Tag: Essays

On Mortality and Living Fully

I think about mortality through the lens of the T.S. Eliot poem “The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock”. The sense of regret, tangible loneliness mixed in with a symphony of words that softens the blow of a hollow life struck me at seventeen when I first read it. Perhaps it was the notion that we believe we have infinite time to mold with what we will, but we don’t. We move in perishable vessels, and that fabled future is something you realize today (even if it isn’t in the fashion originally dreamed) or don’t.
I’m twenty-one. The first time I recognized mortality, I was six. My maternal grandmother passed away almost a year before that. But a year later came grandparent’s breakfast in the first grade. In the flurry of greying figures ushered by their tiny legacies, they marveled at our cubbies and poorly drawn art projects. It was then I knew no one would be that for me. It was then I knew that life ends and you develop relationships with memories.
I realized the fragility of my body in between twelve and thirteen. Purging was a daily ritual I practiced starting in the third grade. It hadn’t sunk its teeth into me until the onset of puberty. The miles my feet circled for track and twirls and turns landed in my legs took a toll on my hips. September of eighth grade—after one previous stint in the physical therapist’s office—I began to limp. My uneven gate did not deter me. No, I ran more. Harder and faster, more frequent became my work outs. My eating disorder matched the pace of my exercise. Then, at the end of September, I couldn’t walk. My hips gave way to the war I declared on myself so long ago. My body surrendered. I felt helpless and weak, confided to the ragdoll frame I created. The benefit of youth is the resiliency. My body bears almost no signs of the utter devastation I inflicted on it a decade ago. Physical resilience is a privilege of youth, and enables us to believe that our bodies can come back from anything. They can’t always revive themselves, though.
For this brief moment, I’m still one of those few lucky people who never witnessed someone die slowly. Yes, my father has precancerous skin cells all over his face, and I wince when he walks through the door after a dermatologist appointment with bandages wrapped like cotton flesh. My uncle, the man who raised my mother, died of AIDS amidst the peak of the AIDS the peak of the epidemic sweeping New York in the 1980s-1990s. My maternal grandfather died of lung cancer roughly 3-4 years before his son passed from AIDS. I have a little brother, Matthew. He is buried outside of Washington, DC, where we were living at the time. Early in the pregnancy, my mother was told Matthew had anancephaly, a failure to develop the cranium and in some extreme cases (my brother was one of them), closure to the spine as well. Babies affected by anacephaly are born blind, deaf, unable to feel pain; 50% do not survive the pregnancy; and 99% of babies affected by anancephaly do not survive the first ten days outside the womb. My mother made the choice not to abort Matthew. He did not survive the pregnancy, and on June 14, 1995 (sixteen days after my second birthday), he met this world in a stillborn body. The years that followed ushered in a steady stream of funerals and miscarried siblings. I mention this for temporality’s sake. Because mortality has always been a reality, but as an adult concept with emotional dimensions, I have been spared for now.
Living fully, for me, starts with my values. Living fully is disabusing myself of the “shoulds” or “when I get this/that then…”. It’s about assessing my needs and understanding each day as an organism. Some days are spent zip lining and giving speeches, others in bed with Netflix. One isn’t better than the other as long as the address my needs in that moment. It’s giving myself permission to exhale.
I’ve stopped visualizing my life, and starting sensing it, feeling it. A life that is ripe and full and vibrant means sucking sometimes.  It’s riddled with mistakes and apologies and mending in ways that make me stronger than before. It involves saying that I’m wrong, and hanging onto something when it feels right. Most importantly, I want a life of courage, something wholehearted. Bravery is first on my VIA assessment because I actively seek the uncomfortable, the uncharted, the places unfamiliar to definition or challenge. For me, that’s essential in a pursuit of my future. I’m completely an utterly disinterested in complacency. Nothing about surface satisfies me. I want depth and variety and understanding that these things can be draining as well. But always authentic, always courageous. As long as I have these things, I will be fed.
The larger piece of living wholly is understood in the purpose of my life is what I can give and do for others. Like I said in my first entry, connection is key.  Brene Brown describes this as a fear of being ordinary, and that in celebrating the privilege of even touching the ordinary, narcissism fades away. Texts asking how someone’s day is going; lending a hand; making a friend; being a mentor – seemingly ordinary things build a purpose and connection to the world around us. Everyday this semester, I have tried to reach out to one person, letting him or her know how deeply I care for them and how proud of this person I am.
For now, for this moment still in the carefree splendor and recklessness of my early twenties, I’m not Prufrock. Life still feels unmarked and uninhibited. Honoring my life today and living fully bears no weight from fabrication. It’s whole and honest. It’s saying things difficult to articulate and harder to deliver. It’s reintroducing yourself to yourself over and over again, sometimes being surprised and sometimes disappointed by the encounter. It’s abandoning conclusions of past generations to find your own questions and feeding curiosity. Living fully is understanding that the thrill of standing atop Arthur’s Seat two years ago with the quilt of Edinburgh sprawled before me does not compete with that one time this semester I skipped my 8 am because I needed to sleep and it felt so damn good. They don’t compete because each is necessary in this shambled patchwork of personhood I’m sewing. I’m not the best seamstress, but the thread is in my hands for as long as I have to hold it.

