Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Balloons, emotions, and bushwhacking.

Do you ever feel like your heart is so exposed, it's going to explode? Like it's a gas, and the more you hold it open, the more it expands to fill in the space. But like the balloon that fills until bursts, there's a limit to how much the walls of your heart can stretch. So there you are, the heart drawn dangerously taut by all the feelings welling up in side. It's a feeling that you want to share, and yet that process of sharing would almost certainly push you over the edge, as sharing only increases and intensifies your vulnerability, which is precisely what you're afraid of overdoing, because it's what causes the expansion in the first place. That vulnerability sits at the root of emotions such as joy and love, as well as fear and disappointment. That vulnerability is what makes life scintillate and what makes everything appear dangerously close to falling apart. That vulnerability is something we crave and we cower from.

That's part of what is so terrifying about living with your heart open to the world, in all its senses. The more you open up, the more you allow your heart and life to be influenced by the people and circumstances around you, the more you surrender control to the universe and allow flow to take you where it will, the more the heart cries out for security, certainty. The more you lean into the uncertainty, the more the vulnerability is felt. The more that vulnerability intensifies the joy of your life, so does your life fill with even more emotions. The highs get ever higher, making each low all the more painful. As we release ourselves and let the universe grant us brilliance and love and happiness and belonging, our heart screams ever louder in fear that it's all going to go away. It can seem like too much to handle: feeling so much you're going to go supernova.

In these moments, I want to do something simple like watch The Daily Show. But I realize: I'm trying to numb the feeling. Just occupy myself with something else until they subside, until they drop back underneath the surface. So here I sit, writing down these raw thoughts, watching them magically appear across my screen. As I write, the emotions swell and swirl, they change shape and meaning, and they push outward from inside my rib cage with ever growing power.

These feelings are natural. Emotions are natural and healthy, because it indicates that you are engaged with the world. Emotions give you clues into what is actually going on in your heart. Emotions mean you care about connection and seek to keep it in your life. Emotions cannot be controlled or destroyed. Emotions will always be there, what counts is what you do with them: do you acknowledge them, judge them, ignore them? When you expose yourself, when you live vulnerably, the barrage of emotions is more constant because they are ignored less often. Aligning awareness between heart and mind creates a whole new intensity of feeling, an awareness necessary to process the wave of emotions ushered in by living with greater vulnerability.

Living with your heart open to the world is about feeling. Feeling more than you thought you knew possible to feel, as the universe constantly gives and takes. Feeling like you're going to break from all the vulnerability, because you're so exposed, because it would be so easy for everything to go to pieces, because you can't control your future. Rationalization about this feeling -- that you can never actually control your life, that we are all subject to the ebb and flow of the world -- does little to sooth the burning ache in your soul. 

Connection gives us meaning as humans; it then follows that the fear of disconnection is one of the most compelling and crippling emotions in life. When you open up the borders to your heart, you allow in all sorts of amazing people and experiences and states of being, but it means those lovers and opportunities and life paths can also leave at any moment. A porous barrier with the world requires strong conviction and a constant investment of energy to reinforce those passable walls. 

Herein lies the struggle of forces over the human heart. Emotions push outwards from inside, expanding us, exposing us, stretching us. Meanwhile other emotions, other fears, they withdraw us, enervate us, collapse us. We struggle to find the perfect balance to maintain a permeable separation with the world: preventing it from crumbling inward or exploding outward, giving in to fear or giving up our self-identity. The desire for connection lies at the root of this struggle, yet it paradoxically aids in the balancing act. We reach out to the important people in our lives -- to our given and chosen families, to our friends, to our loved ones and lovers -- in search of stabilization, support, and solidarity. These people are right there with us when the walls falter; they say, "Yes, I hear you, I understand your pain and your hurt and your fear. I know it, I know you, and I am here for you." They join you in your struggle, just as you join them in theirs, to live fully and sincerely and openly.

When we acknowledge our fears, we gain power over them. Thus: 

I acknowledge the fact that I get scared, I get weak, I get fearful of my future prospects, I get anxious over my path and whether it will end in happiness and what it will look like, I lose faith that I am walking the right road. I am terrified that I took a wrong step somewhere along the way, that I will end up destitute and alone, and I will be able to point to that moment when I shirked society's definition of career and success and meaning and love as the moment when everything went awry: when I stepped off the beaten path in this mysterious, impregnable forest called Life with a cavalier leap into the brush, only to lose my way and my bearings and die in the middle of nowhere. 

