Wide Open – Walking the Path of Dreams

By Amethyst

Where are your dreams taking you?

A lot of things had to happen before we hosted our first retreat.  We had to research, find, and buy land, quit our jobs over the protestations of the silent but overbearing monoculture, find a yoga teacher willing to work on a “Maybe we can pay you?” basis, and learn about Buddhism from monks so we could give informed dharma talks to the attendees.

But those are different stories, the Medium-friendly pieces, the “this is what you need to do to live your best life” motivational feedbag for us, the stalled middle class youth. We crave this information as we move, despite our best efforts, steadily toward a middle age that we fear will look disturbingly unlike that of our parents’ time. And those ideas can, in fact, change lives for the better. My own life being a particularly starkly outlined example.

But this isn’t one of those pieces. I want to talk about what happens when you arrive. Hosting a yoga and mindfulness event on my own land in the Appalachian mountains was, indeed, a dream fulfilled. But its fulfillment showed me that I hadn’t arrived at all; I had just begun.

What did I find on the retreat? This:

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This is a photo of Ruby giving her Dharma talk on how she has applied mindfulness and meditation to her own life to deal with her anxiety, to focus her mind in moments of stress, to go deep and experience her emotions. These are not theories we explored to satisfy our intellectual curiosity, we gave real examples of problems in our own lives that we struggled and continue to struggle with.

There, beside the brook, we all felt connected to and validated by Ruby. We could have all read the books, watched the videos, and maybe we would’ve come to implement those ideas in our lives. But when you sit on a hill and listen to someone’s story, it goes deeper.

Whether or not we converted some meditators, we got something even better. At our kombucha happy hour, we gave out tambourines that we just so happened to have on hand to accompany the didgeridoo and the djembe that two of our hippie friends had brought along. There, Ruby and I realized something about our dream. It was not the yoga retreat itself that we valued, it was the sharing of healing time with others in our community.

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The building of that community is what Camp Gemstone is really about. Yes, we will continue to travel, to share our stories, to post our little Buddhist lessons on Instagram. But all of that is in service to expanding our and your community such that we promote healing, always having a home, and showing up with your real self.


We think about our dreams and goals like destinations to be reached. We will save and scrape, and then in four years we can put a down payment on that nice three bedroom. And then, finally, we can rest. What happens next is obvious, and yet we continue to pursue our goals as if they will somehow, this time, leave us fulfilled.

But our dreams are not a destination, they are a path we walk. For a long time, I walked the “big investments” path. First, I did the most responsible thing a college grad could do: I bought a fixer-upper in an up-and-coming neighborhood. When the glow of buying that first house wore off, I saved up and bought another in a few years. Then I bought a coffee shop.

I envisioned myself on a financial track that would ensure my security and well-being. Those assurances were, of course, illusions, but I had walked the track for so long, it was all that I knew. Save, invest, save, invest, watch my projected wealth (i.e. imaginary Excel life) grow more and more golden. Ah, pretty soon, I’d tell myself, I’ll have enough.

Maybe you’ve heard how that coffee shop turned out (not well, dear reader). It went so poorly that I was forced to question all of my decisions. A confluence of Shakespeare-worthy ironies came at the time the shop collapsed. My greatest fortune has been that, during that emotional typhoon, I met another person whose life was also inexplicably unsatisfying, illogically empty despite having all the things we are supposed to want. Together, we explored new paths. Eventually, I’d call her Ruby.

Leading a mindfulness retreat in the woods was wonderful and fulfilling, but the very nature of such an event is that it has no permanence. Less than a house, even, if you can believe it. So, in the days following the retreat, I started to look ahead. What was next?

This time, though, I was walking on a different path. Instead of the emptiness that comes after buying that expensive thing, there were new emotions. Safety, empathy, and community. Before, my next steps were to divert into a newly-labeled savings account, to scan Zillow for neighborhood property value trends. Now, I am on a path where the next step takes me to books about community building, articles on how to filter mountain stream water to be potable, and listening closely to my chosen family. How can I bring these feelings of peace to others?

In thirty years, I might not have the bevy of investment properties I once envisioned would cushion me in my retirement. But you know, I don’t think I’ll need them.

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Burning: the Realest Life

At any of the giant electronic music festivals that have become hugely popular and grotesquely profitable in the past decade, you’re likely to encounter a slogan emblazoned on a neon t-shirt, scrawled in the coating of dust covering the rear windshield of a minivan, or drunkenly screamed in a crowd before a DJ’s set: “Fuck Real Life!”

At a Burn, less so. Why? Yes, we’re older, and some of us are even more mature. But we are certainly no less prone to yelling obscenities or constructing makeshift signs. Maybe it’s that we have a sense that we aren’t just pretending.

This guy.

(Thanks to Katie Laskowska)

I asked a dear friend how her most recent regional burn (which I, sadly, could not attend) played out. It was wonderful, well organized, and only twice did she fear the collapse of her infrastructure. More important than the steadfastness of her tents, never did she look out on the playa and lament that real life could not look like that, never did she mourn the fact that she had to return home in just a few short hours.

Like many burners, you will not find pictures of her home in Good Housekeeping, nor will you see her name on an election ballot in the near future. The camp that she founded and leads has been host to legendary parties of hedonism, nonsense, and glittering irresponsibility. And, as befalls even the best camps, in due time personalities clashed, and dreams both separated and brought friends closer together. Through it all, she prioritized the interweaving of art into her life, and she never gave up on her community.

