Morning Meditation | The Ritual I Grew to Love

“Waking up this morning I smile
knowing there are 24 brand new hours before me.
I vow to live fully in each moment,
and look at beings with eyes of compassion.”
- Thich Nhat Hanh via zenhabits

 

“I’m not a morning person.”

I’ve said this statement countless of times in the past few years. It was easy to use as an excuse. I’ve said it in the mornings when I was forced to wake up early in the morning for school, teaching, or meetings. I didn’t realize that the more I said it, the more I closed myself off to the possibility of ever changing and becoming a “morning person.”

Earlier this year, I decided to challenge this belief. I no longer wanted to wait until the end of the work day or the weekend to carve out time for myself. I wanted to read. I wanted to write. I wanted to work on fun, creative projects. By the time I came home from work, all I had the mental energy to do was either turn on Netflix, hastily make dinner, or drag myself to the gym. Mindless tasks. After spending so much effort and energy at work, I was too tired to make use of the remaining scraps of time for other activities, even though I knew they would fulfill me. This sort of lifestyle felt backwards.

I had three choices. I could either continue with my status quo routine. I could make use of late evenings for personal time. Or I could wake up earlier. The thought of more monotonous weekdays filled with Netflix shows and web-surfing seemed comfortable yet empty. Staying up late in the middle of the night seemed tiresome and torturous. That left me with the mornings. I would learn how to become a morning person.

I Googled and tested nearly every strategy I could find for waking up in the morning. I made myself go to bed earlier. I set the alarm an hour ahead of my usual time. I tested the alarm with increments of 15 minutes. I put my alarm further away so it would force me to get out of bed. I stumbled into the kitchen to make coffee. I started the morning with stretches and light exercise. I jumped in the shower right when I woke up. I used my phone so that the screen would stimulate my senses.

It was a long process. There were several mornings when I defied the entire exercise and intentionally snoozed through the alarm. I can’t remember which strategies worked because I mixed and matched them sporadically. However, with a month of deliberate practice, I started to notice a shift in my attitude. On the days I was able to wake up earlier than my usual time, whether it was 20 minutes or 45 minutes or an hour, I rewarded myself. For days I woke up 20 minutes early, I read a blog entry. For days I woke up 45 minutes early, I journaled or squeezed in a writing session. For days I woke up an hour or more early, I headed to Philz coffee for leisure reading and writing. My mornings transformed into something to look forward to instead of something to dread or disregard. That mental shift alone attributed the most to my success than any strategy could.

After another few weeks, the times became more consistent. I was able to wake up with a full hour all to myself. There’s a luxurious comfort and stillness that comes with waking up before the rest of the world. Before the frantic pace of rushing in the morning, getting ready for work, commuting in traffic, running into the office, and checking e-mails. All of that would eventually arrive. But that hour belonged to me– untainted by the demands of the outside world.

My morning ritual has evolved since that spring. I used to spend that hour for coffee, leisure reading, and journaling. It was a great way to wake up my mind and stimulate my creativity first thing in the morning.  In late May, my husband J introduced me to a device called emWave that uses Heart Rate Variability science as part of a relaxation practice. The device measures your pulse either through the finger or earlobe and signals your coherency levels with your breath and heart rate. He purchased two devices for us to test out at home. I had been interested in the idea of medtiation for some time, but was too intimidated to try. My mother-in-law is a devout Buddhist, and she has encouraged me to read spiritual books and attend temple with her. I imagined myself as a clumsy spiritual being, so the emWave device seemed like an accessible place to start.

For the first few days, I used the emWave device while I prepared my coffee. I was eager to jump straight into my reading and writing routine. Needless to say, the HRV results were not that great. Multi-tasking is the antithesis to meditation. By day 4, I took the task more seriously. I rolled out my purple yoga mat in front of the living room window and sat there in silence. I lasted for 3 1/2 minutes before I ended the session. However, to my surprise, the HRV coherency score was significantly higher. I was so excited by my improvement that I meditated later that day for twice as long, also getting a high coherency score.

