can/’t

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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.

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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?

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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

 

 

home again

Muddy. Like the murky shallows of Trinity Lake when the waters have drop-drop-dropped and sucked the shoreline muck into red clay pools swirled with yesterday’s bath water. Like the ash falling from nearby fires, engulfing an entire state in smoke and soot, a sickly yellow fog no place should ever see (let alone breathe). My thoughts were hazy.

Who am I? And why am I here?

I needed distance. Distance from the he-said-she-said. Distance from the rush-rush-rush of hurryupandwaiting. Distance from the clammy humid-cloud that enveloped me the moment I opened my front door.

In all of my years in Tennessee and abroad, I have never been so homesick.

I flew West on July 12 and cried when I landed at the San Francisco International Airport. I laughed when I heard a passenger complaining about California’s gun laws. I smiled when I shivered as I walked to my rental car. I was home.

Home with all of its myriads of problems is still home.

I spent three weeks visiting friends and family. I played with my 15-month-old nephew. I sorted through childhood memory boxes and read old letters and journal entries. I relived my twenties like a movie watched in reverse—this is who I am; this is why I’m here . . . Here not only in location, but in body, mind, and spirit. Here in loyalty. Here in love. I’m here I’m here I’m-here I’m-here-I’m-HERE.

It’s raining today in Knoxville, pouring buckets in a fashion California rarely sees (and sorely needs). I’m not home anymore. But this is home for now, for reasons I must cling to, no matter life’s sea.

After all, those reasons are ME.

 

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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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blessed

It’s Father’s Day. We all have the world’s best father, don’t we? Except those who don’t. Or those who have lost their dads. Or those who never knew them to begin with.

Life isn’t fair.

That’s one thing my mother taught me as a child: Life isn’t fair, so stop expecting it to be. She was right. I met a young man recently who broke my heart. A “thug” on the outside, he quickly showed that he’d had an unstable childhood at best. He had no support system, and as an adult, he was hurting.

How much of who we are is who we are, and how much of it is where we came from?

Me, though—I was blessed. I have two amazing parents. My dad is and always has been my best friend. He knows me better than anyone. We think alike, and he’s always been there for me with open ears and ready arms—no matter the hour, no matter how tired, no matter what he himself is going through. He’s the most giving person I’ve ever met—giving to a fault, in fact. (Dad, you need to take care of YOU!!)

But I love him for it and know he will always put others first, no matter what I or my brother say. We’re a trio, really. My brother is amazing, too—why don’t we have a Sibling’s Day, by the way?—and this is perhaps the hardest part about being so far from home. I miss being surrounded by people who know me and love me just as I am. I wish I could be closer to watch my nephew grow. But, alas, I have to follow my own path, and my path has taken me to Tennessee.

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Today I want to share with you an event from this past week, which actually started earlier (the “backstory” from my last post), and which I couldn’t have done without my dad, who has encouraged me every step of my non-traditional way.

Back in March I wrote a post about attending my first “Poetry Slam.” The “Slam” meets once a month, and last month I got brave and recited a couple of my old poems. It was nerve-wracking, but afterward a guy reached out to me and said he and his friends had really liked my work. He invited me to a game night, which I later attended, and in a span of about five weeks my social circle in Knoxville has nearly doubled.  Thanks to my new friend I now have numerous contacts to do crazy things with like hike, rock climb, sky dive, and more. And even cooler? I no longer have to attend Poetry Slams alone! This is a video my friends took of me at this month’s Slam. Some of you may recognize my work.

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All of this to say, NONE of this would have been possible without my dad. He’s been there for me through thick and thin and believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself. He’s supported me through every life transition and trusted that I was making the right decisions. He’s visited me wherever I am and is always been just a phone call away. He’s my biggest supporter and number one fan, and is exactly the kind of parent I wish everyone had . . . What an amazing place this world would be if that were true!!

Happy Father’s Day, Dad! I love you!

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.”

 

 

 

 

 

lemonade, anyone?

There’s that saying, “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” Haha, we laugh. Sure. I don’t even like lemonade, but you got it.

Life has given me a lot of lemons over the past ten years.

Yeah, yeah. “Look for the positive — focus on the good!” Isn’t that the other phrase we hear? Easy to say, much easier said than done.