Now, after plenty of tears, soul searching, and hard work, things are less dramatic. She has more direction, purpose, and space for stillness. But still her life has lost none of its vibrancy. Still she burns as brightly as ever. All of these things she has gained with the help of her community and with the self knowledge that came from being true to herself as she confronted her demons.

When she looks out over the playa now, she thinks, “This IS real life.” When she returns home, she comes back to a stable community, to art, to new experiences. She makes music with friends. She has a job where she is comfortable sharing her concerns and expressing her individuality. That is to say, a burn becomes a place where her life is not replaced, not put on hold. Life is not something to escape, but instead at a burn we concentrate life, distill it to its essence.

At our favorite regional burn

Did burning inspire her to mold her life in its image? Or was the mold, dormant inside her, what inspired her to burn? However it happened, integrating community and creativity into her life (as I have tried to do mine) has meant that we no longer need “decomp” in the days following a burn. It’s nice to stretch out the gathering of friends a bit, but no longer is the return to daily life so jarring that it requires planning and forethought.

Burners, we are a weird and wild bunch. I implore you to let that wildness fill your lives, to be true to yourself, and to bring the burn home with you — not the tutu, not the day drinking (necessarily). Bring home that sense of creativity and community, and let burns be your realest life.

To Cross a Border

By Amethyst

Really, by yowling at sunrise, the dogs were doing us a favor, making sure we did not miss our bus. Our mournful canine friends lived under the raised bungalow where we were staying in Siem Riep, just a few miles from the incomparable Angkor Wat. The surprisingly modern bungalow was technically in the city, but still the jungle rose around us. Dusty dirt roads wound through houses in various states of disrepair, while fences provided support for the vines and wildflowers of the ever-creeping wilderness. The dazzlingly colorful wildflowers themselves provided a snack for wandering cows.

Angkor Wat at sunrise

We had arranged for Kim the tuk-tuk driver to take us to the bus station. A friend of the hosts’, over the previous three days he had provided us with cheerful three-dollar trips into town at our whim. Before climbing aboard that morning, we asked him where there was a mailbox along the way that could receive our half dozen postcards. Kim apparently has little use for the mail system, and so we scouted (unsuccessfully) for a box on our way into town. Only once we arrived did the lanky, burned-out Australian man who ran the bus company’s waypoint tell us where Ruby could send the postcards West. And, he quickly added, she should really go herself and not trust the tuk-tuk driver to drop them off.

Ruby returned with success to the bus station in just a few minutes. The skin-stretched Aussie soon launched into a well-rehearsed and mostly incomprehensible summary of the journey before us. The main points were that we would be taken to the border, we would pay a probably illegal two dollar fee to the Cambodian government and not refuse or we would be left behind, we would walk through no man’s land to Laos, we would collect our visas, and finally we would get on another bus to take us the rest of the way to Don Det. Any questions? No? Good.

We got into our “luxury van,” which, like every other vehicle in Cambodia, was at capacity. We were blessedly and surprisingly not over-full of luggage, though, and so were able to rest our feet on the floor rather than our bags. “Luxury” takes on a different meaning when backpacking, and we relished our foot space. Soon, our driver took off, quickly overtaking the van that had left five minutes prior. The van sped turbulently down roads that might have at some point been called “paved” with questionable regard for other drivers. Southeast Asian driving culture says that any time a vehicle is going too slowly for your liking, you may pass it by crossing into opposing traffic. Checking for oncoming cars is highly recommended, but by no means required. As an added safety measure, drivers honk at the car they are passing to be sure that they do, in fact, realize they were driving too slowly.

Our driver was, the astute reader may have guessed, doing quite a lot of such honking. Halfway to the Laotian border, we stopped to change vans: we were continuing northeast, others were heading south. Since the ride was so delightfully and dangerously efficient, we arrived an hour early at the station. And so, in efficiency’s name, we passengers – and the driver – waited for an hour and forty five minutes instead of forty five minutes for the next leg of the journey.

Since we had so much time to kill, I took my trusty roll-up hammock across the street to the banks of the Mekong to have a nap. Also needing a recharge, Ruby ordered a cup of coffee, which earned the unqualified distinction of the worst of her entire life.

We continued our Shake-Weight-sponsored trip north, stopping just before the crossing at an unremarkable Cambodian market. We had been told by the driver that we’d have the chance to change money at this market before going into Laos. Off the bus and inside the market, the driver explained in broken English that one might be able to get 8,500 Laotian Kip per dollar in the big cities of Laos, but at our destination, the tiny river island of Don Det, everyone, everyone sold Kip at 8,000. So, by stopping here, he was giving us a real opportunity (yes, dear reader, we missed that red flag) to change currencies at an 8300 kip per dollar rate. We have chosen to chalk up that 200 Kip/dollar (about 2 cents) difference in rates as a donation to the local economy, rather than consider ourselves victims of a scam supported by the transit company’s employees.

After paying our tithe, we were taken another half mile to the border.

“Ok, bye bye!”

“So do we just…go over there?” I pointed at what resembled a toll station with an office attached.

