Sunday, September 18, 2016

Making a Big Change

A couple of weeks ago, I read an article in The New York Times called “Hesitant to Make that Big Life Change? Permission Granted”.

In the article, Carl Richards writes about why some of us have trouble making big changes. He believes one reason is our desire for permission to make such changes. He writes: "Seeking approval and external validation is part of the human experience, but when it comes to making a big life change, they can be hard to find."

About nine months ago, I set out to make a big change in my life - or at least work toward one. After years of complaining about my career path, I enrolled myself in a local community college and signed up for several classes in psychology, sociology, and philosophy. I wasn't quite sure what was next, but I wanted to give myself a chance to explore and see what I liked, to do what I wished I had done more of when I was too young and insecure to give myself permission to try my hand at something that didn't fit the script. For several hours, twice a week, I drove to the local campus and wedged myself into chair-desks to sit next to kids who hadn’t even been born when I received my B.A. and were still peeing in their diapers when I received my J.D. I raised my hands frequently enough to receive full participation points and felt a stupid mix of pride and shame each time teachers commented "Great!!!" with a smiley face on my homework or read my papers out loud as examples of how to write cogently. As far as I could tell, I was older than every teacher except one, who was my age.

I am now in my second semester at the community college, mainly to fulfill some prerequisites for a graduate level program in psychology, while studying for the GREs (yes, yet another standardized test). I am still not quite sure what I am doing, but I feel a certain amount of self-imposed pressure to define a direction for myself, so that I could tell myself and others what the hell I am doing with my life. After all, I am 45.

The one pervading feeling throughout all of this has been a disquieting sense of illegitimacy. In so many respects. I mean, really, I am a mom with one kid who just learned how to tie his shoelaces and another who still eats her boogers. How can I justify sitting in a library outlining social psychology when I have little finger nails to clip and healthy meals to plan and playdates to coordinate? Am I not supposed to be helping them prepare for life, instead of still fixating on my own development? Besides, I already have my B.A. and a J.D. Why the hell am I still hanging out with a bunch of kids who are trying to gain admission to four-year colleges? I could tell from the looks on some of the kids in my classes that they were wondering what went wrong with my career that I was now back at ground zero with them. (No, I did not go into the details about the inanities of corporate America.) And how about being a full-fledged adult with some income to show for it? Isn't it completely self-indulgent to be a student full time?

When I read Richards' article, I realized the unease I've been feeling for the past eight months was the discomfort of not having been granted permission, of not having received validation. Not from any specific person, but in a more cosmic sense. From the world we live in. The world I live in has pretty clear guidelines. Go to school, figure out a career in your 20s, plan a family, lean in and work up the ranks to partnership or management, save up, and retire when you have a decent nest egg. Sure, we deviate sometimes, but on the whole, that's where we fall in if we claim to be a certain kind of adult.

Validation is a big thing for someone like me, for someone who was raised as I was. An Asian, a good daughter, a middle child, an immigrant. I've lived my whole life seeking and receiving approval. I still remember how it felt to start receiving more attention as I began bringing straight As home, how it felt to receive recognition for helping out around the house as my parents started working long hours at their store. I'm one of those good kids, someone who never rebelled, who always accommodated, often to my detriment. I also have a lifetime practice of trying to fit in, as an outsider in America, even to the point of wearing blue eye shadow in high school. Thank goodness we left Texas.  

I read somewhere that most of us live as we think we ought to. We pick up a script that tells us how we're supposed to live, and we spend the rest of our lives trying to enact it. So maybe this process of validating a big change is simply a cognitive exercise. Will it into your script, and voila, it's yours to follow. That is more or less what I've been trying to do. Looking for examples of people who've already done what I am trying to do. There is an endless list of successful women who started their careers mid-life: Vera Wang, Toni Morrison, Julia Childs, Martha Stewart, and so many others like those profiled here. I keep meeting them in my own life as I explain to others why I'm back in school while my husband drops off the kids in the morning. Every mom I meet has a story about someone in her family or someone she knows who went back to school after they had kids. One lady I met volunteering told me that she cried and cried while she tried to decide whether to go back to school in her late 30s. When she called her dad and lamented she was going to be too old for school, he responded, "Well, you're going to get old anyway."

So I will quiet that little voice that nags that I'm too old, that I already missed my opportunity to set a direction for myself, that I should have been bolder in my youth, that I will be 50 by the time I graduate from yet another school, that I am being frivolous, that this is not my time, that it is too late...

I'll cling to that mantra. I'm getting old anyway. Might as well try it. 

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Aching for Ava

Sometimes I am startled out of my bubble. This morning, I couldn't sleep for some reason and found myself scrolling through Facebook at 5:30 in the morning. A photo drew me in unexpectedly, and I was caught in the world of Ava, a little girl fighting against leukemia. The pictures of the little girl's wide open smiles and her mother Esther's words of raw pain wrenched me in deeper and deeper until I found myself in a puddle of my own tears. I am reminded, as I wallow in my own issues sometimes, that there are others living through such unbearable pain. I know what a wreck I would be if such misfortune were to befall our family. The random thought of my children facing death even at the end of a full life fills me with sorrow at times, and to think that this family has been facing the spectre of death so abruptly, so mercilessly.

