The Ones I’ve Loved

Air BalloonsThis afternoon, my friend Kate and I discussed our love lives over Mapo tofu and bamboo shoots. It’d been a long time since I described my previous relationships in detail, especially to a disinterested party. The last time I talked about my exes, it was with my most recent ex. Today, as I attempted to describe what love meant to me — how I knew I loved and how I knew I was loved — I realized that something had changed in me since the last time I told this story. Perhaps, after having experienced more love, different kinds of love, self-love in these past months, I have learned another dimension of love. Today, when I spoke of people who have long left my life, I realized that I loved each of them in my own way. I realized that the love I had for them never left, never faded. Instead, the person I was when I loved them retained that love and altogether they drifted away like air balloons ascending the sky. Yet the string that ties them to me remains, and if I wish to, I can tug the line and reel the balloon back to me and see our love story encapsulated by inflatable canvas.

Because I wasn’t the girl who cried and watched Netflix and ate ice cream, people thought that breakups didn’t affect me. Because I was always the one who initiated breakups, people thought that I didn’t truly love. Because I stopped talking about my exes, cut them out of my life, people thought that I moved on heartlessly. At a certain point, I believed all of those things about myself. I believed that I was incapable of loving any of my exes as much as they’d loved me. I believed that every “I love you” or “forever and always” I uttered was naïve at best and disingenuous at worst.

Although none of us made it to the end of time, I believe now that my promises were true. I will love all of them forever and always. I believe that there is nothing between now and my deathbed that could change the way I feel about them. As the years pass, they feel more and more distant. Their faces, voices, and touch gradually escape my recollection, but the love I feel for them never grows dull. In the past, whenever I saw elderly people crying as they recounted moments of great loss in their lives, I would be astonished. After so many years and so many retellings, I marveled, how could they still feel so strongly? Now, I’m starting to understand. When I’m old and weary, these are the people who will bring tears to my eyes. Collectively, they taught me what love is. They showed me what unconditional, selfless love looked like when I had rarely glimpsed it before them. They equipped me with the tools to love them back and to love others after them. Together, they gave me the confidence to love myself.

In the past, I also tried to rank the ones I loved — that one I was truly in love with, that one loved me but I didn’t love him back, that one I thought I loved but I didn’t. Now, I know that such an effort is both futile and disrespectful. There is no comparison to be made when it comes to love. After all, it wasn’t the same me that loved each of them. At the time when I said “I love you”, they were the love of my life. There was a time when I considered being with each of them for the rest of my life, if only to bring them happiness. There was a time when their happiness was paramount over mine, and if that isn’t love, then what is it?

Now, as I embark on the dawn of a new relationship, I feel like I’ve finally come to terms with the ones I’ve loved. Instead of comparing my current boyfriend Augustus to my exes, though, I find that I am simply thankful for all my exes gave to me that I am now able to give to Gus. The love I have for the ones in my past doesn’t compete with my capacity to love in the present. I know that when I say “I love you” to Gus, I’ll mean it with my whole heart. I know that when I say “forever and always”, I’ll keep that promise to my grave. I know that I am not only capable of great love, but that I have much, much more love to give.

How have you loved and been loved?

Salut,

R

That Halfway Point

Long Winding RoadJust like that, we’re halfway through November and, by extension, NaNoWriMo. With 66,395 words overall and 26,395 of those written in November, I’m just a hair behind the 1667 words-per-day pace, but I’m not too concerned. I’ll probably catch up this week and I don’t necessarily plan to finish NaNo this year. Unlike my NaNo project last year, which ended up around 120k, I don’t expect this novel to reach 90k like I’d originally planned. This one will be closer to the 80k of my second novel — short and sweet. I can see the finish line now, and that’s always an exciting phase of writing.

I’m also approaching the halfway point on a different goal. About six months ago, I committed myself to singlehood for a year. It was an arbitrary number. What I really wanted was to be single “for a while”, and a year seemed like a good long while. The first month of these past six felt like a year, but the rest has shot by in the blink of an eye. Now, as I stand on the foothill that is the halfway benchmark, I wonder to myself: am I happier? Healthier? Stronger? When I look back, I tend to see my struggles: flying to New York to mourn a relationship that had died a winter ago, hooking up with another ex, rekindling and unfriending my friend-with-benefits, falling for inappropriate guy #1, falling for inappropriate guy #2, finally breaking things off with ex-from-last-winter, sleeping with my best friend. When I look back, I see myself cycling through the same patterns of highs and lows. When I look back, I am blind to my progress.

