on vulnerability

For most of my adult life, I’ve lived amidst the dizzying swirl of depression, anxiety, and grief. As someone who prides herself on spreadsheets and enthusiasm, it’s a reality that is jarring for most people with whom I peel back that layer. But, the thing is, the persona I outwardly present feels authentically me just as much as the ghosts that haunt me. I’m just the kind of person who feels most things at a 10 — the good and the bad.

Like many who’ve suffered, I’ve found that the deeper I’ve fallen, the more capacity I have for joy, surprise, and delight. I’ve had some of my life’s most beautiful days alongside some of the more devastating. The hardest part is not knowing which day you’re waking up into.

In the rituals of home, I have habits that add a buffer to the unknown of what mood a certain day will bring — morning coffee, the same smoothie bowl breakfast, the strange zen of adult coloring books, re-reading dog-eared poetry, listening to the same podcast round-up. They add infrastructure to a lot of unknowns; they form the pattern that reminds me of the rhythm of who I am when I tend to lose the way.

But the thing with long-term travel is that infrastructure instantly vanishes. Of course, I knew this going into it (my coloring book did not make the cut of what I wanted to lug on my back for months on end). And the prospect of having to rebuild that structure daily was somewhat freeing. Some habits can make space for fuller expression, but some confine. I wanted to get to the core of which structures built me up and which ones trapped me.

In the past two weeks, the groundlessness of a habit-less life caught up with me. I had multiple days of waking up into a version of me I didn’t recognize. And when you’re already in a foreign land, feeling foreign to yourself can be deeply isolating.

One thing I’ve slowly learned about myself is that I cherish time alone. And when you live and work in close proximity with a lot of people (we lovingly call it adult summer camp), that’s hard to come by. So I started to carve out time — time to bring some of the structure back, most of which involved intentional alone time. I walked to gelato listening to my favorite podcast (On Being, which you should listen to immediately), woke early to silently sip coffee in our staff kitchen, and recited the poetry that reminded me of myself.

I write this on the upswing, the place I most often write coherently and publicly. There isn’t much out there (and certainly not on social media) of people in their depths, but I felt the best I could do is share a piece of me from its brink. Because perhaps the most surprising piece I’ve discovered so far in this journey is the power of vulnerability.

While I live comfortably at the crossroads of joy, sorrow, and wonder, I recognize that I present largely the positive: the part of me that relishes a plan, who thrills at discussions of history, feminism, Harry Potter, Beyonce and Thomas Hardy. So this week, I did what I rarely do: I let it all go. When people asked, “how are you?” I actually answered.

One afternoon, I came into the kitchen to work a dinner shift. Our cook, a not-to-be-crossed yet endlessly endearing Italian woman, greeted me with her standard “ciao” and dramatic sigh about the impossibility of today’s dinner prep. As I put on my apron, I told her: I may not be on my best tonight; today had been rough. She nodded, and we worked silently for the next few hours. Known for her biting-perfectionism, she caught herself before yelling at my sub-par zucchini-cutting form. And when dinner was over and I came in to tidy up the kitchen, she pushed a plate of extra dessert over. “For you,” she said. She thanked me for being honest, and we chatted about her tough days. We agreed dessert solves most things.

In the days after that, I opened up to new friends here and life-long ones at home. I sent emails and made Facetime calls from the ugly moments, not just the ones when I was filled to the brim with awe, excitement, or wine.

Certainly, vulnerability is not a cure-all. It has not flipped a switch in me permanently, and I know the ebbs and flows will continue, as they do for so many. But I do feel it’s made a tiny crack in that perfect orb I so carefully maintained. These moments of honesty in a strange land have allowed me to see the rituals that perhaps tethered me to an unbreakable facade, and the ones that will allow me the freedom to grow. There are habits I can keep (obviously, coffee) and ones I can expand into — authenticity, self-care.

And while I’ve long intellectualized the notion that we are more similar than different, experiencing that sentiment firsthand, over a plate of leftover cake, moved me profoundly.

The only choice we have as we mature is how we inhabit our vulnerability, how we inhabit our vulnerability, how we become larger and more courageous and more compassionate through our intimacy with disappearance. Our choice is to inhabit vulnerability as generous citizens of loss, robustly and fully, or conversely, as misers and complainers, reluctant, and fearful, always at the gates of existence, but never bravely and completely attempting to enter, never wanting to risk ourselves, never walking fully through the door. – David Whyte

on stillness

One month ago, I left the warm, known comforts of the Bay Area. In the 30 days since, I’ve aimlessly wandered the streets of Prague, picked up right where I left off with a friendship that’s spanned continents and decades, gallivanted in Helsinki and Tallinn with a childhood friend who encourages me to say “why not?” every day, experienced the loneliness of illness and lost luggage (and the unique comfort that comes from its counterpoint, resilience), and found solace in a village of hundreds at a brothel-turned-retreat center tucked above a lake untouched by the passage of time.

