2017, adulthood, birthdays, celebrations, injury, writing

Why 29 Will Be My Most Unbalanced Year Yet

I’ve always used my birthday as a time to stop and think about where I’ve been and where I’m going. The annual tradition is one way I try to build self-awareness and achieve balance. This year in particular, however, I didn’t want to stop. In some ways, I had been stopped all year and I wanted to celebrate my renewed ability to go-go-go. Last year, I had knee surgery four days after my birthday. I spent the next six months rebuilding my strength, and the six months after that rebuilding my strength again after a second surgery. I spent all twelve months chasing literal and metaphoric balance.

Literally, the muscles in my right leg atrophied and stopped working after surgery, and required both electric stimulation and intensive isolated exercises to get them back in shape. In the early days, this meant spending most of the day lying down with my leg elevated, slowly trying to bend it every couple of hours. In the later days, this meant dedicating an entire morning to rehab, then doing mini stretches throughout the day.

Metaphorically, the recovery process and pain inhibited my ability to practice or enjoy much of what typically keeps me emotionally balanced—writing, exercising, cooking, socializing, working, and sleeping. Even if I could occasionally do one or the other, my notion of balance necessitated my ability to do all of it at once.

In some ways, I felt like I was stuck in another person’s body (for better or for worse).

April, 2000

This lack of balance was a stark opposition from the life I have always known. As a child, I was involved in countless activities simultaneously: Multiple styles of dance class, singing lessons, choir, soccer, writing contests, piano, swim team, volunteer work, oil painting, yoga, and I’m probably forgetting a few (school). Despite the occasional overwhelm, I never wished any of them away. I enjoyed what I defined to be a “well-rounded” life, and more importantly, I prided myself in being able to balance everything. The pace I set (or that was set for me) in my childhood is the one I brought forward into my adulthood. Whether or not it’s right, I equated “balance” with “doing many things” and “imbalance” with “failure.”

About six months after my surgery, as I regained my physical balance, I attempted to test my mental balance as well. I outlined an idea for a new book and considered ways I might start to realize my dream of owning a coffee shop. Both of these endeavors required extensive time and energy, which, admittedly, were sparse given how much of my limited time and energy were drained by the recovery process. I set both aside and considered that perhaps I was incapable of the balance I once knew.

Around this time, I learned that I needed to have another surgery. It was as if someone was tugging the rug underneath me as I was trying to stand up. But somehow, I held my ground. I didn’t let it throw me off. I was surprised to find that through the initial months of recovery, I had found a sense of balance amidst the imbalance. I was more adept at riding life’s waves.

Last week, The New York Times published a piece in its Well section about achieving balance. Shockingly, the article isn’t in praise of it. Instead it argues that sometimes, imbalance is a good thing. To get fully consumed by some one aspect of your life (“Falling in love. Writing a book. Trekking in the Himalayas. Training to set a personal record in a triathlon.”) is rewarding  in a way that balance sometimes is not. It allows you to fully acknowledge, experience, and appreciate this one thing. With self-awareness, it enables you to excel.

The article summarized my past year in a way that I couldn’t on my own. It made me see the imbalance in my last year not as my destroyer, but as my healer. There is undeniable benefit in giving one person or thing your undistracted attention.

As I look back on my year of imbalance, one thing is true: I was happy. My injury gave me an excuse to slow down and wholly focus. It allowed me to work toward, and achieve, small and big milestones. It reminded me to appreciate the marvels of the human body—my human body. It proved to me the humanity in strangers. It filled me with the care of loved ones.

So in entering another year of my life (this time with more physical balance than last year), I am, for the first time doing so with an eye for healthy and meaningful imbalance. And I’m pretty happy about it.

 


Read More

Birthday reflections

Why 28 Is The Year I Need To Do What I Want
What Amy Winehouse Taught Me About Turning 27
4 Things I Couldn’t Admit To Myself Until Turning 25
Ten Thoughts On Turning 25

Inspiration  

You’re Doing Your Weekend Wrong
Maybe We All Need a Little Less Balance

Standard
http://www.patrickvale.co.uk/Projects/NYC-Midtown-line-drawing
2017, art, tradeoffs, wants vs needs, writing

How I Let My Ego Steal My Craft—And Why I’m Stealing it Back

“Let yourself be gutted. Let it open you. Start there.” – Cheryl Strayed

Until my brother was born, I was the only child and grandchild in my family, which came with an abundance of attention and adoration. I was three when he came along, and immediately found myself needing to compete for the spotlight. One day as I was pondering my increasingly impossible mission, I was bouncing around near our brick fireplace. I took a misstep, stubbed my right pinky toe, and started bleeding. I was suddenly surrounded by parents and grandparents offering me treats and ointments and band-aids. And in that moment, I found an answer.

