Thank you to Atolla’s team for trusting my words and giving me a new platform to share my writing talents.
This is the first in a series of skin stories written by Atolla users about their relationship with their skin. Stephen, a cyclist and yogi, shares his journey of learning more about his skin with Atolla.
On the cusp of understanding my skin sequence with the help of Atolla, I find it helpful to digest and process my skin story. It’s my skin, the literal face that I present to the world, and no doubt, the world around me signals that I belong when my skin is clear, smooth, evenly colored… no blemishes, no bumps, no discoloration or patchiness. Since my early teenage years, I’ve struggled with a variety of skin experiences.
Decades later, I remember my best friend’s mother handing me a washcloth on a teenage sleepover, and hearing for the first time that I should wash my face every night, then feeling a burning sensation and thinking that, maybe, the washcloth was too abrasive for my sensitive skin. Decades later, I remember sitting in a doctor’s office with my mom and being prescribed steroids for folliculitis, when the follicles on my upper leg hairs spontaneously inflamed. I fearfully thought I had a “freak” second episode of chicken pox. I remember asking the same doctor for help managing acne, and subsequently taking a low dosage antibiotic and topical until the zits and blackheads subsided. I felt guilty when the towels discolored and wondered why I needed multiple prescription medications for my skin to be “normal.” I remember seeing my near-retirement father manage minor breakouts and wondering if that would be me in thirty or forty years. In more recent years, I remember finally establishing a strong relationship with a dermatologist, who truly took the time to understand my needs and my lifestyle. He helped me understand that, yes, my bike helmet’s foam comfort band was potentially holding bacteria from my sweat. He helped me understand that I’d be best to look for non-comedogenic sunscreen and products best for sensitive skin. Sensitive? Was that my skin type…?
I remember taking a friend to a boutique skincare store and both of us being confused, not having the vocabulary to answer “how would you describe your skin?” I mean, how would I describe my skin if I had no education in skin…? How would I describe the texture of my living room walls or the shape of the clouds in the sky? I felt ill-equipped to answer this. Skin talk isn’t small talk.
And then I remember, after hearing about Atolla, understanding that oil and moisture were two separate concepts. When I took the Skin Health Test, I skeptically realized that my skin’s pH would matter; until now, pH was grade school light-the-bulb-with-produce science, not part of my morning routine. And did I want a water- or oil-based serum? What’s a serum? Something I should do between cleansing and moisturizing? As far as I knew, it was cleanse then apply toner, which subdued my acne but left my skin feeling dry and warm…
The most confidence-inducing realization was that Atolla could help me manage all this learning, from the comfort of my home, without me needing to book follow-up appointments and go to multiple skincare aisles to read products that I didn’t understand the ingredients. Being mobile – traveling regularly, living with small bathroom spaces, sometimes showering at gyms or away from home – also means that I don’t want to carry five bottles of soaps, lotions, oils, and emergency topicals. I wanted simplicity and confidence, and Atolla keeps delivering.
In the past few months, I’ve reduced my facial skincare to basic cleanser, serum, and moisturizer. I no longer have the curiosity to explore other products in the dense and overwhelming skincare aisles. I don’t need to ask another shopping center kiosk full of plastic bottles, testers, and airplants “what do you think maybe might be good for my skin?” and “why would that product be good for me to try?”. I won’t take home a 2-3 day trial sample, begrudgingly knowing that skin is environmental and can take weeks to adapt…
Now I know my skin type:
I started at B-5443, moved to B-5553, and my latest test shows B-5653. This means breakouts are my primary concern; my skin’s oil stays in the upper-range of healthy; my hydration has increased toward healthy over the past four months; I’ve stabilized my pH level at 5; and I continue to sometimes sunburn, and slowly tan.
Now I know that skin can take several months to acclimate to new products. Now I don’t worry about buying extra products that I might not use completely and don’t know where to dispose responsibly. Now I trust that my skin can stay healthy and look young, without believing my face might fit the pre-pubescent stereotype at any moment. Now I have one consistent routine with a small set of products. Now I have the support of Atolla’s team whenever I am ready to update my skin test or have questions about my results.
