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The Book Responsible For Me Sitting In Your Inbox Right Now.
If you’re a big reader like me, then you can probably point to that book–you know the one. It left a mark. Made you look at the world, the people around you, perhaps even yourself a little differently. And because of that small shift in perspective, everything changed.
With the recent avalanche of self-help publications discussing everything from intermittent fasting to the art of habits, there’s certainly no shortage of books purporting to be able to change your life.
The book that changed my life? It wasn’t a self-help bestseller. It wasn’t even non-fiction.
Actually, it was a not-terribly written novel by a first time author.
You may have heard of it:
Now, before you close this email and unsubscribe, hear me out.
If you don’t know what Twilight even is, here’s the short version: a young teenaged girl who has made an art form out of brooding falls in love with a mysterious boy at her high school who also appears to possess an overdeveloped fondness for mopey rumination. It turns out he’s a vampire, but one of the good vampires that doesn’t engage in non-consensual blood sucking and, like clockwork, they become boyfriend-girlfriend, while also fighting off the bad vampires (i.e., the ones who don’t really care about consent when it comes to satisfying their very non-vegan appetites).
The book was written by Stephanie Meyer and here is where it gets interesting:
According to Ms. Meyer, the book started with a dream. Literally. One night, she dreamt one of the scenes in the book. Bella, the female protagonist, is lying on a bed of soft, mossy green grass in a small glade with her vampire boyfriend, Edward. When a ray of sunshine breaks through the hovering trees, his skin starts to sparkle like diamonds. Ms. Meyer wakes up and thinks to herself, “Now that’s an interesting question–what does the girl in my dream do with her vampire boyfriend?” Between caring for her babies, she puts pen to paper to answer that very question. And when she’s finished writing the very long, unforgivably entertaining answer to that question, she actually Googles how to get her book published (because she has never written a manuscript before and has no idea how to publish things). She ends up sending her queries to 15 small publishers and lit agents–the addresses to which she found on the interwebs–and gets picked up by one of the largest agents in the publishing industry. Ms. Meyer’s very first foray into writing a novel turns into an overnight international sensation, with over 100 million copies sold worldwide, a subsequent film franchise, and a cult-like fan base.
But, more important than all of that is the fact that Twilight is undoubtedly why I am sitting here writing to any of you at all. Because, but for Ms. Meyer’s dream about Bella and her glittering, bloodsucking boyfriend, I would likely still be stuck in a dead end marriage, billing thousands of hours a year at a law firm, and eating McDonald’s, Popeyes, and Portillo’s every night (yes, sometimes all three in one night).
Living At 70%.
Prior to that pivotal day in 2009 when I finally picked up a copy of a steaming hot vampire love affair, I was living in a 2,400 square foot townhouse in Wheeling, Illinois–my very first home, with my very first mortgage. It had a two car garage, stone tiles in the kitchen, and a powder room. I could afford my first home at 26 because I had a nice job: I was a mid-level associate at a law firm. But there was a pretty hefty price tag attached to that level of financial security–I routinely stayed at the office for 14 hours a day, followed that up with extra work from the dining table at home, and on weekends, there was a 50% chance I’d have to revise briefs or do legal research. This not only meant that vacations were few and far between (and even then, “vacations” usually found me working half the time while sitting in my hotel room), but that home cooked meals occurred about as often as a lunar eclipse. Instead, I relied heavily on the McDonald’s perched conveniently off the exit ramp to my neighborhood, the hot dog joint that set up shop across from my home, and the Taco Bell that was on the way to the nearby Golf Mill shopping center. When things got really busy at work, I made meals out of 5-hour energy vials + Frito Lays.
In other words, it wasn’t the healthiest time of my life.
And, I’m not just talking about physical health.
I started living from weekend to weekend. The only “good days” were Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays, and even those days were often stolen from me by the billable hour. I medicated myself with not just fast food, but “retail therapy” too, justifying mind-bending spending sprees by saying, “I worked hard for this Prada bag.” I did work hard, but even I knew there was something sad about the fact that an absurdly expensive handbag with a small triangular logo could bring me so much pleasure. During breaks in the day, I would sometimes take 30 seconds or even a full minute to just sit and stare fondly at my department store indulgence of the week and repeat to myself, “It’s worth it. It’s allllll worth it.”
