It rains overnight, and the morning puddles hold mirrors up to the sky and the treetops, sprinkled with rusty fallen leaves. My roommate heads out for the weekend. Cindy plays keep-away with me for an hour before falling into slumber. I am buzzing on coffee and warding off the cold weather that finally arrives.
Last Wednesday, I went with a friend to see the New York City Ballet dance to violin music. Their bodies an extension of the melody, they flung themselves into the choreography and into the air, fearless.
I myself have not been dancing. I think about it, sometimes, and the sensation that fills me is a small mourning, like thinking about time spent with a long-gone pet or memories of living in a far-away place. The dancers shifted across the massive stage, singularly, in mass formation, paired, and I felt something stir in me. The curtain went down, I got on the subway for home, dazed.
You can never predict how you will feel about something, until it happens.
My brother turns 35 tomorrow. It's a big milestone year. And yet this is the first year since moving to NYC that I haven't headed back to California to celebrate with him. I chat on Facetime last night with my parents and my niece. Zoe says hi, then runs off to play. My dad ambles off as well, after a while. The video keeps cutting out, and my mom says, "Oh! Poor connection." Our smiling faces are frozen together on the screen.
High in the north of New York state, America’s largest temperate deciduous forest sets its leaves ablaze with color before they denude themselves for winter. Against this backdrop, and led by TNC staff from the Adirondack chapter, I traveled with three TNC China colleagues around Adirondack Park (in whose boundaries live 130,000 residents) and learned about how this incredible conservation story came to be.
In the 1870s, New York’s government power brokers began to wonder why the Hudson was starting to run so brown. Over time, they realized that when after the Civil War hundreds of lumber companies descended on this pristine region to strip the hillsides of their trees, the watersheds were also being destroyed. They moved to establish a forest preserve, and to amend the NY State Constitution, creating the Adirondack Park, which established precedent by not removing the inhabitants of the park’s boundaries (unlike many of our National Parks which forcibly ejected its indigenous communities post-establishment). Today you can stand at the top of Whiteface Mountain, or the Wild Walk at the amazing WILD Center in Tupper Lake, NY, and gaze out over endless forest.
When I drive with one of my new colleagues up to New Paltz for a meeting, I notice that the trees have begun their winter preparations. The change in colors touches down here and there, barely perceptible, nonetheless inevitable.
Change is upon me, and my mind dances a gawky jig, attempting accommodation. In the span of two months I have made a huge employment change, and have paused my dancing while C pursues a new career.
At the same time, I feel for the first time like I have built an actual career. I am surrounded by love, and I have the opportunity to seek happiness in my own ways.
My new job is my dream job — I am tasked with helping to implement innovations in conservation, to improve how a big conservation organization runs by pulling on all my past experiences. I'm spending time now just meeting people, trying to understand the work, and will be traveling all around New York State in the coming months to see the projects firsthand. More than one of my professors and mentors have said to me, "This is the kind of role I always envisioned you in." There are many big challenges ahead, and I am excited to be facing them. I am so incredibly grateful to Detectica for all of the opportunity I had there to be a manager, to help so many hard-working and intelligent people to achieve at the highest levels, to make mistakes and learn from them. I only regret that I didn't learn faster, and that I could not work both jobs at once.
The heavy air holds on in a damp embrace, under a grey sky heavy with the threat of rain. New York in the summertime is either this, or a hot sun so reflective that it blinds you from the sidewalks and shop windows.
The months since I last wrote have been too full to describe, and I feel I've been alternately drifting and plunging through it. Has it really been six months? My niece has a book called "Tell Me The Day Backwards" by Albert Lamb, in which a little bear's Mama recounts his day with him, starting from storytime and going until the evening before. Here is my telling of the six months backwards:
Earlier this month I went home to see my two-week-old niece, as well as my family and my grandmother. C joined me there, and it was a beautiful visit with nonstop family time. For once I wasn't working while I was at home, and so I truly had all day to just engage with everyone. It was so absolutely wonderful, made all the more precious by the fact that it was a rare and special time, everyone meeting the new baby and adjusting to the new rhythm of things. I ate healthy, we played tennis in the mornings, I caught up on sleep, and we even got some hiking in. I also spend a lot of joyful and carefree hours playing with my 3-year-old niece, reprising such classic as "ballet class", "you dance while I play music", "make food for lunch/dinner/breakfast" and "spin me around". My mom also gifted us with a very special day out near Pescadero, and we got the best of California's peninsula — coastal bluffs, beach and tidepool, marshes, clam chowder, a local farm, and redwood forests.
