“It’s Going Down, I’m Yelling [Tinder]”*

“Left. Left. Left. Right. Left.” 

Call out the above and it could be a military training march, but in my case, from the comforts of my room in Boston, a city somewhere between a snowmageddon and slushfest, it’s an approximation of my swiping pattern on the most infamous of relationship apps: Tinder.

My travels across the Tinder-verse started as a joke one Friday night in October. Two weeks until midterms, I was out with some classmates at a pub in Central Square deciding between a pint of hard cider versus something a little stronger to drown the sorrows of my somewhat newly-single self. One of the guys, a bit of a joker in my MBA cohort, discovered my changed relationship status and took it upon himself to remedy my situation with opportunities for a rebound. A bit of a joker, this guy is one of the most memorable people from my classes in the fall (Pacifics, think accounting) so I let him hijack my phone to set me up with an account. 

Growing tired and wary of fraternizing within the Sloanie social scene, I figured the "Notorious T.N.D." could be a great way to meet some interesting people, assuming I catered my content appropriately to weed out the insufferable perverts and weirdos. I chose pictures that showed the full spectrum of my appearance in real life from girl-next-door to glamorous go-getter. Despite my tiger pride, I didn’t include any Princeton photos so I could avoid the more frustrating assumptions associated with where I went for undergrad. I said I was getting my MBA, warding off the types who would be intimidated by a Type-A, strong-willed woman. But as someone who so used to being the one who makes the first move, I included the final line of “Take the lead.” I would message first on many a man, but I loved the idea of someone else taking the initiative for once. I kept the profile short, expecting many of the men swiping right not doing so on account of reading what I had to say about myself, but wanting to give those deciding to read about me something that piqued their curiosity. 

I aspired for an aura of intensity and mystery—as to whether that was successful, I’d have to go through the tinder-dex and ask the gentlemen I’ve met over these past six months. (Or maybe I should put a survey link on the next iteration of my tinder profile and do some data analysis in true MBA and MIT fashion). At any rate, vetted by eyes of three MBA men of varying ages and maturities, on October 3, 2014, my Tinder profile was born. 

I told myself I’d never do online dating ever again, especially after some very negative experiences with okcupid when I first moved to Boston. But two years older and wiser, and two weeks away from fall break, I soon found myself swiping. Oftentimes, the conversations that began were over mutual friends or interests. One person went to school with my best friend from college, another lived a few doors down from the author of my favorite webcomic, and yet another turned out to be my neighbor a few buildings over. 

Sometime in the following weeks I found the courage to take my first conversation offline and into real life. Nearly six months, mountains of messages, and several dates later, here are seven things I have to report:

  1. Frat boy narcissists who work in finance and love football often are just that: frat boy narcissists who work in finance and love football, and sadly not much else.
  2. Musicians give the best massages and serenades. When you’re good with your hands, you’re good with your hands. And when you can sing, I swoon. 
  3. Don’t believe the ones who say they’re yoga teachers. Unless they’ve got the pictures to prove it. And even then. Just trust me on this one. 
  4. If I have a type, it remains “ambitious”, "aggressively creative”, and “ethnically ambiguous.” Entrepreneurial spirit? Yes, please. Hybrid accents? Do you really have to ask? 
  5. 80% of the men who claim they are 6’3’’ are under 6’ and often by a fair amount.
  6. Boys will be boys and aren’t worth the tears. In my case, no boy is worth losing an earring over.** As for men, I’ll let you know. 
  7. Romance isn’t dead. I have the stories to share of a guitar lesson, a snow angel in the middle of Boston Common, and a bottle of champagne enjoyed on the docks of the Charles in twilight, among other Tinder tales.***

While many a date has gone up in flames, metaphorically speaking, Tinder has been perfect for someone like me at a time like now: my attention span is at a record low, my focus on academic and professional ambitions exceptionally high, and my patience and emotional bandwidth too precious to expend on anything or anyone less than worth it. Paraphrasing the words of a dear friend, "Tinder may or may not find me a Mr. Right, but it has certainly finds me a Mr. Right Now." And in my case they've largely been good ones.

So to anyone reading and contemplating taking the plunge, or walking into the flames as it were, I won’t seek to convert you. There are plenty of wackies out there and your wariness is legitimate.

But you have to admit: you’ll never really know if you don't swipe right. 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

*Other post titles considered: "Reflections on Six Months of Inflammation,” “A Grievous Case of Tinder-nitis,” and "Confessions of a Tinder-ella: Lessons Learned from Swiping Left and Right and Wrong." 

**After a full month of texting with a particularly handsome and charming boy (who got my full name and number and friended me on Facebook--very rare for Tinder) came the night of trying to make plans. The boy became totally unresponsive the night we were supposed to finally get together when I returned from San Francisco in January. Getting off my plane in Boston and seeing no response regarding our evening, I pulled my baggage from the overhead bin in such haste and frustration that I knocked out one of my earrings. These weren't just any earrings: I had spent my first paycheck at my first job to buy them. One of those little emerald butterfly studs has flown away, never to return, much like the man-child, who is somewhere in New York City now, also never to return. (Though seriously, why bother getting my name and number and friend-ing me on Facebook if you don’t want to meet me?) 

***To the gentleman who humored watching '50 Shades of Grey' with me in theaters and then listened to my feminist and BDSM community analyses of the franchise, no matter what happens between us, you’re going down in my dating history as an eternal champ.

Run Your Own Race

Anyone who has seen me in the last month has probably heard me talk about ClassPass, which allows you to take up to three classes at any one of the many partnered fitness studios underneath the ClassPass umbrella. Wanting to get a good workout and make the most of the monthly cost, I opt for classes with the more expensive drop-in rates. For example, classes at boutique spinning studios and certain high-intensity workouts will cost upwards of $20, breaking even for ClassPass in just a few classes a month.

At any rate, after three years in Boston and two months of aggressively signing up for ClassPass classes to get my money’s worth, I know the lay of the fitness landscape here pretty well. I’ve done my fair share of classes in Boston, from pure barre to bikram yoga, and probably well enough to open my own studio of something. At any rate, nothing humbles me quite like Barry’s Bootcamp. The name of the place is pretty ridiculous, the standard pricing is more than a little ridiculous (a membership at Barry’s Bootcamp usually costs $150 a month at minimum, with a $28 drop-in rate), but the workout is the most ridiculous.

Last month, on a weekend morning much like this one, I decided to take a break from whatever interview prep and tindering I was doing at the time and signed up for a class Barry’s. I put my things away in the locker room and hang in the vestibule with thirty or so other people waiting for the instructor to open the door to the studio.

I’m fairly fit, but I immediately notice myself not fitting in among the loyal members and addicts of Barry’s, who look like L.A. transplants painted in the shades of Boston winter: all tightness and tone but no tan.  Standing among them a little self-consciously, just as I think,  “Maybe it’s not too late to get out of here,” the instructor welcomes us inside.

The class is held in room that’s dimly lit with a cast of red with about 20 treadmills lined up against one wall opposite 20 staggered floor stations. The room feels a little bit larger on account of the mirrored walls on two sides. Walking in, my MBA persona thinks about the incremental revenue and cost of fitting one more treadmill and floor station in—that’s the last cohesive thought I have for the hour as the EDM music blasts through the speakers.

The instructor barks out the lineup for an intense circuit that will swap us between the floor and treadmill and back again: 30-second sprint intervals at speeds I didn’t know existed on a treadmill. Reverse lunges and squat presses for minutes that feel like hours. Backpedaling on an incline and burpees until your legs and arms can’t move anymore. And so on.

Minutes into the warm-up, I’m worried I won’t be able to survive. I curse myself for neglecting to pick up a towel at the front and wonder how I could possibly have forgotten my water bottle at home. The workout is so hard I forget how worried I am about preparing for interview and how pissed I am about a guy who hadn’t texted me back.  Trying to focus on something other than the sound of my belabored breathing and the feel of the sweat pouring into my eyes, I look at the person on the adjacent treadmill. Somehow in all my exhaustion, I’m not too tired to study my peers, and I’m expending my excess energy getting weirdly competitive on the treadmill.

Blonde and lithe, the girl next to me looks like an animated version of a Lululemon mannequin with cropped wunderunders and a matching top.  I look at her speed—a full point faster than mine. I look at her incline—measurably higher than mine. I look at her hair and body—straighter and smaller than mine. Just as I’m about to descend into self-pity, and indulge in feeling sorry for myself in my years-old workout shorts and already-soaked cotton t-shirt, the instructor counts down to our first sprint.

And off we go to 12 MPH.

Of all the places I could have had a quasi-spiritual experience, I never would have guessed Barry’s Bootcamp. But it’s then and there that I have an epiphany. Moving my legs as fast as I possibly can, it hits me that every moment I spend staring at this other girl, I’m not only slowing myself down, I’m risking getting hurt: “Spend another second comparing yourself to this her and you’re going to fall off this treadmill.”

I take my eyes off of her and her treadmill metrics and lock them forward into my own reflection in the mirror. I have a hard time looking at myself at first, blue eyes unsettlingly contrasting with flushed skin. But after a few seconds that feel like a while, I find it hard to look anywhere else. As I stare into my own eyes, I’m finding a strength and focus I didn’t know I had left in me. After an autumn that rocked me to my core and made me forget who I was and what I was doing with my life, it’s the first time I recognize myself in a while, and it’s empowering and comforting. 

Forcing myself to make eye contact with myself, seeing myself clearly, I’m inspired with an unforgettable new mantra that gets me through the rest of the class. 

The instructor calls out the next sprint, and suddenly, the class doesn’t feel so unmanageable. The next 45 minutes, I’m able to sweat without feeling sorry. I meet my own gaze without interruption. I’m out of my brain and into my body.

At last, the throbbing music quieted and the lights in the room went on. Stunned, somehow I had survived the class. And as I washed my face, gathered my things, and headed out of the studio into the winter cold, I realize I’d left with something outlasting the week of sore muscles and a worth more than a whole year of ClassPass membership: a pair of stronger-than-ever, even-if-I-forget-I-can-always-think-of-that-Barry’s-class lessons.

Every minute I spend comparing myself to other people is useless unless it’s inspiring me to grow and improve. No matter what, I must remember, I’m on my own journey: physically as much as spiritually. Personally as much as professionally. Today as much as tomorrow.

The next time I’m tempted to stop to judge progress in any aspect of my life, I’ll think of my sweaty face in the Barry’s mirror and remember what came to me in the middle of that class:

“Focus on you. Run your own race.” 

"MBA FOR HIRE: OPEN TO OPPORTUNITIES, UNWILLING TO SETTLE"

It began innocently enough two weeks into classes in September: a “Big 3” consulting firm set up a table in E51 and encouraged students to “enjoy a doughnut on [them].” They weren’t allowed to talk about their summer opportunities—after all it was still over a week before September 29, the first day companies were officially permitted to begin presentations at Sloan. But they were allowed to have this doughnut table, and so people ate the doughnuts. 

Bearing banners, booze, and their best and brightest to show on campus, these companies know their market well: MBAs love free food (especially doughnuts before 8:30AM classes—and who am I kidding? They might have sold me, too, if the treats were gluten-free). MBAs love challenges, opportunities for career development, and a healthy dose of travel. MBAs want a salary that will let them pay off their gigantic loans. So it’s no surprise that what recruiting began with innocent tabling in September snowballed (literally, in Boston’s case) into a campus-wide frenzy by January. And it’s far from unique to Sloan: aside from some variations on the timeline, the phenomenon exists across MBA programs. The only difference is which companies send their troops to the "MBAttlegrounds." 

To explain this process in a bit more detail: companies have certain reasons for choosing to recruit at the schools they do. Sometimes it’s a matter of a school’s career offices having a well-established connection with a recruiter. Sometimes it’s a matter of alumni presence. Often it's a matter of geography and budget—for example, a Midwestern company won't fly a team out to the Northeast for a recruiting presentation just to land one or two interns when they can find comparable talent more locally—and whom they don’t have to sell on the Midwest. It's also a matter of school reputation: different business schools attract different companies on account of their different niches. Sloan is known for tech, consulting, finance, and healthcare, and so our on campus recruiting channels are glutted with opportunities in these types of companies for internships and full-time roles. 

That doesn’t mean someone like me can’t get an internship in my desired field, which lies outside these areas, but it takes a whole lot more work. My past three months have been spent writing cover letters, pinning down recruiters, prepping for interviews, and, in choice strokes of luck, having interviews. Writing this post in Colorado, 2,000 miles away from Cambridge, it doesn’t stop. Surrounded by peers on a school trip, where the talk of recruiting is thick in the air, I’m trying not to judge my process or my progress against anyone else’s, but it’s extremely hard.

Recruiting brings out my worst habits and tendencies: Comparing myself to others. Being excessively hard on myself. Feeling perpetually “never enough.” Anxiety about interviews I have. Anxiety about interviews I don’t have. Fear of rejection. Fear of acceptance. Overanalyzing things I can’t change in the past and overthinking the things I can in the future. Losing perspective and being everywhere but here and now. 