For that month, I challenged myself to devote at least the first few minutes of each morning to begin with meditation. Before the coffee and the reading and the writing. If I could only do 5 minutes, that was okay. Some days, I would go longer. Just like a shift took place when I started to enjoy waking up early, another subtle yet powerful transformation took place from my morning meditation. I noticed that I would write more freely, the ideas were more creative, and my mood significantly improved throughout the day. All I had done was the daily practice of mindful meditation for five minutes!

Prior to using the emWave, the closest I had come to a secular spiritual practice was taking a yoga or pilates class every now and then. My favorite parts of yoga were the beginning sun salutations and the ending with shivasanna. Sun salutations moved and stretched my body from the ground to upward, embracing the heavens. Shivasanna was quietly laying in the stillness, pulling myself to the present moment through all five senses. After reading Josh Kaufman’s book, in which he covers yoga practice, I was inspired to incorporate sun salutations into my morning meditation.

This is now my morning ritual. I wake up at 6am. Even though I may still be tired, I calmly ease into the morning by walking to the kitchen to begin brewing my coffee. I head to the purple yoga mat, where it now consistently lays by the windowsill. In that space, I have a candle that I light and a sound machine set to ocean waves. Sometimes I’ll open my window to feel the crisp morning air. I start with 5 sun salutations — slow and deliberate movements that gently stretch and awaken my body. If my joints are tight, I use the foam roller which loosens my back and shoulder muscles. When I feel ready, I set up the emWave device on my phone, sit, and breathe. I appreciate the still simplicity of the moment.

I take comfort in knowing that the next two hours are mine before the outside world comes into focus. And when it does, I reach a place where I’m ready to welcome it.

* * *

More Reading:

Julia Cameron’s Morning Pages exercise

Daily Rituals book by Mason Currey

The First 20 Hours book by Josh Kaufman

zenhabits post Creating a Lovely Morning 

Tara Brach’s guided meditation and talks as recommended by Maria Popova

Sam Harris post The Mirror of Mindfulness and guided meditations

emWave and HeartMath information

 

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Time Traveling in Japan

Japan 2014

My husband and I returned from our 2-week vacation to Japan in early April.  We were happy, tired, reinvigorated, reflective, and appreciative –the feelings that can come from a meaningful trip.  It was a trip we had originally intended for our honeymoon, a dream of J’s ever since he studied Japanese in high school, and one big food adventure after we had discovered Daikokuya ramen in Los Angeles as college students and watched Jiro Dreams of Sushi last year.  It was the trip that celebrated a year of big changes in our lives –a transformation of our health, close friends moving back home, and renewed family relationships.  I love vacations during milestone moments.  The distance grants me the perspective I need to appreciate the big things and the small day to day.

Japan 2014

Japan 2014

I could dedicate several entries to Tokyo and Kyoto; each were magical cities in its own right.  When friends and family ask about our trip, I never know how to convey my experience.  I usually start with something familiar or popular, such as our dining experience at Sukiyabashi Jiro in Roppongi Hills and comparing it with Sushi Bar Yasuda, wandering through the Tsukiji Fish Market in the afternoon, being swallowed up by the crowds and lights of Shinjuku at night, overlooking the panoramic views of Tokyo from the New York Bar in Park Hyatt, or visiting DisneySea theme park where the lines are 4 hours long and filled with Japanese teenagers in matching, colorful attire.  For Kyoto, I make sure to share stories about the gorgeous sakura blooms that fan out over our heads in the Imperial Palace Park, the mystical bamboo groves in Arashiyama that stretch on endlessly, and visiting beautiful, old temples and pavilions.  It was like traveling in time to the future and to the past.

