“When I was younger, I believed that I was my own person, free to shape my character and do whatever I wanted to do. Recently, though, I’ve been thinking a lot about how I’m more a composite of my parents, who are so different from each other that I wonder how they could have ever been together. I know them well enough to see their shortcomings. The older I get, the more I realize that the things they struggled with I struggle with now, and have been my whole life—I just never knew it.
“On one hand, it’s a really depressing idea that you are doomed to be your mom and dad. On the other hand, I think that while I’ve inherited those struggles, I’m probably more able to overcome them than my parents were. It’s like a vaccine: it gives you just enough of the virus so your body can resist it. I got their shortcomings, but just enough that I can overcome them if I am determined. Still, it’s a difficult thing to do.”
“Which feeling prevails: hope or inevitability?”
“I tend to be an optimist, so I think that I can overcome my parents’ challenges. But maybe that’s not true. Maybe I’m doomed. Maybe that’s just how the world works: we’re doomed to live our parents’ lives over and over again, from generation to generation.”
“You said they were very different from each other.”
“Yes, my mom was a single parent and always worked but remained poor. My father graduated from Harvard, and he’s been quite successful. Everybody thinks that I’m trying to be like him—I also graduated from Harvard. For most of my life, I’ve wanted to live up to the ideals that my father created, to prove that I have it in me even though I grew up in more modest circumstances. So I chased after certain things, but now I think, ‘What am I doing? These things aren’t even truly valuable.’I realize now that what my mother gave me was much more valuable.
“I’ve only recently—in the past five years or so—had a relationship with my father. I moved here to take care of him when he was diagnosed with Stage IV cancer. That’s how I got to know him: those noble, virtuous qualities that I associated with my father weren’t there, replaced instead by underhanded, manipulative, cowardly characteristics. The more I get to know him, the more I realize that I’m thankful that my mother raised me. He’s one of the worst people I know—I don’t want to be like him at all.
“At the same time, I also wonder how it makes me look to think such things about a man who has accomplished so much.I feel strongly, yet I’m very reluctant to talk about it. My dad is very sensitive, and if this dialogue becomes public I know that he will be hurt to realize that I didn’t blindly worship him. Even though I have my issues with my dad, I still want to protect him.”
“You haven’t spoken very harshly of him—I don’t think that you hate him.”
“Well, to go back to the beginning, I’m a composite, so I can’t hate him without hating myself. In a way, I see myself in him. That’s what makes it so complicated and confusing: I identify with his undesirable aspects. I have to embrace and work on them because they’re in me, too. The same is true of my mom: she was super loving and giving, but she was also a drunk and a drug addict. I play up the love, because that’s desirable and allows me to embrace the idea of her.
“I want to protect my parents because their qualities are a part of me. They are seriously flawed human beings in very different ways, so I have no clear role model to follow: no one to ask for advice, no compass. I feel that I’m at a crossroads, but I don’t know what I should be pursuing. That’s what dominates my life right now: what’s valuable? What’s right? I’ve had this hodgepodge of life, and now I’m confused.”
“Last summer we all went to South Africa and Swaziland together to do community service. We’ve been friends for four years, but the time we spent in Africa last year brought us closer together.”
“What’s the most important thing you learned there?”
“They have a philosophy called Ubuntu, which means ‘I am because you are.’ In other words, I am at my best when you are at your best.”
“What does it mean to you personally?”
“It’s the reason we like to do community service. When the community around us is whole, we feel whole. It keeps us humble, selfless and giving, no matter what we are doing.
“We did community service at a school in Swaziland, so most of our learning was there. We saw such destitution that we realized how blessed we are in America. All three of us are people of color—Black Americans—and the people of Africa are our ancestors. Seeing the poverty in Africa made us feel so lucky to be American and blessed to be able to give service to others.”
“I grew up in the South Pacific, in Fiji. I came here after high school, and had to get used to a lot of things. I experienced culture shock: a new environment with different people, expectations and assumptions.
It made me want to hang on to the culture of the country where I had spent my formative years. Instead of wanting to assimilate, I decided to stay true to my accent and the things I grew up with. Basically, I was hanging on to the familiar in a world of the unfamiliar.”
“What’s an example of the cultural differences between Fiji and the U.S.?”
“In the culture I grew up in, men wear a sulu, which is similar to a sarong and looks like a skirt. But here? Not so much, unless it’s a kilt. In Fiji, it’s a masculine thing—men wear it all the time and no one bats an eye. Here, if you wear a sulu or a sarong people will ask you, ‘Why are you wearing a skirt?’ You have to explain that it’s not a skirt, but they’ll still insist that it is. It makes you realize how things are perceived in different environments and societies. In one place, they have assumptions that something is masculine while something else is feminine. When you go somewhere else, it could be completely different, or even the exact opposite. People become confused if you use the same scheme as before—they find it jarring.”
“In my spare time, I go to parks, cafés, and even bars, where I fold paper roses and give them out. I like handing them out for free—I think people need something free every once in awhile.”