Failure is the inadmissible normality of the western economy, an unattractive result within societies that constantly seek “up and to the right” improvements, the avoid-at-all-costs stepping stone to crossing the stream of success which necessarily feeds the achievers’ egos. Failure is also the critical and inevitable element of problem solving. What would a jigsaw puzzle be if not for its cracks and crevices? What would make a door or window, if not the opening? What would be a tree if it didn’t shed its leaves to sleep and prepare for regrowth? All solutions with cracks as part of their naturally-accepted design. Perhaps the fault of my human world is failing to recognize the necessity of breaking, braking, and taking a break.
I ended my final bachelors degree memo with the sensation that I failed to fail. I hacked the secondary and post-secondary education systems with flourishing grades, maintaining interest in most subjects, understanding the testing methodology, and unequivocally learning to learn. I did well in school, but I was also good at school. (There’s a difference in grammar and in meaning.) I knew that some classmates did not enjoy the same privilege and luck of my psyche, but in the classic fashion of achievers, I rode my own success without coattails, without empathy, and without concern for lifting those around me. Not only did I fail to fail, I failed to help those who failed, leaving them to fend for their own fortitude.
Eventually, after six years of full-time work and not enough respect for non-working hours, I broke. I found the frayed and scathed fringe of burnout, a notion that I previously degraded to conceptual publications. Come to find out: while some burn strong and long, every fire dies. Even an eternal flame starts somewhere, takes new fuel, and is not the same blaze from start to is eventual finish. There’s always the possibility to rekindle old flames. And – via my ever-acquainted soul-mama – I’m learning that it is only through the darkness that we can begin to see the light.
One of the beautiful aspects of taking a break is that the journey transforms. Each heartbeat pumps different cells: some young, some dying, and with every single beat comes a new heart. There’s fault, too, in the story of Hallmark greeting cards that champion every sunrise offering a fresh canvas; truthfully, we can start anew at any moment we choose.
Truthfully, I don’t know where I am in the spectrum of rebuilding and rebuilt. Am I renewed or renewing? I’m content with what I’ve built, but I can’t predict what the future will need nor offer. I softly finished my sabbatical in the fall, found several clients to consult part-time, and took the coincidence of the holidays to invest my time for my family. I felt really good about taking this time.
Meanwhile, I had the good fortune of meeting someone who catalyzed me to re-think leaving Berlin. In the midst of telling my handful of close friends that I would be moving on and starting over, I second-guessed why I would leave them behind. Why uproot myself? There was no good reason. What if neither a place nor its people would define my happiness, and what if I let my blood type, my attitude flow with – and not toward – the greatness I desired?
I started to think of today’s return to Berlin as v2, trying again, another chance with a refreshed attitude and more clear understanding of what I’m walking into. For a few weeks, I’ve intentionally left open a tab on my browser; Brad Feld’s blog reminded me to Simply Begin Again, a concept also familiar from a guided meditation that I – and Brad – discovered this fall. Probably there are scenarios in life where it’s too late to start over, but this isn’t one of them. I’ve passed through one valley, and I’m back on the trail, hiking familiar terrain with fresh feet, clean socks, and a different vision for what benches to rest on in the forthcoming moments.
[Insert cliche blogger sentence about how I’ve been thinking about blogging but haven’t written recently.]
I’ve been in the US for five-plus weeks, visiting with family and friends for the holidays: Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years. Aside from the coincidence and wanting to be part of our traditional celebrations, I wanted to invest time and energy in our relationships. As my uncle aptly pointed out, gathering with fourteen people on Christmas Day doesn’t create space for much more than hi-merry-christmas-nice-to-see-you-have-a-good-year. So, between miscellaneous work projects, wrapping gifts, baking cookies and other treats, and maintaining good sleep, I’ve done my best to make time to be with my loved ones and reached out to friends who I don’t speak to often.
