New blog!

I have really missed writing and blogging. It’s been a long time coming, but I’m back now with a new blog! It has “mom” in the title, but don’t let that scare you. It’s not a mom blog.

See you there!  INTP mom

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The past five years

2007 was an unhappy and lonely year, my last year of college.  I spent the first half of the year struggling with Christianity, trying to understand it, deciding if I wanted to hold onto it.  I became an atheist that summer and spent the second half of the year trying to find the freedom to figure out who I was without God.

2008 was a restorative year of getting acquainted with nature and becoming myself.  I spent half the year living in Oregon, working outside all day and spending all of my free time hiking.  Then I went to Alaska, where three months of living in the wilderness taught me how to live.  I found a job and moved to a small coastal Alaska town.

2009 was a peaceful year.  It was my first year living alone and holding a grown-up job.  I became acquainted with small-town life and grew to love it.  I tried hard to root myself in my community.  I loved my job and focused all my energy on it.  The glaciers, forests, and rivers of Alaska became my home.  I developed a comfortable routine.

2010 was a year of burning out and redirecting.  I poured myself into my career, which was fulfilling, but I realized that it was not healthy, sustainable, or ultimately the career that I wanted.  I began thinking about my next step.  At the end of the year, I met KJ and we fell in love.

2011 was the year of merging our lives together and planning our future.  We spent the first half of the year keeping Alaska Airlines in business with our long-distance relationship, until I moved and we made a home together.  I started grad school.  At the end of the year we got engaged, and–

2012 is the year we’re getting married.  We’ll continue falling more in love with each other and exploring Alaska together.  After my first full year in interior Alaska, I hope to be more adapted to the seasons and more connected to the community.  I will settle into grad school life and dive into my research.  And I will blog more.

“Live your life, live your life, live your life.”

I haven’t had a piece of art touch me this deeply in a long time.  Listening to Maurice Sendak on NPR’s Fresh Air today, it was the first time I’ve ever seen the interview elevated to an art form.  Not just a craft, but an art– something that takes the fragments in my own heart and reorganizes them in a beautiful palette, something to be mulled over and over in the mind for its meaning to ripen.  Maurice Sendak’s books and illustrations have always left open a chink of light in the wall of the unintelligible, sending out small slender rays to grasp.  This interview puts a window in that wall.  The conversation between him and Terry Gross is something I feel privileged to listen to, and it makes me think again of conversations that I’ve been a part of.  It is harder to remember to see the beauty when you are a part of it.

You must read this book

The True and Outstanding Adventures of the Hunt Sisters by Elisabeth Robinson.  I found it in an empty bathroom at the Anchorage airport, where I had a layover last week.  It was sitting on the sink with a boarding pass sticking out of the front; the owner had landed in Anchorage a few hours ago, so I figured that she had left the security area and wasn’t going to come back for her book.  Her name was also Alice.

In a nutshell, the main character is a high-strung Hollywood producer whose sister has leukemia.  The story is told entirely through letters, a format that I normally loathe intensely.  This book also has a lot of frivolity and humor, which I usually don’t like to read.  But I liked it from the beginning because the characters say a lot of things about love and family and emotions that are profound but very simple, so simple that nobody puts them in books anymore, but they nonetheless need to be read.  It wasn’t until halfway through the book that I realized what this book was really about, the themes coming together.  (As the main character says about making a movie, “the end is in the beginning”; the entire story is there from the first scene.  You just haven’t discovered it yet.)

I have been looking for a long time for a book like this, a book about hope that is realistic but doesn’t leave you in despair or resignation.  I’ve read a lot of sad books about illness and loss that throw their reader into the depths of grief and leave them there, or rise slowly and sadly out of the ashes.  This novel does neither.  It taught me something about hope.

Upon further thought, I think the reason why I like this book so much is because it is very much like the best children’s novels– dealing profoundly with very simple themes, every emotion and theme distilled, unclouded with the complications and rationalizations that usually encircle adult literary fiction.  I love children’s books because they do these things so well, but there are some subjects that are never tackled in children’s books, such as marriage and work.  It is wonderful to see these themes written into a novel with the clarity that adult novels so often lack, and I wish to see it more often.

“I was arguing with my mother about false hope the other day.  I said hope is neither false nor true but a kind of happiness itself, a fuel that carries us towards our dreams.  You feel better when you’re knee-deep in hope for something, whether it’s for the love of someone, for a promotion, for a baby, for a clean bill of health.”

