The Sacred Unsettling

I spent the past week on the other side of the world in Singapore. It’s not a figure of speech—”the other side of the world”—I was actually on the inverse point of the planet from my life in New York City; the furthest I’ve ever been from home.

In many ways, I’m still the little boy who grew up in Texas and never thought he’d get to see the places on TV shows or in his history books. My family mostly vacationed within driving distance of our home in Dallas—splashing in the salty waves on the Gulf Shore, fishing for rainbow trout in Arkansas rivers, or shoveling basketfuls of chips and salsa down our throats along the Riverwalk—but though our vacations were local, they were nonetheless wonderful.

Today, I’ve lived in New York City for almost nine years but as a teenager, I never even entertained the possibility of visiting this city. It was so far away, it might as well have been Oz. But that changed when I saw a flyer taped to a window near my college cafeteria for a spring break trip to New York. Suddenly it wasn’t Oz, it was a possibility, so I went for it. A handful of years later during grad school, spending the summer in London also became a possibility. I went for that too.

In both situations, it didn’t take long to realize that by seeing and experiencing these faraway places, my internal makeup was shifting and my worldview was expanding at warp speed. That awareness has never left me and since then, I’ve maintained a wide-eyed approach to every opportunity to explore someplace new. Whether it’s the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia, the autumn Apple Festival in Chicago, or even the Haunted Mansion in Disneyland, I never dreamed I’d get to see any of it. Yet over the past few years, I have, and having done so has altered and expanded my outlook on life. (Yes, The Haunted Mansion expanded my outlook on life and I could write an entire essay about it but I’ll save that for another time.) So, when the possibility arose to visit Singapore this June, I went for it like the Kool-Aid man through a brick wall.

I’d been looking forward to the trip for the better part of a year and having never been to Asia, everything sounded otherworldly. Even before I got to Singapore, the layover in the Tokyo airport felt like a mini adventure as I hunted for new flavors and ideas in restaurants and tourist-traps. I walked around the terminals in awe, not just from the newness of my Japanese surroundings but because my inner little boy from Texas simply couldn’t believe he was there.

Once I was in Singapore, I found the temples, street food, and markets to be every bit as invigorating as I imagined; a world away from my day-to-day in Harlem. I tried every food, sipped every drink, and looked up everywhere I went. There’s the world we see by looking ahead and there’s a whole other world to wonder at if you just look up. This is one of life’s great truths.

Early in my trip, while I looked upward and took in every bit of newness I could, I began to get the feeling this was a country that felt conflicted; confused almost. As much as I loved the many diverse and disparate parts of Singapore’s history, the British Colonial influences seemed to combat the Chinese influences which also combated the Indian influences and after the dust settled from all that combat, what was left was an incredibly Americanized city of malls and designer boutiques. It felt almost as if Singapore hasn’t landed on its identity.

As the days went on, this lack of identity became increasingly palpable. I spent a morning at the Universal Studios theme park because I simply can’t stay away from a Jurassic Park river ride no matter what city or country I may be in and on the way back to the hotel, my cab driver and I swapped stories. He wanted to know all about New York and I wanted to know all about Singapore. He said much of what people see as “Singapore” was built on reclaimed land. The tunnels we drove through, the highway that took us around the city, and even the land on which the mega hotels featured in tourism ads and Crazy Rich Asians used to be nothing but ocean.

I thought it was an apropos metaphor, building these would-be beacons of modernity on fabricated foundations, and as much as I can appreciate not destroying what’s already on the land in order to replace it with a bay-facing Louis Vuitton, manufacturing land masses for the purpose of erecting aspirational and generic retail palaces felt eerily telling.

The mega malls and designer stores felt like brick-and-mortar embodiments of a people trying to project an image of success to the outside world, yet beneath all the opulence and overpriced cocktails is a country that doesn’t quite have its own sense of itself. Of course, realizing this made walking around the city all the more fascinating.

For example, we had brunch at a divine restaurant called Wild Honey where the iced lattes coated my heart with a feeling not unlike the love of God. The restaurant was within a mall because everything in Singapore is somehow within or attached-to a mall, and after we finished eating, we walked past a store for traditional Chinese medicines, another full of Indian curry, an American candy store, a Christian Louboutin, and a shop where a Chinese man created works of art out of moss. Actual moss fashioned in patterns, picture frames, and the likeness of Michael Jackson. It was fascinating if a bit disorienting.

The disparate nature of the stores reinforced the odd unsettled energy of the country yet around the time I stood in front of the moss shaped like Michael Jackson, I had a Carrie Bradshaw voiceover sort of realization. Maybe it’s not just Singapore that feels unsettled. Maybe the unsettled one is me.

I was digging deep in a store full of moss but to be fair, some of that could be blamed on jet lag.

I learned pretty early in the week that jet lag arrives like fact bubbles on Pop Up Video. One minute you’re eating dinner and the next, pop, your body is screaming at you to go immediately to sleep. It’s something I’ve never experienced before, the phenomenon of jet lag, and while I was aware of its existence, I was also confident I’d be the one to evade it. And that first night in Singapore, I thought I had.

