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Next week, I’m set to help the locals dig up an ancient Chinese cemetery.  Or something along those lines.  I know there will be digging and clearing and probably some metaphysical protocols observed, at least beforehand.  I know there will be graveyard nightmares to follow.  Hopefully, the cool horror-movie kind.  I know there will be good food and an entire community coming together to do this work for free, just because it needs to be done.  I know I’ll discover the rest when I get there.  For most people, an adventure like this would fall on the peculiar side of disturbing.  For Hakalau, it’s just a day in the life.

Two days after the election, I arrived in the dark.  A deserted local airport after a layover in Honolulu, the only souls around dressed all in white to administer my second Covid test of the journey, the new welcome ritual.  They drifted through the enormous empty terminal meant to hold multiple tour groups and one of them stuck a six-inch Q-tip up my nose.  30 minutes later, I was pronounced negative.  I could have told them that ahead of time and saved them the trouble.  I’m usually pretty negative.  Then: straight down a long, lonely highway and into the forest.

I’ve been staying in the village for a week and a half.  I feel like I’ve fallen off the world and landed someplace better, but not someplace normal—if by “normal” you mean the venomous meltdown of 2020 election America.  And thank goodness for that.  This village is old.  It’s in a jungle.  But that doesn’t quite describe it.  It doesn’t feel like America.  The houses are aged but well cared for with creaky floors and screened-in windows that haven’t been closed in 50 years.  Bright green geckos abound.  Beetles crawl the ceilings in the middle of the night.  Spiders bigger than your thumb.  Chirping coal-gray coqui frogs until dawn. 

During the day, you’ll catch the scent of jasmine and you’ll decide to quit buying so much food.  It’s too humid to overeat and oranges, papaya, limes, and breadfruit dip down over the paths like a constant parade of gifts.  You’ll immediately realize that all you’re missing is tea.  And there happens to be a lot of that around as well.  Now and then, you might make an extraordinary effort to get some rice.

Tea and incense.  Rice and ulu.  At 3:00 AM, I wake in order to write fiction at a rickety wooden table in the corner of my enormous empty living room.  Enormous for me.  Perhaps less so for the wealthy tourists who sometimes rent the place to get away from it all—not realizing that you can’t just stay in Hakalau for a week and say you’ve been there.  It’s like learning “French for travelers.”  All you remember a month after your visit to Paris is oui and Où sont les serviettes?  There’s an ageless feeling here, some kind of eddy in time, and it defies easy answers.

How I came to this place and where I’m going next, whether it’s back to Kyoto or Northern Thailand, has to do with my other life as a writing instructor and communications specialist.  And I’m still a fiction writer.  I look in the mirror and still see my tired fiction-writing face, the writerly gray coming in over my ears, but now there’s something else.  I spend time looking at the old hand-carved statue of a Buddhist monk by the door.  He’s holding a begging bowl.  His eyes are half-closed and he’s smiling gently, aware that everything is in its proper place.  Maybe that’s it.

At ten-after-five, I walk across the road in the dark to practice an hour of Rinzai zazen in the village zendo.  Later, I’ll walk down a series of abandoned flower-strewn trails and condemned bridges to an inlet of broken rocks and stare at the ocean.  And I always have the same thought: if this is all I do between now and the day I die, which could be in the next ten minutes or in the next 30 years, I’ll go with a smile.  I don’t need to get into paradise.  Just let me stay in Hakalau.

Being a self-employed workaholic and knowing how to effectively relax is one of the biggest professional conundrums I’ve faced as an adult.  And by “effective relaxation,” I mean not chemically induced relaxation or pseudo-relaxation that is just another form of work in disguise.  Accepting the necessity of down time is really hard when you’re the one in charge of your schedule.

Add cyclical insomnia, a lot of repressed anger, and an emotionally abusive work ethic instilled from childhood and you get a large part of why I was a difficult person to be around in my 20s and early 30s.  But I think I’ve learned a few things by now.  Here are some ideas if you happen to be someone who shares these or similar issues (and I can think of a number of my friends who probably do).

(1) The most important thing is to be honest about being Type-A, especially if you use work to avoid other unpleasant thoughts, situations, or confrontations.  The first and deepest honesty is with yourself.  Then comes the need to practice outward-facing honesty by releasing the burden of holding these unflattering realizations about your obsessiveness in all the time.  Speaking to others about it releases its hold on you.  If you are afraid of judgment, consider that those who criticize you might feel threatened because they don’t want you to change or don’t want to face their own “stuff.”  Honesty and transparency can renew you completely. And you probably need that kind of renewal.