I'm a stranger to them. I'm miles away. Our only tenuous connections - we are fellow Koreans, both parents. But it's enough to fill my ears with the mother's pain. I hear her. And the weight of her loneliness is palpable. I wish I could do something for them. Offer to babysit their other children or cook some meals for them. Hold their hands. Give them a hug. Just sit with them. Let them know that we feel a sliver of their pain.

After reading Esther's posts, I heard my own children wake up. They staggered up the stairs, rubbing their eyes, T holding his ever reliable companion Beary, while S dragged herself up complaining that she was tired. Instead of responding with my usual impatience, I found myself giving them hugs and helping S get dressed, encouraging her with a promise of an M&M after breakfast. As S ate her breakfast of milk, toast, and prosciutto, I braided her hair. I carefully parted her hair to the side in the front and down the middle in the back. Then I tied one side before dividing the strands into three equal ropes. As my fingers wove in and out through my daughter's healthy, shiny hair, I thought of Esther who can no longer touch Eva's hair. As I worked on the other side, I thought of my daughter who will go to school and show off her little braids, jump a little extra higher to see them bounce, and who will want to loosen her braids to admire the curls before bed.

Parenting is not for the faint of heart. I am reminded again and again. We become parents and we enter the realm of possibilities, vulnerabilities, unspeakable joys and chronic fear.  Even though my own parenthood has been shielded from any meaningful challenges, I am anxious every day that something could happen to my children, that they could be taken away, by a misstep in the parking lot, a moment of carelessness, or an injection of a cruel unknown. And I see parents like Esther who face that real possibility. I ache for their big hearts and the love we all have for our children. Our dependence on them and our need for their permanence. Our desperate need to protect them at all costs and our inability to do so at times. We are at the mercy of chance, of the indifferent unknown. We can only hope to linger in a state of grace.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

One of Those Moments

I was having one of those moments the other evening. One of those moments when disappointments of life suddenly swell up like edema, filling up the empty crevices of my mind, welling up to a point that they block all that my eyes would otherwise see.

I don't even remember what set it off. Maybe a careless word from Jeff, or perhaps a tantrum from my vocal four-year old. A trifling that should have done noticed, brushed off. Instead, it takes over, like a drop of betadine contaminating a pool of clear water.

I remember taking myself to my bedroom, under the covers, even though it wasn't yet dark out, and blocking my eyes against the feelings of hopelessness. These feelings always hover in the wings these days, with the curtain widely parted, ready to take center stage.

In these moments, I see only failures, disappointments, neglect. I remember the people in my life who have moved on without me, let me fall by the wayside. Those who are now too busy, or can't be bothered. No one seems reliable. No friend true. No effort meaningful. I feel alone in this world, and no one notices.

I have fewer of these moments these days, but they still return. They don't let me forget that my life now feels different, that my relationship with the world has changed. I'm no longer the person I used to be. I'm now needier, more suspicious, more prone to hurt. So many words and silences feel like small rejections, and I find myself bracing for them. I can tell that my social persona is different, that I misread cues and don't play my social role as I used to.

The other day, when we were camping, I was walking behind my son, who was walking alongside our friend's dog. He was strolling at the same pace as the scampering pup, who spent most of his time sniffing this and that. After a few paces, my son turned to me and said, "Mom, he likes me!" Even though I saw no signs of affinity from the dog, I nodded and smiled back.

I couldn't help but wonder if our relationships amount to that. A strolling at the same pace, a confusion between simultaneity and attraction.

Noticing my absence, Jeff comes to find me. Wrapping me in a bear hug, he asks what is wrong. Suddenly, my tears come and I find myself stammering to articulate where I am. "What is the point," I find myself repeating. What is the point of all this? What is the point of friendships that dissipate? What is the point of making efforts that go unappreciated? What is the point of working toward goals that fail? And what is the point of family if they abandon you?

He hugs me harder, as he always does in these moments. No stranger to betrayal himself, he listens and nods along. After a pause, he tells me what works for him. Our children. Our little beings who place all their trust in us, and believe us when we say we will keep them safe. Our children who cry when they miss us and are consoled by our touch. They take away the cynicism, he tells me. They help me have faith in people.

It is a thought that jolts me. Since I became a parent almost seven years ago, I have thought a lot about how I could help my children, what I could do for them. But I've thought very little about what they do for me, how they help me.

When I have one of these moments, they come to me with solemn looks on their faces and plant little wet kisses on my cheek. They sit on my lap and wrap their arms around me. They tell me they love me. And I know that there, right there, is one true thing in my life.