what a year it’s been

This year was one of many changes and adventures for me. In some ways, I could easily draw parallels to when I first entered college. In other ways, I felt and experienced and learned things that I would never have imagined myself going through. Here are four themes that defined 2019 for me, and in the spirit of belated Thanksgiving, why I’m grateful for each.

1. Travel.

In just these last 11 months, I traveled to 8 different countries outside of the States. It was as though there was a real travel bug that had infected me; I couldn’t sit still. Every month, I was itching for yet another look into the world outside. At times, it came out of boredom, other times out of curiosity, and other times, a craving to fill a void in my soul.

With each journey, I saw and tasted and felt both novelty and familiarity. In London, I climbed the spire of St. Paul’s twice to take in the sheer size of the city. In Seoul, I walked up and down the streets that defined my teenhood, reliving bittersweet memories. In Tel Aviv, I sat down on the stillest beach I’d ever seen for hours, a solemn mood so different from the beaches of LA. In Taipei, I devoured eight shrimp balls and found a home in a place I’d never been before.

I was exhausted every time I returned to San Francisco. But with each journey, I felt like I had seen a piece of an iceberg that would only reveal itself to be bigger and bigger each time, pushing me to wonder how much more gargantuan it could be. I was liberated from the tendrils of life that would twist me into stress and headache.

I’m grateful that I’ve had the luxury to travel and hope to dear god I don’t get fired; I’m not looking to stop anytime soon.

2. Communication.

At work many times this year, I faced challenges with communication. As a student, communication is a thing that happens during group projects and assignments. You do your part and then you’re done. It doesn’t bite you back after the due date, nor does it determine your (and your peers’) promotion status.

Oh how little did I think about how work would be a massive, never ending group project. I am outspoken. If I have opinions and questions, I don’t let them sit in the back of my throat. I want to be in the center of attention, but stress out with the sheer amount of responsibilities that I unknowingly take on. It has been truly challenging understanding how I influence others, and every day I question myself on how my words and actions affect others around me.

It’s hard to know the answers unless I receive feedback — and giving feedback is stressed at Facebook. For this culture, I am eternally grateful. As both an engineer and a person I’ve grown so much in less than a year, thanks to the comments and criticisms I received.

I was the kind of kid that would finish the entire group project on my own if I was failing to communicate with my team. You can’t do that, Jenny, this isn’t school; there’s no due date, and these people aren’t going to just suddenly cooperate. I’m still learning to trust and learning that communication is not one-sided. I have a long way to go, and the process so far has been frustrating, but I need to remind myself I am not the only person in this world.

3. Tears.

I’ve been very open about my struggle with depression this year, and I’m glad I was. I’ve found myself in the arms of many considerate and loving individuals who could both console me and lead me to believe that things will be better.

I’m not going to fool myself anymore, thinking there are no outlets or sources of help. Most importantly, I’ve learned to cry, to let my feelings be free without feeling weak.

And as life does life, it has been better. For that, I am grateful for the sunshine during the rainstorms.

4. Friends.

Image may contain: 8 people, including Jenny Lee, Thomas Reese, Alicia Savelly, Sresht Rengesh, Corey Wu and Elizabeth Liu, people smiling, outdoor, water and nature

Image may contain: 7 people, including Jenny Lee, Forrest Hofmann, Yury Ogienko, Eddie Lee and Eva Yeung, people smiling, people standing and outdoor

Image may contain: 4 people, including Jenny Lee, people smiling, people sitting, people standing and outdoor

Image may contain: 6 people, including Eva Yeung, Jessica Zhang, Ellin Hu, Jenny Lee and Julia Park, people smiling, people sitting and indoor

Image may contain: 4 people, including Ellin Hu, people smiling, pool, swimming and outdoor

This year was the first year in a long time since I’ve prioritized friends in my life.

I’m grateful for every single soul that has shared a bite, an inside joke, a tear, a drink, or a smile with me this year.

