Personal Blog

Dear America,

I’m sorry – for your losses. No, thank you – for refreshed perspective on values. Asking “who am I?” is one of the most daunting doors to open, not because it’s hard to answer, but because inquiry and curiosity are artforms of courage. I don’t know if I’m American anymore, and I mean “I don’t know.” I don’t mean “I’m not.” A crisis is a reckoning, and loss is not the guaranteed outcome; we can win, collectively. The beauty of the American dream is perhaps only known to outsiders. Once you’re inside it’s a nightmare, and once you’re outside it’s an epiphany that “hard work pays off” has also perpetuated some people working hard and other people getting the pay off and increasingly few people in between. And if you’ve never been outside, you might not see that it’s a dream; you might not know whether you’re fighting demons or chasing unicorns; you might not see that reality is part beauty, part shame, and part not knowing. And having all okay for one is not the same as okay for all. What is the American dream? Is it a dream if you lived it without ever consciously noticing? Dreaming happens, and knowing what I dream is called waking up. This is my wake up call, to myself.

I’m sorry that we let ourselves believe the idea for so long that we were the greatest country on earth, not because we’re not great, but because there are so many measures and lifting oneself up doesn’t mean – doesn’t have to mean – putting others down. I’m sorry that our President doesn’t demonstrate this belief. No one wins if 51% feel validated and 49% feel shame, because we’re one body. I believe integrity is presenting things as they truly are, and sometimes that means saying “I could use some support.” Sometimes integrity means acknowledging “I’m not where I hoped I would be at this point.” Dear America, I acknowledge that you are hurt and you have suffered, and this life is not the one that you always dreamed. This acknowledgement is when we can begin to heal. We don’t need to hide from our humanity, which the delineation of self from society inherently means we miscalculate. Recovery from miscalculation comes far easier when we re-assess the whole picture. We can adjust the journey to the goal without changing the goal itself. Taking steps backward or sideways often gives us the strength to step forward. If it’s not moving, don’t force it. If it doesn’t run, don’t chase it. If it’s not wet, don’t wring it out. Build her wheels. Teach him to walk. Collect some water, or wait for the rain. You know: gardens grow where seeds are watered. And we have Earth, seeds, and water, and the intelligence to grow back more sustainably, more responsibly.

I’m sorry – that you’ve pulled from the garden for so long without watering. We stopped visiting. We depended on labor without listening to their warnings. We’re tired. The plants are sick. The inputs dried up before the outputs, and the supply chain is so long that we didn’t notice, I think. And now… what does forward look like?

Rest. Nutrition. Trauma. Healing. Revitalization. Investment. Paying the hard workers, more than “enough.” Enough is enough, but yesterday’s enough is not today’s enough.

The last straw was when a stranger spoke about dentistry in a presentation at work: “Germans have had the Krankenkasse (public health insurance system) for decades, and Americans have had… nothing.” The pain came in the form of truth, realizing that both the red pill and the blue pill encapsulate a hard reality that the past is insufficient. With the blinds and shutters closed for months, I open my eyes to understand I’ve been tossing shit into my neighbors’ lawns. It’s not just adversely affecting their lives. I’m poisoning the hand that feeds me, and the very ground I stand on. Love my neighbor as my… selfishness is directly tied to selflessness, and we’re communal beings, responsible for ensuring the safety of more than our own self-selected. To be human is to accept the question of our own values, and exploring the question means paying a visit to the neighbor’s farm, knocking on their front door, giving out not a hand, but a heart.

The connection of ourselves emotionally helps us see that while skin is a barrier to protect us from the outside world, it is not something that we need to fear separating or distinguishing us. I can feel with my heart what I can’t see with my eyes. I listen with my body what I can’t feel with my hands. We are all sensory, yet so often sensitized to fear one another. We neglect to acknowledge that fear is the very ground that we stand on, what connects us, that our feet walk on one body of land. Nike both brings us together and keeps us apart.

