Working Forwards

Yesterday I received an email reminder from my company that it was “time for Quarterly Check-Ins with your manager.” I let out an audible groan, despite being the only person in my house. Time to get asked, yet again, what my career goals are! (Spoiler alert for my manager: I don’t freaking know!!!!! I don’t even know where I see myself in two weeks (except hopefully alive and healthy?)!!!!)

I have taken every online quiz and read every article meant to “identify your strengths” or “find jobs that match your lifestyle” or “find your purpose” and have Googled “what should I do with my life?” multiple times. I’m not proud of any of these things.

To add insult to injury, I was scrolling on LinkedIn a few hours ago (again – not proud) and almost cried in frustration when I saw the following post from a colleague: “Create a vision for yourself, and execute. I like to think in terms of 1-3-5 year milestones which I can then backcast and build a roadmap towards.”

I don’t have a 5 year milestone, much less a 1 year milestone! I’m just trying to be a good person and hopefully make a positive difference in at least one person’s life!!!!

I sat in my desk chair, swiveling around, trying not to spiral as I opened the “Quarterly Check-In Guide” I was supposed to fill out.

I took a deep breath. And another. And I recalled the passages I’d read a few weeks ago in David Epstein’s Range, which I’d copied out carefully in my journal:

Ibarra[‘s research] concluded that we maximize match quality throughout life by sampling activities, social groups, contexts, jobs, careers, and then reflecting and adjusting our personal narratives. And repeat. If that sounds facile, consider that it is precisely the opposite of a vast marketing crusade that assures customers they can alight on their perfect matches via introspection alone. A lucrative career and personality quiz and counseling industry survives on that notion. “All of the strengths-finder stuff, it gives people license to pigeonhole themselves or others in ways that just don’t take into account how much we grow and evolve and blossom and discover new things,” Ibarra told me. “But people want answers, so these frameworks sell. It’s a lot harder to say, ‘Well, come up with some experiments and see what happens.’”

If only you fill out this quiz, the promise goes, it will light the way to the ideal career, never mind what psychologists have documented about personal change across time and context. Ibarra criticized conventional-wisdom articles like one in the Wall Street Journal on “the painless path to a new career,” which decreed that the secret is simply forming “a clear picture of what you want” before acting.

Instead of an answer to “Who do I really want to become?,” their work indicated that it is better to be a scientist of yourself, asking smaller questions that can actually be tested—“Which among my various possible selves should I start to explore now? How can I do that?” Be a flirt with your possible selves.* Rather than a grand plan, find experiments that can be undertaken quickly. “Test-and-learn,” Ibarra told me, “not plan-and-implement.”

When I first read these passages I remember feeling like a weight had been lifted from my shoulders. Here was an entirely different way to approach my career and life!

The book continues with guidance from Ibarra that is highlighted so heavily in my journal that the yellow ink bleeds through to the following pages:

“‘Here’s who I am at the moment, here are my motivations, here’s what I’ve found I like to do, here’s what I’d like to learn, and here are the opportunities. Which of these is the best match right now? And maybe a year from now I’ll switch because I’ll find something better.’”

I know many people do have specific goals or a vision of themselves they’re working towards. But I have to think that there are also many people like myself who look at those people with envy and frustration because we have no idea what we want to achieve, or what our purpose is, or what we want our lives to look like in 10 years.

I find so much solace and hope in the idea of working forwards instead of backwards, of assessing who I am right now and what brings me purpose and joy and promise today, and moving forward from there.

Before my dreaded (although less so now) Quarterly Check-In, I’m simply going to think about what I enjoy most about my work today and how I can do more of that going forward; how I can assess what opportunities are available to me and try out ones that seem interesting; how I can spend more time doing the things that bring me purpose, like my volunteer work, and joy, like being outside among the trees and spending time with my friends and family.

“We learn who we are only by living, and not before.”

insignificant moments / dipping into the ~archives~

Life is a collection of moments.
– Someone’s Instagram caption, probably, paired with a picture of the back of their head as they look out onto a teal blue sea. Or, a message embroidered on a pillow in a suburban mom’s house that is being meme’d by their teenage daughter on TikTok à la this video.

To be fair (and less cynical) it’s a true statement, and maybe a helpful mantra if you’re trying to practice mindfulness and live in the present.

But as I reflect on the moments that comprised my past week, I frustrate myself with my tendency to subconsciously filter for the “significant” moments, and then to attribute that week’s meaning to those few recollections. For example: if there was a week I got a promotion at work, that would be the first moment my brain would focus on, and I’d quickly categorize the week as “good” or “successful.” Similarly, if my brain cannot immediately access any “significant” moments, I write the week off as “uneventful” or “just another week.”

