o captain, my captain
It doesn’t make any sense, but this has always been the line that comes to mind when I think of my grandfather. My grandfather, the Qing scholar, the lifelong academic, my mother’s favorite. And this is the only thing I can think of now that he’s gone. That, and how strange it is that the 23rd is such a popular death day for people I like.
I hope, against all odds, that there is an afterlife, and it looks like a library with soft lighting and dark wooden window seats and a gigantic collection of leather-bound books that automatically change when you’ve read them, and he and my mother can now geek out together about Chinese history and literary heroes.
letter to future me
Dear Future Me,
I keep trying to reach you, and I think I’ve gotten a little lost. (I never did have a very good sense of direction.) I wish I could just not mind being lost, but I strongly suspect that I have control issues.
The other day, someone was telling me about how he’s trying to be more present instead of constantly striving to become his ideal future self. Clearly, I fail at that. This entire letter is proof.
I told my friend and her boyfriend recently that I thought they were freakishly mature and misrepresent what people around our age should be like. By which I mean they are in their early to mid 20s and have their shit together, and most people I know—myself included—definitely do not. And I talk to them and think maybe we should, and I get scared that I’m taking too long or maybe won’t ever find my way, and no one else in my life will either.
I keep thinking of this line from The Perks of Being a Wallflower: "We accept the love we think we deserve." And I think of most people I know, and I suspect we don’t think very highly of ourselves. This is a natural part of the coming-of-age story, and it’s totally fine for people to be a little lost in adolescence and young adulthood, but I feel like that story should have ended by now for most of us. Shouldn’t it?
When I was young, I thought that I’d reach 18, and everything would magically be perfect. I would be intelligent and charming and beautiful and wildly successful, but in the meantime I could be totally immature and lost and stupid, and it was all okay. And then I reached 18 and extended my deadline to 20, then 21, then…the indefinite future.
Future Me, I know you’re not going to be perfect. I know you are going to be the product of current me and whatever experiences I accumulate in the meantime, so maybe I should try to gear those experiences more towards reaching the “you” I want to be. But I’m not. And even though it doesn’t feel like it, I want to say that’s okay. Because maybe the “you” I want to be isn’t the “you” I’m meant to be.
being sick makes me thoughtful and weird
After managing to escape illness for a record-breaking 16 weeks, my body finally crapped out again.
And I know exactly where I went wrong, but it’s hard to stop yourself sometimes, you know? I’m getting totally restless and crazy, because I don’t do well with inactivity, but I’m also really grateful because it could be so much worse.
1. I am not in the hospital with a near-fatal case of pneumonia, and I can breathe without an oxygen tube.
2. Last week, I was walking to school, and I stepped two inches away from where a bird was about to shit. It felt like the universe was saying, “Hey girl, I know you’re feeling kind of crappy right now, so I’m making up for that and for all the other crappy things that have happened by not having this bird shit on your head. You’re welcome.” Thanks, Universe.
3. When unfortunate things happen now, I have faith that I’ll always be okay, even if I am a total crazy sadcase at the time. I will still be a total crazy sadcase sometimes, and I will overreact and have existential moments, especially (exclusively?) when I’m PMSing. (That totally happens. Deal with it.) But you know what? My worst nightmare came true a few years ago, and I’m okay. And my worst nightmare doesn’t even begin to compare to a lot of people’s reality. So…everything else is just peanuts.
I got to thinking the other day about something a friend said. It wasn’t fair, she cried, that such terrible things can happen to such good people. Like actual fatal things and traumatic abuse and people dying all the time terrible.
And I thought about The Kite Runner, which I’ve just re-read. And I thought of those trite, condescending things people like to say: “Life isn’t fair.” and “Sometimes, bad things happen to good people.” They’re such stupid cop-out responses. But…they’re nevertheless true.
Honestly, most of the time, bad things happen to good people, because most people are mostly good. And it doesn’t make any sense why these things should be allowed.
I wish I could promise you that it’s all for a reason or that everything always works out in the end, but I can’t. I can only say that some days, your foot lands two blessed inches away from where a bird is about to shit. Some days, you walk out of work towards the sunset, and you get a few precious moments of fire that are worth everything.
I often imagine that I am on a little raft in the middle of the ocean. Some days, some long stretches of days, I am content floating on the water all by myself. Other days, other long stretches of days, I get tired of floating, so I paddle with all my might in hopes of reaching shore. I get so close to land that I can see the little trees growing on the horizon. But I can’t seem to ever reach them. Sometimes, I paddle so hard that my tiny raft capsizes, and I’m just cold and damp and feel like giving up and staying in the middle of the ocean because isn’t that better than almost drowning? And then it starts all over—floating until I am weary and feel like paddling again.
Or perhaps more accurately, I get really close, and then I hover awkwardly before paddling away again, psyching myself out thinking, “What if I reach land, and the island is inhabited by cannibals?” or “I don’t have the right clothes for land-civilization!” or “No, it’s dirty and full of bugs, and I’m so much better by myself out here in the ocean.”
contemplating the virtues of Buddhist monks
No one believes me when I say I’m going to be a Buddhist monk.