Theodore is the first foster dog I've had that I have seriously considered keeping; only my conscience prevents me, or whatever I should call that niggling voice that says "You? Commit to a dog for 15 years?" He is so attentive, all I have to do is turn my head and look at him, and his tail will start wagging. Otherwise he naps nearby, rising when I do, eating the food I mix for him, quiet and attentive.
The New York winter is hitting me hard this year, and though it has been mild temperature-wise, the short days and regular rains make my skin long for sunshine and heat. I battle a cold that leaves me weary, I feel I can't get out of bed in the morning. This is always a tough time of year for me, full of withdrawal and often sadness. Socializing ceases to come easy, and I have to force myself out into the world. The soft cuddly presence of Theodore helps, though. And today, I rouse myself enough to clean the apartment, then change out of my pajamas. C takes me to the Queens Museum to see the NYC diorama, which has been on my bucket list for some years. A gargantuan, multi-year effort for the 1964 World's Fair, the diorama stretches across the floor of a special gallery, depicting all five boroughs with bridges and buildings, complete with little cars and an airplane that takes off and lands from LaGuardia.
Last night I read My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante, an aggressively-written narrative about a girl growing up poor in Italy. Her voice is vulnerable but also strongly emotional; I could not put it down. Yesterday was also the inauguration of a new president, and today was the Women's March. This country is changing, it is waking up. I too, want to take up my banner, to pursue change, to put my voice to the things I care about. I look down at this quiet little dog at my feet; a beautiful dog who in the shelter was ragged and unwanted, and I realize at last that one person can make small differences that matter. That hope brings me up out of my winter gloom, that hope will keep driving me forward.
On the last day of the year, I wake to a quiet house. My mom was up late, preparing for today's festivities, and is sleeping in. The house's central heating hums in an undertone, and overhead some international flight is coming down for landing at the San Francisco Airport. My dad sets coffee to percolate before heading to the gym.
The morning is without urgency. The minutes stretch long.
There is time now. Time to look back across the year, at the photos I took, the journal entries I scrawled, the books I read. I wrote for an hour this morning, recapping the highlights of where I'd gone this year, and I realized that I had written an entry that was not for you, but for me. So I wiped it all, and while I can't take back words I have already said, I think I might re-say the things from my last entry, too. This, then, is for you.
Resolutions are optimistic, yes, but they grow out of failures. Perhaps some resolutions ought to be the resolutions of things that should stay the same. When I look across all that I have experienced this year, I cannot shake my gratitude to people who opened their homes to me, to the people who filled the museums I visited with their creativity and built the landmarks I saw, the people who trust me daily to simply be trustworthy. I cannot shake this vision in my mind from Route 20, coming out of Bryce Canyon after Nationals and three months of nearly nonstop competitions. The light moved out of the west, casting the pine-swept slopes golden and the whole sweet valley before me, the stream a wild snake amongst mottled green grass, and low ridges lurching upward to the sky. I wondered then - will I even remember this? But I do. That and all of it - bobbing in the surf with a snorkel as orange Garibaldis darted into kelpy darkness, stepping out onto a dark dance floor while the Palm Desert sunshine glared outside the hotel venue, watching camp flames consume driftwood for warmth before curling up in my sandy tent out on the Olympic Peninsula, smearing pureed turkey baby food onto a sick puppy's nose to get him to eat, stepping out of the subway station into the canyons of Soho's historic elaborately facaded buildings.
I had coffee a couple of days ago with a woman who has run some large technology companies, and I asked her how to cope with job stress. She gave me the following advice: at 4pm every Friday that I ought to sit down and write down (1) what went well and (2) what didn't go so well. And then, that I ought to close the notebook and forget about it. For her, this weekly ritual of appreciation and resolution got things out of her head so that she could move on. I think I could apply this tool to many things: dance competitions, cooking, scheduling, and so on. This regular calibration seems more appropriate than expecting that my life could change completely upon the generation of some grand "resolution." It seems also that I might better understand what I want, who I do and don't want to be, what experiences I want to become my past.
