As the holidays draw to a close and a new calendar year commences, many of us find ourselves desperately in need of some “me” time — a chance to reassess our “to do” lists and decide which of our life goals deserves top priority.
Gah?? Did I just write that? Talk about understatements! If you’re like me, you are lucky if you can remember that you used to have personal goals at one point. (My only aims for the past few weeks have been writing x many cards, wrapping x many gifts, hosting/visiting x many relations…)
That could be why Kate Allison’s post on Monday — announcing that The Displaced Nation has dedicated this month to spiritual escapes — was a goad to such debate. Does the quest for spiritual enlightenment require geographical displacement, away from the demands of family and everyday life? And what about those who are already living far away from “home” — do they need to displace themselves even further, to the most obscure corners of the globe? (Wait, aren’t some of them already living there?!)
Having tracked this topic on social media for several weeks, I would like to share my top 10 findings as further food for meditation, so to speak… My hope is that these writers can help us disentangle our thoughts — which might otherwise come to resemble advanced yoga positions — on the best techniques for getting in touch with the innermost core of our beings.
As usual, and as befits our blog’s slightly irreverent tone, they’re from a mix of indie and conventional publications.
1) Meditation vacation
Author: Matthew Green (@MattGreenAfPak), a reporter covering Pakistan and Afghanistan and author of The Wizard of the Nile
Publication: Financial Times, Life & Arts (@FTlifeandarts)
Why it’s helpful: Spending so much time in war zones, Green desperately needed the kind of retreat where alcohol, email — and talking — are all banned. During his 10-day “Buddhist boot camp” at the Himachal Vipassana Centre in the Himalayas, he ended up weeping harder than he could remember, for a reason he couldn’t fathom — but he also had to bite his lip to stifle the kind of giggles he hadn’t felt since school!
2) The Joy of Quiet
Author: Pico Iyer, British essayist, novelist, travel writer, and Third Culture Kid (born in Britain to Indian parents, he grew up in California), who once said: “And if nowhere is quite home, we can be optimists everywhere.”
Publication: New York Times Week in Review (@nytopinion)
Why it’s helpful: Iyer suggests that there’s something in the zeitgeist to make us all in need of stillness at this particular moment — that the more ways we have to connect, the more desperate we become to unplug, and would pay almost anything for the privilege. (Hmmm… Perhaps I should end this post right here?) I also found it interesting that as a writer, he prefers to live in rural Japan,
“in part so I could more easily survive for long stretches entirely on foot, and every trip to the movies would be an event.”
(Presumably the other part, which he doesn’t mention, is that his wife is Japanese.) Almost needless to say, Iyer has never tweeted or gone on Facebook.
3) The Threshold
Author: Catherine Yiğit (@Yarzac), a writer who was born, bred and buttered in Ireland but who now lives as an expat (also mother and wife) in northwestern Turkey near the mythical city of Troy.
Publication: The Skaian Gates: Notes from an Online Wanderer (Yiğit’s personal blog)
Why it’s helpful: If you’re serious about bringing change to your life, sometimes it helps to take a “tough love” approach. Yiğit found the kick she needed for empowering herself after stumbling upon a program for women writers called “A Year with Myself.” The approach, she says, is gentler than that taken by the unmercifully profane Chuck Wendig (@ChuckWendig), he of the author-advice blog Terrible Minds. (Ironically, Yiğit cites a post by Wendig that I’d shortlisted for this top-ten list: 25 Things Writers Should Stop Doing Right F****** Now. But then I found Yiğit’s post — and could relate to her yearning for some blend of toughness and forgiveness to help her cross the threshold…)
4) A year in awe over the fabulously mundane
Author: Lauren Alissa Hunter (@SankofaMeLately ), world traveler, former expat in China, and blogger (SankofaMe Lately), currently in search of a publisher for her WIP.
Publication: She Writes (@shewritesdotcom), a virtual workplace for women who write from all 50 states and more than 30 countries.
Why it’s helpful: Wannabe novelists, before making any major changes to your life this year, take heed of this rather cautionary tale. A year ago, Hunter upped and quit her job and booked a one-way flight to China in hopes it would spark her creativity as a writer. But instead of finding serenity, she found “intense loneliness, terrifying introspection, emotional vulnerability.” Still, at least she discovered where “home” is — her native United States. What’s more, she currently finds the mundane simply fabulous.
5) The (hateful) ties that bind: Expats and cultural criticism
Author: Camden Luxford (@camdenluxford), an Australian traveler and freelance writer who is now an expat in Argentina. Note: Luxford has been one of TDN’s Random Nomads.
