FAREWELL, HARBIN….

It’s 6am, and  I’ve been up all night getting things packed for my trip home for the summer.   I walked down to the library for a final visit to my rabbit, Xiaoxiao, and to leave one last offering of flowers on her grave.  On my way back home, I was greeted by the trio of campus canine strays, out for a morning walk. How appropriate to have a final greeting from them!

It’s time to go….  I have not done a lot of the things I came here for.  I didn’t travel.  I didn’t manage to save any money – far from it.  I’m going home for the summer, knowing there are issues at home to take care of, but also looking forward to returning to China for a second year.  A lot of things have to fall in place for that to be a reality, but I am determined to make it happen.  I’m not done here yet. This experience has been the turning point I hoped for and needed – the route was not what I envisioned, but it never is, is it?  The challenge now is to continue to push my limits, face my fears, and see myself in a new light.

The journey is not over.  It’s just beginning.

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Is it OK, in this place that I have lived for 7 months now, that it still feels totally foreign?  Is it OK that my self-doubt has not only not ebbed, but seems to have taken hold of my psyche in a way I never anticipated? That the anxiety, which I never even consciously recognized until recently, has gripped me so tightly, so much that I am literally making myself sick with worry?  That, most days, I really just want to go home.  Of course, if I went home, I would have to find a job – and deal with that anxiety – so I know that’s not necessarily the solution. But it sure sounds good right now.

Right now I am unable to differentiate between the anxiety about teaching vs. anxiety about all the other things that race through my head, and this puts me in a position of wondering if I even enjoy what I’m doing and whether I want to continue to do it.

I did not expect my life to fall into place and all my problems resolve themselves just by virtue of moving somewhere new.  I knew they would follow me, and I was prepared to deal with them.  But I was not prepared for it to paralyze me the way it has.

PART TWO – Or, Hi, my name’s Renee, and I’m a quitter

I was apprised of this the other day by an old friend whom I had contacted to garner some support and advice from. I knew she would be supportive but firm; however, I didn’t expect this little revelation to come out of the conversation. She told me “You can’t just quit because it’s hard, and you miss home. You can’t do that. You need to come up with a plan to get this stuff taken care of and do it.”

Jessica is the type of person who always lands on her feet. She can lose a job, living situation, or anything else, and be just fine. She is fearless, or at least gives a damn good impression that she is, and I admire and envy that about her.  I, on the other hand, catastrophize every major hurdle in my life, wondering what the hell I’m supposed to do next and struggling to come up with an answer. So I asked her.  How do you do it?  How do you always land on your feet?  She replied “After I run into a brick wall, I say ‘Ouch, Jessica, that hurts.  This doesn’t work.’  And then I come up with a plan and a deadline, and then I get shit done.  If that plan doesn’t work, I come up with a new one.”  Well, that sounds easy.  Why can’t I do that?

I am a master of not following through.  I have an inordinate number of plans, ideas, and projects that just fall by the wayside – either I lose interest, don’t “have time” or just don’t think I can do it. When did I become this person??

PART THREE – Living on the Edge

I hate this – my anxiety has gotten the best of me the past couple of weeks and every day I have just been trying to hang on.  I have never, ever in my life experienced anything like this, and it is the worst feeling in the world.  I feel like I want to crawl out of my own skin to escape the rushes of adrenaline and fear that course through me; the nausea that has rendered me incapable of eating anything without wanting to just spit it back out, if I can get it in my mouth to begin with; the inability to sleep that makes me feel like I’m walking around half-awake.  I’ve dealt with severe depression before, and that feels like a cakewalk compared to this.  It is crippling me; I feel like I am about to break in two, and it terrifies me that I can feel this way.  I have been trying meditation, but since I’m new at it, it is not necessarily providing the relief I really need.  I started back on anti-depressants, so I hope those will kick in soon and alleviate some of the anxiety.

I just have to make it through the next two months until my contract ends. Then I will assess what comes next – whether to come home and stay, or find another teaching position in a new city.  There is so much unknown right now, which does not help and I have no idea what will happen next in my life.

This is NOT how this is supposed to turn out.