The real “highs” of my life came in the form of lavish trips to Hawaii–where my ex-husband and I vacationed for our honeymoon. Thus, while I lived life from weekend to weekend, from a macro standpoint, life was composed of large chunks of time between expensive vacations.
And that’s it.
There was really no other purpose to my life other than to survive until the weekend; until our next trip.
In fact, I often felt that the person I was when I was on vacation was the “real me.” I even had a name for her: “Maui Joanne.” In Maui, I would wake up early, long before the rest of my family did. I’d head out to the beach, holding a book of crosswords. I’d count the number of starfish I saw on the way to the end of Ka’anapali, before finding a smooth place in the sand to sit down and fill in as many empty boxes as I could. I liked to believe that this Joanne, the one that woke up each morning, not necessarily excited, but content to tackle a crossword puzzle, watch the ocean curl up onto the shore, play a round of golf with her father, or just close her eyes and smell the air for inexplicable stretches of time–that this “Joanne” was the real me, even if she was only permitted to come out and breathe a couple times a year, at most.
I called this time in my life “living at 70%,” which was “not bad.” At the time, I genuinely believed that “not bad” was a totally ok way to live; that I had no right to want or even seek something better; that 100% would forever be out of reach for someone like me.
A Hostage To My Anxiety.
I knew that the level of chronic stress I lived with on a day-to-day basis wasn’t “normal” and that my anxiety was holding some part of me hostage. But, I subconsciously subscribed to the thinking of my parents–there were worse things in life than having a fixed income, even if it meant having to sacrifice a not insubstantial part of who I was.
My life goals were loosely organized around two overarching things: (a) don’t get a divorce, and (b) don’t get fired.
Anything that potentially jeopardized either came under instant scrutiny and was likely jettisoned.
This was actually one of the reasons it took me a little longer than most people to come around to reading a book like Twilight.
Twilight was published in 2005. I picked up my copy in 2009, just two days before leaving for another trip to Maui. The movie had just come out on video and it seemed that everyone was talking about it. Naturally, I was curious–about both the book and the movie–but I’d held off on reading it because I was worried that the love story between the two characters would make me want things that were unsafe. More specifically, for several years, I’d avoided any books or movies that generated any real emotions. No dramas, rom-coms, tear jerkers. I stopped watching any movies with animals, even comedies. I channeled every bit of emotional strength I had towards fortifying my marriage and surviving my job. I simply didn’t have anything to spare for stories that elicited empathy, desire, or even the slightest hint of introspection. It was during this time that I developed a deep appreciation for mindless sci-fi thrillers and action flicks, narratives driven largely by external conflict in lieu of dynamic relationships. I traded in all the books I’d grown up loving for video games and, well, crossword puzzles, because the latter didn’t confront me with uncomfortable questions about purpose, self-worth, and love.
In some ways, the prickling concerns I harbored about the sustainability of my job were easier to dismiss. On paper, I checked off all the boxes. I graduated college a year early, went to a prestigious law school, received a full-time offer a year before graduation, and was on my way to making partner. Everyone–not just my parents–exhibited the “atta girl” mentality when they heard what I did for a living. And, as a well-trained people pleaser, this approval was like heroin to me: I simply couldn’t get enough, and therefore, it kept me hooked to a job that, in retrospect, was requiring me to quietly burn the candle at both ends.
The anxiety over my marriage, however, was an entirely different ball of wax. As I’ve written about in my book, my parents were adamantly opposed to my marriage and attempted to change my mind just months before the wedding. Colleagues at the office were constantly pulling me aside to “chat,” sharing their unsolicited relationship advice over furrowed brows. And of course, there was the catalogue of images in my own head, accompanied by a soundtrack of ugly, hurtful words that reverberated in my ears despite my best efforts to drown them out. I used to keep a tally of how often we fought, and, by “fight,” I don’t mean one of those polite little tiffs that end with a bit of iciness that thaws within 24 hours like a bag of frozen peas. I’m talking about knock-down, drag-out battles that precipitate a visit from your neighbors, or at times, even the police. In the beginning, these altercations occurred about once a week, a record of which I kept in my diary. And several years into our relationship, when they happened only once a month, I would congratulate us and say “see? we’re making it work,” even though all evidence pointed to the contrary. The truth was, even though our fights happened with less frequency, they grew more concentrated, more destructive with each passing year.