Bathymetry

For KJ

Your eyes hold a thousand different layers, a thousand sea states.  Looking into them is like looking into the feeling of abstract thought, that state of deep processing when my brain is working rapidly but so incomprehensibly that it feels blank, a swift current beneath a calm surface.  Reading them is like mapping a roiling sea, constantly changing and fathomlessly deep.  Unknowable, unreachable by concrete things like instruments or words, but I can gaze into the depths and gain some knowledge that could never be recorded on a depth chart or CTD profile or IR spectrometer, some understanding that could never be put to words or even music or art.  A reflection of some unutterable thought within my own eyes, the sea reflecting the sky, some deep mystery that is for me alone to hold in my heart and know its meaning, knowing with that same unknowable part of myself.  An entire universe is born in your eyes, planetary nebulae formed, gravity swirling gassy orbs into oceans, millions of years of evolution.  And plumbing in the depths I withdraw some fragile expression, like a deep-sea coral preserved only for mystery, which crumbles on the stage of a microscope.

***

Perhaps this would be a good place to mention that soon I will be moving to a new city for two reasons: going to grad school to begin my research career in oceanography, and living with the man I love.  I could not be more excited about both of these things.

Belonging (unfinished)

I have always wanted to belong.  I’ve given different words to the desire– home, rootedness, community– but they all describe the same thing: a desire to feel on the inside of something, connected to something close-knit, loved and accepted into a common circle.

I fail at belonging.

I have experienced belonging in many different contexts and communities, but only flashes of it– I have failed at true belonging, which requires one to “be long” in a given community.  And yet I still want to belong, probably more than anything else.

I tell myself that, but it is not really true.  The truth is that it is not hard to belong.  If I really wanted to belong somewhere, anywhere, I would.  Any one of the collection of places where I have glimpsed flashes of belonging, I could have stayed and truly belonged, if only I would take it fully upon myself.  All it takes to belong, I have realized, is to subscribe fully to all the details of a given community, to take on a community/ place/ culture/ group as one’s own, to be more fully present there than anywhere else.  The reason I have not belonged anywhere is because I am not really searching for belonging.  I am searching for belonging and truth.

The primitive part of me, which evolved over millions of years from ancestors that lived in complex social groups and created ritual and religion to make sense of the world and their place in it, that part cries out to belong in a well-defined community, in which truth is not so important as the meaning we make of it.  The other part of me, the part which evolved over the past 25 years into a rational INTP, thinks that belonging is not even a meaningful goal for me.  That my station is not in the places of belonging themselves but in the spaces between them.  That I’m destined to be without a home, peripatetic, wandering not with my feet but with my allegiances and attentions, always searching.  That perhaps my real goal is not to find the place where I belong, but to know all the places where I don’t belong, and to love all of them, gathering up all the strands of beauty along the way.

Always, I have been searching for truth.  When I was a Christian, and even afterwards, I thought that there would be one big Truth, and when I found it, there would be a gathering place, and there I would belong.  This is why I have not belonged anywhere– because I have not been willing to take the truth of any one place and hold it above all other truths, leaving the rest behind or rendering them less important.

There is not one big Truth but lots of little truths, and they are scattered across the landscape of belonging.  Each place of belonging has its truth, and each has its falsehood, and some truths skitter like tumbleweed in the places where none gather, where there is nothing to belong to.  And that is where I belong.

***

(October 2010)

Belonging has always been a major theme for me.  I never quite got around to finishing this piece, and now I never will, because I no longer have the same perspective about belonging that I did at the time.

Tundra

Two years ago I spent 3 months on a wilderness expedition.  One day after hiking for 10 hours, bushwhacking through dense brush and carrying a 40-pound pack on an injured shoulder, I crawled to the top of a tundra hill and collapsed in tears.

The physical pain I felt was only a catalyst for releasing the tears; I was crying about a wealth of pain that I had carried within me, years of pain that had never been released to the light.  I cried so hard I almost passed out.  I started hyperventilating and had carpopedal spasms: my face, chest, and extremities grew numb and froze into grotesque configurations from lack of carbon dioxide.  My clothes were wet through with rain, and as I shivered my way to hypothermia, two of my friends undressed me and put my arms into a dry fleece.  They coached my breathing to unlock my muscles so I could stand and walk.  My hand was taken and I was led through the blur of tears and tundra to a waiting dinner; my bowl was filled with food, even though our rations were scarce.

