Monthly Archives: November 2007

The Path Less Traveled By…

A LEAPYEAR graduate reflects on his choice to take his education into his own (capable) hands.

Somedays I sit, and I wonder: where could I have ended up?

It’s a interesting question, you see. I really could have “ended up” anywhere. In fact, I did. I ended up where I am right now: a passport full of visas, a bookshelf full of journals, Lonely Planet guidebooks spread throughout my house; and that’s a whole lot different from where I was “supposed” to be headed two or three years ago. I think about how my life was and how it is now. Change. Transformation. Evolution. Definition. All words that come to mind when I think about the process I have lived the past couple of years.

If I was “supposed” to be somewhere, I guess, my first thought would be that I would be attending technical theater classes in northern New York. About how I would be living in a dorm room, eating on a meal plan, sitting at my desk late at night, questioning textbooks and myself, wondering when I would get to travel or go home or meet up with friends or join that party scene or when I would be going to bed. I would be answering to academic standards, to other people’s expectations, learning information and passing it along, text to typed report. I’d be associated with the academic world as a pilot fish is to a shark: I’d follow along behind, munching on leftover bits of information and education, never eating a fresh meal, never independent or relying on myself for learning.

Alternatively, I could be in southern California, studying Evolutionary Biology. I could be going to the beaches on my afternoons off, talking with classmates about our latest assignment, our latest lovers, our latest social gatherings. I could be visiting libraries and computer labs, attending labs and studying the fundamentals of our human existence on this planet. I could be doing homework, and once again, transferring the written word to some report, where someone would either agree or disagree and let it be just that – an exchange of opinions and an evaluation of how well the opinion was presented.

Both of those places – Theater in New York, Evolutionary Biology in California – were places I was headed as a senior in high school. That’s what I was and am “supposed” to be doing, had I followed the traditional high school-to-university path.

I didn’t. I have no idea what is actually going on in New York and Southern California. I can only guess from the reports of my peers.

I tried something else. I discovered early on that I was tired of being in a classroom, but I still wanted to learn. I needed to stretch my wings out and explore what lies beyond that horizon we all look to at sunrise and sunset. Beyond those distant hills, those plains and grasses, those lapping waters of the great oceans. What is out there?

I went for it, and I spent time abroad. Across the sky and into far off places. I adapted and gave in to new experiences. I lived among Thai, Indonesian, Cambodian, Ethiopian and Eritrean natives; I ate local cuisine; I learned local languages; lived with local families. I participated in local traditions; wore monks garb and extravagant and beautiful local designer wear. I joined cultures already in progress and lived the life of a not-so-average college experience.

Again, I am reminded of the words that come to mind: Change. Transformation. Evolution. Definition. Of all the classes I could have taken, and of all the assignments I could be writing, of all the people I could have met, of all the things to study and analyze, of all the lives I could have led, I happened upon LEAPYEAR, and that led me to arts and humanity in Southeast Asia on to youth empowerment and tribal customs of Africa on to creating and defining my further education: Deeper Waters.

In time (as time does), I changed. My focus went from Theater and Sciences, to World Studies and Conscious Leadership. I transformed from the thought pattern of following things as they are, to using my potential as a human being to be the change I wanted to see in the world (credit given to the late Gandhi). I evolved from the high school-to-college mentality to the create-your-own-education-and-take-on-the-world mentality (which I have started, and focused mainly on the “education” part; world domination to come later.) Lastly and perhaps most importantly, had it not been for the year I spent abroad, I would never have had the moment of grace on a hot beach in Northern Africa in which I received a vision of myself, truly defining who I am as a person.

Now I’m here, at this moment, reminiscing about the past couple of years. I am doing what I want to be doing, exploring distant lands, absorbing different cultures, educating and learning without having to set foot in a traditional classroom. I use the world now as my classroom, evolving from being a pilot fish of a nurse shark to the pilot fish of a Great White: I’m eating a larger portion of information I want to be eating, I’m growing bigger, my knowledge bank is expanding, and I’m learning lessons at twenty that my parents didn’t learn until their thirties and forties. I’ve transformed from a questioning child to a curious adult. I’m realizing that I have the ability to change my world, this world; envisioning and creating the possibilities for a world my generation wants to live in. I’ve found that inner fire in me that wakes me up everyday and says, “YES! Let’s go! There’s a lot out there, and today is a new day!” It’s the most amazing feeling to have, a purpose to live for.

And, this is how it has all “ended up.” It’s nothing more than education at its finest, and the will of the world at its best. On those days, I wonder, and then I realize, I’m exactly where I am supposed to be.

