The Stories of a Polka Dot Balloon

Pink Balloon

My friend, Diane, send me this picture of a pink polka dot balloon. The polka dots reminded her of me, and my blog. The picture we agreed was bittersweet, in that the balloon was clearly past her prime, slightly deflated, and alone in the woods. We started to imagine her backstory – was she a birthday gift? Did she slip out of the fingers of a little girl who was devastated at the loss? Was she part of a bunch of balloons, perhaps, at a wedding, each floating to different destinations? We assumed that she brought cheer to someone.

I then started thinking about the assumptions we were making and realizing that we just didn’t know. The balloon might have been a final gift to a dying child or a consolation balloon for a child whose parents just divorced. We just couldn’t know. Yet, we first made lots of assumptions, just like most of us do about everything – including people.

Most of the time, when we meet new people, we make assumptions based on how they look and act and dress. It’s how people try to make sense of the world and figure out how to interact with each other. Most of the time, this strategy works okay (to some extent), in that we manage to negotiate social situations without constant conflict. Yet, I am also aware of the times when this strategy clearly breaks down in dramatic ways – take Ferguson for an example (knowing that this case is much more complex and nuanced than a mere making of assumptions). However, I don’t want to talk about the “extreme” cases here, except to point out that they are unfortunately relatively common in our society. Instead, I want to reflect on the subtle ways that assumptions shape how we act and react to others, and explore the invisible stories that we have in our lives.

For instance, people assume that I was not born in the United States because I am Japanese-American. “Where are you from?” and “What are you?” have been frequent questions in my life. I was born in Cambridge Massachusetts and grew up in a suburb of Boston. This is usually not what the asker expects, and not really what they want to know anyway. They want to know what country (in my case) my grandparents on my came from. The other common question, “What are you?” I find quite offensive. I often think “Vulcan” when I get asked this. Most of the time, I don’t say it, as I am too polite and know that they are really asking is what is my ethnic background. One time, when I lived in San Francisco, a census worker came up to me at a gathering and assumed I didn’t speak English. In truth, I only speak English and sadly don’t speak Japanese at all. I doubt a person of European background would get asked these kinds of questions even if she or he were a visitor and were not American and didn’t speak English at all. The assumption, based on appearance would be that she or he belonged here.

In addition to the assumptions made from appearances, the pink polka dot balloon made think about the untold life stories that people have and the ways that appearances don’t tell the whole story at all. I grew up in a suburb of Boston and people could assume my family was upper-middle class based on my address. Yet, in reality my mother was always scraping to make ends meet. In our neighborhood we were the “odd” family, mostly because my mother was of European descent and her children were mixed heritage Japanese-Americans; we were lower-middle class in the sea of more privilege; and my mother was mentally ill and suffered from bipolar disorder. We did not fit the nice white middle class profile and could feel the subtle discrimination and judgment of others. Yet, there was much more to our story than the bits people knew. Although often troubled, my mother was tough too and had a good heart. Yet, very few people really knew her as they kept their distance.

So I am thinking that when I start to write someone else’s story in my head just from their appearance that I need to stop and realize that I don’t know unless I talk to them and ask. And luckily for me, people can share their stories when balloons cannot.

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A Cyclist’s Identity

Pata on Red crop

It’s been almost ten years since I first donned spandex and began my journey as cyclist.  Almost ten years since I first rolled down the Minuteman Bike Path with my now partner, David, for the first time. (Just for the record, I probably stopped eight times to rest, but made it the entire 20 mile round-trip.)  David would come up behind me and give me a little push to help me get up the inclines and to encourage me.  I still have the little patch that we got at the store at the Bedford train depot at the end of the path.  A lot has happened since that day.

Over the past ten years, I have developed an identity as a cyclist that is integral to who I am. I have learned and taught bicycle mechanics. I have built wheels. I raced once. I taught bicycle riding from abject beginners to group riding and pacelining. I rode five Harbor to the Bay AIDS charity rides – each 125 miles in one day. Most years, I rode on average 4500 miles per year. In the summer of 2012, I rode with my partner David across the United States (from Bedford Massachusetts to Dayton Washington State). However, my list of cycling accomplishments is only part of what makes up my identity as a cyclist. For there are plenty of people who ride their bikes a lot, but who do not have an identity as a cyclist. I think it is the pervasiveness of cycling and bicycles in my life that makes it an identity.

