On Paying Attention to Intention

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In the last few months I’ve felt better overall than I have in a long time. My current combination of self-care practices seem to be working well for the most part, and it feels good when I’m able to maintain a feeling of balance for extended periods of time. My main struggle continues to be meeting the sense of losing balance with stress and frustration. After a wonderful Sunday of biking around the city, lounging in the rose garden in Golden Gate Park, and hanging out with friends, I woke up feeling anxious and stressed on Monday (primarily related to pending housing uncertainties). My inner dialogue starts up the anxious thoughts of, “Ugh, but I was doing so well yesterday!” and, “I must immediately figure out a plan! That’s the only way to get out of this stress!” When I allow myself to fuel these thoughts with similar ones like them, the fire spreads, and I have a much harder time remembering the tactics that help me maintain balance.

Part of the issue here is the false narrative that because I was “doing so well yesterday” (read: feeling happy) the reappearance of stress or anxiety signals that I’m no longer “doing well”. Feeling balanced, like anything in life, is not a linear trajectory, which is extremely hard to remember in moments that feel anything like a setback or a failure. I try to remind myself that the movement above and below the state of balance is a cycle. Unfortunately I still forget this, and worry when the lower feelings surface or catch me by surprise.

Fortunately, the more awareness I have (depending on the levels of self-care being maintained), the better able I am to disconnect with stress becoming all consuming and eventually somewhat apocalyptic. I strengthen my awareness through meditation, and setting intentions. The following four (and a half) intentions have become the base of my practice, and seem to work well at helping me achieve the balance I need to feel calm and collected throughout my days. I try to pick one to focus on each day, though ideally they’d all be in practice at once!

1. Focus on now, not yesterday, and not tomorrow. This intention is my foundation. As a planner, I tend to channel my anxiety into try to create stability by planning everything out. (Spoiler: it ends up making me more anxious). By reminding myself that I don’t need to worry about what is going to happen in the future, or even in more than a few hours from now, I take the weight of trying to predict the future off my shoulders. Not getting caught up in thinking about / worrying / analyzing past is equally as distracting and unhelpful. It’s over, there’s nothing else I can do about it, just let it go, (as much as this is easier said than done).

1.5 Do one thing at a time. This is closely linked to the foundation intention, but I figured it deserved its own half bullet. Like planning, multitasking is something I do when I’m stressed. The idea becomes something along the lines of, “If I can get everything done, then I can relax,” but ultimately gets more stressful as I’m not fully present with anything. When I am fully present with each task I have the headspace to say, “huh- I may not have time to complete my whole to-do list right now- that’s totally okay.” This is extremely freeing, and without being present intentionally it is so much harder to be aware of the world and people (and their thoughts and feelings) around me.

2. Remember self-love/care/support. There’s a part in my meditation packs that asks you to remind yourself why you’re doing the meditation and then think about the people it will benefit. I always start with, “because I love myself, and I’m here to support myself,” which always brings the biggest smile to my face. When I’m focusing on self-love I take time to do nice things for myself like getting a massage, buying myself a kombucha, noticing how happy I feel when I’m cozy on the couch with a book and my slippers on, calling my grandparents, watching the sunrise, etc. Exercise is an important daily self-care ritual for me, but I’ve learned that it must be kept in the context of, “I am doing this because it will make my body and mind feel good,” and if it starts to feel like something I must do instead of something I want to do, that’s a sign my body needs to rest.

3. Engage with the world. When I’m aware of my surroundings I’m able to disengage with my inner dialogue and interact with the outside world in a positive manner. Smiling at fellow humans when crossing paths, saying “bless you” to someone who sneezes on the bus, offering assistance to someone clearly confused or needing it, asking how the bus driver is doing- all of these kinds of interactions prove to increase my optimism in humanity, and as a bonus, make me feel better in turn. Remembering that everyone is fighting their own battle and dealing with their own plethora of thoughts and feelings is another way to lessen feelings of isolation. We really are all in this together.

4. Appreciate and give thanks. A few Thanksgivings ago my Mother hung a banner that said “give thanks” spelled out in a bunting style with metal letters over our table. She let me keep the banner and it now hangs in my room next to my bed, a reminder to give thanks every day. When I focus on being grateful I am often filled with amazement at the beauty of my life. I am surrounded and supported by so many wonderful friends, family members, and coworkers. I live in one of the most beautiful cities on the planet that gives me access to clean drinking water and clean air. The days I focus on gratitude I go to extra lengths to call, write, and connect with the people I love.

