30 November 2006

From Stonehenge to My Living Room

My third CouchSurfer, Steve, arrived at 1:00 am in the morning.

He had called several hours earlier from a payphone to let me know that he had missed the ferry from England and would be on the next one.

When he arrived I asked him what he needed, a glass of water, a shower?

He said, "A shower would be great. I camped at Stonehenge last night."

"You can camp at Stonehenge?" I asked.

"Well, I had to climb a fence. I wanted to see if those stones gave off energy. But they don't. I didn't feel anything."

Zapped from Stonehenge to my living room, I was in awe. Steve was the real thing, a real nomad.

This 30-year-old Canadian roofer had been traveling for three straight years through Europe and Asia.

When he returned to chat after his shower, I watched him like he was a rare breed in the zoo.

He had nomadic characteristics: When he sat down, I asked him, "How have you done this for three years? Financially? Emotionally?"

He said, "I'm really glad I took the time to travel. I made a lot of money when I was in Norway. I sent it to Spain, so I would have to go back there. Sometimes I ran out of money and had to beg. I discovered that when you don't have a place to sleep, you can just walk through the city instead of sleeping. I've seen amazing views on cities at night that other people don't see."

He said he recently decided to head back home, which meant he had developed a seven-month plan to finish traveling.

It just hit him one day, but he couldn't tell if he was tired of traveling or just tired of Europe.

I told him that when he did get home, it would probably feel nice, but stifling.

I explained my mixed emotions about 'coming home' and how doing 'home' things like sweeping the floor felt wasteful of life.

He listened and nodded, trying to picture that future place in time.

Then it was late. We stopped talking and constructed the futon bed for him in the dining room.

The next day, open sourcing my musical development with Steve went poorly.

While I worked on the computer, he asked, "Do you have a tape player?"

I replied, "Yes."

"Do you want a tape of Queen's greatest hits? I found this on the ground."

"Well, I already have a CD of Queen's greatest hits, from someone else who also didn't want it."

"Oh, OK."

Steve stayed only one night due to a mis-communication.

I had made plans to stay in Utrecht the next night since I thought his plans were to leave for Belgium.

As we briefly explored the misunderstanding, I told him that my first CouchSurfer had had a phone and a laptop with WiFi and I forget that not all CouchSurfers can make arrangements so easily.

When he explained that he had communicated as best he could, but it was impossible, for instance, to check his email at Stonehenge, I noted that in his reply he said, "We don't usually have daily access to telephones or Internet."

I took comfort in the "we," knowing that I too was part of this rare nomadic breed, even though I was becoming more and more domesticated with each day that I lived in only one home.

But Steve simply used my internet connection to contact another CouchSurfer in Rotterdam and arranged to stay at her house.

He gave me a North American hug and he was gone.

Technorati tag: , , , , , ,

28 November 2006

The Guest House

Rumi's poem, "The Guest House," metaphorically considers the boundaries of our lives and the tour guides we encounter.

Personally it made me think of the endless explorations in my house dreams and how I feel when I go nomadic, that my house is me.

I am thankful to my friend, Colleen, for recently giving me a copy:
This being human is a guest-house,
every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they're a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,

still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you
out for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
Technorati tag: , , , , , , , ,

27 November 2006

Material World

When I went to visit my family in Chicago, I saw a (permanent?) photography exhibit in O'Hare airport called Material World.

Here is the text from their card describing the show: "
Welcome to Material World.

In an unprecedented effort, 16 of the world's foremost photographers traveled to 30 nations around the globe to live for a week with families that are statistically average for that nation.

At the end of each visit, photographers and subjects collaborated on a remarkable portrait of the family outside its home, surrounded by all of its possessions.

A few jars for some, an explosion of electronic gadgetry for others.

Vividly portraying the look and feel of the human condition everywhere on Earth like nothing before.

Material World illuminates the pivotal question facing our species today.

Can all 5 billion of us have all the things we want?"
Technorati tag: , , , , , , , , , , ,

26 November 2006

Your Interests Will Change

The night before I moved back into my house, I was at Karen's house watching Dutch actress Anneke Blok, from the Dutch film Zus & Zo, being interviewed on TV.

(I think it was her. It could also have been Monic Hendrickx, Annet Nieuwenhuyzen, Sylvia Poorta, Halina Reijn, who are also in the film.)

She told the story of how she got burned out and decided to take an acting workshop in the States, just to get away from it all and to find back what she loved about the craft of acting.

She cut loose all of her ties and lived in a town where no one knew her.

She said it became very clear how we think we are the sum total of our career, our possessions, our relationships, etc.

But she experienced a certain core self separate from what had been her surroundings.

This is my experience with the shifting viewing points of urban camping. It feels to me that I live more with who I really am.

In line with this thought, today I came across a quote that my friend, Tricia , gave me in university. It says,
"Follow what you love!

Don't feign to ask what 'they' are looking for out there. Ask what you have inside.

Follow not your interests, which change, but what you are and what you love, which will and should not change."
Technorati tag: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

25 November 2006

A Box by Any Other Name Is Still Just a Box

My friend, Lesa, sent me a link to the NY Times 19 October 2006 article titled, "The Imperfectionist" by Ginia Bellafante.