Take my “office/studio” for an example. It is a small room in which I do everything from meditation and art to writing and exercise. It is sort of an all purpose space for me. It also houses six bicycles (not all of which are mine), my cycling instructor certificate from the League of American Bicyclists, a bicycle sculpture, a bowl made of chain on my desk, and four bicycling posters. Righty now the trainer is also set up in the corner. Bike stuff is everywhere! In my pencil containers I have tire levers and tucked in with the envelopes is a multi-tool. Anyone who sees my room would know immediately that I am a bike nut.

Even my language is infused with cycling terms. David and I joke about having different “kits” like the “snow shoveling kit” or the “bedtime kit ” – referring to the clothes I wear specifically for those activities. Or I might say that my friend is “off the front,” when we are both in cars. Cycling jargon gets generalized and has become part of my common parlance.

My identity as a cyclist provides me with a perspective on life and reference points that people who are not cyclists do not have. Cycling is a powerful metaphor in my life. Cycling requires balance, forward movement, and pacing – as life does. I look at weather differently; the question is always, is it ride-able?

Now the past couple of years have not been good for me in terms of riding. After I lost my best friend to murder, I have had a hard time getting back on the bike. The grief was just too much. But even when I am not riding as much, I still have my cyclist’s identity. I still view the world through cyclist’s eyes. I have miss riding and think I have finally moved through enough grief to re-approach it this coming season. My aim is to reaffirm my identity and practice as a cyclist and to find the joy again.

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An Argument for Self-Compassion

A Loving Kindness Collage I made for myself

A Loving Kindness Collage I made for myself

(This one is for CC)

I want to get back to the third of my New Year’s intentions: compassion. There has been a lot written about the need for a more compassionate world, and although I agree whole-heartedly in the need for compassion for others, in this post I want to focus on compassion for one’s self.

I know lots of people who have boatloads of compassion for everyone else, but who judge themselves harshly. I was among those who could give to others but not to myself. I judged myself to standards much higher than those I had for others and was quick to condemn myself. It took many years of therapy and support to undo those internal tapes that said I was not good enough and that I was undeserving. It took a lot of work to be able to be as compassionate to myself as I am to others and although I have yet to achieve perfection, I am much more able to hold myself in compassion than I was before. Not only was self-condemnation hurtful but it also was not helpful.

For one, being overly critical of myself never served me; it only made me feel worse. I was not motivated to “do better” by condemning myself. Instead, it just led to despair. I think there was a part of me that felt that condemning myself would make me perform better – sort of like an internal abusive drill Sargent. What I learned was that I don’t respond well to that kind of “authority” internally or externally and I do better when I feel understood and encouraged to grow from the place I am to a new one.

Personally, I think most people are this way. I am not saying that there aren’t times when I need to have goals or standards, I am just saying that I don’t have to beat myself up if I don’t reach them all the time.

It makes more sense to me to work to understand what got in the way of a task and figure out how to do better next time. Most of the time, we are all doing the best we can do. This is important to remember. This is not to say that we shouldn’t improve if we are not satisfied with how we are doing – it’s just that we should give ourselves grief. Anyone one of us can only do the best we can do at any given moment. However, we have a choice of how we interact with that fact and it strikes me that acceptance of ourselves and our limitations works better than condemning ourselves.

So as I go into this year, I hope to continue to have compassion and acceptance for myself as I make my way on this healing and growing journey.

(The picture is a loving kindness collage I made for myself. It reminds me to be compassionate and loving toward me!)

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Embracing Your Inner Oddball

clown croppedI grew up in the sixties and seventies as an Asian American in a primarily White Jewish community. My parents were divorced whereas all of my friends had two parent families. My mother was mentally ill and the neighborhood knew it. I was a feminist at sixteen. I studied issues of race and racism in graduate school. I did diversity training. I have been on the margins of society and academia for all of my life. It’s a place I know well and I have come to accept it and learned that there is power in the margins to speak truth. However, being in the margins is not the same as being an oddball – although there are some who would confuse them.

Being an oddball is all about whimsy. It’s about painting outside of the lines and not caring. It’s about being different. I have always been a creative soul. I love art and poetry and music. I love vivid colors and batik patterns and shiny things (I was probably a crow in a previous life). However, I have not always been able to embrace my inner oddball. There were times in my teens and twenties that I tried to not stand out quite as much. I tried rather unsuccessfully to assimilate to some mythic norm I could never be. That is until I met Peter.

Peter (for those of you who don’t know) was my best friend and ex-husband. He cultivated oddballishness. He was about being unique and eclectic and quirky. When he got a research and development job at a major computer company he was told he had to wear a tie. They didn’t specify what color tie or how big a tie; they just said a tie. So Peter, wore ties – bright, patterned, fat, loud, tacky, artsy, ties. He had ties that sang, ties with bobbles on them, and ties with naked ladies hidden on the back. He became a connoisseur of ties. When he died some of his ties were given away at the memorial service. Ties were one way Peter was an oddball. He was gifted in many ways and being himself was one of them. In our relationship he helped me nurture my inner and external oddball.