4.5 Nurture my family as people. I’m not sure why it took me so long to really connect with the idea that my family members are people too, but I’m glad it’s something I figured out sooner than later. I make a lot of effort to nurture my friendships, and know my friends very well, but this year I’ve been working on applying that to my family members as well. Getting to know my parents as people gives me a better understanding of them and myself. Finding out common interests I share with my grandparents has allowed my relationship with them, one I always took for granted, to become a source of deep enjoyment on both parts. Becoming fully aware that my extended family members are all individually complex, interesting people, who love me to boot, has been a wonderful realization (albeit a kind of, “well duh” one), and allowed me to focus time and effort on getting to know them in a way I wasn’t able to as a child and teenager. This is something I feel incredible gratitude for, and brings me joy in the moments when I feel the most alone. Through therapy I was about to let go of the ideas I held about what a “perfect” family was, and realize what incredible love and support my family gives me. I released the fantasy, let go over the disappointments, and discovered so much more. Leave the gun, take the cannoli. You won’t be disappointed. 

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Monday Morning Thoughts on (Urban) Planning & Meditation

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Here in San Francisco most of the houses are built so close together they are either touching or are only separated by a few inches. This makes sense given that there is such limited space (49 sq miles with height restrictions). You’d think if this was the case there would be some uniformity in the height of the houses on a single block, to give it some coherence. Occasionally this is the case, more often on blocks in the outer neighborhoods where a small handful of architects designed a good deal of the properties. You’ll still find sets of painted ladies (groups of three or more identical victorian style houses) where uniformity was clearly considered key, but you’ll also find blocks where a few of the painted ladies have been ripped down so these formerly neat rows are punctuated by boxy, modern-ish, rectangular houses. More often than not, most blocks are built with the heights and shapes of the houses jutting out at all kinds of angles and heights, like a miniature city skyline contained on a single block.

I was observing this phenomenon on my own block, while waiting for MUNI the other morning, and it reminded me of the way my mind works sometimes. As a natural born planner I’ve realized that one of my methods of attempting to feel secure and stable about the future is try to plan it all out- or at the very least, fantasize about what all the potential scenarios could look like in order to feel prepared. In this method, all of the houses on the block are built with intention, they all aligned evenly with thought out, corresponding color schemes and heights. A leads to B. Cause and effect relate with a clear sense of intentionality.

Ah, if only that was how life really worked.

But, of course, it doesn’t. We have no way to anticipate what the next phase of life, or even what the next day will bring. We can only be fairly confident, given all previous events, that it will all manage to fit on the same block- in spite of the unexpected shadows that will be cast. The most ironic part about trying to feel secure about the future by figuring out what it will look like is, of course, that it makes me really fucking anxious. So much for feeling secure and stable 😛

Luckily, through my meditation practice, I’m beginning to gain awareness in the moment that I’m trying to plan through fears or anxiety- whether it’s just forming to-do lists for the rest of the day, or those more long term projections that play out like telenovelas in my brain. Once I realize what my mind is doing, I can zoom out and ask myself what is triggering this defense mechanism. Because of the way my heart and brain work in tandem, it seems to often be a feeling that I need to really sit with and experience (while giving myself active self-love and self-support) before it will release me. The more regularly I’ve meditated, and then put into practice what I’ve learned through meditation throughout the day, the more of these types of windows I encounter, and the more opportunities I have to return to a balanced emotional equilibrium. As feelings of security and stability have begun to emerge from knowing I can support myself through what each day brings, the habit of descending into the frenzied feeling of, “if I can just get x, y, and z done, then I’ll feel okay” has slowly begun to subside.

I’ve been experiencing a new sensation lately. It’s one of being able to relax into my unstructured time with enjoyment- something that I didn’t even realize I’d lost until it started to return.

I’ll probably always be a planner, but as I’m learning to let go of the need for control, I’m beginning to learn the joy of spontaneity. Who ever would have thought that could happen?