“Yes, you go, bye bye!” Our bus driver/international currency con-man had places to be. Traversing the remaining hundred yards to the passport office with our packs gave us the opportunity to survey the border crossing. On the Cambodian side were the aforementioned ticket booths and the government-plain passport control office. On the Laotian side were more toll booths, another passport office, and an impressive covered area for trucks and vans to pay their tolls and be processed. The rooflines rose to the sky in classical Asian architectural style. The whole area was flat, having been cleared of trees and brush, and roads crisscrossed between the countries to imbue the scene with a decidedly dystopian vibe.

We entered into the Cambodian office through the door marked “DEPARTURES.” With little hassle, the official stamped each bewildered backpacker’s passport and took our treaty-violating two dollars. We were called up, processed, stamped, and dismissed.

Standing on the other side of the window, Ruby asked, “Ok…now what?” Getting no answer, we walked down to the ARRIVALS door, where an official was leaning against the wall outside.

Sua stai, um, where do we go?” I held out my stamped passport.

“Yes, you go.” He pointed out the door in Laos’ general direction.

“Right, yes, but…where?”

“Yes, you go.”

“Right.”

With trepidation we exited Cambodia into the seventy five yards of not-actually-in-any-country expanse of dirt and pavement that was clearly not designed for pedestrians. The jungle stood, ready, fifty yards to our left and right.

Looking toward Laos from Cambodia customs

Approaching the structure we correctly guessed to be the processing office, we entered the ARRIVALS door. Waiting for us was a woman sitting behind glass.

“Hello!” I handed her the passports. I try not to be so unabashedly American, but I hadn’t learned Laotian greetings yet. The uniformed woman smile-grimaced, but said nothing. She opened my passport, and inside found the visa application with my photo stapled to the top right corner: PHOTO HERE. We came very prepared.

The smile half of her expression disappeared. “No copy.” She held up the photo. I raised an eyebrow.

“No, that’s not a copy, it’s the original. I, uh, printed it out…”  I realized from her blank expression that the signal wasn’t getting through. “No copy. Original.”

She shook her head. “No copy.”

“Well, I don’t know what to tell you, lady, that’s not a copy, I don’t have another one, and I can’t go back to Cambodia.”

Ruby interrupted. “Amethyst. Be nice.”

“It doesn’t matter, she can’t understand me!”

Thankfully, that “requirement” seemed to be just a helpful suggestion. My quip at the passport lady was borne of needless frustration. I had assumed that a fully completed visa application would be mandatory to enter a foreign country. As needed as, say, checking for oncoming traffic before changing lanes. And so, I thought, we were about to be denied entry. But the photos were simply torn off the visa application papers and discarded.

We were motioned to sit and wait. Other travelers filed in and went through the same process, except many of them had been tipped off about the professional photos. We waited and compared itineraries. The first question that backpackers ask is “Where are you from?”,  followed quickly by “Where are you going?” and “How long are you traveling?” Only then, and only in the desperation that comes if another topic of conversation hasn’t been found, do we sometimes hear “What do you do?”

At the visa output window, our passports, now with Laotian visas inside, were held up one by one. An attempt was made to pronounce our names, but few are the Laotians who have mastered our alphabet. So we all looked at each passport as it was presented. “Looks like a German passport, isn’t he from Germany?” “That one’s red, I think? Italy?” “Ah, good ol’ USA.”

Having collected our papers, we again wandered, bleary-eyed, back into the sunlight. “Ok, there,” helpfully suggested a Laotian man, who maybe worked there. Uniform dress codes were unreliably followed.

“What? What’s that? Is that where we’re getting picked up?”

He furrowed his frow at us. “Restaurant. Go there.”

“A restaurant? Sure.”

Aside from its lonely location, the restaurant was like any of the umpteen thousand “restaurants” by the side of the road in Southeast Asia. The same smattering of fried quasi-ethnic foods as we would find in the rest of the country, a couple of decades-old drink coolers, a few unidentifiable objects for sale, a small kitchen, and a door to a bedroom. Two features made this food stand (“restaurant” is a stretch) stand out, though: the contingent of two dozen foreigners that quickly gathered to wait for our rides, and the six-feet-cubed cage that held a large tropical bird which would squawk wildly, loudly, and somehow majestically every few minutes, forcing all of us to stop our conversations and wait thirty seconds for the end of its display.

We struck up a conversation with a guy perhaps twenty years our senior who seemed to live on the road. He told us about running across the border in Nicaragua, about a poorly-timed Ugandan visa, and other exotic mixups. We told him about buying black market cash in Cuba, where he had never been, to our great pride.

Fifteen minutes later two military-style trucks pulled up. No friendly bus driver got out to round us up, no placards announced their destination. We simply climbed aboard.

“Where does this truck go? Don Det?” Ruby took the lead.

“Yes.” Unbeknownst to us, the driver had just used half his English vocabulary.

“Ok, this bus, it goes on to Pakse?” Pakse was the next stop for many of our fellow travelers, north of Don Det.

“Yes.”

“Great.” We all passed our bags up to be loaded on the roof. Below the flat sheet of aluminum on which our luggage sat, there were two red benches running longways on each side of the truck bed. Six travelers fit on each. It was cozy.

“Ok, making sure. THIS truck goes to Pakse?” a fellow tourist confirmed.

“No.”

“No?”

“No.” There was a flurry of activity.

