The Lovelight Project

Shining the Light on Happy, Healthy Living

Christmas as a Minimalist

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I completed my small version of the pre-Christmas rush on Saturday, as I popped in from store to store here in Spain to pick up the ingredients for the chickpea-cauliflower-curry loaf with homemade mango barbecue sauce I was baking for a holiday feast with my new roommate and friends.

I was in the depth of one of those catch-all, cheap import shops, searching for a cheesecloth for a new kombucha brew, when into my earphones did play the Fresh Air podcast’s David Byrne Christmas Special. Byrne’s Christmas playlist of kooky songs included an unknown and unironic tune by Joseph Washington Jr.

“I’m going shopping, shopping, shopping downtown/ I’ve got my Christmas list together, going to buy presents … for everyone who’s been so good to me!”

It was a catchy tune, and it made me laugh. Why? Because I do not enjoy shopping at all. Ever since I sold all my possessions and moved on to a 32-foot sailboat in 2015, I have had no interest in accumulating things around me. And I’m not particularly interested in encouraging anyone else to do the same.

Christmas can be a strange time for a minimalist.

Everyone around me is wearing seasonal sweaters they only get out of the closet once a year. I passed a woman wearing plastic reindeer antlers on the street. In every store, there were opportunities to buy buy buy. You’d think as an American, I would be used to this. But I’ve been out of the Christmas game.

For the past many years, my life has been so nomadic that I really haven’t celebrated the holiday season. There wasn’t really any need for shopping. Last year, I had just injured my Achilles tendon and it was unseasonably cold in Lake Worth, Florida, where I was cat-sitting. I simply laid around in bed and read my book on Christmas. The year before that, I was in Daytona Beach, again caring for cats and staying quiet.

I dreamed of a Snoopy Sno-Cone Machine when I was a kid, but even then I knew it was a ridiculous waste of money and never actually told my parents I wanted it.

The year before that, I was visiting friends outside Fresno, California. One friend had a quintessential holiday meltdown when we exchanged gifts. I don’t talk to that guy anymore. I guess you could say that Christmas really isn’t much of a holiday for me.

But it certainly is in Spain! There are plenty of parties, dinners, outdoor concerts, and even larger-than-life sculptures in the sand of Jesus, Joseph, Mary, and the rest of the characters in the Christmas story. There is no avoiding going shopping, shopping, shopping downtown.

I was torn. I love to get perfect gifts for friends and loved ones, just like Joseph Washington Jr. sang about. But I barely know the people who are coming to dinner on Sunday, and I’m not in a place to spend a bunch of money on stupid stuff that no one really wants. Besides, we all know that Christmas isn’t about getting stuff — although, of course, that’s exactly what it’s about for at least the first decade or two of life. This holiday is about sharing love. It’s the thought that counts, right?

Now, I know what a lot of readers are thinking right now: Give experiences, not things. But that doesn’t really happen after you turn 7 and it’s no longer appropriate to give coupons for things like shoulder rubs, dog walks, and car washes. Maybe if you’re in a serious relationship you can buy concert tickets or one-way tickets to exotic destinations. It is possible — but I came up short when I thought about the people on my Christmas list. Not that it’s very long.

I used to do a lot for Christmas. It is all in the name of God, after all. Now I honestly do as little as possible during the holiday season. About a year ago, I discovered a fantastic gift for my parents: a subscription to a local coffee roaster’s coffee of the month club. It’s easier to keep it rolling throughout the year to cover birthdays, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, and Christmas for them both. And they love it. And it’s not more stuff.

I’m persona non grata for the other members of my family, so the only other people on my list are my new roommate and the people I barely know coming to holiday dinner. I am cooking a main dish, a vegan chickpea-cauliflower-curry loaf. I bought a package of construction paper for one euro and made colorful origami cranes, strung a hemp cord through it, and created ornaments. I wrapped them with a star that reads, “Feliz Navidad!” We’re in Spain, after all. My roommate gets a pair of earrings I bought in Turkïye that are cool but a little too heavy for my ears.

It's taken some maturing as a minimalist to understand that there is value in the act of giving gifts, even though it underscores the cultural construct that relationships can be translated into money. I know when I sold and gave away everything I owned to move on to the sailboat, one friend in particular was very upset to see that I sold a candleholder she gave me. Did she think I was going to take it on the sailboat? Was it more ethical to give it back? She also gave me a beautiful Native American bamboo flute, and I asked her if she wanted that back. She accepted it, then never talked to me again.

So, when it’s a holiday season, I try to balance between letting people know that I love them through the love language of gifts while also not getting caught up in the idea that things equal love. This goes for what I buy myself, too. Since I know, eventually, I’ll be back down to a 65-liter, 20-kilogram backpack (which is already too big, please don’t get me started), I only buy things I need or are willing to leave behind whenever I go to my next country. That means the dress I’ll wearing tomorrow is the same dress I bought a year ago at a consignment shop, and I’ll put on a little eyeliner to be extra fancy.

I know that the people who appreciate me don’t care what I look like, just so I respect

In Wes Anderson's The Royal Tenenbaums, everyone is just so friction' perfect. Are you from a family of perfectionists? It's exhausting. You don't have to be perfect and there's nothing you can buy that will make you so. There's no reason to try, either. Relaxation is the real flex.

the holiday. They aren’t going to care if I spent no money, spent five euro on each of them, or bought them all big, elaborate gifts. It’s not going to make them like me anymore. If it did, well, I might like them less.

The average household debt in America is more than $100,000. This includes student loads, mortgages, medical debt, and, of course, credit card debt. People pay about 10% of their income toward trying to pay down their debt. The average credit card debt is $6,365 per person. How do you compare?

I’m lucky because I was raised by parents who paid for everything only with cash. They paid cash for their house 36 years ago! Now, when I was a kid, this also meant that I had to work for my money. I was the home maintenance girl: trimming bushes, pulling weeds, water-sealing the deck and painting the garage door just to earn some money to go to the movies. I was babysitting at age 14 and had a part-time job at the local produce stand when I was 16. They taught me to work hard and never have any debt. I still work hard, and I still don’t have debt.

But a big reason why I don’t have debt is because I’m a minimalist. I don’t get joy from buying things. I once dated a hoarder, and it was an interesting peek into another world. He found joy in buying all the small appliances a kitchen could ever want, every piece of sporting equipment that could make an armchair athlete sweat, and endless shirts, shoes, and pants. In truth, though, he didn’t find joy. That’s the thing.

Shopping can only bring so much dopamine. It’s addictive just like alcohol, drugs, and social media. Shopping gets you excited in the same way that picking out the sweet in the bakery gets you excited. Or me, I should use the correct pronoun. My acupuncturist told me to stay off the baked goods, and I’ve been bread-free for the last couple of months. Hello, I’m Suzanne and I’m a chocolate croissant addict! I miss them most of all.

Did I really just search the Internet for a picture of a chocolate croissant? Oh yes, yes I did.

It also helps to live in a place with a low cost of living. I pay about a third of what I would pay for a third of the space if I were to be renting in the United States. I also live five blocks from the beach and have a large, private, and quiet space. I cook my own vegetarian food, don’t drink alcohol, and bought mostly secondhand furnishings for the apartment. Low overhead and low desires are keys to a debt-free, minimalist lifestyle.

I’ll warn you, though: It’s not easy to have few desires. You need to train your mind to understand that you can’t buy happiness, and then you have to find the joy in true financial freedom. After all, the fewer bills you have, the less you have to work. The less you work, the more time you have to pursue your dreams. You thought I was going to say play, but life is play when you get the balance right.

I’ve been listening to a lot of Michael Singer’s lectures lately, and in one he talks about how we all have that thing we’re crazy about. Maybe you’re crazy about yoga or craft beers or … maybe it’s the holidays. Maybe you’re crazy about giving a lovely gift to bring a smile to people’s faces. Some things it’s okay to be crazy about. I like making people smile, too. That’s why I made the origami for everyone.

We’ll also have a karaoke machine for performances after we eat. I plan to belt out the hits. I’m also practicing Happy Xmas (War Is Over) on the ukulele. After all, I wish most of all for you and the rest of the world a peaceful time now and always. Maybe if there weren’t so much stuff to fight about, we could also agree to stop fighting.


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You know how everyone tells you to “listen to your body”? 

If you’re like me, that’s easier said than done. There are days I’m not sure I even know the language my body speaks. (Insert a fart joke here)

It’s so hard to understand, honor, and accept what’s best for your physical self, let alone your mental or emotional self. Aren’t we all socially conditioned to detach from our bodies yet care passionately about our image? Women’s magazines and Instagram influencers make me feel a certain way about my body, there’s just no getting around it. 

I’m not alone. So many people I love have eating disorders, anxiety, and even just fears about getting older. Dreading birthdays isn’t just about not wanting wrinkles, gray hair, lumps, and pains. With age comes trauma. There’s no getting around that, either.

But I’ve been trying to feel my body. For decades, I’ve been practicing yoga, Reiki energy, and all receiving kinds of massage and body work. I fast regularly, and I eat vegetarian foods. I don’t drink alcohol anymore. 

