I was reviewing my lesson plan to go over modal verbs with my English as a Foreign Language class in Thailand. The lesson plan I gathered gave an example, “When I was young, I could climb trees.” From there, I wrote this poem. It’s not from my life. I’ve maybe climbed a tree once in my life. But when I was writing it, it didn’t matter whether it was a tree, a mountain, a bridge — it’s always ourselves, we are always conquering ourselves.
In the summer when I was a child,
I would climb trees.
I would pick the most complicated tree with my brother,
one with an entanglement and maze of branches,
and he would point at the tallest branch.
He usually said that,
while giving me a nudge on the shoulder.
Barefoot, I’d crunch my way through the grass with calloused feet,
scaling the tree above.
And just for a moment,
I’d wait until a bead of sweat made its way down my cheek or nose –
just to feel the coolness that comes with the movement of conquering a giant.
At one point in my life, I visited a fortune teller. She was off a busy street in Orlando, Florida – my roommate had convinced me earlier that the fortune teller had known everything about her.
As with most fortune tellers, they usually tell you elusive and positive things – people accept the abstract and complimentary.
My visit was not the case.
She told me I’d never be happy. That I would marry my best friend – and not my soulmate – and that I would never live in another country. That I’d make a great real estate agent. And if I ever wanted to fix my “unhappy” problem, come see her for a treatment.
This was in 2010.
It’s 2016 now and just a year ago, I broke off a four-month engagement with my boyfriend of four years, and I’m currently typing this entry on a hard bed in a southern province in Thailand called Nakhon Sri Thammarat. I teach English as a Foreign Language to high schoolers.
Did I believe this fortune teller for years? Yes.
Did I see this fortune teller to be “healed” of my abysmal future? No.
Was her assessment the reason I left? No.
The thing of it all is, I never needed an ailment and I never needed someone to tell me how I was going to live my life. I never needed anything or anyone else, but me.
I am the reason I left and it was tough. I am the reason I am here and it was brave. I am the reason I am living the life I teased myself with for years because I found love for the dreamer on the cusp of blooming on a Friday night alone in my bed in Downtown Orlando.
I am the reason I am – and I am strong, passionate, resilient, and a warrior for all things truth and love. And I am so grateful to be in this moment.
A month ago, I left my fiancé. A perfectly normal man who loved me unconditionally for nearly four years. The voice I’d been hushing found a microphone and turned the volume up until it was all I could hear: This isn’t right.
I’ve been called brave by women whose inner voices reached their eardrums long after marriage, kids, and houses. It’s a mantra that plays with every heart beat.
I’m brave. I’m brave. I’m brave.
But it’s not in leaving him that makes me brave. It’s in reminding myself who I want to be every day since I have. Sticking to the decision that I deserve to live the life I dreamt of when he didn’t touch me the way I wanted to be touched. Didn’t look at me they way I wanted to be looked at. Didn’t affect me in the way I wanted to be affected. But how could he? I wasn’t me with him. I’m me without him, and I don’t know who that is anymore.
And that’s the part where I could say, “Isn’t that exciting? You get to rediscover yourself! No one ever knows who they really are anyway.” But fuck that for now. I’m gonna grieve and be scared and write about it until I pass out. And then I’m going to rest. And all that fortune-cookie shit will unfold. And I’ll be okay.
I’m white. I’m not poor. I’m not rich, but I’m still privileged. Let’s talk about it.
In the fall and summer of 2012 and 2013, I took Spanish I and II for my foreign language requirement. Although I passed with two A’s, let’s just consider myself a try-lingual. Not as in the indication of a third language like trilingual, but as in I try to speak Spanish and it comes out as jumbled, apologetic Spanglish.
I’ve worked in restaurants since the ripe age of sixteen with exposure to many people of various cultures and languages, most of them Spanish-speaking. While I started as a hostess, I looked up to those who served and even higher up to those who bar tended, mainly people who are white and/or have class privilege. Within the basic process of learning and growing within the restaurant industry, I gained gratitude and recognition for those who worked the hardest (who happen to coincidentally get paid the least): dishwashers, and prep/line cooks, mainly people who are not white and/or without class privilege.
In my previous restaurant jobs, I’ve come to learn who these individuals are and admire their dedication and work ethic. Many of them carry two-plus jobs while balancing their lives as parents. I used to ignore the back of the house dishwashers and prep/line cooks as if they were mere shadows, faceless silhouettes. I worked hard and made really good money. My mom started clipping the umbilical cord at age 16. So when I say I worked hard, I did.
“You son of a b*tch! Reattach it!”
But I hadn’t worked as nearly hard as the “shadows” had. Because of my privileged white ass. Because, without sounding like an ass, I am considered attractive, and I have relied heavily on my looks to get jobs, particularly in restaurants. Because I am a woman who can’t solely rely on her brain to get a job (it’s pretty big and spectacular; no plastic surgery either). From my experience in the restaurant, class and racial status separates the naive and ignorant into their own imaginary cubicles with towering gray walls. It is because of taking a Spanish language course that I not only learned verb conjugations and conversational Spanish, but I also learned that those gray walls are weak and can be knocked down through the basic instinct of human connection.
