Month: March 2016

CHOP WOOD

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I’m always wondering what I should be doing rather than simply doing. Instead of being fully engaged, I’m haunted, wondering if this is the right thing to be doing and even if it is, am I doing it right? Maybe I’d be better off if only I were doing something else, with someone else, somewhere else.

 

If I could change one thing about myself, this would be it, and I have it on good advice that such a change is possible by cultivating what the Buddhists call “mindfulness.” They suggest that doing whatever you’re doing wholeheartedly is the ticket to peace of mind and satisfaction. Sometimes it’s called “one-mindedness.” The catch-phrase for it is “chop wood, carry water.” I haven’t done a lot of wood chopping of water-carrying, but during the little chopping and carrying I have done, I can guarantee you that my mind was somewhere else. I was either daydreaming or waiting for this prosaic activity to end so I could get on with something “fun.” I didn’t want to waste my time with activities that weren’t tailored to my personality and its special needs. In this regard I set myself up as a sucker for advertising, with its promised customization and tailoring, which extends from hearing aids to vehicles.

 

In fact, all my life I was hoping to become the kind of person for whom someone else chopped wood and carried water. Scuba diving, parachuting, motorcycle racing, sex with strangers…these were the kinds of activities I wanted to save plenty of time for. My imagination reveled in what wasn’t yet happening, but would finally come about when conditions were right. My ship had not yet arrived. When it did, then I would finally be relieved on these haunting doubts and fears of lack. In my dreams and plans, the cargo on board would put the world I had known so far to shame.

 

There was a religious cult that sprang up in Java or Borneo, one of those kinds of places, shortly after World War II.  These Pacific Islands had been briefly occupied by Allied Forces who built air strips, radar towers, housing and mess halls and then, almost as quickly, everything was dismantled and taken away when the war ended.

 

The natives of these island were dumbfounded, and the older ones told the younger members about the glut of cargo they had experienced. When anthropologists visited these islands ten years later, they found that a cult of cargo had evolved, where the elders told those who had not witnessed this amazing event about that happy time when there was more food and Coca-cola and chewing gum than anyone could imagine.

 

One village wise man, who had managed to hold onto a pair of headphones that had been left behind, proposed that they build replicas of the radar dishes, antennas, in order to attract cargo once again. He would don the headphones and then chant to the gods, summoning cargo. They built bamboo radar towers and airplanes, hangers and barracks. And they waited.

 

In a way, my dilemma is the same as his. I am waiting for something outside myself to fix me, to arrive and finally make all this worthwhile. Maybe receiving a MacArthur genius award would be enough to legitimize the path I have chosen.  Until that happens, I can’t be sure that this is good enough to be thought significant. It seems with few exceptions, that until a writer is famous and dead, he doesn’t deserve to be published.

 

Recently, a Malaysian airlines flight went missing. A Malaysian witch doctor offered to search for it using a pair of bamboo binoculars. He wasn’t able to find the wreckage, but then nobody else was, either.
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The Gift of Community

 

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I was riding my motor scooter from Mae Rim to Chiang Mai early yesterday morning and passed a group of women sitting by the side of the highway, crouched perilously close to traffic, all selling what appeared to be the same vegetables and fruits. As I drove by, the face of the newest arrival to the phalanx of sellers caught my eye. She was smiling broadly. Despite the fact that she was preparing to sit on hard concrete with her inventory spread in front of her on a piece of cloth, an inventory that in no way seemed unique, she was glad to be there.

 

Buddhism emphasises acceptance. If I were in her place, I would have a hard time accepting the fact that I was joining an already overcrowded market, and would find some way to stand out from the other sellers. If I could, I would also find a way to maximise my comfort. Maybe I would just throw up my hands and go home, vowing to find a better way. But not her. She was glad to be sitting on the edge of the road among friends.

 

In our neighborhood, recorded music comes over the public address system followed by announcements by the village head man. Listening to this is not optional. Here, there is no assumed or implied right to sonic privacy. I was complaining about this to a Norwegian woman who had been here longer than I, and she suggested instead of looking at this as someone stealing my right to privacy, I might view it as the gift of community.

 

As an American, I view my neighbors as competition. As Moe of the Three Stooges used to bark at his fellow knuckleheads “Spread Out!” Like Daniel Boone, when I can see the smoke from my neighbor’s chimney, I know it’s time to move on. Here in Indochina, tucked between the two most populous countries in the world, India and China, only the super-rich can afford such notions. Here, where most people drive motor scooters, those who have office jobs aspire to drive the largest trucks they can purchase, usually on loan, often with no money down.

 

As the Thai economy continues to tank, I imagine quite a few of those will hit the used  truck market. But none of this effects me, as I am not in the market for a loan, or a truck, or land, or a house. I’m here to live as simply and cheaply as I can, and maybe absorb some of that acceptance that allowed the woman I saw to smile as she joined her community.