Pieces of Me: Constantly Rebuildling Oneself, Brick by Brick

It’s difficult to keep track of the pieces of who we are, as they are constantly changing, an appropriate observation as the only constant is, in fact, Change (especially if you’re a pan-handler, or familiar with the election platforms of two-term American President, Barack Obama).

On the cellular level, we change at a rate that we never bother to think about. At the end of every 7 year cycle we are composed of entirely new cells, and are therefore reborn as an entirely new person in a very literal way. In prep school, every year was a rebirth of a new version of the same routine: new teachers, new classmates (within a small margin), and new unfamiliar, scary things to overcome on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis. Also, rapid childhood development; wonder and curiosity and implementation of social norms and expectations. People constantly offering you pieces of who you are like sticks of gum or bathroom haikus or commercial jingles that you internalize but never quite know what to do with. Just a hormonal, emotional junk drawer of things that are individually useless, but which you can’t bare to throw away. After the first three years (first 1000 days), a concept that has been approached from a very basic, practical perspective, linking the aspects of life that nutrition and wellness may or may not allow a child’s life to branch into, developmentally there’s a lot going on. There are problems if a child is malnourished, and different problems that arise when a child’s  body is appropriately fed but when their soul and developing self are allowed to be emotionally or socially neglected.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (I love to quote them) are with us for our whole lives, and we experience them within the scope that our developmental capacity allows for.

I’m borrowing from a page outlining the most basic tenant of this concept and basis in history.

They were originally 5 levels, updated in the 1960’s and 1970’s to what follows:

1. Biological and Physiological needs – air, food, drink, shelter, warmth, sex, sleep, etc.

2. Safety needs – protection from elements, security, order, law, stability, etc.

3. Love and belongingness needs – friendship, intimacy, affection and love, – from work group, family, friends, romantic relationships.

4. Esteem needs – self-esteem, achievement, mastery, independence, status, dominance, prestige, managerial responsibility, etc.

5. Cognitive needs – knowledge, meaning, etc.

6. Aesthetic needs – appreciation and search for beauty, balance, form, etc.

7. Self-Actualization needs – realizing personal potential, self-fulfillment, seeking personal growth and peak experiences.

8. Transcendence needs – helping others to achieve self actualization.


The notion cites that we cannot graduate to the next level of ability until our needs on the previous level have been met.

I do prefer this graphic, however:

Wendy McNoughton

Maslows hierarchy of needs reimagined by Wendy MacNoughton, spied on the cover of ArtCenter College of Design‘s magazine

The top point of “art” has been removed, and inserted at the bottom in it’s existing shape, so the whole of ourselves teeters atop the point like a see-saw. It’s the foundation of who we are in any moment of our lives, an interpretation by or representation of a person we have never been before and will never be again, and it is a thing that we treat as just that: a treat, an exception, an eventually-after-you-meet-all-your-work-quotas reward.

To become who we might be, we must become comfortable with examining who we are and, by extension, who we are not.  Our existence, and our evolution, depend on this examination, both individually and collectively. We do ourselves a profound disservice when we perpetually over-indulge in outliers; we are not faultless and we are not worthless. We are constantly struggling to exist, in every way, between those two extremes.

I tried rock-climbing once in my life, and it was terrifying, hanging for only moments on tiny projections of safety. I wore a harness, of course, but fear of heights (more specifically, the pain an anguish encountered by falling from them) is something we must train ourselves to un-know, and is not a thing that can be un-known after a single climb. There was the initial layers of anxiety 1)to do something new, 2) which specifically scared me 3) in front of strangers 4)which I was certain to fail at (because of it’s newness to me and compounding factors), etc.

On my third and final climb of the day, I had made about 1000% progress which, considering from where I started, was still a minuscule amount to celebrate. However, I found a bit of rhythm and a measure of certainty as I started to feel the difference between a foothold upon which I could reasonable rest, and one that only more seasoned climbers could comfortably tolerate. None of them truly hurt me, but some were more reliable, comfortable places to rest than others, even if only marginally. And the same footholds felt different the first, second, and third times through.

