Every morning now begins with two big eyes peering at me from the pillow next to my bed, and a skinny brown tail whipping back and forth with hope. I crawl from under my covers and slide down to sit on the floor, where my foster dog wriggles her way into my lap and cranes her neck to lick my chin.
This winter has flown by, and it seems that every time I pull my head up from the tidal pull of days, I am nearer to the relief of springtime. I cannot help but think of this time last year, when I was still trying to pull my foot through every practice, every week leading up to the competition was full of stress from not knowing how we'd be able to perform. This year, C and I have danced 3 competitions on consecutive weekends, with 2 more weekends to go. Competition day, recovery day, work days, competition day, recovery day, work days - on and on it rolls, but I am somehow still finding my moments of quiet: sitting with coffee and an excel spreadsheet on an early morning in the office, facing C on the competition floor in the electrified calm just before the music starts, flicking the gas on underneath a pot of water for macaroni and cheese. I think to myself, "this is how a life passes."
I think, too, that this is the best of times, when I am breathing the air without judging it. When I read on the subway, I read hard and fast, often so immersed in the story that I miss my stop. I am immersed in my own story now, too. Long ago, my professor of writing, Robert Gundlach, told me that what most appeals to writers about New York City is the ability to both be an observer and a participant without judgment. He said that in New York City, one can always step into the flow or "people-watch," depending on how one needs space or energy. I am in it, then, breathing and living and pass up all the chances to observe.
The first day without the family I love is always the hardest. The third day back, I find myself free for the evening, and so I go home with my foster dog, Cindy to clean, to work more, to putter.
Winter seems not to come this year. It is warmer in New York than California on Christmas Eve. I get sick at home for over a week, spend New Year's Eve on the couch by myself (though my family did Skype me from the party at midnight!) and then gift my dad with my cold the day before I leave.
I feel my whole life has changed irrevocably in the past six months. In some ways I feel I have found my "old self" in this work. There was this time when I looked back on my graduate school life and thought, "that was me at my best self." I felt I'd peaked in my personal growth, back there in the rich academic atmosphere of Duke, amongst my internships and sense of hope. This job has awoken everything in me that I always loved about being a graduate student - the sense that I am learning something new every day, that I have great responsibility for others, that I must be humble and remake myself daily in order to succeed. My mom tells me she thinks I found something that I'd lost, that this time she feels I am well again, in a way that I hadn't been in years.
At the same time, my dance partnership has taken off. Everyone always told me that it takes at least two years for a partnership to really gel and I feel this is finally true. Our coach asked C and myself a month ago, "what do you think you found in the last week that you didn't have before?" And although we cannot seem to verbalize it, there is a shared stability and an ability to predict one another's actions that is becoming utterly dependable. And of course, there was the competition at the beginning of December - my first since my foot has totally healed. I hopped, skipped and swung through it, with no pain. A true triumph after over a year of recovery.
The new Star Wars comes out and the flame of my old obsessions reawaken. When I am home for the holidays I use my days off to sit in a big armchair and I read and read and read like I used to when I was in grade school. My mom and I make pork buns together. And yet none of this feels like a regression, it feels like a natural return to myself, as if I'd finally come back to my own skin.
Of course there are the changes too: my niece grows more precocious by the day, even as my grandparents are slowing down. Life is perhaps never more bittersweet when I see my grandmother struggling to care for my grandfather as he weakens, even as my niece is just beginning to explore the capacity of her mind.
Last year I made resolutions for the year - to read more, to focus on self care, to open myself up to others, to develop a new life plan and pursue it. This year will be the year of others. In my life and dance and work, I hope to strive for excellence in service of the needs of others. This will be a year to remember.
A hurricane has been coming our way, Hurricane Joaquin, and the "water cooler" conversations at work are debates over the pronunciation -- Wah-keen? Hoa-kin? Ja-queen? -- and I am reminded of debating with my mother over the pronunciation of the name Sean, myself insistent that there was no way something spelled Sean could possibly NOT be pronounced Seen.
