On My Vipassana Retreat

~4,500 words (Updated: 9/27/2017)

For ten days, I became a monk.

And it was life-changing—in a good way. I had no idea what I was getting myself into when I first applied for the course. I knew a little about meditation (sit and stuff, right?), and had dabbled a few times informally, and always alone. But this was a beast all its own.

During those ten days, I did not speak, write or read; had no access to electronic devices; did not make eye contact with the other students; and did not touch a single person. I meditated for ten hours each day. We isolated ourselves in a campground smaller than two football fields and within three building types: cabins, bathrooms, and Dhamma hall. The schedule:

4am: Wake up bell
4:30 – 6:30am: Individual/Group Meditation
6:30 – 8am: Breakfast of boiled prunes, plain yogurt, oatmeal, fruit, bran cereal, and bread
8 – 9am: Group Meditation
9 – 11am: Individual/Group Meditation
11 – 12pm: Lunch
12 – 1pm: Teacher Interviews
1 – 2:30pm: Individual/Group Meditation
2:30 – 3:30pm: Group Meditation
3:30 – 5pm: Individual/Group Meditation
5 – 6pm: Tea break of fruit and tea
6 – 7pm: Group Meditation
7 – 8:15pm: Teacher Discourse
8:15 – 9pm: Group Meditation
9:30pm: Lights out

This schedule was grueling, and it wore at the students, experienced and new.

The day I arrived at the retreat, our reserved space felt enormous. The Dhamma hall filled the central lawn and the cabins and bathrooms splayed from it like the blades on a propeller. The cabins sat on long tanbark paths shaded by beautiful oaks and birches with leaves of green, yellow, and red. Hand-sized red chipmunks scurried from rock to log and chittered at you to stop watching them. Crickets did their cricketing melodically.

Whatever. Screw crickets.

We ate a light meal of cheeses, soup, and bread; turned in our precious phones and any means of communication (pens, papers, souls); then, as the registered cohort, took a simultaneous vow to follow the rules of the retreat, of Vipassana living. This felt meaningful in our synchrony and also very cultish. But then we promised things that make sense when you’re looking for a better way to live your life: abstain from killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying, and all intoxicants. Don’t do these. They’re kind of rude. Ok, done.

We did thirty minutes of guided meditation in the Dhamma hall while our teacher, S. N. Goenka, spoke softly over speakers. (He’s dead, by the way. All the discourses were through audio and videotapes. Great dude though.) We received the basic tool of meditation: breathe only through the nose and observe your breath. Then, go to sleep as soon as you can. The bell rings at 4am, sleep willing or not.

Day 1

The bell is a hunk of aged bronze shaped like a sunset with a frayed strap for the holder to beat the hell out of it with a hammer. The ensuing ring is either calming or blasphemously too early in the morning. Shuffling a hundred yards in sweat pants and sandals, I think, Oh weird, stars. I make it into the Dhamma hall and plop onto my assigned mat and cushion. Remarkably, everyone has shown up. Gotta impress the teacher. (We do have real breathing human assistant teacher too. Reminds me of an old porcupine that lost all his quills. He doesn’t give the main lectures, but he still provides essential daily guidance to questions and problems.)

Women and men sit on opposite sides of the hall, but we can still see one another, though not well in the dim lighting of why-are-we-up-at-4am. I have an aisle seat where ten feet separate the two sexes. This is the closest we’ll get for ten days. There are two assistant teachers: one male, one female. The students are arranged in six columns of eight before the assistant teachers.

For two hours, I cannot focus on anything because I’m so sleepy. I nearly crash into the man ahead of me several times. So bad is my drooping and head twitching that I adjust my posture often. In the silent hall, the gentle shift of cloth against mat is jarring.

When the bell rings to signal our meditation session is over, I feel as though I’ve wasted my two hours. What a failure. The others seem absolutely fine—like they’ve already mastered the technique. Everyone winds their way from the cushions to the dining area, which is separated from the meditation area by an ad-hoc screen of furniture runners and blankets. The dining area is then also physically divided in the same way between the sexes. Servers (volunteers who have attended a 10-day course before and are not primary students on this retreat) have prepared breakfast for us. We’re not allowed to speak to them either (which sucks because they’re amazing people).

I eat boiled prunes (no thanks ever again please) with oatmeal and some buttered toast. The others are piling their bowls and plates with food. There’s a tea table with hot water, milk, and honey. We sit in abject silence and the dining hall becomes clattering silverware and munching and screeching chairs. We’re fuming over the dawning realization that now we can only speak when we have an issue with the retreat (and then only with staff), or have meditation questions for the assistant teacher at the end of sessions or during the interviews. I’m not adding much to these fumes.

After eating, I rush to my cabin, shared with six other men, though most aren’t there when I arrive and slip under my mosquito net and into my sleeping bag. I pass out, have horrific dreams, and wake up feeling as though I never slept. The bell is being rung. The next meditation doth approacheth.

For Individual/Group Meditations, students are allowed to meditate on their own and without going to the Dhamma hall (but only after the assistant teacher has announced it and says which of the experienced or new students are released). The assistant teacher releases the new students to meditate on our own. I wander around the grounds, while other students go to the cabins or walk the same paths as me. Eventually I sit on the side of a road looking into a stand of birches and think, This is so peaceful. I should meditate here. My back does kind of hurt though. Maybe I’ll lie down.

Boom. Dead asleep.

I wake up with half of the session still left and I return to the Dhamma hall. No more solo “meditation” for me. Before applying for this course, I told myself I would only do it at my very best. And already in Day 1 I had lapsed? Ugh. I return, shame-faced, but energized to sit (which sounds totally ridiculous). With adrenaline pumping, I can’t keep my mind from racing through ideas. How soon until I’m doing better? Why haven’t the crickets stopped since… ever? Oh right, observe the breath. How do I do that? Why is my heart pumping so fast? I’m sweating.