I postulate, then, that despite this being my only attempt at rock climbing, it serves as a useful metaphor for illustrating how to lead an examined life, even if the notion isn’t the least bit attractive to you, or if the potential of doing so is frightening. Revisiting aspects of yourself is like re-mapping your climbing route. Everyone stumbles at first, overlooks things, misjudges components…but those that stick with it earn the benefit of learning how best to carry themselves through life. They acquire grace, wisdom, foresight, and strength along the way, through repetition, and most often, most poignantly through a series of failures.

We do one another and ourselves a disservice if we are constantly simply glossing over our missteps. We need not dwell on them just to sit in one uncomfortable place, out of pity or spite, but to overlook the reality of our route, our trajectory, and our abilities (strengths and weaknesses, positive and negative however they are sliced) undermines anything that we might otherwise call progress.

To truly know yourself, you first must become comfortable in the habitual pursuit of acknowledging and confronting yourself. You can’t make progress if you’re catering to the needs, whims, and qualities of someone you are not.




Mental Wellness/Mental Illness

This entry includes some of my thoughts on depression. I am not a counselor, just another survivor of depression. We all are, and there are a vast multitude of ways in which to be and to become depressed.

Depression is like peeing in the shower: some people will more readily admit to it than others (although some never will at all), but everyone has experience with it, and generally it makes people uncomfortable to discuss openly. (That’s the only bit of levity in this piece; I wanted to get it out of the way before things got too heavy.)

Generally we refer to our mental state in terms of “mental illness,” and less frequently “mental health” is used. So it seems like whenever we talk about our mental setting, it is always by degrees of dysfunction, steps away from what is comfortable.

Social normalcy is the first marker that comes to mind in terms of measured ways to account for a healthy level of mental state, but we all know that simply being an effective chameleon isn’t a suitable indicator for what lies behind the mask we put on every day.

In extreme cases of interpersonal manipulation, after a horrendous crime has been committed by someone, people who were close to the perpetrator (friends, neighbors, classmates, etc) will usually interview in one of two ways, testifying that the criminal seemed either “perfectly normal” (and in which case the crimes are all the more shocking to them) or they go on to describe the ways in which this individual was “off” or “different” (which is then used as evidence that wrongful behavior should have been expected from them, and just perpetuates another negative stereotype).

Frequently, it seems that these types of reports are based quite heavily on outward appearance, and how closely we associate the mask with the qualities behind it. Good looking perpetrators are generally classified as the former, and anyone who isn’t goes to the latter. I don’t have any proper statistics on this, but because of how heavily we rely on appearances, we don’t tend to delve very many levels down the rabbit hole of reason unless given a good reason to do so.

But I digress….depression isn’t the same as malice or hurtful intent. Someone who commits crimes may be depressed, but they are additionally a long list of other things (or have a legitimate diagnosis of a more severe form of mental illness compounding the complexity of the situation), but they latch onto the other emotional components (things like rage or fear or a narcissistic, righteous God complex) and let those things guide their behavior.

I am not a specialist. I do not have training for mental health diagnosis, nor do I excuse horrendous behavior towards other people. What I’d really like to talk about, and focus on, are depression and anxiety, components of mental state that the general public seems much more comfortable, and are thereby more easily associated with, our feelings. The chemical reactions required to create emotions in us (fear, joy, etc) are basic, and it is understood that these are normal aspects of all people, and their presence and functions are founded in evolutionary basis, allowing us to reasonably respond to situational stimuli.

Depression and anxiety are tricky, because like other mental illnesses, they can exist in a person because of misfiring of chemical signals, either at the wrong pace or in the wrong amount. But they can also exist because of a bombardment of a reasonable amount of the chemical signal based on situational stimuli. We fill our lives with a constant bombardment of horrors around the world, and stress is packed into every aspect of our day–getting up on time, so you can leave on time, so you can drive you work/take the bus to go to a job that statistically you don’t enjoy, to exist within very narrow social parameters that may not be your own, and be surrounded by people that you are forced to interact with within some already established hierarchy, to perform tasks that are not generally significant to the larger picture.

