Bye, 2017. Hello 2018.

2017 was an uncertain beast with a few highs and lots of lows. Bye. Glad you’re gone.

The year gave us trouble from the very start until the very end. My aunt, the matriarch of my mom’s side, fell ill and the cold the lingered much longer than anticipated. Given that she is mid seventies, lives alone, and is hours away, my mom and I decided to visit a couple days to brighten her spirits and care for her any way we could. We left Friday and had a great time with her. She was definitely getting better, but hadn’t ever dealt with so much congestion. On Sunday, New Years Eve, we packed up and drove back to town.

On the way home, we got a call that my brother was feeling some pain near his belly button. We thought it might be something gallbladder related. He said he’d go to urgent care and get it sorted. Urgent care told him go to the ER, so they ended up there. He asked if my mom and I could come down and bring food for my SIL and nephew since the wait was long. I just drove 5.5 hours. We got into town around 4:45, grabbed gas and food, and quickly ate and made food to bring to them.

No joke, the ER was packed. There was maybe *A* spare chair and we were warned to wear masks as people were quite ill inside. We gave my SIL food, grabbed my nephew, and spent most of the night in the hospital waiting area entertaining a 15 month old. After an hour, we became “those people.” Kai was not about that sitting still life and we figured it was better he was ambulatory rather than vocally shrieking so we chased him around, let him climb the chairs, and carried him around. Around 10:50, my brother and SIL finally appeared. He didn’t have gallbladder issues: he had a hernia from the appendix removal he had years ago! Grrrrreeeat. On the bright side, his gallbladder was good and no emergency surgery was needed. On the bad side, they told him no heavy lifting including his son, and that surgery still might be on the table. Since he still has a concussion, that comes with risks. So, we wait and pray in the meantime.

My mom and I got home in time to watch the ball drop and I sipped a smidgen of wine and excitedly welcomed 2018. Phew. I can only hope for brighter days for me and my family.

My resolution this year is three small but powerful phrases borrowed from Athena International:

“Live Authentically.
Learn Constantly.
Advocate Fiercely.”

Live Authentically: Being free to be me. Owning messes, admitting flaws, embracing my good qualities and areas of growth. Not allowing other’s opinions to pollute my outlook of self and self worth. Understanding that my voice resonates and has the power to do good or harm and it is worth speaking up when there is injustice or I am not represented correctly.

Learn Constantly: Wanting to know more and desiring new experiences so that I can improve my outlook, myself, and how I see the world around me. Enlightening my thoughts so that I can be more knowledgeable, wise, well rounded, and ask more questions and generate more curiosity. Being open, not ignorant or cautious, while understanding my intrinsic values and morals.

Advocate Fiercely: Continue contributing my efforts towards awareness and funds raising for foster youth in my area. Be respectful but vocal of what is important to me and be a voice for the helpless. Be more knowledgeable in how politics impact daily life not just for me, but for my fellow people. Dispel negativity, help shed light where I can, and lift others up so they can also be fierce and empowered.

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Trips, Fires, Holiday Spirit

Where do I begin this whirlwind of post-Thanksgiving happenings until now? Now being days before Christmas, house a mess, fall decor still around, and not a tree in sight?

My parents decided to take a trip to Asia to visit my mom’s relatives and visit Thailand as well. Days, maybe a literal day before their actual flight, there was so much political unrest in my mom’s birth country that they had to call all the relatives and airlines and let them know they could not go for their safety. This meant cancelling tickets, finding new tickets just to Thailand, cutting losses, and replanning in a couple day’s time.

So my parents exit the country, and my brother and his family enter the home for the extended weekend. Him. His wife. His toddler son. Their two dogs. We are gung-ho to clear out the darn garage for my parents as a blessing and “gift” for their return. They stay Friday through Sunday to help make that happen. On Sunday, to celebrate a clean-er garage and friendship, we had a small gathering with some close friends, soup, s’mores, and a nice fire pit. My lungs were already abused from the dust in the garage but I figured one day of a little campfire smoke wouldn’t hurt. (That became laughable. There is still smoke in the air today and my asthma flare ups remind me of it.)

Sunday night went long and so my brother and his family crashed there another night. At dinner out Monday evening, we found out a fire had broken out near my brother’s home. By the time we got back from dining, it was dangerously close to the point of possible evacuation. With their two dogs and a small suitcase already here, they braved the fire around them to collect documents, my SIL’s midwifery supplies, and a few more necessities.