Dying Gradually on the Ganges

Written by a LEAPYEAR India student during his first weeks in Varanasi – the “City of Light” on the Ganges:

The morning after my group arrived in Varanasi, we headed toward the ghat where a wooden rowing boat wobbled in the Ganges. I stepped into the boat as delicately as I could, not wanting to spill over.  The sun had yet to show itself, but I felt its presence behind the horizon. It was waiting to pounce on me, to erase the chilled haziness of night that still lingered heavily in my head. We were taken away by the current before my eyes could adjust themselves to the surrealness of the architecture, the river, and the children.  I saw old men brushing their teeth in the same waters that carried swollen dogs no longer breathing, and thought to myself; that is unconditional faith.

I remember having this type of egoless faith in my childhood, when I believed that god was everywhere at all times. Ironically, at this point at my life, after many years of rejection and spite toward religion, I’m beginning to suspect that god is everywhere at all times. What place does religion occupy in my life? It is beyond obvious that religion has stood behind many decisions that have heavily mapped out my life. I can be bitter when it comes to this subject, but at the same time, I can’t deny that religion harbors some of the most beautiful expressions of love I have ever witnessed. Religion is neither good nor bad; it can be just as thoroughly defended as it can be debunked. These words are meant to do neither, rather, they will consist of my observations and experiences and how religion offers perspectives that I have found essential to my growth.

There has been one major shift in my lifetime that was both beyond my control and the result of ripple-like decisions that were the result of dogmatic influences: my mother’s migration from Mexico to the United States. She was in many ways exiled by the people in her town for bearing a child out of wedlock.  A storm of whispers and judgments followed her everywhere she went. I can’t imagine being under such scrutiny, especially in a town where everybody knows everybody’s parents.  These judgments were largely (if not fully) fueled by the local Catholic Church.

That dust settled a decade and a half ago, but it led to me being raised outside my homeland. This has been bittersweet.  On one hand, I was better educated and have been blessed with endless opportunities to make myself rich (internally and externally), on the other; I grew up alienated and with an archetypal abusive stepfather.  I still hold a lot of anger and resentment towards my past, and many of the people who ran it.  I don’t think I was treated fairly or humanely by many people who are not my mother.  It is not something I wish to erase from my memory.  It is what it is, and it has made me who I am.  I’m only acknowledging that religion was as influential in my life as my birth.

Of course, religion has not only influenced my life negatively.  For example, the alienation that I felt during my childhood was indirectly created by the religious influences in my mother’s life, we’ve established that.  Ironically, religion also offered me ease and comfort when it came to these existential problems.  Religion was a bond between me and my mother.  Every night, before we went to sleep, my mother and I would spend half an hour reciting prayers so that god would protect us in our sleep.  It was a way of asking and a way of showing gratitude.  In many respects, religion was both a problem and a solution.

I was a very nervous and active child.  My imagination often terrorized me, and whenever I was caught in absolute darkness, I would repeat “God” over and over again to shield myself from all types of evil.  Whenever thunderstorms invaded my reality, I would run to my brothers and pray with them until the angels came and fought off the grey, looming menace.  Religion has many roles.  It comforts and it dictates.  It inspires love and hate.  It can be a shield and a sword.  It gives people structure, a reason to live and to die.

The people bathing, chanting in the Ganges seemed untouchable. It was a strange and beautiful experience. I felt like a phantom, like a branch flowing in the river, while natives blossomed around me, opening themselves, absorbing the enormity and splendor of the sun’s rays becoming one with the current. There had to be an unseen force at work. The architecture, the people, they were all too perfect. The sights spilled like ink, seeped through my consciousness, permeated my ego. The awe that I felt spread in my being, it was pumped into my veins and I became more aware. I breathed with vigor. Oxygen had never felt so good. Spirituality and romance was natural as well as vital in the atmosphere.

It was unsaid and true that neither the physical nor the spiritual could exist without the other in Varanasi, and I realize now, with absolute conviction and joy, that I died a little that morning.

Religion & Meaning in India

This was written by a LEAPYEAR student who traveled in India between during September and October 2007. Her thoughts on exploring religion and spirituality through her travels:

From a young age, I was aware that there are many religions; not everyone believes the same thing about how the world began, where miraculous events come from and what happens when we die. I know that not everyone worships in the same way to the same being. I even knew that some people believe in nothing more meaningful than the growth and decay of our tissue and enjoying this life while it lasts. It was not until I thought about coming to India and began to learn about Hindus, Buddhists and Muslims, however, that I truly realized that I had spent the majority of my life believing nothing. I didn’t believe in No-God or Afterlife, but I didn’t necessarily believe in one either. Growing up, I knew that life is meaningful, but I had never really considered why, and what the true root and nature of that meaning might be, and, all of a sudden, I found myself in a country where spirituality in many forms flavors all aspects of society. Consequently, the past two months have been, among other things, both an exploration of the beliefs of the people of India as well as an investigation of my own dormant spirituality.

From each religion I encountered, I recognized parts of life, and of myself, that I had never before examined. As each form of devotion was revealed to me, they became more beautiful, and life became more precious. Gradually, I have developed a greater sense of humility and of potential that, ultimately and through whichever path, leads to oneness with God and with creation.