Monday, March 8, 2004

I USED TO BE A STAR. I was an international celebrity, traveling the world, seeing exotic places and having adventures. I'd done my time, paid my dues, put in the hours -- for ten years I'd worked in a cubicle, and I'd finally escaped, found some freedom from a career-based life. I spent a year in India, reveling in the hardships of a third-class train car, crammed in with hundreds of dark-skinned locals who all wanted to know my name, what country I came from, and whether I was married. I was definitely a star, at least in their eyes -- anybody who has enough money to travel to another country is inherently rich, and what more do you need to be a star besides being rich? Not much in India, where poverty is the norm and nobody worries about universal health care because they're busy trying to figure out where their next meal is coming from.

It wasn't just in the eyes of the local people that I was a star. I, too, was pretty amazed at myself. I was living in India; something so far from my Silicon Valley reality that I would never have dreamed it. After overcoming the challenges India had in store for me -- the noise, the smell, the heat, the constant artillery of strangers' hellos which turn into business propositions, the pitiful ragamuffins begging for a pittance so they don't keel over of starvation right there at my very feet -- after overcoming these challenges (or rather, let's just say confronting these challenges; merely discovering myself when faced with them), I felt like anything was possible. I was fully alive, ready for whatever the world had in store for me.

I met a girl, and we went to Tibet. Not the easy way, mind you, the really adventurous way. Normally, people hire a tour from Nepal, taking a jeep from Katmandu to Tibet's capitol Lhasa. Or even more decadent, they fly directly to Lhasa from a big city in China. But this girl was very special, and so was our trip. We forwent these luxurious options in favor of adventure (and keeping a few dollars out of the hands of Tibet's oppressors). Instead, we went the back way in, hitch-hiking from China on a dirt road a thousand miles long. We ended up crammed in the back of a cargo truck with pigs and geese, suffering from mild altitude sickness (which doesn't feel mild) at 15,000 feet, and finally reached our goal, making a pilgrimage around Mount Kailash.

As if that weren't enough on the road to travel fame, we then went on to cross the Sahara desert. Choosing again the path of most resistance, we rode in a vegetable truck through a land mine field, weathered a twelve hour journey in an empty coal car on the longest train in the world, and sat atop a mountain of luggage and livestock in the back of a Toyota 4x4 as it fishtailed across the sand, elbow to elbow with men in turbans and billowing robes.

This was the height of my stardom, the pinnacle of my career as a world traveler. After five years of being on the move, I found myself longing for a home, a place I could keep my stuff. Not a lot of stuff, but a little more than I'd been carrying in my backpack. I wanted to develop relationships with people, beyond knowing what country they came from, or where they'd been. I wanted to see the results of my actions, the effects I had -- or could have -- on my environment. I wanted to use everything I'd learned while traveling to make the world a better place.

That's when things got a little rough. I gave up my limousines, my dressing room, and my agent. I found myself moving into a house in a New England village with an old girlfriend whom I'd forgotten to get over. She was now a mother of two, but as unconventional as ever. I was smitten.

The adjustment was not easy. I had no job, and wasn't really motivated to go back to the life-sucking world of cubicles and fluorescent lights. I couldn't figure out how to make money at my dream job, writing. I had clumsily destroyed my relationship with the woman I'd been traveling with by hooking up with my old flame. This rekindling, however, turned out to be a rickety roller coaster, throwing me off balance with every turn.

I'd been a good traveler. I learned to let go of control, comfort, and logic. I learned to trust in myself, trust that I could handle whatever came. I learned to float with the wind, saying goodbye as I said hello.

Yes, I was a good traveler; but a house holder, a family man? No, I'm not good at this. I'm not good at relationships, commitment, bread-winning, child rearing, house cleaning, and the eighteen other things I'm not sure whether or not I'm supposed to be doing. In learning to float with the wind, I forgot how to root in the ground. I forgot how to be firm and decisive. I forgot how to direct my life. I'm used to just being along for the ride, but now it's time to take the wheel.

The Buddha talked of the eight worldly winds, also called the vicissitudes of life: praise and blame, fame and shame, pleasure and pain, gain and loss. These are things that happen to everyone, states we find ourselves in at some time or another. We could try to find out why -- what we did wrong -- and vow never to do those things again, but sooner or later we'd end up here again, for a different reason. So we might as well spend our energy discovering what we should do when we find ourselves here, rather than making futile attempts never to end up here at all.

I can't count the number of times I've thought about hopping on a plane in attempt to rediscover my bliss. I even bought a plane ticket, deciding it would be healthy to take a breather from this wild ride. After vacillating between jetting off to foreign lands and sticking it out to see what I could learn, I canceled my ticket. So here I am, riding the crest of fame into the valley of shame, wistfully remembering the exhilaration but trying not to cling.