embracing my humanity

I’ll start this with a blank page. That’s where all good stories begin, isn’t it? A blank slate, a clean record. You don’t know anything about me yet . . . and maybe it’s better that way?

Better to leave some stories untold. Better to build fences and live behind walls. I’m human and you’re not – you, the great unknown, the great gods of Facebook and Strava, the ones who live behind fences of your own.

And yet here I sit, writing. Wanting to share, needing to share. Since moving to Knoxville, I’ve seen we can’t live our stories alone. We mortals are wired for connection – even us quiet ones . . . Well, this one is, anyway.

And so I sit, writing. Reaching, breathing. But what is there to say? Shall I tell you of my failures? My inability to find focus when I need it? Today I must write a critical paper on metaphor theory and Mandarin. Today all I want to do is run and wash my car, and sit here, and write. Have I chosen the right degree?

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I didn’t announce my car accident on facebook. Only my good friends got to hear about that – and you, my readers. I might be a little bold sometimes and post pictures of myself or mention events I participated in or attended. But I can’t come out clean and stand bare beyond my fence. To do that would be to admit my mortality. Or worse – to appear to be seeking sympathy.

A friend recently expressed her concern for me. “You’re so hard on yourself,” she said. “You’ve done so many amazing things and have so much to be proud of. I hope you see that.” And I knew – she was right.

I have done a lot of amazing things, and hell yes, I am proud. Not everyone from the States can say they spent three years in Asia, bumbling around in a culture and in a language they did not know or understand. Not everyone went across the country for college, or has risked everything for a relationship that didn’t work out, or has left everything yet again to pursue an advanced degree in the name of personal fulfillment. img_1639-1Life for me is more than just a paycheck, or a fancy home, or boasting about what I’ve done from my comfort zone. But sometimes I wonder, at what cost? Wouldn’t it just be easier to go with the flow?

Yes, perhaps it would. But I can’t live my life that way. In the same way we mortals seek connection, we also seek meaning. Even the most stalwart at the end of their lives look back and wonder, “What have I done?”

For me, I hope I’ll be able to look back at my life and say, “I strove for perfection when perfection was none. I took risks rather than staying ‘safe.’ I dug in when times were tough. I found meaning through connection. I loved no matter the cost. I made a difference because I lived. I am human, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

rage against the machine

Do not be gentle in this, the great fight.
Rage, rage against those with little sight.
Rage against the machine.

In 2015, the Gun Violence Archive states that there were 53,711 gun incidents in the United States. 13,507 of those incidents resulted in death. In 2016, the number of incidents rose to 58,700, with 15,084 resulting in death. Thus far in 2017, at the time of this writing, the number of gun-related incidents and deaths is 54,610 and 13,775, respectively.

That’s a lot of (unnecessary, avoidable) deaths.

To get away from numbers, though, let’s look at headlines. “Missing Illinois bartender found shot dead.” “Toddler finds gun, accidentally kills playmate.” “White cop shoots black man during regular traffic stop.” I am disturbed every time I look at the news. People die from gun wounds EVERY DAY in the United States.

And yet we are silent.

We are silent until a mass shooting in Las Vegas takes place, and then suddenly the whole nation is up in arms. DO SOMETHING!! we cry — for a little while. We are angry with our government for allowing madmen to obtain guns. We are angry that these killings keep happening. But, really, we are tired. We are tired of the headlines. We are tired of bad news. We are tired of our own troubles, and, truthfully, we don’t want to give up our guns. We don’t want to do what it would take personally to eradicate the gun problem in our nation.

By now most everyone has heard about the steps Australia and Japan and the United Kingdom took to curb gun violence on their home fronts. Australia did a huge gun buy-back program; Japan requires intensive training and testing to own a gun. The U.K. banned private handgun ownership and bought back tens of thousands of guns from its citizens. In Hong Kong, where I lived for a year, citizens were never allowed to own guns in the first place. I felt safe in Hong Kong. I don’t feel safe in the United States.