Going forward, I started covering my arms and legs with loud, colorful band-aids—even though there was never a colorful injury under them. “Oh no! What happened?” I remember my grandpa asking as he scooped me up after spotting a band-aid under my elbow.

I am not proud of it, but it did the deed.

Several weeks ago, after a minor knee surgery, I went in for a check-up with my surgeon. Though most people didn’t notice anything wrong before the surgery (or any change afterwards), I—obviously—did. There were no colorful band-aids, but my knee wasn’t yet fully healed. I still had to work on my ability to fully extend and bend it. “This is your new project,” my surgeon told me as I left his office. Every day since, I’ve put endless amounts of time and effort into my recovery, sometimes with the most nuanced of isolation exercises. The definition of a personal project, my endeavor is one from which only I find a thrill, one from which only I feel a benefit. And there’s something really special about that.

At some point in my pursuit of becoming a writer, I started to pressure myself into producing work for the sole enjoyment of others, be it in the form of my personal book and blog, or in the form of my professional and freelance work. I carved out time not because I wanted to write, but because I needed to write. In some ways, there was nothing wrong with this. It’s nice for your writing to be read. But in other ways, everything was wrong with this.

Sometimes I would spend an entire day or days constructing meandering strings of words and paragraphs. Ones that made me feel something, but could never stand to entertain. Ones that made me reflect, that made me grow, that made my heart sing—and sometimes sob. But at the end of these long days, I would feel nothing but fury and embarrassment. With nothing to “show” for my time, I considered my day a wasted one. “I should have done something else today,” I would think to myself as I pulled open the covers and slid into bed. And so, I stopped writing for writing’s sake. I stopped writing for myself.

For the past week, artist Patrick Vale has been painting a mural at the entrance of my office. On Wednesday, he spent some time talking to my studio about his work. In addition to all his public work, he gave us a glimpse of his personal sketchbooks. His most recent sketchbook includes sketches of people he sees on the train. “I’m trying to get better at drawing people,” he explained, “and seeing them for only two minutes on the train gives you no time to mess up.”

His sketchbooks struck me. The quality of work was certainly notable, but that wasn’t what got me. I was more struck by the fact that these works were ones that he simply created—and kept—for himself. (“No one has really seen this stuff.”) They were not for anyone else. They were meant to allow him to self-reflect. To grow. To learn. To fail. They were not meant for him to demonstrate his “artist-ness” to the world.

His talk inspired me to bring back to my craft what I accidentally achieved through rehabilitating my knee: a sense of personal exploration, growth, and strengthening. For me. One that is almost more beautiful in its lack of universal applicability and shareability.

Thanks to overwhelming avenues for oversharing (avenues whose traps I’m often lured into both online and in person), self-expression can become increasingly frustrating and worse, inauthentic. Our personal projects become projections unto other people.

The real deal gets covered up by a band-aid screaming for attention.

These past few weeks, and this past week in particular have reminded me about the importance of what lies hidden underneath. The ugly scar. The struck-out sentence. That is art.

Standard
communication, friendship, language, life lessons, Lincoln, linguistics, real world, US Presidents, writing

What Abraham Lincoln Can Teach Us About Choosing (And Keeping) Our Words

There is an adorable elderly man with an ice cream parlor in San Francisco’s Western Addition. His eyes sparkle with authenticity; his smile glows with friendliness. He is the kind of the ice cream server you stop to see, even when your lactose intolerance says you shouldn’t. He is the kind of man who, when he meets your parents, will tell them that he enjoys your visits, but that you don’t visit too often.

No matter how my life changes, this man and his ice cream parlor have been my constant. His eyes and smile always the same. The flavors always the same (but always requiring pre-decision tastes).

Two weeks ago, as I was walked past the parlor on my way to dinner, some thoughtless impulse drove me to stop inside. There was no time, and it was not the time, for ice cream.

“Hello lovely lady. What will it be for you today?”

I immediately recognized the awkwardness of my having entered this sixteen-square-foot parlor with no plans to purchase ice cream.

“Oh, well, I’m just passing by on my way to dinner.” He was unsure how to respond, and looking for ways to fill the silence, I continued.

“What time do you close?”

“Today? Oh! I say, about, 9:30.”

“Okay, maybe I’ll come by after dinner,” I said reflexively.

Somewhat fatefully, I made it back to his parlor shortly before 9:30 PM. As he handed me a napkin, the old man looked me in the eye. “You are a good one, you know. Most people say they will come back but they never do. You stuck to your word.”

