On every morning but one, you wake up to the dark – 5AM, dark no matter the time of year – with the exception of Saturday, when your body lets you sleep until a few minutes before seven, and you wake up feeling like the day is already over, wasted (though admittedly very well-rested).
But this is Friday. You have to get up a little earlier than strictly necessary, have to go out for a walk in the dark to wake up properly, to steel yourself for the day. You wear a glow belt, which usually keeps you safe in crosswalks but unfortunately did not ward off a man in a minivan full of (presumably) his kids from pulling up alongside you in a parking lot to yell about watching where you were going. You are confused; you knew exactly where you were going, but he had to drive out of his way to make his point.
It’s still dark when you get back home. You put on your swimsuit and shorts. You think, regretfully, that another week has gone by and you’ve failed to buy a wetsuit or a pair of fins. You flip-flop out to the car anyway and drive 1.4 miles to the boat ramp on the beach.
Now, finally, the horizon is starting to lighten. Despite the walk, your stomach is clenched like a fist. You feel a gentle thrum of underlying panic every Friday morning, no matter how many times you do this exact same thing. Still, you slide your feet out of your sandals, leaving them planted behind the pedals; you leave your folded towel on the driver’s seat, ready to be sat on by a wet butt; you remove your car key from the keyring, clipping it to your swimsuit and tucking it in. Everything stays behind. You hobble over the pine-needles through the parking lot to the boat ramp, getting your first glimpse of the conditions.
It’s Friday, and you’re looking out across Kailua beach, where the turquoise sea is starting to glow in the sunrise. The tide is low and there is barely any wind – unusual for the windward side of the island. The current ripples gently against the sand, more like a wakeless lake than the crashing of the winter sea.
The breeze is gentle. It is January, but you are not cold. Now, you wait.
I learned some things about myself, too: what I’m good at, what I’m not so good at, how I react under pressure, and how I manage stress. But there are a bunch of other positive habits instilled by general military discipline that we come to take for granted. Here are just a few.
Refractive eye surgery is pretty well advertised on my installation here in Hawaii. Long-term, it makes more sense to permanently correct the vision of eligible servicemembers than supply them with new glasses (and contacts? some fliers get free contacts?) every year. I knew my summer deployment was probably going to be my last one, so I thought I’d ask if I could get my eyes fixed before I separate next year.
The keyword there is “ask.” I’m in a deploying billet and a flight status. I was prepared for a struggle, one I suspected would result in the negative.
Somehow, it actually worked. It was six months of persistence and administration and, frankly, the kindness of my leadership, and even now that it’s all done, it still seems too good to be true. I got PRK surgery in September, and it was one of the greatest gifts I’ve ever received. It changed my life.
Here is the how the whole process went down, from start to finish.
According to the Screen Time function on my iPhone, I average about 4.5 hours each day staring into one (1) glowing rectangle.
If you are over age 40, you’re probably thinking: “That’s because your generation is addicted to screens.”
4+ hours does seem like a lot, especially considering I don’t have my phone with me during the workday. For that much daily screen time, I must have my phone in front of my face from the moment I get home until I put my head down to sleep. Do I?
The answer is a little complicated, both yes and no.
I’ve been struggling to come up with the least patronizing term to describe Marie Kondo’s process. The sanctimony of “minimalism” makes my skin crawl and, more importantly, misses the point, highlighting the result over the endeavor. Even “tidying up,” a phrase that has become more or less synonymous with the KonMari brand, doesn’t instinctively call to mind the necessity of discarding first. The closest I can think of is “downsizing,” but even that conjures a problematic context: of being unable to afford things, of having to get let go to survive.
I want to talk about applying Marie Kondo’s principles to my life in a way that doesn’t invoke a moral imperative on the part of the reader. The argument for letting go of clutter can be made, sometimes even convincingly, but it’s not my job to make it. The thing about Kondo’s method is that it is so completely relative. It’s not about discarding things based on the criteria of strict, stark utility. An excess of possessions can certainly weigh one down, but deciding what is the “right amount” of things is a deeply personal, individual experience. What works for me might not – probably won’t – work for you.
The core of KonMari could be summarized like this: “Wouldn’t you enjoy your home so much more if you only surrounded yourself with things that make you happy?” It seems so obviously true that it feels insulting. A lot of people, misunderstanding her, have taken a very bizarre sort of offense to her principles, when “[s]he literally just wants to help people declutter so their physical belongings no longer take a mental toll on their well-being.”
