Optimization

That title actually made me think of something completely different than what I’m going to write about. Or is it different? One of the Roman emperors, in legitimizing his supreme authority, called himself “Optimus Augustus,” which basically means the BEST Augustus of all the Augustuses (“Augustus” being a title of a Roman emperor in the late Empire).

Why do I know this, you wonder? I’ve been taking Ancient Roman History this summer for funzies, and also for my new job as Latin teacher (which starts Monday!). I just finished up that class and another which I was teaching, and I’m officially on summer vacation….for two more days.

Anyway, the best of the best Augustuses, Optimus Augustus, relates to my post because I was going to write about this interesting tendency I’ve noticed in myself: the need to optimize.

I guess it’s both a larger societal trend and a pervasive social and cultural pressure in our nation of individualistic entrepreneurs. I mean, we are constantly under pressure to compete for the coolest “Insta”posts, the best vacations, the hottest body, the best job…you name it, we want to optimize it. I guess I knew this, but I’ve been realizing that I also do it in my head, to myself. I want to be a better person, a better teacher, set new goals and challenges for myself, succeed in new and different ways. I think this drive is super important for my future success. And yet…

Sometimes, I think there should be more said for accepting people, places, and things for what they are. The problem with wanting to improve everything is that the already-great things don’t get enough appreciation or credit for how great they are. I don’t get to enjoy the small moments of gratitude for what I have, if I’m focused on where I’m going next. I don’t get to appreciate what’s in my life for what it is, if I’m thinking of how it could be better.

Furthermore, who’s to say that there will ever be an Optima Anne, the best of the best, with the best life and the best people in it. I don’t even like to think that there’s an end to self-betterment, because that makes it a linear, rigid process. With that mentality, I guess I won’t be the best until I’m nearly dead…

So in the meantime, here’s to celebrating all of the journey – meaningful or not, pleasant or not, optimal or not. It’s all worth learning.

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Optimization

Life in Parallel

A year ago today, I was in Carbonne, France, in the Toulousain countryside, being hospitably welcomed by a friend’s friend. It was one of my favorite and most bittersweet weekends. I had just finished my TEFL course, a 4-week intensive on how to teach English which had reinvigorated my teachery enthusiasm. I soaked in the sunny Southwest — the hills, the little houses, the farms, the village landmarks — and prepared myself for the inevitable end of it all.

I didn’t really anticipate how vividly I would relive the experiences of the past year. In Fall 2015, I was busy adjusting to the new teaching job and new schedule — too busy to really think about what I’d been doing during my first few months in France the year before. But, as of December, the past was a constant presence. I will partly thank Facebook for this one, with a special mention for its handy “a year ago today” tool which automatically reminded me of where I’d been. But, even offline, I would pause and think “last year at this time, I was…”

The common misconception is that living in the past meant I wasn’t loving the present. That isn’t true — I’ve loved a lot about this year, and I feel like I’ve been living in the moment as much as I did in foreign lands.

It felt more like I was loving two moments at once, and one life was running parallel to the other. The two experiences don’t even approach each other. There is almost nothing similar between the two years. But, by remembering so vividly what past Anne had been up to, I was able to enjoy the both of them. It was a positive nostalgia, life-enriching and comforting.

It kept my friends close to me as well — friends from last year, if you’re reading this, I feel like even a year later, and even if I haven’t talked to you, we could have a Val McDo picnic and things would be just as lively and convivial and full of friendly bonding (and eating and drinking, obvi). I still feel close to you, and maybe it’s because that past was always in my mind instead of far away. I can feel the presence of new people I love, wherever they are — just like I felt the presence of old people I love while I was abroad.

This parallel life also serves as a constant reminder of all life’s possibilities. Yes, I can go away again, pursuing something new and different from what I’ve done before. Yes, there are friends to be made and communities to be found, stories to be written and reflections to be pondered, places to visit and good things to eat. There are so many different ways of eating, drinking, living, thinking, and being. Through my parallel past life, the largeness of the world was in the forefront of my brain.