Partly because interview preparation has rotted my brain, and partly because it’s true, I’m trying to see this whole process as a growth opportunity. It’s yet another one of the ways in which my MBA is giving me an unexpected education in life and being human.

For one, I’m getting humbled by imperfection like I’ve never been before: I’m rarely late on finishing anything important, but I’ve missed a dozen deadlines and opportunities to connect with companies I care about. I’ve been fairly sheltered from failure in my life, but I’m getting some serious rejection. The last time I went through the internship and job hunt, I wasn’t willing to learn from my mistakes, but this time I am, and while I wouldn’t say I’m coping well, I am coping better that I used to.

I’m also learning what my dear friend at Sloan calls “the locus of control,” which translates to learning to divorce myself from outcomes. I’m an overachiever. I’m a Type A type. I’m such a flagrant Type A that I try to pretend I’m Type B when I first meet people (it doesn’t last long). So if I could control this situation of my employment for the summer, I would, but I don’t get to control the outcome here: not the what or the when of it, and certainly not the why. All I can do is prepare to be my best self in the company of the person evaluating me, write a ‘thank you’ note, and that’s where my power ends. 

The most important thing I’m learning is not to compromise. The last time I went through recruiting, I took the first thing that was offered to me because I was afraid I’d never see another offer—that I wasn’t good enough to get another offer. The job happened to work out, but the motivation for taking it was less love than fear. I have a pretty clear sense of what how I want to spend my summer. I’m grateful for having a sense of purpose and knowing the types of companies and roles where that sense of purpose is going to be met. To take an offer somewhere that I know isn’t right for me is as dishonest to myself as to my employer.

This summer, I intend to work at a place that accepts all of me, where I have the freedom to bring my whole eccentric, passionate, ambitious self to work—unapologetically. I have to believe there is a company that I adore that will love me for me and can’t imagine their business without me. 

Until that offer comes in, I’m open to opportunities, but unwilling to settle. 

2015: The Year of Holidays

I didn't need business school to learn I'm a guppy for good ol’ American marketing. My mind is awash in visions of silver and gold and pumpkins and pine and velvet from November to February, from “Decorative Gourd Season” to “Chocolate Covered Strawberry Season.” I can't stop my romantic visions of the holidays filled with food and family and connection. Glittering lights and gleaming smiles. Tall glasses of wine and taller candlesticks. The centerpiece of some artfully-roasted animal, glistening with fat and fit to be carved by some attractive older man in a cable-knit sweater.

My holidays never measure up to those depicted in elaborate marketing campaigns, but even if they did, I'm pretty sure I'd still feel confused about the holidays. Whenever people ask me if I'm enjoying the holiday season, I never quite know how to respond. I know the "correct" thing to do is say "yes" and rattle off a few exciting things I've done or name drop people I've seen. I can check those boxes handily (and thanks to a trip to New York City this weekend and to San Francisco next week, I'm lucky to get to double and triple check them). But the holiday season is something of an enigma for me. And this year, I was determined to write it out to figure out why. 

Part of my "(holi)dazed and confused" state has something to do with the fact that I spent many a year--like a semi-typical stereotypical Jewish kid from the tri-state area--making the pilgrimage to Florida. Semi-typical because I wasn't visiting grandparents in Boca Raton or Coral Gables; stereotypical because many a Christmas was spent eating Chinese food at Christine Lee's and going to the AMC movie theater at Aventura Mall. At any rate, when you're spending your holiday season on the sand instead of in the snow, things about the holiday season are bound to get a little confused. A little kid with a big imagination, I fantasized about the lyrics of "Walking in a Winter Wonderland" materializing along the Miami seascape when I visited each December. Some people believe there's nothing that exemplifies "winter wonderland" more than sea, sand, booze, and bathing suits, but I'm a sucker for seasons: when winter comes, I prefer snowballs and 'Fireball' to tank tops and tequila. Partly out of aging-related vanity, partly out of fear of skin cancer, I spent most of my times in Miami embalmed in sunscreen and, if on a beach, in a bathing suit but mummified with towels and sitting underneath an umbrella reading a book.

The other reason I find holidays confusing is I can't remember a holiday in which I wasn't doing some sort of work. My senior year of high school, I was writing a long essay on Hamlet. My first year in college, I was camped out in the Barnes and Noble of Loehmann's Fashion Plaza evaluating the influences of G.K. Chesterton's Father Brown stories and Edgar Allan Poe's "Purloined Letter" on Jorge Luis Borges' only crime fiction story, "La muerte y la brujula " (I had tough time writing a 20-page paper in Spanish, but it was still more fun than studying for my Physics 103 final.) Last year I was working furiously (in more than one sense of the word) at Violette Bakery to pay for kitchen rent for Zen Cookery, baking and shipping out crowdfunding perk packages, and planning out farmers market logistics for January. This year I've been crafting cover letters in various cafes and doing preparation for internship interviews that I hope to have secured in a month's time.

Another strange thing about the holidays is I somehow find myself feeling very alone, despite this being a season that seems all about togetherness. I waver between being okay and not being okay with this feeling, even though it's a perfectly legitimate one. For one, I know I'm not alone in feeling alone, and this is true in and outside the holiday season. I also know that if given the choice, four times out of five I'd opt for being alone over being suffocated by hordes of people I barely recognize but who call themselves "family" and sitting at an extravagant, Italian-style Christmas dinner with courses and small talk conversations that go on for hours. 

At the heart of this confusion is something more subtle: I never treated holidays by the true meaning of the word: holy days. Holidays are holy days. Sacred days. Days of rest. Days of celebration. Days of pause. Days of joy. 

Then I got to thinking--what really differentiates these days from any other day on the calendar? A government's approval. A business' decision. A religious occasion. But really, little else.  So I thought about what would it mean to take this idea outside of the holiday season, asking myself, "What would it mean to really live each day?"

In the spirit of the New Year, instead of writing out a too-long list of resolutions, I settled on one intention for 2015: to treat every day like it's sacred. Because it is. Bad day or good day. Rain or shine. It's still sacred. It's still a gift. Not everyone gets another day to live. But today I do. Tomorrow I might. And I promise here to not let myself forget it that the day after that and all through next year. 

Happy new year!

Among the fun things I've done and people I've seen this holiday season: TFC and I after a walk on the Brooklyn Bridge last weekend

Among the fun things I've done and people I've seen this holiday season: TFC and I after a walk on the Brooklyn Bridge last weekend

On Writing On

I had a whole bunch of ideas for this post. All the long weekend, I entertained brilliant ideas for what this hundredth post would be. I spent an hour or two in a cafe in Chelsea and began drafting a post of my bittersweet relationship with New York City from childhood onward. On the bus ride back to Boston, I started writing about all the things that come to mind when I think of Novembers. For accountability's sake, I even discussed ideas for this post with a few friends. With one, I talked through an elaborate reflection on gratitude, just in time for Thanksgiving morning; with another, I talked through a reflection on graduate school and all the ways it is forcing me to grow up even as it transports me back to junior year.

But what's really calling to me to write right now is about writing. Call it a lack of inspiration, call it a dash of procrastination, I'm partly writing about writing to delay other sorts of writings. I'm mostly writing because I made myself swear that no matter what, I'd write something on this blog once a month without fail.

Resisting reluctance and readings on write-offs, I'm writing on.

A lot of people I know believe writing is easy for me. Classmates think I can sit down at a computer and crank out page after page of speech-worthy text for a presentation or a brilliant memo outlining a company's strategy (as I write, I'm putting off the latter and "delegating" the former to a team member). My friends and family think this process comes naturally--that after two-plus years of doing this, I've got blog-writing down to a science and given a cup of tea to catalyze the reaction, I'll emerge with a perfect written product in an hour.

What I want to confess here? Writing is not easy for me. At all. 

No one is grading this post. No one is on this page for the purpose of judging the quality of my writing--so far as I know. For all I know, no one is reading this at all. And yet, it took me until the end of November to get this month's post up because I was scared of "doing a bad job" on it (whatever that means for a personal blog.) I acknowledge how ridiculous it sounds, but I have to say it's an exceptionally powerful fear. And it's one that regularly and relentlessly tries to hold me back.

I don't get "writer's block" so much as "stage fright" when it comes to writing. Partly it's a creative temperament thing. Definitely it's a "I'm too hard on myself" thing. At any rate, I find writing an anxiety-inducing process. I get more worked up about writing than I do about all the quantitative analysis that's demanded of me in school because part of my identity here is "the writer." On my bad days, I find myself stuck in the question, "If this is the one thing I'm supposed to be good at here, why is it so darn hard?"

Fear of writing has done more than made this blog collect a little more dust between posts. Fear of writing cover letters caused me to miss a few recruitment deadlines. Fear of writing prevented me from submitting a manuscript to Modern Love last year. Fear of writing has kept me fearing other things: "If I can't do this, I certainly can't do that," goes the toxic logic.

Somehow, faithfully, I still do it. Somehow, consistently, I  force myself to push through this fear and write. Because writing is the the hardest thing I make myself do, and it's best thing I do for myself.

Even if it feels like it will kill me, even if the process feels pointless, even if what comes out of it "isn't any good" by my self-critical measure, I still write.

I am grateful for many things this holiday season, and I hope before the year ends that I do get to that post where I do an elaborate reflection on gratitude. But for today I am grateful for this post. It's my hundredth post, and that means I've pushed through all that fear one hundred times. 

Here's to doing it a hundred times more. Writing on.

Holding out for a Hero

In the past 8 months, I hiked up Mount Washington after years of joint problems. I drove part of the trip from New Jersey to Boston after years of dreading I-95. I found pearls at a flea market for a better price than I'd have found in China. I went to my first ever music festival. Then I went to another one. I dressed up like a zebra and ran through Cambridge. I had a picnic at Castle Island and watched planes touch down at Logan as the sun touched down below the horizon. 

In February, all self-love and self-esteem practice aside, I was resentfully baking treats for happy couples for Valentine's Day while stuffing my sorrows by eating day-old inventory. If you were talking to me then and told me that this summer all the above  and more would be true, I wouldn't have believed you. And if you had told me that I was two weeks away from a fantastic relationship that would leave me in gratitude to the city of Boston for pushing my limits yet again, I'd have tried to silence you with a pile of cookies while convincing you of all the reasons you were wrong. 

Well, I was wrong. And even though that relationship ended a month ago, it doesn't make the rest of what happened any less real or render the personal growth meaningless.

This was someone who know he was essentially tone deaf but sang anyway--and didn't let anyone stop him. This was someone who saw the world as a stage for creativity and joy, who lived in a near-constant state of wonder and with an unshakeable sense of possibility. This was someone who cared about my personal growth almost as much as I did. 

This was the most honest relationship I have ever had, both with the person I was seeing and with myself. Which brings me to this story:

A talented woodworker, he spent hours in his shop making gifts for himself and his friends. He sought inspiration for new projects from instructables the way I did for new recipes from smitten kitchen: with creative determination. I was lucky to receive beautiful three things from him I never knew I needed and then couldn't live without.

I will never forget the day I saw his latest creation at the time, a wooden ring with a little gear perching in the center like a gemstone. I thought about him making more of them, selling them on Etsy or at a stand at SoWa market on Harrison Street. Indulging in hormones and fantasy for a moment, I also thought of one on my own finger.

About a month later, I was out to brunch with my fall semester team at Sloan. One of my team members (because he is charmingly French and because this is business school) casually participates in luxury watch and jewelry auctions. His wife joined us for brunch that day, and every time I saw her left hand, I stood agape. I don't consider myself especially materialistic or marriage-crazed, but I could not stop staring at her engagement ring, won through one of these auctions. 

Although the ring probably could have paid for a good part of my MBA tuition, it wasn't a garish thing. No elaborate band, no extra pave gems. One well-set diamond on platinum. A simple and elegant ring that suited her perfectly. 

My mind suddenly recalled the image of the wooden ring. The thought that had once given me a thrill now filled me with sadness: I envisioned myself accepting a wooden box with a wooden ring from a man on one knee. It was beautiful. It was handmade. It was heartfelt. And at the same time, it wasn't and would never be what I really wanted, symbolically as much as literally

I learned that I had someone in my life who gave me what I never knew I needed, but what I needed was someone to give me what I already knew I wanted. 

On the list of things I know I want? Someone who is going to support my career ambitions, wherever in the world they take me. Someone who can ride with the moments of depression as much as those of elation--of this two year program and beyond. Someone whose heroism extends beyond dressing up as a superhero for Halloween every year.

I have no shame in saying that one day I want a diamond ring. And I have no shame in saying that I am holding out for that hero.

"You're allowed to want something else. In fact, you're meant for it."

