Things Hmong Women have taught me about packing light

My aunt married her husband when she was 16 years old.  In her senior yearbook, there is a picture of her 6 months pregnant with my cousin.  After 21 years, she and her husband are finally moving out of her In-Law’s.  She said she’s leaving everything except her unused wedding gifts—unboxed pots and pans and table settings she’s stored away in dark narrow spaces like all her teenage dreams. 

I can’t imagine holding on to anything for that long.  Hoping for a glimmer of light one day in the future. 

Maybe it’s the Hmong in her.  It’s in all of us.  Sometimes I wonder why we weigh ourselves down so much.  Like bombs, bullets, and escaping a communist government is the only reason to pack light?

One thing I know is that I don’t want to give myself a reason to hold on to 20 years like it is a Polaroid in a photo album in an attic.  Life doesn’t wait the way we keep our possessions. 

Another aunt asks me if I’ve ever hiked to Eagle’s Peak.  She tells me it’s a hike on her bucket list.  When I tell her we should go next weekend, she looks away and becomes busy with kitchen work.  She doesn’t mention it again—and I don’t press her.  I’ve learned that some dreams are like ghosts.  And my aunt is haunted in the form of things she will never do and places she will never see.  

I don’t believe bucket lists belong 10 feet underground.  You can’t fill a Pyramid with it or burn it to the afterlife.  But even so, my aunt fills her list like a hoarder. 

My uncle’s wife asks me if I still plan to move into my car.  When I tell her I am—she asks me, “Why?”

I wanted to tell her ghost stories horrified me, but instead I say, “I want to pay back my loans and get rid of my debt as fast as I can so that I don’t have an excuse to not do what I want to do.”

She says, “But in life you’ll always have debt.”

Another aunt tells me, “Don’t do it. Stay where you’re at.”

“Why not?”  I ask.

“Because it’s wrong—you’ve forgotten what your goals are—“

I interject vehemently, “I know exactly what my goals are; how can you even say that?  You don’t know what I’m doing to facilitate the life I want to live.”

“That’s not the right way of going about it,” she says carefully after a long silence.

Of all people, I wouldn’t qualify her as a specialist on doing things the “right way”. 

All my life, I’ve looked up to these Hmong women as examples of strength and hard work.  But I don’t want to live my life the way they tell me I should.  I refuse to wait for 20 years to unbox my life, to keep a bucket list with no intention to follow through, to stay exactly where I am even though I’m not happy, or to let my mother say that I just need to find someone to marry in order to gain direction in my life.  Whether or not I attain conventional success is beside the point.  It’s about living my best life and I want to pack light.

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Making Friends At 26

I sat down in the center of the gym, forearms pumped from the last 2.5 hours on ropes with Andy and Lee, staring up at the wall.  When we started the night, I felt unsure about my strength after being sick all last week.  I insisted on starting with several easy routes—and even on those—I had to come off the wall.  I felt like I had taken two steps backwards with all my progress.  But after spending the next hour watching them on lead and having them encourage me up more and more difficult top rope routes, I eventually sent my first 5.10c.  It felt awesome.

But now, Andy and Lee were gone, and I was in the bouldering pit, staring at my project, wondering what was I still doing here?  I couldn’t feel my fingers and I wasn’t sending anything.  As I began to get lost in my thoughts, a group of familiar people walked directly in front of me.

Over the last few weeks we had built a comradery, exchanged contacts, and made plans to hang out.  They sat down next to me—and we talked—and I would get up to climb—and then come back to talk.  And this is how it went for the next half hour, until I realized, the only person climbing was me. 

“Are you guys working on anything?”  I asked.

“No, we just wanted to come hang out with you,” one of them said.

And I realized then that I didn’t need to climb to have these people be interested in talking to me. 

So we just sat.  And we talked.  From running full marathons to board games to career aspirations and shows we’re watching.  We talked about anything.  We danced in place to the Island music playing the background.  We shared videos that inspire us.  We hung out until we couldn’t hang out anymore, because the gym closed. 

One by one we filled the parking lot, shouting our goodbyes and planning Thursday night beers and whiskey shots.  We wave and smile and when we get into our cars, we’re already thinking about messaging each other on social media. 

These people are the reason why I stay—when I’m dead tired and can’t feel my fingers—they make me never want to leave the gym. 

February Homage

As I lay sprawled on my bed—room a tornado of sports bras, running shorts, jackets covered in chalk, and makeup collecting dust on the floor—I revel in February’s wake. I’ve never felt more like an adult.  I mean, this is why I started this blog—to figure out this Jackson Pollock thing of my mid-twenties.  By no means do I think I am an expert at this—but man I’ve learned what adulting is “not”. 

Yes, adulting is about the grown up stuff we’ve heard about as children.  Like paying rent on time and going to work every morning.  But sometimes it’s also not doing the dishes, not making your bed, not doing laundry until you’ve run out of fresh underwear, not being in love with someone you can have a foreseeable future with, and not staying in when all your friends want to grab beers on a Tuesday night at 11 PM.  Because adults get to have fun too.  They just have to own up to the consequences.   

