I had little expectations for 2011. I always felt that some of my peers were a little too uptight with everything. Furiously scribbling down resolutions that – let’s be real – won’t get checked off the list, worried about job-hunting, boyfriend/girlfriend-catching, school-excelling, and place-going is a lot of pressure to put on oneself, especially when factors out of their control are involved. So I decided to go with it. That was my goal. To not be completely subject to the moody whims of life, but to accept them with an open mind and the thought that perhaps there is purpose behind the seemingly-random events that we like to label as ‘all of a sudden’. I feel like I did what I needed to do this year, but also a hell of a lot of what I wanted to do. Because life is too short not to do what you want. It’s also too short to just sit there and wait for things to happen to you. So the following is a short outline, a quaint marriage of what happened to me and what I made happen. That’s life in its most condensed forms, I guess.
January showed me that I am not impervious to externalities like a touch of seasonal depression due to the short winter days. It came as quite a shock to be completely honest, because I’m always the one to waive off things like medicine and the side effects of stress: “It’s all in your head!” I would proudly proclaim, believing that the mind is in control of the body 100 percent of the time. It didn’t help that my window faced a back alley and my bedroom was devoid of sunlight even on the brightest days. In turn, I decided to start kicking-ass in my Russian program, and I think I did. It was a wonderful case of reciprocity: I put forth the effort, and the profuse tangles of Russian grammar started sorting themselves out.
Lesson #1: Despair can be avoided by teaching yourself something.
February was a month of random dating. To some, dating is a wretched yet mandatory process, a channel for which to sort through the mud to get to the diamond. But I date simply because more often than not, I get a story out of it as well as the occasional reminder that there are people weirder than me (they probably think the same thing). Like the one young gentleman who, as it turned out, harbored severe anti-Polish sentiments and revealed them in a tale-worthy manner. I’m Polish. LOLZ. The other great thing about dating is that an immediate choice is traditionally attached to this social more – will you see that person again? If so, to what extent? This choice is sometimes awkward, confusing, or painful, especially if you’re on the receiving end. Or it could be the best thing you’ve ever heard. But a choice, the ability to directly alter your destiny – even if this resolution seems as inconsequential as a butterfly blinking its wings and choosing to rest on a Dahlia rather than any other flower – is what distinguishes you from the rest of the populace. February was also the month I had to watch my dad linger on the verge of death from an unforeseen hematoma. And all of a sudden, dating shenanigans seem altogether unimportant, and you reach the realization that sometimes choices should be made while you still have them.
Lesson #2: Choices are a luxury.
March was a month of running around like someone lit a fire under my ass. My friend Blake can be blamed for this proverbial flame because he’s the one who forced me to do things like prepare for our summer trip by carrying out the tedious Russian and Chinese visa process. My iCal from March 2011 looks like a toddler scribbled all over it, and in retrospect I probably paid as little attention to my responsibilities and appointments as I would a toddler’s scribble. With an average of four consuming things to complete everyday, it’s a wonder how it all got done. In fact, it’s amazing that having such a firm grasp on life was at all possible. How can you have control over something as random, unpredictable, and mind-boggling as life? I also went zip-lining on March 5th. It was an obstacle course in the trees and of the four long stretches of zip-line, I was the only one of the group to land ass-backwards 100 percent of the time – despite the reassurances of the guides that if you bicycle kick you can reposition your body to face forward while cutting through the air. But no. Bicycle kicks don’t fucking work. And so every time I would approach a landing spot, I would shut my eyes, hope for the best, and inevitably end up with a muddy ass and wood chips in unspeakable places. Zip-lining was advertised as something you should have control over, and somehow I ended up with no control, completely at the mercy of the laws of physics and I suspect a bit of karma. The day before, you see, I had scooped up the last of the cherry tomatoes at a salad bar to the disdain of an evil-eyed girl with long brown hair. Life surprised me that month, as it turned out I was the master of my fate and the captain of my soul. Except for fucking zip-lining.
Lesson #3: You have as much control as you perceive yourself to have.