I think it will always be there, just as my past will always be there. It’s both a memory and a tantalizing future possibility. I had to be introduced to it to want more of it. Right now, I will content myself with the knowledge that my life was an adventure, is an adventure, and “adventure is [still] out there!”

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Life in Parallel

On FOMO

My definition of FOMO:

n. (“Fear of Missing Out”) : the fear that there is a party going on somewhere that you haven’t been invited to; the nagging feeling that everyone is having more fun and crazier adventures than you are, and probably together

I think this perfectly natural form of anxiety has gotten much, much worse with the invention of social media (Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, Twitter, etc.). Suddenly, there’s a platform where you can show off how much fun you’re having to all of your friends and acquaintances with merely the post of a dolled-up selfie in front of the Eiffel Tower, or at a super cool looking bar with all your hot new friends (see other annoying* ways to use facebook). There are also far more ways to be subtly validated (getting 30+ likes on your profile picture) and therefore far more ways to be subtly invalidated (nobody commented on my link!?).

* I’m not claiming that I don’t do these things, most people do. It’s the nature of the beast. Most of us also occasionally post unannoying things ;). 

But, there are also versions of this phenomenon that have nothing to do with social media. FOMO is in the family of exclusion, loneliness, social anxiety, insecurity — these are all normal human things because we live in a society full of other humans and like to be accepted and belong. (I’ve been researching David Hume so I can teach my philosophy class this afternoon, so here are his thoughts on human nature and the need to be included, if you need some light reading).

This feeling has been on my mind a lot, because I’ve been thrown into a new group of people in a foreign country for a year. It’s easy to become obsessed with who’s forming relationships with who and what everyone is doing and with whom they’re doing it, because this community is tiny, and crazy adventure opportunities abound. I also find people and group dynamics pretty fascinating, and sometimes all I want to do is think about and analyze them.

If I really wanted to, I could also think about the things I’m missing out on in the States. A few of my best friends are all still at university being staff members together, others are spread out and finding jobs and hanging out with other former Whitties and going to Fall Release weekend in Walla Walla. There’s also my family, going to the Nutty Nutcracker in Seattle for Xmas and a family friend’s house for Thanksgiving.

The point of all this is: yes, all of us are always missing out on something that we’d like to do.

However, this FOMO lifestyle is unsustainable. All it does is make one think they’re never where the party is, which leads inevitably to the feeling of non-belonging, exclusion, and disparaging thoughts about oneself: the grass is always greener elsewhere.

So, here’s my new solution: be where the party is. Your own personal party, in which you find and do all of the things that interest you and invite others to come along if they’re also interested. This is a much more active/proactive response to FOMO, and that is sometimes the harder way to go when I wish things were easy. But I think the proactive method results in more moments of: I would rather be here right now than anywhere else in the world.

Ever since my semester abroad, this has been my gauge for whether or not I’m doing something worthwhile and fulfilling for myself. Especially in the past month, I have had a lot of moments of wishing I were able to be elsewhere — but it hasn’t made me globally doubt that I’m currently in the best place for my own personal growth. I don’t think you can ever always be certain 100% of the time that where you are is the only forever place for you, but the ratio of doubt to certainty can be low. I’m still striving for equilibrium, as are all the other people in the world (and especially in my age group).

But I mean, if we all were together doing the same crazy things all the time, we’d have nothing to talk about.

And the moments I’m not missing out on have been pretty fun. Let’s focus on those:

At a soccer game in Val!
At a soccer game in Val!
With fellow travelers at a hostel in Krakow
With fellow travelers at a hostel in Krakow
Eatin lunch in Camelot
Eatin lunch in Camelot
Frolicking at the lake!
Frolicking at the lake!
Touring Old Lille with a French teacher from my school
Touring Old Lille with a French teacher from my school

Here’s hoping that you, readers, feel like you’re where the party is. 🙂

 

On FOMO

En Train

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Valenciennes, my home, is three train stops (a ~20 minute ride) from Somain, where I work. When I first arrived, I told my temporary hosts how miraculous I think the SNCF (France’s train transportation network) is, and they laughed at me — “Wait ’til there’s a strike,” they said. It’s a terrifying prospect, because if there ever is a strike I’ll be basically done for, unless I can find a teacher to give me a ride; the train is my only way of getting to work.

