Happy Mother’s Day to all the fearless and beautifully strong women in our lives who have loved us, taught us, and pushed us to this very moment. From that light, we continue to grow. My heart is full, and my gratitude is boundless. Today, I attempt to say thank you.
To my mother – for so much of my life, I thought that we were so different. It took me too long to realize the depth of our sameness. We are of the same fire – our stubbornness, emotionally-driven reactions, and relentless nature to a fault. But we are also of the same light – or I hope we are. I can only aspire to live my life with the level of compassion, love, dedication, and perseverance that you have shown myself and my siblings. Thank you for all the lessons that you have taught me, and for always holding my hand as I wipe the dust from the falls. Thank you for all that you are. For all your imperfections. For in its reflection, I see myself and find myself comforted by your shine. Your stories, I am still learning how to tell and put to words. I’m sorry for my stubborn teenage years. You were right – dying my hair with neon green tips would have been a bad idea.
To my aunts – Aunt Nam, you never had children of your own but you love all of us nieces and nephews as your own. You have been a cheerleader and advocate like I have never seen. You always believe in me wholeheartedly, and I think you still believe that I could be president one day (disclaimer: I do not want the job). You have fostered the deepest love of learning within me, encouraging me to do math problems during summer vacation to practice for fun and dive my nose into a book. Thank you for picking me up from school every afternoon in middle school and cooking the best vegetarian meals. I am who I am because of your influence. I have never truly properly thanked you.
Aunt Nga, I remember crying because I wanted to participate in the fifth-grade band program at the local middle school but because mom and dad worked too early to get me there, I probably couldn’t join. But you stepped up and drove me to Hunt every morning by 8 AM for almost a year. My love of music is what is is because of you. I also remember you taking me to the Tacoma mall every August and let me pick out a new outfit for the first day of school. I guess in some weird youth version of seeking adrenaline, I loved riding up and down the escalators. You would humor me, and we would end every mall trip with 15 minutes of escalator rides. Going up and down, up and down the same two ad nauseam. Now that I’m adult, I know that that is what love looks like.
My mom comes from a family of nine siblings, and my dad has three siblings. I am so rich by the love of all my aunts, stories of their love to share another time but my gratitude for them always.
To my grandmothers – a grandmother’s love is so special, and I had the honor of being loved by two of the strongest women. Both stories unique and their own in their own right but both women lived through ravaging war, raised families on their own while their husbands off fighting war’s brutality for years before being able to return, who left their homes and countries behind for the hope of something better. Through it all, their softness remain underneath under a pain veiled to me my entire life. To Grandma Van, I carry you in my heart every day. To Grandma Vo, I am so lucky for the simple joy of hearing your voice on the phone this morning. I hope that I can one day cook as half as decent as you both.
To mothers and motherly figures who are not mine – but their love flows so freely and their kindness brilliantly radiant. I fail in my abilities to recount all of the moments but I think about the time my friend Erika’s mom (Judy) pulled up to my new Brookline apartment with a vehicle full of my junk. Out of the kindness of her heart, she helped me move because I needed help doing this all alone without family or support besides friends. As I anxiously embarked on this new journey, she reminded me that if I ever needed a Massachusetts mother, she would have my back. Then she bought a me a bagel with cream cheese, and it gave me a full heart (and full stomach) during a stressful time. I think about my friend Janine’s mother and her family who welcomed me for a Thanksgiving meal during both a dark time away and while I was away from family. They opened their hearts to me, and these are things you don’t forget.
I often think about the challenges of being away from these anchors in my life – whether due to the distance of Massachusetts to Washington or due to the distance from this lifetime into the universe. To be honest, I wasn’t looking forward to today because it’s yet another occasion that I’ll be away from family and a reminder that it has been several mother’s days now that I’ve been away from home. But today, I got to speak to some of these women on the phone and hear their voices – and that is a privilege that I cannot take for granted. The best way that I can think of showing my gratitude is to take these lessons learned and acts of love shown, and hold a mirror up to it. That is, to refract the light and continue to love, invest, and give to others what has been given to me.
