Posted on February 26, 2017
Unfamiliar territory, the uncertainty paralyzes. A surge of panic fills my head and heart, only to be soothed by the perfect amber of a freshly poured Czech beer.
“Here I go again…”
Around me is a language I do not understand. Spreadsheets in front of me I cannot comprehend. A feeling of being exactly where I should be. I relax, surprised by the comfort of the chaos.
The color refreshes a memory when I was lost in the more familiar surroundings of the Skokomish Wilderness.
The sky still black, I anticipate the amber sunrise when we summit…rather if we summit, as of right now, I have no idea where we are.
“Shit…” I mutter to myself, louder than I had wanted, waiting only seconds before the echo returns with her reply. “Oh my God, I can’t believe it. You are lost again aren’t you?”
I ignore the question, wishing it away, but the echo continues, “Why did I agree to go on this climb?” She lets out an exasperated sigh, hidden within, a tint of laughter.
Unpredictability in life is the one thing I’ve found to be a constant.
A sharp blow of her hiking pole on my butt is her protest to my stifled laughter, “It’s not funny…” she declares and we continue up the mountain.
“Why is it so difficult to stay on the path laid out in front of me?” I wonder and reach for my beer. Standing in the middle of uncertainty, again where every step I take leads me away from where I expect to be.
Would I want it any other way? Perhaps on some days…
Uncertainty has become a friend of mine. Things change around me quickly and if I do not flow and evolve along with it, I’ll suffocate. Be miserable.
It is cliché, but there is truth in Maya Angelou’s quote, “We delight in the beauty of the butterfly, but rarely admit the changes it has gone through to achieve that beauty.” Without change, we rob ourselves of beauty. We rot.
“Remaining at status quo stagnates the soul,” I think to myself, and kicking back with my beer I wonder if that’s such a bad thing?
Yes, change can suck.
Albert Einstein once said, “Men marry women with the hope they will never change. Women marry men with the hope they will change. Invariably they are both disappointed.”
Ah yes, is there anything more destructive than unfulfilled expectations? I suppose this is the catalyst for change, to get lost in the world and explore ~ anything to avoid the poison of expectations.
The chaos of setting out on a new path, getting lost, is part of the process. From the moment we are born, adventure turns fear into wisdom, sparking curiosity to discover.
I think back to standing on the precipice between mountain and sky… the abyss speaking to me, and I glance towards my beer, her amber words ringing clear as I empty my mug, “balance, my friend…there’s a time for adventure and a time to reflect on adventure.” I nod to the waitress for another.
The echo breaks the stillness of the dark while my headlamp scans the trees and boulders ahead.
“Why, again, are we doing this?”
The only words I can think of are “时间不多，从来不停 ~ Time is fleeting, never stop.”
Eight characters a friend of mine, Eric Moen, shared with me last year. Words to provide added incentive to spark change when comfort begins to lead to stagnation.
Those eight characters take me back when I stood along Hood Canal admiring a pre-dawn sky, sparking a childhood dream to climb Mt. Ellinor and watch this land come alive with the sunrise. Yet, in all these years never taking the time to do so. Why?
“Why?” I add to my reply back to the echo, “To see magic. This is why we are here.”
“And… just exactly where is here?!?”
I begin to answer and then begin to question why I invited her. “A very good question…” and continue ahead to what I hope will become an opening.
There is nothing quite like the childlike curiosity we hold inside. The anxiety of pushing forward with new ideas, until that moment arrives ~ our heart rate slows and we unearth something new, something enchanting.
“I’m beginning to understand you never have a plan do you?” another question rings back my way.
Shuffling of hooves on the rocks above remind us we are not alone.
“Not real sure any plan worked out the way I had imagined, so why bother…” is my quick reply, seconds ahead of another sting of a hiking pole on my backside.
I scramble up and around a set of boulders and come face to face with a familiar friend.
Nature never ceases in its pursuit of change; never fears a new challenge change may bring. The sky and the sunshine call out to us all, “You are not alone, the universe is with you the whole way.”
