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The Book of Life – Choosing Uncertainty

This Is Your Life: If you could read a book containing all that has happened and will ever happen in your life, would you? If you choose to read it, you must read it cover to cover.

It’s a tough question but one I know the answer to almost immediately: No.  I would not read it.

I’m constantly deliberating over what I should do in the future.   I agonize over it.  I have no idea what will happen one year, let alone five or ten down the road.  And that can be really scary and exhausting sometimes.

But it can also be absolutely exhilarating.  The world is full of possibility.  Anything could happen and I live for that buoyant uncertainty.

Knowing the future would reduce some of the stress and trepidation in life, but with it you would lose your sense of adventure.  You would lose the sense of accomplishment after making it through those uncertain times.  And I fear you would lose the sense that anything  you did could make a difference.

That’s a high price to pay for knowledge.

As I continue to muddle my way through life I know I will continue to worry about the future, to be uncertain about which path to take or how things might turn out.  But it wouldn’t be an adventure without a little fear and in uncertain times it’s nice to know that anything is possible.

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Five Minutes to Happiness

I have a secret.

A tool that I would like to share with you.

Six months ago, I was miserable.  My job seemed to be sucking the life out of me.  Even when I wasn’t at work, I was left stressed, worn out, and depressed.  I didn’t feel like I had the energy to do the things I enjoyed, which left me even more unhappy.  It was not a pleasant time in my life.  But I found tools to help me regain the optimistic and productive outlook I used to hold dear.

One of the tools that helped most was a journal called The Five Minute Journal.  Recommended by Tim Ferris and backed by scientific studies, the journal uses simple exercises to help you practice positivity.

Don’t worry if you aren’t a “journaler”.  I’ve never been able to keep up a consistent journaling habit and this is the perfect “journal” for non-writers.  It’s simple.  All you have to do is answer the questions the journal asks (the same ones every day) and it only takes a few minutes.  It’s made to be the first thing you do in the morning and the last thing you do at night before bed (2-3mins each).

The Benefits:

  • Practice Gratitude – the first question is to list what you are grateful for.  Experts from many disciplines, both scientific and spiritual, agree that gratitude is one of the biggest keys to happiness.  When you are thankful for what you have, it’s hard to be unhappy about it at the same time.
  • Begin the day right – this serves as a calming morning ritual as well as a chance to set your intention for the day.  The journal always asks “What would make today great?”  This is your chance to choose how you want your day to go.
  • Reflection – with the constant stimulation of today’s fast-paced world, it can be hard to just sit and think but this journal gives you the chance to sit and reflect on every day.  By taking the time to review the day, you can find ways to improve upon things big and small.  This is a great way to both learn about and improve yourself.
  • Build a habit – the journal is a daily practice.  It only takes a few minutes so it’s easy to get started and it’s a beneficial habit to have.  If you feel like you want more discipline or intention in your life I’d encourage you to give it a try.  Once you’re in the habit of using this journal, you can expand upon your routine to add other activities.  Been eyeballing that CEO’s morning ritual?  Just add part of it to your journaling habit.  Exercise, meditation, writing, the possibilities are endless but the key here is to start slow.  Don’t add anything until you really have a strong habit.  I did nothing but the Five Minute Journal for the first 3 months, but it eventually acted like a gateway drug and now my mornings are both productive and fulfilling.

It’s not going to change your life overnight.  All of the benefits I’ve listed above take time.  It’s an incremental process but if you’re at all curious, give it a shot.  I’ve found it to be hugely beneficial.

You can find The Five Minute Journal on Amazon or at fiveminutejournal.com.  Their website has a lot more information and a preview of the first section of the book if you’re curious.

 

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Anger

The pain sliced into my hand as every muscle in my neck tensed.  I realized my fingernail was digging into my hand and the lanyard I had been working on hung limply from my fist, forgotten.

I was 12 years old and I was furious.