Sometimes, as I sit in bed with my journal on a Sunday morning, trying to draw writing inspiration from the events of the past week, I hear my brain saying, “Well, good luck finding something to write about – nothing of note happened this week.” AKA: “Your week was full of insignificant moments.”

But – this thought is a wonderful example of a way in which, if I stop to think about it, my experience contradicts my thought pattern.

In reality, I have found the most joy in recounting the “insignificant” moments through writing: the way you can make them expand, take up space, even tell a story. When I go back and read my old journal entries or blog post drafts, it’s the ones in which I talk about “insignificant” or mundane moments that make me smile or laugh. I didn’t appreciate at the time how much recounting those moments gave them new life, or how much I’d enjoy reading them later on.

When I googled “Life is a collection of moments” in the hopes of finding amusing ironic content (such as the video I shared at the beginning of this post), I did find a lot of that. But I also found a quote by Amit Ray, an Indian author and spiritual master known for his teachings on meditation, yoga, peace and compassion.

“Life is a collection of moments,” he writes. “Mindfulness is beautification of the moments.”

If I’d come across this quote in the context of an Instagram post or a pillow platitude I probably would have rolled my eyes and moved on with my day. But because I came across it in this context of writing this post, I found myself nodding and mumbling “so true, so true” to myself.

Really, though – that quote describes what I experienced when writing about the insignificant moments. The act of paying attention to those moments through writing made them beautiful, and some of the best writing I’ve read is that which takes the small moments and beautifies them through attention and language.

I guess what I’m saying is that you can write about anything, really. And that I shouldn’t be afraid of writing about the mundane because it brings me joy which, at the end of the day, is basically the point of it all.

In the spirit of writing about the mundane (and in case you have nothing better to do with your day and therefore wish to keep reading), here is some writing I did a few weeks ago about various “insignificant” moments:

1. The only thing I love more than a good scone is an eating establishment with a punny name. This week I had the good fortune of enjoying both simultaneously when I came across a bakery in Berkeley named “Sconehenge.” Incredible. If there’s one way to guarantee my business it’s having a clever name. As I entered the shop I imagined the opening a small café at Stonehenge named “Sconehenge” (imitation is the sincerest form of flattery) and excitedly shared my newfound dream with Thomas. I could already picture the tourists lining up for my world class blueberry scones. Thomas, however, was quick to burst my bubble: “But in England they call scones scons, so your pun wouldn’t work.” Goddammit, he was right. Determined not to let his pessimism ruin the moment, I ordered a package of four blueberry scones (one for now, three for later) and enjoyed buttery taste in my mouth.

2. I’m never good at starting things. For example: I only started writing these words because I wanted to hold Leslie accountable to writing something. I suppose most of us need extrinsic motivators at the end of the day. Anyway. It had been a while since I made any art, mostly because I make up dumb excuses in my head as to why I can’t (“my supplies are out of reach,” “you are bad at painting anyway”). So I was grateful for an extrinsic motivator that came along this week in the form of my mom’s impending birthday. It was just what I needed: a concrete deadline by which I needed to have a homemade card finished and mailed. On Thursday morning – having left the task to the last possible day by which I could mail the letter and trust the USPS to deliver it on time, of course – I sat down with my coffee and pulled my watercolors out from under my desk. Within 30 seconds of dipping my brush in water and putting it to the paper I was glad I had started. The watercolor palette, full of bright colors that I tried my best to turn into flowers on the paper, had been a gift from my sister and put a smile on my face as well. I felt surrounded by reminders of love and tried to put them from my heart onto the page.

3. My work days have been long and stressful. And most evenings when I desert my laptop (for a few minutes, at least, in an attempt to mark some sort of end to the day before inevitably checking my messages an hour later) I turn to the next task at hand: dinner. On Wednesday evening I found myself still in a meeting at 6:30pm, entirely distracted by thoughts of hunger and what we had in the house that I could quickly turn into a meal. Imagine my surprise when, in a move that was totally out of character, Thomas texted me (from the same room, of course) to let me know that he had ordered us burritos and was going to walk to pick them up in a few minutes. T!!!!!! Coming through!!!!! As I closed my laptop just before 7pm I thanked my lucky stars for Thomas and – more importantly – a big ass burrito.

On Flying

“I would never move to Denver because then I’d have to fly in and out of this airport every time,” declared Thomas last week as we taxied on the runway at Denver airport. He’s convinced that wind patterns over the mountains near Denver make every flight in or out of that airport extremely turbulent, and this flight had added an affirming data point.

Thomas hates flying in a way that I didn’t understand until some time into our marriage. We had already done a lot of air travel together by that time but he’s never been one to let others on to his emotions, much less anxieties. Over time, though, the subtle comments he’d make – an occasional “I hope this flight isn’t turbulent,” or “This one shouldn’t be too bad” – made me realize, Oh, he really doesn’t like flying. He even goes so far as to factor in the plane size (he knows every common plane model by heart) when booking flights because larger planes are less likely to be turbulent.

