21 Questions

I slipped into Lake Washington and finally exhaled. The day’s sun still burned from my skin and in a first moment of cool relief, submerged, I thought of you. You left me in a heady daze, pinned against a wall after strong coffee and light sleep. “Ask me your questions,” you had said hours earlier when I was curled alongside you and in the openness of such a suggestion, I was stone.

But suspended in the lake, just cool enough that I shivered with each passing breeze, questions simply flowed from drips to a deluge.

Do you remember that moment from our [Thurs]date when I first put my hand on your knee? You had been joking or telling a story in that epic way you have of painting narratives. Feeling you beneath me, I surprised myself with how quickly, how comfortably I had reached out. I caught a quick breath and looked at you: I’ll see him again, I thought. But I almost didn’t, did I? There’s another version of this in another universe. An ephemeral connection; a possible romance.

And still, I would have kept you in my mind. Your smile—I didn’t anticipate your smile. I’ll think of it first and the sly way you’ll coax me: “Come on.” With soft restraint, you light me up. But it’s the unexplored depth of that daydream that teases me. Do you think about it, too?

And what of my room? Those four walls that can seem boundless in their limited world. Inside them, we’re not weighed down by external rules and standards. Any sense of time, of timelines, disappears. Yet, an alarm inevitably rings.

I’ve wondered if our worlds beyond a Ballard bedroom might ever be at odds. My work’s guiding beacon remains the belief that health is a human right. What is yours? Do ends justify the means in our lives’ pursuits, K, or might we cycle in a deontological discussion?  Perhaps we’re both lines for treating an ever-present cancer: scalpel and salve. Are we strengths in different forms?

Am I strong enough for you? Is it a weakness to even ask? This isn’t a question I’ve ever considered before: stark independence and quiet detachment being the tragic flaws brought forth to me so far. But there’s a difference with you. Or is it a change in me?

Do you see? How much more revealing questions can be than answers. And yet, in capturing them I’ve released the risk that petrified my voice. Now you can guess—guess what it is I’m thinking.

Happy New Year.

I have a confession to make. While I don’t know what I want to be when I grow up, I know what I don’t want to be. I don’t want to be my parents. My parents are wonderful in their own ways. There is no question about it. But every time I come home, the semblance of tranquility, and the feeling that everything is okay, is frayed at the edges. Home is tinged with a despondency that can be overwhelming. Perhaps this is accentuated by the holidays with its tendency to force appearances of levity and leisure.

My life has been dominated by money and its value – what you can afford to do and to have. Its not what my parents intended, I’m sure. But when every decision is made with the underlying crux being money, it becomes hard to ignore. With each choice, you can see the balances gathering weight. Of course, this is for good reason and done with the best intentions. After all, we want to be able to eat next month. It just has a number of consequences. Chronic financial stress can be some of the worst kind.

The value of money in my life was reaffirmed this holiday, when my mom, to ensure that I understood the “value” of our gifts, told us their cost. It made me sad. Why should value be understood based on its price? The worst part is that it worked. I did consider the gift in a different light. I couldn’t decide whether to be disgusted with myself or with the entire societal construct of arbitrary values assigned to things. I have to find solace in the idea that society’s value is placed on the creativity and innovation of the designer who created the product. It makes the situation a little better.

Knowing that that money could have been spent in different ways didn’t do much to help the matter. But this is something that is important to her. She forgets that not everyone is as excited about Dior and Chanel and Gucci and St. Laurent at the expense of other things. This is not to say that I’m not appreciative in the slightest. I am. That it simply makes her so happy to be able to give us these things is enough. I just wish it wasn’t bookended by worries about the mortgage, about school loans, about from where the next paycheck is coming, or about how retirement will even be possible.

For my mom, presentation was and is everything. My dad has his own brand.

Self-comparison is a plague that this generation finds difficult to escape, according to all of the criticisms of generation Y and millennials and our obsession with social media. But I’d say that we only have more public opportunities for it. Past generations, without the Internet, only have the privilege of keeping it contained and concealed. Except from their kids.