People tend to try to make the most of their day so as not to plummet into depression, but looking at our situations objectively, we become aware that our lives are generally not of our own design, and yet we still may feel responsible for overcoming obstacles that are entirely out of our control. We are constantly bombarded with stimuli that engage our “fight or flight” response, but we are not socially allowed to act on them. We must go about our day as if the chemical battle in our minds isn’t happening.

Depression and anxiety are two of the most dastardly foes you will ever encounter in your lifetime. As someone who is comfortably middle class, I am confident in saying this, because it extends beyond the rough borders of social stigma and socioeconomic hardships. Money and security do not protect you from mental illness the way they protect you from hunger or homelessness.

You may have the resources to seek counseling, prescription drugs, or even extended rehabilitation at exotic treatment centers that more closely resemble vacations than medical treatment because of their luxurious spa features. I don’t know many people who exist in this economic bracket, but it occurs to me that the post “rehab centers” are a thing that people (who may not ever have the means to visit them) expect to exist (even if they, in fact, are purely fictional fixes to our everyday drudgery).

What kind of life does a bronze statue have? What about someone who is agoraphobic, or autistic? Depression makes you feel heavy, immobile, afraid of everything that is not immediately familiar and routine.

Admitting you are depressed doesn’t give you the courage to be Not Depressed Anymore, because there is not a switch that the existence of Courage magically flips, and it is not as if a depressed person is unaware of their depression.

Participating in activities you otherwise normally enjoy feels hallow and meaningless when you are depressed. You feel as if there is no point to engaging with people or things which would otherwise bring you joy, because it is as if the entire world is fully of crumbled plaster and cardboard, and all you are do is pushing it around from one pile to another.

Food doesn’t taste right. Comfort from a loved one is no longer comforting.

Any minor misstep causes a giant fall into a great, black abyss.

It’s not that you hate things, or are carrying around anger; usually, depression is an absence of everything. You are no longer equipped with the mechanisms required to allow you to care about things as you once did. If you live your life in a perfectly balanced ecosystem within an airlock, what happens to that life when the safe, protective exterior is punctured? In no way does it actually matter what causes the imperfection, because regardless, everything within that safe, beautiful space will be sucked away before you can try to tie it down. Which is why it is important to have a survival plan in place before that happens. And why it is important to be kind to yourself while you attempt to rebuild your own civilization in the midst of this particular kind of catastrophe.

Depression is like experiencing the death of a loved one, but instead of having grieving rituals to soak up and peers who are experiencing the loss alongside you, depression is the death of Giving Enough Fucks to Keep Going. It is the death of joy and persistence, the death of the biological, adaptive features programmed into our DNA that insist we go on. We no longer care enough to fight or fly away; the trigger required for survival is broken, and there is no obvious, ubiquitous, certain way of fixing it.

We don’t give ourselves space to heal, to be vulnerable, to allow ourselves to be broken without either reveling in it to the point of that Brokenness becoming a permanent part of our identity (usually in a debilitating way).

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”  -Aristotle

The healing process is gentle, drawn out, and must be re-introduced daily in order to be effective. If we are repeatedly thrown down by depression, and we lack the energy to resist it, we are habitually depressed. Any small fight against it, whether successful or not, paves a path for greater success once habituated. I think there are more reasons to be depressed than not, so I don’t play with the diagnosis lightly. It makes sense that we are depressed. But it also makes sense that we would fight against it, even when we feel we can’t. The cure for depression is to surround yourself and revel in whatever beautiful things reignite a spark in the darkness.

Administer these things every day, and be patient. Change the things you can, and don’t shoulder emotional responsibility beyond what is yours. Remind yourself what things are beautiful and worthy and accept that even if you don’t feel so presently, you are one of those things. And then one day, you’ll wake up, and remember that you are.


