A Lost Month, and Beautiful Things

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Floor at Wat Pha Sorn Kaew, Buddhist Temple in Khao Koh, Thailand

Okay. We have some catching up to do.

First of all, culture shock is real, and I lost August. Not entirely lost—I traveled to Chiang Mai and Bangkok, I wrote some, and planned and organized thoughts for the rest of my novel. I went to school every day, and joined my friends for dinner and lunch and afternoons at coffee shops. When I wasn’t with people or fulfilling a work obligation, though, I was lying on my bed watching Gilmore Girls, and even when I was with people I mostly felt really, really bad. I identified with many of the things on this “13 Lies Your Depression is Telling You” list, I felt like a terrible teacher, and I wanted to go home.

I don’t know how much of this was the isolating effects of culture shock, and how much was mild depression. I’ve always struggled with ups and downs and probably always will, and going to Thailand in the first place was a response to some pretty serious negative feelings about my self-worth. I didn’t feel like I was capable of anything, so I went to the other side of the world to prove myself wrong. I’m not necessarily knocking this as a solution, but… you’re still you, even in Thailand, and all those bad feelings won’t instantly go away.

I’m doing amazing now, though, and I’m really grateful to everyone who sent me emails and skyped and chatted on facebook and talked and ate meals with me during my bad month. The human contact was so needed and appreciated. Somewhere along the line I got really cynical about a lot of things, and I made a decision a few weeks ago to be more grateful and less self-defeating. To believe that things can be done when I start them, instead of assuming laziness and failure from the outset.

Here’s what I’ve been up to:

Running. Thursday will mark three weeks successful completion of my 5-runs-a-week routine. I run around our school building (.4 miles a lap!) and the students laugh and smile at me. They wave and shout “Hello teacher!” when they see me, every time they see me, which is sometimes three or four or even six times per run! This is a good system because I always run a little faster after a student makes me smile. My favorite was when a group of M1 girls (seventh graders) said, “Teacher, fighting!” as I went by. That’s my new mantra, whenever I’m out of breath and want to stop: Teacher, fighting!

Strength training. Three days a week, I’m doing push ups and squats and crunches. Like, more than I knew I could do. I’ve flirted with pushups in the past, and exercise machines and stuff like that, but this is the first time I’ve realized how it works. You do this. It feels like this. This is uncomfortable, but instead of stopping you do a few more, or a lot more. Sweat drips onto your yoga mat, your muscles surprise you, and you feel fierce. In a few days, you come back and do even more.

[Reality check: I still can’t do more than three full push-ups in a row. Instead of letting that discourage me, I’m killing it with the modified ones and I’ll work my way up to full ones very soon.]

Other stuff. Stretches and yoga, which get mixed in with the running and strength training. While on a school trip, I got up early to do yoga on the balcony while the sun rose over a misty sea. My yoga instruction is entirely from youtube videos, but maybe all these people who are talking about yoga all the time are actually onto something.

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Environment. My brother told me a while ago that a clean house fights depression, so I’m trying to do things to make my surroundings feel nice—even though I’ll only be here for six more months. It’s difficult because my house is dirty and desperately needs a coat of paint, but I’ve been putting things on the walls and investing in cleaning supplies. I haven’t kept up with the cleaning quite as well as the exercise, but I’m picking things up more often and working on some projects. I’m sewing fabric curtains for an ugly piece of furniture, and I bought a new bed set and a folding table to go by my bed. Little things, but worth it for the happiness I get when I use them, and the happiness that comes from feeling at peace with my surroundings.

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I’ve also done some traveling these last few weeks to the ocean and the mountains. The ocean, man. I lived a ten-minute walk from the ocean for last past two years, and didn’t realize how much I missed it until I saw it again. And yesterday’s ride on a mountain highway to a stunning temple 117 km (70 miles away) was awesome, and now I’m remembering my plans for longer bike trips. Things feel possible again, and it feels especially amazing because nothing felt possible in August.

There’s a lot more to say, always is, but for now enjoy some pictures from yesterday’s road trip!

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The five sitting Buddha statue at Wat Pha Sorn Kaew

Me and Anna, my friend from Germany who has been teaching at the school and sharing my house for the last two months. It was her last weekend in Phitsanulok, and I'm so glad we got to do something fun together!

Me and Anna, my friend from Germany who has been teaching at the school and sharing my house for the last two months. It was her last weekend in Phitsanulok, and I’m so glad we got to do something fun together!

Stairs!

Stairs!

Mountains!

And mountains!

Rainy Season

Friday night. Throwing a few extras in my purse before trotting down the stairs and heading out. Ako was already on her way to town, picking up a friend, and I would follow after. Others were already in town, all of us converging in a little while on a restaurant in the night bazaar for food and drinks. Some of us just wanted to get out of the house, some of us had transferred Saturday plans to Friday due to an early engagement on Sunday, and some of us had missed a bus to Bangkok due to a series of unfortunate circumstances. My phone was in my hand on its way to my bag when my bedroom AC shut off and the lights went dark. Seconds later, the phone rang.

It was Ako, already partway to town. “It’s raining,” she said. She was under the roof of a store somewhere between the school and Phitsanulok, trying to decide what do. As we talked I made my way to the window, narrowly avoided tripping over my harp in the dark room, and opened the shutters to let in the remaining light.