“Oh goodness, get your stuff off. Everyone get your bags off if you’re going to Pakse!”

Where such an announcement might lead to panic and hysteria on a New York – DC bus, this one was met sighs. Those headed to Pakse started removing their bags. We decided to triple check, since there were no other busses in sight.

“Wait, ok, hold on, where does this bus go?” we asked the nonplussed driver.  

“Don Det, Don Khon, Pakse.”

“So it goes to Pakse AFTER Don Khon?”

“Yes.”

“OK FALSE ALARM! Get your stuff back on, let’s go.”

After about two miles, the truck stopped to let off the Pakse-bound, while we turned left and continued to Nakasong, which was plastered on the banks of the Mekong as a jumping-off point to get to 4,000 Islands. A few of this clearly exaggerated number of islands held a collection of tourist outposts, catering to Chinese tourists seeking loud karaoke, retirees seeking luxe days at the river spa, or hippies looking for “happy” pizza, yoga, and cheap beer. Even though yoga was out due to a sprained wrist, we vastly prefer wine to beer, and we don’t eat pizza, happy or otherwise, the promise of a laid back hippie town drew us in.

We climbed into a long, narrow ferry to take us to Don Det. Passing by many of the “4,000” Islands, we realized that perhaps there were actually that many, if you counted the mounds of dirt that were little more than shrubs sticking out of the water.

Due to all the difficulties and unexpected delays, we arrived just as the sun set behind the mountains on the other side of the river. The width of the Mekong seemed to push the mountains back, giving the sky the illusion of being especially large. Reds, blues, and yellows played on the tree-covered hills that quickly rose and sank in and out of the water.

There is no adventure without courage, there is no courage without fear. We all dream of adventure, but sometimes we forget that travel can mean real setbacks and uncertainty. We’ve recognized this unfortunate reality and are learning to accept it. Rather than complain about what we perceive as obvious procedural errors in the actions of our foreign hosts, we have learned instead to say “always an adventure!”

The captain cut the engine and we glided into the dock.

Sunset over the Mekong from the ferry to Don Det

No, meditating won’t stop you from enjoying things

Sid the meditator has come a long way in his practice. On a day just like any other, as Sid wakes with the sun, a inkling arises in Sid’s mind that perhaps he could hit the snooze button. Before the slightest bit of actual desire to return to sleep can take hold, Sid has smothered it, for he is aware of desire’s ephemeral nature. He does not identify with any such mental formation, naturally, and throughout his day he hears the Buddha remind him to say to himself, “This is not me; this is not mine, I am not this.” He is indifferent to anger or sadness, and while joy and love do arise from time to time, he knows those concepts are just as unreal as the negative ones, and he does not really feel them, either.

Few outside of a monastery would envy Sid his inner life. Fortunately, Sid does not exist. What’s better (for us, not for Sid) is that he cannot exist.

Danang, Vietnam

At the very heart of Buddhism is one deceptively simple but ultimately profound idea: you are not your thoughts or feelings. In the past couple thousand years, a whole host of beliefs, customs, and superstitions have sprung up around that idea (as we humans have such a terrible habit of doing). But when we put Buddhism in the thresher, winnowing it down to its essential elements, this “religion” is essentially just a very in-depth exploration of the idea that you can be more at peace if you realize you can separate yourself from your thoughts. Meditation, that misunderstood and often feared thing, is simply the setting aside of time to practice noticing that fact.

Noticing your thoughts in real time is intense work, work that requires that practice. In fact, never succumbing to the siren’s song of a train of thought is simply not possible, no matter how much time you spend practicing. Meditation, then, is not “just sitting quietly,” it is an exercise that is so difficult that many beginners are known to simply throw up their hands, declare it can’t be done, and give up on the whole silly idea.

With continued effort, though, slowly a super power begins to emerge within the meditator, no high-gamma radiation required. The meditator’s spidey-sense is just to be able to notice thoughts and feelings as “not me,” that is, to not automatically identify with thoughts. This occurs not just during meditation, but in everyday life. Once you notice your thoughts, you can then choose whether or not to engage with them. “Enlightenment” is when you can do this 100% of the time. A good meditator might be lucky enough to hit 10%. Being able to notice your feelings of, say, anger, and choose not to engage with them can be life changing even at 5%.

But this isn’t about how to meditate or its benefits. We’re here to talk about Sid. Not identifying with your thoughts sounds great until you consider things like symphonies, love, and chocolate. By pursuing freedom from sadness and rage, wouldn’t we also detach from happiness?

A by-the-book explanation might start with something like, “nonidentification does not prevent mental formations from arising.” But let’s stay far away from the Deepak Chopra-sounding terms and say instead, “Look, you still feel your feelings.” Buddhist-style meditation gets you good at noticing that you are having a thought or feeling, but it doesn’t stop it. In fact, noticing your feelings compels you to feel them fully, which makes them more poignant, not less. The superpower from meditation is not freedom from feelings, it is that once you notice a feeling, you can choose how you respond to it.

Taken on a peace walk with Plum Village monks

A real-life version of Sid does, in fact, feel the pull to hit snooze. But he is able to catch himself. “Oh, yes, my sleepy brain wants to return to dreamland, but it’s just a feeling, it will pass quickly, and I have things to do this morning.”