But still we try. Or at least we move on. Or at least we keep getting up every morning, putting two feet on the floor, and shuffling towards the door. We go through the motions without a clear picture of where we’re going — just knowing that this is what we’re supposed to do, this is how to escape the fog and move towards the light.

Someday things will make sense.

We hope.

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Stairway into the fog at Dalmaji Hill, Busan, South Korea, taken on my trip in 2011.

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A detail I never fully explained was why, as a California native, I chose to go to graduate school in Tennessee. Sure, I like Tennessee (I did go to college here), but . . . Move away from my family? Move back to the humidity? Why would any fine-haired new aunt choose to do that? (My hair is incorrigible here, and I miss my nephew so much!)

A simple reason: finances. When I was looking into graduate school, I knew I couldn’t afford to do it on my own. I didn’t want to go deep into student loan debt, so I looked into programs with assistantships that offered funding. UT was one of these, and when I was accepted, I was thrilled. But there was a catch. I’d been accepted to the program, but I hadn’t been offered funding.

Well, damn.

So last April I flew to Tennessee and met with the program’s director and, together, we hatched a crazy plan. I’d move to Tennessee, start school on my own, and reapply for funding in spring. If I got it, I’d be fully funded for the following two years. If I didn’t, well . . . I’d be back to square one.

Well — deep breath — go.

Fast-forward one year and here I am in Tennessee and for months I’ve been waiting to hear if I got funding. I wasn’t on the initial offer list (that was heartbreaking), but as everything shook out, I found out recently that I was, in fact, offered funding for next year.

There is a God, lol.

No, seriously. I’ve had my doubts.

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An optimistic view of Knoxville, looking west. Taken on a ride a couple days ago.

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It’s been all sunshine here in Knoxville for the past couple of days, and yesterday on my drive to class — in my beloved 18-year-old Jetta, sunroof open and windows rolled down — I couldn’t help feeling something I haven’t felt in a very long time: optimistic. I’m still scared sh*tless most days. The future is murky and there’s still sadness behind and a resistance to letting go and always the very real chance of being let down again (and again, and again and again and again). But somewhere in there I hope tenacity is rewarded. Grit is its own strength. And life experience — in all of its varieties — is what connects us.

It’s what’s connected me to you.

Lemonade? Anyone?

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*Lemonade image credit to Smirnoff.com

the ragnar report

I should have written this post a few days ago. I tried. But this darn thing called “work” kept getting in the way.

Ragnar was amazing. I didn’t expect it to be. In fact, in the weeks leading up to the event, I was worried about sleep deprivation and missing work and school and wondered why I’d signed up.

What is Ragnar? you might ask. Up until a year ago, I had no idea, either. Ragnar is a multi-stage, point-to-point relay race in which teams of 12 runners (or fewer, if you’re crazy) cover 200ish miles in one straight shot. Teams typically split up between two vans and stagger shifts of runners. Van 1 has runners one through six; Van 2 has runners seven through twelve. When your van isn’t running, it’s either eating or sleeping — or trying to! Ragnar Tennessee goes from Chattanooga to Nashville and covers everything from mountain climbs to farmland to city scapes. It was an amazing way to see Tennessee, but even more, it was an opportunity to meet some incredible people.

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Outside the Blue Chair coffee shop after our first run

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Continue reading

let’s talk about the weather

(No, seriously!)

I was shocked when I moved to Tennessee as a freshman in college and my mom bought me an umbrella. “It’s summer, Mom,” I protested. California summers are hot and DRY. I did not need an umbrella.

It rained weekly in Chattanooga that summer and fall.

I needed an umbrella.

When winter came, though, I was sure I’d be prepared. I grew up in the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas. We skied in Tahoe when I was a kid; sometimes it snowed at home. I knew about winter.
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My hometown on a wintry day.

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I did not know about winter.

In an era of global warming, pictures like the above are becoming less and less common in my hometown. Most of California rarely sees a daytime high below 40°F (5.5℃); in Chattanooga, though, it’s common. I remember walking across campus that January and marveling that, at noon, I could still see my breath. I learned to wear gloves and scarves and hats in Chattanooga. I’d never really needed them before.
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Ice skating, anyone?

