Truth downtrodden, not dead

If I were to look at the world from a teen’s perspective, life is pretty black and white. It’s either hot or it’s cold. It’s good or it’s bad. It is right or it is wrong. Despite the backdrop of this simplicity, life is pretty complicated as emotions swell beyond the youngster’s comprehension.

As we grow older and our emotions stabilize, truth takes on shade. Grey areas emerge. Shadows lurk behind the meaning of things. And we grow accustomed to truth’s dimming shine. Our indignation weakens as adult life distracts us. We are lulled into a quiet sleep, fact-checking less, digesting garbage without thought and passing on recycled beliefs we’ve stopped questioning.

During some moments in history, the light switches back on. Our eyelids peel back, our backs straighten. We start paying attention with an intensity long forgotten in those high school hallways of yesteryear.

Now is one of those moments. When truth is on the witness stand. When what is said is scrutinized more closely. When the litmus test of reality races to the forefront.

Bildschirmfoto 2017-03-25 um 11.47.02Time magazine put three words and a question mark on its front cover this week.

Is truth dead?

The very fact that the editors pose the question tells me it is not. If we truly lived in a post-fact world, we would have no mind to engage in the inquiry.

In Trump’s attempt at weakening what is real, at his outright inability to withstand truth’s might, at his blaming and slandering and pouting and thrashing comes truth’s ultimate power. He is inadvertently strengthening the very thing he cannot stand: groups who disagree with him.

You cannot fight against forces stronger than you. No tower so high, no wife so beautiful, no pocket so deep, no office so revered will ever make an honest man out of a liar. A cheater. A profane example of human impotence.

The truth may be downtrodden, but it lives on. We are ever vigilant now. The tempest is gathering its gale force winds. The greatest revenge is our own success.

The truth will prevail. And so will we.

 

Our Nightmare Ride to Delhi on the Shanti Express

Life in India is like a mandala. So many pieces and parts, colorful and blending, fitting together in harmony in an ebb and flow of energy and stamina.

Roads in India sometimes abruptly end. Without warning. (c) 2017 Klaus Polkowski

Roads in India sometimes abruptly end. Without warning. (c) 2017 Klaus Polkowski

Nothing reflects that truth like a car ride on an Indian highway. The roads aren’t like the asphalt strips with which you may be familiar. They are ribbons of Earth and holes and dust — sometimes the roads cover miles made of tar. But always there is an abrupt ending, sometimes so sudden you have to screech to a halt to acknowledge them.

This man sells model airplanes near the airport outside Delhi. On the highway, where else? (c) 2017 Klaus Polkowski

This man sells model airplanes near the airport outside Delhi. On the highway, where else? (c) 2017 Klaus Polkowski

The road in India is also a place of commerce. A chance to sell toys or food or to beg for money inside the windows of stopped cars.

The gaps in the road are the kind of holes that make give your coccyx a new meaning in life. As the vehicle regretlessly slams your body to the ground without shock absorbers or any type of protection between you and the machine that carries you forth, your tailbone involuntarily stamps a circle in the sand, an ethereal moment of “Yes, I was here.”

We hired a car and driver to make it back to the country’s capital by lunch time.

We awoke to the sound of Sadus’ breath blowing through conch shells, their fingers laced over bells ringing in intervals. The music lured us out onto our balcony for one final look at Pushkar Lake before leaving for Delhi.

The driver greeted us at the hotel entrance in Pushkar. In the pitch black pre-dawn air, we only saw the glint of his eyes.

“Bonjour, ca va?”

We blinked, blinded by the darkness.

“Oui, ca va. Allons-y?”

Numbed by the early hours, we sat in the backseat, clutching our backpacks and wondering how long the ride would take.

The driver, who had introduced himself as Kamal and who had a French girlfriend (thus the greeting), tried to encourage our mood.

“You only need three things when travelling through India: Good brakes, good horn, good luck!”

It was only then that I observed his head periodically spitting brown juice out the window.

My well-travelled love explained:

“He’s chewing a stimulant to stay awake.”

It turns out he had been driving a young married couple since 10pm the night before. It was 5am and he had an eight-hour drive ahead of him.