“Huh,” I said. “It’s not raining here yet. No, wait, here it comes.”

Ako carried on into town because she was already wet and halfway there. I decided to wait a while; usually these storms pass in twenty minutes or so. Soon the initial downpour eased slightly, and I ran downstairs and put my purse inside double layers of plastic bags and got ready to move out—but the slackening turned out to be an illusion. A few more minutes brought another downpour. The word “torrential” came to mind. I stood with the door open for a few seconds and thought about it, but it just seemed stupid to take a motorbike out into a storm like this if you didn’t have to. Even if the power was out, and the light was leaving the sky.

I stood by the large kitchen window as the light faded, feeling the cool air through the screen and staring at the rain, willing the sky to keep its glow for a few minutes longer. I turned on my cell phone every few seconds to illumine a dark corner behind me, and to check for lizards on the wall nearby.

Maybe 25 minutes into the storm, I heard a loud noise. It was a cross between a wail, a rusty door, and a foghorn. It was followed by others, a chorus of creaking, mechanical noises. I grew up with a river in the backyard and I’m used to frogs singing in the swamp at night, but this was a breed of frog I had never heard before. The rain continued well past the half hour mark, and soon I was only imagining that the sky was any brighter than the rest of the dark around me. I couldn’t stay here without light or food, but going out into the storm still seemed like a foolhardy proposition.

When David called, he solved my dilemma (he was the “missed his bus”  portion of the dinner crew). “Don’t go out if you don’t have to,” he said. “I just watched a motorcycle accident happen in front of me. The roads are a mess.” He had already given up on going to the restaurant, and offered to bring me pad thai when he came back to the school. Yes. Minutes later, I remembered the frog-shaped rechargeable lamp on the table, surely purchased by my Thai roommate for instances such as this. Soon after I was happily writing by lamp-light at the table, and not much later the power returned. David made it back as the storm was finally fading to droplets and sprinkles, and by this time the strange frog noises had grown as soothing as a foghorn in the night.

Oh, and the Pad Thai was delicious.

Me and Ako on a nature walk

Me and Ako on a nature walk

Me and David at a chinese temple not far out of town

Me and David at a chinese temple not far out of town. In this photo, we look RELATED.

The view from the chinese temple

The view from the chinese temple

On Not Participating in NaNoWriMo

If you’re here because you spend any time haunting the “Writing” tab on the wordpress.com reader you’ve seen the buzz. NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) is coming. In fact, it started today. You can almost hear the sounds of furious typing filling the air. The gun has already sounded, and writers the world over, holding their dreams in their hands, have embarked on the mad race to complete a novel in just one month.

In college, when people asked me if I was doing NaNo, I responded with agonizing regret. “Noooo,” I wailed, “November is the worst month. I have a million illustration projects due, and so many other homework assignments and club commitments and look at me, I’m barely holding it together as it is. There is NO WAY.” I thought I’d probably do it when I was out of school, though, because what’s not to like about a thing that provides you with vehicle and motivation to write your 50,000?

Well. The thing about NaNo is that I hear about people doing it, and it’s all very exciting, and I admire (and am perhaps a little jealous of) their drive and focus and commitment, but when the month is through, I rarely see or hear about those novels again. NaNo seems like a quick-fix gimmick. It’s a way for people to be a writer for a month, but it doesn’t provide a path for them to really make it. Anyone can write a novel in a headlong race to the finish, but how many of you can revise that novel, and keep with it through the long slog of editing when a sentence can take days and chapter three isn’t agreeing with chapter four and you accidentally removed some important information from chapter one that needs to go back in and that cool thing in chapter eight is only going to work if you start alluding to it much earlier and that’s going to mess up all those scenes in chapters four, five, and six that you’ve already perfected?

I wrote my 50,000 words. It took me from December to August, and (I suspect this is what’s actually bugging me) I won’t be made to feel inadequate by you superheroes who do it in a month. It’s not like I started from scratch in December, either. I’d already polished up chapters 1 and 2 for a portfolio project. As I wrote the rest, I had my draft from high school to guide me, and sometimes I kept whole paragraphs or even pages of that first draft. I also edited quite a bit as I went, and sometimes took days just polishing a single scene. I wasn’t as committed as I could have been, and yeah, I wish I’d done better and finished earlier, but overall I think it was a good way to work. I had my NaNo style write-ins where I just sat and did it, and the slosh of that text is sitting in my manuscript waiting for cleanup, but there are also the scenes that I polished when I wrote them, and it’s so encouraging to know they are sitting there like jewels, waiting for me to shine the rest of the piece up to their brilliant standard.

I got my 50,000 words down, any way I could, and it took nearly a year. That’s what worked for me.

Yet… isn’t NaNoWriMo all about getting your 50,000 words down, in any way you can? In this business, all that matters is making it happen, however you do it. If you can make NaNoWriMo work for you, there’s no way I can look down on you for that.

So I still love you, NaNoWriMoers. I think you’re beautiful and frightening and I applaud your tenacity and wish you the best of luck on your uphill journey. I also think you can edit and polish that novel, and I encourage you to keep climbing when November is over. I hope to see you someday at that next high, distant peak. We may follow different paths to get there, but both our paths have value, and we share the same challenge of putting one foot before the other, a single sentence at a time.

Photo ©me. Taken near Chiang Mai, Thailand