Then I completed a 10-day silent meditation Vipassana course. I didn’t get kicked out of the 10-day course. It was amazing. It is all about feeling your body, at depths I never knew possible.   

I got kicked out of the one-day “refresher” course a few months later. They actually refused to let me participate. I have feelings about that, too. 

Vipassana is a style of meditation popularized by S.N. Goenka, taught throughout the world in many different languages to thousands of people for decades. Years ago, I had come across it while traveling throughout Asia. I didn’t know too much about it. I just knew it was something I wanted to do. Everyone I’ve ever met who completed the course said it was transformational. 

Now that I’ve done it, I totally agree. 

I was first accepted to a course in Ontario, Canada in the beginning of June 2020. Of course, that was when the entire world was freaking out over COVID-19. I had recently purchased a solar-powered recreational vehicle, an RV. The plan was to drive it from Miami to Pennsylvania, to visit my parents, and then onward into Canada. Unfortunately, Canada closed its border — technically the first of two times I was denied an in-depth Vipassana experience.

I traveled along all the southern coasts of the Great Lakes and up in northern Idaho, Washington, and Wyoming and still have yet to know Canada!

Instead, I roamed around North America, took lots of hikes, and social-distanced myself in beautiful forests and desserts. I applied online to other 10-day Vipassana courses, but nothing lined up with my travels and timeline. Eventually, I sold that RV and moved to Europe. I was finally accepted to the course in Suffolk, United Kingdom in August 2023. I scheduled a cat-sitting gig in London and booked a plane ticket.

I knew the Vipassana experience was going to be intense, but I felt ready. In July, my meditation experience was a steady 20-minute sit every day. Sometimes I would practice one-pointed focus by myself. Other times I would meditate along with a group I belong to on Facebook called the Shakti Love Warriors. Those meditations could be guided with ambient music or quiet. I was meditating more than most people I knew.

And yet, like so many times in my life, I had no idea what I was getting into. An email from the Vipassana centre told me where to go, what time to arrive, and to bring a set of bed sheets and an alarm clock. I bought both items on the streets around the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul and had them with me in my pack.

Dhamma Sukhakari Vipassana Centre in Haughley Green, UK

The course was held in the classic old English countryside. Moss grew in the cracks of brick buildings with windows overlooking natural ponds. I slept in the women’s dorm in a bunk bed in a room with five other female bunks. We ate in silence in a small dining hall. The men who participated ate in an area of the dining hall separated mostly by a wall. I never saw their dorm. There was no talking.

I was assigned the bottom bunk, for which I had extreme gratitude. The woman in the top bunk above mine was young in her early 20s from some Scandinavian country. She talked in her sleep restlessly, often waking me up. But early in the 10 days, she giggled in her sleep, cutely and mischievously like she was conspiring with classmates in her dreams.  I was patient with the rest of her mumbling.

We deposited our cell phones with the course manager and began with a meditation in the great hall. We could use as many cushions and blankets as we wanted to get comfortable for the next 10 days. I took a large cushion and four small squishy brick-size cushions, plus two blankets, and settled into my assigned spot at the back along the aisle that separated the men from the ladies. 

The daily schedule started at 4 a.m. Actually, my day always started five minutes earlier. I realized that if I set my alarm before the morning gong, I could jump in the shower before anyone else. I never had to wait for a morning shower, but often by the time I completed my fast shower there would be a line of sleepy women. I was clean, dressed, and ready for morning meditation by 4:20 every morning.  

We would have group meditation in the hall from 4:30 to 6:30 a.m., then a hearty breakfast, then some free time before an 8 to 10:30 a.m. meditation. There would be a short break, then at it again until 12:30 p.m., when it was lunch time. After an always-delicious lunch was a short break, after which we would meditate again for two hours. There would be another break, then again, two hours of meditation. Then there would be time for fruit or lemon water, rather than dinner. After dinner was a meditation followed by a videotaped lecture by Goenka, followed by more meditation. Lights out arrived at 9:30 p.m.

It was 11.5 hours of seated meditation every day. No exercise besides some light walks around a small field where only ladies had access. No yoga, although I stretched and did some gentle yin. I also did handstands in between meditation sessions. Everyone took a vow of noble silence, so no one could say anything. 

I made up nicknames in my head of everyone around me in the meditation hall. There was Clip, who sat in front of me for the first four days. She wore a clip in her hair. She couldn’t handle the meditation, I guess, and left early. I had an extra large space around me once her cushion was removed from the hall. Ghost sat behind me, so nicknamed because she sometimes beat me as the first one in the hall in the mornings and also because she was so quiet with her comings and goings. Poor Sniffles, to my right, was getting over a cold, but she was nothing compared to Cough-y (or Coffee, I never asked him), a man in the second row who was horribly sick with a cough. I would have gone home if I were Cough-y. I had a lot of gratitude for Ghost behind me and not Cough-y. Hat, who had many different hats but always a hat, sat next to Coughy-y on the man’s side. Beep was a man somewhere to my left who wore a watch with an hour chirp. That chirp only happened once before the course manager chastised him. But he’ll always be Beep to me.

At first, sitting for that long was physically grueling. I did not have anything majorly wrong with my body, beyond some natural stiffness, some knots in my shoulders, and sore hips every once in a while. But damn! Vipassana was no joke. I needed to put small brick cushions under my hands, two under my knees, and I was still having trouble keeping still. My foot kept falling asleep.

Three days in, they taught us the Vipassana technique. When I first learned to do it, my body was overcome with a sense of relaxation and well-being. But then I really started noticing all the sensations in my body. I was surprised to realize just how much energy was trapped in my body.

My arms ached. My legs ached. My shoulders ached. My God, I felt old! I was wondering why exactly I thought this whole 10-day silent meditation experience was such a good idea. I had little to do but follow the schedule and try my best not to fall asleep when I was supposed to be meditating. 

The whole thing was run by a nonprofit, so I wasn’t paying anything. I couldn’t really have any expectations. 

It was beautiful there in the English countryside. During meals, I liked to look out the window and watch the trees sway in the country breeze. After meals, I stopped by the garden to see the fat, fuzzy bumblebees floating near late summer flowers. 

I got these images from Google since I did not have my phone/camera with me during the retreat. My bunk was far right on the second floor — you can just make out my window through the branches. Behind the photographer was the meditation hall and walking field.

The course employed volunteers to cook and serve meals, so I didn’t have to worry about food at all. Breakfasts and lunches were always delicious and filling. I was used to fasting, so I was content with hot lemon water in the evening instead of a third meal.

I loved not having my phone around. I had no problem not talking to anyone. It actually was a relief to not make small talk or answer, “So, where ya from?” Besides, everyone looked miserable. I didn’t quite understand it. I mean, yeah, my body hurt but only really when I was sitting in meditation. It was actually strange: Once I got up, my arms and legs stopped aching. I loved taking peaceful walks around the property. In the mornings, I’d stop and admire the stars in the pre-dawn dark sky.

The days wore on. I hand-washed clothing just for something to do. One day, I tried to meditate outside near the pond — even though the strict rules clearly stated I could only meditate in the main hall or in my bedroom. Within minutes of closing my eyes, the course manager approached me and asked if everything were alright. When I replied that I was just meditating, I was instructed to go inside. I did, slightly annoyed.

My mind tried to avoid feeling the pain locked inside the body, but there were only so many nicknames, poems, and other distractions. I frequently emerged from the meditation hall in tears. But I have a strong practice of crying and letting emotion move through me. Since I had no relationship with anyone, I would sometimes dramatically and playfully throw myself on to the soft grass on the field outside the hall. This silly grounding, much like the handstand practice, made me smile and soon feel better. I could go back to smiling at the beautiful English countryside unveiling itself in front of me. I kept up with the schedule.

Then, something interesting happened during meditation: All the knots in my shoulders disappeared. I had been feeling those knots for years. I had gone to so many massage therapists. I knew one knot originated around the time a woman berated me unfairly at work. For a while, I owned a Theracane, and with it I could apply enough force into the knot to cry. But it never went away completely. After that meditation, it was gone. GONE! All of them!

It was on that seventh day when I finally figured out what Vipassana was all about: self-healing. I was healing myself with my mind. It was the ultimate mind-body connection.

I had the power to take what I learned about neuroplasticity and biohacking and reprogram my brain to stop feeling that unnecessary, stuck-energy pain. I barely needed my 3:55 a.m. alarm the next morning. I beat Ghost as the first in the meditation hall for the remaining days. 

As a yoga teacher, I had a mental file of every pain and discomfort in my body. Now that the shoulder knots were taken care of, next up were these hips. I knew emotions were stored in the hips, but now I was feeling it. I was determined to confront the pain I locked away because it hurt too much at the time. 

The Vipassana practice teaches you how to become aware of every sensation in the body while staying equanimous. That is, see the sensation but don’t create a drama around it. Just let it be. The result makes the sensation dissipate. I no longer required cushions and could sit still for hours. 

My hips felt better. My shoulders felt better. The pain in my arms alleviated. My foot stopped going numb. It was amazing. I went body part to body part, really giving each a strong yet loving mental look. Some pain had no origins I knew of. I figured they were generational or from a past life. I acknowledged the sensation and allowed it to be seen. With that, I could feel the pain transmuting and lightening. 