On Refugees

Brandon at Humans of New York is one of the most wonderful contemporary human rights advocates…and he does it all through simply exposing people to minimalist profiles of strangers he meets on the street.

I shared a video of a CNN interview with refugees, with my own thoughts below:

I have created a Facebook Universe that doesn’t give me a lot of Extreme Political (Right Wing) push back, and which doesn’t give me a bunch of xenophobic messages to sort through, but I know many people who have a subset of internet friends who insist on voicing opinions that are based in fear, bias, and hatred. I would encourage any of you who have one or two or a ton of friends/relatives who are afraid of immigrants for whatever reason, who don’t seem to understand the global impact of warfare or the severity of plight that refugees experience…I would encourage you to share this video, and share HONY postings, often.

Brandon is the Lorax for the people, and reminds us that “unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, it’s not going to get better…it’s not.”

I don’t expect you to argue against anyone, or to change their minds. But by exposing people to ideas that initially make them uncomfortable, they can start the process of realizing that refugees are in dire situations. They are not coming here to “take our jobs,” they are not coming here to exploit us in any fashion that even beings to resemble the ways in which we exploit them.

We’re in this together. We need to figure out how to stop being petty and start making changes.

And a link to this petition, to bring Aya, a young woman fleeing a horrendous situation, with my thoughts as well:

It is absolutely, completely unethical how much horror and chaos we create all around the world, and then we ignore the fragile people whose lives we completely flip upside down in the process.

It is vile and reprehensible that the US is only taking 10,000 refugees.

It’s really dawning on me what the power of the pen has (even digitally), and how thoroughly true the cliche “a picture is worth a thousand words” can be. Human rights are a human issue, and with the current climate on Climate Change, and with the drastic rise in gun violence in the US, compounded by the way our global actions ripple out through the other 7 billion people on this planet… we can’t afford to hide from these things.

The quote below, by Martin Niemöller, never fails to resonate with me:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

Niemöller, a prominent Protestant pastor who opposed the Nazi regime. He spent the last seven years of Nazi rule in concentration camps.


We’re all in this together, and none of us are getting out alive.


Notes on a Vision Quest

Two friends I met a lifetime ago, a world away, have contacted me in the last 24 hours.

(I’ll spare you the drivel on how the only thing that would have made the contact better was to have opened a beautifully handwritten letter stamped with a wax seal, but no matter; what we lack in 21st century social customs, we make up for with expediency. I can’t really imagine I’d prefer to attempt discourse spanned by weeks on end between replies, so thank you, Internet, for making this all possible.)

I’ve been fidgety lately. Memories of Burma  play across my mind like the opening credits of Star Wars, setting up a mythos long past, out of reach, the very incantation of it fading into the distance before you can quite grasp what it meant.

I’ve been making sporadic efforts towards bringing my photos and journal entries from that period to life, to edit them properly and bring them to the forefront of whatever the hell I call what I’m presently doing. Last night, after explaining all the wondrous fruits available in an area with such a balmy climate, I buckled and bought frozen jack fruit. It was kind of like when, after visiting the east coast, I would get such an intense hankering for seafood that I would justify eating at Long John Silvers (don’t judge)  because….well, it’s Iowa. Options are limited by geography and felled nearly non-existent by my budget.

I found and left a big part of myself there, and I think that since I’ve found another part of myself here, I’m feeling the tugs of urgency to try to recombine those pieces in a way that wasn’t accessible to me before.

In this way, life really is like a video game. And damn the amount of time you waste navigating the map, just looking for something that makes sense. Somewhere within the vague quests that strangers send you on, when you finally find pieces worth holding onto,  you don’t always know what to do with them.When you finally figure out how they’re meant to go together, it’s 3am and you have to work in the morning so that’s all the progess you get to make for now; have to shelve them until you have time to focus on addressing that progress later. And when you finally have time, you’ve forgotten all the earth-shattering Understanding Of Life that had been present before. So there’s a lot of back-tracking, repetition, and awkward stumbling through what you feel should be more intuitive.