2020, I’ve got some high expectations.

what a year it’s been

8.26

a brief apologies to my non-Korean readers; this is a post in Korean for no particular reason other than that Korean leaves a better taste in my mouth for certain topics.

힘든 날이었다.

이리저리 미팅에 끌려 다녔더니 집중해서 책상에 앉아 업무 진행도 제대로 못했다. 그래서인지 하루 종일 바쁘게 무언가를 했다고 생각 되면서도 돌아보니 시간만 허비한 느낌이다.

오늘 같은 날은 모두들 저녁밥을 먹고 퇴근 하러 가는 시간, 혼자 회사에 남아 잔잔한 음악을 틀어놓고 일을 본다. 뭔가 이렇게라도 안하면 남들 보다 딸린다는 느낌이라도 드는걸까, 육체가 피곤해도 정신적인 불안감을 떨쳐내는것이 덜 피곤하다.

피곤하다- 피곤하다- 속으로 칭얼대다 보면 학생때와 많이 비교가 된다. 고등학교 시절에는 매일 새벽에 등교후 법적으로 허용된 밤 10시까지 학원에 쫓기듯 다녔고, 이후로 카페에 앉아 새벽 1-2시 까지 공부를 했었다. 공대를 다닐때는 그저 주어진 숙제와 과제만 끝내는데도 하루에 잠을 서너시간만 자며 좀비처럼 강의를 들었다.

그것에 비해 현재 나는 많이 다른 삶을 살고있다. 정해진 출퇴근 시간이 없다. 흔한 상사들과 트러블, 괜한 회식이나, 지나치게 눈치 보며 행동을 자제 할것도 없다. 먹고 싶은것, 사고 싶은것을 다 만끽 할정도의 수입과, 누릴 수 있는 혜택이 수도 없이 많은, 말 그대로 꿈의 직장에서 근무 중이다.

헌데 힘들다고 하다니. 학생 때의 내가 현재의 나를 보면 비웃을 것만 같았다. 쌍코피 터뜨려 가며 같은 교과서를 암기 하듯 3번 이상 반복 필기를 하고, 지칠대로 지친 몸으로 알바를 5개 뛰며 2배 수당 받으려고 악착같이 해냈던 내가. 놀아주고, 먹여주고, 재워주는데, 무엇이 힘들다는거지?

졸업한 후 취직하고 한 동안은 무엇이 달라진 건지, 왜이리 흐물흐물 해지고 엄살이 늘었는지, 생각이 많아졌다.

달라진건 많았다. 시간과 돈에 쫓기지 않는 대신에 꿈과 미래에 대한 불분명함에 쫓기고 있다. 내가 하고 싶은건 많지만, 어떻게 해야하고 어떤 길로 가야 할지는  더이상은 정해져있지 않다. 꼭 봐야 하는 시험도 없고, 꼭 들어야하는 강의도 없다. 꼭 만나야 될 사람과, 꼭 참여해야 될 일도 없다. 억압된 사회가 싫다고 생각 했는데, 나를 묶고 있다 생각 됐던 쇠사슬은 되려 내 두 손이 붙들고 있었다.

나를 당기던 사회적 요소들이 없다는걸 처음으로 알아채니, 두근거리던 마음이 설렘에서 두려움으로 변해가고 있었다. 그저 신나서 파란 하늘만 바라보던 아기새가 펼친 두 날개는 아직 약하고 부들부들 떨렸다. 날고 싶다, 어떻게 날아야 하는거지? 날고 싶다, 잘 날고 있는거겠지? 날고 싶다,  다들 어디로 가는거지? 나는 어디로 날아야 되는거지?

힘든 날이었다. 학생때와는 다른 힘듬이다. 정답이란 것이 없는데 아직 정답란은 채워지기를 기다리는 마냥 비어있다. 풀이 방식을 찾아볼 수 도 없고, 한두시간 들어 끝나는 강의도 아니다. 끝나지 않는 이 수업 동안에는 많은것 을 배워야하고, 들어야하고, 마음에 새길것 버릴것 따져가며, 운도 따라줘야 한다.