It wasn’t just my entertainment preferences that changed, though. I stopped doing most of the things I’d once loved. The piano I had been so proud to purchase with my first bonus at the firm collected dust. I didn’t sing anymore, because I saw no point. I stopped getting my haircut, putting on makeup, or even buying new clothes because, again, I was totally uninterested in improving myself in any way. If I did, I would be pulling myself away from him. Instead, it was much safer to eat what he ate, watch what he watched, and play the games he played. I am not exaggerating when I say that I focused all my energy in keeping him happy, making sure he didn’t get mad at me or anyone else (because his rage would often find its way back to me). As a result, he stopped being a husband to me, and instead, grew to be my roommate at best, my dependent, at worst. In fact, there’s some small part of me that’s willing to admit that one of the reasons I gained nearly 70 lbs while I was with my ex-husband was because I wanted myself to be as unattractive as possible, to avoid becoming an object of desire to him or any other man.
In sum, every shred of resolve I had, I used to protect my marriage, and the number 1 threat to that wasn’t my parents or the implicit disapproval of my peers.
Nope. The biggest threat to my marriage was me.
So, I did everything I could to keep “Maui Joanne” locked up, padded the walls of my prison with all sorts of deception:
“I’m strong enough to handle his temper,”
“Every couple goes through what we’re going through,”
“Everything is my fault, my fault, my fault,”
“These fights are bringing us closer together,” or
“I can’t live without him.”
Until, one day, just before hopping on a plane that would take me to Hawaii, I let my guard down and purchased a paperback with an enticing red apple on the cover.
“Maui Joanne” read the entire book, front to back, during the plane ride. As soon as we landed at the airport, I made a beeline for the nearest in-airport bookstore to buy all three of the remaining books (Meyer did not drag things out like some authors and graciously completed the entire series in three years). As soon as I got home from our trip, I watched the movie, and by then, I knew. I just knew.
All my fears over watching that movie (none of which had to do with the fact that half the characters enjoyed consuming human blood) had been justified.
I said earlier that I avoided books and movies that made me want things that were “unsafe.” And DESIRE was at the top of the list – one of the biggest disruptors to the fragile status quo that I had invested virtually my entire being to maintain. Twilight unapologetically centers around the desires of a young female protagonist. Putting to one side Meyer’s clumsy plot devices and a roundabout, but still inevitable submission to the male gaze, Bella steps into that glade with sparkly Edward, baring naked fascination and lust, neither of which I’d felt in years. And the mere whisper of those things–injected into me by way of a young adult novel–was entirely intoxicating.
Despite all the efforts I’d made over the years to lock “Maui Joanne” in a prison on paradise, it seems I came home from that trip with her stowed away in the baggage compartment.
Signs of her were subtle at first, totally not obvious. For instance, though watching the movie when I came home was, itself, a small act of defiance, it was one that was easily justifiable: “Well, I just finished reading all the books; of course I have to watch the movie now.” But, I read more and more books, devoured them and picked their bones clean, as if making up for all the years I’d starved myself. I began strumming the guitar that had been collecting dust in the corner of our family room, plucked out a tune I learned back in college, then moved over to the piano that I’d barely touched in five years.
I got a haircut.
A gym membership.
A Reunion Through The Lens. With Croissants.
I learned how to take pictures by photographing myself. I was too shy to ask others if I could practice on them, and while landscapes are pretty, they require mobility (I mean, there were only so many times I could snap a photo of the same silhouette of suburban townhouses at dusk, however pretty the sky got). In contrast, I could take self-portraits in my spare bedroom. While learning about composition and lighting, I also discovered the shape and shadows of my own body. While editing my photos, I grew uncomfortably familiar with the planes and puddles of my own face.
After neglecting my appearance for so long, I suddenly grew obsessed with it. I started going to a fancy shmancy salon every week, not for haircuts, but for elaborate updos and makeup applications. I spent hours in the gym burning calories, willing the pounds that accumulated over the years to melt away before rewarding myself with shopping sprees at Nordstrom (which was inconveniently located next to my gym). My closet grew crowded with dresses, skinny jeans, platform heels, and silk stockings. I spent endless time in the spare bedroom, contorting my body to achieve “the perfect angle,” waiting to catch a ray of sunlight streaming through the window “just so,” learning how to use things like an intervalometer and tether to make adjustments on the fly, and becoming ever more conversant with photo-editing softwares like Aperture and, eventually, Photoshop.
