Friday, November 6, 2015

Packing My Suitcase for the Future

After going almost nonstop since four o'clock this morning and turning in my English essay 15 minutes before it was due, I finally had the opportunity at five o'clock this evening to sit on the hill, drink Happy Belly tea, eat some of Mom's homemade cookies that arrived in the mail today, and read heartfelt quotes from Brian Andreas' book, Trusting Soul. The book is filled with rough sketches of people and quotes about uncertainty, change, growing up, and other ideas related to trust and the future. In the introduction to his book, he writes,

The future is what you bring with you & you get to choose. I think of the stories & drawings in this book as the things I have chosen, the suitcase I've packed for the future. It's only the essentials, because I know you'll bring stuff, too. I packed the lilt of a voice, the curve of a neck in laughter, the glance between people who have wrapped up in each other in the soft night. I've put memories of my grandparents & other made-up people because it seemed like they'd be fun to have around. I've thrown in more than enough packages of love & play & chocolate because the future can always use extra of those & I sneaked in a few unexpected gifts, simply because there is no greater joy than an unexpected gift to a trusting soul. (Andreas) 

The things I try to include on my blog are what I've chosen to pack for my future––pictures and quotes and musings and questions and stories and moments that fill me with inspiration and joy. I try to avoid rambling complaints or conclusions that end with bitter emotions, because these aren't what I want to bring along with me in the future. I'd rather leave them behind.

What's even more fun than packing the suitcase is opening it up and sharing it with others, which is why I get such joy out of posting. It's a space for the collective relish of big questions and small moments.

So for you, today, I'm sharing a picture of the autumn trees on campus and one of my favorite poems by Mary Oliver.


Salt shining behind its glass cylinder.
Milk in a blue bowl. The yellow linoleum.
The cat stretching her black body from the pillow.
The way she makes her curvaceous response to the small, kind gesture.
Then laps the bowl clean.
Then wants to go out into the world
where she leaps lightly and for no apparent reason across the lawn,
then sits, perfectly still, in the grass.
I watch her a little while, thinking:
what more could I do with wild words?
I stand in the cold kitchen, bowing down to her.
I stand in the cold kitchen, everything wonderful around me.


What will you pack in your suitcase?

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Dandelion Sponges, Brush Strokes, and Runny Eggs

If I painted with a white dandelion puff, I'd get a smattering of dots, a constellation of stars––sponged constellations on the page.

But I don't want to always sponge. Sometimes I want a paintbrush to make big, long, passionate brushstrokes. Sometimes life is a constellation of moments, but other times it's a passionate sweep.

I dreamt about this idea a few weeks ago. It has been a sampling semester for me in college. Although I came to Denison fully anticipating to dive right into theatre, I've found myself wading in, afraid of what I might miss above the surface if I'm underwater. There are so many things to do all the time, and I'm surrounded by so many different styles of living and hobbies and paths of life. Considering that all of my classes have touched somewhat upon the question, "What is the self?" my brain is spinning with existential questions like, "What is life?" and "Who am I?" I've dabbled in a lot of different areas this semester, between talking with a variety of people, trying out different clubs (I'm trying fencing this week!), and going to unique campus events, like a lecture on policing. I'm used to fully committing myself to a few areas that I'm passionate about, so not doing that has made me feel somewhat scattered. This, in conjunction with the dandelion puff I found at a park off campus a few weeks ago, is what I think led to my dandelion puff dream.

I returned to the park this morning. The river and the swings and the trees make it a nice getaway from campus. As I was running over the bridge, I noticed that the trees looked like painted dandelion puffs with their colored leaves. I so badly wanted to stand on the bridge, gather all my breath, and make a wish on the trees, seeing their leaves scatter in the wind.

I also expressed the desire in my dream, though, to paint with a paintbrush. I don't want to always sponge constellations. I want to paint cirrus clouds. I want to dive in.

These are cirrus uncinus clouds, taken from Wikimedia Commons, a public domain.
Somehow egg yolks also leaked into my dream. The only explanation I can think of is that sometimes I want to crack the "egg" and see where the yolk (paint) runs. (Although, I'm not usually one to just crack an egg.) 

The thing is, whether I sponge constellations, take bold brushstrokes, or let the paint run, it's all still a work of art. More importantly, it's the contrast of all these that makes for an interesting composition.

My first semester of college has not been what I expected so far. I'm starting to be more bold with my painting, but it's a process. I think I've repeated that phrase–"It's a process"–every day to myself since I've been here. There are some parts I wish I could paint over, but there are other parts that shimmer. When I step back and I look at the whole picture, I like what I see. 

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Wildflowers in Bloom

"I'm an imperfect being, living in an uncertain world, and I embrace that."