“What’s your favorite part about doing this?”
“What I enjoy the most is seeing an innocent, childlike reaction on an adult’s face: ‘Oh, here‘s something free and there’s no gimmick.’ Of course, some people are suspicious, and I can understand why. Sometimes people join me and start folding paper with me, or someone tells me that they’ve had a really bad night, and I cheered them up.
“Once in a while, someone tries to give me money. I try my best to say, ‘Pass it forward. Do another good deed’, because otherwise it ends in a circle instead of making a spiral. Sometimes that’s the only way people know how to thank you, though. One time an Albanian woman insisted that I take a dollar. She would’ve gotten upset if I hadn’t, and her husband said, ‘Some people just want to thank you that way.’ So now I know when to accept money, which I use to buy more paper.”
“I was late today. I texted her saying that I would be fifteen minutes late, but then the train stopped at Broadway, so it became fifty. I apologized, but she keeps bringing up me being late. Even when she’s annoyed, she’s incredibly adorable.”
“I play in rock bands and I teach music at a high school, but it’s summer now so I’m not teaching. It’s really hard for me to relax and unwind because I normally work seven days a week. I’m used to schedules: these are my fifteen minutes to relax, etc. Now that it’s summer, I work on weekends at a shoe store. I have five days off—I don’t have to go to work until Saturday. For most people that’s probably the most freeing thing about summer, but I feel suffocated by all that free time. I can’t wake up Monday morning and say, ‘Oh, great, I’ll go back to sleep.’ I feel anxious, like I’m going to have a panic attack. I feel like I have to do something great with the day because it’s so precious. So I filled my free time with things that were stressful.
During the summers in past years, I would commit to every musical thing possible that I couldn’t commit to during the school year. I would agree to take part in projects, compose things, and do a million other stressful tasks. It was a mess. I’ve been getting better recently, though it’s still hard. Over the last year, I’ve started to realize that I can find ways to relax, though it’s taken the better part of my adult life to realize that. Now I sew, craft, and even make my own clothes sometimes. I’ve also learned that I really enjoy a glass of wine, a good book, and spending time with my friends.”
“I always think that finding out things about other people kind of adds to who you are.”
“Some homeless people are ashamed of themselves and don’t want to talk about it ‘cause they’re embarrassed. I don’t mind talking about it. It takes a lot off my shoulders sometimes, ‘cause it’s a lot of pressure being homeless and a very stressful situation. It’s not nice being out here. It’s hard.”
“I see so many motivated people in life, but I feel stuck in my day-to-day routine. I’m trying to break out of that—I want to do things, but I can’t find the inspiration. All my friends have gigs, and are going to New York and getting really famous, but I’m stuck here. I don’t want to be like this. I’m always thinking about how much time I have, and how I’m not doing anything with that time. My mom says, ‘The more time you have, the less you do.’ It seems true. It feels like yesterday I was a freshman in college. I don’t know where the time went.”
“I’ve become addicted to dancing. I used to play basketball, but I hurt myself, so now I compete in ballroom dancing. It’s ten different dances, from standard to Latin: waltz, tango, foxtrot, quickstep, Viennese Waltz, cha-cha, samba, jive, rumba, and paso doble.”
“Which one is your favorite, and which one is the most difficult?”
“My favorite dance is the waltz. I’m normally a high-energy person, but the grace and beauty of the waltz is what inspired me to get into dancing. The most difficult is probably Latin samba. There are a lot of sudden movements: in order to know how your body is flowing, you have to be very aware of who you are as a person and where you are in the world.”
“It’s one of the things I’ve discovered about dancing: it requires you to know yourself at a very deep level. We usually walk through life without paying attention to ourselves, but dancing requires you to have a certain understanding of your own body. Learning how your muscles and joints work and where you’re holding your tension forces you to reflect on where that tension comes from. Sometimes, when I was back home, I would fight with my brother, which caused me to hold tension and anger in my body. When you begin to dance, you can feel all of those tensions going away.”
“My name is Miss Bee. I wear purple a lot. It’s my joy—it’s not too dark and it’s not too bright. I was in so much pain that I told God, ‘Take me. Let me go.’ I’ll never say that again. I’m glad I’m here. I had surgery, died and came back, and I’m now here on a mission. I’m a chosen person. This is my afterlife. You see, some people live before they die. Some people die before they ever even live. And then, some people like me—been there, done that, and lived again. It’s destiny. Now, I’m at a point in my life when I can aspire to do anything I want to do. And I ask myself, ‘What’s my next level?’”
“It’s the simple things. You know how you often have to ask a guy, ‘Could you, please, wash the dishes?’ I do a lot of the cleaning, so if I come home and the dishes are all washed, I’m happy. I don’t need a vacation or a diamond necklace. It’s the little things that he does without me asking him to do them—that’s what puts a smile on my face.”
“I’ve learned to love who I am, and I haven’t cared what other people think of me for a long time.”