Right now, I have not stepped too far off the worn trail, I can still see it in the distance, looking safe and secure and well defined. I turn around and look ahead into the dark thicket, unable to see what lies even three steps ahead. I am powerfully drawn into this underbrush, somehow convinced that this is a more interesting journey to take, perhaps because I saw enough people whom I admire and respect step off the traditional path and into this uncharted territory, and I trusted there must be something to it. I allow myself to think my life could end up happier and fuller if this gamble pays off. I take timid steps forward, exploring just a bit more; with each step I check over my shoulder to ensure I can still see the old road. But the more steps I take, the more the road is obscured by the forest, by my steps, by my past decisions. The more it seems less and less likely that I could ever find my way back if I lost my nerve and retreated from this crazy quest. 

I am absolutely scared to the deepest part of my being that I will lose it all: that I will keep walking forward until I realize I can't handle the thorns of this messy path or that it is indeed impenetrable when trailblazing on your own, and I will turn around and find the road has disappeared, that I have lost my way and have lost myself. In that moment, I see myself losing it all. Right now, I can still retreat and return to the safety and surety of the worn road, return to the comforting promises of a happy ending; but, with each step forged ahead, the moment to secure my bid for that happy ending slips through my fingers rapidly like sand. I do not yet believe with absolute certainty that I can survive in the wild, that I can avoid the cliffs and brambles, that I can thrive in this environment, that I can find my way.

Here, then, is to daring greatly. To driving onward into that mysterious brush, with no guarantees or control or assurances of what will come of it. To doing what feels right and in line with your values and goals in life. To remembering that I have people with me, I am not traveling alone; when I grow tired of bushwhacking, they will join at my side to press forward and allow me to rest; when I grow fearful of being isolated, they will remind me they are in my company and on the same mission, blindly pressing forward to some imagined Shangri-La hidden deep in the forest (or perhaps even just for the sake of cutting your own way through the forest); when I grow uncertain of my path, they will serve as my compass with which I can find my bearings; when I grow weak, they will be the base I need to find my strength. 

To all of you who join me on my journey, whether by briefly crossing paths with me or joining forces and venturing deeper into the forest together, whether by sending me support from afar while on your own path or by being in the thick of it right there with me, I say: thank you. Thank you for being there with me, for being a part of my life. Thank you for inspiring me to walk this path and guidance along the way. Thank you for giving me the support and the bravery to walk my path and to dare greatly.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Sporadic highlights from Leiden.

Following my workshop in Delft, I have spent the last few days in Leiden. It's one of my favorite cities; there's something about the vibe, size, layout, and style that appeals to me. Delft drew to me in a similar way.

I have gotten a considerable amount of work done since arriving. Blogging for many hours, tackling my bloated email inbox, listening to podcasts, and resuming my Insanity training regimen. It feels good to have a lot of open time for getting stuff done.

It helps when "getting stuff done" involves sitting in the grass at a nearby park, the sun shining, a breeze to keep you cool, and an old castle wall in the background. Score one point for old European cities.


Some photos of moments walking about town…


Here's Leiden's protector, a lion wielding a sword.


The place where I was staying is situated next to an old bell tower. Every half hour, I would be serenaded by a catchy tune. While this may seem perfectly ordinary to a European, the notion of a functioning bell tower is utterly novel to Americans, particularly when they can play complex compositions. Something about its resonance filled me with calm. It was a regular reminder that, even while doing boring admin stuff on my computer, I was doing it in Europe, and that's worth appreciation.


Nothing grand to write about here. Just trying to capture all my photos into journaled form. While I do my best to abstract themes and build blog posts around them, this process takes time. Further, I can't always fit all my experiences into themes. Some just… happen, like seeing a bicycle shop with a penny-farthing over it.


There's not much of a theme to this picture. I liked the look of it, and took a picture. Perhaps if I had captured more such storefronts, I could write about the unique storefronts of Europe (this has crossed my mind before as a potential topic, actually), but that hasn't yet happened.

So here I am, sometimes using my blog as a typical journal, capturing the random and unsorted moments of my life. Hope they're not too mundane, or that these occasional diversions from a proper blog dissuade you (my dear reader) from continuing to follow this blog.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

My home, transformed.

As mentioned previously, my parents decided to sell my childhood home in Oregon. I recently received an email from my mom, linking to a virtual tour of the house for prospective buyers.

Watching the tour was… surreal. The house has changed completely from its original appearance. Beds and furniture are rearranged, shower curtains replaced, color-coordinated bedding chosen to be a model for what your new home could look like. But this was my home

Except, now it's not anymore. That much is very clear to me. Even if the house does not sell by the time I return stateside, I would not be able to go back to the house to crash there. It wouldn't feel right. I said goodbye to my home at the end of January, and this tour affirms that my home as I once knew it is gone.