April was a month of academic shit-throwing. At every turn and corner, new work seemed to not only pile up but also increase exponentially. Then again, if you fail to tend the garden the weeds will start to grow. This was a burden completely of my own creation – I don’t feel as I’ve ever truly applied myself in academia, often leaving things to the last minute and failing to stir up a passion for metamorphic rocks, Rudyard Kipling, and the principles of economics. I had other things on my mind, like pork spare ribs, Beat literature, traveling the whole wide universe, hefty and thorough analysis of professional tennis, and how I was going to acquire my dream beach house in Zanzibar or pull that Delhi diamond heist à la Pink Panther. I believe that just as much time, if not more, should be donated towards emanating Peter Sellers as to silly things like academics. And if anything, my new diamond would pay for my beach house. But the day that catapulted me into mental exhaustion was April 14th – I apparently documented this in my calendar. I had just realized that I couldn’t go home for Easter, a holiday that I view with utmost admiration simply because it’s the day my grandma makes my favorite soup. And now the soup-rug was suddenly pulled out from underneath my tired feet. So what do I do when so much shit is being thrown and I can’t get across the battlefield shit-free? I start throwing shit. Literally. April 15th just happened to be the university’s celebration of Holi, a spring festival for Hindus where you attack people with mushroom clouds of neon pink, yellow, and green powder. So I partook in the shit throwing, this time with some friends and a smile. And with one whole-body throw, a properly over-sized Super Soaker, and a target hit, everything was made a little bit more manageable.
Lesson #4: Perspective is your shit shield.
Sunday, May 15th was the day my sister graduated from university. It was also the day two friends and I would leave the States for one of the coolest backpacking trips of our lives. The ceremony was a beautiful one despite the rain. Toni Morrison spoke with an aged clarity and wisdom that breathes fresh inspired air into every listener. I don’t cry very often, but the combination of her moving words, the knowledge that I wouldn’t see my brother/family for three months, and the general momentousness that comes with leaving for a sufficiently unplanned trip that would take me from St. Petersburg to Kathmandu, well, it was a lot to take in. I live to travel, adventure is my middle name, I soak up the unknown like a liver in a lightweight, and I am the happiest when I’m on the road, but before every trip the dangerous question ‘what if?’ reliably pops up – what if something happens back home while I’m away, what if something happens to my friends or to me. While I can always count for this poisonous inquiry to emerge, it is always brief and fleeting, and I get back to my normal carefree senses pretty quickly. But when it did happen, its effect was deeply rooted. And like the symphony of rain that pattered against every umbrella, a waterfall of tears was uncorked. I did my best to hide it because tears don’t mesh well with my slightly callous exterior, so when my little brother said something about it, I responded with something along the lines of “don’t be stupid” followed by an affectionate yet appropriately tight headlock. I take my older sister responsibilities very seriously. At the end of May I would find myself in Siberia and then Mongolia, perfectly happy and in the position to spit in the face of “what if”. I was on the road, after all, and the road is my home.
Lesson #5: “What if” is the single stupidest phrase anyone can ever utter.
June was a month of delights and true pedagogy. I realized the breadth of my reach when one day, I set off running in a random direction in the middle of the Gobi Desert. Why, you ask? I answer this with why the hell not. It was a time of doing exactly what I wanted at the time that I wanted to do it, because people don’t abuse this inherent right nearly enough. It was a time of being ridiculous and spontaneous for the sake of ridiculousness and spontaneity. It was a time of going with the waves and the wind. We had no plan, no agenda. We were just some kids who dreamed of seeing the world and we were slowly but surely realizing that dream – that’s happiness if I’ve ever known it. Back to the running. My heart was pounding and I had a grin so large it probably split my face in half. I pointed to the distant horizon and told myself to stop when I reached the sun. In retrospect, I don’t think there is anything funnier than the image of a Mongolian in his daily routine and randomly seeing a white girl bolting across a still frame, charging towards the sun at an alarmingly anticlimactic speed. What I would give to be that Mongolian. June, and the whole trip rather, was a time for me to truly excerise my love for dramatic, colorful, and sweeping gestures in the name of excitement and simply doing something. Life is too ephemeral to do anything but. Mongolia and China hosted us in June and it was a time of veritable adventure and uninterrupted stimulus. Much was learned, little was lost. And hopefully you’ll see me running towards the sun sometime soon, the same sun that was denied to me last January.
Lesson #6: What was lacking before will be in abundance later.
July was a month of carousing around Shanghai in drunken stupor, hiking tens of thousands of collective steps at Taishan, Huangshan, and Huashan, being chased by a very mean monkey, becoming *very* well acquainted with bus and train station floors, hanging out with awesome Nepali orphans, discovering the swankness of the Incheon airport, falling in love…with Chinese street food, meeting the most amazing people I could possibly meet; it was a month of constant motion, constant seeing, constant doing, constant learning; it was the month I realized that my wallet is small but my heart is big, that my tastes are simple but my dreams are expansive, that my faults are many but my merits are many more. July was a month of sheer discovery, life-changing adventure, a massive acquisition of stories, and a healthy dose of perspective. China and Nepal did that to me. Let’s say the average life expectancy of an American woman is 81 years of age, or 29,565 days. There are 31 days in July, which means all of the aforementioned events can account for roughly 0.105% of my entire life. One month. If I live every month like I did in July of 2011, I’m going to be very happy, very wise, and one hell of a storyteller. I take into account that perhaps I won’t live as long if I carouse around every city in drunken stupor, but I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it, should I not accidentally fall off of it.
