Learning to love through loss; a letter to my grandmother
I was thinking about Christmas presents tonight.
I’m fortunate to where I have some extra time, as we won’t celebrate until I’m back in the States. With the time, I over-think it all. What would my sister like? What could I give my professor’s family (whom I’m spending the 25th with)? My mental list scrolled to the hardest question to answer: my grandmother.
Sadness welled up, as I knew this would be the last gift I could give her. What could possibly show the appreciation I have for her? What could possibly capture the awe and love I have for her? Always one to wear beautiful jewelry or find any reason she could to look fine, my grandmother carried a humble elegance about her—not just in look, but in composure. She married an army-focused volcano of a husband, while her own lava rose to meet him wherever necessary. That’s what I loved most about my grandmother: while she might seem oblivious to others, she was sharp, keen—she knew what was going on in a room that naively assumed she wasn’t listening.
Three days before I set off for Italy, I was told she had terminal cancer, and I couldn’t expect to have her around by the time I came home. Friends poured in their love to fill me up, as I raged like terrible waves between unimaginable excitement and a loss that will never leave me. Resilient as my grandmother is, she’s managed well despite the inevitable. In a few weeks, we’ll get to cook together. I want her to know that I didn’t take my Italian cooking class to impress anyone. I didn’t do it for any credit. I took the class so I could show my grandmother that her own gift won’t go unnoticed—legacy will not be broken with my generation.
I may be strange in how fascinated I am with death, regret, and the dying. The most terrible part of all isn’t just that you lose someone’s presence—grand as they are. To me, it’s like we lose a bag of tricks, too. Grandmothers and grandfathers, of the world or of our own, lived life as best they could. It didn’t go the way they expected. It didn’t go perfectly. They often say they worked too hard, or that they wish they lived with more love and less worry. But they lived well when they could, and tried when they thought they could try no more.
I’m quite harsh with America’s collective off-putting nature with the elderly: don’t listen to them, shove them into a nursing home, visit every once and a while to show that you care. I can’t stand that. People should be more appreciated as they age, like a fine wine. What a horrible shame, to lose sight of someone who’s a cause to your existence.
In my twenty-two short years, I’ve assembled all these tricks and tools and rules of thumb for when life hurts, sways, or jerks about. I love to imagine all the ways our elders came to learn life, how to ride its waves. Whether they were aware of it or not, our grandparents amassed an incredible amount of wisdom in living to such a point. Taking anyone of such age without high regard or marvel, to me, is most arrogant and selfish. They have pained what you have not, they have seen more, they have experienced more—it is awfully unwise not to listen to what they have to say. To disregard a grandmother’s heuristics to the chime that she wasn’t a major part of a technology or modern day fluff is high ignorance. They lived in an age without your comfortable toys—they’re the people you should listen to when things, materials, and screens don’t fulfill you. It’s the people in our lives that fill us up. It’s your grandparents that you should seek when you have your heart broken. It’s the oldest person around that you should ask for directions. People ignore the elderly thinking that they have no idea what they’re talking about. Wrong. They know and have more retrospective and reflective experience than you, and if that’s the case, you should shut up, sit down, put light-box away, and ask them about their stories. Ask them what they did in the tough situations. Ask them what they thought, experienced, felt, and moved. And hold their hand. Always, whenever you get the chance to in life, hold someone’s hand.
I’ve gone on a while here, but the ultimate reason behind this post is that I want my grandmother to know that I paid attention, and will continue to. I think we should celebrate someone’s life before the funeral and outwave of emotion. While we have the chance, people should know how much we love them. To know where we stand, or to know that you paid attention, or to simply be touched or loved and cared for provides tremendous relief to the dying, whether that death is in fifty years or a month.
I once called my grandmother outside the library, last summer. I was heartbroken and lonely, unable to capture the sadness I felt for not being more in tune with my family. Sometimes when you call people, you’re hoping for them to say something in particular in order to make you feel better, perhaps validated. My grandmother has this magical ability to surprise, in that context, because she would say something I couldn’t expect, which would make me all better. When I went fishing for gems with my parents or friends and sometimes feel unfinished, my grandmother would give me a key to a treasure chest, leaving words and loving advice that I could use timelessly. She was gold, and her smile and laugh were far more valuable.
My grandmother would constantly speak to love. She believed in love. She poured as much love as she could into what she could touch. When her marriage was difficult, she was the opposite of fragile, and held on—something many today can’t say. When new technology rushed in all around her, she held onto the simple, beautiful things in life. Yes, she could get as hot-handed with politics as anyone—she had an opinion—but it was merely as a result of her ability to believe. And I will never forget how much she made me feel as if I was someone worth believing in. It’s a feeling I want to reciprocate and build in others—to have that magic in being able to make people feel loved, appreciated, and full of wonder.
When I questioned everything, she would gently bring me back down from the storm I had flown up and into. She was such an expert at this I would never want the conversation to end, simply because it was such a pleasure to hear her perspective.
And to my grandmother: I love you so much. I will never forget the times I ran across the street to escape life, to get a back scratch from your ever-long-and-colored nails, to have your hands in my hair. You were and will always be the best listener. You will always have the best sweet tea. Your cooking was masterful alchemy. And I wish I could replicate that potato salad you’ve become so divine at making. And just the way you loved Christmas. How patient you were. How, when no one else was around to hear, you would tell me the truth—and I could see how interwoven everything was. Your honesty was refreshing when I was so confused and torn between family constructs and stories. When I was unruly or angry, you could snap me out of it better than most—and I’ve come to treat myself in that very same fashion—kind words and soft inner dialogue goes a long way.
You always told me how important my education was, especially with college. And your support with Italy meant the world to me.
I’ll see you soon.
I love you grandma,
On Dialing Back & Unplugging to Live Here
For most of November, I didn’t sleep.
I went through weeks of waking up around 2 or 3am and falling back to sleep around 5 or 6, like clockwork. I rolled about wide awake for hours, only to grab another hour or two of sleep. Daybreak, I’d zoom out the door, somehow patched together well enough to stretch another day. This insomnia spurred me to write to uncover underlying patterns and disruptions. I want to be open enough to live with a reality that I can sleep with — a space where I feel aligned and at peace with my past, aware and engaged with my present, and slow and less paranoid about the future. There were too many moments where I lost grip of days, nights, and participating in the present. It were as if my life were like the fast-forwarding skips seen in Limitless.