By the last day, when the 50 female participants were allowed to talk to each other, I felt buoyant. I was the last one out of the meditation hall when it was over. Even Ghost was gone.

For weeks afterward, I continued to practice Vipassana meditation for an hour each day. I found that my preferences for things naturally and dramatically diminished. I went to eat after the course ended: Did I want the rosemary and potato casserole or the spinach and cheese quiche? It really didn’t matter. I mean, does that kind of thing really matter? What does matter?

Here’s what does, according to the Vipassana organizers here in Spain: I didn’t give up my other practices, namely Reiki energy work. That was the reason I was denied when I tried to sign up for that one-day “refresher” course. 

I have been attending weekly Vipassana group meditation practice, and I’m loving it. I am still feeling all these sensations in my body. Like, a lot.

If you’ve never felt sensations in your body, at this point you may think that I should take a trip to the mental hospital. The funny thing was, the person running the one-day course said exactly that when he explained that I would have to give up Reiki energy work, to which I’ve been attuned since 2003, if I ever wanted to do another Vipassana course.

I loved Looney Tunes as a kid! A “loon” could refer to a person whose mental state was influenced by the moon, or la luna. A loon is really a bird, you old coot. Now get on to the looney bin, folks.

“The concern is that you may have to go to the mental hospital,” the organizer said. “Goenka himself declared these two practices incompatible. I’ve personally had to deal with people who practice Reiki having to go to the mental hospital. We can’t put ourselves or you at that kind of risk.”

Well, okay. This is all about accepting things as they are, right? 

At first it felt like rejection — after all, wasn’t Vipassana a tool for progressing spiritually so that I could eventually turn into a light being and connect permanently with the higher power and never have to reincarnate again and reach enlightenment? I’m all for that.

That stuff about a mental hospital, geez, that was a first. I was always proud of my stable mental health. (Insert fart joke here). And yet … I was really feeling overwhelmed with all my work deadlines, finishing up the work needed to publish my first major travel memoir, and trying to get fit while learning Spanish and making new friends in a new place. Maybe a weekend getaway in the mental hospital wouldn’t be that bad. Would they serve meals as nice as the Vipassana retreat in the UK? I bet the bed wouldn’t be a bunk bed. It really didn’t sound that bad.

But, no, I have a cozy bed in my own apartment, thanks. I make my own yummy food. I know there are many different paths, and I’m walking my own. I’ve learned that when my mind is at peace, my body is pain-free. 

I still meditate every day. I still practice Reiki. I’m still not in the mental hospital — at least, not at the time of publication!

Art for Art’s Sake

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If you would have asked my 5-year-old self what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would have said a writer and an artist. 

By second grade, I wrote a little picture book about a guy named Joe, if I remember correctly, who drove a Chevy Nova. I was the lead in the little play my class gave to the school about the importance of dental health (I was the “Foolish Molar,” it was not a tragedy). I treasured most a few stuffed animals and my carousel of crayons, with which I doodled on the green shag carpet in my bedroom. I was always a creative type. 

The arts were always a part of my life in one way or another, although writing certainly took center stage. As a high school senior, I was the editor of the creative literacy journal (and lead in the school play, ceramics maker, captain of the field hockey team, and an honors student with a part-time job who sure enjoyed a good party, but I digress). I loved writing and reading poetry. 

But let’s face it: How many poets do you know who can afford to eat? So, I went into journalism. Maybe it was that I felt a social and personal obligation to make some money while I could, but I don’t regret it at all. It paved my way to working for a newspaper, then communications work for nonprofits, government and eventually plenty of small- and medium-sized businesses. I built a professional career that affords me the opportunity to travel wherever I want.

I had fun with some art as a hobby over the last 20 years, creating costumes for music festivals, holiday ornaments for friends, brainstorming creative outreach activities and events, and making music. I picked up the djembe and percussion instruments, and later the ukulele. I love to sing. 

I also appreciate art, filling the Shanti Shack, my RV, slowly but surely with the talents of my friends. So, when I happened to be rolling through Southern California after celebrating my birthday at Joshua Tree National Park, I was excited to discover a place called East Jesus.

A fellow nomad told me to check out Slab City, to go to the Slab City Library and also East Jesus. I rolled into the Slabs, as they’re called, about 10 days ago. I was pretty dirty, having not had a shower in a few days, cough cough, and I researched that there was a natural hot spring nearby.  

Welcome to the Slabs

The first night in the Slabs, I parked near the hot springs. I took a bath alone at dusk, poured myself a cocktail and relaxed for an early night. It was good I slept early, as locals and degenerate types investigated my rig throughout the night, driving in circles with Beastie Boys blasting from radios. I figured they were trying to scare the “Karens” and other retired types who are usually the ones driving around in a 23-foot RV. I found it hilarious! 

By the way, I have an Aunt Karen, and she’s lovely. 

After doing some writing assignments the next morning, I packed up to check out Slab City. First stop from the hot springs was Salvation Mountain. This well-maintained piece of art was made by a Jesus freak and his friends who painted a big hillside with a message encouraging people to say, “Jesus, I am a sinner. Please come upon my body and into my heart.”

I checked it out while other tourists were boasting somewhat loudly and stupidly about how they came here before and talked to the keeper of the property, and isn’t it really cool, I mean, I’m sorry like it’s a long, long drive and everything, but I think this is really, really cool. You know what I’m sayin, guys? Hey let’s snap a selfie! 

Hopping back in Shanti, I drove on to the Slab City Library. Previously, I had finished “East of Eden” by John Steinbeck. Wanting to donate the book, I realized I could also offer a big bag of stuff I no longer wanted. I packed up some random food people gave me that I was never going to eat, my old boots that were about to give out but had some life left in them, and a few hand-me-down clothing that didn’t make the cut. 

As I rolled up to the library, there was a big sign that read, “CLOSED: Deliveries Only.” Not one to listen to signage, I knew I had a delivery anyway so I drove right up. Maybe they knew where I could sleep that night, since I wasn’t quite ready to drive on down the road.

Some dude covered in tattoos came out to meet me and asked if I knew Cornelius. 

“Not yet,” I replied. “I have a delivery.” They pointed me down the way, and another guy came up to my car. I offered him the stuff, and then I asked him if he had a recommendation where I could park that evening. He told me to talk to Cornelius.

Corn comes out of the library. They’re on crutches, missing a leg, and holding a shotgun. They start shooting as two stray dogs haul ass, as they say, off their property. I’m a little shocked but use those old acting skills to play it cool. I introduce myself, and they tell me I can park on the dirt lot over by the edge of their property. I say, “That’s awesome. Thanks sister.”

“I’m a sibling,” Cornelius said, “not a sister.”

My brain rattling with information about firearms, dangerous feral animals, and gender identity, I thank them somewhat clumsily and got back in my rig. Instead of going straight to the parking spot, I carried on to East Jesus. I haven’t left.

East Jesus

Suffice to say, I remain overwhelmed and impressed with this art project. Let me simply write again what I crafted for a self-guided tour you can take when you arrive at this museum, just like I did:

Welcome to East Jesus!

Cared for by volunteers with the non-profit Chasterus Foundation, East Jesus is an experimental, habitable artwork-in-progress and a halfway house for wayward art. This dynamic, interactive museum is a member of the California Museum Association and is the vision of the late Charles Stephen Russell.

East Jesus is a community of artists, musicians, writers and dreamers who love art for art’s sake. With 7,000 watts of solar power and compostable toilets, it’s an off-the-grid lifestyle where we reuse it, repurpose it, recycle it or set it on fire. Your donations help keep everything going, so thanks!

On these 30 privately owned acres, nothing ever happens until it happens. More than 1,000 people have contributed their time and talent to making your experience happen. You get to decide if the random piles of garbage are artistic statements that transcend the impermanence of humanity’s excess or just a bunch of junk.

Whatever the value, all artwork is protected by copyright of the Chasterus Foundation. You must gain permission before you make images for moneymaking purposes. Holler over the wall. We’re a friendly sort.

And sure enough, that’s what I found after I spent a couple hours wandering around the fascinating and fun exhibits, which made me laugh and think and feel and engage in ways that reminded me of art galleries in Tokyo. I loved it. 

I remembered that I had some old pieces of shiny reflective material, leftover from creating my sunshield, and a big fishing net another friend gave me as a netting that just didn’t really work in my rig. I thought maybe these crazy artists would like it. I brought it over to the gift shop, and Paul came over.

He accepted my donation and offered to show me what’s going on inside, which, it turns out, is a community of artists creating and caring for the art garden and living in the middle of the desert. I stayed for dinner and welcomed the arrival of the new caretaker for the season. They had run out of coffee, so I offered to share the artisanal beans I treated myself to from a café on my birthday. 

The next day, after coffee, I pitched in to help … as I always do wherever I am. I did some dishes and sold a t-shirt. I felt right at home, and the caretaker, Steve, asked me to stay. 