There were a lot of bad things that resulted from this newfound obsession with my looks. Without getting into all the details (I gotta save something for my tell-all memoir, guys), Twilight didn’t only spark in me a desire to play the piano again. It also provoked the need to be desirable (there’s that male gaze I referenced earlier!). I went from wanting to create as much distance as possible between my body and the opposite sex (hence the 70 lbs of “padding”), to craving the attention of men. I tried everything I could to appear “sexy” in my photos and shared many of them, it utterly pains me to admit, online (*cringe*). Ultimately, though I learned a great deal about photography during those years, I also developed an obsession with my appearance that would lead to body dysmorphic disorder and a relentless struggle with disordered eating.
But, not everything that came out of this period of my life was bad. Obviously, since I’m sitting here writing to you all about it.
On Saturday mornings, I’d wake up while it was still dark outside and head to the gym. After an hour with a personal trainer, I’d continue south towards the city for my weekly appointment at the aforementioned fancy schmancy salon on Oak Street. I’d walk out of Charles’s with something akin to a modern beehive on the top of my head and Cleopatra style rings around my eyes and head next door, to a teensy tiny bakery called “Sara’s.” Sara, a woman in her mid-20s, opened her shop after winning a contest on The Food Network. After spending only 6 months at a French pastry school, Sara, at the age of 22, created one of the most beloved viennoiserie in Chicago, with big white boxes of her goodies being delivered across the city. Small, iron-wrought tables and chairs tucked themselves into the corners of her space, the walls painted in a soothing but still luxe sea foam green. Sara’s counter was a buffet of French pastries– flaky croissants, golden brioche, fruit tarts, and the most pristine petit four you’ve ever seen. And they didn’t just look pretty. I always ordered the same thing–a small latte and one croissant. I’m not French, I’ve never even been to France. But, there was enough “French” in this small cafe for me to pretend that I was that worldly Vogue woman I wanted to be–the single gal who did her hair and makeup every day, sipped daintily on her latte, while pulling apart the layers of the perfect croissant, reminiscing over all the weekend trips to Paris in her wake.
On the way back home to Wheeling, I often took the scenic route, driving through neighborhoods like Logan Square, where clusters of stately trees hovered over 100 year old brownstones. I’d pass by a Starbucks on the corner of California and Logan Blvd. with a large outdoor space, where professionals in flip flops and loose t-shirts worked on laptops and young families congregated with their strollers and labradoodles. As they disappeared beyond my rearview mirror, a blade of envy would begin to press its edge against the softest parts of me because I knew that while they could walk and talk and breathe and drink coffee, the woman I wanted to be, the woman I pretended to be, would soon be stuffed back into her box to make room for the dutiful wife, the hard working lawyer.
As I turned onto Diversey Parkway towards the express way that would bring me back to the burbs, I remember so vividly having this exact conversation in my head:
“Wouldn’t it be amazing? If you could live here one day? A single woman, who could walk to Sara’s any old day of the week and sip coffee at that Starbucks?”
“Yes, that would be amazing. But also, impossible.”
And the conversation ended there.
And then one morning, I started to write.
Writing My Way To Freedom.
In 2010, I started a blog, mostly as a way to learn how to take better pictures and to connect with other photographers. Largely by accident, though, I fell into a small, tight-knit community of poets. I thought to myself, “well, I know how to write poems.” Which was sort of true–I knew how to write bad poems.
I started writing on my 10th birthday, the day my mother gifted me a diary–one with a young girl with yellow hair reciting her bedtime prayers (they didn’t have any with Korean girls on the cover, lol), complete with a silver lock and key that broke in a week. My first major writing endeavor was going to be a wrenching “fiction” about a 5th grade girl who agonized in the pit of true but unreciprocated love against the backdrop of a ruggedly paved playground in Skokie, Illinois. I got about 1 paragraph into my novel before switching over to writing about Seth Davis, the object of a very non-fictional, but also unreciprocated love.