He hadn’t slept a wink.

Horns in Indian traffic are desired -- and used often.

Horns in Indian traffic are desired — and used often. (c) 2017 Klaus Polkowski

“Don’t worry, my dear,” my love assured me. “There’s so much to do while driving in India that he won’t fall asleep. Ever.”

Somehow I found his statement to be only vaguely reassuring. And I knew I wouldn’t be sleeping much either. In fact, I spent most of the eight-hour ride doing this:

Holding on for dear life. (2) 2017 Klaus Polkowski

Holding on for dear life. (2) 2017 Klaus Polkowski

 

For the first two hours we drove in the dark, getting to know one another. I figured if we knew each other’s life

These mushroom-like bulges are transported everywhere and anyway they can.

These mushroom-like bulges are transported everywhere and anyway they can. (c) 2017 Klaus Polkowski

stories, perhaps even loosely, it would create a bond that would hold us together – and out of harm’s way – for the duration of our ride to Delhi. We stopped for chai and what passed for coffee at a roadside stop. As dawn broke, we fell into a comfortable silence.

That is until, in the span of sixty seconds somewhere between breakfast and the first thought that my bladder might burst, we witnessed the following amazements:

 

  • a shepherd ushering a herd of cows across the entire six-lane highway crossing both directions;
  • a troop of camels hauling firewood and galumphing their load serenely to our left (on said highway);
  • a young child racing across three lanes to get to the other side;
  • tuk-tuks filled with twenty people that any Western family of four would consider tight for their standards; and
  • always, always, always the plea from trucks’ backsides to blow your horn.

Kamal got us to our hotel safely and in record time. He manoeuvred through potholes, toll booths, animal crossings and blinding sunlight. He is the only one working to support his entire extended family.

As I held on for dear life, I wondered if we were going to make it back in one piece. Occasionally, Kamal would spontaneously break out in song or chant something in Hindi. It sounded like a choral prayer and so I began to silently pray with him to the Shiva on his dashboard, then Jesus, Mohammed, Buddha and Whoever Else Was Listening. His job is dangerous and he is not able to say “no” to 2 am requests like ours for delivering tourists to their destinations.

“My family is counting on me.”

We thanked Kamal for his courage for getting us to the city in tact.

May the mandala of life continue its endless cycle of flowing energy and endurance.

It was an experience of a lifetime I won’t ever forget.

Alright then...

Alright then… (c) 2017 Klaus Polkowski

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I lost count after 15 as to the number of people in this tuk-tuk. (c) 2017 Klaus Polkowski

I lost count after 15 as to the number of people in this tuk-tuk. (c) 2017 Klaus Polkowski

 

No doors? No problem! The easier to hang out the opening to ride along. (c) 2017 Klaus Polkowski

No doors? No problem! The easier to hang out the opening to ride along. (c) 2017 Klaus Polkowski

 

Oh the driver did. Constantly! (c) 2017 Klaus Polkowski

Oh the driver did. Constantly! (c) 2017 Klaus Polkowski

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why Should You Care?

The unyielding darkness has started to seep into the Northern Hemisphere. Abbreviated sunlight in November has always affected my mood, challenging my natural buoyancy by the stagger and sway of light deprivation. And this year we have an additional force to reckon with: a metaphorical shadowy veil that has been draped across our world.

Even in these pitch dark moments I see opportunity. We have a chance to stand brightly in the darkness and call out all for which we stand: peace, love, joy, beauty, grace, wisdom. The sanctity of life remains untouched for our willpower and minds remain free, even if we feel shackled by political, environmental, social, cultural and economic realities. We can make a difference. Show up for what you believe in in a non-violent, loving way. Others will notice and may be encouraged to do the same.

Self-care is especially vital when we feel this vulnerable. My hot water bottle has become my trusty companion, feeling its warmth on my lap as I type words and phrases and lines, sometimes blurred by distraction and an urge to check in on the world to see if it’s alright.