I am generally a very even-tempered person.  I would never have described any of my reactions or feelings as “angry” until this moment. But now, sharing a bench with my friends and surrounded by respected adults happily nodding along, I was livid. And I didn’t feel like there was anything I could do about it.

I tempered my anger for a moment, enough for a quick glance to either side to see if anyone else shared my outrage.  From the top row of the campfire amphitheater I saw no tension in anyone’s faces or postures.  I was surrounded by people, yet entirely alone.  I was incredulous.

Did no one else hear the blasphemy coming from this speaker’s mouth?  Did no one else care about representing, or even just considering, another perspective?

It was just past 7am and the early morning light streamed through the tall pines, onto the bleary-eyed faces of the congregation.  We were all there for a week-long summer camp: kids from grades 5 through 12 enjoying their vacation while learning about God; and adults serving as counselors, water-slide competition judges, and enforcers of the “no harmful pranks” rule.  Sponsored by the local Community Covenant Church, the camp was always a lot of fun and games with a little heartfelt Christianity thrown in.  I had never felt pressured or judged by any decision that didn’t align completely with their beliefs.  All of the leaders were genuine in their faith, in their willingness to help, and in their friendship.

But on this morning, the camp had a guest speaker.  And that speaker turned his discourse onto a topic very dear to my heart: other cultures.

As he continued to go on about how these cultures worshiped false idols and how ignorant and backward they were, I found his speech increasingly revolting.  His myopic approach was condescending and so repugnant I wanted to storm out of the amphitheater or raise my voice in defense of these nebulous “others”.  Problem was, there was no way to do that without making a scene.  Though I hated what the speaker was saying, I still wanted to be respectful.  I didn’t know how to reconcile these conflicting impulses so I was left frozen in my seat, staring at the lanyard clamped in my fist.

Thankfully, the speech ended quickly after that and we were all released for breakfast.  I had time to cool off and look forward to the rest of the day’s activities but I will never forget the hostility I felt for those few minutes.  That morning taught me just how important understanding other perspectives is to me.  I have never been so angry, before or since, but I hope to be able to encourage greater understanding next time.

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What are you proud of?

“What are you proud of?” is one of the questions I tried to address in my writings last week.   I’m fortunate enough to have made several accomplishments in my short life and I scribbled some notes down about some of them, but looking over my responses I realize that all the really big moments I am most proud of have a unifying theme that’s somewhat unconventional.

When I started writing I didn’t think about graduating from High School as a Valedictorian, or acing 40 pages worth of papers in 3 days of college finals, or any number of other academic accomplishments I’ve had over the past 16 years in school.  Rather, the moment that first jumped into my head was when I made the decision to drop out of Honors Chemistry in college.  Yes, 17-year-old Alexandra was more proud of dropping an honors class than any of the As she had under her belt.  Truth be told, it took a lot more courage for me to drop that class than any high-level course could demand.

It was the first time I put my emotional and physical well-being and happiness before my potential academic achievement.  In high school I pushed myself to the max, but college afforded me the opportunity to change my priorities.  Why did I drop Honors Chemistry?  The schedule conflicted with a dance class I wanted to take.  I’ve done ballet my whole life and I decided that dance was more important to me than a weighted grade in a subject I didn’t love.

Making the decision was uncertain and scary but I knew that it was the right thing for me.  The moment I realized I had successfully altered my schedule and defined my own priorities was absolutely liberating.   It was hard for me to wrap my head around – but I think that’s why it made me so proud.  I had the power to define myself and decide what was important to me.

The moments that evoke the most pride for me all deal with having the courage to do something for myself.  To do what I think is right.  To step outside of my comfort zone and try something new.  To stop following the path most people have laid in front of them and to instead try something that might be good for me, even (and perhaps especially) if it breaks the mold of what I think about myself.

