“What makes life worth living in the face of death”

Lucy Kalanithi, the widow of neurosurgeon and writer Paul Kalanithi (author of When Breath Becomes Air), describes herself as “Caregiver” on her TED speaker profile. Below, an excerpt from her talk, “What makes life worth living in the face of death.” Emphasis mine.

There’s a poem by W.S. Merwin — it’s just two sentences long — that captures how I feel now. “Your absence has gone through me like thread through a needle. Everything I do is stitched with its color.” For me that poem evokes my love for Paul, and a new fortitude that came from loving and losing him.

When Paul said, “It’s going to be OK,” that didn’t mean that we could cure his illness. Instead, we learned to accept both joy and sadness at the same time; to uncover beauty and purpose both despite and because we are all born and we all die. And for all the sadness and sleepless nights, it turns out there is joy. I leave flowers on Paul’s grave and watch our two-year-old run around on the grass. I build bonfires on the beach and watch the sunset with our friends. Exercise and mindfulness meditation have helped a lot. And someday, I hope I do get remarried.

Most importantly, I get to watch our daughter grow. I’ve thought a lot about what I’m going to say to her when she’s older. “Cady, engaging in the full range of experience — living and dying, love and loss — is what we get to do. Being human doesn’t happen despite suffering. It happens within it. When we approach suffering together, when we choose not to hide from it, our lives don’t diminish, they expand.”

I’ve learned that cancer isn’t always a battle. Or if it is, maybe it’s a fight for something different than we thought. Our job isn’t to fight fate, but to help each other through. Not as soldiers but as shepherds. That’s how we make it OK, even when it’s not. By saying it out loud, by helping each other through… and a gorilla suit never hurts, either.

My very first TED conference

Over the past few months, I’ve started multiple drafts to explain why I joined TED and how much I value the organization’s mission, but never had time to finish writing a complete post. Suddenly, it’s already a year later, and here I am after attending my first TED conference ever.

I am fascinated by how connections happen via technology and art, and I’ve always been inspired by TED’s work to spread important and beautiful ideas around the world. TED is headquartered in New York City, and as a company it is over 200 people small. It’s daunting how quickly we have grown, and there are always whispers of cultural change within any rapidly-growing organization. But what I see is opportunity: we all joined TED because we believe in the possibility of ideas to change an individual, an organization, a world.

Being present at TED2017 last week was a thrilling journey. Over 1900 people attended this year. I love being a part of TED’s tech team (read about some of our mobile app work, how we stay connected as a distributed team, and how we use technology for concierge-style communication and support). I posted up at my daily shifts at the built-by-TED-tech-team TED logo booth. When approached for suggestions, I dutifully gave multiple options for the best poses (see below). “Very applicable,” responded the 6’2″ guy when I said that some people like to pose in the space between the T and the E. “So easy,” said the group when I jokingly suggested yoga poses or the splits while J. photobombed me. Nothing is impossible, you know.

I was lucky enough to see (and be a part of) all the work and sweat and tears that went into the preparation for the conference. Sometimes the dialogue that happens at these types of conferences and events that have been happening for over a decade goes something like this: “Oh, I remember ten years ago when the conference was better because _____ and _____ and _____.” Often people like to reminisce about the good old days: when things were not “overproduced” and maybe therefore more authentic. While it is certainly true that things at TED have evolved and inevitable that things will be different from year to year, I can only speak from my own little tiny perspective of someone attending for the first time.

A recurring thought that many conference attendees shared with me: everyone felt that the people attending the conference were open, honest, and non-judgmental. While I was working all week and did not have a chance to attend all of the sessions, just being in the presence of the energy of ideas made me feel more optimistic about the future. Elon Musk closed his interview with: “I’m not trying to be anyone’s savior. I’m just trying to think about the future and not be sad.” We need to save our planet, we need to build a future we want the next generation to be proud of.