My oft-repeated and favorite quote from Annie Dillard is: "Because how we spend our days, after all, is how we spend our lives." And in truth, spending the days helping others, dancing, traveling, living in my apartment (as a sole lease-holder), and making the choice to not give up, not quit, to seek and never to falter: That is real personal freedom.
This year began with hope - a new role with big responsibilities, the promise of a good dance season - and is ending with hope, but the vast center was full of sadness and disappointment, emotional exhaustion and trying to overcome myself. When I read my past new year's resolutions posts, hoping for inspiration of an answer, I instead find my past self vacillating between "recognizing the value of making resolutions as a society" and denying the use of them ("Being present in every day means wondering always how to be better...If this act doesn't lead to resolutions, perhaps nothing will.")
Winter in California brings a strange, cool sunshine to the days, frail as moonlight, illuminating as candle flame. I watch it from the windows, working my laptop keys in my parents' home as darkness turns back to darkness. While my parents venture out for work and coffee dates and fly fishing practice, I stay in. I design product. I read books. My mom and I watch Gilmore Girls. We all have dinner together. I think about what has gone by, and I rest. This year was our first Christmas without my grandfather. My brother and his wife have a new baby on the way, and at two and a half my niece Zoe is already learning to read.
Hanging on my wall here is a framed Carol Grigg poster that I picked up at a yard sale many years ago. In it, a blanketed woman sits on a misshapen horse. The horse's back foot is raised expectantly, wearily; there is the shape of a bundle on her back. The faintest edge of jet black hair peeks out from her wrapping, the horse carries a spot of black on his breast. The two are the colors of this California winter - steel, mauve, ochre, soot. Her face is not visible, but she looks forward, toward the empty left side of the canvas.
In the challenges of the past year, I have felt too wrung out to enjoy the things I came to New York to do. It has been six months since I visited a New York art museum, years since I bought myself a ticket to the opera, years since I spent hours in The Strand. I lost my ties to the conservation community, and I forgot the part of dancing that I love the most. I have also come into some of the most rich relationships of my adult life, some older and evolved, some new and full of promise. It is these people who have reminded me of how I want to grow in 2017.
In the coming year, I want to cherish everything about the beautiful, incomparable city that first lit me up during that fated spring so many years ago. I came to New York, as E.B. White wrote, seeking "the New York of the person who was born somewhere else and came to New York in quest of something...the city of final destination, the city that is a goal." I forgot why I was in the city; I forgot what I came for.
This is my resolution: to fall asleep every night exhausted, not from stress or from illness or depression, but because I hungered for knowledge and experience and connections to the people I care about, because of staying up late just to talk, getting up early on weekends to find the latest art exhibit, exploring the places I haven't yet been, studying dance, helping my team do the work they love. To be satisfied that I used my days well.
Last year I swore to live in service of others; I found that humility, compassion and thoughtfulness were the only things that brought sanity and heart to those around me in times of great stress. I still have a long way to go, patience to cultivate, kindnesses to return. This year, in the space left by loss, I will build something new, and step forward once more in my quest to shape this world for the better.
Bearington naps all day, quiet and cuddly. At 11pm, he takes all that stored up energy and uses it to bark at shadows in the window and at the sound of cars rattling a sewer cover on the street below. He chews on anything he can get into his mouth (except his puppy toys), from the autobiography of Gandhi to the corner of a cardboard filing box. He goes to the bathroom and jabs every bathing supply he can reach with his nose, just to hear them clatter into the bathtub.
At eight months, he is both puppy and adult, teething and ‘tweening and generally enjoying his own mischief. On our walks, he is childlike, picking up fallen leaves or branches that catch his eye and carrying them until he finds a rock or piece of paper that he likes more. He wants to say hello to everyone he sees, whether they are passing us or on the other side of the street, and barks in frustration, his little body straining against the leash, when he cannot.
The ACC hopes to put him up for adoption in the next two weeks.
The past month has been textured by failures and loss. Some days I wake up with my head stuffed with cotton and the precious time drifts by with cruel rapidity. Other days the colors of the neighborhood vibrate in the light, the edges of buildings razor-sharp against the variegated sky; still as a painting.