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On Strength

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Back when I was young and naive, a phase that I’m hoping has passed but how can we ever really be sure, I thought that strength was about power. Having the power to lift, wield, dictate, reason,  choose, decide. To be in control.

The universe has a funny way of buffing out that naïveté, doesn’t it?

Today my understanding of strength is nearly the total opposite. I understand strength as having the will to overcome in the moments when you are at your lowest, the ability to accept fault, apologize, choose vulnerability over pride, and acknowledge the humanity of ourselves and others. Strength is not something you are born with, it is something you acquire slowly, with intention and support. It is the kind of thing you get more of by giving it away, and it is a thing to be worn, quietly but proudly, like a badge of life earned in battle.

Today what I associate most strongly with strength is the notion of resilience. I admire and work towards the ability to have awareness around the highs and lows, the ebbs and flows of life. My succulent tattoo has something to do with that. I got it partly as a reminder of my own resilience, having made great progress on moving from a harrowingly negative body image to a much more positive (though of course not perfect) one. I wanted to adorn my body with something I thought was beautiful, and in that way remind myself that my body is a beautiful thing meant to be loved. (For the record, tattoo needles hurt a lot more than acupuncture needles 😛 )

These sometimes symmetrical desert plants have found a home here in San Francisco. They somehow thrive in this ever changing micro climate environment. The ones I love the most appear in the sidewalk cracks beneath established desert flower beds, escape artists making a break for it and surviving on their own. My succulent tattoo, artistically recreated from a photo I took of just one such sidewalk escape artist, reminds me about the beauty of survival, and the art of carrying on.

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Shoutout to Morgan for her monthly poetry nights, and giving me topics to write on 🙂 

Acupuncture, Mindful Eating & Meaningful Change

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A lot of interesting things have been coming together for me lately, intertwined in a typical style that prevents me from picking a single cause to attribute all the good stuff to. No matter- if it’s working, it’s working right?

On my last visit to LA, Lina suggested I try finding a student acupuncture clinic in San Francisco. Having passed along a few interesting nuggets of information from her first two quarters of acupuncture school, I was totally up to give acupuncture a try. I figured throwing some ancient Chinese medicine into the mix with therapy, exercise and meditation could only be a positive thing.

And fortunately I was 1000% correct- but not entirely for the reasons you might think.

My first acupuncture appointment lasted for two hours, and it cost me a whopping $30. I arrived and was introduced to the group of students I would be treated by, plus their supervisor Catherine (who reminds me so much of Lily Tomlin- or at least her character on Grace and Frankie- in the best possible way). The spent an hour taking turns talking to me, asking me about my thoughts and feelings, and giving supportive feedback in a way that no western medical practitioner ever has. As a true extrovert I couldn’t help moving into tour guide mode since I didn’t know any of them- resulting in me cracking them all up at several points as I shared intimate details of my life and the work I’ve done on self-love, self-care, and self-growth over the last three years. To me the set up was the extrovert’s dream therapy- I had a supportive audience giving me compassionate attention, plus they actively validated the work I’ve done- being told I was the most self-aware 25 year old they’d ever met was, to me, the highest praise I’ve gotten in years (from those who knew nothing else about me).

Two really crucial things came out of my initial conversation with Catherine and her team of students- and neither of them is related to the part where they put needles into me (though I’ll get to that later).

The first is that Catherine brought up mindful eating, something I’d read about long ago at the beginning of working through my eating disorder. At the time I first learned about it, I was nowhere near capable of carrying it out. Fast forward three years, with six months of daily meditation under my belt (or the spandex band of my yoga pants, if I’m being honest), I was able to add this to my mindfulness practice with really incredible outcomes. Instead of wanting to eat more at the end of a meal, I was totally full. Sometimes I even notice I’m full halfway through my meal and stop eating. I. Stop. Eating. This is unbelievable to me. I enjoy the things I cook more, and my roommates are benefiting from the most recent spate of broccoli-garlic-kale-chard-feta-toasted-hazelnut-flax-seed-quinoa bowls. (Today’s had roasted sweet potatoes in it- also bomb). I was able, for the first time ever, to truly decide that the way eating chocolate (and I drive in a tour van that has a box of Ghirardelli squares next to me… every day…) or other processed sugar makes me feel is not worth it. Now, instead of trying to prevent myself from eating candy, ice cream, etc, I physically do not want or crave it. I did not even know I was mentally capable of getting to this point. I’m sleeping better because I’m not longer coming home and binge eating at night, plus I’ve accepted that I don’t enjoy the effects of alcohol enough to want to drink it, 90% of the time. I’m in bed by 10 and waking up naturally between 5 and 6am. Every day. And I love that. I love waking up before the sun rises, having some time to myself, and being able to watch from my living room windows as the sky above the Bay turns orange, red, and pink. I love the color of the sky at dawn, and the feeling of biking through the city while it is, in essence, still asleep.