Friday morning I walk from the subway in rain so light, so pervasive, it is barely more than a mist. Inexplicably, I forgot a jacket that morning. The wind blows down my back. The city birds defy this sudden weather, intently pursuing crumbs across the broken sidewalk and for a moment I am awed by their smallness, the tinyness of their hearts pumping blood, the improbability of their lives and mine in this city of things -- buildings, roads, front stoops, planter boxes -- that people have constructed for the sake of creating, for the sake of existence.
The MRI on my foot came back clean; only evidence of the healed fracture remains. It has been one year since the initial injury. My doctor has me changed my shoes, suspecting that the previous ones were bruising the top of my foot and thus causing the lasting pain. He was correct. Our coaches come back from vacation, we put a competition on the calendar to train toward, and we pursue our work in earnest. Between California and here, C and I have discovered a new way to produce movement, to navigate our choreography. Finally, I allow a tendril of hope to wrap around me.
I am finding comfort in my new job. I am only three months in but I feel a strange sense of community - that THIS is my product, and THESE are my people. I am no longer carried by the momentum of the work, but rather helping to guide it. I am making planter boxes, front stoops, sidewalks... I am persistently thankful.
In another week I will be headed to Los Altos once again. This time to be at the WCN conference, to work from California, to celebrate my mom's and my brother's birthdays, to spend time with my niece and grandparents and the friends I rarely see. I'm not quite ready to travel again, but I miss my family as I always do, and I am eager to see their faces, to smile and laugh with them.
By Friday evening the temperature has dropped another ten degrees, and the rain hardened into a permanent and eager drizzle. We eye each other's umbrellas, adjusting the height of our own so as not to collide. A slim girl passes with one large enough to cover three of her, an almost obscene indulgence on the crowded sidewalk. The flow of people descends toward the subway, those without rain gear rushing past those who do. And then I, too, have descended out of the cold and move with the crowd toward home.
I slept and awoke with a sensation of doom hanging over me, and no matter the clear beauty of the day nor the small town charm of the place I have landed can brush the feeling away. And so I sit and pray that no disaster will fall upon the people I love. I wait for time to bring me back to stillness.
Always I do my best thinking while on the move. Today, it is a bus that carries me past wooded green lawns and tall shingled rectangles that scatter the rolling hills west of the Hudson. I love to watch the land passing; buses have always taken me toward adventures. The movement helps me to write, as does a solid nudge from a friend (thank you, Brandon).
These days, I think often of a moment described in Annie Dillard's "Pilgrim at Tinker Creek" - the book that still continues to shape my mind in ways I am still learning to comprehend. She speaks of standing near the creek and watching the water flow to her and away from her, like time that she cannot hold. How it is in that very second, is also how it will never be again.
The change that I foretold as spring's first tendrils were barely budding has come to pass. I am fully-employed now, and in a role that I never would have imagined for myself, and yet is already defining me. As the director of product at Detectica, I work to keep the team in communication with our client, make sure everyone is productive, happy, and that we are moving toward the company's long-term goals. It is perfect for my skills; I love my team, I feel we are building something real and important together.
It has given me back a piece of myself, though in changing jobs, I also lost something I cannot reconcile - and I cannot now find the strand I was following when I went back to graduate school. Although I continue to volunteer for APW, I feel I may never collect the pieces from the heartbreak of leaving. Working with Laly changed me; my time with her and APW gave me a core of inner strength that I will carry with me to my end. But with my ongoing injury and the pressures of NYC living, I needed something full-time. I had to say goodbye also to BuzzWord and to David Hudson, who were both amazing employers that encouraged me and taught me to be a better person. The past two years taught me to go it alone, to work truly independently; I am endlessly grateful for the chances that they took on me, and for all their energy and love.
What was most painful was leaving after we had invested so much in each other. When I worked for a big company (Google), I accepted that people would always be coming and going. My interactions with coworkers were transitory, passing like seasons. But in a small company, I felt integral. Work on a project was my work only, in a way that became entwined with my identity, and with my relationship to other people on the team.