It hasn’t quite been to two weeks, and I already dove deep into art. I’ve already made progress on my next book and created a self-guided tour for the art garden with a map that shows the name and location of most of the artwork and information about the project. I constructed a “Help Your Self Desk” that makes me anxious with all that technology I screwed down in it, but luckily, I also screwed on a toilet paper roll and a holder for a spear and a water faucet. 

I’m almost finished crafting a bunch of flower crowns, and I rehabbed and enhanced the previously blown-down-and-busted memorial for the founder, Charlie. I cleaned up the entrance area, dumped a bucket of shit into the compost area (living on a sailboat prepared me for this life), and created a marketing plan for upgrading their website. 

At the same time, I’ve been able to keep up with my work, eat well, make new friends and plan out a couple more art projects. Finally, I can get my zine together, which I’ve honestly been planning since I lived in Australia. I’m also doing some interesting artwork with wire, karate belts and a Styrofoam head I found out in “the boneyard,” which is a huge, somewhat-sorted pile of refuge like what I donated. 

Back in July, I included the word, “ART” on this year’s vision board that I made for myself, but I didn’t realize how wonderfully central that word would be. It’s a blessing to have the freedom to create as I wish. I’m able to dip into my experiences, such as celebrating El Dia de los Muertos with giant kites in Sumpango, Guatemala. That’s what those flower crowns are for. 

I’m able to be myself, just as my 5-year-old self imagined me to be. 

Introducing the Shanti Shack

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Faithful readers! I owe you quite an apology for the eight-month delay in a blog post. I was doing pretty good for a while there, yes? But I’m definitely not living in the Galapagos anymore! An update is long overdue.

The Shanti Shack, the RV I bought sight-unseen while living on another continent. I was shocked by her girth … hopefully, the RV didn’t feel the same. Now that I shelter-on-the-move, I’m grateful for the extra space.

If you’d been reading along for the last six years of this blog, you know I had uprooted my life to travel internationally while trying to understand and share life lessons along the way. My experiences in South America, Far East, Southeast Asia, the Caribbean and Oceania are enough to fill a book. (This is called foreshadowing.) I’ve been busy!

I know, I know … excuses! I was literally making a sourdough starter after playing a song on my ukulele when I realized how I dropped the ball on this blog. Sorry!

I’m often at the crossroads of living my life fully and wanting to document and share everything with those who care to read about it. 

Over the last eight months, I’ve certainly been living much more than writing about the living I’m doing. I’ve always been one for coming up with plans and then executing them. In January, I came up with a plan that has resulted in me having perhaps more freedom than most of the people in the world for the last six months.

I bought an RV in the United States and have been sheltering on the move. As an American, I’ve traveled wherever I’ve wished on my own timeline during the entire COVID-19 pandemic.

I have been social distancing in the most natural way: Yesterday, the only person I saw all day was a man fly fishing about 25 yards from where I was doing yoga along the lakeside, next to my RV, which I’ve named the Shanti Shack.

#RVLife: Sheltering on the Move

In January, I came up with the idea of buying this RV … and traveling throughout the United States, for really the first time in my life. I’ve enjoyed some national travel during a week or two of vacation, but I’ve never had an extended road trip.

My timing was divinely guided. After living abroad for five years, I needed to return to Miami in March 2020. I had a meeting scheduled for years at the Italian consulate to reclaim my citizenship, which will eventually result in a prized EU passport. 

The idea for the Shanti Shack happened organically enough. I had a few boxes and my grandmother’s paintings stored at my friend’s house, located a couple of hours north of Miami. There was space to hang my grandmother’s paintings at my parents’ home in Pennsylvania. I needed to hug my parents after a few years on the other side of the globe anyway. With a van or an RV, I could drive from Florida to Pennsylvania and not have to worry about where to live.

Besides, I hadn’t seen a lot of places that make the U.S. so special. I like seeing things with my own eyes, rather than watching something on television or reading about something. When you experience something, there’s an energetic value that’s intangible and invaluable.

I’m at the Grand Canyon! Woo!

In January, a friend in Florida helped me find an RV that suited my needs. In February, I moved from Uruguay (where I was living after the Galapagos and after a brief but lovely layover in Lima) to Colombia for a month. I paid installments on the RV and researched solar systems to get it off-grid. When I landed in Miami on March 1, I had an entire plan in place for living on the road.

It was a busy 10 days. By the time I had my Italian appointment in Miami on March 11, I had installed solar on my rig and felt comfortable enough to hit the road. By March 15, you may remember, the entire world shut down at the horrific predictions of massive curves of deaths and overflowing emergency rooms in a worldwide health crisis. 

I was thankful to be back in the U.S. My friends still abroad shared stories about their police-mandated lockdown. Some were given 2 tickets used to leave their apartment building once or twice a week; others were only allowed outside for one hour in the morning for exercise. Many talked about not being about to rent an affordable room or go to the grocery store. Everyone was worried about their visas.

In the U.S., meanwhile, many of my friends and family had reached a heightened and pervasive state of anxiety. Fear has been normalized. Anger, too.

Meet Shanti

This is where I’d like to turn once again to the Shanti Shack. To me, this girth-y recreation vehicle is more than my tiny home on wheels. Faithful readers may remember me living on a sailboat and in a tiny home on wheels I had built with a guy in Australia. This RV is my peacemobile.

I’ve hung prayer flags, origami peace doves, peace signs, a couple of OMs and artwork from all the friends I’ve seen since I’ve been in the U.S. I have another peace sign art piece currently under commission with another friend.

There is no fighting in the Shanti Shack. There’s no aggressive driving (not like I can go faster than 65 mph, anyway.) This vehicle is a way for me to bring peace, love, laughter, smiles, friendship, and happiness to everyone I see.

Hindu gods have vehicles. Vishnu flies around on Garuda, an eagle. Shiva rides Nandi, a while bull. Ganesha, the fat elephant-headed god, rides a little mouse! There are many lessons here, including that you never have to be alone on your journey and that you should use whatever suites you best for what your life entails. For me, that’s Shanti, which means peace in sanskrit.

Living in America

Every day, I take a big inhale through my nose and identify smells. Lately, the predominent smell has been pine. This is just one way that I am testing myself for COVID-19 symptoms. I am always sanitary, cleaning my hands often and wearing a mask indoors. I actually feel fantastic.

This is a fairly typical backyard view. Especially out west, public lands are available to enjoy for all. I use apps to help me find legal places to sleep, fill up my water and dump my black water.

I believe anxiety is correlated to how in control you feel about your health and how fearful you are of dying. Dying is inevitable. I sure hope it doesn’t happen today or tomorrow for myself or any of my loved ones. But it’s gonna happen to us all.

I’m trying to just be realistic. The result is a careful carefree-ness of enjoying the nation while gas prices are cheap and roads are empty.

Since I’m off the grid, I don’t have to “hook up” at parks. I live for free. I’ve camped on public lands and outside friends’ homes in about 20 states so far, as I drove up the coast from Florida to Pennsylvania, then down south to Tennessee and over the Louisiana bayou, through Texas and into the Southwest. Today’s dateline is Wyoming, and the only thing I see outside my window is a breathtaking view of Grand Teton. Tomorrow I get to see just exactly how much faith I should really put into Old Faithful.

GK Chesterton once wrote, “The whole object of travel is not to set foot on foreign land; it is at last to set foot on one’s own country as a foreign land.”

That’s certainly true. I’ve been getting to check off many “bucket list” places in the States, like the seeing the Grand Canyon, sledding down White Sands National Monument, living like a local in New Orleans for a couple of weeks, seeing the synchronized fireflies in the Smokies, living literally on the beach, living literally on lakeshores, and now living literally with the Grand Teton National Park in my backyard.

But wait, there’s more!

America really is beautiful, although now that I’ve driven through Wyoming I feel like I’ve seen just about enough of the amber waves of grain, thanks. And cows. As someone who doesn’t eat or drink any cow products, I have a hard time grasping exactly how huge that industry is. So much of the land I pass is pasture.

As for Americans, well, I’m still trying to reacclimate. As I travel around, I am meeting many different kinds of people. Some are kind, and some are struggling. I do my best to offer peace and compassion to those around me. 

To that end, I very much appreciate being able to speak the language. Although I did enjoy speaking English in New Zealand, India and Australia, most of 2016 through 2019 involved a language barrier. Being able to make the barista laugh while she’s serving me a coffee goes a long way.

And the road (in this case, the famous “Forest Gump” road in Monument Valley) goes on forever ….

Speaking of going a long way, that’s the plan. It will take about another year and a half for my Italian citizenship to be processed, as is the bureaucracy and not to mention the whole, you know, world shutting down. I will see as much of the States as the Shanti Shack allows me, and I look forward to driving through Canada to Alaska, whenever the Canadian government will have me. 

In the meantime, I’ll do my best to update this blog at least monthly again. I also write on Medium, if you didn’t know, and post pictures of my travels on my Instagram, which you’re welcome to follow at @suzannewentley. A lot is happening … in fact, it’s all happening!