무엇보다 이런 과정을 겪는 동안엔 행동 하나하나가 완벽 할 수는 없다는걸 기억해야한다. 또, 완벽하지 않아야 배울것도 많으니, 실패에 대한 자책의 굴레에 갇히면 안되는걸 알아야한다.

저멀리 떨어진 산의 정상 만을 바라보고 있다면 목도 아프고 가까워지지 않는 목표가 답답하기만 하다. 가끔은 길 옆에 핀 꽃도 예뻐해주며, 어떤 날은 몇 걸음만 걸어도 된다. 평탄한 길이 아닐수록 더욱이 칭찬해라. 멈추지 않고 걷는것은 충분히 어렵고 고단 하다는 것을 상기 시켜라.

8.26

a long update

Content warning: depression, suicide.

“Where do you want to start?”

This is the hardest question to answer when beginning your first session with the therapist.

As I’ve answered before, let’s reel it back to high school, spring semester of senior year. I was in a very bad place in life, hopefully the worst to ever be.

I had severe depression and loneliness, resulting from factors in life both uncontrollable and controllable but in a viciously negative feedback loop of addiction and dependence. I had outcast myself at school, giving condescending stares at my fellow classmates thinking I was better, feeling trapped in an education system of mundane and pointless tasks. Without friends of my age, I turned toward the rest of the world and its people. They taught and showed me how the non-elitist society I did not grow up in worked and lived. Physically, I was at my worst. I was frequently injured, recovering from an year long fight with anorexia, relying on alcohol as a method of coaxing insomnia to stop nightmares. There was a sort of impenetrable wall that I had built to try to hide it all. Only few knew much more than the tip of the berg. And of the few, one led himself to his suicide after a relentless night of drinking over shared miseries, in front of my very own eyes. This was April 19, 2015, my 18th birthday.

When my parents found a peephole in this wall, maybe a cigarette in my bag or a failed attempt of discreetly coming home drunk at 4am, and caught the hedonist in me, I threw a tantrum. I lost conscience from the panicked thought that I had been caught in my hiding. It tore me away from them. I couldn’t tell them anything; they wouldn’t understand. I knew they didn’t, because my mother sent me to a psychiatrist that scoffed my behavior off as adolescent angst. I lost the little trust I had in society, with my innocence tested and stripped off.

Then I went to college.

Mudd is, well agreed among us Mudders, not the place where mental health tops priorities. I was met with mountains of assignments and classes, social temptations to drink and party, pressure to be politically correct with peers that came from so many backgrounds so different from my own, relatively homogeneous and sheltered one, etc, etc. Most importantly, there was no time for things like self-reflection.

This was the perfect environment for me at the time. I built an even higher wall, but one that was easier to disguise and tuck away, perhaps even make a part of my true self. The people I had chosen to run away from were now 6000+ miles away. I could choose to not pick up that phone call, and to therefore really cut myself off from those that decided to care about me.

I was beyond distracted. Every crevice of time I found, I filled with work and work and work. I gave zero attention to my past, and there was not much to remind me of it, besides some Facebook photos and a tattoo. I passed out in bed every night, exhausted. And for many, many moments, I was really happy. I thought I had found parts of myself to love and parts of the world to enjoy without reason. I thought I had forgotten what made people miserable other than endless deadlines. School drama and problem sets simply could not compare to suicidal friends and tattered relationships with society. With distance and time, I was able to mend my relationship with my parents, who had either semi-given up on fixing their daughter or chosen to focus on my achievements that they were proud of instead. I began to try to love people, and to trust them. It looked like things were going to work out, after all.

In retrospect, this was the perfect environment for my past traumas to fester and grow into a hideous monster, waiting for me to peek outside.

I repeat: there was no time for things like self-reflection at Mudd.

Finishing school, time was all I had. My environment had yet again changed itself completely. I no longer had the excuse of work, which had once seemed neverending. I was bored and lonely on weekends, no matter the number of hobbies or parties I attended. I became hyper aware of details in life that I had no capacity for before. In particular, I found myself becoming sad.

