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  • Sue Schleifer

New Destination


This story is from my book, The Key To The Castle: Zen and Travel Stories of Trust, 2013.

When I travel to a new place, whether to Ashland, Oregon or Ubud, Bali, at some point during the trip I imagine what my life might be like in this new place. How would I spend my days, with whom would I interact, would I find people of like mind, what could I learn here about myself and others? What is the weather like, the food, the physical environment?

These questions give me the opportunity to imagine myself other than as a tourist. What is life like for the people who live there throughout the seasons? How does life differ depending upon the economic or social class of the person? What is the role of women in this culture? What opportunities would I have for work?

Sometimes I ask myself these questions as I take a walk and come up with possible answers without doing any research. Sometimes I talk to people who live there to get more of a sense of their daily lives. Sometimes I read about the place. Asking questions helps me to think more deeply about what it might be like to live in this place and gives me a greater appreciation for the people. I also think more about what is important to me in how I live.

Mark and I traveled to Louisiana in October of 2009 for the Louisiana Book Festival where Mark presented his book, Cajun and Zydeco Dance Music in Northern California: Modern Pleasures in a Postmodern World. At first I wasn’t going to go with Mark, but at the last minute decided to join him.

We had a wonderful trip – walking, exploring, and eating our way through New Orleans, boating in the Atchafalaya Basin on a swamp tour in Cajun Country, and listening to many writers read their works at the book festival in Baton Rouge, the state capitol. I particularly enjoyed hearing Ernest J. Gaines speak after having recently reread his book, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. As I sat in the Senate Chamber in the swivel seat of a state senator, the woman next to me asked where I was from. We had a lively conversation and she introduced me to other people sitting close to us.

This was not the first time on this trip that the people I met were super friendly. As we drove around, I asked myself “what would it be like to live here?”

I write a monthly e-newsletter. My most popular newsletter to date, judging by the number of people who sent me email messages after reading it, was the story I wrote entitled, “Working In The Field You Love When You Can't Get A Job In Your Field.”

The piece described how my husband pursued his academic and musical interests as an independent scholar because he had not secured a tenure track position at a university. He would get up early in the morning, prior to going to his administrative job, to read, write and practice his music. He developed a rich and satisfying life.

Fast forward two years and guess what? The dream job appeared out of nowhere, an endowed chair position to create a program in traditional music at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.

When Mark forwarded the job announcement to me my first reaction was, “Wow, what a perfect fit.” Then I thought about what it would be like to live in Lafayette, Louisiana. Since we had visited Louisiana in October, I had recent positive associations with the area. However, I had never lived in the South nor had any desire to, quite frankly.

I work as a life and career coach and in that role I support my clients in identifying and pursuing their dreams. How could I not support Mark in his dream? At the same time, I was aware that I needed to take care of myself and ensure that I could pursue my career and my happiness. I began to watch my thoughts and emotions as things progressed. When Mark was invited to have a Skype interview, I knew that the possibility of moving to Louisiana was now more of a reality. I was happy for him.

Then I had two days of mourning. I felt much like I did after my mom died. I cried. I was incredibly tired and sad. I watched what was happening and let myself be. I thought about the things that I would miss in my life in the San Francisco Bay Area: my friends and neighbors, my beautiful home and garden, Empty Gate Zen Center, all of the contacts and relationships that I had built in my work life. I had a good life and I was happy.

Then two days later I was back to normal. I realized that happiness is an inner state of being. If he was offered the job, we would build a new life in Louisiana while maintaining our friendships in California and around the country. Would we miss California at times? Yes, and we would go back to visit.

In February of 2010 I was planning to sit the Empty Gate Zen Center’s eight-day retreat for the second time. That decision was made before Mark learned about and applied for the position in Louisiana. Subsequently, he was invited for a campus interview and I was also invited to Louisiana. I think the interviewing committee wanted to make sure that I was on board with this possible move in case Mark was offered the job. So, instead of sitting the entire retreat, we just sat on Friday and Saturday as we had much to do to prepare for the interview and our journey.

In those two days of sitting, I did a lot of thinking. I thought about the mechanics of moving and ran through scenarios of how we might transport our cat. I thought about how I would miss the sangha and the opportunity to sit with this group and listen to Jeff’s dharma talks. I felt excited about the possibilities for our lives and fearful as well.

This was a very different “sitting” experience than when I did the eight-day retreat. Perhaps if I had had the opportunity to sit for more than two days, my mind would have settled down. I was back to planning and calculating as I had in the first two days the year prior.

Mark was offered the position and accepted it with my support. Now my fantasy about what it would be like to live in Louisiana had taken on the realm of reality.

Just as friends were surprised that I planned to sit an eight-day retreat, people were surprised that we were moving to Louisiana. I think that some of my friends felt sorry for me. Moving from the San Francisco Bay Area to South of the South seemed like such a big leap. Even the Zen Master seemed skeptical about what our lives would be like.

After we moved, friends and sangha members asked how we were doing. I think some people expected us to be unhappy.

It seems I was ready for this next adventure. In no small measure, I believe that my Zen practice prepared me for this latest journey and has been a help and resource as I navigate life in the South. I take one day, one moment at a time. I ask myself, “what is this?” “what am I?” and when I answer, “Don’t know,” it feels true.