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This year, as a graduate student in Knoxville, I have again been struck by the weather. Although we haven’t had deep snows or sub-zero temperatures like other parts of the nation, we have had some really cold days — days in the low 20s that have frozen lakes and ponds . . . Days that chill you to the bone and require hot cocoa and cuddling by a fire (or, in my case, a heater) . . . Days when, to keep from going stir crazy, you put on six layers of clothing and go for a run to feel alive . . .

I remember really cold winters in Taiwan and Hong Kong, too. There’s something about humidity that penetrates the soul.
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How do you feel about winter? What has your winter looked like so far this year (that is, if you live in the Northern Hemisphere)? What does it typically look like? (Share a picture of your weather if you feel so inclined!)

One touch of nature makes the whole world kin. William Shakespeare

Nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed. Henry Adams

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Frozen solid.

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It was 22°F and felt like 12°F (-5.6℃, or -11℃) with a when I took these photos.

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Poor fishies!

(Ironically, while I was drafting this, it warmed up significantly here for a couple of days. I might even ride my bike tomorrow! . . . Of course, when I mentioned this to the lady at the dry cleaners today, she laughed. “Don’ be fooled! ‘Ees jes’ playin’ wid you. Winter ain’ over yet!”

back to the beginning

Roughly eight years ago, I made the decision to move to Taiwan for what I thought would be a seven-month period. I thought I was going to go to grad school in the fall of 2011, but as it turned out, I ended up staying in Asia for almost three years — two in Taiwan and one in Hong Kong. These experiences changed my life forever, and it is partly because of them that I’m studying Rhetoric, Writing, and Linguistics at the University of Tennessee today. For my final project last semester, I addressed metaphor theory in Mandarin. I won’t go into detail about metaphor theory here, but I wanted to share at least part of my final paper with you, as it highlights experiences that have made me me and greatly influence some of the things you see on my blog today. My story starts right around New Year Eve 2010. I started teaching in Taiwan in January, 2010.

I didn’t know anything about Taiwan when I was invited to teach there in the summer of 2009. I didn’t know what language was spoken, or what the climate was like, or, sadly, even where it was located. “It’s right off the coast of China,” my friend Laura* told me. “It’s really cool, and the kids are great. We live in Sanzhi, about 20 minutes from work. I’m thinking about buying a scooter.” (The rest of the teachers commuted to work in a van together, apparently, or took a bus to the closest MRT station to get into Taipei.) Laura was not the most detail-oriented and talked fast when she was excited. Continue reading

happy haphazard holidays

Well everyone, I suppose I can’t — or at least shouldn’t — put this off any longer. (Actually, I haven’t been putting it off — I’ve been slammed . . .) The time has come to wish you all a happy holiday season. So, Happy Holidays! Merry Christmas!! My holiday decor in Tennessee is pretty simple this year; I flew to California this past Monday, so there was no reason to go “all out” 2,000-plus miles away. Still, it’s nice to do something . . .

 

 
In an effort to get into the holiday spirit before leaving Tennessee (it had/has been a rough few weeks), two Friday nights ago I participated in the Tour de Lights Knoxville holiday bike ride. It was a 5-mile loop in downtown Knoxville for which many people decorated their bikes with Christmas lights and garland and dressed up in costumes, etc. It was fun, but it was COLD! It was 29 degrees and my hands were freezing by the time the ride was done. Next year I’ll cheer from the sidelines.

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Since then it’s been a whirlwind. I went to Santa Rosa on Tuesday to see friends and to work in my office, and, last night, before I headed home (to the fam), I went out to see some of the fire damage. It was too dark to take pictures, but the scene was unreal. My heart is broken for the whole community. Here are just a couple pics from a hike I did at a local park the previous day with friends. These don’t even begin to do justice to the extent of the structural damage in the city. Those who lost their homes (there are thousands) are looking at a rough holiday season this year.

Yesterday (Christmas Eve’s Eve) was eventful, too. I won’t go into details, but let’s just say life tough sometimes. (Or, all the time? The jury is still out for debate.)

In any event, I apologize for this haphazard post, but it’s the best I can do under the circumstances. I hope you all have a very Merry Christmas! I’ll touch base again soon!

xoxo,

Jess

 

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.”