My sleep debt crept up upward over the years alongside my technology.
The world would go to bed with me — iPhone under the pillow and MacBook within reaching distance. Unyieldingly, I have adopted the latest apps, gladly beta tested for several companies and startups, and felt as if I were among the ranks of Generation Y’s army in the technological revolution that would change everything. I always wanted to be in the midst of a revolution. Yet here I am, battling with the energy to match the revolution and maximize it all. I can be surgeon-precise at maximizing my life, yet keep relearning a lesson about the punishment I put myself through to “hustle.”
I wonder if I can’t sleep because I live in the midst of a revolution where I have so many tools at my disposal to destroy the simple things in life.
Satanically paired with my ambitious zeal and a perfectionist’s work ethic, I thrived when I landed at UNC Charlotte. Nobody that could slow me down. I accomplished an uncanny amount during my freshman year. In a Machiavellian way, I was fueled by that. The honors. The leadership. The involvement. This all kept piling up alongside the recognition. I felt like a magnet of positivity and productivity. College was the canvas and I felt like a king with a thirst to prove his power.
Armed with the it’s-on-me-to-make-something-of-myself mindset, I quickly consumed technology, information, knowledge — I wanted my mind and eyes on everything. No scope was too grand. I was a living, breathing life hacker. This delivered a slick satisfaction, too. Some could tell; others hadn’t any idea that I had weapons in my pocket in the form of screens and eyes with a knack for extraction. How had I constantly been in three places at once? I owned my first year, leading up to a sponsorship for a week-long camp dedicated to creating a change-the-world blueprint, LeaderShape.
LeaderShape sent my ambition into comet mode. Such dreams required a massive amount of resources and effort, so I added on to invite more opportunities. I added another major, another honors program, a job that could get me to interact with a diverse array of people and the best residence hall. I added whatever I could that might provide an opportunity to fuel my increasing ideals.
The warning signs started, but I ignored everything my body kept saying. I lost sleep. My emotions violently pitched up and down like a roller coaster. I was late to work at the library and was far too self-critical about my amount of effort in RA.
I fell apart.
I lost my mind and whatever health I had left in the winter of my sophomore year. All along, I pushed my love away and made terrible decisions that shredded quite a few bits of my past. My roommate Wes would see me break down in the common area. Meghan would rub my back as I broke down before a macroeconomics exam. I was drowning, grabbing for anything to stay afloat. I kept myself in these violent waves: when I was up, I was sky high; when I was down, I felt useless. These moments made me question every decision or conversation. What I forgot to realize when I rocketed off into college and life hacker success was that all rockets require fuel. I was burning my most precious resources: time, relationships, mental and physical health. In my effort to do everything for a better life, I lost sight of life itself.
Over the spring of my sophomore year, I slowly stepped back, making tough-but-absolutely-necessary decisions. I quit RA. Sidestepped SigTau. Gently declined meetings to all the clubs I was a part of. Found sanctuary in stable roommates in Caleb and Sam, alumni who were far beyond my woes and able to help my over-thinking. I was in full-on recovery mode, solely focused on mending the pieces of my heart and unsure how I could navigate a mind that featured its capacity in a nuke-like way. I lived in a well-lit sunroom, started biking to school, and poured into learning instead of grades, prioritizing time with friends instead of networking. Slowly, sunlight was in more than my room.
I still think about this, unable to ignore that this is my past. What I had done to myself and others I loved throughout the fall of my sophomore year left scars. I don’t want to be in a place where I fear, hurt, or lose myself — and more importantly and in the process — hurt, scare or lose the ones I love.
A couple friends knew what was going on back then. Those that truly care know how you really are, beyond the status updates and tweets. True to their call-it-like-it-is nature, my friends, with nod to Amy in particular, kept asking how I “really” was throughout the year. It was all guts and glory on the outside, but featured mind-warping maximization on the inside. I even tried to show off that I scathed by heartbreak, but I was on the floor picking up shards of my life. And I still had the mental flood to swim through, as I was capable of engineering this ruin — well aware of my capabilities to fall again.
To focus, I put my effort and ambition into getting the opportunity to study abroad in Italy. I focused on one dream. I poured my heartbreak, abilities to organize and maximize, and ambition into Italy. Along the way, I couch-surfed and got to know my friends so much better. Perhaps you’re not surprised how universal this rawness is — how burnt out we are. We often feel like we’re useless and talentless and unable to love or be loved. Still, we post, update, tweet, hashtag, ‘gram, and like anything that provides anything to the contrary of our harrowing reality.
It’s awful, this disconnect in an age preaches its “connectedness.” How you can be two feet across from someone and feel miles apart.
If it’s to be connected, why are most twenty-somethings I know absolutely miserable about their friendships and relationships? Double this rising effort with the increasing pressures from society to perform in college and tack on debt along the way, it’s no wonder college students are overwhelmed.
Somewhere along the line, we forgot how to breathe, drink water, love for love, and much more of the “basics.” We keep discarding our essentials as our ambition ramps up, and yet they are all that matters—all long—the little things in the foundation of a life.
I’m 22 and wonder if the life ahead needs the ambition I’ve already pumped into it. In Italy, I question it all.
Inspired by FastCompany’s #unplug guide from last year, I’m taking a similar disconnect—to carve out my own adventures across Milan without the double-edged potential of screens. While I’ll need to hit up facebook for some group projects, I’m essentially taking December “off.”
I’m looking to make the most of my last month in Italy. Finish strong in my courses. Spend hours at Christmas markets and marveling at the Duomo. Skip around Italy a bit and Milan even more intimately. Of course I’ll be back around campus for the start of classes, but until then, I’d like to press the reflection and exploration theme in order to set the right tone for the New Year.
It’s nothing personal, I just don’t want to forget what’s in front of me: the fact that I’m in Italy, and need to make the most of my time to reinvent myself to another fantastic year. I’ve had many stellar days, and here’s to December, full of more being-here goodness.
Writing will still be produced, but in other arenas. :) Don’t worry, you’ll know.