A breathless gasp comes from behind, and her arm wraps around me along with a whisper “this place is so beautiful…”
Take away expectations, lose the fear of change and get lost in the world. There is no greater truth: time is fleeting, never stop.
“Be the change.” ~ Mahatma Gandhi
Posted on January 5, 2017
The verdict: a decision to affect and disrupt a life. My choice to veer off the comfortable path, abandon the current state of happiness and venture into the unknown.
Why? To chase down a mysterious, obscure sensation I cannot explain.
Inhale. Exhale. Breathe in the fresh air flowing off Hood Canal and let the peacefulness of the surroundings make the decision for me.
The Olympic Mountain range is wrapped around by the Pacific Ocean and Puget Sound. Nestled in-between, a small cabin on the water rests within the gaze of Mt. Ellinor.
I’ve come to her to help reach this verdict.
Asia or Central Europe? Retreat to the familiarity bred from a commitment to Asia spanning decades or leap into the chaos of the unknown and invent a new life in Bohemia?
The creation of two different lives, a divergence of my universe the moment the decision is made.
In one universe, I sleep for a few more hours and then rise, make a pot of coffee and with mug in hand, walk down to the shore of Hood Canal and watch the sunrise.
In another universe, I look at the clock barely able to focus on the time of 2:30am and roll out of bed. Throw on some clothes; grab a mug of yesterday’s coffee, pick up my camera gear and head out to trek up to the top of Mt. Ellinor.
A trek in the dark to meet the rising sun. To meet a new tomorrow.
My brain whispers “sleep.” My heart screams “get out of bed.”
Quietly I lie, listening to the blood course through my veins. I feel myself fading toward the sound of laughter and I fall deep, searching for its origin. Thoughts and visions vivid enough to swallow me whole as I happily drift off to dream.
The silence pulses throughout my body; my senses heightened and a restless surge of energy melds my dream into reality. It pushes me out of bed, I go searching for its origin: I must see what lies out there…
A feeling of a divergence begins to form, and I open my eyes to the cold, quiet darkness around me. She whispers to me, her words soft, “Come join me in nirvana…” her sweet fragrance caressing me, and I close my eyes.
The cold, quiet darkness is calling out. An inviting whisper, “Join the beauty of my dreams, the silence of reaching the summit as the morning sun breaks.” My heart begins to beat rapidly, ahead lies a trek up the steep slopes.
Years ago, contemplating my future, I was asked a simple question, “When in Asia do I miss the USA?” My answer was quick, “Yes.” It was then followed by another question, “When I am in the USA, do I miss Asia?” and again I quickly answered, “Yes.”
Then came the advice I’ve followed ever since: “When the answer to either one of these questions change, you know what you should do…create something new.”
The beauty of silence.
The smell of fresh coffee soothes, and I look out at the changing sky. The glow of the morning sun breaks through enough to highlight an image of a fishing boat heading out to explore.
There is peace listening to the water, the sounds drifting away as I wake from my dream, enjoying the start of another day.
The beauty of silence.
Low-lying clouds shimmer around Mt. Rainier off in the distance. The morning sun breaks over the horizon and the electricity of possibilities fill the air. A brand new day arrives and a brave new world awaits.
How does one describe the fragrance of a sunrise?
With the verdict rendered, an old friend shows up. A welcome interruption to the sanctity of the morning, and she glances towards me as if to bid me farewell.
Posted on September 29, 2016
The scene is one I can imagine centuries ago. A young man overlooking his homeland, within his reach a promise of a career to ensure him of a great life. A “normal life” both he and his family have dreamt about since he was a kid.
His dream at his fingertips, he does not move. He sits there perplexed at the struggle within his soul. A piece of him desires something very different, something unknown. He can taste the adrenalin of this uncertainty.