This is a mantra someone told me recently, and it has been very helpful to meditate over. Denison has thrown me into a world full of uncertainty, and it has been scary. I'm surrounded by new people and new food and a new environment, away from the relationships I spent the last eighteen years of my life developing. I knew I was entering an uncertain environment when I chose to come to Denison. As I reflected back in my blog post from April, I recognized myself at St. Olaf. I didn't recognize myself at Denison, and that was (is) scary. Most of my life, I chose the certain option, the safe option. I chose what I knew would match the picture on the front of the flower seed packet. But when I chose to come to Denison, I didn't plant sunflowers or tulips. I planted wildflowers. And I'm growing.

Monday, August 31, 2015

The Yin and Yang

This rock I found on the beach is one of the little "you can do it"s that has been keeping me going throughout the college transition. At this phase in my life where everything seems new, I'm questioning myself more than ever. This rock reminds me that it's all about balance, and to find my center and embrace every part of me. 

Thursday, July 16, 2015

A Life of One's Own

“Are you a writer?” a customer asked me at work. I was wearing my favorite T-shirt, one I got from the Reynold's Writer's Workshop two summers ago at Denison University. 

"I want to go into English and Theatre," I said.

She beamed, thrusting her hand forward to shake mine. "Best of luck to you! I'm a writer and my daughter wants to go into theatre. Congratulations!" I couldn't help beaming back. I could feel my body swelling with pride, being congratulated just for wanting to go into the field. 

It’s a daunting question that Mary Oliver asks. It sounds similar to the “slower and booming” clock that Lin-Manuel Miranda talked about in his commencement address at Wesleyan University this past spring. In her novel The Bell Jar (semi-autobiographical), Sylvia Plath analogizes all the different paths she could take to figs hanging on branches. As she contemplates which path to take, they begin to “wrinkle and go black,” and eventually drop to the ground because of her inability to choose one.

It’s a question that I myself often get overwhelmed with. After all, I can’t even choose how I want to fill a day, let alone a life of days. But this wouldn’t be my favorite T-shirt if I thought the question was demanding. (Considering the question literally sits right on my chest, I probably wouldn’t be able to wear it without my chest tightening up.) I wear it because it reminds me to be excited about the question, rather than daunted by it. Instead of a melodramatic take on it, I can be enlivened by it. I imagine it phrased like how a parent would ask a child in the candy store, “What do you want to buy?” and the child responding with wide-eyes and a million colors swirling through their heads. Of course, I’ve always been indecisive, so whenever anyone asks me what I want I usually take a really long time deciding. But I’m trying to learn to be excited by choices rather than overwhelmed by them, and to learn to make decisions without attaching so much life or death weight to them (unless, of course, it is a life or death matter, in which case the head in my hands overwhelmed position is acceptable).

I’m at a point in my life where I have so much ahead of me, and I so badly want to make the most of everything that comes my way––every painting I see, every interaction I have, every new place I visit, I want to get something out of it. It seems like a good mindset, except that I try too hard. In trying to figure out how to make the most out of life, I'm losing out on life. So even once I choose the "fig," it's dropping in front of me while I’m trying to figure out the best way to pick it.

My favorite question to ask people right now is, "What did you major in?" followed by, "What do you do for work?" which is sometimes followed by, "Is that what you see yourself doing long-term?" More often than not, the people I talk to aren't exactly where they want to be, nor does where they are directly correspond with what they went to college for. Their paths aren't linear, and that's what makes their lives interesting. We don't have to know exactly where we're going. All we have to do is look at what's right in front of us, and know that it's all a part of our overall experience. Not everything has to correlate, and things may correlate in ways we don't see right away, until we get to the end and finally everything seems to fit together so seemingly perfectly that it seems like it couldn't have happened any other way. It's like at the end of a mystery novel when you finally find out "who did it" and you flip back and wonder how you didn't see it coming, because everything seems to connect so perfectly. What I'm learning from talking to people is that there is no one "right way to do life." 

That energy I felt when that woman shook my hand embodies the excitement of Mary Oliver's question. I thought about how my math teacher gave me a hug at the end of the year. "Good luck, kiddo," he said. I thought about my classes for this semester, and how next month at this time I will be preparing to head off for Denison University. I thought about working in the scene shop, all the plays I will get to direct, spending long hours in the theatre, and all the people I'll meet. I get to make this life my own. And that's an empowering thing, one not to melodramatize, but to celebrate. 

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Salt Water Heals All

When I have a sore throat, my grandma tells me to gargle with warm water and salt. It's one of those things I've always done without questioning. I think part of it might be the mental game of, "This is going to make me feel better," like how I tell myself that eating mom's homemade chocolate chip cookies are going to make me feel better when I'm feeling lonely, or how my stepdad says that eating cinnamon sugar Pop-Tarts will ease his sour stomach. The Mayo Clinic confirms my grandma's remedy, though, recommending a solution of half a teaspoon of salt with a full glass of warm water for best results. After brushing my teeth and stretching, gargling with salt water was the first thing I did this morning to try and combat my sore throat.

I'm learning that salt water can also combat a sore attitude.

