For international readers, allow me to explain: I am an American but I have lived in China since 2004. My city of Chongqing, often abbreviated as CQ, is pronounced Chong Ching to rhyme with Wrong Ring. CQ is a metropolis of 30 million people in south-central China, on the Yangtze River. I’ve come a long, long way from my small hometown of Rolla in south-central Missouri, on the Little Dry Fork Creek. Depending on how loosely you define “city”, one could argue that CQ is the world’s largest. It is, indisputably, a megacity, and a lovely one. Yet, in my pursuit of a simple life even in this setting, I publish these observations and admonitions from my 18th-Floor Homestead.
“A walking dead man”. Isn’t that a trifle overdramatic? Not really. I am writing these words from home – and grateful as hell – after surgery to repair a life-threatening condition. A routine physical examination discovered an unsuspected abdominal aortic aneurysm (alliteration unintentional). That is doctorspeak for an artery that has swollen up like a balloon and could rupture at any time. Usually, rupturing can mean death within minutes from internal bleeding. So, when I say that I am grateful for modern medical science (and a lot of luck), I am not overstating anything merely for the purpose of getting your attention.
Having established the setting which preceded the successful surgery, it is not surprising that a certain amount of reflection followed. There were the predictable priority reviews and insights, followed by equally predictable reductions in workload; but there were also a couple of genuine epiphanies. Here are a few of my thoughts as I begin my new, post-surgery life.
One of the first of the enlightenment moments – after the rueful acknowledgment that I am indeed mortal with no assurance that I will wake up tomorrow morning – is that I have been terribly guilty of wasting far too much time living in the past. In American literature, author Washington Irving created a memorable character, Rip Van Winkle, who wandered into the hills near his home and magically fell asleep for 40 years, an interesting deus ex machina. Upon awakening, he was amazed and confused at the changes in lifestyle, technology, and social expectations in his own community. Through my reading, music, and activities, I was guilty of doing the same thing, without the forty-year nap.
Upon closer examination, I found that I was frequently retreating into the past as an escape from some of the realities and anxieties of the present. But, if you bowdlerize them as I did by leaving out all the ugly parts, it is easy to be drawn into a romantic vision of a simpler and more peaceful life. It is a very comfortable dream, filled with the familiar and best parts of the past. It certainly beats thinking and adapting to the current times. But retreating to the past is not an effective response to current situations.
How could such a sophisticated, urbane, educated – not to mention devilishly handsome, startlingly brilliant, witty conversationalist, yet inexplicably modest – individual such as I fall into such a trap? As Thor Heyerdahl wrote in Kon-Tiki so many years ago,
Once in a while, you find yourself in an odd situation. You get into it by degrees and in the most natural way but, when you are right in the midst of it, you are suddenly astonished and ask yourself how in the world it all came about.
Here are some recent Journal entries as I explored my current “odd situation”:
Thinking about my decision to stop living in the past so much. I think this is healthy and reasonable. Stop reading the same old books, listening to the same old background music, eating the same old food, watching the same old movies, etc. Get out of the house more, make some new friends – and make more time to see old friends in different settings.
Grateful for the sudden awareness that I have been retreating into the past – and, even worse, into a romanticized, bowdlerized vision of the past.
Grateful for being able to enjoy the refreshing difference – but still an old familiar taste – of English Breakfast Tea.
I am becoming aware of just how much I have been living in my Rip Van Winkle mode. Every time I sit down with coffee or tea and imagine a conversation with one of the characters from the past projected onto the present as if we are having coffee together; every time I see the windsock blow and I speak to Mom (who died in 2019); every time I think about the peaceful days of yore on the Little Dry Fork or at Gearhart or Finca Vigia; every time I read the same old authors writing about life as it was decades ago; every time I enjoy a small drink of the same old whiskey at Happy Hour; every time I use my same old nature sounds recordings as background to drown out the city noise outside my window; every time I play my same old music CDs and same old movies instead of something contemporary; every time I put on a old t-shirt from an event decades ago; every time I notice the old silverware I bought in the Walmart in Rolla seventeen years ago and brought to China; every time I see the old coffee pot that Tony and I found on my first morning in Zhengzhou on the old campus, etc., etc. My life is full of hooks to pull me back to the past. I will greatly reduce the time I spend escaping to a romanticized version of life in Rolla or Dallas or down on the creek. I will fill my life with new adventures and new ideas in order to crowd out the ghosts from the past.
