Friday, October 28, 2011

Just Another Day In Class...

Have you ever had one of those days when you just “had it up to here?” I had one of those days on Tuesday. I was in class, trying to teach English to a group of people who, for the most part, aren’t that interested. They go because they have to. Universities require students to pass grammar exams, and a lot of companies require some level of English. So, for the most part, they don’t want to learn, but they have to. So they do the minimum to get by and then spend the rest of the time either not coming to class or speaking Turkish in class, which is completely counter-productive to learning a foreign language.

I have also learned that many Turkish people, at least the ones I get in my class, are extremely prejudiced about anything and everything that doesn’t fit into their box of what they consider acceptable and normal. They seem to hate Arabs, Jews, gays, Kurds, black people, and the list goes on. Bring up one of the many things they don’t like, and off the go on a verbal marathon, sometimes in English and sometimes in Turkish.

So, back to Tuesday. We were reading a text from an anonymous source. I asked them to tell me about the person who wrote it, based solely on that piece of text. Was it a man or a woman? Age? What words would they use to describe the person. So during the question and answer period, one of the students, one of my favorites, in fact, who I will call X, suggested the person might be gay. People laughed and I heard a few people go off in Turkish. I didn’t understand what was said, but tone of voice and laughter were enough to clue me in. Later, after they had told me all about the person who wrote it, I came clean. “I wrote it”, I told them. And then X apologized about suggesting I might be gay. Again laughter and a lot of talking. So, in front of the whole class, I said “No problem, because I am gay.” At first people thought it was a joke, but after a few seconds they realized I was serious. Suddenly, they were uncomfortable. And we had two and a half hours of class left. They were silent. I looked around the room and asked “So, is there anything anyone would like to talk about? Anything at all?”

“Yes, there are a lot of questions, but nobody will ask you” was the reply I got from X. So, I sat there and let them marinate in their discomfort. It felt amazing. X kept laughing, not at me, but at the reactions and attitudes of others, and I thought the whole thing was great. I don’t mind if people have something to say about me, but say it to me, not behind my back or in a different language. And I hope that next time they decide to spew out a racial or any type of hateful slur, they will think twice about who might be in the room with them.

I wasn’t pushing an agenda, in fact, after living so many years in countries where it is either not legal or not accepted, I am used to being discreet and keeping my private life private. But sometimes, you just have had enough. And on Tuesday, I had had enough. I am sure it is all over the school by now, but I don’t care. And the other teachers are super supportive and agree with what I did.

So, as a follow-up on Monday, the class and I are going to have a conversation about prejudice, any prejudice, and since we are scheduled to do a lot of writing this week, I will have them write essays about prejudice, the problems they see, what they think should be done about it and what they personally can do in their own lives to reduce it. As Gandhi said “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” I am not trying to change them or convert anyone, but I am trying to get them to think, even if just a tiny bit. 

Thursday, October 06, 2011

The Sound of Silence

First, I want to thank everyone for the wonderful comments and emails I received from my last post. They all really mean a lot to me and tell me I made the right decision. I was scared to post it. I am a person who has spent a long time building walls, and posting that last entry meant tearing at least some of them down. Sure, parts of them remain, but now, instead of being like a fortress, they are more like the old ruins or remains seen in places like Istanbul. Portions are definitely still standing strong, but I am no longer living in my fortress. I was scared of what would happen and what people might think, as it is so opposite to how most people know me. Or maybe how I perceive most people know me. But that was exactly the reason I needed to do it. I have been asking myself these types of questions for years, making small changes here and there, but now I feel the time for baby steps is over and it is time to climb my personal Kilimanjaro.

I have done a lot of reading over the decade and one thing that kept coming up, was the need for silence. Not the silence which is an absence of sound, but a silencing of the mind. When I was in Tanzania, the internet connection kept going out, sometimes for a week at a time and I was basically out of touch with the outside world. At first I felt angry. And then I realized it wasn’t really anger, I felt uncomfortable. My world is so full of “noise.” I wake up and before my feet touch the floor, I grab my laptop, check emails, Facebook and news, and then maybe send some text messages and it all just gets more cluttered and noisy from there. Who am I and what do I do without the Internet and Facebook and all the rest of my daily distractions and activities? The break from the Internet was odd and uncomfortable. But only for a couple of days. Then, I started walking on the beach. Normally when I go anywhere, I have my iPod playing my soundtrack of the day, my phone in my pocket in case someone, somewhere should need to get in touch with me (even though only five people had that phone number) and my camera around my neck as I scanned my surroundings looking for photos waiting to be shot. But as I explained in the last post, theft is a problem there and the beach I would walk was notorious for tourists getting robbed. So I took nothing, not even my sunglasses to hide behind.

So on the beach without the normal accessories of life, I had plenty of time to think. When I got back to the house the first day, I realized I had spent the entire walk in the past. My childhood, decisions I had made, things I could have, would have or should have done. I gave myself an eloquent lecture about where I had gone wrong, not just once, but so many times.

The next day, it was the same thing again. After a couple of days, I realized that there I was, on a gorgeous stretch of white beach, palm trees blowing in the wind and the Indian Ocean next to me and I was not even there. I was in the past reliving my failures and shortcomings, mistakes and regrets or the future which was a mix of confusion, fear and the hope of dreams that may or may not true. In reality, I was in a truly beautiful place but realized I was not “there” at all, I was anywhere and everywhere but on that beach.

I had also received a Kindle for my birthday and one of the first books that ended up being added was from Eckhart Tolle, “The Power of Now.” Normally I fly through books, but I decided to take this one slow. In fact, I have still not finished it.

The idea of Now is so simple and so silly and so obvious that I just never got it or even thought about it. I am sure people who have known me awhile can back me up on the fact that I spent a lot of time in the past and future and very little, if any, in the now. Even when things were great in my life, I dreaded my uncertain future and was scared of what I felt was impending doom.

So I learned to recognize when I am not present. I often catch myself in the future, getting all worked up about something that actually, isn’t even real, and now, instead of dwelling on it, I realize what’s happening and direct myself back to the present moment. I do the same when I start to punish myself about past decisions and mistakes. They are over, finished, and there is nothing I can do to change them, so I stop myself and come back to the present. Maybe it sounds silly. It sounded silly to me when I first read about it, but the more I paid attention, the more I realized what I was doing. And the more I pay attention, the more I see that most people are doing the same thing.

And that for me, was one of the first steps in deciding to live. In order to live, I need to be in the moment in the Now. It isn’t always easy, breaking habits that have gone on for decades, but it is far easier than I imagined. It just takes a little practice.

Walking on the beach, being completely present and not thinking became one of my favorite daily experiences. I became addicted to the sunlight dancing on the water. It was hypnotic. The waves came in a musical rhythm and everything just seemed so, alive. Maybe it was my imagination, but the blues of the ocean seemed just a bit bluer and everything just seemed to be perfect, exactly as it was supposed to be in that moment and I would find myself smiling for no particular reason at all.