A Graduation Epilogue: What I Can’t Say (But Will Anyway)

Graduation

A month ago, I graduated from college.  I graduated Magna Cum Laude.  I defined myself by these things: my academic achievements, officer positions, social networks.   It’s privileged Darwinism, a gilded pissing contest.  Competition is everything.  It isn’t trying unless you are gasping for breath.  There is no effort without sacrifice, and at one point or another, I became the only thing left that I hadn’t fed to the Gods of my Ego.  The funny thing is, you don’t feel it when ego inevitably claims yourself as well.

It was the end of my junior year when I realized how consumed I was by what I was.   Drowning in commitments, overworked, out of sleep, and marooned on an island of my own achievements, I ran into a friend of mine from freshman year.  We began exchanging pleasantries.  She asked me how I was.  I replied with, “good”.  “Good” is the default, despite graying under eyes and hollow lungs and the feeling of cement hardening on my shoulders.  Still, “good” comes out for fear of being seen as damaged, broken, or scary.  She called my bluff.  Tears began running down my face.   The emotions I carefully sequestered inside of me burst out in tears and gasping for breath and a total lack of composure.  I found a patch of authenticity to rest the remainder of my collegiate career upon after that point.  But even in that space, I was still me.  Still ravenous for success, for mobility, and I didn’t have to alter these behaviors during my senior year.

And I know, before I continue any further, that these are privileged grievances.  While I bemoan selecting a job that’s the right “fit”, there are people my age living lives I cannot fathom.  I don’t know survival for food or shelter means or access to education or teen parenthood.  Some of us are born into resources.  Education, white collar employment, these things are expectations.  So, I began applying for jobs in November of my senior year.  I flew to cities for interviews, conversed with supervisors on the phone, but whether I turned down the position or they went with someone else, I sat at my graduation jobless.   In less than thirty days, I have applied for forty jobs.  My apartment lease expires at the end of next month.  I have to leave my part time job by August because I am no longer a student.  Life feels netless.  I’m waiting for some gut instinct or sign, but everything (except my head) is silent.  I feel like this is the part where intuition is supposed to kick in. Like I said, they don’t prepare you for this part of graduation.

Some weeks were so gloomy it was painful to survive them– this might be my greatest achievement thus far. They might happen again.  During those weeks, I rarely left my bed.  Rattled by anxiety, there was no motivation to settle my frenzied insides.  I didn’t (and to a certain extent still don’t) know what a day feels like without a million obligations to juggle and a bag bursting at the seams with changes of clothes and snacks.  I refuse to shame myself for feeling depressed and anxious.  But I was also too proud for those weeks to call my incredible support system for help.  I felt like I couldn’t claim these part of me, couldn’t verbalize a feeling of personal failure without letting people down.  Pride is a carnivorous spirit, one that corners me with a salivating mouth.  Eventually, I decided no longer be it’s prey, to divest in a life of perfection. When I finally did reach out to my friends, it felt like silencing a menacing alarm in my head.  I don’t mean to articulate this in post-language.  This might happen again, and if it does, I hope I summon the grace to ask for help and know that I’m not alone.

