Filling Your Own Cup: Persevering in Uncertain Times

Do you ever feel like you’re stuck because pieces of you are split up in different places?

Lately, I’ve been feeling like I’m in limbo. The feeling first started creeping in when I was living somewhere I was anxious to leave and I knew that better opportunities were waiting for me somewhere else. It’s like I was saving my creative energy for a new setting and until I was there, I’d keep coming up short creatively (or at least, that was my excuse). I thought paintings and blog posts would pour out of me the second I moved into this new apartment. But, I felt more uninspired than ever when I arrived at the “better” place.

I repeat this mistake a lot — making a change of scenery responsible for providing me clarity. In my experience, however, focus almost always comes from the inside out. It doesn’t appear out of thin air in a new place, as much as we might want or need it to. You have to go digging.

When you feel overwhelmed and you’ve been staring at that blank canvas or empty journal, ask yourself: what’s really slowing me down?

For me, the answer took a while to excavate but when I touched the nerve, it all came pouring out. I was grieving the fact that my family and I were separated by a greater distance than I had ever known. My parents had moved back to the Azores in July and I stayed behind in Los Angeles, which meant that we now led separate lives in different countries. It was a lot to take in and a little too much for me to acknowledge. You could say I felt those growing pains hard.

Things proved even more difficult with COVID-19. Whenever I thought I’d be able to see my family, new obstacles popped up threatening to separate us even longer. I’m certain many of you understand and I think we’re all missing someone or something more deeply than ever. You can almost feel the collective fear of time building in the atmosphere.

The point is, when I finally allowed myself to look at the source of my blockage, all of the reasons I was exactly where I was supposed to be revealed themselves too. All of the friendships, opportunities and moments my boyfriend and I had created in LA came up. It was this incredible life we had built even if it was separate from my roots — what a scary and beautiful thing.

What I learned through facing my blockage head on was that I had been making people and settings responsible for my ability to create, and that’s why I kept finding myself in the same spot. I was giving outside influences all of my power even when there was little I could do to change them. When I finally acknowledged the distance from my family objectively, I realized what I actually needed. I needed to fill my own cup.

Now I know that whenever I feel creatively stuck because my heart is in different places or lamenting something, I can always choose to find beauty in where I’m standing now. People, settings, and things will constantly change and I can still choose to show up for myself. In the past, I might’ve thought this way of thinking made you a selfish person. Now, I realize it’s the kind of thinking that can save your life.

My Big Fat Hollywood Move

A 24-year-old’s last-ditch effort at “following her dreams” with her boyfriend and moving across the country to see it through

It’s been a little over a week since I stuffed my possessions into two suitcases, drained myself dry from parting hugs, and transported myself from Boston to Los Angeles where my boyfriend Rich and our new lives across the country awaited me. It’s a romantic and all too on-the-nose Hollywood concept to chase your dreams alongside the love of your life in LA, to take the ultimate artistic risk together in the city where everyone’s fighting for attention. Watch the movie La La Land, and you’ll know exactly what I mean. Although, spoiler alert, it doesn’t work out too well for Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling’s relationship. But that’s beside the point, and I’m veering away from my thesis statement. The point is, I’m here now. I’ve done this. And I’ve got a few things to say about it. Hold on to your panties.

When I arrived at LAX after 2 months of not seeing Rich and 6 hours of plane-ride anticipation, I was a nutty mess of exhaustion and eagerness beyond anything I had felt in years or at all. I spotted him standing about twenty feet ahead of me in a grey suit, doing a two-step shuffle while holding a huge sign above his head with my name on it. Suddenly my instincts kicked in and I felt two things. One, a foreign happiness that shot through my body like a rocket. Two, a primal desire to jump his bones right there on the baggage conveyer system.

The adrenaline between the two of us was enough to give me the shakes as we kissed and gushed till we could kiss and gush no more. It was another “movie moment” to add to our list, but it was the first in the City of Dreams – the movie mecca of our joint fantasies. I had never known adventure like this, never relocated my life or been farther than a few cities away from my family. The lure of possibility was intoxicating, of course, and Rich’s body wrapped around mine gave me butterflies I hadn’t felt in months. My gut was screaming “HELL yes! You really did this, you crazy bitch!” like a life coach on uppers. It all felt so right, and concrete. Concepts unfamiliar to someone with an often indecisive gut.

