Introduction - Spiritually Curious
Dubai, UAE: Spring 2020
The world circa Spring 2020 is at the beginning stages of a global pandemic. Tensions between global powers are rising in the South China Sea. Trust in Western democratic institutions is declining rapidly. The airwaves are saturated with hostility and confusion. My family is fractured, separated by land and sea. I have become nomadic. Without a community or home, I wander. My body is in Dubai but my consciousness is outside time, floating in the warm ethereal waters of eternity. Here I can relive moments past and glimpse unimagined futures. I am not in control; the reveries come along like waves that I surf with curiosity and compassion, joy and wonder. Since the shamanic ceremony, I have not been fully put back together. I have not reintegrated my awareness into my body’s time and place. I am outside myself while life beckons, a siren’s call on a distant shore, to be fully realized and attached. To care about the world of time again. To love.
Inside time, my body is anxious. Full of worry. View from the balcony: South is the Arabian Sea, hues of blue and green by day but now, before sunrise, it is featureless and grey. South-east, a mostly empty contemporary condo complex; eight stories of glass, steel, and white fascia. Most of the tenants left before the lockdown started. South-west, an industrial coastline. Energy plants and aluminum factories. Banks of cranes and exhaust stacks. Blinking red lights and a lone narrow fire atop a tall pipe.
I’ve been up since 2 a.m. There was a storm. I heard the thunder but did not see the lightning. It passed. It’s still dark and I’m already three coffees into the day. The birds are only now starting to wake up and chirp. Since the quarantine started, this balcony has become a nut and berry buffet for at least a dozen different birds. Mostly the myna but I’ve seen a crow and a sparrow. It’s warm. The air is thick with humidity. It’s not yet desert hot but the signs are there. I’m already starting to sweat and the sun’s not fully risen.
I’m chatting with Mike over WhatsApp. It’s late evening in North America.
“Alex, it’s snowing here!! How is Dubai?” he asks.
“Mike! I’m in exile and under house arrest, how are you guys doing?” I ask.
“Anne and I have been up and down. I’ve been generally prickly for the better part of three months and this additional anxiety over the pandemic hasn’t helped. All four boys are stuck inside with us—driving me bananas. Lost my shit on them a few times. Anne told me to give it a rest.”
“Saint Anne,” I say.
“How’s your business? Are you under any pressure?” he asks.
“Are you asking if my aviation technology company is affected by a global aviation shutdown, economic collapse, and the threat of war in the Gulf and South China Sea?”
“Don’t be an ass!”
“Shareholders asked us to build a couple of scenarios: cost of bankruptcy versus cost of a skeleton crew,” I tell him.
“That’s a lot of pressure,” he replies.
“Not really. Strangely enough, I haven’t felt this free and calm in twenty years.”
“Now I’m curious,” he says.
“Man, there are wealthy guys who basically own countries that are worried. Let them figure it out. In the meantime, I’m going to catch up on some reading and learning how to yoga.”
“I really don’t believe you. It’s early over there, you’ve probably been up worrying all night,” he says, “Any chance you’ll need to move back?”
“Who knows, Mike. This morning I tried praying… just to be able to see my kids again one more time.”
“You will see them again.”
We end our chat with Mike having the last word. I hate it when he does that. He’s one of my best friends, but sometimes, when I share the way I’m feeling about something, I just want to be heard.
Mike offering a fact-free opinion when I’m sharing a feeling reminds me of the thousands of times I’ve done the same thing to people around me. I’m a terrible listener but I’m striving to be better. I tend to think more than feel. I’m 60 percent nerd, roughly. I push hard to get that down below 50 percent. Less than half nerd so I can be tolerable in a relationship. It’s not easy.
Of course, I woke up worried I might never see my kids again. I promised them I’d be home every Christmas and summer. I didn’t factor in a global aviation collapse and whatever is to come. I’ve never been in a pandemic before, but the world feels a little apocalyptic right now. I’ve never been in an apocalypse either, so yeah, I’m a little worried, Mike.
The Germans have a word that the English borrowed: zeitgeist, the spirit of our times. We are living in a period of unprecedented power and ignorance in equal measure. We are the generation that has all but succeeded in conquering the natural world, and not a single person alive has a reasonable clue as to why. Why we run, why we conquer. Great power and a great deal more confusion, the thematic undertone of our zeitgeist.
My grandad used to say that an ignorant man speaking his ignorance is just an ignorant man, leave him alone. An ignorant man speaking his ignorance passionately, well that right there is a fool. Try and not become one of those.