Japan 2014

Japan 2014

Small, everyday events rarely make it into our anecdotes, but deserve just as much credit for making the trip memorable.  There was the tiny, dry ramen restaurant Abura Soba that we discovered in our Tokyo neighborhood that housed one of the best bowls of noodles we ever ate.  The third time we ate there followed an all-you-can-eat shabu shabu dinner; we couldn’t bear the thought of leaving Japan without a final dinner at Abura Soba.  The streets and subway stations are immaculate; there was not a trace of garbage on the ground.  The curious obsession with Kit-Kats that range from the popular matcha green tea, the seasonal sakura and green tea combination, the cheesecake, the roasted rice tea, and to the oven-baked kind.  The genuine hospitality and warmth of every worker we met was amazing, ranging from hotel staff to cashiers to waiters.  In Kyoto on a drizzling night, we were lost in a maze of alleyways.  A waitress from a nearby cafe graciously escorted us a few blocks away to the Shi-Shin Samurai Cafe we were searching for.  I loved the way we could completely immerse ourselves in the crowds.  We stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the locals on the metro and were swept up in a sea of salarymen and women in well-tailored business suits and tan trench coats.  Although the crowds were hectic, we never felt self-conscious about being tourists.

Japan 2014

Japan 2014

I loved the quiet metro ride across Odaiba Bay.  Every time the train circled around the city, I caught my own reflection gazing out at Tokyo Tower, a rising ember from the stretch of blinking buildings.

During our last night in Tokyo, we stood on the pier that overlooked the city skyline.  I thought about where I was in my life years before that exact moment.  Roughly five years ago, J and I were in the process of searching for our new home together.  We were frustrated with the process and our families, and we argued often.  It was the first, grown-up thing that we done together.  I wanted to tell our younger selves that it would turn out okay, especially for our relationship.  In a couple of months, you’ll have a lovely home where you’ll begin your lives together.  The photos that line your walls will include future milestones of your engagement in Hawaii, your wedding day, your honeymoon in Spain, and soon, of this trip across the world to Tokyo, Japan.  

We snapped one last photo together, the city peeking out behind us, and bid Tokyo goodnight.  We were ready to go home.

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CONTEXT| Starting Fresh: On Goals, Habits, and Resolutions

Champagne bw

I used to be addicted with goal-setting. What a nerdy thing to admit, but it’s true.  When a new opportunity or project arose, I automatically brainstormed action items, targeted dates, and a strategic plan. For things as big as applying into graduate school or preparing for a half-marathon to little things like seeing my family at least every other week. I created little plans to even see people! Every New Year’s Eve, I faithfully recorded a journal entry of my reflections of the past year and my resolutions for the upcoming one. After a certain time period, especially after the cozy structure of graduate school, I noticed that life planning mostly did not work (remember that time when I decided to leave teaching while I was still in graduate school for teaching?). In the midst of my wedding planning, I saw the distinction between predictable goals and plans (e.g. ordering a cake, setting my budget, and going to the gym 3x a week) and the unpredictable ones (e.g. wanting the in-laws to get along, receiving all rsvp cards in time, and cutting traditional aspects without offending family members). Setting unpredictable goals (which sounds like an oxymoron) is not only stressful, it’s also an illusion. Setting a goal for something that you cannot control, such as how other people will behave, is not truly a goal.  Dear Sugar has said that you cannot make people love you or behave as you want them to.  It’s a hope or aspiration, but to treat it as a “goal” will only lead to disappointment and a false sense of control.

Still, I love the feeling of having accomplished a goal that I worked hard for.  I like having something gleaming in the distance to strive for.  And yes, I like feeling in control.  To my dismay, recent experiences and modern research has shown me that I better seek another approach to goal-setting and life-planning.  Is there a balanced approach to setting long-term goals–perhaps one that gives us something to aim for, but is also forgiving if we change our minds or if life throws us a detour?

Lately, I have been trading in big goals for creating daily (or weekly) habits to follow.  If there is truth in the saying “how we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives”, then the best way to achieve the life I want is perhaps in starting smaller.  Last December, I was emotionally drained, and I felt too disillusioned to set any grand resolutions. Instead, I focused intensely on setting two new habits for myself –going to the gym 3x a week and eating a healthy breakfast each morning. Since popular research says that it takes 28 days to form a habit, I used a monthly worksheet to keep track of my progress.  Every time I accomplished the task, I drew an X under the tally marked “Working Out” or “Breakfast”. It was slow and gradual progress, and there were several days when I did not complete the tasks.  The beauty of forming habits, which is similar to how Gretchen Rubin approaches daily resolutions in The Happiness Project, is that every day is a new day to commit, even if you failed to meet them yesterday or the day before.  If I had approached this task as my old self, the one determined to set grand goals, deadlines, and big resolutions, then I may have labeled my mishaps as failures, get discouraged, and give up.  I believe this is the approach that many people take, which is why traditional resolutions never seem to work.