Brandon and I met in fifth grade. Over the course of school activities, Boy Scouts, working together at his parents’ South American-inspired fruit drink shop, and whatever teenage friends can imagine, we pursued countless adventures. My memory recalls lots of laughter, bouts of “what did we get ourselves into, and how do we get out?” scenarios, and the occasional harmless prank to see who amongst our crew was most gullible. It was an easy “yes” when I called Brandon to catch up, and he suggested that I join him for part of his roadtrip from Texas to DC. From Nashville, we could take a one-night, two-day drive to Dollywood and Great Smoky Mountain National Park. Though I’ve visited every United State and I’d explored the muddy mountains near Gatlinburg some 22-23 years ago, this adventure would bring me to changed turf with new memories and lessons to learn.
A few factors made me skeptically curious about this terrain: hearing the experiences of another high school friend living and working in rural West Virginia, the conclusions in the immediate aftermath of the 2016 US presidential election (the mainstream media, national polls, and social media dialogue forgot about a huge portion of America), the ongoing and multitudinous debates about the meaning and appropriateness of memorializing Confederate iconography (the Rebel flag, statues of Confederates, etc). With a rising trend in hate crimes and a legally unresolved growth in gun-deaths, the land of comfort-food correlates to the land where I don’t feel so comfortable. The south-east United States follows a philosophy I’ve long spoken about Nashville, where much of my family lives: it’s interesting to visit but I could never live there.
I hold no doubt that I carry an “outsider” mentality. As Appalachian writer Joshua Wilkey asserts, “the single worst mistake outsiders can make when attempting to interpret the actions of voters in Appalachia is to assume that they are simply too dumb to know any better. This is not the case.” I’m humbled to acknowledge that I fight “lesser” thoughts of people who don’t speak “proper” English, and I know I’m isolated from understanding most US-Americans’ way of life, their priorities, needs, and beliefs. While I will continue a life abroad, perhaps a goal for me in the lead-up to November 2020 would be to focus on gaining perspective of the diversity of the United States and challenging the pervasive privilege of caucasian men, of which I am one. I frequently think, “at least I’m not straight, so that I have some understanding of the minority identity.”
Realizing that we both did little research and set low expectations for Dollywood, I tuned Brandon’s car radio into the Dolly Parton’s America podcast, which chronicles national culture and modern dilemmas through the lens of Appalachia’s standout celebrity. Between interviews recounting Dolly’s “give God the glory, but I’ll take the cash” philosophy and local students explaining why they and their parents practiced speaking to eliminate their so-called Hill Billy accents, we exited I-40 in Knoxville and caught the first sign of perplexion. “Turn left on Whites School Road,” Google’s Map voice announced. “Did she say White Skull or White School?,” we simultaneously asked aloud. Either way – and unfortunately the Internet can’t legitimize or disprove my fear – I’m intimidated by a public endorsement that seems to honor the white race.
Scenes from the road:
Meanwhile, we queued more than an hour in a string of gas-guzzling vehicles to enter the Dollywood parking lot, then skipped the subsequent wait for a shuttle ride by opting to walk a meager mile to the ticket stands at the park entrance. I wondered what my mass-public-transit-minded European friends would think about this arrival… this whole experience. I noticed the orange-clad family of Tennessee Vols fans and their uncle with the confederate flag jacket pile out of a caution-yellow-hued Hummer, the Amish-appareled family, and the obvious prevalence (39.8% in 2016) of obesity that plagues the United States. I know that we humans see what we seek, but I can’t get the health epidemic out of my mind when I return from Europe and visit public places.
We paid the $88 park entrance fee and followed the throngs of adults and children who took advantage of an unseasonably warm weekend day between Christmas and New Years. From first sight, I was very impressed at the polish of the Dixie/country (and slightly more reasonably priced) version of Disney World, complete with musical and theatrical shows, roller coasters, restaurants with ridiculous wait times, and cultural exhibitions, such as the (Bald) Eagle Mountain Sanctuary. Yes, I guess this is my ignorance: believing that these people and this place would be “less,” because of whatever stereotypes I hold and because I’ve not heard anyone in my small social circle recommend Dollywood.