Through life, sometimes I am stopped to practice human connection in a spectrum of ways that have compensated who I am for the thirst of connection with the other person. If someone speaks negatively, I coat my mouth with a negative tongue. If someone speaks of something I don’t agree with, I laugh as if I too agree. It is because of this ritual of donning heavy coats of variations of the English language and taking each one off only to don on a new one, that each one becomes increasingly heavier than the last. I am a mirror to the figure in front of me. I want to be liked. I want to be liked by people I don’t even like.
Speaking conversational Spanish with the once “shadows of the restaurant” gave each of them vibrant colors of bright yellows, seasoned oranges, and deep purples of their culture, personal and historical. As I spoke tangled sentences, Chava, Gregorio, and José were patient to untangle and reweave their first language and hand it back to me like a friendship bracelet. I didn’t need to be like them to be liked. In fact, we liked each other even more for our differences. Simple conversations about the weather in Spanish blossomed into friendship, while simple conversations about the weather with English-speaking coworkers remain as fillers for voids and silences. It wasn’t the words. It was how we said them. What they really meant: “Let’s learn about each other.”
Our culture is known for being individualistic. This is not necessarily a bad thing. The American dream is prevalent for all who grow up in America and those who obliviously learn about America in other countries. It promotes healthy competition and goal orienting, but the problem with individualism is that it becomes a problem when the level is so high that we often forget about those around us- family, friends, coworkers, acquaintances- who have common goals to seek joy and purpose in their lives.
We run around as if the supply of joy is running out, and it’s survival of the angriest and most closed off in order to grab onto what little we can find.
We make eye contact with a stranger and our eyes run to escape into shallow cracks of concrete, lit screens of our cellphones, or fixate on the emptiness of space in front of us. People don’t even have to be strangers for this to happen. People don’t even have to be another race for this to happen.
Culture touches everyone, sometimes it feels light, and other times it hits hard on the head. I am no saint in the things I have portrayed above. I have participated in racist jokes, laughing and sharing them with others. I have joined in on the anger of hearing the operator ask me to “press 1 for Spanish” and “press 2 for English.” I have used up what little energy I have left from worrying about myself to avoid friends of the past in grocery stores, malls, and more.
Each and every one of these acts I learned from the culture around me and chose them like a rite of passage. It wasn’t until I was educated by other means that I was able to open my mind’s eye that revealed a passage that has always been an option. For some, it does take education for us to try- these are the students. For others who have have learned and practiced compassion, it is the passage they know well– these are the teachers.
If we continue to support the hiding in cracks of concrete and bolding the intangible lines of racism, we will miss out on opportunities, lessons, the joy of sharing eye contact, a simple smile, and unexpected conversations about the weather that turn into conversations sharing an overlap of one another’s souls. It is these interactions that will attribute to political activism, redefining what it means to be the human race, and making informed decisions based on work ethic and not what meets the eye.
Publishing your life has its rewards. You can edit, cut, and discard all the crap from your life and polish your happy moments into a shiny and spotless surface– even the moments that weren’t all that great are turned into the happiest moments at the flash of a smile, the click of a filter, and the caption that seals the deal.
I’d be lying if I said when my boyfriend and I smiled for a picture I posted on Facebook at a hockey game one time that we hadn’t had an argument just ten minutes before, or the pictures I posted from our cruise with us embraced in one another’s arms next to palm trees and postcard sunsets that almost every night I hadn’t either cried or yelled for reasons unknown. I’d also be lying if I didn’t mention that most of the pictures I’m in, I’m thinking about my seven year depression– consciously or subconsciously, it is a silent prevalence.
I don’t speak much about the ugly parts of my life that take up the most space, mostly because who the hell wants to? But honestly, it is because it puts me in a vulnerable state where I am forced to deal with who I am, the depression that exists within my mind, and the choices I make that enable it. One of the easiest things to do when you are depressed is act like a victim. Everything that happens is being done to me, not because of me. This is one of the worst possible things I and anyone else with depression can think. This kind of thinking victimizes who we are and allows us to live and relive what we’ve been through, the very things that got us there in the first place. Ironically enough, it’s also something I hate about the media, who often pigeon hold victims in the confines of their tragedies, never releasing them to fly and move on with strength. I, who would so effortlessly post a rant on Facebook about this frustrating habit of the media, am just as at fault.
So, why write about this very personal and potentially reputation-ruining subject of my life?
I recently posted an album on reddit and imgur about a baby squirrel I found outside my apartment complex. I was in the middle of having a panic attack when I saw him crying near the stairs to my apartment. Everything that was spinning in my mind came to a jolting stop; I needed to take care of this baby squirrel. So, I put my hand out and he crawled into a ball on my palm. I ran upstairs, unsure of how to act or what to do, and went outside to my patio where my dog wouldn’t accidentally hurt him. We spent an hour or so with each other on the patio while I held him close to my chest, covering him with my hand knowing he needed warmth. My awkwardness eventually relaxed and I felt important, a word people with depression never see in themselves. I tried giving him water with a syringe but he only had a drop or two. I couldn’t take care of him the way he needed to be but I was okay with it and knew I would always be okay because of it. I had to get him to a wild rehabilitation center and the following day, I did.