Comparison Is The Thief Of Joy (Or, The (Re)Search For Self)

[From late January, when the walls really started closing in….]

[Most of this was penned around the holidays, when I was already feeling pretty down, and wondering what in the world I was doing here…. I’m not gonna lie – I have really been struggling since Thanksgiving with being so far away from home and the familiar and the safe. I have not had the mental or emotional capability or desire to write because I have been too depressed to emerge from the fog of loneliness and culture shock, which both unfortunately feed the self-doubt.]

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Now, all of a sudden, I have much to write about.

“Who do you think you are, moving halfway around the world to teach?  What makes you think this is a good idea?” The past couple of weeks my mind has been stumbling over the same old obstacle: self-doubt, or “Who am I, really?”  I am not as good as…insert name/humanity here.   I don’t have any real skills.   Everyone is more successful than me. I don’t know what the hell I’m doing in the classroom – these other people are surely better at it than I am, and know what they’re doing.   My blog is not as good as everyone else’s. I knew this insidious little troublemaker would pop up again, and I am pissed off at its resurgence and my inability to (yet) conquer it.

The older I get, the less I feel I know.  Is that normal, or am I just becoming senile?  I think it must be normal to feel that way, but I unfortunately have had an ongoing habit of interpreting that to mean I am not as smart as people seem to think I am, and that I’ve pulled a fast one on people at every juncture in my life. I am a walking example of ‘imposter syndrome,’ and lately I have spent a lot of time trying to talk myself off the ledge of ‘I don’t know what I’m doing.’  At some point before I’m dead, I’d like to truly feel like a successful adult (whatever either of those terms mean).

Truthfully, I have been lazy the past few weeks.  Most of my classes finished up the week of Thanksgiving, and I have had virtually nothing but free time since then.  Have I made good use of that time?  Hell, no.  Unstructured time is very difficult for me, as any lack of structure is (Hence, my anxiety during my first weeks of teaching – you mean I can do ANYTHING?  Shit.  How am I supposed to choose?).  I finally compiled a list of “spare time” activities and tasks to get me back on track, otherwise I will never get anything done. [Update: I’ve still gotten very little done. :-(]

I think I am coming to the part of my journey where I once again have to pick up the struggle for self, and I am not looking forward to resuming this battle.  It’s hard.  Arduous.  Excruciating.  Painful.  But that’s why I’m here.  That’s what this move was about: more so than teaching; more so than traveling.

How?  How do I do this?  I like to think that, at my age, I’ve acquired a number of tricks and tools to address this – but I think I lost my toolbox somewhere because I cannot for the life of me seem to get started and just GET IT DONE.  My cogent, rational decision-making abilities seem to have gone out the window, and I just am struggling.  What the hell?  Does anyone else struggle with this?  Am I just losing my mind?

I think part of my struggle is operating in a vacuum.  As much of a hard-core introvert as I am, I do not work well on my own.  I need to be able to get input and bounce ideas off others and get validation from others.  For a number of reasons, many unknown, that is not happening on a regular basis, and I think that is a big part of my struggle. Conversely, reaching out and asking for help is very, very hard for me to do.  It makes me feel weak; it makes me feel like I am incompetent.  I do so tenuously, if at all, and don’t really feel like I have the resources I need to make this venture what I need it to be.  I know, I know – it’s up to me to do the work.  I get that.  But if I can’t get the help I need to get the work done that I need to do – well, you see the vicious circle this is becoming.

It’s (Supposed To Be) The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year

Is it just me, or is there an excess of violence and anger amidst the holiday season in the U.S. this year? I rely heavily on my Facebook feed for news – I have at least 350 pages I follow, a good majority of them news-related – and I’m pretty sure I’ve seen more posts about the farce that is the Republican party candidacy battle than anything else, followed closely by the latest mass shooting or ISIS atrocity, or race- / ethnic- /religion- /nationality-  baiting by the politician of your choice.   Now, I am well aware that my Facebook posts will not likely change anyone’s opinion, but  I will not refrain from voicing my disapproval or outrage when I see injustices supported by others; certain matters I cannot remain silent on – until now.  After the shootings in San Bernardino, I had to just drop off Facebook for a bit – I couldn’t take it anymore and quit posting anything on current events or reading the news for awhile because it just doesn’t seem to matter.  I keep wondering how we got to this point where we cannot even have a civil conversation amongst ourselves and figure out how the hell to resolve all the travesty playing out across the globe. I’d settle for just getting America to get its s**t together, let alone getting the rest of the world to get along with each other.

