Connectedness

A few years ago, my ex asked me who I’m closest with: friends from home, friends from school, or friends from abroad.  I never answered him, but I’ve since thought of that question on occasion, and I have come to the conclusion that I’m not more or less close to each of the groups; the levels of friendship and connection are just so different.  These people are part of significant phases of my life, and perhaps each group knows me in a different way than the others.

My friends from home have known me since I was ten years old, and they have, no doubt, seen me grow the most.  These people have watched me change, and vice versa.  There’s something about growing up constantly surrounded by the same friends, seeing slow evolutions in each other, and sharing experiences that shape us both as individuals and as a system.  All of this transforming brought us to a level of friendship that can only be achieved with time.  And all of this time has brought us ups and downs that only continue to bring us closer.  They are my cornerstone, the building blocks of who I am, the very core of where my growth began, and one of the main ingredients to my happiness.  My friends from home are the ones I am glad to always have.  No matter how far down the road, I know I will have them to come home to.

It was hard to imagine who my college friends would be and what role they would play in my life until I found them.  Turns out, they’re some of the best friends to have around.  College friends get to know you in incredible ways–at house parties and bars, hungover in dorms, during all-nighters at the library, and every other second in between.  These are friends who live with you–sometimes literally–and get to see who you are while you’re in the process of finding yourself and potentially, who you’re going to be for the rest of your life.  They are there to watch you overcome the most difficult challenges you will ever face, and if you’re lucky, they’ll be right next to you every step of the way, making the same exact horrible decisions.  I have formed unbreakable bonds with my college friends, and with them I’ve learned how little time can affect friendship.  They are my support networks and secret-outlets, my squad, and the bottom line is that they get to know me better than most people ever do.

Sigh.  Sevilla friends.  These are people with whom I have created an entirely new bubble of friendship.  They are there, living in the stories that I will be telling for the rest of my life.  These friendships formed exceptionally fast, and I think that might be the reason for our extremely high comfort levels with each other.  Suddenly I found myself in a foreign country with just a suitcase and this group of people to hold on to.  And I did.  We all did.  Fortunately I don’t think we will ever let go.  What we’ve been through were some of the best moments of our lives, and that is not something to be taken lightly. We’ve seen the world, pushed through borders and boundaries, and fell in love with the same city together. Through all of this, and in less than half a year, what we did was more than travel. We left parts of ourselves with each other, in all corners of the world, and if that doesn’t bond you for life then I’m not sure what does.

Since this question was posed to me, I entered a new phase in my life which has brought yet another incredible group of people into my life: my Seoul friends. The last three years in South Korea have been life life life, and I couldn’t be more grateful for all my experiences here. I’ve grown part of different communities–teachers, foreigners, local yogis and runners–who have welcomed me and helped me to see the life I’ve built in this country. I hold close the group of friends I made within the first few days of arriving, and I think that through meeting them I became solid in who I already was. We all got to know each other exactly as we were and as we still are, and I have nothing but gratitude for the fact that we loved each other through flaws and mistakes.

Most recently I’ve been thinking about the running and yoga families I’ve come to know and love here in Seoul the last two years. When I first walked into Zen Yoga studio, and first went to an open run for Crewghost, I never thought it would become a completely engrained and habitual attendance. Now I go to my yoga studio 5-8 times and to a crew run at least once or twice, both per week. Spending as much time sharing a mutual passion with a group of people for hours at a time brings you together without even trying–certainly regardless of language. These two communities have brought me joy and support, and a family to back me in the goals that no one else can understand.

As I come to realize that I have just five short months left before a new adventure, I’ve been thinking a lot about who I’ve spent my years with. And as I get ready to leave this group of friends to visit the others, all I can feel is gratitude. To have so much love from around the world. To know that I can turn to so many to receive all kinds of needs. To understand that I can be a different version of myself and still be loved for it. To find that I am open and lucky enough to be able to connect with so many souls. And to recognize that with time, I am changing for the better. How do I know all this? Because each time I come back to all of the people I love, no matter how long it’s been or how far I’ve gone, I never doubt that the love and connection and friendship remain.