But the reality is that I have made a lot of progress. Just like my current novel, which has been neglected at times due to work and friends, my journey of self-improvement and healing hasn’t always been steady. At times, my judgment has lapsed. At times, I’ve taken the detour because it was more enticing and I had to take the long route back to the main road. At times, I’ve felt like nothing has changed at all. The same way 1k became 2k and 2k became 20k, though, my mental state has strengthened. Most importantly, I have been true to myself and what I really want. I have lived, certainly, and I have taken plenty of risk, but I have done so within the range of my own boundaries. At the same time, I’ve pushed my boundaries in healthy ways. I joined a Meetup group that I thought would be full of old folks and ended up making the best friends I’ve had in a long time. Last week, we went running in freezing temperatures and I made it all the way around Gallop Park. As I hate running, that was quite a feat. Today, we went climbing at Planet Rock and, despite my self-doubts, I reached the top. Afterwards, we were sure to eat back all the calories we burned in tamales, tortas, and tacos. I’m still full.

Like NaNo, the finish line for my yearlong singlehood is flexible. I won’t hold myself to it, because it’s no longer necessary. Being single now is not a punishment, nor is it unbearable. Now, I have too much to lose, I am too content, and I know too much about pain to give this up for just anyone. The next relationship that I get into will have to knock my socks off, because I’m pretty damn good at knocking my own socks off.

Keep Calm You're Halfway Through

Keep calm, my fellow NaNo writers. You’re halfway through. As for everyone else, I don’t know what personal goals you’re working towards, but I wish you luck in getting there. This too shall pass.

À plus tard,

R

Fall Update

Rebecca Enjoying Fall

Enjoying the last of fall weather in the Arb.

I figured today was the last day it’d be appropriate to do a fall update (brr weather incoming), so here it goes. I’m feeling much better than when I wrote this post. Things are up and down as always, but I think that a lot of what I’m feeling are the typical symptoms of being a confused, single 20-something with zero job prospects on the horizon. Okay, that’s not quite true. I am gainfully employed part-time as a GRE instructor and I am getting incredible experience as a law clerk at a nonprofit. And as of Halloween, I am officially going to law school. That’s right — got my first acceptance! But it’s a long road still to being financially independent or to starting the kind of career I want. Writing-wise, publication feels so distant that I dare not dream of it. I feel like this is the opposite of the college life. Instead of having all the freedom in the world without the accompanying responsibilities, right now I have all the responsibilities and none of the freedom.

This has been on my mind a lot — the Millennial experience. I’m not sure if it’s simply a youth thing, like teenage angst, that every generation goes through, or if there is something unique about growing up as a Millennial. Other people have given Millennials a bad rap, simultaneously claiming that we are special and somehow we have it harder than those who came before us. If Lena Dunham and Molly Sprayregen are the voices of our generation, then we are nothing more than a passive, whiny, jealous bunch who will point the finger at anyone else but ourselves.

I don’t think that’s true.

While I do think that there are certain struggles we face that our parents didn’t, I don’t think Dunham and “The Brain on 23″ identify them correctly. I don’t think Millennials are irresponsible partiers who still suckle at the parental teat well into their 20s. I think the Millennial story is about the skyrocketing cost of education in a world where a college diploma is the obligatory ticket to financial stability, the weight of student loans on top of job-hunting in an increasingly competitive and difficult market, and the fear and desperate need for intimate relationships hindered by the fact that the majority of us come from fractured families. There is one thing that Dunham and Sprayregen got right, though — we all have no idea what the fuck we’re doing. Yet I’m not so sure if that ever changes, no matter your generation or your age.

Coincidentally, I’m writing my fourth novel about just that, us Millennials. I don’t claim to be the voice of my generation or even a voice of my generation. I just want to write about the difficulties that I see myself and many of my friends facing every day. Some of those are the same for people of all ages; some of them are unique to us. I don’t want to creative a narrative or a propaganda piece. I don’t want to beg for sympathy or preferential treatment. I just want to write something that’s true and real, though it may be fiction.

Three films I saw recently spring to mind. The first is Spike Jonze’s Her, the second is Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, and the last is David Fincher’s Gone Girl. I loved Her and Boyhood for the same reasons, though they took very different approaches — because they were modest works that didn’t purport to say something about the human experience, but in the process, ended up reflecting the human experience. If an alien landed on earth in his UFO and wanted to know what it was like to be a human on earth in the 2000s, I’d give him Her and Boyhood on a flash drive. What I wouldn’t show him is Gone Girl. Honestly, the only reason I’ve been complaining so much about Gone Girl is because of people’s unexpected response to it. Instead of labeling it as a badly executed psychological thriller, so many insist that it’s a statement on the modern marriage. Someone even said that Rosamund Pike’s character Amy was an accurate portrayal of mental illness. I’ve done my fair share of bitching about this film, so I’ll spare you the details and just say that I disagree.