Upon feeling this creeping sense of dread as my birthday neared, I decided to consult a therapist. Despite my previously extremely negative experience, I thought it would be the best for me.

The first session I had with the therapist came around and I was anxious. During the 1 hour session, I stared at the clock for just about all of it as I tried to patiently relate my experiences and problems. Her responses, her questions, they all seemed pointless and expected. I wasn’t sure how she, a complete stranger, was going to even start helping me.

By the time we were done, I had told her more than I had ever told anyone. Tried to strip down the wall as much as I could. I thought it would be helpful, yet I was left further perplexed. It had been my first time, ever, to tell anyone about my life to this extent, even less so to a complete stranger whose name I had already forgotten.

And from this, the monster seemed to have been awoken from its sleep.

I began silently digging into myself. I found again my inner thoughts, my memories, my instincts, and ultimately at the heart, I found a twisted and neglected child. I despised what I had had to go through but I despised even more how I had almost forgotten such things. I asked whether I deserved the happiness I felt; I was horrible for the harm I had caused to both myself and others. When fate started pulling strings in ways I had not planned or wanted, I noticed it more and with greater effect. I told myself it was punishment for being prudent and comfortable of my fortune. Sometimes, I told myself it was not enough, that I needed something worse and more real to remind me of what pain was like. I started drinking a lot more, and alone. These nights reminded me of the still-existent youth and immaturity that I so detested.

Let’s pause, skip ahead to today for a second.

I am not fine. It would be a blatant lie to say that I was. Rather, I am sad, but grateful and perhaps hopeful. I have the time to take to understand myself. I’ve had the opportunities to jump into fire in frustration at my own mental state and come out, alive but burnt. I am trying hard to be patient with myself, to take emotions and impulses under control and moderation.

I am talking. I have been fortunate to have found new friends to discuss and explore my life with. Yet I am talking with no fruition if I cannot find help within myself, or if I cannot find anyone that is able to relate to me at a deeper level. Writing this post is an attempt for me to barf out my experiences and my feelings, perhaps to find some sort of catharsis. Writing in general has always served that sort of purpose for me, but this particular post has taken me many teary nights to write, and it has taken me many more to find the confidence to actually publish it.

Okay, unpause.

Nearly every night, debilitating feelings of what I could only describe as a mixture of loneliness and helplessness swarmed over me. I cried more times than I could count in the last two months. I hated feeling ill inside. I was being mean to my body.

I found refuge at work and at the gym, always returning home very late, afraid of being alone again. I traveled, I partied, I wandered around, finding excuses to do things that would distract me.

I was no longer running away from anyone else. I was running away from myself. I tried finding someone to depend on, to relish in the fake sanctuary of these walls. I tried and failed and thought twice, laughing at my own pity and fallacy in falling in the same traps again. If anything, I needed to stop building any more walls, to stop trapping myself in being afraid of trusting others, and to start tearing them down and releasing the monster back out into the wild where it belonged.

I know that when I set a goal that I see as important, I can and am able to see it come through to reality. The stinging pain of the mistakes and stupidities I’ve committed have driven me to try to get better. To work on a mentality that is less vicious and more open to negotiation. The scars that I’ve left are good reminders of the imperfect self that I have to come to live with and love.

If you’ve read this far down, thank you. I am a creature that craves attention and love from others, and my writing, with the intention for others to read it, fulfills that bit of neediness in me. This is not a post of resolution, or conclusion. It is an update of a story that won’t just end with a fairy tale happily ever after.

I just want myself to know and promise that I’m trying to do the right things.

a long update

Now Entering – Interstate 5

This last weekend, I took a trip to LA.

Driving up and down the 5 is a meditative experience, to be extremely euphemistic. An infinite stretch of brown-green nothingness is all it is, sprinkled with cow dung and crazy drivers, probably just as impatient as I am to get 12 feet ahead.