Since the Las Vegas shooting, though, what have people been talking about? Sure, there’s been talk about stricter gun laws, but we Americans have this tendency to focus on effects rather than causes. Just like we still take our shoes off at airports because of one incident years ago, I’ve heard more discussion about screening hotel guests’ luggage than I have about making it more difficult to buy guns since the massacre at the Mandalay Bay.

Notice that I said “making it more difficult to buy guns.” I didn’t say, “Do away with all guns,” or “Only law enforcement officers should have guns,” or “All guns are bad.” Having lived in the South for a few years and having made many wonderful friends here, I can easily see how guns and hunting, etc. are a big part of the culture here. What worked in other countries will not necessarily work in the United States. You can’t come in with sweeping measures that many oppose and expect to find success. But surely there is a middle ground we can all agree on? Surely the reasonable gun owners in the nation would be willing to make some concessions on the kinds of guns they need to own — and the process they’re willing to go through to get them — if it meant keeping a larger majority of our nation safe? If it meant keeping machine guns out of the hands of maniacs?

Because, if we’re not, well . . .

We have no one but ourselves to blame.

(And, also, I’m becoming an expat.)

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Below are a couple of videos I’ve posted previously on my blog talking about gun violence and the need for change in our nation. They’re worth the watch.

 

*Note: This post was originally written for my friend Sreejit, an amazing blogger who’s currently featuring other writers in his “Rage Against the Machine Month” on his blog, found here. He’s asked me to write a post for him many times, and I’ve never followed through — until now! Stay tuned for a tie-in to my last post next time. 

our little secret

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Downtown Denver

I’m about to tell you a secret. But only if you promise not to laugh. And only if you don’t tell my friends on facebook.

Last Friday night I went to friend’s wedding in Denver, Colorado. Last Friday night, five minutes before the ceremony started, I totaled my rental car — right in front of the wedding venue.

It was one of those days when, up until that moment, everything seemed to be going well. I’d caught up with an old friend the night before and run a decent 7.5 miles in downtown Denver earlier that day. It was beautiful out, and I was proud of myself for making the trip. (The bride, Jen, is one of my oldest friends, and though Denver isn’t next door to Tennessee, her wedding was something I couldn’t miss.) I even managed to get ready on time and felt pretty in my dress. (Sadly, this is not always the case.) My only concern as I approached the venue that evening, then, was . . . parking.

The wedding was at a beautiful art gallery in downtown Denver. The gallery didn’t have a parking lot, though, and so the closer I got (thank you, Siri), the more I started looking for street-side parking. And the more I started looking for street-side parking, the greater at risk I (apparently) became for making a mistake.

I made a mistake.

I entered an intersection crossing a one-way street without seeing a stop sign — or the oncoming traffic. In fact, I never saw it. In the blink of an eye my world went from silence and Siri to screeching breaks, crunching metal, ssss-ing smoke, and inanity inside my head. Oh my god, oh my god . . . What just happened?

When my car came to a halt in the middle of the road (right beside the venue), I was in shock. The rental car, the rental car, the rental . . . Jen’s wedding is starting, Jen’s wedding is starting — I looked at the clock — in seven minutes. This can’t be real; this can’t be . . . Oh no, oh no, oh no. In all my life and seventeen years of driving, I had never been in a “real” car accident until that moment. I had no idea what to do.

A crowd had gathered on the sidewalks. People, many of whom were involved in the wedding, were calling out to me. “Are you okay?” Their voices came as if from within a fog. Finally a man in street clothes caught my attention; he made a downward motion with his hands and pointed to my window. “Oh- ohhh.” I suddenly understood. The front end of the car was gone, but my power windows still worked. I rolled mine down.

“Are you okay?” he asked, concerned.

“Ye-, yes, I’m okay.”

“Can you walk?”

“Ye-,” I nodded.

“You might want to get out. The car is leaking fluids pretty badly.”

“Ohh . . .” I was barely functioning.

“Can you put the car in neutral? Maybe we can push it to the side of the road?”

I put the car in neutral and got out and watched as several men pushed it across the road. I was mortified.

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On the tow truck.

