Summer Nights, New York | 3

Saturday, June 28

All I can do tonight is begrudgingly open the door for the delivery guy. Thank you for my vegetarian panini. In the dark, the delivery guy and I meet with our eyes. He knows I could’ve just as easily walked downstairs and turned the corner to grab the sandwich myself, using my own two legs, but he thanked me all the same, because the tradeoff between my laziness and his job is those two dollars of tip. I gladly give him the two dollars, if that meant the only words I’d have to speak to another human that night was, “Thank you.” 

I turned off my phone so that I wouldn’t have to speak to anyone else, but no one calls me anyway. Half the time my phone is out of commission, the other half, I just don’t answer, so my friends have adapted to my ways. They don’t call. Tonight I turned down three social invitations through the means of text message. These invitations to these parties promised the world. Friends and strangers, seizing the night, soaking up what the city could offer. But these invitations were transparent to me. Behind the formal type and font, I saw the ghosts. Ghosts of people out and about on the streets, searching amongst other ghosts in some weird purgatory. 

No, I’d rather not be there. My ghosts are all here, confined to these four white walls with me. Along with us we have roasted vegetables and melted mozzarella, pressed between this European flatbread, glazed in balsamic. The only words I’d hear uttered tonight would be from yet another romantic-comedy. They’re trite and predictable, but I love them all the same. At least I know the ending, and it’s always happy. 

In these four walls, I feel safe, instead of the itching and the twitching that I feel whenever I think about leaving my room. Social interaction makes me tense. My body feels like lead, and the bathroom might as well not even be in the same apartment. I feel sick. My reality here is sideways. Getting up gives me a headache. The moon is too bright. Turn off the light. It’s cold. Put on socks. Lie back down. The movie just ended. Press play again because I want to be in their world a little bit longer. 

In their world, I’m just an observer. In this world I can be whole, watching from the sidelines. Outside of these walls, in my world, I have to act. Other people would have to watch me act and they’ll assuredly see right through: I’m transparent. Behind the doors I am whole. Inside these walls it’s just me and my ghost, laughing and playing, so joyful because at least, we can be who we are. We finally feel like ourselves. When it’s just us, there’s no one else. We have the kind of relationship that, when it’s just us against the brutal city, we are beautiful, but in any other external circumstance, we are mangled. No relationship exists inside just four white walls, and this one most certainly cannot. We know this is not healthy, yet we just can’t get enough. We keep walking back into this room, locking the door. Every time we say it’s the last time. 

Tonight, my ghost and I are in bed, intertwined, looking out the window towards the flickering city lights. Tomorrow, she whispered, I’ll let you go.

Summer Nights, New York | 2

Sunday, June 22

Tonight was our dance party in your apartment. The iPhone was our disco light, the iPad our DJ. The four of us with our unrhythmic swaying and pumping and twirling. It didn’t matter though, we were dancing in the dark with our eyes closed. 

Our four-person dance party. I think you were dancing because you were drunk. Maybe you were dancing because it felt better than not moving at all. I couldn’t really tell. You? You never dance. I didn’t even think you were capable, much less wanted to. Me? I dance every day. I was dancing because I was shaking off all of my demons of the day.

The only way to get rid of them at the end of the night is to make it so hard for them to cling on. Hour after hour their claws dig in deeper, making their home on my shoulders. By the end of the night, my shoulders are so heavy with their weight, because they are not light creatures, I need to dance them out with all my might. I think you could have been doing the same. You were dancing with the same determination and vigor.

All four of us moved our feet and swayed our arms, bumping into one another. The music was fast, then slow, then so fast we could barely catch up. Years of friendship tangled in a sea of arms and legs moving together. Three childhood friends and me. I just met you a couple of years ago, but because I grew up in the same neighborhood, too, I was welcomed all the same. I shared the same boredom only those who grew up in suburban homes but dreamt of city streets knew.

And so we kept moving. We were no longer confined to strip malls or church on Sundays or high school proms. We shook those demons off. The ones that tied us down to a past that’s no longer relevant.

