10/31/16 FIND YOUR WORD, FIND YOUR LIFE
“This is what you need most right now.” As we sat in a dark, empty meeting room, a life coach’s voice guided us towards our “Word of the Year.” It’s a simple idea: You choose your word with intention, with hope, with a little courage. You keep it close to you and in mind as you go through your life, making decisions and living your day to day. And when things get messy — as life always does — “this one little word [keeps] it all in perspective, [gives you] faith that there [is] a bigger picture here, that [you are] part of a larger story. Most importantly, it remind[s us all] that [we have] power, that [we have] a hand in how [our] story unfold[s].”
THE AUTUMN SHED
Sitting there in the dark, I realized I’d already been doing this exercise for years with Kristel. We always give our years a “theme” key word, one that we observe has been guiding our actions. I began to think about my past themes/words of the year for the last few years. In 2014-2015 my word had been SHED. 2013 was a year that rocked me — I ended a 5 year, unhealthy relationship; one of my closest friends tried to commit suicide; the first of my aunts/uncles who had raised me passed away.…all within 4 months. I spent the rest of that year somewhat in hiding, trying to find a safe haven within my world. I awoke sometime in 2014 from total system-shock determined to change and get rid of a lot of things in my life. Just like autumn leaves yellow and fall down to the earth, I wanted to SHED the layers of crap and expectations I’d created in my life. I wanted to SHED unwanted weight that was making me feel unhealthy. I wanted to SHED expired acquaintances and relationships with people who had never really been there for me and especially not now when it mattered, and who I didn’t want to expend any further energy on in the future. And then I wanted to see what substance was left there, after the SHED.
So, in 2014-2015, I refocused inwards and began to unravel my life. Mo Williams has said that “if you ever find yourself in the wrong story, leave.” While I wasn’t ready to completely take off, I began to untie strings and bounds in my life that had made me feel so shackled and unhappy. I was getting ready to clear the slates so that I could re-write my story in a way that actually made me happy. I freed up most of my time from surface social interactions and obligations, so that I could actually participate in things that mattered to me. That left me with work, family, a few select friends, and my house.
THE WINTER SHIFT
As 2015 began, I was struggling internally with what to do next with my growing career as a corporate attorney. I was 5 years in, 5 years further than I ever thought I would make it. But I was still unhappy, and growing more unhappy with each new level I achieved at work. I had shed many things that no longer served me, and my corporate law career was the next thing that I needed to evaluate on the chopping block.
This was my winter, my most trying season. I rededicated myself to law, trying to make it work. I busted ass like I had never done before. But, despite my best efforts, it just didn’t fulfill me. No matter how hard a tree clings to its last leaves, winter will come, and the leaves must fall. The tree must fall bare, changing form and shape. And when that’s complete, when everything it’s got has been SHED, that tree can finally begin to SHIFT. Because, while it appears dead, the sapling is really preparing to birth something beautiful come spring, when it is ready.
I decided to change my behavior and take real actions to create the life I wanted. And Big Law just wasn’t that life. Everything I knew and had spent years building up wasn’t that life. And so, just like Susan Sontag, I decided that “I must change my life so that I can live it, not wait for it.”
SHIFTING to me meant putting some walk to my talk. It meant doing something about being generally and overwhelmingly unhappy about most things in my life. It meant not just continuing to show up at work, bust ass, give it my all, come home a shell of a person, eat some cold leftovers, sleep for a few hours, and wake up to do it all again. SHIFTING meant committing to evaluating the baby steps I was implementing until I found something that was solid to stand upon. In this time, Sheila and I did weekly “Life 101 Wednesdays”, where we would get together and work on our lives to see where we could bring our realities a little bit closer to our dreams. I attended seminars to try to grow my perspective in new ways. And I became more involved with The Angry Therapist’s new app, aptly named SHFT, all about changing your life into the course you want it to take. All baby steps yes, but important ones that taught me that my life didn’t have to stay on the path it was headed towards; that I am the only true author of my own story.