We waited 40 minutes for a $9 loaf of delicious cinnamon bread coated in Paula Deen’s richest butter. We encountered these people in line:
A middle-aged white female Dollywood expert, who explained that this was actually a short line for the famous cinnamon bread, and that there was an upstairs to this “gristmill” bakery, and that the cinnamon bread was also sold elsewhere in the amusement park
Another middle-aged white woman who brought her husband and kids on their annual holiday roadtrip, which she mandates must be more than a 12-hour drive from their home in Sioux Falls. She personified the eccentric pixie-cut, call-a-manager mom, who the New York Times calls Karen and I call Carol. By the end of our time in line, we knew her kids names (Brielle, Sam, and Yuria Dixon), the story of her last summer’s vacation (solo-driving – and breaking down – an RV from Amsterdam to Oslo to chase her heritage), and her medical challenges (a rare balance disorder that prevents her from enjoying boats or theme park rides). The only things I’m missing are her own name and the selfie that she took with Brandon and I to “thank” us for the conversation.
The older (also white) couple behind us in line who felt tired and overwhelmed by the crowd. The wife lovingly exaggerated: “I’m fit ta have a tantrum. The only thang cood be worse ‘s if it ‘s eighty er ninety degrees.”
In my typical tirading fashion, I could go on about our day at Dollywood. I don’t want to complain or critique. I want to elevate the perspective that I gained on the American identity, and I also want to highly recommend a visit to Dollywood, if you have the chance. In addition to celebrating the uniqueness of Dolly Parton’s identity and achievement (check out the Chasing Rainbows museum!), they’ve created an exceptional experience at a reasonable price, combining thrill, indulgent foods, artistic and musical culture, and a beautiful ensemble of Christmas decor. I can only imagine how well they execute their other seasonal festivals and exhibits.
After overnighting in an ideally-outfitted Holiday Inn Express in Knoxville, we woke up early and passed a phone between the beds to discuss what trail we might hike before driving home. Without conclusion, we ventured back toward Dolly’s native Sevierville and on to Gatlinburg to ask for advice at the national park visitors center. After receiving generic advice in Gatlinburg’s tourist office, we dug deeper with a young park ranger and asked for a reasonable day hike with moderate challenge where we wouldn’t be plagued with crowded trails. She suggested driving an hour east to Mt. Sterling, and… we did!
I’m very grateful that we made the Robert-Frost choice. We blasted bluegrass as Brandon curved the Jeep into valleys. As we unknowingly crossed from Tennessee into North Carolina, we passed wooded lots and small country cabins, not ignoring the newly constructed mansions towering at the top of various hillsides, perhaps emblematic of the growing class-division. In our journey to Mt Sterling, two favorite experiences stand in my memory.
We spontaneously agreed to turn an extra bend and spent a few minutes exploring a Zion Church – see Google Maps location – a one-room building on a bald hillside with a cemetery in the rear and two outhouses (Women and Men) on the side. I was enamored by the thick moss and reading the names and ages of the cemetery markers, combined with imagining the intimacy of the religious community that would convene here. By 11 am, there seemed to be no trace of their Sunday services, or perhaps there were no parishioners at a quiet time of year. Maybe everyone was at Dollywood?
Once we reached the trailhead, we meandered on well-marked trails some 2.5 miles to Mt Sterling’s summit and discovered the fire tower that the ranger advised us to look for. What a … scary experience! to climb a series of stairs that decrease in width as the wind increases above the trees. At the top of the tower, we had immaculate views of the surrounding mountain ranges, painted a mix of soft emerald green where the sunlight cast itself and a deep violet-grey where shadows covered the mix of bare deciduous bark and evergreens bows. I was done (ie sufficiently anxious) after a few minutes of photographing, filming, and listening to the wind bang the hinged windows open and closed, with small shards of glass lingering on the rain-soaked, drooping plywood floor.