All of the negative news and anger has just really exhausted me, and I refuse to continue to argue with people. Trying to remain informed about the world can be hazardous to your emotional health. Being overseas and away from family during the holidays has compounded the level of fatigue and sadness I have been feeling lately, and I’ve honestly felt like a Scrooge and just wanted to hibernate lately.  I don’t feel like writing or doing much of anything because I am emotionally exhausted, depressed, and isolated at a time of year that is already hard enough.  Now I’m going to go listen to my Christmas music on repeat and dream of baking cookies until I feel better…..

Is anyone else feeling this way?

 

Home(sick) for the Holidays

This morning I ambled over to the classroom building in the frigid China air to meet a handful of my students who still had presentations to do.  I was not pleased last week when I resigned myself to having to work today, but in retrospect I’m actually grateful I had to attend to this; I may not have gotten out of bed today otherwise. Today is just another Thursday for most people across China, but for me it is Thanksgiving on the other side of the globe, and it is proving to be more of a challenge than I expected.

As many years as I’ve lived in various locales away from my family, I don’t typically get homesick.  I’ve been away from home for a good number of holidays – even spending holidays by myself – but have never felt the distance, both physically and emotionally, like I do today.  As I type this, Thanksgiving is just officially rolling around in my home state of Texas.  Soon, family members will be readying food and making their way to my sister’s house for the holiday feast.  I always make the mashed potatoes and my special green beans, but somebody else will be taking on that task this year. I have two new nieces, both 4 months old – I will miss their first Thanksgiving, and their first Christmas next month.  My siblings will likely break out Apples to Apples or another game after the meal, while others watch football or retire to the couch to try to recover from the day’s meal.

After Thanksgiving with my family, I would normally go home and put on some Christmas music, and  then break out the cookie cutters and start making cookies. I have been having baking withdrawal already for the past month. I would roast a turkey for myself to feast on through the holiday season. That weekend I would retrieve Christmas decorations from the garage and decide “How much decorating do I really want to do this year?”  Here in China, I don’t have an oven, so there are no cookies to bake. I’m not sure what I’ll be able to find in terms of Christmas decorations here that I will want to buy, but I have to do something….

This has all made me realize how we – I – tend to take for granted that those holiday celebrations and gatherings will always go on as they always have, in perpetuity.  We get into this habit of holiday celebration, sometimes not stopping to realize how important it really is. Not just the holiday, per se, or the rituals and traditions, but the people with whom we gather to celebrate.

I’m grateful for the opportunity I have to be in China and for this experience.  I’m grateful for friends and family for  supporting me on this adventure, and I miss them dearly today. This year I will celebrate the holiday with my fellow American teachers – all of us far from home – and herald a new tradition of Thanksgiving in China.

Traffic Rules In China

[The traffic here, and the driving,  is as bad as you’d imagine – maybe worse.  I’ve compiled a tongue-in-cheek list of the rules of the road, as I’ve interpreted them from my experience thus far:]

