“So, what are you going to do after you get home?” This question was thrown at me by Anastasia, one of the workaways, during my last supper at the Moulin.
“I guess it’s about time I go back to work. I’ve taken a break for more than a year.” I gave her my standard answer. Whether I really wanted to go back to work or not was a different matter.
“Are you going to do the same kind of work again?”
I shrugged and said “I guess so.”
Honestly, I was rather taken aback by her question although it seemed like a perfectly reasonable thing to ask. The thought of doing something different never crossed my mind. Why should I? I was actually good at my profession; the work was never too difficult nor too stressful; and it paid well enough. But her next question really caught me off guard.
“Did you like your job?”
I was quiet for longer than I should. “Well… sort of, I guess.” I shrugged again.
Matt, who is a writer, then quipped, “That’s what they usually don’t teach you at school, isn’t it? To do what you love.” To which Anastasia then said, ” For me, it was never a question. Why would I even want to do something I don’t like in the first place?”
At this point, I should point out to you that Anastasia is still in her early 20s, speaks 4 different languages fluently, and is working as a translator while completing her Master in Translation. Heck, I would also say the same thing if I were her. Once upon a time, I too used to dream of being young, studying languages, and traveling the world.
Please don’t get me wrong. It’s not as if I hated my job. Although I couldn’t say that I was passionate about it either. For me, it was always just a job; a means to earn a living. Ever since I started working, I’ve always felt strangely uncomfortable at the idea of receiving money in exchange for work. For some reasons, the presence of money tends to cause a lack of sincerity and demean the value of the work itself. For example, everywhere I worked I’ve met people who refused to perform overtime despite tons of work overdue just because the company wasn’t paying overtime allowance. On one hand, I acknowledge that it’s not fair to force employees to work beyond their regular hours if they are not compensated. But on the other hand, I also believe that we should all be responsible for completing the jobs that we’ve been assigned to, with or without the money. All I’m saying is that once money is involved, it’s gonna be hard to say that you’re genuinely doing your job for the greater good of the company and not because you’re getting paid.
My friends often ask why don’t I write for a living. Or why don’t I bake for a living. Honestly, these are things that I enjoy doing and I don’t want to lose the satisfaction of doing it just for the fun of it and not because people pay me to. I don’t deny that money is a necessary part of life and that there are many people in this world who would do anything just to have a job so they can feed their family. Hence, I’m not judging or condemning those who work for money. I myself spent nearly a good 10 years of my adult life doing that and will continue to do so in the near future as and when it’s needed. One thing for sure though, it was the nonexistence of salary at the Moulin that made me discover the joy and satisfaction of working.
After a wonderful stint there last year, I thought I already knew what to expect when I returned the second time around. But I was very surprised to find out that a different kind of experience awaited me this time. The make-up of the Moulin remained largely the same, with several yogis who are regular long-term volunteers joined by a group of short-term volunteers such as those coming for workaways like myself. We work as a team to ensure that everyone that comes to the Moulin for a retreat is provided with a conducive environment for their spiritual journey. The works include chopping vegetables, washing dishes, scrubbing toilets, folding linens, changing bed sheets, sweeping dry leaves, gardening, and many other chores. Everyone does these for free, with just food and lodging as the “payment”.
The first thing I noticed on my first couple of days there was the difference in the energy and the dynamic of the entire team between last year and this year, just because of the presence of a few people whom I didn’t get to meet last year as they only arrived after I had left. One of them was Tim, one of the household managers, who was such a joy to work with. His outlook appearance may not necessarily spell approachable as he was quiet and spent most of the time listening to dharma talks on his headphones while working. But I soon discovered a gentle, sweet, and extremely appreciative heart underneath all that. By the time I was due to leave, I was crying like a baby saying goodbye to him. The second guy I was acquainted with this year was Matt, the other household manager. He’s a writer, and he always carried his notebook and pen everywhere he went. I’ve never met anyone who fascinated me so much. Everything about him awed me; his life experiences, the stories he told, the songs he wrote, or just the fact that he’s actually a published writer. I clung to every word he said. And I couldn’t help being swept away by curiosity every time I saw him sit on one of the wooden benches outside and began to write. Matt also got on really well with the workaways, most of whom were in their late teens or early twenties. And this brought me to the next group of people who was the differentiator in creating a whole new atmosphere at the Moulin this year.
