My Dirty, White T-shirt of a Flag

Yeah, about that “return in full force come May” thing…

Well, inspiration just never quite hit. I returned home and attempted to digest all that I’d experienced and chew on the simultaneous stagnancy and rapid change that I returned to and spit it all out just to take another bite, and it seemed that it was all the same stuff. No one wants to read someone else’s confused detritus over and over again. And that’s fine, because the beauty of the blog is that there are no rules.

And so, in the interest of cohesiveness, here’s a quick update: after a wonderful three weeks in New York City with my grandma working on a piece about perfectionism for an organization called Ma’yan, my time in South America with Where There Be Dragons was incredible. I fell in love with the Andes, was injected with a healthy dose of respect for the Amazon and the people that live in it, learned a lot about myself and work I need to do, read a lot of good books, wrote in my journal regularly, and underwent countless other experiences, some of which you can read about more presently and in depth in my travel blog. As expected, it was hard, because life is hard. And even while I was tucked away in a bubble of privilege to have that opportunity, with guidance and exempt from the full responsibilities of traveling alone, there was still the reality of navigating new and challenging situations, traveling with twelve other American teenagers who I’d never met before and attempting to negotiate group dynamics, leaving home for the longest I ever had, and the indelible truth that I will likely always be on a journey of finding inner peace. In short, it was exactly what a 16-year-old high school graduate who thinks too much needed.

But now I’m 17, and times have changed. (Just kidding.)

Upon homecoming, my head was still spinning from watching my 98-year-old host grandmother (see below) cry when I said goodbye, visiting El Tío with the star (Basilio) of the PBS documentary The Devil’s Miner (which I highly recommend), and our recurrent conversations on service and its detriments, among other things.

Maria (or Flora), my 98-year-old Quechua host grandmother who chases chickens and chops alfalfa and is a general all-around badass

Maria (or Flora), my 98-year-old Quechua host grandmother who chases chickens and chops alfalfa and is a general all-around badass

 

El Tío (The Uncle), god of the mines and a simultaneous force of evil and protection. He has a long history in relation to forced labor of indigenous miners, and is at once a companion in the long hours and dark depths of the mines as well as a source of fear and trepidation. Miners offer coca, pure alcohol, and other gifts. El Tío is said to be married to Pachamama, Mother Earth, and if women work in the mines Pachamama will get jealous and cause misfortune. Women can enter but not work in the mines. Idols like this can be found throughout the mines in Potosí.

El Tío (The Uncle), god of the mines and a simultaneous force of evil and protection. He has a long history in relation to forced labor of indigenous miners, and is at once a companion in the long hours and dark depths of the mines as well as a source of fear and trepidation. Miners offer coca, pure alcohol, and other gifts. El Tío is said to be married to Pachamama, Mother Earth, and if women work in the mines Pachamama will get jealous and cause misfortune. Women can enter but not work in the mines. Idols like this can be found throughout the mines in Potosí.

Life at home had kept moving while I was gone, of course, and also felt exactly the same. There was slight reverse culture shock while I tried to reconcile the two realities and attempted to resist falling back into the same patterns that I’d left. What I realized, though, was that there are no two separate realities, existing in different universes at different times where I am different people. While it is essential to recognize those enormous differences — not doing so is delusional and a recipe for misunderstanding and disappointment — that incredible and vibrant portion of my life is another fold, an additional step bringing with it new ideas and perceptions of the world.

I am constantly dumbfounded by my luck and privilege to be born into a circumstance where I can explore and learn from countless people in Bolivia and Peru at 16 years old and continually discover how much more there is to learn. And yet…

I move through every single day undulating between forty-seven different states of existence, often loitering in a default of despair that I wish I could climb out of but now I see there’s no other path than to embrace it. To settle in. How do I position myself as an effective ally for and active participant in the meaningful and imperative issues of social justice and collective healing — America’s abhorrent and vibrant racism; pervasive devaluing, controlling, and shaming of bodies (women’s in particular); honed and entrenched sexism; consequences of colonialism; the often-callous destruction of our environment, etc. — that I truly care about when I am still holding out hope that whatever is wrong with me will someday be righted?