Lesson #7: Never stop traveling. (I knew this since day one, but a lesson of this significance cannot be reiterated enough)
The high I’d been riding for three months ended in August. Kathmandu: Of my two comrades I was the last one to go. I said goodbye to Blake, then to Misha. Then to Jessica, my awesome Aussie girlfran who had been kind enough to stick with me while I got a sleeve of mehndi painted painstakingly from my shoulder to fingertips. It was the morning of my departure and I wasn’t ready to leave. I was going mad, you see, deliriously upset that that chapter of my life, one of the best ones, was closing for good. My bags somehow packed themselves. I checked that I had everything important, I returned my room key, and I left. As I turned toward the exit, I stood there. My eyes glazed over and I spaced out. I imagined my backpack and I – the best travel buddy I’ve ever had – as we caught a chicken bus south to the border, shirking my date with Flight 6051 to Delhi and then to Brussels and then home. I imagined us continuing like no one ever left, like I had no where to be, like I had no one waiting for me. I imagined how nice that would be. And then someone asked if I’d like a cab. Angry with this person for jolting me back to reality, I gave him a terse ‘no thanks’ and trudged off. I turned right on Kathmandu’s mud ridden streets and hailed a cab. As I haggled with the driver, I smiled the whole time, soaking in every bit of this energy-sucking economic ritual that is so customary around the world and yet finds itself to be absent in the US. He must’ve thought me creepy and conceded to lower the price. It came time to board the plane too soon. They had us walk across the landing strip as some personnel rushed to shoo some lazy cattle away. As people queued up to have their passports and tickets checked, I stayed behind and made sure to be last in line. I dropped my bags and turned towards the Kathmandu cityscape. Shacks and tenements covered the hills. They marked civilization’s expansion towards the regal temples that overlooked the city from the summit of each precipice. Kathmandu is covered in traffic, mud, and garbage, but it’s charming despite these things. Underneath is a city of smiling faces, food of immense flavor, and paramount beauty. The weather was typical of monsoon season – overcast but unusually bright. I swear to this day, the whole of Nepal has a green tint to it. I can’t explain further. So I looked back on Kathmandu and it’s so cliché, I know, but every single day of the trip breezed by my eyes like an extraordinarily epic flip book. Breathing heavy, I felt strange and truly foreign for the first time, for the road is my home and I was leaving it.
Lesson #8: Nothing lasts forever.
In September I fell into a rut. Being completely apathetic towards the whole working/university thing, living in the past three months, and being virtually taunted by all my friends who were studying abroad are comparatively good problems to have, but they are problems nonetheless. Makes sense. After all, what happens after a high? The crash. After months of which my only responsibility was staying alive, it was shocking that mundane academia didn’t appeal to me. I escaped to inside my head where I held precious memories, newfound knowledge, and a joke or two when the time called for it. It was a month of pointless impulses: driving to the middle of no where, picking a random book in the library and reading it no matter what it was, and ordering just one more pitcher of beer at the local pub even if it was last call and everyone had enough. Education became a towering roadblock in the way of my learning, and the control I enjoyed in March seemed far off and out of reach. But as per lesson #8, the nature of ruts and the highs is transience, as is the case with everything in between. And ever since I’ve been slowly climbing my way out with a little help from my friends and my own resolution that I am better than that. It was time to move on, get done what needed to be done, and plot my next move.
Lesson #9: Ruts and highs are inevitable and impermanent.
I didn’t know what ‘anything is possible’ really meant until October.
Lesson #10: Moments are fleeting by nature. Hold on to them, remember them, don’t lament when they’re gone but be grateful that they happened.