We enjoyed a late lunch of black bean burgers, which we had bought two hours before at a gas station-restaurant counter in nearby Hartford, Tenn. This, too, felt like a proper perspective of America: two middle-aged women with red-tinged hair prepared styrofoam takeout boxes with sandwiches (burgers or catfish… ham and turkey were out of stock today), fried sides, and coleslaw and graciously commanded guests to hurry and retrieve their orders. The Indian owner took payments at the cash register, adding his own four items (Samosa, Vada Pau, Dabeli, Parotha) to the menu, distributed lottery tickets, and patrolled the Godly prohibition of selling alcohol on Sundays. The shelves stocked Frito-Lay snacks, essential pantry ingredients, sugar-loaded drinks, confederate flag blankets, and an assortment of MAGA/Trump apparel.
Just when I thought I was afraid enough, wondering whether I’d be harassed if I came here as an openly gay men, I spotted a hand-scribed note in Sharpie above the bathroom door: LOVE THY EVERYONE.
Brandon and I scratched the surface of meeting the people of Appalachia. While I’d love to sit for hours and days to live amongst this culture, I admit that I’m afraid to know their beliefs. My fear is probably undue. At least I’ve glimpsed the lives that are invisible to my perspective. These are the people I’ll have in mind as I hear and read politicians debate for the presidency over the coming ten months, and I hope my curiosity can teach me more. These are the people I might learn to love, as I remember that listening is an act of love.
Did you ever open the garden shed without a task in mind, just to go and be in the garden, to see what happens? Did you ever go to the market or grocery store, just to be there and explore food, without a shopping list? Did you ever go to work (the office, your studio, place of work, computer, inbox, etc) without a task or project in mind, for the sheer joy of being in the environment of work?
I feel that I’m accidentally in a period of deep and extensive joy in my life. The word joy gained new meaning in my past year, as I gained self-awareness. I searched – deliberately – for a more loving and playful, a less angry version of myself.
My gaze softens. My spine lengthens and relaxes. Blood flows into my shoulders. I lose the sense of tension in my jaw. My fingertips so relaxed that they are barely an extension of my arms, almost detached, and I realize the upper arms have a similar sensation, as if the flesh could fall from the bone. This is me, practicing awareness of my physical being. I find that awareness shifts my mindset in ways that I prefer.
Mental clarity, like a deep crystal lake in a mountain forest: untouched, unwavering. Perhaps imagined to be cold, but in fact, warm and energizing. So warm that my body feels cocooned in its own strength. I’m naked and protected. I am alive, energized, and in a state of rest.
Resting readiness. Meaning without movement. Stillness and silence sustain. Sustenance from stationary. Stay and sustain? Move and maintain? Move and grow? Stay and grow? The social and internal pressure to always move “up and to the right,” as Jerry Colonna calls it. I am alive. I thrive without attaching myself to spending, gaining, moving, or changing. Emotions arise naturally, without force, but sometimes creating new forces. I am where I am.
One year ago, I finished reading The 15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership and immersed myself in training in Boulder, cradled between the hills, ridges, and my own desire for self-… self-… self-actualization? My gaze fixated on Leadership Camp, to gain what I perceived my colleagues gained (or perhaps lose what they lost), to more wholly understand consciousness, to be more authentically me. I recognize now that I showed up forcefully, with expectations and with a partially-closed mindset.
A camera paints a picture in two dimensions. An open window or door invites me to enter a world in 3D, to explore. My own study of consciousness rapidly gained fourth and fifth dimensions, as the feelings became real: noticed, sensed, verbalized, catalyzed, and transformed.