I want to write a Her or a Boyhood. I’ve always been a character-driven writer, but thus far haven’t found the right characters. This time around, I might have found the sweet spot. Let’s hope so, because I’m already 50,000 words in. My agent and I are equally excited — her because I’ve finally written something with mass appeal and me because I’m writing the book I wish someone would have written for me.

How’s that post-grad life treating you?

À bientôt,

R

CW: Extroversion, BPD, and My Therapist

Coping With...

This post is part of the Coping with… series, in which I will share my experiences with Borderline Personality Disorder. Whether you also have BPD or you struggle with depression, anxiety, and stress, I hope this series will be helpful to you.

I’ve come a long way since my last post in this series. A lot of things have changed since then; I have changed. Yet a lot remains the same — I am still coping with the single life. Every day is a struggle, every day is a toss-up. I never know when I’ll wake up and there will be shackles around my ankles, making each small task harder by tenfold. When I am alone, I rarely taste happiness. There are moments of satisfaction, pride, joy, but they are fleeting. I monitor myself like a terminal patient hooked up to a dozen machines. When my mood dips, I force myself to take a step back from the Internet or cook a nice meal or curl up in bed. I’m good at taking care of myself these days. Unfortunately, I feel like all those little comforts — the bag of Lindt truffles, the bundle of organic cotton yarn, the freshly done laundry — only keep my nose above water. The rest of me is always flailing, always fighting not to drown.

My problem is not that I can’t be single; my problem is that I can’t be alone. Part of that is because I am an extreme extrovert. I feel better around people, I draw energy from others, and simply knowing that I will see another human being in an hour can get me through the next 59 minutes. The other part of that is BPD. I recently told my therapist that, when I’m alone, I feel invisible. When in my own presence, I am an amorphous blob of cells and needs. A blob that has a lot of needs, in fact. And my job is to take care of those needs, constantly, repeatedly, indefinitely. It’s exhausting sometimes. I am so disconnected from that blob that I don’t have sympathy for it; sometimes, I pity it for its endless and futile need to be alive.

When I’m with other people, I feel great. Well, at least with the right kind of people. The kind of people who reflect back to me who I am, and suddenly it’s like the blob becomes a fully formed human being. A human who is fun, smart, attractive. In those moments, I see myself clearly and I like what I see. Yesterday, I had one of the best days I’ve had in a long time. I woke up late, hit the gym (hey, I managed to go solo!), had a nice brunch at Northside with good friends I hadn’t seen in a while, and then drove out to Pinckney with other awesome friends to desecrate the Potawatomi Trail with our typical jokes of the bathroom variety. The trails were framed by trees in full fall glory and the air was perfectly crisp. After hiking, we drove out to Hell, Michigan for the obligatory tourist selfie. Then, we returned to Ann Arbor and shared an authentic Chinese meal family-style. Honestly, that was the closest thing I’ve had to a family meal in a very long time. Finally, we capped off the night at a local bar. This time, I did not end up lying in the middle of the street. Baby steps, right?

Fall Hiking Trail

But days like that inevitably end. I can’t always be with my friends; I shouldn’t always be with them. I am well aware of the fact that I should be able to see myself without having to look through the filter of someone else’s eyes. I wish I could feel like the person I know objectively I am. I wish I could believe that I am intelligent, strong, kind without the voice in my head telling me I am fake, weak, selfish. I wish I could congratulate myself for working hard without the accompanying echo: not hard enough. I wish my pride for own my achievements would linger, instead of evaporate instantly, leaving behind a trail of smoke spelling: “what is the point?” I wish I could see myself the way other people see me without needing them to remind me.

What I know is this: my wishes will come true. Not today, not tomorrow, and not in the near future perhaps, but someday they will be my reality. I also know that — with each excruciating minute I spend with this blob of mine instead of chasing ephemeral highs, making people I don’t love fall in love with me, sealing my heart against every emotion of 22 years past — I am one step closer to that reality. For my journey, the old adage rings true: no pain, no gain.