In January, a mere two weeks after the start of the year, I told a friend that I wanted to hide from the world.  My love life wasn’t working for me, my work was slowly suffocating me, and my great uncle was hospitalized and I had to sleep in his room in the ICU for a week.  I just felt like I didn’t have the strength to pretend to be strong for my family and to be strong for my friends and to be strong for myself.  I couldn’t practice this stuff in the gym.  There’s no equipment to hone oneself to life’s hardships. 

And so that’s what I did—I hid.  I distanced myself from social media, from all my close friends, from all my hobbies—running, painting, writing, reading—and it wasn’t exactly intentional—I just couldn’t seem to put energy there. 

But then I reconnected with Raf.  And he reminded me something about myself.  I wasn’t weak or insignificant or not good enough.  I was the strong female protagonist of my story.  He made me watch movies like Wonder Woman and shows like Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.  Stories about women with agency and courage.  He said, “Write!  I’d help sponsor you.  You’re that good.”

Still, I didn’t come out of hiding. 

Instead, I drove about 500 miles out of California and in the cold of February camped in Zion National Park and with only 2 hours of sleep hiked to the top of Angel’s Landing.  Raf came along for the ride.  I showed him how to pitch the tent and how to use my MSR pocket rocket.  He encouraged me to get on boulders and took lots of photos of me doing it.  The sunset set the mountains ablaze.  He tried to get me high.  I took a couple hits, but it didn’t happen. 

I appreciated his friendship.

After that I ran into Andy, who forgave my 7th grade bratty-ness and embraced me like we were never estranged with two words, “Let’s climb!”  He is careful about his beta in the gym, but the greatest lesson he’s taught me was off the wall—to forgive and embrace people with genuine kindness. 

Somehow I was able to help throw my mom a surprise birthday party.  I’ve hung out with my siblings in LA.  I’ve done the 3 Sister’s Falls hike with Kylie.  I’ve started taking weekly yoga classes.  I’m playing Gaelic Football on Saturdays for Pub League.  I started running again.  I’ve finished 3 books.  I’ve hit my dead lift and squat PR at 155 pounds. 

All of this happened in February. 

Back in January, I thought I needed to hide from the world—but instead the world embraced me.  So am I doing this right?  This adulting thing?  Maybe not, but I sure am having a hell of a lot of fun doing it. 

“Landscapes tell us stories about time.”

 He smiles at me and I wonder if he notices the erosion of my lips from all the thru-hikers leaving their footprints across the surface.  Can he still see the path he first made, or have there been too many trails off the original?  The first time he kissed me, he parted my lips like a river parts rock and my mouth was a canyon waiting for him to fill it with love.  I didn’t know then that sometimes canyons get so big they become empty.

Outside the restaurant, he opens his arms and gives me a hug.  And it’s not quite like how I remember it.  I felt taller.  Like elevation had nothing to do with my height, but the length of my spine.  Could he feel the earthquake that still trembled inside of me after he left?  Or the ridgeline of my shoulders, where he staked his flag for first ascent? And did it count if I’ve grown?

I cross my arms over my chest.  The valley of my breasts is now a meadow.  He used to linger there like morning mist.  But sunlight evaporated what remained of him.  Wildflowers grew in his place.

He says he can’t believe he hasn’t seen me in years.  I say he made sure of it.  He stayed away like I was volcanic activity spilling on his Pompeii.  He bows his head and tries to explain.  I tell him I understand.  I am no longer rigid like granite.  I break more readily.  Weathered by heartbreak. 

When they seat us, I sit across from him, my fingers laced together on the table—the way I learned to pull myself up on days I couldn’t get over him.  He tells me he never forgot my number.  A fossil from a time of flip phones and T9 texting.  We catch up and rediscover shared commonalities.  Sometimes he confuses my scenic views for those of other wilderness’ he has explored. 

And it is okay because no one remembers the past as it is.  It is a function of how we feel.  And time changes everything.  It buries the hurt like sediment in a lake bed. 

I sigh in relief. 

No longer does he feel like sunshine spreading across snowcaps in the Sierras.  He is not sunshine.  He is just a man with a broken compass.  When men backtrack, I need to learn that I am not their final destination.  I need to learn that I am not thunder and that I am not rain and that lightning never strikes the same place twice.  So this time I let his words pass through me like wind and I bow but I do not break. 

We split the check.  Right down the middle.  Clean.

I ask him if he wants to finish my birthday beer with me.  He agrees to get in my car and we drive to the bay.  We catch up like real friends as we sit on a bench in the dark and watch the fog roll in.  The street lights ripple across the black water.    

He says he needs to do this more often.

To do what, I ask.

He says, to be outside.  

Cheers to being picked last, eating lunch alone, and experiencing FOMO

They talked about what they would name their not-yet-conceived children as I drove down the single lane highway, admiring the unfolding landscape of the San Diego countryside.  The golden sunlight kissed the pastures while the cow grazed, framed by blue skies.  I sighed in awe of the nature while two of my long time friends chatted about engagements and weddings and buying homes and having children.  All I wanted to do was celebrate my 26th birthday.