My sister graciously shared her strategy for comfort. A shower and a nap are the best remedies for sorrow. With gratitude she feels the spray of instant warm water that she knows so many in this world do not have. A mid-day respite, bowing to the altar of Slow, reenergizes the fuzziness and frayed edges. Jumpiness is replaced by a Zen-like calm and we return to that greater part of ourselves that knows this too shall pass.

It may be the end of the world as we know it, to quote REM, but it is not the end of the world. Apocalyptic thoughts leave no room for positive ones.

If you are struggling with how best to care for yourself, consider this:

  • Switch off the noise – both internal and external. Surrender to your need for rest when you require it.
  • Minimize your exposure to online vitriol. It won’t help you, but will only serve to fuel confusion, wrath and disconnection.
  • Eat vitamin-rich food. Especially now as the sun quickly genuflects to the horizon, Vitamin D is essential. Ensure you get natural sunlight. Compensate with supplements if you cannot.
  • Connect with others. Isolation feeds insanity. Gather your tribe.
  • Hug more often.
  • Watch a comedy. Laughter heals.
  • Express love and gratitude.
  • Respect our differences. Remember that you may appear as foreign to someone else.
  • Create a safe environment for dialogue with people you meet.

Why should you care? Because you can. Because you do. Because caring for self is the first step in caring for others. The opposite of love is indifference. Recent events have shown we are not indifferent, although we may feel powerless. Your power begins within you. Embrace the power of Slow. The result of its force is mightier than any politician on the planet.

Yes, We Kant

It is in times like these that we are most tested. We say we are for equality. We say we are for freedom. We say we are for tolerance. But can we show tolerance for someone we do not believe in? If we fight back with the same vitriol, we do not land higher. We land in the pit with those we do not respect.

The outcome of the 2016 US Presidential election is indeed shocking. I was up all night. Perhaps it is my exhaustion speaking, but I feel the need to stand by my principles of love for everyone.

We create our own reality. And people’s realities have been shaped by false messages based not on facts, but on emotion. The outcome of this election originates within people’s feelings about what is happening, not about what is actually happening. The bigotry shown at the polls by the majority’s support for Donald Trump exceeds my wildest imagination about the United States’ underbelly.

But it is about something more as well.

In the wee hours of the morning, I watched an exhausted German moderator attempt to have a conversation with a panel of three women, two of whom were American. One of the American women was a professor for gender studies at the University of Maryland. Even she agreed, well before the polls leaned in Trump’s favor, that it was an uphill battle for Hillary to win as a woman. Her gender, not just her misguided use of an email server, was a great stumbling block. The professor admitted it would be tough for her to lead the country as a woman because only men had ever held the office.

What?

So just because it hasn’t been done before, she’ll somehow have it harder? Being a trailblazer has been her speciality. In my view, she would have done just fine. Further, that kind of argumentation is what tries to keep women playing small. Hillary wouldn’t have it. She played larger than life. And was crucified for it.

Hillary did everything right. She was prepared. She was disciplined and organized. Hillary Clinton deserved to win, but she did not. If she had made even a fraction of the comments Trump had, as a woman she would have been burned at the stake. But Trump? He is a white man with a lot of money. Being foul-mouthed, the populace claims, is something to be overlooked.

Are we that fascinated with the rich and stupid? Our obsession with the Kardashians tells me yes, we are.

It turns out it’s not so much what you say, but what gender you are that makes the difference. Hillary didn’t fulfill the image of what a woman should be: soft, loving, compassionate, demure, sweet, unthreatening.

She scared the bejesus out of people. It’s a shame that the US voting population couldn’t see that as an asset, but as a threat to their own beliefs about how a woman should behave.

I am disgusted, discouraged and deflated. But there is good news on the horizon.

Germany is the land of Immanual Kant, one of the philosophers who drove the Enlightenment. Rational thought, he argued, was what forms our human experience. I studied his works during graduate school and came to the conclusion that Kant encouraged embedding morality in legality. Formalize the moral code and we will go far in life. Kant was also one of the earliest exponents of the idea that perpetual peace could be secured through universal democracy and international cooperation.