For my dad, when something is wrong, it has nothing to do with him. It is the fault of something else. Always. Someone has done something wrong, made something of poor quality, is deficit in their way of thinking about the world. There is a comment to be made, some criticism that places oneself among the highest order because this type of criticism inherently self-aggrandizes. It’s a distinctive kind. And one that often discredits the person doing the criticizing.

Of course, it’s an issue of self-esteem, confidence, and happiness. Everyone believes that she’d be happier if something were in some way different. It makes me sad to see this in my parents and passed off to my siblings. There’s an acceptance that it’s normal to point out the “deficiencies” of other people. Yet, above all, it’s the constant negativity that hacks away at my own happiness. Why should we dwell on the faults of others when there are plenty of our own to attend to? There is no need. I’m convinced that it can only be damaging.

As a kid, I found one household the escape of the other. Today, I find my own house is my escape from that whole world, hundreds of miles away. I love coming home, especially for the holidays, but it has become a particular type of draining. The stress can be debilitating. I’m tired of hearing about unhappiness and feeling helpless to fill its absence. I unexpectedly often find myself looking forward to walking the hallways of my house alone with only my work on my mind.

I don’t want to be my parents when I grow up. I don’t want to be overwhelmed by stress or dwell on negativity. I want to be happy and spread happiness. I want to make my own choices that aren’t dictated by money and status, but for the joy of it. Well, that’s the dream, isn’t it? I like to think that I’ve learned a bit about the world in my short 25 years. The understanding that I don’t know everything makes it all the more intriguing and exciting. But I truly believe that much of all this ideal of achieving happiness has to do with attitude. And I’m resolved to realize this existence.

Happy Holidays. Happy New Year.

On gratitude

In the face of recent…events, I’ll call them?…big and small, I’ve noticed a profound change within myself. I’ve noticed that my genuine reaction to difficult, or sad, or frustrating circumstances is one of gratitude. I’m so grateful for the good people in my life, in whatever form or state I’m given. It doesn’t mean I don’t get frustrated that things don’t work out the way I imagined. I just have found I’m able to hold onto a sense of gratitude for the presence of others, above my pettiness or wishful thinking. It’s mushy, I know. I wish I could be more clever, or profound, or silly today, but this is all I can muster.

I think the words of a a rather incredible and grace-filled friend sum it up the best “What a gift it is to know such deep love and to share life, even when it’s hard and ambiguous.”

Second Best, Always

“You’ll spend your whole life with your first choice just out of reach – what you really wanted, what would mean real fulfillment. You will always get second best.”

That’s what he said to me. It’s followed me around. It haunts. It haunts effectively. I question major decisions – is this only second best? My choice in schools, that exam that needed just one more point, this career, that first real job and the next, the last boyfriend – is that why it didn’t work? Is that why I didn’t make the grade?…I’m not taking first, or I’ve failed to achieve first. I’ve fought my own growing resentment attached to those words. He meant well. They don’t actually influence my life. But is that really the case? Perhaps I let them.

How did he suggest I fix it? I change my name, only slightly. Changing one letter of the spelling to match some sort of birth path, defined by the state of the universe at the second I was aware. With this change, I would be in alignment with what the universe has planned for only the best me. And through that best me, only then will I realize the highest possible levels of happiness and have the world work with me in mind. Events will fall at my feet and I will excel in all things because my place in the world is aligned. Based on a name. My name in this world.

How ridiculous. My hyper-rational mind scoffs.

I have always been a proponent for the idea that you create your own destiny and achieve your own achievements, earned, earned to the extent that that credit is possible to possess according to the cards dealt to you at birth. There is nothing in the stars that directs you along a singular, unchanging, fateful path. But another part, the part that accepts that this world is ultimately unknowable – that there are mystical instances that mean things to happen in some fashion as opposed to another – nags.

How can all of this destiny, path, and fate be wrapped up in a name? And even, it’s spelling? In some ways, it makes sense. Your identity becomes wrapped up in your name. Or it could be another way around – your identity is defined and created by your name, which is, in my opinion, the more frightening of the two. Maybe I’m too entrenched in the idea of freedom in my American upbringing, even if it is a qualified freedom. The idea that something is set in stone without a role for our own rationalization and choice is terrifying. I can’t imagine that I’m the only one who thinks so.