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Finding Balance in Intricacy

“Everyone makes mistakes.”

And so we are told this, again and again. As children, we hear it when we make mistakes we are too young to fix–like spilling milk or breaking a toy. In school, we hear it when we get an unexpected score on the test we thought we were ready for. At work, we hear it on the first day when we are lost and completely unsure of our responsibilities. And in life, we hear it from our friends and our parents and those who love us, in the moments we feel like we just don’t have it together.

Everyone makes mistakes. It is a simple fact. That’s the easy part.

What comes after mistakes are made is where the complications start. Black and white collide and simple facts are only simple from a certain point of view. While people make mistakes, the consequences can’t always be fixed. The milk can’t be cleaned, the toy can’t be fixed. The next test won’t up the average. And it’s not the first day of work. Not everything comes with second chances.

I’ve found that after making a mistake, there are two choices. Learn a lesson, or don’t.

Recently I made a mistake that opened my eyes to the importance of making mistakes: learning forgiveness. It is a complicated concept. Whether you are in the position to give or receive it, forgiveness requires practice. It requires patience. And it requires pain.

Through this mistake I discovered what it feels like to be denied forgiveness, and to lose someone as a result. I also learned that the power of forgiveness is in the hands of the forgiver. Understanding both sides of forgiveness is necessary in understanding that neither side is easy to be on.

Finding a safe balance comes in time, and we each find that balance at our own times and at our own pace. I found balance when I forgave myself. I made a mistake, and I learned from it. I lost someone as a result, but each day brings me closer to accepting that. Life is too unpredictable to deny forgiveness. Too short to regret. And all too wonderful to wallow.

 

How Lucky I Am

I wake up every day and tell myself that I am lucky. Probably the luckiest. And I should have posted this blog when I wrote it a month ago. But I’m lucky, not perfect.

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2014 was a weird one.

January was spent doing a lot of reading, a lot of research, a lot of writing, and a lot of asking myself why I decided to write an honors thesis. This first month gave no insight as to how interesting the year would be.

I spent February through April reminding myself that life is short and so is college. It was the time it took me to get over a three year relationship, and also to lose a friend.

I spent the month of May doing whatever I wanted whenever I wanted. Like indulging in ice cream, drinking lots of beer, and kissing a cute boy or two.

June through August were three months of wandering a new city, adjusting to the life of a college grad, and discovering a pure hatred for cubicles.

September was a month of beginnings, where I explored a new job, a new relationship, and a few new hobbies.

In October and November, I spent a lot of time thinking about trust and people and what it means to put the two together. In the end, I found that the process of learning never ends, and that it’s okay to feel things, especially pain.

And here we are now, in December. I’ve just spent the last two weeks traveling through Central America, and I came home to discover that once again, an entire year has come and gone.

It’s always a unique feeling to be in the last few days of the year, stuck between reminiscing the last twelve months and trying to imagine the next. Time moves fast, and we grow exponentially lucky with each passing second. I hope to remember that for the rest of my life. And I hope that I can look back on each year and find my own seasons within the months, instead of what the calendar tells me.

2014—Things I Did And What I Learned From Them:

I said goodbye to my first love. It was eleven months ago and I still think it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I learned how to love the fact that love for someone or something can continue even when it’s over.

I wrote a 200-page honors thesis. It wasn’t easy, but I loved it. And because I loved it, it was worth it.

I took up new hobbies and gained new skills. All it took was time.

I graduated college. We used to think it was cool to not do homework and be lazy in high school, but now I believe that learning is the best decision you will ever make.

I lost a friend over a disagreement and failure to understand each other. Not all friendships are meant to last, but all are meant to learn from.

I interviewed someone who inspires me. Dan Layus and I had a conversation about heartbreak in the most loving way because things are so good. “How could they be so good that it breaks my heart?”

I lived in a new city, and I learned that you can build a home anywhere.

I discovered a new love for running and mountains. There is something about the natural world that can make you feel more at home than four walls ever could.

I worked in an industry that I don’t really want to be in at all. I learned to learn what I don’t like. And that cubicles are the bane of my existence.

I welcomed a new life to the world, my first nephew, and remembered that life is precious.

I went to a TED conference. Ideas and people are more powerful than money.

I watched the sun rise and set as much as I could. This continues to teach me to never, ever take the familiar for granted.

I went bungee jumping. It was this surreal moment, in which I felt an unmistakeable combination of fear, adrenaline, and peace, all at once. During the free fall, I learned that this unnamed feeling is one that I need to chase forever.

I visited 2 new countries, 4 new states, 15 new cities. The world is big, and I will never get enough of it.

All in all, this year was one of discovery, and testing myself emotionally. While I learned plenty about myself, I also learned that there is much, much more to learn.

A weekend of talking, traveling, and theorizing…

This past weekend I went to a Study Abroad Returnee conference in Boston, and it was just what I needed.

On the entire 3 1/2-hour drive up to Boston from NY with my friend Kerianne (fellow API Peer Mentor), we did not listen to a single song.  We talked literally the entire time and had so much much more to say by the end of the drive.

What’s crazy about our friendship is that we have actually only met in person one other time–in Austin during internship training.  From this one friendship and this one weekend trip we took together, I have learned more than I ever expected to.  We are the same in many ways and yet the life she has led is worlds different from mine.  Having her as a friend is helpful in the sense that I can learn so much from her, and so much with her.

What did I learn this weekend?

A new definition of “home”

At the conference, we participated in a session titled “The Only Constant In Life Is Change”.  Study abroad alumni talked about how the study abroad experience changed them, and what their experience meant in many contexts.  There were so many thoughts that I related to, like the feeling upon returning home that everything had changed in me as a person, but nothing had changed in the place where I left.

The definition of “home” came up, and one particular answer really opened my eyes.

“Home is a place where you grow.  And you can reach a point where you are done growing.”

The student who said that is going back to live in her host country, Spain, after graduation in May.  She feels as though she did not do all of the growing that she needed to in her short time there.  It’s really incredible to have heard what her perception and definition of “home” was because I had never thought of it in that sense before.  I have always known that home is not one single place, and that it has to do with the people around us, but I never thought about why or how exactly my role made a place “home”.

Even while we are all always growing, we can grow in different ways 

In the same discussion at the conference, a student opened up and said that when she got home, she felt like nothing had changed except for her.  Everyone was worried about the same old things, and it was as if no one had anything new to share while she had hours and hours of stories to tell.

We talked about how, unfortunately, experiences separate us from people–whether the experiences are travel or not.  Students often come home from studying abroad with a newfound sense and perspective on life and what it means to be alive.  Just like people who like animals tend to befriend other people who like animals, and people who like computers tend to befriend other people who like computers, people who travel tend to gravitate toward fellow travelers.

Growing apart from people can happen for an infinite number of reasons, but study abroad students know that this happens especially when one begins to have different life experiences from others.  The passion that we travel-addicts have is undeniably contagious.  We are relentless when it comes to seeing the world and passing the passion on, but of all people I think travelers are the most accepting and the most open.  I think we recognize that although there are differences between each of us–travel experience, likes/dislikes, interests, backgrounds–there is nothing that should keep two people from getting along.

We must maintain a sense of adventure in all environments

To help us cope with this falsity that home is boring and slow, or that life abroad is better, someone at the conference told us that there is adventure all around us, no matter where we are, whether we are somewhere new or familiar.

I grew up right outside of New York City and I still have yet to go to the top of the Empire State Building, or see the Statue of Liberty.  Why is that?  There are millions of people who have seen more of this city than I have…and I’ve been here for more than half of my life.

Thinking about this gave me a much needed wake-up call.  I think I need to be a tourist in my own city, every day.  I’m sure there’s a cafe, bookstore, museum, etc. close by, where I could do a little growing and a lot of learning.

Keeping a sense of adventure in the place where you are is just as important as finding a new sense of adventure in the place where you want to be.  Kerianne told me about her travel writing class, and how the professor always says,

“You don’t have to get on a plane to travel.”

I think we (as a society) need to reevaluate what travel means, and look at it in a new way.  Traveling means “making a journey”.  That could be done without moving an inch.  Our senses and our minds (and our technology!) can take us anywhere, and maybe traveling is more about the feeling we get when we discover new places and learn new things.  Maybe it’s more about the concept of newness, and less about the place we go physically.  Knowing that I can do it through my senses, I can be more grateful for travel and adventure–whether it be a physical journey near or far, or a completely imagined adventure.

I was driving in the car with my mom, and outside our window were mountains behind the river, and a sunset behind the mountains.  She said, “You know, I always look at flights to Switzerland and think about what the scenery looks like, but look–it’s just as beautiful right here.”

I’m on the way to finding what makes me happy

It is mind blowing how constantly ecstatic I feel whenever I’m doing anything related to international education/study abroad. The stories, the people, the constant learning,  and the genuine interest I have encountered in this field are unlike any other. I am fully aware of lucky I am to have had the opportunity to go abroad and not only to have caught the travel bug, but to have also had the international education open mindset instilled in me at such a young age.

There are certain subjects and fields which I have entertained to be where my future career might lie, but I think I’m discovering that I don’t need to think about it so much.  I believe that humans, sometimes subconsciously, drift toward the direction of their passions.

In the beginning, I didn’t know how much international education would influence me or mean to me.  I became a Peer Mentor with API because I wanted to tell people about my study abroad experience.  At the time, I don’t think I even realized how much my time abroad changed me.  It continues to change me for the better every single day, and I think my undying interest in this field has fueled that.

Maybe the way to be happy and stay happy is simply to share the things that make us glad to be alive.  That seems like a ridiculously obvious statement, but every day I see and hear people talking so negatively about how they spend their time.

It feels like most people do things that make them unhappy because they think in the end, they will be rewarded.  But there is no guarantee of that at all, so I am making it a point to consciously move toward happiness by doing things that make me happy–every step of the way.  And I am well on my way.

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An excerpt from my journal…

This comes from a journal entry I wrote on the airplane home at the end of my semester abroad.  It hurts so much to read.  But it’s incredible that none of my feelings have changed.

“Our last night was surreal.  I just never realized how close we all got.  We kept moving locations as we tried to say our final goodbyes, but then we just ended up staying for another few hours.  By 6 am we said goodbye to Melissa and Ben.  We were all crying.  When Meliss got in that cab and we waved her off, it really got me.

After spending all of these days together and being thrown into this city, we weren’t forced to become so close, but we chose to be. And that’s the beauty of this whole experience.  That, and how lucky we all are to have found each other.

Ben and I always get into deep conversations, and that last night we talked about how much this experience meant to us, and how much it will mean for the rest of our lives.  We just couldn’t believe that the last few months were real at all.  I think we were all at a loss for words saying goodbye.

On the walk home we stopped at a bench on the bridge and cried some more.  It just killed me to see everyone so emotional, but it meant the world because it showed me how impactful this journey was, not just for me but for everyone involved.  We are nothing but a family, and that makes me feel better about the goodbyes.

I know I’ll never have another adventure like this one.  I’ll have adventures, no doubt.  But they won’t be when I’m 21 and a junior in college.  They won’t be for four months in Sevilla, with these same people.  That’s why I can appreciate this so much.  Because it is literally once in a lifetime, and I could not be more grateful.

As I sit here 11,280 m in the air on an airplane on the way back to America, with a new perspective in mind and a new home in my heart, I’m beginning to see what this semester wanted to show me and to teach me.

Life is about people.  I’ve been saying this for years, and every day I come to believe it some more.  I wouldn’t be the same person that I was five months ago if I hadn’t encountered these people.  Good, genuine people like Steph and Ben and Elena and Marc and Mercedes, and all of the happy strangers I’ve met along the way.  Then there’s all of the people I met who I know will be better people with people like Steph and Ben and Elena and Marc and Mercedes in their lives.

I learned that traveling is what you make of it.  My brother, after just ten days abroad, is ready to go home.  And me, after five months of living here, just cried my eyes out to this stranger on the plane because I wish I could live in those moments forever.  I’m not ready to go home because I made and found myself another home.

But I do realize that there are moments in life that are inevitable.  Like goodbyes.  They’re heartbreakers, but I suppose they are necessary.  And to say goodbye to Sevilla is unfathomable to me, because I will be back someday.  I know it won’t be the same, but I will love it just the same because my memories will never change.

I will always look back on that city with a happy heart.  I will always be glad to share that city with anyone and everyone.  I’ve heard that going home will be hard not because I’ll miss Sevilla and my time abroad, but because no one will understand what I have just been through.  No, that’s not dramatic.  It’s not dramatic because it was my life for five months.  And I’ve decided that it is so special and so sacred to me that I want to keep it that way.

Everyone will ask me how it was and ask me maybe for a story or two, but after a few minutes they’ll have moved on to the present.  And it will be harsh and hurtful that no one cares, but I’ve already accepted that.  I’ve decided that by keeping this adventure mine and with the people I’ve shared it with, I will love it more.  Because everyone who doesn’t know can listen to a story for ten minutes but those who I shared this time with will be there to listen to me for a lifetime.

So with that I leave a little piece of me with all of these people and in all of the new places I visited, particularly Sevilla.  No me ha dejado.  NO8DO, para siempre.  It’s gonna feel damn good the next time I step foot in that city.”

Seven years and counting

Holy wow. Since 2006, every July 10th I think about life a little harder and it comes a little more into perspective. It’s the day I lost a good friend and the day the world lost a great person.

As we, the Westwood High School class of 2010, become rising college seniors, I know that Kevin Frazza is always in the back of our minds. Through everything that’s happened in the last seven years, Kevin has been there. It’s just not easy to forget being 14 years old and finding out one summer morning that your friend was murdered by his own father.

From our first day as freshmen in high school, when we first found out what it was like to be a class without him, to our last day as seniors in high school, when it hurt too much to be a class without him, he was there. All the way to our first day as freshmen at our separate colleges, and through every hardship and good day in between, Kevin was there, with each of us. Often I think about Duke University’s class of 2014 and imagine how much spirit and life Kevin could have brought to it. It breaks my heart a little, so I try not to think so hard about the possibilities and how they were taken away from him too soon.

Typically, college juniors study abroad for some time, and a few of us did; we traveled the world and experienced new cultures–something that I have no doubt Kevin would have done. Before I left to go abroad, his mom dropped a card in my mailbox with a picture of Kevin to take on my travels. He’s been everywhere now, and I feel lucky to have been there with him, but one of the most remarkable stories I can tell is about something that happened this winter, right before I left for that trip.

Someone a grade below me, who went to my high school and knew Kevin, was studying abroad in Cameroon, Africa. After lunch one day, I came home and saw a Facebook post he wrote while in Africa.

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How mind-blowing is it that six years after that shirt was created and distributed to only a handful–certainly less than 100–people from Northern New Jersey, it was found at a small market on another continent at the other end of the world? If there was a better word than mind-blowing, it would be exactly that.

It’s the little, completely unexpected reminders like this one that I love so much about life…and death.

Death is defined by someone being gone, passed away, dead. But in reality, in life, as long as someone is remembered, he or she is never gone. That’s who Kevin Frazza is, not was. He is never gone, but always remembered. He has done so much in the world by only being in it for 13 years and he has done so much for the people he knew, like me. He changed lives. And I can guarantee that anyone who was affected by his passing will be thinking about him today, on the 7th anniversary of his murder.

And isn’t that what everyone wants in life? To leave something behind and be remembered? To change something, or someone? Well, it just so happens that Kevin did all of the above. Because for the rest of our lives, Kevin will remind us how lucky we are to be here. The best thing is that, even when he was still here, that’s what he did. He was THE happiest 13-year-old kid I knew. All he wanted to do was make people laugh and smile. That’s what he was best at. It breaks my heart that the thought of him makes me more sad than it does happy. But at the end of the day I never forget how blessed I am to have known him.

