Dichotomies

I took the month of December off, to get away from the daily grind and recoup from a particularly daunting year. I’m lucky to work for a company that’s as loyal to me as I’ve been to them. In fact, it wasn’t my idea or really even my choice. My boss sensed my burnout and insisted until I agreed. (You can say I have an overwhelming sense of responsibility that sometimes blinds me to my own basic needs.)

Friends and co-workers were enthusiastic and supportive (and only a skosh jealous). They commented on the length of time I was taking off, the variety of destinations I had planned, and always threw in that it was well deserved. (I guess everyone in my life except me recognized I could use a break.)

After getting over the initial feeling of guilt from leaving my post for that long, I began to get excited. In spring, I’d booked a trip to Iceland over the new year, and as new opportunities arose, plans seemed to fall into place. I spent a weekend in November with two computers open, scouring travel sites for deals and figuring out timing and other logistics. (Conclusion: God bless you, Mrs. Reynolds, my friend’s mom who was a AAA travel agent for 30 years. Even with the “convenience” of sites like Kayak and Booking.com, it was my idea of a very specific nightmare.)

The itinerary went like this:

  • 5 days in SF
  • 3 days in NYC
  • 2 days in Miami; 4 days in Key West
  • 8 days in Scranton, PA (home for Christmas)
  • 9 days in Reykjavik, Iceland (New Years; 5 days leisure, 4 days work)
  • 2 days in London
  • 5 days in Brighton, UK (for work)

Packing was… interesting, to say the least. When it was time to finally take off, I was wide-eyed and wildly optimistic, with that twinge of gut-wrenching excitement that accompanies all beginnings.

It didn’t take long for the East Coast to remind me why I moved away from extreme seasons. The bitter cold forced me to immediately buy a puffy Eskimo coat (the kind with the fur-lined hood), and it still felt bone-chilling.

Florida was a nice reprieve in many ways.

The first day home with my family, I got hit with a monster cold — the second one in a month. (I guess I was pretty run down after all.) The previous cold had left me with raspy lungs that hurt when I breathed deeply, so I self-diagnosed and started taking an inhaler I’d been prescribed for bronchitis earlier in the year. I’d later come to find out that corticosteroids can trigger a nasty and persistent form of dermatitis that occurs on the face… which it did for me.

I’d admired Iceland since I started following the atmospheric band Sigur Ros, which has become a favorite of mine over the years. I decided to finally make the pilgrimage to see the strangely beautiful landscape for myself when Sigur Ros announced they were putting on a 4-day festival in Reykjavik at the end of the year.

At the time, I hadn’t considered that there would be 20 hours of darkness a day. I hadn’t thought through what it would be like coming home to an empty apartment (AirBnB always seems like a good idea… ) after wandering the desolate landscape alone all day. Icelanders aren’t particularly friendly, and I realized quickly that small talk wasn’t going to cut it with them. But as a tourist with no other grounds for initiating conversation, that’s all I could muster. So I basically acted like I was on a silent retreat for a week.

I hadn’t reflected on how it would feel to be in literal isolation during a holiday that primarily exists to celebrate being with loved ones (but really, what holiday doesn’t?). And one thing they don’t tell you about about the stark beauty you see in photos of Iceland is that it feels as desolate as it looks. Most days I felt like a ghost floating around town, unsure if people could even see or hear me. (At one point I questioned my actual existence. I went home and drank a bottle of wine by myself and watched Netflix. It worked: The next morning my existence was very apparent.)

Needless to say I was happy to get back to work when it came time. Over the course of last year, my company acquired a small website located in Reykjavik, so I extended my trip and worked the back end of the trip from the office there. (PEOPLE! CONVERSATION! EXCHANGE OF HUMAN WARMTH AND KINDNESS! YAY!)

London was a whirlwind, but felt a lot more like New York than I’d remembered, which was both familiar yet disappointing.

Brighton was a delightful little seaside town, but I only got to see the few blocks between my (trailer of a) hotel and the office in daylight. I’m sure the English coast is lovely in wintertime.

In other words, the trip wasn’t exactly as I expected (but what ever is?). I got sick. I got a weird face rash that made me feel like the elephant man. I got lonely. I got scared at times. I got homesick. But I got to see some places I’d never seen and spend time with people I’d missed dearly. I got to meet new people (particularly my far-flung co-workers) and try strange foods that I’ll probably never eat again (like fermented shark, smoked whale, and puffin — I know, I know! I’m sorry!). I took a few nice photos. I saw one of my favorite bands perform an amazing show. And I did a LOT of thinking and self-reflection, even by my usual standards of non-stop thinking and self-reflection.

I thought about how old people without family must feel every day: no one to talk to, wandering around by themselves, feeling extremely isolated from society.

I thought about people who live with conditions that affect the way they look: how isolated (in a different way) they must feel, how it might affect their self-confidence and their desire to be social, the way they notice people looking at them, and how frustrating it must be that their physical appearance so inadequately reflects their true selves.

I thought about all the beautiful Instagram photos that belie the actual experience behind the image of it. How we’re made to believe that everyone is always having such an amazing time, without any hardships or moments of self-doubt or suffering.

