Small Steps

Have you ever had a dream that seemed so crazy and unattainable that you couldn’t even say it out loud? Have you then woken up one morning to discover that suddenly, you are living in that dream, standing at the beginning of the path that might lead you there, and surely will lead you somewhere new and different? This is what waking up in New York City every morning has been like for me, Manhattan’s skyline greeting me every morning from the living room window. For the first few days, I couldn’t stop staring at this jigsaw of skyscrapers, watching how the light illuminates its industrial palette of shiny glass, steel and stone as the sun shifts across it, how even when the outline of buildings disappears into the night sky, Manhattan retains its mythical shape as windows light up and towers glow.

I am here. How did that happen? I keep asking myself. I went from knowing a city like the back of my hand, navigating life there with ease, to relying on a map and my sense of direction in order to get anywhere, and accepting that I’ll have to get lost several times before it all falls into place under my feet. From having different groups of friends in different places, communities where I felt I belonged, to knowing a total of eight people in a city of 8.5 million people. From having family just a thirty-minute train ride away to the closest family being five hundred miles away. From soaking in familiar wonder and beauty to swiveling my head around in a hundred directions every time I leave the apartment, constantly enthralled with the newness, the Americanness, and the vastness of my new home. I had a life in Paris – a good life – one where I was comfortable and finally feeling at peace. In the weeks leading up to the move, I would sit on my bed at the end of each day, my apartment reflecting less and less of my life and becoming more and more like the white slate it was when I first moved in, and wonder why I was doing this at all. Everything’s great now, I could stay here longer. Why do I need to uproot my life?! I asked myself this question a lot, as well as the hundreds of other questions that accompany the unknown.

And then the day arrived. After many goodbye dinners, cups of coffee in my favorite places, wines and desserts, hugs and tears, it had finally sunk in that I was leaving. It was time to momentarily say goodbye to France, this land and culture that will forever make up half of me.

“So this is it. You’re leaving for good,” my grandmother said rather stiffly at lunch that day, hours before my flight, just barely masking the sad despair of uncertainty that comes with every goodbye. She would not look me in the eye. And in her gruffness, I suddenly remembered all the other goodbyes, at the end of every summer as a child when the two months with my grandparents would come to an end and I’d have to leave one place that felt so much like home to go to another place that was home. The bittersweet relief of sending rambunctious grandchildren home mixed with the sadness of a ten-month absence until the next year always hung in the air on those car rides to the airport.

“It’s never for good. We’ve done this before, remember? We’re good at this, we know how to do this,” I reminded her gently. “I’ve always come back; I always will.” I hoped this truth would be as comforting to her as it is to me.

As I boarded the plane, I understood that I was leaving but the fact that I’d soon be living in New York still remained hazy. Aside from the address of my friends’ apartment I had saved in my phone, I had no bearings to latch onto. I would guess that almost everyone who moves to New York City to chase their dreams imagines that their entrance will be magical. We think THIS is what’s important, imagining the bright lights splaying out beneath us to make way for our arrival. I wanted to walk off the plane glowing with confidence and excitement as I greeted the first moments of my new life here.

However, it shouldn’t be a surprise to learn that this is NOT how I marched off the plane. I was tired, hungry, and grumpy after seven hours spent sitting in the middle seat of the middle aisle between two men snoring in my face. We descended into a cloud of fog and rain that completely obscured any clear view of the city lit up at night. As I stepped off the plane and made my way through the airport, the only thing I felt besides the cramp in my leg was fear. Businessmen sailed past me, large-print ads in English (English!), grabbed my eyes at every turn, and people cheerfully rushed into the arms of those waiting to be reunited with them. America – it was much to take in and I was being swept into it all at once. Panic squeezed my chest and my eyes began to well. This was a mistake.

The good thing about being young with no money and transatlantic travel is that it makes it pretty impractical to just turn right around and fly back to Paris. Lucky me! The only thing to really do was to keep going. Outside the airport, New York loomed as this big scary intimidating question mark. But I was here, now, and couldn’t hide in the airport forever. New York had to be broken down into small, manageable steps. Rent a trolley, collect my luggage, borrow someone’s phone to call my friends, find a taxi stand, wait in line until it was my turn, and not worry too much about whether I was doing it the right or wrong way. I’d figure it out!

There is something to be said for showing up somewhere you’re unfamiliar with and having to trust other people to help you find your way. It really forces you to let go of any need to control and simply rely on your instincts and put your faith in good people. I’ve experienced this over and over again while traveling alone, but have found that I always have to re-learn it. By the time I got a taxi, it was 9pm and any bearings I may have had from my previous brief stay in New York were totally erased by the darkness and the prevalence of Jersey license plates. Was this taxi driver taking me to Jersey?!?! That is not where I am going! my panicked, jet lagged inner voice was shouting, as though I would have a better idea of how to get to Queens than this man. I had to remind myself to breathe and resist the urge to remind him of where I wanted to go.

