Changed the Soil

My plants are alive and thriving. Because now I have plants.

No one is more surprised than me, but every time I go to water one of them I remember my prediction from a few entries back. Nothing has died yet, and the only worry I had was an aloe leaf that was starting to rot and yellow. After I cut it away, the rest of the plant still stands.

A lot of my success (so far) is likely due to the abundance of natural light in my space, which I didn’t have in my parents’ house. Natural light there is available, but there were only so many spots that a plant could live for fear of a pet chomping on the leaves or knocking something over if left unattended. And yet I can’t help but wonder… like the many plants that didn’t make it, was I not meant to thrive where I was?

What follows is a plant tour and some reflection – setting out expectations early.

The Avocado Plant. Yes, that is a Nando’s table stick I acquired.

We begin with my pride and joy: the Avocado Plant. It is one of three seeds I tried to sprout months ago for a second time, and one of the two that made it up here with me. I must confess here that I forgot to bring any of plants with me and I forgot to ask someone to look after them until I came for them, so imagine my surprise when, two weeks after I moved, there was a stalk coming out of the pot. No one had done anything to it, it was barely getting any sunlight, and the stalk itself was drying out. When I brought it home with me, it lived in the balcony for a few weeks, without any expectation or goal attached to it. One morning, bleary eyed and not ready to start the day, I noticed leaves coming out of the stalk.

From then on, the Avocado Plant continues to surprise me with its resilience and determination to grow and sprout new leaves. Against my mom’s plant advice, I kept it outside for a while thinking avocados like warm climates and so it would likely enjoy the summer heat. I brought it inside permanently once some of the leaves started charring and the soil was constantly bone dry.

It’s not the prettiest looking plant and it’s plain if we’re being objective, but it’s my favorite. I don’t see myself in any of my plants and rather see my growth in their growth, but the avocado plant does seem to prefer being inside to outside in the hellish East Coast summer like me. It’s a bit gangly and not particularly beautiful (like me until I turned 22), but it is consistent (like me always). The leaves that come in from the top of the stalk have looked the same for three rows now, and I’d bet the one coming in will bring two sisters with it.

Initially, I left the charred leaves as they were without pruning the burnt or the leaves altogether. A reminder of it not liking the hot outside and a badge of determination to keep growing when given proper light, water, and encouragement. But today, I pruned the burnt leaves before its photo op. Maybe, like me, it’ll feel good after a haircut. Maybe, like me, it’ll prefer the cooler autumn days in a few months. I stopped naming my plants after I had to throw them out when they were irrevocably dead, and I said I wouldn’t name any of the avocado plants I was trying to grow until I saw consistent and steady progress. If the Avocado Plant lives and thrives long enough to see if it likes to be outside in the milder autumn days, maybe I’ll give it a name then.

Lilly the aloe vera plant with my second Nando’s table stick that I acquired.

We continue with Lilly the aloe plant, and the one I’m most afraid of. Notoriously picky on the conditions they prefer and stuck up because of their health benefits, Lilly gets whatever she wants so long as she doesn’t die. She was a gift from a family friend we’ve deemed The Plant ER (although she couldn’t save my amaryllis; she returned its pot with Lilly in it), and I want to keep her alive purely to honor that family friend. I always tell Lilly she has to stay alive not for me, but for who gifted her to me.

I’m not sure how much I believe in things like this, but apparently aloe vera is one of the many plants that can ward off negative energy and bad vibes that people may bring into your home. I’ve only had to cut off one leaf that was growing yellow and rotting in the past two months that I’ve had her, when several people were in and out as I got settled, so maybe she’s doing her job. I don’t do much to her besides check her soil before watering or occasionally praise her for still being alive, which seems to be working so far. Perhaps we don’t know each other well enough yet so we stay out of each other’s way, wary of upsetting one another or causing distress. Perhaps it’s just enough for now that she helps me out by staying alive and warding off negative energy, and I help her out by not overwatering her

The IKEA cacti.

Up next, we have the IKEA plants. None of them have names individually and they’re here to have a good time. All of them low-maintenance and nondescript, they blend into the décor and are just happy to be here. They don’t demand individual names or to be kept together, and they’re all so far happy with their assignments.

The two cacti are my second ever cacti (their predecessor lived for a year and bit before I left it behind when I moved to London; it died shortly afterward of what I like to think as loneliness, but really it was from neglect and overwatering), and they get watered only on the twenty-second day of every month, with a light spritz in between whenever I remember it.

The IKEA succulent, who may be getting the name of Miss Keisha.

The succulent is the middle child of the four and was recently repotted. In true middle child fashion, it got an upcycled candle jar for a pot, with no drain hole, and I’ve toppled it over a few times, including when I was taking the picture. I even turned it around so the one yellowing stem wouldn’t show in the picture. I have high expectations for the succulent, and I’ve promised it that its next pot will be a brand new one and not a hand-me-down.

The snake plant that has no name but should.

The youngest sibling of the four that is the snake plant got priority for repotting. I picked the snake plant because of its slit down its big leaf and not in spite of it. I immediately liked the yellow tinge to the leaf and loved that it was the last one of its kind on the shelf, so I figured I’d give it a good home until the slit was the cause of death. Two months on, and the snake plant likes me so much that it bore two more growths, and so it got a brand new pot with a drain hole. I don’t want to get ahead of myself, but it may be getting a name soon.

The IKEA plants were the first bit of greenery in my new home, and they had a place in it before they even arrived. They were selected because I thought I was finally ready for plants and wanted something sturdy and low-maintenance, something I wouldn’t be distraught to say goodbye to should it die. Joke is on me, because I would be distraught if they (or any of their plant siblings) were to decide to leave me one day.

The African violet with its exponential growth of flowers.

We move onto CeCe, the African violet plant. CeCe was a gift from my grandmother and another one I was terrified to receive. CeCe and Lilly moved in at the same time and are kept apart so they don’t gang up on me, and because they have different watering schedules. CeCe came with four flowers and she continues to surprise me with new ones and small buds constantly, which I deeply appreciate since my favorite color is purple. CeCe also has to stay alive for who gifted her to me and not for me, but so far she seems happy to be with me as I am to have her. Her success is my success, or maybe she just likes the praise whenever I notice that there are more flowers than the day before.

