A New Year

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(photo by SashaW)

The New Year will always mean something extra to me. It was the last time I heard my brother’s voice. Eight years ago today my older brother committed suicide. The grief that came with that tragedy has affected everyone in my family differently. It is also a beast that changes over time. While I was thrown into a turmoil I didn’t know existed that first year after his death, the last few years my grief has been calm and quiet. I’ve been thinking of his death, of him, less. That is why I was almost surprised when going to bed last night (about 1 am, January 5) that thoughts of him came flooding in.

December was a gray month for me. The New Year, a dark one. Going home to see family and to the place I am moving to in 5 weeks made me uncomfortable, anxious. I was uncertain of myself, of the move, of my feelings. I didn’t write here because I had nothing to say that wouldn’t be hypocritical. I fell back into my (undiagnosed) depression.

I spent New Years Day staring at walls, wandering around my flat, willing time to move, for something to change. I was literally unmotivated to do anything, breathing was all I could do. I checked my email, seeking distraction, in it was a link to an interview series about positivity and self-acceptance that I signed up for a month earlier. The link would expire in just a few hours. Since I loathe to waste anything and was only motivated to do nothing, I listened, halfheartedly. Miraculously, it cheered me up. (This is the interview series).

J had been encouraging me to set goals for the New Year, to help me focus on things outside of myself, but as I battled the darkness no task-oriented goal felt right. I have spent the last three years setting lists of goals, even creating spreadsheets to track my progress over weeks and months. Read 52 books, see 6 new exhibits, go to 5 lectures on things I don’t know about, etc. I abandoned last year’s just months in, my goals didn’t seem to fit me anymore.

Suddenly (strange how so many things can happen in just a week), I realized what I needed to do in 2014:  Get right with myself. The one thing that can help me. The most important thing I should be focusing on is my emotional and mental health. If I’m ever going to find a way to rise above my lowest feelings and try prevent dark days I’m going to have to be okay with myself. Love myself. Accept myself. So in 2014 every action I take, every thought I have, my goal is to ask myself, ‘Will this help me get right with myself?’. If it doesn’t, I know I shouldn’t do it. In a way I’m making several ‘traditional’ goals–around health, activity, social life–but really my focus is on improving my ability to value my own life.

This is what I was doing at 1 am last night. I was thinking ‘I love myself’ over and over before going to sleep (a practice that makes me feel ridiculous, but was recommended here, so far I think its actually helping). Then I remembered that eight years ago at perhaps this time my brother made the decision to end his life. That contrast. That I was in the act of re-committing to myself, to my life, at the same time and day that he chose differently, it was a revelation. It was the first time I felt like I was out living my brother (though I always knew I would become ‘older’ than him).

This realization, this coincidence, is bittersweet. I am far enough away from his death to keep from regretting not being able to share with him what is helping me now, but it is still sad to see evidence that I will become more than he was able to as my life moves on. His choice changed everything for me and for my family, but it has also given me a bar I can never cross, a choice I can never make. Eliminating that choice, for me, has at least been something meaningful in his death. In part, because of his choice, I have made my own–I choose myself.

This is the year where I learn that I am enough. Where I remember to accept who I am, with all the flaws. Where I learn to love myself and truly believe that my life has meaning. This year my only goal is to get right with myself, leaving behind any other expectations. I’m working at it slowly, hesitantly (December’s dip into depression is still close in my mind). I’m working at it day by day, sometimes minute by minute. I’m starting to realize that life is like this, a practice that you have to work at every day and never ends. The childish victim in me hates that, but hating it won’t change that fact. Instead, I will tell myself I love myself minute by minute, I will choose healthy eating and exercise day by day, I will not let career expectations pull me where I am not sure I want to go, I will ask myself ‘Will this help me get right with me?”.

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Reviewed: The Lowland

I read a lot. I’ve been keeping track of the books I read since 2011, so I know that since January of this year I’ve read 66 books, give or take a few I didn’t feel ‘counted’ as books. (I don’t tend to count short stories, etc.) Because I read and record my thoughts on books regularly, I thought I may as well share them here. I am far from a professional critic, but I’ll try to review my favorite books of the month here in brief.