I guess I started off as part of the problem, too. Before I read her book, I feared that Marie Kondo and her Shinto-inspired ideas were going to come into my home and throw away anything that didn’t contribute to a sterile, characterless space, only teak and white linens and a single plant for color. But Kondo never specifies what the end product looks like, only offering the occasional suggestion. The process is about finding what makes her clients happy. She is always willing to disregard even her own rules if they bump against someone’s an immovable anxiety. As with most things, it’s about the journey, about the self-understanding that comes from addressing the totality of your belongs and discovering the “right amount,” than it is about the aesthetics (or even functionality) of the result.
So with all that said, for the past few months (yes, months), I’ve been KonMari-ing my home. It was way more work than I was expecting, but all in all it was a positive experience. One, Marie promises, I’ll never have to do again.
Shockingly, this is proving to be true. I took photos for this post when I finished in late March. I am writing this post now at the end of May. I expected my tidiness to have slipped between now and then – things out of place, folding a little less tight, new unnecessary acquisitions. So far, to my surprise, this has not been the case. The lessons that I learned from Marie Kondo seem to have stuck.
I followed Kondo’s plan as prescribed: starting with clothing, piling every article of clothing you own, from every part of the house, into one heap in one place, going through each item, piece by piece, and deciding if it makes you happy or if it’s time to discard it. Do the same with books, papers, miscellaneous items (komono), and sentimental items, in that order. Kondo says this structure allows us to attune ourselves gradually with what truly “sparks joy,” so that by the time we get to our sentimental items, we can make those “keep/discard” choices with confidence.
Was it “life-changing,” as the title of her book suggests? In some ways, yes. It forced me to confront some things about myself that I was not proud of, but going through it made me feel more confident about my decision-making in general. It also brought to light a lot of the positive aspects of who I am that I often take for granted. It has made my daily routine easier and I am much more considerate now of the quantity of things that I acquire.
The biggest change, though, is being able to sit in my apartment and feel so completely at ease, so filled with joy. Sometimes I’ll look up from reading and gaze around adoringly around my space, my little sanctuary. Everything was chosen and placed with love and deliberation; nothing is here “just because.” It is the first place of my own that truly feels like home.
With all that said, here are some general lessons that I learned from the KonMari process, some truths that stuck with me even since the tidying up came to an end.
I mentioned in my year-end post that the dad of one of my childhood friends once told us that your body gets older on the outside but you stay more or less the same on the inside. Eventually you reach a plateau for emotional maturity, the crest of an upward trend that hopefully continues throughout the rest of your life, while your body begins to do the opposite, dropping down the other side of this metaphorical hill.
Years are going by faster and faster. My foot is pressing down harder on the accelerator and I am unable, will never be able, to slow down, not until at last I stop for good. Someday this will worry me. Right now, I watch these years pass with detached, almost clinical, interest.
I’ve struggled with collecting my thoughts, on finding significance, on reaching the big 3-0. It doesn’t feel more meaningful than any other birthday, which for me is actually a huge deal because I love an excuse to celebrate something. So actually I take all of that back. This is a great event, as usual! Tomorrow, on April 1st, it’s all about me, bay-bee!
In lieu of depth and meaning, here are some lists.
Things that keep me young
Always being a lil bit overweight
General zest for life
Having a tumblr account (see image below for reference)
Hobbies that I’m genuinely very passionate about
Extremely niche hobbies that I’m wildly, ironically passionate about
A “yes, and” attitude
7.5 hours of sleep
Minding my own business
Not smoking (probably)
Things that I wish I had learned sooner
Always have electrolytes somewhere in the house. It might save you a trip to the ER.
There’s a big difference between being nice and being kind.
Recovery isn’t linear.
thank u, next
Everyone loves differently.
Virtues get easier with practice.
You’re not eating enough protein.
God doesn’t say no. He says, instead: yes; or, not yet; or, I have something better in mind.
The more comfortable you are with yourself, the more permission others feel to be comfortable with themselves.
Sometimes it really do just be like that.
I realized today that I’ve been writing in this blog almost continuously for five years. It is mostly a pain, but it forces me to put something out there into the world/void about a dozen times a year. I just wanted to take a second to say thank you to anyone and everyone who is reading this. Whether you know me personally or you just stumbled here by accident (most likely, you are a soft combination of the two), thank you for giving me a few minutes of your day. Thank you for reading.
Grandma wrote her own obituary. She wrote down what song she wanted to play at her funeral and what clothes she wanted to be dressed in. She last updated it in 2014. This is a comfort: she was ready.
She wanted to be remembered for her family, of course. Her parents and siblings, all of whom predeceased her except for one brother. Her children, two daughters and two sons, and her seven grandchildren.