The weight of image, success and why I’m moving to Ghost
Here’s what I loathe: how we present ourselves. It’s facebook, success, resumes, and even the layout of this blog.
Here, let me show you all these accomplishments and achievements that modern society cruelly believes will help me identify “myself,” or stand out from the masses. When the interviewer asks who we are, as students, we often start with our year and our major, throwing in our honors-smhonors to seem more impressive.
Am I the only one who cringes at the thought of that? Am I the only who frowns at the fact that so many people are losing sleep and precious time and youth over worry over a major, which (unless it’s technical) rarely has any cosmic significance? I have several honors mentees, sophomores and freshmen that I help along, and the hefty majority are scared to death and stressed beyond reasonable limits. One the other day said they didn’t like college. That’s a huge red flag — college can be a stellar playground for ideas — when it’s a vice-grip on the heart and mind, it’s wrong and time to make some serious changes. College has become this terrible pressure-cooker and nobody is taking the time to teach students how to calm down, how to act in the face of adversity, how to ask, how to breathe. “Go to therapy,” I’ll mention, and they think I’m crazy for suggesting a place where they can learn how to breathe and calm down (the most important thing you can ever learn) because it would take away the hour that they could cram another slate of quiz information that they’ll discard once the quiz is over.
You’re more than your year and your major (Don’t major in what your father thinks you should major in. Don’t major in business because you think it will help you get a job with a business. That’s ridiculous. Businesses want people. Cool people. People that make them happy to show up to work, to laugh with, to inspire each other. Somebody may be impressed by the triple major when triple-major says what they study, but Mr. Triple-Major is holding up an image, a false one that hides how stressed out he is, the anxiety attacks he faces, the youth he’s throwing away in for letters that don’t mean a thing). Truth is, I had more fun when I was undeclared as a freshman than any other time. Italy’s been just as fun, but it’s because there’s no outrageously competitive environment.
What’s so wrong with the simple, yet extraordinary courage of trying to be human? With the ancients, virtue was about becoming human. That was excellence. That was what they strived to be. Today, we get so wrapped up in accomplishments, our work, and maximizing that I sometimes meet people that… well, don’t really seem human. They’re tired, exhausted, and unable to keep an attention span past small talk. Golden are the days where I run into a listener.
Living in Italy for a few months makes me realize how exhausting it’s been to keep up. Pump the resume. Look stellar on paper and shine in interviews. Rep the business school. Take pictures at volunteer events to show off how good of a person you are (this makes me sickest; I urge an organization to report less than what it does — volunteer to volunteer, not to out-volunteer others or show off… that’s not volunteering). All the while, it’s grueling examiner, one after another. All of it another test immediately extinguished into another. Seniors, winded and worrisome by the end of it all, jump into the next pool of hot lava, “the real world.”
What a terrible way to go about living.
The other day an MTV-producer-star turned Italian-coffee-house-owner (he quit at the height of his success to open a little place called Taglio’s) gripped my shoulders with such reassurance and said, “Come to my place every morning and we will talk about life.” Not how to ace an interview, not how to get good grades, not how to life-hack to the degree where I can rush through 400 different things in a day… None of that. Why? Because of none of that matters.
What matters is how kind, grateful, and loving we are. Reaching our childhood dreams or doing what fills us and others up with so much joy we wonder about all the various ways we can share it. What matters is shouting the truth despite all that might be against it.
Yesterday, a German fought for his opinion in class to the bell and he took on a full-frontal assault from the rest of the class. He stood his ground. All I had was admiration. After class, he laughed it off and said, “It’s like they think I’m a Nazi,” shook his head, shrugged, and walked off. He stood for what he believed. And I wonder how many times I had seen that back in America. It’s rare. Exceedingly rare. Skin in the game might just be the rarest thing you’ll ever see in academia. We hide behind screens, don’t say a word in class, argue only when we have the group behind us, fruitlessly “research” as we flirt with the exhilarating and exhausting deadline, yet rarely ever achieving depth as we jump from quiz to quiz, powerpoint to powerpoint. You can go through a whole class and feel as though you didn’t learn anything. Everyone’s seemingly afraid to contribute because they’re scared of failure, they’re scared they’ll signal stupidity, they’re scared to death. What. A. Shame.
So, what I really wanted to say was that this is what I’ve been thinking about with 2014. I’ve been thinking about leaving facebook, taking extended breaks from social media, and unplugging. I’ve been thinking about how in the hell I can focus on the present without worrying about the future, which is what academic success has hard-wired me into, hopefully not irreversibly. In 2014, I want to be human, I want to be Ryan, loving and energetic and hell-raising all the same. If I see fraud, I want to shout so. If I feel bad, I don’t want to hide it. I want to revel in emotions and lose myself in meditating under a tree. I don’t need a grand resume or internship to sleep at night; I need to be comfortable in my own skin to sleep at night.
To this end, for a while now, I haven’t liked my blog. Again, it’s up-keep. Links break. Posts get lost. I rarely post. I got half-way into redesigning it and learning code when Italy hit me like a truck. I don’t know if anybody actually reads these. So I’m going to ghost.org, which launched this month. It’s simple and I’ll just get to post without all the fluff. I’ll be kicking off 2014 with quite the wave of posts, many of which will introduce the via negativa and virtue-based ethical changes I’ll be making to my studies and lifestyle with the new year. Many will be upset, some will be inspired, and I’ll be happy that I won’t have to keep up with an image that disconnects between who I am and who I’m supposed to show off.
Until then, I’ll get to posting about Italy — pinky promise. :)
Milano Golosa & Exploring Milan’s 100 Most Appetizing Places
Today was a dream. I woke up and caught the metro toward the end of the yellow line. This wasn’t a well-off part of town, so I wondered if I was lost. I was there for Milano Golosa (literally, “Greedy Milan”) and it’s a food and wine festival of sorts. This year’s edition: to know, to do, and to try not to waste (I love that).
Despite my thoughts of “is this a trick” as I wandered around some unfortunate buildings, I saw a group of sharp Italians standing before a descending cement tunnel. It always happens this way. Milan hides itself underground and behind closed doors. It’s exactly what happened with Swing’N’Milan (which I’ll update about tomorrow).