I’m sitting as comfortably as I can, feet making automated movements thanks to a largely disconnected brain. I can’t help but think for the four hundredth time about the destination, how much I crave it.

I remember the first time I braved this drive; I stopped by Kettleman City to grab drive thru and some bitch in a Mercedes flipped me off for driving too slowly as I tried to have a bite at my burger.

I remember the first time I saw a trucker swerve at 2am and get nearly knocked off into the Grapevine. I remember the one time I cut off a white pickup in haste, which led to maybe 20 minutes of him chasing me down for what seemed like my mortal mistake. I remember the first time I observed SoCal get snowed in, adding an extra 4 hours of back-breaking misery. I remember the first time I was accompanied by a passenger, and the last time he accompanied me.

I apparently don’t like this drive at all, since I’m only remembering the negatives.

Sometimes, the idleness of it all is broken to think about life. Blasting music that I would listen to only if I were alone, I enter into a deep middle school kid moment of what I’m happy or unhappy about. I think of the things I should do, or fantasies that somehow the empty skies remind me of, or how much I love my car, etc. Sometimes, I think about the people I wish were in this car, or friends I’ve not seen in years. It’s kind of embarrassing really, the number of mindless thoughts that enter and exit as though they’re from a dream.

Man, driving is weird.

Recently, I thought about how it seemed like my life just hit that intersection between the 101 and 5, ticking the cruise control ON. It’s starting to become a straight line whose destination is so far I can’t see it. The boredom is setting in and I’m starting to hate it. My butt is beginning to be numb, lower back sore. Sometimes, I want to take that random exit off 152 on Pacheco Pass and just sit and stare at the reservoir. Other times, I’m pissed off that I’m only going at 80 mph when I want to step a 110.

Likewise to an impatient and tired driver, I’m starting to grow exceedingly aware of the smallest events that happen on the sidelines or up ahead. One day, I’ll be droning in on the latest work gossip; another day, all I want to do is figure out how to efficiently spend the next 15 minutes between two meetings. Every mile I drive sucks; every minute I spend idly, equally so.

I’m thinking about the hiccups that I’ve made in the last few months I started working, and I’m bracing for the ones I’m bound to make from here. I think about whether they would have ever happened had I had the choice to fly instead. I think about whether this is even worth it.

I’m sitting as comfortably as I can, working with $350 noise-cancelling headphones typing away mindlessly. There’s a pdf of algebraic topology open in some tab, somewhere. I crave it, and I know where I need to be. This is just the drive to get there.

Now Entering – Interstate 5

Being one and both.

I went on a hike with my mom, perhaps for the first time in my life. An actual hike, one where the path was sometimes unclear, shrouded in the shadows of spring foliage and old autumn leaves. Maybe 3 miles.

She complained 70% of the way: Jenny, this is a jungle; can we turn around over there?; there’s too much dust here; you tricked me, sigh.

It made me laugh. When I joked that she could walk more than 10 miles if this were a shopping mall, she smirked and smacked my back playfully.

She turned to chat with her sister, my aunt. I skipped by, soaking in what resonated with my childhood, full of mountains and seas.

1.jpg
My mom and aunt in a quiet forest on the island of Jeju.

Unlike the last time I visited Korea, this visit was a decision made in a whim, when my mom asked to come by. Thus, unlike the last time, my purpose of visit was a little unclear. Perhaps that’s why I had time to think.

To me, Korea is the ex that you dated for years, sharing both the beautiful memories and the most painful ones, influencing your future experiences and reminding you of what it had once been like. That ex that you cringe at, but you still miss a little bit when you scroll past their name on Facebook.

I hated Korea with a passion when I left for college in the states, for reasons both superficial and personal. It hurt to live there; I always felt my arms and legs were bound so stringently. Leaving, I saw scars that dug deep. An immense relief and wave of freedom helped me grow into someone that my 18 year old self could not have imagined to become.

Thus, when I returned, I couldn’t help but hold on to a skepticism that would follow me through every interaction I would have here.

