Have you ever played this mind game after achieving a major life goal — getting the first job, finding your partner, having a child, paying off the house?
After such milestones, have you not asked what’s next?
The very existence of the question shows that milestones are only milestones and not the destination.
This is the issue that plagued my early years. I couldn’t commit to anything without a damn good reason. It is also largely why I didn’t start a teaching career until I was 35.
Fooling With Delusion
Before that, I was a mad poet trying to write and get published, avoiding a full-time professional job and its life commitments like marriage and kids.
You see, I thought I was monk material. Such was the delusion I maintained for fifteen years, idealising what I believed to be the true spiritual life. Much later, the turbaned and bearded bloke with a pale complexion in the picture above became a Sikh by choice and joyfully burned that bridge, learning a life lesson.
The Punjabi word ‘Sikh’ derives from the Sanskrit śikṣā or ‘shiksha’, which means:
“instruction, lesson, study, knowledge, learning, study of skill, training in an art.”
By the way, I only bring up my affiliation to affirm a core belief: to be an effective teacher requires becoming a student or ‘sikh’ (in the generic sense) first.
Following that line of thought, I believe that education has nothing to do with packaging digestible information for passing exams. Instead, it is to make a student hungry for learning itself because knowledge sets us free. Anything less is a paltry substitute.
The good news is that I’m still a brainsick poet and a smitten teacher who is no longer standing on that virtual bridge between indecisiveness and outcome. Some positive changes happened along the way.
Looking back now, I don’t have many regrets, except that I probably should have taken another year to get a Diploma in Education early on because that would have made life much easier.
Back then, teaching in school was not something I aspired toward, although I always have hugely respected teachers. Good educators help each generation grow up.
Over time, their value has been eroded by an educational system that has moved away from the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake to fit round pegs in a job market of square holes. Moreover, teachers are largely untenured and underpaid.
I didn’t really think I had what it takes to be a real teacher. Empathy is a fundamental requirement. Most of my attention was taken up with that disturbing and burning question: why am I here? It led me to seek answers through world philosophies and its practical tool — meditation, things still very much at the core for me.
But I am stalling. Let me tell you what happened.
I earned a degree in journalism and media studies to meet parental expectations, but full-time work after college didn’t make sense if it did not lead to a deeper and meaningful life.
I couldn’t choose a profession without addressing that existential question. Was work a means to an end — buying leisure time for what? Building a solid home and climbing the job ladder may bring happiness but are they an ultimate and final destination? Perhaps such questions only arise in those who come from an economically safe background — Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and all that.
My father went through several business failures and final bankruptcy under my mother’s name. She divorced him while I was still in college. I guess this made me think long and hard about the purpose of family, work and life. I was determined not to fall into the same trap.
Foolishly perhaps, I needed to have something to go on before committing to a life course and its consequences — at least one reason before crossing the bridge. Others have certainly confronted the same issue. My story is not unique.
Shunning a full-time career has its upsides and downsides. First, one may get extra creative time, but life experience is more important if one wants to write or teach writing which is my subject.
Much of my early poetry and fiction was ‘atmospheric’ but short on insight.
Part-time jobs such as multi-tasking at a small publishing company as well as side gardening gigs took up some of the economic slack. Unfortunately, neither gave me much income or satisfaction.
I finally succumbed to the job collar as a clerical officer for a government department. Assigned duty at a large veterans’ hospital, I stuck labels on nurse timesheets, then delivered to the various wards.
As far as work goes, this position was perfect for a job avoider like me who hated being hemmed in. I got to walk around the hospital grounds and make friends with staff and patients; I also stole moments in quiet gardens to write in my journal until the pager rang, calling me back to the admin unit.
My higher-ups had bigger things in mind, and soon I was transferred to the head office Veterans Affairs Training Unit in the centre of the city, taking the bus to work and spacing out in an open plan office with the boss and her eagle eye keeping a close check on me — her newbie training officer still on probation.
I was not too fond of the paperwork and filing, and yes, this was all pre-computer times, so there was no scope for distraction secretly lurking on social media or surfing the Net. So, of course, I sneaked in books and read on the sly.
First Taste of Teaching
The best part of my week was giving occasional short orientation talks to incoming government staff. It certainly wasn’t deep stuff, but I enjoyed organising my thoughts and delivering them from the front of the training room. This job was my first formal taste of teaching, and I didn’t appreciate it at the time.
But let me cut to chase. My bad habits and lack of commitment as a paper pusher were becoming an issue.