Before I turn around and continue on my way, I’d like to take a moment to thank all the people in my life who keep me sane. To the Alaskan, thank you for calling me every week and sharing your life with me, despite our three-hour time difference and the fact we’ve never met. To my high school buddy, thank you for messaging me and confessing that you also have BPD, even though the last time I saw you we were trying to destroy ourselves together. To my best friend, thank you for sticking with me — that is all. To my “oldest” friend, thank you for joining my one-person knitting club and throwing an insult my way when I need it the most. To my mom, thank you for always trying to be the best parent you can be. To all of you, thank you for being the rest stops when there is an infinite stretch of highway in front of me. Thank you for reading.

Mille mercis,

R

Why Americans Should Care About Hong Kong

Umbrella Revolution

Courtesy Aaron Tam/AFP/Getty Images.

The American media tends to care about terrorists, Ebola, and occasionally an unprecedented stand for democracy. The Hong Kong protests fall into this latter category, and that is why we’ve seen any coverage of it at all. Yet coverage like this tends to die out quickly when there is no more sensation. Americans often become jaded in the aftermath of revolutions such as Occupy Wall Street, the ousting of Saddam Hussein, and the Arab Spring. Three years after the Occupy movement, income inequality is as pervasive as ever in this country. Usurping Saddam only led to a power vacuum that the U.S. failed to fill and eventually vacated to ISIS. The Arab Spring precipitated a game of musical chairs of governments in Egypt. It’s easy to understand why an American might click on an article about the Hong Kong protests, look over a few photos, share it on Facebook, and be done with his duty as a civilian. There is, however, an essential difference that makes Hong Kong particularly relevant to Americans and, frankly, everyone in the world. Unlike ISIS, the People’s Republic of China has the capacity to start a world war.

Now, I’m not saying that a world war is imminent or even probable; I’m saying that it’s possible. The problem is that no one ever expects disaster. Before the Holocaust, Hitler was simply Germany’s democratically elected leader with a funny mustache and poor social skills. Before Pearl Harbor, the U.S. thought Japan wouldn’t dare touch a country that was the newly minted world #1 power. Before 9/11, America had enjoyed nearly 60 years without war on her land, and the attacks seemingly came out of the blue. The truth is that disaster is never random — it always arises from an extremely unlikely combination of resources, motivations, and personalities. Because psychology is not always rational, it is useless to argue logic in the case of Hong Kong v. the PRC. Yes, logically it would disadvantageous for China to antagonize Hong Kong. It would be idiotic to commit a repeat of Tiananmen Square and prompt the international community to implement economic sanctions. It would be suicide to wage war agains the United States.

The PRC, while many things, is not rational. Despite the fact that China is on target to surpass the U.S. as the leading world economy within a year or two, the central Chinese government still views itself as highly vulnerable. In their eyes, China is under the siege of so many existential threats, both internal and external, that the possibility of collapse is inevitable unless it takes extraordinary offensive measures. These offensive measures include amassing as much wealth as possible, playing chicken with the U.S. navy in the surrounding seas, and reintegrating Hong Kong and Taiwan. Most importantly, China does not view the U.S. as a fading world power that is increasingly dependent on the Chinese workforce. On the contrary, in the Chinese worldview, the U.S. is the enemy in a dog-eat-dog world in which only the fittest will survive. Andrew J. Nathan and Andrew Scobell write for Foreign Affairs:

Whether they see the United States primarily through a culturalist, Marxist, or realist lens, most Chinese strategists assume that a country as powerful as the United States will use its power to preserve and enhance its privileges and will treat efforts by other countries to protect their interests as threats to its own security. This assumption leads to a pessimistic conclusion: as China rises, the United States will resist.

China is convinced that the U.S. is hellbent on its destruction and that it is more than willing to use weapons of massive destruction in an ideological fight to the death. This is the psychological context in which the Hong Kong protests are taking place. For the PRC, this confrontation with Hong Kong is 1) of critical national importance, in the sense that Beijing must win and 2) a method of testing the water in terms of international reaction. Much like the way the Nazi regime used the Spanish Civil War to test its military strength and call the international community’s bluff, China is now employing Hong Kong as a pawn in its “war” with the United States. So far, the reaction from the Obama administration has been one of deafening silence. While Washington’s silence is no doubt strategic and probably beneficial in the short term, I fear that China will take it as a show of weakness or apathy.

