few of the results of having a highly religious and spiritual society. There were things I liked, and things I didn't, but mostly things I didn't fully understand. However, regardless of my opinion, the fact is that to do work in India is to do work in a religious environment. Developing an appreciation for that fact was important for my work in the village, and it's interesting to note that developing an understanding of religion was beneficial to my work. It seems to me that everything is connected, and to talk about one aspect of society (i.e. religion) without thinking about the others is to miss the full picture. That's an idea I've been working hard to remember, because it's easy to slip into focusing on one thing without realizing that it is very influenced by externalities.

Right now, I'm 23 and gearing up for another trip to India this coming August. In preparing for the trip, I find myself asking the same questions as last time. How much will this trip change the way I view the world, myself, and myself in the world? Who will I be going in, and what will I be coming out? And how much will I even be able to gauge any amount of change? I don't know what I'll find, and chances are it won't be what I thought. However, I know that to accomplish our work will require a deeper understanding of both my own beliefs, and of those of the villagers we are working with.

“To be yourself is very difficult, because you think that what you are is ignoble, and that if you could only change what you are into something noble it would be marvelous; but that never happens. Whereas, if you look at what you actually are and understand it, then in that very understanding there is a transformation. So freedom lies, not in trying to become something different, nor in following the authority of tradition, of your parents, of your guru, but in understanding what you are from moment to moment.” J. Krishnamurthy, from the book titled Think on These Things