Notwithstanding the swift collapse of my writing prowess, my love of reading was only just beginning. Omma no longer had to bribe me with $5 bills to read books. By the time I was in 6th grade, I stopped at the Walden Books on Skokie Blvd on my way home from school nearly everyday to pick up a copy of anything that looked interesting. I spent hours in the school library, running my index finger along the spines, stopping at everything with a Penguin on it. These were, according to my mother, the “best” books, which I ultimately learned were the “Great Books.” I found myself in the French Quarter, on a tropical island, along the crystal blue coast of Italy, and on the railroad tracks slicing through Russia. One summer in Korea, I brought with me 3 massive suitcases filled with books from the public library–I finished all of them in a month (it was a very hot and rainy summer in Korea that year).
Of course, I didn’t know it at the time, but Hugo, Tolstoy, and Dostoevsky were all teaching me how to tell a story, a tool I would one day use to build a door. A door I would eventually have the courage to walk through.
I continued to write in my journal for years and even took Creative Writing in high school and college. But it wasn’t until I began posting my [bad] poems on the internet that I began to view “writing” as a potential skill. On the internet, I not only was able to subject my work to instant feedback, but I was also able to give feedback. In other words, I was reading poetry (good, bad, ugly, beautiful) every single day. It was a decentralized writers workshop, with multiple incentives to find my voice, build a community, and get better.
And I got a lot better in a very short period of time. Within a couple years, I had built a modest following on my blog and had multiple poems published in literary journals. Despite continuing to work at the firm, I was able to write almost every single day. I woke up at 4 am, stole downstairs in the dark with my Daisy, and popped open my laptop to get an hour or two of writing in before getting ready for work. Instead of taking a lunch break, I would type up a small poem or a bit of prose on my phone before turning off that side of my brain to resume doc review.
Perhaps shards of Stephanie Meyers’s story got lodged into my subconscious–how she made time to write here and there between diaper changes and meal prepping before one day writing the book that changed her life. I had no real intention of writing a book, but with every poem or slip of prose, there was a part of me that started wanting to want to change my life. Not just because I was getting good at it, but because I often wrote about things that I just couldn’t talk about “in real life.” On my blog, I could explore the outer fringes of prohibited desires: independence and passion. I had an audience that was fascinated with my struggle. Through my poems, they knew more about me, my marriage, and my pain than any person in my family, than all of my closest friends, and they thus incentivized me to write more, which required me to think more. In other words, all the things I’d spent so many years preventing, i.e., honest self-confrontation, I was now doing on a daily basis.
I knew it was dangerous, but I did it anyway.
The 2 Car Garage That Nearly Trapped Me.
I was writing on the day I concluded I had to exit my marriage.
As I’ve spoken about before, my husband grew angry because I interrupted him while he was saying something unkind about my friend while eating dinner with my family. I could always see the signs flashing at me: “Warning. Danger ahead.” The way he tilted his head, how his lips puckered as if forced to swallow a particularly unripe plum, the flat darkness that slipped across his eyes. We drove home in silence. I went upstairs to our bedroom to write, hoping he would cool off if I left him alone.
But he didn’t.
That night, I fled with my Daisy to my parents’ house, luckily only a few doors from mine. I told my mom I was getting a divorce. A few days later, though, I went back home. I stood in our garage, taking inventory of the life he and I had crammed into its four corners: a fake Christmas tree packed into a long cardboard box, old skateboards, boxes and boxes of books and old shoes, notebooks and sheafs of computer paper from when we were in college together, DVDs and VHS tapes of our favorite movies and TV shows. The idea of picking out those things I would leave behind, disengaging those things that were truly mine, wasn’t just overwhelming. It was impossible.
As I stood there in the middle of our garage, I said to myself:
“I can’t get a divorce. Because it’ll take too much work to figure out this fucking garage.”
Fighting For Joy.
That moment in the garage nearly derailed my divorce.
I honestly don’t think I would be sitting here today if I didn’t have that writing blog, where I could document the grief and fear associated with leaving a man I still loved so very much, but who often treated me like he hated me. One of the blog posts I wrote back then was called “Breaking up with God in my closet.” It detailed how I often hid from my husband when he got mad. I knew that the sight of me crying upset him and made him even angrier, so I often sat inside our walk-in closet, the cigarette smell from the sleeves of his shirt keeping me company while I sobbed. In the beginning, I would pray, begging God to fix our marriage. But one particular day, he stormed up the stairs and started banging on the closet door, screaming at me as I jammed my fists into my ears.