I’ll be here on Lake Orta, working at the Centro d’Ompio, for the next month. It’s the longest I’ll be in one place on this adventure (at least, so I’ve planned), a welcome respite after a month of trains, cities, repacking, navigating.

But in all my transience, I haven’t been compelled to write as much as I thought I would. And given my habit of forgetting almost everything but things I read in an archive somewhere, I’ve realized the importance of chronicling the moments that matter. Not the monuments, the physical beauty; my camera stores those just fine. This forum is better for the in-between, the moments that take some marinating to fully rise to the surface. The moments that prolonged introversion — my favorite part of travel — can truly cultivate. Really, this chronicle is for future-me, my mom (hi mama Pam!), and anyone else who fancies a look behind the limiting scope of photo-posts and social media musings.

Recently, I’ve found the piece that’s hardest to capture in photos and the part that’s become my most cherished element of travel is the quality of stillness. One of my rare resolutions this year was to do less idle browsing — less scrolling social media while waiting in line, busying myself on public transportation, or generally filling my days with consumption. My dad often spoke of the virtues of boredom, of just sitting in a moment and being aware of life as we live it, “every, every minute” (from his favorite play, Our Town). Here, it’s easy to fall into those rhythms of quiet. When meals have given times and work shifts are posted on a sheet in the kitchen, the space in-between develops a fullness and a texture all its own. There’s little need for distraction, for escapism, when the purpose of vagabond travel is precisely to escape into a given moment.

I certainly didn’t need to sell my worldly possessions, leave my wonderful job, or travel abroad to cultivate stillness, boredom, or presence. But habits need attention, and when you strip away the non-essentials, the stuff left behind gets to take up more space. Here, without the weight of that second pair of jeans, a crockpot, or a TV, there’s space for reading a few more pages, sitting in silence with new friends, or listening to termites slowly eat your room from the inside out (ah, living in the countryside).

This space will be for those moments. Thanks for reading, friends.

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[sunset stillness in helsinki]

two years on

September 26th will always be a strange day. My family is (and was) not one to hugely celebrate specific holidays. We celebrate the quiet moments. So on a day of such peculiar weight, we were tempted to continue “life as usual” — go to work, be around those we love, eat, sleep, start a new year.

But the embodiment of grief quickly caught up to us. That was one thing I never realized — how simply exhausting grief can be, and how easily the body remembers. The final month of my dad’s life was perhaps the most intentional month of my family’s life. My mom, dad, and I awoke each morning with a clear purpose — to do whatever the hell we felt like. We made goals that we posted on our fridge of what we wanted to accomplish: walk down the block, watch a giants game, cook favorite foods, go to a James Taylor concert (which, thanks to our lovely friends Jess and Vickie, we were able to do). The list was simple. Some days we checked things off the list, other days we simply sat, read, and visited with friends and family.

As the days dwindled, I remember how peculiar it was to step out into the world. I flew back for classes for a few days a week, but otherwise stayed very much in the haven of our home. One day, I remember fetching an early morning coffee for my mom and I. As I placed my order, I felt like I was speaking through molasses and time literally stood still. Here I was, chatting with the barista, as if this were just any day. It was both comforting and haunting to realize the unspeakable worlds people leave behind them every day. What a paralyzing feeling though, knowing there was no space for the words I wanted to say.

The memories of that month weigh heavily on my mom and I. It was a month, much like that coffee shop morning, of surreal and slow-moving moments. And when you live each day on a strange anticipatory precipice, the body remembers. And the body has an equally hard time letting go. The day after, the 27th, was the strangest day of my life. Much like in the preparation before any big event, you sometimes forget what you will do or feel the moment it’s over. Though we had long imagined the world we would live in when he was gone, we never imagined that day. And the simple act of waking up in a world without someone is one of the most universal heartaches.

The second my mom and I woke up, we knew we had to go to the ocean. So we jumped in the car and drove to Half Moon Bay. We ate breakfast at a usual place, walked along the beach, and picked up a few pumpkins. We laughed, cried, stared into the abyss, and drove back. It was lovely. So, this year, in lieu of our typical “life as usual” routine, we’re heading to Half Moon Bay for the night, and living an entirely intentional day.

on father’s day

Yesterday was the second Father’s Day I’ve spent without my dad. In some way, without that familiar stamp of “the first ___ without him”, the string of “seconds” has felt a little strange.