  1. HONK.   Don’t pay any attention to those “no horns” signs around the city because they obviously apply to those other drivers.  Honk as often as possible and as long as possible; in fact, pre-emptive honking is acceptable and encouraged. You should start honking before anyone gets in your way – you know, just to let them know you’re coming.  Be sure to continue honking once they’ve moved, just in case they didn’t get it the first five times; besides, some other vehicle or person is about to cut in front of you, so you might as well just keep at it.
  2. Right of way does not exist.  It does not matter if you are a person or a vehicle, you need to get the f**k out of the way because that guy is ready to go!  This rule holds true regardless of any crosswalk, stop light, or pedestrian signal present. Advice for pedestrians: cross in groups.  Stay to the far end of the group to avoid being the first one hit.
  3. Bus drivers should stop and start as abruptly as possible so your passengers know they are making progress on their journey; this also gives your passengers ample opportunity to work on their balance skills and get a good lower body workout.  Abrupt stop and start is optional for taxis since your passengers are seated, but encouraged if your passengers are not wearing their seat belts.  Personal vehicle drivers, use at your own discretion and according to your own driving skill level.
  4. Roundabout roulette is your chance to prove your prowess behind the wheel!  If you are able to cut across all five lanes and make your turn, you have truly mastered roundabout roulette.  Bonus points if you get within a foot of vehicles or pedestrians without hitting them.
  5. Expounding on #4, bonus points are earned for getting as close as possible to any other moving vehicle at any time; points increase as your speed increases.  Double bonus points if the target vehicle has an oversize load or your view around them is otherwise impeded.
  6. Don’t hit or kill anyone – just try….
  7. There is no such thing as a “No Parking” zone.  Park wherever your car will fit and is not (fully) in the path of a moving vehicle.  On the sidewalk?  No problem.  On the median?  That’s cool.  At the end of the median?  Why not?
  8. Just because you are bigger does not mean I will not challenge you to a game of traffic chicken in order to get in front of you…..

Lessons Learned (So Far)

[Must.Not.Procrastinate.  I have several posts that have been percolating in my head over the past month or so that have not made it to paper (or screen), so I am playing catch-up.]

The principal focus of this journey is to learn: learn again what I am good at; learn to be patient with myself; learn that not being perfect is OK; and learning that if I “fail,” I can always try again. It’s also to learn how to simply go with the flow…to accept things as they are, change what you can and accept what you can’t, and learn to laugh it off.

Here’s what I’ve learned (so far) – the profound, the mundane, and the maddening:

  1. You cannot always touch every person in your quest. – In the university setting, I have quickly accepted the fact that there will be students in my classes who are really invested in learning English, and there will be students who are there simply because they are required to be.  I will always devote myself to reaching every student with whatever tools I can, but I will not beat myself up over those students who choose to not fully engage.
  2. What you see is not always what you get. – I was so disillusioned when I first arrived and tried ordering food based on the photo on the menu – what I ended up with was almost invariably not what I thought or expected. I’m not talking about ordering pig intestines when I thought I was ordering chicken, although I came dangerously close to doing that.  Think of the advertisements you see for fast food in the US, and that will give you an idea of what I’m talking about.  That juicy burger – replete with juicy, ripe tomato slices, mounds of crisp, leafy lettuce, cheese melted perfectly, all enshrined in a fluffy, toasted bun – is not what ends up on your tray.  I kept ordering dishes depicted chock-full of vegetables, only to receive mounds of meat atop rice or noodles, with, at best, a minuscule bit of garnish of vegetables.  Now, I know there is no shortage of vegetables here – I see them all the time at the morning market and street stands!  I have since learned to ask specifically if the dish includes the advertised vegetables  – sometimes yes, but often no, or not much.  After much trial and error, I have found one or two dishes that have become my fallbacks, and set about seeking new ones. I’ve also accepted that I may just have to get my vegetable fix on my own time when I cook for myself.
    The “what you see” lesson pertains to every facet of the experience. I ventured out for  a weekend mountain hiking trip with a fellow teacher and a student (more details on that adventure in a future post).  Hiking, to me, means you walk on a trail or make your own, and is not typically a large group exercise.  In China, evidently, hiking in the mountains means stairs.  Lots of stairs.  Lots of people walking of lots of stairs to get to the top. This is, seemingly, perfectly normal to the Chinese populace; it was, to put it mildly, NOT what I was anticipating or looking forward to, and after two days and about 6 km up and down stairs,  my body  and general attitude concurred.  I had to keep reminding myself “You are not in the U.S. anymore – you are not at home. Expect things to be different; expect things to go wrong, and know that you have no control over that, and let it go.”  I’m getting better at that.
  3. Don’t forget the “learning curve.” – Your rational mind knows this is inherent in any new endeavor, but your emotional mind balks at this notion – well, at least mine does.  The notion of failure has always filled me with dread and I avoid it at all costs; it is truly my albatross that I carry and is very difficult to overcome.  One of the English teachers proffered up a gig of teaching a group of ten year olds – his schedule was already too full to take it on.  My first reaction was something akin to “No way in hell is that going to happen.”  I had put off getting into tutoring as I got settled in, but I continued to put it off because of FEAR.  My gut said, “you are not ready. Where do I start?  What if I suck at it?  I’ve never taught kids!” My rational mind said “you are NEVER going to feel ready. You  may not be great at it at first, but you HAVE to do this in order to learn.”  I HAD to make myself do it – I will never feel ready; I just have to do it.
  4. Say “yes” whenever possible. –  Saying “yes” – as a hard-core introvert prone to sometimes debilitating shyness (no, really), I have a propensity to shrink away from invitations of the unfamiliar, whether that is new people, new activities, or uncomfortable situations.  Saying “yes” is INCREDIBLY difficult for me.  I really just  want to hole up by myself a lot of the time.  I do require a LOT of alone time to regain energy, but if I’m not careful I tend to shut myself off from the world – again, the FEAR kicks in.  I know I have to say “yes:” – even if I’ve had my fill of people for the day and would rather hibernate; even if I have other things I “need” to do (I’m good at finding those when I don’t want to do something social); even if I have no idea what I’m doing or what I may be getting myself into.  The opportunities I may miss will outweigh the discomfort of pushing myself to say “yes” (repeat as needed until the brain believes it).
    Since I have been here, I have:
    *Attended a Mid-Autumn Festival mooncake-making party with students.
    *Ridden on a bus to walk up a mountain of stairs, and met a fellow Harbinite teacher; walked the “drag” through the village, and stayed in the smallest “hotel” room you could ever imagine.
    *Allowed myself to be pulled off the street to have my hair cut by somebody who doesn’t speak a lick of English (I also went back there this week and got my hair successfully colored).
    *Ventured out to the morning market alone.
    *Made a friend in the money lady at one of the food kiosks at the local food court – she always greets me (albeit in Chinese, so I really don’t know exactly what she’s saying), and is so sweet. I look forward to seeing here whenever I go in for my “fallback” meal.
    *Figured out how to communicate “shoe polish” to one of the salespeople at the local market.
    *Mapped the bus routes for places I need to get to, and gone on all those routes solo.
    *Bargained on my own – I usually go shopping with one of the other teachers whose wife happens to be Chinese.   Her nickname when we go shopping is “The Terminator” – she is a whiz at bargaining!  I personally hate bargaining, but managed to successfully talk down a shop merchant on a jacket I bought recently.
  5. Modesty will not serve you well here. – I’ve taken off my pants in the middle of a store – in front of total strangers and passerby – so I could try on a pair of pants (dressing rooms are NOT a given in Chinese shopping). I’ve had a massage in room full of strangers; apparently in China massages are a community affair, with none of the clients wearing anything but their birthday suits.  Your massage therapist will scrub or massage every inch of your body, all while you are laying stark naked on a table surrounded by other naked clients on their tables (we are split by gender, at least).  On my mountain “hiking” trip, our bathroom break required that I essentially pee in a partially partitioned trough while a dozen women huddled at my feet, watching me and waiting for me to finish and get out of the way.
  6. Neither will being a germaphobe –  I was slightly (ha!) taken aback the first time I observed one of the cooks tasting the sauce of the meal he was preparing (mine) – with the COOKING SPOON.   Now, I do that at home with my own food, but….  Well, what are you going to do?  I try to look at it as quality control – they want to make sure the dish is perfect when it arrives on your plate….  Besides, any germs should hopefully die in the remainder of the cooking process, right?
    I do draw the line at no soap.  With very few exceptions, restrooms in China do not come stocked with toilet paper, soap or paper towels.  Simply scrubbing my hands with cold water (I’ve yet to experience a public restroom with hot water) just doesn’t cut it for me, so I carry hand sanitizer with me EVERYWHERE.
    Oh, and the spitting…. Don’t get me started on that one.
  7. Personal space. – There is none.  Personal space in China does not equate to personal space in the U.S.  You will have someone who is far closer to you when you talk to them than you have ever felt comfortable with. You also will touch and be touched involuntarily, albeit inadvertently, on a regular basis.  Look, there are a LOT of people in the cities, you are going to have people less than a foot from you on a regular basis – on the bus, in the street, at the market – everywhere.  Just accept that fact and get used to it.
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    So, these are the lessons learned so far.  Each time I find myself getting  bent out of shape (like I did today when someone cut RIGHT IN FRONT OF ME in line – which is perfectly normal here), I just take a deep breath and let it go and accept that there are many more lessons I will learn on this adventure.