“I try,” I said, feeling a twinge of guilt for the fact that my reason for returning was not necessarily because I said I would.

In the days after our encounter, I found myself thinking about the importance of words, and keeping our word, in today’s world.

From texts to email to pings to phone calls to in-person run-ins, most of us are inundated with messages requiring some response. While we may aspire to craft genuine responses back, at some point, for me at least, the queue becomes unmanageable and the ultimate goal becomes inbox zero.

Whether it’s the let’s get together sometime‘s or the miss you‘s I send and receive, I sometimes wonder if we place more value on giving and getting some response, rather than the content of the response itself — in both our digital and physical lives. Are we as deliberate in our word choice in social settings as we are in work email or professional meetings? Or do we just say whatever is simplest in the given moment? “I’ll come back later,” to the man at the ice cream parlor or worse, “We should do coffee sometime!” to that acquaintance on the sidewalk.

It is often said that San Franciscans are flaky. The man at the ice cream parlor has me thinking that perhaps we are not flaky. Perhaps we are just well-intentioned liars. It has come to a point where I, much like him, am somewhat pleasantly surprised when people keep their word.

Like ice cream taster spoons, words are so easy to give away, after all.

Abraham Lincoln on ReligionEarlier this weekend, I read this New Yorker article which describes how language has become a “central subject in Lincoln studies.” Over one hundred years after his death, the words used by and about Lincoln are being explicated and analyzed to help us better understand him as a person. The article’s author argues that “rhetoric and writing were as essential to [Lincoln’s] career as acts and orders and elections.” For example, in the hotly debated arena of his faith, we look to his utterances: “Yet, undeniably, as the war and his Presidency progressed, Lincoln spoke increasingly of God—inserted God, as it seems, into the Gettysburg Address—and evidently had some kind of complicated and rich sense of “necessity” and a supernatural presiding power.”

The article inspired me to think about the words I use in my modern-day exchanges.

When am I using words just to use them? How often am I “maybe after dinner”-ing people? (“I’ll try my best,” when really I won’t or “I’d love to do this again soon,” when really I don’t. “LOL when I’m not laughing at all.)

What do they say about me? Do they say what I intend for them to say? How do they come across to others? Are they authentically me?

This is not to say that I would ever err toward more “truthful” words that could harm another person. It is to say that by being more discerning in my word choice, I can effectively transform these otherwise overused phrases into rare, but meaningful ones (“I miss you like crazy,” when my heart truly aches, or “I would love to see you soon,” when I’m actively searching for a date and time to coordinate).

Though I am certainly not fool enough to believe that my words will still exist — let alone be explicated and debated — in the way that Lincoln’s are today, I am motivated to put more thought into the words I throw around today. To celebrate the words I choose, rather than the fact that I chose words in the first place.

And given the necessity of reciprocity in communication, I would love, it would be wonderful wouldn’t it be nice if I implore you to consider doing the same for yourself.

Standard
art, cell phones, Charlie, Charlie Hebdo, court trial, France, Je Suis Charlie, mugging, San Francisco, shooting, writing

I Was Charlie

“It reads, ‘Before I could get my wits together,'” implying that the author was not in complete control of her judgment. Clearly, we can’t be sure that her memory of the event is accurate.”

“Getting your wits together is a phrase. It is an expression of my creative freedom. It doesn’t mean that –”

“Did you write these words?”

“Yes, but — ”

“Your honor, let the record show that the victim wrote that she did not have her wits together.”

So went the questioning during a hearing for a violent cell phone theft that took place in May, 2013. His case weak, the public defender was explicating an article about the crime line by line in the courtroom. An article that I wrote. I, the victim.

The shots continued.

“Is it true that the cops said, ‘We never catch the smart ones?'”

“Well, I — ”

“It says right here in your article. ‘We never catch the smart ones, they said as they turned on the sirens and made an abrupt turn.'”

I knew what he was getting at.

Continue reading

Standard
adulthood, alone time, ambition, belonging, birthdays, family, growing up, turning 26, writing

4 Things I Couldn’t Admit To Myself Until I Turned 25

I turn 26 this week.

In some ways, twenty-five flew by with little to report. But in others, it transformed me:

I got to know the person I will spend the rest of my life with.

While this is unsurprising given my age, it is surprising given that I do not have a significant other.

The last fifteen months comprise the longest I have been in the same place with the same job ever. Because my world was too-frequently-changing before (semester to semester, rotation to rotation, city to city), because I myself was changing too frequently before, and perhaps because I fundamentally was too young to understand — and accept — them before, twenty-five was my first opportunity to recognize key qualities about this person I see and spend time with every single day.

This person is me.