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The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri

To be perfectly honest, I wasn’t interested in reading this book at first. While Lahiri is a wonderful writer, I thought it would be more of the same (I’ve been reading a lot of ‘American immigrant’ novels lately). My book club decided to read this and the library had it (I think I was the first one to get the new copy), so I joined in

From the book jacket:

From Subhash’s earliest memories, at every point, his brother was there. In the suburban streets of Calcutta where they wandered before dusk and in the hyacinth-strewn ponds where they played for hours on end, Udayan was always in his older brother’s sight. So close in age, they were inseparable in childhood and yet, as the years pass – as U.S tanks roll into Vietnam and riots sweep across India – their brotherly bond can do nothing to forestall the tragedy that will upend their lives.

The book is divided into short sections which alternate between characters as well as time periods. I found it easy to transition between these sections and it was always a nice surprise to have to read the first few paragraphs to realize whose point of view it was. Of course I questioned a few of the perspectives and time shifts she put in, wondering if a more interesting angle on the family’s life could have been used, but overall I was surprised by the plot developments and really enjoyed her choices of detail. The end brought us back to the beginning of the book’s main conflict, in a circular fashion that is often effective, but I liked how it relived the conflict unflinchingly by this point the reader knows what is coming, but the book still describes it honestly. I really value that.

Overall a very enjoyable and engaging read that is beneath the surface about how different personalities are impacted by and live past tragedy. As with many books, this is a story of people, life and resilience, but done with a grace that is unique to Lahiri’s work. Her Man Booker Prize nomination this year is well deserved. If you’d like to get a glimpse of life in Calcutta or enjoy reading about the cultural differences those who immigrate to America face, this is one for you. You may also be interested if you really like books that are about characters and personalities first and foremost, the contrast between sections here is well done.

A Very Expat Thanksgiving

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A very broody turkey (photo by Swaminathan)

I have probably talked about Thanksgiving abroad when this blog was in its ‘travel’ iteration, but I’ll discuss it a bit again before the main point of this post–telling you what I’m thankful for.

This will be my third Thanksgiving away from family. It is very strange to have Thanksgiving with the same group of extended relatives with the same foods at the same place for 23 years and then suddenly have to make do with whatever Thanksgiving you can find. Luckily J and I have found a group of young expats who seem to like to cook and have enough courage to take on the beast that is the Thanksgiving feast (I may need another 20 years before I tackle that).

So each year we gather on a weekend before/after Thanksgiving or on Thursday evening–we don’t get Thursday and Friday off work as holidays you know–at our host’s house providing offerings of side dishes, desserts and wine. It is always delicious and maybe even more fun–the people around the table are my age and we can pass jokes back and forth instead of worry about if weird aunt May will be offended or if I’ll be able to avoid great uncle Al’s endless talking. Every year is wonderful simply because it is another year we have managed to keep the Thanksgiving tradition despite being away from our families.

There is always a mixture of pleasure and disappointment. You are happy to be here with friends, but you still miss your home where you first learned about the tradition. One advantage is that combining so many Americans in one room means that there is a supply of Thanksgiving sides you have never heard of. (Who knew I’d like parsnips when cooked correctly?) Of course, unless you make it yourself, you will never be able to have some of your family’s most famous sides (homemade mac n cheese is not the same without velveeta). We also have to get creative on many sides:  cornbread is made with polenta (as cornbread mixes are harder to find), sweet potato dishes more often come from fresh rather than canned yams (never seen the canned variety here) and any cans of Libby’s pumpkin seen in stores must be bought in bulk and hoarded (it becomes a rare commodity). Then of course there is the issue of a turkey. Turkeys are especially hard to find here in November since they are traditionally eaten on Christmas, previous year’s hosts had to call individual farms to arrange for something. No huge tubs full of butterballs in stores here!

There is nothing like Thanksgiving with your family, but having it with a group of expats is the next best thing. Now, on this day I’d like to say what I’m thankful for because it is Thanksgiving, but also because it is important that I remember how good my life is.

  1. A loving and supportive husband that is always looking for ways (e.g. fine dining, chocolate, hugs) to bring a smile to my face.
  2. Family (especially mother) and friends that have always cared for me but are checking up on me more often since I revealed I’ve been having trouble and keep sending their love to brighten my day.
  3. National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) for once again buoying my mood, confidence and writing skill over the month of November. (2,555 words to go! Too bad this post doesn’t count.)
  4. A job where I can dress semi-casually, as my casual clothes are much warmer than the ‘business’ ones.
  5. Being in a place where I feel I have options and am strong enough to rely on myself/take advantage of those opportunities.
  6. Being able to take part in a painting class at the Art Academy (and paint nude models without giggling).
  7. Only 12 work days until I’m back in the US for Christmas!

