Welcome to the Orient

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After two full days spent in Hong Kong, the first thing that I can tell you about this place is that it is unlike any other place in the world. From the food sold in the street side eateries to the cultural identity of the people, everything is such a departure from everything that I have seen.

One of the striking features of Hong Kong is how strongly mixed the influences of its past have become. I am by no means an expert on the city’s history, but Hong Kong’s residents have an obviously unique cultural identity. Over the years, Hong Kong has gone through several different governing bodies and even now, while still Chinese, is not fully integrated or governed by the People’s Republic of China. Because of all this (thank goodness), there is a strong friendliness to the English speaker here. Though not everyone has quite understood me the first time, I have yet to meet anyone that seemed frustrated by the fact that I don’t speak Cantonese. Which is far more than you can expect to receive in many other non-English speaking countries.

With the help of the directors on the i5 trip, getting around has become so small a concern that we’ve been able to lose ourselves in the sights, rather than more literally. Whether walking the Hong Kong harbor promenade or passing through a tent market street in Kowloon City, there is so much to take in that it is hard not to become a bit overwhelmed. Everything in view is so radically different from what I’ve been accustomed to. Chickens on the rotisserie still have their heads. Signs are in a language that uses nothing remotely close to our alphabet. And all of it is wrapped up in an incomprehensibly dense city. A city that is rich with sights, sounds, and adventure.

Over the next couple months, there will be no shortage of things take in here in Hong Kong and throughout the rest of China. Welcome to the Orient.

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Creating Who You Are

Being abroad for so long, the number of times that I can say the phrase “finding myself” has come to mind is just about limitless. Meeting hundreds of new people, participating in new organizations, and exploring new places has lent no shortage of ‘self-discovery’ moments. In the middle of so many incredible things, new challenges crop up on at least a daily basis, each one offering a new moment of self-discovery. Every experience has been a teacher.

But in the midst of so many challenges and learning experiences, there is still so much that feels as though it isn’t making the least progress. So much isn’t changing at all. After the countless Disney movies we grew up on, I guess none of us should be surprised that you can’t run away from who you really are though. And I think that’s fundamentally what it all comes down to. No matter how much you change your circumstances, there are a lot of pieces of yourself so well rooted that nothing will change them but some intentioned action.

All of that is pretty straightforward. It might not be something you’ve quite come to grips with emotionally, but I’m sure it’s something that we all grasp on an intellectual level. Which is good, because I think it hints at something much deeper. George Bernard Shaw said it best.

“Life isn’t about finding yourself; it’s about creating yourself.”

If that man was still alive I’d take him to dinner for sure.

The simple truth is that most of who you are is not going to be changed or built up by anything other than your own choices. Your experiences will impact and shape you, doubtlessly. But real life does not consist solely of your circumstances. It consists in your choices of what will consume you, in your declarations of who you will be, and in the perspectives you choose to cling to. It is these choices that create who we truly are, who we are perceived to be, and what we carry with us no matter where we go.

Life has one artist: the self. Who are you creating yourself to be?

Unicorn Antiques

Photography is a hobby that comes with a lot benefits that you wouldn’t necessarily expect. One of which is that you tend to explore areas a little more closely than you otherwise would. Maybe you notice a building, a scene, a peak, a cloud that you wouldn’t have. Or maybe you take a turn down a trail or road that you might not have bothered with. Here in Edinburgh, simply exploring a neighborhood a little more thoroughly as I looked for some good photo opportunities has shown me some things that I am incredibly grateful for having seen. Maybe nothing mind-blowing. It’s not like you’re going to take a side-street and discover a church like Notre Dame. But there are numerous little joys that, just in themselves, would make photography worth it.

A few days ago I stumbled onto this treasure: Unicorn Antiques.

First, I can’t think of name more appropriate for an antique store. What’s more unique, undiscovered, and rare than a unicorn? And who doesn’t visit antique stores secretly hoping to find a unicorn horn somewhere on a back shelf? (No? Only me on that one? Damn.) Seriously though, I think the name captures the intrigue and whimsy of this antique store perfectly.

I can’t say that I’m a big antique person. They’re fun, but I’m no aficionado. With this one, I couldn’t help myself though. I had to see what Unicorn Antiques was all about.