He told me this as a freshman in college. Perhaps it was a particularly impressionable time, but I’ve yet to fully let it go. I wouldn’t say that I’ve accepted it either. Second is hard to accept as an alternative to first. Such an idea forces acknowledgment of different potential levels of happiness across life stages, and that achieving one level over the other is out of your control. One can’t help but reject the idea.

In fact, it would only be healthy to reject such an idea. The alternative is a diminished perception of self-worth and acceptance of impossibility that would only stunt or kill creativity and achievement and happiness. Who is to judge whether you’ve taken first or second? It’s only yourself, your harshest critic. The one that will follow you incessantly, and without reprieve.

But I do resent his words. And I’ve resolved that I cannot accept them. However, I suspect that this decision made does little to mitigate any thoughts that arise around the idea when a choice comes to pass. Still, it’s been written here. Perhaps that makes it a little more real. Coming to this point has only taken seven years or so, with perhaps a few more to go.

Something Borrowed

It’s an old pastime of young girls to imagine their future selves, embodied in a future name – written and signed. Using the last name of a crush, perhaps, just to see how it all fits together, and the vibrations through the air as it rolls off the tongue. It sounds just perfect, and so does the imagined pride of having this new identity, to be this new someone that matters to a particular someone. This pastime is learned at a young age and continues into adulthood. Don’t even try to deny it now. It is learned at a young age that we, as girls, take our husband’s surname – because we will marry. Most girls learn this from their mother and their own family. Mom took dad’s name – and that is how the world works.

There has been a lot of chatter around whether a woman should take the name of her husband’s. And a lot of judgment. It isn’t a new discussion. There are a number of ways that this could go.

  • The traditionalist: a woman changes her family name to her husband’s upon marriage.
  • The relegation: adding the new name last, demoting her name to a middle name that is really never used, let’s be honest.
  • The egalitarian: the abhorred hyphen.
  • The keeper: no change. You modern woman, you.
  • The feminist: man takes her name – I know, rare. It happens. So for completeness, humor me here.

There are issues with each of these options, as there are issues with the concept and act of committing to sharing your entire life forever with a single, often dynamic, person in an unstable world of circumstance. But, that is a discussion for another time.

Now, a necessary aside: this is coming from the perspective of a straight, (partially) white, educated, middle-class female and in the context of getting married, though there are plenty of other reasons to be changing your name. Changing names with the added attachment of another person, however, brings about these particular complex and curious ruminations.

Judgment is always passed on our choices. This choice in particular puts a label on an identity. This change is out in the open, on exhibition to the public. This change brands a shiny new scarlet A – there to be recognized and acknowledged, and judged. She’s anti-feminist. She’s lost herself. She’s attached. She’s no longer her own individual. She doesn’t care about her career and what this will do to her professional life. The hyphen is so unattractive. It makes your name too long, how inconvenient. The name no longer speaks to a pure heritage. It’s a jumbled mess. She doesn’t want to be attached to him. She doesn’t want to label herself. She doesn’t love him enough. And, how emasculating.

Why the judgment? Why is so much physical and virtual brain space dedicated to this choice?

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.”

But names carry so much, even if all they hold is a mental construct to which we are unwillingly subjugated by the perceptions of others. It’s the first experience of labeling and identity about which we usually have little choice in today’s Western society. And it follows you around. It is a label, that once attached, is to encapsulate a personality, career, self-image, judgment, and social experience – and the choice is so seemingly arbitrary. So what does it mean to change it, when it’s been established and when, say, things like marriage maybe come along? Well, with all of the hullabaloo about it, we seem to think it means a lot.

Much of this discussion has been built around the rise of the “career woman” and how we must lean in to get ahead in this world. In the relatively new professional world of females, keeping one’s name has become an indicator of an independent, ambition-driven woman, entrenched in circumstances where her own brand carries weight enough to warrant breaking tradition and forever attaching her label to her past, current, and future achievements. Alternatively, she could simply like her name, just the way it is.

