The Death of Hope

August 29th, 2016



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For my 40th birthday, an occasion I affectionately referred to as “The Fortypocalypse,” I decided to take proactive measures to ward off the imminent crisis by rewarding myself with a trip to a far off, magical place I had never been.

“Reward” may not be the appropriate verb, given that this trip was more of a consolation prize than a medal. Things in general had not lived up to my expectations. I had looked forward with confidence to the day I would be a mom. This had been my singular life goal. But here I was, about to turn forty, single and childless.

I was independent enough. I finished college, proud of my $80,000 fine arts degree, while not quite sure what to do with it (and that, sadly has never changed). A prolonged stint as a traveling assistant to a well-known yoga star contributed faux meaning to my life for a while. As a glassy-eyed minion of the yoga world, I was encouraged to “trust the universe” and “manifest abundance” and know that “it will all be okay in the end,” because, of course, “if it’s not okay, it’s not the end.” And, I knew what the end, for me, would be: settling down to family life. I had my sights set, my eyes on the prize, I was shooting for the moon.

I was open to what my family life would look like. I didn’t want for the spacious suburban house, the minivan, the usual accoutrements. I rolled my eyes at my friends who already had kids, scoffing at their slavery to regimented bedtimes and their bordering-on-phobic aversion to ever letting their kids skip a nap or, god forbid, eat processed sugar. When I was growing up in the 70s, my parents were young, dysfunctional hippies whose van had a hole in the floor we liked to dangle our feet through Flintstones-style. I’m not sure seatbelts had even been invented at that point. My mom always drove barefoot, a Tab in her hand*.

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Given my own wheels-off ’70s childhood, I reasoned, the bar was low, and I was eager to get started on this project.

But as the years passed, my zeal to have many kids had to be downgraded to accommodate the reality of my singlehood, my age, and my economic status, as well as the unlikelihood that I would have as many sets of twins as I had romantically envisioned. (Granted, my own grandmother had ten kids and, among them, two sets of twins, but I’m pretty sure she never learned about birth control, and maybe lived near a nuclear power plant.)

As my thirties began to unravel on a collision course with my 40th birthday, I found myself once again single after the latest breakup with a particularly nefarious paramour. My options were looking bleak. My career as a freelance writer was going well but was not threatening to make me rich, which did nothing to palliate my burgeoning fear that nothing is for certain and, in fact, the Buddhists are right: life is suffering.

The death of hope descended as the fortypocalypse loomed closer and closer. I knew that I was going to have to take matters into my own hands. So I decided to do something very brave (for me) and very decadent (for anyone): I booked a 5-day day visit to Kamalaya Spa in Koh Samui, a modern day Shangri La in Thailand’s archipelago paradise.

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I was nervous. A shy loner at heart, I was terrified of the unknown and had very little yen for adventure. That first 16-hour flight was one of the most sublime acts of bravery of my life. But once I arrived at the wellness center, I knew I was going to be fine. The exorbitant cost quickly proved well worth it. Every detail was attended to. I was installed in a villa, which sat perched on a hill and was constructed around a natural boulder so that the rock face formed a rustic-chic wall inside the hut. Crevasses had been cut into the rock and citronella tea candles wedged inside, to be lit by elves while I was at dinner so that when I came back to my room, it was bug-free and bathed in a delicious warm glow.

Like most retreat centers of its caliber, the landscape of the property was a meticulously crafted combination of privacy and convenience. A short walk to the white-sand beach, and I could languish for hours in a wooden lounge chair, staring lazily at the cerulean sea while a constant supply of cool, lemongrass-scented hand towels and neatly scalloped watermelon wedges appeared magically at my side. Once or twice a day I’d amble up to the spa for a treatment. I wanted for nothing.

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But a nagging voice in my head kept whisper-shouting: “When are you going to do the soul searching you came here for?”

I was terrified of returning home without answers. I wanted to be a different person by the time my feet touched down in California again. A person with hope. In the last year, I had watched helplessly as all the hope had leaked out of me. In a desperate attempt to staunch the bleeding, I had consulted with various healers: shamans, acupuncturists, therapists, Ayurvedic doctors, wise elders (my friends who had already turned 40). I had attended a weeklong silent retreat on Loving Kindness. I read Man’s Search For Meaning, Viktor Frankl’s seminal psychology testament to the theory that without hope, mankind has nothing worth living for. At a weekend Buddhist retreat I had accepted a piece of red string tied around my wrist with the instruction to make a wish. I wished for “hope.” Nine grimy-stringed months later, it fell off with little fanfare as I was hiking with a friend. “Oh look,” I said complacently, “There goes my hope.”

I had forced my friends to endure countless conversations about my existential crisis.  Those who dared to approach me for advice on their own problems were soon sorry when I told them things like, “All relationship are horrible disasters. Do yourself a favor and get out while you still at least have your sanity intact.”

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So you can see how I was terrified to let this version of me — after a trip around the world and a lot of money spent — return unhealed. But I’ll be honest, once I got to Koh Samui, all I really wanted to do was lie in the sun reading novels and check out.

I made meager efforts to have a more “meaningful” experience. I journaled. I meditated (once, for three minutes). I visited the Monk’s Cave, where, legend has it, monks have been meditating for thousands of years and where, now, rich white tourists can stop by to light a stick of incense and sit inside a stone enclave where, please, all we ask is that you cover your whory shoulders and take off your filthy shoes. But, still, I wasn’t feeling it. I wasn’t feeling spiritual. It wasn’t until about halfway through the trip that I noticed the resort’s tagline on a matchbook next to a citronella candle in my outdoor bathroom:

Kamalaya: Feel Life’s Potential.

Easy for Kamalaya to say, I thought. Life’s potential is indeed fully realized here in this expensive, make-believe place where a mere tilt of my head brings a fresh glass of ice water as I lie listless on the beach for hours every day. My biggest stressor here is to manage my schedule of wellness treatments around my sunbathing ambitions. My most difficult choice, whether to get the coconut milk smoothie or the ginger juice.

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Despite the efforts I had gone through to spend five days and nights in a tropical paradise, with my every need attended to by sweet-natured Thai staff, I just couldn’t force the spirituality bit. The ground did not shift beneath my feet in divine contemplation when I arrived at Kamalaya. I did not experience tantric euphoria in my Chi Nei Tsang session. (Gas, yes, but I did my best to keep that epiphany to myself.)  I did not have wild dreams of redemption when I slept on the 100% goose-down mattress.

On the last night of my journey, I gamely participated in the resort’s ritual Friday night lantern-lighting ceremony. This took quite a bit of courage because of my social phobia and my extreme aversion to commercialized native rituals, but I figured that it would be dark and I could always sneak off.

I had imagined tiny lanterns that we’d set afloat on the surf. But it was low tide, and the sea was apathetic. I looked down the beach, and to my surprise, saw that the lanterns were giant white paper boxes attached to small gas flames. Rather than setting them adrift, we were to let them float away in the night sky. I looked up, and gasped. Four, five, six lanterns were already sailing off bravely, beacons of flame wandering toward their destinies. It was quite beautiful.

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“It is very important in my culture,” one of the Thai women said to me. “We believe that if you wish on a lantern, your wish MUST come true.”

I wrote my wish on a tiny scroll of paper, and tied the scroll with twine to a lantern on the beach. I tied my wish, and threw my lantern to the sky. Off she went, my lantern wish.  And I turned my back and walked away.

* She claims she never drank Tab. I disagree. At any rate, for the sake of the story, it’s staying in.

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One Response to “The Death of Hope”

  1. David says:

    Never saw her drink tab!!

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