Two thoughts tangle, tearing him up. A decision has to be made. A divergence of his universe, in one he will stand up, walk back to the village and accept his career to settle into a normal life, while in the other he’ll look over his land one last time and accept adventure as his new destiny.
The divergence was instantaneous.
He sits motionless, wondering which spirit remains. The shadow of a setting sun shifts the appearance of his surroundings and over the horizon, a faint sound calls out catching his attention. He draws a breath and looks over his land.
“How did you end up doing what you’re doing?” her question snapped my head up from the photograph in front of me. “You had a freshly minted MBA, a simple plan of embracing the American Dream working with a Fortune 500 and somehow you fell into this crazy global existence.” She looked at me half-mockingly.
“The American Dream rejected me…and I panicked,” I laughed. “Once the seed of doubt entered my thinking, there was no looking back.”
I look back at the photo. Wonder what life would have been like if I’d hung around the States instead of taking a flyer of adventure in Asia?
Enjoying this contradiction, I review the photo and the stack of journals in front of me, searching to find a trace of a young man who disappeared so long ago.
She holds out a piece of paper, and reads from it:
“Invincibility. The youthful feeling of blind confidence where anything imagined can be achieved. Memories of flying down a mountain, one foot barely touching down on a boulder before confidently taking flight again, suspending life as the other foot searches and touches down lightly only to set off once more. Freedom. Repeat until exhausted.”
“Zero fear,” she says after reading the passage. “All of his senses meshing perfectly with nature and in total confidence. No thought of failure. Bliss.”
“I can understand this feeling,” I add, “youthful invincibility is one of the best stages of life where everything seems possible…running through it all, never believing it will end.”
“Then one day, a faint touch of doubt enters the mind mid-stride and the peaceful invincibility begins to fade. Strained by the thinnest gauze of doubt, the confidence of the immortal mind of youth vanishes forever. And life begins…”
She reads to me, handing me a yellowed piece of parchment as she finishes, dated a day before the young man disappeared.
“The stage of life where we all find ourselves lost at some point…” she says aloud while carefully turning a page of a journal.
“The time between the youthful invincibility of blind confidence where everything will work out as dreamed, and the age of reason where experience brings an understanding that it’s alright if it doesn’t…”
I smile at this thought. The Gauze of Doubt introduced itself to me when my version of the American Dream faded right out of school along with the myth of a normal life. My favorite quote, Doc Holliday from the movie Tombstone still rings clear, “there’s no such thing as a normal life, there’s just life…”
The photo and journals date back to the mid-1800’s, a young man with a lust for life imprinted on his character, a man who spun his own destiny. Words of wisdom in his thoughts, words that hold strength because they’re backed by his actions.
Experience matters. Friendship matters. Integrity matters. After his disappearance, his journals and stories focus on the lives he touched and his new surroundings.
Veering off the well-worn road to success, he chose the path of adventure. He traveled. He learned. He traveled some more.
He never forgot the moment the gauze of doubt covered his eyes, unexpectedly sending him hurtling into a divergent universe. A universe he created.
There is a sense of envy I have reading his words, my wish to experience and see the pieces of life he lived.
Three stages of life formed his writing, at each stage an opportunity to accede into a new reality:
- The Invincibility of Youth, where dreams are created and the mind believes anything is possible.
- The chaos of the Thin Gauze of Doubt, where adjusting to reality and creating a life becomes the new truth.
- The wisdom of The Age of Reason, where a life pursued is a life well lived ~ experiences forming the answers.
“There is a bit of Thoreau in his philosophy, his writing reminds me of the quote “…not till we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves...[Henry David Thoreau, Walden]” she looks back at me while taking a sip of her coffee. “The thin gauze of doubt he talks about may dissolve the confidence of youth, but in doing so it ramps up the adrenaline of reality.”
“Almost two hundred years separate you two, but yes, you do have your great, great grandfather’s mind, half stuck in reality and half elsewhere,” her eyes giggle, meeting mine.
And doubt seizes the day. Will I ever find out what happened to him?