Dance has become a solace. The studio provides comforting stability. I can always go there, I will know the shape of the music, and the smiles of the people. I can fall into routine, and know what I am working toward. As ever, dance and dancers surround me with love, warmth, and the pulse of life. Dance is of the heart, and this is real wealth: people who enrich one another, who surround each other with mutual respect and support, who share rituals together.
On Thanksgiving, my dad put me on Facetime and carried me from person to person, perched me on the dining room table, described to me all the scenes of the holiday with my family. Their love overwhelms me; I feel unworthy, I try to fling that understanding and caring back out into the world. To push away the darkness and the sadness with that halo of light, for “If one lights a fire for others, it will also brighten one’s own way.”
I was watching a video of Joe Biden pen a letter to his 12-year-old self. Now in his 70s, he lost his wife and infant daughter to a drunk driver, and his son to brain cancer. And yet he said, “out of everything terrible that happens, something good will come if you look hard enough… You’ll realize that countless people have suffered equally or more, but with much less support, and much less reason to want to get back up.” He then goes on to describe the pureness of purpose and resolve that his parents instilled in him, and how this is something that continues to drive him, despite - or perhaps because of - what he has felt. I, too, have this to pick me up again. My dad, who always told me, “Life’s not fair,” who strove always to make my life better. My mom, who taught me to take what I have, and to give back.
My wise friend said, speaking of loss, that “you carry the grief with you for the rest of your life.” She said, the grief will change you. You will never again be that person you were, nor would you want to be.
It is easy, isn’t it, to feel thankful for the good things in life - people I have loved or who have loved me, jobs well done, accomplishments. It is much more difficult to be grateful for the moments that have brought me low - chronic pain or injuries, illnesses, the loss of loved ones, projects or jobs that don’t go the way I wanted them to, situation in which I was not the person I wanted to be. It is easier to dwell on those things, to regret rather than embrace.
Every morning is a fresh adventure for Bearington. He greets me with a waving tail, a slobbery tongue, a brightness in his eyes that says, “Oh thank goodness you’re finally up; I’ve been waiting for you!” And even Cindy, the little pup with so much trauma that she will carry with her for her whole life, still greets every morning with the same gratitude: Thank goodness you’re here, let me cuddle you, let’s start this beautiful day together.
And so, on this Thanksgiving weekend, my cup is full. It overflows with my family and loved ones and all the good things (they are too numerous to elucidate), and also with all the bitter times and the loss. I hold it close, this precious cup that is my life, for it has changed me, and I am grateful.
Four years ago, dragging two suitcases and buoyed by hope and fearlessness, I arrived to a detritus-strewn New York City. It was the week after Hurricane Sandy tore through the city. I stayed in a sublet so inaccessible that I sometimes rushed off the subway only to spend 30-40 minutes in what felt like freezing weather for the bus. I'd been living with my boyfriend-at-the-time in his Durham NC apartment, working as a remote freelancer and falling into depression. There, despite being surrounded by trees and the world-class university, I'd alternated between incomprehensible rage and a bottomless sorrow, from which I thought only New York and dancing could save me. I told myself and others that I would go and pursue my dream of being the best dancer I could, that I would dedicate myself to it at the utmost, that I would "give it four years to see how far I could get." I packed my bags, I moved.
And now I am here.
How could I have thought things would be so simple? People sometimes say how much you have to want something, to have it. In the beginning, I found a good partner in Boston but could not give up New York to dance with him. I was asked to turn Pro, but could not give up my dream of getting into the top 10 of all the amateur dancers in the country. When Yuliya Klinchik found me for C, I breathed in relief: finally, I might make it!
Instead, I broke my foot. Rather than rise back from it, I took it as a sign - that I was not cut out for that life, that I needed another lifestyle "as backup". C stuck by my side through it, suffering through gyrotonics and swimming and pilates classes and icing and the "ugly shoe." I went home and my parents spoiled me. And I began to realize that although I would always be a dancer, I needed other things in just as significant proportion - conservation, people, technology, travel, relationships.
It was at this time that I also had a personal financial crisis. I was simply not able to pull in enough income as a freelancer to truly support the dancing I wanted to do, particularly given my heavy medical bills. When I had to borrow money from my parents to pay my taxes, I realized that I had another choice - to keep pursuing this dream and dancing "full time", or to join the ranks of the stably employed and pull myself out of the hole.