Things got worse before they got better. I’d been hit by a red Ford F150. After hitting me, the truck had spun sideways across the road and suffered significant damage. A rear tire was blown. The front end looked like it’d been mauled. The driver was on his cell phone on the sidewalk, and at first I thought we were the only ones involved. When I finally had enough sense to walk over towards him, however, I saw that two other cars had also been hit. A Mercedes sat beside the road with its rear end smashed in. The car in front of it had been damaged, too. Someone said that they belonged to people involved in the wedding. Ohh nooo . . . Then someone said they belonged to the groom’s parents. OH NOOOO!!!!

I wanted to crawl into a hole and die.

But I was freezing. While the police reports were filed and phones calls made and insurance information exchanged, the sun had gone down. Colorado is cold at night in November, and I hadn’t been prepared to stand out in it in my dress. The driver of the truck was very kind and offered me his coat. “That truck is my baby; I’d just put new tires on it,” he mused. “But it’s okay; they’re called ‘accidents’ for a reason. I’m just glad everyone’s okay.”

I couldn’t accept his coat, though. Not after what I’d just done. I shivered instead.

I missed the wedding — watched the kiss from outside the gallery’s clear glass windows — and called the rental car company to report the incident and request a tow during the reception. Friends and loved ones gave me rides home and to the airport the next morning, and at the end of the day, I knew I should be thankful things weren’t worse: medical bills on top of insurance deductibles would just about break me right now. But sometimes it’s hard to be thankful; sometimes you just wish you could turn back time. My pride was wounded, and my mistake had caused great misfortune to others. Even now, trying to retell my story, my eyes well up with tears — and I don’t cry.

Next up: This one will be for you, Sreejit. I’ll email you!

A few pics from Denver and the wedding:

 

love is beauty

Speaking of poetry . . . I may not be able to write poems anymore, but this lady sure can. She made me cry.

I looked in the mirror and what did I see,
but a little old lady peering back at me,
with bags and sags and wrinkles and wispy white hair,
and I asked my reflection, “How did you get there?

You once were straight and vigorous, and now you’re stooped and weak
when I tried so hard to keep you from becoming an antique.”

My reflection’s eyes twinkled, and she solemnly replied,
“You’re looking at the gift wrap and not the jewel inside,
a living gem and precious of un-imagined worth,
unique and true, the real you, the only you on earth.

The years that spoil your gift wrap with other things more cruel
should purify and strengthen and polish up that jewel.

So focus your attention on the inside, not the out—
on being kinder, wiser, more content, and more devout.

Then, when your gift wrap is stripped away, your jewel will be set free,
to radiate God’s glory, throughout eternity.”

The “little old lady” reciting this poem is Wanda Goines. She was 92 when this video was recorded in 2015. According to ABC News, she wrote the poem years ago, but it only became known when her caregiver posted this video on YouTube. Today it stands at almost 3.5 million views . . . Not bad for a little old lady!

I’m 33 and can already relate to this poem. I say “already” because, at 33, 33 doesn’t seem so old. When I was 23, 33 was “pretty old”; at 13, accordingly, it meant “almost dead” . . . This perspective will change yet again when I am 43, and 53, and 63. When I am 73, 33 will probably mean “baby,” and that, to be honest, scares me. These last 33 years have been far from easy; if 33 equals “baby,” I’m terrified of what’s to come.

But that’s kind of Wanda’s point, isn’t it?

Life is hard — for everyone — and over the years it does things to our appearance that we don’t always like. At 33 I have more wrinkles than I did at 23. I have more gray hairs. (Okay, I haven’t actually seen any yet, but that’s because I’m blonde . . .) I get sore more easily. I take longer to heal when sick or wounded. If had a rock-climbing accident today like I did at 18, I probably wouldn’t survive.

No one is immune. Everyone will die.

And that’s why Wanda is right on. In this world of superficiality, where youth is worshiped and beauty idolized, even the rich and famous get old, and no amount of plastic surgery or fancy clothing can change this. The only thing we have control over is how we live. How much we love, care, laugh, strive — these are the things that matter. These are the things we’ll be remembered for.

I am reminded of Princess Diana. She was a beautiful woman, certainly, but I would argue that she’s remembered as much for her kindheartedness and love as she is for her beautiful face. By contrast, certain celebrities considered beautiful today somehow become less beautiful in light of their selfish or foolish actions. We are what we eat, and also, how we act. Love is greater than beauty. Love is beauty.

