Purpose

I work at a job that allows me time to myself as I do my work. I usually spend this time watching crime documentaries, listening to scary stories, murder podcasts–basically miring myself in all things dark, but I recently took a hiatus from that to watch a different sort of entertainment.

It started with watching Youtube documentaries about quadriplegics. Sometimes I watch things like this when I feel down so I can stop feeling so goddamn sorry for myself because “people out there have it way worse”, and when I think worse, I think quadriplegia. I also watched some on Locked-In syndrome, terminal cancer, ALS, amputations, and traumatic brain injuries, which are all basically the most horrific things I can imagine. I’ve been feeling pretty woe-is-me lately, obviously.

The woe-is-me is stemming from finishing my certification in Crime Scene Investigation and doing a lot of soul-searching regarding my career, or lack thereof. It’s not merely the idea of obtaining a fulfilling job that bothers me; it’s that I truly do believe everybody’s life has purpose, and that everybody is good at something, and that everyone can do their own brand of meaningful things, and I have no idea where I can plug myself into that.

From my depressing documentaries, I was referred to a few that made this idea I’ve been stewing over even more apparent and urgent. I watched two episodes of My Last Days, a documentary series about people with terminal conditions. One featured Claire Wineland, an 18-year-old with cystic fibrosis whose life is coming to a close. She is charming, relateable, and old beyond her years. Her dream is to be a public speaker, and she’s got what it takes. With a little help and connections, that’s exactly what she started doing: traveling around the country, speaking about life and death and what fits in between. She says we have no control over when or how we will die, but we do have control over how to live our own perfect life this moment.

Another My Last Days episode was about Kat Lazo, a girl with terminal gastric cancer who relates with people so genuinely and is so present in however much life she has left. She feels deeply and shares with others, and wisdom and peace are imbued in her speech.

I then watched a documentary on Aaron Swartz, a prodigious computer programmer and founder of Reddit, who fought tirelessly to make knowledge that is stored on the internet accessible to everyone. He downloaded tons of JSTOR scientific articles and made them accessible for free, rather than the traditional system in place, where a third-party provider makes money off of academics’ and scientists’ research by charging for access. Aaron ended up committing suicide after the FBI came after him for trying to make this knowledge freely and publicly accessible. His former girlfriend is interviewed, and she says Aaron’s way of thinking was to always ask what’s the best thing I can be doing, and why am I not doing it?

After Aaron’s death, a 14-year-old boy from Boston invented a prototype for an early testing technique for pancreatic cancer using the JSTOR articles Aaron made available.

These three documentaries served to further fuel my desire to find my offering to the world, to discover my skills and how those can be used to do good, and what kind of good that may be. I’ve been tempted lately, after looking at investigation/government/people-related jobs and realizing how competitive they are and how little they pay, to throw in the towel and find some horrible, soul-sucking corporate job, where the bottom line is always to sell sell sell, and just make as much money as possible in a year and then go rogue in a cabin somewhere to recover. It’s messed up how even if you find your place, or one of many places, in this world, the realistic manifestation of that may or may not pay your bills and afford you a healthy mental space to be able to do your wonderful you-things if you’re consumed by financial burdens.

This post isn’t going to have a nice ending because I have no nice ending for these ideas I’ve been mulling over. I feel change coming on because it must. I’m becoming more and more brain-atrophied and motivation-less the longer I settle for a job that is less than fulfilling, a life that has no plans past the superficial.

 

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Portuñoling in Madrid

I’ve once again transported myself to a country of close-talkers, trash-throwers, and bad walkers.

On the other hand, I like to watch the way Madrileños, the kind you pass on the street and sit next to on the metro and buy horchata from, laugh raucously and gesticulate wildly. I’ve mistaken several people for deaf since coming here after watching them talk from afar. I’m especially endeared to the older men who work at restaurants, the kinds of places where you can sit on the street under umbrellas. I like their simple sweetness, usual rotundity, and their sincere attempt to understand what I’m saying.

My Spanish consists of my Portuguese interwoven with memories of the Portuguese for Spanish Speakers class I took four years ago because it was the only Portuguese class offered at my university that semester. Add to that Dora the Explorer flashbacks and the few phrases I’ve picked up since coming here, and there you have it.
I’ve had several interactions in Spanish that have gone like this:

Stranger: Where are you from?
Me: The U.S.
S: Do you speak Spanish?
Me: What language are we speaking in now?
S: Well, there are a lot of people here who don’t speak Spanish. You should learn it.

What the fuck. These interactions keep happening, and they confuse me every time. I was spoiled by living in a country where if you uttered a shitty ‘tudo bem’ you’d have people falling over themselves to tell you how great your Portuguese was. Being constantly told I need to learn Spanish as I make the effort to speak it with strangers makes me want to try less. Or stop talking to strangers.