On the day I arrived there, someone told me that there were 9 workaways at the moment including me. That means there were actually more workaways than the regular core team members. As a comparison, the previous year I had only ever seen 3 or 4 workaways other than myself. So it wasn’t a surprise when I heard someone mentioned that the week I arrived marked the highest number of workaways the Moulin has every hosted. That number started dwindling after my first week as those who have arrived earlier began to leave and after 2 weeks, it stabilised at around 4 workaways.
I have to say that I haven’t been surrounded by that many 19 and 20-year-olds since I myself was that age. Of course in the beginning I felt rather overwhelmed by the noise and the energy that these teenagers brought. It’s hard to keep up with them. But as I got to know them a little better and started being involved in their conversations, I realised how different my life as a 19-year-old was compared to theirs. While I was busy making sure I passed my exams with flying colors so I could graduate and land myself a decent job, these youngsters were busy doing volunteer works and spending their meal times debating over philosophy, and religion, and humanism. And boy did they have a lot to say on these topics! I met some who chose to defer going into college so they could travel the world and figure out what they really want in life. One of them was even planning to go to Israel and join a humanitarian group there. At the age of 19! For the longest time, I have always felt content with who I am and proud of how I’ve chosen to live my life out of the mainstream. But spending time with these youngsters did put a dent in my confidence. They have made me realise how shallow my youth was and how immature my views on life back then. I spent hours agonising over how I would turn out to be if I had been able to make my own choices free of society’s expectations and prejudices when I was their age. I think any Asians of my generation would be able to sympathise with me. Can you imagine how your parents would react if you told them you wanted to take a year off to travel after high school? Truth be told, with the kind of academic and career-oriented society that we’ve been conditioned to, it would be a rarity to find any Asian kids choosing to travel instead of going straight to college.
By pure chance, I chose to stay at Nicolas’ apartment through AirB&B while I was in Luxembourg. This was right before I was due to depart for the Moulin. On my last night, we spent hours chatting on the sofa. He told me how he had been spending years working the high-flyer life in the financial industry until one day he collapsed in the office. The doctor told him that he had overworked himself and continuing to do so would have an adverse effect on his health. He left his job and at the time of my stay in his apartment, he was in the midst of applying for a volunteer job in Burkina Faso. Coincidentally, I also found out that Nicolas’ mother lives in Perigueux which is just 20 kilometres’ away from Cubjac, and that he used to play at the Moulin when he was young (the Moulin was a Buddhist monastery at that time). The last bit there about his mother is actually irrelevant to what I’m trying to say, but it does baffle me how sometimes the world can be such a small place. What are the odds of me meeting a random stranger who happens to know about the Moulin right before I depart for the place?
And then there was Satyadevi, a Dutch lady whose parents came from Indonesia. Over breakfast on my last day at the Moulin, she told me a little bit of how she fell in love with traveling and how she’s now volunteering at the Mooji Sangha in Portugal. Towards the end, she said something I could never forget, “They should really make traveling compulsory. It’s the best education one could ever get.”
So what is the point of all these stories? I’m not saying that you should start dropping everything and living a new life. All I’m saying is that there is so much more to life than your average classrooms and office cubicles. And that there are ways to live your life out of the rat race should you feel strongly about it.
Unfortunately for me, the Moulin chapter of my life is likely to be closed as the place will be sold to a new owner by the end of summer. Rumour has it that it will remain as a retreat and meditation centre, and that there have been requests for the team to return and manage it again next year. But would the ambience and the dynamic of the place which I fell in love with in the first place remain the same in the hands of the new owner? After all, it is the people that make up the community and my stay there this year has taught me that meeting new people, even just a couple of them, meant different set of experiences and emotions. I may or may not get to meet those wonderful people at the Moulin again, but memories of us baking and cooking in the kitchen, meditating, doing yoga, drinking Leffes in a bar half an hour’s drive away, sitting around a bonfire singing to the Beatles, or even watching the World Cup are definitely here to stay with me. Yes, them along with a jar of cherry jam lovingly made by Eliza from the cherries I helped to pick before I left.