The Physical

I saw my doctor prior to my departure for a physical, as required by the school and the Chinese government, but was required to complete another physical shortly after my arrival. I guess just telling them I am not a raging ball of disease does not suffice….  Well, that was an experience. I don’t think I’ve ever gotten through a hospital visit so fast, or seen so many doctors in one visit. Apparently physicals are a requirement for all university students as well; they are done assembly-line style here, and they do not waste any time. EKG, done. NEXT! Chest x-ray. boom, DONE. Next!  Poke, prod. Done. NEXT! Blood drawn, urine collected. Done. NEXT! I think I had at least eight different tests done and we were out of there within an hour. Bonus points for having to get weighed in a line for all to see (sadly, I outweighed the men in front of me, and no, I’m not that big). All the time I have no idea what they are asking me or what they are looking for, but they let me leave once they finished, so I take that as a good sign…..

Welcome to China

[Just a reminder that I will frequently go ‘back in time’ as I write – these are some of my first impressions upon my arrival in China.]

You know you are probably not coming to a city that gets a lot of foreign traffic when you exit the plane down a staircase and directly onto the tarmac…. When was the last time you had that experience? The airport, from what I could see of it, is not very big, especially for a city of 11 million. We took a bus to the main building to process through; I swear the building was straight out of the ’80’s Cold War era – grey concrete walls, low ceilings and bad lighting, stern-looking officials. I was afraid to open my mouth as I handed over my passport for inspection. Back through a maze of halls and out to meet the school’s program director, and off to the campus we drove.

The first thought I had as we were driving was there were a lot of trees, but where were the birds?  I didn’t see a single bird the entire 45-minute drive, and that left me feeling a little unsettled. I have to have some sort of animal life around me; the only other form of non-human life I had seen since landing was a lone fly on the bus at the airport.

I couldn’t tell on our drive into town if many of the ramshackle buildings I saw were wholly abandoned or still occupied. Echoes of what you would envision when you think ‘communist country’ ran through my head.  The architectural styles I had seen so far (and don’t quote me on this; architectural styles are not my strong point) seemed to fall either into the Brutalist style, or some odd conglomeration of Stalinist-era styles mixed with Baroque, influenced by the prior history with and proximity to Russia, but the seemingly unending state of decay is what stood out most. Even when we arrived in the city, it seemed that even the new buildings going up looked like they were falling apart. Aesthetics (or maintenance of the exterior, at least) do not seem to be a priority.

The environment didn’t seem to improve much as we approached the school – buildings were still shabby; some streets looked downright scary. Little thought of maintenance of sidewalks or facades seems to be given; aesthetics, again, seemed to be not just an afterthought, but not a thought at all. My apartment building looks like what I would imagine you would see either in Cold War Soviet Union, or maybe pre-gentrified Bronx, or Detroit. The stairways are all exposed concrete and pipe – no embellishment whatsoever here – grey metal doors on the apartments. I walked up the stairs wondering ‘what have I gotten myself into?’

I knew that, given the anxiety and adrenaline running through me and the exhaustion I would experience upon arrival, that my initial views of the city would not necessarily be a fair assessment. After a few days of settling in and recovering from jet-lag, and a walk around the campus and the city, it was easier to appreciate the variety of architecture, and to take appearances with a grain of salt. There are still a lot of unfinished and abandoned buildings around – when I asked Robert, one of the other English teachers, he said that often a building project will run out of money, so it just sits there. There are some magnificent, half-finished buildings around the city – picking out what is still in progress versus abandoned can be a challenge.