At lunch, the students mound their plates with rice, steamed vegetables, and lentils. Again, the mournful gazes as forks shovel to mouths. I can sense that people are fighting the urge to talk. There are furtive glances at others. I don’t have that urge. I’ve been waiting 26 years to be excused from society as I eat.

The assistant teacher interviews are optional. I skip interviews because I’ve honestly yet to have a session meriting questions. I simply haven’t done my meditations correctly.

My next three sessions feel awful. I’m not even 1% on target for correct technique. Also, a man in the Dhamma hall is belching and farting. He sits two rows behind me. At the first belch, several people react. A woman groans. Several men can’t suppress chuckles. We’re given brief breaks in between the sessions to rise, stand, use the bathroom, drink water, etc. Return when that damn bell rings.

Prior to the tea break, experienced students are told that they aren’t allowed to enjoy the material pleasures of the break. They may rest, but no tea or fruit. The new students seem elated by this, but I have only that assessment from their heaps of apples, bananas, and oranges. I steel myself to be as strict as the older students and reject nourishment.

My next meditation is horrible. I’m exhausted and my stomach rumbles for food. Again with sagging head and back, and the sensation of gravity’s magnification upon my body. The crickets are nonstop. I realize that I ate dinner at 11am. Woe is me.

The teacher discourse is a video of Goenka discussing the first day of meditation. It’s strange at first to listen to him because I know he’s dead. Most of the students remain on their meditation mats to watch the video. Some of the older students have retrieved chairs from the dining hall sit in the back.

I had several thoughts going through my head before the discourse. Why can’t I focus on the technique for longer than two seconds? Are we just going to be observing our breath for the entirety of the retreat? How are we going to get better if our teacher is dead?

Goenka has a deep voice and it has a rumble to it even through the video (recorded in 1991!). He’s a great speaker and has serious poise. You might think that he’s falling asleep at times while he’s talking. With each eloquent sentence, he addresses every single one of my concerns. There is no reason to be worried. It is Day 1. Take heart at your effort and the fact that you have come here and placed your betterment as top priority. The difficulty of the day is that our minds are struggling to adjust from the noise of the outside world to this quiet place. It is not normal for us to behave as we are doing. The chatter will quiet.

I complete my last meditation feeling very in touch with my breathing. It’s strange but very heartening. I go to sleep with a strong determination to do well tomorrow.

Day 2

Another night of horrible sleep. Every dream is so real and vivid and I’m constantly jolting awake. But I’m still elated by the idea that this day will be better than the first. And it really is. We’re told that the next evolution in the technique is to observe not only the breath, but also the small space between your nostrils and upper lip. Try to feel any sensations there in that space.

My meditations are a mixed bag of attention to the breath and rampant ideas of all the projects that I’ve wanted to do in my lifetime. I want to go on this trip. I want to write this novel. I want to do this work. All the ambitions of my life come surging to the fore of my focus and it scares me that there are all these things that I may not be able to do. I spend more time in these fantasies than on the meditation.

The day is slightly easier than the first but I’m still tired and my mind feels frayed. Like I’ve run through a sprint of brainstorming sessions, my head is crowded.

In the intervals between sessions, the students walk the grounds. There is the path beside the cabins and a short trail that goes behind the cabins. Each one is about the length of the grounds. You could walk back and forth within ten minutes. It’s so strange to see everyone walking alone. In the city, you get used to groups, but here, the students walk somberly, almost like zombies. One of the students is striding up and down the paths and doing pushups after each round. He does those hidden behind a cabin. The floorboards creak beneath him as he exhales sharply. We aren’t supposed to do strenuous exercise or be obvious about it to the point of distracting the other students. Other students are standing up against the ropes and caution tape demarcating our boundary. They look out at the nature that they cannot explore. I guess that’s the point. I daydream and watch the clouds. I wish sorely for pen and paper.

The discourse that night discusses the impartiality of Vipassana. There is no sectarian nature to it. One must simply observe the breath. What does this have to do with religion or faith or rituals? Nothing. Breath is universal, as is the pain and misery that humans suffer. With this technique we can confront that misery.

Day 3

We aren’t supposed to determine whether we are having a good meditation or not. Every moment is different, one from the next, and the moment that you start to value a meditation as “good” you grow too attached to it, and you become dismayed when the meditation eventually sours. This turn from “good” causes sorrow. You feel bad that you’re doing badly. You bring misery on yourself. As such, I bring quite a bit of misery upon myself. Especially today.

I’ve started to realize that other students are leaving the Individual/Group Meditations early to line up for food. The line is often a fifteen minute wait. This irks me. It gets under my skin. Around this time, I also notice that not all the mats are filled. Some students have dropped out, while others just sleep in instead of attending sessions. For some reason, I get frustrated at their lack of dedication. Why come to this if you aren’t going to put in your best effort?

My own technique begins to suffer. Our new step has been to observe the sensations that occur throughout our body. Those areas where you don’t feel a sensation, you classify as “blind spots” and it turns out I have hard time feeling my body parts. I doubt if I can do this. For the first time, I think to myself that I cannot do this. I should leave.

And then I understand how this cycle of thought is destroying me.

My last meditation of the evening clears this anxiety from me and at the end, I feel confident about going forward with the rest of the retreat. The technique is so practical and effective—I can’t help but feel a little awestruck how I’ve worked through my issues. Then again, with 7 full days left in the program, I’m worried about the other demons that I will have to wrestle. Or more aptly, with those I must sit.