I am so thankful that I dropped that course all those years ago because it laid the foundation for many leaps of courage to follow.   None of them are the most impressive of accomplishments (after all, dropping out of Honors Chemistry doesn’t sound like much of an accomplishment does it?), but they are the moments that have made my heart happiest and led to the most growth in my life.  It’s hard not to be proud of that.

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Revamping My Purpose

I started this blog a few years ago with the intention of documenting my travels. It was a great way to update my friends and family on my experiences without having to repeat myself multiple times, and I’ve already seen a lot of growth and development in both my writing and travel experiences.  However, I have decided it is time to redefine this space.

I remain committed to travel and sharing interesting stories and insights from my experiences but I want this blog to be more than a place to list my activities and accomplishments – I want to turn it into a tool I can use for personal growth and development.

I’m currently between phases in my life and I’m trying to figure out what to do next.  I recently graduated from college and would like to go back to grad school but I think it’s important to know what I want to get out of it first.  It is my hope that with your support this blog can help me do that.

There are many things I want to do in life: travel, live in various countries, gain (and retain) fluency in Arabic, Spanish, and several many other languages, but most of all I want to contribute something great to this world and the people who inhabit it.  I want to make changes and help people move forward – not through some over-beaten “cause” but for a passion of my own.  I want to pour my heart and blood and sweat and tears into something and wake up every morning knowing that I’m making a difference and it’s worth it.

I want to live with purpose and passion.

Over the next few weeks you’ll notice I will be posting much more frequently.  It is my hope that writing more often will get my thoughts and passions down on paper and out into the world where I can make use of them.  I want to develop my thoughts on topics that interest me, discover my passions, and improve my writing in the process.  There’s no telling where this will take me, but I know it will be a worthwhile, if at times meandering, journey.  Will you join me?

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Systemic Epiphany

It just hit me in the shower.  I know what I’m interested in.  Not all those hobby-interests like dance, or reading, or even the career-interests like international studies, or medicine.  No, now I finally know what holds all of those little things together.  The overall component that piques my curiosity no matter the subject, the driving force behind every search for understanding within my multifarious passions:

Systems.

It sounds so simple doesn’t it?

Forget the details behind each country’s foreign policy or the historical events that led to Bashar Al-Assad’s control over Syria.  Forget languages or the intricate anatomy of the human body and mind.  All of those details, all of those huge undertakings of research and the quest for understanding were just manifestations of one larger interest: systems.  I want to know how each piece fits into the puzzle.   How individual elements come together to create something greater.   How the whole is greater than the sum of its parts and what makes those parts fit into the whole; what makes the whole tick, and how does it operate independent of its components?

This holds true for every major interest I have ever pursued:

I grew up wanting to go into medicine.  I was fascinated by the body, how each organ did it’s part to promote the health of the whole.  How billions of individual cells came together to create a person.  How the brain directed each action, both consciously and unconsciously.  How surgeons could take things apart and put people together again.

This morphed into Cognitive Science.  What is consciousness?  How do cells come together to create a body that has a mind and a personality?  How does the brain/person control all of that?

Linguistics was a big part of that as well.  How does the brain comprehend sounds as meaning?  How do languages form?  How do the individual components of language come together to form words which form sentences which can be rearranged to create different meanings?  How do societies collectively attribute specific meaning to a string of sounds?

This bled further into Anthropology and International Studies.  How do societies form?  What holds them together?  How do individual people form groups that form nation-states and governments that can align with or against each other in greater organizations (such as the UN) and ultimately make up the world?

Lately I’ve been working at an insurance company.  While the work isn’t particularly inspiring, the company does offer several opportunities for education which I am trying to make the most of.  I have no interest at staying with this company forever but I’ve recently realized a budding interest in business.  Particularly in high-level business systems.  I want to understand how the company works.  How individuals form small departments that form big divisions that make up different branches of one over-arching company.  How money from one branch fuels the activities of another and a separate bucket is held in reserve.  How assets differ from cash flow and what business decisions affect one or the other.

Now, I’ve finally realized what my underlying interest has always been.   I want to know how systems work together to create a larger whole.