I have, for the most part, made peace with the fact that I'm homeless. I had the benefit of Ted to assist me with the process of saying goodbye during that last week in Portland before hitting the road. I'm glad, because otherwise I'd be deeply unsettled by this virtual tour. As it is, I'm mostly struck with awe at how much a home can look utterly different, even when much of the furniture is the same, by removing all the clutter and moving stuff around. 

Saturday, April 5, 2014

No, Really, It's Not *That* Great.

People often exclaim with wonder when I tell them I'm a full-time, traveling dance instructor. What a mythical life I must lead, they seem to think. Visiting new cities, connecting with people around the world, embarking on wild adventures, dancing in different communities all the time constantly, following your passion, doing what you love all the time, living a healthful and full life. It must be light-years better than working an office job in engineering.

No, really, it's not *that* great.

The life of dance instructors can be decidedly mundane, not containing the luster others would presume. For this post, I won't even focus on many other aspects of giving up a traditional job, such as issues with money, health insurance, job security, or stability, to name a few. 

Today, Saturday, is the day before my workshop with Nicole in Delft. A day off, and decidedly sunny outside. You might think these are the moments where it pays off to live as a vagrant, eschewing the traditional work environment to go with the flow and explore cities around the world. Spend the day meandering through the city center, or lounging in the grass, or discussing the finer points of good dance technique, right?

No, really, it's not *that* great. 

The morning started off with an hour or two of working through communication issues that invariably crop up in any traveling partnership. If you're sharing a space continuously for five weeks, you really have to learn how to communicate openly and work through problems as they appear, or you get a lot of crazy problems as symptoms to deeper issues not being addressed. Processing becomes part of your standard work demands when traveling with a partner. 

Following that, it was a quick breakfast, some daily morning routine stuff. Then, working for several hours on class planning and administrative emails. A favorite of every dance teacher. Yaaaay.

By 3pm, it was time for another snack, then off for grocery shopping -- my one opportunity to catch some daylight. The walk was quite pleasant. We crossed a pretty canal. 

Finding the grocery store became its own adventure, as Google Maps reset itself mid trip and lost the marker for the store. Working off the map and some intuition, it was found eventually. But this sort of thing happens all the time: programs fail, directions are obscure, and you're left to your own devices to navigate as best you can without a data connection. It's amazing how dependent we become on always having access to data. In a world of traveling constantly and navigating new and unfamiliar towns, one has to become fluid and more accepting of the inevitable screw-ups, missed connections, lost maps, and incorrect directions, because they will definitely happen with greater frequency. 

In the grocery store, I found a "prize" waiting for me in my carton of eggs. What I did to deserve it, I'll never know. Perhaps they come standard, like Cracker-Jacks?

Purchasing cheese is always an adventure. You might recognize some words, like "Gouda," or identify the blue cheese and Brie on sight, but beyond that its a bit of a crapshoot to pick out something you'll like. And with such a huge selection (the Dutch love their cheese), it seems even more like a random process. 

As with navigation, in food you have to surrender a lot of control over what goes into your body, particularly in a country where you don't speak the language. It may be impossible to find peanut butter that is not "American style" (i.e. loaded with sugar). You may have no idea if your ham has sodium nitrates in it. You may not know what kind of cheese you're getting, you just hope it tastes good. You may not always have access to a kitchen with decent cooking supplies, or even have the time to cook your own meals, requiring you to eat out with far greater frequency. Because you're only in one place for six days at best, you are faced with either buying only stuff you'll eat in a day, or lugging everything around. And if you think it's a chore to go through a grocery store you're familiar with, try doing it with a different store every single time and the layout is always different.

On checkout, Nicole accidentally chose the one checkout line (out of six) that did not take cash; they did credit only. Which is totally backwards from what you normally see. I've known the Dutch do this, but I forgot to caution Nicole about this pitfall. After involving the manager, another cashier station, and much apologizing, we made it out with our groceries. Phew. Please forgive us woefully ignorant American travelers...

A quiet walk back home, and lunch. 

... And then it gets exciting, right?! This is when we train for hours in the afternoon to make the next breakthrough in our dance? We have the time, we have the space, and we have a fantastic dance chemistry and ability to train together and work as peers and push each other in dance in a constructive and healthy way. And we're in the same place! Which only happens once every several months...

No, really, it's not *that* great. 