Squeezing through the pathways around its main, cluttered table, I found myself lingering on far too many of the thousands of aged trinkets. Old decanters that had poured a thousand drinks, quills that had scribbled lovers scrawls, silver spoons that had served hundreds of guests. The stories held in each scratch, chip and dent were omnipresent, only waiting to be imagined.

There were two things that I realized as Newton Faulkner offered a perfect soundtrack to those curiosities: 1) often times, your imagination is far better than the truth and 2) I’m finally old enough to touch things in an antique store and not be looked at funny.

I’d love to believe that every dent held onto by the trinkets of Unicorn Antiques had a unique and intriguing story. It’s a wonderful picture to think that those imperfections somehow testified to a memorable or intriguing moment in someone else’s life. It’s more likely, however, that those marks were caused by nothing more than a casual carelessness and a quick descent to the floor. How fantastic would it be if the dent on the pewter hip flask was actually the result of an epic bar fight involving an aging military man with a decaying sense of purpose, an incorrigible yet undeniably clever drunkard and some violent use of a stuffed bull head (won by a courageous matador years ago, of course); or that the chip off the ivory letter knife was caused when it’s impassioned owner slung it into his writing desk, just along its brackets, as he read the letter explaining that his lover had found another? But there is likely only one paint chip in the entirety of Unicorn Antiques with a story so impressive.

How much does the truth really matter though? These objects and their imperfections are akin to the mystery boxes that J.J. Abrams uses to inspire his thrilling narratives. What’s inside hardly matters at all. It’s what is imagined to be inside that is evocative. It hardly takes J.J. Abrams for a mystery to be interesting though. We all make countless assumptions and fill in thousands of unsaid details for ourselves every day. I simply intend mine to be worth fabricating in the first place.

Secondly, with all seriousness, I can finally pick up an object in an antique store and not be scrutinized as an unwatched neighborhood rascal. Maybe it was the long hair, ridiculous skate shoes, lip ring, or unbridled boyish enthusiasm, but every other time I ventured into a place filled with marginally valuable things I found myself the recipient of a great deal of wary attention. The expectation has always been my failure.

It’s not mean. We simply expect that children will muck it up. But our expectations change when we feel that the person we are dealing with is mature enough to handle themselves appropriately. It seems that I finally ascertained both the actual maturity, and air of maturity, to be tolerated in an antique shop without much reservation.

In other words, I’m getting old. It’s a challenging notion to consider that in the grand scheme of things, it wont be long before my own treasures are occupying a place in an antique store or are discarded with the vast majority of possessions that outlive their owners. For now, I’m trying to just linger on the notion that I can touch old things and not have my hand slapped. (Get your mind out of the gutter, el grosso.)

It’s pretty amazing where the imagination will take you. A narwhale horn became the story of a magical, horned horse. A dent in a pewter hip flask became an image of a bar fight and bull horns. A realization of maturity turned into a revelation of mortality. And all of that from an antique store completely free of charge.

I’d say Unicorn Antiques is very aptly named.

What’s Your Well?

I’m gonna start with this: jet lag’s a bitch.(Yep. I said it.) I might not be posting it at 3 in the morning, but you better believe that I started writing this thing in the wee hours. And no, if it were simply up to me, I would be fast asleep by now. But jet lag is has had some other plans the past few nights. (And none of this is what I actually wanted to talk about. Stupid fatigue ADD.)

When I think about the last few weeks, there is one word that continually comes to mind: refreshing. The past several weeks have covered three counties, including some time at home, and afforded me the chance to see so many friends that I haven’t seen in far too long. When I headed home at the end of March, I knew that home would be a great bit of R&R. But I had no idea just how deeply satisfying it would be. I had no idea how much I needed it.

Study abroad has given me the chance to meet, and become friends with, a ridiculous number of absolutely stunning people. But the truth is, no matter how close some of those relationships have become, there are only a couple exceptions to the fact that these friendships are still fairly shallow. It’s not a bad thing; there is simply a depth that usually only time can bring to a relationship.

If there are friendships that you have had the fortune to hold onto for several years, you know what I mean. When you first became friends, I’m sure you felt close. But it wasn’t until the relationship aged for a few years that it reached it’s true richness. True friends are like a good whisky. It’s only with a bit of maturity that the authentic flavors come out and more age can only add to the quality. (Some friends are more like a bottle of wine, but that’s another post.)