Tomorrow marks a month that my brother and family has lived here. The fire has spanned over three weeks and is still only at 60% containment. It was one of many fires, and at one point, my town was sort of surrounded and also in danger of evacuation due to high winds. There were nights we hardly slept not knowing if we’d have to escape in a minute’s notice and wondering which relatives could house the four of us and the three dogs between us. Teething toddler, tired parents, worried aunt, and the homeowners out of the country all the way in Asia.

I remember packing some things for my parents and putting a carry-on suitcase together for me of belongings and thinking through the what-ifs. So much of the house’s items became so worthless in those moments. I had albums, medications, dog food, and necessities. That was enough.

Now that my parents are back, there are six of us and three dogs. My nephew is constantly getting “No!”-d at as he runs destructively through a not-baby-proofed home. I just acquired part of a baby gate to section off the oven and possibly a tree. He has no sense of schedule anymore and no safe room to play in. Dishes are piled as twice as many of us are there and in this month’s time my parent’s brought home a cold and my SIL brought home a stomach bug. It has not been easy. On any of us.

Through it all, it’s been hard to sit down and meditate on the true meaning of the season, but we are living it out just a little. A husband, wife, and child displaced from their town seeking shelter. That’s just a tidbit of the Christmas story but in it all I’ve seen love, hope, and strength.

I’m grateful neither one of our homes burned down. I’m grateful we got to be there for one another. I’ll be grateful when we both go back to our “normal.”

My priority tonight is get that Christmas tree up. I think we could all use a little cheer. Who knows how much longer they’ll be living with us as they work to clear up the smoke damage, but I’m thankful for family all the same.

Friendcation, Imaging, and the Little Green Monster

I haven’t updated in a while because life has definitely picked up. October was very full with Inktober (ink art each day following an official prompt) and one of my best friends in the whole world making her annual trip out here. I think I’ve finally recovered from the stress of planning my nephew’s birthday part too – a whole month and a half later!

This friendcation, H and I explored some local museums, saw Regina Spektor in concert, and got to spend time with some mutual friends. We even visited the humdrum smelly pits (La Brea Tar Pits) and went to the museum with the good dino stuff (LA Natural History Museum). 😉

The foster organization I support has started up meetings for the 2018 fundraising event and this year I’m stepping up from publicity assistant to publicity chair. *gulp*

The Saturday before Halloween, I was woken up from a cat nap by my brother’s phone call. “Laura, go check our cousin page! S is engaged!” Bewildered and half asleep, I popped on our private cousin hub and saw pictures of my beautiful cousin beaming with an engagement ring on her finger and in the arms of her fiance on the lake. Another picture was a cleverly carved pumpkin that said “Marry Me?” And the third, their dog baby in a very cute fall coat. I was overjoyed. But also, totally sunk into an explainable pit of jealousy. I’m pretty ashamed to admit that and didn’t think it would be so hard on me but I spent the rest of the weekend in pity and jealousy land not able to shake off the fact in the span of a week I had found out two dear people were engaged. And you know, pretty much 3/4 of my friends are now married and on to having kids. I think as thirty is just around the corner is affects me more. And with my brother married and now a cousin engaged, I just hope Thanksgiving isn’t awkward and people can just put all their attention on celebrating my cousin and not asking me when, why, and why not. Now that I’ve had some time and still have time until turkey day, I think I have finally shook off that little green pest and can love on and congratulate my cousin with a full and happy heart. I love her so much and think she and her fiance are perfect together.

After going nowhere with my primary and ruling out some basics, I finally took the time to meet with a specialist about my foot and swelling issues. I had x-rays done, have an MRI scheduled, and a note to visit a vascular surgeon if the MRI doesn’t show what’s wrong.

Basically, this foot and ankle specialist sat with me and told me she believes what I have is systemic. There’s a small percentage it’s pathological, meaning disease, etc. There’s a large percentage this is systemic and from a vascular issue – which is usually tied to something being off or failing with the heart, kidney, lung, or other organ. My primary wrote down that she suspected it was just from obesity, but the fact there could be more involved is pretty frightening. Since nothing is known, there is some fear in the unknown. But I know that at least if I’m proactive I can work to try to find answers. If it’s fixable, I’ll work to fix it. If it’s not fixable, I’ll work to stop damage and make the most of my condition. I’m hoping it’s nothing too serious, but I also know this is a big wakeup call. I need to make my health and wellness a bigger priority and not focus so much on helping others and taxing myself with unnecessary stress or neglectful habits.

In this season of gratitude, I am working to count my blessings and see God’s goodness even in the hard things.