Before I had any clue how crazy my schedule would become, I signed up for a Chinese conversation partner through MIT's Language Conversation Exchange. Twice a week for an hour, Kai, a Petroleum Engineering Master's Candidate from Beijing, and I meet, he to improve his English and I to maintain my Chinese. The comparison I use to describe my Chinese proficiency is cookie crumbs. Cookie crumbs taste like cookies and smell like cookies even though they have lost the beautiful integrity of their cookie shape. Similarly, my pronunciation is good, my understanding is good, but my go-to word bank has significantly disintegrated. 

Needing to get away from the two buildings between which I had spent my entire day, I asked my language partner to meet me at Clover in Kendall Square. The restaurant is matter of meters away from Sloan, but it's far enough to forget about my strategy assignment on Monday and reconnect with myself. Sitting in the open kitchen, I'm centered again by the passion that brought me to this MBA program to begin with--a passion for food and a fascination with the industry. 

I was already late on account of running into a friend who had filmed the first cut of my bakery crowdfunding campaign last year, and just as Kai and I were about to sit down for our Chinglish session for the next 45 minutes, I got caught up in conversation with another familiar face from my pre-business school life. He was a farmer whom I'd met at the Somerville Armory Farmers Market last January, when I was roots-deep in the Boston local food scene. When the 2PM hour rolled around, he generously gave me a 10+ pound bag of the most beautiful turnips and beets and carrots in exchange for any baked goods I hadn't sold.

He was just as kind meeting him again over eight months later in the middle of the Kendall Square Clover, where he was hoping to get subscribers to a winter share with his farm. It wasn't exactly working at the 5PM hour, when Kendall experiences its workday exodus and people wanted to grab their chickpea fritter sandwiches and go. 

Especially when I realized he was sitting with the Communications Director of Clover, who was trying to promote his farm share, I began counting down the minutes of my language conversation exchange session. Clover had expanded a lot in the past few years and was starting its first out-of-Boston operations in D.C., and as a b-school nerd intrigued by food business strategy, I couldn't focus for the rest of the session. I was probably wasting my dear Chinese friend's time at this point, as the only English I wanted to use was to talk about food businesses, which isn't necessarily the most practical thing for a Chinese exchange student. But I was impassioned. I was on fire. And nothing could put me out.

On a night that most of my peers were going to a "Big 3" consulting recruiting session, I was reminded of myself back in undergrad, attending presentations for every big company panel. Regardless whatever doubts I'd carried into the room, I'd always leave the panels and networking events feeling really excited about the opportunities. "This is perfect for me," I'd convince myself. "Money, travel, growth opportunities, exposure to various industries, smart, hard-working people. What's not to like?"

I didn't realize just how deeply I was getting brainwashed. And when I interviewed for and got none of those jobs, I felt defeated and confused. I asked myself every day, "Why didn't I get this job?" and  the answers ranged from, "Because you're not smart enough," "Because you're not cool enough," "Because you're not competent enough," all of which stemmed from one awful reason of, "Because you're worthless." Which wasn't real, but it sure felt like it.

Thinking about my friends headed to the MBA version of the presentations I attended as an undergrad and sitting in a restaurant that exemplifies many of my career ambitions and personal values, I asked myself again: "Why didn't I get that job?" This time, no longer beating myself up relentlessly, I got a different series of answers: "Because it's not what you really wanted," "Because you weren't supposed to be there," and, "Because you had a better story in store."

I didn't know myself well enough then to realize that the lifestyle wasn't one for me. I didn't trust myself well enough to believe that I could be myself and live without shame of what I wanted, even if it was something different from what everyone else was doing.

Now I know this is the voice to trust as I enter recruiting once again. This is what I will have to tell myself, which came through my head so clearly crossing the street from the Kendall Clover, high on good feelings and the sugar from a pear soda, and heading back toward the classroom:

"You're allowed to want something else. In fact, you're meant for it."

"Bounce with Me"

Set the clock back to Saturday morning when I intended to write this post. My laundry bags are fit to explode with dirty clothing I wore between now and three weeks ago. Classes haven't started yet, but my desk surfaces are already cluttered with case studies and course books. My immediate to-do list rarely exceeds four or five items, but somehow there are fifteen things I need to do today, as basic as buying toilet paper and as involved as rewriting my resume. 

It's 9AM and I'm feeling overwhelmed, to say the least. In the past, I'd have denied the feeling or given myself hell for letting things pile up to the point of my feeling overwhelmed. This time, I let it sit. I get curious about it. I write in my journal about it. And here's where it takes me:

"Last week in orientation, we played one of those games to learn people's names. You get into a circle, call out the name of someone in the circle and throw the ball to him or her. The game starts with only one ball being thrown around, but then the facilitator starts adding more balls into the mix. You have to pay attention to both throwing and catching the balls, to both hearing your name and calling out someone else's. After a certain point, you can’t help but drop one...

This MBA program is something like that game, with school adding a new ball by the week: ball one was this week, getting to know my peers over orientation lectures, catered lunches, and late-night libations; ball two is next week, beginning classes and academic work; ball three after that, committing to student organizations; and at last, ball four, starting career advising and confronting the thing I’ve dreaded most—recruitment."

As I wrote the anxiety out of my system, I had an insight about this game and about this back-to-school experience as a whole.

"What happened in the game when someone dropped the ball? We laughed. We picked up the ball. We considered why it dropped—but only for a moment. Nobody got depressed. Nobody got critical. We just played a new round...

Let’s say I drop a ball: I forget a club meeting. I miss a drinks date. I flunk a test or embarrass myself in an interview. Will the world end? No. Will I learn from it? Yes. And will I be a wiser, more interesting person for having had that experience? Absolutely."

Finally, I came to writing down my primary intentions for graduate school, which boiled down to this one statement: 

"To have fun, and in all things aside from my health, to take myself less seriously."

In all these leadership and team evaluations, we're being forced to reflect on where we could grow. Sure, I need to bone up on my quantitative skills and I haven't done group work in earnest in a very long time. But where I really need to grow the most is in joy. 

When I'm joyful, I'm more trusting and more patient. I am kinder and more compassionate. When I am joyful, I am acting out of my heart instead of my head. I'm living "on purpose and with purpose," to quote the side of the sweetgreen bag. 

If I am joyful, then I will never failin this program, in my career, or in my life in general.

Classes start on Tuesday and the pressure will get high. I'll have more moments of feeling overwhelmed for sure. But in all things in and outside the classroom, I'm hoping to remember this line I wrote and laugh: 


"We're all juggling together. But the balls aren’t made of lead. And sometimes they even bounce."

Oh, the humanity

Yesterday, after five days in the area of New York City among many of the people responsible for who I am, I was ready to return to Boston. Of course, after a more than two cups of tea at breakfast, I wasn't going to make it through the walk from Lucy's apartment in SoHo to West 33rd Street between 11th and 12th without having to find a bathroom, so I walked into the first decent-looking cafe I could find. It happened to be New York's downtown outpost of Stumptown Coffee Roasters.

Remembering some less-than-pleasant experiences with Stumptown from my time in Portland, I was really only there for the bathroom. But feeling guilty for being "that customer" who just comes in to use the toilet, I decided to order a drink. I joined the line of three and breathed in the smell of fresh coffee as I admired the scene, far more welcoming than the one I recalled from the storefront I visited Portland. It resembled a British study with its wooden shelves filled with old books, the titles of which I glanced over while making the steady approach to the cash counter. After minutes of vacillating among drink options--A Mast Brothers hot chocolate? An iced coffee with almond milk?--I opted for a cappuccino. "To go," I added, betraying my wishes to linger and read a while but knowing I had a bus to catch back to Boston.

I paid and stood in place with a heavy bag on my back and two more at my feet. I allowed myself to get lost in my head. This was the end of my last big trip before graduate school. No more vagabondery. No more spontaneous traveling to new cities. No more exploring from sunrise to sunset. For now, this was it. It was time to go home and settle down before embarking on a very different type of trip--back into the classroom.

Breaking my thoughts, the barista told me to step down. There was a touch of exasperation in her voice. Natural hair, creamy, dark skin, medium-rimmed glasses, and a tastefully-weathered flannel shirt, she was Portland and downtown New York City on the other side of the bar: the House Blend of hipsterdom and efficiency.

For a moment, I took her tone personally, indulging the self-defeating voice in my head that said something like, "She must thing you're an idiot. You can't even stand in a coffee line without screwing up."

Then I had another thought: "What if her tone had nothing to do with you? You've served up salads to hundreds of hungry, disgruntled Bostonians in the middle of a lunch rush--imagine how rough it is catering to under-slept, under-caffeinated New Yorkers on their way to getting overworked in the morning. What if you were a little more compassionate?"

So I moved down toward the pickup area and tried making eye contact with the barista as she pulled a new shot of espresso for the customer ahead of me. I asked her how she was doing, making sure I said it slowly enough to let her know that I meant the question for her--and genuinely meant it--but quickly enough that she wouldn't have to stop her work. There's nothing worse when you're working under pressure--especially during a rush period in food service--and people interrupt you with series of questions.

Disrupting her muscle memory of keeping her head down and just making the next drink, she looked up. It must have been the first time anyone had considered how she felt that morning, or even that week. Her focused expression softened into a smile. "Thank you for asking," she said, appearing a little moved as she started to steam the milk for my cappuccino. "I'm doing okay."

I knew that look. I've had it and seen it often, espsecially when I worked at sweetgreen. It's the look you get when you feel when someone among the thousands you see regards you as a real person with a life and experience of your own.

When working the line, I witnessed so much happiness at the simple action of remembering customers' names, and I felt even more when they remembered mine. When just one person made some gesture of acknowledging that I was human, too--remembering my name, asking about my weekend, or simply making real eye contact when saying hello--the effect was powerful. Even on my worst days, I felt valued, respected, and loved.

There were these miraculous moments of mutual recognition and understanding.The customers weren't ornery, hungry devils and I wasn't a food-bearing slave. We were equals. We were both human beings, alive and "in it together," however you might describe "it."

Back in the present in New York, the barista and I conversed a little more before she produced my drink, perfectly warm in the trademark stamped paper cup, heart design peeking up at me from the foam. I smiled and thanked her before she put her head down and returned to work--a macchiato and two iced lattes for the following customer.

I made my way to the bus back to Boston with one of the best cappuccinos I have ever had. The drink was worth all of four dollars. The experience that came with it was priceless.

Boston Calling: One Woman's Journey through Two Years in Boston

HARVARD BUSINESS SCHOOL

[HBS Shield Logo, Copyright Protected]

 

HBS Case No. N9-712-014

Revised July 10, 2014

Erica M. Zendell
 

Boston Calling: One Woman's Journey through Two Years in Boston

On a muggy Wednesday in July, Erica Zendell was biking home in the twilight from Harvard Square, sorting out her thoughts for the days ahead.

It had already been a full week for her, with three busy shifts on the line at sweetgreen's Fort Point restaurant, training for a hike up Mount Washington, and evaluating new prospects for her side business, Zen Cookery, including an opportunity to write a cookbook with a friend. Just over a week before, Erica had ended her tenure as a research associate at Harvard Business School but found herself thrust back into the business mentality, newly hired as an application consultant and Mandarin tutor at Cambridge Coaching, helping a student applying for finance jobs rework her resume. By mid-August, she would become a student again, beginning her MBA at the MIT Sloan School of Management.

"I never thought I'd be doing this," she said. She had been referring to biking, which she only picked up after moving to Boston, but the words applied to the rest of her story, from going back to China to starting a business to going to graduate school. Passing MIT on her right and beginning the subtle climb over the Longfellow Bridge from Cambridge into Boston, she mused, "Isn't it amazing what can happen when you stop living in fear?"

From the Garden State to the Bay State

Erica Zendell grew up in northern New Jersey and despite years of wanting to get out of the state ended up remaining in the Garden State for her undergraduate degree at Princeton. Entering the program as an electrical engineer, after her first semester, she decided she owed herself the chance to figure out others subjects she might enjoy.

"I loved math and science and really enjoyed the circuit-building projects I did in high school. But something changed in college. I had nervous breakdowns over online problem sets for my physics class and cried in front of my linear algebra professor at least once out of sheer frustration. Winter break of my freshman year, I was preparing for finals and knew something had to change when I was getting more joy from the challenge of writing a twenty-page essay than from the challenges of problem sets for my engineering classes."

That spring, she took a diverse array of courses, most influential among a course on China's foreign relations. The course, combined with a Chinese roommate and her a cappella group, which had over four Chinese-speaking members, influenced her to enroll in Chinese 101 the following fall. She reflected, "I indulged my inner language nerd. I did a year of Romanian. I did three years' worth of Arabic. I even took a trial course in Ge'ez (classical Ethiopic) with a group from the Princeton Theological Seminary. But after two years, I found that China and Brazil were the two countries that fascinated me the most, so I narrowed my language studies to Chinese, and Portuguese."