Since I last wrote, myself and C have started taking lessons with new coaches - a husband and wife team. We feel the freshness of their approach, they understand what we need, and our dancing is the best it has ever been. We have settled into our patterns now, our fights seem based purely on lack of sleep/grouchiness rather than any disagreements. I feel we understand each other better and better every week. This is why so many people say that it takes two years for a dance partnership to become truly productive. I see no limit to our improvement, and so I keep on.
As for the foot. Well. It has continued to bother me - more when I dance, less when I take days off. On Friday, I found myself breathing to the accompaniment of a pounding MRI. They put headphones on me. The operator played KC and JoJo to calm me. They gave me a little rubber ball like what is on the end of the blood pressure cuffs: just squeeze it if you need to get out, they said. But I couldn't really hear the music over the machine. For forty minutes I fought panic, thinking constantly to myself "just relax and hold still" while staring at the ceiling tiles, the lights. The doctor said that if my fracture truly never healed, I will be sitting out for two more months. If it is tendonitis, I can keep dancing. But I think I already know what the verdict will be, and feel I am already preparing myself for the sadness that always comes when I am away from dance.
Midday sunshine brightens the landscape. The ridges are higher here, sloped like the backs of giant lizards, bristling with forest. I see a flock of four geese, squonking their way south. Is fall already beginning her move? My mom texts me to tell me my grandfather is weakening, and I make plans to go home to visit. A new roommate moves in to the apartment. My niece Zoe has learned to stand on her own. I do not take stock of where I am, I am not the driver. The bus rumbles along.
I didn't think the recovery would take so long. Even now, seven months after diagnosis, I am still easily overdo it. I'm still not able to jump much. This weekend, with C gone on vacation with his family, I sit at home, eat my calcium tablets, and dream of dancing.
Springtime creeps through slowly, this year. The trees and plants bloom lushly, yet some chill lingers in the breezes that come across the coast. I waited, binoculars and Sibley guide in hand, for spring migrants that never showed up. I armed myself with Mr. Clean and Soft Scrub and Windex and attacked the flat surfaces of my apartment, scrubbing until rooms reeked of bleach and lemon. I rearranged my room, hung plants on my wall. Occupying myself with the small things, I passed the days.
Now it is Memorial Day weekend, the official start of the summer. Uniformed service women and men flood NYC for Fleet Week. My friends fire up their grills.
Work always slows a bit with the approach of summer, and it is a welcome reprieve from the tidal wave of March through May. Interns arrive in Tanzania soon; the APW staff becomes preoccupied with settling them in. Fiscal years are finished, websites updated with brand new corporate responsibility content, PDFs are uploaded. Last weekend as I rode the Staten Island Ferry with friends, I looked west toward the fading daylight and our lady Liberty and felt the merciless hook of wanderlust. Maybe I've been reading too much; books set in Beirut and Rome and Kerala aren't helping.
Next weekend, though, I'll be on the shores of Lake Geneva for a family reunion. It will be the first time in almost a decade that I have seen most of my dad's side of the family. My Aunt Lin is the only one who knows the Chin family history, who has visited the ancestral village of my father's parents. I do believe that we cannot truly know ourselves without knowing first where we came from. I also believe that all of us from immigrant families (no matter how far back) have something in us that seeks, that causes us to leave what is known and look for opportunities and adventures. I can't wait for the flight to Chicago, to alight in that glistening city by the shores of Lake Michigan, to be in in the circle of family.
A mentor recently suggested, "Live by wants, not by should-haves." Doing what I think I should be doing, or what other people think I should be doing, will never make me satisfied. I can pursue wholeheartedly the things that I want, to revel in the life that I have.
It's been four and a half months since diagnoses, since October 16. My foot is finally feeling strong (enough) to dance nearly every day, more or less full on. But it hasn't gotten easier. Nationals is close. C and I are feeling pressure to make up for lost time, to play catch up with ourselves, and it begins to take its toll. I lose sight of joy.