Day 4

Adhitthana means “strong determination” and on this day, we’re taught the meaning of that phrase. The day is structured a little different in the afternoon. Two of the sessions are combined. I’m anxious to learn what we’ll be doing. The message board where the management staff posts updates has been adjusted with two new sheets. The students crowd around it. The session is about to start and I don’t have time to read the message. My nervousness makes my muscles tense.

In this session, for one and a half hours, we are not allowed to shift our posture, except slight adjustments (e.g. if your back is slumping, you can straighten). We make a promise of strong determination not to open our eyes, or move our legs or hands. For the past three days, I’ve been blaming my bad posture (and meditation) on the cushion that I’ve been given. If we’re going to be doing this, I don’t want that cushion to mess things up. I put it aside and sit cross-legged with nothing beneath me.

The first thirty minutes (or whatever I perceive as that amount of time) are fine, but then the pain starts to seep into my legs. Since we’re supposed to be feeling these sensations and confronting them, I think that this will be just fine. But I am not prepared. The pain increases and seems to magnify with each passing minute. At one point, I count out the seconds for an entire five minutes to take my mind off the pain. It doesn’t help.

I have no idea how much time has passed when my legs begin to shake. It is the worst sensation I’ve felt in a very long time. I keep telling myself that I’ve made a promise to not move and I will not move. It feels like I’m trapped in a coffin and furiously beating at my body to let me out. I have this ripping desire to scream. This is a real feeling, an actual sensation of my chest growing and expanding too large. My belly is a furnace of heat and spasms quiver throughout my back. Sweat is beading on my brow and back and instantly dripping. I’m about to give up. It actually crosses my mind that I will die this way—that eternity will be me shaped like a lumpy pretzel.

The end of the meditation session is signaled. I instantly release my posture and open my eyes, falling onto my hands and knees. Everything that had felt so unsteady is suddenly real and solid again. And all the pain has evaporated like it never was. Honestly, I’m not even as sweaty as I had thought. I look wildly at the other students. Most of them seem unfazed. Not as if they’ve just endured one of life’s most limb-twisting pains. But I don’t care anymore. This isn’t about comparing myself to others. It never has been. My experience is mine alone to believe and understand. For this knowledge, I’m extremely grateful.

Pain is strong, but it is not forever. The mind is more powerful.

I finally read those posted updates. In them, Goenka warns us that adhitthana sessions can bring about intense pain, but torture is not the point of the exercise. It’s about commitment and awareness. I’m gonna use a cushion next time.

From Day 1, I’m amazed how Goenka’s discourses answer all of my meditation questions. After centuries of practice, meditators have tracked and analyzed the pathways of a chaotic mind as it navigates to calmer waters. It turns out that newcomers invariably sink and float upon the same waves. Goenka has absolute confidence in his advice to us because he’s been there—done the same thing. For every person, the first step is the same step. Forward.

Days 5 through 9

The principle behind Vipassana meditation is very simple. The law of nature is one of impermanence. The desires and aversions within your life are impermanent. An objective mind can watch these problems with a critical eye and allow them to flow away. In practice, we observe our bodies for sensations because every desire and aversion has an equivalent bodily reaction, and when we meditate, we realize that these physical manifestations appear and vanish. Always. They are never eternal. Gradually, as we realize that our body’s pains and joys are ephemeral, we also come to accept that our desires and aversions are the same. We can allow our insidious cravings and hatreds to vanish.

Each time that you meditate, these issues arise, and you face them and allow them to fade. In the aftermath, you feel cleared of the problem, having identified it for what it is.

This realization was the critical turning point for me, but it could only have happened once I experienced it myself, which is the whole point of these retreats. You must take that first step. No one else can make you.

During one adhitthana session, a fly lands in my ear. The urge to flinch is so insanely strong. I have an incredible fear that this bug will find its way inside me. The fly crawls across my face, rests on my nose, explores around my nostrils, then makes its way to the other ear. My body is shaking from the strain to not slap at the bug; my fear is clawing at my brain. Do I realize what I’m doing? Do I realize how horrible this moment is? Why have I let it get to this stage? All I need to do is shake my face. Then the fly is gone, and all of those thoughts vanish. I’ve made it to the other side and it is not horrible. I am still me. I will be fine.

From here onward, my efforts in meditation become clear and the days pass without serious hurdles. Before, I was counting them out after every single session feeling like the course would never end, but now I am aware that this is a precious opportunity to make the most of my free time to meditate, to clear my mind. Each difficult problem you encounter is just as impermanent as your joys. Experience and understand each of them as moments.

During this period, I notice more and more students missing sessions. (For the record, male attendance dropped to around 60%, while female attendance remained steady around 85%.) In the breaks, some students start going beyond the borders. It is just a rope, after all. Stacks of balanced rocks appear throughout the grounds.

Remember the man who belched on the first day? For several days, I’m angry with him. Why is he being so rude? Why can’t he keep that to himself? The man beside me finds the belches hilarious and always chuckles at the sound. Both of these men are generally among the first in line for meals. Eventually, I come to understand the plight of the Belcher. Perhaps he doesn’t digest the food well. Perhaps a million other things that don’t matter. His burps don’t harm me in any way. There is no need to be annoyed.

But the Chuckler continues to bother me. Why can’t he get over it? Is his humor so easily pleased? The Chuckler also has a habit of staring past me, across the aisle, and at the female students. He gazes at them for minutes, and only stops once the meditation begins (though I’m not sure since my eyes are closed so for all I know he keeps looking). He mutters to himself. He laughs at Goenka’s lectures, slapping his knees. He obtains a chair and uses this on top of his mat, squeaking on its faulty base, luxuriating without the pain of a meditative posture. I find it so hard to meditate; for too much time, I curse him—angry, bitter child that I am.