Endemic to Earth

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When I was a little girl, I didn’t have pictures of teenage heart throbs on my bedroom wall. I had a poster of the entire Earth, real photographs stitched together on cloudless days as seen from space. I didn’t play with dolls, really. I had endless make-believe adventures, which often involved me wearing a bathing suit and feeling the wind in my hair. My imaginary friend even moved away to the tropics when I was 6 or so.

Galapagos land tortoise
A Galápagos giant land tortoise saying, “Hola, yo soy de aquí” … or something like that. I’m no Dr. Doolittle.

So, it’s really no surprise how I turned out.

I’ve been spending my last week in the Galápagos Islands, off the coast of Ecuador, hopping from island to island in search of endemic flora and fauna. These are animals and plants that can only be found in the Galápagos, and usually only on one particular island. I watched an endemic flightless cormorant, with its pathetically small and useless wings, catch a fish as big as its body and, with a little effort, swallow it whole. I saw two juvenile giant Galápagos tortoises fighting over a branch of a snack, one gumming the other on the neck in a jealous show of slow-motion aggression. I swam past a Galápagos sea eel, sticking its little head up from a hole made at the bottom of the sandy ocean. I watched two Galápagos penguins, relaxing on a rock not so far from frolicking Galápagos fur seals. 

I wouldn’t have been able to see these creatures anywhere else in the world. It made me think about how different that is from me. These days, I can be found most anywhere in the world.

I know how incredibly different that is from most people I meet. The vast majority of the people in the world – including, likely, you, dear reader – has grown up in a section of Earth and then either decided to live out their days in that same location or, maybe, moved one or two other places. My father, for example, was born in the same small town in Pennsylvania where I was born. Outside of his university days and a stint in the Army, he’s lived all his days in that same small town. Chances are (and hopefully not anytime soon), he’ll die in that same town. He’s endemic, really. He may take short trips to tropical resorts to sun himself by various pools, but he returns happily to his home.

marine iguanas
Marine iguanas, also found only in the Galápagos. They’re everywhere and could care less about you, really. But they’re so cute munching on algae under water!

The fur seal, giant land tortoise, flightless cormorants and the rest of the fascinating wildlife I’ve seen on this beautiful archipelago recently all know their home. My dad knows his home. Most people know where home is. Me, not so much.

I have plenty of friends who wonder when I’m “coming home.” People in Florida wonder when I’m coming home. People in the Caribbean wonder when I’m coming home. People in Pennsylvania wonder when I’m coming home. In fact, I even have friends in Malaysia, Bali, India, and now even Ecuador who wonder when I am returning back to the spot where, they believe, I belong. It’s a wonderful feeling, but it’s confusing, too.

I’ve taken to creating a little mantra for myself. I’m a yoga teacher, so I say that I’m always hOMe. That is, my home rests in my heart, and in my heart is the peace of my highest self. But that’s a fairly complex reply for the countless times people ask where I’m from.

In fact, that’s often the first question people ask during my last five years of international travels. They’re more interested in my home than my name. They don’t want to know what my favorite food is, how short I wear my fingernails, or whether I enjoy watching scary movies. They want their first impression of me to be based on where I call home. 

blue footed booby
This blue-footed booby can also be found in Perú and California, so technically not a propos to this blog. But check out those feet!

My reply is usually, “Do you want to know where I was born? Is that what you are asking me?” Because, in reality, I have no home. I am technically homeless, after all, even though I’m writing this from a private hotel room by the water for which I happily paid $30/night. When the kind man who checked me in helped with my bag, I apologized in Spanish that it was so big because it was all I owned. He said, “Ah, es tu casa!”

It’s interesting the number of conversations, then, that I’ve had about the state of Pennsylvania, from which I moved as soon as I could. It’s a pretty place, of course, with roving hills of corn plants and pastureland that I’d pass as I drove with my friends to our favorite hiking trail that led back to a sweet swimming hole in the warm summer months. But Pennsylvania, home of Heinz ketchup, Andy Warhol and the Liberty Bell, is also so cold and dreary in the winters that I distinctly remember understanding the phrase, “chilled to the bone.”

People hear I’m from Pennsylvania and think that’s where I belong, like I’m a lava gull or Galápagos finch. But, of course, I don’t belong just there. Sure, I can fit in by ordering a “lager” (that’s Yuengling Lager, duh) and entertaining the soft, quirky nature that comes from living around both Quakers and Amish. But I can also fit in just fine in Tokyo, New Zealand, New York City, Argentina and Vietnam. I might not look like everyone else (people were certainly confused by me when I lived in Seoul), but I get along well enough to eat, conduct business and do what I generally set out to make of my day. 

sierra negra volcano
Look at me! I’m even at home on top of the second largest volcano crater in the world, the still-active Sierra Negra on Isabela Island

I find it takes me about two weeks to understand a city well enough to feel comfortable, sometimes less depending on the size. Just today, I took a walk around Santa Cruz to check on my SCUBA plans (fingers crossed to see hammerheads and an ocean sunfish, like the divers did there two days ago!), and I didn’t need Google maps even as I explore a nearby neighborhood. I stopped into a store to pick up something I needed, then headed back to the hotel where I had a nice conversation with the manager in my pidgin Spanish. I fit in here, basically. I fit in most everywhere, more or less.

That’s why I think I’m endemic to Earth. It’s a big, beautiful world – and it’s my home.

A Halfway-Decent Proposal

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OK, single ladies – when was the last time a man proposed marriage to you? For some of you beautiful women, it may be never. Well, for me, I’m lucky enough to have it happen twice. The first was when I was 21 and tragically naïve, having no idea what I wanted in the world, who I was going to be and how I was going to get there. The second was just last week by a man who is, by all intents and purposes, a complete stranger.

The romance began with the kind of story you tell your kids. I was traveling in the mountains of Ecuador, to a lovely town called Baños de Aqua Santa. I’m actually living 12 hours by bus away, on the coast, but I had an opportunity to explore for a week. Why Baños? Simply because some dude I never met but matched with on Tinder encouraged me to go. Life’s that simple, really.

La Termas de la Virgen, the nicer of the two hot springs in Baños de Aqua Santa. Also where, evidently, I happened to have been the prettiest and most single on one particular day.

Baños is known for its hot springs (or namesake “baths”) as well as its beautiful Ruta de las Cascadas, which is a road that features waterfall after waterfall. I went to truly scary El Pailon del Diablo. I looked down into the caldron and thought about how easily I could throw myself and/or fall over the rocks to my death below. I mean, it’s South America. There are no guardrails or even signs. It’s like, pay $2 and good luck, gringa.

So, I’m relaxing in one of these hot springs, which is really like a warm, muddy public pool that kids swim around and old people gossip and everyone wears a swimming cap. It’s wonderful, and really hot. I had just hiked to the waterfall, and, even though it was nothing like the hike in Guatemala up the Acatenango Volcano, it was still nice to relax. This, evidently, is when I was spotted.

A man slips in next to me and starts talking. I engage in my pathetic-but-maybe-improving Spanish, but he quickly and thankfully switches to English. He calls himself the luckiest man in the world, because he’s talking to the most beautiful woman in the world. I demure. What a line! I’ll take it.

Of course, we’re in the hottest pool, and you can’t last long. So we part ways, but he tracks me down again to take my picture (this, by the way, is not a thing in the U.S. but it is everywhere else in the world. Once, I was on a beach in India and a man yelled, “Ma’am! Ma’am! PICTURE!” And another time outside an art museum in Tokyo, a woman begged me for a photo. What are they doing with these photos?) He also asked for my Facebook connection. Fine. Whatever.

So, I left and, not surprisingly, the man asked to see me again. It took me a minute to get used to Latin men again, after living in Asia for so long. Latin men are extremely forward. I’ve now had the honor of going on dates with a Peruvian, a Guatemalan, a Spaniard (or two), an Argentine, a Paraguayan, an El Salvadorian and an Ecuadorian. These guys! It’s like they barely know your name, and they’re trying to put their tongues down your throat. 

By the way, now’s the time to mention that I was an All-Conference Second Base-woman on my high school softball team. No, really!

Baños really is a romantic town.

But I digress. It’s one thing to be super-sexual. Any guy will try that if it’s the cultural norm. It’s another thing to propose marriage. The man from the hot springs begs to see me again. I finally told him that I was heading to a café to work; he was welcome to join me for a tea. Well, he gets my note, tells his employees to take the afternoon off and gets on the first bus to Baños. Turns out he lives 1.5 hours away. He arrives sweating. He literally ran to meet me. 

After a nice tea, we take a short walk around town. We stop at a park. He tells me that God has sent me to him. He tells me he wants to build us a house – not a big house, but the most beautiful house. He wants to marry me. He wants to take care of me – forever.

I, of course, am dumb-founded. Like I said, it’s not like guys are proposing to me every day. They’re usually just trying to bed me. This guy is trying to bed me for the rest of my life! Now, that’s some cojones.

I strive to be impeccable with my words, so I tell him that I would need a lot of time to think about this and that I needed to get to know him better. We part – did I mention he gifted me a huge bag of fruit? – and I enjoy the remainder of my time exploring beautiful Baños before returning to the coast. I tell my friend about the proposal. This old girl’s still got it! 