November was a month of impulse; pure, liberating, unadulterated impulse. I woke up one day. I got dressed, brushed my teeth, threw on the kicks, and guzzled down a coffee. In the next hour I found myself in Southeast DC with a camera to capture some commonplace scenes that link the NW and SE communities together. I was there out of curiosity, trying to see if the Southeast is really as dangerous as the media, word-of-mouth, and supposed ‘common knowledge’ makes it to be, if the situation is really that dire. Future explorations and documentation are coming, but what I have learned is not surprising. What can be found there is people. People with a similar way of life and people in a similar place physically and mentally. People who should not be confined by the construct of the place they live. Southeast is one in the same; the danger is there but it is wholly distorted by distant group perceptions. It was not a search for trouble but for understanding, a project of which the goal was personal introspection. I just wanted to feel I was doing something worthwhile and substantial for myself, not trying to save the world but trying to understand this world that so badly needs to be saved. If I applied the previous ten lessons of 2011, directly acknowledged them, and took them to heart, I knew I would be okay.
Lesson #11: Substance should never be sacrificed.
Oh, is it December already? When the fuck did that happen. It’s difficult to be introspective about something that just occurred. The dust hasn’t settled, the smoke hasn’t cleared, and I’m still biased and completely lacking the wisdom that time always offers to an individual should she is willing to accept it. But I suppose December has been a month of observing the most conventional wisdoms from the most unconventional sources. For example, after being handed an extremely large paycheck, a decision had to be made as to what to use the money for. Normally savings would be the primary go-to, but the holiday season has the uncanny disposition of complicating even the simplest of matters. So in the wise words of the talented Notorious B.I.G., “mo’ money” indeed elicits “mo’ problems”. But even then, I just did what I am naturally inclined to do – store the money away, forget about Christmas, and then panic last minute when I am left present-less, stressed out, and inclined to turn to my go-to emergency gift in embarrassing quantities. I firmly believe that every citizen of the world should watch Eroll Morris’ stunning, compelling documentary Fog of War, an expertly clipped and arranged interview with former Secretary of Defense, the ever controversial, ever fascinating Robert McNamara. It is truly amazing. One of those ‘bigger than yourself’ pieces, to be sure. And so the Fog of War shall rain down on unsuspecting family members. And they will thank me later. It’s been a whole 28 days of this month and that’s all I can think to write about. Which is fine. Come February or March, I will likely come back to this paragraph and view the last month of 2011 completely differently. This is one of life’s certainties – your present perceptions change how you perceive the past.
Then again, it is stupid to talk about oneself in such exhausting quantities. The world in 2011 was a pivotal one, truly unlike any other in history. What’s a little seasonal depression compared to the devastating January floods and mudslides in Rio de Janeiro that claimed 903 lives? While I fought for control with a zip-line as if it were a matter of life and death and not an ass full of pine cones, martyrs, heroes, villains, and victims were being made in split-second decisions that would change the course of history in the Libyan civil war. I will say: I do reckon my shit-throwing dealings of April much cooler than the royal wedding – history was made on that lawn that day when I pwned that n00b so hard with a handful of pink powder to the face. If only I got two billion people to watch. May: America celebrates the death (anyone else think this to be strange??) of head honcho Osama bin Laden, while I’m preparing for a trip that will eventually lead me to Pakistan’s general hood. Serious considerations ensue as to whether I should hop the fence, so to speak, from Nepal’s western most point into Uttarakhand, then Punjab, and then Pakistan simply to see what’s going on there. While I flee from a Gobi ger camp with an intended destination of the sun for absolutely no reason, thousands of Syrians flee to Turkey to seek refuge from a siege. Don’t I feel stupid. While I was gallivanting about China in July, a nation was born and she’s enjoying nominal unity under the appellation of South Sudan; this sounds great and all and I’ve heard some daft assumptions like: “Finally! The Sudan problem is solved!”. I remained silent as I would hate to play the role of dream-crusher by informing them that the problems have yet to see their end and there is likely to be a genocide there in the next decade. And so on, and so on. It’s been a great year for me, but the same cannot be said for others. This is why I constantly remind myself that it can always be worse, that I can never stop giving, that compassion and empathy are my most precious possessions in a world experiencing a deficit of them, that I am so lucky to have the life I have, and the most important lesson of all:
Lesson #12: There is a world beyond yours.
I took on the task of summarizing and analyzing a year in a few paragraphs. I cannot wait to read this in ten years and smile. Looking toward 2012, I have no expectations. I have goals, intentions, and dreams, and these will be completed or left unfulfilled by my action or inaction, my resolution to move forward or to stagnate, bucket-list-wise.
Speaking of the bucket-list, I’m off to Isle X now. Whether the Mayans were correct in their morbid prediction or not, I think people should view it as a pressing reason to either begin to live their lives to the fullest or to continue doing so. What else can you do, than to do what you need, do what you want, and play the cards you’re dealt.