Airplane Thoughts

When I flew back to the U.S. last week (a casual 26-hour trip) I watched two films that were drastically different and yet exactly the same in their messages. One film was called Human Flow by Ai Weiwei and the other was Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, directed by Martin McDonagh. After I watched the first one, I cried a lot. And then I watched the second one and cried a lot too. And after I finished crying a lot, I thought a lot. 

What if we were raised in a culture of acceptance instead of in a world where “good” and “bad” and “right” and “wrong” are defined differently among people to the point where disagreement becomes disrespectful? 

I asked myself what it means to me to feel home in a place that was not always my home. I came to the U.S. seventeen years ago with my family, as an immigrant, and when I think about what that was like, and then I think about refugee families today and what it must be like for them, I feel so much pain. 

My wish would be for everyone who arrives in this country to find safety and feel home, but I know that not all do. I know that fear drives people to choose actions that are easily mistaken for reactions based on hate or judgement. But I also know that we, as humans, are inherently good, and that we are so capable of loving each other no matter where we come from. I know the latter is a stronger and better know, because that is the know that I lived. 

I arrived here at ten years old, and I felt accepted. I went to school and was approached politely by children wanting to be friends, despite the fact that my skin was darker and my eyes smaller. My teachers saw potential in me and guided and supported me genuinely. Strangers smiled at me and showed me kindness. Neighbors treated me as an equal neighbor. And it didn’t take long to feel home.

In Weiwei’s film I didn’t see much of my own story. I saw the version of mine that is a nightmare for me but a reality for others today. And no one deserves a reality like that. I don’t know the solution to the refugee crisis around the world, but I know what I can do and what I am willing to do. And it matters; small actions matter because in the end it is not about the action, but about the exchange between people.

After watching Three Billboards, I realized something that allowed for a new level of awareness in me: We need to get a head start in understanding and internalizing the idea that we are supposed to be in this together. That really is how simple it is. 

Both Three Billboards and Human Flow are talking about the same issue but framing it in different stories. In Three Billboards, the fighting parties come from the same place and are separated only by how they were raised and the roads between them. In Human Flow, they are separated by oceans and wars and cultures. Both are trying to tell us that we are separating ourselves from each other and it’s killing us. We’re nourishing hatred and bigotry and racism and ignorance and differences and we are choosing enemies in the people we share this Earth with. That’s not fair, and we have to fix it.

There is a quote in Human Flow that is important for the world to hear: “It’s going to be a big challenge to recognize that the world is shrinking, and people from different religions, different cultures, are going to have to learn to live with each other.” It shouldn’t be a challenge to meet our neighbors in the middle. It should be natural to our humanity.

In Three Billboards, Woody Harrelson says,Through love comes calm and through calm comes thought.” Love should be our first language as people. Love should be at the center of our existence, as individuals and as a species.

We are better than what we are doing to each other right now. We have to put it together, and we have to take it seriously. We need to choose love, and we need to choose it more often. 

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What It Means To Be A Human

Written December 2014

What it means to be human.

I’ve been thinking a lot about what a blessing it is to be a human on this earth. The odds of being any other creature are pretty high. But you are reading this, meaning you are lucky enough to be a person (and probably an awesome one). I’m not sure anyone really knows what it means to be human, but these are my ideas.

Being human means understanding the beauty rooted deep in all places of this earth. It means being aware that you are just a visitor, and that you should respect the rest of whom and what you share this space with.

Being human means being intelligent enough to adapt to what’s around you. This ability is in you. Use it.

Being human means finding connections with other humans.

Being human means appreciating every type of environment. From soil to sand to dirt to gravel and all the way to hardwood and tile floors. Whether we are under a tree or a roof, we can’t ever forget where we started and how we got to where we are.

Being human means respecting each other and those we share the earth with. In Costa Rica, the love and respect that people have for nature is contagious. They recognize that we share this land, not just with other people, but with trees and sloths and snakes and spiders, and all in between. Being human should mean being humble, and not crowning ourselves entitled.

Being human means having the capacity to try new things, paired with the ability to decide whether we like it or not.

Being human means consuming so much knowledge at a rate where we should always want more.