When we tired of dancing, we felt energized to stand. I could stand tall, then, because my shoulders were bare, though they were raw with claw marks. Doesn’t matter, though, let the blood run and the wound sting. 

The moment we stopped, the apartment became too small. On the fire escape, we shared stories and confessions as only cramped spaces designed for emergency situations could elicit. We talked of meaningless sex, but I don’t really think it’s ever meaningless, but maybe that’s a conversation for another night. We talked of past relationships, because what else do you talk about that’s of meaning? Relationships hurt and they leave you burdened by their existence and extinction. They’re the types of demons that never go away; they only become more kind.  

Tonight was the night of many confessions, whether we meant for it to be or not. The others went back inside and it was just us two. I could barely shake off my demons, I couldn’t handle yours, too. Not right now. We stood there together, still, and swallowed the silence until our bodies could move again. The demons took advantage of our hesitation and perched again on our shoulders, their weight somehow exponential to what it was before. They dragged again, heavy once again. 

The weight didn’t matter though, because tonight, this night, we danced!

Summer Nights, New York | 1

Thursday, June 19

It was a smoking-on-the-rooftop-’til-3 am kind of New York night. I had just gotten off the train, thereby rounding out my journey from Texas. I made the solitary walk back from the train to my apartment, thinking about how I had just spent a week sharing a bed with friends and family, sometimes 2 to a bed, sometimes as many as 6. The physical affection, touch from loved ones in the most innocent of acts as I’m slipping from conscious to unconscious is no longer a reality here in this city. My bed is for me, just me.

I stomped up the four flights into my apartment building, surprising my roommates whom I hadn’t seen in one week, and whom I had forgotten to inform I would be out of town. I often forget that slipping in and out of town like a vagabond isn’t the best way to maintain those relationships I’m so hesitant to truly build but crave. It’s okay, I had thought, I’d only met these two people three or four times prior. They didn’t need to know where I was.

But when I saw them, it was an odd sense of comfort. Strangers whom I’d interacted with only a handful of times were no longer strangers, not in this city of millions. We’re all strangers until we’re not anymore. And we weren’t.

We’re roommates, occupying the same space, if only for a few weeks. Something about breathing the same air in a confined space with people engenders trust. We’re all on the same side of the wall, we might as well stand side by side. So we poured ourselves a plastic cup of whiskey, grabbed our fireworks purchased in Virginia, and headed up one flight onto our rooftop. The alarm that forbade this secret hideaway no longer blinked red, the lock on the door broken, the hideaway ready for us on this night.

The air is crisp tonight. So crisp, with a slight breeze, the kind of perfect weather that if I were living in suburban America, I’d get in my car with the windows down and drive towards my teenage years. 2 am and we’re lighting fireworks, pointing the sparks to the northern lights, celebrating something. Anything. The night. 

There, five floors above the world, the entire borough sprawled before me. No skyscrapers, just windows peering into the lives of others trying to get by. Some left their kitchen lights on, others crumpled in bed next to lovers. The night was well into its slumber, the moon preparing to hide itself once again for the day. 

The city the same as I had left it the week before; it’d be the same when I leave it again next week. But tonight, tonight I was living above the lights, making my own fire. The air became crisper as morning began to sing. We puffed our last cigarette, we lit our last firework. We called this our night, tomorrow’s night would be the same as we’d left this one. Time for bed, the morning would claim us once again with responsibilities and conversations and all the things and people that didn’t belong up on this rooftop. The morning meant I’d be me in relation to you; this night I was anything but.

And really, it’s summer nights like these that make living anonymous and alone in New York City all the more seductive.

[Interlude] I Found Truth in Philly

Original blog posted on the Huffington Post, but I want it here for my records:

Just the previous week, I came back from a trip in Iceland, a mystical glacial island in which I thought I had found magic. The magic was emanating from its land, its people, and its music. I thought I had reached the pinnacle of my travel experience: I had found magic, what else is left to find? I came back on Monday, and three days later, I packed my backpack once again for Philly.

