The Laughing Heart
your life is your life
don’t let it be clubbed into dank submission.
be on the watch.
there are ways out.
there is light somewhere.
it may not be much light but
it beats the darkness.
be on the watch.
the gods will offer you chances.
you can’t beat death but
you can beat death in life, sometimes.
and the more often you learn to do it,
the more light there will be.
your life is your life.
know it while you have it.
you are marvelous
the gods wait to delight
-- by Charles Bukowski
I was lucky to return to my life at college. But I was really lucky when a dear friend asked me to join her for Dr. White’s history of philosophy course in 2011. It has remained a body of literature and thought to cherish and infuse my center, health, and growth.
Letting go into my reading chair with a hot cup of tea at my side, continuing to the next section of a brilliant text is my sweet spot. Truth is, the discourse deeply astonishes me. As it were, I followed this tract all the way to KU Leuven in Belgium for a philosophy master’s program.
It was one of those deals that takes a while to really embrace as a possibility, a drastic immensity of will. This move started with just some applications, no big deal; I’d see who would accept me. Turns out, none of the American programs did, but Copenhagen, Amsterdam, and Leuven accepted my application.
I remember a certain feeling of floating rightness as I entered Dr. Morgan’s office to tell him the good news. Everything seemed so fluid and fitting. The numbers lined up better. Leaving the Thiel post office after sending the first round of documentation, ushered in the stark new reality—a violent crossing the rubicon into the unknown.
As soon as I sat down at the bus station after saying goodbye to my loved ones, I overheard someone at my gate say the bus was running an hour late. I didn't have much time to spare to catch my flight in Newark, NJ, so this was cause for concern. Not long after departure, we stopped at a rest stop in Somerset; I thought little of it and went inside to get some food. After eating on the bus, I fell asleep to wake up an hour later to realize we still hadn't left. We ended up staying at the stop for several hours. When I learned that the reason for our delay, a truck crashed so the highway needed cleared before we could continue, it became apparent that this wasn't "my day." As I did the math, chances were slim I'd catch my 5:50 pm flight. Overcome by distress over losing big money over missing my flight, we finally made it to Newark through a Baltimore detour around 10:00 pm.
As I made my way to the United Airlines terminal, a man with funny glasses greeted me, recognizing my weariness—I think. I told him the situation, and he set me up with a flight the next day, without charging the massive flight change fee stated on their website. This was an enormous relief, and I made my way to a Days Inn. I've never appreciated an over-priced, grungy motel room like I did that night. After devouring some delivery chinese over some TEDx, I crashed for a much-needed night's sleep. Tomorrow’s another day.
What I learned: Don't rely on a bus to make it on-time for an international flight. Especially when your arrival is time-sensitive. Pay the extra money for the flight if the train won't take your luggage (as was my case). Also, don't be over-optimistic; when planning, leave wiggle room for obstacles.
Eventually I found myself surrounded by the strange landscapes of Belgium. After purchasing a bike, navigating the city became much easier. Within the first week, I took a train to Lokeran to visit my friend Ellen who had spent a year at Franklin as an exchange student with the Salerno family. Her mother treated us with a terrific dinner. This included: A special sort of French cheese with tomatoes and radishes fresh from garden with sparkling water for an appetizer; salmon, eggplant, zucchini, spinach lasagna with Italian and Chilean wine and salad for dinner; followed by homemade rhubarb ice with mint and a honey-vinaigrette glaze. The hospitality didn’t stop there; while Ellen and I worked on researching booking options for me to take a trip, I was treated to Duvel beer, fruit, and lemon-Speculoos cheesecake topped with blueberries. Then in the morning after breakfast she drove Ellen and I to the train station with packed lunches as Ellen was kind enough to come to Leuven with me for the day to assist me in my apartment hunt.
By the end of the day we were successful in our mission, and I'm not sure if this particular place would have been possible without Ellen because the landlord was an older gentleman, Ivo, who doesn't speak much English. My lease began earlier than most available apartments, good news. Perhaps the best thing about my spot was the botanical gardens located around the corner with flourishing plant life, streams, winding walkways, and sunlit benches. Throughout the year, I was often drawn to a post-meal stroll over there to soak in Vitamin D, words, and tea.
With this spot locked down, it was time to set out an a journey for Antwerp, Rotterdam, Amsterdam, and Copenhagen. Amsterdam had its obvious appeals which I experience a few years prior, but I had high expectations preceding my visit to Copenhagen, and I was not let down one bit. Kierkegaard had infused a fabled image of its spirit. The surprise began when the bus drove into some peculiar storage garage, and soon I realized it was the huge ferry which transported the vehicles across the strip of ocean separating Germany and Copenhagen. The approach of the Danish shore brought a sense of delight that only grew the more I discovered of the fabled city.