So I go back a year and begin reading my posts from when we first started dancing together. I think in some ways, my becoming more familiar with C has made me more acerbic, too. He stops me sometimes, "you're not listening." Is it true? How fully am I embracing and applying his feedback? Have I begun to take my talented and wonderful partner for granted?
I remember before rounds last year, Vlad told us, "There's a reason you dance with the same person for a long time. It takes time to learn about each other, to know how they will react in every situation, to understand how to tackle difficult moments together." Although a year of dancing together can feel like a long time, it really isn't much at all, and what we are facing now post-injury is new territory. Sometimes lack of experience can feel a lot like lack of ability. We mustn't confuse the two.
In the field of psychology there is this idea of mindfulness, which deals with how we observe and control the way we react in the present, "the intentional, accepting and non-judgmental focus of one's attention on the emotions, thoughts and sensations occurring in the present moment". Over the summer last year I deliberately practiced mindfulness, along with gratitude. Every day I made a list every day of the things I was glad I had. Dealing with my injury took away many of those things, and I became bitter about losing them. The bitterness seeped into other aspects of my life, and my work, dance, writing - all these happy passions - began to become stressful. Not only that, but my injury revealed to me my own weakness and took the air out of me. Looking at myself now from a mindful distance, I see all the signs of unraveling. My laundry constantly undone, my workspace and bedroom a mess, my schedule all over the place... I don't recognize the Jen that I most enjoy being.
But now it is March. Spring is on its way. Our National competitions are coming. It's time to stop using my injury as an excuse for the way I've been feeling and acting, as a reason for having failed myself in being the person I would rather be. My dad used to say to me after I'd been stupid, "Don't apologize, just don't do it again." I think now would be the perfect time to apply his wisdom.
Cold car driving down a cold road to Bethesda. C and his mom chat quietly together in Polish, and I am feeling the weight of this winter pressing down upon me. Tomorrow by this time, my foot (and our stamina) will have been tested by the first competition we are dancing since August. I've been on the sidelines so much lately that I can hardly understand how it will feel to be back on the floor again. I'm nervous, I worry I won't be able to enjoy it, I worry my foot will give out on me, that my stamina is completely shot, that…..and on and on.
It is Valentine’s Day weekend. There is this card that my savings bank sent me last year. It says, “What a difference a year makes.” This was my first competition back as an amateur last year. Since then I've traveled abroad for lessons, competed across the country, and remade a foot bone. This past week my coach gave rare praise, “your activity is so much better now than a year ago; there is not even a comparison.”
Upward and inward go I.
In the past weeks I have sometimes tried to take stock of where I am. I somehow imagined, back in October, that my foot would be completely healed by now, that I would be able to step onto the floor as some new incarnation of myself. Wiser, stronger, and better. That I would be able to write here and expound upon all the lessons I've learned. But it isn't like that. Instead I am struggling everyday to eat at least 2800 calories, to try and push healing energy to my foot, which is still weak and aches after every practice. I avoid this blog because I truly cannot yet verbalize how this injury has changed me, if it has at all. Our coaches keep checking in, but even they have started shaking their heads about how long it is taking.
On the other hand I can't say that I have not progressed. I tried many new types of shoes, and found that the wide width Supadance shoes are an incredible amount more comfortable than my normal ones. I will be dancing in competition heels this weekend. My amazing support group of fellow dancers and friends, are always checking in with a hug and a kindly, “how’s the foot?” and I feel I am giving them better news each time. Three days ago I was able to find a place where I completely gave in to dancing, and even that little corner of my mind that seems to always scream “no! Your foot is not ready for this yet!” finally shut up.
I very much want to find my joy in dancing again. I've felt so much pressure to be whole again, and I found that the pressure has sapped much happiness from me. I hope that tomorrow, when I feel the lights on me, when my feet caress the familiar competition floor, when that music begins and asks us to move, that my heart will rise to it and I will find myself again, unbroken.
It's been a quiet week, with lots of long working nights. But it has also been a great week. My PT cleared me to continue dancing (no bone damage from the hike apparently, just muscle strain), and this week she wrapped my foot up and it's been so effective that I was able to dance full out today in my lesson for the first time in months. It feels amazing.. to be able to trust that my foot will be there, and actually find new places in my body to work through.
