should foreign language classes be required in college?

In the December 2016 “Room for Debate” from the Opinion Pages of The New York Times, three high school students shared their thoughts on then-recent proposal by Princeton University that would require college students to study another language, even if they are already proficient in another language. The students’ responses varied significantly. Yes, one said. It’s a global world out there and students need to be able to communicate in another language besides English in order to be competitive. No, said the second. Learning to think is more important than struggling to express your thoughts in another language. It depends, said the third. It depends because it depends on a student’s goals; really, if we’re going to require students to learn a second language, we should really starting requiring it in kindergarten.

These students’ responses are not unlike responses politicians and educators have thrown around in the past, but what I find interesting is the common threads they all share. First, each of these students recognizes that, by the time a student reaches college, it’s already way too late to introduce them to a second language: The time to learn a language is when you’re young and your brain’s neural pathways are still being formed. Second, they all recognize the inherent value of knowing a second (or third, or fourth) language. The way they define these values are different, but they all see second-language learning as being beneficial. And third, they all feel that something needs to be changed about the way second-language learning is being approached in the United States. The American education system is falling short and, in so doing, failing our children.

And I have to say, I agree. The American education system is failing its children, and something does need to be done — long before students reach college. Learning a second language is critical for all kinds of reasons, but the one I feel most strongly about is one that isn’t usually talked about — or at least isn’t fully understood.

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With a group of 5th graders in Taiwan. Can you find me? :D

When I was 25 I moved to Taiwan. I moved to a little city called Sanjhih, about an hour north of Taipei, to teach English at a camp for 5th graders. Originally I was only going to stay for seven months, but I ended up staying for two years, and afterward I lived in Hong Kong for a year. In both cities I found myself surrounded by an unfamiliar people, language, and culture, and at first it was really hard. I was incredibly homesick and thought many times about returning home. Ultimately, though, it was my students who changed my mind. My Taiwanese students — bright, inquisitive 9-, 10-, and 11-year-olds — were for the most part incredibly sweet, and I was blown away not only by their sweetness, but also by their similarity to the 9-, 10-, and 11-year-olds I knew back home, as well as by their aptitude for English. Many of my students were already quite adept English speakers — fluent, even — despite the drastic difference between the English language and their native tongues. But more than that, English or no English, they were kids like any other kids found anywhere else in the world. The barriers that cultures and countries and religion and political systems create wasn’t in place yet. These kids were just KIDS. (People are PEOPLE.)

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Suffice it to say when I came back to the United States, I returned with a new set of eyes. I could no longer see my own country in the same light, nor I could I see those from other countries in the same light. A foreigner struggling to ask for directions in broken English was a person in a strange land trying to get by, just as I had been trying to get by, struggling to ask for directions in Mandarin at a 7-11 in Taiwan. The noisy group of tourists from mainland China was no longer an annoying group of tourists but an interesting group of people with a unique culture and background. Living abroad and the little bit of Mandarin and Cantonese I’d learned while I was there had changed my perspective on the entire world immensely, and I would never be able to go back to the narrower mindset I’d had before.

That said, it is very true that, because I wasn’t (and still am not) fluent in Mandarin or Cantonese, I felt very isolated while living abroad. I know that if I’d been able to communicate more easily, I would have gained a better understanding of the culture in which I was living. I also recognized while living abroad just how difficult it would be to master a second language like Mandarin, and that if I would ever have been able to do so, I would need to have started very young — very young, as in, kindergarten.

jGHNy51According to a recent study by the Pew Research Center, American students lag way behind European students in language learning. In her article presenting the study, Kat Devlin says, “Across Europe, students typically begin studying their first foreign language as a required school subject between the ages of 6 and 9. Furthermore, studying a second foreign language for at least one year is compulsory in more than 20 European countries . . . Meanwhile, far fewer K-12 students in the U.S. participate in foreign language education. Throughout all 50 states and the District of Columbia, 20 percent of K-12 students are enrolled in foreign language classes, according to a 2017 report from the nonprofit American Councils for International Education.”

This is, I feel, more than a shame — it’s doing our students harm. The cognitive benefits of learning a second language have been proven time and time again. The potential for improved job prospects and general understanding of other cultures is also vastly improved by knowledge of other languages. The United States is home to people from all different backgrounds, with roughly 65.3 million Americans over the age of four (i.e., approx. 21 percent) speaking a language other than English at home (2015 U.S. Census). If this is the case, and if my own experience in Asia is true (which it most certainly is), how much could we stand to gain if we started implementing the European language-learning model in our country? What would the results be if we started teaching our kids a second language in kindergarten? How much wiser would they be? How much more understanding of others? How much more competitive in the global job market? How much more culturally aware both abroad and at home?

At the rate the United States is going, we’ll likely never know. Things seem to move at a snails’ pace when it comes to making changes in education at the federal level. According to Dan Davidson’s “Notes on the American Academy Commission Report: America’s Languages (2017),” the founders of our country understood that “the study of language in the U.S. was a complex and varied endeavor, so much so that they determined not to establish an official state language for the new nation. They supported inquiries into what they referred to as the ‘rationale, genius and idiom of the English language,’” as well as examined Native American languages and linguistics more generally, as they believed that an “appreciation of the plurality of languages would improve communication domestically and internationally, and help the new nation understand its place in a changing world.” And yet here we are more than 200 years later, lagging behind the rest of the world in this very key area.

That said, if anyone brings up the argument, “Well, if we’re going to teach a second language, what language should we teach? There are so many here in the States, after all—how do you choose?” To them, I say, Any spoken language! It doesn’t matter. The results and benefits of knowing a second or third are the same no matter what language is being studied.

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With my language-exchange friends in Taiwan–Mandarin is hard!