Not surprisingly, he wants to see me again. He asks to meet me on the coast. Not having any plans, I agree in the evening. He immediately takes the next 12-hour bus and arrives to meet me at 8 a.m. He suggests a trip to the next town, which turns out to be pretty groovy. We walk around Montañita, have some food, check out a statue of the Virgin Mary that witnesses say cries tears and, creepily, blood. We walk along the beach when he stops me and proposes marriage again, this time directly. He’s lovely. He proclaims his love to me. But I’m not going to say yes. This old girl’s no fool.

After he washes the sand from my feet – yes, you read that right – we return to my town. We part ways, with him telling me he loves me as the taxi drops me off and he returns to his town on yet another 12-hour bus. I’m, again, dumb-founded. My friends think I’m crazy to even consider this. But I do. Do I want children? Do I want a family? Is it now or never?  Would I want to live in a small mountain town in Ecuador and make tortillas? I start imaging wearing an awesome felt hat. Who am I?

Can you see this lady’s hat on the bus? Ecuadorians win for having the coolest hats, with feathers and everything.

Then something interesting happens. He starts posting things on his Facebook page. The first day, he posts a picture of a sexy woman clad in a Corona bathing suit next to a bigger woman in a Corona Extra suit (Ha ha! That big woman ought to be ashamed!). The next day, he posts a picture of him and some woman dressed as a stripper on the side of the road (he was wearing a down jacket – she looked cold and uncomfortable). Then, the following day, he posts a video of some half-naked woman playing the piano. I, not surprisingly to anyone who actually knows me, am repulsed. I’ve seen this behavior before, and I don’t like it.

See, I was triggered. I’ve known so many men who believe the value of a woman is in her shape. It’s normal and fine, isn’t it? Well, I’m here to tell you: It’s not. Just because some women believe that their value is only in their looks doesn’t make it OK. Just because you don’t sleep around also doesn’t make it OK. Just because men are “visual creatures” doesn’t make it OK. I had a boyfriend like this once. He was addicted to looking at women on the internet and porn. He was really pathetic, liking all the pictures of my pretty friends while getting his rocks off in the other room. I kicked him out of my house.

Did this guy have any idea what kind of powerful feminist he was trying to tame? If a man can’t control himself enough to appreciate physical beauty and move on, he’s not man enough for me. The sad thing is, it really isn’t that hard. I told him it was a deal-breaker. He apologized.

The proposal remains on the table. He is a kind man, but is he my kind of man? At least I know I still got it ….

The Kindness Factor

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Pictures of awesome lunches and sleeping kitties aside, Facebook has transformed society in a very important way: Now, more than ever, we can witness acts of kindness.

The soccer team of girls who shielded a member of the opposite team when her hijab started to slip? That was nice. That meme that encourages women to take an old purse and fill it with toiletries and give it to a homeless person? What a lovely idea. The article my friends shared to remind me of how important it is for mental health to lunch with a friend? I liked that, too.

A funeral in Antigua, Guatemala. It’s easier to be kind to people when they’re dead. What if you remembered the goodness in others even when they are alive and challenge you?

If you live your life right, you can fill your entire world with beauty and joy. This may be easier in some places that others. For example, I’ve been living in Antigua, Guatemala, where every person you pass will greet you with a “buenos días” or a simple “que tal” or “hola” wherever you go. I know that part of this charm has to do simply with the fact that it’s a smaller town. When I lived in Tokyo, no one said “konnichiwa” when I passed – but that was in part because some days the sidewalks were so full you were forced into a polite, slow shuffle to get to your destination.

I’m still trying to understand why some communities and cultures are more welcoming and warmer than others. I imagine that there may be some legacy stress involved. Some countries and cities were the site of horribly traumatic wars and natural disasters that left the population on edge. Other cultures have had less destruction and victimization throughout history. As a result, they are more open to strangers like me.

But, as readers likely already know, the world is a mirror of your life within. When you are kind to yourself, you see acts of kindness around you. When you are kind to others, people want to return the favor. 

Last night, I took myself out to a nice dinner to celebrate the completion of a major assignment and simply appreciate a quiet evening by myself. I was actually feeling a little low, a little lonely. I figured a glass of wine and a yummy plate of pasta would help. The waiter, watching me read and breathe deeply, engaged me in a short conversation in Spanish. He asked me how long I was living in Antigua and if I were studying Spanish. I told him I wasn’t going to a class, but I am always learning. I had lived in Argentina, Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and even New Mexico and Florida, so I had a lot of practice. I said this all in Spanish, but admitted I wasn’t that great with the language. But he complimented me, while also speaking slowly enough so that I completely understood. His smile was a real-world version of a nice video on Facebook. He was kind to me. It was really nice. 

It takes a certain amount of compassion and gentleness to be kind. In today’s fast-paced, competitive world, kindness can feel like a revolutionary act. And yet, it’s a simple choice you can make every day. You have to really listen. You have to acknowledge that other people are equal to you in all ways. You cannot judge. Sometimes you have to go above and beyond. You sometimes must give others the benefit of the doubt. You have to be grateful. All of that can be hard if you’re used to living in a defensive, hardened way.

It’s easier to be kind when you view people as potential friends, rather than possible threats. Look for the goodness in others, and chances are you will find it.

I am constantly trying to soften myself. I am always practicing kindness. I am a warrior for peace, and I learned sometimes you must cease and desist when choosing love. Sometimes I have to choose peace over being right. I have a lot of opinions. But with increased frequency, I keep the less-than-kind ones to myself. I may not agree with you, but I respect you because you also have the potential to be a caring, good person – even if you happen to not be choosing that right now. It can be challenging to see the goodness in some people. Those people need extra kindness. Some people are never going to understand kindness. That’s sad, isn’t it?

Today, a friend mentioned in a chat that a mutual friend was feeling down. He was feeling isolated. I was so grateful that she told me, so that I could immediately send him a note and let him know I cared. To those who say it’s your responsibility to reach out and take charge of your emotions, I agree. But it can feel exhausting to be kind to others when you, yourself are in need. That’s why I always try to “pay it forward” as much as possible, and I encourage you to, as well.

The world can feel like a very challenging place, especially when you live in places where you don’t really speak the language and barely understand the culture. Not everyone will be kind to you, but that’s not because people are inherently unkind. It’s usually because something is going on with them, often having absolutely nothing to do with you. Understanding this is simply recognizing the abundance of kindness – or potential kindness – around you. 

Smoking volcano, barbed wire, mournful statue: File under “Life can be difficult.” But the Kindness Factor is the magic that makes life sweet. Shift your point of view to the gorgeous blue sky to file under: “Life is beautiful.”

If you don’t feel this reality in your heart, I encourage you look for examples of kindness around you. This is part of the power of social media. For years, we only got our “news” through traditional media channels. And you know newspapers seem like they are filled with bad news. I’m a trained journalist, so I can promise you that it’s not because of some conspiracy theory to make the world an awful place for whatever ends. The reason that you see so much “bad news” is because of the definition of newsworthiness. Of the test journalists use to determine what makes the news, an event must be rare. It must conflict with how we think life is. That means, thankfully, murders and war and rapes and political battles aren’t as common as strangers smiling and greeting each other on the street. And yet, seeing this bad stuff all the time may make you think the opposite. The bad news may fill you with fear. Resist it. Look for love instead.

It’s our responsibility, as residents of this modern world, to seek out and increase the kindness factor. At first, these acts of love may seem rare in your life – but they’re not, really. It’s extremely common, especially when you share kindness with others. So, how will you be kind today?

Long-Awaited Karma

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I was recently doing work in an upstairs café in the middle of Ho Chi Minh City, like any good digital nomad. I arrived in between the breakfast and the lunch rush, grabbed a seat near the electric plug and set my laptop up after ordering one of Vietnam’s famous coffees. I had already sampled cà phê sūa da, the classic iced milk coffee. I loved the cà phê dùa, the coconut coffee, and cà phê trung, an egg coffee, was a real treat. So, my eyes lit up as the waiter smiled at me as he brought over a hot coffee topped with a phin, which is a little metal filter that allows the brew to drip down into the cup.

I wore this well.

We were both smiling, in fact, until the last moment, when he proceeded to spill the entire cup all over me and my makeshift desk. His eyes widened as his saw the grinds and coffee all over my shirt, my bag and the floor. He immediately started apologizing and scrambling. Seeing that my computer was fine, I continued to smile.

See, I had it coming.

Rewind 23 years ago, and I did almost the exact same thing to someone else. I was sitting in a college lecture in New York City with what I can only remember as the biggest coffee ever. My beverage of the Gods (just some black mud purchased from a vendor on the street outside, certainly) was perched precariously on the narrow desk. It was the kind of writing space that attaches to a seat, which in turn is attached to a row of the same seats and desks in an effort to churn out as many debt-inducing graduates as possible. There was no place for a jumbo-sized reusable mug of joe. And I proved that point by knocking the entire thing over on to the girl in front of me.

Then, the most fascinating thing happened: She smiled. She shrugged. She actually acted like it was an improvement to her outfit to have an entire coffee spilled all over her. She gave me absolutely no ill will at all, and I totally deserved it because I was definitely negligent. I apologized, and she even waved that off. She was so cool about it. 