That night was one of the major turning points of my life.  As I dug deep within me to excise every painful thing that held me back, my tears became half pain, half rejoicing.  It was the end of wounding and the beginning of healing.  I wept so hard that I seemed to dissolve into the universe; the pieces of myself fell like stars from the sky, and were caught by my friends, the tundra, the mountains and river.   I didn’t know what would follow, who or what I would be when the tears ran dry and had carried away all the fragments of me.

The next morning my backpack felt a hundred pounds lighter, and I found my answer in the eyes of a friend who had endured his own twisted trials.  He beamed at me in a brilliant smile, and I recognized for the first time what had always been in the shining of his eyes: a kindness that comes as the legacy of pain.

***

(June 2010)

Cartography

When I first picked up the violin again after months without practice, it was painful and awkward, my fingers unfamiliar with their erstwhile places on the strings.  Now, after a few practice sessions, I fly through pages and pages of music in a frenzy, my eyes darting down the lines of black-marked notes, mapping them with my fingers.  It feels like reading a map of a familiar place, like coming home.  I drink up the black-dotted lines and long for more, more.  More music to sight-read, to return to that place, my black chair in the middle of the orchestra sailing through sheets of transcribed dream, a stage full of bows dancing like flags.

*

Yesterday I climbed a nearby peak, my first summit of a mountain in two years of living by this coastal range.  I sat on top of that high rocky spire, looking down over the ocean and land that I see every day.  The islands I have circumnavigated, the bays where I have kayaked and fished, the hills whose silhouettes I know like the curves of my body.

There, behind that small island mountain, that is where I spent a cold dark night steeped in wonder and silence, watching swirls of bioluminescent plankton streaming in the black waters.  It seemed so far from the crowded harbor that night, though city lights glowed embers beyond the tallest shadow.  And since arriving home, that snug anchorage has always been so far away, safely hidden from sight by the silhouette that reminds me of longing.  But now from up here, there it is, spread open what should not be seen.  A map of the place where I live, the places where I have lived.

*

Every few years, I return to visit the city in China where I was born.  It is a perverse kind of homecoming.  I hate the crowded, noisy streets full of sweaty strangers; the smog that clogs my nostrils with sooty mucus.  But when I hear the dialect that is only spoken in that city, I think: these are my people; this is my city.

Once as I flew in for a visit, the plane skimmed the lonely landscape for miles, a prolonged landing.  Below were scrawny treetops and avenues of dust, the rural desert just outside the metropolis.  A few empty highways.  The only person I saw was a man bicycling down a dirt lane, white shirttails flying behind him, pedaling as if to escape our 757.  It was a lonely, personal scene.  I like to imagine that I was that bicyclist, my mind superimposing that image against my own solitary daily rides along a deserted coastal road in Alaska, a series of curves mapped out from my perch on that rocky peak.  In my mind I am that solitary bicyclist, and I think, this is a personal moment.  But I was a passenger on an airplane filled with passengers, and in each window was a face, intruding, with a mind behind it thinking this is lovely or this is not.  To me, the bicycling man and the dirt road and the emaciated trees were the first signal of approaching; a glimpse of home, from a distance.

*

In that bay over there, I skewered squid on hooks for bait with my bare hands.  The smell lingered on my skin for days, no matter how much soap I used.  I grew to love the offending scent and missed it when it was gone.  Now sometimes when I catch a whiff of something stinky, sweet and rounded, I think of those squids’ smooth spotted bodies, punctured by my hooks.  And the halibut they caught, whose white flesh still fills my freezer.  When it sizzles in a pan and fills my kitchen with the aroma housewives loathe to harbor, I breathe deeply and revel in the scent of ripened memory.

*

The notes on the page fly by like lines painted on a highway, and my fingers fly with them.  I am approaching home, and for a moment I see the entire landscape laid before me, the trail I have followed from page to eye to hand to string.  In my ear are the sweet ringing overtones, and my fingertips are etched with the black footprints of their places.  How could I have been gone so long?  It is so good to be home again.

What is belonging, but familiarity?  There are homes I have lost that I cannot even remember, but their absence sits in my mind like the glare of a map on my retinas, taunting me: you have known belonging.

***

(September 2010)

[In the absence of writing new things suitable for public consumption, I’m going through old writings that never made it onto my blog.]

discovery

I have a huge geek-crush on theoretical physicist Lisa Randall.  I’m in Washington DC at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting and I saw her speak today.  She said this about LHC and the new frontier in particle physics, which I think could be said of science in general and other things as well:

“Is this the end of the story?  It would really be a coincidence if we just happened to live at the time when we discovered the end of the story.  We think there’s more.”