In the summer of 2011, Erica traveled to Beijing and Rio de Janeiro for the very first time for her thesis research on the the impact of bidding for and hosting the Olympics and World Cup in China and Brazil. That summer she also worked in New York for a consulting firm on projects involving trade shows and exhibitions in China and Latin America. "Before that summer, choosing between China and Brazil was like trying to choose a favorite child. But by the end of it, I noticed myself more drawn to China and wanted to see if I could work for a multinational company over there after graduation. I know I could have gotten hired in intelligence or foreign service, but the lifestyle wasn't for me and the attitude was more America-centric than globally-oriented." Failing to get hired by overseas branches of big banks and consulting firms and unable to navigate application cycles for bigger MNCs that didn't come participate in on-campus recruiting, Erica graduated in June 2012 without a job. She had no outstanding prospects save for an opportunity at Harvard Business School, which she had applied to in December and for which she had already had four interviews: two in January and March to screen her as a researcher in and two in April to match her with specific faculty members, who chose to hire someone else. The week after graduation, she had two final faculty match interviews lined up with a Brazilian professor in the Marketing Unit and a China scholar who happened to be at the business school.

"I thought I'd charmed Teixiera. By the end of the interview, he even asked me when I could start. Two days later I got a rejection call. My interview with Kirby started late, ended early and left me without any reason for hope. Two weeks later, I got the call that I had been hired. It was six months and seven interviews later, but I got my golden ticket to Boston--and I had one week to pack up and ship up."

Blazing the (Gluten-)Freedom Trail

I never had much of an opinion on Boston. I visited Quincy Market with my summer camp and came up twice more for college visits but was ambivalent about the place. When I came up for my last HBS interviews in June, something felt mysteriously right about the place. A little voice was telling me, 'even if Harvard doesn't work out, this is where you need to be. This is where you'll find yourself.'

On July 1, 2012, Erica boarded an Amtrak train from Newark to Boston. Her first two weeks in Boston, she didn't have a place to live, staying at the Soldiers Field Doubletree near HBS and then with a family friend, Meg, in Beacon Hill. "Beyond what her dad and my grandma had said about us to the other, Meg and I didn't know a thing about each other. But she took me in and I couldn't have been luckier or had a better person to introduce me to life in Boston." Eventually, she found find a six-week sublease in Cambridgeport. Forced to sleep on the couch for the first week (see Exhibits 1 and 2 for blog posts documenting Erica's sublet experience) she was grateful to find a new place to live for September 1. "Aside from the whole roommate situation with Diana and the late night walks in the dark in the sketchiness of Central Square, I liked my little apartment at 242 Chestnut. It was centrally located, great for entertaining, relatively cheap, and close to my office and my new friends."

By the end of August, Erica had concluded her work orientations, had prepared to leave her sublet, and had started to feel comfortable in the Boston area. She took advantage of her flexible work schedule to get settled, from exploring the different stops on the Red Line to scheduling appointments with new doctors. Having received inconclusive test results regarding anemia and a thyroid condition over the past three years in New Jersey, she decided to get her blood work done by a new doctor and to get a new perspective on these diagnoses. The results surprised her.

"'We think you have celiac disease,' the doctor told me. At first, I had to laugh. I was in an a cappella group in college and most of the members had some sort of dietary restriction. Vegan. Vegetarian. Dairy-free. Grain-free. Gluten-free. Trying to plan a dinner all together at a place that wasn't a dining hall was comedically frustrating. I was someone who ate any thing and every thing at any time. Now I was being told I was going to have to be one of those people whose diet made me a pain in the butt."

Erica began following a gluten-free diet right away. She started feeling marginally better but with her antibody numbers showing few signs of improvement. Unsatisfied with the quality of care from her first doctor, by February 2013, she managed to get appointments at Beth Israel Deaconess with a GI doctor and a nutritionist experienced in treating patients with celiac disease. Her antibody levels had stabilized by June as she prepared for her first case research trip to China with HBS, but spending three weeks in China set her back. "Going back to China that June was cathartic. 'Gluten-free' and even 'wheat allergy' weren't terms that were clearly understood. I'm glad I could meals some of my meals in my service apartment, but those home-cooked meals weren't enough to offset the damage from hidden wheat in meals I ate out in restaurants. This trip convinced me that pollution aside living in China would destroy my health. I had to let go any hopes I had of living and working there full-time in the foreseeable future. That was the end of a big dream of mine."

Even before the trip to China, Erica was getting bored with her job and looking for other experiences to fill her time. She stumbled upon a wellness startup at the Harvard Innovation Lab, for which she served as a consultant during summer 2013. "I was already spending my time researching recipes and evaluating the benefits of different types of diets, so working with Seelna was a natural fit." In late August, she went on her first yoga retreat in New Hampshire, and something powerful shifted in her during those three days. Within twenty-four hours of returning from the retreat, she created a wordpress and a Facebook page (see Exhibits 3 and 4, respectively) and designed cards on Vistaprint for a new business: an allergy-friendly, vegan bakery by the name of Zen Cookery.

Finding Zen, Founding a Cookery

I came back from Dragonfly Yoga Barn with two intentions: I was going to start a bakery and I was going to write applications to business school in which my statement of purpose would be changing the business of the way we eat. By mid-September, I'd somehow done both.

Erica started Zen Cookery by visiting numerous farmers markets in the Boston area and talking to the specialty vendors on how they started their businesses. She connected most strongly with Sarah, who was friends from college with one of her cousins and whose immensely popular cheesecake stand she visited most Tuesday afternoons at the Harvard Square Farmers Market. "Sarah was exceptionally helpful. She told me exactly what permits and licenses I needed to operate in the Boston area and gave me candid feedback on my ideas and products. I didn't have any friends who had started businesses and all my friends who ate my cooking always told me that what I made was good, so as much as I loved them, I needed more targeted guidance and critical opinions. Sarah provided both." To interact with more people in the industry, Erica started attending food entrepreneurship networking events in Cambridge and in Jamaica Plain at Crop Circle Kitchen, Boston's largest food business incubator. Between these meetings and working on two case studies at Harvard on foreign entrepreneurs beating the odds in China, her beliefs ons tarting businesses had changed: "I used to think being an entrepreneur meant you had to be building an app or working in tech. Now I know that isn't true. At all."

Wanting to participate in a winter farmers market, Erica realized the urgency of finding a commercial kitchen space to legally produce goods for her business. On October 31, 2013, she started a monthlong crowdfunding campaign to raise 6,000 dollars for Zen Cookery on Indiegogo, the primary purpose of which was to pay for renting a commercial kitchen space (See Exhibit 5 for the campaign page). Erica recalled, "I wanted to launch it on Halloween, have the end of the campaign after Thanksgiving, and ship perk packages by Christmas. On October 30th, a friend filming my video said he could no longer edit the video in time for my deadline. So there I was in the middle of a coffee shop in Evanston the day before my interview at Kellogg scrambling to create a slideshow video for the campaign." The campaign launched on time and Erica spent the month of November trying to solicit donations, while traveling for ten days on the West Coast to research food businesses in Seattle, Portland, and San Francisco. She commented, "From what I've experienced now, there is little in this world more humbling than asking people to give you money." On Thanksgiving morning, she had an extra reason to be grateful: she hit her funding goal. By the time the campaign ended, she had raised $6,420, donating 25% in excess of the goal to the Celiac Disease Foundation.

By the beginning of December, Erica had inked an agreement to produce in the facilities of and attend farmers markets with Violette, a local gluten-free bakery. She worked with Violette through the end of the winter market season before deciding to part ways. "Working with and at Violette was a valuable experience for me. I learned a lot about the back-of-house and customer-facing operations of local food businesses." She added, "But most of all, I learned the importance of good management and valuing your employees. The bakery could have used some work in those areas."

Within a month of leaving Violette, Erica took up a position at a Boston outpost of D.C. salad chain sweetgreen to deepen her understanding of the food business. Working in a regional chain restaurant was a different experience from working as a local specialty retailer, but had similar lessons: "I loved the values at sweetgreen, and I was constantly reminded of the importance of people there. Hiring good people and making them feel like their work and opinions are valued. Making the people who come into your store feel welcome, and, in the case of the people with allergies, making people feel taken care of. Every time I changed my gloves for Annika or Jillian, who had celiac disease or got a fresh avocado from the back that wouldn't be cross-contaminated for Daniel, who had a tomato allergy, they were so grateful to encounter someone who understood their struggles and needs so well. They clearly weren't getting it anywhere else in the middle of a 12PM lunch rush."

All the while, Erica was reevaluating the prospects for Zen Cookery. Graduate school meant she would no longer have the time or money to bake products on the same scale and scope. She had begun toying with a new idea of reshaping Zen Cookery into a personalized nutrition planning and consulting business targeted at those with special dietary needs. "I really enjoy cooking for people. It's one way of expressing how much I care about them. But I don't want to stop at feeding people--I want to empower them by teaching them how to feed themselves. I felt totally powerless, lost, and alone when I learned I had to totally transform my diet, and I don't want anyone to ever feel the way I felt then. I want to make Zen Cookery into the business I'd have sought for help two years ago."

Crossing the River

"When I graduated college, I wanted two things: I wanted a job that would get me back to China and I wanted, eventually, to go to business school. I got both and got them in ways I never could have expected."

On December 20, 2013, Erica had been admitted to MIT Sloan's MBA program. "I was sick in bed, rejected from Kellogg 2 days before, and had been watching the final season of Gossip Girl since 5AM. At 8:43AM, my mom sent me a text telling me to have faith. I got the call at 8:46AM. I was weeping on my knees in front of my mirror in a Boston Celtics shirt. At 10AM sharp, I got on the subway and bought a T-shirt at the MIT CO-OP. Nothing felt real. It still doesn't and probably won't feel real until I'm sitting in class."

With the rest of the summer off, Erica thought often about her MBA and where it would take her in the food business, whether it was in markets like Whole Foods, CPG companies like Procter and Gamble, or big food and beverage companies like Coca Cola and General Mills. She had also begun considering work in food-related logistics, dreaming about bringing Amazon Fresh to the East Coast. Agribusiness had recently come onto her radar of prospects with her final case study at HBS involving food security and the environment in China. Her visit to Seattle in November felt similarly to her visit in Boston in June 2012, and she wondered if her calling was there working for Starbucks Corporate.

Erica also wondered where China would fit back into the picture of her career--and if it would at all. She couldn't live there without getting sick, she knew, but could it be a part of taking her passion for food, health, and wellness internationally. She understood China better than most and could leverage that somehow if she kept abreast of the news there and maintained some of her language skills.

But for now, crossing the Longfellow Bridge and making a left down Charles Street, homeward bound, she had nothing to worry about other than living one day at time.

 

Spring Cleaning: June 2010 and 2012

I finished the bulk of this entry in early June but held off on posting it. For one, I wanted to avoid having fellow alumni clicking on the link simply to read something about Reunions and then finding a long, highly vulnerable blog post that might be too much information for a new or merely occasional reader.

I had also been looking for a way to conclude the post in a way that didn't indulge in self-loathing and would broaden the scope and relatability of what is a very personal story grounded in a very specific context. 

Then I vacillated about publishing this post until I reconnected last night with a brilliant friend and soul sister, who happens to be a seasoned writer with a fantastic blog of her own. As she puts so well on a recent post, "Telling the truth about yourself – that you might struggle daily, that you are afraid of the future, that you are lost in the past – is much harder than saying, I am fine."

This is a post about getting lost in the past and--four and two years later--finally finding some peace. 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

If you're reading this and you're not a former tiger or I haven't already attempted to explain it to you, capital-R Reunions at Princeton is a gigantic celebration attended by over 18,000 alumni wearing enough orange and black to stock Halloween shops for a decade. When I was a tour guide, I'd often describe it as "a wedding in Orange and Black." Many universities bond strongly over some sports rivalry match or homecoming weekend game, but unlike the OSU-Michigan or Harvard-Yale football games, Reunions is a celebration purely by, for, and about Princeton. That much is to the university's credit as I write this near-nauseous from the stench of 3 nights' worth of beer from over ten Reunions tents that fills the air and drowns the grass all over the campus. At least we've had excellent weather this year. Last year was so hot, I'd packed a bathing suit as an outfit option to wear to the P-rade, the big parade in which the procession begins with the oldest alumni and ends with the graduating class walking through the Bloomberg archway onto Poe field on the southern end of campus.

It's been fun meeting with some of my old professors and reconnecting with friends who decided to head down to Tigertown for the weekend, mostly from my a cappella group and co-op. I ran into everyone who was around whom I wanted to see--even if only for precious moments. But enveloped in a cloud of orange and black and being back here specifically for Reunions and graduation, I'm feeling a little sad. This was the first year I felt truly present for the people I care about. I spent my other years in boy-obsession and in self-obsession (mostly riding guilt trips, throwing pity parties, and beating myself up about the boy-obsession).