Publication: The Brink of Something Else (Luxford’s blog)
Why it’s helpful: In her inimitable style, Luxford raises the vexed issue of why some expats can’t resist slagging off the countries where they live. Though she didn’t design the post as a contemplation on the January blahs, it dovetails neatly with TDN’s current theme. Are some of us feeling low simply because we can’t stand the thought of starting a new calendar year in the same old same old country? Or because we’re no longer that thrilled about being a world traveler? Burn-out is a serious condition. If you think you might be a victim, I would suggest adding to the comments on Luxford’s post as a first step to recovery… (In this connection, it’s also worth taking a look at the post Struggling in Seville by Ayngelina on her Bacon is magic blog. Ayngelina was traveling solo through Latin America, ended up in Spain — and then decided she was done with being a nomad and would return to Canada. Her post attracted a whopping 168 comments!)
6) 10 of the world’s best yoga retreats 2012
Author: Susan Greenwood (@Pedalfeet) — Guardian writer, bike rider & blogger (Pedalfeet)
Publication: Guardian Travel (@GuardianTravel)
Why it’s helpful: One of the things that always puts me off considering a yoga retreat is the cost — for which you’ll need some controlled breathing even before you’ve learned the proper technique! Greenwood claims that the retreats on her list qualify not only as inspirational but also affordable. I’m not sure if that’s true, especially if you had to add the cost of airplane travel to the cost of the retreat (most of these places aren’t exactly offering bargain-basement prices). Still, the Yoga Barn in Bali seems surprisingly unpretentious and good value — eat-pray-love, anyone?
Worth noting: This Saturday’s Guardian Travel has a special issue on healthy holidays and “courses that will change your life.”
7) 5 magical places in China to disconnect from the world and recharge
Author: “travelingman” Troy on GotSaga (From California, he is now planning a trip to Peru.)
Publication: GotSaga (@GotSaga), an online community for sharing travel sagas, tips, and destinations.
Why it’s helpful: Having been to Mainland China several times, I wouldn’t put it first on my destination list for spiritual escapes, though it’s such a large country it’s bound to have a few spots that are conducive to contemplation — especially if you’re willing to venture to the back of Outer Mongolia. Though Troy doesn’t completely persuade me — some of his proposed retreats sound rather touristy — I do like the idea of glimpsing rural life amid the bamboo forests of Huzhou, which also boasts the distinction of having the world’s only museum devoted to bamboo. As I rather like things that are in bad taste, I might even be tempted to take home some kitsch bamboo products along with my white tea, for the memories. (Listen, if you can find peace of mind in today’s China, you can find it anywhere! No need for fancy yoga retreats…)
8) Happy New Year and the Clutter-free Home
Author: Jennifer L. Scott (@jenlyneva), author of Lessons from Madame Chic, a how-to book based on her experience of living in posh apartment in Paris for a semester while a student at the University of Southern California. (NOTE: The book was featured on our 2011 expat book list.)
Publication: The Daily Connoisseur (Scott’s popular lifestyle blog)
Why it’s helpful: I love the idea of someone deriving powerful life lessons from a study-abroad experience and then distilling them into a “Top 20” list for the benefit of wider humanity. (I’m also rather jealous — have always wanted to do something like that with my years in Japan…) And what better time to contemplate such life lessons than in January — beginning with the need to declutter. Because they understand the pleasure of only using the best things you own, the French apparently excel at getting rid of excess belongings (or not buying them in the first place). Les gens extraordinaires!
9) Quick and Dirty Japanese: It’s What’s for Dinner
Author: Larissa Reinhart Hoffman (@RisWrites), a former expat in various parts of Japan, with a WIP entitled “Portrait of a Dead Guy.”
Publication: The ExPat Returneth: A place to express what you miss about living abroad (a new blog just started up by Hoffman — she hopes to recruit other writers eventually).
Why it’s helpful: Have you included healthier eating in your New Year’s resolutions? Then you ought to be eating Japanese food, Hoffman states. She also gives short shrift to complaints that it’s too hard to tackle their cooking, insisting that if she can handle making Japanese food (she was a late bloomer to cooking), anyone can. While living in Japan as an expat with her (American) husband and their two girls, Hoffman developed a repertoire of what she likes to call “quick and dirty” recipes (the Japanese might be horrified by the latter adjective!). Her main message:
You don’t have to be Martha Stewart to make home-style Japanese food.
10) The Buzz in Mexico
Author: Melina Gerosa Bellows, editor-in-chief of National Geographic Kids and Huffington Post blogger
Publication: Jan/Feb 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveler (@NatGeoTraveler)
Why it’s helpful: Bellows spins the yarn of her recent trip to Tulum, Mexico. She was on a mission to follow the path of the stingless Melipona beecheii bee, which is now endangered — a cause of concern to all those who value traditional Mayan culture. As she explains:
At risk of dying along with the insect is a beekeeping tradition that for centuries has been sacred to the Maya for its spiritual benefits.
In the process, she slows down and learns to value the art of “just being” (pun intended?). Her story is a reminder of how peace of mind can hit you over the head when you least expect it — in Bellows’ case, while on a work assignment (albeit to a very agreeable part of the world, where even bees behave in a civilized manner).
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Question: Can you suggest any other works that should have made the list?
STAY TUNED for Monday’s post, a contrarian perspective on spiritual escapes from TDN contributor Anthony Windram.
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