Confident in my approach, I descend down the tunnel toward a ticket line. For ten euros, I was lead into an underground converted warehouse/parking deck. It’s like I stumbled into the hiding spot for the upper-class, sophisticated Milanese. Granted, it was all in Italian, so that did the majority of the work of keeping Americans and tourists away; plus, its outskirts-of-town location.
First were two master chefs who were given surprise ingredients and asked to prepare a meal in under twenty minutes. They went to town. The atmosphere was so playful and light, despite the paparazzi swarming the session (a President of some sort was there, but I didn’t get a chance to meet him; apparently the Milan 2015 EXPO’s director was there, too). Anyway, they made a round-circle-form spaghetti with this amazing sauce. The President of Somewhere poured us some glasses of wine and then went on his way. Pictures, laughter, amazing food. I smiled, shaking my head that this is my life. It’s all worth the effort — every little step in any little day.
It was like I wasn’t there, too; by that I mean, it was like my forty-something self would be living this instead. I understood a good portion of what was going on (had to, only one person I met spoke English). Fortunately, the guy I met that did speak English was a sommelier (wine expert). He grew up in vineyards and I was asking him all sorts of questions I’ve always had stored up but never had the personal connections to act on. He immediately took me under his wing, asked other venders to give me specific glasses of wine. We tasted, talked, traded stories and dreams over the course of an hour. I had so much wine I’m surprised I made it home, but still, it was incredible. Turns out as my wine intake increases my ability to comprehend Italian sharply decreases — this made the later session by a ship’s cook on how to streamline grocery shopping absolutely more hysterical.
Another favorite vendor was selling spices. In a row, from 2 to 16, were hot sauces of sorts. I dabbed 2 on the bread and nearly cried it was so hot. 5 was much worse. And I love spicey, so I was surprised. Then, the Italians that I was trying these with looked at me and we all nodded — we had to try 16, labeled piccantissimi (the most spicy). We were asked not to dab it on the bit of bread (that’d be way too much), so we put a tenth of a drop on the bit of our toothpick. We nearly died, or lost our tongues (recovery: lots of beer, chocolate, and bread). We cried, laughing in our fire-breathing ways. It was the kind of moment where I was so glad I tried something that scared me. I would have regretted not trying #16 with fellow Italians. But like the OneRepublic song, “I lived.”
I tasted desserts, breads, chocolate, gelato, meats of all types. There were even some roll-y poll-y Italians making homemade buffalo mozzarella on the spot. Best cheese yet, by far. I can die happy. Sure, dodging professional photographers became a side-skill of the day, but all the waits were worth it.
I learned how to taste, which might just change the entire scope of enjoyment in my life. That’s dramatic, but still true. How to taste everything from chocolate to wine, even cheese. After 22 years of scarfing my food down the second it hit my plate, the Italians taught me to slow down. It’s not slowing down to delay something else — it’s slowing down to experience, to savor, to breathe pleasure through your pores. We tried cheeses that had aged from 32 to 50 months old. I had far too much wine. I don’t know how I was able to have so much to drink and eat and still be okay. It was all just a dream, yet I get chills because that dream was real.
And here I am, feeling like a true native of Milan. I’m so glad I stayed here in September and October instead of hopscotching Europe. Sometimes, life as a non-conformist can be a little lonely; some days, I was overwhelmed by stories all the other international students shared from other countries. And yet, I know my city. I love it here. Lyvie made the best point about this: this isn’t the only month, or semester, of my life; travel’s in my blood — I’ll get more out of this experience from depth within Milan.
I bought their guide to the 100 most appetizing places in Milan. And my idea is to visit all of them before I go back home (82 days). So that’s one or two new spots a day. I’m going to collect each business card and put it in a little journal, filling it with blurbs about the experience. I’ll try whatever they offer, too (yes, including fish — I’ll suck it up for da Claudio).
Tomorrow, Bar Basso (pictured above & stolen from Pinterest).
Thanks for treating me so lovingly, Milano. You don’t open up at first for any non-shopper, but behind closed doors, you’re such a fantastic sight. And today I decided I’ll be returning for 2015’s EXPO, as a graduation present to myself. But for now, I’ve got 2 and a half months to soak up as much as possible, and I couldn’t feel better about how this journey is going.
Rather than some aphorism or maxim to end this post, there’s this big, ridiculous smile on my face. I think that says more.
Years ago, when I was really getting to know my father, I found out how much he loved this particular band, Rush. I’d slink down the stairs most days for breakfast, looking like a sloth in PJs. To his drummer name, Dad would have drumsticks in his hands chopping up to the beat Neil Peart had made a masterpiece (again). There was like this specific fuse-box to my father. If his emotional lights went out, if either of us were having a rough day, or if it’d just been hard — there was always music. He’d be cranking out on that drum-pad, life coursing through his veins and the beat reinvigorating his heart. It rubbed off on me, too. Happiness is infectious like that.
We went to a Rush concert together, and it was one of the first “real” concerts that I’d ever been to (I was 19). Whenever I saw my father play, I thought of how he got me a drum-set when I was young. Back then, I had “it,” the X-factor he gave me with music by way of genetics — I was one of the four special middle-schoolers selected to the percussion section in sixth grade. Back then, Ms. McDonald still kept a tight-yet-well-knit core of drum-happy kids who wanted to rock. Jacob, Matt, another guy I can’t rightly recall, and I would trade places “learning” percussion. Though we’d really just beat the crap out of whatever we touched. Reading music made me feel like I had a special power of some sort, to boot.
Of course, the critic would surface when I was young. I wouldn’t be able to practice with neighbors around. I missed my father. We moved a lot. It faded. The fiery passion never really engulfed me as it did him. And when I got to know him, there were days were I was so amused by how happy he was when Rush, or any other rock band, was playing. I’d walk into the kitchen as he just jammed. Words can’t describe how happy he was, and is, as he breathes a beat. Those mornings, all at the same time he’d be making us omelettes, raving about one of Neil’s books (which I still want to read), and getting all his various spinning parts of his life in order — and for the months were it was just us, it was like nothing could stop us. Even today, nothing can. No mountain, just big rocks that we keep crushing. The chaos of music gave our house, our relationship, a wavelength that made us so much more. That was the beginning of everything, to me.