Today I can genuinely say I wish no harm to the individuals involved in these moments of my life. I forgive them for where they went wrong. If you are one of them and happen to be reading, I hope you will forgive me, too--I was the person I was doing my best with the tools that I had. If you keep reading--and I invite you to--you'll notice that this isn't a post about you so much as a post about me and for me that happens to include you. Again, I forgive you and hope you forgive me, too, but this is about forgiving myself. 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

In 2010, I had been in a relationship for nearly 6 years, two of them long-distance, Vermont to New Jersey. I don't think I realized how tired I was of the relationship until I noticed myself having a serious crush on someone else. A senior, he and I met in an precept in the winter--I remember thinking he hated me then--and were in a translation class together in the spring, where, to my surprise, we flirted a fair bit. Also a member of the co-op I would eventually join, he was on the same cooking shift as a close friend of mine, so I was able to get to know him outside of class and to learn how to make some incredible food. Mostly desserts.

In April, he asked me to be his date to the co-op formal event since his girlfriend was off doing something else that night. That was the first time I'd heard him mention her, and the fact added a new layer to my conflicted feelings: not only did I find myself attracted to someone other than the one I was with, but also the person I was interested in was taken.

He matched his tie to my dress, which was cute as much as impressive--that shade of blue was pretty unique. I had a lot of fun with him, but felt very confused over the next month. When Reunions came, we drank and danced in the tents. I wondered how I would break up with my boyfriend. I also wondered how this guy could spend so much time with me without his girlfriend getting annoyed. The latter thought vanished with a bit of wine.

At some point I gave him a really deliberately-written-to-not-sound-overly-sentimental-but-still-overly-sentimental graduation card and a leather flask with a map of the world.

I went into the senior prom with a 'que sera, sera' attitude, determined to have fun with my closest friends who would be there. And for that hour, I was extremely present. The cloud of infatuation had lifted momentarily, and I danced for hours with my girlfriends and other graduates whom I would miss.

We took a picture after prom and parted ways. At some point, I met him at his room and ended up staying there until the morning when I left early to get breakfast and get dressed for graduation ceremonies. I'll never forget the combination of smugness and shame I felt when I spotted him and his (still-?) girlfriend having coffee in town the next morning. I also felt angry about the secrecy I felt compelled to keep. I wanted our relationship to be real, and seeing the two of them together, "business as usual" made me feel as if the past 72+ hours weren't real.

Of course, I was falling for a guy who was uncertain as to where he was headed after graduation, rendering possibilities of a relationship especially low or unrealistic.  Of course, it would take me two more days before I sucked it up and ended things with my boyfriend. And of course, within days of ending it, I managed to coordinate a trip to meet this guy in Washington and stay together for three or four days.

I wish I could say that was the last time I would do something like this. But two years later, something similar happened.

In May 2012, I had some real moments of feeling on top of the world. I had handed in my senior thesis and was finally going to graduate, despite all those moments of doubt over the past four years. On May 10, 2012, I sang my heart out at my senior performance with my a cappella group before alternating inebriated karaoke with waiting to get into senior pub night with my two closest girlfriends in the class of 2012.

At the pub, I met someone whose name I'd seen on listserv emails my four years of college but had yet to encounter in person. At this point in the night, I was drunk to the extent I was actually enjoying myself around people I'd generally disliked throughout college. This guy and I got to talking and it seemed as if we had plenty in common--or at least I had plenty to say while under the influence. Because I have an eccentric memory, I remember asking him to buy me, nearing the tipping point of nausea, a coconut water while everyone was bracing themselves to fill up on Dirty Sanchez and Fat Lady sandwiches at Hoagie Haven. I somehow ended up on the rooftop of a nearby fraternity apartment off-campus, where we talked until late and then he walked me back to my room.

I asked him out, saying something like "thank you for being a gentleman and getting me a coconut water getting me home. I owe you one." It was his birthday a little over a week later, and he invited me to have a drink with him at the bar after the party he was having there. We ended up staying there for a while, headed to a second bar and then to his room, where we talked for a long time once more.

I headed home that night thinking,"Of course, I meet this person in my final three weeks." Of course, I tried to play it cool and not to care. Of course, I was ashamed at how much I cared and how much I wanted to create a real relationship in what would rank among the worst circumstances possible--just weeks before graduation.

And of course, that didn't stop me from trying to make it happen. I had invited him to my final cooking shift at the co-op and even made tiramisu. The night should have been a glorious end to my two and a half years of culinary joy. Instead, I was sullen, feeling slighted. He had fallen asleep after his exam and left for a trip with friends the next morning.

One friend had already shared the opinion of, "told you so," but I held out hope for reconnecting when he got back. We did. For two nights, things were great. He took me out for wine and tapas on the Thursday night of Reunions. He came to my alumnae a cappella performance the following night and watched me sing. I was flattered. Soon I would be flattered and drunk.

I don't think anyone in my a cappella group had ever seen me remotely unhinged in their years of knowing me, so watching me at the 25th Reunion dirty dancing and fiercely making out with someone without any regard for the surrounding circumstances was a combination of unfamiliar and hilarious for them. So they tell me.

By Saturday night, I was running on mere hours of sleep and my voice sounded as if I had emphysema. But I was high on feeling desired and on the thrill of possibility that something might work here.

Which it didn't.

Days of not taking care of yourself catch up with you. I hadn't realized that then. I was trying to hold onto every last moment of college because I felt that I hadn't really had all the good of "the college experience" until now. Being in long-distance relationships 3 out of 4 years and grinding myself academically until the day my thesis was in and comprehensive exams were over made much of college pretty lacking in dimension--and perspective.

Somehow, Saturday night ended up on the back porch of an eating club. It was past 3AM and I was sitting with this guy and a friend of his as they discussed a business venture they were contemplating. I tried to laugh at the misogynistic comments I heard--again playing it cool on the outside but feeling wounded. My sleep-deprived, alcohol-addled brain took this as another cue to weaken what little self-esteem I had. I was pissed about the comments. I was pissed that he wasn't paying enough attention to me. I started wondering if this guy even liked me at all and was feeling defiant--as defiant as I could in my compromised state. And it was in this moment some older alumnus started hitting on me and complimenting me. Feeling like crap and with my voice shot, I was craving attention and validation. All I remember is shouting out, "YOLO" (Short for "you only live once," to translate for my mom, who will likely read this), and making out with the alumnus for a few seconds while the guy I was interested in was sitting right in between us.

It got his attention. Understandably, it made him angry and hurt. I was out of my mind, but it was still a stupid and selfish thing to do. All my "plans" to make things work collapsed and all the fun moments vanished in those seconds.

And I would spend the next three days of graduation ceremonies not spending time with the people who mattered to the past four years of my college career, not enjoying a nice dinner with my family, but trying to erase those seconds and rectify a situation with a guy I knew barely three weeks.

I didn't have a place to stay that night since my room was filled with 3 or 4 alumni friends. I stayed with this guy again, and the most humiliating thing was sharing that bed, barely touching the entire night. He was repulsed by me. I was repulsed by me. I was hours from graduating from Princeton and felt more worthless than I'd ever felt in my life. If I could have hated myself into nonexistence that night, I'd have done it. For the next three days of graduation ceremonies and even the next year, I'd tell the story to anyone who would listen because that's how much I hated myself for it. I wanted people to make me feel better, to tell me that it wasn't my fault (somewhat true) and that it wasn't worth it (very true). But no amount of consolation could really get through to me.

I cried through the first day of ceremonies. I could barely keep it together during my a cappella performance for my family, between having no voice and the events of the previous night. We met briefly after that evening's activities and talked as if nothing had happened. We danced the next night at prom, and things seemed as if they were before. At this point, I think we were both pretending to be fine.

I invited him to stay over the night before graduation and left the door unlocked. He never came. I saw him the next day, also giving him a small gift and--as in 2010--a really deliberately-written-to-not-sound-overly-sentimental-but-still-overly-sentimental card. I asked him where we stood and, given that we lived in the same state and didn't have any fixed work plans yet, if he wanted to see where things could go. He didn't want a relationship. As he said himself, it wasn't what I wanted to hear. 

The story didn't end there. After receiving a thoughtful congratulations from him on getting hired, I invited him to visit to my parents' shore house for 3 days before I left for Boston (and successfully convinced him by promising it would be "just fun" before I went away. "Nothing serious.") The fleeting "fun" of those few days would leave me feeling even worse than before. As I dropped him off at his house and drove back to mine, I was profoundly empty. 

We had texted back and forth until something like July 3. I remember because I was bored and alone in my hotel room on Soldiers Field Road and was watching some terrible movie in the Final Destination franchise. If that wasn't a sign that this whole situation was destined to die, I don't know what was. But much like the characters in those movies, I wanted to control the outcomes of things, not wanting to accept my powerlessness.

It took seeing him by chance at the P-rade one year later at Reunions 2013 for the fear and anxiety about seeing him again to dissolve. I didn't end up running into him this year. Likely for the best. 

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The night before Commencement, Princeton hosts a senior prom to which friends and family of the graduates are invited. Some people dress in gym clothes (in their defense, the event is located in a gymnasium) and others dress as if it were their high school prom, tulle, sequins, and all. Some people have just a mom and dad to bring along and others have gigantic families with siblings and cousins and aunts in tow. The people-watching at Prom is fantastic, the music is generally good, and even though I knew hardly anyone at Prom 2014, having graduated two years ago, I might have had more fun this year at Prom than I ever did just dancing with Lucy and her family. 

It was 11 o'clock as I left prom to head to my friend's apartment, at least two miles away. Exhausted after four days packed with walking and socializing--and now hours of dancing--I was not looking forward to the long walk home late at night. To pass the time and feel less lonely in the dark, I started singing. Walking north on campus, I first found myself drawn to 1879 Arch.

The day before I'd watch Lucy sing for her parents at her senior arch sing and was reminded of my own senior arch in 2012. My voice was gone and I exhausted and miserable from all the drama of Reunions. In retrospect, this was the saddest part of my graduation weekend--not being able to sing. I was especially sad since the group had worked hard to learn a new arrangement of Fleetwood Mac's "Go Your Own Way," which had been written for me as a graduation gift and I couldn't eke out a note of the solo. I was near tears as a friend had to step in. 

So on June 2, 2014, two years later, I stood in 1879 Arch, illuminated by the one lantern hanging above the middle of the arch, I sang "Go Your Own Way." There was no audience save for the crickets and the darkness. It wasn't the way I planned to ever sing that song in that arch, but it was perfect.

As I finished singing and looked out across Washington Road, I saw the Woodrow Wilson School Fountain. Something spontaneous in me said it would be a good idea to walk in the fountain. A voice in my head told me this was a bad idea because it would get the insides of my shoes wet and make the walk home unpleasant. The head voice lost out to the heart one. 

As I sat on the steps of the fountain, I was reminded of 2010, sitting by the boy I liked on the edge of the pool, talking of the future while watching people try to climb the sculpture in the center. I remember wishing he'd kiss me and feeling sad because I knew he couldn't and because wanting that made me emotionally unfaithful.

Returning to the present, I took my shoes off and waded into the pool of the fountain for a moment, humoring some conversation from a drunk townie who, in the shadow, vaguely resembled this boy. I said, "I wish I'd done this more when I was here," bid him farewell, and moved along, the sound of the falling water echoing in the night. 

Singing again and walking in the direction of home, I found myself arriving at the chapel. I'd been in the chapel for four reasons during college--singing performances, tour-giving, the Baccalaureate ceremony before Commencement, and the one religious service I attended with my long-distance boyfriend the first weekend of freshman year. I never came in to pray. I never really came in to sit and simply marvel at the place, even though it is beautiful and was just steps away from my classes in East Pyne Hall. 

On June 2, I did. I walked as close as I could to the altar without setting off any alarms and I said a prayer for myself and for the graduating class. I admired the stained glass panels, the rose window, and contemplated my smallness looking up at the high vaulted ceilings. I left at the stroke of midnight and began walking down Nassau and then down Stockton Street. It turned out to be over a half hour between leaving the chapel and reaching number 364, but I felt as if I was carried home, steeped in the awe and wonder of my weird, magical, midnight odyssey. 

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Last night, June 17, I went to a women's circle in Boston and was reminded of the quotation I've seen before on bumper stickers on cars and chalked at least once on the Esplanade bike path: "Your Love is Louder." The loving, kind, heart-centered voice that took me on that midnight journey was louder than the head voice that seesaws from self-important, invincible, and better than everyone to fearful, self-pitying, and never good enough.

I never thought I would be able to heal the wounds and settle my business with the ghosts of Reunions past. But somehow, in a way beyond my comprehension and at a time I could never have planned, I was shown an opportunity to do so and to give another meaning to places and times that had haunted me. 

I used to want to forget what happened in those moments and many others involving men. Burn them. Erase them. Bury them with baked goods. Drown them with wine. Tell the stories over and over to friends who are tired of listening in hopes that just one more pair of ears hearing my woes will take off some of the edge.

