In Defense of the Ordinary to Create the Extraordinary

“Be regular and orderly in your life so that you may be violent and original in your work.” -Gustave Flaubert

After a stellar season opening race, my second favorite professional runner, Kate Grace, posted this quote alongside two pictures: the first showed her in her warm-up, composed and polished, while the second displayed her in the race, fierce and wild.

The trouble with quotes is that they often matter to someone not because the words themselves are exceptional, but because the person reading them, living in her instant where past meets present, needs them. The quote, then, is not about its meaning, but about the moment.

I had been thinking about routines and their power for months, even years, before I read this, but because this came from a runner I admire, and because I was at the time injured and clinging to my routines­–physical therapy, sleep, journaling, etc.–Flaubert’s words hit me with almost religious sincerity. I crave simplicity and intentionality in my daily routines for the freedom it affords me everywhere else. If I spend 40 minutes of every day on PT, strengthening my micro-weaknesses with mundane, monotonous micro-exercises, then I will once again feel the bliss that is running fast, the synergistic flow of mind, legs, and lungs that can take me places beyond the ordinary.

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Thinking about routines and how it all relates to tides & waves & rocks. Mother Earth, man.

Work, to me, right now, is not where I make money (I hope I was not violent with the kids I worked with all summer), but where I seek and find purpose. Kate Grace went on to win the Olympic Trials and race the Olympic final. All I want is to run faster and stronger than I ever have before. To think and learn and write better than my previous self.

But all this is not to say that I reject spontaneity or refuse unpredictability. In fact, I welcome such unknowables like never before. When I budget my time and energy, I am liberated to discover experiences, people, books, that I otherwise would have been too distracted and disorganized to notice.

As I enter my last year of undergrad, I feel excruciatingly aware of finitudes. I know that each first is a last, and that because I will almost certainly never again live in Corvallis beyond June, I must become an expert in its intricacies and opportunities. There is almost all of McDonald Forest left to explore, non-obvious food places to try, and, of course, so many classes to take. Last weekend, I missed my last cross country season opener, but I also watched my teammate/roommate/friend race for the first time in 1.5 years, an experience perhaps even more satisfying. The most I can ask of myself is that I welcome these feelings, all sizes of good and bad, without limits.

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We should all be zen like this donkey. Just look at that focus; purely content.

A certain wildness emerges when all the particulars fall into place. At the end of each day, comforted in my prescribed and sustained efforts, I sleep prepared for something spectacular to happen tomorrow. I burden myself with responsibilities at the appropriate times in order to let my mind and spirit wander later. The philosophy of routine is one of discipline and self-regulation, but once it is established, life clarifies itself, if only a little bit.

The burden of finding a life purpose/career/calling is confusing enough without the mess of existence to complicate it. Perhaps my desire for routine is a predictable need for control of the minute in order to feign a larger influence. It is probable and logical that all of my life experiences and circumstances are randomized and meaningless, but why would I read books so feverishly if I were not always grasping for believable narratives?

I want to believe that my choices matter, that I matter, but if I spent all my time worrying about how best to achieve this, I would do nothing. So, I choose instead to buy in to my own systems, to pretend that I know what I’m doing until I have convinced myself, and I can say that I’m more at peace, if not happier, because of it. I have always established my own moral codes, rather than accepting these from ambivalent authority figures, so if I can justify my theoretical routines once, then I can perform them, indefinitely, without question.

My philosophy, like all philosophies, is flawed and limited, but without some boundaries I could never rationalize personal dogma. I want to do great things, but I need a method to my madness. Even if I do not go on to win the Olympic Trials, I know that I can and will go on to do and create the thing that I should and must, whatever the work is that will sustain me. However flimsy my premise and however distant the results, that promise is enough to ground me in routines that make me free.

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Restless Life Syndrome: Experience Means More Than School

Lately I’ve been thinking about school and life and whether any of it really matters in the end. You see, if a summer spent living in Vietnam taught me anything, it taught me that you can’t become a fully formed person in a classroom and you can’t imagine how much world exists out there.

I sit here, in my comfortable Corvallis home, I sit here and I see a massive football stadium next to a sign that welcomes you to Oregon State University. At this educational institution, the first thing you see is a stadium. While not a football fan myself, I can’t decide if this is a bad thing because sports have determined the trajectory of my life. But that’s not what I want to talk about. College athletics should be celebrated, but for most, it’s a five year endeavor, if not four.

And what happens next? The corporate grind, the domestic dream, the complacent life. When we leave this college bubble–everyone, not just the student-athletes–where do we go? For most, it seems a career or more school is the next step. For me, I want to go everywhere.

