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Life Lessons

Renee Lamb Headshot

Don’t be satisfied with stories
How things have gone with others.
Unfold your own myth.

Rumi wrote these words centuries before my wandering heart would find them and realize that they spoke a truth so deep it is hard to see on most days.

The story contained within this blog is a typical one: Girl turns 30. She wonders what she’s doing with her life and why she feels so empty. She walks away from it all, leaving those things that define “her” behind, hoping to find the myth already enfolded within. It’s a story that’s been told thousands of times, but each time with a slightly different voice, a slightly different perspective, a slightly different ending.

This is my story of spending 16 months living out of a backpack, with all of those wonderful things that made my little NY apartment “home”, boxed up and stored away. I of course was looking and hoping for a change, but as I packed that last box, I had no idea the challenges and changes that lay on the path before me. In retrospect it was inevitable.

The adventure contained within these words and photos chronicles travels through many places: the U.S.IndiaNepalVietnamSenegalTanzaniaRwandaCosta RicaMorocco and my own heart.  Don’t let the colorful photos fool you – nothing has been as expected, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

My hope is that by keeping this blog up now that my travels have ended, it will inspire someone else to take that leap of faith that leads them closer to their own true joy.

My leap led me to Soulié, a social enterprise that was always residing in my heart and a natural next step once I returned home.

To learn more about Soulié and our mission to preserve craft and create more beauty in the world, check out our website at www.renee-soulie.com. If you love the story, please spread the word. We are a tribe, and only with your help can we grow and do more good.

Thanks for being a part of this adventure with me.
Wishing you love and light.
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I have already talked about this topic some in my post “Lesson #6“, but just today my beautiful friend Divo shared the following article from the Guardian with only the simple note “READ!”.

“Delhi Rape: How India’s Other Half Live”

I felt it necessary to pass the article along it here because as I read this, I realized that this girl, 9 yrs younger than me, grew up and lived in the part of Delhi known as Dwarka. This horrible crime didn’t take place in Dwarka, but the neighborhood was her home and where she was headed as she boarded the bus that evening. It is that same small part of Delhi where I lived, worked and taught for 4 months in ’03.

Dwarka at that time was not a big place. Apartments were just being built and you could walk the whole neighborhood, which means I knew this girl in spirit even if I never met her. I probably sat next to her on a bus, walked by her in the street, stood next to her at the sweet shop, or danced with her at the wedding in the apartment next door or at the Diwali festival down the street. Heck, I might have had her as a student in my morning enterprise workshop or afternoon English class.

When this story first came out, I wondered why I so viscerally responded to it.
Yes, it is terrible and tragic, but terrible and tragic things happen all the time. Why could I not let this one go? Now I see that it was because this story is in fact a part of my story. It’s intricately interwoven with my own life and my own path.

I share this story here, because by following this blog all of you are now also intricately interwoven with me.

So if you have heard about this case and thought, “What does that have to do with me? Why do I have to keep hearing about this? I am half way across the world.” Reevaluate, and realize that you are closer to her and closer to this story than you could have imagined.

By realizing this, you can begin to change the story, one lit candle, one smile, one intellectual debate, one good intention at a time.

What we do shapes the world around us, and, as we see in this case, the world just happens to be a little smaller than we think.

Being back in the US, I seem to have found myself in a myriad of conversations about the nature of what it means to be American, US foreign policy, and whether we should become more isolationists. I struggle with these debates because I can see where the isolationist argument comes from, but it is so far from my own views on what makes life fulfilling that is hard for me to comprehend.

Recently, after a number of these conversations, I was at a conference. Paul Farmer was giving the keynote speech and he said something that perfectly summed it up for me. “There is no ‘us and them’. Just ‘us’.”

Just us.

It was such a simple statement and yet it summed up so much of what is wrong with the current debate in the United States. We tend to put everything in the context of us vs. them. But who is “us” anyway?

Take a trip from New York, to Minnesota, to L.A., to Louisiana. Really pay attention and you’ll see just as much difference as you would if you flew from Paris, to Libya, to Rwanda, to Nepal. You would see people of every color, hear just as many varying dialects and languages, and encounter just as many religions. (In actuality, I’d put money on the fact that a Parisian would be more comfortable in Rwanda than a New Yorker in the Deep South.)

Ask anyone, anywhere, what are the most basic things they want in life, and I bet whether they’re Palestinian, American, or African, you’ll hear the following: access to food and health, a safe place for their family, and dignified work.

Food. Health. Safety. Dignity.

Once we realize that these simple things are what we are all fighting for, maybe then we can stop fighting about “us and them”. Maybe then we can realize that the boundaries that create “us and them” are simply constructed by ourselves. Maybe then we can change the conversation to be about just “us”.

Throughout everyplace I went in Africa and several places in India, a common request from the small kids is “school pens! school pens!” Some legitimately need them, and some don’t. But they ask anyways because a lot of times the plea works.