It is intriguing to look back in time, to dream of changing the unchangeable, but the past pales in anticipation of tomorrow’s opportunities.
I do not move. I sit there perplexed at the struggle within my soul. A piece of me desiring something very different, something unknown, and I can taste the adrenalin of this uncertainty.
The divergence was instantaneous…
Side Note: The Multiverse theory, of which there are many, is widely considered to be fact, with top physicists leading the way. Imagine, a conscious decision (taken or ignored) where you diverge from your universe and begin a new adventure.
Also, thanks to Timothy Price for insights into B&W photography, a new venture for me and it’s a brave new world…
Posted on August 30, 2016
The glint in her eyes mixed with the afternoon sun lulls us in before a quick shift in the saddle flaunts her message: a woman with a Cowgirl Spirit can stretch, bend, and break the rules society lays at her feet.
The whisper of the wind matches the cadence of her gallop. Her light laughter trails off, leaving us cowboys choking in a cloud of dust. Nothing can get our hearts beating faster.
The power of the Women of the American West is no myth, it is a beautiful reality and I pity any man who believes otherwise.
There is an old cowboy saying, “polishing your pants on saddle leather don’t make you a rider…” with its roots in the notion expertise comes from putting in quality time to master an art. Pursuing excellence to shine above the rest describes the Cowgirl Spirit of these women; the confidence and humility are traits rarely discovered together.
The Cowgirl Spirit is found around the globe. A woman who utilizes her strengths with the confidence to pursue life, and the admiration of men who are secure enough to understand embracing the power of such women will move them up to a higher level.
Equality. The quality of two beings, untapped potential when repressed, becoming a powerful, united force when free.
Freedom for women around the world, the Cowgirl Spirit has a long ride ahead, but the excellence in which they ride ensures their success.
Watching the grace of these cowgirls competing on horseback is a perfect analogy to how a woman’s power does not diminish a man’s. Rather when embraced, it magnifies them both. Barrel racing at the Pendleton Round-Up is one of the most popular and watched events, making a great rodeo even better.
The eyes of every cowboy and the world are glued to such poetry in motion…
There is strength in equality, strength in balance, strength in the men who recognize the importance of a spirited woman by their side. True cowboys who understand such a woman opens up aspects of a man’s character that he alone is unable to grasp.
A secure man will pursue the true quality of a woman, one with a Cowgirl Spirit, giving her room to grow as he is confident enough to understand the balance of equality will make him a better man, make his surroundings a better place.
“Equality is not a concept. It’s not something we should be striving for. It’s a necessity. Equality is like gravity….” – Joss Whedon
Equality of women creates vibrancy in life. Sharing strengths without insecurities, both men and women evolve and new ideas and freedoms are generated. Society thrives.
Inequality of women stifles creativity. Insecure and weak men develop brash and destructive egos. Stunted growth rots the potential of a community. There are places around the world that echo such imbalance; stagnant, repressive societies with paralyzed minds and a paralyzed future for their children.
The desire lies in the Cowgirl Spirit, and the worthy men who seek such women to create unity. Balanced individuals grow and progress, triggering society to follow suit as well. This is the hope for the world.
It is possible, the myth of the ‘weaker sex’ was created by the innate skill women have in ciphering through the bullshit of man’s ego and pride. Lesser men fear these resilient women, exploding with ego as their insecurities grow, overcompensating and crippling those around them.
One of the greatest feelings I’ve ever had is being half-a-world away, yet still able to draw strength from the important women in my life. Women, past and present, have helped form part of my character. Character incomplete without learning and accepting the power of equality, unlocking the heart of potential.
These women act as a mirror, reflecting strength in areas men lack. The Cowgirl Spirit brings perspective, a different view when listened to, and greater results when put into action.
Acknowledging someone’s ability does not diminish your own, instead it can strengthen. This is achieving balance. Do not fear the power of women, instead embrace it, and embrace her.