I accepted within me finally that my work would not work, for my life. That it hadn’t worked for a long time. That I’d just been in denial and hiding from my own critical eye. Deciding to quit was one of the most difficult decisions I’ve had to make in my adult life, requiring courage I seriously doubted that I had. I debated endlessly, cried, argued with myself into the wee hours of the night about all the what ifs and plan Bs. And I considered what would happen if I didn’t do it: the office I saw before me would be the only thing I ever saw again. This would be the epitome of my life. And that, I couldn’t stomach. So, in August 2015, I gathered up all the grit in me and quit. All those baby steps in winter were beginning to add up to a journey. I was SHIFTING, not even realizing it quite yet. But putting my foot down and saying “no more, not for me” was the critical step in changing my life. T.S. Elliot reminds us that “only those who risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go;” and so, I went far, far away. I quit my life, in fact, leaving corporate law and DTLA and the rat race entirely.
I decided to take a year off — entirely off, from work, productivity, business, and life as I knew it. I spent the first few months just learning to feel again, becoming “un-numb”. I stayed in DTLA and did weekday happy hour, travelled domestically to help my sis find the perfect wedding dress in the middle of a freak sprinkler storm. In November 2015, I moved to Singapore for 2 months to hang out with my mom. I hadn’t spent that much time with her since I was 18. It was incredible to see her new life over there, live some of it alongside with her. We went to Thailand and crossed off the Yi Peng Sky Lantern festival off my bucket list together, sending candle-lit paper lanterns into the heavens with our deepest wishes and hopes. We ate everything under the sun, and then went to Vietnam to learn more about who and where we come from. Vinh and I returned to Bali and fell in love with the sacred, intricate beauty of the place.
When I got back to LA, I realized Rio was coming up in 3 short weeks. It was happening – I was going to move to Rio de Janeiro, and Vinh was coming with me. These were all the little ideas I’d dreamed up months ago, now brought forth and becoming reality. Vinh and I SHIFTED again, this time moving our entire lives to South America. We arrived just in time for Carnaval, even dancing in the parade as St. George for Estácio de Sá. We took it slow, intentional, and we found that we connected with each other in a way we couldn’t do back in LA. We set up a life we both liked — nightly walks along Copacabana beach, going to the gym daily, eating healthy and cooking at home. Acai and farmers markets replaced McDonald’s and vegging in front of the TV. We were truly, fully happy. When we traveled to incredible Patagonia, we walked on glaciers and discovered a magical lake, hidden amongst ancient giants. We jumped in countless waterfalls, kissing life and having picnics in the moss. We swam like mermaids in bioluminescence on a black sand beach in paradise, under the stars. We felt alive. We shared these moments with so many beautiful people in the same messy life-stage as us — people leaving behind the certainty of a past life that just didn’t fit anymore, searching for something new and exciting, and finding themselves doing somersaults in the mess of it all. Living. Breathing. Loving each other. And figuring it out along the way.
As we SHIFTED, changed, and established a new lifestyle, I felt freer, happier, healthier, and more me than I had in over a decade. This continued as we left our beloved Marvelous Rio for the Amazon. 1 month at LPAC, and I was in love all over again — with the jungle, with nature, with being outside. But most of all, I fell in love with being surrounded by good people living their dreams and changing the world. Seriously, changing the world, in ways I can see and believe in. I left the jungle feeling amazed and inspired. Along the way, I also learned to machete (the best survival tool ever), felt the hairs on my neck stand up hearing howler monkeys calling to their tribes in the darkness, and cradled poisonous Amazon frogs and snakes with my bare hands. I learned how very little I need to survive (literally and figuratively) and be happy. And I found some elusive inner peace watching the sun set over the rainforest while wading in the Las Piedras River.
THE SPRING COMMITMENT
When it was all over, we headed back home to LA. As the wheels of the plane touched down at LAX, I begged Vinh to promise me nothing would be as before; I needed to cement the changes we had begun in South America. I had glimpsed and lived a life I loved, and I couldn’t go back to a half-existence.
But home was full of those old things, weddings and “real” life, obligations, family, friends, familiar food. It was easy to lose track of what we left for, and to fall into old patterns. And, I didn’t know what my next step should be. There was no upcoming trip or volunteer experience to look forwards to, no amazing journeys planned. Just life as I knew it before this insane SHIFT in me started. I was back; everything looked the same and I worried I would quickly revert to pre-SHED, pre-SHIFT me.