2019_0331_17434500
Skyscrapers of Gangnam

Throughout this week, I felt unsure of my Korean identity. I could hold a conversation with my father about the state of regional politics. I drank every drop of soju delivered to my hands with joy. I even bought a $250 jacket that was “in” on Garosugil. I meditated at a temple, praying and bowing the way I was taught to since 4. I knew by heart and felt sentimental down every alleyway and side street that I used to sneak a cigarette into. I slurped down raw, seasoned crab, a classic side dish in seaside cities, as my mother watched in mild disgust and awe.

Yet, I was unsure.

I despised the comments my father had for Korean politics and his economic decisions. The morning hangovers served a constant reminder of one reason I had gotten sick of this country. I saw the same jacket maybe five times during a 15 minute walk down Gangnam. I felt fake when I sat down to pray, as if the towering, golden Buddha were staring through my soul. I walked down one alley, but saw afar an old friend that worked nearby and ran away avoiding eye contact.

2
Up Exit 10, Yangjae Station.

I think I’ll still miss the raw crab.

Korean society gears around reading subtle behaviors and judging based on appearances. This comment:

“You got chubbier.”

is not meant to be shameful. It is a statement that they care about you; they want you to look the best for others. It is not uncommon to hear my dad judge the thickness of someone’s legs walking by. It is not uncommon to see my mom point out the amount of plastic surgery done on a young woman’s face. Thus, it is only in their best interest that their daughter not receive those same comments from others.

Dressed as I always do, in careless, boyish clothes with no makeup, flashing a forearm tattoo, I don’t fit in anywhere. Eyes land on me, look me up and down. I wish I could just tell them to fuck off. I was in relief when accompanied by an English speaking friend. Only then would the stares avert — oh, she’s a foreigner.

I missed work, a lot. It gave me comfort, taking me back to the streets of California. I couldn’t wait to return to a place that valued freedom of expression and didn’t ask for your age to determine how to treat you.

4
Typical “outskirts” town in Seoul. Guui.

Despite all that and more, I’m unsure because something always brings me back here, to speak the language and to crave the food, to maintain cultural practices and remember its history.

Being from a family born in the countryside, which in Korea means a seaside town, my mom and aunt took me to various older and more historical places, far away from Seoul. While traveling the southern island of Jeju, we feasted. Korean cuisine is all about variety and harmony. There is a “main” dish but it is accompanied by tens of side dishes, called banchan, that is meant to be as equally delicious and important to the meal. Koreans consider rice a key player, as it serves as the mediator for all the bold flavors.

But the reason I love eating Korean food is the people. My aunt ordered a special raw fish plate, nonexistent on the menu, which the waitress responded with, y’all know how to eat! and came back with an extra bottle of soju, on the house. She became instant friends with us, and offered delicacies on little dishes. For my queasy mother who dislikes raw foods, she brought out fried shrimp.

It wasn’t just this one place. Everywhere we went to sit down, a friendly comment or conversation ensued. When my aunt boast about her American niece, they stared at me through different lenses, perhaps awe, other times, envy. They gave an extra abalone or served me a shot of rice wine. They smiled and waved us good-bye, wishing me a safe flight back. Tipping is not a thing in Korea, by the way. I don’t know any of their names, neither do they care.

This is jeong (정). It means affection, but from stranger to stranger, as though they were treating family. It stems from the hardships that Koreans went through in their war-torn days and constant conflicts with neighboring nations that dates back thousands of years. To survive as a nation that is less than a quarter the size of California, its people had to be merciless, both loving and fierce. With enemies all around, Koreans saw themselves and one nation, one family.

5.jpg

That bond is clearly and uniquely Korean. Like unconditional love, I can be expected to receive it and to reciprocate it. In a world where I often feel alone to venture into the difficulties and hardships, I find myself thinking about jeong from an old street vendor’s hand that shoves another piece of warm fish cake in my mouth.

