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questions without answers: things I don’t know (part 1 of ∞)

I have a little brother who has – pretty much since he was able to talk – asked questions. About everything. Not the annoying why why why of a small child weaseling attention out of the taller humans, but a how come, what makes it that way, where’d you learn that, tell me more of someone actually interested in the answer. He’d sit, rapt, as I did my best to explain time zones…or what it is, exactly, that i study…or the fact that some of the stars you see up in the sky have been dead and gone for a hundred years. And then he’d ask another question, a follow-up that reflected critical thought about the sometimes-hesitant explanation I’d provided. When we FaceTime now his questions are often about this place I live, and our conversations leave me happy and appreciative of Vietnam in a way I don’t manage on a normal day. It all seems so damn cool and foreign to him and as I explain things – the way people sometimes drive on the sidewalk, what exactly is in a bo bia ngot, the roosters that crow at 3am in the middle of the city and the random white pony that showed up, tied to a street sign, in my neighborhood a few months back – that I realize anew that I actually live in a pretty fascinating place.

He’s 18, a fact that is weird mostly because I still remember him as an 11 year old with a goofy pre-braces grin and sometimes maniacal pre-teen boyish laugh. He’s taller than me now, the braces are off, and he’d definitely win if we arm-wrestled. He’s 18 and sometimes he reads my blog and sometimes we talk about harder things, less concrete things. He’s 18 as of a few days ago, and because it was his birthday and because he always asks good questions I’d like to informally dedicate this messy cluster of words to him. Not because the topic necessarily relates to him or our conversations, but because the amazing benefit of Nick growing up is that our conversations move into the questions that i don’t have answers to yet…the ones I’m still figuring out. If he’ll excuse this moment of big-sistery life advice…those questions that are hard to answer, that take work and thought and mistakes and guessing…those might therefore be even more important. We’re all figuring it out as we go along, and some answers only come after a non-small amount of work and pain.



I’ve spent  lot of time in the past year thinking about pain, and the inevitability of walls built to shield ourselves from it. I’ve read beautiful and poignant books – fiction and nonfiction, poetry and prose – about tragic and sad bits of the human experience. I’ve written a bit about my thoughts on these subjects and shared some of those bits.

So now I want to talk, I guess, about the growth that happens after pain. I want to talk about the feeling of permanency that comes with some breaks, some pain, and the relief that comes when you notice it subsiding. I want to talk about how hard it is to believe anything will grow out of the scorched earth after a forest fire. I want to have a small late-afternoon at a lakeside cafe meditation on what, then, it means to heal. I want to talk about the new year. I want to do these things and I want to do it beginning with a poem to which my mind keeps returning.

There are flowers
in this world
that only grow
after the ground
above them burns.

Scientists say
that the fire sets
the earth aflame
with the birth of these
special flowers which
wouldn’t grow otherwise,
that even though the fire
seems to destroy
everything it touches,
it can also bring
new colors into this world.

What I am trying to say
is that healing hurts,
but so does forgiveness,
and sometimes it is worth it
to see yourself bloom

— Pavana

I’ve lamented wall-building…the self-protectionist urge to isolate that comes when your world breaks down. I’ve lamented the seeming inevitability of being guarded and jaded. I’ve lamented these things while arguing that being this way is the only sane and logical way to be, given the world and humanity. But all of this lamentation is based on a premise that this poem seems to contradict, which might be why it stuck with me. I lament destruction because it seems unlikely that I will be able to replicate what was before, my former self. But I’m presuming that healing means going back to that former self, the self from before. Old growth forest that burns down is not replaced by younger versions of the same species, but by new ones. So yeah, I’m different now, but I guess I’ve moved away from associating different with bad.

I recently celebrated the end of 2014, a year in which pretty much everything changed. This isn’t typical for me, my life usually involves a large measure of constancy. Jobs, school, friends, romantic relationships – long-term and relatively stable. 2014 was a year of flux, change, a slash-and-burn of old growth forest if there ever was one. Endings and the beginnings that naturally happen next. An impressive new job, the (impressively) messy and painful ending of a long-term relationship. A drastic haircut, new apartment, new motorbike – all an attempt to relocate myself. A few months of the darkest sadness I’ve experienced. The realization that I don’t want to sit in an office, even if I’m in charge of it…and the beginning of freelance work leaving me time for lunches and brunches and dog walks and new friends and mornings working on the balcony in the fall sunshine. A man who makes me laugh almost as much as he makes me roll my eyes. Relief that I want to laugh and roll my eyes again.

I celebrated New Years with a group of lovely people I didn’t know a year ago, shared a lipstick-smudging semi-drunken kiss with the Brit at midnight, and welcomed 2015 with dancing and laughter and gin-based drinks, but I didn’t make any New Years resolutions. Sure there are things…I should probably drink a bit less. I should definitely exercise more and Ethel would likely appreciate it if I played tennis-ball more often. I didn’t make any New Years resolutions because I don’t want to engineer this year. There are things that I hope it will be, and actions I should take to make it that…but there are things that haven’t occurred to me yet, things I haven’t imagined yet, things that don’t exist yet. Better to decide on a mindset for the year, and let the rest just happen.  I guess the purpose of life in 2015 is Living*, and the capital-L version – for me – means traveling, writing, reading, loving, laughing, and a bit less planning. It might be new job opportunities, interesting new people with good stories, travel to places I’ve never been. It might include climbing the tallest mountain in the region, learning to scuba dive, finally going skydiving with my dad. It’ll definitely include making my way back to the US to visit  family and friends and the wedding of one of my favorite people, but it may also include a bit of the Trans-Siberian railway so I can stay in a yurt near Lake Baikal. If there are flowers that only bloom after a fire, I guess I’m leaving 2015 open for “special flowers that wouldn’t grow otherwise…new colors”, the blooming of things I can’t predict or plan.



*Nerd alert – small reference to the Ruskin tattoo I have on my left arm



1 reply »

  1. Cristina, so beautiful! Thank you for your tribute of sorts to Nick…I hope he reads it and loves it too….love the poem…I have written it out for myself as well and as a flower person, it is true….Mom

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