I feel like I’m making progress, but sometimes I really miss the naivete of scale associated with said progress. When I was preparing to leave for Burma, there was a lot of joking riffing that “I’m off to fix the country, I’ll be back in a year!” I didn’t actually expect to fix the entire country, mind you, but the largeness of what lay ahead of me was beautiful, unknown, and undaunting. Retrospectively, and as I potentially plan another pass from the sidelines while simultaneously trying to build a life that is stable enough to sustain these kind of adventures, I see more of the flaws in the system overall, which I had been impervious to/unaware of the first time around.  I had Rose-Tinted lenses before, and I have since upgraded to a Wide-Lense of Realism, which makes looking at the world more difficult now.

Anyway. Because I don’t believe in coincidences, I decided to write a blog about the lastest round of the Universe Telling Me What Direction To Go In, aka, Mysterious Forces Validating My Life.

Three of my life-friend-soulmates contacted me in the last 24 hours (two are still out adventuring in the great beyond, and one is keeping herself afloat in the familiar), but all are important enough to me to see that I have conjured an opportunity here.

Looking at previous journal writings, the juxtaposition of these jumped out at me:



I’m surprised at myself. I’m hopeful for the future. I’m excited about what it means if this gets off the ground. I’m eager to have this kind of challenge ahead. I’m pleasantly nervous for how much is riding on me. We are better than others tell us we are. We are more than the limitations we face. We are stronger than the doubt we are all occasionally prone to. We are more capable than we will ever truly believe. And I am confident that the opportunity before us will test us all in ways we can’t completely conceive. We all know our own weaknesses; we all can be our worst enemies. But we have the power to be our strongest supports, ore most fervent cheerleaders, and our most ruthless, tenacious promoters.

“I’ll be your nat for the evening,” the man said. He had a silver Don Quixote beard, with brushstrokes of black meeting the corners of a rigid mouth, but the onyx swathes smiled when he did. Balding, bespectacled, and serendipitously placed, he is my motivation to get back on track. A man named Philip M—–, of the greater Boston area, he is currently residing in Bangkok. “I’m going to give you three pieces of unsolicited advice,” he told me. “One, find seven or eight people that you admire, seek them out, and talk with them. They don’t have to be socially significant to other people, they just have to have a story that you have to inquire about. Two, journal.”

“I do, already. Check that box off.”

“…but don’t do it obsessively.” He offered the exception very casually, but cocked an eyebrow at me in punctuation. I shrugged, impetuously accepting of his psychologically-imposed insight.

“Three, do a vision quest.” I sat up in my wicker chair, and the hair on my neck prickled. My shoulders tensed, and a beautiful eon of a moment passed as I sat in serene adoration of what life hands me when only I am brave and candid enough to ask for it. I wanted inspiration, and this man sat down next to me, asked if I spoke French to help translate the menu (I Googled it, which is also supportive) and then we chatted for nearly two hours. He is going home to Bangkok tomorrow, and all I can think—I am consumed by this—is that there is something in the universe that hears me when I ask questions. HE didn’t give me answers, but he gave me solace. He considered my position (a carafe of wine helped, I’m sure, but I won’t give all the credit to the wine) and gave me considerate feedback.

“Have you even done a vision quest?” I inquired.

“Four: one with a medicine man in San Diego, another in Bangkok, the third was self-guided, and one with the Sioux in South Dakota.”

“This is my gap year. I kick myself for not taking it sooner, but I applauded myself for not waiting until I was fifty to travel, to live abroad.”

“Then this is part of your VQ.” He smiled as my face blanked, momentarily. My brain was turning over the casually thrown out acronym, and my features unfroze when I finally decoded it.

He suggested that I look into schools at NYU… and Boston…for social organization…and innovative upstarts. What the fuck did he call them? I passed the two glass mark of understanding, and can no longer recall what specifically was verbally exchanged. I took his email address, and handed him a shred of paper with my scrawled across it.


I don’t currently have an interest in social organization, but time will tell where I go from here. It’s just nice to find another marker along the way that tells me I’m exactly where I should be.