So miserable. Finally, I realize: the Belcher and Chuckler are the same issue. These men are dealing with their own issues. They are not my battles. This seems so obvious but took days for me understand. My meditation immediately improves. I have released one of my own problems. I legitimately hope that the Chuckler finishes the course and gains some of its benefits. I’m not surprised to find his cot empty and belongings gone on Day 9, but I really wish he would have stuck around until the end.

My back and shoulders have been aching and burning every meditation session. Those pains don’t go away in the sense that the muscles relax, but the sensation of pain throughout a session ebbs and flows. I do my best to find a practical posture (i.e. don’t slouch) and also try different set-ups with my legs. I never thought I would spend so much of my life considering how to sit.

The desire to overeat at mealtimes is exceptionally strong, but heavy meals have a negative effect on my ability to meditate. (Goenka even says so on Day 2, but I keep overeating until I reach the same conclusion myself.) My body feels heavy and the mind sluggish. It’s hard to stop eating when everyone else around you has more food. It’s hard when you realize that you will be hungry later. But you won’t starve. The next meal will come. You’ll still be you, but a little different because you have resisted your craving, and you are stronger for that moment.

The best part of Vipassana meditation is that it doesn’t require any kind of belief. It’s direct experience. Meditate, analyze, and make your own decisions. I highly recommend taking a 10-day course. They’re entirely free and there are sites throughout the world. If you’ve made it this far you’re either interested in meditation or enjoy reading about my misery. In the first case, here’s how you can find a center or course near you: https://www.dhara.dhamma.org/about/international/. If you want to talk more about it, absolutely reach out to me!

By the ninth day, my mind feels incredibly clear. When I sit down to meditate, at times, it’s like floating on perfectly still water. Of course, this sensation never remains throughout an entire session, perhaps barely a few seconds. The only choice is to treasure the moment.

We’re also instructed to attempt meditation whenever our eyes are open. Objective observation remains the goal: be aware of what your body is telling you as you interact with the world. It’s an incredibly difficult task. The activity of life beyond the meditation hall produces solid sensations within my body. I’m calmed by the familiarity of these feelings because many of them I’ve encountered while sitting. This is when I understand the practical application of meditation in my life and the long road to improve my technique.

Day 10

In an effort to reduce culture shock for students returning to normal life, the tenth day allows talking between students, male and female. At first, everyone is unsure of themselves, of their rusty vocals, but once we start, it’s unstoppable. People are laughing and crying and apologizing about things from days before when they couldn’t say a word. No one cares about apologies. Whatever happened is in the past.

There are fewer meditations this day. The first session after renewed talking is absolutely brutal. My brain feels physically different. I’m unable to focus, as thought after thought from every single conversation floods me. We had barely been granted two hours of talking and yet the noise it creates in my mind is astonishing. Here I was on Day 9 thinking the noise would only begin after we had left the retreat. I can only imagine what awaits in normal life, society, and problems more complex than people sitting next to me.

But for today, I only worry about talking.

The students share our experiences. We have learned the same technique and come out with various understandings. It’s a relief to finally discuss what’s been going on in our heads. We believed ourselves alone when we were really together.

Life

A meditation retreat is not meant to be an aberration from the norm. It’s a step toward a new awareness of yourself and the world, providing a tool that can be used as a practical way to live morally and understand the endless ways our lives tangle.

To close the course, Goenka told us that continued improvement in meditation requires at least one hour in the morning and another in the evening. If this habit is carried for a year, it will carry for life. My life has its own times of chaos, but I’m optimistic that the next year won’t contain a day requiring constant movement for me.

But first: today.

Cohesive Abrasions Pt I – USA

In these essays, I’ll document my thoughts on current affairs, the Human Condition, and a unified world.


On the United States of America

The United States of America and its multiethnic experiment are at a Turning Point.

Those of us in the minority have seen this coming, whether we acknowledge it or not. We’ve been dishonest with ourselves, believing that the slow march of lots of sex time would mathematically create a fundamentally diverse nation. The realization that we need to move this equality train along before it derails and explodes is frightening. We ran above a cesspool of instability, uncertainty, and chaos. And now we’re plunging headlong into it.

At its core, a step away from a multiethnic society is a step away from a unified world. For sure, there are other problems that prevent such a world, but if we can’t empathize with and accept the plights of others because of their religion, ways to get freaky, and mole-to-freckle ratio, then we’re probably not ready for the headier barriers (like restructuring economies, but later, later).

Our extreme fear is the damnation of legalized ethnic differentiation, the actions governments take to establish a lower caste: slavery, ethnic bans, and geography lessons. So here we stand in the USA, staring down a barrel that could delay the affable march of tons of banging minority majority (read: actual multiethnicity) a little longer.

Turning Points carry the sense of much loss. They say, “You got this far, and now you’re flipping a u-turn, and all the time you’ve spent is for naught.” (Turning Points also have weird speech patterns and inflections. Probably from too much Kool-aid.)

Does this Turning Point in American society feel different than others? I would say yes. This carries with it the weight of decades of change. We claim that the fabric of our country is built on equality and freedom. We represent the mathematical finality of the world’s society (though perhaps not in the best governmental form). And yet, if our country declines this composition, decides that exclusivity is the path best taken, then we will force ourselves to reconstruct the veil which we have pulled over our eyes.

But I believe we will true ourselves. We will understand that our diversity is our strength. We will do the little things required of individuals (voting, petitioning, protesting, and defending all our vulnerable) to unify the United States of America.

More Days

I’m not a very sentimental person.