Though the PRC is far from provoking anything on the level of the Spanish Civil War, it certainly possesses the motivations and paranoias that predispose it to heading down that path. In the coming years, as China continues to rise and the U.S. continues its decline, a clash seems inevitable. Whether that clash is on the scale of a Cold War-style proxy war or a full-blown world war remains to be seen. Right now, though, our best litmus test for the future is to carefully follow China’s every move with Hong Kong and Taiwan. If China intends to embark on an imperial quest of world domination, surely it will start with the two territories to which it has the most legitimate claim. As a key player of the international community, and the one China views as singularly important, the United States must not follow in the footsteps of London during the Spanish Civil War; neutrality is not a position we can afford to take.

The Umbrella Revolution of 2014 is only the beginning.

The Things That Matter

Street at NightLast night, somewhere around 1 am, I lay down in the middle of an empty street and listened to the silence of the pavement. The sky was blank. It wasn’t clear enough to see the stars, and light pollution had turned the black into grey. My hair was pressed against the gravel, but I didn’t think about what had been there before me and what would come after me. I gambled my life. The first time a car passed, I stared at my illuminated feet and waited for the light to pass. The second time a car passed, I sat up and looked into the headlights, wondering if perhaps I should be afraid.

I was not afraid.

There are so many things that can go wrong. You can avoid cigarettes, except that one puff when peer pressure overcame your sense of self-preservation, and die in your 30s of lung cancer. You can strip and go skinny-dipping in a pool of water so clear you can count the guppies at the bottom and contract an amoeba that snacks on your brain. You can follow your friend down a snowbank, steeper than you would like, and tumble as your skis snap and mark a trail of death behind you. What is the difference between me and a skydiver or a Nascar driver or a free solo climber? The fact that their pursuit requires a degree of skill, and therefore nobility? I don’t think we’re all that different. In the end, we’re all looking for momentary solace in a world that strips humans of the very thing that defines us.

The heartbeat. The pulse. The multiplication and division of cells. We’re the only species in this world that has long forgotten what it feels like to fear for our lives a dozen times between breakfast and dinner. We’ve forgotten what it means to be alive, because we’ve forgotten what it is to face death. The domestication of humans goes far beyond that of cats and dogs. Did you know that, upon successful intercourse, a female cat writhes and thrashes like an eel out of water? It’s instinctual. Somehow, it helps the sperm meet the egg. Can you imagine what would happen if a woman did that every time post coitus? It would be weird, terrifying even. But they’re not the weird ones; we are. We, who’ve lost the instinct to be human, except perhaps for the Duggars.

These are the things that matter.

No, I don’t mean birthing 19 children, either out of desire to please your lord or manipulate natural selection. I mean maintaining some sort of connection with the most basic human urges, emotions, sensations. We’re not designed for today’s society, one that defines us by our LSAT score, GPA, and salary. In the context of life and death, who the hell cares about what you do for a living? Who cares if you’re Ivy League-smart or Victoria’s Secret-beautiful? Who cares about your idealistic and ultimately selfish passion to change the world? Who, besides your mother, cares that you have three novels in the drawer and you’re the next Virginia Woolf? I know that, if I saw the dark at the end of the tunnel, I would care about what I’d done. I would care if I had felt everything the human experience has to offer. The light and the heavy. The pure and the despicable. The ice and the fire. I would want to have suffered great lost. I would want to have lost great love. I would want to have hated, as evidence that I had loved. I would want to have cried, as evidence that I once laughed.

These are the things that matter.

Last night, as I looked that oncoming mass of metal in the eye, and saw the light that could take me to dark, I knew that I hadn’t lived enough. I wasn’t ready to die. I hadn’t done enough, felt enough, loved enough. I would have been sad to be taken. But you know what? Almost. I’ve almost had enough, if enough even exists. I could have left yesterday without what-ifs and do-overs.

These are the things that matter.

Not A Humble Brag

Rebecca Cao Happy

I wake up and smile.

I haven’t been blogging much these days, and I’m really sorry. There have been times when I thought of something I could write about, but by the time I sat down, I lost the impulse. Part of that has been my extremely busy schedule. After a 9-5 day (okay, more like 9-4), my brain is absolutely fried. I think I need to learn how to take breaks. Now I finally understand the need for all those NSFW tags — it’s because people spend half their workdays on Reddit. I think it’s nearly impossible for anybody to work nonstop at full productivity for 8 hours. I’ve always hated taking breaks because I feel like they’re stop signs in the middle of a highway. After I put on the brakes, it takes so much more gas to accelerate back up to 80 mph. Anyway, so I’ve been working 7ish hours straight every day and I come home and drift in and out of consciousness for a few hours. On a good day, I manage to clean the litter box and wash my dishes. Then, I usually have something to do in the evening like teach GRE, play squash, or hang out with friends.