***
4 Things I am Finally Old Enough to Know (and Admit) About Myself:

1. I crave alone time

Growing up, I had an extra-curricular obligation almost everyday, including weekends. Between my activities and homework, I always had a reason to reject social invitations if I didn’t want to hang out. I was never avoiding anyone specific, though. My dance team and coursework served the same purpose in college, and soon after graduating, I voluntarily undertook a book-writing project which mandated hours of undistributed focus.

These artificial reasons for being “busy,” were actually my need to spend time alone, doing things that I enjoy, just, by myself. It felt abnormal to say, “I want alone time,” especially because I never heard anyone say it to me.

Sometime during twenty-five, a switch flipped. I started to identify my need for this special time and went so far as to plan it into my life (mostly weekends). I aggressively defend alone time. It recharges me for future social interaction. Notably, it is not always productive. Sometimes I just want to sit on my couch, alone, on a Saturday night, and watch a television airing of The Parent Trap (even if it’s the Lindsay Lohan version) for the millionth time.

And though I occasionally slip into the need to rationalize it (work, errands, fatigue), I have finally come to terms with saying “I need alone time,” without caring how my statement will be received.

2. I am not superhuman

Earlier this year, I wrote an article on Medium that, by some stroke of luck, went viral. Wanting to make the most of the magic before it wore off, I immediately took on multiple simultaneous writing projects: Going for a double-hitter on Medium, submitting variations of my article to publications, enrolling in a writing course, maintaining my personal blog, and starting to write for a non-profit.

All this on top of an actual job.

For the next two months, thinking about writing, a historically therapeutic hobby for me, filled me with insurmountable stress.

The pieces I wrote during this time were haphazard. After two good-but-not-great Medium articles, two rejections from VentureBeat, two rejections from children’s book publishers, and a draft returned to me with more red than black, I finally stepped back.

Though its virality will always puzzle me, that article’s strength came from the fact that it was my sole focus when it was being created (outside of work). I put a lot of (very awake) brain and heart into it — without working on seven other articles at the same time.

Humans accomplish more (and better) with less and I am no exception to that rule.

3. I am family-first

I lived at home for twenty-six months after graduating college. My parents assured me it would lighten the load of my student loans, but I was too naive to see that. I pitied myself for sacrificing “fun” and “youth” by not living in a glamorous city with “everyone else.” When I finally moved to San Francisco, I likened it to liberation from confinement.

For months after moving, visits home were accompanied by an uncomfortable anxiety of all that I was missing in the city. Hadn’t those twenty-six months been enough?

This past May, I went to dinner with a friend whose family was struggling through financial and health hardships. She expressed the difficulty of living so far from them. I listened, silently ashamed that I sometimes felt inconvenienced by the geographical proximity to mine.

One morning just a few weeks later, I was asked to come home for a family meeting. On this particular day, it meant begrudgingly rejecting an opportunity to spend time with a boy I liked. In that family meeting, however, I was irreplaceable.

My family’s need for me to be home persists, but the visits feel less mandatory. Instead, I voluntarily leave the city to spend evenings, weekends, and long weekends with my family, even if it means forgoing trips to Big Sur or wine country. I can’t be mentally present anywhere else when I know my family would benefit most from my physical presence.

When I lived at home, I believed I was happy and comfortable despite living with my parents. I was embarrassed to be living there. With perspective, I see this as childish. I feel adult enough now to accept how much my parents’ happiness fuels my own, and how lucky I am to live just a train ride away.

4. I want to belong

This was my first year living in San Francisco during Bay to Breakers. When non-friends asked me about my plans, I said that it “wasn’t my thing,” but that I “might do something with my friends.” I didn’t actually have plans or invitations to do anything, and this didn’t bother me — until the day of.

My neighborhood was part of the Bay to Breaker route. As I walked through and past groups of friends I was surprised to find myself wishing I was part of one of them (some more than others). I was an outsider, not just to a particular group of friends, but also to a shared city experience where, but for a day, rules and reality were ignored.

Facebook and Instagram were relentless, exposing groups of happy friends sharing the day together.

It wasn’t a fear of missing out (FOMO), but simply feeling left out (FLO?) despite my belief that this event was “not me.” That afternoon, when my hair stylist asked me if I participated in Bay To Breakers, I responded that “we” had enjoyed watching the crowds. There was no “we.” It was just me.

That was when I realized how even my strong sense of self and individuality needs to be one with the masses every now and then.

***

These lessons surely aren’t secrets to life and they likely aren’t unique to me. But they are definitely not applicable to everyone.

The most important “facts of life” are facts about yourself. You will spend the rest of your life with yourself — get to know each other.

Standard