The Lowe’s Plant.

Up next is the Cordyline plant. Ms Big Red. The new kid on the block. I think I jinxed myself with Red before we even got home because a) I named her straight away and b) I picked her out solely because I like the leaves, not because I’m confident I can keep her alive. I also picked her out of vanity, because I want to start my outside plants collection, like I won’t inevitably have to bring them all in when it gets colder. She will be monitored closely during her first few weeks with me, and with any luck she will growth with me and watch the cooler seasons pass from inside until it’s time to go back outside next summer.

The herbal corner.

We end with the herbal set. They’re my least favorite and I will tell them that to their face and for free should they ask. They were a gift from work, and work they made me put in. They came as seeds in a grow-your-own kit, and I made a gigantic mess when it came to planting them. I used one of my food prepping bowls to soak their soil along with other kitchen tools because I didn’t have any gardening tools back then, and although I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t excited and proud of myself when the first leaves came in for all of them, the herbal set broke my cardinal rule of plant care: they made me get dirty.

There was dirt under my nails for hours after I planted their seeds, and every time I check whether they need watering, some soil ends up on the table or the carpet. They are my bastard set as they’re only here to do a job (give me fresh herbs) and have to work with whatever I feel like giving them. I know that an experienced gardener may tell me that is the reason they’re not growing, that they can feel my obligation-only attitude toward them, but I constantly tell Basil that I’ve been wanting fresh pesto for months and he’s not delivering.

There’s no big realization or profound comparison when it comes to the herbal set. They’re here to do a job and so far they’re dragging their feet on delivering. I hope that one day they surprise me and without even noticing I’ll have enough for a pesto, ceviche, chimichurri, and to season a chicken. Until then, they’ll be judged much harshly than the other green things in my home.

**

My plants are my gift to myself, a challenge and an opportunity to allow myself to grow with their growth. The plants added an element of play to my life that I lacked until very recently, of doing something just because. Yesterday, I went to pick up some gardening supplies (who, me?) and spent a few hours on the balcony when I came back, in the heat and sun, repotting, pruning, and talking to the plants. And I think I enjoyed it. No, I’m sure I enjoyed it. I enjoyed the fact I wanted to do it, that I had nowhere to be and nothing else to do but play with literal dirt.

I think the fact I enthusiastically talk about plants shows my growth. My growth in their growth. When I tried to keep plants before, I was frustrated and bitter about only my plants dying even though they were kept with my mom’s plants, which thrived and looked good seemingly effortlessly. But now, my mom’s plants are struggling. Nothing has changed about their circumstances or their care, but the money tree is now only a trunk, her own aloe vera (also a gift from the family friend who gave me Lilly) is hanging by a thread, and CeCe’s sister has never put out flowers for her in a year of being with her.

I wonder if I was right, that my plants sensed back then how stuck I felt, how I longed for a change of scenery to help me grow. Now that I’m in a different place and have different plants, perhaps we work off each other’s energies and try to prosper. I’m sure one of them will have their bad days or periods at some point, just like I will, but hopefully we can get through it with some water, natural light, and patience. Without even noticing, all of us may grow.

In Flux

Well, it’s been a minute. Three months to be exact. Looking at my last entry, it went live a few days before I stopped feeling so lost. On reflection, what I was truly feeling was a mix of lack of direction and impassiveness. I know I’m not alone in being bored of the waiting game the universe started playing with everyone in 2020 that keeps dragging out a year and a half on (#LoveIsNotTourism), but by April, waiting on major life changes I was ready for due to factors wildly outside my control left me feeling restless, angry, and depressive. I was really no fun to be around.

Then the wait was over.

Sitting atop a waterfall in Deep Creek, MD

On the same day, a promotion at work and an apartment landed on my lap. At least, that’s how it looked on the outside. However, neither of those things were given, and I had to put a lot of work in to even get to ‘compete’ for a spot on both things. After a lot of false starts and promises, I got to the point where I had resigned to being stuck until… the universe said I could move forward.

Once those two ‘gifts’ were given, within the following two weeks I moved out of my parents’ house and had an active role in hiring my second direct report. Neither of those things were something I’d done before, and I’d be lying if I said I had a wink of restorative sleep those two weeks. Setting aside the work aspect (because that somehow turned into the less demanding of the two), I spent those two weeks being incredibly scared. And I’m still scared.

Doing it scared.

I don’t do well with change. I’m a routine person through and through, and as I get older, instead of getting more easy going, I find there are less things I’m able to compromise on. I like to think that since I have a set of priorities I never compromise on no matter the setting (any outing has to involve eating at some point), it leaves some gaps for things I am happy to compromise on (I don’t care what we eat, as long as we eat something). So the upset of routine and change that moving brought sent me into an anxious panic for a period.

I’ve never lived truly alone like I do now (a safe thing to admit on the Internet? One to ruminate on later). I went from living at home to living at college, going back and forth for four years, then back at home, then with roommates and a boyfriend, then just a boyfriend, then back at home. Never have I been able to set up a kitchen how it makes sense to me, or know with absolutely certainty that absolutely no one will walk through the door at any moment. Never have I been able to eat brioche and potato chips for dinner because that’s all I could stomach while ill from second dose side effects. Never have I gone days without speaking to another person that wasn’t on the other side of a screen.

I count my blessings daily that I wasn’t forced to self-isolate or self-quarantine during the height of 2020, and I’m sympathetic to those who were isolated in cities far away from loved ones without any indication on when they’d be allowed to reunite. I will always think fondly of the five weekends in a row that my family and I played the same card game until all of us got good and had won at least once. And although the course of 2020 makes me appreciate my time alone that much more, there are things that are 100% more difficult because I’m alone. Loading and unloading the car takes twice as long, assembling a couch cost two broken nails, and hanging up decorations feels like an extreme sport.

**

I continue to be in flux, even two months in. I’m constantly scared and doubt myself, but I found refuge on an Instagram story that one of my friends probably had no idea would affect me so: if you can’t get rid of the fear, do it scared. That mantra let me carry out a long drive to my best friend’s wedding and back home by myself; it let me get on a mountain coaster despite my fear of heights; it also let me get the pictures on this post. There are bigger waterfalls in the world, but even a small waterfall is tall enough to make me queasy.