Watching “First They Killed My Father” with Survivors of the Cambodian Genocide

First They Killed My Father by Loung Ung holds a large piece of my heart. As a teen, in an attempt to find my mom’s lost sister, I scoured the internet searching for hope. Hope did not come in the form of finding my aunt (there is no closure with the unknown – did she survive or did she pass?) but it did come by finding an author with my mom’s maiden name and her memoir. I read the book and realized my mom and her family were not alone. This book opened my mind to genocide worldwide and how important it is to preserve their stories and not let them fade over time. I never saw my relatives the same afterward. Their loving smiling faces once endured something so horrific that nearly a quarter of their population was wiped out. From my mom’s family alone, the Khmer Rouge stole the life of my grandfather and one uncle, and the fate of one aunt is unknown.

Because of my nephew’s first birthday party, we had relatives staying with us this weekend. On Saturday, my mom and dad, my mom’s eldest sister, my mom’s only surviving brother and his wife (who also went through this) and my two cousins and I gathered around the tv in the living room and watched the film adaptation together. There was something deeply bonding by having them watch with me and gravitas of four survivors in my living room was heavy on my heart. Their experiences added to everything I saw and felt from the screen. It brought up questions I hadn’t asked before [“Did they also specifically say it was the Americans attacking when they knocked on your door?”] and memories I had heard before [“They gave us a watery rice soup that was all liquid. One time I counted out the grains of rice and it amounted to 17 pieces.”]

Tears rolled down our cheeks as we silently took in the difficult scenes. About halfway through, my uncle got up to use the restroom and never returned back to the couch. One of my cousins checked on him and found out he was sleeping in the guest room. Without trying to assume too much, I can only guess that the main character in the film hit him harder than his sisters because of age. As the youngest of the family, he was about the same age as Loung when the country fell, and seeing a child that young brought back a flood of memories and innocence lost. My mom and eldest aunt were both college graduates but he was only a child.

“Your uncle was drafted by them, just like Loung. Young brilliant minds were wanted to be able to brainwash.”

The next day at my nephew’s party, nearly half the guests over 40 were survivors of the Cambodian Genocide too, and between the celebrating and fun, I paused and took that to heart. I know so many strong incredible people who have rebuilt their lives here in the United States, each one with a deeply personal and moving story of their own.

Rejection as an Adult

I’ve been conditioned to being rejected since I was a child. That doesn’t surprise me, but it does surprise me how much it still hurts as an adult.

When I was in third grade, we had a morning log we had to write in. It was either a prompt from the teacher or what we felt like writing on. One morning, feeling particularly lonesome and jaded, I confessed that I had no friends to play with at school. At first recess, my name was called along with a few classmates to stay to talk to her. She explained that I didn’t have anyone to play with during recess and it would be great if they could include me. That lunch and second recess I was over the moon to have my own little posse to play tag with and chit chat with to while we nibbled on our sandwiches at lunch. The next day they were there for recess only. By the end of that week, they weren’t anywhere to find. That’s when 8 or 9 year old me realized forced relationships didn’t work and friendship for pity didn’t last either.

As an introvert and person dealing with social anxiety, it takes a lot of mental output and energy to invest in someone new and try to make that connection. When I realize they are faking it or trying to rush out of a conversation, or are so bored with me that they jet after grabbing dinner with me (not even waiting for me to put my meal in a to-go box for pete’s sake!), I know they’ve rejected me or don’t find me interesting.

It’s okay. It’s going to happen. I understand this. Just like because a guy asks you out you don’t have to accept, if you don’t sense any platonic chemistry in building a relationship, that’s acceptable too. But platonic rejection hurts.

When it’s hard already to make friends and keep relationships, rejection just makes me feel like I’m less human – like I’m less capable of socializing and of less worth. Then, the next time I try really hard, there’s a mental grey cloud looming over me and in fight or flight, I sometimes pick to avoid any hurt and hide/decline.

I don’t understand the politics of socializing – at work, at church, with friends of friends, and so it probably makes it worse. When my coworker says he had a blast and I say that was a fun experience, we are both relating excitement in our own ways, but of course, the environment favors the ecstatic feelings of my coworker and questions if my very level-toned answer even has integrity behind it.

As a kid, I was more desperate and a people pleaser, but now, I don’t feel like kissing up. I can exude what they expect of me but that would be lying to who I am. I feel like “fake it til you make it” is a very toxic idiom when it comes to building relationships. So I just kind of sit in social limbo. “Oh yeah, Laura right?”

On the other hand? Through the searing reminders of my social awkwardness and reserved nature, through the rejection and want to fit in better? I know that I have some wonderful friends who have been very forgiving and gracious of my not-always-chipper or exciting self, and I appreciate and love them so much for never rejecting this Eeyore.

