Don’t stop your bike with your chin

Oops. The road was wet and I came off my bike. Split my chin open. Spent about four hours at the hospital getting seen, stitched, CT’ed for the pain in my jaw, and seen again. Not the way I planned to spend my Tuesday night!

But I learned a few things worth noting:

  1. People here are kind in an emergency. Two of my colleagues were very close by, one in a car and another on a bike, and they both stopped immediately to help. One found a pack of emergency tissues in my backpack and brought my bike back to school for safekeeping. The other put me in her car, called the school, and drove me to see our nurse. The nurse took one look at me and shouted to another colleague, who drove me to the hospital.
  2. While we were doing some sidewalk first aid to stop the blood dripping from my chin onto my jacket, dress, and tights, several strangers asked if we needed help. Two were children on bikes and two more were pedestrians who went out of their way to come over to us. This was heartwarming and I thanked those who I could.
  3. Figuring out medical care in another language is difficult. I was at the hospital for around four hours and I spoke broken German almost the whole time. The doctor had taken a Medical English course, she told me, though we communicated mostly in German unless it was obvious that I was lost. It took some gesturing and explaining from the doctor, and guesswork on my part, but I knew what was going to happen before it happened. All in all, the experience was frustrating and tiring for me, but it worked out okay. I was struck by how difficult and scary it must be for immigrants to any country, especially those with no language skills, to communicate in a crisis. I was near tears and I wasn’t even in a crisis! Sitting in the wrong waiting room and staring at the wrong door was a moment of deep understanding, and I will not forget it.

In my frustration, I wrote to a few friends and received encouragement, offers of help, and commiseration in response. “Approach it all like a writer,” one wise woman suggested. And so I have.

Turning

The world is turning, and I know this now in a way I have not known it, not really, for a number of years. I know that the world is turning because the light is changing. I knew this, of course, and have known it, but now the light is changing; I have missed this.

For the first time today, I had to turn on my bike lights for my five-minute ride to school. It was dark. I haven’t had this in a long time. The suns rises and sets around the same time all year round on the equator, roughly between 7:00 and 7:30, morning or evening. By comparison, when I arrived in Germany in July, the sun rose at 5:12am and set at 9:27pm. Today, it rose at 7:20am, which is when I turned my lights on, and will set at 6:45pm.

Something I was very aware of while living in Malaysia and Singapore was how difficult I found it to judge the passage of time. With the same light, darkness, and more or less the same weather, it was hard to remember when a certain event had occurred and almost impossible to keep track of what I would have worn to said event. Same clothes for same events, all year round. (Notable exceptions being caught in the rain during particular summer storms, and the cold front that came through Singapore last January during which I, for the first and only time, wore jeans in my house.)

It’s different here. Aware of how much colder it will soon be, and it has been cold already, I’ve been very deliberate in spending time outside. And then I remind myself that I moved countries because I missed seasons and that, before Covid, my friends and I were making travel decisions based on which seasons we wanted to experience. Fall in Korea, winter in Europe, spring in Japan.

The amount of light is changing, the leaves are slowly beginning to follow, and the air tastes different in the morning, afternoon, and evening. The apples that I’ve been picking off trees have ripened, and I’ve completely given up on open-toed shoes. I’d need to change clothes multiple times a day to be consistently comfortable, so I’ve settled in a mostly happy medium of tights, scarves, and jackets that zip.

The world is tuning and time is passing. Later this week it will have been three months since I arrived here, which is already a quarter of a year. How did I get here, and so quickly? If I look back six months, which puts “arrival in Germany” squarely in the middle, much of what constitutes my day-to-day is unrecognizable. And much has remained so obviously the same.

So it goes, whether or not we stop to think about it. While days might stretch on forever, weeks pass. While weeks drag, days might fly by. Such is time. This, too, shall pass, and for everything, there is a season. So it goes. And so, one foot in front of the other, do we.

Nami Island, South Korea – October 2019

Hints

I have just done a rare thing, which is why it bears mention: I have just made a second cup of coffee.

This is strange for me. My coffee drinking habits are pretty simple – a cup in the morning. Maybe a cup in the afternoon on the weekends if I’m reading or writing in a café, or if I’m meeting a friend. There were some mornings at my previous school where a coffee connoisseur department mate would offer me a cup and, depending on the status of my first cup, I might accept. He really did make delicious coffee. I’ve been on enough school trips to know that I’m just fine without it, but I so enjoy the ritual of a cup of coffee in the morning. And I just made a second.

I’m thinking.

I’m thinking about loss, about learning, and about where I might be getting things wrong even while I’m trying hard (maybe this is the problem) to do everything right.

I’m thinking about a colleague-turned-friend, and I’m wondering if that’s where I got it wrong. Maybe we remained colleagues. Maybe that’s where it ended. Maybe “keep in touch and don’t be a stranger” fell short of genuine. Or maybe not. Maybe life has gotten in the way, maybe there’s a long to-do list full of weightier priorities, maybe no one is counting weeks except me because it’s my world that has changed.

Or maybe I just can’t take a damn hint. There’s that possibility, too. Maybe I went wrong somewhere and unresponsiveness is a tap on the shoulder. I haven’t ruled that out.

This leads me to once upon a time, over four years ago now, when I was (according to me, at least) abundantly explicit about a specific set of choices. And I know someone who was clearly shocked when I proceeded to do exactly as I had said. Maybe I hadn’t been as clear as I thought, or maybe actions and words were misaligned, or maybe I was that clear. Maybe I did do the right things, and maybe the message just wasn’t received by someone who didn’t want to receive it.

The mind and heart must remain open if we’re going to understand what others have to say, even if we don’t like it.

The brain is protective. It hides us from things we don’t like, especially those that threaten our self-esteem. It makes extensive use of quick, intuitive thinking (System 1, for fans of Tversky and Kahneman) to get us through most situations. We get into trouble when a specific set of circumstances actually requires slower, more rational thought than our brains, wired for efficiency and avoidant of hard work, are willing to give it.

So I made another cup of coffee. I am trying to slow down and think. (We could address the irony of this substance – a stimulant – as a means of slowing down to think, but that’s beyond the scope of this post.)

The danger of thinking, in this case, is overthinking. Am I thinking too much when the best way to be is to just be and let life unfold? Am I thinking too much because I don’t want to get this wrong, because I don’t want to feel sad, because I don’t want to be in the position of wondering how, with the information I had, I could have understood differently? Maybe. I haven’t ruled it out.

In some ways, impulsivity has been beaten out of me. This could be an effect of age or experience, and is likely a combination of age and experience (they are, after all, positively correlated). But my sister has long cautioned me against my tendency towards over-caution and in this sense, I think she’s right. Numerous inspirational quotes spring to mind here but a simple question suffices: “What do you have to lose?”.

If being who I am raises eyebrows, I’m not going to gain anything by being someone else. If trying, with the best of intentions, to be honest about that is objectionable, at least I’ve given it a chance. It’s hard to be someone else; I’ve tried.

With the coffee almost done, I can report that I’ve concluded nothing. But I can also rest assured (at least, according to my brain that is designed to protect me) that I have acted in the best ways that I could. And if that’s not good enough, or if that’s not preferable in the given context, there is nothing else I would have honestly done. To act differently would have been a lie. It is possible I made a mistake, or two or twenty, but that happens. That is bound to happen. Mistakes come from trying and while I might not like the result, at least I have tried.

Weimar, Germany – August 2021

Photos, travels, musings, and ideas on education by someone trying to make the world a better and more peaceful place