Okay, fine, I don’t have the right chromosomes to be a monk. But it’s a nice idea, isn’t it, being unconditionally loving and attaining enlightenment and knowing kung fu? (Really, that last part is what got me started on this whole monk thing as a kid, but now I think the rest of it is pretty nice too.)
My friend Marky was telling me about a study on Buddhist monks and how their love and compassion for humanity lit up an entirely different part of the brain than the more focused (perhaps more selfish?) love one might have for a significant other. (I think an article was in the Atlantic, and I think I posted it on Facebook. There’s also this one.)
Maybe what I mean to strive towards is incorporating their virtues rather than the full monastic lifestyle.
It’s funny because I started thinking about this whole becoming a monk thing during my China trip. There was a lot of family drama, and I found out some things that made me lose my (very hard-won) trust in people all over again. And yes, I probably overreacted—full-on panic-attack-followed-by-existential-crisis-and-suicidal-thoughts overreacted.
It’s really hard to make the conscious effort to trust people, and harder still when you’ve grown up with the women in your family telling you all the time to “be wary—don’t trust people so easily.” Harder still when most if not all of the data you’ve collected indicates that you’re right to NOT trust people, because every time you do, you get betrayed or assaulted or used or otherwise hurt. And you’ve seen the same thing happen to the (very few) people you love.
These breaches in trust, then, especially by people I am just starting to trust, turn my world upside-down, and I start to question everything and everyone. And this is what happened in China. As a result, I got to thinking that maybe I really can’t trust anyone and shouldn’t even try, and maybe I can’t ever have an independent, fulfilling life and should just give up on being happy (or go be a monk to escape it all). I wasn’t kidding—major existential crisis.
And…I think it made me a little mean again, because that’s the default setting when things go wrong.
My brief semi-adult life has largely been a grand effort to be more open and to allow myself to give in to compassionate leanings, to overcome the default setting if you will. But it’s really hard. The default is there for a reason—because it’s easier and more adaptable to most situations. And sometimes, like now, the universe seems to be telling me to build my walls higher instead of breaking them down. These times, I can’t help but revert to my default.
At my best, I am the person who sacrifices myself for others. I am the friend who listens when you’re vaguely sad and the one who apologizes first because whatever we’re mad at each other about probably isn’t worth the friendship or my guilt if you should suddenly die while I’m still mad. At my worst, I am hard-hearted and stubborn and proud of it and won’t talk to you for a year because I won’t be the weak one who backs down first. (Seriously, I went at least a year without talking to some people when they lost my trust.)
I am reminded of David Foster Wallace’s This is Water speech (as I am so often), in which he similarly talks about how hard it is to make the conscious decision to not be selfish. It’s easy, he says, to get really bogged down in the banal misery of daily adult life and to get annoyed by the long line at the grocery store and the snappy woman in front of you, but you have to make the conscious effort to think that maybe she’s tired and having an even shittier day than you.
But being selfish is our default setting. And frankly, it’s a lot safer. You can’t be fully selfless, but when you try, it can hurt that much more when other people don’t seem to make that same effort.
Whenever I talk about DFW now, I think of a scene in Liberal Arts, one of the in-flight movies on my return trip. The older main character Jesse is sitting by the hospital bed of the college boy he has unofficially decided to mentor after bonding over DFW’s The Infinite Jest. The boy called him when he took a bunch of pills to end his life, and Jesse quickly acted and was able to save him. When the boy wakes up, Jesse tells him to “Stop reading this book. This guy killed himself, and you are not going to do that.” Or something to that effect.
Even so, DFW captured one of the struggles of our pretentious existences. I think all thoughtful people are after enlightenment, whether they realize it or not—compassion, meaning. And it requires a daily battle against our innate wiring, perhaps more so for some than others, but we have to do it or perish trying.
non-frou-frou updates from the China trip
You only take photos of pleasant things. Unless you’re an angsty artsy photographer.
Full disclosure: For a couple days, I was gallivanting around Shanghai, where my stepmother lives, but the real purpose of my China trip was to see my aging and sickly grandparents. (Family photos pending—one of the family friends took all of them with his fancy DSLR.) It was a lucky coincidence that I happened to be there for the Autumn Moon Festival.
My grandfather is 93 and broke his hip a few months ago, so I quickly booked a flight to go see him, supposing this might be the last time I get a chance to see him at all. (We ended up spending 4 days out of my 7 day trip with my grandparents.) He’s in a lot of pain, and medical care is rubbish in their little town, but my grandparents are still pretty sharp. My grandfather looked better than I was expecting, so I think maybe he’ll hang in there a bit longer.
Overall, that aspect of the trip was really good. It was nice to see my grandparents, and we got closer this time around. My grandfather talked to me about my mom a lot, because he’d always really liked her, and it was something like closure to know that other people in my family think about her too.