Maybe I’m delusional, but I have to believe that there is more than one way to live, that a steady job with a steady income and a steady, predictable life is not my only option. Sure, if I wanted to own a car and a house, I would need to save money from said steady job, but why would I want a car or a house when I could buy plane tickets all over the world?

I want views like this forever and always.

I want views like this forever and always, even if it takes six hours to get there. (Top of Fansipan, Vietnam)

You see, sometimes I get restless; I get antsy, so I experiment and overindulge and experience because this is it, this is the one chance I get to go and do and be in the only body and mind I have. In the end, why should I fret over an exam on colonial American literature when that doesn’t excite me, when I would rather read contemporary books about race and gender and actually learn something about myself and the world I live in? I have 15 waking hours each day, why on earth would I spend even one minute on busy work?

Throughout my education, I’ve had a handful of classes that completely, profoundly blew my mind. Classes that challenged my worldview and moved me to think, deeply. If every single class I took blew my mind, I would embrace their grind because I would emerge a better human for it; I would shout to the world that college is life, that education changes everything. But each term, I’m lucky if I have just one of these classes.

It shouldn’t surprise me, then, that for the past three summers I’ve grown and matured more in that three month time frame than I do in the full nine months I sit in classes. In 2013, I listened to every Radiolab episode during my commute and spent every day working in an organic garden with three other worldly, interesting people. In 2014, I interacted with people from every corner of the world to pull off an international track meet. And in 2015, I actually went to another corner of the world and learned that abstract thinking doesn’t mean much when your main concern is to survive.

It’s great that we have brilliant people in these institutions that challenge us to think and question and analyze, but the stuff that really matters, the movements and the change this world needs, happens outside those walls. I subscribe to the belief that I can change the world, but I don’t believe I can do that armed with a degree alone.

I did not have the cliché education abroad experience; I did not live blissfully worry-free for two months, spending my days sipping coffee and my nights dancing with the locals. When I left Vietnam, I was ready to leave because it was hot and polluted and challenging, but above all I was ready for my next stop in the world. I returned to a life of running and reading and friends and even though a huge chunk of my savings was gone, my heart was full.

I want more friends like this, all over the world.

I want more friends like this, all over the world. (Some village outside of Hanoi, Vietnam)

Now, I’m three quarters through my term and I spend my procrastination time looking at plane tickets and trying to articulate my thoughts. I had a lot of time to think when I lived in an internet-less homestay for a month, and in that time I clarified my priorities; the banality of a GPA was not high on that list. I understand that many of my opportunities can be traced to privilege, but I also understand that I have an obligation to maximize my resulting potential not just as a student, but as a world citizen. Because I have set myself up to have freedom in my future, I feel empowered to take risks and go all-in for my quest to matter.

Right now, I know what I care about–I care about running and learning about the world through books and experience. I’ve learned to live obnoxiously in the present moment–perhaps being surrounded by Buddhism all summer contributed to this–so when I don’t want to write an analysis about 19th century American literature, I just don’t. I have more important things to think about, like how soon I can get to Latin America to practice my Spanish and how I can read every book on my bookshelf. I have a responsibility to live with awareness and compassion, and while that can come from those rare, mind-blowing classes, I think it’s more likely to come when I feel free to live with purpose and clarity.

I’m not practical; I’m unapologetically idealistic. But that just means that when something doesn’t matter to me, I disregard it, and when something does matter to me, I believe in it full force. In this moment, I want to sit wrapped in a blanket with acid music so loud it’s the only thing I hear while I write about my inability to invest in my classes this term. I’ll write my academic essay eventually, but only when it feels slightly more important.

For now, I’ll look out my window at that football stadium and that sign and wonder what my last two years in college can give me that dropping everything to move across the world could not. For now, that’s enough, but if I maintain my momentum, then the most conventional part of my life has already happened. And in the end, I guess it all matters, because it all brought me to now.

Living for Moments in a Materialistic World

I’ve always hated money. I hate thinking about it, I hate talking about it, and I especially hate that it’s the driving force behind our entire society. My professor recently put a quote from Fredric Jameson on the board: “It is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism.” Even with climate change threatening to actually end the world, it is apparent that capitalism is not going anywhere, so it’s pretty useless to try to change it completely. Besides, capitalism is by no means the worst thing in the world. My biggest problem with it comes from the consumerism and materialism that have ballooned alongside it.