But now I don't want to forget. I want to remember what it was like and how awful it was to be there so I never go back to that dark but familiar place. I want to keep that girl in my heart and tell her every day that she was born worthy and doesn't have to work so hard to get people to like her--men or women. That she isn't a bad person for what she's done or who she's been. That she doesn't have to rewrite the script or keep reliving the last scene--she just needs to step on stage for the next act. 

Spring Cleaning, Graduation Edition: June 5, 2012

It was a privilege to return this past weekend for Reunions and to get to stick around for the Class Day and Commencement ceremonies and celebrate my dear friend Lucy with her entire Aussie family. Making it out of the "Orange Bubble" (or, as I now like to call it, "the [Orange and] Black Hole") is no small feat, and I was moved to tears as I heard the new Princeton president deliver two touching speeches and saw the graduates gracefully walk through the gates this morning.

Two years ago, I was in their shoes (and cap and gown, as it were), and I was a wreck. But 6 consecutive near-sleepless nights, mostly spent mildly intoxicated and chasing an emotionally unfulfilling hookup, were just the icing on the cake.

As I sat in my seat, I was miserable. It didn't matter that I was leaving Princeton with a 3.7 and highest honors. It didn't matter that I'd earned 5 minors--a number that is practically unheard of. It didn't matter that my painstakingly-worked thesis had won a prize that came with a formidable check. Sandwiched between two of my favorite people from college and with friends and family showing up to see me reach this milestone, I wasn't brimming with joy on graduation day. All I could think about was how I felt like the world's most secret and epic failure.

Why? Because despite all those accomplishments, I was graduating without a job. And I thought that was the end of the world.

As someone who planned everything obsessively and constantly strove to control the outcomes, graduating without a job was not part of the "Happily Ever After" I'd imagined for myself. After years of struggling through my college experience, at Princeton, no less, I felt entitled to the prestigious jobs that I saw many of my classmates getting. When I didn't get hired by an elite bank or consulting firm or even Teach For America out of college, I took that to mean that I was worthless. I took that to mean that my years of learning foreign languages and broadening my perspective of the world through comparative literature made me unmarketable.

When I got rejected from HBS's 2+2 program, dinged after first-round interviews with Bain and McKinsey, and received nary an interview at a bank save for Barclays, I cursed myself for not having remained an electrical engineer. These schools and firms that managed to snag engineers from the Facebooks and Googles of the world seemed to like how engineers thought and what they were able to contribute. While I considered myself an unconventional thinker with a unique energy and perspective to offer when solving problems, my rejection made me believe that the way I thought and the way I was was more than "not good enough"--it was undesirable.

Now I am grateful for those rejections and all that has happened since. But here is what I wish I had known then, or rather what I wish I were willing to believe then:

The first thing I wish I'd known is that the majority of those kids who got the prestigious jobs I so desperately wanted would be feeling disenchanted, depressed, and lacking purpose within the year. Their salaries and bonuses would be little, compared with the numbers of hours they'd work. Their mental and physical health would suffer, along with their social lives. The glamour would fade.

I also wish I'd understood that I was already enough. I didn't need to keep striving to be (or feel as if I was) better than other people. I didn't have to keep doing and achieving more to earn my space on the planet. There was a reason I was put here and I could trust in that.

Above all, I wish I had more faith that everything would work out. There was something better in store for me that I could hardly plan for when I moped my way out the Fitzrandolph Gates on June 5, 2012. The story I now get to write about the past two years is far more compelling that the one I would have imagined for myself two years out.

I didn't know, after a year of job rejections, including six months interviewing with HBS and three failed faculty matches, that within the month I would finally get hired by a professor whose work would get me to travel back to China--something I longed to do upon graduation. I also didn't know that going back to China would make me terribly sick and I would have to seriously reconsider my career course and ambitions.

I didn't know that two months after graduating, I would get slapped with a medical diagnosis that would force me to transform my entire lifestyle--and to sever my burgeoning ties to Boston beer culture. And I didn't know just how much those changes to recover my health would bring me toward discovering my purpose.

I didn't know that I'd go on a yoga retreat and find the inspiration and determination to start a business.

I didn't know that I'd find the courage to apply to MBA programs again after being rejected my senior year. And I certainly didn't know that I'd eventually get into the program that was perfect for me.

Even if someone had told me it was going to be okay, given my state of mind, I probably wouldn't have believed them anyway. When I was depressed at graduation, I thought it was because I didn't have a job or an 'in' at a graduate school, but now I know it was because I was afraid of not having what those things represented: certainty. Two years later, I get the gift of understanding that my life would--and will--unfold on its own terms, and that there's beauty in the mystery. So long as I can continue to trust in that fact, especially in the moments of sorrow and uncertainty, I'm setting myself for a wild, unfathomable life, and an truly incredible story.


My hat's off to you, class of 2014. Congratulations!






Spring Cleaning: April 24 and early May 2013

There are few things I enjoy in Boston quite as much as a walk down Newbury Street. Especially in those hours when it isn't glutted with people in midsummer heat, I love looking at all the storefronts with their impeccably-styled mannequins and at the cafes with even more impeccably-styled European tourists seated outside. In my almost two years in Boston, the street has served me in many ways aside from the leisurely walk. Newbury has left me well-fed from indulgent brunches at Trident and well-caffeinated from macchiatos at Pavement--and well-near-broke from the occasional shopping spree or spa day. But of all the ways the street has left me, the best is that Newbury left me simply well, starting between Berkeley and Clarendon.

If you're unfamiliar, Athleta is a women's lifestyle clothing brand I'd describe as having products suited to a wider age bracket and wider variety of activities than that provided by its most obvious competitor--Lululemon.

Even though I'd walked past the Athleta storefront at 92 Newbury on many a walk, I don't think I'd gone in there more than a handful of times, and whenever I did, I came out empty-handed save for a calendar of free fitness classes for the month. Every time, I promised myself that I would attend one. The internal dialogue sounded something like this:
"Hey, Erica. There's a free running club at Athleta this week. Why don't you try it?"
"You know I can't run--it gives me pain."
"What about yoga? There's a class on Wednesday at 8. You'd have plenty of time to go home and get settled and take a nice walk down Newbury Street."
"Why would I want to go in a class to sit and stretch until I fall asleep?"
"You know, you're basing your understanding of yoga on the 2 times you did it in seventh grade with a really mediocre teacher."
"Whatever. I don't like the types of people who do yoga. They're all trendy, wealthy yuppies who are thinner and happier than I am."
"Ah--there's the real issue. You're scared and insecure. Ok. Come back and talk to me later when you're willing to try something different. I'll wait as long as you need."

At the time, I couldn't tell you why. Maybe it was because I was terrified about being put under for my first surgical procedure--an upper endoscopy, to get biopsied for celiac disease--the next day. Maybe it was because my mom was in town for the procedure and I wanted to bond with her by trying to actually exercise with her instead of just resenting her for her love of exercise. At any rate, on April 24, 2013, after a light dinner at Stephanie's on Newbury and a quick trip to City Sports for some cheap yoga mats, my mom and I headed to the free Wednesday night yoga class at 8PM at Athleta. The teacher, Nina Petruzzo, was thin, petite, and blonde and there were plenty of people in the class who would fit any of the stereotypes I'd developed about yogis. But at this point, I was done with arguing with myself and finding excuses that were serving only to keep me in a state of fear and unhappiness.

One hour later, my mom and I agreed: "I'm glad we did this. It wasn't what I expected."

While I hadn't fallen head-over-heels in love with yoga, I was surprised to notice that I certainly didn't hate it. I had to admit that felt a little bit better that night, and I felt far more at ease heading to the hospital the next morning.

From there, I ended up making good on all the months I didn't try the classes at Athleta, trying four or five of the free classes at the store over the next three weeks. There was a terrible Pilates class and then an excellent one with Swan Lyon, another great yoga class with Jenna Hill and a mediocre one with someone I don't remember.

And on one of those Saturdays, there was a class with Catherine Hummel.

I'm pretty sure that if I met Catherine on the street at the time, I'd have found her annoyingly energetic and happy to the point that it made me uncomfortable. But in her class, as I surrendered to her instruction for the next hour, I didn't feel that way at all. Something was about to go miraculously right.

She started the class by having us pick from a deck of cards containing an affirmation for the day ("Whatever that means," I thought). I don't remember what mine said, but I remember being struck by her little introduction. She told us to take care of ourselves during class and to lose the serious "yoga faces" and smile.

I chuckled, reminded me of the sweet girl in early 8th grade who gently told the first boy she'd eventually date, "You should smile more." This was the pure-hearted version of myself that I had buried and forgotten and wanted to remember.

The class was a gentle flow--energizing but not too overpowering for a Saturday morning. Throughout the class, Catherine felt very real to me, not taking herself as seriously as other yoga teachers. She was radiant and also something I didn't know what to call at the time, but I now understand as present--truly being in the moment. She was playful and joyful, and she made it seem as if her joy was something you could have, too, if you just asked her how to get it.

Which I did. I asked her after class. And then I hired her as a life coach in early May 2013.

"I used to walk around wondering if there was a happy pill other people were taking that I just didn't have," she told me in our first session.

I had exact thought all the time and was shocked to hear it from her, that she could relate. I thought, "You? Unhappy? Was that ever really a thing?" I couldn't imagine her as anything other than the energetic, ebullient person in front of me, but what she had said about the way she used to live gave me hope.

It gave me reason to believe I could change, too. I was gasps away from drowning in an ocean of limiting beliefs about my life and hateful thoughts about myself. I spent more time trying to save myself from drowning than from actually living.

I didn't know I could get on a life raft. I didn't know (or have faith) that I could swim to shore. And I didn't know I could take it easy on myself and simply float. I was afraid that the moment I stopped trying so hard to tread water that the world would end.

I didn't know I had a choice. If there's one thing I have learned since last spring, it's that I do have a choice. Every morning when I wake up. I can be willing to side with love and to see fear as a choice rather than something real. Or, paraphrasing Einstein, I can choose to live as if nothing is a miracle, or I can choose to live as if everything is a miracle.

Spring Cleaning: April 15, 2013

I had hoped to write this post on the anniversary of the Marathon Bombings (the 15th) or the day of the Boston Marathon this year (the 21st). But as they say, "Man plans. God laughs." Albeit a late post, it's such a relief to be writing it after the 2014 race went off without a single hitch. I loved watching the elite runners on TV in the morning and watching the (relative) mortals from Mile 26 on Gloucester and Boylston.

On April 15, 2014, I had planned to attend a Seder for the second night of Passover, but not feeling up to 5 hours of ceremony at the house of a friend's Jewish grandmother in Newton, I ended up heading to my Women's Circle that night. Six or seven of us had gathered on the fourth floor of Old South Church in Copley Square, the locus of chaos and blood and debris one year before, to meditate and reflect on the tragedy one year later.

Every Bostonian I spoke to this year knew exactly where he was or what she was doing the day the bombs went off. I'm no exception. I was watching the race from Washington Square in Brookline at mile 23, 3.2 miles from the finish line. I was fortunate to be dating someone who lived far down the Green Line--had I watched the race from the place closest to my apartment, I'd have been right in Copley and all that would have saved me from injury and worse trauma would have been excellent timing in leaving the race. My dear friend Meg, who was watching her friend run from Whiskey's bar, which is right around the block from Forum, where one of the explosions occurred, had left barely a half hour before. Thankfully, her friend was fast runner and the weather was just chilly enough to have Meg head home earlier rather than later.

Anyway, I was watching the race in Brookline. It was my first Marathon Monday since moving to Boston and the city was buzzing with excitement (and open containers of Bud Light). The metal barricades on either side of the Marathon course were lined with people and every outdoor seat at the local cafes and restaurants was filled. We'd share in the runners' joy when the reached the finish line, but in the meantime, as we watched the race, we balanced out their physical exertion with our exceptional laziness. Save for emitting enthusiastic cheers between even more enthusiastic gulps of booze.

Like some terrible omen, at 2:52PM, a runner collapsed barely three feet from where I was standing and started seizing. I saw some men in military garb run past her, and I was confused as to why they weren't immediately rushing to her aid. A police officer, looking unusually rattled, came over to help. We heard some strange news over his radio, which he proceeded to confirm: three minutes ago, two bombs had gone off off at the finish line. He urged us to head home.

My mom had already spent at least 15 minutes earlier that afternoon listening to me stress about my landlord wanting to sell my apartment and needing to find a new place to live. She probably thought that when I called her back a second time, it would be to further insult my landlord's character.

Strangely, I was calmer when I related the news of the bombing than when I shared the situation about my apartment.  My tone was composed. I told her I was fine, I was safe, and I was staying well away from the area for the rest of the night. I was lucky I caught her at 2:53PM, before she had the chance to worry about my being unreachable. Placing an outgoing call would become impossible in a matter of minutes as cell service was shut down.

The group I was with walked back to my boyfriend's apartment, stopping at the Whole Foods in Washington Square to pick up meat for dinner. I walked around the market aimlessly, trying to process what was happening while trying to distract myself with the colors and labels of everything in the store.