What are you interested in?  What drives your passions?  Leave a note in the comments.

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I Am in the World

I am six years old and the fairgrounds is my play structure.  The Spice Girls play on repeat as the crowds swarm through excitedly, going from stand to stand, ride to ride, exhibit to exhibit.  So much energy and life in this place!  So many adventures to be had!  I want to do my own exploring and get my parents’ permission to visit the gardens with my friends.  We race away through the crowd, taking a short ride on the tram just because we can.

The hours race by as we wander the fairgrounds.  I know my way around already but still feel like Indiana Jones or one of the Wild Thornberrys exploring new territory as my friends and I hop from one part of the fair to the next.

I return to my parents after dark, tired but fulfilled by the day of adventure.  I don’t understand why my mom calls me by my full name with a clenched jaw and that tone in her voice.  She pulls me behind the stand to yell, out of sight of the customers buying pink cotton candy and sweet red candied apples.  Their day is not crushed when the bewildered tears spring to my eyes.

I had wanted to stay for the fireworks, to finish the perfect day with sparks of light arcing across the sky with a bang, but now my chances don’t look so good.  I ask anyways, though it’s clear they want to send me home immediately.  My dad relents.  I can tell he feels bad for my mom yelling earlier but I take advantage of the chance to see the spectacle.  It would have been the perfect ending to the perfect day but I know the leash has been tightened.

To me this world is exciting and fun, but to my parents it’s a scary place, full of monsters that eat little girls like me.  I try to tell them that I’m alright, I can take care of myself.  But they don’t listen; they don’t believe a little girl.  Instead they teach her that the world is scary, that she can’t go off by herself.

That she can’t be free.

_________________________________________________________________________________________________________

I am nineteen years old.  I tell my family I want to go to Morocco to study abroad.  I want to stay for a year.  It isn’t a question.  I am not asking for permission; I am letting them know that I have finally decided upon the location of my year abroad.

It is going to be a nation with connections to Europe, Africa, and the Middle East.  With cultural complexities I can’t wait to wrap my head around and mountains and deserts and ancient cities I can’t wait to explore.

It is also an Islamic country in North Africa in the year of the Arab Spring, but that’s beside the point.

My grandma tells me I cannot go, she won’t let me.  How could it possibly be safe for a young woman on her own?  Especially a white, blonde-haired, blue-eyed young woman from America?  Plus, the culture is so different, surely no one thinks to go there.  “Couldn’t you go to Spain or somewhere in Europe?” she asks me.

I nod along good-naturedly, “Actually my orientation will be in Spain, that’s where the program will start.  I’m thinking about going early to travel around on my own first though, since I haven’t been to Spain yet.”

I try not to laugh at the dismay in her eyes.  She’s genuinely worried for me but I know she can’t do anything to stop me.  My parents, thankfully by now, know better than to try.

They say nothing and sit back to see how it will play out.  I sit through the dinners and family gatherings, laughing and keeping the groan internal when my aunt implores that if there’s one phrase I need to learn before I go it’s “Don’t touch my clitoris!”

Months later, equipped with a fake wedding ring from my mom, antibiotics and anti-diarrheals from my doctor, and one large suitcase from my closet, I board the plane, flying into the unknown to finally greet the world on my own terms.

_________________________________________________________________________________________________________

I am twenty-one years old.  The education that has been both my refuge and my prison has finally come to an end.  I am free to begin a new life.  The world is so full of possibility I don’t know where to start.

A phone call from a friend presents opportunity and I decide to see where life leads me.  I move to a new city in a new state with no job and no plan, just a car full of belongings and an open heart.

I’ve learned you don’t need set plans to move forward in life, as long as you’re always striving for improvement.  And it’s often the things that take us by surprise that prove most worthwhile.

The world is not a scary place.  The world is my home and I love exploring it.  I don’t know where i’m going but I’ll get there, someday.  Until then all I can do is enjoy the journey.