Slow and steady will win this race.
Oddly enough my dancing with C has improved significantly in the time we took off, almost as if the time away allowed all the good information to seep in, and the bad habits to disintegrate. He's been so great through my whole recovery, keeping me laughing when I get down about my recovery, and now that we're back to the floor (albeit at something like 25%) he demands my best.
My new roommate, Heather, has also been wonderful. Leaving me brownies on my desk in the morning, checking in with me about my foot, cheering me on. And despite her insanely busy schedule (she works and goes to school full time), offering to run errands for me!
It feels like real winter at last in New York City. We had a midnight snowfall, followed by rain, and yet this morning was still replete with the sound of shovels and snowplows scraping the sidewalks and streets. We're scheduled for more snow on Monday and Tuesday. As much as I like the warmth of summer, the city in snow slows down, and feels like steadiness. It's also in this weather that it feels most comforting to hunker down in my comforter and read.
Two steps forward, one step back - so goes the hustle of healing. Last Sunday I go for a hike.. we take a wrong turn and end up going very much further than anticipated. And so I'm set back.
Over the holidays I'd been easing back in to more strenuous movement: A little bit of jumping. Some solo practice for tension-free strengthening. Lots of P.T. exercises. I felt reacquainted with my legs, the floor under my feet, my muscles working against gravity, the return of sensation.
But now it's back to stillness. My foot ached constantly for three days and it's post-hike-day-five now. Although it doesn't ache anymore it feels fragile, untrustworthy. I try to just rest, rest, rest. On the bright side, this new setback has somehow led me to track correctly across my injured foot for the first time in two months. And my amazing P.T., Emily, tells me I probably just overused it and that I could try to dance a bit today.
So there's that.
This morning I wake early, assemble my usual breakfast (bacon, two eggs over-easy, spinach, a mug of coffee, a mug of almond milk, bone health supplements), and read the NYTimes (a Christmas gift from Robert and Julia). I put KT tape on my foot. The steam radiator fizzles busily and I am warm wearing a tank top. Later, I'll bundle against the cold, swipe on some sunscreen in defiance of the unflagging winter light, and take the bus to Jersey. A horde of California-dancer-friends have descended upon the area for the Manhattan Amateur Classic, as well as some displaced-to-the-east-coast-California-dancer-friends, and it will be a very sweet reunion.
Other than that, I have been passing the days carefully. The holidays were calm and easy; I spent all of it with family. Even now the memories are turning into the nostalgia that remains: love, sunlight, shared time. My grandmother called me on Thursday, and it was so sweet to hear her voice. We chatted a little bit, and laughed, and she said, "you really are like me." My adventurous, wise, strong grandmother..I would be happy to grow up to be like her.
But for now, I am just me, fragile and still healing.
New Year's Eve spins into view again. The past week has been calm, filled with sunlight, and love. How quickly Christmas passed, with its wrapping paper and family time and feasting, and then I am walking out of a coffee shop with a friend, who gestures at the fresh blue sky and asks me, "How can you not miss this?" And I do. But then my tenacity kicks in, and I recall the decisions I have made that took me away from California. I have much waiting for me in New York, and I remain faithful to that.
I used to detest the December 31st looking-back exercise, finding it contrived. I felt we ought to always be making resolutions, always be learning from where we had been. But this year, I feel I have already spent an inordinate amount of time looking back at what was, feeling the sting of regret and longing, the choices I made, trying to find behaviorial patterns I didn't like and fix them, gazing back at all my experiences and figure out my strengths and weaknesses. And so I'm glad of December 31st, this year, because at when it ends, I will allow myself to be swept up in the global exercise of looking forward.
As wonderful as it was to ring in 2014 with strangers and friends in the blocks-long party of Times Square, I wanted this year's new celebration just to be with my parents, my brother, my sister-in-law and her family, my niece. So it will be. We are certain of each other. We are brimming with gratitude and joy and grace. This is life at its best and most sweet. This is how my new year will begin.