The memories that stick are the details that are subtle but genuine. I think this is why I’m drawn back, again and again, why I continue to take pride in Korea and being Korean. It’s really the worst kind of ex, ever.

6.jpg
Rock-side fishermen.

To clear a brush of its paint when painting with a different color, one would swish it around in a cup of water. The first few times, the water takes on the vibrancy of one hue; after a few more, it turns into a murky brown, and the brush no longer emerges clean.

Yet this cup of water holds the same set of colors that were used on the canvas; the only difference is that one became a muddled mix while the other held composition and structure. One is waste; the other, beauty. Lack of effort versus sufficiency.

Like so, it’s an effort to hold on to an identity, and to remember what makes mine unique. I’m going to try to not let mine brown over and go boring again, down the drain. A clean cup and canvas, ready.

All photos taken and edited by me.

Being one and both.

At the cornerstone.

I sighed this morning when I woke up, from a weird and messed up dream.

A guest artist’s work displayed at the M.C. Escher House.

Exactly a month ago, I set foot into a company which, if I had the choice to, I could stay at for years to come. A month before that was what could easily be the last time I ever sit down in a lecture hall to take an exam. How do you feel being done? people would ask me. I didn’t know. Was I supposed to be happy? relieved? It didn’t feel anywhere from being done.

Last week, I moved into a house that I could finally write down as both a billing and mailing address. The movers came and went in half an hour. All my possessions took up a corner of a room in 6 boxes, 2 suitcases and 1 IKEA tote bag. The new carpeted floors almost seemed inviting for my well-traveled goods to settle down on.

Yesterday I sat down at my desk, a cheap wooden surface with folding metal legs that could hopefully serve me for its lifetime. It was my desk. I wouldn’t be moving away from it anymore.

This morning, I sighed because I had thought I would have less to worry about now. From constantly going back and forth between Korea as a child and teen, hurrying off to Mudd for college and even more so rushing to finding a job, there had been no place I could call home. I did now.

I was going to have a stable income and a stable spending. There didn’t need to be any more backbreaking, late nights finishing a math problem or making $14 more to pay off the next bill. My coworkers told me, go home! Have a good weekend! and they meant it. Have a weekend of rest and fun.

I had time to do things now. The unopened art supplies and a dusty gaming laptop waited patiently in their corners for an eager but tired master. There were books that I could dive into, though I would probably dawdle off into looking at my phone in 15 minutes.

Yet, I sighed because there were always things I should do. Over the last weeks I planned and planned and planned my life in vain. I thought I would feel free that there were no longer shackles binding my legs down; yet what I found was that my legs had gone weak and afraid, unsure of what they should be doing without the whip cracking.

Was it imposter syndrome? What if I had been faking all along, only looking like I knew what I was doing, only seeming like I was good at everything I did, because I was told what to do and I followed the directions to the dot? Where were the directions now?

There were questions that came attacking at my ego. What if I just gave up on the ambitions and settled here? What if I didn’t deserve to be standing where I did, unsure but comfortable? I didn’t want to admit being an imposter. What if I wasn’t as strong as I thought I was? I deadlifted only 135lbs last night, 50 short from what I used to do easily. Fuck.

An artistic interpretation of Vincent Van Gogh’s cutting off his own ear, at the Van Gogh Museum.

I’m a child still bumbling around, and that realization is disappointing. I’ve always wanted the time to pass quickly, for me to come to this stage in life where the first stone has finally been set. I’m here now, and everything’s changed but somehow nothing’s changed within me. This time, I don’t know anymore what the rest of the structure should look like, or how to get there.

At the least, I need to stay confident and not let the questions get to me. Maybe watching Carol Dweck’s TED talk again might help. Maybe just letting go of my worries might get me back on a clear slate. Do I even know how to do that? Where are the instruction manuals for letting go of expectations and taking it easy?

I’m reading into what I’ve thrown up on this note. It reminds me of Salisbury Cathedral, built initially in 1220 on four feet of sand above a river and completed in 38 years, but not without the following 500 years of additional construction for support and restoration. A consequence of consistent and hard labor, a work of both skill and time.