But, it’s now 2017. People are excited. They made resolutions. We’re all committed to 365 days worth of new calendariness.

Live each one well, and if not, then try again the next day.

I wanted to have my novella published by now. But it’s going to take a bit longer. To show my earnest commitment for my resolution, I even revamped the site. woot. In my 2017, I look forward to having that released and beginning more journeys! Thank you for reading!

– jeremy

Untitled

~700 words: a small piece from a writing exercise

 

There is a man. Every morning he rises from bed and puts on his black slacks and blue button-up shirt and his loafers. He rolls his sleeves. He brushes his teeth—first without any paste, then very softly with some, a mild type with very little taste.

Then he climbs the stairs in his apartment building to the roof. He never takes the elevator. Not because he’s afraid of it breaking and him falling to his death, but because he’s afraid of breaking himself for taking it. So he climbs the stairs. And every morning, when he pushes open the stairwell door, the first rush of air—whether hot, cold, dry, humid—is when he feels most alive.

There are a few finches that keep him company in the morning. He has brought the ends of his bread, breaks these up and tosses the crumbs into some of the roof’s garden beds and sprinkles some in the dish beside the bird fountain. The birds chirp and flit around. He pretends that they recognize him. He lets the rise and fall of their calls guide him to the garden hose.

He enjoys pressing the hose trigger. The water is so responsive, bucks the nozzle in his weathered and thick hands. Shredded droplets turned fine mist turned rainbow. He uses this transformation to water all the plants—the perennial flowers and their stocky vegetable neighbors.

When this is done, he senses that everything is happy around him so then he is happy. He doesn’t let this bother him: the fact his happiness is predicated on the level of others around him. He doesn’t bother with those things. He just does it to be satisfied. Because what else do we have besides our ability to make others happy? Especially if doing so makes us happy? But he doesn’t ponder such ramblings.

Which is why I always feel so strange watching the man on the roof. As he reclines in a stiff upright wood chair like it is some luxurious couch, I feel as though he can’t be trusted. He is too pleased with himself. First off, I tend not to trust men who are too easily humored by their efforts as it seems to me too shallow because what they celebrate then is not necessarily the result of their work or even the process of their work but instead they’re holding on to the idea that them simply doing something is enough, that there’s no need for them to feel, really feel, the work itself. Men like this are not to be trusted. In my humble opinion.

Second, I don’t trust folks who get up so early in the morning. Not for the reason you think though. I love the morning and earlier is better, as close to dawn as possible, better yet if there just before dawn, when the sun is already beginning to light your part of the world but can’t be seen. No, I don’t trust these folks because they keep the morning joy to themselves. They’re selfish people. Inherently, they are gaining a head start, but worse, they don’t like to share the secret of the mornings with others. You see this now, right?

The birth of a morning sun will always tell you that today is new. It’s fresh. Obviously I won’t go into the chemical benefits of such a moment but for your own sanity bear with me and see how witnessing the sun rise anew when it’s not new and has been doing this for millennia over and over again has to be truly the only way to feel that life is so beautiful and doesn’t matter.

How can both be true? But in this man both are true. In the morning sun both are true. Is it strange that humanity’s notion of time, a forever constant, first came from the sun and its relentless orbit, when in truth, the sun will one day cease and go off into a trillion quadrillion bits of star dust?

That is the final reason that I do not trust the man on the roof.

The Early Chapters

I’ve struggled recently with my manuscript (you can read an excerpt here) and connecting the first chapter to the next.

Do I spend some paragraphs on exposition?

How do you cover a significant amount of physical distance where nothing interesting happens? And do it without it feeling trivial or boring?

I’ve tried to answer these questions by writing and not thinking about it. But this has resulted in four different versions that I don’t like. That I keep throwing out. Maybe the process is honing on what I really want, but it seems like a blind dive.

I still enjoy writing the scenes. But eventually, it feels like I’m not making progress. This isn’t true, but it still feels that way. I think I’m drawing conclusions on what is working, but it’s slow and requires a lot of analysis not only of the text but also my own expectations.

My expectation and typical style is to avoid too much exposition. But in the fantasy genre and writing about new cultures or environments, readers usually need that to feel a part of the story and give them some ownership of understanding.

So balancing my style with what the reader needs is taking a lot of time.

What is so hard to keep in mind is what my friend Erin says best, “No writer consistently produces good stuff from their daily grind. So stick to the routine.”

True.

Trust the process.

A Jeremy Grows in Brooklyn

Can we take a moment to mourn that great pun?

Onward. It’s officially a month I’ve been in Brooklyn. In case you were wondering what it’s like to live in New York City in the borough of Brooklyn as an average American (though some would say Asian American), I can give you some insight into what life is like for a starry-eyed kid from San Francisco urban sprawl.

  1. There are never stars and there never will be stars. Get over this fact immediately. If you want stars, Google the Hubble or watch a movie. Besides, you should be watching where you’re going or a huge rat (seriously—as big as both your fists) will mug you for all your shit.

2. The drought did not follow you from California. So stop looking at all the fire hydrants spewing precious water everywhere or those weird random holes in the ground that geyser six inches of water for… anyone. No one cares but you.

3. No one likes bicyclists. Even other bicyclists. They will run you over because momentum bro. If you plan on crossing any street, check your f******g corners. Most people take the subway because it’s always rolling and awesome.

4. Groceries aren’t as expensive as you think, and eating out isn’t that bad either, but right after the really cheap stuff there’s a bit of a spike. Then another spike. And then you’re wondering where your money went. BUT THE FOOD IS SO GOOD.

5. There’s a lot of trash everywhere. I seen a piece of trash (sometimes more) fly out a car window every day. Everyone’s just meh, boop. Not a second thought lingers. There aren’t many recycling bins around town either so you end up with piles of bottles and cardboard in the trash heap.