The remainder of our day until dinner time was spent doing more computer work. What exactly does that entail? Here's a short list:
- Emails to organizers about confirmed events, which includes: discussing class ideas, writing class descriptions, negotiating rates, working out travel logistics
- Emails to organizers pitching for new gigs
- Connecting with teaching partners about these various events for all the necessary coordination, including approval of drafts to organizers, agreeing on what to pitch to an event, etc.
- Processing friend requests on Facebook from students, which includes sorting them into geographical categories and writing a small note to them to reach out and connect
- More emails to organizers just sent back to you in response to your earlier emails
- Pinging email conversations that have stagnated
- Researching and booking flights or other travel arrangements
- Registering for events
- Updating your website -- which is never up to date -- to reflect new competition wins and teaching experiences
- Going through photos on Facebook, picking out ones that might be good promo photos for later (such as these)
- Maintaining a presence on Facebook so people don't forget about you
- Composing, editing, and publishing blog entries so people can connect with you (and you can connect with them in a broadcasting sort of way)
- Making decisions about when to go where, what events to try to teach at, what weekends are available to possibly teach with which partner in what area, etc.
- Reading Facebook announcements or websites to tell of other instructors getting hired for other events you wanted to teach at and maybe even applied for, but weren't accepted, and processing the feelings of envy, comparison, and insecurity that so often crop up from these experiences
- Watching dance videos of yourself and others, analyzing how things can go better
- Editing new dance videos of yourself to publication on YouTube
- Promoting those videos on Facebook so people know they exist, watch them, and hopefully (hopefully) like them and get inspired to have you there as a dancer and teacher

I could go on, but I think you're getting the idea. There's a lot to do, and so much of it involves a computer. It's a common misconception that dance teachers spend most of their time teaching or dancing. Unless you work at a studio as an employee or independent contractor, you are in charge of running your own business, and there's a ton of work involved with such an endeavor.

During this 5-week teaching block in Europe, I was logging 40-60 hours of work each week. Your weekend is fully booked with an event. Even though you only technically teach 4-5 hours per day, you're actually working the whole time by being present as a teacher, by being a positive presence in the space and by not having much control over what you're doing with your weekend. Monday is typically a rest day to refill your spent dopamine reserves and creative well. I also often use it as a day to connect with my partner on a personal level, since working together doesn't actually count as "quality time." Tuesday is more of the same, though typically with a 2-4 hour block of work in there somewhere to knock out urgent tasks. Wednesday is a day of travel, and somehow no matter how much time you actually spend in transit, it feels like you lose most of the day when you hop from one country to the next, or within the same country, or even within the same city. Thursday is spent preparing for the next event, and Friday is the start of the next event. Rinse and repeat. Before you know it, you're looking at 60 hours of work logged, but it doesn't feel like it because it is accounted more largely in all the nooks and crannies, and disguised as "fun" through attendance as dances and parties. I have been careful to identify work as work, even if I'm having fun with it, because if I don't I get rather depressed to see I've only worked 8 hours (my billable teaching hours) while feeling totally exhausted and spent from the week.

Being a traveling dance instructor does afford you certain upsides, but you must keep an eye out for them. You must cherish them, hold them close to your heart, and appreciate them. Lean on them as experiences to remind you of why you've chosen an alternate, counter-cultural lifestyle. You must use them partly as justification for why you weather the storm of all the things that suck terribly about being a homeless dance teacher, you present them as evidence to the defense of your path when your logical, practical mind takes your decision-making to court and asks, "Why the hell are you doing this?!"

Dinner with hosts and friends, where we eat good home-cooked food and share stories laugh about language quirks. Some of my favorites, all of these pertaining to Dutch…
- The phrase literally translated as "old whoring" means "to gossip a lot."
- "Poope," in Dutch, means "to take a crap." (Yes, there's a surprising amount of Dutch similar to English.) In Belgium, "poope" means to have sex. This hilarious difference creates great deals of confusion in Dutch-Belgium interactions, particularly among couples.
- They have a common phrase, "cuddle someone to death."
- A "kok" (pronounced "cock") is a cook, or chef.
- The phrase translated as "the monkey is coming out of the sleeve" means that "the truth is finally coming out."
- Dick (pronounced like usual) and Cock (pronounced "coke") are common names. In fact, there was a TV detective series quite popular in Holland in the 90s, called "De Cock," translated "The Cock." The protagonist's name was The Cock. No, not Cock; The Cock. He introduced himself as such: "My name is The Cock. That is, C-O-C-K." He had an assistant name Dick. Oh, yes: Cock and Dick, crime solvers extraordinaire. For many, this is a fond childhood memory of a television series, which naturally leads to jokes about "seeing the cock every week as a 10-year-old," or "your family showing you the cock once a week," and so on.

Naturally, there is no end to the amusement to be had in dinner conversations. Fortunately, the Dutch do not deem any subject too improper for meals.