Women with the Cowgirl Spirit have a sensuality that is second to none. Their confidence to give as good as they get, show an authenticity seldom seen. An authentic woman creates the authentic man, allowing evolution to continue.
Without such women, men will never be able to grasp all life can offer. It is important to realize, in many ways, us men would remain our basic, cavemen selves.
The silent confidence of a Woman of the West never ceases to impress and humble me. It is a supreme confidence.
Time is short. Never Stop. Never stop pursuing excellence.
The Cowgirl Spirit balances the secure, authentic Cowboy Spirit. Strength added to strength, creating opportunities that otherwise would remain hidden. Such spirit is present every year in September at the Pendleton Round-Up. Keep up the pursuit.
Posted on July 26, 2016
It was a strange day I remember, exploring Budapest for the first time with a sensation I had walked these streets before, every corner a story to be told. Each step filled with fascination, time of no concern as evening tumbled from dusk into the magical darkness of night. Pulled forward by destiny into my past.
She was there, a flash of a smile wrapped up in the Old World like a well-worn shawl.
An artistic light gathered around her, fusing the old with new, highlighting the intricacies of the human spirit. Not yet love, only a tickle of possibility. The depths of the night offered us the chance to roam new lands, to dance with the tide and imagine our next adventure.
The start of the day blends with the end of the night, leaving the unanswered question of where we belong. Amid all the laughter, a melancholy undercurrent swirled beneath, leading to the inevitable conclusion.
The exit. A measured trace of emotion is revealed but little else. With no sense of belonging, we vanish into each other’s arms like the whispering winds of the past.
Where will you go when morning arrives? Did we truly exist or were we just a dream, lost in this endless slumber of life?
The music of the world refuses to fade, a reminder of the hope tomorrow brings. The pull of destiny continues. With a smile, I close my eyes and dream of the New World.
Side Note: Along with travel to Budapest (and Europe), two pieces of music helped inspire this post: Karl Jenkins – Bards of Wales (based on János Arany ballad of the same name). Hungarian history is fascinating, a great feeling of the Old World. The other is my favorite piece by Antonín Dvořák, his New World Symphony.
Nothing is quite as mysterious as where we came from or where we are going ~ reconciling the Old and New World.
Posted on May 13, 2016
Peering out the makeshift door of her corrugated metal shelter, Parathi lets the warm, soft rays of the sun tangle up around her welcoming in another day.
A gentle breeze rocks the entranceway of their shelter providing a soft melody for her two autistic children sleeping peacefully behind her. The few minutes of silence brings a smile along with a chance to relax before the chaos of a new day begins.
She picks up her broom and quickly begins tidying up their simple shelter with a touch of longing for their old home they had just one year ago.
One year ago…devastating earthquakes rocked Nepal, the first on April 25th and the second on May 12th with tremors shaking the tenuous foundation of life for the Nepalese people.
The destruction was catastrophic: 9,000 people died, 600,000 homes destroyed, and damage estimated at $10 billion. To add insult to such devastation, over the past year political infighting has frozen $4.1 billion in emergency aid funds.
Nepal now finds itself paralyzed with one natural disaster (the earthquake) feeding into another manmade disaster (political pettiness), creating dangerous aftereffects such as human trafficking, disease, deteriorating health, debt and a faltering educational system set to further cripple the country.
Amid the chaos, however, there has been one constant: organizations who have stepped in to support communities. To rebuild. To give hope. To provide an opportunity for a future.
An incredible thing to witness and Save the Children has stepped up in Nepal.
The light of the morning is just as I imagined it would be ~ the first rays of the sun stretching out over the city, giving off a magical hue. Off to the northeast, the sunrise sparkles off the snow-capped Himalaya mountain range welcoming in a new day.
A breathless start to the morning, and in this dreamlike state I let my imagination run wild here in Kathmandu.
Nepal’s rich history has been fueled by imagination, from explorers to philosophers pulled in by the natural scenery. All one needs to understand this feeling is to look into the powerful eyes of its people.