6. It’s summer. WTF IS THIS RAIN. Yesterday, the forecast said 20% chance of thunderstorm. I said Yeah right. Turns out when the 20% comes up 100% you’re basically the saddest and wettest person ever.

7. The city is diverse and intensely funny if you take the time to look at it. People from every walk of life crowd these streets. I honestly can’t get enough of the architecture, the accents I hear, the way people help each other.

There are plenty more things but I don’t feel like it.

love,

me

P.S. the second chapter of my manuscript is along nicely and might be set here in a week or so. Stay tuned by following my FB page (the newsletter is solely for when I finally publish this sucker).

New Excerpt

Excerpt from my latest manuscript:

Chapter 1

Kai stumbled over a body. He tugged at his collar stiff with dried blood, staggering against waves of nausea. Liquid sloshed in his boots and he didn’t want to know why. His right leg refused to bend, dragging like a beggarly dog. Most of his limbs were numb. He moved like a man undecided between life and death. He tore off his bloodstained coat and threw it to the ground. We’ve lost, he realized.

His senseless body carried him south of the burning battlefield pitched over the miles between two dry arroyos and their clusters of shattered elder pines. The sky stretched overhead in orange and crimson hues, streaked with stacks of rising black smoke from fires that burned with nothing to fuel them. How the fires continued without their mages escaped him, but he avoided those twisting flames of greens and reds and blues. The hazy smoke surrounded him, obscuring his vision and direction—the world endless bodies at his feet. The air was lacking and his lungs ached with each breath. Black vultures floated in the stained sky; they crowed to Kai, the dead, and the dying.

His legs collapsed without warning and he braced himself and fell amongst a line of corpses. He urged his body to move but it wouldn’t budge so he waited. The corpses wore his uniform. They were the faces of his country or with no face at all. He retched.

He didn’t know how much time passed before he was able to move again, and even then, when his limbs responded, the effort was limited. He crawled, raised himself on his arms, and sat against the carcass of a nearby horse, another corpse in the same position beside him.

He had hardly the energy for surprise when the corpse moved.

She was an officer of his army, half of her charred, arm mangled. Her once sky blue uniform was torn and stained, her shako crumpled. She struggled to turn, gave up, and looked at him sidelong with her bad side.

He could think of nothing else to say but, “Hello.”

She groaned. “Just how I left things. Would have been fine not coming back.”

“You’re alive.” It was almost a question.

“They left me for later.”

He was young with barely a mustache and didn’t know what she meant.

She smiled to him, blood in her teeth and hair plastered to her dirty face. “It doesn’t matter if we won. Did we?”

After a moment, he said, “Yes.”

“What happened?”

He surrendered the truth. “I was standing near a wagon, the air hissed, and I flew. When I woke up we were all dead.”

“You were in the front, too?”

“Middle.”

She grimaced and briefly closed her eyes. “The cannons. Didn’t expect so many of them. And their range was different, longer.”

“Why couldn’t the mages protect us?”

She waved in the air absently as if at flies but nothing was there. “Who can say? I’m no mage. Seen their amazing and horrifying abilities. We thought. We just thought…”

The battlefield was sundered with chasms wrought by magic.

He had seen hellish fire swathe men, melting them, vanishing their bodies like raindrops into a lake.

And they had still lost. Without the mages, what hope was there?

“It’s over then?” he said, hoping she would argue with him.

The officer coughed blood. She looked at him with her disfigured face and raised a hand and cupped his chin. Her hand trembled until he stilled it with his own. He felt puss and blood sticking to him.

“Time will tell,” she said. “Our people are strong. But this?” She tilted her other hand at those flies. “We have never dealt in war like this.”

He felt his breath leave him and maybe more. His head screamed with the cries of his countrymen, telling him to run, ordering him to fight, and pleading for their fathers and mothers. His family was long dead, gone in the war’s shadowy initiation. What did this world hold for him any longer?

“I wish this had never happened,” he said.

She recoiled from him, clutching her chest, face clenched in pain. “Sorry to leave you with such a grand time. It really wasn’t the goal.” She wheezed with a laugh only to cough more blood, the volume greater.

“Is there anything I can do for you?”

“Take this to my family.” She breathed raggedly as she pulled a medal from within her coat.

“Anything else?”

She grinned. “Tell them I died looking like an angel.”

And she died.

He turned the bronze medal in his hands, running fingers over the embossed elder pine—the emblem of his country. On the back were etchings he couldn’t read, symbol forms he would have learned if his family were alive. He sat for a long time. The strength of her presence remained in her grotesque yet peaceful face. He was ready to die, he thought.

A man called behind him in his language.

Kai turned with hope but upon sight of the soldiers found only dread. His conquerors.

The Strahani soldiers had their muskets shouldered and leered at him. They were men roughly his height, several shades lighter from his dark complexion, and had braids of hair bound in varying numbers of iron rings. One of their rank was not Strahani yet foreign and carried only a staff, which he gripped beneath sharp knuckles as he gazed at Kai. Behind the soldiers stood a coffle of his countrymen looking beaten but otherwise alive.

From the Strahanis, the only man with six iron rings in his braid spoke to the others then approached Kai and in Kai’s tongue said, “You’ll be the last.”

Some soldiers were forcing the coffle to kneel. Another pair pulled Kai to his feet, bound his hands, and roped his feet to the line of his five countrymen. The prisoners were older than him, their faces bruised, blood and dirt crusted in the folds of their noses and ears.

Six Irons stood in front of the kneeling coffle and said, “In order to save your country, you must live. Men like you can keep the worst from happening.”