Again, the universe (or whatever you believe in) intervened to distract me from my fear. Only Americans (of which I am half, I do acknowledge) would see fit to install a TV screen barely a foot away from your face in the back of a taxi. Which means that maybe in fifty years, the French will decide to do the same thing. You know, so you can get all caught up on your local news and the weather report right when you probably have a million other things on your mind. I did not fully appreciate the beauty of American inventiveness until an infomercial on how to make lasagna in a bundt cake mold graced my screen. The part of me that is French watched in horror and disgust as something resembling a dense dumpling-colored jello was served up like slices of cake. But my rustier American side watched in fascination, applauding the ingenuity and not bothering to wonder how this improved the dish at all. Yes, this was my first re-encounter with all that makes America great.

As you can probably guess, the taxi driver did not kidnap me or take me to Jersey. I arrived at my friends’ apartment with little trouble other than hauling an enormous suitcase up a fourth floor walk-up. I’ve spent the past two weeks adjusting to the rhythms of New York, re-connecting with friends I haven’t seen in a long time, and tackling the long list of things that have to be done in order to start a life in a new place. Everything is new, exciting, and a little bit scary, but at night I’m able to fall asleep appreciating the fact that I am here. That a year ago, this all felt so impossible and out of reach. That three months ago, I literally trembled as I clicked the button to buy my plane ticket. All the small choices have added up to the big ones, have helped me embrace the uncertainty and trust that whatever lies behind it will lead me somewhere. I am seeking out my purpose but allowing life to unfold. Even if it leads me to making bundt cake lasagna.

Advertisements

Letter to an Asshole

Dear Asshole,

Yeah, you know who you are. How could you not? You avoid me at all costs because I have become a very inconvenient part of your history. And I will admit that in the months that have followed the end of our strange union, I have also done my best to avoid running into you, steering clear of certain streets where you may be lurking and startling when someone resembling you comes into my field of vision. On the rare occasions when our paths have crossed, all the blood in my body has rushed to my head as I march straight ahead, hoping that you’ll notice how different I am from when you knew me, how much stronger and wiser I have become. I have wondered what you think of me still, how you place me in the story of your life. Before I can stop them, sound bites of your voice float into my head, the meanness and callousness that rolled off your tongue so easily. The way you always used my words against me. Your angry pride, the way you wore it on you like cologne, washes back over me, a visceral memory of the desperation, the rage, the guilt, the shame, and the euphoria you provoked in me.

You kept me a secret, which has made me afraid of what others would think of me if they were to find out. You have done everything you possibly could to erase me from your life, to pretend like I never existed, because I never really mattered to you in the first place. We’ve been finished for long enough for me to be able to bask in the joy of being free of you, to crack jokes with friends and laugh at my mistakes, for days to go by without you ever popping up in my thoughts. But to truly be free of your power over me, I must stop letting your rules define how I think about our relationship. Without fully realizing it, I have been holding all the mistakes I made, all the signs I chose to ignore, against myself. How could I have fallen for an asshole like you?! I have beaten myself up over this question and the position you put me in, because I am a sensitive and empathetic human being, and I care about how my actions affect other people. But I’ve been judging myself as though I were the only factor in the equation, as though you didn’t make choices, too. I have taken on all the blame because you refuse to take any responsibility for your actions.

But that is not my job; my job over the past few months has been to understand myself better and what led me into your arms, to identify why I believed I deserved so little. And I have done that – in therapy, through self-reflection, and in having tough conversations about love, loss and pain with people I trust. I understand who I was when I met you – how I thought you would help heal the wounds of the past, how it felt good to feel wanted. And then how I wanted my care to make you better. I understand that the moments when I saw so much good in you were a reflection of what I wanted for you, but that for you, goodness runs shallow because you yourself do not understand what it is. And I think I am starting to understand that what makes it possible to move on from experiences like this is by appreciating what I have gained from knowing that kind of pain. First you have to get through the pain itself, learning to tend to your heart and then working through it so you can claim it as your own. Sometimes it still hurts to remember. But I’ve realized this is because I hurt for that young woman that I was – desperately looking for a soft place to land and feeling every cold stare, cutting remark, or blasé dismissal as a personal failure – and not because I am still hurt or damaged by the things you said and did. And if I can hurt for that woman, I can also celebrate for her, for the long path she’s traveled and the things she gained along the way. I have grown so much since then and I am so far beyond your reach of influence. I have healed, and though right now you seem like a pretty lost cause, I hope that one day you might heal, too.