Panting from this dead sprint, I realize it hasn’t gotten me anywhere.  I found no answers, only distractions.  Worse yet for a type-A personality , there are no answers or secret formulas to life.  As F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, “There are no rules to this thing”.  We are cartographers mapping this journey ourselves.  God entrusts us with a pen and the gift to fail spectacularly.  I tell myself, “a job is not the answer”, even though it feels like it is.  I have to remind myself that how I make a living will not be how I make my life. This doesn’t make post-grad life any easier.  It doesn’t assuage the anxiety I wrestle with.  But, I hope, establishing these thoughts now will aid me through my professional career.  I sacrificed watching the Oscars with friends, going out for ice cream on a Tuesday afternoon, or bs-ing for a single night because I was too consumed with my jobs and activities to give the tiniest sliver of me to my friends and family.  I regret that so much.   You can’t think of your career college and beyond) as a reciprocal relationship.

The thing they can’t tell you about post-grad life is that it’s messy and unstable.  Maybe they’ve been telling me this all along, and it just didn’t register until now.  Nothing is guaranteed anymore.  I feel like I’ve been wired for this track that someone forgot to finish.  Like, it’s all a neat path, and then, all of a sudden, I’m in the jungle and all they handed me a butter knife and a really cool hat to fend for myself.  In reality, I reached the end of the track made for me, and God has handed me some construction tools and said, “it’s up to you now, kid”.   I don’t want it to be up to me.  I want carrots and goals and all the higher-ed lingo I have to choke down truths my mouth never learned to articulate.

I don’t mean to portray this as all bad.  It’s a mixed bag really.  It’s nice to remember what food tasted like before I scarfed it down.  Sleep isn’t such a stranger after all.  It’s scary to ask myself what I want because I might not get it.  But that’s what this is now—a giant leap, followed by landing on a pile of rocks and ordering a pizza while giving myself a break, only to leap again.  I don’t  love it, but I’m learning not to hate it.  There’s a grace I’ve found inside myself that I am still learning to honor.

  1. I’ve compared myself to my peers, not as competition, but as puzzles more complete than mine is. What I fail to recognize is that I am a painting.  Things are not neatly cut out for me.  Instead, it’s always a process of creating, adding, correcting, and sometimes taking a second to enjoy
  2. I understood myself as a conjunction. I functioned as glue linking independent entities together.  There’s a certain self-sacrifice to this.  Involvement is great.  Activities foster community, a routine, stability, strong resumes, but they aren’t a substitute for self.  I guess that’s the positive of graduating without a full time job.  I’ve learned I’m not a conjunction, glue, defined by an activity or a metaphor at all.
  3. If there is any indicator that I did this college thing right, it isn’t in finding the job. It is my world-class support system.  The friendships and mentorships I belong to have really held me together.  I don’t know how I’m going to make a living.  There is a chance I will know the scarcity of a pack check to paycheck life.  But I would gladly take this over knowing emotional scarcity.  No matter how hard it is to admit that I’m not ok, I know my vulnerability will be met with kindness and a receptive ear.

It’s ironic that a life phase ushered in by the grandeur of caps and gowns is so anti-climactic.  Post-grad is learning to navigate life on uneven terrain.  It’s sloppy half the time.  Okay, a solid 80% of the time.  It’s answerless and scary, and there is a real fear I don’t have what it takes to be the person I thought I should be.   I am petrified.  Life reveals a lot of jagged-toothed truths after graduation.  I’m not going to romanticize what everything feels like right now.   I’m going to try to keep myself authentic and raw through all of this, resist the urge to hide behind a veneer.   And as things fall (I hope into place), I’m going to trust myself on whatever path I blaze.