Back to America

Fresh off my three month trip to Indonesia, it is hard not to notice some pretty stark contrasts between the American way of life and the Indonesian.

I was struck profoundly at the gap in existence, but something in me was warning me against speaking out. I was thinking about not posting something like this, because you’re ‘supposed’ to be happy and excited when you come home from a big trip. You’re supposed to be glad to be back in the comfort and the safety of your home. At least that’s what I was expecting anyway.

Maybe it’s just my mind is different. Maybe I have different eyes, new lenses to hone my focus. But it seems to me that life is entirely different. I’m not sure I noticed these things before I left, or if I did I thought it was just ‘how things are.’ I’m coming to learn that phrase is complete fabricated by people who have never seen the possibilities themselves.

Things started off well enough…

On arriving to Seattle Airport, I claimed my bags and hauled it off to the train. My very first encounter with another human was an old woman who needed help purchasing a ticket. I stayed with her as she put her 75 cents into the machine and it printed a ticket. She asked me so kindly to help, and I was glad to do it. Once the ticket printed I walked away to the escalator which inched its way upwards. At the top I saw the train standing with the doors open. Thinking it was about to go without me, I scurried over to get on. Then I realized the woman was still only halfway up the escalator. I casually pretended I was checking to make sure it was the right train I was on and stuck my body over the threshold of the door, so they wouldn’t close without her. She finally made it up the stairs and meandered on the train.

Okay, so a pretty solid experience of human connection. I felt like I was off to a great start.

After the train stopped in downtown Seattle I still had some work to do. I geared up: large backpack strapped on my back, small backpack draped in front, guitar in hand. As I hiked up the stairs to street level, a man with a tan coat, tiger tattoo on his neck, and dreads growing out of his gray winter hat was jamming away on his acoustic guitar. I bobbed my head as I passed, more acknowledgment than he had all day, I presumed, and smiled at the music. It was really good.

He smiled back, and just like that, another great human connection. I could have stopped and played with him, and thinking back I wish I had, but I was on a mission with all my packs, and decided to keep going. I wanted to keep the ball rolling.

I walked the walk that brought me to the bus station, just outside a clothing store. I wasn’t alone, the bus stop was loaded with shivering Seattleites. It was raining, so I grabbed some real estate under the overhang to at least stay dry. I was really cold, being almost fully adjusted to the 80 degree sunshine of Indonesia, and having only a pair of jeans and hoodie to protect me from the elements. Standing, shivering, my bags laying on the sidewalk, the 302 zooms up the road. In a rush people line up to board, and I hastily grabbed my bags, cursing under my breath. A young woman saw my juggle struggle, and picked up my small bag as I strapped on my large. I took the bag with a smile and ‘thanks’ as I hustled to the bus.

Three for three. This woman’s empathy for my situation left me with a warm feeling loading the bus, as I paid the fare and walked down the aisle, bumping knees and offering apologies as the bus took off. Of course, my timing was perfect, and there were no seats left! I found a spot to lay my bags that was somewhat out of the way and stood in the aisle holding the railings for dear life.

This is where things took a turn for the worse. Looking around, still feeling pretty good about life, hoping to establish contact with someone, anyone, to pass the time, I scanned all the sitting workers and saw no eyes, no life. What I saw instead enraged me. Usually, when something affects me so, I’m curious to know why. To try and get a grasp on what I was feeling, I wrote this journal entry:

I’m not against jobs. I’m against people thinking they have no choice. I’m against putting up with extreme stress and anxiety because you think you have to. Somebody somewhere along the line lied to you, more likely many people. You have a personal story. It doesn’t apply to me. I really do have no choice. Any story you can think of, and I promise I can find you a solution, at least a first step that will make you infinitely more aware and happy. AWARENESS! Mind numbing phones. Numb minds transfixed. No wonder my neck hurts. All heads down, faces aglow, fluorescent, showing in spotlight your trepidation. Don’t look up, you weak fools! Don’t you dare bring your awareness to this bus on this road in this city surrounded by these mountains. Don’t look at the person next to. What if they want to talk? Then everyone would be interrupted in their mindless nothingness. People get pissed when you bring them out of their state of indifference. They get angry when they’re forced to confront an issue or have to admit that they aren’t alone on the bus. We like to tell ourselves that we’ve met all the people we’re going to meet, and there is no need to meet anyone else. Not here on this bus, I just worked a long day and am thinking about the tomatoes in the fridge. I call home, did you pull out the tomatoes? Don’t eat them all I’ve been thinking about it all day.

Granted, I was hot off the press so-to-speak. My mind was still on a bus in Indonesia, where little children played with bits of trash from the floor, women talked loudly to be heard over other women, and men shared coffee, cigarettes and stories about who climbed the tallest tree. The people were alive with connection, community, interaction. Placing these experiences side by side draws such a potent contrast it was hard for me not to get upset.

This brings to mind a quote from Soren Kierkegaard. This guy is great, he has a lot of good writing on philosophy. In his diary he begs people “to sit up and take notice, to prevent them from idling away and wasting their lives.” He says especially about the rich that they shelter themselves in their big houses, or in this case in their electronics, and that “in order to be comfortable themselves they do not even call attention to anything.” It’s a huge problem with our modern society, how people isolate themselves. We all have our own homes and cars, and as long as we have these things we feel safe and happy. But with these items always comes two particular things that tells our desires to be isolated: a lock and a key. It is known that I put my hard work and effort into making money to purchase this item, and I don’t want to share with anyone. Maybe we find a spouse we want to share with, but that’s it. We are so intent on isolation and keeping ourselves safe that we won’t even look up on the bus to make eye contact with someone, to let someone into our lives.

To me the bus looked like something out of a science fiction movie, all the humans plugged in to a system, being transported like cargo. There would have been more life if the bus was empty.

Luckily, once most of the people got off the bus, I found a seat and noticed a gray haired man with a green jacket and wrinkled face that told a thousand stories in the blink of an eye. I noticed him particularly because he was looking at me. He asked where I was coming from, having noticed so keenly that I was equipped with enough baggage to last me more than just a day at work. My hope and happiness was slowly restored as he told me a story about his traveling son having experienced his greatest culture shock not going to another country but on returning. I agreed with him wholeheartedly and smiled, almost coming to tears upon recognizing truth. It helped me come to understand what I was feeling on that lonely bus ride.

The world needs more trust. More community. More conversation, in person, not in cyber space. The world needs less plugs and screens and more eye contact and connection. More Love. MORE LOVE. This is very important. We love our family, we love our girlfriends and boyfriends, but we don’t love the stranger that shares our bus ride. It’s hard to do, to love someone unconditionally, even to love someone you know unconditionally, never mind someone you’ve never met. But it must be. We must try. Imagine it.

2 thoughts on “Back to America

  • February 10, 2015 at 1:04 pm
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    Tom, This is my second attempt to comment. What a great piece! It can be a lonely place being the shepherd, instead of a member of the mindless flock. Here is a poem from James Allen that starts the book of his I told you about. “Mind is the master power that molds and makes, and we are Mind, and evermore we take. The tool of thought, and shaping what we will, bring forth a thousand joys, a thousand ills. We think in secret, and it comes to pass– Our world is but our looking glass.” Fill your thoughts with what you want, and you will have it.

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  • February 16, 2015 at 12:25 pm
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    I felt similarly when I returned to America after a long time away – it was a strange alienation that stayed with me for a long time. I think you are well equipped to handle this culture in an incredibly positive way.

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