And there in Saigon, upstairs at the M2C Café, I finally had the opportunity to return the favor. This is called karma, and I had waited all these years to be as cool as that girl was. So, I was. The waiter was sweating and shaking about the spill, and I put my hand on his shoulder and shook my head. It was really no problem, I told him. I rinsed my shirt in the bathroom and moved my stuff to another table. I smiled when he brought me a new coffee. I even paid for it. And I tipped him. 

The best part? Somehow my shirt was completely fine. All the coffee came out in the laundry. 

Endless cafes to try in Saigon — including many in this photogenic converted apartment building

Karma, of course, is not always so direct. This law of cause and effect can also take lifetimes, if you believe it that. It’s an awfully good reason for why “bad things happen to good people,” though. See, that woman who was my coffee victim could have been a royal bitch, but that would have been on her. The fact that she reacted the way she did so many years ago simply served to remind me not to make that guy feel any worse than he already did. 

In fact, I was thankful to that clumsy waiter. I was able to turn something that could have easily ruined my day into a gift. He gave me an opportunity to get rid of whatever I had coming to me, whatever I had done to make a little pot of coffee spill all over me. 

You may be thinking that I didn’t really have anything to do with that spill. But, of course I did. It’s not as if the waiter tripped. No one pushed him. The only reason was that I had it coming. It was a little test to see how I was going to act. Was I going to keep negativity in my life and get pissed off? Was I going to play the victim? Or was I going to use it as an opportunity to make someone smile? It was really nice, when I left, to see that waiter smile at me. 

Then, driving home on my scooter, I had to fight through crazy traffic. Saigon wins for the craziest traffic, with hundreds of scooters and cars coming at you from all sides, all the time. Everyone is constantly cutting in front of you and driving the wrong way. I bumped into a woman on an electric bike at a stop light. I turned and saw she was rubbing her hand. I asked her if she was OK. She nodded, and we exchanged understanding smiles. As I drove off, I was grateful that I had the wherewithal amidst all the chaos to care. It’s so easy to just push your way through life and forget that all the people around you are your neighbors.  

I’m not kidding about the crazy traffic here. We’re all scooting each other home … Ram Dass said something like that.

I remember about six years ago I was in Costa Rica, traveling from San Jose to the coast when my bus stopped at a little bodega for refreshments. As I was picking out a snack, I heard a crash outside. I looked up and saw a car had rear-ended another. The driver from the second car, the one at fault, got out first. He was a teenage boy, and he put both hands on his head in horror at the damage he caused. The second driver, an older man, got out and approached the kid. And I witnessed something else amazing: Instead of yelling at the kid, the older man gave him a hug. Shit happens. That doesn’t mean we have to be mean to each other. 

See, the random people around us are actually more than our neighbors. They’re also our teachers. That’s really the lesson of karma. We can all go up into the mountains, get away from everyone and meditate all day. But then we’d miss out on all the spiritual lessons from all cause and effect resulting in actions by the people around us all the time. Only when confronted with challenging situations can we decide how to live your life. Living in a city with more than 8.6 million people, I have a lot of opportunity to figure that out. Luckily, there’s lots of coffee to keep me going.

Damsel in De-stress

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Recently, I got to flex my rusty acting skills in a YouTube video about the differences in American and South Indian culture. I ran around Chennai, Tamil Nadu for a couple days, hopping on buses and into auto tuk tuks, laughing heartily with my new friends. My job was to basically be a naïve foreigner. A role I was born to play!

India is by far the most vibrant place I’ve ever been. At all times of day, the streets are filled with life. Women are selling flowers, herbed buttermilk and mangos. Men are smoking together in groups or racing past on motorbikes, sometimes in the wrong direction on the busy streets. Hurling past bicyclists, dogs and families, buses straddle lanes and barely notice street lights. Cows are everywhere, and they tend to mosey out in front of you while you are driving. Friends gather to play cricket or football, have a chai or take care of the business. 

Sometimes the traffic is really moooooving really slowly in Chennai.

Everywhere, India is simply buzzing with sounds, smells and sights. Loud speakers blast prayers from roadside temples, as whiffs of spicy sambar float by. Clouds of dirt get in your eyes as you drive past fresh fish for sale on the road. Beautiful sarees, wrapped masterfully to cover voluptuous bodies, create a rainbow of color from the ocean to the depth of the city. 

Close up of the feast for the eyes that is the Kapaleeshwarar Temple in Mylapore.

It can be a little overwhelming – especially over my last 72 hours.

On one of my first days in the country, a man named Nihal – his name means happiness – took me for filter coffee and a walk along one of the city’s slightly less trashed-strewn beaches. We were greatly enjoying each other’s company when he looked down, pointed and warned me to watch my step. 

“You must always be alert in India,” he told me. “You must always be present, or, well, you might step in shit.”

Of course, staying present is a constant practice, as the present is now. And now. And now. Even with my daily yoga classes, propensity for spiritual texts and meditation work, I often find myself lost in a memory or planning ahead. It’s really easy to step in shit, both literally and figuratively. It felt like that a few days ago, with the first of two quintessential Indian moments, which I shall refer to as “The Watchman Incident.”

TL;DR: The security guard at my apartment grabbed my breast.

This small, old man has a wild puff of gray hair and no more than four teeth, all tragically discolored and jutting out in a wide variety of directions. His job is to open the gate when I come and go from the apartment. He speaks no English. For the first few weeks, I enjoyed smiling with him. A clown and possibly a drunk, he would do a funny, little jig as he opened the gate. He cleaned my scooter and made sure I had always locked it.

Acting as my advocate, Tarun tells off the watchman who assaulted me.

In many ways, I loved that man. He made me feel just slightly safer in a country that isn’t exactly known for a good treatment of women. I gave him a mango once. I even made origami cranes for friends and made one for him. I always had a smile for him. 

But our relationship was not smooth. A couple weeks ago, I invited Nihal over for dinner one day, the watchman took great exception. He tried to stop my friend from coming upstairs, even as his backpack was filled with ingredients for our meal. When we ignored him, he banged on my front door and threatened to call the building owner. Here I was, a 41-year-old woman who travels solo internationally, and some old uncle was forbidding me an unchaperoned evening with a man I had met in public enough to trust. Interestingly, it didn’t matter that I told him it was fine. It really didn’t matter what I thought.

Then recently, I met another friend who had experience with Reiki and was interested in receiving an attunement. We worked out a trade, shook hands and made plans for the class at my apartment. As we were walking up the stairs to my door a few days ago, the watchman came running up, again trying to stop him. I asked my friend to explain that he was my student, and that it was fine. We ignored the guard’s protests, went upstairs and had a wonderful morning of healing energy work.

But my friend is a nervous type, and as we finished with the class he asked if I would accompany him while he waited for his Uber. He was scared of stray dogs, which roamed around my neighborhood with big, freedom-filled smiles and wagging tails. I knew they were harmless, but nonetheless I walked down the road with him to wait. On my way back to my apartment, I lingered in the road and picked a few fragrant flowers, thinking about how lovely my time in India has been. 

As I walked through the gate, the watchman approached me. Remember, he doesn’t speak English, but he prattles on as if I understand Tamil. He pointed up to my apartment, clearly displeased that I hosted yet another man. I assured him, in English, that it was fine, that I appreciated his concern but it is OK. Then, he looked at me, pointed to the apartment and then to himself. He seemed to suggest that he wanted to go up to my apartment. 

The bells were ringing, but not loud enough. He was such a clown!

I smiled, again reassuring him that I had everything under control and thanked him for his concern. I shook my head and reached out to give him one of the flowers I had picked as I started to head up to my apartment. I had never been so close to the guard before, and there was a moment when I was transfixed by his horrendous dentistry. That’s when he reached out and grabbed me. 

In fight or flight, I always pick flight – so I ran upstairs, locked my door and sat on my sofa for a moment, feeling his bony handprint on my breast. I remembered when my friend dropped her cell phone in the river. She shrugged and said, “Well, that happened.” I had the same sort of feeling.

At that moment (Jai Ganesha), my friend Tarun sent me a note about stopping by my place. My wifi was out at home, so he hadn’t been able to connect with me for a party the night prior. I told him what happened, and he was outraged. He came over immediately, and in the guard’s language we confronted him. The son-in-law of the building owner overheard us and came out. He apologized to me and promised to fire the watchman. Both Nihal and Tarun followed up that evening and the next day, but it’s been a few days. The guard is still there. Indian culture is different than American culture, after all … I participated in a whole video prepping me for this. 

Still, I felt like I had stepped in shit. I may have played a naïve foreigner in a video, but I have no interest in playing a damsel in distress. Fortunately, I had a phone with a SIM card filled with cheap data to connect me with people who cared about me. I went to yoga, slept in and ate a big piece of rosewater cake and drank basil tea with my friend, Shanna. I was a damsel in de-stress.

Maybe a bit too colonial for my style, but that was a mighty fine piece of rosewater cake with a cup of basil tea at the Flower Power Tea Room.