Strength. Curiosity. A spirituality seeking the greatness in a day.
From Sherpas attacking the slopes of the Himalayas to the children playing in the fields, every day is a reminder of their home, a slice of heaven on earth. Even with the tragedy of the past year, the Nepalese keep moving forward.
The morning sun flows through the room, its rays mixing with the youthful laughter and smiles ~ students sit mesmerized by the sight of a beautiful stranger in their midst. Giggles are hard to stifle as they listen to this ‘Angel from Hong Kong’ sharing pieces of a life so foreign yet so wonderful.
The glimmer in their eyes shows the admiration, inspiration, and appreciation for those who step forward offering an opportunity where before there was none.
Mrs. Cathy Chui Lee (徐子淇) is the first Asian patron of Save the Children, joining three other Princesses: Princess Anne in the UK, Princess Viktoria in the Netherlands, and Princess Basma in Jordan: their quest to provide safety and opportunity to children around the world to reach their potential.
This is especially true for those most marginalized, deprived and facing a humanitarian crisis.
The shattered buildings we see as we weave our way through the historic Durbar Square in Bhaktapur is unsettling, reflecting the shattered lives of those in the area.
The beauty of the place shows off a rich heritage. Elegant architecture surrounds our every step, punctuating the culture of the Nepalese. Yet there is a reminder. Every dozen meters there is a jarring jolt of destruction left by the powerful quake and the sad reality of the work still to be done.
Cathy’s visit to these devastated areas of Nepal allows her to see first hand the difference aid organizations make in the lives of children and their families.
The visit also gives Cathy the opportunity to directly engage with the children, offering the value of both her donation and time to bring sunshine into a difficult period of their lives.
Of all the incredible moments I have seen, the most beautiful sight of the day is the excitement in the eyes of the children being matched by the wonder and sincerity in the eyes of Cathy.
Her ease with the children makes it clear, as much as Cathy inspires the children – she draws even more strength and inspiration from them.
The day has been full of emotions. From the excitement in the laughter and words of the children to understanding the difficult road ahead for the people of Nepal, bringing to mind an old Nepalese proverb, one often used around the world as well:
खाने मुखलाई जुंगाले छेक्दैन ~ Where there is a will, there is a way ~
The melody and rhythm of traditional Nepalese folk songs float through the small classroom and Amy Fong, CEO of Save the Children Hong Kong, blends right in singing along with her new-found friends.
“We are very honored and excited to have Cathy Lee as our patron. We admire her compassion for children and her willingness to actively make a difference in their lives.” Amy mentions this as we watch the students draw the Nepalese flag on Cathy’s hand, a souvenir for her to take back to Hong Kong.
“There is still so much to do, and rising to the challenge is where we will make the greatest difference…” and I could not agree more.
The sun, beginning its descent into another night, pauses ever so slightly on the horizon sensing a special moment: the coming together of two uniquely wonderful angels here in Nepal.
On our last stop of the day, there is a surreal feeling as we watch spellbound as Parathi and Cathy sit outside the shelter and talk of the daily hardship.
While Parathi is still stuck in a temporary shelter and lacking income, there is no sign of distress or worry. Instead, her strength and integrity shine through when she speaks of the future she can create for her children and how Save the Children has helped make this possible.
Cathy softly holds Parathi as they connect on a level I imagine only two mothers can. An intense amount of empathy and respect for each other is apparent, and I sit back amazed at how two people so far apart in terms of material wealth can almost be mirror images of each other when it comes to strength of character.
Is there something in the air of Nepal?
It is hard not to shed a tear at the wisp of magic traveling upon the breeze this evening, proof of how powerfully connected we all are to each other.
I pack up my equipment and think back to the words silently whispered by the Angel in Nepal as she was overcome with emotion after the meeting, “Such a strong and brave woman, I admire her so much…”
The admiration I have for her and the Save the Children organization is great, and I could not imagine a better pairing of souls.