One thing that caught my attention immediately after my arrival was the intimate connection with storywriter Hans Christian Anderson (with a main street named after him along with a prominent statue), engaging several mental forms from a strange night this past July.H.C. Anderson is more or less the "Danish Walt Disney" and the Tivoli Park situated just across from H.C. Anderson Blvd. and his statue gazing toward the park supposedly inspired Disney world.
The trip back to Belgium was a minor disaster. A logistic mistake on my part due to lack of attention to detail (go figure) resulted in about a 100 euro hit to the budget, as I stranded myself in a German town called Bremin, with the only option available being to buy a train ticket to Antwerp, forfeiting the dirt-cheap bus tickets I bought for my way back. Anyway, I made my way back, and upon arrival at the Antwerp train station,rather than head directly to Bruges as planned, I called my landlord to check in on the status of the move-in date. He informed me that I could move in that day, but there was a catch: I had to make it by 4 pm.
Upon arrival, Ivo was making a step into his wife's van to leave before seeing me across the parking lot. I made it by the skin of my teeth, physically defeated by the summer heat. I quickly dropped my things inside and hustled to the farmers market to cop some much needed fresh produce before they closed.
On the way back, I hit up my old stomping ground at the hostel and slipped behind the crowd at the check-in line en route to the kitchen. I needed to recover the couscous and pasta I left during my stay awhile back. It made me smile to see them both still there, probably untouched, before I slipped out the back door—smooth criminal.
As I returned to my apartment, I was REALLY hungry, but realized I had no pans to cook with (or sheets and blanket for the mattress) so I decided to return to the vicinity of the hostel for the wi-fi connection to email a post-doc theology student from Pittsburgh and see if he could hook me up with some gear. Luckily, he got right back to me to tell me he could help, but he needed to leave in 30 minutes. So I scooted my desperate ass on over there and 41 minutes & 30 euros later I was walking back across town with as much as I could carry of the "bare essentials" stuffed into a garbage bag.
Beyond the idyllic walks through the town center everyday, there were nuances that brought remarkable simplicity unfamiliar to life back home. The most drastic, maybe obvious instance is the fact that I have yet to and may not for the next year or two, drove or rode in any car. It's been an obvious routine for so long: when you go anywhere, you hop in the car and drive there. But there, I either hop on my bike or just walk. Maybe grab a bus if necessary or feeling defeated. Even displaced from my homeland, the inner-sense of home persisted through melting over fresh tea and reading. In no time, I figured out where to find the foods I needed and life took on its rhythm, guided by the academic particulars.
We were welcomed by the university with a plethora of activities designed to help the scholars get to know each other entering the academic year. At an international student dinner, I was humbled to be sitting at a table of philosophy and theology scholars in a dining hall filled with hundreds of students from all over the world, maybe 10-20 from the U.S. ( I'm particularly impressed with the student associations particular to each faculty. NFK (the philosophy student association)
Finally, it was then time to begin the year of study. Professor Morgan from Thiel gave me a copy of Edmund Husserl’s great book called The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology before I left. Reading the brilliant introduction on the trans-atlantic flight over red wine set the tone for my entire course of study.
After a demanding start to the program, I made refreshing trip home to PA for Christmas. Along with the comfort of home, this dismissed a lot of anxiety over venturing deep into a foreign medical system for my bi-annual cancer scans. Truth is, the Belgian system is immaculately efficient and rational—especially for tax-paying Belgians. But as a foreigner, I had a lot of uncertainty, probably unwarranted. Upon returning to Europe, I took a bus to NYC then made my way to Brooklyn to see my sister the night before flying out of NYC to Amsterdam. I made it into Amsterdam during the 3:30 AM-4:30 AM range no one knows whether to call morning or night. It was fascinating to see the city rise. I hit the streets around 6:30 am to witness a gradual ascension from the dark, still dawn to a bustling Saturday morning by nine.
After settling in back at the apartment, straight to business I went with more deadlines upon me. I ended up finishing the most difficult paper among the four on time, but the final one which I enjoyed the most and came easiest to me was not “finished” in time, so I have decided to withhold it until the 3rd examination period in August. With that much time, I hope to be able to develop something really special. That hope probably had a lot to do with its procrastination. The focus, though, was the ways value, knowledge, and meaning was profoundly transformed after the First World War, societally speaking as well as individually—for the soldier on the front line foreboding his imminent death
Then I had a week or so free so I began researching future options for my life. This is when I started dabbling in philosophy of illness and health. It was such a joy to be researching independent of academic demands. Pending is PII of this chapter which will tell a bit about the discoveries emanating from this freedom.