I look at my finances – a simple graph, showing the net worth of my combined savings and investments over time. Thank you, Trump, for building the economy. But, no, thank you. This is not the economy. I opt out of a system that doesn’t work for the majority. Nor the minority. If I gain and the majority loses, there is no winner. (Hello, electoral college.) We can compete without being enemies. We can gain trust and let go of control. We can recognize that what’s in our pockets speaks nothing of what’s in our heart. Yes, we need money in our pockets, but it’s worth far more when we choose where to put it with our hearts. Should I buy my own bread, build my own bakery, or teach my neighbor how to bake as they reap the wealth of their own wheat? There is no answer, but there is the question. Dear America, what do I value?

The Languages of Love and Belonging

We have a universal need to love and belong, to feel connected, and to perceive that we are understood and accepted. In the recent weeks, parts (not all) of the world are sometimes (not always) reeling in confusion with re-arranged priorities and routines. My favorite moments recently are the ones where I spontaneously recall that health is suddenly being challenged and prioritized and realizing I forgot, at least for a little while, about the changing world order. By my observation, we’ve suddenly pulled health to closely follow a longstanding “safety first” mentality. I wonder if we’re renewing our understanding of “health and safety” as twinned concepts. But in our search for safety and security, I’m afraid the ways that we communicate are not serving our mental health extraordinarily, and I believe it’s because we are avoiding honesty with superficiality.

Full disclosure: I’m writing this because I’m tired of people asking me, “what is it like” where I am. Whether people abroad want me to report on the state of Germany’s health or friends nearby are curious for me to share my experience, I don’t have confidence that my response can fully encapsulate the world around me, and I don’t want to try to summarize. (Also I had to go to tutoring in fifth grade because I didn’t perform well on the summary questions in standardized testing.) Here’s what my answer might be now:

Germany has 16 individual states who make their own decisions with federal guidelines, guided by a scientist as chancellor; I appreciate you soliciting my perspective, but I don’t feel I can adequately answer. I am one person in one apartment in one neighborhood, and I am not fluent enough to read all the local news… Germany’s managed rather well, but I’m not a scientist or an economist. I haven’t crunched numbers, I’ve stopped reading most news (it doesn’t matter…!) and I’m much more part of a foreign community than any local perspective. I’ve moved apartments twice since mid-March, so the concept of “normal” is totally out of reach for me in the first place. If anything, I feel this crisis has barely touched my life.

I hope this reads as mildly irritated, because I am confused, and I like you, I want to be coherent. I want to be understood, too, but I’m afraid I can’t communicate concisely. I’m noticing that my conversations drag on and repeat themselves, suggesting that we’re not getting what we’re asking for. Or at least, I’m not giving what others are asking. When I talk with friends, family, even networking digitally with strangers… I’m afraid I can’t adequately respond. Maybe it’s time to stop skirting the question. Maybe we need to be a little bit more forward with the fact that many of us are confused and trying to make sense of our changing identities (or contrarily, confused that we’re stagnant while others are panicking) and that suddenly the world some of us thought we understood is not the current reality. I don’t think we’re going to get there with “how are you?” on the phone or by text or Zoom or…

I’m reminded of numbers 5 and 6 on a list called “8 Things Gay Guys Should Start Saying to Each Other (More Often)” — which I think is more aptly prescribed for all humans in modern society. I encourage you to read the whole list, and I’ll shortcut you here:

  1. I’m a strong person, but I’m hurting right now.
  2. I’m afraid of opening up.

Maybe we can seek connection not by asking others to summarize what’s going on, but rather by directly sharing what we need, think, and feel. Yes, I’d rather be strong than be vulnerable, but vulnerability is a path to greater strength. I would encourage us to try conversations that might include:

  • I’m finding it hard to feel connected in the ways I’m most used to. I’m glad to have you in my life. I know I would really appreciate a hug right now, and it would feel wonderful to have that desire acknowledged. Can I do anything to support you?
  • I’m doing the best I can, but some people I know have shamed me for not taking this as seriously as them. Being shamed doesn’t encourage me to keep trying my best.
  • I have lost my routine and the constant change has made me feel [insert emotional word here, e.g. numb, sad, dazed]. Would you be open to listening to my experience?
  • With so many new experiences, I struggle to make sense of the world around me. I know I’m not alone in this struggle, but I do feel that I am alone.
  • Many people are grieving as our identities and the people around us change so quickly. I have to admit that I feel sort of untouched by the new world order, and I feel uncomfortable that I’m not struggling.

