In the Middle of a Major Extinction Event

Maybe it was because of David Bowie’s “Heroes” playing in the background, but while watching Perks of Being a Wallflower‘s ending monologue the other night, I heard one of the closest descriptions I’ve found to my feelings in these photos:

This is happening.
I am here and I am looking at her
and she is so beautiful.
I can see it.
This one moment when you know you’re not a sad story,
you are alive.

And in this moment, I swear, we are infinite.

– “Charlie’s Last Letter”, Perks of Being a Wallflower

Knowing that such a mighty being is accepting my presence – enough that I can sit vulnerably below them – brings so much life to my heart. She is a wild animal; I can never trust her. But I can love her all I want.

And I can continue experiencing these moments of light, or of “infinity” as Charlie calls it, as my own motivation to stay in this life.

I’m not suicidal. When I was about preteen-age, I used to want to give up. Until I promised my brother I wouldn’t leave him, and he promised me the same.

I found a way to deal with my depression and anxiety in a way that I thought was too corny to share. Of course, looking back, I wish I had talked to him about every coping mechanism I’d learned through yoga, meditation, and community. Though I’m not sure it would have made a difference.

I struggled, and still do, with PTSD memories affecting my daily life. Flashbulb memories of negative events that would greet me only on the most inopportune of occasions, like when I’m teaching a group of freshman highschoolers and one of them pretends to shoot himself in the head with a styrofoam gun.

So I imagined that I had a photographic memory, one so powerful that I could capture the flashbulb memories of my choosing if I focused hard enough on a beautiful sight or moment. This silly daydream transformed into a kaleidoscope of happy reasons to live. The more light I captured, the easier I could weather the difficult days.

Living in Thailand, I find most of my kaleidoscope moments while I’m working at the camp, feeling awake from the hospitality work and refreshed from the mountain air. My excitement never tires around the elephants.

I also experience these moments in Lom Kao, watching the sunshine glitter through the trees behind my home, quiet moments resting with Mr. Hobbes and lazy afternoons in the hammock. I may have had a handful of these experiences while teaching, though it’s clear to me that’s not where my passion lies.

Since Swayze died, I fluctuate through periods where it’s harder to find these moments of light. Even so, I will never again think of suicide as a remote possibility.

“Killing yourself can spiritually kill other people…

A friend once told me that killing yourself is like taking your pain, multiplying it 10x, and giving it to the ones who love you.  I agree with this, but there’s more.  

Beyond any loved ones, you could include neighbors, innocent bystanders exposed to your death, and people — often kids — who commit “copycat suicides” when they read about your demise. This is the reality, not the cure-all fantasy, of suicide.

If [you] think about killing yourself, imagine yourself wearing a suicide bomber’s vest of explosives and walking into a crowd of innocents.
That’s effectively what it is.  Even if you ‘feel’ like no one loves you or cares about you, you are most likely loved–and most definitely lovable and worthy of love.”

Some Practical Thoughts on Suicide, Tim Ferriss

In one month, I will turn 24 years old. Already today, three months from the second anniversary of his death, I have lived longer than my older brother ever did.

The realization that there’s a limit to the number of ways I can slow the decay of my memories with him is difficult to swallow. Especially considering how long I hope my own life will be and coming to terms with the small fraction of it I shared with my brother.

I know and have heard the other side of this, which is to say, “Focus on gratitude for the years you had together.” But on most days, I see very clearly how different I am now from the person I was when my brother was alive. And this person would really love to talk to him.

I also hear, “He will always be your older brother,” but that wish wavers in his absence. Of course, there’s no right thing to say.

The more time passes, the faster I scramble to cement his face, voice, laugh, and mannerisms into my mind. On some days, he already feels far away. My paint brush wears a mere clear coat; a futile effort to protect from chipping, an inability to produce new art.

I’ve viewed the same collection of photos repeatedly. Somehow he looks slightly different in each one, as if the present moment only attempts to merge the many energetic timeless bodies into one identity.

I spent the last ten days of my summer vacation volunteering at Into the Wild Elephant Camp in Chiang Mai, soaking up as many glittery moments as I could before returning to my teaching contract at LKP (through October of this year).

My friend Max, a freelance photographer who works with Into the Wild, has been so generous to document a lot of my time and special moments with the elephants and guests.

On one emotional day, I turned to Max and said, “Can I trade every beautiful photo you’ve ever taken of me for one more photo with my brother?”

“Don’t be serious,” Max said.

A while ago, this expression would have probably angered me, reminded of the condescending connotation often spoken with, “Calm down,” in America.

I know it’s different when my Thai friends smile and ask me gently not to be serious. It reminds me of when my former boss and beloved friend Rachel used to say, “Don’t borrow trouble.”

Not long after, I finished reading The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, a romantic mystery decorated with ordinarily-overlooked details. Thanks to Teacher Ben, I was introduced to the literary genius Haruki Murakami. While reading The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle on a train in Vietnam, a Russian tourist named Irina told me my next read must be Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World : A Novel.

One of Murakami’s expressions in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle:

“Memories and thoughts age, just as people do. But certain thoughts can never age, and certain memories can never fade.”

