well-being

Experimenting with Isolation

It started with a simple suggestion.

When I was teaching in Italy two summers ago, one of my host Dads suggested that I check into a nunnery.  Something told me this wasn’t a compliment.  I didn’t think spending all day with 8-year old Italian children had made me that wild, but who knows. Then he clarified,

“I recommend it for everyone. Silence can be good. We all need to be alone sometimes.”

Those words stuck. Not so much the nunnery part, but being alone. Up to that point, solitude had been a bit of a foreign concept. In college, I was pretty social and regarded as an extrovert. That summer too, I was constantly surrounded by people: at camp with students during the day, at home with my host family at night, and at various destinations with camp counselors on my travels in between. My sole alone time was before going to bed or in the shower . He’s right, I thought. I could use some alone time.

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This is what I imagine the solitary road to look like.

Since then, I’ve held an odd fascination with isolation. I’d dream of going on my own “Eat Pray Love” sabbatical. I found myself leaving a lot of social functions early to be alone. I arranged my current living space so I could spend a lot of time with myself.  I live with strangers who work long hours and are usually out of the apartment, so my space is my space and my time my time. It may sound strange, but I’m really comfortable with it. Spending nights holed in my room reading and writing, once uncommon for me, is now routine.

I still had never traveled alone. I tried several times that summer in Italy but somehow there was always something that got in the way (a last minute travel partner or cancelled trains)…I even ended up looking into nunneries but they were quite pricey and I couldn’t communicate with the nuns on the phone.

Then, two weekends ago, a $89 round-trip Amtrak deal to Montreal floated into my inbox. My first inclination was to share it with friends in New York to see if they wanted to join me on an adventure. But then I realized that this was my chance! This could be my “eat pray love”. My itinerary. My trip.

Selfishness ignited. Alone I went. 2 nights and a full day in Montreal, 18 hours on the train (9 hours each way), a little over 40 hours in Montreal, for a grand total of 60 hours in isolation. I was so EXCITED.

Of course, it wasn’t complete isolation. There were people around. I talked. People talked to me (sometimes in French). It wasn’t a silent retreat. The majority of my exchanges revolved awkwardly around my standalone nature.  This is a typical conversation when people saw me eating by myself:

“Are you waiting for someone?”

“Um, no. just me.”

“Are you visiting Montreal?”

“Yeah, for the weekend. Wanted to get away from New York.” (my way of signaling I wanted to end the conversation)

“Ohh, I see.”

At which point people would cautiously back away, assuming my boyfriend had just dumped me or I was a stressed out New Yorker on the brink of a meltdown, and that basically my life was in shambles. None of which was true, of course. Not entirely at least.

Most of the time, I kept to myself. The best part was the efficiency. By 4 pm Saturday, I had climbed Mont Royal, suffered near cardiac arrest waiting an hour in line for the city’s best poutin, embarrassed myself by bargaining at a Quebec designer’s fashion sale (note to self: it is not proper protocol to bargain outside of Asia), and consumed a half bottle of wine at a university cafe (judged by onlooking McGill University students studying for finals).

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In drunken glory, I reached the peak of my trip when I trudged through two feet of snow to the top of Mont Royal, 200 meters above ground to the sight of a city blanketed in white. The awe and wonder lasted about 42 seconds. I didn’t have anyone to ooh and ah with. So, as I slid back down the slippery slope of the mountain, I wondered – ‘What next?” If I’d been traveling with others, we would be running behind schedule (which would have surely been frustrating) but that wasn’t the problem. This time, I didn’t know what to do. I had no one to share the beautiful sight with. What’s more is that it was nearing happy hour and I was far from happy. Somehow in a matter of minutes, I had fallen from my highest high at the top of Mont Royal to major depressive disorder.

I mustered the energy to enter a bar, order a beer, and make friends. Something told me the latter probably wouldn’t happen when I pulled out my phone and discovered free wi-fi.  “No, Lynne, no.” I connected anyway. 15 minutes later, I was entering my 8th completed cycle of the vicious Facebook-Instagram-Twitter -Gmail wheel, which is where the anti-social part of this saga begins. Few things I can say with certainty, but I say with the surest certainty that scrolling through your social media feeds while surrounded by real living human flesh is the quickest way to feel like the loneliest person in the world. I left the bar a complete mute.

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My peaceful, solitary view from the train

I returned to my hostel cold and tired. Earlier in the day, a McGill University student had recommended a vintage nightclub. “Don’t worry,” she said reassuringly, “You won’t feel awkward going by yourself. I’m sure you’ll make plenty of friends.” That I needed reassurance I could make friends was enough to convince me I didn’t want to go. By 11 pm, I was packed and ready to catch my train for the next day.

The train ride back was markedly different from the train there. Two days earlier, the excitement of my solo adventure flooded my thoughts as I undocked at Montreal’s Central Station. Anything was possible.  I dared myself to make a new friend, meet a guy at a bar, or go crazy wild. None of that happened. Maybe that says I’m anti-social, a hermit incapable of connection. (Okay, calm down Lynne. You’re just introverted and shy.) But after 60 hours of little meaningful social contact, my feeling of loneliness had escalated to the point where I truly believed I had no friends in the world.

So, what can be gleaned from this adventure in isolation? That I’m an extremely melodramatic individual, prone to depression and marred by rejection? That solo trips yield delusions? Yes and yes. But more important than that, once I gained my senses back, I learned that we are not meant for isolation – –  at least not for more than 24 hours. It’s not healthy. Also, social media does not make you more social. Shocking, I know. However, it does supplement many social activities nicely which is why I would never completely eliminate it if you want to stay connected to a larger group. It’s a tool to document memories and keep track of interactions. (Case in point: while writing this post, I turned to my Instagram photos and Foursquare check-ins as a way of remembering the chronology of events and places I went to on my trip. In just two weeks, I had forgotten a lot.)

My eagerness to be alone has taught me several things. One is that we are social beings, even the most introverted of us. We need external stimulation to prevent us from going insane. Another is that independence, while efficient and empowering, does not make the best memories. Yet I had to experience a taste of it, in the form of loneliness, to know how to appreciate others.  For so long, I’ve selfishly believed my time alone was immensely more valuable than time spent with other people. I wanted efficiency in personal interaction and while listening to people talk, I wondered why they couldn’t get to the point. “What are you trying to tell me? Do we really have to stand here and make small talk?” I now see that people who are willing to allow me to enter their lives, be it through small talk or deeper exchange, are doing me a favor.

Of course it’s a matter of balance; it is never ideal to hear someone ramble on and on about nothing. And we all need our space and time. But when you can find that perfect volume where you can tune into other people’s stations without overpowering the own thoughts in your head – that’s a sweet spot.

To say that we each have our own story is only partially true.  We do have our own story, but we are not always the main characters. Pilots need passengers to take off. Otherwise it’s just a flight and not an adventure.

Note to friends: this saga reveals a slightly maniacal side of me. I am aware that I have many dear friends (including some of you readers) and appreciate your love and concern if you were worried . I am fine (usually) 🙂


For the Love of Lists

Hats off to 2012! Wherever you are, I hope you’re able to reflect on the highs and lows of the year with honesty and humility. Among the many year-in-reviews and recap videos, I found this one particularly gut-wrenching- 2012: What Brought Us Together

Gazing between boroughs on the Brooklyn Bridge. My favorite photo from 2012 (snapped from my iPhone, no less) represents both the grandeur of Manhattan and all the chaos, sweat, and tears this concrete kingdom afforded me in 2012.

Gazing between boroughs on the Brooklyn Bridge. My favorite photo from 2012 (snapped from my iPhone) represents the grandeur of Manhattan and all the shaken beauty this concrete kingdom afforded me this year.

With 2013 fast approaching, it’s list time. I love these handy things. They’re the most basic tool to getting organized when one actually keeps track of them and checks consistently. While charting course for the New Year, I’ve started to think about the ways I can make 2013 better – more authentic, challenging, and meaningful – through…you guessed it!…lists.

Charlie O’Donnell, partner and founder of Brooklyn Bridge Ventures, writes a weekly newsletter about tech events in NYC. (Sidenote: If you are new to the space and want a quick way to get acquainted with NYC tech, ‘This Week In NYC Innovation‘ is a great place to start.)

Last week, he included a compilation of list topics to think about for the new year, which I found very useful:

  • Three people I’m actually friends with that I would like to be better friends with.
  • Ten people I should know, but don’t.
  • Five people I’d like to help be successful.
  • Three things I’d like to learn.
  • A physical goal (a time, a measurement, or just being able to be more bendy, less creaky, etc.)
  • An emotional goal.
  • Something you’d like to close the book on and move on from.
  • Three ways you’re going to try to get more sleep.
  • Read a book a month…list the first three you’re going to read.  (Might I suggest re-reading the Great Gatsby before summer.)
  • Five people you feel like you’re supposed to be friends with, but really don’t like, that you’re going to unfriend/disconnect/ignore.
  • Three things that you’ve been procrastinating on that you’re going to get done.

I like this list for its holistic approach. It takes into account practical, emotional, physical, and educational goals. There’s also heavy emphasis on improving relationships, while understanding that not all interactions are created equal (ie. friendships vs. idols vs. mentorships, even un-friendships are included).

I’m sharing a few of my goals from this list because I firmly believe if it’s not written down, it doesn’t exist. Here’s to accountability!

3 Things I’d Like to Learn This Year:

  1. How to cook (I’m keeping a list of my favorite dishes and recipes to learn – open to additions!)
  2. Adobe Creative Suite (InDesign, PhotoShop, Illustrator – open to help!)
  3. Bible Literacy (open to fellow faith buddies)

A Physical Goal

  • Be able to do this without sounding or looking like a gorilla. (Getting rid of the pooch would be nice too.)

3 Ways to Get More Sleep

  1. Having a set bed time. I’m setting it for 11:30 – 7:30 (for now) which gives me a healthy 8 hours.
  2. Completely turning off an hour before bed. That means, winding down and turning off the computer/TV by 10:30 pm.
  3. (Hm, I can only come up with two.)

