Dec 21, 2014

Asking the Important Questions

Hindu Temple

Galungan is the most important holiday in the Balinese calendar. Twice a year everyone in Bali prepare masses of offerings for the religious ceremony that celebrates the victory of dharma over adharma (good over evil).

It’s also when the spirits of deceased relatives “return to visit their former homes, and the current inhabitants have a responsibility to be hospitable through prayers and offerings” to them for ten days.

Every house welcomes them with a roadside penjor — bamboo poles with suspended offerings on the end:


Five of us foreigners joined the Suastika Guesthouse family, all decked out in festival sarongs and lace, to the neighborhood temple. One British girl was the younger college-age sister of a woman who’d recently moved to Ubud, and she was on holiday visiting. She seemed dwarfed by her older sister’s maturity and grace, lacking confidence by worryingly asking permission to photograph her surroundings, and living her life from behind the viewfinder of her massive DSLR camera.

Galungan Prayer Offerings (Flowers)

On the way back from the temple, she talked about how she wished she would have known photography was allowed on the temple grounds, then she could have captured more shots. I told her Bali was full of beautiful photo opportunities, and no doubt she’d fill her camera with them in no time.

“I have a 4 terabyte hard drive full of photos,” she replied, “and already filled 2 of them." (They come in that size now?)."I don’t know if I should sell them or how to make a living from it, y’know? I keep catching myself watching from the camera and not being actually there.”

“I worry about that, too," I told her. "I’ve got thousands of photos but I rarely look through them. After this year, I’m gonna buy a real instant film camera and only take photos of special occasions. Why do you love photography? I mean, why do you take photos?"

She was introspective, and really thought about the question before saying, “I guess that’s what I really came to Bali to figure out.” After this exchange, she seemed encouraged and later saying goodbye with earnest thanks. I hoped that I had somehow been a helpful mirror at a time when she needed some self-reflection.

Late that evening I was reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s Committed (a long essay about asking the question, “Why do people get married and what does marriage mean?”). Before she married the second time, Liz wrote a list of her “Top 5 Personal Faults” for her husband-to-be, like a premarital release statement that “this is what you’re getting into, bub.”

I thought this would be a good activity for myself, like naming Rumplestiltskin as the only way to rid yourself of him. How can I work around my shortcomings if I don’t define them to myself? So I made my own list, careful to be objective and not slip into self-hate.

But more than that, the second page of the list turned into something of far greater import: I wrote down the important questions of my life that, really, this whole year to myself is really about answering, or at least beginning to answer. Questions like “Why am I traveling for a year?” and “What do I want to accomplish with my life?"

That’s when the connection between the meek photographer and my list struck me: Sometimes we aren’t looking for answers so much as a reminder/articulation of what the questions are that we need to know for ourselves. You can’t answer “Rumplestiltskin” without the question, “What’s my name?”

This is what people mean, I think, when they are out to “find themselves.” Isn’t it really to “define themselves”? Not so anyone else can - so they can. Or at least ask how to.

On Turning Twenty-Six

Another note: tomorrow is my birthday. Twenty-six years old! Holy aging cannoli.

When I was a little kid, I remember telling my grandmother with absolute authority that you were deemed officially O-L-D once you hit 35. Then it’s all over — you can kiss your sweet spent youth goodbye. I mean, naturally, how could anyone live to such a momentous age without getting worn out in the process? (har-har)

I had a similar feeling sitting on the tatami of my Nanao apartment and talking with Anna, a fourth-year JET who was 26 at the time. Her age seemed very far away, way over in the Land of the Mid-Twenties (I was newly 24 and still clinging to my expiring citizenship of the Early-Twenties Territory). 26 felt as far away as if I was 16, or 6, instead.

Then, surprise! 25 disappeared in a *poof!* and now I’m the one turning 26… and it feels different than any other birthday I’ve yet had. When do you cross the border from Young Adult to Real Adult? What does being a Real Adult mean, what responsibilities does that entail? Am I trying to grow up too fast again, concerned I’m spending away my youth when it’s really still in front of me?

I used to joke I would stop counting my birthdays and instead refer to them as the “Anniversary of my 25th Birthday.” There’s this pervasive fear of not being perceived as young anymore. Why is the idea of “youth” so important in our culture? I can’t answer that for everyone, but I know what it really means to me: that I’m out of time, caught in the act of… doing nothing. It all boils down to the fear that I’m not accomplishing what I’m supposed to.

If I was born expressly to write stories/books, where are they? Several authors I’ve read have the same opening line when they’re expounding on good writing advice: Take writing seriously. It’s my lifetime commitment and I must commit! I don’t want to half-ass it. After all, age doesn’t matter, right? I want to use the time I have to do the best I can!!!

You may be much older than me, and thinking how young 26 is and how foolish I seem worrying about “squandered youth” (I’m traveling around the world for Pete’s Sake!), but this is the oldest I’ve ever been; I have no experience beyond this point. I only know how I feel right now.

And, smiling, I can tell you I feel twenty-six.

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