Signage is the other concept that has challenged my thinking on belonging recently. I’ve learned the German word for “current” through reading countless signs that encourage people to stay 1.5-2 meters apart “in der aktuelles Situation”. I see it in English texts, too. Everyone’s talking about the “current” situation, and part of me thinks that we’re doing ourselves / each other a disservice by not naming the reality. Then again, it might be unfair to universally prescribe meaning to an experience that everyone perceives differently. If I were making these signs, I might forget about the introductory clause, and jump straight to the point, avoiding the emotional-avoidance, like technical writers are taught. Good error messages don’t say “Oops! Something has gone wrong,” because the vagueness leaves space for the user to interpret they should be concerned or that they screwed up. Implying abnormality can evoke shame, which triggers disconnection. Don’t blame the user; blame the product or the documentation.

In this vein, we could create a better sense of communal belonging if businesses post signs that say:

  • “Please save 1.5 meters for yourself, and we look forward to serving you shortly.”
  • “You’re welcome here. We appreciate if you give space between you, staff, and other customers, and we’ll give you space in return.”
  • “Thank you for trusting us with your time, money, and health. We invite you to take at least 6 feet of space between yourself and others.”

What do you think of my revisions?
And can you help me belong by confirming any of my observations? Are there conversation formats or messages that have made you feel especially appreciated and maintained your sense of belonging in recent weeks?

Cool, Compassionate Thoughts

I feel preemptively fulfilled imagining that I could take at least one conscious breath and mindfully observe one heartbeat every day of the rest of my life. This imagination brings so much peace and relaxation to my mind and body. Like damn…. I’ve thought about it for a week, and it still feels profound, beautiful, and aspirational. And I’m really grateful that I’ve now conditioned my mind to automatically initiate a deep breath in certain moments of false crises. (Real talk: I don’t need to panic when the audio or video is shifty on a conference call.)

Many of us are living, breathing, moving, feeling, and thinking in a world that works quite differently than what we’re accustomed to. We might be uncomfortable at times, and as I learned in Jordan, it’s not so easy to step outside our comfort zone when we’re not so comfortable in the first place. I’ve taken to therapist Esther Perel’s in-progress weekly broadcasts. (Watch live Wednesdays 3pm EDT / 9 pm CET, or watch recorded versions on YouTube). While I don’t relate to all the challenges that she describes of kids and partners at home in quarantine – on the contrary, I’m either alone or with newly acquainted flatmates – I especially like that she counters “working from home” by suggesting we’re “working with home” and all the accompanying and challenging factors. Similarly, I’m as big a fan as ever of Brene Brown, and my recent highlight from Mama B’s new podcast program is her reference to FFTs (f*ing first times), acknowledging that yes, it’s hard to do new things, and it’s okay to feel uncomfortable. Cool – let’s learn something(s)!

My first conscious realization that the sky is always blue, after capturing the midnight summer sky on Lake George, NY, USA, August 2010.

To shift beyond discomfort, I feel inspired in response to these thoughts:

  • The sky is always blue. Yep, even when clouds cover the atmosphere or when the sun sets at night, the sky itself is still blue. I try not to let the weather choose my ‘tude.
  • The breath is always present. I can choose to breathe voluntarily or let the subconscious operate; either way, I’m always breathing!
  • The whole world shares one moon (and one sun, but it’s not so healthy to stare in awe). For those of us at significant distance from anyone we love or like or think of, just take a gander at the big cheese ball in the sky, and remember someone else is looking, too.
  • Oh, and “discomfort” isn’t pain. Discomfort is being without strength (Latin: fortis); discomfort is my body and mind giving me feedback that I’m exercising something new.

I guess there’s a theme here: unity. We’re all – humans, plants, animals, fungi, viruses, bacteria, etc – in this life/world/earth/moment together, and it’s nice when we choose to take care of ourselves and one another. Care means something different to each of us, and it changes from moment to moment. I’ve learned in reflecting on relationships that we all need doses of compassion. In some circumstances, two parties each need compassion, and both feel like the other needs to step in to support; that’s hard! When I find myself “stuck” in a conflict with someone/something/myself and looking for compassion, I try to consider whether I might step forward and give compassion first.

  1. What are some of the compassionate actions you’ve received or would like to receive recently?
  2. Consider the last person you spoke with: what might it look like for you to give compassion to that person?