“The worst has already happened,” one of the prisoners said.

“No. The weakest are all that is left of you: your children, your elders.”

Some of the soldiers whispered in their language and snickered but were silenced by a glance from Six Irons. He was broad man with a jagged beard reaching to his chest and wherever he cast his eyes his aura of command intensified.

“Reformation demands strength,” Six Irons continued, “and without strong men from the war, your weak will suffer. Then the worst will happen. This is your chance to prevent their suffering.” His fluency in their native language offended Kai, a perversion of their tones.

“You expect us to help the Reformers?” the same prisoner said.

Six Irons shrugged. “You remain. You are strong.” He leaned closer. “And you are not mages.” He walked and stood before the prisoner farthest from Kai. “Now you must make your choice.”

Gray streaked the prisoner’s short hair and creases in his forehead furrowed as he stared down the line of prisoners, meeting their eyes. “Never,” he said. He turned to Six Irons and spat at his feet.

Six Irons sighed and turned to the soldiers and waved his hand. They formed a semi-circle with their muskets at the center and barrels skyward. Six Irons plucked a musket ball from his belt pouch and dropped it into one of the waiting barrels. The soldiers curved their crescent to bear on the prisoner. At the word of Six Irons they fired into the prisoner’s chest.

The air thumped and Kai flinched instinctively, his ears ringing and useless. Gunpowder plumes pervaded Kai’s senses, the heavy sulfur odor suffusing the air. He quivered and could not steady himself.

The executed prisoner remained kneeling, as if he might rise, had only paused to rest. As if he could wish and dream and aspire to live. His soul seemed undecided between the corporeal and ethereal. But he was dead. He toppled and the bond connecting him to the prisoners tugged at them.

Six Irons crouched beside the next prisoner, didn’t say a word, just nodded his head at the man like the two shared a sympathy.

The prisoner looked sidelong at the others before shaking his head in resignation, closing his eyes and tilting his face to the sky, his last sun, last cloud. It was only black up there.

Wave.

Load.

Blast.

Kai tried to shake the ringing from his ears, but it only amplified as the next prisoner refused and died. The rings filled his chest.

Only three prisoners remained. It was Kai’s turn.

He wanted so badly to lick his lips but his body had drifted beyond his control. It felt as though he were looking down at himself. He dropped his head and stared at the ground. How fine the dirt looks when finality looms overhead.

Boots filled his vision and a strong finger lifted his chin, forcing Kai to meet Six Irons’ dark auburn eyes. Six Irons lifted his eyebrows and nodded, mouthing soundless words, finger still under Kai’s chin like a fatherly chide.

Kai nodded and a groan fled his body.

The other prisoners howled.

The man beside Kai died with betrayal in his heart and eyes that glared until his last moment was gone in a shroud of gunpowder.

The final man looked at Kai then his alternate future. He nodded.

Six Irons rose, surveying the dead prisoners and shaking his head. He spoke to the other soldiers and a trio cut the other prisoner from the macabre coffle and escorted him away, disappearing amongst the patches of unrelenting fire and banks of smoke. Six Irons freed Kai’s hands and offered him a filthy rag, waving a finger in circles around Kai’s face. “My name is Maka.”

Kai pushed the rag away. “What’s the point?”

Maka shrugged and wiped his own face. “You need to know my name.”

Kai continued as if Maka hadn’t spoken. “I’m ashamed and no rag will fix that. I should be dead, but I chose to live like a coward. I’m not even brave enough to face death.”

“To live another day is brave. You made the right choice for your people and yourself. Trust me.”

“I don’t trust you.”

Maka scoffed and scratched his thick nose. “Good. Skepticism keeps you alive in our line of work.”

Hate—not skepticism—burned in Kai but he kept this to himself, let the anger sear into his memory. He still had her medal in his hand and he gripped it.

“You can keep that,” Maka said walking away.

He had nothing else.

-end-

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On the U.S. Justice System

Length: 744 words

The United States of America has historically been a shit place for Justice. A bloody mess of Manifest Destiny and caste capitalism. Our outdated legal system has failed time and again to match the pace of society and technology, and current events have shown how skewed justice is for our all of our citizens.

The Problems:

We, as a society, have allowed profit prisons to exist, an industry that literally thrives off the existence of criminals. This isn’t like non-governmental organizations established to help the homeless or assist our wounded veterans; once their services are no longer needed, grants are no longer given. Our prisons are increasingly operating as for-profit businesses, and their interest is in maintaining a criminal population. If we have anything to learn from growth-focused capitalism, this is a dystopian reality.

Crime is a business but Justice is not.

Not only this, but the percentages reveal a Justice system that has disproportionally targeted minorities, and even more specifically, black males. Our country is still divided by racial prejudices, physically and emotionally. (For more on this subject, read Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow). Then the frightening streak of police officers shooting unarmed African American men and children.

Our Constitution grants us the right to life.

The Situation:

The founders of our legal system crafted a system designed for freedom yet mired in discrimination, granting rights to only a slim portion of the population. This established a mindset of power that has existed and perpetuated to this day. It took us centuries to extend rights to every citizen as our Bill of Rights so famously proclaims.

The branches of government were meant to keep each other in check, but what happens when all three have shown utter ineptitude to progress? Technology is rapidly scaling society’s pace of change. How is our Justice system defined centuries ago keeping up?

Current law gives space for discretion such that hard-and-fast rules do not result in permanent convictions of people who honestly meant no harm to society. But what happens when discretion is misused? We need to reconstruct the boundaries that guide our judges of discretion. When a government employee holds the power to affect a citizen’s life with their discretion, then when the judgement is wrong, there should be repercussions that remove or revoke that officer’s power.