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Note: Sorry for my long absence! I actually wrote this as an assignment for a grad school class. Grad school is hard!

can/’t

Emails, voicemails, recommended stories, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, SnapChat, T.V., Pandora, NOISE.

Oh my God. My head spins.

I can’t keep up.

Can’t, can’t, can’t. The words roar in the furnace of my head. Who said them first?

I sit in a class full of writers. The room is dark and hot. Our teacher—a dark-haired Muskogee* whose henna-tattooed hands and bohemian attire make me feel wildly out of place in my blue blouse, white shorts, and silver sandals—talks about her time as an MFA student at the esteemed Iowa Writer’s Workshop. She’s a published author and playwright and plays the saxophone in a Native American jazz band. She expects us to read and write more in a shorter period of time than I have in years.

I am terrified.

I look around me. The other students appear calm. I see no traces on their faces of the panic I am feeling inside. I play the saxophone. I know how to write. But . . . I don’t belong here.

**

I’m standing with a group of triathletes. We’re on a dock down by the river in the heart of Knoxville. The sun beats violently upon us, creating a steam of humidity so thick that every breath digs in me a hole of longing for the West Coast so large that I’m certain I’ll fall in, never to surface anywhere ever again . . . Instead, I climb into a kayak and watch the swimmers glide. Their movements look effortless, easy.

I grew up swimming, but I can’t swim like that. Who am I?

**

I pick up a book today. It’s something my brother gave me when I was home in July. It’s the story of an overweight middle-aged former athlete who, at 39, decided he wanted to live again. The memoir is mostly typical—an out-of-shape dude changes his lifestyle and ends up winning Ironman-distance world championships; ya know, no big deal, right?—but the last chapter hits me hard. In it, the author talks about the importance of mindset, setting goals, improving our diets, and becoming the hero of our own stories. And through it, he challenges me revisit my own story.

Can’t, can’t, can’t. Who said that first? I did.

I don’t belong here, don’t belong her-, don’t belong . . . Who said that first? I did.

Who am I, I, I? Who said that first? I did.

I bought into the stories I was telling myself a long time ago—feelings of inadequacy and failure. Deep down I knew the stories weren’t true, but instead of squashing them, I allowed them to become my beliefs . . . My beliefs became my patterns. My patterns became my habits. My habits became the very way I saw the world.

But now . . .

Now I am wondering: What if, instead of saying I can’t, I say, “I CAN“?


*member of the Mvskoke Nation, a federally recognized Native American tribe based in the U.S. state of Oklahoma

 

 

at the end of the day

(Note: For this post to make any sense, you’ll first need to read my last one.)

I’m here, I’m here, I’m here, I’m HERE, I’M HERE.

But but but but but . . .

You didn’t get it. I wasn’t clear. It’s not just home I’m talking about; it’s an awareness: I’m HERE. 

“Here not only in location, but in body, mind, and spirit. Here in loyalty. Here in love.” Here is also a presence of mind, a recognition of where we stand and what we stand for and what we (really) want and what has made us who we are.

In the ever-increasing madness of today’s world, it’s easy to get caught up in the day-to-day and forget to consider these questions. But these queries are important because answering them (or not) is what shapes the course of our lives… Because the other side of the coin is that we really do change. How we change and what we accomplish is up to us and requires self-awareness and honesty with ourselves.

While I was home in California in July, I skimmed through a journal I wrote in Italy half my lifetime ago. I was shocked to see some of the things I’d written. Who IS this person?! I marveled. The fanciful view I had of the world at 17 does not match the world I’ve experienced as an adult. And yet going back in time helped me better understand the decisions I made at 17 (or 25, or 33) that have shaped the person I’ve become. It helped me be kinder to my younger and older self.

How do I mean? Living in Asia gave me a greater cultural perspective of the world. Talking to people has given me greater empathy. Holding various jobs has given me greater insight into others’ lives. Going back to school has made me realize just how quickly time goes . . .

Not all people are as reflective as I am. And that’s okay. You do your weird and I’ll do mine. But as for me, I want my years on this planet to MEAN something. And not just for me.

 

nobody knows

I didn’t mean to let this sit so long. There’s a story here that hasn’t been told.

It’s the story of a 14-year-old girl walking her dog under the shade of oak trees in the California sun. She wondered why she had to feel this way. She was scared of her feelings. Her crush had written her a letter. He liked her, too.

Why, if she had food to eat and air to breathe, why did she have to have emotions, too? Even at 14, she was scared of rejection.

Fast forward a thousand years. Her heart’s been broken many times. He loved her—and still does—but he had a higher calling to attend to.

She will always love him.

At 1,034, she’s a million years old. The world is her oyster, but even that is not enough. She’s one in a billion, and her story is the same. How can she matter? How can this mean . . . anything?

She’s seen a lot in a million years. Most recently it’s been adults acting like children. At our cores we all want the same things—love and acceptance. Why is this so hard to admit?

. . . and where are all the dreamers? The ones who think beyond the here and now? They are few and far between, it seems. And she doesn’t understand.

And so she fights for her life as she rides out life’s storm, and she fights for her life on the train. And she goes . . . nobody knows . . . Except for the dreamers. They’re one in the same.

P.S. Happy Independence Day, America.

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*Featured image: Mine. Taken in Knoxville on a bike ride two days ago!!

thoughts on a sunday morning

I’m sitting at my kitchen counter sipping caramel coffee and wishing I had more time. Time to explore, time to read, time to help, time to breathe. I’m lucky, too. Luckier than most. But still, this world and the time we are allotted are not enough.

I made a friend recently who told me he’s an atheist. After hearing more of his life story, I didn’t wonder why.

I have friends who had wonderful childhoods who’ve become atheists, too. You never know.

Living in Asia made me question everything I’d ever been taught about religion. I still don’t have any answers.