During this specific trip to Denver I happened to be in the middle of reading Ann Patchett’s essay collection “These Precious Days.”

In one of the essays she writes about her husband’s love of flying planes and how she’s had to reconcile her desire to support his hobby with her fear for his safety: “I understood he wasn’t interested in baking bread, that there would be no Scrabble or yoga in our future as a couple, but couldn’t there be a hobby in which death was not a likely outcome?”

She shares how her relationship to these emotions evolved: “Over time I learned to offer no resistance. “Pretty,” I would say when he showed me the picture [of a plane]. I didn’t want to be the reason he didn’t have a plane, the reason he was gripped by fits of misery specific to a man who wants to be in the sky and is stuck on the ground.”

But my favorite part of the story came towards the end when she talks about flying in the plane with Karl. “When I am in the plane with Karl [as the pilot],” she writes, “I read, I look out the window, I sleep an untroubled sleep, my head against the window.”

Which, to me, was another way of her saying, “I don’t get scared or nervous when he flies if I’m in the plane next to him…because whatever happens, happens to us together.”

Back on the runway at Denver airport, as we impatiently waited for the captain to turn off the seatbelt sign, I said to Thomas, “I feel like I finally understand how much you hate flying.”

“Well, yeah,” he said, as if I’d said something incredibly obvious, “why do you think I always want to take flights with you if I can?”

Now – Thomas is not an emotional person. (He would also be extremely annoyed to know I was writing this, and I told him if I was sharing anything that made him uncomfortable I’d stop. But he prefers to live in a state of blissful ignorance, aka one of not reading my blog, and so this is what he risks as a result.) And, as far as love languages go, he’s never been one for verbal expressions of love. So when he said, seemingly offhandedly, to me that he didn’t like taking separate flights (which sometimes happens for logistical reasons, or if he’s taking a trip I’m not going on), I heard, “You make me feel safe.”

I smiled to myself and made a mental note to write what he’d said down because love is not always shown with flowers (especially not if you’re T, who is tragically allergic to almost everything alive) or explicit “I love you”s. And while there are times I get frustrated that he doesn’t always share his love for me in the most conventional ways, I can never justifiably doubt its existence.

Even though I am not as fearful of planes as Thomas, or as afraid of my husband having flying as a hobby like Ann Patchett, I felt she captured how I feel when Thomas is around: “I read, I look out the window, I sleep an untroubled sleep.”

Thoughts from the BART on my way to a morning squash match

It’s still dark outside and I’m walking the mile from my apartment to the Ashby BART station. I’m not in a rush – I woke up before my alarm and have plenty of time before I need to be in the city – but I check the transit app anyway to see when the next trains are arriving. My backpack is heavy with the weight of my laptop, notebook, chargers, squash shoes and racket, and two changes of clothes, but my steps are energetic in these blissful hours of the morning.

I stand on the BART platform with a few other bleary-eyed commuters and feel full with a sense of purpose: today, I have somewhere to be, a person to meet. Ok, fine – the “somewhere” is a squash club, and the “person” is my friend/match opponent … but still. I have missed this feeling of needing to be somewhere, a feeling that’s been foreign in these past years (?!?!?!) of working from home. 

I can’t complain about working from home. For someone like me (no kids, good WiFi in a good apartment) I feel privileged and lucky to be able to do so. But this morning I’m reminded of how good it feels to be needed somewhere, at a certain time, even if that time and place are arbitrary or contrived.

When we lived in San Francisco I’d get up every morning and walk to get coffee at the Starbucks a few blocks from our house. Most of the time I’d pick it up on my way to work, just before I caught the bus, but I’d also go on weekend mornings when I had nowhere to be.

Thomas didn’t understand why I’d bother going there and spending money on days I had no reason to. “Why don’t you just have coffee at home?” he’d ask.

I’d respond with some version of “the coffee tastes better,” but that was never entirely true.

At some point during college, waking up and leaving the house to get coffee became an important ritual for me: something I looked forward to in the morning, something that got me out of bed and out of the house (dorm) on my darkest days. 

I’m sitting on the BART now – we’re just pulling out of 12th St. Oakland station – and typing this out on my laptop as the sun rises in beautiful streaks of orange and pink. I remember writing something about my morning Starbucks ritual a few years ago … I search my journal app’s archives for the keyword “Starbucks.” Aha! I’ve found it (and silently thank technology, without which these words probably would have been lost in a random journal forever):

[An Excerpt From Maddy’s Journal, Dec 28, 2018]

How Starbucks Cured My Depression

At the end of the day, of course the big things saved me: therapy, medication, a supportive family and friends. If I position elements of my recovery as a pyramid, those would be the foundation. But what do you do you from there? Just because I didn’t want to die anymore, or wasn’t in the hospital, doesn’t mean I was enjoying life. So I like to acknowledge those smaller things, the things higher up in the “pyramid,” that have made a difference in helping me overcome my depression. These things are sometimes tough to notice in the moment and I rely on retrospect to properly identify them.