I’m beginning to realize that, for me, the greatest satisfactions in life will likely come from these deep and well-built friendships. The value of a great, newly-made friend is unquestionable, but I believe there are parts of our lives that only our companions will be able to touch. Only the people who have walked by our side through countless days in a diverse world will be nourishing at times. Being home and in Paris for the past few weeks gave me the opportunity to be refreshed by the people who I am lucky enough to call companions.

(For those of you who I was fortunate enough to see while I was home, thank you so much for taking the time to spend with me. You don’t know what a blessing you are in my life.

Edinburgh itself has sparked some further thought on all of this over the past couple days. This city has changed A LOT since I got back. Basically, everything has exploded in flowers, blossoms, buds, and growth of every kind. Growing up in Texas, you gain an appreciation for the wildflowers and green fields that Spring consistently brings, but it’s nothing in comparison to what Scotland experiences. Here it’s as if every living thing was cared for attentively and nourished without fail, giving rise to a chorus that celebrates in an exclaimed unison the very act of growth and life itself. It’s a little bewildering to have seen this place in March and be returning to it now. In the practiced walk back to my residence, there were multiple times I had to stop and make sure I was going the right way; walls of growth and filled out trees seem to have sprung up everywhere and now obscure the landmarks I usually see.

That growth couldn’t have happened so quickly without a deep and refreshing well to drink from. It’s obvious where it comes from here. (It rains like a mother. You can basically count on it raining the very instant you throw your shades on and prepare to enjoy the sun.) But it’s often a lot less obvious where we receive our personal refreshment from. We can grow like this place. We can explode with new vibrancy and show our beauty to the world, but we need a deep well for it to happen.

The people we are fortunate enough to have as lasting friends can be just such a thing. They are a wellspring and a potential source of the emotional sustenance we need for growth. Their love is one essential part of a blossoming life.

I suppose that I’ve known all this for some time. But it always seems to take the deepest truths the longest time and most clear demonstrations for them to really sink in.

All of this begs the question, who makes up your well?

(Disclaimer: Though this post’s title and content share some minor similarities with past projects/ideas, but it has nothing to do with them. That “well” is sealed. Ironic? I thought so too.)

Ordering Originality

The Thinker

Last semester there were a ridiculous number of things that I wanted to see. But having so many things to see(a problem I don’t mind having, by the way), caused a few to get put off for quite a while. The Rodin Museum ended up being one of my favorite sites in Paris, but it also had to wait quite a while.

Yet another priceless lesson I have taken away from my travels is that there is simply no substitute for actually experiencing a thing of beauty. Beauty itself has the power to change so much of us; the romantically lauded “aesthetic experience”, if you will. But regardless of how well reproduced the experience of a beautiful thing is through photos or writing, it will not have the same impact as the real thing. Whether a work of art or a flowing river, consuming the scene with all of your senses cannot be replaced. Those coffee table books and novels we read can be beautiful reminders of the experiences we’ve had or inspiration for adventures, but make no mistake, they will never satisfy or shape us the way actually being there will.

Seeing The Thinker for the first time reinforced that truth very clearly. I’d seen its photographs a hundred times before. But no matter how many times I had seen the images, I was unprepared for what the sculpture itself would actually elicit from me.

As a sculptor, Rodin’s style always seemed to contain some deep seated brashness. It comes across in the ways that his sculptures defy convention and seem almost as unplanned successes: some are unexpectedly missing body parts, others have a pockmarked or jagged texture, and some are clearly intentionally distressed. One of the last sentiments I would have expected a Rodin sculpture to bring out me was a deep-seated order or composure.

But Rodin had incredible control and precision in his work. And when I came across The Thinker, I remember how struck I was by its clearly defined composition. While retaining his own style, he also brings forward an order that builds intensity into the sculpture. Using a defined structure and rigid angles, an explicitly human regularity impacts the viewer, making The Thinker’s pensiveness all the more deeply penetrating.

As I stood there amidst the rose bushes, staring up at The Thinker, a quote that a friend shared with me some time ago came to mind.

“Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.”

Gustave Flaubert

The habits and qualities of our lives build on one another in what are often unexpected ways. For me, at least, habits of maintaining order and regularity in my daily life undoubtedly amplify my ability to be creative in what I choose to apply myself to. From a clear and well-structured foundation and frame, a stunning and evocative work of architecture can spring up. From the carefully defined angles and shapes of The Thinker, a deeply original and evocative composition comes forward. In exactly the same sense, I think cultivating a sense of regularity in our daily lives allows our passions to take their course with vigor and departure.