The experience today had a bit of everything. The hope on the children’s faces often stood in stark contrast to the concerns of the older generation.
The one constant being the appreciation for organizations such as Save the Children. Organizations who go the extra step to ensure the quickest response time when it comes to helping children around the world.
With the evening drawing to a close, I take my coffee to the rooftop of the hotel and look over Kathmandu. The city is teeming with life. The prayer flags scattered throughout the city are dancing in the evening breeze in sync with the spirit of the people of Nepal, understanding the road ahead:
आफ्नो भाग्य आफैले बनाउनु पर्छ! ~ We ourselves have to create our own destiny ~
The smiles and the laughter of this trip are strong reminders of the need to help the most vulnerable and most important resource on earth: the children.
The empathy and grace Cathy carried on her visit to Nepal highlighted her support of the Children’s Emergency Fund: a fund to ensure quick response to children around the world.
The importance of continued support and giving being the key to bringing hope, and if you are interested, more information can be found at the below sites:
Posted on April 3, 2016
Those three words, seared into the mind, bring a pain I cannot define. I want to reach out and feel the cold iron letters, erasing their significance ~ “Arbeit Macht Frei”
The naïveté when I first read this motto ~ “Work sets you free” still burns. I stepped through the gate into my new home at Dachau, holding fast to this false promise of hope. Hope because hard work and quality were where I hung my hat.
I’ve since learned.
The cold today still gnaws at me within my bones, the chill a constant reminder of Dachau. I adjust my covers fully aware the feeling will never leave, so I lay quietly, shivering. One thought creeping around my mind like a serpent, a repeated whisper: “give up, give in.”
My mind drifts back to those first months. Every piece of my body ached, the world seemingly dissolved around me; work was not setting me free, it was killing me.
“You do what they say, nothing more and nothing less. Be invisible.” Shukhov, my bunkmate smiled to me as we gathered our mess tins for breakfast. “There is no life to be had here. The sooner you understand this, the better off you’ll be.”
It had been the worst months of my life and I was fading fast. Shukhov took me in and taught me to survive. “Giving up is inevitable, and in prison, it is an absolute necessity. If you remain stubborn, they will break you.”
Not wanting to hear those words, I ignore him but asked, “What do you mean, giving up is inevitable?”
“Everyone gives up at some point, be it in life or in prison. For young ones like yourself it is difficult to grasp, but as you get older, giving up gets easy.” Shukhov’s toothless grin was followed by a push toward the mess hall as he continued his speech:
“As you age, you realize what’s happening: life is, basically, like sinking in quicksand. It’s slow at first and takes you by surprise, but there’s a point at which you realize there’s nothing you can do. You’re going under. Once you realize you’re sinking in quicksand… the best thing you can do is try not to thrash around, instead prolong the experience, and make it as pleasant as possible. That’s what giving up is.”
– “On Giving Up” by The Casual Theorist
“Give up…give in.”
I began to ponder these words as I stumbled down a blurred hallway, my eyes quickly swollen shut from a slew of punches, a result of bumping into an SS guard. I fought with the idea of giving up before realizing: Dachau is the worst kind of quicksand, and fighting it would kill me.
“A piece of advice you best take to heart,” Müller, a warder and past friend from my neighborhood whispered to me. “Do not give anyone a reason to draw blood…you will need every drop if you expect to make it in here.”
His meaning echoed the words of Shukhov, “Give up…give in.”
I roll out of bed, put the coffee pot on and wonder aloud if people today share the attitude of “giving up” as written by The Casual Theorist, the rationale of short-term thinking to take an easy way out.
Are people unknowingly casting their freedoms away when they choose to slide by with as little effort as possible?
Around me, I see it everywhere. Eat crap. Watch crap. Drink crap. Talk crap. Gone are aspirations to seek a purer life. Instead, we quickly get older and life becomes more difficult. Giving up is a chronic habit. We’ve become too lazy to seek and pursue quality in life.