 For this trip, I went as a volunteer for Ignite Good, a non-profit that inspires millennials to catalyze change through storytelling, at their first city-based event, Ignition Philly. I am not from Philly. I had never even been there before. I’m from Texas, I live in New York City, and my work is in Vietnam. I simply went as a volunteer because I believed in Ignite Good’s mission and I believe in the power of storytelling. However, in my short three days in the city of brotherly love, amongst a group of strangers, I found truth.

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The truth that I found was buried, unearthed in Philadelphia’s people. These millennial changemakers: their experiences, their joys, their losses are all intertwined with their city. Philadelphia is a city they love so much that her inequality and injustice evokes a drive in them to make her better, greater.

The young participants, all from social enterprises, non-profits, or government, were attracted to the event because they thought they were learning the leadership tool of storytelling and how to better convey their work. What they all discovered, or rather, uncovered through storytelling was their truth about why they do what they do: the intrinsic motivation and driving force behind their desire to create social change.

So often as part of the millennial generation, particularly those in the public and social space, we get wrapped up in what it is that we do. We define ourselves by our jobs, our skills, or our contacts, all for the ultimate goal of serving others, and so we have stopped asking ourselves the 5 Whys? We focus so much on the present and the future, but forget that our past was such an integral aspect in shaping who we are, and ultimately how we do the work that we do.

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At Ignition Philly, every single person embraced vulnerability and shared their stories, some of which were shared for the first time. In this place and in this space, I met Erin Bernard, a mother whose “address is in Jersey, but whose heart is in Philly,” and who is working on advocating for better social services for children with disabilities. Here, I met Rashaun Williams, a 19-year old full-time social entrepreneur who calls “not for a new social media, but a new social medium.” I also met Dhairya Pujara, who “learned more in his time in Africa than any school could teach [him],” and is making Philly his new home.

Through sharing these intimate, individual stories, the connections and community that sprang forth is that much stronger, and is rooted far deeper than just common interests or short-term goals. These changemakers came to the conference as individuals striving to make change in their city, and left as a collective of joy, passion, pain, and vision for Philadelphia. They were already strong as individuals, but together as a community, they will be a force.

I, as an outsider, as a stranger in their land, was completely enthralled and inspired by the people at Ignition Philly. I want to stand up and join them in reinvigorating a city that they all love so much. I want to stand up and join them in reigniting the potential in Philly.

For me, the truth is this: The magic lies in the nitty, gritty experiences that connect us all, and that connection, that bond, is what will make us unstoppable.

I may have found “magic” in Iceland, but here in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, I found truth.

[Interlude] I Found Magic in Iceland, Part 2

Why the hell was I in Iceland?

I asked myself the same question. Over and over again. Every decision you make steers the course of your life in a different direction, and then you reflect back on those pivot points.

Where are they?

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I’ve been following The Case for Wanderlust for quite some time now, mostly through Facebook. I can’t really remember why we became friends on FB. I think we had met briefly once so many years ago, but I guess on social media these days, everyone you meet is your friend?

In either case, she is my friend on Facebook, and she is a solo female traveler. I follow her travels, photos, and writings, making the case for wanderlust, and I often think to myself, she doesn’t have to convince me, I already believe in this.

So if I believe in wanderlust, what am I doing here, sedentary? I was having one of those moments when I was yearning to travel again, and although those moments translate into almost a state of constant being, this moment of yearning was particularly strong when she posted that she will be going to Iceland. She’s inviting people along to travel with her for the first time through GUST, a platform she’s building.

GUST “believes in the magic of people experiencing something together, and [she] hopes GUST conveys that with every adventure.” Through GUST, you host an adventure and others can come along. It essentially is a way for people to pay to travel with you, and Iceland will be the first adventure.

I felt bold and immediately messaged her, she responded within minutes saying, “Ai! I’ve been hoping to hear from you. Let’s talk.” Pivot.

So we talked. We shared our stories, and why it is we yearn to travel so much. I think whenever you meet a fellow wanderer, a person whose soul calls her to explore and adventure simply to do so, there’s an unstated cosmic connection.