I, however, never parted with a pen. I only had four and one mechanical pencil with me for the year, and, given the difficulty or near impossibility of replacing them in many places, I coveted these as if they were priceless.

But of course the plea works when there are superfluous pens to be had. With so much poverty, there is a lot of hope wrapped up in giving away a pen. Giving away something so utilitarian and yet at the same time so trivial but which signifies so much opportunity seems less like charity than just handing someone a crumpled bill or a few coins. Even I tend to keep a piece of fruit in my bag while traveling, just in case.

But now, months later I find myself in a new dilemma. I am the unemployed one with no disposable income, in the middle of a busy city, and I am suddenly in dire need of a pen. Since I am not ready to start asking people on the street for one, into Staples I go. My objective is clear: find a pen and don’t spend more than a dollar. Anything more than that is a waste as I have my four pens tucked away in a bookbag an hour’s subway ride away.

I scour the aisles, looking and looking for one inexpensive pen. After 15 futile minutes I come up with a box of 20 pens because it is the cheapest option. Cheaper to buy 20 then just one packaged up all alone.

20 pens! I only need one but I now have 20 pens because, more important than worrying about how those other 19 pens are going to go to waste, I need my dollars in my wallet. One whole year with no pens to give away and now I find myself in a place where I could stand on the street all day trying to give away my box of pens one at a time with no one wanting to take one. Because who in central Manhattan needs something as trivial and utilitarian as a pen?

What does it mean to truly know a place or to really experience a culture?

This is a question that I have been thinking about for a long time, with a draft version of this post on my desktop for over a month. But I can’t quite seem to finalize things – to find that conclusive sentence to wrap it all together.

This is a question that will come up continually if you’re on the road for any amount of time. I’ve had people tell me that I could never possibly know a place just by traveling. I’ve had people tell me that they have lived someplace for years and yet don’t know it. I’ve seen people completely absorbed by a culture within weeks. And I have walked off of a plane and felt more at home than I do in places I have spent the better part of my life.

I have come to believe that those who think you can’t deeply know a place by just “traveling” haven’t ever truly traveled. And yet, as I sit a breakfast, listening to “travelers” swap stories of extra passport pages and 7 continents, who then are genuinely perplexed when I mention my desire to live abroad, I can’t help but think, maybe just traveling isn’t enough either.

Then where is that elusive line between not knowing and knowing? Between eating and tasting. Between seeing and appreciating. Between talking and conversing. Whether you just dip your toes into the water or are immersed up to your chin, if you are always standing on your flat feet, then can you ever really claim to have been swimming?

Perhaps, this problem is the exact reason I haven’t been able to finish my draft. Does the line even exist?  If memories and our own selves are in constant flux, changing and evolving with our own new experiences, then is it even possible to truly know a place or a person?

I “knew” Nepal as it was twelve years ago and then again eight months ago, but does that mean I “know” it now?

These questions sit in my head as I look around at the “travelers” surrounding me, and I believe I have finally found at least the beginning of my conclusion: Being able to know a place has nothing to do with the amount of time spent or number of monuments visited. It has everything to do with the openness of your mind and your ability to see and experience the place for what it is, for what it has to offer you, and what you have to offer it at that moment.

Living, traveling, working, or studying in a place for years will do nothing to allow you to get to know the place if you never actually want to experience it. If you are always looking for the comforts of someplace else, then you will never be open to experiencing the uniqueness of where you are. Perhaps knowing where you stand is as simple as dropping away your own ideas of what a place should be, opening your eyes and mind, and welcoming it to change you anew each and every time.

Senegal

I have always had a love for art and for the people that can create experiences, images, or ideas that evoke passion, inspiration, or just simple introspective thought. As a teenager I used to stare at Monet’s paintings in a book, wondering how one man can place simple dabs of color on a plain cotton canvas in a way that still speaks to so many people. Today I often put on a piece of handmade jewelry and feel lightened knowing that the person that made it saw something beautiful in the most basic of materials that existed before the piece was formed.

As I travel, I find that I seek out artists and artisans almost subconsciously. I am drawn to them in a way that even I cannot define. After traveling through almost 40 countries, I have come to see them a microcosm of the best parts of each society. So much hope can be wrapped up in one smiling face of a teenager who couldn’t finish school but learned to work with silver as a way to feed himself. So much culture and tradition can be carried in one carpet knot, one throw of a shuttle across a warp, or one stroke of paintbrush on fabric.

Artisans, to me, encompass all of the best things about work. They work because they need to support themselves but also because they love what they do; because they can simultaneously see their past and their future in what they create. Few other workers are as proud, as driven, or as dignified as an artisan. Few other people are as open and quick to share what they know with others.

With my year on the road coming to an end, one on the many lessons that I hope to carry with me is to live less like an employee and more like an artisan. I too want to be generous with my wisdom, innovative in my thinking, scrupulous with my time, and so dedicated to my craft that others will be inspired to take up their own. Whatever comes next, I too want to live like an artisan.