Grandma was the daughter of immigrants, first generation Americans from Austria. I wonder often about what their experience was like, coming to the USA at the turn of the century. Grandma was born in 1928, only a year before the stock market crash that led to the Great Depression. Her family owned a farm and a bunch of land in New Britain, CT, which must have mitigated somewhat the effects of the Depression, but my grandma was always ruthlessly frugal. So is my mom, who shared a bed with her sister during their childhood. She and I would share that same bed when we stayed over Grandma’s.
Grandma worked at Precision Grinding in New Britain, CT for fifteen years. Her children walked to school, just a few blocks from their home, and she wanted to be there when they came home for lunch. She must have given her children a decent childhood. They all turned out very well.
Her husband, my grandpa, died when I was still very young. I don’t remember much about him, besides the oxygen and dialysis machines which kept him alive in his final years. Mom told me that he volunteered for the army during WWII and stormed the beach at Normandy. She said it was a horribly traumatic experience, that he saw his friends dying all around him from a hail of bullets and from drowning. He didn’t talk about it much. He was so poor that the army was his best chance at a better life, if he came out on the other side of it. He did. I don’t know how he and my Grandma met. I don’t know much about him at all. He was very quiet.
My mom and my grandma were very close. Grandma would come see us in Rhode Island, taking us kids out for a day so my mom could have some time to herself. She would walk us down the street to the Newport Creamery. One year, when my leg was broken in a skiing accident, she pushed me in a wheelchair all the way. She would order a scoop of vanilla ice cream and pour a tablespoon or two of coffee over the top. As a kid, I thought it was gross. Now, as an adult, I think it’s very cool.
In her obituary, Grandma wrote that her “favorite pastime was working in her garden and taking care of her yard. She also enjoyed reading and making trips to the library for new books. She liked to take nature walks, ride her bike, and cook her favorite meals.” This is a beautiful and simple summary of a life that spanned almost an entire century.
In her backyard, Grandma had a big tree that cast the whole lawn in shade, like a giant umbrella, and a statue of the Virgin Mary. She kept old road bikes in a small shed, along with her gardening tools. She would ride her bike around the neighborhood even in her 80s. It took getting hit by a car to get her to stop. Even then, she still took daily walks, picking up trash in the street as she went. More than once, she was sprayed by a skunk, which we all thought was super funny. Neighbors recognized her. All of that land used to belong to her family, Mom told me. Now it is just the one house, the house my mom was raised in, and soon, not even that.
Growing up, the whole family went up to a German family resort in the beautiful Catskill Mountains during the summer. We would hike and hit golfballs at the driving range and swim and eat and eat and eat. Someone always got stung by a bee. One time, my brother got stung by about a dozen bees, and it was sort of my fault. It seemed like everyone there knew Grandma, and she knew everyone else. She tried to teach me how to dance the polka. She would clap along to the music and she knew the words to some of the traditional German songs.
She had a sly sense of humor. She liked to play Rummy. Whenever she wrote to me – for my birthday and Christmas and Easter – she would apologize for her bad writing and spelling. It hurt me that this was something she felt like she had to say, because there was nothing wrong with how she wrote. She didn’t think she was smart, maybe because each subsequent generation of her family was more educated than the previous one, but there are many different ways to be smart. My grandma was an intensely practical person and capable in ways that I will never be.
I would video-call her and my mom on Sundays. When I’m on deployment, it was the highlight of my week, giving me a boost in morale that would carry me through the next few days. She had been losing her memory for a while, and when I was away, she would ask me every week: where are you?
“I can’t tell,” I would say awkwardly.
“She’s in West Hartford!” my mom’s fiance John would yell in the background. He had been in the Navy. He knows how it is sometimes.
“You can tell me,” Grandma would say. “I won’t squeal.”
She told me I had a nice smile and, when I expected her to give me a hard time about my haircut, she said she liked it, said it must be much easier to deal with. Grandma got it.
“Do you regret joining the service?” she would ask in a low voice, heavy with confidentiality and some other emotion that I couldn’t quite pin down.
“No,” I would say, trying to sound positive. The word would hang there, suspended between us, never really touching down. I think we both knew I was lying, at least a little bit. I think my Grandma understood what the military takes from its members, even when it tries to give them back something in return.
In the last few years of her life, my mom went to see her every weekend, being there for Grandma as Grandma had been there for her so many years ago; “the circle of life,” my mom says. Grandma knew it was Sunday because her caregiver would help her into her sneakers in the morning. Mom brought her to the mall to people-watch. They ate at the same restaurant and everyone knew her there. She would watch funny animals on youtube, asking John if he knew the animals in the videos personally, and that’s just about the cutest thing I’ve ever heard in my entire life.