I am tired of that burden. There is nothing wrong with me. The longer I believe there is, the less I have to offer to the dismantling of those injustices and the system that enables them — from which I often greatly benefit — and the less gratitude I can feel for my very actuality in which I can sleep in a stone hut high in a remote Andean village and then return home to a memory foam-lined mattress. The longer I believe there is something wrong with me the more damaging a family member I am, the less tolerant and less spontaneous a friend, the less soft caresses I can muster to bestow upon my survivor of a belly.

And so I will continue to wonder, to move and progress because I have no choice, to continually and constantly remind myself that I am a ping pong ball and I better learn to get served. When 6 months have passed without writing and I’m still deciphering what I’m trying to say I will give in, I will give up. Surrender is the only noble option.

 

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Too Many Metaphors — It’s Part of the Plan

More often than not, life does not go as planned. In fact, planning is such a useless attempt at control and securing future comfort that I now view plans as a likely predictor of what will not occur in reality, regardless of almost any efforts to steer the universe in my pre-ordained chain of events tailored specifically to meet my perception of productivity. I think most of us understand that, at best, planning is setting an intention that will come to fruition on the off chance that every decision preceding it also disregarded everyone else in the world and decided to heed our personal desires to ensure that our expectations and preparations are not left waiting for a date that perpetually no-shows.

Let it be known that as I sit here preaching the futility of control, I also have next to me a list detailing the activities and times of errands I would like to accomplish today to be prepared for leaving home for 4 months and millions of other lists outlining my long term goals, my short term goals, epiphanies I’ve had, people I want to apologize to, etc. You get the picture. Alas, writing this blog post did not show up in my plan for today. Whaddya know.

BUT, sometimes, little latent ideas of a desperately desired outcome seem to seep their way out of the molten iron that is reality doing its best to sever and block our plans, relishing in the irony that although they were originally part of the plan, the fickleness and impracticality of these outlines rendered them even less feasible.

And so arrived the relentless tears on the plane back from Thailand. Somewhere between seven straight movies, many episodes of multiple TV shows, and a repeat listening of an entire Broadway musical soundtrack (Ahem, Hamilton, I reallllly wouldn’t object if you decided to kick someone out of your eternally sold out shows to help a friend), it hit me.

The marvelous aspect of this particular realization is that I wasn’t drinking coffee. It wasn’t in the morning, it wasn’t after exercise, it wasn’t during a fired-up discussion on social justice issues I’d convinced myself I understood. It was, in fact, in the midst of 30 hours of traveling, permeating simultaneously with a feeling of intense fullness, leftover minor food poisoning, bodily frustration with sitting for so long and building anxiety over returning home. Despite all these historical indicators of despair and curling up into a ball with no desire to emerge unless my life magically became someone else’s, I cried because I felt a little shrapnel of peace finally lodging itself in my shoulder like a reminder for a war veteran.

I just couldn’t do it anymore. I couldn’t keep pinching my body in shame. I couldn’t go through an existential crisis every time I felt bloated or decided not to follow my body’s instructions. I couldn’t dictate my self-worth based on whether or not I had the motivation to exercise and I couldn’t look around the airport fighting the urge to compare my own body to that of every other female traveler — hell, male too. I was never, ever, ever going to embody the altruistic, confident, razor-sharp goddess I envision as a product of mastering my “issues” if my sense of deservedness as a member of humanity fluctuated depending on how my stomach felt.

Here’s the thing: this was part of the plan. I was scared to leave home for the sole reason that I know it’s impossible to run away from problems. Frolicking around in Thailand, then New York City, then Bolivia and Peru will not “fix” me. I am painfully, anxiously aware of this. Yet, with this ineffectiveness of control and annoying fact that I actually can’t escape my own company no matter how far I fly, I’m still a writer. I get to decide my own story. (Even if you’re not a writer, you still do. You don’t have to even know how to read or talk or be articulate or respectful or have any qualification as a productive member of society. Even if you’re Donald Trump you get to create your own character.) Though planning — like dieting, arguing and assailing with the intention of changing someone’s political party, denying that you share any characteristics with your mom, and refusing to acknowledge the merits of technology — in effect, doesn’t work ever, I am inevitably the author.

If I can’t get out of writing the longest book ever and constantly redeveloping the main character, why the hell should I waste it on not being a badass, hilarious, edgy, compassionate, impulsive, sometimes offensive, sarcastic, supportive, open-minded impossibility of a really short human?