I’ve been thinking, too, about expectations and desires versus reality. Reality never aligns itself with Hollywood versions of caked-out weddings and happily-ever-afters. Even in the happily-ever-afters, reality’s life is HARD.

Patience is HARD.

Never compare your life to anyone else’s, people say . . . while they post on social media happy images of the engagement party they attended yesterday. No one says anything about the anxiety leading up to the party or the way they REALLY feel inside . . . Or if they do they’re looking for sympathy. That’s just as bad.

You CAN’T win.

Or can you?

Me I just forge forward, fighting for positive and looking for good, being myself and not apologizing for being real. You lose every time you lie to yourself or others. Honesty is HUGE.

Yesterday I participated in my first dragon boat race. It was a fundraiser for Knoxville Area Rescue Ministries and a great bonding experience with my newfound poetry and game friends. I was exhausted when it was over, but thrilled to have gotten to join in on an event I’d previously only watched in Hong Kong.

Oh the memories.

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a dangerous business

“Life is a daring adventure or nothing at all.” — Hellen Keller

There’s a back story to this. It’s coming.

I moved to Tennessee knowing no one. It’s been a lonely adventure—until recently. That’s the back story. The now-story is that, within the past few weeks I’ve tried several things I never thought I would, or thought I might but had no idea when.

I’ve hung out with a group of strangers playing games like “Killer Queen” and “Cards Against Humanity.” I’ve gone to a medieval fair. I’ve rock climbed for the second time since my accident. Tomorrow I’m headed out to play paintball, and in a couple of weeks I’m participating in a dragon boat race . . . Heck, in a few months I might even go sky diving!

Life is strange!

 

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The way I’ve survived until now, though, is by getting out. When I was lonely, I went out and exercised. This didn’t always help, but when I finished I’d text or call my closest friends. I looked for interesting events around town. I’ve seen Blind Pilot, Jason Mraz, Lucy Rose, and Charlie Cunningham in concert since moving to Knoxville. (Okay, so Jason Mraz might not have helped. All of his songs are love songs, and I might have cried through half the concert. But still . . .) I’ve gone to and participated in poetry slams. Last week I saw the comedian Henry Cho in downtown Knoxville, and a few months ago I was thrilled to see Steve Martin and Martin Short at their show in Chattanooga.
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I’ve done anything and everything I can to get my introverted self out the door and in places where I knew I might meet people. And nine months into my adventure here in Knoxville, it’s finally paying off. Nine months later, I’m meeting an incredibly diverse group of humans who are proving a point I made early on after moving home from Hong Kong: People are people. And people are beautiful.

My journey isn’t over yet. Life is full of ups and downs, and most of my days are still very quiet. But if I’ve learned anything in the last three years, it’s to just keep putting one foot in front of the other. You never know what a day will bring once you force yourself out the door. The trick is forcing yourself out the door.

“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.” — J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit

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why i do this

I ran a trail race today. I’ve never run a trail race before. It’s been raining a lot in Knoxville. The trail was slick as hell.

This morning when my alarm went off before sunrise, I groaned: Why am I doing this again? After the race, when I was discussing the course with friends, I realized I would have only just gotten up if I’d slept in. This is why I do this . . .

img_3421During the run, I saw a guy wearing a shirt advertising the La Jolla Half Marathon. He was talking to a buddy about trail races in San Diego. “You from California?” I couldn’t help but ask. “Nah,” he said. “Went out there for college; just moved back.” Still running, he raised his hands to the canopy of leaves above us. “I missed this . . .” He seemed to forget me for a moment, then resurfaced. “And you? You from Cali?” “Yes, I’m from Cali—born and raised. I miss it, but I like Knoxville, too.”

Both were true.

Last weekend, I did a sprint triathlon. The scenario was the same. Why am I doing this? . . . Oh yeah, this is why I’m doing this. I commented to a friend afterward that I still find warm Tennessee mornings strange. In California it’s always cold at night and in the early morning. I miss that about home, but the warmer weather here does help during triathlons.

After another event a man said to me: “I lived in Cali for eight months, in Oakland. I never really could get used to it—didn’t understand what all the hype was about.” “Oh yeah?” I said. “Yeah. It‘s so expensive, and the traffic is awful, and . . . ” “But what about the beaches?” I pressed. “Places like Mendocino or the Bay—they’re so pretty!” “But the water is so cold!” he said.

The water is cold, I’ll give him that. But also, you find what you look for.

 

I have friends, so many friends, who have never left their hometown. People stay where they’re comfortable—most stay in the same place their whole lives. It’s easier to do this, certainly. I’ve moved around a lot, and moving is HARD. It’s hard to make friends in places and then leave them; it’s hard to never have roots. But after the initial adjustment period in a new town—after you no longer have to ask Siri for directions to get home, and when you’re finally making friends, and when you’re getting involved in things around town—suddenly, it makes sense. This is why I do this.

I do this to grow and to see and to experience different places in the world. I do this to push myself and to relate better to others, no matter where they’re from. I do this to better understand myself and to challenge my beliefs about the world. I do this because what I learned in Taiwan is true: There is no “better,” there is no “best.” All that exists among the world’s various regions and climates is “different,” and it is these differences that make that make our world interesting and beautiful. It is these differences that make our lives worth living.

So please, dear readers, stop fearing change. Stop taking the easy route. Move if you feel stagnant. Move even if you don’t feel stagnant. Growth cannot happen without change. Happiness cannot happen without growth.

Trust me. After almost a year, I can finally say: Knoxville is starting to feel a little bit like “home.”

 

 

 

 

 

the trouble is . . .

“. . . you think you have time.” — Buddha

I tried to write a blog post tonight. I really did. I had it all written out, but then my formatting was off, and I didn’t know how to fix it, and then I somehow erased it, and I just don’t have TIME to redo it all now.

My post, incidentally, was about “time,” and I was going to share the below video. The clip is somewhat cliché, but it hones in on how precious time really is and how too often we waste it.