Six months later, the foothills softened into rolling farmland on the coast of Portugal. Matt Corker showed me joy that initially triggered jealousy. My fear of his joy transformed to authentic inspiration, and when I was back to my inbox a few weeks later, I copied Matt, signing many emails “in joy”. A simple signal of when I felt joy, and only written in moments when joy felt real: in-joy-ments, as I like to call them now.
I struggle to believe joy is not the ultimate and most desirable of the five emotions. I feel most comfortable when I feel joy, but I also put myself in a lot of situations that invite anger and fear. I recognise these moments differently now. All of the emotions merit awareness, and sometimes recognition triggers a shift. I conditioned myself to avoid sadness in my adolescence, but I gratefully went deep recently, reflecting on a close friend moving away. I cried, stayed with the sadness, and eventually my feelings shifted.
Did you ever exhale without caring about the next inhale? Did you ever feel sadness without pushing it away, in favor of another feeling? Did you ever feel joy without holding on to it, in disfavor of other emotions? Did you ever let go of your own idea and let the world offer you something new?
Imagine: a tech conference where the hardware is a human handshake, where the user interface is face-to-face, where low battery means “I need to eat some fruit,” where networking is discussing personal perspectives instead of troubleshooting guest Wi-Fi, and where API might as well mean All People Interfacing. On the tail of participating in Copenhagen’s Techfestival, I hold reverence for the organizers’ success in organizing a conference focused on humans, not users.
I returned to Copenhagen, because Louise Beck Brønnum invited me to join her summit workshop on food tech after her June presentation on her work at Alchemist Restaurant’s Taste Lab and with teaching gastronomy to children. Following my ever-growing interest in food, I felt fortunate to sign-up for multiple sessions related to food at Techfestival. Food isn’t always recognized as a sector within tech, and I appreciated the diversity of their program. My schedule included two six-hour workshops and a two hour lecture, all focused on food, as well as time to attend a session on brain science and mental health and an evening workshop about the future of leadership in work. I wished I could have also joined the Endings summit, where the participants explored “how to design endings in four main areas: Products ; Services ; Relationships ; Life.”
Surprisingly to me, all of the sessions challenged the traditional notion of conference presentations, measuring up to the namesake and leaving me grateful that I packed shoes comfortable for standing and walking. This wasn’t a take-your-seat-and-listen event. With hundreds of topics to explore hands-on, Techfestival is much more an interactive festival than a conference.
In every session, the agenda encouraged me to meet multiple other participants, layering the agenda with time to share answers to: “what do you think will be the challenges and opportunities of participating today?,” “why did you attend this session?,” “what are you taking home from this session?,” and “ask why twenty times”. Thankfully, none of the presenters asked us to introduce ourselves by answering the ubiquitously deflating (and meaningless) question: “what do you do?”. (I’m still working on being, not doing.)
Many presenters presented brief introductions, then handed the majority of the time to other speakers and participants to collaborate – or more specifically, to co-create – on the topics at hand. Flipping away from the lecture method lent a depth of learning that’s not often found in conferences and workshops. Some formats that were new to me:
Workz prepared four topics from their research on the future of work. In groups of three, we identified potential challenges for one topic, then placed their Solution Map cards adjacent to the challenges to indicate subsequent solutions, questions, answers, and additional information.
Basque Culinary Center’s Innovation team demonstrated backcasting, a method where groups of 6-7 people imagined a future (in this case, via a potential news headline for the year 2050), then deconstructed the steps and decisions that might lead to the future vision.
To conceptualize a shared understanding of food systems, each team member placed diverse board-game-like pieces, one at a time in a round-robin format, to create a visual and tactile representation of how we see food systems. Once we constructed the present version, the team adjusted the pieces to represent the possible-future state – this time in silence! We also utilized backcasting in Louise and Frederik’s workshop, facilitated by chaospilot Eirik Haddal.
To literally breathe life into the topic of mental health and bodily awareness, a Kundalini yoga instructor Amanda Nørgaard taught an intermission: a thirty-minute class, introducing pranayama, mantra, meditation, and seated asanas.