As we walked back home from the market, I wondered why the people I was with weren't more concerned about telling their loved ones that they were safe and sound. My phone was being bombarded. I couldn't charge the dying thing fast enough to let everyone who was texting me know that I was okay. As the boys went outside to set up the grill, I sat on the couch at the apartment obsessively scraping the internet for news on the suspects. I let myself become consumed with anxiety, but I didn't allow myself to cry. At the time, (and to some extent, even a year later) I felt I didn't deserve to cry because I wasn't personally hurt.

I know there wasn't much else to do that day and that life must go on, but drinking and barbecuing as if nothing had happened seemed like the wrong thing to do. Admittedly, my company was almost exclusively male, and many men don't show their feelings (or don't feel safe to). But these boys' indifference on this particular day and in these circumstances was frustrating. I resented them for their behavior, considering it an insult to those suffering just over 3 miles from where we stood. I'd realize later that these were some of the most childish, emotionally-stunted men I'd ever meet. I still work on letting my resentment toward them go. But as I spent the night in the context of this apathetic group, I felt that all my feelings of sadness and pain and confusion and fear weren't legitimate. I proceeded to undermine or deny them whenever I felt them bubbling up. Despite my denial, I couldn't walk on Boylston Street until well into May without feeling like I'd fall apart.

When the lockdown was over on the 19th, after a day of watching Boston crime movies and obsessively following the news, my boyfriend came to my place and we went for a walk, down Charles, around Cambridge, past Tremont, and then to Beacon. As we walked down the slope of Beacon by the Common toward the Public Garden, we heard loud cheers and chants of "USA! USA!" I remember feeling confused and wondering if this was something to celebrate, if I was allowed to feel joy and this ordeal being over, if this was, somehow, an excuse to be patriotic. For some eccentric reason, I remember wearing black TOMS wedge sandals, having decided that it was a night for celebration with the suspect captured and the weather that night had finally feeling somewhat spring-like. I had blisters by the end of the walk. I don't think I allowed myself to even feel that pain.

After years of therapy, being around crazy people, and being told I was crazy, I'm learning that my feelings are legitimate--and not just my feelings about the Marathon. I've learned that no one gets to tell me how I should feel--including my ego--and that ignoring or swallowing the feelings doesn't make them disappear. And as a recovering people-pleaser and perfectionist, I'm learning that I can't really influence the way that other people feel--about me, about themselves, or about the world. How others feel about me is their business. Not mine.

That's freeing stuff.

Spring Cleaning: April 9, 2012

I can't remember where I was on New Year's Eve or Thanksgiving this past year. I can't remember what I was doing at this hour two nights ago. But some days stick out in my memory eccentrically, and in the past few years, many of these dates have been in April, May, and June. April 9. April 15. April 19. April 24. May 4. May 18. May 27. June 3. June 4. June 5. June 25. June 29. A little weird, to be sure. But so am I.

I'm hoping to spend the next few months on this blog with posts reflecting on the things that happened on those days, many of which in the past three years. Since I remember exactly where I was and what I was doing, it'll be an exercise in exploring and reminding myself just how far I've come. I'm calling them the Spring Cleaning Reflections, and they're going to get vulnerable. But spring has arrived, and it's time to clean house. I'm ready to let go of some old stories, and, if past experience serves, the only way I can do that is by writing them out to make them lose their power. If I can just get them to paper, I'll be free.

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On April 9, 2012, I handed in my senior thesis at Princeton, and the experience was cathartic. I'd worked myself to the bone on the thing and it was the culmination of all I'd done with China and Brazil throughout college. It was unique and well-written and even won a prize. It remains my very best original academic work. But I remember feeling very empty after the I handed in my thesis. At the time, I couldn't figure out why I felt that way and wrote it off to what others were calling thesis "post-partum" depression and coming down from my sugar high from the macarons TFC had gifted me from Laduree.

I now understand the reason behind the feeling of emptiness: the moment I handed in my thesis was the moment I realized how little of a life I had cultivated for myself at Princeton outside of my work.

I hadn't had the college career I'd imagined for myself. I was exhausted 90% of the time, napping in the middle of the day just to make it from 7AM to 11PM. I was a tour guide and an a cappella singer and a co-op member, and by the grace of God, I was handling tour shifts, cooking shifts, late-night rehearsals and busy performance schedules while managing to raise my grades out of the trenches created by my erstwhile life as an electrical engineering major.

What time I had after studying, sleeping, singing, and cooking, I spent numbing out, mostly by watching television. It was Grey's Anatomy before Chinese quizzes on Friday morning, Glee and Gossip Girl with TFC while drinking bourbon with hibiscus flowers on his futon in Scully, and Mad Men and The Bachelor with RPM in the co-op (RPM kindly humored me on the latter). In retrospect, I know I was doing the best I could, considering I was killing myself slowly with every bowl of pasta and Kashi cereal.

Throughout my four years, I was struggling to do the whole, "learn from your peers" thing. I couldn't let go of my obsession to be the smartest person in the room. When you're at Princeton, clearly that's not going to be possible. While I knew how ridiculous the obsession was, I couldn't help but nurse it. Therapy and mild antidepressants couldn't lift the shadow of my insecurity.

Messed up as I was, I saw my peers as competition first, friends second. I think Chinese classes reinforced this negative mentality because teachers were strict, encouraged rote memorization over creative expression, and reduced our value in class to a point value on a test. Basically, Chinese gaokao culture trickled down into my every morning at 9 or 10AM for two-and-a-half years.

I felt especially uncomfortable around anyone who was an engineering, economics major, or computer science major because I thought they were better than I was, that their mettle allowed them to stick out the curriculum while I copped out for a major where I thought I'd be happier and perform better (which I was and did, though getting hired would prove a nightmare. More on that for the post about June 25).
At any rate, I remained hellbent on trying to be a special brand of smart in a school full of geniuses. But five minors and a summa cum laude later, I didn't feel any more whole.

It didn't help that three of my four years in college were spent in codependent, long-distance relationships, and parts of my fourth year were spent taking scraps of intimacy wherever I could find them.

While I wasn't physically up to a whole party scene, I wish I'd tried to meet more people. I should have taken the plunge and gone out once a month to the awkward shuffle that was Prospect Street on Saturday night. I didn't realize then that I owed it to myself to be present in college. I'm not sure I knew what being present meant. I certainly didn't know how to show up for conversations with women without comparing myself to them and how to show up for interactions with men without fear and ultimately pining for the emotionally-unavailable ones who were in or humoring a relationship with me from a distance.

But in the spirit of presence, time to get up to speed with the moment that inspired this post:
Two weeks ago, my lovely friend LL, whom I've been mentoring throughout her upperclassman academic life, submitted her senior thesis. A comparative literature major and Chinese student like myself, she has a very different path from mine awaiting her post-graduation that will be wondrous all the same.

I cried four times over the course of interacting with her thesis. The first time I cried because I had promised LL that I'd do an 88-page stylistic edit of her thesis and ended up having to get it done in one day while hungover. The second and third times were when I read the paragraph in her acknowledgments directed at me and her thank you note to me in the mail.

The fourth time, I cried for myself. While I don't get to relive my college experience, I do get this opportunity to finally, finally be grateful. For having a mentee who is going to crush it in the real world. For having a treasure of a friend who knows and appreciates me well enough to write me a handwritten letter of thanks. For the catch up game I was able to play in securing some exceptional friendships in my final six weeks after my thesis was in and even in my first year out. For college it having unfolded as it did, perfectly imperfectly as it did.

I wouldn't be where I am on this personal growth journey without it.

"...and while I'm here I want to allow myself joy."

Boston, you're beautiful. But today, you were just too windy and I didn't want to go outside and do things, and I'd probably have gotten run over by everyone and their cousin training for the Marathon. #bostonstronger #25days

No matter. It's been a whirlwind of a month (pun intended) filled with terrific company. But solitude is a truly beautiful thing. And I'm grateful for this moment to I reoccupy my little inspiration corner of letters and tokens of love from friends and get back to writing.

Aside from adjusting to the silly diet, I've been up to a fair bit this March. I went home to North Jersey to see my grandmother, hosted my dear friend Lucy for an unofficial Comp Lit thesis bootcamp in my apartment for a week, and even had 30 or so people over for a house party--my first since August (which went well enough that I might make some sort of casual-but-classy get-together a monthly to-do). Parties and performances were plentiful, movies and meetings even more so. But naturally the experience I'm most compelled to share is my time back in New Hampshire at one of my favorite places in New England.

I had a lot of anxiety coming back up to Dragonfly Yoga Barn, its new celebrity in Real Simple's April issue aside. It's a place that catalyzed a tremendous amount of personal success (the August retreat led to my starting Zen Cookery and applying to MIT), but it also served as the backdrop to some of my lowest moments (the February retreat I attended with my mom I remember more for the fights than for the fun). The first time, I came home on a pink cloud of love and the second, in spite of all the yoga and meditation, on a black one of resentment and self-loathing.

I knew more people attending this trip but had no sense of what the dynamics would be in our group of 15. I wasn't looking forward to being on an extremely restrictive diet in a place that has some of the best homemade food I have ever encountered, gluten-free or otherwise. And I wasn't feeling particularly optimistic (but was feeling particularly queasy) as our car of three drove over frost heave after frost heave on Route 113 in New Hampshire.

But once the group circled up for the first night, I knew that this experience was going to be neither like the first nor like the second--it was going to be a retreat with a story all its own. In one word, it was a story of surrender.

Every time we gathered into a circle, we drew at least one tarot or tarot-inspired card. Before picking up cards, we're supposed to speak or think about a situation in which we want guidance or a question to which we're seeking some sort of answer. Naturally, I was meditating on the next steps for my business and other action-oriented decisions. As I looked to the cards to lend some sort of insight, the messages were consistently clear, all to the effect of slowing down, taking care of myself, and focusing on relationships (with self and others). If that's not a sign to ease up a little on entrepreneurial pursuits for the next few months, I don't know what is. I certainly didn't come home with the resolve to change the course of my business overnight this time around.

The theme of the whole weekend was balancing masculine and feminine energies: giving and receiving, mind and body, logic and intuition (and so on with the Jungian list). This retreat, I was really feeling the whole receiving element. I gave in to myself and went to bed before 11 every night as much as I wanted to stay up later and bond with the group, as we only had three days together. I didn't go on the snowshoe trek and just sat and read and wrote for a while. As a group, we made drawings of male/female mandalas, did partner yoga and intuition exercises in pairs, and went through my favorite vulnerability/bonding activity in which people stand if they identify with a given statement ("Stand if you have sisters," "Stand if you've ever lost someone you care about," etc.)

But the most unusual activity was one in which we were divided into two groups of seven and one person in each group got into the fetal position in the middle of the circle. Seated, the six women surrounding put their hands on the person in the middle, who essentially acted out being reborn from the womb, moving against the pressure of the six pairs of hands and "hatching" before falling into the lap of someone in the circle. It felt pretty ridiculous at first--I actually asked the facilitator if we could have a minute for all of us to crack up. But once we had a moment to laugh over it, most of us were able to enjoy the sensation of safety and comfort that came with being held by six pairs of hands and loved by six different hearts. It was a liberating feeling--not having to do anything and being cared for simply for being in the middle of that circle, simply for being alive. Completely receiving in the present moment.

It couldn't have been more perfect that my Sunday night back in Boston was spent watching the movie "her," and hearing the line: "We're only here briefly, and while I'm here I want to allow myself joy." The movie is brilliant, and you could discuss it for days, but in that moment, I was reminded once again the importance of being present and living in joy. We live in a world that provides us with so many distractions that get in the way of us making meaningful connections with other people and of remembering the gifts of everyday life (as simple as having 10 fingers and 10 toes). Or, as Catherine Hummel might rephrase, we live in a world of distractions "that keep us from remembering the truth: that we are love."

At any rate, I love coming out of these retreats with new friends in the area (and deepening my friendships with the ladies I already know). If you're one of them and reading this, let me take a minute to remind you of two things:

1. You're beautiful
2. You look awesome in tie dye. 




Thinking outside of the box

I haven't really brought up my physical health on this blog for a while, mostly because I've been feeling pretty well, save for a bad cold in December, and because I've enjoyed writing posts that are less about my day-to-day in Boston and more about packaging moments in my life into something a little more inspiring and thought-provoking. But today, I felt I needed to write about my health, because that's all I can think about. And if I don't leave it out on the (virtual) page, it'll possess me disproportionately. But by the end of this post, things get a little more humorous, so keep reading and bear with me until then. 

This week, I was reminded: while I am not my disease, I am still living with one.

For my past three blood tests, my TTG antibodies (the go-to indicators for celiac disease) have remained high, meaning that gluten has been sneaking into my life and putting me at risk for all those terrible things can that happen when you're doing a shoddy job at living gluten-freely. Long story, short, my body hasn't been able to ignore two trips to China, weeks spent in different cities and kitchens across the US, and the inception of a baking business in the past nine months.