I stopped praying that day.
I often visualized bursting out of that closet, not crying, but angry and powerful. Stepping one deliberate foot in front of the other until I left all the things that kept me inside of those doors far, far behind. But even as I visualized and wrote about this strong, powerful, angry Joanne, I knew… she didn’t exist. It was fiction.
But, the conclusions I derived from those years of honest introspection ultimately prompted me to take the next, very concrete step towards freedom: finding a therapist. Working with a real, live person–not just comments on the internet–was a turning point in my life. Divorce was no longer theoretical. The door that I’d spent years thinking and writing about was becoming more than a metaphor. With the help of my therapist, Colette, I put together a spreadsheet that mapped out the milestones towards D-Day, in 3-month blocks (I know, very “Joanne”). No, I wouldn’t be thundering out of the closet in a blaze of glory, but, maybe I could slip quietly out of it.
I’d like to tell you that I got a divorce and everything instantly got better. But, for the same reason I won’t lie to you and tell you that a vegan diet is going to cure your cancer, I won’t sit here and pretend that I was happy as a clam when I finally walked out. I was profoundly lonely, wracked with guilt and depression. The habit of dripping tears into my keyboard or hiding underneath my desk after-hours at the office didn’t disappear after I left Wheeling for a small apartment in the city. I gained about 40 pounds that year, developed serious social anxiety, and started to regret my decision to leave. In fact, I distinctly remember getting kinda pissy with Colette:
“It’s been one year, Colette. And I’m still crying. I’m still miserable. When does this get better?”
Colette reassured me that with time, I’d begin to see the light at the end of the tunnel, that one day, I would bask in that light and wonder at a joy I couldn’t even imagine. In the meantime, she suggested a mild antidepressant. But it didn’t do much. I remember walking into the doctor’s office and suggesting he raise the dosage, to which he said, “Well, that’ll sort of turn you into a robot.” To which I said,
“Hi. I have an appointment for a hair cut at 10. My name is Joanne Molinaro,” I tell the shabbily-posh looking man sitting behind the reception desk. I look down at my watch. It’s 9:07. “I’m a little early…” I trail off, as he leans into the computer screen in front of him. “Oh, you’re with me!” He has a British accent. “I’m Neil. You’re early, but come back here with me and we can get started.”
I haven’t gotten my hair cut in a year. It’s been only 2 1/2 months since moving to California, but I figure it’s time to start “dating” hair stylists. I’d gone to the same one in Chicago for a decade and I’m still a little nervous about finding someone to take his place. Neil expertly extracts all of this information from me while showing no mercy to my split ends and bewitching me with his accent.
“And what brought you to LA?” A common enough question that I’m getting better at answering.
“Oh, I finally quit my job and was no longer tethered to my office in Chicago. I figured LA was as good a place as any to move to.”
“Uh-huh,” nodding his head in polite validation. “And what was your job?”
“A lawyer. I worked at a law firm in the city.” I don’t say more.
Snip, snip, snip.
“What do you do now?”
This is a much harder question for me to answer these days. I scroll through my options and land on:
“I’m a writer.”
“Oh!!” he crows. “And have you written a book or somethin’?”
“Yes,” I answer. I smile at him through the mirror and once more, don’t say more.
“Did it do well? Did you sell them?”
“I think so. It’s a New York Times Bestseller and it won a James Beard Award.” I don’t like to brag, but, he did ask.
“Wow! Congratulations! What’s it about?”
“It’s a cookbook,” I offer. To which he instantly says,
“Oh, I love to cook. I love cookbooks! What kind of food?”
“It’s Korean vegan food,” I say.
“Korean vegan food? But how does that work? I mean, Korean food has so much meat?” Now this is a question I get asked so frequently, I could answer it in my sleep. I launch into a brief description of Korean temple cuisine, together with highlights from my own childhood–the vegetables from our garden, how meat was reserved for special occasions, how Korean food is so much more than bulgogi.
“Well, I want to buy your book, now. I love Korean food and I hardly eat any meat at all. In fact, there was a lovely little spot I went to last week and I ordered a vegan pasta. It was delicious.” Snip, snip, snip. “Ok, let’s get your hair washed and conditioned.”