One such thing is my morning trip to Starbucks. Every morning I wake up, place my Starbucks order on their mobile app, and walk the five minutes to my local Starbucks. When we first moved in together, Thomas thought this routine was silly. In his eyes, I was paying three dollars for a coffee I could make at home, and he didn’t understand my urgency to head there immediately after waking up. He would get frustrated (and rightfully so), wondering why I didn’t want to lie around in bed longer or have a slow morning.

But I have an explanation – one that might not make sense to him, or to everyone, and that might not be as applicable now as it was before: I know what it feels like to not be able to get out of bed in the morning, to feel so hopeless and purposeless that I didn’t see the point in getting out of bed. And on days when I was severely depressed, getting out of bed was in and of itself a triumph for the day. So maybe on the surface it was a silly, small thing, but walking to Starbucks for a coffee got me out of bed in the morning on days when I could find no other reason to do so. (Quick shout-out to the baristas who worked at the Stanford campus Starbucks, y’all kept me going.) …

Ok, so 2018 me is basically the same person with the same thoughts as I have now. Whatever. Also my entry title is so dramatic … but also sort of true and I love it.

But back to the present moment: I am reveling in this feeling of going somewhere, of being needed, of feeling the purpose and hope and promise in the day ahead. Sometimes it’s the short walk to a Starbucks coffee that gives me that feeling, sometimes it’s a morning commute to the office, today it’s a squash match. And I am grateful for these things.

Musings on Multitudes

“I contain multitudes,” I say to myself, as I sit at the kitchen table on a Saturday morning, painting a landscape while listening to Meek Mill.

Sometimes I want to read a book on data analysis, sometimes I want to binge watch reality TV. Sometimes I want to go for a bike ride, sometimes I want to sit on the couch and read poetry. I should be able to do all of these things and not question what they say about ~who I am~. Why do I feel this need to label and categorize myself?

I dislike social media for many reasons, one of which is that it incentivizes us to label and categorize ourselves in order to curate an identity (or – god forbid – “brand”) we want to project into the world. Are you an athlete? A photographer? A writer? A chef? A fashionista? And who are you if not the sum of these labels, professions, and hobbies? I read a Vox article that summarized the phenomenon well: “’Decreating the self — that’s the opposite of social media,’ … Facebook, Instagram, and other platforms are all about identity construction. Users build up an aspirational version of themselves, forever adding more words, images, and videos, thickening the self into a ‘brand.’”

It’s not a phenomenon unique to social media, of course – I struggled with my “identity” long before Instagram. For example, when I graduated from college, what did it mean that I was no longer playing a sport seriously? Who was I if not an athlete, or a math major, or a twin? What would I share with the new people I’d meet at some random party to gave them an idea of who I was (or, at the very least, who I wanted to be)?

But that is exactly the reason we try so hard to distill ourselves and others into a compact identity: it makes everything simple, less complex and nuanced. Black and white, instead of grey. A few words or phrases that exactly capture who we are and what our place is in the world. It sounds almost ridiculous when you phrase it that way, but that’s what I find myself doing on a daily basis. And for what? So I can feel more confident that yes, I do, in fact, have a specific place or function in the world? Or so I can easily curate a five word bio to include on my social media profiles?

A few weeks ago, a coworker asked me if I’d done anything fun over the weekend and I told her I’d done some painting. Her response was, “Wow! Who would’ve thought that Maddy the athlete was painting?!”

I know she meant it kindly, but I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I’ve spent the past year trying to explore different parts of myself – the parts that I probably neglected before because they didn’t fit into this image of myself that I’d worked so hard to curate. Being a math major, for example, left no room for creative pursuits, much less for acknowledging that maybe I didn’t enjoy quantitive fields as much anymore. Being an athlete meant that I had to keep proving to others that I could be good at sports even after I stopped competing.

And the larger problem, really, is that I feel the need to assign myself these labels at all. When it comes down to it – I’m just Maddy. I’m more than the sum of these labels I try to assign to myself, or that others assign to me. A person can’t be dissected into these smaller, more digestible parts because that’s not how humans work. I’ve been working for a while on moving away from the “black and white” in many aspects of my thinking and leaning in to the grey: the in-between, the non-concrete, the indefinable, the constantly moving and changing. I am trying to give myself more permission and room to change, to explore, to not feel so limited by a false concept of identity, to reject others’ tendencies to want to put me in a box.