As I walked the Vancouver Convention Center’s outer loop hundreds of times, I was amazed by the surprise and delight that occurred throughout the week (including watching sessions from a huge jungle gym, handing out (and eating) handmade maple bacon chocolate bars, becoming a Ghostbuster in virtual reality, and meditating in a dome). Thousands of people were coordinating behind the scenes to put together all the complex parts of a huge event. There were mistakes, there were victories, there was progress and improvement. Now, with sore feet from walking that aforementioned loop so many times, I am humbled and honored to have been able to be part of the ripple that touches (and changes) people’s lives. I am painfully aware that at this point, TED talks can often incite eye rolls or quips about pithy statements. But also, I am impressed at the great impact an organization or person can have on the world, as exemplified by TED Prize Winner Raj Panjabi’s talk about his mission to bring healthcare to remote communities. We have come a long way and we still have a lot of work to do — but still I can’t deny the power I felt from being a part of the conversation around difficult yet poetic, concerning yet action-oriented, diverse and artistic, hopeful ideas. Our world is filled with so much tragedy and beauty at the same time — Anne Lamott reminded us that life is “filled with heartbreaking sweetness and beauty, floods and babies and acne and Mozart, all swirled together.”

So how can we be better? How can we remind ourselves that we’re all connected? How can we use technology for good? How can we work together to save the world? Even finding just a tiny glimpse into the answers is a pretty good start. Pithy, I know.

“People are mistaken when they think that technology just automatically improves. It does not automatically improve. It only improves if a lot of people work very hard to make it better, and actually it will, I think, by itself degrade, actually.”
― Elon Musk

“Tenderness is not weakness; it is fortitude.”

― Pope Francis, Why the only future worth building includes everyone

“I love how the English language is strewn with little signs of tension between the desire to be comprehensible and the limitations of the technology available at the time. Something as small as the dot on an ‘i’ symbolizes how technology influences form.”

― Helen Zaltzman

“You may use your power to build walls and keep people outside, or you may use it to break barriers and welcome them in. You may use your faith to make people afraid and terrify them into submission. Or you can use it to give courage to people, so they rise to the greatest heights of enlightenment.”

― Shah Rukh Khan

“Everyone is screwed up, broken, clingy, and scared. Even the people who seem to have it most together. They are much more like you than you would believe. So try not to compare your insides to other people’s outside. It will only make you worse than you already are!”

― Anne Lamott

** PS: The full speaker lineup of TED2017 can be found here. The video recordings of TED talks at TED2017 will be posted on TED.com over the course of next year. Up-to-date summaries and coverage of this year’s conference can be found on the TEDBlog. Thank you to all of the incredible TED teams for making the seemingly impossible, possible.

If I Should Have A Daughter

Below, an excerpt from Sarah Kay’s If I Should Have A Daughter:

If I should have a daughter, instead of “Mom,” she’s going to call me “Point B,” because that way she knows that no matter what happens, at least she can always find her way to me.

And I’m going to paint solar systems on the backs of her hands so she has to learn the entire universe before she can say, “Oh, I know that like the back of my hand.”

And she’s going to learn that this life will hit you hard in the face, wait for you to get back up just so it can kick you in the stomach. But getting the wind knocked out of you is the only way to remind your lungs how much they like the taste of air. There is hurt, here, that cannot be fixed by Band-Aids or poetry.

So the first time she realizes that Wonder Woman isn’t coming, I’ll make sure she knows she doesn’t have to wear the cape all by herself, because no matter how wide you stretch your fingers, your hands will always be too small to catch all the pain you want to heal. Believe me, I’ve tried. “And, baby,” I’ll tell her, don’t keep your nose up in the air like that. I know that trick; I’ve done it a million times. You’re just smelling for smoke so you can follow the trail back to a burning house, so you can find the boy who lost everything in the fire to see if you can save him. Or else find the boy who lit the fire in the first place, to see if you can change him. But I know she will anyway, so instead I’ll always keep an extra supply of chocolate and rain boots nearby, because there is no heartbreak that chocolate can’t fix. Okay, there’s a few that chocolate can’t fix.