Lessons learned

At work I just finished writing a report summarizing some of the programs I led this year, including the summer program for high school students that ate my life.  One of the required sections in the report is a “lessons learned”.  One of the things I wrote was that students in summer programs need more unstructured time for personal reflection and independent exploration in order to integrate formal learning with meaningful experiences and personal values.  This is not a new realization.  It’s a lesson I have been taught for a long time, and one that I have been learning over and over again this year, but it didn’t really become integrated in my mind until today.

Whenever I talk to students about the learning experiences that are most meaningful to them, it’s the unscripted moments and moments outside of class that they remember and cherish most.  These moments connect with what they have formally learned, building the scaffolding for changes in understanding, attitude, and behavior.  My students learned a lot from the curriculum I developed this summer, but I believe their experience would have been even more impactful and personally enriching if I had given them more time for integration parallel to learning, and more freedom to explore.  Unfortunately, my approach to planning the program mirrored my approach to work this past summer.

Whenever I’m extremely busy, free time is always the first thing to go.  I hang onto sleep and food and cleanliness for as long as I can, but I had always seen free time as superfluous, expendable, and willingly sacrificed.  That’s what I did this summer, when I worked 100+ hours a week and gave up every other use of my time and my mind for work.  Not realizing that time for reflection and integration is vital to learning, planning, working, living.  I really need time to process things; after a meaningful experience, it usually takes a few days for my thoughts to catch up, and new realizations and epiphanies about past experiences will often leap at me in my leisure time.  It takes time for new experiences and knowledge to become rooted in my mind, and only after they become rooted can the tendrils of meaning begin to sprout and form connections with other thoughts residing in my mind.  It takes free time, time not spent in other strenuous mental tasks, for that to happen.

In the midst of this summer, I had some really epic experiences that could have been life-changing, could have inspired me to new artistic undertakings or intellectual passions.  They didn’t, because I had no time to reflect upon them and let my brain marinate in the juices of thought before diving into my next obligation or endeavor.  Those experiences are now cataloged in the back of my brain, still meaningful, but stunted from lack of aeration.  And there are many more experiences, little things that could have bloomed into enlightening trains of thought or small epiphanies, that I am not even aware of.  When I look back on the middle 50% of my year, it is a dense mass packed so tightly that the cells of experience are ruptured.

There was one other time I worked myself into a hole that deep.  One semester in college I exhausted myself by taking a demanding course load and working two jobs while going through my time-consuming deconversion process.  One day I suddenly realized that the reason I felt so physically sick was probably because I kept forgetting to eat; I had lost so much weight that my clothes hung baggily; and I couldn’t remember the last time I had slept or showered.  This summer, when stress seized me with stomach pain so severe I could barely walk, I looked around and wondered again how I had gotten there.  Lack of self-care, lack of sleep and food, yes, but the root cause was lack of time for reflection and integration.

I had thought I could plow right through this time because I had planned everything out at the beginning of the summer.  I knew what was coming, and mentally prepared myself for it, so I thought that time for reflection and re-assessment was unnecessary.  Without giving myself that time, I didn’t even realize what I was doing to myself.  This relates to another lesson learned in my summer program, which is not to over-plan.  I had planned every minute detail of every class and every day, forgetting that the best teaching moments are often spontaneous and unscripted.  There is a delicate balance between planning and spontaneity that leads to the most optimal teaching and learning experiences, and when I am not exhausted and thought-deprived I have often been able to find that balance, or at least stumble upon it accidentally.  With a stale mind, I was completely unable to adapt and seize onto teachable moments as they passed, nor did I leave time for those moments to flower.

At the end of the summer, my biggest fear was that I would allow this to happen a third time.  Because despite the exhaustion and pain and the feeling that I had lost myself and failed my students, the most immediate lesson I learned was that I could do the impossible, accomplishing an incredible amount of work in such a short time.  I thought that now that I knew I could do it, however painfully, I would be tempted to do it again in the future.  This time I feel confident that I have learned the real lesson, and it has been integrated with independent exploration and meaningful experiences in my mind.  Already this experience has led to the overturning of my priorities.  Work was kicked out of its top place, with the realization that however important or worthwhile or fulfilling it is, my life should not be subservient to my job.  Now I also know that whether learning or teaching something new, or working on a demanding project, it is a perfectly legitimate and necessary part of the process to go for a long walk and think about absolutely nothing.

Here’s to a New Year of new experiences, new ideas and new lessons learned through reflection and integration.