I return often to these passages from “The Journals of Sylvia Plath,” which I’m sure I’ve shared before on this blog but bear repeating in this context:

“If I could cut from my brain the phantom of competition, the ego-center of self-consciousness, and become a vehicle, a pure vehicle of others, the outer world … My interest in other people is too often one of comparison, not of pure intrigue with the unique otherness of identity. Here, ideally, I should forget the outer world of appearances, publishing, checks, success. And be true to an inner heart … Yet I fight against a simple-mindedness, a narcissism, a protective shell against competing, against being found wanting. To write for itself, to do things for the joy of them. What a gift of the gods.”

The Best Books I Read in 2021

It would be hyperbolic to say Goodreads has changed my life, but I do love the ability to easily keep track of the books I’ve read and the books I want to read. Before Goodreads, whenever I came across a book that looked interesting or was recommended by a friend, I would haphazardly type a note on my phone or scribble on a scrap of paper, both of which would inevitably be forgotten or lost when it came time for me to start a new book.

My dad would argue that all the Goodreads functionality I enjoy could be accomplished via an Excel spreadsheet which is…entirely true. I know some people find value in the social element of Goodreads (or satisfaction in leaving scathing book reviews) but the last thing I need is another feed to scroll through. Maybe I’ll say another f*ck you to Amazon – because, of course, everything you love is a subsidiary of Amazon – and move to an Excel spreadsheet in 2022.

But for now, since I have fallen prey to Goodreads, I have at my disposal a curated My Year in Books which you can take a look at if you’re interested in everything I read this past year.

I have mentioned some of these books already in various posts over the past months but I wanted to spend some time aggregating my favorite reads of the past year. So, without further ado:

Maddy’s 10 “Best Reads” of 2021 (in no particular order):

1. Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass.
I wrote about a memorable passage from this book in a post earlier this year, but that was only one of the many pieces of wisdom Wall Kimmerer shares with us.

Some of my favorite books from the past few years have been those that explore the relationship between modern science and other types of knowledge: native widsom, religion, spirituality. I was obsessed with Yaa Gyasi’s Transcendent Kingdom, for example, and the way she explores the relationship between her religion and her work as a doctor. In Braiding Sweetgrass, Wall Kimmerer navigates the same tension between what modern science expects of her and the indigenous wisdom she holds: “The questions scientists raised were not “Who are you? ” but “What is it?” No one asked plants, “What can you tell us?” The primary question was “How does it work?””

I think of how much better the world would be if we embraced and integrated all ways of knowing rather than working so hard to pull them apart; to stop defining “scientific” knowledge as an entirely separate practice that’s constantly at odds with our lived experience and relationship to the world. In Wall Kimmerer’s words, “Native scholar Greg Cajete has written that in indigenous ways of knowing, we understand a thing only when we understand it with all four aspects of our being: mind, body, emotion, and spirit.”

As with any of the books on this list, I could write a whole post about this book and what I’ve carried with me since reading it. But if I try I’ll never even finish this list so…on to number two.

2. Taylor Jenkins Reid’s The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo.
My judgmental self expected this book to be a “beach read” that would pass the time as an alternative to watching Netflix. I hadn’t read any of Jenkins Reid’s other popular books (Daisy Jones & the Six, Malibu Rising) and didn’t expect this one to have the level of depth that it did, especially about the nuances of love and relationships.

3. Chanel Miller’s Know My Name.
Wow. It’s tough to give words to this one. If I’m honest I put off reading this book for a long time because 1) I was afraid it would be too upsetting and 2) I didn’t think it would tell me anything I didn’t already know, either from personal experience or from reading the news and or other anecdotes shared about similar stories. About the latter I was so wrong. Miller is an incredible writer and the way she gives voice and shape to her experience is brave and powerful. It was an extremely upsetting book (I cried more than once) but not for a moment did I regret reading it.

From the book: “Biden said, You have given them the strength they need to fight. And so, I believe, you will save lives. I thought of the man in the thick black jacket, sitting by the tracks in the foldout chair, hired to save lives. I realized, since I was seventeen, that was the job I wanted. The only difference was that I sat on a chair at home, writing the words that would get you to stay here, to see the value of you, the beauty of your life. So if you come on the worst day of your life, my hope is to catch you, to gently guide you back.”

Thank you, Chanel, for doing just that.

4. Tommy Orange’s There, There.
Yet again I want to write a whole post about this book, I loved it so much. Through the book’s main characters, Orange fights against the stereotypes and perceptions of the Indian experience: ““We haven’t seen the Urban Indian story. What we’ve seen is full of the kinds of stereotypes that are the reason no one is interested in the Native story in general, it’s too sad, so sad it can’t even be entertaining, but more importantly because of the way it’s been portrayed, it looks pathetic, and we perpetuate that, but no, fuck that…the whole picture is not pathetic, and the individual people and stories that you come across are not pathetic or weak or in need of pity, and there is real passion there, and rage…””

The way he captures the experience of various mental illnesses was another of my favorite things about this book. Through his characters he gives conditions that are usually distilled to diagnoses – depression, anxiety, PTSD – the truth and reality and complexity they deserve! A quick note I jotted down in my journal as I was reading the book: “I love how this book depicts different types of mental illness (eating disorder, OCD, depression) without giving it those names, and instead it’s just people’s experiences of them which makes it seem way more like a human condition instead of some assigned illness that along with it comes stereotypes, assumptions, etc.”