But that’s what the rain boots are for, because rain will wash away everything, if you let it. I want her to look at the world through the underside of a glass-bottom boat, to look through a microscope at the galaxies that exist on the pinpoint of a human mind, because that’s the way my mom taught me. That there’ll be days like this.

There’ll be days like this, my momma said. When you open your hands to catch and wind up with only blisters and bruises; when you step out of the phone booth and try to fly and the very people you want to save are the ones standing on your cape; when your boots will fill with rain, and you’ll be up to your knees in disappointment. And those are the very days you have all the more reason to say thank you.

Because there’s nothing more beautiful than the way the ocean refuses to stop kissing the shoreline, no matter how many times it’s sent away. You will put the wind in win some, lose some. You will put the star in starting over, and over. And no matter how many land mines erupt in a minute, be sure your mind lands on the beauty of this funny place called life. And yes, on a scale from one to over-trusting, I am pretty damn naive. But I want her to know that this world is made out of sugar. It can crumble so easily, but don’t be afraid to stick your tongue out and taste it.

“Baby,” I’ll tell her, “remember, your momma is a worrier, and your poppa is a warrior, and you are the girl with small hands and big eyes who never stops asking for more.” Remember that good things come in threes and so do bad things. Always apologize when you’ve done something wrong, but don’t you ever apologize for the way your eyes refuse to stop shining. Your voice is small, but don’t ever stop singing. And when they finally hand you heartache, when they slip war and hatred under your door and offer you handouts on street-corners of cynicism and defeat, you tell them that they really ought to meet your mother.

authentic tacos 🌮 

The idea that authenticity is a fixed and rigid thing is absurd for a food culture that has gone through as much historic change and reinvention as Mexican gastronomy.

To declare that the only good Mexican food is “authentic” Mexican food also assumes that the cuisine has ceased evolving. Like so many international cuisines, Mexican food has thrived as it has adapted, and it isn’t done doing that.

― from “Tacos: Recipes and Provocations” by Alex Stupak and Jordana Rothman

What It Looks Like To Us and the Words We Use (National Poetry Month)

It’s been a year since I embarked on a solo road trip along the West Coast and subsequently started a separate blog to jot down travel notes & inspiration. I also recently composed my first poem since 2009, so maybe one day I’ll finally start sharing my own poetry again. I loved what Ayana Mathis wrote about her trajectory as a writer. Like her, I started writing short stories when I was very young, then later I wanted to be a poet and I blogged my own poems in middle and high school. I’m not sure where my interest in writing my own poetry went, and my love of reading poems was sporadic but has never faded. In my day-to-day relationships, up until recently, I rarely mentioned poetry. Friends found it difficult to relate. As Jia Tolentino wrote about teaching poetry, “Not that I talk to anyone about poetry, ever. My relationship to it is sidelong and almost entirely private. I can’t write it; I read it irregularly. […] I could only locate myself as a student, with no authority, no important opinions, no sense that I was ever correct. And that, in the end, is what made me free.” Meanwhile, Ayana Mathis writes:

I was suspicious of all of the things I wanted, writing or otherwise, simply because I wanted them. And so my desires were reduced to beautiful dreams that floated through my adolescent and young adult life, only acted upon in halfhearted fits and starts. Five or six months of furious writing were followed by a year or two in which I didn’t pen a single line. I never made any real attempt at publishing my work. Better a dream deferred than hopes dashed.

I’ll blog more about Ayana’s essay soon. My friends tell me to be braver with my writing, they tell me I’m too cautious. There’s probably truth in that.

***

I collected many more quotes and poems on the other blog I created last year, but I promised to share here during National Poetry Month a few more of the poems I’ve enjoyed.

The masters of information have forgotten about poetry, where words may have a meaning quite different from what the lexicon says, where the metaphoric spark is always one jump ahead of the decoding function, where another, unforeseen reading is always possible.

– J.M. Coetzee, Diary of a Bad Year

Some little tastes of poetry for National Poetry Month after the jump below. By the way, Amazon has lots of deals on classic poetry compilations. You can also get Emily Dickinson’s complete poems on your Kindle for free!

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