The change and the fear is also what’s kept me from writing for three months. During a time I had competing priorities, I was scared to sit in front of a blank page and have nothing come out. Or worse, have something come out that doesn’t deserve to be published. So, here I am, doing it scared. Scared to also give an update to the world should I fail and have to struggle through the changes I asked for, sought out, and received. Never once have I questioned whether I deserved what I’ve been given, but if I would be able to maintain it.

The jury is still out on that one, but the rent this month is paid, all bills are paid, I have food in the fridge, the A/C is working perfectly, and the plants I have managed to acquire are all alive and thriving. More on that next week.

Crystals and Oils

It’s been exactly two months since my last entry, and though I’m not sure my absence has been noticed (not that I started this project to be noticed in the first place), I must admit that I barely thought of this blog in the past two months myself.

As I start this entry, I don’t know what shape it’ll take, how long it’ll be, or if it will provoke any sort of response. I’m not sure I want it to, either, because I’m not making excuses or looking for sympathy. I’m simply writing to write. And I haven’t done that in a while.

I’ve been toying with entry ideas all week, but whenever I thought of one, I thought of a reason I “wasn’t ready to share that yet.” I probably didn’t want to share that idea to begin with and felt like I had to, and I’ve been slowly working to get out of the “I should” mindset and move into the “I want” mindset. There is one idea that I keep coming back to in general, and I think I’m okay sharing that here (if anyone even reads this, but again that’s never been my main goal).

Photo by Daniel Jensen on Unsplash

I’ve been feeling lost. Not in the “finding myself during the pandemic” way, or “trying a different hobby during lockdown” way, or even in “trying the latest workout fad” way, but in the way of looking for lifestyle changes to make myself feel better. That may sound similar to the “finding myself” conundrum, but the difference is subtle. Here are a few examples.

There are days where, at the end of the workday, I feel like I don’t have more energy than what it takes to walk away from my home office and to my bedroom, where I lay down and watch TikToks for an hour, sometimes more. As I keep scrolling, it’s in the forefront of my mind that there’s something I should be doing, some way I should be being productive instead of laying down and scrolling. But I just… can’t bring myself to do it. I can’t put in the effort it takes to get up and find the “something” that I’m neglecting. That ongoing internal conflict is in my head every day, and when I notice that I’ve enjoyed having quiet afternoons because I’ve actively stepped back from side hustles, I wonder if I’m spending too much time doing nothing. Because I don’t know how to just exist. Unless I have something to do, I’m lost, and yet I’m often so exhausted getting out of bed in the morning that the first few hours of the day, I’m on autopilot.

While racking up the hours spent on TikTok, I saw multiple creators talk about moldavite. I know better than to think that’s fate and not the TikTok algorithm, but I still went and read more about it. I went as far as making a mental note to look into buying a necklace the next day because “it couldn’t hurt.” If a crystal could show me the path forward, or show me that I should stay on this path a little longer and be patient, I would fork over however many dollars it took. How did I get to the point where I thought a crystal would help me? I don’t know. While I respect people who respect crystals, I’m not educated enough in the subject to participate, and I know myself enough to know that this is not the right time to start learning. I’m lost, so I almost grabbed the green crystal life raft.

I’m not sure where this next one came from, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was TikTok, too, but I also found myself looking into CBD oil. As I’ve acknowledged my anxiety and its triggers, I’ve looked for ways to manage it and cope with it, and while I’m hesitant to research medication because I’m afraid of the side effects, I thought CBD would be a good halfway house. So I looked up the nearest shop, looked at their products, and thought nothing of dropping at least $60 for a vial of oil that could potentially, maybe, hopefully, take the edge off every once in a while. I never made it to the shop, because I realized it was another avenue I was looking at to make myself feel better. Buying (expensive) oils wasn’t who I am (or who I think I am), but I’m lost enough to wish it would be. I’m lost enough to put my hope in an oil that sits under your tongue and takes your worries away.

Even without the pandemic giving the world a write-off for 2020 and beyond, I know I’m not alone in my feelings. It’s not comforting necessarily to think that there have been others before and there will be others after me who feel just as lost at my age, mainly because if there are so many of us who feel lost during our twenties, it will eventually stop being so, yet here we are. It’s kind of encouraging, however, to come across articles like this, which essentially say that the late twenties are a pain for everyone. “Pain” is an adjective that was carefully chosen: my lower back has been in pain for so long, I can’t remember when it started, and I had an endoscopy yesterday as part of the process for finding out why my stomach bloats without warning and why it’s so painful to eat certain foods I’ve been eating all my life. My insides are as lost as my head, it seems.

Crystals, oils, mindless scrolling, and swearing off pork (after watching the Italian butcher shop episode of Chef’s Table). Will any one of these help me feel less lost? Is realizing that I’m looking for an easy, passive solution the answer itself? Even if I never followed through with any of them, maybe they achieved their purpose in being instruments to help show me “the way,” even if “the way” isn’t any of them. My thoughts are as convoluted as my sentences, but maybe if I acknowledge I’m lost I’ll be on my way sooner.

Quiet Isn’t Always Peace

We have learned that quiet isn’t always peace

Amanda Gorman, “The Hill We Climb”

Gorman’s poem had other, widely relevant and more poignant take-aways than this, but this part of the longer line is what stuck with me. Because that’s what anxiety is. That’s what anxiety feels like.

Photo by Andraz Lazic on Unsplash

I had a complex about allowing myself to say I have anxiety because it felt like a disservice to people who have actually been diagnosed with anxiety. I haven’t been prescribed medication and it’s not an official diagnosis, but I do exhibit symptoms and have done so for as long as I’ve been alive (now that I know to look for them). It’s a term most of us throw around, like saying you have OCD because you need to have your coffee a specific way or you freak out (when OCD really is tugging on the knob of the front door three times to make sure it’s properly closed and look back before you drive away to make sure your cat didn’t run out without you noticing even though you saw her at her food bowl before you left and if you don’t perform this ritual every time you leave the only thing you’ll think about as you drive away is her running away when a dog or loud noise spooks her and how you’ll never see her again because she’s an indoor cat with no collar and no microchip), but most people exhibit different symptoms depending on their different triggers.