There is a huge difference between the approach of maintaining resolutions through sheer willpower and the approach of building habits every day. After several weeks, I became more consistent, and after two months, I no longer needed the tally sheet to log my work-outs or breakfasts. It naturally folded into my daily and weekly routine, and it no longer became a battle to haul myself to the gym or time-consuming to make a healthy breakfast. Of course, there are still days when I feel too lazy to lace up my sneakers or tempted to skip the smoothie in favor of a blueberry bagel with a honey walnut schmear.  Most of the time, I am able to say no.  Once in awhile, I cave in.  And then I start over again the next day.  Habits don’t erase my impulsive urges, but they make overcoming them a lot easier.

******

In honor of the new year and upcoming Lunar New Year (Happy 2014 and Year of the Horse!), I am launching my CONTEXT e-magazine project.  My first Flipboard compilation is devoted to celebrating and building new beginnings: CONTEXT| Starting Fresh: On Goals, Habits, and Resolutions.  These digital pages contain diverse perspectives that address the benefits and challenges of goal-setting, why New Year’s resolutions are so difficult to keep, how to start a happiness project using resolutions, the upsides to thinking negatively, the power of habit to change our lives, and other intelligent ideas to try on for the new year. Whether you are obsessed with goal-setting or simply at a loss for how to start implementing changes, this issue offers new approaches and accessible strategies for just beginning.  Happy new year, and happy reading!

Issue: CONTEXT| Starting Fresh: On Goals, Habits, and Resolutions

Contents Overview:

Start Here” via The Happiness Project. Gretchen Rubin’s “The Happiness Project” chronicles her one-year journey of creating a happier, fulfilling life. She develops resolutions centered around a monthly theme (i.e. Energy, Family), and daily tracks her process using a Resolutions Chart. Even if you did not read the book, you can download the Resolutions Chart and develop your own happiness project from her website.

Level Up” by Vienna Teng (song).  Talented pianist and musician Vienna Teng sings this song of hope and inspiration for us to “come out and level up” in our lives in her latest album AIMS.  A great theme song to start off a new beginning, wherever you begin.  The music video for “Level Up” was funded as a Kickstarter campaign.

How to Change Your Life:  A User’s Guide” via ZenHabits.  Leo Babauta, blogger of ZenHabits, writes about a simple, powerful way to making life changes: making daily changes.  Instead of creating a goal, action steps, or a plan, Babauta suggests seven steps on how to implement small, daily changes to meet your aspirations.  Take any lofty goal, such as traveling or saving money, and scale it down.  He suggests, “Think about what you could do every day that would make the change happen, or at least get you closer to the goal.”

Commonly Broken New Year’s Resolutions” via Oprah.  Writer Corrie Pikul discovers that every year, about 40% of the population make and break new year resolutions.  She summarizes the top resolutions that people usually break and offers some suggestions on how to keep them well beyond the first few months of the year.  From losing weight, saving money, finding a new job, and improving relationships, Pikul shares research on what makes each resolution difficult and strategies for how to make each one stick.

The New Year” by Death Cab for Cutie (song).  A song from the Transatlantacism album that observes the superficiality of New Year celebrations and a nostalgic lament for a different sort of life.

Tim Ferriss vs. Leo Babauta on Goals” video via ZenHabits. In this friendly debate, Leo Babauta, author and founder of ZenHabits, and Tim Ferriss, author of the 4 Hour series (Work, Body, and Chef), share their philosophies on the pros and cons of goal-setting. At times in disagreement and often in alignment with each other, this conversation highlights two enlightening approaches on living a balanced and fulfilling life – with or without goals.