The United States does not have the same philosophical background. It is a land of possibility in which it is truly possible to never have held public office, make outrageous comments with no basis in reality and become the leader of the free world. This too we must accept if we are to embrace the level of freedom so many have fought for.

Today I say: Yes, we Kant. We will maintain our moral codex in the face of this catastrophe. It begins with you. It begins with me. If we come from love, we will never lose, even if our candidate didn’t win.

The Awakening

Nothing removes the shutters from our eyes like travel. It is by far the most compelling method for broadening our horizons and relativizing what we think is true about the world. Growth is not measured by the miles we walk, but by the lessons we learn on the path we take.

Travel tills the garden of your soul. It unearths new possibilities and ways of thinking. It deepens appreciation for that which we have and a profound thankfulness for that which we no longer have.

One thing I have learned along the way is that it is irrelevant where you are. You can be anywhere in the world as long as you are at home with yourself. Inner peace provides shelter even in the darkest of storms.

mohammed_essaouira_2016

Tuareg in Essaouira, Morocco. Foto credit: Klaus Polkowski, 2016 (c)

At the end of October I embarked with my love on a most amazing journey. For the first time in my life I went to Africa. As I stood in line at passport control, I could feel the country’s rhythm enter my bloodstream, carried by the distinct smell signaling I was somewhere “else”. The odors intensified as we walked the Souks (market alleys) filled with moped exhaust, animal remains and the piercing fierceness of spices and amber. I was transported by the city’s heartbeat, the eagerness of its people, wishing to share what they had with us. I recognized that their persistence stems from a kind of generosity mixed with vested self-interest that we admire, then purchase, their wares. I observed that acknowledgement went further than our money. Showing respect for their craftsmanship — including the snake charmer — contributed to a richer understanding of one another.

The day after we returned, I attended a professional multimedia presentation by a veteran photographer friend of ours, Dieter Glogowski. The topic? On the surface it was about Nepal. Underneath the message was simple. No matter who you are, love is what counts. The images projected a joy that I strive to discover within myself and I have a distinct feeling that I am getting closer to it. Maybe I will find more of it in Nepal, the next on our list of travels.

It doesn’t really matter whether we step beyond the borders of our own country or not. The awakening, once evoked, continues with every step we take.

 

There’s No Place Like Home

Sitting at my dad’s breakfast table, I shared with him what I had learned since we had last seen each other in 2014.

“If you find your center, you are always at home no matter where you are in this world.”

His eyes widened as he nodded affectionately.

It was an astounding realization for me. For years I had thought I lived “away from home” or somewhere other than where I should be. It nagged at me, this feeling of displacement and fragmentation. As a long-term expat living abroad, I considered myself a cultural mutt who didn’t quite fit in anywhere. This sense of disenfranchisement unsettled me, as if I were running away from something or running toward a slightly elusive place of belonging and connectedness.


The road map to that place was in my peripheral vision and I just knew if I looked the right way, I would find what I had been looking for. But every time I thought I had captured a sense of place, my vision would skew, as if peering through a prism. The images were muddied by refracted light and I would once again find myself empty-handed.

Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist speaks of a young man’s journey to unlock the mysteries of life. As the book unfolds, he finally returns from his journey after many years and experiences, only to find the very thing he was looking for beneath his feet where he had begun. Sound familiar?

It is an allegory of our lives. We move forward, searching for answers to questions we cannot quite articulate. The key to unlocking those mysteries comes from the still voice within us, but we may not have the ears to hear those whispers until much, much later.

Having visited so many pieces of me over the past two weeks, I see now that my center is my home. The love I feel for all the people in my life is the nectar that feeds me. The time I spend with them is the cloak that warms me.

It does not matter where I go for home truly is where the heart is. It resides within. Beneath my feet. In the eyes of my father.

Everywhere.

 

 

What’s So Great About Getting Older?

A lot, actually. But of all the things I have learned in my lifetime, one stands out the most.

The years have taught me not to take things personally. Milk gets spilled. Clouds form. Missteps happen. People misbehave (or behave differently than we would have them to). Siblings squabble. Pets die. Rain falls.