Finally, after several counseling incidents, they ejected me from paradise down a few floors to General Services. I couldn’t take the boredom, and within a month, I put in my notice.
Nevertheless, I was slowly being inducted into the idea of labour, even if it wasn’t on a nine-to-five schedule. That led me to network marketing and weight loss products. WTF! you rightfully ask. I was ready to try anything that seemed to offer freedom of time and schedule, plus I hated bosses.
Apparently, I had inherited the ‘silver tongue’ gene from my salesman father, a thing I had so far rejected vehemently, and one of the reasons for my extreme restlessness and constant need for escape from family influences.
Some success came my way and I enjoyed helping clients, but the ennui set in again. I still hadn’t crossed the rickety bridge from work to vocation. The mind deflects from real issues, and I thought I could solve my problems through a shift of locale.
Travel Doesn’t Solve Homelessness
A new business was starting up on the other side of the country, and so I decided to drive west with a boot full of weight loss cans and bottles of aloe vera juice. (I am leaving out major life upheavals like ending a six-year relationship and leaving behind a circle of supportive writer friends and poets, none of whom I was honouring. I have regrets.
The journey of 2445 miles or 3935 kilometres from Sydney to Perth took me took four days. The final part of the epic journey was travelling on the longest road in Australia. The Nullabor Plains runs for 1,675 kilometres straight as an arrow with barely a bend.
I steered my second hand 1981 red Celica hatchback in a straight line, music at full throttle with occasional stops at service station roadhouses selling weight loss products to the fellow bored.
Frustrated women and men work long shifts in the middle of the desert to accumulate a small nest egg like the deposit for a house, saving for a world trip, or to embark on a new enterprise, just like me — traveling to Perth, Western Australia, known for its mineral deposits and millionaires.
Is Training Teaching?
I joined a team of other network marketers and set up a small office with them. One of the best parts of this new life was getting back into the training room. Here the product was ‘the opportunity and delivering it to the new recruits who had bought thousands of dollars in products with the hope of getting rich.
For a while, this suited the moony idealist in me because it was never about the products and always about crossing the bridge to live a life of inner freedom.
But these Business Opportunity Meetings (BOMs) were high on energy but low on substance. Looking back, I truly wonder how I led myself and others astray. Some major regrets remain with me.
Journalism, a Backward or Forward Step?
After a couple of years, I was bored again. I lacked the discipline to stick at things I didn’t enjoy doing on a daily basis. By chance, I got a job as a sub-editor for the West Australian Newspaper chain. They sent me to Kalgoorlie, Australia’s major gold mining town to serve time on an outpost rag. The Kalgoorlie Miner was one of the pioneer newspapers in Western Australia. Established in 1895, it served a massive goldrush population in the middle of the desert that came with its own dreams of freedom. Nothing really changes.
My Kalgoorlie time is an interesting story in its own right, but I will skip it for now, other than to say that a year of ruffling the newspaper editor’s feathers was enough for us both. Unless I flew west across the Indian ocean, there was nowhere left to move to, so I took a train back east.
I stopped off in Adelaide, South Australia, a city of one million at that time known as the ‘City of Churches.’ For me, it was a staging post, a bridging experience that connected me with my future life as a teacher. But not yet.
It was time to ask that basic question again: why am I here? For a while, I didn’t have much clue until I met my wife-to-be.
She was a Canadian who had migrated to Australia after studying French in France, eventually settling in Adelaide where I had recently arrived. She also had an anthropology MA and was now teaching English as a Second Language to migrants.
After two acrimonious divorces and two daughters later, we met when she was also asking that troublesome question. We met through a meditation centre, and I became husband number 3. With common interests and a similar taste for unconventional adventure, we uprooted everything — moving to India to run a village school in Uttar Pradesh. I was seven years younger than her.
Let me be honest. The teaching gig was hers, and I came along for the ride or to carry the baggage.
I had plenty of my own by this stage and still a long way from becoming a teacher in my own right. It took a life-transmuting tragedy to change everything.
These experiences filtered through fiction form part of a verse novel in progress. Here is an excerpt:
Another afternoon. Lessons seat themselves,
drowsy as pollen-laden swamp bees,
forgetting alphabets and numbers
before the feet of their teachers.
This is the time when
the soft coins of the sun
are thrown and tossed
by hand-sized peepal leaves
into schoolyards in every
village across the district.
This is the time when the lessons
keep shifting position, hugging
to their single shade tree,
waiting for storytime.