Set Smaller Goals: Impress Friends, Get Girls, Lose Weight” via I Will Teach You to be Rich.  Ramit Sethi, author and blogger, shares his blunt advice on how to make sustainable, behavioral changes.  For areas such as personal finance, fitness, or even studying, instead of making extreme changes, it is much more effective to stick to small, incremental changes.  While it initially feels good to go from one extreme to the other extreme (e.g. saving $0 to saving $500 a month), Sethi warns that “habits don’t change overnight, and if they do, chances are it won’t be sustainable.”

How to Master Your Creative Routine and the Pace of Productivity via BrainPickings.  Maria Popova of BrainPickings reviews a new book called “Manage Your Day-to-Day”, which covers how creative rituals and habits fuel inspiration.  The post also features visual inspirational quotes, such as Aristotle’s “We are what we repeatedly do.  Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”   

The Key to Getting Motivated: Give Up” via 99U. Oliver Burkeman, author of “The Antidote: Happiness Advice for People who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking”, writes this counter-intuitive piece on why attempting to get motivated can be a bad idea. The problem with most motivational advice is that “it’s not about how to get things done, but about how to get in the mood for getting things done.” Burkeman offers practical, non-fluffy advice on giving up the need to be motivated while still moving forward. Hint: it doesn’t involve visualizing your goals or constantly repeating self-affirmations.

How to Set Unplannable Goals” via the Get-It-Done-Guy Podcast. Stever Robbins, the podcast host and a business life coach, distinguishes between goals that you can plan for (i.e. studying for a test, building a house) and goals that are “unplannable” (i.e. becoming a successful artist, getting a high-paying job). Using anecdotes, Robbins advocates for following an aspiration as the guiding compass for determining next steps instead of setting linear goals with unpredictable outcomes. For example, aspire to become an actor, and utilize various means to follow this aspiration –auditioning, networking, and taking classes.

How Ursula Nordstrom, Beloved Patron Saint of Childhood, Did New Year’s Resolutions” via BrainPickings.  Maria Popova, blogger and curator of BrainPickings, shares a glimpse into Ursula Nordstrom’s musings on resolutions.  Nordstrom, a children’s book editor of beloved authors such as Maurice Sendak and E.B. White, vowed in 1957 to be more loving in spite of the uncertainty and chaos of life.

Save Me From Myself” via Freakonomics Radio. Host Steven Dubner, who co-authored Freakonomics with his economist friend Steven Levitt, explores the effectiveness of commitment devices–ranging from quitting gambling or stopping bad habits cold-turkey to extreme dieting and even committing to prosecuting sexual assault offenders. How high do the stakes need to be in order for us to stick with a commitment? Can our present selves predict and outsmart our future selves? In typical Freakonomics fashion, the answers and rationale are usually more entertaining than conventional wisdom.

Habits:  How They Form and How to Break Them” via NPR.  Charles Duhigg, author of “The Power of Habit”, discusses the science of habits behind his book in this Fresh Air interview.  He explains the “habit loop”, which is a cycle of 1) a cue or trigger, 2) the behavior, and 3) the reward.  In this informative interview, he shares why vacations are the best times to change a habit, how companies use habits to sell us products, and the importance of understanding the “habit loop” in order to form and break habits.

Happiness: Should You Have Goals or Resolutions?” via The Happiness Project.  Gretchen Rubin believes that there is a differences between a goal and a resolution.  Namely, “you achieve a goal.  You keep a resolution.”  Goals, like learning a language or running a marathon, are specific and achievable.  Resolutions, like eating healthier or being nicer, are something to strive for every day.  There is no end outcome.  While there are times that are more appropriate to set goals, Rubin prefers the challenge of keeping resolutions every day.  She states, “Sometimes I succeed, sometimes I fail, but every day is a clean slate and a fresh opportunity.”

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Lake Tahoe | Into the Darkest Woods

I was worried about driving with tire chains.  This would be the first time that J and I drove into Tahoe on our own, and snow season was right on the cusp in mid-November. We were not an outdoorsy couple, although we enjoy a good ski and boarding trip now and then.