Even as her health began to fail, she was charming and funny and stubborn. She refused to move out of her home for an assisted-care facility, clinging to this last shred of privacy and ownership that often gets taken away during one’s old age. It was a source of controversy and, sometimes, frustration for my family – where does her autonomy end and overriding concern for her safety begin? – and demanded a revolving door of lady caregivers, a compromise. For Grandma’s happiness and pride, it was worth it. She was in the most comfortable and familiar place possible when she began to slip away.
Grandma died peacefully on June 23, 2018. My brother, a doctor, was at her side in her final moments. This, too, is a tremendous comfort, and he is very brave. The rest of the family was on their way to my uncle’s surprise birthday party. They were rerouted to the hospital instead. “You know how hard it is to get everyone together at the same time,” my mom said. It was a surprise of another kind, but at least everyone was there.
This is my first time dealing with grief from a grown-up perspective. I’m thinking – constantly, much more than I want to – about what it might have been like for her to die. Did she know it was time? Was she afraid? Did she think about her husband? Her kids? Did she know that her children and grandchildren were on their way to her, rushing, frantic?
“Don’t be sad,” my mom told me over the phone, still in the hospital room. “She wouldn’t want you to be.”
It’s a common idea, but it is true. Grandma didn’t have time for all that.
She was 90 years old. The scope of the history that she lived through is almost inconceivable to me. I think often about how different the world was when she was my age and what things were like for her then. I hope my mom lives as long as her mom did. I hope I do too, and see as much as she did, and be as vivacious and strong and tenacious as she was. I will miss you, Grandma. You were our connection to a whole different world of triumph over hardship and tradition. I’m lucky to be part of your family.
You can find her official obituary here in the New Britain Herald. You can leave a condolence for our family here. Thank you for taking the time to read this.
Someone asked me recently what I would be doing to entertain myself if I was back home. I didn’t have an answer. This is, I think, for two reasons:
I haven’t lived in Hawaii for long enough to carve out a familiar, comforting routine. Of the past nine months (whoa) since coming to Hawaii, I’ve been away for almost six of them, and the others were seeped in an overwhelmingly liminal feeling.
Almost all of the things that make me happiest are portable.
Think about it: if you were to leave home for a while – a few weeks, or many months – what is it that you would miss? If you have a family or spouse or even a pet, they have to stay behind. That’s rough, but this is about you. Who are you, apart from everyone else? What entertains you? What activities make you feel like you are fully yourself?
I like to ask people what they look forward to doing when they get home from work and all the chores and errands are finished. My dad would never let us pick up an activity if there was work left to be done; it made really appreciate my leisure time and, more importantly, live fully inside of it, free from to-do lists nagging at the edge of my attention. So when it is time for you to put your feet up and relax, what do you reach for? If it’s something you can carry with you, then, I think, you’ll always have a little bit of home with you wherever you go.
I’m sure I have a biased perspective. It took a long time, but now I am used to living away from my family and friends, and I had to learn how to make myself happy without them around for support, filling up my time and space. And I guess I’ve always been a quiet, introverted nerd. Outdoorsy and athletic, too, but my parents wanted me to be, and I’m not sure how many of those impulses are inherent and how many are the result of habit and upbringing. In fact, even those physical activities are, for me, solitudinous – running, swimming, hiking: all alone.
When your principle form of diversion is depends on you alone – your creativity or motivation – almost any hobby can be carried along with you. I do things alone. I associate solitude with home. In a way, then, I can bring a little bit of home with me wherever I go.
Even amidst the roar of propeller blades and the chatter of the crew on the headsets, when I open up a book, I am transported to a different place, any place of my choosing. I can play my Nintendo Switch in a crowded, noisy lounge and forget that anyone else is there. Even writing this post, or any creative writing – I keep a notebook in my backpack, ready to seize the opportunity when inspiration strikes, and my phones “notes” app is filled with scraps of ideas and descriptions that I want to remember or revisit. When I run, it’s just me and the music (and suffering). I’m getting back into video editing, which requires a surprising amount of concentration and a challenging learning curve and a lot more invested time than I remember from before. All of these things bring me the most joy, and I can do all of them whether I’m at home or on the road.
Sometimes people get their “me” time, some comfort of home, from being around other people – group activities, team sports, spending time together. They could feel comfortable wherever they go. That is wonderful, a truly enviable characteristic. But this post is not about that.