Here I’m re-learning some lessons I’ve already learned and forgotten. First, there is nothing more humiliating than learning a language. As someone who refuses to try anything more than once that I’m not naturally amazing at, trying again and again to communicate only to be giggled about or misunderstood is the worst. Telling someone something serious, asking why they’re laughing and getting the answer, ‘Oh, the way you said that was just cute’ makes me want to slap my interlocutor. It’s a rush to the finish line, the finish line being communicative competency. I’m trying to cram as much into my head as possible until I reach that level, at which point existing in a foreign country becomes markedly easier.

The second lesson I’m re-learning is what it is to be poor. I’ve never had money, but here I exist on euro-pennies, which are the tiniest, cutest little things you’ve ever seen. I take packets of sugar from restaurants to use at home in my tea. I carry around a plastic water bottle I bought my first week here that’s probably giving me cancer. I scour the bottom of my purse for change to buy a 90-cent bocadillo for lunch at work. A sign on the street offering coffee for one euro has my attention. If someone cancels a tutoring session with me, it’s a minor disaster. After a difficult first month here money-wise due to a rental fiasco, I’m already down to the end of my last paycheck. The whole point of coming here was to scrape those pennies together to travel to some places in Europe I wanted to visit the first time I lived here but was too poor to, and so far that plan is slow to start. I have a one-way ticket to Istanbul for December 22nd. If I’m too poor to buy any other flights by then, you know where to find me. It all feels like a giant step back in what my mind thinks it is to be an adult.

Speaking of adulthood, I’m already thinking about what’s next. For the past three years, there’s always been abroad. As an Italian passport holder, I could stay in Europe easily enough, though I think I’d head north. But finding a job might be harder than finding one in the US, and I’d also miss the ease of living in my own country: knowing and being comfortable with the cultural norms, the language, and how to go about finding a job and a place to live. My student loans are screaming at me to go back and pay them off as quickly as possible. I had a dream last night that I inherited $6,000 from an unknown relative who I watched crash his plane on purpose to help me financially. It was like winning the lottery.

But, in general, life in Madrid is easy. It’s safe to walk around at night, there’s good shopping, and there are three Starbucks within walking distance from my house. I live in a hobbit house and sleep in an attic bedroom that looks like a place of punishment from a fairy tale. I can easily find peanut butter. Olive oil is delicious and cheap. Lots of people speak English. My job, while not that enjoyable, certainly isn’t challenging in any real way. And the best part of all, I can buy good enough wine for one euro.

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Finally, I’ve accumulated a strange little group of acquaintances here that I’m quite grateful for. I borrowed a wig from the art teacher at my school who just happens to have 15 (an exact number) wigs in her closet because she loves dressing up. She offers me beautifully arranged coffee while I tutor her son, and we tell each other stories while overseeing our students paint color wheels. I’ve met a misanthropic self-professed non-misanthrope who I feel compelled to befriend. I think it’s working. I’ve met a Canadian who thinks I’m the most interesting mystery he’s ever met, which I will let him continue thinking. I work with a guy who doesn’t know the meaning of coquettish or the plot of Lolita and dresses like Ellen DeGeneres. I met a Fulbrighter who I bond with over our weekly coffee date in the cafeteria at work. She let’s me flex my vocabulary and regales me with all kinds of stories. My favorite ones are about her parents, whose relationship she finds repulsive. My closest fast-friend here shares my name and height, the first being much easier to come by than the second. We got drunk together one night on free sangria and she stopped to muse, with a look of wonder, ‘Just what are the odds of someone as cynical as me being placed at the very same school?’

the art of running away

I’ve had two ideas plaguing me the past couple of months. The first is that travel is more about running away from what you had than running toward something specific. Before coming to Brazil, I read Wanderlust: A Love Affair with 5 Continents by Elizabeth Eaves, and it both terrified me and broke my heart. I don’t want to be her when I grow up, living a seemingly glamorous, travel-inundated youth to wake up at 34, living nowhere I like, surrounded by unhealthy relationships, career-less, jaded to everything and moving back in with my parents.

Yet, I see myself in her, using travel as an escape. Before moving here I worked as a polysomnographic technician, which is just a fancy name for putting electrodes all over dirty people’s heads and watching them sleep. I worked my way through grad school that way, but then started working there full-time after graduation. It was killing me slowly. The boredom, the patients, the night hours, the lack of all interest on my part. I had few friends and a quickly souring relationship. In that kind of situation, how could I not put stock in Brazil as a fix-all? I can’t count the number of times I thought if only I were in Brazil, everything would be better. Of course, that’s not true, and makes me wonder when I’ll stop chasing something so elusive as happiness when nothing external will ever grant that.

Which brings me to the other idea that’s been everywhere lately. I’ve met a lot of people in the last month and a half, and many of them have told me of a place they just felt like they fit, their favorite place in the world. Whether it’s Mexico, Japan, Spain, or somewhere in between, these people have found where they feel they belong, and everything is about getting back there. A huge part of me wants to find my place like that. I’ve lived a lot of places and have never felt that sense of belonging. A piece of me suspects that that’s my primary motivator for traveling so feverishly this year. I’ve sensed for years that Brazil would be that place, and where I’ve been so far hasn’t been. But on the other hand, would that place make me as happy as it seems it has others?

Until I find out for sure, I guess I’ll keep wandering.