Granted, this idealistic perception glosses over the very, very real inevitability that even since that realization I’ve crawled into bed with the intention of talking to no one and intense wish that I could teleport to an alternate path for this Barae person with complete disregard for the community issues that light the passion-fire in my belly. And these times harbor not an inkling of glamor. They suck, really hard, and I forget my lifetime position as editor in chief, fact checker, correspondent, and author of my little story because I don’t want the job. I am attacked with pointed, pungent reminders that I am not in control, never will be, and also probably will never be able to fully surrender my desire and hidden theory that I am, in fact, in control.

With no other choice, I accept the position of head author and also every other contributing writer. But don’t let it go to your head, Barae, because I was turned down by literally every other opportunity and given no alternative offers. So now we’re stuck together, and I intend to develop my reputation as a hell of a committed writer and a scary investigative journalist that everyone loves to hate, especially famous people with nothing to hide.

I’m currently accepting applications for the position of editor.

 

Mainstream Counterculture

Living counter culturally takes a lot of effort. To actively believe in unpopular and contradictory opinions to the widely accepted norm requires a fortitude that I often feel I might not have, and is sometimes so draining that I almost switch back to the easy wave of giving in. This generation of hipsters and their preceding Beatniks have implanted in us the notion that counter culture is glamorous, that “standing up” for your own truth immediately garners respect and admiration. Like most everything else, the reality is a bit sloppy.

It’s a little painfully ironic to desperately want a shield of impenetrable confidence and for the comments or unsolicited (and solicited) opinions of others to truly have no bearing on my self-worth. I try so hard to believe that my ecosystem of Planet Barae is on its own orbit and I’m a sarcastic little badass, but the truth is that belief takes a lot of work. Relinquishing the need for approval and agreement is scary. How can I be okay with myself and my own values and ideas when so many people, including people I love, are convinced of their exact contradiction?

I have not arrived at the answer. And I think that’s because it’s a shape-shifter — constantly morphing and altering positions and appearances and teleporting a couple years — that “answer” is. I’ve become pretty convinced that there isn’t actually a destination. Most likely I’ll never really be 100% comfortable with my own beliefs when others are seriously challenging them, especially the ones condemned by society as a whole. And I can only imagine what serenity in my own skin feels like. It will require a lot of introspection; of spending time to get to know myself and actually appreciate what I have to offer; of chipping away at the constraining blocks that keep me yearning, reaching for validation. Look at me being all philosophical.

There’s a few different facets of this endeavor for me. There’s the reality-check of a college not welcoming me with congratulatory arms, challenging my buried belief that I’m the special one, and somehow the world is different for me. I need that challenge. It’s refreshing and comforting to know that really, I’m not special, I don’t have some rare qualities that make me stand out, I share the same obstacles and doubts of actually everyone else on this planet and if I took the time to look, I’d realize that everyone thinks they’re the special one. There’s the realization that some members of my family and friends still strongly consider health as a moral issue and are unclear how to support me, and I am really, truly allowed to stick to my own convictions and perhaps simply disengage in that topic of discussion with them. Those people remain valid, important, nourishing people in my life, on other fronts.

Sometimes pushing forward on my own route seems insurmountable. Sometimes I am convinced that the overwhelming evidence of the entire cultural environment surrounding me might be right, and who am I to assume the self-righteous position of truth-proclaimer? I’m no revolutionary. Yet I continue to be taught that I really don’t need to start a revolution (a la SNL-Bernie Sanders). The reassurance that not a single action of mine requires approval of any external source, arising from my own embedded spark and the sheer fact that I exist, is a guiding force that I am constantly working to embrace. Every thought and extremely socially unacceptable joke that will make no one laugh outside of my head is a reminder that I don’t even need to believe it, I am a badass whether I like it or not.

It’s gonna take a lot more work and a lot more effort to fully embody this truth. I don’t envision an endpoint and I’m excited to embark on some kind of life-long vision quest, though I feel myself tip toeing into the desperately needed unknown and I’m terrified. Even though I just proclaimed this whole idea to be a self-empowered, introspective enterprise, I think it is a lot more powerful and empowering to know others are on the same venture. I could use some advice. How are you living your truth?

 

I’m Not Sorry

Discrimination is hardest to overcome when you believe it.

Oppression is hardest to end when you’re a participant, on any end of the spectrum.

Even if we’re aware of harmful and inaccurate beliefs that we hold, sometimes it seems there’s no other way to think. As I grow older and am exposed to new perspectives that challenge my own and consciously work on discovering and staying true to my core values, I find that dismantling discrimination that I am involved in is essential to my internal serenity. When I put substantive time into dissecting the reasons for my own beliefs and learning the opposing viewpoint, I not only feel a much stronger connection to humanity but also personal fulfillment and empowerment.

As I travel on my own indeterminate journey of accepting myself as my traveling companion, I become more and more aware that I need to completely deconstruct and retire the judgements that are keeping me from appreciating the various bumps and unforeseen curves that characterize an interesting trip. Because my discrimination is against myself and characteristics of myself I see in others, or ideas I was taught to believe by this gaseous steamroller we call society. While I strongly support and advocate for equality, acceptance, and celebration of diversity in race/culture/religion/sexual orientation/gender etc., I feel that there’s many discriminations and superiority complexes hidden within the folds of “bigger issues.” It seems to me that the “big” issues and the “small” issues are all just the same issue in different forms and represented in different places.

I do, actually, have a lot to say (imagine that… me having something to say) about current racism — especially in Alaska — and systemic, faulty fear-mongering, and hopefully I’ll write on those topics soon. This post, however, (like many others) is dedicated to girls struggling to exist proudly in this era of often surface level empowerment still plagued by preposterous expectations. That is not to say this invitation doesn’t apply to other demographics and I don’t have strong compassion or passion for other causes. Believe me, I will make that known in every way if it’s not already common knowledge. I intend to make it my life’s work.

Since I was little I have always compulsively said sorry. Even when there’s no problem or absolutely nothing I could have done, I have an immediate reaction and need to apologize for any way I may have contributed to an inconvenience. When I look around me at clever, powerful girls, I notice that they, too, are constantly blurting “sorry” at every turn. We are told everyday to just “be confident” and stay true to ourselves, yet nearly every message in our world shows us otherwise. I catch myself nursing envy of another girl’s body or even accomplishments and good fortune, yet for some reason I don’t feel that same competition with boys. We are often encouraged with approval to promote ourselves by discounting and distancing ourselves from others — mainly girls — and demonstrating our apathy and, yes, masculinity. In a very decidedly feminine and attractive way. Which is nearly impossible.

It breaks my heart to see girls using inauthenticity as their lifeline and most effective coping mechanism. A chasm splits and widens between what nourishes my spirit and what creates more work for me to repair when I see myself making excuses for the overflowing person that I am or disregarding someone else’s validity. To be clear, adapting to various situations or acting appropriately and acknowledging developments does not constitute inauthenticity.

When I inject a little (or a lot) extra kindness into gestures or comments or interactions, the reassurance of my solid place in my own morals and truths extends its portable roots. I’ll never be able to reverse the damage I’ve done to others or myself, and that’s why each moment is so grand and special and worthy. It’s not worth living for any other moment besides this one.

So stop apologizing. Stop sucking in. Stop pretending you’re not offended. Stop letting snide comments slide by for fear of being labeled as a “feminist” because then you’re just contentious and whiny. Stop believing that being unattractive is the worst misfortune that could ever befall you and that it’s objective and your fault. Stop believing you either have to be beautiful or badass and tough or nerdy and bossy and remember that you can pick and choose or be all of that or none.

This discrimination and oppression targeted towards young girls and their bodies and confidence goes unnoticed and unchallenged too frequently. We can extrapolate these internalized norms to the pervasive war women all over the world are waging against their bodies and the $60 billion/year weight loss industry. We can extend these minor misunderstandings to preoccupation with appearance and judgement that defines the first world, both women and men, and distracts from other injustices we could all be combatting.

As this vulnerable demographic, we need to support each other and also empower ourselves. We need to air our dirty laundry if it’s smelling up the house and trust that other people can follow their own noses. We need to relinquish our fear of vulnerability and know in our very core that we have the unwavering strength to do so and grow even more confident in our own validity. We need to live unapologetically.