The existence of triggers is something I have come to understand and notice the more I notice a specific anxiety symptom. Why does my heart race and extremities go cold after I glance at the clock? Because I registered the time and that a particular meeting with a particular coworker is coming up, a meeting I won’t particularly enjoy and that will most likely demand a lot of my time and energy afterward. All this happens without my saying one word out loud.

When I stay quiet, my thoughts aren’t peaceful. My thoughts race, bounce inside my head like red balls. From a song to a memory to something I need to do back to the song then to what I’m wearing that day to the one thing I must not forget to do back to the song then to what I want for breakfast then how my hair is looking oily even though it’s only day two after washing then back to the song and then to noticing the mind chatter and making myself focus on what I’m doing at that moment. All before I’ve been awake for a full ten minutes.

The mind chatter has been with me for years, and what I thought was me being efficient and using my time wisely by always planning and making the most of all the time I had is actually anxiety. In recent years, I can recall two incidents that triggered my anxious tendencies and put me in overdrive to compensate for the fact that the situation was outside my control. When I wasn’t working at fixing these situations or coming out the other side of them, I was thinking about the work I still needed to do, and when I got back home, I’d take out my laptop and pick up where I left off lest the thoughts I had during my commute home would disappear. It was quiet, with no noise other than keyboard clicking or the noises of the train as it moved from stop to stop. My mind, however, was the opposite of quiet.

The quiet that isn’t always peace is what it feels like every day since that first triggering incident. It was a season of unpeaceful quiet. Of being so out of control and dependent on others even after doing everything I was supposed to do. During this season, I tried drinking black coffee for the first time. I was in an office and someone offered to go on a coffee run. I asked for a soy latte, and the person came back with apologies that the café didn’t carry dairy-free milk (what in the pre-oat-milk-craze hell!) and that he’d gotten me a black coffee instead. I drank it and it was vile. Yet passable. I winced as I drank it and my stomach was cramping within the hour. From that day onward, I take my coffee black. And I enjoy it. It’s been years, but that result of trauma and a trigger incident that became a trigger season has become part of my personality.

Now, I drink black coffee and it’s a toss-up between racing thoughts or simply enjoying the warm beverage (the benefit of being born in South America and drinking coffee since I was eight). All while staying quiet. Quiet isn’t always peace inside my head.

I have heard many times over the years from many different people that I speak too fast. I don’t notice it, on myself or others, and I wonder if that’s another anxiety symptom or just my personality. Like the black coffee. My brain works faster than my listener, so words flow out faster. If I can’t stop the thoughts from bouncing and racing and flowing too fast, why should my spoken words be any different? Maybe my listener should just keep up. Make their brain work faster.

Until my brain slows down, quiet isn’t always peace.

Half-moons, Crowns and Rollercoasters

I started and finished In The Dream House recently, and though it didn’t affect me as much as A Little Life last month, it did made me ponder my own relationships. I then remembered this quote from The Fault in Our Stars: “As he read, I fell in love the way you fall asleep: slowly, and then all at once.”

Falling out of love is like the free fall of a rollercoaster: all at once, then slowly. You feel like you’re falling to your death and are leaving your stomach behind and forget you’re securely strapped in, that you won’t actually die. But for a quick second, you think you may just fall and die.

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

The start of my all-at-once descent was returning the gifts. Jewelry, clothes, knick-knacks big and small. Like the love you had for that person, you don’t know where to put it if not with you. I sold, gifted and gave away, shedding the memories with them. The love in each one. If the love disappeared all at once, the significance of these mementoes should as well.

The first-ever ring took the longest to disappear. I sold it a few months after the free fall, but it was one of the first things I replaced. I replaced it with another ring shaped like a half-moon. I wore it proudly not only because it was a Swarovski (I thought that made it and me better), but because I’d bought the femininity symbol piece for myself to wear on the same finger where once sat the symbol of our first Christmas as a couple. I’d gotten to pick that ring, so it was only right I’d get to pick its replacement.

Every day for over two years, I wore that half-moon sparkly statement piece. It had become a part of my daily routine even after I started dating someone else and he got me a ring that I also picked myself (a dainty crown). One day, the half-moon ring symbolizing my “single woman not by choice” status started oxidizing, the rust a sign of daily wear.

I eventually stopped wearing the half-moon every day, then I stopped wearing it all. Instead, I wear the crown every day, the meaning of that one different as it came from a different person but symbolizing the same thing: here’s a daily reminder of my love.

One day, I decide to wear the half-moon ring and the crown ring together. In an attempt to accessorize, I stack the half-moon ring on top of the upside-down crown on my right index finger. The juxtaposition of my single days with my new relationship looked fittingly fashionable.

After half a day, I hate it. the half-moon ring keeps getting caught on my clothes and makes pulling up my jeans after using the bathroom difficult. The crown sits as it’s told, barely there at all. My single days are well behind me, and any attempt to keep the mindset I had then is irritating to who I’m trying to be now.

Shortly after buying the half-moon ring, I cut my hair. The free fall of the rollercoaster, I chopped my waist-length, box-dyed, damaged hair to a shaggy long bob that sat just above my shoulders. I loved it when I got it, and more than anything I loved how it didn’t pain me to let the hair go. When I looked in the mirror and styled it curly, shaggy or with long-disused hair clips, I wondered what had made me so averse to short hair on myself for years. My senior year of high school, I got a disastrous haircut that took months to grow out, and I wore it in a ponytail every day because of how much I hated how it looked on me. A friend tried to curl it in an attempt to make me feel better about how it looked, but by the end of the day it had transformed into a bushy mess. When I looked at my post-break-up haircut, I wondered if I had just done it wrong back then, and that eight years later I finally knew what my hair wanted and how it looked good (I didn’t).

Two years later, I’m trying to grow my hair back. It’s barely reaching my midback now and the highlights I got with the chop are well gone. As if punishing me for the throw-away decision, it took the better part of those two years to learn what it wanted, what products it tolerates and how to style it to make behave for longer. “Earn my love,” it’s saying. “You want me back? Treat me better.”

My boyfriend loved the short hair. “It’s how I met you,” he says when I look in embarrassment at our first pictures together. But he didn’t see my struggle to navigate it short, like he didn’t see the struggle of making the half-moon ring work with the crown he’d given me. He didn’t see my struggle of re-learning how to be single only to unlearn it again when we got together. He didn’t see the clash of my trying to figure out who I wanted to be, that I didn’t want to be the same as I was in the previous relationship. He missed the all-at-once fall down the rollercoaster but is seeing the slow transition back to a new start.