I am deeply interested in people who make it a priority to carve out time for themselves, who have some quiet interest that draws them away from the company of others. Now, more than ever, it is so easy to waste time. (I’m guilty of this just as much as everyone else my age; I spend a truly appalling amount of time scrolling through memes and watching the same youtube videos over and over.) I’m fascinated by people who have clear priorities, who set boundaries on the time they’re willing to give to others and the time they insist on keeping for themselves. It takes some bravery and focus, and sometimes awkward explanations, to detach from the world around you and turn the focus inward instead, to be wholly and authentically yourself. I have a lot of respect for people who make it look natural and effortless, especially since I’m pretty firmly entrenched in the “antisocial weirdo” camp.
So if you have some secret hobby or passion, something that you do for you alone when no one else is watching, I’d like to hear about it sometime. I think I understand you a little bit already, and I’d like to know more.
Most folks “let themselves go” a little bit while deployed. Our socializing is restricted to those on our crew, so eventually we stop worrying so much about putting up appearances, for better or worse. (Like all good things, this can get taken too far: on the ship, some people get disciplined into performing basic hygiene, like showering.) It is a refreshing reminder, for example, to look in the mirror after months without makeup and realize you’re still cute!
I was going to a cold and dry environment. Most of the time, my legs would be covered. And there would be no liberty, no seeing new people or new things, so there wasn’t much of a point in shaving. It seemed like the perfect opportunity to not shave and see what happened. I was hoping the experience would liberate me, like cutting my hair short. I thought I would cross a new threshold and realize it was so much better on the other side.
The hair on my legs went from stubbly to bristly to long, shockingly long, long enough that I could feel the wind through the hair when I walked around outside. (This, I realized, was a sensation I had never felt before, not once in my life. I started shaving my legs when I was so young, still in middle school, before I even had the chance to actually grow adult body hair.) The hair was dark but not particularly thick; it looked like the hair most guys get when they first start trying to grow a mustache. Frankly, it looked like pubes. It was longest by my ankles, disappeared by the tops of my calves, and returned, thinner and lighter, on my thighs. It was not soft, but then again neither is the hair on top of my head. My family has thick, coarse hair. My legs, it turns out, are no exception.
I hated it. I hated it at first, I hated it throughout the duration – it looked wrong, it felt wrong – and I hate it now, even with weeks of retrospect. I hate myself for hating it. I read many, many articles by women who stopped shaving and loved themselves more for it. I am deeply envious of them – and ashamed of myself for not feeling the same way. Being ugly, after all, is one of the worst sins a woman can commit. Almost anything else is excusable: be crass, be cruel, be empty, but for God’s sake be easy on the eyes while doing it. What does it mean when I find myself ugly? How much of this feeling is reducible to my own personal preference, and how much of it is the product of social pressure, drilled into my head since I was a child? How do I even begin to separate the two?
It is one thing to buck social convention when you feel well-liked and comfortable. You can take solace in knowing that you have people who will love you and want to be around you no matter how hairy you are. During this experiment, though, I felt lonely – something I feel not when I’m actually alone, strangely, but when I’m deprived of solitude and forced to socialize – which added to a general malaise of low self-confidence. This demanded a whole separate exercise in bravery, one that I struggled with a lot.
(To be fair, throughout the deployment, no one said a negative thing about my body hair to my face. In fact, the few people I confided in about it were very supportive and kind and understanding. I’m grateful for that. But being in an environment of constant negativity gets under your skin after a while. It amplifies that personal negative voice droning on in the back of our minds, the one that tells us we are ugly and stupid and terrible. It makes it seem more real, more manifested.)
But it wasn’t all bad. I didn’t mind the underarm hair. It grew into a soft and reddish tuft, a surprise. If I wasn’t such a social coward, I wouldn’t mind keeping it grown out. Another discovery: there is a spot right below my left knee where only a patch of hair grows, alone in an otherwise hairless area. It looked like a little goatee. It was hilarious.
From this experience, I also got to reflect (more than I wanted to) on how much of my self-worth comes from the perception of how attractive I am to others and how much of my personality is rooted in a desire to be liked. Who am I when I’m not trying to be more socially palatable? To be sweet and funny and smart?
I’m still working on those answers. In the meantime, though, I started shaving again. There is some shame in letting social pressure win, but that defeat is quiet and personal and invisible. By contrast, body hair is a public, noticeable thing, an consistent opportunity to invite embarrassment. It was a serious emotional challenge to post these photos here, evidence of something now gone – never mind wearing it on my body every day.
A few years ago, I would have been mortified to see a photo of myself without makeup. That doesn’t bother me anymore. Maybe someday in the future, then, I’ll be brave enough to be hairy, live and in public. Not now, though. Not back here in sunny Hawaii, where everyone is always sun-kissed and in swimsuits and groomed. Not yet.