This stems from the economics of law. In a perfect world, we would only catch those who were truly guilty of their crimes. But with this being impossible, we construct a legal system that maybe misses some of the guilty but avoids falsely imprisoning people. Hence the idea: innocent until proven guilty.

However, our new world of transparency has revealed a Justice system that is frequently guilty until proven innocent. And in the most heinous of perversions, this maxim is resulting in some sworn protectors shooting those under their watch, their care. The numbers are in: just one falsely shot person is worse than letting a criminal getting away.

Because then to whom do the innocent turn? Where can trust exist?

The Future:

The spirit of our laws pursue the notions of freedom, of innocence before guilt, yet the numbers are undeniably showing a disconnect between some of our judges and their accused. Any government official whose discretion affects another citizen’s life is a judge. And when they fail, they’ve failed another life. Do we allow our greatest wielders of Justice to keep making mistakes?

No one is perfect, including government officials, but what we fear most is discretion beyond its boundaries. What we fear are arbiters of personal ethics. The system is fundamentally flawed if its agents act outside of its structure; and believe always that the Justice system of the United States is for EVERY citizen.

Crafting a new Justice system for our nation is beyond this article (and certainly the breadth of my current knowledge), but there are a few concepts I’d like to see put forward on a federal level:

  • Rehabilitation for non-violent crimes; no more imprisonment.
  • End “War on Drugs” convictions; the slew of legislation from the Nixon Administration onward has spiraled into the devastating rates of incarceration that have trampled homes, neighborhoods, and communities. Because Prohibition was super successful…
  • Innocence over guilt; ramifications for government officials that falsely condemn another citizen (international laws should apply to non-citizens).

This could go on and on, but thanks for reading this far. Please chime in with thoughts or share or whatever the hell you want.

Bernie Sanders in NYC

The Bernie Sanders rally in NYC titled “Where We Go From Here” was inspiring and daunting. Located a block from Time Square with the dazzling lights and trundling costumes of Elmos and Batmans, the humble Senator drew a massive crowd. People waited in a line that stretched up and down streets while police officers with bulletproof vests and rifles stood watch. Lots of Bernie 2016 shirts, many a pin tacked on a collar. There was anxiety in the air, too, an aimlessness of their passion. What was Sanders going to do with the numbers overwhelmingly in Clinton’s favor? How could anyone vote for that woman? Who would could possibly be voted for if not Sanders?

Color me shocked. This false dichotomy is paralyzing lots of voters. I digress (but hold that thought).

So it was interesting to hear “Where We Go From Here.”

Sanders spoke with passion, he connected deeply and personally with the issues of his supporters. They jumped at every possible chance to clap and roar his name. Some people were bowing, screaming they loved him. I kid you not. I kept thinking, This is where he tells everyone the next step. Not the idealistic bytes of his campaign, but of how his supporters can continue to keep their politics alive, even with their runner diminishing from the race (cue agist joke about Sanders running).

But there wasn’t this moment where Sanders settled the crowd and said, “But let’s be real, where we go from here will not include me as your Democratic Party presidential nominee.” Instead, he mentioned gathering the support of his campaign behind other Democratic Senators running in their states and efforts to establish the wishes of his supporters on the Democratic platform come November.

His caution is warranted perhaps only by the mathematical life still breathing throughout his nomination campaign. But his subtlety may be lost on many of his impassioned followers. Truthfully, there is still much to be desired in Sanders’ politics and his policies, notwithstanding his rhetoric and integrity.

But following Bernie is not what you think it means. It’s not about him and never was. It’s about political activation, of awareness and where to lend a voice. It’s about thinking of this nation’s direction. It’s about being a participant rather than a viewer.

Because this is where we go from here: in the greatest age of communication, voters in the United States must know more about the policies of our government. We must be informed and we must share. We must learn and we must care. We must be open-minded and compassionate.

The vow of Sanders’ campaign has the feeling of a grassroots movement, but it always depends on which lawn you stand. We feel most keenly when there is a side against us, and these dichotomies stretch our nation too far apart. This country is full of intelligence, thoughtfulness, and optimism. So when you read about politics and government, think about all the ways you can contribute, whether discussing with friends and family, sharing articles, or voting.

You can watch the full speech here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hZKDq3MbK9I

I’m a registered Independent and voted Sanders for the Democratic Party Presidential Nominee.

Make the Change

Two days ago I moved to Brooklyn, New York. Not for any reason in particular. For the first time in my life, I made a choice with very few of my traditional intentions layered around it. I’m not here chasing a promise, a career, a lifestyle, a love. I’m just here.

My life has been one goal to the next. There was always quantifiable success and failure. Pass this test. Win this competition. Fail. Graduate from this school. Success. Graduate from another school. Get a job. Work.

But having accomplished that last, I found the rest of my goals muddled. All my past goals hadn’t really been my own. They had been set in place by others and I had followed. But eventually, when people start calling you an “adult,” you decide which things are important to you.

And go.

Cue sustained anxiety.

What matters to me? Who matters to me? Where matters to me?

Ugh. The process of answering these questions was draining and honestly felt like a constant loop of dread. There are trade-offs behind every decision, sacrifices, gains and losses. I got caught in decision traps. This OR that? Here OR there?

I froze. A year and a half went by.

Is it weird that that happens? I binged shows. Read books. Wrote tons of utter garbage. Went out with friends. Met new people. Did well at my job. Bip bap boom. Shit, wasn’t I supposed to figure out what life means to me?

I needed a change in scenery. So I made the change.

No one decides what matters to you. If you’re unhappy, find the reason and determine its solution. Make this time for yourself.

Epiphanies don’t show up unless you ask to meet them.