I’ve spoken my ignorance passionately more than once. I strive to do that a little less now. But these times. These times feel like there are a lot of people speaking and acting passionately on their ignorance. This wouldn’t be so much of an issue but for the nuclear weapons they control, the havoc being wreaked on our shared ecosystem, and the generational disenfranchisement, oppression, and outright enslavement that still happens in 2020.
I also woke up a little sad. That I’ll never walk my girls down the aisle or have some guy time with my son. That I won’t ever be a grandad. It’s just a feeling. Not a strong feeling, as in any kind of imminent threat; it’s just a new possibility that these times have brought, something that I had never really considered before.
Here in Dubai, whenever you make plans with someone, they always say Inshallah. God willing.
I will see the kids again, Inshallah.
The times are strange. Tragic for a lot of people, but so far for me, just surreal. Generally, I’m a pretty rational guy, but there’s a dreamlike texture to my world now. The news reports are pulling at the fabric of my reality. Leaders around the world have taken on a mildly cartoonlike quality. And I live in a Middle-Eastern desert, thousands of miles from the snowy valley I grew up in. Thinking about it this morning, it’s been an adventure since I visited Maui with my friend Fadi a few years ago.
My circle of manhood is pretty tight. Mike is my rock. A few years older than me and stoic, unchanging. Fadi is a buccaneer and a few years younger than me. My brothers-in-arms. They’ve been beside me these past seven years in my search for a kind of truth. For wisdom, for some way of calibrating my internal compass with the world around me. True North.
I don’t have answers, but I’m sharing my journey through my own ignorance toward a kind of goodness that I can live with.
I haven’t been a particularly religious person. Born and raised Catholic. Spent a little time as an altar boy. Nothing negative to report there but I left the Church in my teens because it didn’t feel religious to me then. The experience all felt very… political. In my twenties, an atheist, closed minded to any and all possibilities. As a young dad, agnostic. Neither for nor against any particular religion or conceptualization of God.
Then spiritually curious. Mildly Buddhist with a dash of New Testament. This God stuff, what is really going on there? There’s something in there I’ve always wanted to understand. What were all those people really talking about? And just before the pandemic kicked in, I met a shaman and participated in a mystical ceremony. That’s when things got really weird.
Today, if I had to label it, omni-religious. If it wasn’t for the quarantine, I would have visited Nepal last month for a Hindu celebration of Lord Shiva, one of the many religious figures in India and parts of the Himalayas. I wanted to visit the sadhus. The bizarre, ash-covered holy men of India and Nepal. As I write this here in Dubai, we are only a few days away from Ramadan. A period of fasting, charity, and devotion to community between lunar cycles. As a guest in a foreign country, I do my best to respect the tradition and I observe with fascination.
There’s another reason my compass is spinning: I have a penis. Testicles also.
I once overheard an old man ask a plumber friend of mine for a new toilet. One with a higher seat. “But you’re in great shape. Why do you need a handicapped toilet?” my friend asked. “Because every time I sit down my testicles get wet!” said the old man.
That about sums up how I used to think of manhood. A young man fumbles his way through life trying to make babies, a man tries to raise babies, and an old man tries to hold on to his comfort and keep his testicles dry. I know a little more about manhood today than when I started the journey, but I’m still learning.
Last thing: My skin is fair. My eyes are blue. I made more money than anyone I knew growing up. I have a few watches that are worth more than every car my dad ever owned. I’ve travelled around the world for a technology business I started. About all of this, I feel neither guilt nor pride. It just is what it is. Most of my life has been reactive.
I was shot out of the womb a little over forty-five years ago into a world of people who were running. I ran along with them. I ran as far as I could as fast as I could. I left people behind, I pushed people out of my way, I leapt over the injured and the sick. I admired those who could run faster. I held veiled contempt for those who couldn’t keep up. We have to outrun the wolves; I’ll worry about where I’m going once I get there.
To my peers in business, I look like a normal guy. I wear nice suits. I strike all the right notes when I speak. My LinkedIn profile has just the right amount of normal, wealth-building capitalist on the page. I fly around the world. I sit in boardrooms. Normal. To my kids, friends, and family, I’m a stand-up guy. I meet all my obligations and live up to my responsibilities. But inside. Inside I’m spinning. I know what I’m doing. I just don’t know why I’m doing it.
The closest thing to North on my compass was my paternal grandad. When he passed, my world fell apart. I once hoped to be able to carry his values of family, community, and the Church forward in my own life. My life was going to be a straight line, from him to me and on to my son.
Today, I’m something else. A nomad in the desert searching for his tribe. Or just a nerd trapped on his balcony with a couple of Indian pigeons, breathing into the transformation of the world.