So yeah, busy’s been part of it. You know what the other part was? I’m simply not angsty enough. Me, not angsty. A foreign idea, right? I’m not angry enough to rant about the injustice of the world. Sometimes, I get mad at arrogant, judgmental people and I almost want to lecture them about their narrow-minded ideas, but my anger quickly dissipates. Eventually, all I want to write about is how well life is going for me. And, well, nobody wants to hear about that. I know that I get annoyed every time someone posts a selfie of herself in Paris for her study abroad program and captions it: “My life is amazingggg OMG!”

I didn’t want to write a humble brag. But I really am inspired now to share a few things with you, so hopefully it doesn’t come off as that way.

I’ve learned more about myself, what I care about, what I want, and what I need in the past few months since my graduation than in my entire college career combined. College is a great time where you’re shielded from responsibility, insulated from the harsh realities of the adult life. I loved all four years of it. But goddamn, I do not want to go back. Recently, I made a new friend who just started her first semester and I love reliving my freshman year through her. I’m so glad, though, that I’ll never have to go back. Adulthood is hard. Adulthood means that everything falls on you, and I’m not just talking about the bills. What I mean is that you have to learn how to take care of yourself, in every sense. It means sticking your hand down the drain to scoop out rotten food. It means doing the dishes within 24 hours because that stuff bothers you now. It means asking your landlord to fix the water pressure in the bathroom. It also means not freaking out when you leave the dishes in the sink too long and fruit flies invade your kitchen.

Yes, adulthood is hard. But it’s also rewarding and liberating. I’ve never given less a shit about absolutely everything, and that’s awesome. I’m not apathetic; I’m still very passionate about my goals and dreams. I’ve just learned to accept and embrace failure. I’ve learned that I don’t have to be the best. I’ve learned that there are hundreds of jobs I could have, hundreds of places I could live, hundreds of people I could befriend…and with any combination of the three, I would be happy. Because I am happy now. I am happy now at what is arguably the most lacking point of my life. I don’t have money; I don’t have a family (as in husband, dog, baby, white-picket fence); I don’t really have a career. And yet I feel like I have so much. I have people who care about me, I have the best job I could have at this moment, I have a beautiful apartment, I have the best kitty.

I have possibility. I just applied to my sixth law school today and I could be hearing back in the next few weeks. I have a very good chance at getting into my dream school, and I’m surer than ever that I would be happy there. I’m ready to move to New York — Big Apple, bring it on. A while ago, I mused about the conundrum of having it all. Was it possible to have it all? Did we already have it all? You know what I think now? I do have it all. I have absolutely no complaints about my life right now. I don’t think I’ve said anything negative about my life to anyone, including myself, for many months. I wake up, I see my cat patiently waiting for her breakfast, and I smile.

Blueberry Being Cute

What does happiness feel like for you?

Au revoir,

R

I’m Writing Again

What's the flame in your heart that can't be extinguished?

What’s the flame in your heart that can’t be extinguished?

I know I’ve been missing in action for a while. No, I’m not dead — I’m writing again. Yes, I’ve said that a few times already, but the truth is that I haven’t really been writing. I haven’t committed, in the way that you must when you take on a project as time-consuming, demanding, and narcissistic as a novel. The novel tugs at your shirt sleeves all day and all night, asking, “Am I good? Am I bad? What am I? Who will love me? Where are you taking me? Are we there yet?” Sound familiar? I’ve compared novel-writing to human gestation before and the analogy is truer than ever. You can’t just grow a human half-heartedly, tending to its needs when it’s convenient for you. Morning sickness doesn’t care that it’s nighttime. Your burgeoning belly and heavy feet are a daily reminder of the commitment you’ve undertaken.

I haven’t had the time to write for a while now. Before that, I didn’t have the emotional and creative fuel. My last novel was a enormous undertaking that I was ultimately unable to carry and I was left with its carcass in my arms, desperately trying to turn skin and bones into the living. It took more than half a year to move on. And then I felt it again — that itch, that urge that told me something was missing. That told me I could never be whole, could never be me, without my writing.

So I took my already jam-packed busy life and carved out some room. This past week, before work, during my breaks, while I proctored the ACT, all weekend long, I wrote. Starting today, I’m gradually shifting my sleep schedule so that I can put in two hours every day before work. I don’t know where this project is going yet — it’s still in those early stages, the ones fraught with doubt. It could easily be discarded, but I’m okay with that now. At this point in the game, I’ve learned to let go of the ones who don’t make it. It’s easier to say goodbye at 2 weeks than 40.