The human machine needs some degree of stability; cultivating some regularity in our lives is the way that we provide that. Authentic originality and clear-minded productivity are the bi-products that we have to look forward to when we provide ourselves with the freedom of an ordered life.

Finding Liberton Kirk

Really starting to get back to running has reminded me of one incredible benefit to the whole thing that is often overlooked: you find things.

When I go running, it’s not very often that I stick to my “usual” run. I turn down streets I have yet to see, run up hills I have yet to look over, and run down paths I have yet to follow. A little adventure keeps thing interesting.

From time to time it gets me into a bit of trouble. You know… Shady neighborhoods and muddy shoes. But those are other posts. And still so worth it.

This past week I made the discovery of Liberton Kirk and the Liberton Cemetery. Edinburgh is undeniably full of beautiful sights and scenery. This church is one of its hidden gems. In fact, it’s so hidden it’s hard to even find on Google Maps. But that’s exactly what I love about running. You find things that aren’t on Google Maps.

Last Saturday I decided to walk the route back and take some pictures of what I found. Along the way I stopped to take some pictures of another church and came across the man in the picture below. There’s a funny thing about cameras. It either makes people very shy or very goofy. You wouldn’t believe it, but this old man was definitely the latter. Seconds before I too this one he was waving his cane around in the air, doing a slightly less mobile dance, and shouting, “Take my picture, laddy!” at me from across the street. I kid you not. I might not have the proof, but I do have a much clearer picture of what I want to be like in my later years.

This is what a real smile looks like.

On top of it all, by the time I made it to the church, an otherwise cloudy day had turned to sun. I’m not sure I could have asked for anything more.

As you first come close to it, Liberton Kirk looks like something from a movie. The creeping vines have overtaken its aged faces. Its pock marked facade shows the torment of a thousand storms. Its stone thresholds even show worn ruts where countless church goers have crossed into its hall.

But if there is one quality that I think completes the scene of Liberton Kirk, it’s the church’s size. The vast majority of churches and cathedrals are captivating because they are overwhelming. Their grandeur is so impressive that we are left with no choice but to marvel. Liberton Kirk has none of this. It’s not astounding in its magnitude. It isn’t impressive because it is a feat of construction. And it’s not magnificent.

Liberton Kirk is humble. Like a man of the truest character, it presents itself exactly as it really is. It invites you to investigate it, to try it, and to know its flawed mortar just as you would its perfectly cut stone. Rather than the icon to behold, it is the hold in which to take your repose.

Liberton Kirk, Edinburgh, Scotland

Furthering the scene, the church’s yard is actually the oldest portion of the Liberton cemetery. All around the church for about 50 yards in any direction is a scattered array of headstones and monuments, marking the places where former church patrons now rest. Seeing the individual monuments was incredible simply because of the work that obviously went into them. But reading over them brought out the really interesting facts. Most of the people buried around Liberton Kirk were there before the States were even a nation. Seeing the age of places like this worn into the stone is incredible, but somehow, knowing the exact date that these monuments were erected makes it even more real.

Liberton Cemetery, Edinburgh, Scotland

I’ve had the joy of seeing an enormous of incredible things over the past several months. Though in the whole adventure, it’s been some of the things that I have chanced upon that have been the most profound. It’s only a small church, with replaced windows and a somber yard, but Liberton Kirk is absolutely a treasure of mine.

All Business People ≠

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Almost every time I answer the question “What are you studying?”, I garner a simple and all too expressive “oh” in response. It seems that there is a very common expectation for what a business student will be interested in. And it has very little to do with the things I really appreciate.

I think it’s time that some of us set the record straight. Just because we’re studying business doesn’t mean we’re channeling our inner Gordon Gecko. It doesn’t mean we only have a taste for pinstripe suits and banker shirts. And it doesn’t mean we’re ignorant of what the world is really like.

For some, all of the above will be true. But it’s not for all of us. Some of us care to make a difference and see business as the best tool for that. Some of us are artists in disguise. And a few of us think we’d get a lot further in the world if we stopped evaluating people based on our own misguided perceptions and understandings.

Here’s to hoping we can quell a bit of consistent misjudgment. Give me a little bit more time and I’ll prove it to you.