These days, I wake up earlier than I'd like to, face the glazed-eye commute, and go to my full-time job. On its surface, my life now is not so different from when I was at Google: I work, have dinner, dance, come home, pass out, and repeat. But I refuse to accept that it is regressive. In the past year, the team I helped to build has become part of me. They remind me to be humble, and to serve. They remind me of all I've learned as a leader and manager in the past six years, refuse to let me become complacent.
While I've been passing those four years, my family has experienced loss, and we have become wealthy beyond belief in the life of my little niece Zoe. I learned about love when I became an aunt, watched Robert and Julia grow as parents, and saw my own parents revel in grandparenting.
A little caramel-colored shaggy puppy has been cavorting around my apartment the past two days.My first foster, Cindy, taught me that sometimes the most wonderful things come in the most challenging packages. My foster pup Bearington, reminds me that in this life, as unplanned as it was, I am finally stable and knowledgeable enough to start giving back.
In the rest of life, C and I have settled into the kind of comfort that comes only from knowing one another for years. We found our coaching match in Thomas and Frantsiska; our dancing is finally shooting forward. And so, despite dancing "recreationally" once again, dance still feels real and serious.
In the span of a life it is not significant. At the same time, November 1 marks the longest I've stayed in one city since I left Los Altos for college. This is the life I never could have imagined for myself. I am building it one day at a time, staying here but never stuck. I am in love with all this, and hungry for the world.
A wave of cool weather comes to New York, and my brother, Julia and Zoe arrive at its forefront. What joy to share this city with them! I pick them up in New Jersey, and we spend a day with Julia's aunt, uncle, cousin and grandparents. Her cousin Esther shows us around Morristown, a lovely little town full of colonial architecture and tall leafy trees. Later, we drive to NYC in a drizzling rain. We have arepas for dinner. The next morning, we head to Ess-a-bagel for NY bagels, they go to see the Oculus and the High Line. When I meet them after work, Zoe is playing in the park in Stuyvesant Village. She sees me and shouts "Jen!" Her smile is a mile wide, so direct and full of joy. For the first time, I understand how it feels for my heart to melt. We eat pizza and then too quickly they are away and winging into the air for Chris' wedding in Italy and a longer vacation throughout Europe.
The day after seeing family is always the worst for me - I feel lonely, as if my own life has interrupted a precious dream. I have a slight cold on top of it, and stay home from work. I make ginger-honey-lemon tea, like my mom did when I had a sore throat at home, and let Cindy cuddle me in bed.
Last Saturday I finally cleaned after my summer roommate left. Rearranged my bedroom. Reclaiming my space. I have it all to myself until September 1, when a more permanent roommate moves in.
I often feel, these days, that my life is not mine to command. Perhaps it is simply that the true nature of life is finally reflected in my awareness. I have been at Detectica for over a year now, and I feel a deep sense of loyalty and responsibility for the work lives of my coworkers. Each day challenges me, and the product and our work has become intensely complex. It is difficult to hold all the pieces in my head at once, but I use my MBA training and my life training every day to try to make the most thoughtful decisions I can in the time that I am given. Sometimes I realize, months later, I ought to have done something else. And so I learn and work harder, and learn.
Despite this, life is simple. I wake, get dressed, walk Cindy, go to work. Sometimes I dance after work, sometimes I come home for dinner. I read books about strategy and products and I fall back asleep. There is a rhythm and a routine to the days that I have not had since I left Google. I am still trying to get used to it.
I have not written in so long that much has passed. We lost my grandfather in the spring, after his long and happy life. I went home for ten days, overwhelmed with sadness and love. In the end we didn't know if he recognized any of us, and yet he was always beaming. The longer we live, the more full of loss our memories become. It seems to me that one reason for happiness is that we must balance such sorrows out with equal amounts of joy.
I dread the days growing shorter and the cold that will come. I fear my own lack of writing in the past months, and how hard it is to draw them out even now, how hard it is to use these words to express the sensations in my heart. I was thinking the other day about how photographs, despite their beauty, provide only one view on how the photographer sees the world. It is an external show, a representation of place and thing seen and experienced. For me, they are easy. It's only words that reveal the heart of a person, their thoughts across some span of time. It takes all my energy to put my feelings into these words. And then, even then, I fall short. There is a change coming on these late summer winds; I fear it, I wonder where it will take me next.