Recently, I talked about the pressure of publication. The truth is that it’s both a pressure and a hope. As long as that hope is alive, it keeps the light in my heart burning. As long as I have hope, I will keep writing. And the day I lose that hope, I will be just as relieved as I will be melancholy. Because then I will be able to write solely for myself, and that is a freedom. Either way, I will never, ever stop writing.

That is how I know I’m a writer.

A Declaration

Back then, at first snow, I'd rush outside with my film camera.

Back then, at first snow, I’d rush outside with my film camera.

It’s been a while since I felt like this. I don’t remember when the last time was — perhaps a year ago, two years ago? I know that I was good at feeling like this when I was younger. Before I broke hearts and had my heart broken. Before I cared more about my GPA than my Friday night plans. Before I started writing fiction for publication instead of for myself. Back then, I just didn’t give a damn. I lived on my whims, chasing every possibility that fluttered my way. My greatest fear was missing out on an aspect of the human experience.

So yes, in short, I was young and stupid.

Although I have no desire to go back to young Rebecca, this feeling I used to have so frequently is something I’ve missed without knowing it. It’s the feeling I’d get every time I turned to the first page of a crisp new book. It’s the feeling I’d get every time I walked through security at the airport. It’s the feeling I’d get every time I woke up early and counted the dew drops on blades of grass, felt the frigid air piercing my skin. When it beckoned to me, I’d drop anything and follow it. I drove halfway to Mackinac Island once before Phineas convinced me to come back to Ann Arbor, where I had a midterm scheduled on Monday. I skipped my classes to go to Starbucks and write angry, angsty short stories about men who cheated on their wives. I made playlists filled with Leonard Cohen and Florence and the Machine, and listened to them on repeat.

How to describe it? It’s a thirst for life. Excitement for endless possibilities. Curiosity for the unknown. Naïveté of the innocent.

This feeling used to consume me, ridding my life of consistency, responsibility, accountability. It was a miracle I didn’t fail any of my courses, and I know that I was lucky. If you were my friend during this time, I sincerely apologize. I was a shitty friend, if you could even count on me to show up. To the men I hurt, je m’excuse. I used you to get the same high that life gave me. I loved you for loving me, for broadening my human experience, but you deserved to be loved for more than that.

Slowly, I relinquished the feeling. I stopped feeling as if, every day, there was something bigger out there calling my name. I didn’t feel the need to escape. I found comfort in doing exactly what was expected of me. I began to feel as though I’d experienced it all — short of marriage and motherhood, life had little else to offer me. You could say that I simply grew up, and that that’s okay. But you know what? That’s not okay with me. I’m 22 years old, and I’ve only experienced a fraction of the world. I’ve met so few people and seen so few sunrises. Everything is out there. Everything is possible. Everything awaits me.

This is a declaration. To never fail to be in awe of life. To know that, above all, what matters more than anything is to live. To taste every experience, to hoard them and devour them, to remember them. Children are so much better than we adults are at simply living, appreciating each moment for what it truly is. They see straight through the bullshit that society constructs — resumes, salaries, credentials. Though I’m going to keep showing up at work and tracking my budget, I don’t want these things to consume me. I don’t want law school to define me. I want to know that, at any moment, I could step away from my career, move to rural China, and be okay with that. I don’t want to become so attached to any city, job, or house that I couldn’t walk away. The only things I wish to hold tightly are the people, the memories, and the cat.

Yes, this cat.

Yes, this cat.

Do you think you’ve become jaded as you’ve grown older? What do you miss about your younger self?

À plus tard,

R

10 Things I Learned in My First Week of Work

Fruit Basket

Chocolate-covered strawberries = another reason why I have the best job.

When I first decided to take a gap year, I thought I knew exactly what I would be doing. Either a Fulbright or Princeton in Asia scholarship, one that would take me overseas and thousands of miles away from Ann Arbor. I didn’t allow myself to consider the possibility that both would reject me. Okay, well maybe my parents forced me to consider it briefly. Even then, however, I was confident that I would find a nice-paying yearlong position in NYC or DC or even Paris. When my plans started unraveling one by one, my trepidation grew. What if I couldn’t find anything to do for an entire year? The workaholic in me blanched. What if, because I didn’t have the prestige of Fulbright or PiA attached to my name, my law school application failed? The overachiever in me stewed. What if, because I made a mistake in my applications, it prevented me from having a once-in-a-lifetime experience? The idealist in me mulled.