As for my apartment building, I have gotten used to the concrete hallways and grey doors. The apartment itself is bigger than I expected, and is furnished and quite cozy. [Note: if you ever decide to visit or move to China, mattresses here are NOT what they are in the U.S. I like a firm mattress, but this one makes me feel like I am camping and sleeping on the ground (I now have an air mattress on top of it).] But I’m still getting used to having to stomp my foot at each level to get the stairwell light to come back on…and I did finally find the birds as I walked around campus the first week.

A Movie Made Me Do It

When people ask me why I decided to go overseas to teach English (ESL), the requisite replies surface: ‘I have a friend [Janet] who went to South Korea to teach English, so I’d always thought about it,’ or ‘I needed to do something new’ will usually suffice. What really made me do it was a movie, a Ben Stiller movie to be exact. Now, I know some people reading this may be thinking, ‘um, really?….’ Let me explain.

September 2013 – I was feeling more and more unsettled in my life, while ironically I was way too settled. I was still stuck, and in the back of my mind I knew I had to do something very different, but what? I happened across a free movie screening, so off I went with my friend, Kieve, to the movies – the movie was ‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.’ The short story of the same name, written by James Thurber in 1939, happens to be a favorite short story I discovered in a summer English class during my sophomore year of college. (It had also been translated to the big screen in 1947, featuring Danny Kaye). The story follows Walter Mitty through his adventure-filled mental musings in his attempt to add some excitement and heroics to his otherwise mundane existence. Walter Mitty, the war hero; the lifesaver; the good guy. In Thurber’s tale, Walter fails to escape the tedium of his everyday life, except in his own mind – his secret life is his only respite.

As with the 1947 version, the 2013 film is merely inspired by Thurber’s work. Walter, played by Ben Stiller, leads a seemingly mundane life working at Life Magazine, but like his literary character, his imagination runs wild with daydreams: Walter Mitty the space hero; Walter Mitty savior of damsels in distress (or at least their dogs) from exploding buildings and coming out the hero; Walter Mitty the bad-ass who takes no shit from his new boss. In reality, he gets picked on by the new head of the company’s takeover, and never quite seems to make the impression he seeks on his female co-worker, the object of his (secret) affection. Walter wasn’t always like this – he was bold and brave in his younger days, a rebel – someone who wasn’t afraid to take a chance and be himself. Ah, how age and circumstances change us….

Walter’s final assignment is the cover of the last print edition of the magazine. However, the negative for the image designated by the photographer as the final image is missing, and it’s Walter’s job to find it. Somewhere, somehow, he summons the courage to chase this photographer’s trail halfway across the world – to a dive bar in the middle of nowhere, Greenland; jumping, literally, aboard a helicopter piloted by a very large, very drunk pilot; jumping onto a boat out in the middle of a furious sea (well, almost – he misses and ends up in the frigid waters, but eventually he makes it aboard); trekking through remote Afghanistan and eventually tracking down the photographer as he lays in wait in hopes of capturing the elusive snow leopard in his camera sights. Wait…Walter is actually living his daydreams? In a way, yes. He has summoned the courage to step out and be that brave, bold person he was before. And he gets the girl in the end.

The underlying message that screamed out at me as I watched this was ‘what are you waiting for?’ What AM I waiting for? The scenery is spectacular, the types of places I’ve dreamed of going to. I had been saying for years that I want to travel, but what was I doing about it? Walter’s re-discovery of passion for living life, and doing something about it – hit me like a brick. I had a secure, if not necessarily lucrative job with the state, and I was getting by. Getting by, like I had been doing for several years, and not breaking out of the monumental chasm I had been stuck in for so long. What the hell was I doing? And what was I going to do to change it? I knew in that moment that I had to get out – I didn’t know where or why at the time, but I knew that change – a big change – was in order.

“To see the world, things dangerous to come to, to see behind walls, draw closer, to find each other and to feel. That is the purpose of life.”

(LIFE motto, from 2013’s ‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty)