Love in Southeast Asia: Meeting Heather on the Halong Bay

“I can’t stop looking at her.”

Parker reminds me that there are only 10 other people on this boat, so I should try to control myself.

We’re out for our first excursion aboard the Paradise Four. It’s nine billion degrees on the Halong Bay, but it feels like Heaven. The view is majestic in every direction.

I’m captivated by a short-haired woman in her early sixties. She’s wearing a purple tank top and her hair is dyed a deep violet-red. It’s clear she spent her pre-gray years as a vibrant red head. She’s traveling with her husband who appears quiet and loyal. She radiates with a huge smile and palpable enthusiasm.

I can’t stop looking at her.

“I know you think this is just more of my hippie-voodoo, but check it out.”

I scroll through my Iphone camera roll to a picture from a year ago. I pass the phone to Parker. Heather’s beautiful, freckled face fills me with joy and heartbreak. I watch his eyes soften into a silent apology for doubting me.

“That must be weird for you.”

I don’t feel weird about it, but if I keep this up, she might.

Just after sunset, Parker and I join the grown-ups on the top deck for cocktails. We sit in a haphazard circle of beach chairs and relax in the eighty-five-degree darkness. I inch my chair as close to her as possible, observing a boundary line for the personal space of a complete stranger. My boundary lines have always been a little fuzzy.

She speaks with a rich australian accent. Her vivaciousness and effusive language make her unique intonation even more dramatic.

I want her to tell me every detail of her life.

She and her husband raised their two boys in four different countries. A year in Sri Lanka, 3 in California. Some time in London, and of course, Australia. The boys are grown now, but they still travel as a family. She and her husband share a strong partnership, a love for exotic destinations and a taste for good wine. They love their kids deeply but live full, independent lives. I can tell just by listening, their family is something special.

I want to squeeze her so tight I can feel her bones. I want to tell her I love her. I want to reveal that we are soul sisters, and share about my loss. I want to cry in her arms and feel Heather’s spirit comfort me. I don’t want to get off the boat because I can’t say goodbye again.

At dinner I watch her and her husband invite new friends over to share their table.

“That’s so Redford.”

Later, I see her disappear into the cabin deck and emerge with a buffet of stomach medication. She thrusts them in the lap of a total stranger and tells him to take what ever he needs.  She says, “I won’t humiliate you with questions about your symptoms. I know it can get crazy down there around these parts,”

She would.

The next morning I drag myself to Sunrise Tai Chi. I meet my friend and her husband, the only two people brave enough to sweat it out at 6:30 a.m.

At 7:30, I find a seat next to her in the dining room and fill up her coffee.

We talk until Parker, and breakfast, emerge.

For over an hour, we chat and laugh and connect. We joke about the traffic in Southern California and share ski-weekend memories from Northstar at Tahoe. Her love surrounds me, just like the first time we met.

It felt like sharing moments with Heather that could have been. The conversations we would have had, the milestones in her boys’ life she might have witnessed. Her patient, sweet husband. Their beautiful life.

I wanted to cry but didn’t want to have to muster an explanation. I drank up the light in her eyes.

When we got off the boat, I whispered: I miss you my dear friend. I’ll see you again soon.

Of course, I should have known.

Heather’s soul is transcendent.

Among Women

I spent last night at a country show in one of Sacramento’s affluent suburbs. The bar was serving thirty-two ounce beers in mason jars and the Giants won game 1 of the world series.

People were having a good time.

20 minutes before the show starts, there’s a drunk twenty-something female being obnoxious, three rows back from the stage. She’s yelling about everything. She’s got that “one-too-many” sway on. Her glassy eyes tell the story of an over-indulgent happy hour.

Next to me, there are three beautiful twenty-something women with giant wedding rings. They have pretty hair and cute J.Crew style.

Every word coming out of their mouths is something mean about someone else.

When the music comes on, the drunk girl positions herself behind the young women with the impressive hand jewelry. Minutes later, the drama begins.

For half an hour, the women are getting into it, back and forth. I catch words like “Bitch.” and “Whore.” Any time I look back between songs I catch eyes rolling and passive aggressive giggles exchanged between friends.

During a break in the action on stage, the low-level cattiness erupts into a full-fledged lady brawl. Hair pulling, obscenity screaming. One girl put another girl in a headlock.

“Is this really happening right now?”

The artist on stage strums kum-ba-yah on his guitar and waits for the intensity in the crowd to die down.

The ladies are eventually separated. The show goes on.

I feel one part disbelief, one part sadness.

I feel disbelief that adult women want to spend any time or energy being cruel to each other. It seems inconceivable that with all women are up against, we can’t just be kind and loving and supportive.

I feel sadness for my own lifetime participation in the ugliness that underlies the drunk girl-fight at the country music bar. It’s the same ugliness that made my high school students cry in my office at my last job. It’s the same ugliness that made me say and do terrible things to my female high school classmates. It’s the same ugliness we face every day when we look in the mirror and decide we’re not thin enough. Not pretty enough. That our hair and our face and our makeup doesn’t look quite right.

We feel angry and bitter inside so we lash out at the female reflections around us. We perceive a scarcity of success, attention, and eligible men, so we make enemies out of perfect strangers just because they are women.

We judge, and gossip and roll our eyes.

We call each other bitches. We compete and contend and put each other down.

This morning, I’m reminded of the importance of female solidarity. Of having strong, honest relationships with other women. The type of relationships where we can tell-it-how-it-is without telling each other how to be. The type of relationships that lift us up, that nurture our self-esteem. The type of relationships that feel safe and supportive. The type of relationships that teach us how to treat each other so we can practice how to treat ourselves.

Love among women is a powerful thing.

Get some and spread it around.

Perfectionism is a hustle

If you met me on the street you wouldn’t notice. I’m frequently clad head-to-toe in lycra and I rarely wear makeup in the daylight.

If I told my law school classmates, they wouldn’t believe me. I never tabbed my books and still don’t know how to make an outline.

I don’t have flawless hair or an impeccable complexion. I can’t make impressive spreadsheets and my computer documents are all in one, disorganized folder on my hard drive.

I talk too loud in public and routinely violate social norms.

Sometimes, after a sweaty yoga practice, I don’t shower before bed.

You can’t know people’s stories from looking,  but my story is about perfection.

Perfect student. Perfect daughter. Perfect body. Perfect life.

Good is barely adequate and trying is failure.

As long as I’ve been talking, I’ve been perfecting.

I was the perfect kid.

My teachers constantly gushed about my impressive intelligence and obedient demeanor. They thought I was “darling” and “brilliant.” I was a “shining star” and at “the top of my class.” In third grade, I got in trouble for fast-walking in the hallway on the way to lunch. I was sick about it for days. I was President of my elementary school, a spelling bee champion and infamous for my epic portrayal of The Wicked Witch of the West. I played soccer and volleyball. I tap-danced and did “street jazz.” Every afternoon I sat down to do my homework, as soon as I got home from school.

I was the perfect teenager.

I didn’t drink, do drugs or have sex. I never lied to my parents about where I was going or what I was doing. I got straight A’s until my senior year. I went to my first choice for college. I never had a curfew, didn’t have to be punished, and rarely showed attitude or resistance to anyone.  When my skinny frame became a woman’s body, I decided to be skinny again. I ran 8 miles a day and ate one bowl of cereal. Occasionally, I splurged on a six-inch subway sandwich. I made up excuses in public about why I wasn’t eating. I drank 20 oz. Pepsi-Ones, all day long.

The older I got the harder it was to be perfect.

I faced graduating from college without a concrete career plan or admission to professional school. In a single year, I had three different jobs. I dreaded seeing people in public, because I didn’t have anything impressive to tell them. I couldn’t share elaborate life plans or fancy accomplishments. It was harder to be thin. And easier to get wrinkles.

I kept trying to keep up, but feeling behind.

I left public education and got a law degree. I became a yoga teacher, moved to Los Angeles and learned to cook. I stayed thin and fit and compulsively applied eye cream. I went on terrible dates and lusted after unavailable guys. I pretended to have a career plan and compared myself to everyone on Facebook.

But the standard for perfect kept changing. And I was always struggling to adapt.

Then a week ago, I got slapped with some straight-up truth.

“Perfectionism is a Hustle”

Hell yeah it is.

In Daring Greatly, Brene Brown writes about perfectionism. And I can relate.

She points out that perfect is impossible, and that those of us who are obsessed with attaining perfection are setting ourselves up for disappointment, over, and over again.

She reminds me that perfectionism is exhausting and unsustainable. That perfectionism shields vulnerability, numbs compassion and masks the honest part of myself that connects with other people. Perfectionism is lonely and isolating and self-destructive.

When I think about myself as I perfectionist, I feel like a case study for Brown’s book.

When I try to be perfect, I keep people at a distance. If they get too close, they might see me for who I am. They might see me struggle to keep it together. They might feel my sadness or anger or insecurity. They might judge me or leave me or betray me.

When I try to be perfect, I disconnect. I lock up my emotions. I bury everything to hide how I’m feeling. All of the hiding makes it difficult to feel at all.

When I try to be perfect, I am tired, and judgmental. I get irritable and reactive.

Ultimately, I’d like to leave the hustle for the honest work of showing up authentically for myself and the people around me. I’d like to let go of the idea of who I should be and connect with who I am.

But I’ve been hustling my whole life. In the face of challenge, uncertainty and vulnerability, I immediately retreat into the shelter of perfection. I cover up the mess. Put on a smile and pray that the world will buy it.

Love in Southeast Asia: I didn’t plan for this.

Southern Thailand is indescribable.

The water stretches all the way to the sky. They blur together at the point where my eyes lose focus. It’s that green-blue color I was obsessed with as a kid. Back then I called it “aqua-marine.” Today, I don’t even have a word for it.

In the days when I wanted my bedroom, my backpack and all of my clothes to be aqua-marine, I was afraid of the Ocean. I’d watch my brother fearlessly tackle giant, human-eating, white-capped swells. Every time I’d watch him go under I’d hold my breath until he appeared at the surface.

“Phew. That was a close one.”

For two days on Phi Phi island I swam hundreds of feet out in the calm, warm water. I felt peaceful and powerful. I soaked up the rare beauty of being in this quiet, remote place.

On the third day it rained. Hard. Harder than I’d ever seen. Harder than the year the River City Magic won a state championship at Cherry Island during “El Nino”, the worst winter any of our parents could remember.

We spent most of the day snuggled inside our dark bungalow. We watched Armageddon. And cried.

We read our books and snacked on garlic cashews.

We took a short break from all of the hibernating for an adventurous pool dip in a thunderstorm.

We wondered how were were going to get off the island in this weather.

At breakfast on the fourth day, the sky looked threatening. At 8a.m we caught a water taxi on the shore of the resort. Before we climbed in the all-wood boat, it started pouring. 400 yards from our hotel, the wind picked up.

We sat huddled together on the splintered seats. The rain splattered against our faces from all directions. We looked out over the bow of the boat and watched the size of the waves steadily increase.

We had a collective, unspoken thought: We didn’t plan for this.

I kept a steady eye on my garbage bag-wrapped suitcase. I imagined it flopping out of the boat and sinking to the bottom of the ocean. I felt confident I would survive going overboard, but I knew $800 worth of Lululemon couldn’t swim.

With our destination in sight, things got ugly. Our driver directed the boat sideways to cut the impact of nine foot swells. Every five and a half seconds felt like a new victory for survival. I felt my early morning sense of adventure transform quickly into fear.

At 8:52a.m, our tiny, resilient boat pulled into the pier. We scrambled onto the wood plank and dragged our suitcases frantically toward the ferry.

100 yards into our sprint we get backed up behind a swarm of angry travelers expressing frustration in a variety of languages.

The ferry is full.

The biggest monsoon over South Korea in fifty years is causing widespread upheaval up and down the Asian coastline, and Southern Thailand is no exception. Ferries to other islands are cancelled or delayed and we are stranded.

My travel partner, our resident alpha male, swings into action. We connect with a group of five other post-bar law grads who appear to be our east coast dopplegangers. Everyone is soaking wet, freezing cold and looking pathetic.

Glancing around the strategy circle it’s clear: We didn’t plan for this.

Our alpha promptly returns with his alpha counterpart, and options. We can take a speed boat for $200 per person to get to Phuket in time to avoid re-scheduling our flights. The water between Phi Phi and Phuket is raging with up to thirty-foot waves. A speed boat filled with 30 vacationers capsized the previous day leaving 29 of them in the hospital.

“Apparently we’re going to be here for a while.”

We slosh through the muddy roads to an internet cafe and plan our next move(s).

An hour and a half later we’ve rescheduled flights, changed hotel reservations and emailed our parents.

“For now, we’re safe.”

At 1:15p.m we board the ferry to Phuket. An hour later the ferry staff is passing out complimentary motion-sickness pills and barf bags.

Twenty minutes into the bumpy ferry ride, all of my friends are passed out. Parker is on the floor sleeping on my yoga mat. Edward is still clenching a half-full bottle of Chang beer. Werner and Fred are peacefully cuddled next to each other, dead to the world.

I am wide awake. Feeling every huge wave, hearing every sick passenger.

Praying we get through this alive.

Each time the boat shifts left or right, I brace for the worst. I start to wonder whether I should wake up my friends, get to the top deck in case we capsize, or take three Ativan and hope I join them in sleeping ignorance.

I start to think about the irony of dying in a boat accident. All of those years I’ve hated flying and all of those months worrying about getting on a plane to Asia sure would be wasted if I went down in a ferry accident trying to get back to Phuket.

“Maybe my friends and family will take comfort in the humor of it.”

“Maybe it will help them deal with the loss”

My worst-case-scenario stream of consciousness is interrupted when the sound of the engine disappears. Our forward motion comes to a halt and I wait for an audio confirmation of my anxious suspicion.

“Yep. The engine is dead.”

I didn’t plan for this. I planned to fall out of the sky in a violent explosion. I planned to feel every bump on an airplane and evaluate whether or not it meant we were going to crash. I planned to listen for sounds of safety, and vulnerability. I planned to be on high alert. Just in case something happened, I would be ready.

But I’m not ready for this.

When the engine comes back on the boat lurches forward. Eventually we’re cruising again, at a decidedly slower speed. I decide to keep my guard up to prevent further disaster.
Safely on land, I’m sitting in the Phuket airport, thinking about my plans. I think about all the fears that run my life. All of the things that stop my heart or speed it up when I worry about them happening to me or the people I love. All of the ways I plan to avoid them.

I started thinking about the real life things that have made my heart stop. Or speed up. Or break completely. The day last spring when I crashed my mini cooper, the death of my invincible friend Heather, my brother’s motorcycle accident. Countless moments of unexpected challenge, emotional struggle and sadness in between.

I didn’t plan for any of it.

Hours and minutes of attention and energy I spent planning I could have spent doing a million other things. I could have  been a more careful driver, a better friend or more connected sister. I could have made my friends laugh or cuddled with my mom. I could have been grateful for the moment I was in instead of fearful for the one I might face.

I could plan less and live more.

Love in Southeast Asia: At the Top of the World

Damn it’s hot here.

The four word mantra that never gets old.

My travel partner, the manliest man I know, is wearing a Sarong to increase ventilation. And happiness. And sex appeal.

Maybe not that last one.

The heat is like nothing I’ve ever experienced. This includes all eight years of summer camping in Sacramento.

At 2 p.m., we leave our lavish accommodations. Even the synthetic magic of Luon can’t keep my shorts from getting stuck between my butt cheeks.

The mood in the van is part excitement, part dread.

At the base of the rock fortress we learn about killer wasps. The top of the rock is covered in wasp nests the size of my (old) mini cooper. Everywhere we look we see handwritten warning signs in questionable English translations.

In our group of seven, there are several bee allergies and at least one paralyzing fear of heights.

Morale is plummeting.

Amidst an enthusiastic debate about the proper way to survive a wasp attack, our rail-thin, wide eyed, Sri Lankan guide appears. Neil. I feel attached to him immediately. He has sunken eyes and a long face. His hair looks like Donnie from New Kids on the Block, circa 1991.

We follow Neil fifteen shuffling steps to a rectangular ditch carved into the red clay dust.

At first, he speaks softly. I turn my body to the right and aim my good ear at him.

He explains about the fortress. About the King who buried his dad alive in the side of the rock. He tells us about Buddhism and Karma, and that, when it finally came to him, the King had it coming. We learn about the 500 concubines and natural irrigation. One by one, each of us is pulled in.

The group energy is shifting as we make our way towards the first of over five thousand steps.

Neil talks about the fortress like he grew up in it. We all feel transported. The eroded cliffs take the shape of a thousand years ago.

We climb up a spiral staircase that juts out over the edge of the rock face. Looking down feels nauseating, and exhilarating, all at once.

A landing at the top of the staircase marks the base of the highest point on the fortress. Two giant lion paws reach out from the base. We look up and see the wasp nests. At first they look like solid masses of black ash. When we look closer, we notice the wasps are moving in a constant, rhythmic wave. They look industrious. And threatening. They’re up there buzzing about how they’re going to kill the next batch of tourists.

“Awesome.”

A makeshift tent houses two racks of dark green protective suits. We measure ourselves against them, make our choice, and zip-up.

“Let’s do this.”

Thin metal slats run straight up the side of the rock. We take each one gingerly but efficiently. Every time I look down I get woozy. Every time I look up, I see the wasps.

10 minutes inside my suit and my entire body is covered in sweat. The whipping wind feels cold against my skin.

“Do I really feel cold right now?”

I squeeze everyone in celebration.

“We made it.”

Instantly, it’s the most incredible experience of my life.

“It’s like we can see the entire country up here.”

I lean into the wind and take in my deepest breath of the trip. I open my eyes and notice the clouds are touchably close and the ground is almost invisible.

The seven of us sit perched on a ledge overlooking miles and miles of undeveloped, tropical beauty. For the first time I feel like my friends are my family. I feel proud of them, and grateful for each of them making it all the way up here. I feel lucky to have this experience and joyful that we made this journey together. I want to look each of them in the eyes and tell them I love them.

Everything is clearer at the top of the world.

Love Letter to L.A.

I’m leaving you.

I’m sorry.

I want you to know what you’ve meant to me. That I will never forget you. That you will always be the first city I fell in love with. The first city I never wanted to leave.

You were the first place I was proud to call home:

When I was eighteen I wanted to run. Run from my family and the smallness of my hometown. I wanted to run from who I’d been and what I’d been through.

I wanted to run from everyone I knew.

“Where are you going to college?”

“Sorry to hear about the divorce.”

“How’s your brother doing?”

I wanted to be anonymous, for a while.

I ran to you.

You swept me up in your arms and gently patted the top of my head.

“You’re safe now.”

“No one has to know you’re here.”

You protected me.

Especially at first, when I was still finding my way. When I ran all the way up Wilshire boulevard to Beverly Hills in search of a tanning salon. Somehow loose change I never had appeared in the pocket of my athletic shorts. Somehow you blessed me with a bus stop in an area where, to this day, I’m sure they are banned.

You gave me space.

The space to make new friends and have middle-of-the-night adventures. The space to drink beer like a regular teenager. To be a drunken moron. And a sober one. The space to make bad decisions my parents never had to know about. The space to be impulsive. And messy. And then cleaned-up again.

You taught me to love the ocean.

I learned to dive into the waves and float on the surface. To go to the shoreline whenever I needed to take a deep breath. I learned that you are particularly quiet, and understanding at sunset. That you are beautiful in stillness. That the beach is the perfect place to have a serious talk. Or a ridiculous laugh. That you are at your best when I share you with my closest friends.

You nurtured my independence. And courage

Little by little, you showed me how to navigate your vastness. How to appreciate good food, diverse neighborhoods and dive bars that don’t check I.D. How to get anywhere without sitting in traffic. Most of the time.

You held me tight during my first heartbreak. And my second.

We did yoga together. Hundreds of times.

In our second act, we were alone. A lot.

You challenged me to love you even when it was hard. When I felt lonely, and scared and insecure, you reminded me to keep moving. Keep growing, keep feeling.

But it was never meant to be between us.

Life is too short to feel like I’m not enough. Like I’m always striving towards something I don’t really want. To be thinner, and tanner and better dressed. To leave my impressive job for a hip happy hour. To be glamourous. Flawless. Effortless.

Sometimes I just want to wear sweatpants in public, o.k.?

Despite what it sounds like, this isn’t your fault. I know you did your best to support me. With all of those green juices and exquisite vegetarian meals. With all of your farmer’s markets and organic produce. The sunshine on each of my birthdays. The best spin teacher in the world.

Really. In truth.

It’s not you.

It’s me.