It's about Dan Ho.

At age 40, after a divorce, he decided to reduce his possessions down to 55 items.

The article says he is "motivated neither by debt nor by environmentalism but simply by a compulsion to unburden himself...".

At first glance, he seems to match up with the profile of the one laid out in the urban dictionary's definition of urban camping, where one unburdens himself as a sort of penance at the end of a long-term relationship.

But under the surface, this man's unique path runs from being a homeless nine-year-old in Guam, as a result of a typhoon, to being a successful Michigan restaurant owner who built a big Prairie School style house.

He acquired things and added on to the house until one day he suffered a seizure and his whole viewpoint changed.

There were no lasting physical effects from the attack. He simply blacked out for 20 minutes, woke up and lost interest in his lifestyle.

He came to think that style is over-rated and he detests the cultural phenomenon of trade-up-manship.

The man who now only owns 47 items of clothing and a backpack, suitcase, television, computer, bath towel, single set of sheets, toothbrush and bottle of witch hazel said,
"“You build a house, then you put in a pool,"” he said. "“Then you need a peony garden. Then you watch ‘Martha Stewart’ and you realize a peony garden needs a fence. Then you think, ‘I should also have a rose garden, too, and if I'’m going to have a rose garden, I have to have 30 varieties.’ I once bought a $3,600 cedar tree because, you know, I needed something for the corner to create a transition from the oak tree to the anemone because the sedum on the brick walk just wasn'’t going to cut it. People think like that, and I did."”
He wrote a book called Rescue From Domestic Perfection and he has a TV program on the Discovery channel where he talks people out of "needless redecorating."

His core philosophy, described in the article, resonates with me.

He says that no one seems to be happy with the house they have. If he says of someone's new place, "Wow, this is great," then they say, "Well, it's O.K. for now."

He says that the attention paid to renovating, reorganizing, building and rebuilding "distracts us from the more demanding work of becoming better partners, caretakers and friends."

I like it when he complains that style is unstudied, but I don't like it when he says, "We abide by all of these prescriptions that are essentially visual."

Yikes. For a person who defines her individuality by playing among the visual elements of the world, I'm not so excited by his suggestion to set my table with newspaper, or place a rubber ducky on a plain wooden table, or hang a loop of twine from the bathroom sink to hold the toilet paper.

He says that, "Candles don'’t set a mood, people do." But I think that candles AND people set the mood. I live alone and I light candles every evening.

I think it rather comes down to the idea that we each have a core identity and that we are not the sum total of our things, or our relationships, or our careers, etc.

Shouldn't our 'style' be how we genuinely express ourselves in each of those contexts?

Maybe we crave the disconnect when we find a fatal flaw with our ability to express our identity in those arenas?

Does something trigger a panicky waking moment where we realize that we need to cut loose the connections to rediscover our core identity, to find ourselves back again?

I wonder if it is possible to never have that moment? To be blinded by routine? To check off all the boxes? To not worry about expressing our unique individuality because we keep ourselves busy? To not engage because we keep ourselves comfortable?

The appeal of this nomadic "being at home anywhere" idea is that the expression of our personal style doesn't change when the context changes.

It's the practice of knowing ourselves, trimmings or no trimmings.

Technorati tags: , , , , , , ,

24 November 2006

Open Sourcing My Life

Under the CouchSurfing profile section called "Music, Movies, Books," I wrote:
Love reading creative non-fiction, am a sucker for 'based on a true story' movies ... for some reason that I don't fully understand, I'm almost a moron when it comes to music ...
I am a 'visual-ite' not an 'auditory-type'. I notice visual details and completely miss sounds. I discovered my deficiency when dating a noticably auditory-type.

As soon as a movie finished, he'd say, "I have to get that soundtrack," while I sat there stunned by the realization that I couldn't remember a single song that we'd just heard.

We'd walk through a store and he'd say, "I love this song." But I literally didn't even HEAR music until he pointed it out.

During the past summer, I decided that this will be my year of musical growth. It is pathetic. I will put it off no longer.

I will apply to music everything I've ever learned about achieving as many viewing points as possible (while proofreading this post, I see I've used visual terminology for an auditory subject ... sigh).

So, when Iain, the first CouchSurfer, said, "Is it always so quiet here?" I said, "Well, actually, I think the neighbors are often quite loud."

He said, "No, I mean, do you not play music?" I explained my deficiency and he said, "Well, let's see if I have something here you might like."

I realized then that I was going to open source my musical development, share my limited musical source code to be freely modified by everyone.

I explain this to every CouchSurfer who shares my space.

Ashley, my sixth CouchSurfer, very kindly furthered the cause by giving me a Coldplay CD (A Rush of Blood to the Head) and pointing me to KT Tunstall's Black Horse And The Cherry Tree on YouTube:

Technorati tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

23 November 2006

The First CouchSurfer

Rotterdam is not a tourist city, so Iain's email surprised me:
I'm an Aussie whose been traveling around Europe for the past 2 months and ended up in Rotterdam.

I'll be here for a few more days, and was hoping to CouchSurf (I found the website today); usually I sleep in my car, but a couch would be so much better.