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Continue reading

ain’t nobody got time fo’ that!

It’s been a weird week, y’all. Yes, I said “y’all.” I still say it consciously, but it flows easier than it used to.

But my final paper is done (that was my ENTIRE DAY Wednesday) and the realization that I don’t have classes next week is finally hitting me . . . Oh don’t get me wrong — I still have work to do. Gotta pay bills somehow. But I don’t have to manage school AND work.

Breathe . . .

Except, oh, there’s that long book list for my class next semester that I really gotta get going on. And there’s the travel plans home I still need to make. And there’s my dryer that’s not working (apparently the vent wasn’t designed properly), and the faucet out front that’s only a drip, drip, drip.

So much for washing my car.

Ughhh.

There’s also the races I still need to sign up for and the training I need to do.

So WHY am I sitting at my computer?!

Because, really, this is how I feel about all of it!*

*I would add “spiders” and “research papers” to this list!

Hope your weekend is off to a great start! :D

May the 4th be with you . . .

the power of “real”

Or, why Shift has necessarily evolved into a “personal blog.”

To write or not to write, that is the question.

Actually, no. That’s not the question. The answer is always, “Write.” There’s no point in asking questions you already know the answer to. (Unless, of course, you’re asking to reaffirm what you already know. In that case, by all means, ask the question . . . )

No, the question is: what to write about?

Soooo many things.

There are the controversial, disheartening topics, of course — the Cosby verdict, the Trump administration, the Waffle House shooting, the Kate Middleton vs. Meghan Markle comparisons . . . Or there is the avoidance of these subjects: the travel posts, the love poems, the movie reviews, the short fiction. There is a place for all of these, certainly, but lately it seems I’ve been trending towards my own life experience.

Why? Maybe because my life experience is the only thing I can claim to be an expert on. And, also, maybe because I’m tired of bullsh*t.

Interestingly, I didn’t start Shift with the term “personal blog” in mind. I started it to share stories from my time abroad. As time has gone on, however, I’ve realized: how can good writing be anything but personal? Everything we do is personal, and to deny the power of our experience is to negate our humanity and potency as people. There is power in vulnerability: vulnerability is the bridge to connection.

That said, vulnerability is also scary as sh*t.

brene-brown-quotesTake, for example, my last post. Do you think it was easy for me to admit that I didn’t receive an offer of funding the first time I applied to school? Hell no! It was embarrassing and made me feel “less than.” But I thought it was worth sharing because, well, what’s the value of a goal if it’s not worth fighting for?

In fact, the more terrified I am after I post something, the better my writing usually is, and the better my post is received. I find this telling. Readers can sense pretense and appreciate authenticity. At least I know I do . . . I also get tired of reading articles about things I should and shouldn’t be doing or concepts that are plain common sense. Give me something real, people. Don’t give me guilt trips.

Of course, this world is a scary place, and I would never “bare all” on my blog. Oversharing does not equal vulnerability, and there are obvious lines that should not be crossed. But the walls we build and the facades we live behind are toxic to ourselves and our fellow humanity. I have never felt better than, when admitting something I’ve struggled with on my blog, I’ve managed to touch someone else.

It makes me feel less alone.

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Note: In trying to uncover images to accompany this post, I’ve found quite a few quotes from researcher Brené Brown and others that resonate with me. I’m sharing them here for your perusal.

 

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All images courtesy of the world wide web. Featured image by Olivier Tallec from Louis I, King of the Sheep.

 

where i’m at

I’m surprised y’all are reading me, honestly. Lately it seems I only write crazy dialogues with myself, or I preach — to myself. I’ve always believed people are more alike than different (culture is extrinsic rather than intrinsic, at least initially), and so it is perhaps validating if you can relate to my absurdity. But . . . Really — I’m sorry.

That adult-child piece, though — the idea that when we were kids we thought adults had things all figured out . . .

Oh, honey.

As I have aged, life has (sadly) gotten more rather than less complex. This is of course inevitable as a person assumes self-reliance in adulthood, but I sometimes wonder if the modern world and its Internetopia hasn’t exaggerated this complexity. Now not only am I aware of what was once the “Great Unknown,” the Great Unknown is also available at the opening of an Internet browser. I can access the world with my fingertips.

And not only that, as an adult, I’ve become increasingly aware of the world within. We are emotional creatures with the capacity for both great love and great darkness. The things that make us “us” start when we are young, but it is as we grow and grapple with our genetic and cultural makeup that we can make decisions about who we will become. I myself have struggled with feelings of inadequacy. Why? Many reasons, but it is up to me to determine what to do with those feelings. I have one life to live. Why should I spend mine trying to meet others’ standards?

This is where that “why” I’ve mentioned comes in. If I am tuned into my own values — the morals I learned as a child and the passions that make me “me” — and if I listen to my gut on a daily basis, then I should have nothing to apologize for. I’m me, and I’m on a journey. If you’re not interested in joining the ride, then please, move along. (Easier for a “pleaser” like me to say than do!)

I didn’t make it to my trash clean-up this morning. I wanted to — both for humanitarian and social reasons — but I’m realizing that sometimes it’s okay to take a day off. I needed to write this post as much as I need to think. And to breathe. I hope that, wherever you are, you’re taking a day off and taking care of yourself this weekend, too.

 

 

walking my “why”

The truth is I lied in my last post. My trouble with blogging isn’t work. It’s time management.

Sure, sure — we all have this problem. Who ever does everything they’re supposed to exactly when they’re supposed to do it? Almost no one. That’s human nature — and life. But this flaw has perhaps been exaggerated in my case since moving to Knoxville. I work from home for a company on the west coast. I have class in the middle of the day. I’ve always been a night owl . . .

You see where I’m going with this.