These may be boring, honestly I think they seem strange to publish, but I think its important that I use gratitude regularly to bring some positivity into my life. None of the items on this little list are earth shattering, but having love, support and your health are really the most important things. Happy Thanksgiving!

Learning to Say Goodbye

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(photo by Sacks08)

Last night something obvious hit me very suddenly, the most obvious things always seem to appear that way. I realized that part of my difficulties is accepting the fact that I am changing. Not physically (though that too), but in how I view the world and what I want out of life. I already knew this to a certain extent, I know its normal completely, but the tension is that I still like the plans I had for who I was to be when I was 18 or 22. Now a series of (good) decisions have taken my life on a completely different path. It doesn’t mean I am required to give up on my old dreams of traveling with the UN or National Geographic as a career, but it does mean that if I chose to pursue that it would be an overwhelming amount of work as well as a lot of negotiating a lifestyle change with J. Hard work I’m not sure I want to do.

While I’m still excited by those dreams, the travel, the meaningful and creative feelings of that sort of job, I’m not that person anymore. That’s difficult. To some extent its like mourning. I’m still in the denial stage, I haven’t accepted that my desires have changed and that changing doesn’t make my past desires wrong nor my future ones inadequate.

I have been stuck in one place (spread across two countries) since getting my Masters degree. I had finished checking all the boxes I had to complete before I ‘did my dream life’ and had no idea where to go from there. I had already made the decision not to live a nomad lifestyle and to be with J. I had already realized my dislike of bureaucracy that is inherent in traveling to troubled countries and dealing with international organizations. I had started to realize that my dream didn’t match me anymore, but I had no idea where to go. I also felt guilty that I had ‘failed’ to do what I always desired.

I was always very big on ‘not changing’ as a child/teenager. I vowed never to cut my hair. I vowed to keep my teenage diaries and never act like my mother. I vowed all sorts of things that I’ve, of course, broken since then. Just because it was silly of me to make these promises on my future self, it doesn’t mean there’s no old pain when I decide to break them.

So last night, while tearing up in bed explaining to J why I’m having such a hard time trying to figure out what I want our life to be like, I realized that it is in part because I have never let go of my old dreams. It is because I still love them (I haven’t changed that much). But you lose most things before you’re finished loving them. Perhaps tonight I’ll write out my ‘alternate’ life and seal it in an envelope, giving us our own space to move forward (the other on a parallel plane of existence).

I chose a different fork in the road, several actually, I’m still not sure what I want my life too look like. It will be different from what I expected–it will be much more about life outside of work than getting all my worth from my career. It may be much more like the life I grew up with than I expected (the life I yearned to out-achieve at 16). It may also be healthier for me. I may also be happier. I need to respect that these changes are real and valid. They are me and not some future impostor.

No one is particularly good at change (no one I’ve ever heard of anyway), but its part of human experience to learn to adapt. It’s funny how change can hide from you even after it’s happened. I can only fully turn to the future when I let go of the past. Here’s to starting to say goodbye and turn towards open possibilities.

Am I the only one that’s crazy?

Image(photo by Terence S. Jones)

I have been basically happy or content at some level for over month now. This is pretty much a miracle in the saga of my last year. I haven’t been thinking about it too loudly in case it is all a fragile bubble that will burst at any sudden movements (thoughts are movements now, did ya know?).

This mostly happy living is a good thing, a great thing, but I have a bad habit. A habit of wondering if it is ‘healthy.’ So I not only worry about the happy streak ending, but also whether or not the happiness is ‘real’ or just me living in a state of denial. Let me explain..

I’m moving in approximately 49 work days (yes I have a post it note countdown on my desk at work) or about 3 months. Part of this move will involved needing to find a new job in a new (old) city. I’m expecting at least three months of unemployment after I move, but I know it could be worse. I also know that I absolutely hate applying for jobs. The application process is probably one of the only things in the world that I literally, forever and endlessly detest. It is time consuming, boring, full of risk and uncertainty and also rejection. I end up applying for hundreds (quite literally) of jobs I don’t really think I’ll like out of feelings of desperation. Last time I was unemployed for about six months and I got pretty depressed. I started to interview for volunteer positions despite it not resolving my joblessness simply so I wouldn’t be at home alone 40+ hours a week with my thoughts.