I thought about what we are trying to achieve when we “vacate:” a departure from our environments and our routines, an escape from ourselves, or maybe all three. And in depriving myself of my normal everyday life, I found myself wanting it, even the pettiest things.

I wanted to go home. I wanted to get back to my routine. I wanted to have my alone time, (but not too much of it!). I wanted to be in my beautiful apartment that I decorated with all the things I love. I wanted to sleep in my own bed and use my own shampoo and have a closet full of clothes to choose from. I wanted to be in California in wintertime. I wanted to sleep with my window open and breathe in the intense saltiness of the ocean air all night. I wanted to see my co-workers. I wanted to work from my office again. I wanted to feel productive. I wanted to do yoga at the studio down the street from my apartment. I wanted to go shopping at the farmer’s market and cook for myself. I wanted the convenience of ordering things I need on Amazon Prime and calling a ride with the beep-boop-bop of a finger. I wanted to be in a place where I know where things are and how to get somewhere without constantly consulting a map.

It took traveling thousands of miles away for me to discover that I’m content with my life as it is, and that’s a pretty big accomplishment — one I’ve been working at for a long time. Maybe that’s the purpose of a vacation: to reset your appreciate for what is. To reintroduce you to yourself and rekindle the spark with the life you’ve set up for yourself. To wake you from the slumber that arises from monotony. To wrap you in the familiar comfort of that towel your mom would warm on the heater during bath time. To gingerly dry the pruney fingers that result from being somewhere too long. And to confirm that you’re precisely where you’re meant to be.

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Growth rings

When you’re born, you’re not yet you. You’re not [insert Baby Girl/Boy Last Name here]. You hold the beginnings of a personality, a set of automatic behaviors the ego develops to protect itself. And you hold the seeds of possibility: the potential of your higher self. When you come into this world, you’re all that you are and all that you could become, in one tiny little piglet package.

You have a lifetime — length not guaranteed — to figure out who that is. And if you believe there may be some meaning behind all this, you have the same amount of time to uncover what you’re meant to do. Or, if you choose to follow Nietzsche down the path of nihilism, you have a lifetime to make something meaningful out of nothing.

Trees gain another ring on their trunks with each growth cycle, which is typically spring to end of summer. But the number of rings indicate more than the tree’s age. These demarkations, stored deep within their cores, are a record of their history as well as environmental events that affected them like drought, fire, insect plague, disease, and air pollution.

Whether you believe in past lives, collective consciousness, or even just life lessons learned in this one, who you are today is due to a layering of former selves.

When we’re young, we’re clued into our growth through bodily changes: Our teeth fall out and we get new ones. We get taller. Hair sprouts in new places, and our limbs ache as they expand.

We see a lot of the same changes as we age, though some appear in reverse. Our teeth fall out, but new ones don’t magically appear to replace them. We shrink. Hair continues to sprout in new places while it falls out in others, and our limbs just plain ache. The physical record of our experiences show up as wrinkles that develop around our eyes and mouths and tell of all the laughs, frowns, worries, and cigarettes smoked. Spots on skin reveal summers spent at the beach. Scars hold stories of childhood accidents (and some adult ones), surgeries, and past pain.

When a tree’s cells die, they don’t get sloughed off by the elements and cast to the forest floor like you might think. Instead, the tree forms new layers around the old ones. Dead cells (appropriately called heartwood) make up the largest part of a tree and form its core. They provide the tree with the structural strength it needs to support itself and keep growing.

The human growth process is painful, and most of it isn’t physical. Like trees, we store the dead cells, the lessons learned, deep within our cores. They provide structure to our character, make up our beliefs and values, influence our life choices. While we may not enjoy the process, it’s necessary. After all, cells that grow too fast turn into cancer.

I went to an intuitive reader last year. After telling me a lot of truths that I’d been ignoring because I wasn’t ready to deal with them, she said that 2018 was going to be a year of transformation for me. But isn’t every year, for all of us? And don’t the years that leave the deepest scars also seem to produce the most heartwood?

Some species of pine trees actually thrive on disaster. It’s an evolutionary adaptation called serotiny, and it allows forests to flourish despite harsh environmental conditions. The most common trigger is fire. These trees grow in areas prone to forest fires. Their cones are tightly sealed in a thick resin, and they need the heat of a flame to melt the resin. Fire allows the cones to open and release their seeds into the wind.

This year has been one hell of a fire for me. I’m still a long way from my higher self, but my core is solid and I’m open. Perhaps 2018 won’t be a year of transformation, but one of regeneration. The damage is palpable, but where there once stood a single tree, now appears the beginnings of an entire forest.

Jesus year in review

The sun didn’t rise on my birthday (the horizon was far too hazy from all the wild fires), but I did. Something about another orbit under your belt makes you take a beat to reflect, and 33 was certainly one for the books.

They call it your “Jesus Year” because that’s how old he was when he died and rose from the dead. Metaphorically, that’s the age of rebirth for many people. And 33 was exactly that for me.