A Whole Year Eclipses: Brother Update

August 18th came and went and, unfortunately, my brother’s concussion didn’t follow. There was a small glimmer of hope? That on the anniversary of the life-changing accident, the brain injury would just -poof!- go away and he could go about with life plans. That isn’t what happened though, and  we look at the possibility of another anniversary passing vaguely without promise of any guaranteed progress.

I remember last year distinctly. I called N from a department store parking lot to ask him a super simple shopping question and his reply was that  he was at the hospital and had been involved in a bad accident. From there, they expected the concussion to last days. From days, it became weeks. From weeks, they tried to offer a hopeful couple month’s time. After six months, they told him he now was an anomaly, and after a year, people who fit his parameters are so rare they don’t have medical data to project any timelines for progress.

Many of the therapists he is working with are also at a loss and ready to ween him from their services. After all, after a year with little improvement, a medical professional probably has little more to say or contribute. Nothing seems to be working in his favor except for the fact he is still retentive of all his knowledge and fully sound of mind. The problem is that his brain can’t process all the hard sciences and data without taxing him critically at this point. That means working on his doctorate is put off indefinitely.

They went away for a short trip to see the solar eclipse in the path of totality to “get away” from it all for N’s accident anniversary. My SIL unwinds best in nature so they took a few days to camp and another day or two to visit friends. N’s head was in a bad place for a portion of the trip, but he said viewing the eclipse was breathtaking.

Even though it’s just as silly as the -poof- dream above, I still hope and pray that if it’s God’s will he will be able to enjoy his son’s first birthday next month concussion free.

Vegas, Hospice, Freelance, & all the Rest

Last week I spent a few days in Vegas for the first time as an adult. My first Las Vegas memory was was made over a decade ago. My crazy theme-park loving cousin settling to “walk the plank” with his bride on a ship at Treasure Island because marrying at Pirates of the Caribbean at Disneyland was too many figures.

Fast forward to now, when I’m nearing thirty, and finally hitting it up as a gambling-and-drinks-legal adult. I did zero drinking, and wasted more money gambling than I should have, but the best parts were outside of the casino. I was able to join my boyfriend and his family for a little taste of downtown and Fremont Street. I’m pretty sure my eyes went wide at some of the debauch billboards and marketing but outside of that, it was all fun. In the course of one day, I dined at a Gordon Ramsay restaurant, saw my first Cirque de Soleil show (worth every penny), and ended the night high above the city on The Highroller enjoying the city lights with my love. And yes, it was hot as blazes.

Yesterday at my art lesson my heart sank a little to see a hospice van parked outside my teacher’s home. They delivered a walker to help her get around. Sometimes I get lost in my head and forget that my sweet friend isn’t going to get better. Spending time with someone that’s dying is both severely sobering and the sweetest thing. It means their time is near an end, but they still want to invest some of it with you. The doctor told her recently she is doing better than expected, which is a relief and hard news at the same time. It means more pain, more limitation, but a little longer to get things done. Some days we visit from when I’m off work until 7 pm. I had planned to be there until 6:30 but around 6:10 and after many phone checks, I could tell she was exhausted and it was time to cut the visit short. Sometimes I look back and see genuine smiles and joy, and other times I catch her grimacing with worry. But she has hope again, enough for tomorrow. “Maybe Saint ___ will heal me and I will be a miracle.”

Do you find it hard to answer when someone follows up a ‘how are you’ with ‘what are you up to?’ I feel like a majority of my life is mundane and no one would be interested in what I’d share even if I tried to sound passionate about it. I find myself answering with how my family is doing, or saying not much. I have a freelance job at the moment – my first time consulting, which is very exciting! But not something I’d necessarily share. I can’t believe August is here and that next month my little nephew will turn one. September begins the whirlwind: LOTS of birthdays of people I love, Bible study and my non-profit meetings start back up, and the thrill of holidays and a annual visit from my best friend. I should tell them not a lot is happening but I have many things to look forward to.

 

The Sobering Cost of Rent

If you read almost any money guru book these days, they are still harping on a very outdated rule of thumb that doesn’t really reflect the current housing market. The advice? Keep rent to 30% or less of your income.