The idea of driving into Tahoe on snowy, icy roads and struggling to attach chains to the tires of my little car gave me a thrill of both excitement and dread.  Our friends and family weren’t so concerned.

“We go all the time to Tahoe.  The chains aren’t a big deal –I’ll show you how to use ours,” my good friend assured me.  During a family gathering, my uncle said that we could pay a worker at a snow stop to put chains on for about $40.

I monitored the road conditions and weather forecast nearly every day for 2 weeks.  I researched the past weather predictions for Tahoe in November.  I read articles with tips on driving into Tahoe.  Nothing gave me answers.  Finally, I succumbed to the fact that I couldn’t prepare for this one; we would have no idea until right before our trip.  J consoled me and said, “We’ll be fine.  Let’s just see what happens.”

I agreed.  Driving into the unknown and trekking into Tahoe on our own would be a fun adventure and the perfect way to celebrate our 10th year anniversary weekend.

We were lucky.

Lake Tahoe

The roads were clear, and we sailed right into Tahoe in less than 4 hours.  The weather in North Lake Tahoe was a sunny 60 degrees in the daytime and a chilly, but bearable 40 degrees in the evening.  Some patches on the side of the road had bits of snow, but most of the snow blanketed the mountains in the distance.

The Hyatt Regency hotel was located directly across from the North Shore of Lake Tahoe, where we walked across the bridge to catch the beautiful sunset behind the Sierra Mountain Range. Sunsets always remind me of a scene from the romantic comedy “The Truth About Cats and Dogs” when the lead actor tells Janeane Garofalo that if she listens carefully, she can hear the moment when the sun hits the horizon.

Lake Tahoe

My favorite amenity in our room was the large corner window that offered panoramic views of the trees, mountains, and the lake far in the distance.  I would wake up and feel the thrill of opening the thick curtains to reveal the sun slowly peeking through the thick forest of trees.  Beneath the corner window was a comfortable lounge chair to sit, where I did my morning writing and reading.  I took frequent breaks just so I could indulge in the blue sky and green landscape.  Next to the lounge was a working desk, where J sat next to me to also work on a personal writing project.  It was like a dream –spending a peaceful morning side by side and writing with a view of the woods.  No wonder writers long for a retreat place and a room of one’s own.

I felt far away from home, and I felt like I was at home at the same time.

Every time we walked outside, J and I deeply inhaled the cold, mountain air, wishing we could bottle up and capture the feeling in our lungs.  We swam in the outdoor pool and sauna, reveling in the fact that we were swimming amidst the backdrop of the forest.  Our last morning was out by the lake, stretched out on the wooden chairs talking and laughing beside the shining, blue body of water.  We could hardly see the edge where the snow-capped mountains stood in the distance.

What is about being immersed in nature that feels so restorative?  Feeling the stillness of the trees, the sun rays, and the lake was calming –almost like an open meditation room.  One of my favorite podcasts, On Being, featured an interview with researcher Esther Sternberg who talked about the science behind the healing power of places and our environment.  We inhabit both external and internal landscapes: one influences the other. When we see beautiful scenery, our bodies and our brains create healing properties that bring us peace.

I use that outdoor space to quiet the noise, the worries, the fears, and the stress.  It pulls me into the present moment.  I learn how to pay attention to the small details of my life that I forget about on a daily basis–breathing deeply, walking slowly, listening to the stillness, and seeing the scenery.  Being present in a vast, beautiful place and celebrating an occasion as big as a 10th year anniversary made every stressful part of my life pale and reduce in comparison.  I felt humbled by the presence of the earth’s grandness.

Lake Tahoe

“This whole earth in which we inhabit is but a point is space.” 

― Henry David Thoreau

…………………………………………………………………………………………………

We drove a lot during this trip.