Two things seem wrong about Sid’s so-called super power. First, when a person feels something, of course they notice. When Brian the regional sales manager finishes a call with his boss and throws a plate against his kitchen wall, he knows he’s angry. Right? Ask our decidedly not-Sid friend Brian why he threw the plate, and he’ll respond, “Because I have to go into work on Saturday! Again!” He would not say, “Because I’m angry!” Brian is not the Hulk. If you asked him if he was mad, he might even say “You’re damn right!” His reflection on his anger would end there, though, and he’d go back to thinking about the unfairness of it all. Brian spirals down into the pit of his emotions, a feeling we all know too well. But if Brian puts down the phone and after a moment is able to say to himself “I am really angry, but I have a choice,” the plate might survive the evening. Brian is so caught up in his thoughts about his situation, he never thinkS about his thoughts. He never thinks, “I don’t have to be angry.”

Which brings us to the broader second objection: is what we’re suggesting here, that we can just remove ourselves from an emotion, even possible? Can you really just stop an emotion?

No, you can’t. That is the misconception about meditation. You can choose how you engage with that feeling, though. You can recognize it, see it for what it is, and decide you are not going to get caught up in that emotion’s frame. What you can’t do is push the emotion away. This simple act, choosing how to engage, sounds preposterous partly because it is so difficult to do in the moment. Gaining the mental strength to say to yourself “I am angry” is one thing. To recognize you are angry, and then to say to yourself “I don’t have to engage with this feeling and let it consume me” and to truly believe it is a monumental task. It is a feat requires as much training as learning to run that six minute mile or bench press one and a half times your body weight. To meet those goals, few would dispute that going to the gym three hours a week or more might be necessary. Likewise with learning to recognize the power your brain has to keep you in a funk, and then to train to pull yourself up out of it: it takes a serious commitment. Not everyone can make it to the gym that often, physically, financially, or otherwise. But everyone can learn to meditate. It’s like they say: you should meditate for twenty minutes a day, unless you are too busy. Then you should meditate forty minute a day.

Let’s get back to Sid and that piece of chocolate. When he notices that feeling, notices what chocolate is presenting to his brain and his senses, not only does mindfulness not detract from it, it moves it up a level in his consciousness. It goes from “Mmm, chocolate good” to “Wow, this chocolate has so many flavors, the texture is amazing, I need to close my eyes and enjoy this.” It also gives Sid the ability to enjoy his two squares of chocolate and say, “That is delicious, but that is enough, thank you.” The same goes for any other feeling. Mindfulness gives you the ability to choose how to interact with feelings, including elevating them to the next level.

This, the positive side of mindfulness, gets less attention because it sounds like spiritual nonsense. However, it can be just as revolutionary, if not more so, than learning to deal with your negative emotions. It does a great disservice to mindfulness to skip it, but for fear of social awkwardness we often do. It is much easier to convince someone to try meditation when you say “oh, stress reduction.” When you pull out something like “you can elevate your love” or “recognizing collective joy for what it is can bring it to another plane of experience,” you sound like a nut. What is not nutty is the neurobiology of what is going on in your brain when you are being mindful.

Pulling the experience of emotion out of your animal brain and into your prefrontal cortex, where all the thinking is going on, makes emotions more rich and more colorful. The thinking part of your brain can weave together connections that your animal brain simply cannot. In this way, mindfulness wrests control of your thoughts and emotions from your “autopilot” brain into the part of your mind where you can experience all the subtle textures of life.

Mindfully quitting our jobs, buying a van, being hippie nomads

Camp Gemstone, as you may be familiar, dear reader, has as some of its guiding principles the discovery of new and beautiful things that contribute to a rich, full life. A perfect example is the apparent dichotomy between meditation and the wildness of our favorite activity, a weekend at a regional Burning Man event. We would not lean so hard into mindfulness if we did not think it brought more enjoyment into even the crazy, comfort-zone challenging, art-filled madness of a Burn.

Not only does meditation not make life “duller,” as is so often feared, it can make life feel more alive.

What I Read: Becoming, by Michelle Obama

By Ruby

I have been meaning to begin writing down the thoughts I have about the books I read, but, as with so many of my well-intentioned ideas, I have either forgotten to do so or have not found the time (over and over again). This post is my first effort to hold myself publicly accountable to the goal.

A few days ago, I finished Becoming, Michelle Obama’s memoir. The book is a sweeping 400-page account of her entire life. I went into the book excited and a bit teary-eyed, reflecting upon my nostalgia for the Obama Administration – a time I view as honorable and hopeful, if not exactly perfect. The first half of the book buoyed these feelings. Obama (Michelle, that is) spoke in loving and thoughtful detail of her childhood on the South Side of Chicago, and of her confusion and sense of loneliness upon leaving the South Side (first for a magnet high school and then for Princeton) and encountering, really for the first time, the sense of her “otherness” as a black woman in America. South Side Chicago had provided Obama with a relative cocoon of obliviousness about her race during her childhood – most of the people around her were black, and there was enough diversity (both of skin color and economics) for her to worry less about racism and classism, and more about the things kids should worry about – sports, music, school performance, friends, and eventually, romance. I loved the character she portrayed in the early years of her life. In some ways she reminded me of me, and her emerging understanding of her blackness helped me to continue to better understand the contemporary black experience in America.