The last (for now, at least) thing I loved about this book was that a lot of it took place in Oakland. Another note I scribbled in my journal while reading: “I love reading books about places I live/have lived or been…you can picture in your head the exact BART stop that’s mentioned, or the underpass, or the park. I love that it makes me think of the stories of the people that I see every day on the BART or sitting on their bikes at those parks; what is happening in their lives? All of the stories and the city that brings those stories together, the city that is home to those stories.”

5. Lulu Miller’s Why Fish Don’t Exist.
Ah, man, this book had everything: historical elements that taught me something new, emotional and psychological elements that made me reflect, exciting plot twists that kept me fascinated.

Miller explores the questions I am always asking myself: “We started talking about the ideas-words divide. How hard it can be to watch your words fall flat, kersplat, before another person. How lonely it can feel inside a head with ideas you can’t figure out how to spit out. And the dangerous power of the few who seemed to understand you. I told her about my obsession with David Starr Jordan, the earthquake, the sewing needle. “So it’s sort of about why,” I said. “What drives a person to keep going?””

She understands that the way we interpret the world can’t easily be distilled into objective truth because we as humans will always be susceptible to our tendencies; for example, the need to distill the complex into something simple to make sense of the world: “That “fish,” in a certain sense, is a derogatory term. A word we use to hide that complexity, to keep ourselves comfortable, to feel further away from them than we actually are.” If I could count the number of times I’ve tried to make things “black and white” in my head in order to avoid having to sit with the discomfort of nuance…lol.

6. Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief.
A book that I should have read much sooner! I loved its blend of history, humor, creativity, and compelling plot.

A favorite passage: “If only she could be so oblivious again, to feel such love without knowing it, mistaking it for laughter and bread with only the scent of jam spread out on top of it.”

7. Etaf Rum’s A Woman is No Man.
“Did she want to put her life in the hands of other people? Could she ever achieve her dreams if she remained dependent on pleasing her family? Perhaps her life would be more than it was now if she hadn’t tried so hard to live up to her grandparents’ opinion of her. It was more important to honor her own values in life, to live her own dreams and her own vision, than to allow others to choose that path for her, even if standing up for herself was terrifying.”

8. Patricia Lockwood’s No One is Talking About This.
Ack, I want to write a meaningful reflection on this book but it would take too much mental energy so I will save that for another day. Long story short: I appreciated the way Lockwood turned this dry and cynical – and very thought-provoking – reflection on the internet and culture into a book that left me with some hope for myself and for the world. Though I probably just wanted to be reassured that there is some semblance of humanity and emotion left in this world…

Way too much of this book (in a good and bad way) hit extremely close to home, so reading it was an exercise in trying not to feel too incredibly attacked and shitty about myself. A few example passages:

“Her stupidity panicked her, as well as the way her voice now sounded when she talked to people who hadn’t stopped being stupid yet.”

“What had the beautiful thought been, the bright profundity she had roused herself to write down? She opened her notebook with the sense of anticipation she always felt on such occasions—perhaps this would finally be it, the one they would chisel on her gravestone.”

“It was a mistake to believe that other people were not living as deeply as you were. Besides, you were not even living that deeply.”

“After this I will be able to be nice to my mother, but she never ever was. After this I will be able to talk only about what matters, life and death and what comes after, but still she went on about the weather.”

9. Cheryl Strayed’s Tiny Beautiful Things.
I avoided anything Cheryl Strayed for a while (I still haven’t read Wild) because I was afraid that if I liked it it meant I was just another nature-loving white woman preaching the privileged “go find yourself in the wild!” gospel…which is pretty much true and something I judge myself for a lot. So, of course, I loved everything she had to say and the advice she had to give, and I will probably be reading Wild and enjoying it at some point soon.

10. Louise Erdrich’s The Night Watchman.
I hadn’t read any Louise Erdrich before and now I’ve added all of her other books to my “want to read” list. Her prose was absolutely gorgeous and, similar to Braiding Sweetgrass, it gave me an even deeper appreciation for the wisdom of native and indigenous peoples (aka: why does western culture and capitalism and the white man suck so much).

“Things started going wrong, as far as Zhaanat was concerned, when places everywhere were named for people—political figures, priests, explorers—and not for the real things that happened in these places—the dreaming, the eating, the death, the appearance of animals. This confusion of the chimookomaanag between the timelessness of the earth and the short span here of mortals was typical of their arrogance.”