It’s been about nine days since this initial adrenaline overload, and while I’ve seen a few of the must-see tourist spots like the Hollywood sign and the Griffith Observatory, I find something new or foreign to marvel at every day even just driving around. The first was the smell. LA had been described to me by some East Coast friends as a smog-blanketed concrete trash heap, to put it kindly. I found the scent to be more floral, inviting and honestly confusing against all of the concrete and trash. There is a lot of trash. That bit was true.

Amidst all of the litter, my eyes were immediately drawn to the booming culture and diversity around every corner. When you think of Hollywood, you might imagine an abundance of white girls with fat asses stepping out of their fancy cars with matcha tea in-hand, but I’m over here like…where are they hiding? I know that LA is HUGE and that the “glamorous” aspect of its reputation certainly exists somewhere, but I’ve been immersed in something vastly different and real – an image of this city I’m glad I wasn’t prepared for because I’m pleasantly surprised in new ways all the time.

People here come from all walks of life and coexist rhythmically together, bringing in an abundance of eclectic food, art, and music, which quite literally keeps the city alive. I still hear the street vendors sizzling up assorted meats and snacks for club-goers past 12am. I mean, we drive by graffiti that should be studied in Arts History courses or hung in museums and have access to some of the best Korean food I’ve ever tasted right next door. And while it may not be squeaky clean or even conventionally beautiful all the time, it’s always full of life. Honestly, I can only compare the way I feel here to the way I felt when I was in Austin, Texas: the grit, art, food, music, and heat. It feels familiar, and appeals to me in similar ways.

Even big tourist attractions like the Santa Monica pier, which I had lowered my expectations for, totally took me my surprise and left me like a rambling wide-eyed idiot. I couldn’t believe how stunning it actually is – vastly more impressive than the images and videos I’d seen countless times. And while I may be biased because this was one of the most romantic days of my life, I genuinely didn’t want to be anywhere else in the world. We spent the afternoon chasing each other around on the beach like teenagers, urging one another to touch the Pacific Ocean for the first time. When we found ourselves a spot to watch my first California sunset, the people around us seemed to be putting on a show. Everyone was playing with the waves, laughing, creating a palpable energy of childlike happiness and serenity. As the sun descended below the mountains, it became quiet apart from a few giggles here and there and the crashing of the waves. It was then that I felt something frightening. I held it in.

The feeling was fear. Fear of being too happy. Fear of it dissipating fast. Fear because these moments of inner peace rarely last. Fear because, while Rich had come all this way for his concrete dream to pursue acting, I was still a dreamer without any tried-and-true singular pursuit. A familiar critical voice was trying to break though, trying to find reasons to remind me that I wasn’t going to make it here. That god damn ego.

I guess, even in a new setting, those of us who are used to bringing ourselves down or who feel odd when things are too right might always have to fight a little extra to be present. I fight every day to tell the voice in my head to shut the fuck up. Even though I have my flare-ups, I know fighting against it inch by inch is making a difference. When that fear kicked in on the pier, it was new because it came with a feeling of pride too. It was like there was another version of my own voice sticking up for me and saying, “Hey! You did this, you crazy bitch. Remember? You took a risk. You’re trying!” And, to be honest, all I can really conclude about this first week of my Hollywood adventure is that I’m proud of myself for saving the money to get here, for applying to dozens of jobs every day, and for continuing to write even though I hate it sometimes. This is what it’s about. The risk. The gut. The pursuit, even if it is a little more abstract than the person’s sitting next to you. Go for it anyway.

Thanks for listening, and check out Part 2 of this LA series here!

Kitty

IMG_0460I spent my first five-dollar bill on a stuffed kitten. We had just moved to The States and were rummaging through the toy aisle at Target when Papa slipped me some cash. “Pick something special to bring home.” On my quest, I spotted a striped orange cat with almond eyes and clear plastic whiskers poking its little head out among a sea of Beanie Babies. Someone had haphazardly thrown him into the wrong section. I pulled him out of Beanie Baby hell, like I was his god or something.  He was only about the size of my five-year-old arm and his face seemed to carry a million expressions. “That’s really what you want?” Papa asked skeptically.

“Yes.”

For the first few years of Kitty’s life, he was a she. He went by the name of Ashley, which had to do with my short-lived girl crush on the Olsen twins. I remember taking a bedazzled pink bow from one of my dolls and wrapping it around his scruffy left ear. He looked at me blankly, as though trying to communicate contempt. Then he was an “it” for a while until the gender change. I started calling him Kitty after running out of more creative options.