It’s a fine thing to have flexibility and down time, but there comes a point where structure is good, too. Kids need routines and schedules, and so do adults. I like needing to be places and feeling productive. I like feeling like I’m a part of something in a meaningful way.

I’ve talked a lot about happiness on my blog — what it is compared to what we think it is. I’m come to see that happiness is multi-faceted. It’s not enough just to be thankful for what you have. Happiness is not about possessions or wealth. Happiness is much more than that, and part of it is “walking your why” and feeling like you’re a part of something bigger than yourself.

Take, for example, the families who have been displaced in places like Syria or Rohingya. Many of these people have nothing except the clothes on their backs. Surely these people are suffering, but something that keeps them going — something that keeps all of us going — is the idea that a better future is within their grasp, that somehow they can create a better life for their children.

But why do I bring up refugees? Why not talk about the Yale graduate who left a prestigious law firm to help save women from human trafficking? Or the CEO who left the big business to start a program to help the homeless? Or myself who moved across country to start school to become a teacher? Those are the kinds of stories you were expecting, right?

Why? Because happiness isn’t limited to “first world” nations, folks. Take a look at that smiling Syrian baby above. Is he not the cutest thing you’ve ever seen? Indeed, some of the happiest people I’ve ever met were in countries like Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos. Imagine how much simpler your own life would be if you didn’t have all of those “things” to worry about and bills to pay? How much easier would it be to live in the moment? We underestimate the toll some of our privileges take on our overall well-being.

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In her talk on emotional agility, which I mentioned previously, psychologist Susan David talks about the importance of living our lives according to our values when it comes to our happiness. And I feel like that’s what’s really missing here. I say I want to get to bed earlier. But do I? I wake up much more satisfied with myself the next morning when I do! We say we want to help others. But do we? We’re much happier when we volunteer at that food kitchen, or reach out to that silent coworker, or take a leap of faith and make that career change — in other words, when we listen to our gut and think outside of ourselves — yes, when we follow through!

My challenge to myself this Easter weekend is to challenge my habits and actions that are not in line with my true values. I desperately want to be a better person and to “walk my why” on a daily basis. Don’t you?

Just food for thought on this beautiful Easter weekend. And . . . Speaking of “whys” . . . Now that I’ve got this blog post done ;) . . . I’ve got a five-page paper to write, so I guess I’d better get going on that, too!

what is happiness?

I don’t know how others do it. I mean . . .  We’re all different, I get that. But some people can churn out blog post after blog post no matter what else is going on in their life. I’m not like that never have been. When I’m “down,” I shut down. I can’t write about something I’m not focused on.

This would be true even if I had a blog about cooking. Or knitting. Or cycling. I mean, who cares about power meters or crème brûlée when your personal life is falling apart?

In a recent TED Talk, psychologist Susan David of Harvard Medical School says society has trained us to either judge ourselves for having so-called ‘bad emotions’ things like sadness, anger, or grief or to actively try to push these feelings away. “Normal, natural emotions are now seen as ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ and being positive has become a new form of ‘moral correctness’ . . . People with cancer are told to ‘just stay positive.’ Women, to ‘stop being angry’ . . . But when we push aside normal emotions to embrace false positivity, we lose our capacity to develop skills to deal with the world as it is, not as we wish it to be.

A friend of David’s who recently died of cancer put the problem poignantly this way before she passed: “What it starts to do is implicate me in my own death, like somehow I’m culpable for not thinking my way out of ill health.”

 

. . . Well, okay. But you’re not dying of cancer, Jess. (Sheesh, Jess. Get a grip!) And outlook is everything, right? Like I stated in my last post, how you see yourself and what you put out into the universe is what you get back, right? There is always something to be thankful for.

Well, yes. And yes, and yes, and yes. But can you do all of these things and still remain true to yourself? Is it possible that sometimes your best self is the one that’s sad because something didn’t turn out the way you’d hoped? The one that’s disappointed because you didn’t get the position you applied for? The one that’s grieving because your relationship ended? Life isn’t all cupcakes and roses.

I suppose I’m often silent because I feel I have to choose between writing something positive and not writing at all, and because the last thing I want is to either a) appear to be looking for sympathy (we’re all going through something), or b) to hear, “Cheer up!” or “Hope things look up for you soon,” or “Tomorrow is another day!” Because folks, no. The only thing that’s guaranteed is now, and like it or not, happiness is not a goal. Happiness is a byproduct of living according to our values and striving to be our personal best through the good and the bad. Happiness is showing up and working through life’s problems authentically, recognizing that life is rarely if ever ideal but that there is beauty in its fragility.

Ironically, then, happiness doesn’t always mean being happy, just as courage doesn’t mean being without fear. I liked the way David described courage in her talk. She said, “Courage is fear walking.” I would even take it a step farther and say that happiness is courage. Incidentally, then, it is also within our control.

I don’t know about you, but at the end of my life I want to be able to look back and know I did the best I could to leave the planet a better place. Lately I’ve worried about whether or not I’m achieving that goal, but in this world of false positivity, David’s words give me hope. “Tough emotions are part of our contract with life. You don’t get to have a meaningful career or raise a family or leave the world a better place without stress and discomfort. Discomfort is the price of admission to a meaningful life.”

With courage, I will find the light at the end of my tunnel. Happiness is my authenticity and the torch I’ll take with me to show the way.

The above is a preview of David’s TED Talk. The full TED Talk, which is less than 17 minutes, can be found here. She also has an interesting free Emotional Agility quiz, which you can access here. It takes less than five minutes to complete and aims to help readers make everyday choices and live their lives with more intention and insight.

sorry, not sorry

I sit at my laptop, looking out the window — a blank stare.

No, not blank. There’s a lot going on inside the walls behind my glasses. There’s always a lot going on there.

I think too much.