As often as I can, I try to fit my memories with my brother into my mosaic of reasons to live happily, even though not all of our memories together were happy ones. I can choose to make the special ones part of my collection. I can greet the painful ones with gratitude for growth. I can honor my tears that multiply when I’m missing him most.

Early in 2019, a mattayhom two (grade 8) student was found in her bedroom. She had hanged herself.

A mattayhom three student who knew her explained to me in Google Translate English, “Her mother is in prison. She violently quarreled with her father. She took the rope to stranger herself.”

I immediately thought back to the beginning of my second semester teaching at LKP. By this time, I had connected with many of my students on social media as a way to remind students of important announcements and deadlines. While scrolling through Instragram one night, I saw one of my high school junior-aged students’ post that he thinks about killing himself.

Worried, I asked the student to stay after class the next day. His English is quite advanced, so I shared my own story with him – or tried to. He interrupted me to ask if I’m pregnant, because my form-fitting dress made me look like I have a baby bump.

That day, I wrote in my notebook:

Nov. 5, 2018

What an intense mix of emotions I’m filled with today. I was serious and vulnerable and he took advantage – maybe as a defense mechanism?

Inquiring about a pregnant belly is not always considered an insult in Thai culture like it is in many western cultures, but his manner was situationally impolite.

Remembering this conversation during the school’s mourning of the mattayhom student who passed away made me feel proud for calmly responding to my student months ago. I was able to briefly redirect the conversation to my original intent:

“Please talk to someone if you ever need help. Talk to anyone, even if it’s not me.”

I’ve recently felt overwhelmed with the majority of news headlines. We’ve passed a point of being able to mindlessly ignore the climate science.

My key highlights from The Guardian’s recent synposis of the UN global assessment report:

“The biomass of wild mammals has fallen by 82%, natural ecosystems have lost about half their area and a million species are at risk of extinction – all largely as a result of human actions, said the study, compiled over three years by more than 450 scientists and diplomats.

Agriculture and fishing are the primary causes of the deterioration. Food production has increased dramatically since the 1970s, which has helped feed a growing global population and generated jobs and economic growth. But this has come at a high cost.

The meat industry has a particularly heavy impact. Grazing areas for cattle account for about 25% of the world’s ice-free land and more than 18% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Crop production uses 12% of land and creates less than 7% of emissions.”

Oceans are no longer a sanctuary. Only 3% of marine areas are free from human pressure. Industrial fishing takes place in more than half the world’s oceans, leaving one-third of fish populations overexploited.”

“Human society under urgent threat from loss of Earth’s natural life”, Jonathan Watts

It’s hard to feel motivated to go to work every day with environmental breakdown estimates starting as early as 2040 if we don’t immediately and drastically change our policies and behavior. In 2040, I will be turning 45 years old.

It’s easy to blame the climate emergency on those holding positions of power in office. Take these individual steps to make an impact:

“The health of the ecosystems on which we and other species depend is deteriorating more rapidly than ever. We are eroding the very foundations of economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide,” said Robert Watson, the chair of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (Ibpes).

“We have lost time. We must act now.”

“Human society under urgent threat from loss of Earth’s natural life”, Jonathan Watts

Recently, several close friends of mine have expressed how much they’ve missed my writing. I’m so humbled by this sentiment, but feel I owe a bit of an explanation.

For a month and half after my semester ended mid-March, I traveled through Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand. During that time, I was fortunate enough to spend almost three weeks with my mom – time I cherished and endeavoured to be absolutely present for as much as possible.

After my travels, I volunteered at the elephant camp for two weeks before returning to teach my students. I taught them last year as M5 and am so proud to say I will be teaching the same group for their first semester of M6. We’ve had a fun first week of classes already!

I’m an introverted person. Struggles with communication fluctuate, but managing relationships from across the world has remained particularly challenging. I am able to connect much easier with others in person rather than over the phone. While living in Thailand, some of my most important and valuable relationships are restricted to the phone.

I decided to stay in Thailand to strengthen my professional relationship with Into the Wild with hopes of managing marketing efforts for the elephant sanctuary in the future. Establishing a work visa for a nontraditional foreigner job will take some time. Until some logistics are settled for the camp, I’m savoring my last five months teaching my favorite kids.

It’s easy to get lonely living in Lom Kao, but I’m working hard to channel and flow with my emotions, starting with writing again as often as I’m able.

Maybe if I put enough of my serious thoughts on paper, I can keep them out of my head. And maybe if I imagine enough of my kaleidoscope memories, I can make space on my paper for those, too.

2 thoughts on “In the Middle of a Major Extinction Event

  1. Another insightful blog, and you have crossed over the bridge of guilt for Swayze’s suicide to the distant shore of forgiving by embracing the unintended consequences to the living. It may seem like a long walk, but the burden becomes lighter with every step. Count your blessings for having the guts to chose the path less traveled, it is proving to be your salvation .

    Live and Learn – that’s what it’s all about sweetheart !

    Love – PapPaw

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I was so excited to catch up with your adventures and incites. As the Budda says “ where ever we go , there we are”. Healing evokes more healing. Reading your words I am so touched by your growth. The elephant sanctuary sounds amazing. While at a party several weekends ago your primate sanctuary was brought up by a couple who support it. I thought I have to let Sam know. Love and light sweet girl.

    Liked by 1 person

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