It has felt particularly dark. The changes and uncertainty ascending over our realities the past weeks, days, and hours has hit with an intensity that is overwhelming, anxiety-inducing, and honestly – scary at times.
Life has felt upended in a matter of a few short days.
I am trying to do my best in it all. I am doing what I can as my entire university – and many other across the country – are working to unprecedentedly transition to online learning and support students remotely. Transitioning to working from home hasn’t been easy as boundaries between work / life balance blurs. I worry for my family – some who fall under the classification of being “vulnerable” – who are living in the epicenter of outbreak in the United States in Washington State. Every event, travel plan, soccer league game, second job shift, and more seemed to have been canceled overnight. I find myself in a vast unknown full of unmarked time and too much space between each one of us. Normalcy as I formerly knew it to be has changed for the time being. It’s a lot of transition and change to handle all at once.
Every passing hour feels like a year. I check my work email compulsively, while on edge about what new update will pop up next. I refresh my NYT and Seattle Times apps every ten minutes, anxiously waiting to find out how else life has upended. I feel so immerse in trying to keep up with the changes and trying to keep myself educated. But it hasn’t always been the healthiest for my mental health and wellbeing.
Though life is changing and continues to change as we work to fight this global pandemic, I am trying to find the light and levity in this new reality. Whether it’s a night of bowling and mindless pizza eating or an opportunity to go for a walk during my lunch break while working from home, I am trying to find moments of joy, peace, and comfort.
I am so privileged. I have a stable job that allows me to work from home, benefits that will allow me to take paid sick time should I need it, health insurance to covers medical needs, supportive friends and loved ones who check in on me, and my youth and health. Given my position, it is a shared responsibility that I hold – and we all do – to do what we can to make sure that we are protecting the most vulnerable in our society and care for one another in a time of societal crisis.
I feel inspired from reading stories about those in Italy who are in lock down but still singing songs from their balconies or healthcare workers dancing while working in Iran. I feel inspired my friends who are donating their time and energy to those who need it most as we are work to navigate this new reality.
Moments of joy are still here. In midst of public life being canceled and the bleakness of news media, there are some things that we just can’t cancel.
We won’t be canceling the warmth in a morning cup of coffee or tea. We won’t be canceling tulip buds that are sprouting now that spring is waking from its winter slumber. We won’t be canceling laughter over FaceTime calls with friends we finally have time to connect with. We won’t be canceling moments where we can now catch up on book piles that need to be read or finally have some time to write that story we’ve been holding inside. We won’t be canceling runs along the river or quiet mid-afternoon walks. We won’t be canceling trying out new recipes or baking a chocolate cake from scratch just because. We won’t be canceling watching the sunset from the bench down the street and we definitely won’t be canceling peanut butter-related snacks. We won’t be canceling longer days and more sunlight. We won’t be canceling the hope in what comes next.
I know that things are only beginning and the foreseeable future will not be easy. I know that there will be some really challenging times ahead of us. But I hope you find comfort in the beauty this life holds – pandemic or no pandemic.
Have heart, everyone. Talk good care of yourselves, be especially kind to one another, and I wish you all well during this time. I’m thinking of you. We’re in this together.
After my shift today, I was lucky enough to still be gifted with the remainder of the weekend sun and got to enjoy its much needed warmth. I went for a run in the warm evening light and found myself passing masses of people on the busy streets of Comm Ave. I found myself along the perimeter of the Charles River and I found myself chasing after the city skyline. I thought to myself, “I am grateful for the decisions that have led me here.”
What a change in attitude that is.
The past few months have been full of questions. The past few months have not been easy. Taking a step backwards, even the past year has not been easy. Compared to just a year ago, my life today is entirely different than the one I lived 365 days ago. Neither the people or places around me feel familiar to that time in the past but I feel settled in a way that makes me feel proud. There is still much messiness and complexity in my life. A lot more than I would care to admit and a lot more than what I honestly feel comfortable with. Each day feels like a fresh opportunity for reflection but the setting sun reminds that there are still questions that remain.