But that’s all for another blog post, because the second thing to come out of going to acupuncture has been even more striking, and undoubtedly related to everything I just said.

While running through all the typical questions, I was asked when the last time I’d gotten my period was. And well, I had no idea. I’d been taking my birth control continuously for the last.. 6 six years? Plus I’d been on it for 10. I figured it was just as convenient to not deal with getting my period if all of my healthcare providers were assuring me there was no reason not to. So I posed the question to women sitting in front of me- was there any reason I should go off of it? I’d been curious what it would be like to go off of, but hadn’t found any resource that convinced me life would be any different without it.

Needless to say, they very politically, in a non-pressuring way shared their views on the subject. They summed it up to, if it works for you great, if you are dealing with issues related to your emotions, sometimes being on hormones can have an effect on that. Those were the magic words I’d been waiting to hear, and I stopped taking it the next day. I assured them, with enough vocal emphasis to get a laugh out of the room, that I’m not currently sleeping with anyone- and since it’s looking like I may end up being celibate for nearly the entirety of my twenties- I’m not too concerned.  (Cut to me telling this (with fewer details) to my 87 year old, male psychiatrist and him telling me, “it’s always a good idea to keep some prophylactics in the bedside drawer.” Just laughed out loud as I relived the memory while typing that.)

I’ve now been off the birth control for three weeks, and the difference in my overall emotional stability is shocking. I of course need to point out that this is combined with daily meditation, exercise,  healthy eating, and bi-monthly therapy- but whatever the combination is, it’s working. Now, instead of heading for the kitchen when I start to be overcome with emotions (which is overall much less often), I sit and meditate, giving myself the self-love and support I need. Sometimes I’ll just lie on my bed or my rug and listen to bright eyes or death cab, the same way I used to when I was 15. And unlike the feelings of self-loathing I used to get after binge eating to try and cope with my emotions, Conor and Ben just make me feel better, by reminding me (through song nonetheless :P) that everyone feels angsty as hell and sad and upset and depressed sometimes. And diving into those feelings and really being present with them is so much better in both the short term and the long run than trying to stifle them.

I opened the freezer the other morning and took note that my roommate had obtained a pint of Ben and Jerry’s. For the first time in, well maybe ever, I felt nothing. No internal sigh, knowing that eventually I would eat all of it. No longing to sneak a spoonful even though it was 7am. Just, nothing.

And hell, what an incredible feeling that was.

Oh, and I almost forgot- you can barely feel the needles 🙂

SF, Soul Cycle, and White Girl Privilege

12717907_10205596428493926_669722621693308903_nI don’t remember exactly when I first became aware of my privilege. 

As a child I certainly took the various extracurricular lessons, summer camps and family vacations at face value. What, you mean every family doesn’t have a nanny and a housekeeper? Existing only in the bubble of ones family makes it difficult to have perspective as a child, aside from the occasional volunteer experiences I had through our synagogue. 

I became more aware of having more than most people as I became a teenager. I saw the kids who were bussed in from the inner city to our summer camp in upstate New York. I became involved in the Ronald McDonald house and worked with families who were drowning in medical bills and counted on the organization for shelter during their impossibly hard times. 

With this new found awareness I became more intentional about expressing my gratitude towards my parents for the things they had made possible for me- I didn’t want to feel like I was taking any of it for granted. 