So I have done the hard work. I have taken responsibility for my actions, dealing with the consequences of my decisions. I no longer need to spend an ounce of my energy feeling bad for the choices I made. You will continue to try and erase me from your existence, a little side note in your journey, a headache you’d like to forget. And that’s ok – I can’t control what you think of me. But you were never a sidebar in my life, no secret of mine. Because the truth is that you have been an important part of my journey to becoming who I am today. Without knowing you, I might still be that woman seeking validation from others, living life based on what others want me to be and limiting my choices out of fear of what people will think of me. You have taught me how much I am worth, giving me a deeper respect for my thoughts, feelings, and opinions. I can now better recognize what true kindness looks like, how unselfish love should be. I am sorry you do not know what love is, but I’m not sorry I had to learn what it is not from you. So thank you, dear Asshole, for being such an asshole. I regret nothing and I am not ashamed.

F*#% You Very Much,
Not Your Dirty Little Secret

Prideful Pain & Healing Conversations

A few months ago, in the midst of probably the most difficult time in my life emotionally, my best friend from childhood, a girl who has been by my side since we were three years-old, reached out to me, wondering if we could plan a trip together in Europe. A year before, we had talked about her coming to visit me in Paris for her 25th birthday and we had both been excited about the idea. Now she wanted to talk to me about dates and logistics. When I read her message, my heart sunk, knowing I just was not in a place where I could open my home or my life to her at that time.

So I sent her a message telling her the trip just wouldn’t be possible, that I was not doing very well and just needed some time to myself. I clicked send, filled with an overwhelming feeling of hot shame; I was letting her down as a friend and I felt like a failure just as I was failing in all the other places in my life. When I received the notification of her reply, I ignored it, leaving the message unread. I was so afraid of what she would say, unable to face what I thought at the very least, would be disappointment and at the most, hatred.

A few weeks ago, while sorting through my messages, I fell upon her unopened one. After months of sorting through a lot of emotions, it felt like it was time to open it. I knew I could handle whatever was inside, knew I owed it to her to read her words. I took a deep breath and clicked on the message.

“I love you. You are strong. To me, you are irreplaceable. I can leave you alone as long as you promise to tell me when to not leave you alone anymore.”

These are the words I found staring back at me. I sat open-mouthed, stunned to my very core. I sat in the same spot for nearly 15 minutes reading these words over and over again. Goosebumps covered my arms, a chill ran through me, and I began to cry. I had kept this sweet friend of mine, someone I consider to be more of a sister, at a distance for so long and she was still loving me from afar.

Over the past seven months, I have confronted some of the darkest parts of myself – thoughts, fears, and emotions that have lingered since childhood. To this day, I’m still not sure what radical shift happened to move me to the point in January where I just no longer had the energy to keep playing all these roles in my life that didn’t feel like my own. All I know is that right after Christmas, I got terrible food poisoning – I threw up 16 times and actually thought I might be dying. No one else got sick, and when I went to the doctor, he explained it wasn’t bad food that had made me so sick, but the accumulation of too much rich food that the body has trouble digesting – a crise de foie, or a “crisis of the liver.” In French, the word for faith is also foi – pronounced the same as foie with a mere gender distinction between the two words. I find it to be an interesting coincidence because by the time I rang in the New Year, it was clear to me that something was deeply wrong inside – a crisis of faith. I no longer trusted myself, or at least the part of myself that has always pushed me to keep going without asking questions. I no longer trusted what this person had built for herself, no longer trusted what she felt, no longer trusted the institutions that had told her she was smart and capable and worthy of love.

Now, seven months and many therapy appointments later, I have the benefit of a bit of distance to reflect on that time and to appreciate the difference in how I feel, how I express myself, how I am gentler with myself. I have pushed a lot of people away, not just this year but in the years following my mom’s death, building walls to mask where it hurt the most. Of course, I have wondered what would have happened had I read my friend’s message back in February, or if I’d been honest about how I was feeling the day she came to visit me after Mom died instead of trying so hard to be “normal.” What would these past six years have looked like? Would I have made different decisions? In February, would I have even believed her and been able to accept such selfless love and grace at a time when I was hurting so deeply?