“Because everything was alive, responsive in its own way, capable of being hurt in its own way, capable of punishment in its own way, Zhaanat’s thinking was built on treating everything around her with great care.”

And now…on to another year of good reads (and maybe not Goodreads)!

Progress, not perfection.

Leslie got me a lil paint set from CVS and it’s been bringing me so much joy this week. It may have been designed for kids but that means it’s full of bright colors and doesn’t stain my clothes or the furniture when I make a mess! It’s also kind of crazy how a week of mental and physical rest (time off from work, time off from biking and/or running) leaves much more room for a different type of energy: the creative kind!

Despite having done much more art in the past year than I ever have before, I’m still not great at actually ~sitting down to do it~. After a long day at work I’m so emotionally exhausted that, instead of doing something relaxing or meditative like painting, I sit on the couch and scroll through my phone, obsessively refresh my work email, and eat a concerning amount of popcorn and ice cream. This week, however, I’ve found myself much more likely to sit down at the table and pull out my paints.

It feels good to make something – “no matter how small” (or bad) – and I’m hoping to hold on to this practice until it becomes more of a habit. I also return to my current mantra of “progress, not perfection,” because I am often my own worst enemy when it comes to doing or trying things I’m not “good” at. I get so overwhelmed by the fear of failure (an “ugly” piece of art, a “stupid” piece of writing) that I don’t do anything at all. But it’s better to pick up the pen or the paintbrush than it is to let myself remain paralyzed by my own high expectations.

Anyway. Thanks again, Leslie, for being my biggest patron and supporter in my artistic endeavors – these little sketches are dedicated to you!

[Above] Two sketches/paintings from this past week, the left one inspired by a photo Leslie took in London.

An accomplishment’s an accomplishment, no matter how small.

Does anyone remember the line from Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hears a Who: “A person’s a person, no matter how small”? For whatever reason that line often pops into my head (probably because I’ve watched the movie more than a few times).

Today, after a difficult week, I found myself thinking, “An accomplishment’s an accomplishment, no matter how small.” As in: what feels like an accomplishment to me might not seem like one to others, but that doesn’t make it any less of an accomplishment. Which then lead me to list out everything I’ve accomplished (by my own standards) this week:

Oh, and I also made a painting, which is an accomplishment because it means I 1) painted instead of scrolling through social media, therefore improving my mental health rather than harming it, and 2) overcame my fear of being “bad” or “mediocre” at something and did it anyway.

Inspired by the Berkeley hills, which are extra green after lots of much-needed rain

Which reminds me of this amazing post that spoke directly to my soul (read: is a primary topic of conversation in my therapy sessions):

Happy Friday, everyone.

Sometimes life surprises you [a poem]

Sometimes life surprises you

Like on Saturdays when you’re sad
and the sun is nowhere to be found,

So you ride your bike down to the shoreline where
– growing from the sand – are signs that say, “Jazz Quartet; Follow the signs or sounds.”

So you follow the sign along the trails through the waterfront park that juts out into the bay
and you stumble upon a makeshift amphitheater where four men dressed in suits and shiny shoes have set up a little stage by the sea

And they’re playing their drums and trumpet and cello and trombone as the audience sits scattered on seats of rock
And the sounds of jazz drift out over the water
In this little corner of the world.

Does it sound dark to say that I was glad to have stayed alive for this moment?

“Introduction To Poetry”

On Saturday afternoon I head out for a walk under the guise of needing to pick up a prescription from the pharmacy. I do, in fact, need to pick up a prescription from the pharmacy, but Thomas and I both know that when I say I’m “going to walk to the pharmacy” that’s code for “I’m going out for a walk and there’s no knowing when I’ll be back.”

Needless to say, I take a slight detour at Pegasus Books on Shattuck. In my defense, it’s the first time since the beginning of the pandemic that Pegasus has been open for in-person browsing, and obviously I have to support my local bookstore (f*** Amazon!!!!!!!!!).

I spend thirty minutes browsing and in every section – philosophy, spirituality, literature, gardening, poetry, critical theory – I see a book I want to take home and spend the rest of the afternoon reading. I wish for not the first time that I had room in my apartment for more books, instead of the already-overflowing few shelves I hacked together in our bedroom. There’s a chance it collapses at some point soon; I keep stacking more and more books horizontally on the top shelf.

My book-browsing is interrupted by the realization that the pharmacy closes soon and if I don’t leave now I’ll fail to accomplish the actual task I set out to do. I hurriedly grab and pay for two of the used books I’ve had my eye on: Natalie Goldberg’s The Great Spring and Poetry 180, an anthology of contemporary poems.

The mini-haul.