There was also lots of family drama, much of which surrounds my father and stepmother, and family-induced existentialism, which I won’t go into. It was satisfying to find out, however, that the rest of my family also disapproved of him so hastily remarrying. He always made my disapproval out to be incredibly selfish, as if I wanted him to be alone forever and the only alternative to remarrying a few months after my mother died was never remarrying at all. (No, there are serious practical concerns about a long-distance marriage.)
This is the thing about China for me. It’s never a fun trip. It’s not exotic. China for me is like Minnesota for people from Minneapolis.
It’s rewarding in some ways to spend time with my family, particularly my grandparents, and the scenery is lovely. But it’s always equal parts (or more parts) sad and frustrating.
I can’t get used to a lot of aspects of Chinese culture that I unfortunately can’t get away from when I leave its soil. The misogyny. The hypocrisy. The sad family dynamics.
I love my family, because they’re my family. And I am genuinely fond of my grandparents and was sad to leave them. But as a part of a Chinese family or perhaps specifically my Chinese family, I feel like a firefly in a glass jar—some nice trophy you put on your desk until it exhausts itself banging against the glass.
It’s a singular experience, and I suspect most people will just think I’m being melodramatic. Others will say, “But you are your own person and can live your own life.” It’s something you can’t really understand unless you’re a Chinese daughter, the only daughter.
You are raised to bring honor to the family and then take care of your parents in their old age. You aren’t supposed to gallivant around the world by yourself because only boys do that. You aren’t even supposed to like half the things you like because they’re not feminine. You have to stay close to your family because that’s what daughters are for. The only time you can leave them is when you get married and have a family of your own—because why else would you leave the family unit?
As someone who has grown up in the States and is on the stubborn and independent side even by Western standards, I struggle so hard against all of this. But a bit of Chinese guilt goes a long way.
oh god, I’m dying laughing at myself
I stumbled upon this old entry from 2011 about how weird I think couples are, and I’m so amused by little me/how terrible I was/am at relationships.
letter to future me
Dear Future Me,
I hope you get a little less stupid.
I think my current existentialism stems from listening to the TED talk “Why 30 is Not the New 20" in lab the other day. The speaker was talking about how she encounters so many people in their 30s who are in unhappy marriages and don’t have their professional lives together because they spend their 20s in a prolonged adolescence discounting their experiences.
I know I’m really young, and I’m barely in my 20s, but that terrifies me. Not just for me but for my entire generation. We are so stupid. And maybe that’s particularly pronounced among us perpetual academics because we’re always in this pseudo-adolescent school environment.
I know I seem like I have my shit together, and compared to most people my age I do. But I catch myself thinking the same things as these people in that TED talk who really don’t have their shit together: “Oh, this experience is just a throwaway. I’ll just try to get a good story out of it.” Or sometimes, “I am making a poor life decision right now that isn’t getting me anywhere near where I want to be or who I want to be with in ten years, and I’m okay with it.”
It’s an affliction of the young and well-to-do, I think. We want to suck the marrow out of life, and we have the capacity to do so. But I think we value novelty over sincerity, quantity over quality, and it scares me.
It scares me to think that maybe we can’t see a good thing when we’ve got it because we’re trying so hard to get something better, and we’ll never be happy with life. Where do you draw the line between striving for progress and being content with the present? How do you know when your expectations are just too high or you just want too much from life? When does realism turn into settling?
So yes, Future Me, I hope you get a little less stupid. I hope we all get a little less stupid. But I also hope you never settle. Yeah, yeah, I want a lot, and you will want a lot, and it’ll be really hard blah blah blah. But I think you deserve a lot, and you are not allowed to settle. You will have a job that is meaningful and fulfilling. You will have friends who don’t take you for granted. You will have experiences that count, each and every one of them.
P.S. In the AM, this sounds like I’m just taking the TED speaker at her word, but in reality it’s just because she’s highlighted my current struggles
letters to san francisco
A friend of mine said that she realized either life is really hard for her and the people she loves or it’s just really hard for everyone, and either way, it was a sad world to bring someone into (in reference to why she’s choosing not to have children).
Life is a constant increase in entropy, a constant state of destruction and loss, and sometimes, it feels like everything we do is deadly futile. (Is this just an affliction of thoughtful people, this perpetual contemplation of the futility of our existences?) We can have happy moments, and we can pretend our lives have meaning, but ultimately, we are just losing things all the time. (I may or may not be in the middle of Junot Diaz’s This is How You Lose Her, which may or may not be contributing to my sad, pensive state.)
But days like this, I think, “Life is hard, but it’s worth it. It’s worth this.” Isn’t it? Days like this, I can think of no sky more beautiful, more full of possibility, and I think this beauty must be what we live for.
I am reminded of one of my favorite quotes from Dead Poet’s Society: “Medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for. To quote from Whitman, “O me! O life!… of the questions of these recurring; of the endless trains of the faithless… of cities filled with the foolish; what good amid these, O me, O life?” Answer: that you are here; that life exists.” That life, that beauty, that love exists at all, even if it must be lost.
SF, you really know how to remind a girl why she fell in love with you in the first place.