All this talk of food and the body made me hungry at times. Fortunately, Techfestival’s organizers coordinated affordable (yes, even for Copenhagen’s high prices!) options for food at lunch and dinner, as well as making fresh fruit available during every session. On top of their foresight with fuel, all the volunteers I spoke to were friendly and competent. I find it so validating when I need directions or guidance at an event, and a volunteer responds “yes, I can help with that” instead of “sorry, they didn’t give us that information.” Techfestival is an exception to the monotony that plagues conventional conferences.
Above all, the absence or obscurity of tech itself impressed me at Techfestival. While I carried a laptop in my bag, I never once needed it, nor my phone. From my program, none of the sessions required participants to use any digital or electronic technology. None. And, get this? The technology worked seamlessly for the presenters. Yep. Not a single instance of “which dongle do I need to project?” nor “why isn’t the audio in this video working?” One session included a live tele-presentation. The screen displayed the presenter’s video feed, as well as his slides. Three microphones synced to the presentation, for the facilitator and audience to have seamless conversation with our video guest. If that’s not how to spell mic drop, then have you tried restarting?
Without doubt, Techfestival utilized technology in impressive and discreet ways, leaving the human participants to focus on the human dialog. Where technology plays a role in evolving the future of our lives, humans are the ones that live the experiences. In the words of presenter Emily Whyman, “we’ve created technologies that isolate us.” We. Us. It’s up to us to do the work, to co-create the world we need, and Techfestival is leading the way.
Merry Christmas! As some of you know, my family sent a Christmas letter and annual family photograph throughout my youth. As the kids aged, we got involved and often invoked a creative writing theme. 2008 recounted the year in numbers 1-12. 2009 presented multiple geographic moves as the Nock Family Adventures. 2010 rode the social media wave with my brother beautifully crafting a “nockbook” profile with a stream of posts. 2011 went back toward print, publishing Nock Geographic with each of us reporting on someone else. 2012 turned inward, as we each wrote about ourselves. 2013 presented a recipe for replicating our year(s).
And that was it. With all the kids graduated and living independently, Mom and Dad sent their own letter, and each kid took their own direction. I’ve continued writing and snail-mailing letters with a sampling of photographs. The past few years have also waxed my existentialist nature and I have questioned the very nature of an “annual” letter. If I believe time is structured abstractly, why do I send a letter according to a socially constructed definition of the “year”?
Update: I don’t.
I’m going rogue.
This week – tonight – marks the official end of my sabbatical. I took four and a half months off from work, with a variety of goals to focus on restoring myself and aligning my doing with my being. Truth be told, I’m still very much on the journey of self-discovery, and I think I’ll stay on this journey – though not unemployed – for the remainder of my life. I’m committed to exercising conscious awareness of how I experience the world. To the chagrin – or delight – of those around me, I can talk at length about the importance of the capital-s Self and the capital-t Truth, contemplate the motivation in human behavior, advocate for verbally communicating emotions, or teach the yogic philosophy. But I digress…
In closing the pre-determined sabbatical and entering into an undefined future, I want to reflect on what I’ve learned throughout the past months’ experiences:
It’s hard for me to just “be”. It’s also “new” for me to be. Hard = New, in many cases. New things are hard. I knew going into this that I hadn’t had four months to myself in… ever, ignoring my pre-kindergarten days when all my time was free. I spent years in school, with 8-10 summer weeks spotted with structured and unstructured time. From the age of fifteen, I held summer jobs and part-time jobs while in school. When I graduated, or changed jobs or cities, I started immediately, without time off in between. I didn’t know how to rest. Now I do, though it’s still challenging to my instinct. And that’s okay. I’m enough for who I am, without what I do.
There are a lot of people who don’t work 9-5 every day. When I sit in parks and cafes, or commute on public transport, or whenever I leave my apartment, I see other people who aren’t at work. (I also see the ones who are at work, but not in offices.) I like that it’s okay to break the mold. It’s only when people ask how I spent my week or weekend that I remember whether it was a conventional workday or not. Every day is equal for me. I am ready to start working, AND I liked detaching from the work routine.