I never named him because he was never mine to name but I felt internally changed. I took control of something I felt that needed to be done and even though this baby squirrel will grow up to be like any other squirrel, I felt I had given something back into the world that I didn’t know I had within me.
Posting this story onto reddit and imgur without my name or viewers knowing who I was, I told the whole story– depression and all. After receiving comforting and encouraging messages and comments, I realized by staying silent about my depression, not only was I giving it the upper hand, I was feeding into what I despise– the existence of the stigma of mental illness. And if I continue to be silent, how will my voice against the stigma of rape, of those who identify with LGBT, of race, of HIV and AIDS, and of depression ever be heard? If I don’t own what it is that fights me, how will I ever win?
It’s interesting when one begins a relationship with oneself. We are all we have from life to death, yet it takes a “swing-you-around-turn-you-upside-down” pivotal moment for this simple concept to grab and shake you.
When I dated, I searched for meaning within others through conversations of common interests, storytelling of one another’s histories; patiently waiting for the “spark.” While I found that two years ago on a first date, I am still searching for it within myself, twenty-two years later.
We don’t often think of ourselves as being two people but we really are. We view the whole earth through our senses, never viewing ourselves until found before a reflection of various mediums. Many of us treat the reflection as a gallery canvas set for criticism, nitpicking the flaws of the picture before us. It transcends back into the world with the same lenses, this time cast unto others. The destruction is a swinging door, hurting both sides in an exhausting cycle.
It’s not a coincidence that not one person in the world can say they are truly happy and satisfied with objects of desire. We hear it in fables, fairy tales, and folklore. We see it in movies, daily life and testimonies. I have searched and searched in the deepest of stores and the most complex of websites for things I thought I needed to improve my life. And when I stop and think about this, I don’t express my love in that way to others. I never have and never will.
So many of us love ourselves the wrong way, if at all. The very concept of viewing ourselves as another can birth new love and enable a radiant love to even our worst of enemies.
I’ve found that in order to “woo” myself and really feel that “spark” within me, I have to view myself as I would a stranger, a child, an innocent. I must smile and laugh with myself. I must go on adventures and soak up the knowledge of the world and the knowledge I have yet to learn within me. I must forgive myself when I make mistakes and encourage myself to strive on to the next mistake.
I feel love when I open a book and sit on the patio. I feel it in the wind and in the brush of the hairs of my dog when we run side by side. I feel it within deep conversation with myself, coming out as a blog post. I feel it when I utilize my history to seize present opportunity.
I feel the spark and I burn with passionate, lapping flames.
I used to tell myself that if I ever found a book titled, “How Not to Give A F*ck for Dummies,” I’d snatch it up and read it every night, an appropriate soothing bedtime story. I daydream of running through the hills, a modern-day Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music while shouting the mantra and living the words, “I have zero f*cks to give!” This escape of reality dances before my eyes long enough to entertain the thought of freedom from judgment, comfort in my skin, and concept of having self-control but not long enough to actually live these personal goals. I hate that I am a talker and not a doer. I can quote inspirational sayings and offer advice more than a bathroom stall wall, but to walk the walk? I don’t even have shoes.
It’s often heard and repeated to, “take a walk in someone else’s shoes.” I believe that is a direct source of putting on another’s soul, living their daily trials and tribulations. The trouble here for me is that I am unsure of my own shoes, my own soul.
In order to really enable my inner power of not caring about what other people think of me, I have to stop thinking about how to. Thus, I have begun the search for my soul. It’s a needle-in-a-haystack kind of thing but it’s worth the energy. The exhaustion of trying to figure out why someone is this way or that is distressing. The pep talk of telling myself, “It’s not a big deal” becomes monotonous and never seems to strengthen no matter how many times I tell myself. But to exhaust myself in search of myself (my soul) is a release of energy like one of a post-work out glow. I hate every minute of it (the running, the weights, the hopes of looking like I know what I am doing) but as soon as it is over, I float. My body, mind, and soul feel as if they are finally together in the same room, instead of the normal where each is in different rooms of different floors, confused and lonely.
Ever since we are shed into the light of life, we become cultured. The more years we collect in our life, the more we are exposed to the individuation process of becoming what is expected of us. Eventually and hopefully, we recognize this, either struggle with it for the rest of our lives, give up, or revisit the beginning of our selves and search for inner peace. We innately know what we truly want. This is why we dream. We must listen, open our hearts, our ears, our mind’s eye and say, “Oh, there you are.” No one can find oneself or recreate oneself on Facebook, not authentically.
It’s because of this practice of satisfying expectations that finding the power to live a meaningful life will be one of the hardest things for us to do when, in actuality, we are born with it. It’s not destroyed. Not gone. Not even inexistent. It is within us, waiting to be called. Sometimes it visits us in our dreams, through moments of abundant confidence, through expression of art. We cannot afford to live our lives according to others. We have to accept that being oneself doesn’t guarantee the happiness of a quantity of others, but it does guarantee the happiness of oneself and those who matter.