I get out of the chair, point to the tote bag I brought with me. “You can look at my book. I brought a copy to give to the friend I’m meeting for lunch today.” He reaches in and pulls it out, a bowl of half-eaten jjajangmyeon glistening off the cover.
“Ahhh..you called it the ‘The Korean Vegan,'” he says, as he flips it open. I head to the sink to get my hair washed and come back to a different gentleman, younger and covered in faded tattoos. He starts blow drying my hair and we make chit-chat about our mutual love of the Marvel heroes on his t-shirt.
Neil returns, cradling my book as if it’s his own. “Are you selling this copy? Can I buy it?” I smile.
“Sorry, no. I’ve promised that one to my friend. But you can buy it on Amazon or any other bookstore!”
“I will,” he says. “It’s beautiful.”
He puts the book down, takes the brush and blow drier from the Marvel comics t-shirt guy and begins putting the final, finishing touches on my new hair. About five minutes pass before I finally tell this man I hardly even know,
“You know… there was a time in my life when I’d go to the salon every week. Not to get my hair cut, but to get an updo. And my makeup done. And then I’d go next door and eat a croissant and pretend I was a totally different woman. That I wasn’t married anymore. That I was living on my own in some small little apartment in Logan Square, one of my favorite neighborhoods in Chicago, where I could get my hair done and drink lattes whenever I wanted. But… I’d always tell myself it was impossible. That this dream I had… it wasn’t for me.”
“Is that right?” he asks.
“Yes. I called it ‘living at 70%.'”
As Neil gives my hair one final flounce, I look into the mirror. Stare directly at the woman sitting in front of me, and say,
“Now, I live at 100%.”
“What wok do you use?” – Caila
Hi Caila! I don’t really use a wok in most of my cooking. I only do so when I know I need scorching hot temperatures. Otherwise, I use a non-stick stir-fry pan for my everyday cooking that is shaped like a wok. It’s durable and not overly expensive and easy to maintain in good condition. A good wok will live and die with you, but… to be honest, they can be a little high maintenance and, in my experience, they take some getting used to.
“I want to take risk and build my career but I just can’t bring myself to even take the first step. Could you please advise me on how I can convince myself that it’ll be alright despite the uncertainty that it won’t?” – Priyanshi
Let’s begin by dispelling the idea that “it’ll [automatically] be alright.” Depending on how you define “alright,” blindly taking risks could result in a lot of situations that you would probably consider to be very not alright. You could find yourself in serious amounts of debt, at odds with family members who are unwilling to support your career, falling into depression as a consequence of financial distress, or in a hole that doesn’t look nearly as glamorous as promised. Building your career is not just about pursuing a passion. If this were so, everyone would be working at their dream jobs all the time.
Instead of viewing career-development as a series of “risky” steps leading to a vast and murky unknown, work backwards. Ask yourself, where do you want to be, personally and professionally in 10, 15, 20 years? Be specific about it and write it down. What industry do you want to work in? At what level of leadership do you want to be in? Do you want to be in leadership at all? How much money do you want to make each year? How much do you want saved away for retirement? Do you see yourself married and with a family? And don’t be shy about pipe dreams–there’s room for all kinds of things in this list of yours. Now’s the time to put on paper: “I want to write the Great American Novel,” or “I want to open up my own ice cream shop,” or “I want to be a famous actress.” After you write all these things down, put them in order of priority. What is more important to you: having two kids or being the CEO of your own company? They’re not necessarily mutually exclusive, of course, but they may make demands on limited resources, so it’s important to figure out which of these will get “dibs” when there’s only so much of you to give.
Now comes the less fun part. It’s time to get real and here, you may want to solicit some help. Ask yourself: what are you good at? If you’re as short as I am, I can tell you right now that the “WNBA” should not be on your list. Anyone who tells you that you can be anything you put your mind to (other than your mom–moms are exempt from this rule) is lying. There are a lot of things that you, my dear, should not have on your list and it’s important that you cross those off now before you find yourself in the aforementioned hole.