Still, there are long lists of how-tos that in themselves reflect the impending judgment and re-evaluation. You’re urged to introduce it in the right way to soften the blow: “How to Change Your Name and Keep Your Professional Identity,” “Changing Your Name? Tips for the Workplace,” how to write that first email. Regardless of how it’s done, you can hear it already, “Oh…, she got married. And this makes it different from before. She has concerns and obligations to someone else, and relationships and character facets that I can’t discern from over here.” When taking marriage and a changed surname as public announcement of a woman’s capacity for care and empathy but also dependence, this change can be perceived as weakness. This decidedly does not pair well with the image of the career woman.

So, here it is. The public discussion and judgment and professional & social reception and identity and brand, all laid out in various spaces of physical and virtual reality. So, how does one choose?

I consider myself independent, a feminist. My career is important to me. My name is attached to things. Regardless of whether or not I get married, it’s a choice that captures identity and forces greater understanding of its facets and veiled values. So…would I change my name?

The conclusion that I’ve come upon is that this choice is a deeply personal one, which means high variation for different kinds of people and different circumstances. Anti-climactic, I know. I’m sorry to disappoint. I never claim to have these answers. I’m better at the questions. For the sake of this discussion, I’ll share my thoughts of the moment on the matter and how others might start to think through this choice.

To begin with, it’s simple. Based on my most primitive fancies, what do I want? Well, to tell you the truth, I don’t particularly like my name – its appearance, spelling, sound. I’m not attached to it in the way I find that many are – by their family life and experiences. My last name has never carried the label feature, characteristic of my identity in the same way as my first name. Instead, it floats in my wake, as if connected by a shimmering string of a spider web, easily severed.

Names seem to fit others, while I’ve always had a hard time saying and explaining my own. It’s something I’ve been working on getting used to and I’d say it’s been growing on me for nearly 25 years now. Based on this, my choice seems moderately straightforward: welcome a change that may be more fitting. However, I work in a space where keeping your published name is ideal, if only for the sake of convenience, historic record, respect, and recognition. This is the challenge. What is to be weighed?

Again, my primordial inclination is to say fuck others’ perceptions and judgments and do what you feel. But then, years of socialization force some level of rationalized discussion. These changes induce perceptions and judgments that affect, if only by a smidgeon, respect, recognition, and experience. And experience shapes your life. Or maybe I’m making a bigger deal of this whole thing than it really is.

Luckily or not, I still have time to make my choice. Or I think I do. All I can say if it comes to it is that I hope that I will be the one to shape the name and what it means as applied to me in my past, present, and future – and not all the rest of it.

The Rebel Redefined

He was always rumored to be the rebellious relative. His first misstep happened early in life when he left England to study in the U.S. His second occurred when he broke off his arranged engagement to instead marry a vibrant American girl. His third—the acceptance of a life estranged from most of his extended family.

Perhaps my other relatives would tell me about my uncle as a sort of cautionary tale, but instead I always had a sense that I wanted to know him.

I knew his mother first—my sweet great aunt. In just a short visit, I grew to love her perspective on the world, something I could never share but tried to absorb. On walks around London, she would ask me about my life and, in pieces, share her own. A young bride to a domineering man, she remained optimistic despite tragedies that marked her timeline. In her later years, she found strength in her community, and reciprocated by working as a volunteer well into her eighties. When she spoke, she was illuminated in the soft glow of a light that never burned brightly, but constantly. She passed away peacefully two and half years ago. A stroke caught her, suddenly, on a flight between her two worlds.

I finally met my uncle at a time when the meaning of family was being redefined for me. After years of constant pushing, I decided that my heart could no longer handle my brother’s ups and downs and I had grown silent. Knowing the weight my parents felt from him, I kept a vaguely positive affect around them, which grew into an ever-present stoicism.

What I remember most from our first dinner together was laughter. The amazing, all-consuming laughter that leaves your abdomen aching and head adrift. My uncle and aunt welcomed me warmly into their family, and I was surprised at how easily I felt comfortable in their home. To their kids, four strong brothers, I came from a parallel world that their dad only occasionally described. But distance and the past dissolved quickly over a Thanksgiving dinner. Between courses of food and wine, we exchanged stories and said we would meet again soon.

