Today I woke with a smile on my face. A good night’s sleep for the first time in several days had washed the cobwebs from my mind, it was clear, ready to leap with an open heart into whatever the day had to offer. Quite a contrast to yesterday, when I was in the throes of a full-fledged “bad hair day”. A day where numerous things go wrong (not unusual in cross-cultural living) and I am annoyed with each and every failure — of communication, of technology, of utilities. You name it, if things didn’t happen as I wanted, I was pissed.
On my bad hair days, I turn into my own worst nightmare — an arrogant expat living overseas, expecting people in a country who do not speak English to speak and understand my English and give me what I want without a lot of puzzled looks and proposals of everything I don’t want in the hopes of stumbling across an understanding of what I do want. I expect for my hotel to have hot water and heat. I want to shake people who walk past wounded animals without a glance. I am disgusted at the piles of trash by the sides of the road and in the gutters and streams filled with stagnant water. I expect my host at a training sight to know better than to take me out in the dark on a road without light where I will fall on my face in the dirt on the uneven ground. Forget the fact that this happened because I had for the first time been invited into someone’s home, tucked away on a small dirt road miles from my hotel, which was both an honor and a pleasure. No, when I stumbled and fell, instead of being grateful for the invitation, felt outraged that I was being dragged away from a quiet evening in the hotel after a day of travel. Shame on me!
Basically, on my bad hair days, I expect everyone to live by my standards instead of their own. When does this happen? How does it happen? These days sneak up on me, catching me unawares.
I used to turn my nose up at the tourists who go to another country and have what we used to jokingly call in the field of cross-cultural education an “American experience” and now, on my bad hair days, I find myself becoming one of them. I resent the inconveniences which, in my youth, were part of the “adventure” of living overseas. I am annoyed when I pay extra for a nice bathtub and there is no hot water, or when the electricity goes out every 2 minutes and each time the TV that I am watching shuts completely down, and I have to not only restart the TV but do yet another search on the cable network to get back to what I was watching. I missed the end of The Lake House, which I love, because of this today. I am furious when the heater doesn’t work and I call for help and someone comes running who clearly doesn’t know how to work the thing and concludes his (yes, always a man) vague pressing of buttons randomly and holding his hand in front of the vent by saying, wait a few minutes, it will come. Of course, I know it won’t. So while the man goes happily off believing that he had satisfied the foreigner who expects there to be heat coming from a wall heater, I wait the requisite amount of time before asking for help again. I march down to the hotel lobby (because the phone in the room does not work) to demand what I want. I am sometimes not even very polite about it.
It took all the self-control I could muster not to berate the guy who messed with my computer when trying to connect it to the WiFi and actually deleted the requisite item in one of the drop down menus needed to activate any WiFi connection! He insisted that he hadn’t done anything. It took two IT people, with me on the internet, the next day at the college where I was teaching to figure out what he had done. If he had just told me what he had done, I could have told them and it wouldn’t have taken us over an hour to figure it out. Funnily enough, when I told my host the story, he asked if I had yelled at the man as I should have. Maybe getting pissed at incompetence is an appropriate response in Nepal. As it was, I simply changed hotels, I was that annoyed.
I got smart on for this trip, however, and I was prepared. I brought a wool sweater, cap, and pair of thick, deliciously baggy and soft yak wool pants (not 100% wool if soft but I don’t care, they just feel great) just in case of problems with the heat in my next hotel. But then I was still distressed when I found myself in a situation where I actually had to wear them to bed.
I am outraged when, after I have committed to doing something for someone, they want me to do a whole bunch of other things that I don’t want to do. I don’t like having to say no. I hate saying no. It always seems so rude, even if the request itself is unreasonable. Worse still, if I can see how it is reasonable in the other person’s world view. So I detest it when someone puts me a position where I have to refuse their request. I apparently have an internal belief system that tells me that if someone asks me for something, I must comply. Where did THAT come from? But I know that I must say no, as I cannot do everything and so I am miserable and agitated because I have to say no, not once, but over and over again until the person realizes that I really mean it. When the first polite refusal doesn’t work, I obsess about how to say it again. And then I have to live with the vision of disappointment on their faces. I suspect that if I were 25, I would try to do anything and everything I was asked to do. The more, the better when building a resumé but, since I certainly don’t need a resumé any longer than the one I have, this is not a particularly persuasive argument for saying “yes” when every cell in my body is screaming “no, no, no”.
I haven’t learned the language, I haven’t really even tried. How do I have the nerve to expect someone else to learn my language when I don’t even attempt to learn theirs? Once I started taking care of dogs, there was barely enough time to get my lessons prepared before one needed another walk, or to be fed, or to be entertained. And helping them staves off the pain of seeing all the ones whom I can’t help so they remain my priority.