A few weeks ago, on a Sunday night, I sat in the cafe positioned in the basement of our school library. After a weekend of both literal and mental fog cultivated by layers of clouds and hours of school work, I was already in a mindset far removed from my usual optimistic self. Coupled with that, I had for the first time actually considered the cost of college, and the brutal reality of it was upsetting at best. If even in-state tuition with scholarship assistance would be unaffordable for the average person, I could hardly imagine how people managed to pay for private or out-of-state institutions. The amount that tuition has increased since my parents went to college 40 years ago is jarring.

With that in mind, when I sat in the cafe thinking about money and how the college I attended could inhibit someone’s freedom for years after graduation, I was already spiraling into cynicism. So, when I glanced up and saw two refrigerators stocked full of plastic bottled water and soda, I almost gave up. Not only did those refrigerators house ridiculous amounts of environmentally treacherous plastic, but everything inside of the plastic was unnecessary. Oregon has some of the best tap water in the world, and there was a drinking fountain located twenty feet from the refrigerator, yet in five minutes I still saw a handful of people purchase bottled water. The frivolity of soda speaks for itself–it has zero benefits for health or the planet. It’s fortunate that I was positioned where I could not see all the other pounds of packaged food that surrounded the refrigerators; otherwise, I might have made a scene.

Let's take a break and look at this beautiful Oregon scene.

Let’s take a break and look at this beautiful Oregon scene instead.

Of course, I am not immune to this culture of convenience. Sometimes I decide to sleep for twenty extra minutes instead of packing food for the day, and then I end up buying overpriced items that contribute to the world’s useless waste with their packaging. This term, I have become increasingly intrigued by coffee, and for awhile this meant the accumulation of very wasteful, very not reusable paper cups. Even though I now only buy coffee if I have my reusable mug, I’m still wasting money in the mere act of buying the coffee instead of making my own. Because I am a consumer and I decide that a short-lived burst of caffeine is more important than saving the equivalent of 30 minutes of work. The more I take stock of the waste I accumulate daily, the more I realize that it represents exactly what its name suggests: wasted time, wasted money, and, eventually, wasted life.

This is where my issues with consumerism take root. Somewhere along the line, we decide that the act of living is in itself not enough. We lose the magic of the intangible and look for satisfaction in things we can touch, things we can own. We find jobs that pay us just enough money to fund our need for the things advertisements promise will make us happier–clothes, makeup, technology, fancy drinks. We become enamored with brands that we believe represent our best selves and use these purchases to show everyone that because we drink Dutch Bros. and because we wear Nike, we are automatically trendy and fit in with the molds of society.

We claim that we really do love these material things, that even though they are more expensive and lower quality than their small business counterparts, they are still the best. The brand name means everything and if we fail to purchase the newest version or variation, then we fail to maintain our carefully crafted identity. Because somehow, material things have become so important to our lives that they define us. Instead of living for experiences, we live for things.

Though as a rule I hate shopping for clothes, I have experienced retail therapy exactly twice in my life: once the day after a breakup, and another time two weeks after my best friend left for an 18-month long mission. While I limited my shopping to second hand stores, I still felt the soothing promise of new (to me) material goods to heal my fractured self. And it totally worked, but only on a surface level. I felt better after these endeavors, but in both instances it took weeks more of immersion into books and creative outlets to actually feel whole again. I was accustomed to sharing much of my life with these people, and despite the media’s tendency to suggest otherwise, things are no replacement for real human relationships.

As I become increasingly aware of the influence consumerism has on myself and those around me, I realize that I have a choice: I could turn to cynicism that would likely regress into apathy, or I could live my life in a way that rejects it. For the sake of my remaining optimism and basic enjoyment of non-conformity, I intend to adopt the latter approach.

This is the magic of the scene outside Cougar Hot Springs.

This is the magic of the scene outside Cougar Hot Springs.

So, a few weekends ago, I found myself in a place directly oppositional to all things consumerism: Cougar Hot Springs. Because when you sit naked in a pool of naturally heated water in the middle of the Oregon forest surrounded by a dozen other naked strangers, you are completely removed from the material things that normally represent to others who you are. The only branding that can possibly define you is anything you might have tattooed on your body, and I really hope that people don’t get actual brands etched into their skin. Being naked with strangers forces you to take full stock of who you are and what actually matters to you, and when you can see yourself free of the chains of society, then you are actually free to live.

I’m not advocating for a nudist society, but I do think that being naked, whether metaphorically or literally, is the biggest departure we can take from consumer culture. In this state, not only can we express ourselves with our ideas and personalities and values, but people will see us as a product of these abstract things rather than as a product of our possessions. Unconcealed, we become the most authentic and beautiful versions of ourselves that we can possibly be. And amid that authenticity comes a liberation from the false comfort of things and a gateway into a life marked by moments, not materials.