I watched a movie last night. In it, Reese Witherspoon delivers a spot-on line. “You know what the difference is between men and women? Men just do. They decide what they want to do, and they just do it. Women always have to think about the consequences.”

Like today. After days of rain, it’s finally beautiful outside. I’ll be out on my bike soon, but even then, where is my mind?

With the victims of Parkside, with the gun war, with social media and online identity. With what it takes — what it really takes — to become a writer. (Do you need a degree? Dickens didn’t.) With passion versus practicality. With “forge ahead” versus “let it flow.” With “be yourself” versus “be what others want from you.” With finances. With family. With faith versus real-world experience. With famine versus plenty . . .

With race, privilege, power, poverty, circumstance, personal responsibility, finances, friendship, loneliness, thankfulness, climate change, litter, recycling, consumerism, capitalism, love, hate, tradition, change, aging . . .

Did I mention that I think too much?

I’m tired of being sorry.

Sorry, I’m not sorry.

i am . . .

It’s a quiet night on the home front. Bike is put away; swim gear is drying. It’s supposed to rain tomorrow — had to get in as much today as I could . . . in honor of my birthday.

I’m calmer this year facing my birthday than I’ve been in years past. I don’t have any plans, and I don’t mind. It’s just . . . The days drag and the years fly on. Where does time go?

I must be the oldest almost 34-year-old on the planet.

I’m learning to accept myself this year. Calling myself beautiful instead of calling myself names. It’s not easy to change the way you see yourself, but it’s worth it. It sets the course for the rest of your life — and, in some cases, for others.

I saw this video recently and really liked it. Please, let me know what you think. :)

The most powerful force in the human psyche is how we describe ourselves to ourselves. Who’s giving you labels?

34 is going to be my best year yet.

the key to success . . .

Confession: I’m a failure. I fail every day. But I’m also a success. I keep trying.

How do I mean? I’ll give you a few examples:

  • I applied to graduate school four times before being accepted. When I finally got in, it was on uncertain terms. (I’ll explain later.)
  • I didn’t complete my first half Ironman. I was anemic and had to withdraw. The next year, I finished two half Ironmans and several other triathlons. I have my sights set on completing my first marathon and first full Ironman in 2018/19.
  • I started a blog while I lived in Taiwan, Tai Tao. It never took off. When I moved to Hong Kong, I started Shift. Today I have more than 2,400 followers (and hope to gain many more).
  • I’ve lived in seven cities in ten years. Each relocation has been difficult. I’ve never given up and moved home (wherever that is). My life perspective has grown ten-fold because of this.
  • I’ve loved and I’ve lost. I’ve learned something valuable from each relationship. I’ll be swimming  and not out on a date tomorrow night. (Valentine’s Day sucks, anyway.)
  • I’m trying to eat healthier. I had a vegetable smoothie with tofu for lunch. I also had gummy bears. :D

I like what Will Smith has to say on this topic, too. In truth, the only way to truly fail is when you stop trying.

What’s your relationship with failure? Do you agree with Will?

 

 

 

 

the devil’s advocate

Whenever I write, I play devil’s advocate. Writing makes me think. Hard. I say this, I think. But what if it comes out like this? What if I were approaching this from this?

Will Smith’s message about fault and responsibility is true. But what if, through no fault of our own, we are rendered incapable of dealing with the trauma we’ve been dealt?

It happens all the time. Take the THIRTEEN kids of the couple who were arrested for torture and child endangerment in Perris, California recently, for example. The children were chained to their beds, not allowed to use the restroom, starved, filthy. Authorities were finally notified when a 17-year-old escaped and called 9-1-1 for help. Thanks to malnourishment, she appeared about ten.

Now . . . How this could have gone on for 29 YEARS (the kids are ages 2 to 29) without someone noticing is beyond the scope of this post. (In truth, it appears many are at fault.) Instead, my question is, if we are to take Smith’s “fault vs. responsibility” concept at face value: How are these malnourished, psychologically-abused individuals supposed to take responsibility for turning their lives around? It took 17 years just for one of them to figure out how get away. Can they be held to the same standards as Joe Schmoe down the street?

Now, this is an extreme example. I wasn’t planning to go so extreme. In truth, I was planning to share a personal story related to self-esteem. I’ve hinted in years past at internal battles I’ve had with my appearance and feeling like I’m not “good enough.” It’s taken several years of counseling to understand where my emphasis on appearance came from and how this has translated into the way I treat myself. Yes, I’m “owning” my issues — recognizing the role others and (impossible) societal standards have played, but not blaming them for my struggle — but it’s taken me a LONG time, and I couldn’t have done it on my own.

And I guess my point is, before we judge others, we need to walk a mile (or twenty) in their shoes. And before we worry about others, we need to worry about ourselves. Sure, at some point, some people cross a line. There is NO excuse for certain behaviors (more on that soon), but even so, people’s lives are rarely improved by critical barbs or blame. Instead, they’re changed by compassion. If you don’t believe me, take a look at the video below. How many times have you walked past a homeless person and wondered, How did they get there?

I know I have.

will smith, well said

I’ve always been a fan of Will Smith. No, I haven’t seen all of his movies, and I don’t know his entire life story. It’s possible he’s a terrible person. But typically the person you are on the inside shows up on the outside, and on the outside, Mr. Smith appears to be a decent human being—and a thoughtful one, too. He posted the below video on Instagram Live a few days ago, and when I saw it I thought, “Well said.”

Please watch!

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I know too many people who focus on what they can’t control—the actions of others or crappy circumstances—instead of what they can. There is power in accepting responsibility for our own happiness and success. No, it’s not easy. Life can be cruel and unkind, and the world’s playing field has never been level. But blaming others accomplishes nothing. As William Ernst Henley so aptly put it in the poem below, we are the masters of our fate and the captains of our souls.
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invictus

P.S. This is a reminder to myself!

thoughts on superbowl sunday

Today as many Americans gather to watch the Superbowl, I remember the first time I was abroad on a different American holiday — the Fourth of July. I was 17 and was in Florence studying Italian for the summer. The school had a special Fourth of July meal with traditional American food — burgers, fries, ice cream, etc. — and I remember how strange it felt to realize that the Fourth of July wasn’t celebrated everywhere. The school was just being nice to its American students.