Despite the weight of the day, I felt little urge to write about it. I love my dad, and I loved celebrating what a wonderful dad he was (and continues to be). But I remember very little of the more scripted holidays, so the weight I carry on these days is largely a hollow one.

Thankfully, my friend Kate wrote an incredibly poignant piece about this very subject. Her post touches on often incommunicable aspects of grief, and I’m so grateful she’s shared it, especially on a day when words escaped me. So, for today, I’ll share her words instead.

You can read the whole post here; I’m including a particularly resonant passage below.

“Even though all of us experience it, death sets you apart from people. I can’t mention my father without weight anymore. He’ll never escape that label, no more so than he could escape the label of father once I was born. Sometimes I wonder if, with death, parents pass the weight of parenthood on to their children, newly defined as parentless.

[…]

But for next year, I say: go on — take your dad for granted. I give you permission to do nothing special for him, to treat him exactly like you always have. I’d like a day when my dad’s status as a father wasn’t loaded with meaning. It’s the biggest luxury you can have.”

As sad as it may seem, I read this last bit with a smile. Because as my dad always said, it’s those moments of boredom, those moments of nothing special that we spend with one another, that are the most valuable of all. And that’s probably why I remember watching Giants games with him on lazy summer days far more than that 3rd Sunday every June that we call Father’s Day. So, as I’ve mentioned earlier, here’s to celebrating those moments that hold true meaning — be it June 19th, or that random Tuesday you got an ice cream cone just for kicks.

on workplace inequality

I can always tell how overwhelmed my mom and I are by the number of times we have baked potatoes for dinner (or, as we call them, vessels for butter). Thanks to a crazy time of year and a sudden family medical emergency, it’s been more baked potato butter dinners than I can count.

Nevertheless, I’m trying to regain some sense of routine, thus the blog post attempt. Also, something recently got me riled up, so virtual sharing ensues. Now on to the topic…

A few days ago, my friend and I were talking about women in the work place. At one point, he mentioned that his CEO recently had gotten in the habit of jokingly telling senior female employees that “you better not get pregnant right now!” Ha. Ha.

Aside from being ILLEGAL, that statement says a whole lot about the current status of the entrepreneurial culture of Silicon Valley (well, and pretty much everywhere…). In a hustle bustle go-get-’em environment, pregnancies, marriage, sickness, or family can easily slide into the “hindrance to success” category. This CEO, leading a company doing big things, was largely reflecting on the fact that this ship can’t sink now, we’re heading to mega success — and a pregnancy is a serious sinkage. I mean, babies, who needs ’em.

I was reminded of a conversation I had with a friend of a friend, who was suggesting to me that women must be inherently less entrepreneurial, since everyone he interacts with in his field is a man. I didn’t want to spend my energy then, nor do I now, deconstructing the MANY issues in that logic — but I do bring it up to demonstrate the pervasiveness of the gender bias in this start-up world.

On a more constructive note, it also reminded me of a talk given by Cheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook (which is echoed here in her Commencement Address at Barnard) that tackles this very subject. Having once met with venture capitalists who could not tell her where a women’s restroom was in their entire building, she’s  well acquainted with the gender gap in the Silicon Valley world. But she went on to discuss how she watched as many of her female employees would turn down promotions, leave jobs, or accept lesser pay because they knew that kids would be on the way shortly. Add on a dollop of “we could get funded, don’t get pregnant!” fear-mongering, and you’re one step away from working for free.

Though I question Sandberg’s logic that this burden falls on women (i.e., we must learn to be as ambitious as our male counterparts), I appreciate her insights into a work culture that dramatically needs reform. However much you ask women to “be ambitious”, the fact of the matter is that the laws are unequal. As long as we demand that women must return to work 6 weeks after giving birth and that partner or paternity leave is nonexistent in this country, the mother makes the sacrifice. Compared to the majority of Western Europe (where parents are granted 1 to 5 years leave, man or woman), our policies are laughable. What’s not laughable is the CEOs and employees who frame personal lives (and largely female ones) as hindrances to money-making.

on boyhood

A few weeks ago ago, my friends and I were having a discussion about children. More specifically, about the prospect of having them. It’s normally a topic I steer clear of, largely because the presumption of a “ticking clock” has always insulted me more than intrigued me. (i.e., shouldn’t people just either want to have children or not, irregardless of gender? alas, I digress.] In any case, interestingly, my friend (a guy) immediately said, “I’d be SO protective of a girl and worried for her, I’d probably rather have a boy.”