Traveling to a nearby town for a dance party. Realizing you're in the kitchen of a good friend in The Netherlands, dancing and having fun, and this sort of "Holy crap I'm in a different country and I know how to walk from the train station to the place of my friend, and here we're all dancing" happens on a regular basis

Driving for the first time in Europe (having already learned how to drive a manual -- thanks, Dad) and managing to not kill anyone or get too unnerved by seeing the speedometer read "100" (kmph, instead of mph).

Or, take the following day, teaching a workshop in Delft. Despite only two weeks of advertising, we drew in a crowd of ~24 students, completely filling the dance space. Students were excited to learn and sincerely engaged with the material. Most came from outside Delft, and quite a few were also at the Dansstage Balfolk event the previous weekend, where we evidently whetted their appetite for learning Blues. Our students' dancing transformed over the course of the day through focusing on fundamental concepts, creativity elements, and quality of movement. Standing in front of a group of people who trust you and go along with what you're saying even when you're asking them to be silly by playing a game. Seeing the "A-Ha!" moments, seeing bodies fall into better alignment, seeing people get more out of dancing with each other. Enjoying the rapport developed with your teaching partner in class, standing back and watching them command the room in turn, and trusting them equally to take care of the students and do what's best for the class. Receiving rounds of gratitude in the closing circle from students, even though we never prompt them for it. A student saying "It took a year to get me into Blues, but [Nicole and you] have done it. Thanks for that." 

Following the workshop, the majority of people went to a nearby restaurant for dinner and dancing. While we carefully managed their energy to maintain a high level in the workshop, people walked out exhausted. After a round of drinks, several succumbed to urges for a nap before dinner had arrived.

Delicious food -- a gargantuan burger to satisfy the body's demand for fat and protein -- and a wide range of desserts. My favorite: assorted handmade chocolates, one of which was presented to look like soil in a terra cotta pot (complete with a little sprout for verisimilitude).

More dancing that evening in a bar that was surprisingly pretty. They had these chandeliers made out of glass bottles and spoons.

Regularly receiving unexpected, unprompted compliments, words of praise, and gratitude with such sincerity about your teaching and dancing and personality. It is humbling and honoring.

We were approached by Tobie, a burly man with a soft spirit, who initiated conversation with me by saying, "So, are you the famous Andrew that I've heard so much about?" While I find such statements quite flattering -- it still baffles me that people speak about me, or think of me as "famous" (even in a subculture) -- I never quite know what to do with them.

After a bit of chatting, Tobie kindly offered to take Nicole and me on a tour of the city the following afternoon. Sounds like a great way to wrap up our time in Delft! It was quite surprising to be offered such a service.

At one point while jamming with Nicole to an uptempo electro-swing song, everyone cleared the floor to watch. What began as a simple dance together had somehow turned into a performance. I struggled to not go into to performer mode, to try to get everything right, and to keep messing around and play and try things out. At the end, we received applause. That kind of sharp attention, unexpected, can really catch you off guard, particularly when you're an introvert. It is in so many ways a very high compliment, and I strive to see it as such, but it's still unsettling in ways. When I remarked on not expected to perform that night to a Delft dancer, she responded, "It's not often we get such high quality of dancers in our city. We want to just watch and take notes and get ideas. And it's way better than watching a video of you two."

On our way home, we passed by a coffee shop. This is noteworthy only if you actually have been to The Netherlands, for they use the word "coffee shop" to mean something nothing to do with coffee: it is a place for people to purchase and smoke marijuana. I imagine this causes no end of confusion among English-speaking tourists, particularly from the U.S., who simply wish to sit down for a rejuvenating cup of coffee and perhaps work or read. I imagine said tourist asking for the location of a nearby coffee shop from a local, which the local dutifully provides (perhaps with a smug grin on his face). The travel-weary person arrives at the shop, steps in, and is greeted with the distinctive odor of weed wafting to their nostrils, leaving them bewildered and wondering if they followed the directions correctly. 

I suppose that's as good a place as any to conclude this entry. As far as proving a point goes, I have done myself a great disservice by ending on this note. Clearly, there are many wonderful aspects to being a traveling dance teacher. This post started off as me grumbling about how much work I had to do, but I do stand by my original assertion. No, really, it's not *that* great. Much of this life is like any other profession -- a lot of work, quite often at a computer. Your personal and professional worlds don't actually mix, you just learn how to make them coexist in the same space to maintain your sanity. Don't be fooled by the postings of instructors about their madcap adventures through exotic environs; we work hard like anyone else. If we don't, we won't last long.