(2) Understand your rhythms.  Everything flows in evolving patterns, including everything in you—in your body and mind.  If you can roughly predict when you will feel the urge to obliterate yourself by working to exhaustion, you can avoid that.  Go home early.  Make a nice dinner.  Take a shower and get in bed.  Avoid replacing one addiction with another: chemically induced relaxation will compound your problems.  Avoid the bar.  Instead, shut everything down for the moment.  Even allow yourself to fail sometimes.  Missing a deadline or taking an evening off in the interest of self-care will not result in the end of the world.  Stop trying to control everything, especially when you feel that you’re going to fall apart unless you double down and pull an all-nighter.  Because that’s what this is about: feeling like you need absolute control at all times.  Workaholism is like any other addiction.  It’s an ersatz mode of control.  Getting over it means learning to relinquish control.  It’s not easy, but it’s absolutely necessary if you want to progress.

(3) Be kind to yourself.  This sort of self-torture has deep roots in those who suffer from it.  You will slip up when you’re trying to lead a healthier life.  You will have to deal with the unpleasantness of giving up your lousy self-destructive coping strategy.  That cruel inner voice that says you need to prove your worthiness by striving for some unattainable and, frankly, mentally ill standard of perfection and productivity is not your friend.  It’s a part of you that got misaligned early in your development and that is probably sustained by the culture around you.  Learning to be kind to yourself is a good first step toward re-alignment.  A humble and wide perspective also helps, realizing that you will never be at your best if you’re in a constant state of turmoil and burnout.  Also accept that even when you are completely centered, well-rested, and healthy, you’re still fallible.  You’re not always going to be on top of your game.  Maybe never.  So what?  The overall quality of your life is more important.  When you’re dead, hell won’t give you credit for “time already served” up at your desk. 

And (4) avoid the game of childish posturing. In every workplace (and on the internet), you’ll meet a certain percentage of people who get off on how much they can overwork, as if that defines them as superior beings.  They are looking to others for cheap validation because they feel empty.  I know because I have been that person.  Don’t make my stupid mistakes, kid.  Working hard is good.  But setting limits adds value to everything.  Facing the reasons why you overwork might be painful, but it’s again about self-honesty.  You have a limited amount of time.  You should be using at least some of it to frolic in the dandelions and give biscuits to puppies.  I say this as the badass motherfucker you know and love: puppies. Frolic. Get to it.

It goes without saying that, by writing this, I am actually practicing these things in my own way.

Welcome . . .

I write fiction and nonfiction for magazines, work as a freelance writer / editor / journalist, and teach composition and fiction writing.

This blog is mostly dedicated to writing about politics and media, travel essays, creative non-fiction, discussions about books, the MFA experience, publishing, and work I’ve already placed in magazines. But I might write anything.

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“To educate is to seek meaning in everything. It is to teach others to seek the meaning of things. This means mixing the dreams of children and young people with the experience of adults and the elderly. This exchange must always take place, or else there can be no humanity because there would be no roots, no history, no promise, no growth, and no prophecy.”

— Pope Francis, 5 June 20

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“I write it myself, edit it myself, censor it myself, publish it myself, distribute it myself, and spend time in prison for it myself.”

— Vladimir Bukovsky

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“If you’re going to try, go all the way. Otherwise, don’t even start. This could mean losing girlfriends, wives, relatives and maybe even your mind. It could mean not eating for three or four days. It could mean freezing on a park bench. It could mean jail. It could mean derision. It could mean mockery—isolation. Isolation is the gift. All the others are a test of your endurance, of how much you really want to do it. And, you’ll do it, despite rejection and the worst odds. And it will be better than anything else you can imagine. If you’re going to try, go all the way. There is no other feeling like that. You will be alone with the gods, and the nights will flame with fire. You will ride life straight to perfect laughter. It’s the only good fight there is.”

― Charles Bukowski, Factotum

“La lecture est un acte d’identification, les sentiments exprimés sont déjà en nous. Autrement, le livre nous tombe des mains.”

— Madeleine Chapsal

“Time is said to be irreversible. And this is true enough in the sense that ‘you can’t bring back the past’. But what exactly is this ‘past’? Is it what has passed? And what does ‘passed’ mean for a person when for each of us the past is the bearer of all that is constant in the reality of the present, of each current moment? In a certain sense the past is far more real, or at any rate more stable, more resilient than the present. The present slips and vanishes like sand between the fingers, acquiring material weight only in its recollection. King Solomon’s ring bore the inscription, ‘All will pass’; by contrast, I want to draw attention to how time in its moral implication is in fact turned back. Time can vanish without trace in our material world for it is a subjective, spiritual category. The time we have lived settles in our soul as an experience placed within time.”

— Andrei Tarkovsky, Sculpting in Time