The thing that utterly TERRIFIES me about moving is this period of applying to jobs. Terrifies in all caps is not an exaggeration. A small thought of it puts a knot in my stomach, my arms feel a slight tremor and a headache forms immediately behind my temples. If I could cower away and avoid ever having to apply for a job again I would. Yes I hate the process and am procrastinating on warming old contacts and revising my CV, but I am also so afraid that I will become depressed again and that this time I won’t be able to find myself out of it.

Now all of this stuff is maybe a bit crazy (and dramatic), but none of it is actually the point of this post–its the background. What I hope is that I’m not the only one who constantly assesses their current happy state for signs of denial. I’ve had a little over a month where I have been smiling and laughing more than brooding. This has coincided with me continuing not to think about the move that is getting closer and closer and all the stress that entails. I should be happy that my mental/emotional state seems to be improving (even for inexplicable reasons), but instead I have the niggling feeling that I’m just in an unhealthy state of denial. Then I begin to obsess over how to heal my wounds healthily. How to deal with my problems without ignoring my impending doom and—well that sets me off down the rabbit hole again….

This is not the most organized and well-thought out post, but I simply wanted to express the situation and reassure myself that other people worry their happiness is in fact warm thin veils of joy over deep pools of denial. I have absolutely no solutions here. So far I’m just telling myself its silly to worry about it, if I’m happy then I’m happy. Of course there’s always that sneaking suspicion…

Are you struggling between happiness and denial? (It sounds so absurd when I say it like that) Please share and reassure all of us quietly going crazy people.

On Turning 26

Image(photo by Will Clayton)

26 is one of those ages that seems impossibly old when you’re 5. An age that still seems impossibly old at 13, though there would never be any reason to think about life past 18 then. At 20, age 26 is so far in the distance it receives only a cursory glance since life won’t begin until the following year, when university (and alcohol laws) turns you fully from child to adult in the eyes of society. 26 is also very young to almost anyone over age 26.

I am now 26 and in the preceding weeks have recognized my youth as well as my maturity. I’ve resolved that I am both. I think that’s the best place to be–youthful enough to still have plenty of mistakes in front, yet experienced enough to have left many others behind.

I’ve spent the last three or four years in a period of angst. The final transition period to adulthood perhaps, but my older friends and family let on that life is a series of such periods. This one began when I realized, bleary eyed, that university spit me out and there was no clear path left to follow. The odyssey that followed, which felt more like stasis, took me through every possible phase of identity crisis, including major life changes, spontaneous adventures and depression. I have heard, read and thought the same things over and over during this period. I’ve self-pitied (endlessly), I’ve felt isolated (completely), I’ve blamed myself and others, I’ve kept it all secret, I’ve looked for support (and found some). The realizations I heard from the beginning deepened, goal setting reignited for short periods, but really knowing the right answers to life (if there are any) only work when you choose to believe them and live by them.

At 26 with a bit of support and a renewed faith in my own strength, I may finally be ready. Ready to embrace life for the joyful, sometimes boring, tragi-comedy that it is. Ready to embrace who I am at the moment and who I could be. I’ve learned several things–looking back on the last two years of most intense frustration and depression the only meaning I can see in it is how much I’ve learned about myself and the way I deal with this thing called life–but I’m finally choosing to commit to one thing I’ve learned: acceptance.

Acceptance is like a magic key. It takes practice to keep hold of it (as magic keys often disappear at will) and to use it properly, but acceptance allows for life’s focus to switch from regret and fear towards calm contentment and growth. I’ve been trying desperately to grow in the last three years, but I have not tried very successfully to accept. In fact, I’ve willfully pushed acceptance aside, not seeing that by accepting what is, I can more easily change it than by saying it is what it is not. Can’t find a cure to polio if you refuse to see its symptoms.

So who am I at 26?  I hardly know since at 26 my resolution is to finally allow myself to be who I am. But for practice’s sake:

I am terribly strong and stubborn, so much so I can even convince myself of almost anything. I’ve used this for ill and now I’m turning it for good. My independent fierceness pushes me to create unabashedly, to try anything at least once, to keep challenging my fears, the highest of which is failure, especially public failure. It takes a lot to get me to give up on something. Honestly, I’m not sure if I ever have fully.

I am sensitive. I have long been proud of my deep empathy, but have only recently observed and accepted my own sensitivity. How quick I am to worry, to cry, to rise to anger. This makes me attune to changes around me and within myself. This is a strength, but like all strengths, they come with the responsibility to keep them in balance. It is my sensitivity that keeps me reflective, keeps me wondering whether I am living the best way I can.