I’d been awake for the better part of 29 hours by the time I stepped foot on Singaporean reclaimed soil. My inability to get comfortable on planes mixed with a truly great movie selection made for a very long, very alert day of travel. I told myself I’d be able to sleep once I arrived and could then wake up and start the new day with everyone else, thus successfully staving off jet lag. So that’s what I did. I crashed once I got the hotel and in the morning, I woke up feeling refreshed and ready to conquer my day. I felt like a long-distance travel champion; an economy-flying overcomer.

But I’d celebrated too soon.

That evening after seeing Phantom of the Opera, my mind began drawing the blinds on my brain whether I liked it or not. It was the oddest feeling, as if Peter Pan’s shadow turned on him, and I began fighting with myself to stay awake. This tug-of-war then replayed itself every evening around 9pm when my body decided it was time to clock out for the day but my mind was like, I’m on vacation and we’re going to this super fun bar in an hour so absolutely not.

I tried to broker a peace treaty between my body and mind using copious amounts of caffeine but my body wasn’t so easily deceived. Oh it worked for a few minutes and I walked in hazelnut-flavored victory for a bit but my body eventually snapped out of its coffee haze and went back to trying to drag me under. I spent much of each evening fighting against myself with all the ferocity of someone at the bottom of the ocean trying to fight their way to the surface (think Ariel when she first got legs) and it was an unsettling feeling, but in a weird twist, it was also a physical representation of an unsettled feeling that’d been stirring inside of me for weeks.

I’m now 36 years old and I’m entering this new year with more questions than answers. When it comes to my birthday, I usually have my annual goals outlined in an Excel spreadsheet and I confidently cross over the imaginary line of age-based demarcation buttressed by optimism for what’s been and what’s to come. The lead-up to my routinely self-thrown birthday commemoration tends to vibrate with hope and it’s all I can do to not talk relentlessly about all the ways I’m looking forward to crossing over this new threshold. This year, however, has been absent those feelings.

I’d been telling myself the trip to Singapore would double as my birthday celebration, kicking off my new year in a new place, and every aspect of the trip truly delivered. The food, the sights and, most importantly, the company, were divine and breezy. I don’t mean the Monica Geller forced sort of breezy, but an actual breeze of relaxation and going with the flow. There wasn’t an itinerary and there wasn’t a list of places I had to be at specific times. This is atypical for me, someone for whom planning is counted among their most pronounced spiritual gifts, but it was simply an easy, unscheduled week and I felt better for it. But through all of the great stuff, through the trees that lit up, the view of the skyline from the inside a Merlion, and a Michael Jackson made out of moss, I couldn’t escape the underlying question: Who am I at 36?

Singapore’s lack of identity seemed to ignite questions about my own and as breezy as the trip was, the back-and-forth drama of jet lag coerced sunken thoughts and perhaps even tucked-away fears to surface on the pages of my journal. One morning, my body woke up with the dawn and as I sat in my hotel room window, I watched the sun rise alongside questions about what’s next for me.

Of course I don’t believe in coincidence or happenstance so I found it to be a bit of dark poetry that my body and spirit felt simultaneously and uniformly unsettled. Couple that with my ever-present awareness of the ironies of life—my feeling so unsettled while also being fully present and lapping up every moment of a perfect week of vacation with my favorite person—and the past week has been quite the head-spinner.

It’s not like I’m staring into the puddle like Zoolander asking myself, “Who am I?” I know who I am, more so today than at any point in my life, but what seems to be up in the air is what I’m doing next. My best laid plans and spreadsheets sit empty for the first time in a very long time and I’m not quite sure what to do with that.

So I tried to fill them. On the flight back to New York, I pulled out a pad of paper and began jotting down every writing project I’m working on, every way I can better myself at home, and every personal goal I could think of to fill the apparent chasm that’s opened to swallow my forward momentum. I wrestled with all the ways I could get myself out of this unsettled funk and asked God for the winning assist; for the stone that could slay this unsettled giant which stands between me and my next step. All I got back was silence.

But that was also the answer.

As much as I hated it, staring out the plane window with nothing but the hum of the engine keeping me company, I accepted that there’s a purpose for this chapter of sitting unsettled. In many ways, it’s sacred to be in a moment of endless possibility. Countless people feel trapped by the towering expectations and rigid commitments of their lives and I don’t feel that way at all. I see a wide-open frontier. I see blank pages. And I’m beginning to see possibility. It makes me anxious and somewhat twitchy, but I’m starting to see it.

So as I flew over the topmost coastline of Canada with its sheets of ice resting serenely on royal blue waters, I decided to stop fighting it. Instead, I’m allowing myself to sit unsettled without fabricating a new direction or a quick fix. It’ll come, eventually. I’d say I’m having about a 34% success rate with this at the moment but at least I’m trying.

When jet lag tried to pull me under, I had to fight against it. Now I’m trying to do the opposite, to give the fight a rest and instead just look up. Maybe that’s part of the sacredness of being unsettled: learning to stop fighting it so you can be open and ready for whatever comes next.

Ryan’s book of essays, I Feel God in This Cab, is available here. 

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