I have been so wrong about so many things. I have been wrong about people, those who I once held so closely to my heart. I thought that there was no way that I would ever leave Washington, a place that I love so dearly. I was so certain about the future, only to have it consistently diverge from the portrait inside my head. It has made me question myself – how can I trust myself, my decisions, and even my own feelings when life has clearly shown me that it has other plans in store?
When I was home for the holidays, I came to the realization: knowing everything that had happened and the life events that have occurred these past months, I still would have made the same decisions. I would have chosen the job that I currently have, even with its challenges and tough moments. I would have chosen this same apartment, even with its too-small and too-old charm. I would have still chosen Boston.
I would have still chosen to stay.
After weeks of feeling weak and insecure came this moment of clarity that felt so invigorating and empowering. That’s not to say that my Boston life is perfect nor is that to say that I see myself here for very long. And that’s not to say I don’t. It’s just to say I don’t want to project any expectations on the future in a way that feels limiting or assuming. I just don’t know what will unfold for me and I will never deny those opportunities for myself. After four different addresses in just four years and living in places like the rural South and the Midwest, I feel like I can truly make it on my own anywhere.
From that moment, I decided to booked a solo international trip. I’m going to try my hand at running my second half marathon. I am reconnecting with good friends and prioritizing relationships that matter most to me. I am making new memories in old places. I am putting myself outside of my comfort zone by signing up for activities and opportunities that will allow me to take step in the direction of the person that I want to be. I am planting seeds, and watering them with care and intentionality.
But I am happy. I am happy in a way that could not be possible if there wasn’t such dramatic unraveling that created enough chaos to elicit real, meaningful change. I am happy in a way that – even if more chaos and upheaval landslides into my life – I will absolutely be okay. I am happy in a way that feels fulfilling and rewarding. I am happy in a way that feels healthy.
Happiness is never a permanent state but I have learned to truly appreciate the fleeting moments of true joy. You can never hold too tightly to these things but you can remain grateful for the present.
I don’t know how long I’ll be in Brookline / Boston. I don’t know what comes next. I just don’t know. (You know nothing, Julie Van is actually a contender for my memoir title @ all you GOT fans. I’m sort of kidding but sort of not). I can’t know. I repeat: I cannot know. That isn’t always a good feeling but it’s a truth of life. It’s something I am making peace with, especially as someone who is constantly seeking clarity and answers.
I’ll end with a quote from Letters to a Young Poet, forever one of my favorite books:
It has not stopped raining since I’ve returned. I haven’t seen the stars or the moon in weeks. I’ve stopped looking up. I only trust what I see when I look in. The sun peaks through between flurries to remind me that warmth is never too far removed. The white emptiness, the murky skies – it is a pause. The way the stillness of the day bleeds into the turbulence of night stirs unease. A momentarily relief in all except from the four o’clock moon, I don’t dare look at it in the face. The moon and I do not talk anymore. According to the news, this relentless storm brings a rainfall more than what has been seen in the last decade and brings some the darkest days on record. I often don’t know what to make with fragments anymore. The solstice has passed and the days will only grow longer from these moments forward. I don’t hold on to this fact. I only know that the sun will rise. I wake up in the middle of the night, betrayed by the construction of time. I always hear the rain, the rhythmic sound of the fall against window panes. Against the silence of the night. Against the roots of the universe.
But I have to trust that it’ll never be against me.
I felt it in my lungs,
the stirring of liberation.
Full-moon face presses
the breath of lavender
an unwinding of a venn diagram
awakens a life yet realized.
In an unfurnished studio apartment,
only toilet paper and a six pack
of beer. Giving up grapefruit
crystal nights would be a waste
of precious sky. I almost forgot
how to dance in glass sleeves.