My decision to stay in Ann Arbor was less a decision than a consequence. After applying to positions all over the globe, most in the nonprofit legal field, I realized that these jobs were 1) far and few between and 2) highly competitive. Less than a week after I emailed MIRC about internship opportunities, however, my now supervisor responded. He said that they were always looking for interns, and that I should come in for an interview. At first, I was skeptical. This was just too good to be true — their website stated that they only looked for law students for interns. During the interview, he asked me more questions about my schedule than my experience. I’m pretty sure he barely glanced at my resume. Just like that, I was hired.

Then, I proceeded to spend a month visiting various friends and family around the world. I had no idea what awaited me upon my return. On Tuesday, July 8th, I got up after a less-than-ideal night of sleep, gave myself a pep talk, and walked over to Huron Street. This past week, I had my first full week of work. It was more challenging, rewarding, inspiring, fulfilling, and interesting than I could ever have predicted. Though I still have a lot to learn, I’m starting to realize why taking a gap year is so important. And I wanted to share all the things I’m learning with you.

10 Things I Learned in my First Week

  1. How to operate a phone. All you older people can laugh at me now. It’s been a while since I used a phone with an actual cord and receiver. Apart from technical issues, I’ve always dreaded talking to people over the phone. I stutter, I’m awkward, and I forget what I wanted to talk about. After answering the phone dozens of times a day and speaking to people in formal Spanish and French, however, I’m just relieved when I can begin with a simple, “Hi, Michigan Immigrant Rights Center.”
  2. How to operate a copy/fax machine. Similar to the dilemma above, I’ve always had an irrational fear of copy/fax machines. Seriously, I think they will eat me or give me cancer, something like that. Unfortunately for me, I’ve had to get over this phobia pronto, as everything we mail in our office must be copied and stored in the client’s file.
  3. Every question on the N-400 in English, Spanish, and French. This is the naturalization form and it’s 21 pages long. My favorite question is 13A, especially the WTF faces it always gets from the client: “Between March 23, 1933 and May 8, 1945, did you work for or associate with in any way with the Nazi government of Germany?”
  4. That I’m okay with Spanish and French. I was terrified that my language skills wouldn’t hold up in daily conversation or on-the-spot interpretation, but I’ve fared better than I thought. I still have a long way to go, but I feel proud to be able to translate entire legal documents on the fly.
  5. That abuse doesn’t discriminate. Many of our clients seek our guidance because they are trapped in domestic violence situations. Sometimes, they are women. Sometimes, they are men. Sometimes, they are old. Sometimes, they are young, younger than me.
  6. That citizenship is a huge privilege. Many of us born in the United States take our American citizenship for granted, but it is such a privilege that we didn’t earn. So many people around the world would give anything for that status. Lack of citizenship makes it impossible for people to work, to see their families, to escape totalitarian regimes.
  7. That marriage is a big deal. Legally, I mean. Just looking through divorce and child custody agreements makes me think twice about getting married. No matter what you do from the moment you are married, like file for a tax return or apply for naturalization, you are bonded to your spouse. There’s even a question on the N-400 that deals with your spouse’s prior spouses. You have to know their date of births, immigration status, date of marriage. It’s absolutely insane, especially for a client who isn’t in contact with her spouse because he was abusive to her.
  8. What I want in a job. I know now, more than ever, what I’m looking for in a future career/job. I always knew that academia wasn’t for me; it’s too abstract and not sufficiently hands-on. I like to see immediate results and work directly with the people I’m helping. Moreover, I want to look around at my colleagues and realize that everyone is working for the right reasons — not for money or prestige, but for passion and the desire to change the world.
  9. That I’m definitely going to law school. You might wonder why I’d even doubt this, as I’ve already taken the LSAT and started my applications. But I’ve always been a fickle person, and I left room for myself to change my mind. Now, I’m more sure than ever than a legal education is necessary for me to make the kind of impact I want to in society. After talking to several people in law school, I’m hopeful that I’ll enjoy the process as well as the result.
  10. That my life is damned good. I’m not trying to brag or anything. Happiness is relative, after all. But working with under-privileged people every day makes me feel so, so lucky for the life that I have. They remind me of what really matters in life — being safe and being with the people you love.

In short, I couldn’t be happier with my job. I’m excited to get to the office every day and I couldn’t think of a better place to spend my gap year. Things really do work out for the best.

Did you take a gap year? How did starting you first job change your perspective?

Ciao,

R