In some ways, being an oddball is contextual. (After all if everyone is doing it you are the mainstream in that community.) Being a cyclist can make you an oddball and on the margins in some contexts. When my partner, David, and I rode across the country in the summer of 2012, I think many people thought we were oddballs. In Montana they would ask, “where are you from?” and we said, “Boston” they would just shake their heads. In addition, my kits (cycling clothes) are rather colorful. One of my favorite jerseys is a retro-70’s one that is neon pink, purple and yellow – a real expression of oddballishness.

Many non-cyclists also think I am an oddball because I own more than one bicycle. We once had a landlord who came into our apartment, saw the ten bikes or so hung on the wall, and said, “what do you do with ALL those bikes?” I said, “We ride them.” He said, “I don’t believe you.” (He was not a kind or expansive man.) He thought we were oddballs at best. Although in the big scheme of things, his opinion does not matter much, he does reflect an opinion of many folks.

The question is what to do in the face of the “norm?” First, we have to acknowledge that this too is contextual. Perhaps, if Peter wasn’t White, male, and really smart, the company would have asked him not to wear his ties. It is an unfortunate fact that people are oppressed differentially and that not everyone can get away with expressions of oddballishness. However, when at all possible, I vote that we start by embracing our inner oddball, and express it when we can. Everyone has quirky aspects of themselves. What we choose to do with them is the question. If we hide our inner oddball or squeeze her square self into the round hole, we do ourselves a disservice. We are all unique beings and our inner oddballishness deserves a chance to come out and play!

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Ramblings on Purpose and Meaning in My Life

Female Samurai c. late 1800s Meiji Era - ImgurIn my last post, I wrote about three perspectives with which I am going into the New Year: gratitude, purpose, and compassion. Today I want to write about purpose. As I was talking to a friend about the meanings of purpose, I discovered that I was bringing to it nuance that was probably not there. So I decided to look up “purpose” in the dictionary as a place to start. One of the dictionary meanings is “the aim or intention of something.”   In this case, I am talking about the intention of my life.

It is perhaps more accurate to talk about intentions in the plural, as I don’t think I can distill them down to one intention that covers all aspects of my life and work. For me, intention is also about meaning. How do my intentions give my life meaning? What is the purpose of my life and of my actions?

I have been thinking a lot about these big questions. I have also been asking my friends to think about them. You see, for Christmas I got a video camera from my partner. The first project that I thought to do was to ask my friends and family the question: What gives your life meaning? No one has been recorded yet. Everyone has said, “I have to think about it.” I get this.

Actually, when I thought about the question “What gives my life meaning?” the first things that came to my mind were love and service.

It really goes without saying that when I speak of love, I mean much more than romantic love. When I was an education professor I would tell my pre-service teachers that they had to love their students. I often got two distinct responses to this. One was nodding and full agreement. These pre-service teachers understood that to be a good teacher they had to love and have compassion for their student’s humanity and hold the hope for their students’ futures. The other response was confusion and disbelief. These pre-service teachers didn’t see the connection between teaching and love and thought I was a bit nutty. However, by the end of their teaching program and student teaching experience, I believe that most of them understood what I was saying and came to agree.

If love is at the foundation of what I do in life, then what I am doing feels meaningful. Love is connection and caring, and for me, it is also about nurturing. Let me pause here for a moment, and say that in order to love others, I have to love myself first. Coming to self-love and self-compassion, in the face of depression and trauma, was hard won. But I can say that for the most part, I can hold myself in love most of the time, which then allows me to extend to others in my life – which lead me to service.

As I was working on this post, I came across a greeting card on a friend’s counter that had the following on the cover: H.H., the 14th Dalai Lama said, “We are visitors on this planet. We are here for ninety or one hundred years at the very most. During that period, we must try to do something good, something useful, with out lives; if you contribute to other people’s happiness, you will find the true goal, the true meaning of life.” Although one could ask what is “good and useful” mean? or what is “happiness?” it would distract us from the idea that I think he is really talking about service.

Doing good deeds, or service, in the world connects me to others. I feel that I have been given gifts in this lifetime and I can use them in many ways especially to help others. Although I admire those who do service for big causes like clean water in Africa or battling hunger in Bangladesh, my service tends to be extremely local. When I see a person in my sphere who needs help or a pressing issue that needs addressing, I ask what can I do? It is not always the case that I can DO anything, and part of serving is knowing when and how to help.