Her message has taught me a lot about love at a time when I have had to reconsider my own misconceptions on the subject. It also has made me consider my own pride and the different forms it takes on – we never think of ourselves as being prideful, it hides deep within us, until it kind of hits us in the face. It is painful for me to read some of my older blog posts, not because I don’t like the writing or think those stories aren’t important. I’m glad I wrote them down and shared them with you, and I believe it has led me to places I wouldn’t be had I not started. What makes me cringe is that I know when I first started writing them, I wanted you to understand these things that hurt so badly, while convinced that you could never understand them. It is a weird kind of pride to have – we often think of pride in terms of boosting about the things we have or the things we are good at. All forms of pride are a shield against the things we are afraid to face, or afraid others will notice in us. I was so afraid of being “the girl who’s mom is sick” or “the girl who’s mom died” that I had to protect my loss, claim it as my own so that others wouldn’t do it for me. But in my own head, I WAS the girl who’s mom died and so I had to protect myself even more.

It also makes me think back to my days in college when I was volunteering with Relay for Life. It was a great outlet for my grief, a way to connect with other people affected by cancer and to actually do something about it. I think about how my entire dorm raised money that year, and then the next, for my team in memory of my mom. Of how my roommate and friends and church family baked cookies for bake sales and galas, how they woke up at five in the morning three years in a row to help organize our team fundraiser, how they walked for 20 hours beside me every year, how they helped me raise probably around $10,000 for cancer research in four years. No one ever said they didn’t want to do it, and their enthusiasm and support helped me rally through the hardest parts of the year. And still, I thought that they didn’t understand! All this pride to mask all the things I was hiding from myself.

What I’ve come to realize, now that this pride has moved out of the way, is that everyone understands pain. There are different types of pain, different degrees of pain, different names for pain. But we all know what it’s like to feel worthless, enraged, abandoned, not good enough, afraid, or broken. Different experiences shape us but in the contexts of our own lives, we all understand these emotions as humans. My pain feels unique, because my mother was unique and our bond was special. But if we didn’t understand the basic premise of pain, would we really be able to love each other through the hard times the way we do, even when we may have never experienced what the person is going through?

I have learned a lot about my grief and about myself this year. I have learned to accept that it does not go away, that it will require constant care and self-love. Every season brings in a different tide – usually it is just a thimble-full, tucked away inside, but then without warning, it becomes an ocean and I feel lost at sea. It is times like these where I feel plunged into a silence, a bubble that I cannot burst. I can be riding the metro, surrounded by people and noise, or go out with friends and make polite conversation, but I cannot feel the hand that touches me or hear the sounds around me.

Luckily, I’ve always been a strong swimmer. But I’ve also learned over the past few months not to panic, not to be so afraid to float there for a moment. More importantly, I’ve learned how to reach out my own hands and grasp on to the amazing people around me who I love and who love me. Once I’ve embraced the fear, the anger, the sorrow, I’m able to swim back to shore, deflate the bubble, and tuck away that thimble again. I’ve learned to trust that I’ll find my way.

Last night I called my sister-friend and we spoke on the phone for two hours. It was amazing to hear her voice again and humbling to experience, once again, her constant love and grace in action as she listened to my teary apology and welcomed me back with open arms.

So maybe sometimes we swim in different oceans, but I know you understand.

this is probably for you

this is for the woman
who brought me into the world
puzzling crafting meditating through
the mysteries of maternity
who taught me
the names of plants
the power of imagination
the magic of words
who slept on the floor
beside my bed
when I was sick
who kneaded dough
knitted sweaters and
untangled hair
who accepted love
in the form of
noodle necklaces and corny jokes
sloppy kisses and morning breath
who always answered
the cry
Mama Mama Mama

this is for the women
who took care of that woman
when her body grew frail
years-worth of cards
tucked away in a box
I found under her bed
who held her hand
when I was too young to understand
that mamas cry, too
who perfected
the art of distraction
in the wake of
a bad scan bad day bad mood
gestures glances hugs
that still run through my head
lest I forget
she was loved she was loved she was loved

this is for the women
who cried for me
when I could not
find the tears
who wrapped me in their arms
stopped the world from spinning
if only for a moment
who have listened to
the stories the heartache the bitterness the laughter
pour out of my mouth
and loved me anyway
who made grilled cheese sandwiches
and waited for me to talk
who showed up at my door
and took me away
dancing driving drinking
who reached across the console
and held me when
the tears finally came
who whispered in my ear
or shouted above my screams
you are loved you are loved you are loved

this is for the women
who guide and nurture me
even when I think
I know better
who answer the phone
late at night and
early in the morning
who remember
birthdays Christmases graduations anniversaries
and everything in between
who let me occupy space
to which I am not entitled:
guest bedrooms and family vacations
Google calendars and furnished attics
who fill in the gaps
where time ran short
and always remind me
I love you I love you I love you

this is probably for you

 

mothers day project