I told her, “My soul is calling me to go. This felt right.” She responded, “This might be the universe answering your call.”

Who talks like that? We do, because we believe in it.

Before our Skype call ended, I had booked my flight. This was a Monday in September.
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I tabled the trip, and didn’t think about it until October 31, the day of the departure flight. In less than two months, school, work, and life wore me down more than I let myself process. Emotionally and spiritually drained, I arrive to go an adventure with 4 other strangers. We all agreed to go experience something together, for whatever reason. Each of us has her reason.

What was mine?

The next day, I happened to turn 27. Usually, after something happens or the years go by, you reflect back and think, that was a turning point, that year was really important, or that was the moment my life changed. It’s always after the fact, hindsight. Can I do it before? Can I call it? This will be the year. Pivot.

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Whenever I go on a trip, I’ve recognized a pattern in which the trip is a transformational experience for someone. Sure, everyone gains something from every trip, but for someone, it’s a point in which he or she undresses the burden of the past, and without those heavy layers, the person can lightly step into the future. On this trip, this was it for J. On Sunday, the last day, in the tight confines of a jeep, with just us five girls and our tour guide, Birkir, J told us her story.

There’s an evolution in every trip where a group of strangers arrive at the same place and time to go somewhere, together. Whether the trip is one day or two weeks, at a steady pace or accelerated, the process of evolution from unattached strangers to connected spirits is always the same. That moment of transformation happens at a specific point when we as guarded individuals open that door slightly ajar and invite someone else in, independent of the location or activity of which initially attracted the strangers together. That particular day, we had ventured together through the enchanting, rolling landscapes of Iceland, and we’d seen it all. Nature at her most exquisite. Really, this is one of her masterpieces, and all the critiques agree. But for us, in the close quarters of the Super Jeep, with hours of driving left to go, this was our moment of transformation.

And it was for J. It takes an incredible amount of bravery to be vulnerable. She was brave because she needed to be.  The power of fucking vulnerability. Don’t underestimate it.

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As for me, my heart was still hard and my self still guarded. Why is nothing happening?

I was ready to be broken, but this wouldn’t be my trip.

On the last day, we all said our goodbyes, which are always hard when, not a day before, you just found your rhythm and connection as a we, and all of a sudden life will revert back to an I again.

Everyone left and I had a few hours before my departure, so I strolled the city. A couple of record shops, an Icelandic wool shop. About an hour before I was to leave for the airport, I walk into the Hallgrímskirkja Church, one of the sights to visit in Reykjavik because you can ascend the tower and view the entire cityscape, mountains and sea and all. I profess to be more spiritual than religious, but being in religious monuments evokes a certain stillness and reverence that is unique to its space.

This space calls you to its pews and sit. So I close my eyes, and ask, “Why am I here?” Within an instant, it’s as if all the seemingly disparate events, conferences, classes, projects, people, and paths over the course of my short 26 years synthesized for a moment of clarity. I had an idea. Ai, this is who you want to be, so this is what you are to do, and this is how you’re going to do it. Pivot.

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And this is why I’m here: to make the transition from the exploration phase of my life into the building phase. Of course, I will always be exploring, but now I need to build. Ái, who you want to be is a wanderer, a storyteller, and a developer. Ái, so then you will be location independent and thus you need to be your own entrepreneur. Ái, then, in order to accomplish that, you will build a platform capitalizing on the growing community of travelers + wanderers who are already master storytellers through their photos, writings, designs, to build a story and narrative for international non-profits or causes that need help developing, crafting, and disseminating their story.

First answer the question of who you want to be, and the answer to what you will do will come shortly thereafter.

Sometimes, transformations aren’t grand, visceral experiences. Sometimes, they’re discreet and stealthy. One or the other, or somewhere in between, that moment of clarity always shakes you.

I came to Iceland with no expectations, and left with an answer, so thank you, Iceland, for your majesty and beauty. But now, back in New York City in November, moving toward this newly self-titled phase, the hard part begins.