You see where I’m going with this? Tons of things happen over the course of our lives. We can’t control anything other than ourselves and even then we sometimes have a hard time with self-control too.

The other day I met with a new friend who is about my age. We have a lot in common, including our names and our appearance. In fact, I met her because someone else mistook me for this woman. We discovered we had the same attitude about life and how we manage conflict.

“Why get upset over that which I can’t control?” she said to me as if she were reading my mind.

(c) 2007 Phillip West, used with permission. Yoda made of sandpaper and tissue.

(c) 2007 Phillip West, used with permission. Yoda made of sandpaper and tissue.

She admitted that twenty years ago she couldn’t possibly have the same perspective. Stuck in a traffic jam on a bus for eight hours the night before, she decided to surrender to the situation. She identified how quickly time seemed to flow now that she had reached a certain age. Why would she spend those units of time on something as unpleasant as rage?

That is not to say we can’t or shouldn’t feel rage when appropriate. I am a fan of letting it all hang out when you need to. But the sooner you do, the sooner you can regain your inner equilibrium.

My recipe for calm:

  • Acceptance. Certain things will never change. Understand your role in affecting change where you can.
  • Surrender. This ingredient differs from acceptance because you are literally giving in to the situation, releasing any thought or expectation about it.
  • Big Picture. When something happens, I zoom out to the larger landscape of things. How big of an issue is this really?
  • Golden Nugget. Silver Lining. Gift Wrapped in Barbed Wire. Whatever you call it, remember this thing needs to happen so the next, better thing can emerge.
  • Gratitude. We tend to focus on the negative (it has to do with our primordial programming). So what if two shitty things happened today? How many good things can you count that happened too? Focus on them instead.
  • Connection. Sometimes we need friends to pull us out of our funk. Talk to someone who cares about you. They may not tell you what you want to hear, but cherish their perspective for what it is – their perspective. Maybe it will lead you in the right direction, which is back to yourself where the upset began.

It is indeed marvelous to get older. Life has a way of sandpapering our rough edges for a smoother, more glorious ride into infinity.

The Many Pieces of Me

As I inch toward the fifth decade of my life, I have taken pause to reflect on all the places I have been. The list is long. The road has been too.

When people ask about my history, I tell them I left home at 16. My heart took flight to a European country. With no knowledge of the language or culture, I lived amongst the natives for an entire year. At the time it felt like an eternity as my inner self was molded into something new. I began to see the world with their eyes. Or perhaps more accurately, with a blended vision of my own and theirs. My world view was altered forever and I had no idea how enriching that would be. From that point on, I developed an acute ability to consider that all that I had known may not be the absolute truth and that every person on the planet carries their very own interpretation of what that might be. Coming home felt more foreign to me after a year away. In my heart of hearts, I could never return there because my shape had taken on a different form altogether.

I have moved 19 times in my life and with each place I have landed, a tiny piece of myself has been left behind. Whenever I return to those places, I greet that part of myself with a smile — or sometimes a tear. As I recently motored across the A99, I waved to the Allianz Arena, home to several Bavarian soccer teams. A long time ago, I even taught English to the guy responsible for the lighting there. Later I headed up a team of athletes for a show on national television. It was the only time I stood on the playing field, but I will never forget the exhilaration as we paraded onto the green.

Next week I will visit the Northeastern part of myself, first in Boston, then in Northampton for my twenty-fifth college reunion. Thereafter I will fly down to Florida to visit my dad and his wife. I’ll saddle on the Southern, twang with the best of them, and sweat in the steamy heat near Orlando. My children will be there who are indeed the greatest parts of me. And as they grow, leaving pieces of themselves wherever they go, they too will experience the revisiting and the wonder that is this life.

Farewell, My Prince

Words. They frame meaning. They help us get through things. They give us ways to express thoughts and feelings.

Today I woke up in a foul mood for no particular reason. Then I discovered my beloved Prince had died at the age of 57 (thanks, Facebook. You really are good at sharing these things).

prince symbolPrince gave me words at a time when I didn’t have any. Growing up as a teenager in the South, I would listen to his music with my best friend as we got ready for parties or whilst cruising the strip. His lead title Purple Rain flowed through me, giving me solace and a place to go in my head when I was confused or felt alone. That song still reminds me of the smell of fried chicken and Coke-sweetened Jack. I can sense the upholstered car seat of the guy whose class ring I liked and the slight odor of mildew streaming from the air conditioning vents.

