Sunday, January 8, 2012

Home Is Where The Mind Is: What Six Months in Southeast Asia Taught Me

Where do you see yourself in five years?

If ever there was a contender for the world's most annoying question, that would have to be it. It's one of those cliche job-interview questions, that, thankfully, I've never been asked. In the past, if I had been, I probably would have come up with some canned response that would have made me look confident yet humble, ambitious but not ruthless. You know, the sort of answer that would have gotten me the job.

That's not to say I was living without a game plan. For many years, it revolved around climbing the rungs of the ladder of success in magazine journalism, though I wasn't quite sure where that ladder would lead. There were also a few other goals scribbled on the side: I wanted to buy an apartment in New York City (check), travel to fascinating places and meet equally fascinating people (check, check), live abroad (check), and, eventually, win an Oscar, write a book and adopt a baby with the perfect guy (all pending).

The last one was supposed to happen before I turned 45, which means I have a few years left, but I'm not currently on the baby/boyfriend track and don't see myself getting back on it in time to meet my deadline.

I was 37 when I moved to Buenos Aires and put my game plan on hold. I figured I would return to it later. Five and a half years on, if someone were to ask me where I see myself in five years, when I'm 47, I'd have nothing. I haven't planned for beyond February 1, and I only went that far because the company from which I'm renting my Melbourne apartment -- which is in the same hotel complex where I was living before -- has a 28-day minimum rental period. I have no idea where I'll be on February 2. Maybe in Sydney, maybe back in Bangkok, maybe back in Buenos Aires, maybe still in Melbourne, or maybe somewhere that is not even on my radar at the moment. So much can happen in 24 days!

Everyone around me must sense that something is up, that I'm not necessarily here for the long haul. I keep getting the same old question: "So how long are you here for?" Few people ever asked me that the last time I was in Melbourne. Though then, as now, I was here on a holiday visa, with no full-time job, people just assumed that I wasn't going anywhere. I'm not really sure what about me has changed in their eyes. I'm no longer romantically attached, but is it that obvious to the naked eye?

There are a number of factors that will determine where I will be after February 1, and employment options would top that list. But I'm sick of talking about that, and those details are really nobody's business but my own, so I've begun to reply, simply, "Well, I'm here right now. That's all that really matters."

Seven months ago, my having such a calm, relaxed attitude about the future was unthinkable. I feel like Kirsten Dunst in the final scene of Melancholia, which, come to think of it, might be why the movie moved me so much. But mine is a serenity born of a kind of enlightenment rather than depression. Or maybe it's the influence of the Buddhist culture in which I spent so much of the last six months.

If there is anything that I learned during the last half-year of my ongoing spiritual journey, it's how to travel through life without a map. It was the first time that I ever allowed myself to live free of an agenda, to make game-time decisions, to be ready to pick up and leave at a moment's notice, or to stay longer than intended. If I made any plans during my time in Asia, I always wrote them down in pencil.

Last night, my friend Dov asked me if Melbourne feels like home to me again, and I surprised myself when I responded that it never really did. From March 3 to July 5 of last year, there were moments when it felt like home, but I never had that feeling of "This is it." I wanted to, and I may have tried too hard to make it feel like home, and that might be why I ended up spending so much time in Asia when I only intended to spend one month there. I needed to free myself -- and Melbourne -- of all the expectations.

The distance and time away helped me put so much into perspective. Although it would be nice to be settled long-term in a physical place -- a house, a country, a continent -- home for me is no longer a physical place. It's become a state of mind. It's accepting where I am and being open to whatever might be ahead of me. In that sense, I do feel at home in Melbourne, but it has nothing to do with being in Melbourne. I felt the same way in Bangkok. I'm not sure when it happened (I think it may have been around when, by chance, I ended up in Penang, Malaysia), but somewhere along the way on the Southeast Asia leg of my spiritual tour, I found my way home.

Now I'm unpacking and decorating in that minimalist style I love so much. A clear mind equals clear vision, though not in the sense of what I can actually see. I have no idea what lies ahead on the road I'm currently traveling -- I guess you could say I'm dancing in the dark -- and I tossed my map out the window a long time ago. I can't see what's in front of me, but I've never experienced the passing scenery, the view from the side windows, with such clarity.

The other day, I literally stopped and smelled the roses. Well, they weren't actually roses. They were beautiful lavender flowers for which I have no name. That I noticed them at all, or that I turned back to spend some time admiring them, might be one of my biggest breakthroughs yet.
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