The one lesson India can teach us all again and again is about the limiting power of our own expectations. Will my chai be sweet? (yes) Will my chicken be spicy? (yes) Will my cheap hotel have hot water? (no) Will my expensive resort not have hot water? (no) Will the train be on time? (no) Will the person across from me ask me where I am from? (yes) Will the taxi driver rip us off? (not this time) Will I pay too much? (always) Will I be able to keep my temper? (yes) Will my Ashtanga yoga class be hard? (yes) Will my Hatha yoga class be easy? (yes)

The most beautiful thing about being in the country where everything is true, while simultaneously so is the opposite, is that at some point all of your expectations will be wrong. Each of the above questions, I have gotten wrong at some point in this journey, and every time, even after months in India, it was a surprise.

After my 3 months here, I have begun to genuinely enjoy the humor that comes from when something I am so sure of, happens so differently from how I expected. I am learning to let the world and the people around me, surprise me. From that is coming a new kind of joy. A joy that comes from seeing the world or a person for what it/he/she is instead of what I want it/him/she to be.

One of my favorite yoga instructors in NY used to always start class by challenging us to dig back up that joy we used to have while playing as children. I see now that his challenge was 2 fold – not just to play physically, but to also play mentally with power of dropping our expectations and taking the moment for what it was, limitations and all. The more I think about it, the more convinced I am that this is why children can be so innately happy, even in midst of hardship — because they have not yet had the chance to create the expectations that limit us as we get older.

How much more could we accomplish, how much happier could we be if we just went forward, dropped our expectations, and asked the world for nothing? Nothing, but to surprise us.

“Only an animal does useful things. An animal gets food, finds a place to sleep, tries to keep comfortable. But I wanted to do something that was not useful – not like an animal at all. Something only a human being would do.”

Gerard d’Aboville quoted in The Tao of Travel, Enlightenment from Lives on the Road – Paul Theroux

I remember a conversation that took place before I left for my 365 day adventure, in which I made a remark about how I wanted to leaveNew Yorkand travel for a year because I had lost my focus.  I had argued that travel could give me a clairvoyance that I couldn’t find anywhere else. Six months in, I’ve been rolling this thought around in my head, thinking that there was something else I was trying to encompass in this statement that wasn’t initially coming across.

Finding this quote from Gerard d’Aboville, who rowed across the Pacific solo in 1991, made me realize that what I was trying to grasp in my actions and in my use of the word “clairvoyance” wasn’t just that additional knowledge or experience that comes so easily from walking into a new place. What I meant was that I was craving the awareness of our own humanness that can only arise when we push ourselves to our mental, emotional, and physical limits. Without this, we lose our connection to the humanity around us.

Why was India the first place I chose to come to when I left home? I have been thinking about this a lot lately too. It was not because I had been before and knew the country and the language. It was but because it was and remains the hardest place I have been. Throughout almost 40 countries, no place has broken me down and built me back up likeIndia. No place has shown me the limits of my own person likeIndia. If I am looking for a deeper sense of my own humanity, this is the only place that I could have started.

What I have learned from this, is that if we, as humans, are searching for more clairvoyance, perhaps that can only come by using our biggest challenge, our biggest obstacle, our biggest fear,  as the place from which we start.

Well, here we go. 6 weeks into my India adventure, and that moment I knew would come, but that Goa had been coaxing me into believing might just yet be avoided, has finally happened. I’ve been the target of a walk by feel up.

I knew I was getting too comfortable. The ease of being in a beautiful, liberal, sea-side Indian town was just too good to be true.

If I had been in a crowded bus slammed between commuters, or even in a market in more northern conservative city, the incident might not have caught me so off guard. However, this happened mid-day, in plain sunlight, as I was venturing down an only somewhat busy market street making my way to the ice cream shop. I was in the heart of south Goa, on a touristy beach full of women in bikinis, men in Speedos, yoga studios, tattoo parlors, and discos. What then, you might ask, could I have possibly been doing to provoke this sudden male advance — Was it the way I had dressed? Did I make extended eye contact and imply that I was open to such an encounter? Hardly. Surrounded by strapless tops and thong bikini bottoms, I was clad in a tunic and long pants. And if you can imagine the focus I had on my sugary treat, you would know that there was no time for wandering eyes. Apparently, today my encounter was sheer luck.

Of course this experience did not go over so well. I proceeded to berate this man with questions of how he could act in such a way. What would he have done if another man had done that same thing to his wife, sister, or mother? Finally seeing that my words were falling on drunken and deaf ears, I relented and went my own way. An Indian friend told me later that evening that I would have been in the right to hit him with my dusty, cow-poop covered shoe.

Lesson learned – when in India, always keep your dirtiest shoe easily accessible (either on your foot or in a purse if dressed to head out on the town), just in case of a walk by feel up. You never know when one might happen.

Flip Flops - the perfect protection.