I went to see an energy reader/healer shortly after my last birthday. (I know that makes it sound like I have gone full Californian, but when you grow up Catholic, you’re basically raised to believe in magic, so it’s not such a stretch.) She told me a lot of things that were helpful and made sense, but the most dead-on was that this year would be extremely hard. “In fact, it’s going to suck,” she said, and she told me that I just needed to be strong and push through it, and I’d be transformed.

Without any exaggeration, that’s exactly what happened. In March, I broke off a six-year relationship that was supposed to end in marriage. At five in the morning after yet another sleepless night of being yelled at and berated by a drunken, unprovoked angry partner (in a long chain of those types of nights), I arose from bed like a marionette on a string and calmly stated that I was going to take a shower, get dressed, and leave. And I did just that.

My body felt like it was on autopilot. My motions were mechanical: turning the knob of the shower, pulling on my clothes, even packing a bag. I grabbed things without thinking — a toothbrush, contacts, a change of clothes, my checkbook — as if a giant magnet was pulling my hands towards these things, not the other way around. It was as close to an out-of-body experience as I’ve had.

It was still dark when I left, but I instinctively walked towards the park a block away and called my mom. She picked up immediately, knowing something was wrong. It was before six in the morning on a Saturday, after all. “Rachael-what’s-the-matter-honey-are-you-all-right,” she asked in the rushed, frantic tone she uses when a baby gets too close to a staircase and she calls out that one-syllable prayer: “Jesus-Mary-and-Joseph!”

I opened my mouth to speak, but all I could do was cry. And she just knew. “Oh, not again, honey” she said. I continued to sob into the phone and when she said in a strained voice, like she was holding back tears, “Rachael, you can’t keep living like this,” that’s when I knew I was never going back and my Jesus year was just beginning.

It was hard. It was damn hard. I put a lot to rest in the months that followed. There was a lot to handle, logistically and emotionally. There was a lot I left behind, not unlike what happens when someone dies. But I handled it. With the help of countless friends, family, and co-workers, I pushed through.

The morning of March 18th, I sat in darkness on a park bench talking to my mom for two hours. I watched the sun rise over San Francisco, and I thought to myself “The sun it rises, and so will I.”

This morning of October 11th, I watched the dark purple fade to pink and orange swirls, and I couldn’t help but think back to that morning and all the mornings since. Like the sun, I have inched my way above the horizon, getting brighter, warmer, and stronger by the minute — by the day.

I am rising.

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Addendum: This is an important account that speaks to a lot of the unspoken details and feelings I could not here. Maybe in time I’ll add my own explicit account to this post, but right now I’m still learning the vocabulary required to write about my experience. In the meantime, I admire the bravery of those who have found the words to express themselves and give a voice to those still trying to find their own. 

 

California is burning

Yesterday I awoke from deep within a weird dream in the middle of the night, to what I thought was the sweet smell of some kind of strong incense wafting in from my neighbor’s open window. I was bleary and explained it away with Dream Logic at first, which allowed me to fall back to sleep momentarily, assured I’d solved the riddle. But my nose doesn’t operate on logic, so I was thrust awake again to get to the bottom of what had now become an irritant. Something was burning, and the smell had consumed my entire apartment. It didn’t smell like bonfire or regular old house fire, unless the house belonged to a hoarder of headshop paraphernalia. 

After quickly Googling “what to do in case of a fire” (new addition to the list of long-forgotten useful things they tell you in grade school), I found a thread from some neighbors. One person said it was air pollution from the Napa and Sonoma fires. Another said the Presidio was also on fire and that’s what we were smelling. 

I shut my windows tight, did one more check that my building wasn’t actually burning, turned on my essential oil diffuser, and managed to fall back to sleep for another few hours. When I woke up the next morning, a layer of white ash and charred pine needles covered my kitchen table, couch, and floor and the air was still thick with smoke. Two days in, and it’s still raging.

None of us is far from disaster. We will all face our tragedies, whether earthquake, fire, hurricane, mass shooting, or illness. California may be the one burning at the moment, but we all breathe the same air.

Arrivals 

This moment. This one, right here. On the heels of a drawn out week and the eve of vacation. This is where time slows down in the movie of your life. When you stare out the car window and become aware of the complete contentment, the euphoric exhaustion, and the anticipation of what’s to come. And you’re aware that you’re aware, so you can really seal it in memory Mod Podge or doubled-paned glass, or whatever it is that will keep it from deteriorating or dissolving into tomorrow, when the clock starts ticking down the time to the moment when it’s over.

But you’re not thinking about that yet. You can’t. You won’t allow yourself. Because it’s all about this moment, not that one. This moon, almost full on this fourth day of the month, of this tenth month of the year, of this 33rd year of your life. With your brother in flight across the continent to come see you. Your brother who you adore but don’t get to see enough because you chose this coast, not that one. This life, not that one.
“Excuse me, Miss,” the driver interrupts. “What airline?” You’re caught off guard and stumble for a moment trying to remember. “Oh, ah, that British one, but it’s American.” The driver pauses at the fork. “Virgin America–arrivals!”

“I’m sorry, Miss,” he says. “We can’t drop off at arrivals. Only departures,” he says.

So you get dropped at departures and take the stairs down, because that moment hasn’t yet come. This moment, this one right here, is only for arrivals.