21 May 2010

Home Alone

Seeking balance amidst chaos

Two days after Thai soldiers drove Red Shirt protesters out of their Ratchaprasong encampment which catalyzed a spree of looting and burning throughout the center of town, Bangkok remains unnaturally quiet. This morning I finally put my suitcase back in the closet and hung up the clothes I'd strewn over half the bed on Wednesday afternoon when I frantically started packing. After that I watered the indoor plants from the bucket I'd hurriedly filled when I feared the power would go off. Of course neither Bangkok nor I have regained our sense of normalcy. 

Last week I still believed I could still collate all that information about Thai politics and email it on to a list of interested people without getting swept up by the content of the articles, blogs, photos, etc. That dispassionate stance began evaporating after Sae Daeng was shot in the head by a sniper on the 13th, the BTS and MRT shut down on the 14th, and the Red Shirts started lighting tires and blockading roads around town.

Losing balance amidst chaos
By the weekend I'd whipped myself up into a frenzy of worry and decided I couldn't stay alone in my riverside apartment. On Saturday (15th), I spent the night at the house of two good friends on Ramkamheng 81. Except for the lack of traffic jams, this suburban neighborhood seemed completely untouched by the events unfolding in the center of town.

On Sunday afternoon we ventured out for scrumptious New York-esque pastrami sandwiches at New York Cheescake deli in the Crystal Design Center and then wandered amidst the shopping hordes at The Mall, Bangkapi. How could everyone look so "normal" in the midst of this surreal situation, I wondered. Despite my friends' offer to stay another night, I decided to return home. No place felt safe any more, but at least at home I could look out over the river and cook for myself.

By Monday morning the situation was spiraling evermore out of control. My Facebook status messages from the 17th record my own downward trajectory into chaos. Attired only in my underwear and a wet cloth around my neck, I spent most of the day at the computer while the nearby fan futilely churned the 34C air around. I alternated between between checking Twitter, looking at news reports, watching terrifying images and talking to friends.

One of my best friends, Ms. Pollyanna, resolutely refused to discuss the crisis. Normally we chat volubly on the phone nearly every day, but now an uncomfortable chasm opened between us. Deep down I knew she was probably struggling to maintain her famous positive attitude, but I judged her for caring so little about her adopted homeland. Then I judged myself for judging her!

Monday, 17 May, 13:05
Jennifer Gampell  OK. It's official. I am NOT doing a good job of clearing stress from all the violence in Bangkok. My center's moved to Bon Kai and it's not feeling tres tres bon at all! 

Monday, 17 May, 15:48 
Jennifer Gampell In all my 12+ years in the river view pad in lower Chinatown, I've never looked back toward town and seen huge columns of smoke rising. I first thought they were gray storm clouds, but alas I think they're Din Deng. 

Monday 17 May, 21:48 
Jennifer Gampell Unbelievably, a huge disco boat with lights blazing and amps ramped just sailed past my window on the Chao Phraya!

On Tuesday I talked at great length with K Kini, a dear Thai friend who gave up a cushy job in the business world a few years ago to become a kinesiologist. Since then she's been a constant source of encouragement and inspiration in my ongoing struggles to nurture the Transforming Jennifer. She rarely panics; rather she looks at uncomfortable or stressful situations as opportunities for awareness and inner growth.

Instead of feeling trapped at home because of closed roads and no mass transit, she counseled, why not examine all the activities I normally do in the world every day. Are the really so necessary to my existence? (No.) And does jumping on Twitter every few minutes change anything except the intensity of my own emotions? (No.) That's when I made an anti-Twitter resolution.

Tuesday 18 May, 12:28 
Jennifer Gampell is trying hard not to read ANY news, tweets, etc. until 5 pm. This addiction must be broken. If I can summarily cut out sugar, surely I can stop eating news!

Tuesday 18 May, 14:30 
Jennifer Gampell Staying at home has been easier today than yesterday after a friend pointed out how we're all addicted to activity and going wherever we want whenever we want to. Enforced homebound-ness highlights my need to be engaged "out there" rather than engaging more from "in here."