It wasn’t until I stumbled upon an EP by Imagine Dragons those years ago that I genuinely understood how Rush could revive him. Imagine Dragons had music that recharged my soul. That’s the only way I could put it. If a new song came out, I fell in love. I still do.
Last February, I waited out in the blurry, wind-whipping snow to see them up close. Then I saw them again in May back in Charlotte. Now that I’m abroad, I want to go see them for their World Tour. Heck, I jumped up and down when the Radioactive music video came out. There isn’t a playlist I make that doesn’t feature Imagine Dragons. Right now I’m making this Imagine Dragons playlist with all the different versions of songs: remixes, music box versions, layered or as a round. And the girl who gave me their first album, a poster signed by the four of them, and their t-shirt? Yeah, I fell in love with her, too. Lyvie’s got a fantastic taste in music, and that’s something I’ll always appreciate.
Sometimes, when it comes to our relationships with others, music can provide the medium for understanding, provide the wavelength to magnify so many aspects of one another — especially love.
If there’s anything I know, it’s that: music recharges our soul; it recharges our capacity for love.
IN BOCCA AL LUPO
"In bocca al lupo," another Italian idiomatic expression; literally, into the mouth of the wolf. Italians say it in place of good luck, just as how Americans say, "Break a leg."
I can’t stop thinking about this. Into the mouth of the wolf. Into darkness. Fear. Ambiguity. Uncertainty. Unknown. Risk. Chaos. A class of terms all derived from randomness. To live here is to live without certainty. To live is to know that you never really know at all — and thriving anyway.
"Good luck," the Italians say. You’re entering the mouth of a life that could devour everything you’ve ever known in a heartbeat.
Fear is everywhere. I don’t know where I stand, metaphorically or physically, most of the time. I don’t know how to cope with the darkness when I’ve arrived, as I’ve always fled. I don’t know how to deal with the fact that for once in my life dreams are colliding with each other, and I have to learn how to say no respectfully, properly. I don’t know how to make the most of this experience, and any time I spend worrying about that is time I could’ve been out experiencing.
Yet still, I’m thriving in a bleak city of hidden wonders.
You don’t find yourself when it’s bright and the sun is shining and life is all roses. You find yourself when you have to, or you’ll be swallowed whole by the wolf of life. Stare this wolf down and dive right in. You only find yourself in the darkness. And you’ll be surprised to find that you’re rarely there alone. There are people beside you, whether you see them or not.
How do wolves act, anyway? They’re slow, precise. A lone wolf is a sort of death sentence. Wolves hunt in packs. We must work together to make something of this. To attack the darkness. To feed on its unknown. To grow from uncertainty and revel in ambiguity. The reverie of risk is its own beautiful chaos, another type of clarity in its own right.
It’s the fear that’s made life so impeccably clear.
Lost? Find a way.
Don’t know? Ask for help.
Can’t decide? Jump, then react deliberately and intentionally.
Italy’s made me realize something critical: I absolutely can’t wait when it comes to being the person I want to be. I’m travel writing, cooking, taking calligraphy courses, have plans to go swing dancing, being the renaissance man I’ve only dreamed of. And it scares me. Every day brings something new and exciting that I don’t know how to react to until it happens.
I was afraid to live this life. I was afraid to be me.
Oh what a dark, yet full of potential, fear: to live.
Is it scary?
Good, then it’s worthwhile.
You’ve got dreams to hunt.
Steadying the Shockwaves
I read a lot of study abroad blogs in anticipation for Milan. There’s so many people that have been in your shoes before you’ve even been in them, might as well learn. Just like freshmen year, where I would prod graduates and seniors for their regrets (which is how this voyage was born), I dove in so I could make the most of my own experience. Among the blogs, several mentioned the “stages” of study abroad. There’s Euphoria, Frustration, Adjustment, and so on. They sounded rather cookie-cutter, and I didn’t look into them as much as I want to now.
When I read about “frustration,” I played it off. Hey, “I’ve lived in several different cities and moved a lot, I’ll be fine,” I thought. I’ve been the “new kid” several semesters of my life, how’s this any different other than being international? Haha, I am so naive sometimes. But usually when I don’t know something, I ask or persist until there’s not a stone left unturned. I couldn’t be taken advantage of as a freshman at Charlotte because I learned my environment so quickly. I didn’t want to be tricked and I didn’t want to miss out. I was endowed with so much curiosity that nobody could stop me, and it was incredible. Milan started off in an eerily similar way.
With the way Milan flashed out of the gates — first week was a completely euphoric blur, late nights and clubs, lots of wine, and countless adventures — it felt an awful lot like freshmen year. Now I’ve run exactly into the brick wall that all the study abroad students talked about, “the frustration stage,” or otherwise known as a fresh dose of culture shock.
This week, I realized how much influence I actually had at Charlotte. It wasn’t just my ego. Combined with my boundless imagination, I was clicking on all cylinders more often than not. I knew where and when to ask questions and critically, who to go to. And I had my way with gatekeepers and secretaries that wouldn’t reveal extra options. Here, all the gears have been completely thrown out of whack. If an Italian says no and gives a reason, I can’t throw a counterargument back as I tend to. Nor do I know where or what’s really going on half the time (and my intermediate Italian class is another story). It’s a lot to learn at once. Nothing is set up from the get-go and it’s been very humbling, almost to the point where I wonder if my confidence jumped out of the plane over the Atlantic. One narrative in my head:
Okay, I need groceries.
Where do I get groceries? What street do I live on again? Okay, where is the nearest place? Roommates say take a left and keep going. What if I get lost, where am I? Do my meal tickets work there? Go. Wind up in strange little store (“Si” for simply) only to find everything so small and completely backwards. I can’t ask where the blueberries are, I don’t know the word for blueberries. How is wine so cheap here? There’s no wi-fi to save me. Okay, where is the fruit again?
Slowly but surely, I learn how to grocery shop all over again. And relearning everything here takes time and a healthy amount of patience, which always seems to run out right before you need it.