During this transition, he’s seen the self-sabotage, but he’s far too kind to point it out. He reassures me that he still loves me, that he only didn’t text back because he was cooking dinner. Once, during a text conversation about our future together, he went as far to warn me that he was hopping on a phone call in case I didn’t hear back from him for a bit. That he is very much still invested in us. I wasn’t relieved when he said that. I was skeptical: I would have been relieved if he’d said he was finally having second thoughts. “Ah, there it is,” I would have thought. “I knew it was too good, too easy, to work out.”

The free fall and slow ride back to a new start is messy. Exhausting. Enlightening in some instances, sure, with the odd epiphany about my last relationship (no, it wasn’t very nice that he didn’t do anything when his mom made you cry in front of him multiple times; that wasn’t normal), but mostly exhausting. The self-doubt and self-awareness that often come hand in hand take the wind out of me just like they empower me: realizing that I stayed in a relationship two years too long makes me wonder if I’ve gotten too used to never asking for help, and what kind of partner that makes me now. But at least I’m working on it. And I do not wear the half-moon ring anymore.

“Yeah, you did meet me with short hair,” I say to my boyfriend. “But I hope you like me with long hair just as much. Because I like that better now.”

“I already do,” he says.

Hey Jude, Will You Leave My Head?

First post of 2021, and I’m starting off with something a little different.

I finished A Little Life over the weekend, my last book of 2020 and my first book of 2021. It took me about a month to finish not because, at just over 800 pages, it was a challenge, but because… it was a lot. And not enough, as all good books usually are. This blog won’t turn into a book reviews blog, I promise, but rarely am I so affected by a book that I can’t stop thinking about it, so I’m writing about it. I’m even listening to the Spotify playlist that the author compiled for the book as I write this.

About a week before I actually finished it, I put the book down and didn’t come back to it. I was very close to putting the book in the freezer after one particular plot point, but I made the mistake of stopping on a Sunday night. The first thing I thought of Monday morning after a semi-sleepless night was this book, how I was so sad at what had just happened that I couldn’t keep the thoughts from bouncing inside my head like little red balls. So I have to write about it. I have to process what I just read.

If you’re precious about it, I’d stop reading now to avoid spoilers.

Picture by me

From the first few pages, I didn’t know what I was reading about and there a lot of names from the start. That is, in fact, my only complaint about the book: So. Many. Names. Some don’t come back or are only mentioned once or twice in passing, and some keep popping up but I don’t care enough about the character to try to keep it straight. Think One Hundred Years of Solitude but none of the names are related to each other so you don’t have many points of reference.

It wasn’t until about fifty pages in that I could keep the four main characters straight, and it took me the first section to start actively disliking Jude, the person around whom the book’s universe revolves. And yet as the book progressed and I started finding the breadcrumbs about his past and his traumas, my dislike faded, and inevitably I started rooting for him, if anything because of the people around him who loved him so much and were so invested in his wellbeing. Much like the characters themselves, the people who loved him, I found myself begging him to seek help, to talk about his traumas, to unburden the people who cared for him and just try accepting the love that was given to him.

The book is about friendship on the surface, but as you dive deeper and move through the torturous pages, you find it’s about self-love, self-loathing, pride. How those three aspects work together in a span of thirty or so years to conclude in the ultimate act of sparing your loved ones and yourself from further suffering. It’s not a love story and it does not have a happy ending – when you get to a happy part at the end of a chapter, the author warns you it won’t always be like that by crushing the present she’s just constructed. She warns you that more tragedy is coming. And I appreciate that earnest take of life itself, because you don’t know that you’re in the good days until they’re over.

That it’s a book about trauma is obvious from the first few chapters. The three seasons of trauma that Jude experiences could have been books of their own, but that would have been very predictable and sensationalist sales-bait. You may not see many plot points coming (although I successfully predicted the two main deaths), but you know there will be something horrible. You’ll only be surprised by how terrible a specific event is. But you get insult to your injury when you find out what made Jude be what he is, what he sees himself as, because you see what the trauma and the injury have done to him, what they made his life be like. By the time you find out what happened, you almost don’t care – you’re angrier at what his life has become because of it.

I loved this book, despite the can of worms it left writhing in my brain. Its home is in New York City, but it doesn’t do the annoying thing of making the city a character in itself, inserting homages that only other New Yorkers will appreciate and non-New Yorkers will want to move there to understand. The city is a setting, as it should be, and the characters go to a lot of other places as we follow their journey. They have flats in London and houses in Upstate New York – their happiness and suffering are the focal points and settings in themselves. The story is told around their grief, their happiness, their humility. It’s their lives, not their lives as New York has molded them to be lived.

I will also always appreciate a book that isn’t heavy in description – I have no idea what the characters look like aside from Jude’s eye color, Willem’s hair, JB’s body type and Malcolm’s mixed race because they are used as markers, tools to tell a specific part of the story. I know Jude comes to appreciate tailored suits and loves baking and cooking for others (a man after my own heart), and that Harold teaches him to drive; I know Willem is of Swedish decent and has sandy hair; I know JB gained weight after this meth addiction and that Malcolm struggles with his identity because he feels he doesn’t look or act Black enough. And that’s all I needed to know about them to have me invested, because what they look like wasn’t always relevant to the story.

I loved the narrative of the book. It wasn’t linear, as if the author was telling us scenes as she remembered their relevance to the main story arc, and yet it flowed. This only bothered me until the second section, after which point I started trusting the process and understood I would find out what I needed to find out when I needed to. I found this particularly inspiring because I often have issues sticking to a linear story when I write, getting a bit boxed in by my own pressure to tell the story sequentially while dropping breadcrumbs to the ending. Of course, the story does need to have some structure, but that’s where technique comes in, something this author showed me.

I’m at my most inspired after reading a great new book, and this time is no different. After I get over it, that is. I need to mourn this book and the characters; I have to mourn the feeling that I will never again be able to read this book for the first time.

Steaming Black Coffee

The last blog post of the year…

I’ve inadvertently taken the month off, and in observance of my birthday on Friday and the general write-off this year month has been, I’m calling it a day after this one.