While I pondered all of this in a mini-existential crisis and funk, I attended AWAKE, the SHFT life and fitness pop up that The Angry Therapist was putting on. Life Coach Pam Davis ran a workshop there about finding your word. Piqued, I sat there, and she began “What do you need right now?” I thought about health, and the other usual NYE resolution answers. And then It dawned on me, I need to COMMIT. This is where I realized that Kristel and I have been doing the “word of the year” for 6 years already, just framing it as a key word rather than a word with force and intention. But look at what those words had already done for me! I had SHED all the unnecessary things in my life – people, weight, clutter, clothes, experiences, careers. I had SHED my old expectations, the “shoulds” from society. And after all that SHED, I was left with space for my truer self to emerge, act, and take over.
Then I had decided to SHIFT. I informed myself and gave myself the freedom and space to change everything, and see what it revealed about me. I gave myself a lifetime of experiences in that year off, seeing where each one would lead me. This all hit me like a tidal wave; the power of these themes, these words of the year, to help me create the changes I wanted to see. I had wanted to SHED and SHIFT and I had, in big, scary, meaningful ways. More importantly, I realized that it was time to move on to my next word. It came to me slowly, but with a voice I could not ignore: COMMIT. COMMIT to myself, to a new life, to changes in my world. If I don’t want this next stage of life to look like the last, I have to make some real COMMITMENTS to make my shifts more permanent.
Step one – get rid of my big city mortgage to ensure I won’t have to work big city hours to maintain that big city lifestyle. I closed escrow on Evo 1104 in October 2016. Step two – join the gym and actually get healthy. Bought a 2 year plan at 24 hour fitness so I can go despite bouncing between Sacramento, San Jose, and Los Angeles. And, I’ve rekindled a love for zumba, yoga, and sunset runs. Step three – think about what I want to do, what would make me happy. This one is hazier, but I think I would be really happy as a conservation journalist. I’d love to accompany scientific expeditions to the depths of the jungles, uncharted oceans, tallest mountains. I’d love to see the wild, wild world we’re losing everyday, and tell it’s story in a way that is accessible to others, that makes them see it and care about it. How to get from my aunt’s couch back to the jungle? — that’s probably steps four to one hundred. I’m sure it won’t be as clear as to be able to name it in steps, but I am ready for this to be the next stage in my personal growth.
As my favorite writer Mark Manson says, the third stage of life is COMMITMENT:
“Once you’ve pushed your own boundaries and either found your limitations (i.e., athletics, the culinary arts) or found the diminishing returns of certain activities (i.e., partying, video games, masturbation) then you are left with what’s both a) actually important to you, and b) what you’re not terrible at. Now it’s time to make your dent in the world.”
“Stage Three is the great consolidation of one’s life. Out go the friends who are draining you and holding you back. Out go the activities and hobbies that are a mindless waste of time. Out go the old dreams that are clearly not coming true anytime soon.
“Then you double down on what you’re best at and what is best to you. You double down on the most important relationships in your life. You double down on a single mission in life, whether that’s to work on the world’s energy crisis or to be a bitching digital artist or to become an expert in brains or have a bunch of snotty, drooling children. Whatever it is, Stage Three is when you get it done.”
And so, I find myself here, one foot still in my mind-blowing year off and one stepping forwards into my uncertain future. I know now that those 8 months in Asia and South America had been taking me on the ride of my life, helping me find myself. It wasn’t just me running away. Rather, the turmoil of quitting had just been the end of winter, and all of this had been my hibernation and growing. Christine Caine teaches us, “sometimes when you’re in a dark place, you think you’ve been buried, but actually you’ve been planted.” I’ve shifted and changed so much already, and now it’s time to direct those changes towards growing into a new self. I still don’t know the exact path yet, but I am closing old doors to push myself forwards into new light. And, guided by my new word of the year, I am committing to making the shed and shift all worth it. No one knows how this will all turn out; but at least now, I can choose my words and actions with intention, and boldly take some steps to find out what my future might hold.