I am creative. Not only in the sense of enjoying artful pursuits, but in the sense that I am at my best in nature, that I know I will one day create another human being. Time elongates when I’m being creative. I am contented. It is my natural state and it allows me to simply enjoy existence. This trait brings me to my most extreme emotions at both ends of the wavelength, but it is exactly these things that make me realize I’m living, the way a human is supposed to.

My stubborness, sensitivity and creativity have combined to save me in the last few years; when at my darkest moments I willed my molecules to separate and disappear, to leave an empty space. These embedded characteristics made it so I wouldn’t give up on myself and would think of options. Even in that moment, I couldn’t give up, I simply clung on for a moment where another option revealed itself. Eventually this succession of clinging to new options has brought me here, yet another rebirth of an old blog, yet another rebirth of me. You can choose to see broken or forgotten resolutions as failures, or you can see them as natural occurrences, prepping you for when you’re actually ready to change.

I shy away from words such as woman. wife. aunt. daughter. friend. international expert. activist. artist. writer. blogger. photographer. I stay away from labels, because I don’t see myself as worthy of them. At 26 I still cannot bring myself to use them, perhaps after a year of practicing acceptance I’ll be able to use them at 27. It won’t be easy, I’m not sure where I’ll end up, but I am ready to change and finally ready to depend on myself fully in order to do it.

Alone in London

Random photo of London so this post doesn't seem depressing

The most difficult part of learning to be alone is the boredom. The boredom comes more swiftly and intensely than the loneliness. It is the stain on your favorite t-shirt that never goes away despite the numerous all-purpose stain cures bought from the home shopping network.

When you’re alone day after day with no real obligations or commitments to take up most of your time you begin to lose the motivation to complete even your routine habits– making dinner, exercising, cleaning the dishes before they become a pile on the counter that looks at you guiltily. (I can’t be the only one right?)

I have applied to jobs, bought books, gone to public events unexpectedly inhabited by only couples completely alone (awkward), taken long ambling walks, found moments to take pictures of my surroundings, other moments to sketch or paint, and of course countless hours for tv that no longer interests me because I have watched every possible free option that is also an intelligent way to turn off your brain. Yet, even with this large amount of time-taker-upers, boredom still strikes, multiple times a day.

My couch feels more like a concrete slab I’m strapped to. My flat more like a burden that only seems to get dirtier despite there being fewer people in it than usual. This may be a bit melodramatic and maybe I am just not one of those living alone and happy people but my space doesn’t feel like a sanctuary for privacy (reads better when you use an English accent, try it) and calm. It feels more like an adorned shell–one that has everything I should need, but not what I actually do need.

So I’m learning how to live life alone temporarily. How to pretend that you have countless things to do when you’re friends that have a much fuller social calendar ask what you’ve been up to. “Yea that new exhibit at the Museum of London was astonishing.”(Actually it is still being created and is not yet open to the public, but I got to get a sneak peek through a hole in their blue construction hoardings.) “There was a kite competition this weekend in Hyde Park, so I spent a while there. It was such a beautiful day.” (That 5 year old girl was really given that 30 year old professional a run for his money. And was it just me or were their new ducks in the pond? Who has heard of a black and white speckled goose?)

I’m not sure if I’m bothered because I am “supposed” to have a full, raging late-night scene as a twentysomething or if I’m bothered because I actually want that. I don’t think its as simple as either-or. Of course I don’t want to be judged as the boring one that stays in, even though I’m pretty sure that’s been apparent since undergrad, but I also don’t want to be in my flat alone watching bad reality tv every night (I honestly think reality tv may be worse in the UK). Not thinking ahead and arranging social plans in advance has left me there a bit though.

Learning to be alone is about learning to be with yourself. To be able to confront yourself when all of the technology that has glued most of my generation to their phones 24/7 has gone to sleep (or out to the club) and go back to what you really enjoy doing. It took me 8 days of being alone to sit down and reflect on where I’m at. To stop filling my hours with chocolate (who can resist dark chocolate with sea salt?) and heavy make up’d reality stars. So far, I’ve found out that when left alone for long enough I start acting like a kid again–complete with random dancing, singing, yo-yo practising (oh yea I’m English now… that spelling just happened), spilling food or drink on myself, and quiet art making. I got another week or so of being alone in the new city; here’s to making something of it (besides learning the differences between the Liverpool, London, and Essex accents from reality tv shows–though that could eventually prove useful).