Now, I did ask for this, I wanted Milan to humble me, to wash over my rough edges, to shake me up like a snowglobe. I wasn’t expecting, however, to be hit with a fire hose and then crushed from the water pressure, for my old rivals of perfectionism and self-doubt to rear their ugly heads and come back with such brute force. That’s written to be more dramatic than la mia vita actually is simply because I’m intense, but you get the point: this no ain’t North Carolina with sweet tea and lovelies all over with a welcoming smile.
I’m in Italy, how dare I complain, right? I’m beyond grateful. I’m also the high-achiever that worked his tail off, but with time got used to his influence and control back home. Any given moment I had hundreds of folks who were there for me. Mohit warned me about this, about adjusting to a city where nobody knows you. And I listened, but again I didn’t think I’d get the gut-check.
My intermediate Italian class brought back my old friends of fear, worry and self-doubt, unmatched and incapable of being quieted without the support system I loved (which I now see how much I relied on). Seneca once criticized those who travel as you still have all your baggage in your head. I’m alone with my thoughts again, and don’t have the same opportunities to articulate how I feel when I know basic Italian. I have a week left of my hell-or-high-water intermediate class, but I really am taking this weekend to get my mind right. Plus, I’ve got a bucket list to mark up.
No pain, no gain, right? They say the best go through the worst, so I’m lucky. I don’t have many friends yet because many of the old tricks and habits of how I met others in America don’t work over here. It’s difficult walking up to someone and just saying “HI, what’s your name?” like I did so often back home because after that my conversational skills plummet. My charm is linked to my fluency. What an awfully awesome realization that is. Still, I plan to make a lot of conversational mistakes this week. Any small chat I have makes me feel amazing.
There are mistakes that others make where you recognize it and adjust. There are also mistakes and adjustments that everyone has to go through, and I need to be kind enough with myself to embrace that.
This post might have surprised you. Milan surprised me. Still, I love it here. I’ve snuck into a museum. I bought my bike access. I just registered for classes. I’m writing this on a balcony.
And the greatest thing?
There’s still so much to do. I can’t wait to dive into my Milan bucket list tomorrow.
Tra il dire e il fare c’è di mezzo il mare
"Between saying and doing is the ocean" is an Italian idiomatic expression, and it fits my story thus far perfectly. A year of dreaming, plus another year of steps, and I’m studying in the chaotically lovely city of Milano. Some say it’s ugly, but it’s the city I’ve fallen in home with in five whisper-short days.
On the flight over the Altantic, I made my first Italian friend, who happens to be an investment banker. Francesco was the first to sign my pocket atlas, and we’re on for dinner with his fiance next week. Of course, I barely got any sleep. Instead I made friends with the biggest dipper constellation I’ve ever seen and caught a shooting star over Ireland just before sunrise (around 1:30AM EST). Five days in, I’m finally past the jet lag, which is no joke.
I landed in Milan, was grouped with other international students, and we’re suddenly shuttled to our apartment. MOMMA MIA! Our apartment is fantastic. By that I mean we hit the jackpot here. Central Station, which connects to the rest of Europe is down the block, corsa Buenos Aires (a mini-New York street of lights and the best gelato in town) is the other direction. And they weren’t lying when they said it was spacious. It makes our American equivalents look rather awkwardly economical.
What struck me first was how beautiful the city was. Yes, it’s industrial. Yes, there’s plenty of ugly. And yet, it’s beautiful. There’s design and flare everywhere, from the balconies to the accessories of each personality in each outfit. Yes, everyone here dresses to the nines. This is most certainly the Fashion Capital of the World, where women bike in five-inch high-heels and locals are identified by the hand-made suits. Today, day 5, was the first day I didn’t wear a button-down and I screamed American. There’s just so much to say here. I might just have to post more often to capture it all. The days are flying by and I simply can’t catch them. I’m exploring constantly just on the way to class. And you bet I’ve intentionally lost myself past mezzanotte.
I’ve already risked my life several times (sorry Dad), especially by taking advantage of the biking system to Universita Cattolica del Sacro Cuore, which is just as gorgeous if not more regal in the marble. I go to class inspired. I bike through the most dangerous, yet exhilarating traffic I’ve ever seen. I’ve seen four red cherry ferraris now and several more models (and by models I’m talking women, not just cars). This is definitely the city of appearances, despite its rougher exterior. Fashion Week is next week, that should be something wild.
I still wake up to Imagine Dragon’s “Radioactive” for my alarm and order Nestea to hold on to the sliver of sweet tea from home. Yes, the espresso and coffee blows our own out of the water. Literally, I asked for Caffe Americano and they handed me jetblack italian coffee with a cup of hot water. Hahaha. Thankfully, Italians haven’t been judgmental (except for when my roommates and I went for a run around the city, they stared us like we escaped a mental prison). Actually, just introducing myself by saying that “I’m sorry I don’t know much Italian, but I’ll try” instantly thaws their guard. Speaking immediately in English is definitely a territory issue. Try first, then revert. Oftentimes they’re the ones that make it easier by going to English. But I’m proud of the conversations I’ve had. My Italian has been supercharged over here, and I placed into a higher level for my intensive Italian class. Granted, it’s incredibly difficult and I’m grasping for air, but I’m working my tail off to make sure I get ahold of this language. Using it constantly has definitely made a difference. I use it or they won’t give me the right gelato, I’ve figured out.
Speaking of gelati, I’m in love. This might just keep me here. I have a serious addiction. Stracciatella e perfetto. You just can’t understand until you’re here. So hop the Atlantic and join me for some gelati. Per favore.
I’m off to Lago di Como, one of Milan’s grand lakes, tomorrow with Morgan (Utah), Anna Rose (Holland), Isabel, e Sophie (both Germania).
I realize I’ve left a lot out here, but I’ll update more often. I have wi-fi at my apartment, but it’s turned into the hangout spot, so I’ll try to get some posts up after I study.
I love you all. Thanks for making my dream reality.
And to answer your questions: yes, I’m having the time of my life, and no, it hasn’t hit me yet.
22 LESSONS FROM 22 YEARS
22 LESSONS I’VE LEARNED IN 22 YEARS
Though I do love being everyone’s favorite golden retriever on my birthday, I’ve also learned a lot in these years. So here’s all I know. All of these come from personal experiences and I only say them in relation to the assortment of stories and scars that created each and every one of them. I personally embody and endorse every single one of these lessons — I wouldn’t say them otherwise. Granted, it’s all permanent beta; they’re not maxims or fool-proof, but shucks, they’ve propelled me to where I am today: happy, healthy, and off to Italy.