When I got to college I made friends with other students who were part of posse, an organization that brought together inner city kids from low income areas and helped them form community in order to thrive in small liberal arts schools (an unfamiliar territory for most). I had some issues with the way posse allowed students to further self segregate students (i.e. Telling them they were different, introducing an even louder us. Vs them dynamic) but I understood why it was necessary. The levels of wealth among a small minority of students at Trinity was a harsh contrast to the levels of poverty the community in Hartford experienced. It drove me crazy to see the amount of importance placed by the students on having designer brand coats and shoes, how thin they could be or where they were headed for spring break. This is a large generalization of course, but being stuck in such a small bubble of 2000 people made me reevaluate my own values daily, and also made me desperate for college to be over. 

I’ve now been living in San Francisco for over three years, and never before have I existed in such a purgatory of privilege. I live with an ever so mild guilt for enjoying the advantages I have- not having student debt, being able to afford my $1280 a month rent (which I pay without any financial support from my parents- or doing anything illegal), being able to spend money on healthy food, travel, and the occasional superfluous item. I’ve worked hard to keep myself employed since day 1 of college graduation, and I don’t want to discredit my own hard work, I simply feel it’s crucial to stay aware of how big my handicap (to appropriately use a golf term) was out of the gate. It’s like the analogy of seating a group of students in a classroom and asking them to all throw paper balls into a trash can at the front of the room. Of course the kids sitting in the front row are going to have an easier time getting them in than those sitting in the back, they’re already that much closer to the goal. 

Over this past summer I allowed myself to drink some of the kool aid. I went to soul cycle after years of bitching about a spin class that could possible cost $30. I went 5 times. I quickly understood what is so appealing about the class- they play off the psychological need for belonging. It’s a brilliant business strategy. I had my “wait, what the fuck am I doing here?” moment while in line for the showers with a friend. I was commenting on how weird I found the song lyrics to one of the songs that had played during class, and how much I didn’t like it. A girl walked by me, overheard what I was saying and said under her breath (but loudly enough to be heard), “it’s BEYONCE.” Oh shit. I knew I’d overstayed my welcome in the world of over privileged white girls, and I’d just been found out. C’est la vie. 

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I left this piece unfinished for a few weeks and came back to it today. I recently finished reading Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I really enjoyed reading it, and the reason I sought it out in the first place was because I recognized how different the experience of the storyteller has been from my own. I mention this because I was in a Lyft line a few days ago where the driver was an African American woman from New York City and the other passenger was a woman from Nigeria. We were all of similar age and made pleasant conversation. But when the two of them started talking about Nigeria and their experiences in various African countries I felt like I had nothing to contribute to the conversation (it’s pretty unusual for me, extrovert that I am, to have nothing to say). I bring this up because it relates to how I feel about all of this. I have thoughts and feelings about privilege, but I don’t know how to contribute to the conversation at large beyond this is a real thing we should acknowledge, and maybe experience a little gratitude for. Maybe then we’d understand why things like Prop Q are entirely inhumane. (But that’s a whole other blog post).

Rant over (for now).

On Learning to Drive Stick in San Francisco

Learning to drive stick in San Francisco is like learning to swim at Ocean Beach. It’s theoretically possible, but the reality of it is somewhat dangerous, mentally intimidating, and more than a little bit stressful. Word to the wise: if you don’t know how to drive stick, and aren’t excited about the idea of the lives of your seven passengers riding (pun intended) on your ability to do a successful hill start, maybe don’t take a job that relies heavily on both of those requirements.

Let me back up to the beginning of this story.

In September of 2015 I was finally accepting that the day-to-day reality of my startup job was not doing it for me. I wanted to be doing something different, but had never encountered a job in San Francisco that combined not sitting in front of a computer all day with earning above minimum wage. As luck would have it, my roommate was in the early stages of planning an eight-month road trip with her boyfriend that involved quitting their day jobs and living in a van. Consequently, a solid amount of time was spent looking at beautiful vans and #vanlife accounts on Instagram. When I came across Vantigo’s account (and a post that they were hiring) I was intrigued. I corresponded with Erik, the owner, and within the week I’d been offered a job doing content, social media, community management, and most of all, learning to be a tour guide. This was regardless of the fact that I did not know how to drive a stick shift, which all three of the Vantigo vans required. Challenge accepted.

Fast-forward about two and a half months, one bicycle accident induced elbow fracture, and enough Vantigo employees being in the US at the same time for the tour schedule to be covered, and you will arrive at the time when my stick shift training began. I started at the Marina Green parking lot, moved on to the back roads of West Marin, and eventually began practicing the tour route around San Francisco over the course of three weeks.