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Home (Collage)

A blue-grey house perched on the hill, filled with the trinkets that make up a life.  Bed, table, kitchen, family, dog, couch.  An attic full of memories and seasonal decorations brought out every year to adorn the gutters, eves, porch, and windows.  covering the door with signs, changing the meaning and colors of Welcome.  But underneath lies the house, blue-grey, perched on the hill, as solid as ever.  Waiting for you to come home.

Pine needles spring beneath my feet, making the ground feel soft and my stride effortless as I walk under the tall pines.  Birds sing soft melodies and the air is fresh from recent rain.  The open air is cool under a blue sky as a soft breeze kisses my cheek, welcoming me back to where I belong.

Home is the warm smile on your mother’s face when you surprise her on her birthday.  The solid feel of her arms around you as she pulls you close, long blonde hair wafting hints of coconut oil into your face.  The comfort of being held, squeezed within an inch of your life by those you love.

Hard asphalt, baked black in the sun and glistening with the residue of oil left from the thousands of cars that have been there before you.  Chain-link fences and gates with guards that bar entry to anyone but you – for this is your domain.  You know all the shortcuts, the secret exits and entrances.  The escape routes leading you to and from home.

Indescribable acknowledgement.  Proof that you know it’s there.  A feeling bone-deep yet airy with acceptance.  There’s nothing left to prove, no effort needs to be made.  It doesn’t matter what you see when you look out the window because right now, in this moment, here, you are home.

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Free Verse Poem: Love in the Sand

Love in the sand, built up by caring hands.
Until the ocean washes it away
as the moon holds the tides
under her sway.

Ephemerality eternalized
only in the memory
of a moment’s touch.
The grit of sand under a fingernail,
a taste of salt clinging to your skin.

The sound of ocean waves
echoes in a shell held to your ear,
bringing the moment back
until you realize
it’s your own blood crashing,
pumping life into a memory
that no longer exists.

Is that all that’s left of us?

Has that ocean of time and distance
washed away
the love we built in the sand
all those years ago?

Waves crashing
until even the rocks give way.
Slowly fading
into the sands of time,
making a new bed
on the ocean floor.

Your lips move to answer
but I can no longer hear
over the sound of the waves
as I let the current take me
back
to where I belong
in the sand.

[Written 10 April 2012 on Banana Beach in Agadir/Aourir, Morocco and inspired by my friend’s drawings in the sand]

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Sebta in Photos

Before moving on to Chefchaouen, I’d just like to share some more pictures from my adventures in Sebta.  They all have very different feels to them but I had fun capturing different moments throughout the day.  Enjoy!

Walking the streets we saw some interesting graffiti, most of it the usual tagging or doodling but this caught my eye and made me chuckle.

Going in search of the big fort on the end of the peninsula meant climbing a pretty big hill but the views along the way were well worth it.  This house looks like it has a pretty nice set up, I particularly liked how it almost appears to be floating over nothing, overlooking infinity.

The walk down to the beach was full of color.  The football “field” was bright red and this yellow staircase lined with flowers emphasized the imminence of Spring, even though the weather had yet to clear up.

Field for football, ruins to explore, beach access, gorgeous views, and a crystal clear sea.  What more could you ask for?

Exploring the ruins of an old building by the beach, I climbed up to what used to be an upper floor to see the ocean and found some neat perspectives on the ruins themselves as well.

The front of the building was guarded by an old gnarled tree that had probably been there as long as the building had.

There’s always lots of different forms of life and color to be found in the ocean, especially at a beach as rocky as this one.  I’m just amazed my camera was able to capture both the shells on the rocks and the water’s surface at the same time.

I don’t know why I love black and white photographs so much.  The ocean always looks like it could stretch on forever and combined with these rocks for contrast I just knew I had to try something in B&W.

We all enjoyed the fresh ocean air.  Our time in Sebta was short but I think we’d all agree that it was time well spent.

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