During my elementary school years, Kitty sat by a large Spongebob pillow in the middle of my bed waiting for me to come home every day. After school I’d run into my room, drop my backpack on the floor, and smother him. Much like my journals, he tolerated my ranting silently. I’d yap endlessly about the day, my ideas, my dreams. He was never one to judge, and his patience was boundless. In fact, the poor thing sat on my desk when I listened to Avril Lavigne’s album “Let Go” nonstop for a month straight. I still know every word.

Over the years, my bond with Kitty only intensified. I’d snuggle my cheek against his baby pink nose before drifting off to sleep, feeling protected. If ever I misplaced him and couldn’t find him in time for bed, I thought the nightmares would come for me. He was a dream-catcher. He’d wait for me by my sleeping bag during our summer camping trips in North Conway and smell like fire and lake water during the drive back home.

My grandparents, Rosita and Carlos, who are two of my favorite people in the world, would visit us from the Azores every year. Rosita has never been one to sit still and would deep clean every room in the house when my parents were at work. She’d reorganize everything and redecorate until the place looked like an Ikea advertisement. She was also the only one to ever give Kitty baths. After throwing him into “the underwater Ferris wheel”, Rosita and I would cook lunch together. When it was time, Kitty would come out of the drier brand new, his stripes and belly the color of snow again. I’d take whiffs of lavender and wrap my arms around him. We’d nestle together next to Rosita under a blanket, watching telenovelas until it was time for bed.

Snot and tears found a home in Kitty’s fur from countless nights spent feeling utterly alone, let down, and heartbroken. I never believed in God, so I saved my bigger questions and wishes for Kitty in times of desperation. I’d often ask him “Why?” and “What next?” like he was hiding the answers. I’d get frustrated when he didn’t respond. At the same time, I’d lock my eyes with his and feel safe. Our bond was beyond words.

When I was eleven, my neighbors threw Kitty back and forth in the yard. I was the monkey in the middle. His left eye came off and rolled past me on the cement path in slow motion. Playing it cool, I pretended not to care in front of the cute boy-next-door. At night I shut myself in my room and cried into Kitty’s ears. Rosita sewed the eye back on the next day, but the guilt of letting my friend down remained.

As time went on, Kitty moved from my to bed to shelves where I could see him, but no one else could. This was during the phase of giving away all my stuffed animals, tearing up the Twilight poster above my bed, and my teenage identity crisis. Kitty was on top of my bookshelf facing my bedroom window that led to a lower roof when he watched me smoke a bowl with my friend Anna, our legs dangling together into the night. He fixed his blank gaze on me when Mama caught us in the act. “You know you could’ve cracked your head open and died, right?”

Kitty hid beside my Jane Austen collection when I stuffed my bedroom into cardboard boxes, preparing for the move to a freshman dorm room in downtown Boston. Papa grabbed one of my bags and stood beside him for a moment. “You’re not gonna take Kitty with you?”

“Not this time,” I responded, scratching my fingers through the fur on his head.

I flunked out of my first semester of college, diving into every possible distraction instead of focusing on school. I gained twenty pounds, bounced around parties in a haze with my “friends” from Thursday to Sunday, and let myself go until there was nothing left. Kitty was waiting for me in the same spot on my bookshelf when I moved back home in defeat. There was judgment in his eyes for the first time, so I threw him in the closet and shut the door.

As time went on, I picked myself back up again. After taking community college courses to catch up on credits and to raise my GPA, I found my way to Salem State University. Kitty was still in the closet when I moved into my first apartment, gathering dust next to my flute and a middle school yearbook. The years spent at Salem State were some of the best of my life, filled with milestones that Kitty never witnessed: falling in love, moving into an apartment with my best friends, landing a real “adult” job, and the list goes on…I could have cried into his fur after my first gut-wrenching break-up, but my best friend ‘s shoulder and a cliche pint of cookie dough filled the void instead. He wasn’t there for any of the memories that solidified my transition into adulthood. I guess he’s only really known me as a child, which makes him all the more special to me.

Last week, my two-year-old brother, Gabriel, and Mama were snuggled together on the couch watching Sesame Street. I had just come back home from school for the weekend and finished attacking Gabriel with kisses when his little almond eyes reminded me of something. I walked into my room and opened the closet door, standing face-to-face with an old friend. Picking him up by the paw like the day I first brought him home, I introduced Kitty to my brother. Gabriel sneezed into his fur and handed him back to me like a used tissue. Mama and I laughed until Gabriel instinctively joined us. Kitty sat watching at the center of it all.