Though the statement didn’t shock me, it saddened me. Sure, women are most often the victims of sexual abuse and violent crime in the world, but isn’t it sad that to avoid this problem, you have to hope you don’t have a girl? I realize my friend wasn’t trying to solve world problems with his very casual statement, but he was making an observation about what he’d feel more comfortable doing. And it saddened me.

Nowadays, we tend to approach the problems of violent crime (specifically rape, sexual abuse, etc) in a particularly girl-centric way. How can we protect our daughters, how can we talk to our daughters, how can we make sure they steer clear of x situation. It’s a continuation of a long history of victim-blaming, where the would-be victims carry the burden of awareness and prevention. And for many people, including my friend, that’s a burden that’s daunting when it comes to child-rearing. But the thing that many activists are trying to change — and what I feel people need to question — is how we approach these topics. Instead of wondering how to talk to our girls, shouldn’t we be wondering how do we raise our boys?

This exact topic is broached by one of the most kickass slam poets out there — Andrea Gibson — in an incredibly powerful piece called “Blue Blanket”. You can watch the performance here (and I STRONGLY urge you to), and I’ve also included an excerpt below. As a young feminist, I have opinions about many, many things, but what perhaps riles me the most is boyhood — and how little we focus on it. Here’s hoping that changes.

“Blue Blanket” excerpt 

…tonight she’s not asking

you what you would tell your daughter

she’s life deep in the hell—the slaughter

has already died a thousand deaths with every unsteady breath

a thousand graves in every pore of her flesh

and she knows the war’s not over

knows there’s bleeding to come

knows she’s far from the only woman or girl

trusting this world no more than the hands

trust rusted barbed wire

she was whole before that night

believed in heaven before that night

and she’s not the only one

she knows she won’t be the only one

she’s not asking what you’re gonna tell your daughter

she asking what you’re gonna teach

your son.

every, every minute

Two things of note occurred today.

1) A gaggle of 8th grade girls* stopped in their tracks, stared me square in the eye, and then checked out my entire outfit. I’ve never felt more simultaneously cool, self-conscious (I did button my shirt, right?!), and 14 years old.

*I work at a middle school. That should make this less weird.

2) My friend Harish passed along this incredible video:

If you have the time, take a second (well, many seconds) to watch it.

In any case, aside from distracting me from an ever-so-thrilling bout of scanning, this video struck a chord with me. The basic gist of it is this: a 30 year old photographer took one picture each day for a year, and compiled it into a 1-second-per-photo video. Many people have attempted this, but his take on it was hauntingly profound. In large part, he shares a fear I’ve long suffered from — the fear of forgetting. In an attempt to counteract this, he photographed the banalities of day to day life, and created the narrative of a life that increasingly was becoming less linear. For those of us who’ve grown into ourselves amidst social media, the lack of a reflective understanding of our lives is deeply relatable.

Having gone through years of gradually losing someone, I’ve always longed for a narrative to flatten the complexities and forge some sense to it all. But more urgently, I longed to never forget. And in those moments of heightened reality, photographing the banal came easily. Watching a Giants game together, going to the grocery store, sitting in our favorite coffee shop. My mom and I photographed those moments endlessly because the narrative already existed — this was time dwindling, turning inward, i love you’s, goodbyes, and what’s for dinners.

It’s the moments now, when time has suddenly regained its “how is it already may” pacing, that I find difficult to capture. Perhaps because the plight of the twenty-something is the plight of the ever-waiting. We say things like “I’m just figuring out what I’m going to do with my life”, not realizing that this IS our life. In some ways, I feel like I’m aging backwards — afters years when self defense meant living singularly in the present, I’m finding myself continually living in the seemingly more glamorous future. And you can’t really photograph a future.

In any case, living in the present — trite as it may seem — is at the heart of the daily photo project. And as my life has slowly slid back to normalcy, its a philosophy I’ve found harder to stick to.

So, ironically, it’s a favorite quote of my dad’s that I constantly turn to in moments like these, and one I think many people my age should keep in mind: “Do any human beings realize life while they live it — every, every minute?”. It comes in the final act of Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town”, a painfully boring play we’re submitted to in 8th grade. But the point, and my dad’s favorite part, is that it’s boring for a reason. It’s boring because it’s life. And though boredom is largely associated with the DMV and 11 hour flights, it’s something we need to practice, celebrate, and document.