It started more emo than it is here, and it all came from the first line, when I was sipping on a cup of black coffee the other day and enjoying the simple pleasure.

Happy reading! And for those who have stuck by this blog from the beginning when posts came once a week, to now when they come once a month (2020, amirite?), thank you. Here’s to whatever the other blog posts, months and days will look like.

She found comfort in the steam from a hot cup of black coffee.

Though she didn’t actively seek it, she always ended up being alone. At the end of the night, at the end of the day. She hadn’t noticed, but loneliness had moved in with her, into her.

It began at her feet, making her walk away from any group of people at a party after the conversation was over. It stayed at her feet for a while and made her walk the other way from coworkers leaving the office, often walking around the block once to make sure she lost them before going to take the train. The loneliness would weigh her feet down and kept her a few paces behind a person she knew who walked ahead of her – the loneliness knew she hadn’t gotten to the voice yet.

The loneliness then moved up her back, keeping it turned away from everyone else. She could hear people talking and would join in even without being asked. The words would come out and the doubt would come in, and the loneliness fed on that and made her keep her back turned. With her feet secured and then her back, the loneliness would make her turn an about face after a few pleasantries exchanged at a friend’s get-together or a polite glance given at the handsome barista.

The loneliness saved her heart and her head for last. They were easy pray and to be savored as dessert. By then, she had stopped being invited, and colleagues kept their pleasantries to the office. With the loneliness firmly rooted inside her, though, she didn’t even notice. She welcomed the quiet and simplicity of her exterior as a welcome contrast to the chatter of her interior. She wanted nothing else besides what she already had, because she hadn’t noticed that the loneliness had taken everything.

It didn’t pain her to part with everything, though, to be reduced to nothing but her apartment, her clothes, her furniture, her knick-knacks. She started the day alone and she ended it alone, and she didn’t notice. Others noticed for her, told her they admired her bravery at going to dinner alone and traveling alone with a book, some puzzles or an adult coloring book. When she wondered if she should mind, if there was something wrong with her for not minding her own company, she looked for people who weren’t alone at the restaurant, or a couple who was laughing together at the bar, to compare. She felt happy for them. Happy that they enjoyed each other’s company, but she didn’t envy them.

When she did feel anything other than simple contentment at her arrangement, she felt wonder. She wondered what arrangements had been made for those people to laugh and joke and spend time together. She wondered what they talked about and if they ever ran out of topics of conversation. She wondered what it felt like to find that arrangement effortless. The loneliness inside her would dig its claws in deeper, reminding her that this was comfortable, familiar and expected. At the prompt, she would retract and leave the others to their own lives.

So she always enjoyed her black coffee alone, and as she watched the steam rise and disappear and absorbed the smell and felt the warmth of the mug on her hand and tasted the bitterness and heard herself say “Mmm,” she was comforted.

On My Immigration Anniversary

I’ve been writing this entry in my head for a while, and it will mark my serendipitous return to my poor, neglected blog.

This past Thursday, the 19th was my immigration anniversary. Sixteen years ago on Thursday, I arrived in the US for the very first time, not knowing a lick of English, not knowing any of the extended family that waited for me and not knowing what being an immigrant entailed then, now and for the rest of my life. Every year, I reflect on the years that have passed and often get stuck in the thought loop of, “What would I not have, have not been able to do or had not seen if I hadn’t gotten on that plane with my dad in 2004?” 

The answer? Everything. Everything I have and hold dear, every experience, every memory, every friendship.

But, because it’s also been a strange year (few years, really) to be an immigrant, this year’s reflection was different. Like with anything or anyone you love and love well, you have to be lovingly critical, but critical nonetheless, when considering the good and the bad. This year’s reflection also started with a memory.

Little Vanessa. Circa 2002? One of the few pictures of my childhood that I’m able and willing to look at… for two minutes tops.

When I was eight or nine, I got caught cheating on a test. This was Ecuador, so the details are a little fuzzy because of Trauma and trauma, but the gist is: I was sitting next to my “best friend” and we were given a test that she hadn’t studied for. The classroom had those two-seater desks where two children fit comfortably, and to keep us from cheating, the teacher gave each seat of the two-seaters a different version of the test.

As the teacher dictated the questions, we were supposed to write down the answers for our version on a blank sheet of paper. On one of the questions, my friend nudged me and pointed to the blank space on her paper. I knew the answer, but I shook my head at her because I didn’t want to get in trouble for talking during a test. She kept nudging me, so I did the next best thing: I wrote the answer in tiny letters on a tiny piece of paper, folded it and handed it to her. The teacher happened to be walking by as my friend was unfolding the paper. When the teacher inspected it and saw it was written on, she snatched both of our tests and returned mine with a zero.

I can’t remember what happened next, whether I was sent outside while the other students finished the test, whether I cried or not, or what my friend did. What I do remember is feeling incredibly sad and ashamed, with that prickly sensation on the back of my neck that I can now identify as a panic symptom (Little Vanessa was panicking at the thought of getting a zero on a test and getting in trouble – that’s Trauma with a purposeful capital T). I also remember writing “zero” in cursive next to the numeral the teacher had written. My loopy cursive was self-flagellation, a habit I carry to this day as an almost-twenty-eight-year-old adult; no one is as hard on me as I am on myself.

The next day, my mother went to talk to the teacher, to plead my case, and I don’t remember what the resolution was. I want to say that my friend and I got half the grade we would have gotten had we finished the test without cheating, but I definitely remember that she didn’t get in as much trouble as I did. I found out later that the teacher was a friend of my friend’s mom. The quotation marks around “best friend” were not accidental. We didn’t speak after that and actually became frenemies until I moved to the US three or four years later.

Why that memory and why now? I don’t know. All I know is that the test did not matter almost twenty years later, and that friend got pregnant at seventeen and posted a lot of selfies on Facebook last I checked when I still had a Facebook account years ago. I know you’re not supposed to get pettily happy about things like that, that motherhood can come at any age and in any circumstance as long as the woman is happy and sees the child as a blessing. But, on behalf of that little girl who wrote “zero” to make sure she learned a lesson, I’m pretty happy I turned out nothing like that former best friend.