Right now I am involved in a number of “projects” that use my gifts and skills. I am tutoring a graduate student in social work which is a learning experience for me as well. I am an advocate for a couple of families as an educational consultant or in meetings with state agencies. Having an educated “outsider” can be very helpful for the families as unfortunately sometimes schools and agencies treat advocates with more respect than they do the families themselves.

I also work as a mental health activist. I co-founded The Breaking Silences Project which is a multifaceted artistic endeavor that aims to educate and engage communities in open conversation about issues of mental health in Asian American women (thebreakingsilencesproject.com); I am on an ad hoc committee working on a website for the de-stigmatization of mental health issues in Asian American communities; and I speak at conferences and forums about my own experiences with depression and PTSD. For the most part, I have received positive response and support for this work. So many people have come to me with their stories and thanked me for being open and honest and speaking out. This feels important to do – for my own healing as well as for others.

All of this service work gives my life shape and provides me with hope. For when I can get out of my own stuff and lead with love to help someone else, I feel better and hopefully they do too.

(The picture is supposedly of a woman samurai from the late 1800’s.  Whether a real picture or not, samurai had purpose and provided service.)

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On Gratitude

Fortune

So it is the New Year – kind of an odd day about which to make such a big deal. After all it is just a “calendar day” with no significance in the natural world. It makes more sense to me to make a big deal about winter solstice when we start going toward the light, but that is just me. In any event, the New Year is a time to reflect on the previous year and the state of things. However, I don’t really want to rehash last year; after all it was a bumpy ride and it would be boring. Instead, I would rather reflect on gratitude.

I have been thinking about what perspectives I want to carry into this next year and gratitude is in the top three (the other two probably being compassion and purpose). I have an awful lot for which to be grateful.

Here is a list of a few things for which I am grateful:

  • A lovely healthy daughter
  • A loving partner
  • Meaningful work
  • A creative life
  • Heat in my house
  • Family and friends who love me
  • Conveniences such as my computer
  • The ability to reason, reflect and think
  • The ability to ride 20 miles (even out of shape)
  • My bikes (really they are family)
  • The ability to love others and myself

Although not comprehensive, it helps me to list a few things. It reminds me of the range of big and small things for which I am grateful. But perhaps for me, what is more important to remember is why it is important to me to remember gratitude.

My life has not always been easy and I live with chronic major depression and PTSD that have the ability to take me down. I have been down many times. But what I do with that fact in my life, I think, shapes what kind of life I can have. If I choose to dwell on what I don’t have or can’t do or if I focus solely on the anguish then I limit my life to one of misery. It’s not that I don’t acknowledge the difficult feelings or ignore my depression; it’s just that I try to not get stuck there. For I have found, when I remember that I am blessed and that I have many things for which to be grateful, I do better and I don’t stagnate as much or for as long.

So in 2015, it is my intention to put gratitude, compassion and purpose up front and center. I believe, if I can hold on to these perspectives toward life, then I can weather the rest of it and be present and alive for the journey.

Happy New Year!

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Getting Back

The past year has been a tough one for me.  After our cross country cycling trip in the summer of 2012 abruptly ended with the murder of my ex-husband/best friend, Peter, I stopped riding for a while.  I couldn’t get on the bicycle without crying.  Cycling became a source of grief for me – it was associated with loss.  It was just too painful to do – especially alone.  So, I didn’t do much riding over the last year and a half.

Now it is March and the first day of spring.  It is a new season and I am determined to reclaim my lost riding.  Although it seems like this just means getting back on my bicycle and riding, it is not a simple task for me.  For one, I have gained weight and am out of shape.  This means that riding is not as easy or fun as it has been.  It means I have to be patient with myself (which is never easy).   I was a good cyclist before I took my hiatus and it is hard to go back to something when I don’t feel quite as good at it as I was before.  Yet, the only way back is through action – through getting back on the bike.

What it is really about is acceptance.  If I am going to succeed at reclaiming my riding, I have to accept that I am where I am. I have to accept that I may cry when I ride.  I have to accept that it will take some time and effort to get in shape and find my cycling groove again. The good news is that at this moment I feel it is possible.  I feel that I can do this, if I give myself enough latitude to take it one ride at a time.

So tomorrow it is going to be in the mid-forties and sunny.  Spring is trying to come forth and tomorrow I am going to ride.  It may not be a long ride or a fast one, but it will be the first ride of spring and a start toward getting back to something that I love.  Peter would want it that way.  He would be mad if I gave up riding.  I can hear him now.  So in his spirit and for mine, tomorrow I will take out my pretty blue bike and mosey on down the road.

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