As a single, unattached 26 year old female, I find that I don’t know where I fit in anymore.  On the one hand, I’m not ready to settle down.  And on the other, all my friends are.  That leaves me in the middle.  Neither here nor there.  Just somewhere in between being a “real” and “young” adult.  This middle is terrifying.  I admit it may only be FOMO (fear of missing out) but the panic is real when you’re the only one in the car that doesn’t have anything to contribute to the conversation about baby names. 

FOMO is stupid.   

I don’t relate, but I also don’t care to and I don’t try.  For me, adulthood has been like a road trip where I’ve opted to take every back road instead of the one that will get me to where I need to go the fastest.  And I’m perfectly content to explore at my leisure whatever comes along the road that interests me. 

At 26, all of the commotion about marriage and mortgages and children is overrated. 

But because I feel this way, I find that the road less travelled is also more lonely.

People partner up so damn fast—like its 8th Grade P.E. and no one wants to be picked last for a team.  Desperate glances and nervous hands link as if to say “You’ll do”, just glad they’re not alone.  But that’s the thing—even at 13, I was never one to rush a good thing.  I turned down dates and broke from friendships and waited for time to reveal who would remain.  Sometimes I ate lunch by myself—but I learned you need an empty table in order to fill it. 

The conversation turns to travel plans with the boyfriends.  It’s funny how “We” can sound so exclusive.  And even though we were all together in my car, heading out to the desert to camp for my birthday, it was hard not to feel like I didn’t belong to the club.    

But I’m realizing maybe this is the adult version of eating lunch alone in the cafeteria.  That this emptiness is only making room for new people and new experiences to come.  I’ve never rushed a good thing, so for now I’ll stick my nose in a book or journal.  I’ll run new routes around the city.  I’ll drive until road meets ocean.  I’ll summit mountains and chase the sunrise across different continents.  I’ll keep doing me—confident that I will receive exactly what I put out into the universe.  A little kindness and whatever human connection I can find along the way.

Black Coffee Kind of Love

He drinks his coffee black.  He says that it is bold and decisive.  But I like mine buttery brown like croissants in the morning with Grandpa.  For me, coffee has always been about that feeling of intangible comfort.  It’s nothing like a hug or a kiss–those kinds of physical comforts dissipate after the moment of impact.  I like to think of coffee like a warm memory–the kind that you can revisit and will kindle into a fire long after that time, that place, or that person is gone.

We sipped black coffee out of a shared mug the first time we went camping together.  Sitting in his car, listening to songs on his high school iPod, waiting for our phones to charge, we reminisce on the night before.  About how fortunate we were to find a camp site, about crispy spam, glasses of whisky, and campfire conversations.  The morning was cold and I had forgotten my jacket so he gave me his to wear.  It somehow felt like I was shedding more layers than I was putting on.

We sip black coffee on the mornings that I sleep over before we each separately head off to work.  After our first date, I saw him two more times before the week was over.  I was never one to put down a good book–and he was the kind of character that teenage me worshiped in young adult fiction.  It was a long time since 17 years old felt so familiar.

Tonight we sip black coffee as we have dinner.  We spent Saturday in the desert under the Milky Way.  Last night I cried as I told him about the growing distance between me and my sisters.  About how it felt to be alone because all my friends and family were in different places in their lives.  When he kissed me, I finally felt that someone understood–the only way a person can understand because he too knew that loneliness.

Sitting beside him at a tiny table in Souplantation, I have never felt more unambivalent about who I was at 25 years old.  Somehow I have become the kind of girl that jumped over rattlesnakes on dirt trails and made sweet passionate love under the stars in the desert.  The kind of girl that hangs out on the side of cliffs and shares gritty coffee with strangers.  I have just met this part of me and am fearful that this girl will disappear with the touch of him.  That I will never again be so wild and uninhibited.

When it is over, will black coffee have taught me to be bold and decisive? Or will it only serve as a warm memory of who I was with him?

 

A little fall of rain

I’m glad it is raining on my birthday.  April raises the curtains and we see the crystal drops on the window.  It’s the kind of pretty that makes you forget you’re in a hospital room.  The machines go off every few minutes for one reason or another.  They take my uncle’s blood pressure.  They squeeze and unsqueeze his tiny legs.  They monitor his heartrate.  They give him additional oxygen to breathe.  Nothing in this room is without a flashing light or a loud beep. 

Last night I cried and I commended myself.  Because to hurt means that one has put oneself in a vulnerable position—and there is nothing more human than that.  It’s my body’s way of flashing and beeping.  Telling the world I’m still alive.

And in the words of Eponine, “I don’t feel any pain.  A little fall of rain can hardly hurt me now.”

And sure, I feel silly.  But silly is better than never knowing how it felt to have that wonderful feeling—even if just briefly.