Whether large or small,
I never finish the tea
I pour in my cup.
This is when I choose
to let the pressure rule me,
or I conquer it.
Today is my birthday. I think I have about 62 billion friends and acquaintances whose birthdays are also in November. There’s another significant November birthday that I almost forgot about until this past week. November also marks my dojo’s birthday. In November 2010, we move from our Center City location to our current South Philly home. Many years ago, before my time, our club was in South Philly. So for the judo program, it was like a homecoming and for our jiu jitsu program, South Philly was its birth place. I can’t believe it’s been just four years that we’ve been on Broad Street. We used to have barely eight people in our judo class and barely four people in jiu jitsu. Now we have people stacked up to the ceiling. We’ve grown so much and sometimes I forget how uncertain it felt when we first opened the new club. Four years. When I think of that time in November 2010, it seems like today is my fourth birthday, too.
2010 was the start of my new life. Late that summer, I ended a seven year relationship. That’s also when I set my heart on social work. In the fall, I started my Master’s of Social Work program at UPenn. During the months leading up to that break up, I fell in love with judo and in a way, judo was all I cared about. I wanted to be at the club seven days a week, and before school started, I was there five days a week. I trained at another club on Saturdays. After the break up, judo gave me focus and hope while I was mourning those seven years. Although I chose to end it with my former boyfriend, turning my back on seven years would grind on my conscience. But all the people I met while training were so brilliant, so creative, so dedicated, their presence reminded me over and over again that I made the right choice to move forward with purpose.
During the fall of 2010, I needed my dojo. It was another intense transition to go to graduate school. It was exciting for me to finally pursue my career in social work. I’d known for sometime that I wanted work that was complex, challenging, and had a meaning greater than myself. I wanted to solve problems and fight. Like the individuals I met through judo, the field of social work led me to passionate, intelligent, and innovate people, several of whom I know will be in my life for a long time. Everything about social work felt right. But I almost cracked several times that fall. Amid the pressure to perform, to achieve, to ignore sleep, and be excellent, my family life was chaotic and unsettling. I didn’t even felt at peace in my own bed. At least once a week, though, I could go to practice and be home. Judo had taught me about mental exhaustion and self-motivation, but it also gave me a safe place to let go and be all parts of myself.
I know who I was before the fall of 2010. I liked parts of me, but I was afraid to fail, afraid of confidence, and afraid of success. I would tip toe towards what I wanted, then double back when I got too close. In the fall 2010, I felt free. I was free to take risks, I was free to be incredible, I was free to fail, and I was free to suck it up and try again. I felt brand new.
So here I am, four years later. My dojo, judo, jiu jitsu, and my homegrown family are bricks in my foundation. I am working at the most challenging job I’ve ever had and I am dead set on succeeding. My friend, Dennis, encouraged me to publish a book of my haikus, and he’s working hard and guiding me to make that happen. My family keeps growing closer. I love my friends, I love my neighborhood, and I love my tiny little kitchen where I sit and write these words. I know I turned 33 today, and I don’t know what other 33 year olds feel like, but right now, 33 feels as fresh as four.
Can a flu vaccine
make you feel flu-like symptoms
days after the shot?
I didn’t expect to get so upset. I think that’s because I didn’t expect it to happen. On Monday, I glanced at Facebook, and my newsfeed was filled with photos of my former co-worker. I knew Mike was coping with cancer. I knew he was really sick because he was very public about what he was going through. But I assumed he wouldn’t die. I assumed he would make it and live a gorgeous life well into his 80s. Mike was younger than I am. Mike was a gift to his community. It wouldn’t make sense for him to die now.
But Mike did die. I can’t stop thinking about him and I don’t know why. I worked with Mike for six months in 2010. I met him during a short Americorps term of service working for an out-of-school time program in North Philly. I was co-leader with Mike’s girlfriend, Daffodale, for a group of middle schoolers. After my six months was up, I left the program and my interactions with Mike and Daffodale were limited to Facebook and the occasional run-in on the street. That was all. So why do I keep crying over this kid I barely knew?