Even then, when I take my animals out, we are attacked by someone’s guard dog and I am furious that they train their dogs to be so vicious and then let them out when I am walking by. We have to limp home, our tails between our legs, one leg held high in the air, squealing pitifully, and call the vet. For the next three weeks, we have to struggle with a cast, and I feel overwhelmed.
Or… I see yet another wretched animal whom I cannot help. Yesterday I saw my first dead dog in the middle of the road — a puppy who wasn’t fast enough, and who had the misfortune to run in front of a driver who did not slow down for him. It was awful. Ruined my entire day. Today I saw a lame goat, and a cow whose foot was wrecked, hobbling in the street, stopping to lick it from time to time, and all I could do is watch in horror as we drove through. While a dog can get by on three legs, cows need all four legs to walk. He must have been in terrible pain. These images haunt me for hours, only fading after a few days have past.
My heart aches, wishing it could carry all the homeless cows and dogs wandering the streets home to a place of safety. I am now in a town where the variety of street fauna have multiplied exponentially. Here there are street buffalo, street goats, street horses, street pigs, and even street ducks (!), in addition to dogs and cows. I haven’t seen any cats, but I know they are out there too. I realize that, although I don’t like all the garbage, it is this that sustains many of these animals. I realize that if I were to live in a country like Nepal, I would have a house with acres of land and that, even if they were filled with as many of the bovine, canine, and feline deities that I see stumbling around the countryside, it would not be enough.
What is their karma that they must live this life while I have the relatively luxurious life that I have? Why am I here in a cozy hotel room (although, admittedly, the heat doesn’t work, there is no hot water, and the bathroom plumbing leaks) while they are out curled up in the cold and the dust, just waiting for morning to warm the air and bring, perhaps, the possibility of a meal? The apparent suffering of so many sentient beings threatens to overcome me on a daily basis.
I honestly do not remember being so sensitive to the plight of animals when I was younger. I don’t know how or when I changed, but I think it had to do with all the years of peeling back layers of denial through yoga and meditation that left me more raw and open. One might say that “being open” is a good thing, but I am not so sure. It sure doesn’t feel like a good thing. Every day that I have to go out and see more suffering animals is painful. All I want to do is close my eyes and go home.
On my bad hair days, I fear that it is too late. I fear that I have passed the threshold into the mindset of the privileged from where there is no escape, no turning back. Maybe I have always lived there and just not been ready to admit it. I expect too much of the world and appreciate too little. I am demanding and impatient with the follies of others. I’m not to happy with my own follies either. I am continually distressed when I perceive what I consider to be disorganization and incompetence, and my resulting inability to be organized myself because the people upon whom I depend for reliable information are veritable fountains of misinformation. I watch my own country flounder under the shadow of a stubborn child dressed up in a suit, like the baby boss in the movie The Boss Baby, and I am horrified. I am a flower child of the sixties throwing a tantrum because the world that we envisioned has not come to pass and, by all accounts, the dream is getting further away. Why, after the Berlin wall would we ever want to build a wall to shut people out? I just don’t get it.
From where does this untempered arrogance of mine spring? Is it a cloak that I wear to hide myself away from the sense of absolute futility that wells up inside of me when I see a wounded animal and can do nothing, or when I hear teachers speak about how much they have learned from me and know that they deserve so much more, or when we have to fight a tyrant at home in order to be allowed to do what is right in the world? I know that it is not who I am. I know that I am not a hateful person. But on one of my bad hair days, everywhere I look, the world is imperfect and I am quietly furious and determined to get what I want no matter what. I have no problem smiling at those around me when I am angry because, even if I can’t stave off the flood of nasty feelings inside of me, I know that they are not real, that they are fleeting and that they will be gone by tomorrow, that they are not the fault of anyone around me, or even of the circumstances which, compared to the true plight of homeless animals and poverty-stricken families living under tents made of a tarp slung over a clothesline, are laughable. I mean, so what if the heater doesn’t work? Get over it and put on a sweater.
Luckily my bad hair days are not as frequent as my blessed days. As intense and permanent as they feel at the time, the truth is that they don’t last long. And most of the time, as my mind rants and raves and knashes its teeth in fury, I can still see the humor in the situation, I just can’t hang onto happy feelings during a bad hair episode. But always, without exception, just quickly as the annoyance arises, so it disappears and I am simply in the moment, not wishing it would be other than what it is. I find that juggling a small puppy in a cone (after he lost his manhood) and a larger pup limping in a cast (after the dog attack) is as amusing one day as it was frustrating on another. On most days, I am grateful for my life. I feel blessed.