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Beach reading in Thailand

It isn’t until the book’s uber-protagonist, Barack Obama, enters the story that the book seemed – shockingly to me – to fall apart. It felt as if the story left Michelle but, because the books is hers and not her husband’s, could not migrate to him, so instead, it just… died. Though chock-full of fun and interesting anecdotes about life on the campaign trail and in the White House (for instance: when little, Sasha Obama referred to the Secret Service as the “secret people”; when Malia went to the junior prom, the Obamas insisted that her security detail be modified so that her date could come pick her up at home – yes, that home – and have pictures taken by mom and dad before they left for the dance) the second half of the book feels like a straight narrative devoid of heart and soul. Michelle tries to claim her story, but through doing so, it became clear to me that the real story was Barack’s, and Michelle had sacrificed a lot of herself along the way. Though she meant it to be there (she named the book “Becoming,” after all), I didn’t feel a sense of the redemption of her life, of really finding her own voice.

The book did reaffirm for me that Barack Obama was an excellent president. I am satisfied, if still a bit disappointed, with what feels in the book like his selfishness in pursuit of politics, because although it put him in a position of unfathomable power and fame, it all seems to have been done with the genuine and urgent desire to help people through leadership. I suppose that it is difficult for any partner of a president (or future president) to retain their sense of self. I imagine there are inherently massive sacrifices that someone in her position must be willing to make for the welfare of our country and the world. This is the way I have reconciled Michelle Obama’s story with my pre-existing love for the idea of her and her family. She gave herself away – to him and to us. She just hasn’t yet accepted the full magnitude of sacrifice she made.

It is also worth noting that the woman is smart and strong, and she still has time. The Obamas’ political life is over and their kids are nearly grown, so now she can really come into her own power in ways that she was not free to do before.

I recently was talking to a friend about service. He said to me “one of the best ways to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” Although I am seeking the right way to experience this finding through loss, as yet in my life I have not yet found a cause that seems so valuable to me that I would be willing to sacrifice myself – even with the faith that through this sacrifice I will be found. Obama seems to be arguing that she didn’t sacrifice herself for her husband’s presidency – rather, she found herself through surrender to his cause and her unique role as First Lady. But to me, the book feels like the story of a woman who lost herself along the way, and is still wandering. I thank her for her sacrifice, and am grateful we had her, and him, for eight years. And I hope she finds the voice that went missing.

Leaving Nha Trang

By Amethyst

Saturday, December 22

There was another cockroach in the bathroom when we got out of bed. Water bugs, Ruby calls them. They certainly look like cockroaches, and their proud, unafraid traipsing across the kitchen floor induces screams in the house’s two young children just the same as their smaller North American cousins. Animal lovers though we might be, it met a quick end at the bottom of a sandal.

A street market in Nha Trang

Owing to the entirely imaginary time constraint that we faced, there was no coffee had that morning. Instead, we packed our things and left our Nha Trang home stay, just a few blocks from the beach, and headed for the train station. Since we were expected at a Buddhist monastery near the end of our trip, we were also sure to fit in a twenty five minute meditation session before we left (recently upgraded from twenty minutes), lest the monks be able to detect our lack of dedication to mindfulness upon our arrival.

We arrived a healthy and unnecessary two hours early to the station. Employees of ticket counters usually speak enough English for us to get by, we’ve learned.

“Two tickets for the Danang train, please.”

“Two ticket, eight o’clock train. Ok.”

Ruby grimaced. “Is the one thirty full?”

The woman behind the counter cocked an eyebrow. Why anyone would take an eight-hour sleeper train during the day was beyond her.

“One thirty, ok. Hard bed, thirty three.”

“No soft bed?” No. “Soft seat?” No. “Ok. Hard bed.”

“Thirty three” meant thirty-three thousand Vietnam Dong, or about $15.

Having secured a ticket, plenty of time, and not having eaten, we set off for a cafe that serves food as well as coffee. Cafes are easy enough to find; there are usually two or three on both sides of the street on any block of any Vietnamese city that we’d visited. Food and coffee at the same time is a Western novelty, though. Undaunted by this knowledge, we embarked on our doomed expedition, finally settling after a mile’s wander on a pho spot that, like many others, had a picture menu above the counter for foreigners to point at.

This restaurant did not have the sort of liberal seating policy to which we Americans are accustomed. We sat at a table that was for cafe only. Once it became clear that we were going to be delivered food from behind the counter, our hostess instructed/pantomimed to us that no, we had to move to the table next to it, which was for dining. This was not a matter over we we could object, it was simply a fact. Ruby’s protestations that she wanted to sit at the original table, which was on the other side of a small brick wall and in view of some plants, was not an expression of a desire of hers, no, it was clear to the hostess that Ruby simply did not understand that it was a cafe table. Defeated, we complied.

Two bowls of seafood pho, two bottled waters, and two teas later, we paid our seven dollars and returned to the square in front of the train station for the coffee we had missed a few hours earlier. The coffee in Vietnam, much like our earlier time constraint, is mostly imaginary. A “black coffee” is perhaps a third actual Robusta coffee beans (you, my wealthy American friend, are used to Arabica beans, which have much fuller flavor and are proportionally more expensive). The rest of the grind is largely a mystery, but one can taste at least the soy, coconut oil, and sugar that have been added to produce a cheap but drinkable beverage.