The most annoying diet I've ever had to follow was a pre-procedure diet of strictly water, boiled chicken, and white rice with a little salt in the 12 hours before the 12-hour fast before my endoscopy. Luckily, that was only for a day. Since last April, I've gotten used to eating a gluten-free and generally low-FODMAP diet. This was extremely hard at the beginning, and my friends scratched their heads over it every time I came over to their houses, especially for summer barbecues. As much as I loved dipping everything into hummus and adding caramelized onions onto anything savory, limiting these and other delicious items in the red section of the FODMAPs chart made me feel a whole lot better.

But the medical verdict I've been given this time in response to my bloodwork is particularly extreme: I can't eat out for the next three months and I can't consume anything that comes out of a box or package. Therein lies the difference between a "strict" and "ultrastrict" gluten-free diet. Even frozen fruits and vegetables--my ultimate money- and time-savers--are off-limits, unless I buy them fresh and then freeze them. I'm still waiting to hear back on whether I can have almond milk (my guess is "not unless you make it yourself") and if I can consume gluten-free grains other than rice (the food plan I was sent doesn't specify).

Of course, this comes at a moment when I have been meeting fun, new people, reconnecting with MIA friends, and on the brink of making good on those "we should get that long-lost lunch together" promises. Of course this comes just as I was planning all these trips back to the South, to Seattle, and even to Israel.

So, if you're reading and you had considered plans with me that roll over into a meal or involve food somehow, take note:

1. Wine is one of the five liquids I am allowed to drink. It is in the esteemed company of coffee, water, Gatorade, and plain tea. So if we meet, our options are Starbucks, a drinking fountain, a high school soccer game, and either a bar with an encyclopedic wine list or a few well-catered suggestions for medium- and full-bodied reds. If by the end of the three months, I'm starting to act like the moms who drink wine, you have my full permission to cut off my IV of Merlot and knock some sense into me.

2.  If it comes from an animal, I can probably eat it. With meat and potatoes or rice on nearly every recommended dinner, I'm convinced this nutrition plan was geared towards a soccer mom with at least three kids and a husband who subscribes to the Standard American Diet. I have a lot of respect for the magical moms who do it all and who have categorically run me off New Jersey highways in their fully-groceried minivans as they rush to get home in time to cook. But this diet was clearly not made for a twenty-something who eats vegan 85% of the time and whose grocery budget, already expensive from gluten-free foods, will go up by 50% if meat is added into the equation. Then again, maybe this is the universe's way of saying, "I've really been wanting you to try offal. Now is the time." Or, "That ostrich and alligator meat at Savenor's has your name on it. Heed the call."

3. The most comparable existing fad that matches with this food plan is the paleolithic diet. In advance, I promise you that I'm not going to start Crossfit and become "one of those people." Yoga is as far as I go in terms of voluntarily subscribing to yuppie trends, now that craft cocktails are off-limits.

I'm doing my best to shift my perspective here, but it's still a pretty difficult situation. On a bad day, it's easy for me to feel like I'm going through it alone. So for now, I look to your support and count on your compassion.

And provided it doesn't conflict with your geography or your ethics (food or otherwise), I invite you to come over and help me cook my way through the best and most legitimate gag gift I have ever received from one of the most wonderful people I know:

"Fifty Shades of Chicken."

"[21] Days Later"

For the past three weeks, I've been enrolled in an online course. In many ways, it was not your average online course. For one, unlike my Coursera courses, in which I enroll and proceed to watch one of the lectures and do none of the activities, I actually did the work for this one--or more work than I usually do in the absence of the gift of physical accountability that comes with taking an in-person course. Secondly, it was a course on self-love. Specifically, "21 Days to Self-Love." That's not the kind of thing you usually find on Udemy or Lynda. 

The course was run by a life coach I've worked with for several months, and even though I still work with her, I figured I'd sign up for the course anyway. It couldn't hurt to support a friend while also doubling down on emotional preparation for the February 14 cyclone of wine and chocolate and Hallmark cards. 

I've been actively working on the self-love quest for almost a year, and have had some measurable progress over the past nine months. But I wasn't expecting any huge shifts in 21 days. How much could four 75-minute phone discussions on Tuesday night in a group of 15 women really do for me? I knew the tools and had the steps to self-love already. I had vision boards and cards and posters all over the walls of my bedroom and desk. Even in my kitchen. So what were these 21 days going to change? Would I really be any different on the other side of them?

Despite my initial doubts, yes. 

The first day of the course, we were told to wake up every morning and follow a routine of drinking a large glass of water, meditating for ten minutes, and then writing a list of 5-10 things we were grateful for (doing the gratitude list was something I was doing already, but at night instead of the morning). I'd say I did this on all but four days, and while I was skeptical of the value of the routine, those four days I didn't go through with it, I definitely felt less at ease when moving throughout my day. I've categorically refused a routine under the belief that my life changes too much and I don't know where I'll be, so I can't stick to a routine. I don't know why I was afraid of letting that belief go--a fear of being "tied down" somehow? Becoming "boring" or "inflexible" on account of having a morning schedule? At any rate, I tried out this 15-minute trio of morning activities for the vast majority of the 21 days, and I plan to stick with them. 

But the most important thing that happened in the spirit of self-love was a breakup of sorts. A little over a week ago, I decided to end my contract at the facility where I was doing my baking commercially for my business. Anyone who saw and talked to me about my baking exploits probably noticed a shift in the way I talked about my business between November and mid-February. At the very least, I noticed a difference. Even though partnering with this facility meant breaking into multiple farmers markets and getting some space at a storefront--huge progress for a 6-month-old food business--I was a train wreck. The circumstances of working there me feel more distressed and more hopeless than ever. The more time I spent there there, the more anxious I became, the more I lost perspective, and the more I believed that I had no other choices if I wanted to be successful. The circumstances there were suffocating loving what I do--serving up peace of mind to people with dietary restrictions in the form of the best allergy-friendly baked goods in Boston. And on Valentine's Day, no less, I decided I'd had enough.

The legitimacy of my business depends on having a commercial production space and a gluten-free space, in particular, is an extremely rare find. But I decided to end the agreement anyway--even at the risk of this place trying to encroach on my gluten-free/vegan niche (which I noticed happening today). Of course, I got my call to finalize my wholesale license--the license I'd been pushing hard to get for the past few months--just days after ending the contract. But I have to believe that I'm going to be guided to a better space and will be able to follow through on that license (and somehow continue to operate this business during grad school). More likely than not, all will be resolved in ways I can hardly predict.

This 21-day course and the companion Facebook group helped me to remember that I have a choice in it all. How I start my day. How I run my business. With whom I spend my time. Even in the face of a bad situation, there's still a choice between faith and fear, between a loving voice and a critical one, between moving forward and standing still. 

And to the sisters reading this post, I love you and am so grateful to be walking beside you in the weird and wondrous road to self-love. Tonight, in the last class, I'm looking forward to celebrating it all with you.

"[She] wasn't more loved. She just got more candy."

Despite my regard for CVS Caremark in its recent decisions to no longer sell cigarettes, CVS has the most inefficient coupon system in the world. Why can't those Extrabucks be banked on your card, the way that Starbucks and other more "with-it" retailers bank their stars and rewards?

At any rate, when I do have Extrabucks coupons and don't need to use them to buy more paper towels or toothpaste, I spend them on magazines I enjoy but wouldn't normally buy. Stopping by CVS last week in the treacherous snow and feeling nostalgic for my fall trip to Charleston and Durham, I used my $4.00 coupon to buy the most recent issue of Southern Living. 

Flipping through the pages, I saw a killer grits recipe I'll have to try when I have a friend over for dinner next Friday, a highly compelling vacation offer in the Blue Ridge mountains, and a decent interview with Jennifer Nettles. But it was an article near the end of the magazine that put the "extra" in my Extrabucks purchase that day.

The author of the article was reflecting on her experiences of Valentine's Day from high school. Year after year, a classmate of hers, Faith, was showered with tokens of affection from her peers as part of her school's "Secret Valentine" activities. Faith (as I imagine, obliviously, but not necessarily maliciously), asked if she could put some of her Valentine spoils on the desk of the author, who received nary a single piece of chocolate ("None for Gretchen Weiners. Bye!")  

All I was thinking was, "Girl, if I were there, I'd get you a whole box and a Curious George Valentine card to boot. I love you and no one should feel that way."

I continued to read, and by the end of the short article, I was alone in my apartment giving a standing ovation to this woman's father, who consoled the author with the plain and powerful observation: 

"Faith Sawyer wasn't more loved. She just got more candy."

That wisdom isn't just good for February 14. It's good for every birthday when you're unwittingly measuring your self-worth based on how many people texted or called you or wished you well on Facebook. It's good for every moment you've thought yourself lesser than someone else--or even better than someone else. Just remember: today, you "just got more candy," some momentary visible or tangible token of esteem. It was good for me to remember as I opened my mailbox today and only received a promotional letter asking me to sign up for a Discover credit card. 

Love with a capital 'L' beats out chocolate or cut flowers--but you have to have faith that it's still there, even if it's invisible. The whole invisibility thing is annoying, but it's much less annoying than a really bad sugar headache. 

So in the spirit of Love, I spent this V-day by treating myself to a new pair of sunglasses--the first pair I've ever owned that was remotely fashionable and cost more than $15, conversations with good friends over phone and interwebs, and making a terrifying but promising business decision that has already lifted my heart and spirit. I was also challenged by a friend to get a dozen roses and give them to complete strangers on Valentine's Day, but since all the stores are out of just about every type of colorful flower, I'm going to be giving out homemade chocolate truffles to strangers on the T and on Mass Ave as I walk to a party in Cambridge in a few moments.

If you're reading this, no matter who's with you or without you, I love you. And since sometimes all we want is just a little bit candy, if you were here with me right now, be assured, I would make you some candy. <3

The Scare Tactic

One of my favorite mantras--and the slogan for one of my favorite stores, Paper Source--is "Do something creative every day." I try my best to sing every day, read a new poem before I go to sleep (Leonard Cohen and W.S. Merwin, my current bedfellows), and, if time and energy permits, cook something for myself that looks good enough that I'd be proud to serve it to a friend for dinner. Gluten-free cereal out of a coffee mug while standing up in my kitchen surfing the internet on my phone definitely does not count toward the latter.

An equally valuable mantra that I've been embracing is, "Do something that scares you--maybe not everyday, but often." Yesterday, I had a week's worth of fear-facing, and I thought I'd share this story:

At 6:47 on Wednesday morning, I woke up to the strangest noise. It sounded like wheezing would sound like if you wheezed from your nose and not your mouth, and it sounded like the noise was coming from inside my bed. Since my bed is a solid storage bed with areas built in for wicker basket storage, I was immediately terrified. Was something living in there? Had some animal had eaten through the wood in the frame and was lurking in my bed without me knowing until this moment?

My building doesn't have the thickest walls, so I tried to tune in and hear if this weird, wheezy, sandpapery breathing noise was, in fact, from the neighbors or the apartment upstairs. But it didn't sound like it. The anxiety built as the noise reached a crescendo, went silent, and started to get loud again. Angrier, it seemed. The noise died off and started again, every "breath" of it feeling like an eternity to my panicked and despairing mind.

Convinced there was some weird creature in my apartment, I spent at least 30 seconds freaking out, wondering if this thing was going to chew through my clothes or urinate on my floor. The panic escalated at the thought of how my mother would react when she came to visit this weekend and I had to spend Friday waiting for Animal Control instead of heading on a retreat I booked for us in New Hampshire.

Then, swaddled in my covers with tears in my eyes, I was struck by a thought: "It could be the ghastliest raccoon creature imaginable hiding under there, but I can't do anything about it if I can't take the step off my bed and see it. Waiting for this situation to go away is like ignoring a hole in a lifeboat. I can't wait for the boat to sink."

So I finally got brave and hit my bed as hard as possible with my hand to see if it would startle anything or disrupt the noise. It didn't. Then, I jumped off the and shouted as I did. Hitting the bed at least ten more times and pulling out all the storage baskets, I yelled my way to 7AM.

The conclusion? No creature. No nothing. It had to be some noise coming from another apartment. Maybe there was an animal somewhere in the building pipework, but I found no traces of one in my bed. (Cue double entendre).

Looking back on the moment of "crisis", which still feels like something out of The Metamorphosis, if Gregor Samsa woke up on top of a bug instead of turning into one, I'm pleased with how I reacted to the situation. I allowed myself the time to panic but was able to escape the grip of dread, refocus, and take action.

In this situation, as in many others, I couldn't just wait for the problem to go away and resolve itself. And I couldn't figure out how to fix the situation if I wasn't willing to explore it.

Sometimes, letting things flow and letting things go in the answer. Other times you have to dive into the ocean, into the depths of uncertainty and impossibility, and simply have faith that you're going to be brought back to the surface at the very moment you need to come up for air.