EMERGENCY

Okay, well, don’t get too excited.

I actually had a few topics I wanted to write about, but then something happened and it was just begging to be documented and who am I to turn down inspiration? (Even if I am hunkered down on the side of a precarious dirt road furiously typing on my phone and greatly increasing the risk of giving myself carpal tunnel syndrome).

Let me paint a picture for you: I just had a reasonably disastrous night in some ways. It’s 70° F in Homer, Alaska and I’m biking out to a Russian village that starts where the road ends, or at least in that general direction. I biked back and forth between my house and a friend’s a couple times in my sweatpants and essentially a bathrobe because I couldn’t quite figure out how to make the bike work, and I’m not too skilled a biker, mind you. I’m wearing a funky, too-big, bright orange/red helmet and a large and bouncing fanny pack. I saw a mama moose munching that didn’t see me, which is the very best kind of human-moose interaction. I’m not going to describe the view, because my clumsy semantic attempts at imagery can’t begin to do justice to the never-ending range of blue peaks varying height and shape with effortless perfection and cradling pristine expanses of glacial fairy dust. Oops. I just did.

Well, actually, I could just give you a real picture.

image

Kisses all around

I’ve been taking something of a break from exercise and any type of dietary consciousness for a while: “letting myself go” if you will, though I’ve been trying to see it as just another stage in the mysterious process.

So, in something of a revolutionary twist, I biked along the path of moseying. I stopped for water and snacks and texts and selfies and views, I downshifted frequently (meaning I made it easier for myself), I stopped to write this in my phone’s notes; in short, I wasn’t really doing it for ‘exercise,’ per say.

An absolutely amazing thing happened. I’m not sure exactly where; perhaps after the multiple confused trips to actually get the bike or after I realized hills don’t have to be so hard if you don’t stay in the highest gear or when I thought about my friends on a cross country bike trip or when I found out I actually kind of enjoy biking despite what I’ve been telling myself…

Regardless, somewhere amidst the ridiculous amount of enormous trucks which seem to be almost exclusively populating the road,

Exhibit A, although this one isn't that big, I know, but I was stopped already, okay?

Exhibit A, although this one isn’t that big, I know, but I was stopped already, okay?

my unbridled (okay, maybe a little bridled) joy burst out of me like a hyped-up-yet-still-kinda-slow sprinkler. Bridled because I know I’m still injured; I know this feeling is temporary; my tummy still talks to me when I put food in it ’cause it’s not so good at digestion, especially when I feed it much, much, much more than it was asking for; I’m aware part of me is still doing it for the calories; and I’m not foolish enough to think any one thing will change my world forever.

BUT. I FELT it. It’s real and that oppressing cloud of depression and self-hatred and doubt and bleak resignation and unjustified resentment and hopeless abandon was tangibly released from duty for a little while.

I have not a single delusion that soon I won’t find that annoyingly relentless companion by my side again. But a stupid chocolate granola bar never tasted so good and I never felt the soft parts of my belly with such acceptance and the mosquitoes and bees never bothered me so little and I worked so fucking hard to get here. Oftentimes against myself, but nevertheless no one can deny I was working my ass off to the point of exhaustion without respite.

I’m not “there,” but this is certainly, without a doubt, a far different universe than the one I’ve been loitering in — hell, than the one I was descending into last night. I can still touch that other universe and access it at a moment’s notice, and I know I’ll be there again soon.

I didn’t want to believe it. For some ludicrous and asinine reason I didn’t want to believe that satisfaction and genuine smiles were waiting for me, that every opportunity is a chance for escape and that I too have the ability to open the door.

Caveat: don’t just think I’m all better (whatever that means) and abandon me and that the rest of my posts will be love letters and celebrations to life. This is NOT the endpoint, in case you haven’t gotten the gist of my precautions yet.

‘Cause the mosquitoes and flies are starting to bug me a bit (sorry, couldn’t help it) and I have to bike back up this bouncing, headache-inducing dirt road.

I’m kidding, I’m not back to that universe yet.

I’ll be sixteen tomorrow, and to jump straight into cliché city, it can only go up from here, right?

(I mean, there’s a fairly nasty uphill and then the rest is pretty much all downhill back to my house, but let’s not get too caught up in the details.)