Yesterday I stepped into a school yard to do a workshop. It was a vast area of dirt, dust and trash. There was one tiny wooden bench set in the middle of it, with a pad of paper, apparently the place where people were to check into the workshop since all the rooms but one in the building at the far end of the yard were padlocked. The room had so many long wooden desks packed so far forward into the room that I could not open the door and go in. My path was completely blocked. It was a double wooden door, not much wider than a regular door. I could not enter from the right, as I had tried to do. Only from the left, after which I had to squeeze along the length of the desk that abutted the door, juggling my backpack with water, a computer, and handouts.
The room had a thick layer of dust on the floor, and on the wooden benches. Workshop attendees would try to brush the dust before they sat down but without a proper dust cloth it was futile. There was trash everywhere, and nothing but a blackboard painted onto the wall without chalk at the front. For a moment, I paused, my mind working at warp speed figuring out to redesign the workshop and make the space more conducive to a workshop. I asked for a broom to sweep the room, and someone swept it for me (sort of). I needed chalk and a duster (eraser) as they call it and they magically appeared. My power points stayed in my computer and I did a workshop with nothing but a piece of chalk and I enjoyed it immensely. By all objective standards, one might have expected this to be one of my bad hair days, but it was not. The workshop went well, I had a good time getting back to basics.
I expected to come to a workshop where a foreign presenter would do a formal presentation and what I found was a woman wearing a kurti (traditional dress of a long tunics with split sides and pants) and teaching with nothing more than chalk!! Perhaps for this man, seeing a foreigner embrace what is undoubtedly his teaching reality without so much as a raised eyebrow was of more value to him that any formal presentation might of been. Perhaps it validated the worth of his life just the way it is. It certainly reminded me of how silly I am on my bad hair days.
My bad hair days seems to be internal events, triggered by something other than the actual circumstances but, one they start, they are off and running, my annoyance searching for whatever I can challenge in the environment. They could be due to Lyme, since many of us with Lyme experience episodes of what are fondly called by Lyme-literate physicians “Lyme rage”. I used to have them at 11 PM when I was first diagnosed. Maybe my Lyme rages have morphed into bad hair days. But it also could just be a part of me that I have preferred in the past to deny the presence of and that, when I am stripped of all that is familiar in a foreign land, I am not as protected by the confidence of living in an environment all the nuances of which I understand, and this aspect of myself that I do not like finds it easier to sneak across my psyche. Or it could be both. Perhaps living with Lyme is an opportunity to embrace the “dark side” of my consciousness.
The truth is that I am not just one thing — I am patient, compassionate, flexible, AND I am impatient, judgemental, and rigid. I am changing from moment to moment and I never know who I will be from one minute to the next. I do my best to keep my bad hair days to myself, but occasionally I fear that something leaks out. Still, I am heartened when, after every workshop I do, attendees comment on how patient I am, how I never get angry no matter how many times I have to repeat something, or try to explain it in a different way. Ah… if they only knew what goes on inside my mind sometimes. But the truth is, in a classroom setting, I welcome mistakes and miscommunications because these show me what I need to do to support a particular group of students. I tell them repeatedly that I love mistakes, and they shake their heads in wonder that a mistake could ever be considered a good thing. I think that, more than any workshop content, it is these revelations that will result in a change in classroom teaching of the participants in my workshops. If they only learn how to welcome mistakes and be more patient, I will have made a significant contribution to an educational system where the teachers, as children, were beaten in school for making errors. Though beatings are now against the law, the anger that gave rise to them is still considered perfectly normal behavior for a teacher. Still, I wonder sometimes what would they say if they knew that I wake each day with a question: Will I embrace the unexpected today or will I resist it? They leave each workshop convinced that I am patience personified, but I know that I am not always that.
I am all too aware that my capacity to embrace life as it actually is without clinging to expectations of what it could be is woefully underdeveloped despite my having spent 67 years trying to get myself up to speed with reality-the-way-it-is. (I figure my tendency to deny reality was present from birth.) My bad hair days show me how far I still have to go, whereas my blessed days show me that I have the capacity to let life wrap me in whatever it has to offer without a flicker of discontent. Even now, I am entering my third hour of waiting in a small airport, with the smell of urine wafting through the air and mosquitoes circling my bare head, and I am enjoying my murder novel and writing my blog.
Of course, I do take precautions. I changed the flight to which I was supposed to connect today to tomorrow. Had I not done this, I would have missed the connection altogether. I avoid drinking any water so I won’t need to go into the odoriferous room because I suspect that the uric perfume swirling around me might be, in reality, much stronger than I realize — today I have a head cold today and can’t smell much. Still, with all this, and more, today is a blessed day. I am free; I have not a care in the world except the rumbling in my belly that my dates and cashews did not thoroughly quell. Mental note: Bring actual food of some substance when leaving from a miniscule airport because I could be delayed for four hours or more just to catch a 35″ flight. As I sit, listening to the chatter around me, I wonder what life will offer up to me tomorrow, and how I will experience the day? I hope it is a blessed day. I like those the best!