There’s also the newly discovered inconvenience which is: there are no trains between 2:09 PM and 4:45 PM. This means that if I get off work at 2 or 3, I’ve got quite the wait until the next train home. Waiting is one of my very least favorite activities. I’m an incredibly patient person, except when I’ve had a long day and can’t wait to eat and crawl into bed and Netflix before sleeping. I need a commute book.

I’ve started to measure distance in trains, also. I am 42 minutes by train from Lille. I’m 1h45 by train from Paris. I’m a few hours away from London. I’m about an hour from Brussels. (My location is like, !!!!)

The title of this post is part of a French expression used to communicate being in the middle of doing something; Je suis en train de lire  = I am in the middle of reading, Je suis en train de voyager = I am in the middle of traveling, etc. It’s basically another version of present tense; it’s the idea of continuous movement, an activity that’s still going on. In French, the idea of this expression and the idea of being physically in a train would be distinguished from one another via prepositions — “in the train” is not en train but dans le train.

However, I like thinking about the intersection point between trains and this expression: the idea of continuous movement, and of being perfectly positioned to head off toward an adventure of my choice. My life goal right now is to put myself in a place that enables me to go where I want to. If I’m at the appropriate station, I can choose the train that’s hurtling toward somewhere I want to go.

So far, I think I’ve been pretty successful at that. I’ve picked things to do that engage me while I’m in the middle of doing them, taking me a station closer to finding my eventual route through life. I went to a fabulous school which my gut said would make me into someone I wanted to be (thanks, Whitman). And now in France I’m positioned to learn more about things I know I love — education, people, and French — and discover more things I didn’t know I’d love. New experiences are in close proximity.

There’s a lot of post-college nonsense about having a concrete plan for the rest of life, as if that is going to magically be handed to you with a degree in whatever happened to be your undergrad passion. But after surviving these first few post-grad months, and after talking to more seasoned post-grad friends, I think it’s much more about the present than the future. Yes, have goals. But have goals in order to inform your present, not predict the future. Have goals like “go here,” “learn more about _____ that I’ve always been interested in.” Be self-aware and reflect. Engage with new communities. I am a die-hard optimist (and a believer in people) who thinks that everyone finds their niche, but not without putting themselves in the ideal position to find it.

In whatever you are en train de faire (in the middle of doing), make sure you’ve boarded a train heading somewhere. And if you realize it’s not, hop off at the next stop and find a new one.

Sometimes, there will be a strike, and you might be stopped in your tracks. But the world (and especially Commuter Anne) needs you!!

En Train

I Speak French

Being in a foreign country has a way of making my brain sloshy with new thought projects.

In this brand new place (which will soon feel old hat), I have re-become a sponge. I am soaking up everything around me like it’s my only purpose in life: a porous repository thrown out into the torrential Northern rains, just to see what happens. Actually, I am a porous repository who threw myself intentionally into the torrential Northern rains, just to see what would happen. And I do see it as my only purpose in life.

I just ascended from the dining area of the house I’m staying in to my temporary room on the third floor (in American floors… it’s the 2ème étage, here) after eating the most perfect homemade crêpes I have ever encountered (although ours were a close second and third, Marisa and La Maison 😉 ) with some Northern beet sugar and my host teacher, her two daughters, and her oldest daughter’s friend. They had what I’m sure, to them, was a completely ordinary conversation about people at school, clubs, extracurricular activities, etc. It’s the kind of conversation my mom, sister, and I would have around the dinner table every day, or with one of our friends, with two notable differences: it was in French, and in France.

The sponge analogy came to me because, even though I didn’t interject in their conversation nearly as often or as fluidly as they could, I was a spongy participant: I was soaking up how they construct sentences, how they shaped their mouths, how they pronounced words and what expressions they chose for each situation. And more deeply, I was listening to what they find bizarre and what they think is cool, what they notice about people and how they think about their lives. My impression, overall, is that there is so much that is familiar in a country/language halfway around the world.