Learning to drive stick proved to be one of those things you just had to learn by doing- and learn by screwing up on. Luckily for me, stalling while trying to do a hill start at a four-way stop seems to be much less irritating to other drivers when you are in acanary yellow VW van. Unfortunately for me, other drivers don’t seem to realize that when I’m stalling out trying to do a hill start at a four-way stop it might not be the best time to pull up next to me to chat about their VW nostalgia. I would have figured that the sweat pouring down my face combined with the stressed out facial expression would be a dead give away of, “this is maybe not the best time to chat with this person,” but VW vans just really bring out the dreamy, chatty side of people. C’est la vie.

My biggest lesson from learning to drive stick in a 1971 VW van was really one about science. In a van with four gears, gravity is gear number five. Gravity can be used to your benefit in many scenarios including but not limited to: backing out of a parking space, coasting down a large hill, and getting up to speeds not otherwise attainable by a VW van (slow is really all we know). Sir Isaac take the wheel. (Shout out to Erik, Eddie, and Justin for pulling the e-brake for me at exactly the right times).

The last three weeks have seen me driving tours to wine country, Highway 1, and all around San Francisco. I’ve been having recurring dreams where I’m driving stick, and I hope this counts as additional practice. I’ve also decided that our yellow van, Jerry, who followed the Grateful Dead for ten years during the 70s, is definitely my spirit van. There is really something to cruising around in these vans, whether you’re driving down Haight Street or coasting down Highway 1. It just feels so right. Well, so long as you don’t accidentally go from third gear to second when looking for fourth, or try to leave a stop sign in third when you think you’re in first, that is.

When in doubt, grind it till you find it.

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Waiting to Board

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Sometimes the world feels like a dome, and things get kind of Truman Show

For quite some time now I’ve been waiting to figure out what I should be doing next with my life. My goal in college was to move to San Francisco and live with my best friend, which I did. Two and a half years, one breakup, three jobs and a new living situation later, I can’t help sometimes feeling like I’m treading water in my day-to-day life, preparing myself for something- but entirely uncertain what that thing is. I’ve felt the nagging itch to move to Los Angeles for the last six months- a new stomping grounds where some of my oldest and newest friends reside. Los Angeles has its own demons of course, but it somehow seems to own them in a way that San Francisco doesn’t. But it’s a hard move to pull the trigger on, given the somewhat necessary pieces required for life in LA, and the fact that there is a lot I’d be leaving behind.

I’m utterly torn, having only ever pictured myself to be in a monogamous, long term relationship with San Francisco that would last forever. Entering our third year together, though, the honeymoon period has ended and I feel the negatives as much as the positives. Like the realization that no relationship will be perfect because humans are inherently flawed, the humanity of San Francisco is both what attracted me to it in the first place, and what is getting under my skin in an uncomfortable way. The question is, do I hang on and seek improvement, or do I leave while the fresh memories are still positive? While San Francisco may be the same city I moved to in the summer of 2013, I am certainly not the same person I was then.

One of the greatest differences I feel in myself (and what is giving me so much trouble as I contemplate all of this) is the weight I feel in my responsibility, and loyalty, to my community. My friends, my coworkers, people who have invested in me and who I in turn have invested in. Is this what putting down roots feels like? Struggling to find the “my wants first” mentality of one’s early twenties, holding back on charging forward for fear of damaging the positive relationships that have helped you get to the place where you decide you’re ready to leave them behind. Feeling 25 approaching and pedaling the catch 22 of wanting to remain static and move forward at the same time, looking for some kind of validation for all the choices I’ve made to date.

I’m working on accepting the fact that like the majority of growing up, making big life changes, real grown up decisions that will alter the course of my life, will never be something that happens easily and without some doubt. No one will be able to tell me what the right thing to do is, especially because there is no correct answer, no right decision. There is, though, only one certain direction to move in, and that is forward, into a future that will undoubtedly involve ups and downs, wins and losses, joys and regrets. It will continue to be terrifying and utterly beautiful, and it will never stop surprising me.

As far as moving to LA goes, well, I guess we’ll all have to wait to find out what happens next.