That was not the first or only instance of unfairness that Little Vanessa would experience, and certainly not the first or only instance of pain or panic symptoms at not being the best, brightest or best behaved.

What Little Vanessa did not know at that time, however, was that she would come to a place where such unfairness wasn’t so blatant, where tests were better administered and she would be protected from being manipulated into helping a friend cheat. Little Vanessa would come to have opportunities, to go to university although her family was in no position to help her pay for her education. Little Vanessa would come to speak three languages, an asset that would set her apart wherever she went and at every job she had. Little Vanessa would even learn to drive a car that she owns herself, which she would drive on bad days while singing along to the best of All Time Low to cheer her up.

Adult Vanessa, however, still struggles with the realities of being an immigrant, struggling to always be grateful to a country that has done so much for her yet has behaved so heinously throughout history, even as recent as the past four years. Kids in cages, police brutality, the student loan system… all that lives in the same system that gave Adult Vanessa the opportunity to think differently, to question ideas that would have been a given in Ecuador had she grown up there. Can a place that supported Adult Vanessa in getting  a master’s degree in another country be the same place that does not support other immigrants who don’t have the privilege of migrating legally? To the point where they’re denied health insurance and are disproportionately dying from this unforgiving virus?

The answer is yes. Yes, it can be the same place. And that is the biggest way I celebrated my immigration anniversary this year: by accepting that two things can be true at the same time, and that my experience could have easily been different and harsher if I happened to belong to any other marginalized group. For that, I’m thankful. For the ability to be critical yet appreciative of my experience. To even have the right and privilege of speaking my truth.

Have I Seen Too Much?

In what has become a biweekly tradition, I will start this post with a poor excuse.

I haven’t neglected this space and have actually thought about this entry for about a week, but I haven’t gotten around to actually writing it because… life. Life and its many commitments (one of them being jury duty) and my newfound journey into being kinder to myself and unlearning the “I must work hard to earn time off” mindset.

A week and a bit ago, I did two things on the same day that were unrelated at the time but now I can’t think of one without thinking of the other. For one thing, I finished re-watching all of Sex and the City on HBO Max (honestly, adding that subscription to my roster probably contributed to my neglectingprocrastinating, not writing). For another, I went to a haunted forest for the first time in my life.

How are these two things related? In the first Sex and the City movie, Carrie and Miranda are walking around a Duane Reade looking for a Halloween costume for Miranda. As the two women browse the aisles side by side, a small child wearing a mask jumps out at Carrie to try to scare her, only for her to be unfazed.

“You can’t scare me after everything I’ve been through,” she says as the boy’s mom ushers him out of the way. I’m paraphrasing, but the point was that (spoiler alert?), after being left at the altar earlier in the year, she was not moved by an obnoxious child left unsupervised.

Although the remark is obnoxious itself and very Carrie-esque, I couldn’t stop thinking about it when I was, also, unfazed when walking through the haunted forest.

I couldn’t help but wonder, had I also seen too much?

(See what I did there?)
Photo by Matthieu Joannon on Unsplash

It has been nagging at me for over a week why I wasn’t scared at the prospect of hiking through a trail, in the relative dark, knowing there were things waiting to jump out and scare me. It was a very odd time to have a first-time experience of any kind, but those who had been during normal (read: not COVID) times told me that actors usually get very close to you, getting right in your face in their creepy costumes and forcing you to stop when you really should keep going. In COVID-19 times, of course, anything closer than 6 feet wasn’t advisable or safe, so no one came too close to me other than other hikers. To make up for that, it looked like the organizers put more budget toward the machines and scenery rather than rely on actors to navigate the trail themselves. One of the first few settings was a pitch-black tunnel that, every few minutes, lit up to show a giant fake spider with strobe lights behind it.

After the spider, there were haunted churches, a haunted cottage setting with two hillbilly farmers with chainsaws chasing us (with a 6-foot lead), a haunted pumpkin patch, a freak show section, a haunted museum section, a spaceship section with alien actors running around, ending with an escaped convicts section with a metal song playing loudly in a loop. Sections to overwhelm the senses and scare you, as the announcer said when we went in.

Except… I wasn’t overwhelmed or scared. I was alert. My heart beat faster, my body’s reaction to perceived danger, but I did not let out one scream. I kept walking, leaving my crowd behind a few times, letting my eyes scan my surroundings and stepping around actors clearly positioning themselves to jump out at the next patron. I was uncomfortable in confined spaces and refused to go first when going through doors (although I inexplicably led the way when we first walked into the trail), and that was the only expected reaction I saw in myself all night.

So, why was I not scared and just alert? It is the nature of my anxious disposition that I do not like not knowing what to expect from something or someone, so why was I happy to walk in first? Comparatively, I was very anxious and nervous when I went in for jury duty on Friday, since I’d never done it before, I didn’t know what to expect and I was afraid of getting something wrong.

I did some digging, and the research done so far added to the confusion instead of providing an answer. The least-contradicting source was this Huffpost article that isn’t too recent and is about scary movies, but at least it’s very much pre-pandemic so that’s as reliable as I’ll get for now. According to this article, there are a few reasons people don’t get scared while watching scary movies:

  1. They experience the stress that the adrenaline causes differently, almost enjoying the reaction.
  2. They are not highly sensitive people.
  3. They may have experienced fear and discomfort (from age-appropriate scary movies and attractions) from a young age, so they’re more or less used to it.
  4. They enjoy connecting with others over being scared.

I do not fit into any of these, starting with my last entry on my realization that I may just be a highly sensitive person. I do not enjoy the stress reaction of being scared, as the near panic attacks I get when I see a rodent or I’m somewhere higher than the first floor would indicate.

Going back to my Sex and the City connection, perhaps I have seen too much. There is a lot of trauma and Trauma I’ve experienced, like anyone and everyone, and it takes specific stressors and fears to trigger an adrenaline- and panic-led response.

Knowing that everyone in the haunted forest was an actor and wasn’t allowed to get closer than 6 feet for their own and my safety didn’t scare me but, rather, gave me a task: to finish the hike.

I saw It: Part Two recently, so I knew that killer clowns are in vogue and very much not real, but seeing a rat in the streets of Baltimore on Saturday night sent me into a near panic and walking faster to the car.