Inside Salisbury Cathedral.

I don’t know where to go, and maybe I don’t need to. Forget trying to be a child of wit and guile; work like an ass and admit weaknesses. If I run hard enough with my eyes open, I’ll get somewhere, eventually.

At the cornerstone.

A memoir: from struggling student to struggling tutor.

*math AE, Academic Excellence tutoring. Featuring Tommy.

It’s almost 10 pm, and to put it mildly, I’m screwed. There are lots of epsilons and deltas I wrote on many pages without understanding what they are. It seems like there are people here that know what they’re doing. I’m flustered and confused; I nod as they ask me if this makes sense. I don’t like that it doesn’t. It’s crowded here.

The closet door closes with a satisfying click. I see blackboards filled to every corner and edge with equations and graphs of all shapes and sizes. I can almost smell the pretzel crumbs and whiteboard marker residue. My hands are dry from a layer of chalk, and I’m only sort of complaining about how much later I had to stay. I grab my skateboard from the Writing Center, and pause. Crap, I think I told her the wrong lemma.

There’s a lot of work to do but everyone around me yells, Pass, fail, frosh! I got an academic advisory for failing my spec rel quiz. What’s to blame? I did play beer pong all weekend, and this stuff makes no intuitive sense to me. I go to Prof. Chen’s office for an appointment and she tells me I should go to AE. I am flustered again; I nod and say thank you, and leave.

I hear my name as I’m walking briskly towards the other corner. I turn around and say one sec and I’m back at it, dropping hints like candies on Halloween, but making sure they earn it. Ooohhhh, I get it and wow are my favorite things to hear. I smile and walk back to my regular customer. He’s stuck on number 6 and I ask him you got the other one’s okay?

Thursday night AE is nice. There’s usually no one but me and one tutor. He seems chill, and he doesn’t seem to mind the number of questions I ask. I’m relieved he’s a senior. He knows a lot about Mudd. I still can’t finish the homework on my own, but I’m not flustered anymore. He’s packing up the pretzel box and laptop so I need to go to Sunday AE. There’s still one problem I don’t know how to start.

There are hands raised everywhere so ask each hand what’s up. I pull at one hand to the other, and together we’re looking at the problem with way too many arrows. I hesitate because I don’t know the answer to this one. I nod, pretending to know. I ask, What do we know? One hand sticks up a suggestion and another grabs it. They trade. I ask, Okay, now what? They’re stuck. I’m stuck. We stare at the board in silence, together.

Prof JIM! We all yell in unison because this frictionless pulley problem is hopeless. He smiles and comes by. He performs some magic on us, and the problem now makes sense. We love him. How are you so good at everything? He chuckles and shakes his head no. I ask some people if they’ve done number 3. He quietly watches our bickering over free body diagrams, until at the perfect moment of silence he drops, let’s try considering the normal force. He walks away.

I see two freshmen sitting two seats apart. I ask for names, and what problem they’re stuck on. I stand in the middle, but not between. Nervous glances, uncertain of competition. I tell them I cried over the problem they were solving. Glances soften into a smile. I ask them what they like about the class, and what they don’t. One notices it’s different from high school. The other asks about what differential equations are. When we return to the problem, it’s part of a conversation, not a test of knowledge.

I declare my major and someone asks me for help on a problem. I’m flustered. I don’t know the solution immediately. I read through their solution. I scratch my head in confusion, once. I ask them, did you try solving it backwards first? I smile, because now I understand. It now makes sense, and that makes me happy.

Someone asks me for help on a problem. I think it’s something I’ve seen before, but I don’t remember how to start. I lead the student down the wrong way, twice. My heart is racing when another tutor comes by to help. Together we get through the problem. The three of us are smiling, but I’m nervous. My face is flustered; I remember what I should do. I ask the other tutor to help me review the concept.

I ask a tutor for help; I don’t understand how to start.

I answer; What do we know?

A memoir: from struggling student to struggling tutor.