While there, Ruby responsibly took advantage of the required coffee accompaniment, free wifi, to download some documents to review while on the long journey to Danang. (Our nomadic lifestyle affords plenty of travel time that can be thus taken advantage of: Ruby works her legal magic a few hours a day, more than paying for our travel expenses. Not feeling credulous that day in supernatural powers, even her own, the time on the train was actually spent reviewing clips for the forthcoming year-in-review Gemstone video. Get excited!)

Ruby working at a café

Back at the station, we joined the other Danang-bound travellers waiting for the blessed gates to open. When the light finally cracked from behind those doors, it prompted a stampede into what may have reasonably been assumed to have been the waiting train, given the fervor with which a good spot in line was pursued. However, predictably, we merely were fighting over the right to arrive first at the track, where we were to wait another half an hour for what we learned was a perennially late train.

When it did arrive, we watched as the cars filled with the soft seats and soft beds passed us. The lower-quality cars in the back of the train stopped in front of us moments later. Quickly taking his place at the entrance to the train, the conductor seemed to be very interested in the validity of some tickets, but simply waved us aboard. Tourists rarely try to swindle the railroads, it seems.

A hard bed was, thankfully, not just a plastic shelf, but did in fact include a padded surface, a pillow, and a blanket. Six to a car, though, meant we had to climb. We thought about the ADA as we scrambled into our top berths, using the fold-out footholds and various bars to support ourselves in the attempt.

Half hour into the ride, a uniformed man came through.

“Bạn có thể cảm nhận được tình yêu đêm nay?” he asked the occupants of our cabin. There was a twitter of responses.

“What?” Amethyst asked Ruby.

He looked up at us and saw we were white. “Dinner? Chicken and rice?”

We were wondering if that was a thing that was going to happen.

“Dinner. Yes. Vegetarian? Vegetables? No meat. No ga.” No ga: no chicken. Ruby had used a tenth of her Vietnamese vocabulary.

“Ga? Chicken? Yes, Chicken. Seventy.”

“No. NO ga.”

“Say khong, not no.” Amethyst reminded her that in not every language is the word for “no” the same.

“Khong ga. Khong bo.” No beef.

“Oh! Chicken, beef, tofu.”

“Tofu! Yes. Tofu. Two.”

“Ok. Seventy.” We exchanged our seventy thousand dong (roughly three American dollars), wondered why they didn’t just drop three zeroes, and received two dinner tickets. The official disappeared. We wondered if we would ever see him again, or if the tickets meant anything.

“This is actually pretty nice, maybe we should have taken the night train. We would have been able to actually sleep.” Ruby was right- that had not been the case on the night busses.

“Ok, next time.” Amethyst was, of course, pretty sleepy and already thinking of a nap.

After another hour and a half, a woman appeared at our door.

“Cafe? Banana? Banh?” Coffee, bananas, and bread. These are the available snacks. We weren’t sure if dinner was going to happen or if we’d been swindled. Ruby jumped on the opportunity.

“Banana. Yes. Two? And two coffee. Hot.”

“Hot? Two? Banana?”

“Yes! Thank you.”

The woman disappeared and returned with a bunch of seven four-inch bananas and gave them to us.

“…Oh. Are these… all for us?”

The woman nodded and clearly did not understand.

“Iunno,” Amethyst offered, helpfully.

She returned again with two two-ounce hot coffees in flimsy plastic cups. With straws, of course. The Vietnamese love having extra things to throw away after the purchase of to-go food.

“One hundred.” This was way too much, but Ruby didn’t care enough to argue. She gave her a 500,000 dong bill; we didn’t have anything smaller. The astronomical numbers resist parsing into relatable amounts, but rest assured we were not Americans flashing our extravagant wealth: 500,000 dong is about $22.

Ruby tried to return the excess banana.

“Wha? No.” They were all for us.

As the woman left, Amethyst implored, “What about dinner? Dinner? Hello?” She did not hear or did not want to hear him.

Our sleeping compartment (with convenient banana-hanger)

We sipped our coffee (no reason to let those straws go completely to waste), had a couple bananas, and wondered if that was going to be our only sustenance for the evening.

“So I guess when the trains stop, these women hop on, try to sell us stuff, and hop off?”

“Guess so.”

One of our compartment-mates interrupted us. “Ma trận là gì?” He pointed at his friend’s food. “Ma trận là gì?”

“Oh. Dinner! Yes.”

He opened the compartment door and yelled down the passage, “Tôi đến từ một vùng đất phía dưới!”

Ruby climbed down and scuttled off to find our dinner.

Meanwhile, the man gestured at Amethyst. “Bốn điểm số và bảy mươi năm trước.” He pointed at the floor.

“Uh.”

“Bốn điểm số và bảy mươi năm.”He smiled, pointed at Amethyst, and pointed back at the floor.

“I guess I’m supposed to get down? Ok, sure.”

With the grace one might excuse if Amethyst did not have opposable thumbs, he made his way down to the floor. The Gemstones’ Vietnamese compartment mates had pushed up the middle beds so the four of them could sit upright on the lower ones.

“Sit down!” The man was proud of the English phrase. Amethyst complied, and concurrently Ruby returned.

“We’re eating with them!”

“Cool! We got chicken, not tofu.” Ruby said, rolling her eyes.