Walking through the haunted cemetery section, eyes alert and open to dodge the next actor, only meant that I had to walk the trail and watch out for loose branches that may have tripped me. That isn’t nearly as terrifying and anxiety-inducing as the paralyzing fear I feel in my gut when I think of any illness, accident or disease that could affect my dad as he gets older and isn’t in the shape he was 16 years ago when I started living with him full time.

So, after doing skimpy research, reflecting and writing this post, I’m still not any closer to figuring out why I wasn’t at all scared during a sensory-overload experience meant to overwhelm and scare. At least I know I have the capability to be scared, paralyzed and overwhelmed. I have but to think of standing on a rooftop with mice and rats scurrying around my feet while my dad is being rushed to the hospital to feel my heart race and ears ring, like the actors wanted me to feel while walking through the haunted forest.

Orchid

Bloom where you are planted.

If a flower doesn’t bloom, you don’t change the flower; you change the environment.

You’ve come across both of these inspirational phrases before in times of adversity, or in motivational posters in a doctor’s waiting room.

But what if I’m an orchid?

Photo by Jessica Knowlden on Unsplash

When orchids are cared for properly, they bloom, wilt and bloom again for years. They require precise conditions to survive and thrive: too much or too little water can harm them; too much or too little light can make them wilt; too much or too little humidity and they won’t bloom another year. Orchids are the flower that you shift your life around to make sure they live, shifting around furniture to let them receive south- and east-facing light, and even adding a humidifier and humidity meter for good measure. Yet sometimes, even with the right amount of light, watering frequency and repotting, orchids don’t bloom.

I have killed many a plant this year, and some haven’t even grown roots. None of them, however, have died out of neglect. I have watered them or removed their water supply if I was advised to. I moved them closer to the sunlight and away from it. I’ve protected them from the cat’s curious reach and let her have free reign of the one that was safe for her (cat grass; a gift for her twelfth birthday). I even tried planting one from scratch: I planted the habanero seeds and tenderly packed the soil before watering it, diligently ensuring that the soil was moist everyday so it could germinate. I watched as two hopeful sprouts emerged from the soil, only to watch them die over the following weeks. I got a miniscule Venus fly trap as a gift and was commanded not to touch it. Only to look at it. Three weeks later, what I tenderly dubbed Cheryl Blossom withered and died a slow death.

There are plenty more plants in my house, plants I’m not the guardian of. These are all thriving: the small aloe vera grows greener every day, promising to have stems large enough to cut for face masks one day. The money tree had a few singed leaves from too much sun exposure, but a careful shift two feet to the left, and he’s growing teeny new leaves. If you sat and watched these plants, they would mock you with their growth. There is even a small red pepper plant that bore a small pepper even though it was left outside all summer, was never repotted and never watered.

Are my dead plants trying to tell me something? To change the environment? That they can’t bloom where they’re planted – they can’t even germinate. Are they a reflection of me and my lack of bloom this year?

Like many a plant optimist, I have said, “This is the last one. If this dies, I’m not getting any more,” only to grieve and flagellate myself for a few weeks at the failure when one more dies before attempting a different kind. I tried my luck at starting an avocado plant from an almost-discarded pit. All guidance said the pit would take two to four weeks to sprout roots, some taking as long as eight weeks. It’s week three, and there aren’t any roots, just tiny white dots forming a ring on the bottom half of the pit, teasing me at becoming roots. This, too, I tenderly look after as much as I (read I) need to and have the common sense to: changing its water once it gets yellowish and ensuring it’s receiving just enough indirect sunlight.

What if this attempt doesn’t bloom either? I have held off giving it a serious name until I see a sprout.

Bloom where you are planted. My dead never-would-be flowers disagree.

What if, like my plants, I can’t bloom where I’m planted? What if I need a different environment? Like an orchid.

I recently read about orchid children and how they take special care to bloom. Most advice is geared toward parents raising sensitive children, even providing a handy 23-question quiz to determine if your child may be sensitive, an orchid. Curious, I took the quiz myself, keeping in mind what I remember I was like as a child and what I’m like now. The threshold for sensitivity in the quiz was 13 – I scored 15. At almost 28, I may have to accept the fact that I’m a highly sensitive person, one who may have been born wired that way and developed into a highly sensitive adult from the trauma and Trauma I’ve endured.

Orchid children are sensitive to their environments and tend to become overwhelmed in loud places, in front of strangers or after a radical, surprise change. Often confused with being shy, a highly sensitive child may prefer to sit in the back of the classroom and not raise their hand even if they know the answer, may be wary around strangers until they get to know them better and may notice the distress of others and withdraw or get upset.

Classic perfectionists, orchids do not do well when told to toughen up, to deal with the stressful environment they’re thrown into. Parenting advice today encourages routines, grounding techniques when the child seems anxious, and balancing the line between letting the child explore, gently pushing them to try new things, and coddling them when they become overwhelmed with a big change. Most of all, parents are encouraged to nurture the highly sensitive capabilities, not belittle them as if they were a weakness.

Because they’re not weaknesses.

By sitting quietly and playing alone, a child can be observant, noticing the colors of the changing leaves or the sounds in the street. Wary of strangers, a highly sensitive teenager may take longer to make friends, but the friendships they form will be lasting and genuine. The sensitive adult who doesn’t participate in workplace banter and watercooler visits may get their work done quicker and be more focused, but will always remember a coworker’s favorite meeting room dessert or ask deep, meaningful questions in meetings that are impactful and useful. The sensitive child will grow up to be an adaptable adult.

Orchid children, like their flower namesake, are highly sensitive to their environment and, if they don’t receive the right care and attention from early on, they grow to view the world as a place to protect themselves from. They learn to always be on survival mode, to retreat when the environment disagrees with them. At least that has been my experience now that I have a term for my personality.

It seems like survival mode hasn’t just been my default this year, but for as far back as I remember. The last time I think I can recall not being in survival mode to some degree was 2015. When I wasn’t constantly thinking, “Just until X happens, then I can breathe easy.” What if my orchid tendencies have been showing through and I just need to find the right environment to bloom out of survival mode?

“Watch me while I bloom,” sings Hayley Williams in the eponymous Watch Me While I Bloom. But orchids don’t bloom on command. When is it my turn to bloom? What does my “blooming” environment look like and how can I get there?

Maybe I’ll get an orchid when I find out.