1. YOU ARE YOUR SCARS
Go ahead, make mistakes — that’s how you figure out who you are. Instead of worrying about someone who doesn’t think the world of you, start exerting that worry and energy into yourself. This isn’t tip-toe around the block, either. You gotta jump. You want to be happy? Time to learn how to surf. First you gotta dive into your life and swim with your heart. The waves will toss you about, but you will learn to surf with time. Soon enough you’ll be enjoying the waves. Also: It’s better for you to get those scars now while you still have an incredibly resilient heart and a flexible mind. If you trip and fall, pick yourself up and carry on your way. Learn the labyrinth of your mind, wrestle with your ghosts, and remember to greet scars with a smile. Make your scars your friends instead of your demons — they’ll be with you for the rest of your life.
2. PUT THE PHONE AWAY
You are not going to be on your deathbed wishing you spent more time on your smartphone. Your neck was meant to be upright, not at a forty-five degree angle. Communication broken down: 55% body language, 38% tone, and 7% words. Texting is only 7% of the experience, so stop living in your messages. Look up and into someone’s eyes. It gets easier with practice. Talk to people. Stop hiding behind your screens and meticulously curated “my life is awesome” social media boast-tools. Don’t worry: everybody’s lonely. We all have scars. That’s an opportunity to talk to them. Ask “How are you?” and be genuinely interested in their response. If you don’t show interest in other people, few, if any, will show interest in you. If you’re lonely, help someone else, hear them, listen and act like you give a damn (and here’s the key: actually give a damn). I’ve received two “You saved my life” letters, and both were because I was genuinely wondering about them on a day they needed it more than anything. You can save lives just by speaking up — that alone should be enough to say “hi.”
3. “PERFECT” IS A KIND OF DEATH
Perfectionism is oppressive and kills everything so beautiful and true about life: growth, love, and change. Stay the hell away from the jackass in your head; give him a name and tell him to shove off. I named my inner critic Felix and I locked him in the kennel. You only have precious hours each day, they shouldn’t go to waste beating yourself into oblivion. You don’t want perfect. Perfect implies static, which is unmoving, failing to grow — dead. Striving for perfection stunts your chance at a crazy screw-up that teaches you oh so much more, making you grow into so much better.
4. COMPARISON IS SELF-DESTRUCTIVE
Your five-year-old self wouldn’t say that, so why did you start? This is where your critic was born. You scroll everyone’s profile and see all these picture-boasted lifestyles and wonder why you’re such a failure. You’re scared. You think you don’t have what it takes. You think you’re never going to be enough for someone, or for a company. You think getting up in the morning is hell. Hell is other people faking everything. Start buying yourself flowers and start ignoring the noise. They’ve got problems you might not be able to even imagine — focus on you — your future self will thank you. Be real and be raw.
5. SADNESS AND MELANCHOLY ARE WONDERFUL EXPERIENCES; WORRY IS NOT
How lucky you are to experience, to feel, to swim in sorrow or mellow in with madam melancholy. Crying is good for you, but the worrying is harmful. Those drugs make you more like a robot and you forget how to get out of trouble by trial and error. Sit with that moment of pain. Watch your thoughts; literally observe and comment on what you’re thinking. Sometimes it’s the most ridiculous thing, but sometimes you really develop empathy and emotional intelligence from learning how to deal in the darkness. Truly: You do not want positive thinking 24/7; that’s dangerous, an overabundance of positivity can make you blind to what’s going on. Think about the absolute worst case scenario, and then act accordingly. I’m an incurable optimist, but I’m always ready for the earthquake. 100% positive thinking makes you fragile.
6. WAITING FOR SOMEONE TO PICK YOU IS A WASTE OF YOUR TIME. HUSTLE.
No one, be it a company or a person, is going to swoop down from the clouds of your disaster and save you. You hear it every day: “Things will be better when I get: a new job, a new promotion, a new boyfriend, a family, a relocation, a career,” etc. Waiting for saving grace is going to lead to a lot of waiting. Act. Get moving. Make yourself so damn good you can’t be ignored. That only starts small, but don’t worry, you’ll get there if you keep going. You are the architect of your dreams, but if you keep waving around your plans without doing anything about them then you’re just like the rest of them. No one is going to make your dreams come true except for you.
7. ASK ALL THE TIME & AVOID ASSUMPTIONS ALWAYS
Lord have mercy, the amount of clarity we could all get if we just asked what was on our minds. My friends say I’m intelligent, and I appreciate that; I got really good at asking what was on my mind, or asking what was on someone else’s mind. It’s about seeking clarity instead of making assumptions. If you like him or her, ask if he/she likes you. You don’t have much time with your one, precious life, so get the drama over with and start being direct about what you want. If you don’t communicate your dreams and preferences, people drag you along with their own ideals.
8. LOVE WINS, EVERY TIME
I may have an assortment of my scars, and a rather large one from the past year, but I still believe in love. Anger gets you nowhere and worry drives you into the ground. Love. Love your life. Love those around you. Love those that respond. Love those that care. Love away, love away, love away. You’ll know you’re dealing with love when it competes with oxygen. Be okay with breathlessness, good or bad. Take the risk and be the romantic, hopeless or otherwise. And if you’re a twenty-something: Your 20s are your odyssey years, not your lose-yourself-in-someone-else years. The first person and the last person you should love is yourself, because you do not exit or enter with anyone but you.
9. PLAY AROUND. GET DANCING.
If you’re not still doing something you did when you were five, you’re doing it wrong. When was the last time you went painting, rode a bicycle, or did something for the sheer fun of it rather than the resume? And introduce play into whatever goes the other way: If something goes wrong, you’re supposed to yell “Plot twist!” and move forward. If you’re not enthused, what the hell are you doing? Lighten up! Stop loathing and start laughing. As Ryan Holiday put it: walk around a museum and act like you’re the thief about to case the joint — you’ll enjoy it so much more, and remember it. Same scenario with life: if you start playing, you start savoring.