I'm friendly, sociable and occasionally amusing, I like to juggle and like all sorts of music.
I thought CouchSurfers would contact me only during peak travel times, when Amsterdam was saturated.

But Iain contacted me almost immediately after I altered my profile.

He was in Rotterdam for a week waiting to catch the ferry to England where he would start a new job.

After quitting his tech job in Norway, he'd been traveling around Europe living out of his huge van:
  • In every city, he got a new SIM card for his phone.
  • He had WiFi access on his laptop.
  • He usually parked on the outskirts of a city where he could cook and wash up.
CouchSurfers build up reputations as good guests by interlinking their profiles and leaving references on the network interface.

But Iain had only just discovered the site so I suggested that we meet first to see if we were comfortable sharing space.

When I was new to the network, I learned this approach from Antony, the Amsterdam CouchSurfer I stayed with last year.

Iain turned out to be a polite guy who was easy to talk to and a great first CouchSurfer.

I'm grateful that we could use his van to move the stuff out of my studio.

The one time we cooked dinner together, we discovered that he carried around more spices in his van than I had in my kitchen.

He's a member of juggling clubs. I can juggle three balls or pins, but I learned from Iain that when you juggle four items, they no longer cross-over. You just keep rotating the same two in each hand.

And he had lots of music on his i-Pod. I am musically deficient. I don't even have an i-Pod so he left The Cat Empire on my computer.

I thought The Cat Empire's song "Hello" was kind of fun:

Technorati tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

22 November 2006

Roadtrip Nation

I heard of Roadtrip Nation on the radio while I was sweeping the floor.

Their's is another story of how people 'think outside the box by getting out of their box'. I added them to my list of urban camper types.

Mike Marriner and Nathan Gebhard had no idea what to do with their lives after college graduation so they traveled across the USA in a huge green camper vehicle "to see what else was out there."

They introduce their book, Finding the Open Road: A Guide to Self Construction Rather Than Mass Production by saying:
"You should be a lawyer, a doctor, an accountant, a consultant, blah, blah, blah.

Everywhere you turn people try to tell you who to be and what to do with your life.

We call that the noise. Block it. Shed it. Leave it for the conformists.

As a generation, we need to get back to focusing on individuality. Self-construction rather than mass production.

Define your own road in life instead of traveling down someone else's. Listen to yourself. Your road is the open road. Find it."
On their roadtrip, they sought out people who had "successfully defined their own paths in life."

Through cold-calling, they managed to meet and hear the stories of 140 people including:
  • the chairman of Starbucks
  • a lobsterman from Maine
  • the director of Saturday Night Live
  • the conductor of the Boston Philharmonic
  • the first female Supreme Court Justice of the United States
  • the head stylist for Madonna
  • the scientist who decoded the human genome
  • the CEO of National Geographic Ventures
Read more about their project in the Princeton Review.

Technorati tags: , , ,

19 November 2006

Urban Camping in Reverse

I thought there should be some pomp and circumstance to mark the end of 55 nomadic weeks, but the road home was a relatively uneventful one.

As my friend, Karen, drove me from my last house-sitting assignment, she mentioned that she had thought about simplicity on her recent travels.

We began a nice discussion about how refreshingly uncomplicated decisions can be during the times when our lives are lived out of one bag.

Then the moment came to step back into my house.

I could feel the presence of elapsed time, but simultaneously, I seemed to be arriving the day after I left, as if nothing had happened.

I was HAPPY to be back. I love my house. I ordered pizza and got my books out of their boxes.

I started settling in. I unpacked, put cozy sheets on the bed and thought about how there was no date set for when I had to move out.

I was UNHAPPY to be back. I was stuck in my house. I could feel identity creep happening again. The energy I had kept close to me was sprawling out to the edges of my home.

I spent time on stupid tasks like buying toilet paper, sweeping floors, changing lightbulbs, activities that added up to nothing.

But I took things one day at a time and wondered what would happen next.

I emailed my friend, David, who had quit his job to embark on a 4-month sailing course in South Africa.

I told him I was jealous that his journey was just starting while mine was just ending and I told him that I thought he should write down his thoughts.

In my head, I was replaying footage from the road. Still resonating with me were the prioritized characteristics of the ways I wanted to engage with life.

I felt certain that these moments of clarity would have gotten lost if I had not written them down.

I had always viewed this living area as an art project. I came back to see the "undesigned spaces" of my house with new eyes.

I imagined building it up during the coming year, a hammock on the balcony, a Japanese bathtub in the shower, an internet kiosk in the living room.

And after a busy school year, I was getting much needed rest. But being HOME six days a week was driving me mad.

I got a computer with internet access so I could keep connected with friends and family. I got Skype.

I started having friends over for dinner and when we discussed the nomadic experience, I listened to them repeatedly say, "I just couldn't do that."

But suddenly, "the people who could do that" started showing up.

I had reversed my profile on the CouchSurfing Project site, saying that after a year on the road, I was opening up my home to weary travelers who needed an oasis on their way.

Now it's a bit like living in a hostel but, happily, the urban camping continues.

Technorati tag: , , , , , , , ,