2013 Book-a-Month List (in no particular order; open to other good reads)

  1. The Alchemist, by Paulo Coehlo
  2. On the Road, by Jack Keruoac
  3. The Education of Henry Adams, by Henry Adams
  4. Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison
  5. Behind the Beautiful Forevers, by Katherine Boo
  6. Ulysses, by James Joyce
  7. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Diaz
  8. The Influencing Machine, by Brooke Gladstone
  9. Change by Design, by Tim Brown
  10. Lean In, by Sheryl Sandberg
  11. St Paul Trois Ch Teaux, by C. Joybell C.
  12. The Power of Habit, by Charles Duhigg

3 Things I’ve been procrastinating on that WILL get done

  1. Submitting to Thought Catalog
  2. Exercising
  3. Calling a loved one..because in this day and age, it doesn’t happen enough.

The full list of notes are currently scribbled in my TextEdit, and I’m well aware many will remain unfulfilled. Life tends to begin (how dare it), pushing these goals to the dusty, untouched crevices of the mind. Hard to say which will stick and which will be thrown to the wind. Life is unpredictable. Either way, it’s here for the love of lists.

“You may not know where you’re going, but you know that so long as you spread your wings, the winds will carry you.” 

C. Joybell C.

Happy New Year! I wish you all a fruitful 2013 with many healthy happenings.


Day 26: Health and Well-Being

I’m facing the hard truth that my metabolism is slowing down and I can no longer eat ice cream or pizza whenever I want without facing some consequence.

I am using the remaining days of November to elucidate goals, and write about how I plan to make positive change in myself.  I’m starting with health because it is the most important aspect of life. Without it, we would be dead. Plain and simple.

But it’s more than a matter of life of death. There are rungs on the health ladder; rock bottom being a lump of  lethargic uselessness, the top being “Ironman/woman status” which is borderline intimidating. I aspire to be slightly above the middle rung, fit enough to run a marathon (in good time), weak enough to have a man still feel obligated to carry heavy things for me.

I used to be there. Nearly two years ago, I ran a half-marathon in  1 hr 48 mins, ranking 13th in my age group among women. It wasn’t the New York Marathon but I don’t necessarily have an athletic predisposition either, so I was happy. Soon after this personal victory, I entered my last semester of college with a full and ready heart to live it up. Senioritis was like glutton-itis. I drank and ate really well. Too well. Some friends and I even started a tradition of eating incredibly terrible (and by terrible, I mean DELICIOUS) foods heavy with the words fried, sweet, and caloric. We called ourselves FAFLs (I’ll let you guess what it stands for).  A summer in Italy and a year in New York later, I’m about 8 pounds heavier than when I ran my half-marathon. That’s almost 20 pounds heavier from where I was at the start of college. At that rate, I’ve gained about 5 pounds a year for the past 4 years. Something’s gotta give…soon.

I’ve received several reality checks over the past few months, which I’m gradually awakening to. The first was several months ago when I came home, stepped on the scale for the first time in a while, and gasp! (There’s a reason I don’t own a scale in New York.) After that, I was able to lose 5 pounds in the 3 weeks I was home with the help of my Mom who I now see as a commando dietician. In theory, the weight loss was simple: move more than you take in. My Mom cooked only healthy food and made sure I wasn’t snacking in between meals, even when I was “hungry”. Back in New York, I gained those lost pounds back, simply because the allure of eating out and my love for baked goods lured the pounds back in. It made me realize that you truly are what you eat and do. On this most recent visit home, I got another reality check when I was so sure I could fit into Size Small that in the midst of doing so, I broke a button. Needless to say, I got a Size Medium.

This all may sound incredibly trivial and dramatized. Medium is by no means big and I’m certainly not fat, but to a girl who’s been Size 0 and been able to fit into Abercrombie Kids until recently, the added weight is a big deal. Trust me, I don’t necessarily want to return to skinny minnie days. My body is more womanly and beautiful than it was then. So this isn’t about weight. It’s about being healthy and knowing that I own my body, which I truthfully can’t say I do now. I barely run 2 miles without having to stop and catch my breath. My face is pudgier than I would like. (Allow a girl a little superficiality.) I often feel like an oompa loompa after meals.

‘Once to the lips, forever to the hips’ is becoming ever more true. I drafted the following manifesto to combat this.

Lynne’s Manifesto on Healthier Living

Preamble: It does not involve 5-pound lobster.

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Exercise, moderation, and balance.

Exercise, defined as “moving the body as much as possible”. Do something active at least 5 times a week. If gym is not possible, walk while talking on the phone, do 10 pushups, jump up and down sporadically, throw a spontaneous solo dance party. Don’t sit as much. Move.

Moderation, defined as “appreciating food but knowing when to stop”. When the appreciation stops, stop. When stomach feels like it’s about to burst, stop. If eating out of a bag of processed food, stop after reaching in twice.

Balance, defined as “eating 3 meals with fresh, whole foods”. 80/20 rule: Eat healthy and watch diet 80%of the time, 20% of the time indulge, and don’t feel bad about it.

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Ultimately, it’s hard to resist a cute French bakery. But a girl’s gotta have some hips. So, allow her that. Just a little.