10. START. THIS IS YOUR GREEN LIGHT.
Start. Your actions are everything. I know you’re not ready. Your knees shake and the critic is as loud as ever. One step a day. Do not ask for permission. You have permission; you’re writing this story, don’t let anyone else dare touch that pen. You’ll be aiming your whole life away if you follow “Ready, aim, fire” … It’s actually “Ready, fire, aim, fire, fire fire.” Start doing one thing every day that scares you. Suddenly, you’ll realize how often fear and scary possibilities are mere products of the imagination and not based in reality. The past can strangle you because you may have wasted days, months, even years — but that’s behind you. The future can taunt you because you don’t think you’re good enough, but with every passing day you can get better. So get going on getting better. You’ll enjoy life more, too, once you start living.
11. MAXIMIZE THE SERENDIPITY AROUND YOU
If you try to plan everything so that you won’t miss out, you’ll miss out on even more. When there’s a party, go. When there’s something new and scary, dive in. When you can feel it in your bones, do. Strangers won’t be strangers once you talk to them; in fact, you’ll get a whole new assortment of stories as a result. Try to meet someone new every day. You can; it’s as difficult and as easy as saying, “hi,” but in those two little characters all is possible, from a future lover to a genuine conversation. Something so simple is something worth saying. Burn the plans and do random. You might just stumble upon serendipity.
12. YOUR WORDS MATTER, BUT ONLY WHEN COMBINED WITH ACTIONS
Yes: people lie, steal, and cheat. Be honest and act honestly, regardless. When your words match your actions you are far more powerful than you can imagine. Have skin in the game; be personally invested in what you say and do. And watch what stories and words you feed yourself. We tend to stuff ourselves a fatalist or self-defeating narrative that eats away at what matters. You don’t “have” to do anything: you “get” to. You wake up to each moment. Face it instead of running behind lies and hidden intentions.
13. TREAT EVERYONE YOU MEET LIKE A ROCKSTAR
Try to treat people as if they were someone you consider to be important. Suddenly you’re in a world of possibility. Even the janitor has a unique perspective that you can learn from. Part of this is also about hugs. Stop side-hugging. It makes people feel worthless. Give full-frontal hugs or none at all; if you’re a hugger, you’re actively giving someone a chemical boost with a hug. So get giving and start treating people as if they’re leagues above you — yes, even your inferiors.
14. TELL PEOPLE WHAT YOU’RE THINKING
This is really quite simple but often hard to do out of fear of backlash. Some worry about you’re thinking, especially if you’re their supervisor or lover. Tell them how they’re doing, good or bad. This is what makes you a good friend. Those that love you want your input; makes sure you offer it when appropriate.
15. GO ON ADVENTURES CONSTANTLY
Reinvigorate where you are by becoming the car pirate, sailing the pavement seas in search of new lands and interesting treasures. And go abroad. Quit the excuses and start taking steps. Suddenly, awe. I talk about travel all the time because it’s what I believe in more than anything; it’s not about escaping your life, it’s about reinvigorating your life.
16. LEARN HOW TO QUIT; IT’S OKAY TO SAY NO
The secret step to achieving your dreams is removing what’s not working or what’s eating up all your time. If you do everything, you’re half-heartedly in any of it. Be wholeheartedly a part of something bigger and better than yourself. That means you need to quit, constantly. “Quit” has so many negative connotations, so here’s a better one for you: RESHUFFLE CONSTANTLY. Play with a new hand and deal, little card shark. People appreciate when you stop wasting their time, and often that’s because you start taking your own time and self-worth seriously. You’d be better off slowing down and focusing instead of spreading yourself so thin. Seek depth, not breadth. You have to be absolutely ruthless about your time and be effortful to simplify. You’ll run yourself into the ground if you say “yes,” to everything. A heuristic: if it’s “HELL YES,” do it; anything less, move forward.
17. THERE’S AN AWFUL LOT OF WISDOM IN GREETING & THANK YOU CARDS
But you take them for granted. Say thank you. Say more please. Apologize and own up to it (but careful: half-hearted apologies will ruin you). Do more I miss you. Do more I love you. Do more I hope you feel better. And for the love of everything, write thank you letters whenever possible. I carry at least twenty thank you cards on me at all times. Those “little” phrases matter. Don’t forget the basics.
18. WITH FAITH, RUIN IS NOT POSSIBLE
I don’t rightly mind what you believe in, so long as it doesn’t involve harm and so long as you believe in something (or someone, or what have you). Believing in something, be it your dreams or the gods, can take the weight of the world off your back. The world doesn’t revolve around you, so find what you want to revolve around. If you’re not enjoying that orbit, try another. So long as you act in alignment with what you believe, to me, you won’t ruin. You can break, bend, get scratched up, but those are all still far from ruin. By “faith,” I mean vulnerability. The best, most euphoric aspects of life come from a form of vulnerability: connection, love, growth all involve risk. Risk away ruin by taking a chance.
19. TRY EVERYTHING, REPEAT WHAT YOU LOVE
This trumps “Find your passion,” every time. Everything is trial and error. Everything is a work in progress, even you. Might as well try it and see what works, and keep working hard at it until you’re loving it. Be brave and do something; actions put us far closer to reality than the heaven or hell inside our head.
20. IF YOU CAN’T CONTROL IT, DON’T MIND IT
This is the entire basis of Stoicism, of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, and so much more. Stop worrying about what’s outside of your control and start focusing on what you can influence and do. Shoot the arrow as best you can, but the outcome is not your concern.
21. STORMS COME AND GO
Even the bad ones will pass. The sun is still there, even when it’s cloudy. Don’t let your imagination hijack you in the worst way. Take off the edge and recognize that everything will roll like the wave it is.
22. LIFE IS GOOD; SAVOR IT
Be right here. Live right here. The future is merely the passing of the present. The past is merely the compilation of the present. I don’t believe in “live in every day as your last,” I believe in living every year as your last (the expansive makes it more applicable to me). If you aren’t here, where are you? Swimming away in the day-dreams of tomorrow? You know, if you made those dreams your reality you wouldn’t have to escape inside your head. And you can make your dreams reality — you can climb your Everest. But it all starts right here. So what are you waiting for?