Finally, once you’ve got a really good list and have a very solid idea of who you want the future Priyanshi to be, start from her and map a course back to the person you are today. For instance, if future Priyanshi is a novelist, wife, and mother in 10 years, who will she be in YR 7, YR 5, and YR 1? In Year 7, she might be submitting queries for her first manuscript. During years 5 through 7, she’s writing that manuscript, while also making sure the kids get fed and driven to school. During years 3 through 5, she might be going to night school, taking writing workshops, working with other authors, reading every book she can get her hands on, so she can learn her craft, while working at a “day job” that pays for her mortgage, good health insurance, and a car. From years 1 through 3, she’s writing during her spare time, looking for love via online dating websites, and traveling across the country to meet interesting people and fill out her library of unique experiences to blog about. And in that first year, year zero, she buys a journal, a box of really good pens, a cheap laptop, and just starts writing, while also sending out resumes for a job to pay the bills.
The important thing is, none of this is meant to be a plan for you to stick to for the next 10 years of your life. I promise you, you will revisit, rethink, and revise your list many many many times over as Priyanshi grows to be the person that not even the most talented psychic could envision. But guess what? Confidence is a hard earned thing. And all the work you’ve done to identify your goals, build your vision, appraise your skills, and build a path? That is how you know not that “it” will be alright, but that YOU will be alright, even if “it” goes to shit.
THAT is how you find the courage to “take that first step.”
Wishing you the very best.
- Did you listen to the podcast I did with Desiree Nielson, on The All Sorts Podcast? BTW, Desiree has written a GORGEOUS new cookbook called Good for Your Gut, a topic that is near and dear to my stomach!! Check it out!
- My friend Dylan Lemay opened up a beautiful new ice cream shop called Catch’n Ice Cream and I like to think I’m responsible for the vegan option (which is delectable). If you’re in NYC, make sure to head down to Bleecker Street and catch yourself a sweet vegan treat!
- What I’m Watching: A good friend of mine recommended The Extraordinary Attorney Woo on Netflix, a Korean drama about a young autistic woman who works for one of the largest law firms in South Korea. It’s funny, heartfelt, and eye-opening. The writers do a good job of exploring ableism in the legal industry and love. I’ve also been bingeing The Umbrella Academy. Not the best writing and some mediocre acting, but I find the comedy to be pretty spot on and the story line wildly entertaining. If you can get past the inevitable plot-holes when time-traveling is a big component of the story, I highly recommend it.
- My Favorite New Kitchen Gadget: One of my favorite things about watching Korean dramas is keeping my eyes peeled for random beauty products and kitchen gadgets that aren’t as prevalent here in the States. One that caught my attention was this wireless, portable food processor. I was skeptical at first, but man-oh-man, I love this thing! My regular food processor is so huge and clunky and, of course, needs to be about 7 inches from an outlet–so annoying! This one is lightweight and works like a charm.
- Upcoming Recipes: As many of you know, I had to take a 2-week break from work and wasn’t able to do much recipe development. That said, peach season is here and I picked up a whole bunch from my local farmer’s market. I’m going to be experimenting with no baking, no sugar added desserts, so stay tuned to the TKV Meal Planner for that!
As many of you know, I lost my Roodles about two weeks ago. This has undoubtedly been one of the worst months of my entire life. Without going into detail, I will say that the amount of grief I continue to experience over the loss of my dog has caught me off guard. I’ve loved and lost many dogs in the past two decades, but losing Rudy has been far more challenging to deal with than I was ready for. During moments of intense sadness or distress, it is easy to believe that joy comes and goes, that when bad things happen, joy disappears until it floats back into our life when good things happen, when we are “happy.”
But what if joy isn’t the one floating away from us? But we are the ones floating away from joy?
I like to think of joy as an anchor, heavy and immovable. When the waters are calm, it’s easy to stay close to your anchor, swim several yards away knowing you’ll find your way back. But when the storm hits–and there’s always a storm eventually–you have to fight to stay close to your anchor, keep your legs kicking, your head above water, to make sure the current doesn’t pull you so far away that you can’t find your way back or, even worse, you drown.
This morning, over breakfast, Anthony chattered away, but I could barely pay attention. I asked myself for the billionth time “when is this going to get better?”
I reminded myself that joy, like love, isn’t a feeling that slithers in and out of your life, with the good and the bad.
Joy is a choice.
One that you may need to make over and over again, every day, every hour, every second.
One that may require courage, heart, and power.
Joy is out there. But sometimes, you have to fight for it.