On Tuesday morning I remember that, because Thomas is a student, we have a free subscription to The New York Times. I browse their website and come across this Letter of Recommendation that suggests you read the same poem every day for a month. While not a novel idea, I loved the author’s intention and practice behind it: “I always read my selected poem aloud, to hear the rhythm, and I like to read it first thing in the morning. Reading the poem at dawn, with my coffee, is a kind of meditation. And rereading the same poem forces me to slow down, to hone my observations.”

Over the past few months I’ve strayed further from starting my mornings in a meditative way. I used wake up and read or write; now, I immediately open my laptop to start work, or spend too long on Twitter catching up on the latest apocalyptic news. This letter feels timely – especially since I’d just bought a poetry anthology a few days prior. I resolve to start my next few mornings by reading a poem.

On Wednesday morning I wake up and open the anthology to the first poem, Billy Collins’ “Introduction to Poetry.”

“Introduction to Poetry”

I’ve read it before – shout-out to my favorite high-school English teacher who introduced me to some amazing poems – but poetry will always be better when chosen rather than assigned. In the words of Billy Collins himself: “High school is the place where poetry goes to die.” (I might be one of the few who gained a greater appreciation for poetry in an academic context. To all the high school teachers: don’t give up hope!)

I will spare everyone my commentary on the poem (which would also be ironic given its content) but here are two of my favorite Billy Collins verses I want to share in the hopes others enjoy them as much as I do:

“But tomorrow, dawn will come the way I picture her,
barefoot and disheveled, standing outside my window
in one of the fragile cotton dresses of the poor.
She will look in at me with her thin arms extended,
offering a handful of birdsong and a small cup of light.”

“And I should mention the light
which falls through the big windows this time of day
italicizing everything it touches…”

Plum Tree Ponderings

When I was younger I thought of gifts only as things that were exchanged on holidays and birthdays: toys, money, anything that could be bought or sold but that I received “for free.”

Now, when I think of gifts, what comes to mind are the less tangible things: time, thought, effort. The things that can’t be purchased in a store, or that can’t be quantified, or that people might not even know they’re giving to you. I have also come to think of gifts not as things that you receive on Christmas – or other times when people might expect to give and receive gifts – but as the things that arrive when you least expect it.

But I also believe there is truth in the common wisdom that you have to be open to receiving gifts; that you have to adopt a certain mindset that allows you to be receptive to, and aware of, the gifts you may be being given. This article in particular, I thought, summed up well my experience with gift-giving and gift-receiving:

No one ever taught me how to receive. Not a compliment; I am a master at countering any comment with insight about all my faults. Not a gift; I immediately feel the need to give something in return, preferably bigger. Not a kindness; I wave people away from helping me in a grocery line, no matter that I am dropping bread as I speak.

How could I have gone through so much life and have no experience with such a fundamental act as the ability to receive?

As I begin to examine this, I realize for me receiving involves vulnerability. When I give, I feel in charge. When I receive, I feel less.

Give feels like an action word; receive feels like something passive. Yet I can see how mistaken I am. Giving and receiving are yin and yang, the equivalent of the infinity symbol—looping back and forth, neither side larger than the other, both integral to the larger whole.

But I am becoming more open to receiving gifts: a few weeks ago I wrote about the gift of free lemons I found on the sidewalk, and just yesterday I experienced a similar moment on my walk around the neighborhood. I came across a plum tree that I only noticed because the over-ripen fruit that had fallen from its branches made splashes of bright reds and purples on the road. I looked up and saw, camouflaged in the tree’s purpley-red leaves, a few small, cherry-sized plum fruits that remained clinging to its branches. I reached up and picked two of the fruits and was shocked to discover their sweetness upon putting them in my mouth.

As I sucked the juices from the plum, rolling the pit around in my mouth once its flesh was gone, I noticed how I savored its flavor: first full and sweet as I bit into the skin, then a bit of sour as I reached a piece of its unripened flesh.

I noticed how my experience of eating this fruit – that I had received as an unexpected gift – was so different from how I might have eaten a plum that I purchased at the grocery store. Something about the way I had come across the plum – as a gift from nature, rather than a store-bought object – fundamentally changed how I interacted with it.

I think of a book I read recently (thanks, Dana, for the recommendation!) called Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants. In it, its author, Robin Wall Kimmerer, discusses nature through the lens of both modern science and indigenous wisdom. When I get home from my encounter with the plum tree I go to my bookshelf and find the passages from her book that I’d highlighted:

Perhaps it was because I’d read this book that I had this momentary awareness of my relationship to the plum, and I’m grateful for it. And I think about how, if we truly receive and appreciate nature’s gifts, we also cultivate a relationship with nature that is inherent with respect, gratitude, and reciprocity – in essence, the one native people have always had. It’s the same notion that’s described in the blog article: when we receive a gift, we are allowing ourselves to partake in a cycle that relies on both giving and receiving, and that both parts of the process are made more full as a result.