Of course the Superbowl isn’t actually a holiday, but in the States it might as well be. It’s the most widely-watched sporting events of the year, and a single 30-second ad during the game costs advertisers $5 million (or $166,666 per second). The half-time show is always a huge production—this year’s show features Justin Timberlake—and it’s just generally a time of both rivalry and fellowship for families across the nation.

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For many people worldwide, though, the Superbowl is, “What? Oh yeah, that American thing.” In these countries people get excited about the World Cup, or Wimbledon, or The Grand National, or Polo, or . . . I once met a group of Australians while traveling with friends in Thailand. The Australians were trying to explain Australian football to us, and we Americans were like, “What?”

It’s interesting how much pride people take in team sports, though. In the South, college football is king, and people are loyal to their “home team” until death. I’ve never been a big sports fan, but I do think that to ignore the power of sports is to miss out on an important cultural phenomenon. The kinds of sports we play, the rules, the players, the fans, the coaches, the actions of everyone involved — these things matter. There have been numerous examples over the years of big-name sports players acting like total jerks both on and off the field. Just because someone’s a big name player doesn’t mean they should get a pass to be a jerk, though. If anything it means we should hold them to a higher standard. After all, these are people our children look up to and who represent America to the world. No one likes an arrogant whiner jerk. So why do we tolerate players who act that way?

Additionally, there have been mixed reactions to the amount some sports stars and coaches are paid. Alabama Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban reportedly earns a salary $11.125 million per year, and top NFL players like Tom Brady make more than $20 million per year. Holy cow! Now I’m not saying that these people aren’t worth the money they’re making, and I recognize that in some instances they’re actually putting their lives (or at least their health) on the line for the work that they’re doing. However, I am saying that the amount they make shows where our society’s priorities are — for better or for worse.

What are your thoughts on American sports and coach’s/players’ salaries? I am by no means an expert in this field. Just one American girl writing a post while the Superbowl is on — and I don’t mean on the TV. I don’t even own a TV!

P.S. If you haven’t seen the below SNL skits, you should check them out. Pretty funny!

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so how ’bout those new year’s resolutions?

:D

I didn’t mention resolutions last month. I thought about it. I have a few goals of my own on an ongoing basis, but, truthfully, I’ve never been big on creating lists at the start of the year. For one, I know the newness doesn’t last. By only a few hours in, 2018 was already starting to feel a lot like 2017 to me. Secondly, I recognize that big goals and big changes require big “whys.” We have to really want something—and have an attainable plan for how we’re going to achieve it—in order to stay motivated and “get there.”

Typically that motivation has nothing to do with a date on the calendar.

Take finances, for example. Money is something we all worry about, but budgeting is HARD and many people don’t know how to do it properly. I’m one of them. One of my long-term goals is to get better at handling my money—I want to travel again and stop living paycheck to paycheck—and for that reason I’ve been listening to Dave Ramsey a lot lately. Love him or hate him, Dave has a common-sense approach to getting out of debt and “building wealth,” and thanks to him I recently sat down and created my first budget. I don’t have a perfect system yet, but it’s a start.

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But here’s the thing. This change has nothing to do with January 1st—nothing. I started reading Dave’s “The Total Money Makeover” last year. I finished it on the plane ride to California over Christmas. After the New Year, I started listening to his show. The desire has been there all along; it’s just taken me a while to get the ball rolling.

In another area of my life, too, if my goals were based on a 12-month calendar, I would have failed already. I want to blog more consistently, but I struggle to write when emotionally stressed. January wasn’t the easiest of months for me. As such, you may have noticed I dropped off the face of the earth recently. I wanted to write; I just . . . couldn’t.

Now, it’s true that how we react to our circumstances is as important as the circumstances themselves, but another area I’m working on is giving myself grace. If I’m stressed and can’t write, oh well. And if I’m stressed and do write—and if my blogging comes across as “down” because I’m stressed—well . . . At least you’ll know I’m genuine! This blog isn’t about putting on a happy face. It never has been. It’s about the bumps and shifts of life and making the best of them as they come our way.

If you’ve read this far, thanks for joining me for the ride.

Do you make New Year’s resolutions? If so, why? And what have been your results?

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#totalfail… Sound familiar? It does for me! :D

the “in between”

Lights, camera, action. The theater darkens; actors appear on screen. And then, reality sweeps away. For the next few hours, we become a part of the film. We are encapsulated in the artwork of storytelling.

In those moments, we are the heroes; we are the everyday Joes; we are the young professionals trying to find our way. There’s a reason we choose the films that we do. In some form or fashion, we connect with them.

And later, when they’re all over, we long for them not to be done. We sit in the darkness, waiting—holding our breath—reliving vicariously the scenes we’ve just seen. I’ve never felt prettier than I have walking out of a movie theater . . .

That is until I get to the car and see that big zit on my nose. Ugh!

ladybI went to my first movie since moving to Knoxville last night. Ironically (or, not surprisingly?), I picked a movie about a girl who grew up in my hometown. She’s a high school senior who dreams of experiencing life outside her city. She hasn’t traveled much yet, but she wants to.

Throughout the film, I saw a few parallels to my own life. “Lady Bird” graduated in 2003 and went to a school in New York; I graduated in 2002 and went to a school in Tennessee. She and her mother both had strong personalities; I and my own mom are quite similar.