 

Note: This is a reminder to myself as much as it is for the reader. Lord knows  I worry about my appearance far too much!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

random updates on life

Ahh! It’s been a crazy few weeks.

Since we last talked, I’ve:

  • Visited friends in California and seen the damage from the fires in Santa Rosa. The devastation is unreal. Although tragedies like this happen around the world every day, this one hits particularly close to home for me. It will take years for my old community to rebuild.

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Also, if you’re on facebook, check out this link of the overview of the damage of Coffey Park, a neighborhood I lived near that was completely destroyed by the fire.

  • Surprised my dad by showing up in Sacramento for a fund-raising ride for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, which my family was doing in honor of my nephew, Oliver.

(Don’t think I’ve mentioned it on my blog, but my six-month old nephew has cystic fibrosis. This was a surprise to the whole family — no one in our family history on either side has ever had the disease. It’s quite rare and requires both parents to be carriers. It’s really unfortunate and shocking for us all. That said, Oliver has stolen our hearts and is doing well so far!)

Since returning to Tennessee, I’ve:

  • Completed my first ever academic book review (and probably bombed it).
  • Questioned my life decisions and choice of a masters program. (Prayers appreciated!)
  • Attempted to write more poetry and failed miserably. (Not giving up, though. Maybe I should get a masters in poetry so I have more time to work on it?)

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  • Seen my first concert in years (Blind Pilot) and discovered an amazing British guitarist/vocalist, Charlie Cunningham. (Check out his song “In One Out” below.)
  • Decided to move to the UK — lol . . . no, seriously.
  • Become completely fed up with American society as a whole — oh wait, that’s not new.
  • Found out that a college friend my age passed away yesterday at the age of 33. Life is too short, folks. Embrace it  — even the sucky parts.

(More soon!)

don’t wait for perfect

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Restarting my blog at the same time I uprooted my life and started graduate school might not’ve been my best idea. Grad school is tough, and culture shock is real, people. (More on that later.) But, as Brandon Stanton said at the Tennessee Theater in downtown Knoxville a few days ago, I can’t keep waiting on “perfect.” Cuz perfect ain’t ever going to come!

For those who don’t know, Stanton is the creator of Humans of New York, a powerful photoblog featuring pictures and quotes from people around the world. Stanton started the blog in New York City in 2010 with a simple idea: Take pictures of people around the city; create a “map” of those people and where he photographed them. As the blog progressed, however, Stanton realized the map wasn’t necessary. What drew people to his blog were words.

Stanton started including quotes from the people he photographed, and then interviews. His following got larger as his stories got longer. (Currently it’s at more than 18 million.) He realized his blog’s universal appeal and traveled internationally to more than 20 different countries. He also did several series of interviews — with cancer patients, refugees, military veterans, and more — and from these, raised millions of dollars for cancer research and other charitable causes. Most recently he’s been working on a video series that builds on the same premise and is currently being released weekly on facebook.

Image result for humans of new yorkI started following Stanton’s blog a few years ago. It enticed me with its raw humanity. It clearly displayed everything I’d seen in Asia: No matter where you go, people are people. Stanton himself is also very down-to-earth, which has contributed to his success. During his performance last week, Stanton wore tennis shoes, jeans, and a zip-up hoodie as he shared the beginnings of Humans of New York and how he figured out what he needed to do. “I realized early on I was never going to be the best photographer,” said Stanton. “Humans of New York is not about photography. But what I do have is something many of the world’s best photographers do not — I have the ability to approach and talk to strangers.” (paraphrased)

Stanton shared several other great points that evening, which stood out out to me as applicable to both blogging and life. Here are just a few of them:

  • Don’t wait for perfect. Perfect never comes. Time is our most valuable commodity. If you’re meant to do something, do it now.
  • Don’t worry about your audience. If Brandon had worried about his audience when he started Humans of New York, Humans of New York wouldn’t have come to be–he would have given up long ago because success didn’t happen overnight.
  • Following your dreams means “choosing your work.” “People talk about following their dreams as if following your dreams means avoiding responsibility or getting to play all day,” says Brandon. “But no, pursuing your dream is work. Whether you want to be a famous musician or a well-known blogger or own your own business or travel the world, all of these things take time and dedication and hard work. The difference between it and other work is that you choose it.” (paraphrased)

Brandon’s talk left me in tears. In the past four weeks I’ve started this post at least a dozen times. I’ve had great ideas but “never enough time” to finish them. I’ve had paragraphs written down, but they were never “good enough” to share. I’ve had thoughts whirling around, but they were too fragmented to be “worthy.” It’s true that grad school is demanding, and starting over in a new city hard, but if I am truly going to “begin again”– if I am going to “choose my work” (here on my blog and elsewhere) — something’s gotta give.

So tell me . . . What’s your trick for accomplishing your blogging and/or life goals? Have you seen Humans of New York? What did you think?

 

(Below is just a sample of Stanton’s work.)

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“This better not be for a porno. I stopped doing those.”

“Okay, Mother. That’s enough.”

 

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“I prefer maritime laws to laws on land. Maritime laws only exist to guarantee safe passage. There are no loopholes or biases to favor more powerful vessels. Every ship is equal, and no one is more powerful than the sea.”

 

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“Who’s influenced you the most in your life?”

“My principal, Ms. Lopez.”

“How has she influenced you?”

“When we get in trouble, she doesn’t suspend us. She calls us to her office and explains to us how society was built down around us. And she tells us that each time somebody fails out of school, a new jail cell gets built. And one time she made every student stand up one at a time, and she told each one of us that we matter.”

*As a side note, this image went viral in 2016 and Stanton ended up raising more than $1,000,000 for this boy’s school. You can read more about that here.

 

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“So do you do a different color every day?”

“No, I used to go through different stages. But then I found I was happiest when I was green, so I’ve been green for 15 years.”

 

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“You want to hear what just happened to me? I was in the subway station, and this man came walking by me. He seemed really angry and was talking gibberish and screaming about how he was going to kill anyone who talked to him. So I thought: ‘That guy’s crazy; I’m gonna keep away from him.’ Then two minutes later another young man walked by and collapsed right in front of me and started having a seizure. I bent down to help him, and you know what happened? The crazy guy bent down and said: ‘He’s having a seizure! Turn him on his side!’ I thought: ‘Wait a second! Weren’t you just crazy?'”

 

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“I want to build a bridge.”

“How do you build a bridge?”

“If you want to build a bridge it’s going to take a long time, and it might be hard because your employees might not be as interested in building the bridge as you are. You have to think about what kind of bridge you want to make. One type of bridge is a suspension bridge and another type of bridge is an arch bridge. The Brooklyn Bridge is a suspension bridge and it was built by John Roebling and his family, and that’s all I remember from the second grade. And the bridge has to be strong because the water can rise and push up the bridge. I’d maybe like to build a bridge in Wisconsin because there are a lot of people in Wisconsin who might not have bridges, but I don’t really know where Wisconsin is.”

 

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Brandon Stanton, creator of “Humans of New York”

 

 

to begin again… again

changeAh, hell. I’ve been thinking about this forever. If not now, then when? There’s only me stopping me now.

I haven’t written in a while. “A while” is an understatement. It’s been over a year — 16 months, to be exact. Some of you probably thought me dead. You certainly thought my blog dead. For all intents and purposes, I guess it was.

But I was not dead — far from it. The irony of my last post does not escape me. I really had hoped to start blogging again, but truthfully, I knew I wasn’t ready. I was on a roller coaster and the end was far from sight.

But things have settled down now — some. I’m in a new town in a new home with new things in front of me. I’ve just started graduate school at the University of Tennessee (UTK) in Knoxville. I’m working on my masters in Rhetoric, Writing, and Linguistics (RWL) so that someday I can teach and write again — for real. I’m also continuing to work for my job in California. I wasn’t meant to be a tech writer, but the Water Agency is an important organization powered by amazing people. I learned so much there, and I’m blessed to be able to work remotely among them. Continue reading