Do you recall moving with
persimmon skin & honeycomb
kisses? To let the ocean
rise into this body is to begin
anew. At this week’s market
buy two dozen tulips the shade
of long-awaited spring.
And don’t apologize for the rain.
Return to the bend between
cheeks, the light of a three-wick
sunrise. Winter-weighed eyes
at four in the morning,
I have always dreamt enough for two.
The stomach is a sensitive spot
as nothing often pierces there.
The four of wands is a celebration.
The air is finally pure.
Sometimes, the irony in being an educator is that you are still learning the lessons that you work so hard to teach.
When I was an undergraduate, I taught a first-year seminar for two quarters for new students starting their first year at the University of Washington. It was one of my favorite experiences from college, where I had autonomy over designing the curriculum and structuring how I wanted my class to be. I got to have heartfelt conversations with students about their fears and excitement, provide support as students start to map their own trajectories, and ultimately, help students start to make-meaning out of their college years. It was an influential part of why I am where I am right now, sitting on a couch in Massachusetts and working on my capstone project for my master’s degree in higher education.
On the last day of class, I like to part my students with a copy of the following reading: https://markmanson.net/life-purpose I first got this reading from a former supervisor, and it has stuck with me since. I find myself sharing this reading from time-to-time, and I even find myself returning to it during moments of uncertainty. It’s ridiculous, humorous, and poignant – it has made me think and continue to reflect.
I gave it to my students because college can feel like being put into a pressure-cooker, constantly swimming through questions like: Am I choosing the “right” major? Will I be able to a get a job after graduation? Am I making the most out of my experience? How do I keep my grade up so that I can get that internship? How do I keep up with my peers? Why does it seem like everyone knows what they’re doing and I don’t? What is it that I’m meant or supposed to be doing? Does any of this matter?
The list goes on and on and on.
I felt the pressures myself, especially my own first year when I thought that I wanted to be a doctor. It was a career choice that made allowed me to serve others and seemed rewarding. At this time, I had a very limited scope of the possibilities out there. The desires soon dissipated when the realities of what being premed meant started to sink in and I realized that I had no motivations to actually pursue this path. Towards the end of my freshman year where I was left in a puddle of confusion and self-doubt. I have always known that I wanted to do something that would a) change the world and b) serve others. Talk about adding more pressure to myself than necessary. But what does that mean? What does that look like? And my 19-year old self asked: how do I find the answers by the time graduation comes around? I am beyond grateful to ultimately find my way in education and for the experiences that have led me to where I am right now.
Yet, still. I find myself returning to this article again today. Once I feel like I have things figured out, I find myself still wondering about where I am and where I am heading. As I help others and the students I work with find and make meaning from their experiences, I realize that I still am as well. It’s a humbling experience but something that brings people together as we all traverse our own unique journeys.
As the article emphasizes, I think that it’s important to continue to ask ourselves the question “What can I do with my time that is important?”
Discovering one’s “purpose” in life essentially boils down to finding those one or two things that are bigger than yourself, and bigger than those around you. It’s not about some great achievement, but merely finding a way to spend your limited amount of time well. And to do that you must get off your couch and act, and take the time to think beyond yourself, to think greater than yourself, and paradoxically, to imagine a world without yourself.
I will spend a lifetime creating and finding meaning, and there is comfort in knowing that complacency is not an option for me. I feel rooted in my values and guided by the purpose that I have created for myself. Reading this article again, I find myself with new thoughts circling my head. While intentionally being vague about what I’m processing and why I feel the need to return to this article, I appreciate having this space to do so. Know that I, too, am still trying to figure it out and that it’s okay. I have trust and confidence in this process, and I hope you do too.