We crossed state borders of California and Nevada every time we ventured into the nearby city of Truckee to eat or explore.  We drove to the western part of the lake, parked at a small, dusty road for brunch at the popular Fire Sign Cafe.  Sitting beneath an old wooden sled perched precariously on the ceiling, we split a large serving of the gouda cheese omelette and a side of veggie potatoes.  We braved the dark, winding roads to have dinner at Cottonwood Restaurant and Bar, one of the country’s oldest ski lodges that served hearty portions of French onion soup, a butternut squash enchilada with mole sauce, and seared steak.  Switching gears, we calmed our appetites during the last leg of the trip with sushi at the Drunken Monkey and corn chowder and a roasted beet salad dressed with apple creme fraiche at Nine41 Eatery.

I both loved and feared the night-time drives.  There were long periods on the road with no other cars on the winding stretches.  As the last bits of light faded away, I could see the silhouettes of the trees outline the silent, still lake.  Our car was enveloped in the darkness, only able to see just a bit beyond where our headlights could take us.  We had a faint idea of where we were headed, but having never been there.  Anne Lamott in Bird by Bird quotes E.L. Doctorow who had compared writing to driving at night: “You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

He might have been talking about writing, but the message reflects my relationship with J.

I don’t think either one of us realized where the relationship, wrought with its twists and detours, would take us.  One decade ago when we met in the school coffee house, I was an optimistic, aspiring educator and he was a confident, pharmacy-school-bound student.  We had our lives planned out, first as independent individuals and then as a couple who was curious to see if our lives could intersect.  The journey took us in unexpected directions.  We endured a long-distance relationship twice, we moved to Los Angeles then back to the Bay Area, we encountered disillusionment in our careers, we saw our relationships with our friends and families change, and we discovered that our approaches to life, success, and happiness had fundamentally shifted since our first coffee house encounter.  We changed as individuals, which ultimately affected our relationship.  With every new challenge, we had to ask ourselves “Do we still want to keep going?”  Often, it was a unanimous yes.  Other times, there was someone who wasn’t so sure.  It was a painful process, but we faithfully kept our eyes forward on the road –the pale, yellow headlights that could lead us somewhere better.

Some friends think that getting married represents the end of the journey.  I used to think so, too.  Dating is already a complicated and stressful process.  I thought that the purpose of dating and relationships was to find someone to commit to.  For those lucky enough to do so, getting married symbolizes crossing the great, romantic finish line.  I was dismayed to realize that being married was merely completing one leg of a very long marathon.  Like climbing to the top of a hill, and looking up to see that it belongs to the base of another towering mountain.  The obstacles are new, and the stakes are much higher.

As incredible as 10 years sounds, I know it’s still a young relationship.  We still have a lot to learn as we head towards 15, 20, and 30 years of commitment.  I don’t believe that the journey ends and the work stops when a couple gets married.  It is the beginning of a different type of journey.  I am humbled when I think of my grandparents whose love endured for decades and had survived a war and beginning new lives in this country.  I am humbled when I realize that as much as J and I love each other now, nothing is ever guaranteed nor should be taken for granted.  I hope that when we do face those unknown and inevitable detours, that these past 10 years gave us the foundation that we’ll need to sustain us.

Lake Tahoe

Dear Sugar advises us to “walk without a stick into the darkest woods.”  Even if we don’t know where we will ultimately end up, what matters is that we were brave enough to take the journey.  We keep on driving.

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Meeting of land and water

Point Lobos photos

There’s a beautiful natural state park near Carmel called Point Lobos – “the greatest meeting of land and water in the world” as the artist Francis McComas said.  I like to think of it as my now secret park, even though it’s a renown public reserve.

It’s filled with sandy trails that lead into secret beaches and coves, eerily intricate trees with twisting branches and copper-colored moss, hollow caves with noisy sea lions, and rocky cliffs that overlook the ocean. I discovered it last month when my dad, stepmom, and younger sister invited me to spend the day with them in Carmel to celebrate my birthday. I’ve been to Carmel a few times now and visited sites such as Pebble Beach, the charming downtown scene where J & I shot our engagement photos at the L’Auberge Carmel hotel, and the coastal views along the 17-mile drive. I have never heard of Point Lobos. My sister and I were impressed that my stepmom had discovered the park and lovely Mission Ranch via a simple Google search. She was excited that we could explore the new scene together. My dad was excited at the opportunity to capture more landscape photos. I was excited to spend an entire day with them –an event that has not happened for several years.