The world is full of distractions. My challenge and growth are in the focus. I remember telling a friend on a run in early 2017 that if I had a superpower, it would be to slow down time. I think I have. All I aspire for is to be aware of what I experience as my life happens. The past doesn’t exist. The future doesn’t exist. I only have the present moment. I exercise constant effort to be present: to be listening to whoever I’m with; to be reading without a wandering mind; to meditate and let thoughts pass; to run, bike, or swim and be in that action. My self awareness is what makes a day fulfilling. I’ve de-activated Instagram, which instinct and data tell me consumed several hours of every week. I’ve shifted away from constantly checking my to-do list and my inbox. I am often trying to make sure that I spend every moment where I am, not guilting the mind for wandering to the past, future, or elsewhere. The first step in focusing is to be aware of distraction.
Living sustainably and non-materially is challenging. In these months, I became more aware of the impact of my consumer behavior and choices on human and planetary health. Sometimes, I feel that I have no responsible option. I learned about the overwhelming emissions generated from flying. I started exploring a non-meat diet almost two years ago. Now I have validated my choice after seeing shocking numbers about the inefficiency of meat as protein. Meat sucks water and nutrients out of the food chain while pumping carbon emissions higher. There are responsible ways to produce meat, but mostly we don’t, and the world has a lot of people to feed. With so much free time, I move more slowly. I don’t jump from thing to thing, place to place. I can be more aware, and I’m shocked about how much non-processable waste I produce and how difficult it is to reduce this. Some things only come packaged in plastic, and it most likely won’t – or can’t – be recycled nor reused. My main choice is to reduce, but I’m only one in eight billion.
Physical movement and breath form the foundation of my well-being. I am more calm, present, and alive when I take time to move my body and focus on breathing. I’ve gone deep into a yoga teacher training, then fluctuated between routine and non-routine practice. I know, from experience, that breathing and moving are the best way for me to start my day. I will continue cultivating and nurturing my physical body for the remainder of my life.
Internal conflict may be eternal. I’ve decided to leave Berlin, and I still feel conflicted and uncertain about where to go. In the past 19 weeks, I’ve traveled from Berlin; to Portugal; to parts of Denmark; to Stockholm, Sweden; to Amsterdam – twice; to Seville, Spain; to Rostock, Germany, on the Baltic Sea; to Boston, Nashville, Toronto, across eastern Canada, and the southern coast of Maine; and I spent many days and hours exploring pockets of Berlin’s beautiful summer. I felt varying degrees of home in all of these places. For me, home is an elusive concept. I feel stimulated, energized, and enriched when I explore new environments. Yet perhaps these are all distractions; if so, from what? I don’t know, and that’s okay. I’m being patient.
I think everyone is afflicted with trauma. Everyone. You. Me. Yes, you. I see it everywhere, especially in Berlin. I’ve explored what trauma could mean in my past and read literature about the varying degrees of trauma throughout society. I want to break the taboo and encourage social dialogue. Maybe I’ll formally study psychology someday? Many people exercise to relieve stress or build self confidence or purely from an addictive habit, and people pay for gym memberships or fitness classes. I will re-iterate a past hypothesis: we might live healthier, more fulfilled lives by investing in mental health (counseling, therapy, emotional awareness) before or alongside physical health. And caffeine and alcohol are drugs, as much as marijuana, cocaine, heroine, you name it. They’re just socially accepted – and maybe less severe – forms of numbing reality.
I’d planned to write this Christmas letter for weeks and to mail some copies when I was in the US last week, but I didn’t. And I’m following suit with living in the moment. And Brené Brown taught me the importance of shitty first drafts. And this is everything that’s on my mind now.
So, thanks for your support. I’m extremely grateful, despite bouts of uncertainty. And I wish you a moment – however long it may last – of deep presence with your current reality. May we all embrace whatever era we’re in.