Being a human sponge comes with certain responsibilities, I think, and among the most important is the ability to compare without evaluation. There is a this is better than that approach, and there is a this is here, that is there approach in which the evaluation to be made is how intriguing is this difference, or how revealing is this similarity. There is no value judgment, there is only noticing. 

And in my eyes, one of the ultimate purposes of cultural immersion (and learning other languages, for that matter), is developing empathy. In stepping outside and being a sponge, letting this new place fill me with new things, I am learning how to understand them — not understanding them, but learning how to understand them. Even more complex-ly, it feels like I’m learning how to understand them without ever fully “understanding” them; rather, I’m learning how to accept and integrate what I do not understand into what I think I do (or thought I did). I am being a point of intersection. And this experience of being a point of intersection, of developing intercultural empathy, will in some (unknown at this point in time) way enable me to be of service to the world. I am learning to be a global citizen, part of a larger community.

And I am acutely aware of one thing, one skill that is indispensable to my Important Mission: I speak French.

To be fair, I think that we all do this kind of work, intentionally or not, every day in every aspect of our lives, in English. We are perpetually encountering new things and people and situations that we hadn’t previously known how to understand, and LIFE is a process of learning how to do it.

The only thing that makes me feel it more acutely in this situation than at home or at Whitman is the degree of difference — I have been thrown into the deep end, into this town where only English teachers speak English. Maybe there are deeper ends that I have yet to experience, cultures and languages that are even more disparate than this one. But for the moment, I am trying to intensely engage with where I am. I am spongy but not passive. I am an observer-participant. And all this is made possible by viewers like you.

Just kidding. It is really made possible by having learned French.

If in some terrible black-hole-of-despair alternate future there is no use for French in my life, I have justified my 8 years of study with how much I am LEARNING from being able to communicate with French people.

And we all know how much I am a nerd about learning.

I Speak French

On Being Terrified

I love feelings.

I’ve uttered that sentence to so many people ever since I first thought it. I think it was when I was training to be a Resident Assistant and realized that everyone has a lot of them (not only me!). I decided I must love them, and never looked back.

Some of them are easier to love than others. And some of them, the sneakiest feelings, hide away and you don’t even know they’re lurking until some triggering thought/thing/person/event tempts them out.

My current feelings about IMPENDING BIG ADVENTURE:

Excited (duh), apprehensive, curious, confident, optimistic, vulnerable, unsettled, uncertain, powerful, shy, frustrated, restless, longing, wistful, intrigued, flirtatious, and TERRIFIED!

Most people respond to “I’m going to France!” with “Oh, how exciting! You’ll have an amazing time.” I probably will. And I’m super excited. But amidst all the head-bobbing “yes i’m so excited”s that I’ve responded with lately, I realized that I am also terrified. There are so many things to be terrified of, and the scariest of all those things is the Totally Unknown. Which is what the entire next year of my life is to me, at this moment.

I don’t know where I’ll live, I don’t know if I’ll manage to open a bank account to put my paychecks in, or whether I’ll get an affordable phone, or who my friends will be, or what the city I’ll be inhabiting looks like (not to mention which city it will even be), or whether or not I’ll win over apathetic French high school students (or whether or not they’ll be apathetic), or who I’m working with, or even what I’ll be doing. I’ve got a contact teacher’s name, a brief e-mail exchange, a visa receipt (nope, not the visa yet, it’s being mailed though, victory!), the Guide de l’Assistant de Langue en France, some rusty-(but-formerly-kickass) language skills, and the vaguest idea of what will go in my suitcase. And a one-way ticket to Paris.

But — and here’s where my love of feelings gets truly unconditional — I think a person who is terrified of being terrified would not do it. Not to say that if you don’t do it, you’re a terrified person. I know plenty of people that could survive a stint abroad with flair and gusto and grace who prefer to do other things, and I most love when people do what feels right for them. But in Anne-land, even though this feels like an exceptionally difficult and scary thing to do sometimes (and more times when I’m there, probably), abject terror is A-okay. And I’m craving the inspiration, the challenge, the adventure, the personal growth, and all of the feelings to-be-experienced, pleasant and unpleasant, when I’m finally set loose into this Big Unknown Future of mine.

(27 days!)

 

On Being Terrified