(Sept 24) First cup of coffee in the quiet early morning is so soothing. But, while I was going through the ritual of making coffee, I had time to think a bit. I confirmed that my conclusions yesterday about ending my pattern of living in the past through all my continuous repetitions (music, books, clothes, foods, … everything, even the river music as background white noise), were holding me back in a romanticized version of the past. Those rituals were merely familiar, not fulfilling.
This morning, I woke up in a cheerful mood. Delighted to get up and make coffee and get ready to have lunch with my friends. But, upon further reflection about yesterdays’ epiphany, I realized that I was merely redecorating my prison cell. I have two other major patterns to break if I am to begin a new phase of my creative life. The first is being bound to my desk and computer. The newly acquired standup desk will help, I think, in breaking away from the sedentary posture that I assumed so many hours each day. Likewise, Dragon will allow me to dictate rather than type these entries and my articles and books and letters. Even better, Dragon, paired with a pocket-sized voice recorder, will allow me to walk and dictate from other locations. I will no longer be required to sit at my computer in my home office.
The second breakout will be to get out of the house more. This little apartment is comfortable and simple – exactly my choice as a lifestyle. However, after living in it almost without changes for four years with very, very few times away – rarely even for day trips within the city – I have made it into a prison also. Even my daily walks are exactly the same route and same length. What am I missing by limiting myself to this tiny, tiny part of the physical world and of the experiences I have available to me? What am I missing by hiding in the past, by limiting my thinking to safe, comfortable rituals to insulate and isolate me from the present reality?
Listening to a faint and tinny Vivaldi as background music, instead of my lovely and beloved river music (recorded nature sounds). A nice change and, since it is my choice, it makes me smile. The music reminds me that I can still make choices and change my routines… and, thus, change my lifestyle… and, thus, change my life. However, it also serves to remind me that I am still chained to my desk and, therefore, merely changing the wall decorations of my self-created prison cell.
So, after all this delving into my psyche, what permanent changes will this mean in my life? It is hard to predict specifics at this point but you can be sure that I will be much more moderate in many of my activities – including driving myself to exhaustion with too much work and too much stress – and that I will be closely monitoring my sensations and moods for indicators that I need to take a break – although taking a break can mean switching to another activity, not merely stopping to sit and rest.
“Walking dead man” doesn’t always mean dodging a mortality bullet through the wonders of modern medical science. A “walking dead man” can also be anyone who is limited to a tiny, confining prison-like existence of self-imposed limitations. It can also mean, as in my case, a person hiding in the past to avoid the realities of the present – and, alas, missing the benefits and opportunities. But we already have the keys that can free us, if we are brave enough and self-aware enough to use them. Anyone can walk out of the prison they have created for themselves. You don’t have to go through a near-death experience as I did; all you have to do is think, then take action.
[After a couple of days of these initial changes…]
What astonished me was the amount of internal resistance I encountered to these changes. Why should I feel so uncomfortable and disoriented and, yes, unhappy and restless, by cutting out a few rituals? The answer to that lament is also enlightening. Certainly, at least part of the reason is the common tendency to resist any change. Homeostasis, the experts call it. (Definition: A state of equilibrium, as in an organism or cell, maintained by self-regulating processes.) These were my changes, my choices! Yet, I had to overcome the powerful force of homeostasis to bring them about. Be forewarned, all you who are considering making such self-declared changes, that you will probably be confronted by this strange bedfellow, homeostasis, in the process. All I can say is to expect it, and be moderate in your expectations as you go through the process.
In my case, I rewarded myself for a day of following the new regimen by indulging in a little bit of the old background music and a couple of the old short stories in the evening – but only as an occasional reward, not a return to the old patterns.
So, speaking to you as a former “walking dead man” – and gratefully so – I have to ask you to consider how much your life is paralleling mine. Are you a “walking dead man” also? How much of your life is spent within a prison of unnecessarily limiting roles and rituals? How much are you a prisoner of your own choices? Are you aware that you already have the key to leave your cell?
Here is something (unattributed) which I saw on the internet recently. I offer this list of seven things you can control. (By implication, things we cannot control should not be dominating our time and attention.)
What you consume
How you react to situations
Who you surround yourself with
What you think and believe
How you spend your time
How you want your world to be
How you speak to yourself and others
Things we cannot control: Just about everything else. So why do you persist in trying?
Here is another good place to begin your self-examination:
YOU ARE THE AVERAGE OF THE FIVE PEOPLE YOU SPEND THE MOST TIME WITH. – JIM ROHN
Who can you add to or remove from the people you spend the most time with?
Thanks for visiting the 18th Floor homestead. Hope you will return frequently. Hope I’m around to continue pouring out this drivel.