I awoke on Wednesday determined to continue focusing on engaging from "in here." By noon that resolution had disintegrated in the fiery denouement to the army's invasion of Ratchaprasong. Instead, I rode the waves of negative energy crashing in from "out there" and barely noticed as my tenuous-at-best center came loose from its moorings.

Wednesday 19 May, 11:20 
Jennifer Gampell totally panicked this morning about the latest madness and mayhem. First reaction: get out of Bangkok NOW! I live on the river slightly away from the current epicenter. Looking at the reality, I'm not in danger now. It could even be an opportunity to connect—yet again—to my own epicenter. Without that, not matter where I'm physically located, I'll be a prisoner of fear. 

To cover all my bases—or at least pretend I had some control over events—I called Air Asia about flying to Chiang Mai and reserved a room for the 21st Friday at Charcoa House, my home away from home when I study with Sifu H. I got my suitcase from the cupboard and haphazardly dumped a few clothes and toiletries onto the bed. Truthfully the idea of flying to Chiang Mai brought no more reassurance to my adrenalin-fueled mind than staying put.

Driven by fear and panic, the "what if..." thoughts bombarded my mind like endless rifle volleys. How could Ior anyonehope to calm down sufficiently and observe the reality of the situation while whipping around in an emotional maelstrom of fear and terror? 

Early in the afternoon, both Ms. Pollyanna and K Kini reported power outages in their Sukhumvit 26 neighborhoods. Neither of them panicked; both were waiting to see what transpired. Not me. I summarily decided the "reality" of my situation was impending disaster. By now it was too late to pack and arrive at the airport before the 8 p.m. curfew, but I'd leave for the airport first thing Thursday morning. My jumping bean mind arbitrarily decided that leaving town must be better than staying. At least I was doing something instead of sitting around helplessly.

Wednesday 19 May, 16:30 
Jennifer Gampell OK. I'm gonna work on conquering fear as I leave town tomorrow morning. I just hope Chiang Mai doesn't turn into Bangkok #2 and that the power stays on a bit longer. Friends on Suk 26 are already without power.

Electricity returned to Sukhumvit 26 after less than an hour. K Kini and I talked on Skype about her feelings during the outage (levelheaded, dispassionate) versus mine (desperate, anxious). In the middle of the conversation she suddenly announced, "Ohmigod, something's burning! Ohmigod there's black smoke coming into the apartment!" Her voice sounded deadly serious, but not scared. Looking out her window she saw smoke coming from a Bangkok Bank kiosk at the end of the road opposite Carrefour. "Put a wet cloth over your face and get out of there," I counseled as she rang off.

K Kini called back a few minutes later to say she'd closed the windows, the smoke was dissipating and she saw no reason to go anywhere. Her peaceful and sane attitude throughout a seriously hazardous situation amazed me, especially as I was flying off the handle in my danger-free riverside abode.

Then someone posted a Facebook message about Red Shirts burning tires and blocking bridges in Chiang Mai. Oh shit. Now both Bangkok and Chiang Mai, two supposed oases of safety and comfort for me, were similarly unstable. What does poor little me do now, I whinged selfishly. I never stopped to realize how nowhere "out there" could offer safety as long as every place "in here" screamed in fear and terror.

Wednesday 19 May, 17:35 
Jennifer Gampell is changing plans. I'm gonna work on conquering fear as I stay here contemplating where to go now that Chiang Mai is being torched too.

Wednesday sunset
Finally I stopped the manic activities. I breathed. I listened to a dhamma talk by Ajarn Sumedho, I called K Kini for another chat. By early evening I'd traveled full circle back to the resolution I'd made upon waking at dawn, which now seemed like days ago.

Wednesday 19 May, 18:20 
Jennifer Gampell  Today marks the end of the Bangkok we've all known and loved. Whatever emerges from this conflagration will be completely unlike our fondest memories of it. However I suppose it's a necessary process.

It took the complete disintegration of life as I knew it in Bangkok to remind me that the only reality I can ever hope to know or understand is the one within. Please hold that thought Jennifer!

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