After a long first day at work today, I was left feeling more tired and very hungry. This poor combination heightens my typical indecision, making me unable to commit to anything, whether it be what to eat or what to do. There are times I'm able to shrug off my indecision––laugh at myself or roll my eyes––and others when I get frustrated with myself about my indecision, sending me into an extended and unproductive rut of self-irritation.

I spent the majority of dinner picking at the food on my plate, not feeling in the mood to eat even though I knew I was hungry. I was irritable and didn't talk much, and was mad at myself for being irritable. I knew I was being ridiculous, and I knew getting mad at myself wasn't making the situation any better, but there are times I'm good at getting myself out of the rut, and others when I'm not. I went to the beach after dinner with my family to check out the surf. As my stepdad observed the waves to the far right, I walked down to the water silently, anxious to feel the salt water on my skin. I took off my glasses, put them in my sweatshirt pocket, and scooped the water in my hands and splashed my face. My whole body instantly relaxed. I splashed my face again, wanting more than anything to submerge myself entirely in the water. 

We went back home, and I was tempted to go back to the beach to swim. I wanted the salt on my arms and legs. I wanted coarse and salty hair. The grainy water makes me feel raw, scrubbed clean, and refreshed. My mom and stepdad warned me against sharks, though––apparently they're more frequent at dawn and dusk. 

"I'll go for a dip with you," my mom said. I agreed, but then questioned whether I wanted to go alone, and then whether I wanted to go at all. I got in my swimsuit, told my mom I was going alone, and then froze at the door––classic "paralysis analysis." I collapsed on the steps in my tri-colored swimsuit, feeling deflated and frustrated at my continuing indecision.

"I'm taking you to the beach," my mom said, and I got in the driver's seat of our Ford Explorer. She came out moments later in a towel identical to the one I was wearing. I couldn't help but laugh. We drove to the beach, and I left my flip-flops in the car, wanting to feel the sand underneath my feet. I could already feel the calm setting over me. We dropped our towels on the life guard chair and ran in.

"Next wave, we dive," I said. We did without hesitation. I could feel my heart skip a beat as it plunged into the cold water. I felt my skin absorbing the salt water, like settling into a hot bath. I dipped again––and again. I laid on my back and floated, letting my hair fan out like a mermaid's, like I used to do in the bathtub. I laughed the kind of laugh I do when I'm really happy and feeling free.

"If you're feeling down, find salt water." That will be the remedy I tell my grandchildren. 

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

From Cairn to Cairn

One ________ at a time. I first learned it through open water swimming. One stroke at a time. There are days when the water is calm and warm, and the swim is easy. I can enjoy watching the hermit crabs scuttle on the sand below me, and allow my mind to drift. Then there are days when the waters are rough and jagged. I'm tossed side to side by the waves, I swallow salt water, and I battle the current the entire time. These are the days I must take the swim one stroke at a time. I look for the orange buoys ahead. If I make it to one, I can make it to the next.

I learned something similar from the mountains this past weekend. My uncle, who has lots of hiking experience, agreed to take me hiking along the Presidential Range. It was a challenging experience, mentally more than physically. I found that in the mountains, even more so than in the ocean, you never know what is going to get thrown your way.

Our first two days of hiking were beautiful. It was clear and sunny, but not hot. Hiking along the ridge on Saturday, we could see for miles. We stayed at the Lakes of the Clouds hut that night, and overnight the mountain quickly reminded us of its strength. With 60mph winds blowing against the hut all night, it sounded like a war zone outside. From my bottom bunk, I tried to tell myself that I liked the wind. I loved storms. But every time I listened to the wind, I felt a pit in my stomach as I thought about having to hike in that weather outside, over 5000ft in elevation, in just a few hours.

When I got up a few hours later, the weather hadn't gotten better. We put on all our rain gear, bundled up in layers (significantly lightening our packs) and stepped outside, where I was promptly nearly blown over. I felt like I did the first time I swam at Nauset Beach, with the big waves: frozen with fear. Except this felt scarier, because I wasn't in water. I was in open air, with nothing to catch my fall. On top of that, neither my uncle or I could see the trail because visibility was so poor. We went back inside, questioning whether we should continue. After a hut crew member pointed us in the direction of the trail, though, we figured as long as we could keep on the path, we could get down.

That's when we began our cairn to cairn trek. Cairns are piles of rocks that are used to help mark the trail above tree line. For two miles, we were exposed to the winds. There were moments when the wind was so strong, all I could do was stand my ground, grip hard on my uncle's hiking pole, close my eyes, and wait for the gust of wind to pass. Other times we had to hold hands through the wind and make it to the next big rock, where we could take shelter for a minute. The whole time, we just kept setting landmarks for ourselves. One cairn at a time. If we could make it to one cairn, we could make it to another. One step at a time.

I'm learning that's how I can get myself through my moments of anxiety. When my mind starts spinning, I need to slow it down by looking at what's immediately in front of me. I can't think about what I'm going to have for dinner or how tired I might be tomorrow or how I'm going to finish everything on my to-do list. I just need to take it one step at a time, put one foot in front of the other, and site the next cairn ahead.