A part of me thinks that Mike’s death is just terrifying to me. A couple of people in my tiny universe are coping with cancer right now, and I have to believe that they will be fine. I don’t know what else to do. I believed Mike would be fine, and now he’s gone. So I know a part of me is scared of losing anyone close in my world. I don’t want to do that again.
I know, though, that I have a fragile spot for young men who go too soon. I’ve been thinking about my brother and how we’ve been cheated that he’s not here. And then I look at someone like Mike and it just makes me feel so helpless and angry. Mike was an actor, a writer, a poet, a musician, an educator, and an advocate. I think that’s the short list. When I met Mike and Daffodale, they were among the first young people I’d met in Philadelphia that were giving themselves to their community. Along with another co-worker, Brandi, I had these shining examples of passionate, intelligent, creative young people who worked hard and asked for nothing in return for their service. I met them as I was applying to MSW programs, and they made me believe that change is possible on the individual level.
So with Mike dying, this loss seems massive. One one level there is his profound absence in the lives of Daffodale, and all of Mike’s family and close friends.Then on another level, there is his absence in the arts community, in youth education, in Philadelphia. It’s a macrocosmic loss. I know we can hold on to his legacy and we can honor him with our actions. However, I think maybe it’s better if he were just here. It doesn’t make sense.
I don’ t have an enlightened view of death. I think my view pretty childish and self-centered most of the time. Maybe I need to practice more acceptance. With acceptance, it doesn’t matter if it makes sense.
Burritos and friends
on a Tuesday after class
is a welcome change.
Today is my brother’s birthday. If he were still alive, he’d turn 35 today. No matter how I’ve tried during the 16 years since he died, this time of year still crushes me. I never consciously anticipate how I’ll feel. Something happens around the third week of October. I’m suddenly crying for no reason. I break my routine. I’m distracted. I can’t figure out why I feel so out of control.Then I’ll remember. Scott’s birthday is coming, then my birthday, then the anniversary of his death, and another new year where I don’t have my brother. I think about how he won’t be there if I ever get married and have kids. I think about how he didn’t get to be there for his best friends when they got married and had kids. Now, I’m thinking about how Scott wasn’t at my dad’s wedding, and he should have been, and it’s stupid that he wasn’t there. It’s all selfish thinking. I don’t want the memories. I want to see him, face to face, and talk, and be idiots together.
In my field of social work, we are always talking about re-framing, narratives, and meaning-making–ways you can take your difficult experiences and transform them into something empowering and healing. For the last few years, I have tried to do this each time October comes and I find myself crumbling. I don’t want to kid myself and jump over the sadness I feel, but I don’t want to get lost there. That terrifies me. So I have been trying on October 26th to make the day in the spirit of my brother. Last year, I competed into a jiu jitsu tournament on October 26th, and my dad was there. It was a hard but good day. It felt right. But nothing special was supposed to happen on October 26th this year. There was no built-in purpose.
My brother always did exactly what he wanted to do. Yes, he could follow orders. No, he was not selfish. If you were his friend, he’d do anything and everything for you. But Scott put a lot of focus on the things he loved (physics, engineering, cross country, track) and couldn’t get distracted or pulled away from that effort. His days were exactly as he wanted them to be so he could do all the stuff he loved. So today, I’m doing a Scott day. I’m only doing things I want to do and things that I love. So this morning, I did laundry and made almond butter before judo because I wanted to. Then I rode my bike underneath a perfect sky and over the Gray’s Ferry Bridge to judo practice. I loved every moment. Later, I will make my breakfast and lunch for the week and I’ll find joy in the method and routine of preparation. I”ll do a bunch of squats to rehab my hip flexors. I’ll go to the gentle yoga class I love at 6:00 PM for restoration. As I write this, I am listening to Nirvana. We used to sit at the dining room table, both engrossed in our school work, not talking, but feeling each other’s presence. He always picked the music, since he was older and asserted that right. It was usually Nirvana or Wu Tang. Sometimes Radiohead. Sometimes Marilyn Mason, which I will not listen to today because I hate Marilyn Manson and I don’t want to.
All for me and all for him.