“Yeah, of course. We tried, though. Pretty hard, actually.”

An interesting and romantic story would be if we then all became friends, swapping stories and learning between cultures. Ah, rolling slowly through the mountains of Vietnam in a wooden boxcar, the faces of our new friends lit by kerosene lamps.

But we couldn’t, of course. As the reader will recall, our Vietnamese vocabulary hardly broke double digits. Instead, for the umpteenth time, a Vietnamese person, frustrated with the ignorance of foreigners, took it upon himself to show us how to eat.

Amethyst had just begun eating his chicken with the chopsticks he had removed from their plastic, leaving the napkin still wrapped. Amethyst is not an Olympic chopsticks athlete, but he was doing a fine job. The Vietnamese man across from him took the plastic wrapper and removed a spoon that was still inside.

“Oh, I didn’t realize-“

The man pantomimes scooping up rice with the spoon and putting it in his mouth.

“Right, yeah, a spoon, got it. Thanks.”

Removing the napkin, he puts it in his lap, then pantomimes cleaning up around the tray of food.

“Oh, a napkin! How novel. Thank you.”

Finally, a toothpick is removed. The man judges that Amethyst surely knows how to use a toothpick, and sets it down on the tray. Not trusting Ruby’s ability to learn except by personal direction, he picks up her spoon.

“Got it, thank you.” Ruby takes the spoon back and laughs.

It is genuinely difficult to tell if the Vietnamese Good Samaritans who so frequently insist in re-teaching us the basic processes of dining are genuinely trying to be helpful, are having a bit of fun, or both. To them, we clearly do not know the very basics, like how much of the plate of greens to put in the hot pot and when, and so we must not know anything about eating. It thus is reasonable to start from the very beginning, as if we were infants.

The train finally pulled into the Danang station. As we left, our new friend, who was continuing farther north, waved at us.

“Bye-bye!” he again addressed us as one would an infant.

“Bye-bye!” we returned.

And indeed, surrounded by a culture that is at once completely foreign to us and also striving in many ways to cater to our interests, we often feel as if we have entered an entirely new world. This life we’ve chosen, we realize, is a dream to many. We feel like we’re still waking up.

What do you do?

By Amethyst

What are you going to be when you grow up?

A ballerina? A cowboy? An astronaut? (That was your humble author’s response)

What’s your major?

International relations. Economics. Pre-med. Business. Business. Business.

What do you do?

Have you heard this question answered as stated? Rarely does a person who is asked The Question hear the words and not the implication. But when it does happen, one realizes the cultural weight behind this, the most American of questions.

“Oh, I read a lot. I’m taking this course online on modern psychology and Buddhism and…”

Ah, no, I meant, what do you do for money?

Ruby, not afraid to show her truest self.

We Gemstones find The Question difficult to answer these days, living our nomadic life. Then there’s The Question’s younger brother, “Where are you from?,” for which we also have a complicated answer. It’s not that we don’t enjoy answering these questions fully- we do. However, taking this for a teaching moment sidetracks from the questioner’s intent, which was an attempt to know who we are.

“What do you do for money,” we have been taught, is the quickest way to find out what a person is about, to find the hole into which we can pigeon them. An explanation of how our lives work financially is really just a small part of who we are. You already know it is also a small part of who you are. But don’t just know it in the way you know you should be exercising every day. Refuse to be that pigeon.

What do I do for money? Me? I’m retired.

You what?

It is here that I can take the conversation back to wherever I want it. While the person is trying to decide if I am lying or if I am crazy, I can take us back to that Buddhism class, building our tiny house, our chosen Burner family in Baltimore, our goal to never experience a cold winter again (or at least for the next several years). This small list tells a new person much more about who we are than our income strategies. We can turn the automatic filing away of a person into an actual connection over something that matters.We simply need to be willing to push back against the automatic call and response of American communication.

I don’t pretend that my little essay is going to change America’s mind about The Question. But I hope it might change yours. I hope you might answer the question as stated. When someone asks you what you do, tell them. Tell them your passion. When they press you on your job (which they will), give a three word answer. The person doesn’t realize that the default question is just an American bastardization of “Who are you, really?,” a question that, if asked, would probably not go over so well in our culture.

When “What do you do?” stands in for “What makes you unique?,” is not just as a shortcut, it is a reflection of our values. What you “do” in this country is who you are. But it doesn’t have to be. You can push back, and it works. This resistance has two benefits. First, as a personal reminder, a cue to “wake up” and to live just a little more fully in that moment as yourself. Second, it can also gently suggest to the asker the question they should be interested in.

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I never did become an astronaut…but I did go to Space Camp

And when you find yourself wanting to know more about a person, don’t take that shortcut. Instead, make the person think just a little:

What are you working toward right now?

I’ve just finished my book, do you have any recommendations for me?

If you didn’t have to work, what would you do?

If the person doesn’t have answers for these questions, they have also told you quite a lot about themselves. And yes, these questions might strike you as a bit uncomfortable. But you won’t make a real connection without pushing past the comfortable and automatic.

The most telling question is one that many will not answer. Many don’t have an answer to give, but asking it may alert them that they should. It is a question the Gemstones try to ask as soon as the person seems just comfortable enough with our presence:

What’s your dream? What are you doing right now in your life to get there?

Well, reader, what’s yours?