Being human means taking advantage of our ability to travel the world and do all of the above. As people, we have this power to inspire and move and change and share and love and teach and create. With so much power, it’s easy to waste. Don’t.

Being human means knowing that every beginning has an end. But if there is sincerity in between, I hope I never regret it. At one point, every thing we had and every one we had meant something to each other, and in this life, that’s all we really seem to be looking for.

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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Multiple Passion Personality Order

I read this FANTASTIC article last week.  It’s about how we, as humans, often find ourselves “stuck” in phases of life.  These phases include but are not limited to: boredom, creative overload, workaholism, just plain slow, overwhelming, etc. etc.  You know what I mean once you read “Navigating Stuckness.”

While reading the article, I found myself fascinated by Harris’ life, particularly how each chapter was so strongly defined by what consumed his time in that specific stage of his life.  From art to coding to storytelling to writing…there is so much talent in this one person to admire.  And I think we should all be that way.

In Chapter 3 of his life, Harris resolved to be a multi-talented and experienced person:

Instead of trying to be the smartest person in the room, now I wanted to be the most interesting. 

“Navigating Stuckness” in its entirety, is an inspiring story encouraging us to find what it is we want to do, and simply do it with no requirements of justification, salary, or even valid reason.  Sometimes it feels like a paradox, but most times I think it’s just life.  And life is a countdown.

In life, you will become known for doing what you do. That sounds obvious, but it’s profound. If you want to be known as someone who does a particular thing, then you must start doing that thing immediately. Don’t wait. There is no other way.

A couple of weeks ago, I was pondering the moves I would be making in my life within the next few years.  I wanted a life plan to somewhat base the years on.  This is the result:

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After the inevitability of “22: graduate”, I found that there is no realistic way to build a life plan.  The only idea that kept coming to mind was that of passion.  How do you want to occupy your time?  That is the real question.  And the only question we should never forget to ask ourselves.  Mostly because the answer is solid and true.  We know what we want, and what we don’t want.  And when we know what these things are…we must go after them.

Jonathan Harris makes the same argument, and he tells us how we might stay a step ahead of the traps that lead us to “stuckness”.  Reading his story in chapters, and being able to separate those chapters makes it blatantly obvious (to me at least) that we should practice our passions without limits.

I want to be interesting AND smart.  And I want to be good at writing and telling stores, while also being good at snowboarding.  I want to be able to knit and code and play the piano and practice travel photography.  I hope to be good at drawing and cooking and a whole slew of possible talents.  It’s a collective work in progress; I don’t need to spend 9-5pm every day doing the same one thing.  I can spend it doing several things.  And the best part of all is that I think this would make us happier.

If you’re always doing what you love, you will always be happy.  And if you’re always happy, then you will never be stuck.

Once Upon A Time…

I’m in this New Year and soon-to-be-college-graduate mindset, and I have come to the following conclusion about life:

You know people by the stories they tell.

…if they have any at all.

I want to always be the person in the conversation who has a story to tell.  Whether it’s about love, life, or even death, I hope I can provide a little anecdote with a happy ending.

People who share stories are the ones who have lived.  They are the ones who we turn to when we need to form an idea of what’s to come.  After all, your future is someone else’s past.  Or so I’ve heard.

When I’m 100 (and I will be someday), I want to tell stories about the time I learned how to surf in Portugal, or the time I camped out under the stars in the Sahara Desert in Morocco after a four hour camel ride.  I want to share with people the memories from my high school and college years, and I want to say beautiful things about all of the incredible souls I have been so lucky to encounter in my lifetime.  Most of all, I just want to leave something behind for others to remember, so that they, too, can have a story to tell.

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.”

Your life matters

“Being alive is kinda like hitting ‘reply-all’ to the Universe.”

The Buried Life tweeted this quote recently, and I think it is easily a new favorite quote of mine.  It makes all the sense in the world.  To me, it’s a reminder that we are all connected someway, somehow.  What we do as individuals will have an affect on the world and the people in it, whether or not we realize it, and whether or not we do it for that reason.

So remember friends, you matter, your life matters, and what you do matters.  Never think otherwise.