Kevin puts life in perspective for me. He reminds me that life is not always fair even to those who deserve it. Rest in peace, Kev. You are among the brightest stars in my sky, even when it’s cloudy.

A 201 toast to the one and only, Kevin Frazza.

Life is a pizza pie

This past weekend, I met up with some friends in New York City where we had a mini Sevilla reunion.  I was so impatient and excited on the train ride into the city I found myself smiling while looking out the window, and all the way until I reached Herald Square, where I found them.  Initially I figured that everyone who passed me thought I was crazy, and then I remembered I was in New York City, and everyone is crazy.

When I saw them sitting in the sun in the middle of Broadway, my heart leaped and at that moment I knew my smile wouldn’t be going away for a while.  We spent the day reminiscing about the time we spent together while abroad, and we also spent it making new memories.

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Study abroad friendships are like no other.  And when I say no other, I mean no other.  These relationships form extremely fast and you learn whether or not you are able to trust a person very quickly.  They form so fast that withdrawal is often a symptom after separation.  Take for example a certain someone (No, not me.  But this is a true story.) who booked a one way flight to a certain somewhere across the country to visit a certain friend from abroad–and we’ve only been home for a month.

Hours of traveling and finding adventure together make it so that everyone’s life story is told at one point in the semester.  I know all about my abroad friends’ past and present relationships, friendships, families, school-life, and home-life.  I know about their schools, what they want in the future, who their celebrity crushes are, etc. etc.  With time, I get to know for myself what their comfort zones are, and breaking out of ours together is one of the best things about being abroad friends.  We grew, and continue to grow together, and towards each other.  From the first awkward introductions we had at orientation to the depressing goodbyes and sobs we shared on our last night together, it has been quite the ride.

If I were to tell the honest truth, sometimes I feel closer to my friends from Sevilla than I do to some of the friends I’ve had since I was ten.  The things a friendship goes through in Sevilla (abroad in general) are magical, and I couldn’t be happier to have these people in my life.

Spending 5 months in Spain, in a new unfamiliar city, with people who began as strangers has had a big impact on me.  It showed me just how quickly you can let someone in.  There were plenty unbelievable love stories about students who fell in love with locals; students who ended up changing their flight to stay longer, and locals who came to visit their significant others Stateside.  It’s incredible.  Until January 27th, I had no idea of the existence of these people who I now talk to on the daily–people who I couldn’t imagine my life without.  I’m so lucky.  To think that just a few months ago our paths had not yet crossed seems almost impossible.

   

Why impossible?  Well, impossible because the last few months would have been completely different.  Who knows if I would have been this happy if it weren’t for the people who gave me the reasons to be?  Once I got on the bus to the airport at the end of the semester, I knew that no one would know what I meant if I said “Ah-Pee”.  No one would accept the excuse “Sorry I’m on Spanish time” if I was late.  No one outside of our group would understand my craving for a jarra of tinto, or a Cruzcampo.  No one would know much of any of the things I wanted to talk about.

Someone I know who studied abroad warned me about coming home.  They said, “Just be prepared for no one to really care about your stories.”  Um…ouch?  That was a little rude.  It stung.  And the sting lasted for a while, because it happened.  People asked what my craziest story was or what my favorite part about being abroad was.  But no one listened or wanted to listen to the simple things that made my semester beautiful.

They didn’t ask how many sunsets I watched in how many countries, and what songs we listened to during those sunsets (Love Like A Sunset Part II by Phoenix just by the way…).  They didn’t wonder what Tuesday nights were like at Alfalfa.  They didn’t have questions about my friends and what they were like.  And they definitely didn’t think that I had a favorite tree in Sevilla that I cared so deeply about.  They just didn’t inquire about any of those things.

Then one day I realized.  It was our little slice of life together that I’m really okay with no one else knowing about.  You know what they say.  Lo que pasa en Sevilla, se queda en Sevilla.