But I had more karma to burn. The friend from yoga class who helped me get my SIM card – it is difficult for a foreigner to get a phone number in India – had been texting me constantly since we had spent one day exploring the city together. He kept wanting to hang out, but I had been inundated with work. I’d see him at yoga class, and we were friendly. But I thought he had a strange energy, and the frequent “What are you doing now?” texts were getting old, fast. Yesterday, he evidently ran out of patience.

As I’m out running errands, I see messages from him about how he suddenly wants the SIM card back. It’s free, by the way, and residents can have as many as they want. I had paid the $3 for basically unlimited data for the month. I told him I needed it, and in fact, I had just recharged it for another month. I had no wifi at home, so I was using the card for work as well. I thanked him again for his help but told him I needed it. He demanded it back. He was clearly mentally unstable. 

I refused. But because we used his information to sign up for the SIM card, he was able to cancel it – and, abruptly, did. At 9:30 p.m., I had to walk in the dark out of my apartment, past the guard who had previously assaulted me, to go to the nearby restaurant to beg for a hotspot so I could yet again reach out to my friends for help. 

I was wading waist-deep in shit!

So many friends came to my rescue this week, including my video co-star, shown here “acting” like hanging out in the cell phone store was the last thing she wanted to do.

In the morning, as I waited for my friend Shruthi to pick me up and bring me to the cell phone store and get me a new SIM card, I am thinking about the lessons I can learn from these dirty dealings. First, I am wiser about offering kindness to someone who doesn’t have the capacity to understand it. That guard obviously judged me harshly as the typical Western whore he’s seen in porn and yet was also enamored with me – a winning combination, right? I see now how I can avoid that situation in the future, when the sexual assault could be a lot worse than a cheap titty grab.

Second, I am reevaluating what are considered gifts. In the Yoga Sutras, we are encouraged to follow a yama called aparighraha. This Sanskrit word translates to non-possessiveness and non-attachment to things. Owning only what I can carry, I thought I was doing pretty good here, but another element of this subtle teaching is the instruction to not accept gifts. Gifts create strings, as was clearly the case in the mind of that “friend” who obviously thought he was owed some of my time in exchange for help with my phone. 

Yet, I give and receive kindness all the time. I consider kindness a gift. When friends are late, even, I am never mad; I thank them for the gift of time. Gifts are a language of love. But as I’ve certainly learned over the last five years of full-time travel, we don’t always speak the same language.

Thus, all I can do is wash the shit from my shoe and continue on, integrating into the flow of the organized chaos that is India. While waiting for Shruthi, I finished my breakfast, which included a homemade, ghee-rich dosa made by the housekeeper for me. I spent three more dollars on a SIM card and smiled at all the times before and all the times later that I’ll manage to sidestep a pile of shit right in front of me.

Rewriting My Life Story

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Everyone needs an editor!

“Hommage” by Leopoldo Maler, on display at the Hess Gallery in California.

That’s one of my favorite quotes that I’ve learned over the years as a professional writer, because it’s so true. There are typos and clichés and bad commas in everything you read, if you read enough.

But only recently have I taken this truism and applied it to my own, personal life story. You know, when people ask you questions like, “So, where are you from?” Or, “Oh, when did you start doing that?” You tell them a story. You’ve probably said the exact story over and over. It’s your story. It’s who you are, right?

I recently was interviewed on a fledging podcast about my last five years as a digital nomad. The host was so interested about my story of how I transferred from an office job to freelancing that I barely said anything about my new online course on how to be a remote-based, professional writer or even the book about music festivals that I wrote and published. I hung up and immediately felt foolish — the whole point of the interview was to bring attention to my current work. I did a bad job.

I was so caught up in my story. And that little story I just shared about the podcast? Yeah, that’s part of it too.

Who knows your story better than yourself? There is no other common denominator in every story about your past that you tell — either aloud or in your head. I certainly have a story about myself as a running narrative about who I am in my head. I bet I’m not the only one. It’s the history of your egoic presence in this human form, in a somewhat chronological order, based on external and internal experiences.

Spiritual teacher and writer Jack Kornfield wrote in A Path With Heart that these stories are your greatest hits, the “Top 10” on the radio-in-your-head. These stories can be the thoughts that come up during a meditation practice or are deep down in your subconscious, quietly driving your decisions and behavior patterns.

That story about flubbing up the interview is part of one of my greatest hits and a very popular story. It’s called, “I Didn’t Do Good Enough, and I’m Not Good Enough.” Or, simply, “I’m Bad.” Sometimes, the story is entitled, “I’m a Bad Person.”

Do you know that story about yourself? Have you ever felt that you’re simply not good enough?

I can tell you my version of that story, from the start. And when I felt the shame of that interview gone poorly, I actually felt the shame in my heart. I recognized that feeling of shame. It’s the same feeling every time I feel like I’m not good enough. And I feel that way when I revisit the story of me as a bad person.

Now, a general life goal of mine is to feel good — not in a hedonistic way, but in an inner-peace way. So, in an effort to take the power back, I’m going to hire myself as my own editor.

I am rewriting my own life story.

Rewriting my story? It seems like an illogical concept, like revisionist history or denial of facts — the kind of thing that gets entire nations and racial factions in deep and deadly trouble. But anyone who’s read “Lies My Teacher Told Me” knows that history can be looked at from many different angles, and it’s really just a matter of who is writing the textbook as far as who is benefiting.

When it comes to my own life story, though, I am the only one who could benefit — or my harm. Of course, the way that I tell my story has everything to do with whether I come out ahead in life. For many people, when they tell their story, they’re the victim. Life has treated them poorly. Without a doubt, in many parts of my life, I am one of those people.

What if I’m able to edit my own story, so that I’m always a winner, surrounded by love, understood, respected, appreciated, cared for and listened to? What if I always did a good job so that everything happens in a way that gets me further on my spiritual path?

Why, that sounds like a very nice story to me!

The origins of the “I’m Not Good Enough” story is different for anyone who tells it. Usually, it starts because someone told you that you were bad when you were a kid, and on some level, you believed them. There was no one that necessarily disagreed loudly enough on your behalf to make you think otherwise. Authority figures — parents, teachers, religious leaders, anyone really, when you’re young enough — will say this to kids in a variety of ways.

As an adult who works to be impeccable with her words, as is one of the Four Agreements, I shake my head at the adults who told this to me.

One was my third-grade teacher. She wrote on my report card the sticky, official proclamation that I had a “bad attitude.” When I was a senior in high school, my drama teacher — I’m pretty sure she was high on some kind of pills at the time — took me by my shoulders, looked me in the eye and said, “You are bad. You are very, very bad.”

Sometimes, our peers or our lovers are the ones who tell us that we’re bad.

In fourth grade, a group of my best friends decided that I was no longer good enough to hang out with. For three months, I was ostracized and cried all the time. Finally, my mom called one of the friend’s mothers and the next day, they all talked to me again.

Now as a fully grown adult, I’m not friends with any of my ex-partners. They all think I’m bad and have all told me so, definitively, with a wide variety of vocabulary. Don’t get me wrong; I replied in kind with my own version of the truth. My own story.

Maybe you think the events in my story are nothing compared to yours. Maybe you feel like you’ve been told that over and over, from all kinds of worse angles. Well, you can rewrite your story, too.

My life is a comedy, not a tragedy. There’s a happy ending and lots of laughter.

When I remember the points in my story that cause me shame, the times when others told me that I was not good enough, I can feel my cheeks flush and a slight pressure in my heart. When I really dig into some parts, my eyes well with tears. I’ve actually been letting these people write my story.

But I’m a writer. I’m also an editor. It’s time for a rewrite on my own, personal narrative.

I started with research. I asked my mother about my report card in third grade. She had no recollection of it whatsoever. She actually thought it was laughably cute that a grown, adult woman, who is traveling solo internationally and living a completely independent lifestyle, would possibly care about what her third grade teacher thought of me.

I went back to that 9-year-old version of me, who hung her head in shame from the criticism.

So, here’s the edit: After the report card came out, I was looking at myself in the mirror. It was after one of my famous “luxury baths,” a self-care ritual that I implemented early on that involved bubble bath, Beethoven and candles. I wiped the condensation from the hot bath from the mirror over the bathroom sink, and I stared straight into my young eyes. I remembered that I was a good, loving kid who cared for others and was loved. That I was a positive person who was helpful in what little ways my kid-self could be, who made others smile and who rarely got in trouble. That I was energetic, precocious and extroverted, making it tough for teachers to keep me challenged and quiet. That my friends — either male or female, either in fourth grade or now–loved and accepted me as I was, just as I do for them. That we’re all working on being the best we can be at any time, and we’re all at different places in the journey. That it’s OK that not everyone likes me.

The editing continues as I broaden my perspective. Would anyone even hear that podcast? If someone does, perhaps that will create a more meaningful connection that has nothing to do with my work as a writer.

Yes, my story goes that I’m doing great, and I am enough. I may be my own cheerleader and publicist, but at least I’m telling a story in which I’m winning.

Judgement for others is just as destructive as judgement for yourself. I was allowing and participating in both sides of that coin. But that’s the old version of the story.

It’s not even close to the end.