We’ve celebrated weddings together, holidays when possible, and random weekends when I’m missing a semblance of home. Our connections have been joyful and honest, sensitive but not masked, supportive and light. When I graduated, my uncle planned a visit to see me before I could even extend an invitation. When I moved across the country, my aunt sent a house-warming gift—a sort of inside joke that she and I share.

This is what family can be; my uncle has shown me that. He has never lectured me, he has never aimed to impart wisdom on my life until a recent email, which simply ended in “Continue to enjoy your life—it passes quickly. Love.”

Sick and my silver lining

When you are the child of an incredible, but chronically sick parent, you tend to develop pre-grieving anxiety.

For the past many years, I’ve preemptively thought about how I will feel when push comes to shove. The exercise is painful and though I wonder if it is ridiculous, it is impossible to prevent my mind from somberly treading down that path. Mistimed feelings of sadness, frustration, self-pity, and fear flood my mind and it feels like I’m drowning. It’s a dark sort of practice, to grieve like this.

We got bad news this week. Push has come to shove, and though I believe that modern medicine and a lot of work will keep my family out of the red zone, I can’t decide if my years of practice are paying off or not. The feelings are what I expected in some ways, but they are physically manifested in a way that surprises me. I am hungry, but don’t want to eat. There’s a cold lump in my chest and I don’t want to disturb it because I’m afraid it will shatter. I’m frantically trying to be busy and stimulated because I’m terrified of the feels that are invited in by a quiet moment.

In simple words: this sucks.

I learned a long time ago that you can take sadness/grief/loss, absorb it, and let it become you. For a long time, I let myself do this, Somewhere along the way I figured out that I can take my sadness, absorb it, and convert it into something productive. The last step is tricky, but if I look for silver linings, however cliché it sounds, things become easier.

I’ve been overwhelmed by my silver linings. The thing I’m seeing past the obvious shittiness of the whole situation is that I and my family are surrounded by people who love us. The day I found out, I let my circle of people know and received messages and calls of concern from my closest friends. My siblings and I are holding spontaneous group calls. My brother went home to just be present (and play with the cat) and my sister is making steps to move closer to home. My family’s group text has become sweeter, sillier, and more active. New friends and coworkers who know what’s going on have been incredibly supportive, and I’ve been astounded by the honestly and vulnerability friends have extended toward me.

I am sad because I love my mother and family deeply, and I am terrified. But, I am loved deeply by the people around me. I don’t know what will happen, but I do know that we are surrounded by love. It helps.

Gate 43

Newly polished shoes, he sits there drinking his 5 o’clock beer next to the family of four eating breakfast. Two strangers share an intimate conversation over coffee. The woman in the red heels nervously fixes her hair in a hand-held mirror. Probably off to see a love interest. There’s a girl crying just outside the restaurant. Minimal effort at concealing the tears. Leaving something behind. Family? Friends? Love? Herself?

There’s something about airports that makes them a concentrated microcosm of human experience. People are either leaving something behind or going towards something or, often, both. Excitement, dread, joy, sorrow, anxiety, banality- all of these coexist in the context of overpriced water and kitschy souvenirs.  Somewhere in this world, there’s a girl who knows more about me than some of my friends do because we shared a 9 hour layover in the New Delhi airport. Her name’s been long-wiped from my memory, her face is a blur, her hair could’ve been blonde or not, but her story, her feelings at the time- these I remember with vivid detail. The same level of detail with which I can recount a conversation over wine with a man who would slip in an out of life randomly, purely by happenstance, for years until finally one day, he called my name at an airport. Both waiting on delayed flights going in opposite directions, we swapped our vastly different feelings about a shared sadness we’d both experienced in our own ways. A sadness we’d both been dealing with throughout all those chance run-ins and late-night sing-alongs. A sadness that had never been revealed until the airport effect washed away standard conversation decorum and left in its wake, something raw and emotionally unfiltered.

And then there’s today.