But what stood out to me most was a theme we often overlook in life: waiting. In the film, Lady Bird was eagerly anticipating the next phase of her life. She couldn’t wait for college; she couldn’t wait for the school year to be over.  But what the story was really about was what she was doing now. Often the “in-between-changes” parts of our lives are just as important as “what comes next.” I myself often worry about the future, but the movie reminded me that today—and every day—is an important opportunity to work on myself.

Shortly before seeing “Lady Bird,” I watched a video on facebook that talked about happiness. The video claimed that we often look outwards to find happiness and life’s purpose when it should be the other way around: “You are what you love, not what loves you.” This concept came to mind on my drive home last night, and I couldn’t shake it as I contemplated this newly-highlighted idea of waiting. Although I didn’t agree fully with the video’s message (my qualms are written below), I thought the narrator made some really good points. Please check it out (and read my comments, too)!

The narrator’s thoughts / My thoughts:

We’ve been conditioned to move to a place of “what loves us,” and almost every decision we make now is based on what other people think about us.
It depends on the person.
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If you’re under the impression that things outside of you complete you, you will always be a victim because everything has to change to make you happy . . . You’re moving from “out to in.”
True.
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When you were a kid, you weren’t working on managing customers or fake lists, etc., you were working on you. And that same mentality exists in people who are the greatest at what they do. They weren’t looking at their lists and how many people they got; they were working on themselves and excelling at that.
The narrator’s parallel to childhood is a bit simplistic. Kids play to learn skills they will need as adults. That’s part of life. At surface level, though, his analogy makes sense.
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There’s a level of effortlessness that shows up when you enjoy the process of working on yourself. That’s the goal of life, and when you do that, the results will show up when they’re supposed to.
The goal of life is more than just working on ourselves. I feel the goal is to look at what we can do to help others. In so doing, we become the best possible versions of ourselves. That said, I really like the idea of worrying less about what others think and knowing that things will happen when they’re supposed to.

the wild wind blows

I’ll be honest: I’m discouraged tonight. Life isn’t always easy; in fact, sometimes it’s downright hard.

That said . . . There are certain universal truths that we must all cling to during difficult times. One of them is that, like music, poetry can make everything better. :)

This poem is perhaps my favorite to date because it is one of my technical best. I originally posted it on September 3, 2013.

The Wild Wind Blows

The wild wind blows,
In caverns – slows
The beating of my heart.

In darkness deep,
Where creepers creep,
I dream of days, depart —

To summer sun
Where rivers run,
And all the world’s an art —

And all of love
A perfect glove,
And you, the perfect part.

The wild wind blows,
A blanket, snows,
Alone, I’m miles apart —

In darkness deep
And silence steep,
From you who has my heart.

To listen to this poem, click below:

beyond the walls

So, I’ve been trying to write more poetry. I have a lot of great ideas but keep getting stuck after the first few lines. As such, I thought I’d share a few of my older poems. (I’m hoping they might spur my creativity . . .) This poem first appeared on my blog on August 5, 2013.

Beyond the Walls

In all the halls
And through the walls,
My harried thoughts are singing.
I hear them there,
And over there,
Like finches they are winging.

I think of you,
And you, and you,
And, oh, the anguish stinging.
For every time,
You seem sublime,
I only end up wringing.

And so it is,
I’m only his,
The one who me is flinging.
And so I’ll go,
Where no one knows,
And meet you there in clinging.
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For a (really bad) audio version of this poem, click below . . .

 

the stories we tell

I grew up in a conservative Christian environment. In my childhood church, jewelry and dancing were akin to divorce, and divorce was the doing of the Devil. Imagine my identity crisis, then, when at the age of 26 I learned that my parents were getting a divorce. Divorced? What did that make me? The Devil’s child?

You think I’m kidding; I’m not. My entire identity and foundation were shaken. I now came from a broken home. This was NOT supposed to happen.

The reality is, of course, that 50 percent of marriages in the States end in divorce. My parents’ union was no exception. Sadly, we don’t live in a perfect world, and not all marriages last until “death do us part.” I had bought into a lie.

Interestingly, I get a similar feeling around the holidays. Christmas and New Years are surrounded by so much hype. We have this idea about what they’re supposed to look like — with presents and snowflakes and family and laughter — but the reality is often much darker. For many people Christmas means debt and loneliness and sadness and depression. Suicide attempts increase around the holidays. I myself struggle to feel excited about Christmas every year.

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Why? you might ask. Why not? My life looks nothing like the Hallmark movies or anything it’s supposed to. Why wouldn’t I feel sad?

But perhaps the bigger question is: Why did I buy into those Hollywood narratives? Where did I get these expectations in the first place?

At our cores, I believe we all seek approval. We all want to love and be loved. We’re idealists born reaching for the stars, and we’re hard-wired to seek meaning and connection. This is what binds us. This is what makes us human . . . But life inevitably lets us down; in one way or another, reality “checks” each of us dreamers.

And that leads me to my next question: Once we know life will let us down, why do we perpetuate these expectations? Why do we continue telling false fairy tales?

I think we do for a few reasons. Fairy tales give us hope, and hope gives us a reason to keep moving. We need superheroes and Hallmark stories to give us something to strive for. We need to believe that things can be better than they are. But, but . . . Do these narratives also do harm? Would it be better if the stories we told were a little more realistic? Accepting my parents’ divorce would have been far easier if I hadn’t believed it meant they shouldn’t have gotten married in the first place. Christmas, too, would be a lot easier if the holiday stories we told evoked a sense of normalcy rather than elevated exceptions to “real life.”

Because let’s face it — there is no perfect family. We’re all flawed individuals working through our “stuff,” and family and friend dynamics are never simple. December is a month just like any other. Why would we try to sell it as more?

But I don’t know . . . What do you think? Could we do our life and holiday narratives better? Or are they fine the way they are? What would you change about them if you could?

 

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.”