i welcomed the new year with fireworks in the night of the city not a sunset, but a sunrise reflection of clouds over lakes saying goodbye has become a ritual now sending applications for the promise of change love is an intentional act i really missed my family today i felt myself bubbling i said my final goodbye for you, i’ll forever water this garden i felt myself overflowing recalibrate yes to st. louis what do i do with these feelings? i danced empty in boston the sixth month of winter a workshop, i feel like a poet again singing into the night presentations in new hampshire bike rides by the water in montreal smiling with a full heart in the streets halfway done packing up another apartment i cried in the home depot parking lot temporary goodbyes hello to st. louis a little slice of home an unforgettable summer endless nights, new friendships mr. bill brings me kindness in a cupcake remember to take a deep breath the best staff and students more goodbyes i will miss this i am ready to return in chicago, i found healing my dreaming will get me into trouble a new space with ghosts i make it my own first day, new job rollerskating, i feel like a teenager again i bring you my heart talking points vulnerability is for you, the stars brunch party celebrations late night ice cream late night ice cream late night ice cream a new semester, i’m grateful our little tent times stands still by the sea the first sunrise pancakes & hammock naps the smell of the ocean, am i home? a foggy veil, we’ll be back i can see it so clearly productive days making breakfast together an act of hatred shakes me and another one, and another one am i strong enough? love is a verb the leaves are changing stories on the drive to Albany i am now twenty four birthdays in brattleboro deeper and deeper beauty in the mundane reunions in hoboken stop saying sorry i am moving forward every step is movement towards my becoming talks about hopes & dreams thirteen point one late night ice cream late night ice cream presenting in rhode island there are forces larger than me the perfect exchange julie, please be patient home for the first time in ten months returning to roots i miss you reunions & homecomings the best has yet to come
Thank you, 2018 — for always bringing me what I needed, even though unclear in the moment. For a year of looking inward and uncovering what was always there, I am looking forward to continuing to move towards the direction of my own becoming. For the lessons of letting go, letting in, and letting be: these have shaped me in ways yet realized. To another year of living fiercely and loving boldly, let the endless love and light continue to shine.
A year later, and I promise you, the buds and sprouts that have emerged are so beautiful.
This year has been marked by unyielding changes and building on the foundations of last year: From the challenges of a cross-country move, I’ve made Massachusetts my home. From the restlessness of routine, I spent the entire summer in a new city in a different area of the country. From the darkness of losing my grandma, I found strength in what she has left behind in me. From the drive for self-growth, I’ve had job changes and new apartment moves. From the spirit for adventure and hunger for seeing the beauty of this world, I’ve had incredible trips to many new and wondrous places. From turbulence, fear, and uncertainty, I’ve found unconditional support, courage, and confidence.
While change has been a major theme of 2018, another theme radiates: hope.
I have found that hope is the precursor to change. For me, hope has never been about a defined set of expectations or desire for something specific to happen. It’s not about wanting a certain outcome or wishing something to fruition. It’s not naive optimism or ad nauseam positivity.
Hope is a feeling of trust.
If there is something that I have learned this year, it’s to have trust. It’s trust in those around me and trust in what this life will bring me, but most importantly, trust in myself. It’s trust in that I have what it takes and that I am the creator of this experience – trust in my strength and that everyday brings opportunities for growth and learning. It’s having trust in all these changes.
There were many moments this year where hope shines through: the thought in my grandparent’s reunion in whatever life comes after this one, standing on a balcony outside of Emerson watching the rain together in the spring, saying yes to a summer in a new and unfamiliar city, packing up yet another home for a new one, sending conference proposals and article submissions, or being prepared with talking points.
I’ve learned and grown in ways unimaginable. I’ve had setbacks. I wasn’t always the best version of myself but I’ve used those moments to improve. Change and growth is continuous and non-linear. I hope to continue learning and growing into the new year. I am not alone in this. I am so lucky to have so many around me that I know I can lean on. And a lot of this, I’ve learned because I did not have the courage to have trust. The thread of this vast universe weaves in a way that has always brought me to where I needed to be, and I am continually grateful.
To that, I wholeheartedly thank you, 2018. For bringing me to this very moment, I am so grateful. I can’t wait for all next year brings, for I lean with my heart, hope, and trust into 2019.