In some ways, it’s appropriate- even poetic- that my drawn-out breakup culminated in an airport goodbye.  It’s interesting to me that the very thing I was trying to get away from by embracing the relationship at the start, is the same thing I’m going towards after entangling myself in a web of feelings and expectations and shared experience. It’s difficult and painful to extract yourself from another person’s world, especially when you can see and feel how it might be hurting them, but the trust you have to have in yourself to know that the disentanglement is necessary, can be a powerfully grounding force.  Our intertwined worlds gave us both (I hope) greater vision and a more robust understanding of the world we want to exist in. Not only did I get to share my world and experience someone else’s, which is always a gift, but through it, I also learned myself better. My decision-making feels more firm. My lifestyle, more purposeful. My values, more clear. Despite the headache I have from being the girl crying outside the restaurant, I would do it all over again because it’s become a part of the person I’m working towards being. At first, I was hoping to avoid feeling the hurt that comes with a breakup, but now… Now, I’m happy to feel it. I’m happy to know that my time was spent well, that it mattered, and that because of it, I will be better. And hopefully, he feels the same.

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You have always been the place you need

For more than two years, a poem has bounced around my head. It has nearly one million views and I suspect at least 300 of those views are mine. Each time I watch the poem, it catapults in a previously unconsidered direction and reverberates for days, leaving behind bits of new understanding.

This poem is called “The Type” and it is by the poet Sarah Kay. It is a love poem, but it is not the love poem that I wanted or expected. This poem is not about romantic love, though it is not dismissive of it. This is a poem about self-love. This is a poem about settling into yourself.

For context, this poem was inspired by a line in the poem “Detail of the Woods” by Richard Siken: “…Everyone needs a place. It shouldn’t be inside of someone else.” Without going into detail, I will say that for all of the years of my adulthood, I’ve been searching for a place to call my own. When you are searching for this place, the danger (and I fall into this), is to mistake romantic love, or the possibility of romantic love, or just romance, or sometimes simply attention, for a more basic type of love. It feels almost reflexive to do this, to accept a mismatched love as the answer to a larger question.

The poem says what I don’t want to hear. Maybe this is because I want to feel special and her words make flirtatiousness and romance and even love seem secondary to something else. Maybe this is because I recognize my own mistakes in some of what she says.

…Sometimes it is not you they are reaching for…but their hands found you first.

…Do not mistake yourself for a guardian, or a muse, or promise, or a victim, or a snack.

…You are not the answer. You are not the problem. You are not the poem, or the punch line, or the riddle, or the joke.

Kay’s words mean different things to me at any given time, but the constant lesson is that romantic love alone will not fill my gaps or reveal my place. At the most basic level, only I can do this for myself. I don’t know when I’ll get there, but I have the tools I need. Finding my place is not mutually exclusive to romantic love (because come on, we want to find that too!!), but I will continue to watch this poem over and over to remind myself that, as Kay says, I need a place to call my own, but at the most fundamental level, I have always been the place.

– M

Drive.

I’ve experienced something new this week. I’ve found out what it means to be a man. Specifically, what it means to have the distracting tunnel vision that seems to cloud logical thought and reason all because of sex – “the sex drive of a man,” if you will. Now, moving past the inherent sexism of using those words together to suggest that women’s libidos are typically meager (as this is definitely not the case), let’s accept it for the time being for the sake of understanding each other.

So, I’m having major struggles. Work is not going efficiently at the moment. I need to talk about this. And I have a thought, eyes wide – is this what men deal with everyday, all the time?

So, of course, I ask the experts. Evidence from my small sample size suggests that the short answer is: yes.

From this, I only have more questions alongside greater empathy for the constant struggle. For example, how do you regularly cope with wanting sex multiple times a day, at least every couple of days? How do you concentrate for more than 20 minutes? What is the “typical” ideal frequency of sex? What do you do when your partner isn’t up for sex as much as you’d like? How do you deal with this issue in a long distance relationship? I only have more questions and my newly found respect.

Maybe I’m a little late to the party. It’s taken me some time to deal with other issues before having the capacity to embrace different aspects of who I am and confront the minute details of my sexuality. While it’s only been a few weeks of this awareness, I have a sneaking suspicion that this may well be my steady state. Over these past few weeks, I’ve reaffirmed my understanding that life inevitably changes and wants, desires, and states of mind, fluid – matters of perspective. Like many questions, answers to mine are understandably different from person to person. Luckily, I have ample time to figure them out for myself.

For now, I’m just going to loop This Summer’s Going To Hurt Like a Motherfucker. Foreboding? Perhaps.