When my daughter was born in 1999, I cheered because I felt — in some small way — I had given tribute to Prince. His song 1999 always made me smile. It felt like a particularly fine accomplishment to have spent that year on such a special occasion as the birth of my first child.

Prince was an icon, a masterful musician and a symbol for me as an awkward adolescent that it’s okay to express yourself in strange ways. He influenced my writing, granting me the courage to be different and to live my art as he did his. For a short time, he even changed his name to a symbol during an argument with his record label Warner Brothers. He did what he wanted. He lived his life through music. He was music.

His personal bank account of time ran out yesterday at 10:07 am Minneapolis time on April 21, 2016. There are more than just doves crying today.

Farewell, my Prince. May you party with the angels like it’s 1999. I will miss you until the end of my days.

 

Fakebook and the Confrontation with Reality

Facebook. Love it. Hate it. It’s here to stay.

Facebook has over 1.59 billion active monthly users, which translate to roughly 22% of the world’s population. If so many people are using it, there must be something good about it. Or addictive.

I think it’s a little of both.

I joined Facebook in 2007 during which time it was still required that you be invited by someone else (and identify which college you had attended). I giggled at the emoticon-like “gifts” you could give to your friends. I had about two friends. Then four. Before I knew it, I was friends with over 1,000 people.

statistic_id272014_global-social-networks-ranked-by-number-of-users-2016As a public relations professional, I know a lot of people. But I wouldn’t call every person I email, call or Skype with a “friend”. Facebook has termed connections friends because that’s what they were originally intended to be. And I don’t doubt that having friends or being friendly is a good thing. But are we truly friends with all the people we “like” there?

Aside from the inauthentic terminology, Facebook provides us ample opportunity to showcase our opinions and interests in other arenas. We can write tirades about reckless politicians, offer solidarity to the victims of terrorist attacks, post cute cat videos or moving snippets from talent shows in which 11-year-olds belt out operatic-like crescendos. For a moment in our day, Facebook makes us feel a part of a greater world. We can show empathy, sadness, anger or gratitude. We can even find love there (I did!).

Anything goes (well, almost anything) in the world Mark Zuckerberg created for us.

Pretty early on in my Facebook existence, I decided to be one of those users who doesn’t post many private things. I’d use it more to stay in touch with true friends and family, market my books and clients and stay low to the ground on anything too personal. I admit to painting a rosy picture sometimes when things weren’t going too well. But I refused to use the online platform as a stomping ground for all that was going wrong in my life. It seemed too public, too impersonal, too real. So I, like many others, turned Facebook into Fakebook, putting my best foot forward whenever possible.

There’s nothing wrong with maintaining privacy in a world that monitors everything. So-called cookies (why are they called that? They aren’t delicious, but rather leave a trail of our online activity) keep track of our likes and dislikes. Facebook has been known to do the same. It’s only natural to be slightly guarded online. And to think before you post. It’s something I hammered into my kids’ brains. Thankfully, they listened.

But not being totally real is comparable to exaggerating your work experience on your resume. It’s obvious to the people who truly know you, but most people won’t call you on it or even care.

Facebook does. Why else would it have the memory function?

Occasionally, you will see pictures from years gone by that Facebook suggests you repost. Those pictures, especially the ones a few years ago, confront me with my own reality. While I put on a good face, I wasn’t being real.

Facebook is like an elephant. In fact, the entire Internet is. It remembers. It reminds us of our inauthenticity. It marks how we spend our days and throws it back in our faces when we least expect it. It can be incredibly confrontational or just sad to be caught in a lie we told ourselves for so many years.

On the other hand, Facebook is an archive of who we thought we wanted to be. Sometimes we get it right. Sometimes we get it wrong.

Luckily, we have true friends — online and off — to catch us when we fall. Fakebook and all.