The whistle on my coffee pot goes off, snapping me out of thought and I slowly get up and shuffle my way to pour a cup. There is a certain art to making a great cup of coffee, art mastered over the years ~ the aroma, the steam, and the color moving together as it flows from the pot to my mug.
A sign of quality, and it takes me back to a time when I first discovered the importance of this word.
The darkness of solitary confinement had continued my free-fall. I wondered if I would make it through another day, and then as Müller clicked my peephole shut, it did not close. A blinding beacon of light sliced through the darkness.
Drawing myself up, I saw in the distance the simple beauty of broken rays of sunshine filtering down through a tree. With imagination, I saw tomorrow and my eyes filled with tears.
For the first time in Dachau, I saw a quality of life I had forgotten. Now giving up had meaning. It had a partner: quality.
The Statue of the Unknown Prisoner holds power, the resemblance to Shukhov is uncanny, the words just as wise.
Den toten zur ehr den lebenden zur mahnung ~ ‘An honor to those who died, a warning to those who live’
Dachau was filled with days upon days upon days of nothingness. Bitter cold, fear and constant hunger left just enough energy by lights-out to crawl back into bed and do it all over again tomorrow.
Such times were deafening and defeating, but there was an unknown consequence to such days as well. My mind became more in-tune to the smallest pieces of quality. Something simple and pure, and while it may have lasted only a few seconds, it felt like a victory.
This instinctive, private search for meaning was feed by an invisible curiosity. It kept me sane. The misery of cold and hunger blinded the spirit, but when quality arrived, it made the day almost happy.
Shukhov lit a small cigarette and spoke thoughtfully, “I’ve figured out we have roughly ten minutes in the morning another ten at night…the prisoner’s own time.” He looked out the window at the guards getting ready for roll call, and Shukhov added, “All remaining hours belong to the camp.”
Grabbing his bag, he kept talking. “A ridiculously short time, but it never surprises me the quality we can fit in.” He got up from the bench tapping my shoulder to hurry up, “a fine balance we keep. Prison life will not give you time to do anything but give up.”
I laugh at this thought. In such an environment, the modern mind couldn’t function, but then again the mind can be so strangely efficient when pushed to the brink.
Finishing my cup of coffee, I begin to prepare my oatmeal, more out of habit than hunger. I no longer feel hunger, just a rationalization to supply fuel for my body.
It leads me to wonder, “How could anyone ever understand the true meaning of hunger…?”
Meals. “Every day, my mind was sharply focused on each spoonful. Slowly chewing even if there was nothing to chew, just moving it around my mouth trying to trick my stomach into thinking it will be getting more than it actually would…” A story I often share when asked.
As for a story I never share: if you had offered me a choice between “my meal” or “freedom from Dachau” ~ I’d have chosen the meal. Every time. We all would have.
Hunger. Humility. Dachau demanded it.
The dullness of a day steals time until years feel like it is all just one long day. Prison life cannot help but defeat a mind, staring at the hours of nothing. I use to wonder if the mind could ever find its way back into reality.
I look around me today and I see the same. People mindlessly giving up, allowing the dullness of a day to stretch out into years.
Pulling my collar tight, I shiver with the oncoming cold.
Cold mornings always woke me early. The few extra minutes before reveille were precious. I never wasted a thought for a few more minutes of sleep, too obvious. Instead, I began my plan to make it through the day: the hope for a few more grains of oats at the bottom of the bowl, an honest cut of bread and if possible a drag on a cigarette before the workday began.
Never forgetting I belonged to Dachau whose only goal was to break me.
A cold breeze sweeps over my face – a breeze I know comes not from the cool winds outside my window but from a distant memory a lifetime ago.
In Dachau, the human trait of giving up served me well. I survived and I began to understand the balance between “accepting the inevitable and giving up” and its silent partner, “the inevitable curiosity of quality which leads to the pursuit of life.”
The balance is dynamic, evolving as we age. Every morning we reconciled within our minds ~ weighing two thoughts: which shall I focus on today?