Point Lobos photos

We started with brunch at the Mission Ranch, which provided a beautiful countryside backdrop –sprawling green meadow, hazy ocean in the distance, and a herd of sheep. Sheep during brunch! I sipped my mimosa, sliced into the prime rib with au jus, and bit into my french toast while I watched 35 Scottish Blackface sheep idly resting beneath the shady tree. The scene was odd and comforting.  Another odd fun fact: I learned that Clint Eastwood (former mayor of Carmel!) helped restore the Mission Ranch and were fond of the sheep, the popular pets of the establishment. A worker in the gift shop told me that after one of the sheep had surgery for its broken leg, he was named Clyde as an homage to an Eastwood film.

Point Lobos photos

We spent a few hours meandering through the Point Lobos trails to counter our sleep-inducing brunch buffet. My dad snapped the polarizing filter onto his trusty DSLR Canon and slung the strap over his neck. It was a move as familiar to him as tying his shoes or adjusting his glasses. These days, my iPhone snaps more travel photos than my Canon Rebel XS or newly purchased Canon S95, so I admired my dad’s consistency and dedication for quality images. We stopped every 15 minutes to admire the scenery and attempt to capture the rich landscape with our devices – my stepmom and I with our iPhones and my dad with his more substantial camera.

Point Lobos photos

Point Lobos photos

I felt like I was wandering through the haunting and enchanted forest of a Tim Burton film. I imagined that the shadows of a headless horseman could very well have dashed across the ghostly thicket of trees. It was fun trekking down the path and turning the corner to be delighted by sights such as the Gibson Beach or China’s Shore. It was an enclosed spot that invited lingering, long talks on the soft sand or dipping your toes in the chilly water.

The photos could not capture the blue-green water of the coast, the way the fog gently draped above the mountain top, the earthy smell of old rock, seawater, and trees, and the delicate cobwebs of moss adorning the branches. It also couldn’t capture the pure elation I felt rising in my chest.

Point Lobos photos

I loved the sight of my dad with his camera and excitedly leading the way down the path. An adventurer in worn jeans and brown walking shoes, his khaki baseball cap turned backwards. I wanted to be next to him, peek over his shoulder and wonder how his world looked through those heavy lens.

Perhaps taking me and our family on these fun trips and vacations was his nonverbal way of sharing that perspective and excitement with us –with me. My dad and I don’t engage in a lot of deep, ongoing conversations. We love each other, but our exchanges are usually affectionate and light in nature. For lack of speaking, my dad made up for it with small acts and grand gestures of family trips.

When my sister, brother, and I were kids up until our tween years, my dad and stepmom planned family trips every year. Childhood summers brought road trips to Los Angeles and Disneyland, camping in Yosemite, weekend stays in Reno and Las Vegas, and one time, a trek to Phoenix, Arizona. I would rest comfortably in the backseat and drowsily stare out at the left window to see the sunset and night air fall. Sleeping to the sounds of the moving car along the freeway and my dad and stepmom humming along to a CD was a safe, familiar place. My dad led our family through thousands of miles, steering with his hands and tired right foot. This was my dad’s way of communicating his world with me. I just wasn’t listening carefully.

And like we had done so many times for several years, my sister and I nodded off in the backseat while my dad contentedly drove us home from Carmel. As we were headed to get pho for dinner, my stepmom spontaneously decided to take me somewhere new. My dad turned around and drove to a Vietnamese restaurant in a ubiquitous Asian plaza where she ordered the staple dish cha ca –sizzling fish with turmeric seasoning and dill. The fish was perfectly crisp and charred on the outside. At the light touch of chopsticks, it easily came apart. It was meant to be devoured with small bowlfuls of cold rice vermicelli, shredded mint, basil, and parsley leaves, and a plentiful sauce of nuoc mam and mam — fish sauce and shrimp paste. It was my first time that I could recall eating and enjoying cha ca. It’s been a long time when I had felt completely at peace sitting around the table with my family after spending an entire day together. The flavors were all familiar, yet the combination surprising and satisfying.

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