If someone made 2k a month, that’s $600. (roughly 24,000/yr, $7,200 rent)
If someone made 3k a month, that’s $900. (roughly 36,000/yr, 10,800 rent)
If someone made 5k a month, that’s $1500. (roughly 60,000/yr, 18,000 rent)
If someone made 9k a month, that’s $2700. (roughly 108,000/yr, 32,400 rent)

In my current area, which is a nice suburban area outside a large metropolitan, in one of the most expensive states to live in, renting a small room is $650-800+. Most larger rooms with a private bathroom will run $900+. A two bedroom apartment is $1800+. Renting a basic home is $2600+. I don’t really know how many people are really able to spend only 30% unless they are shacking up with other friends or both making a nice income.

Here’s an article that breaks down the income necessary to make rent for a 2 bedroom apartment in America’s largest cities. Many people can make the rent by not following the 30% rule or living very frugally. The problem is, many of these places have a formula in place that require you to make 3x the rent per month or make 40x the rent annually. This means that even though one may be able to afford the rent, they may not qualify based on income expectations. For a couple that both works full time? This isn’t as difficult. For a family that has one breadwinner that has a decent job but not a high paying job? That’s problematic.

To live in Southern California, it basically takes two $45,000+ salaries to qualify for anything more than a bedroom. To have a home in Southern California, it basically takes two $50,000+ salaries or four $30,000+ salaries. There’s a reason why owning a home looks like something so far in the distance at this point. How long would it take you based on your annual income and savings plan, to gather 20% down for a half a million plus home? How much can one save for a house when rent is this high?

Sobering.

Legalism/Unity – A Free Verse

Legalism says we’re different.
Too different.

Legalism says here’s a piece of chalk:
Now draw a line. 

Legalism is the air-
Used in inflating egos.

Legalism says don’t question.
Just nod.

Legalism says
only show them your good side.

Legalism says
you’ll never be good enough.

Unity says we have differences
but also God. 

Unity says see my ugly;
see our ugly.

Unity says admonish
in love.

Unity says let’s discuss
and work this out together.

Unity says gather for
‘Iron sharpens Iron’.

Unity says
But with God all things are possible.

“Let’s Rename It.”

I clocked out of work on Monday, sat in my car, and checked my phone for voicemails and text messages. My art teacher has cancelled most of our planned meetings since her cancer diagnosis but today, I was notification free. My gut feeling wasn’t positive, but I drove over to her place anyway.

I was greeted at the door by my winded and pale friend. She grasped the door firmly and it took all her energy to just speak. “It changes from one moment to the next. I was doing better earlier,” she explained. From there I was beckoned into the kitchen where she placed a cracker-sized piece of sourdough topped with cheese, salami, and tomato in my hand. She leaned over the kitchen counter and tried to forcefully eat hers. “I’m trying. I’m really trying [to care for myself].” I watched her take a half-hearted bite while tears trickled down the corner of her eyes. She was exhausted. She felt defeated.

I forcefully swallowed the salami cheese lump in my throat and hugged her gingerly. I had tears too. “I’m sorry you are going through this,” I whispered. I walked back to my spot and finished my snack for her sake.

“I’m trying to pray fairly,” I told her. “I pray with faith for God to fully heal you if that’s His will, but I also pray that if it’s your time He gives you strength and lessens the pain.”

She nods and then apologizes for crying and I tell her it is perfectly fine to cry.

Her photoshop lessons are on pause indefinitely. Since she is now technically in hospice, we work on end-of-life planning. She helps me with painting and I help her gather pictures for her memorial montage. It’s just as heavy and grim as it sounds in theory, paired with her sharing sweet memories from certain snapshots.

We began with a new desktop folder. “What would you like to name it?” I dare not name it myself.

“Last.” She says firmly.

I type in her request with a heavy heart. We open up her pictures folder and go through each folder, one by one. I wouldn’t say this was a miracle, because I was CTRL+Z’ing some of the accidental shortcuts I made, but we had the folder name disappear twice when it shouldn’t have. Either her archaic laptop was freaking out, or I was subconsciously undo-ing more than once. The important part is that I wasn’t trying and truly didn’t understand why the folder name kept changing if I had so many images in there already and it wasn’t undo-ing THAT.

“Look. It disappeared again!” I searched her desktop for the Last folder and found it hiding out as “new folder 4”. “Perhaps last is not the right name for it. We need something more hopeful.”

She tightens her jaw. “Let’s rename it.” She takes a moment as her voice quivers: “Hope.” She apologizes again for crying. “Maybe it’s not my time yet.” We both remain quiet in the intensity of the moment. She pulls out a tissue and wipes her eyes. “You know, this is the first time I’m crying for me.”

Even though the buggy little four-letter folder may have been a glitch or oversight on my part, it truly was a miracle for her. It strengthened her and gave her hope for that day. And I know in that way, it was from God. It was a sign she isn’t defeated yet.