Takk, Danke, Merci, Grazie, Gracias, Dziekuje, Thank You

Oslo, Norway – Vigeland Park

It happened again. Like the election, I felt strangely detached from this year’s Thanksgiving. My feast was an aperitivo on the banks of the drained Navigli, a normally gorgeous sight turned oddly barren. I learned how to say “sticky” in Italian, as well as distinguish between platonic and romantic “I love you”s. I had rested for much of the day, so I stuffed myself with enough carbs to last me the whole day. I had my first gelato of the trip, made hilarious new friends, and worked off some calories by laughing and gesturing wildly.

I returned home to a Facebook feed full of thankful “friends,” all clamoring over prime real estate to proclaim how thankful they were for whatever it was that was culturally relevant to include in a Facebook status update. There were, of course, the regular few who bucked the trend – either by renouncing the holiday for its meaninglessness, pointing out the cultural insensitivity, or outright complaining about their lives. It seemed like everyone had something to say. And because I felt societally compelled to, and because I have to force myself to write more often, I decided to share with you some thoughts about what I’m thankful for as well.

Stockholm, Sweden – Truly Dedicated Bike Paths

1. Life

As many of you know, my mom was diagnosed with Stage 2 breast cancer just under two years ago. I didn’t react as well as I would have hoped. I spent months alternating between random private break-downs and unnecessarily antiseptic, mechanical acceptance. Only a few of my friends knew – in fact, I never actually told most people; I just posted a Facebook picture almost half a year later and let people figure it out on their own.

I’ve spent two years, as a result, thinking very deeply about death. This was different than a Russian literary, metaphysical perspective – I actually started to think about what it would be like to lose my mom, and how that would affect me and my family. I also thought about what it would mean to die myself, and how that would affect the dynamics that involve my existence. I was recently talking to a friend about cremation versus burial, and we realized we were having a very technical conversation about something very morbid – but to me, this wasn’t as surreal as it was just practical.

In any case, there have been many times when I haven’t appreciated life, or even when I’ve taken measures to obliterate my connection to it. But realizing how valiantly people struggle for it, and how critical their presences are to maintaining the delicate balance of the world’s ecosystem, has made it difficult to be anything but absolutely ecstatic every time I start a new day.

People want to know how I can be so upbeat and energetic all the time – it’s because my life isn’t being threatened, either by an armed robber or an Israeli F-16 or a metastatic tumor killing me from the inside. I have grown up in an environment that fosters acceptance and free will – I am on this trip because I took full advantage of the fine print of my life. I have chosen a path that allows me to peek into the bustling lives of others, all of which enhances my own, and in turn seek to brighten the lives of those I meet.

I was given opportunity and privilege, and doing anything but tripping over myself in joy is tantamount to looking the gift horse in the mouth. What more could I really want? Everything I need to make my life exactly what I want it to be is within my control – including the ability to adjust my goals, the acceptance that some people and things don’t change, the perspective that not everything is right and wrong, and the maturity to seek improvement in myself, rather than relying on others to transform into my ideal types.

Oslo, Norway – Vigeland Park

2. Family

I’m not going to pretend that my relationship with my family is perfect, and that my mom’s diagnosis turned us into the nuclear family. That would be Hallmark bullshit that comes out on such holidays as Thanksgiving, when people expect one another to say things they don’t mean as to save face in front of people who are really only thinking about the food. But I am being perfectly honest when I say this: my family has always been unwaveringly supportive of me, and they’ve always exemplified characteristics I find to be illustrative of how I seek to live my life.

Let me explain. My dad fosters my intellectual side, constantly urging me to take more challenging courses and seek professional improvement. He’s the reason I have a job right now, and he’s the reason I went to Berkeley in the first place. I planned to go to USC’s Annenberg School of Journalism (for which he had arranged a meeting and a letter of recommendation from the Dean of Business), until I decided to be a bit more risk-averse and leave room for the possibility of a major change. I was a day away from signing over to UCLA when he tried, for the fifth time, to convince to consider Cal – and for a reason I can’t remember now, I did. And I never regretted it. He networks like none other and he’s introduced me to countless movers and shakers, all of whom formed my intellectual curiosity from a very young age. Why do I ask so many questions? Ask my dad.

Fitting with the heteronomative division of labor within the typical Indian family, my mom takes care of the emotional needs of the family, as well as manages to remember a million birthdays, appointments, recipes, reminders, and personal details. She used to be a doctor, so it’s no wonder that memorization is her strength – but what’s more impressive is the fact that she actually puts the time into making those dates and times and meetings mean something. She’s quiet and respectful, but when she engages someone’s company, she does everything she can to make them happy, even if it requires her to strain herself more than her body currently can handle. When I was growing up, she encouraged my creative side; we’d make handmade cards for every occasion, go to every interactive museum there was to see, and practice word diagrams on foggy windows as my dad pitched in math problems. She also saves all of my important documents, and writes me beautiful birthday cards – I recently found a stack of both of these things, and it shook me with how incredibly caring a mother I was blessed to have (and blessed to keep).

My brother is one of my best friends. This is a title I used to throw around quite easily, but in light of this trip, its distinction is becoming more precise; still, it never crossed my mind that he would be anything but. He’s the best big brother a girl could ask for – he’s like my mom in many ways, protective and cautious and so concerned for our family’s happiness. He’s also super funny and very talented – it’s his influence that got me so deeply into music, and I’d probably attribute 80% of my sense of humor to him alone. Throughout this trip, he’s shown himself to be a friend in a way that many of my “close friends” haven’t – he’s checked in regularly, he’s sent me things that remind him of me, he’s promoted my blog, and he sends me adorable messages like the following:

So now two of my best friends have asked me if I read your blog because they enjoyed it so much. […] I hope you like cheese for breakfast, because I’m really proud of you for making this trip happen and being such a great writer. […] Not that I had anything to do with it, but I remember you being super adorable when you first started talking and me wanting you to talk more because I hated it when people laughed at you. And now people can’t get you to be quiet 🙂:) […] Anyways, I just wanted to let you know that it makes me happy when people check out your stuff without me asking them to, it reminds me that you’re an amazing person all by yourself, even if I’ll always picture you as my adorable little sister 🙂:)

I think that speaks for itself. It’s important to have such people in your life, and I’m lucky to have three. It’s not the quantity, but the quality, and I’d say that the quality of my family’s qualities are all I need to become the person I want to become.

Stockholm, Sweden – I grew up with these horses.

3. Inspirational Friends

It astounds me how inspired I am by my friends. I never really did the whole “looking up to celebrities” thing, which explains my distaste of tabloid news – does it really matter what Bill Clinton did in his private life, if it didn’t affect his professional accomplishments? Shouldn’t parents be their children’s role models, not random people they’ve never met and now have coalesced a false identity around? In my case, a village raised a child, and my friends and support system all provided real life role models after which I picked and chose the attributes I most wanted to emulate.

My college application essay asked me to describe my role model; I guess the readers expected me to write about Mother Theresa or Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr. I’m Indian, after all, and we have many exemplary leaders in our history. But I wrote about my friend Alex, who was a laid-back surfer who learned fluent ASL (American Sign Language) to communicate with her deaf friends and spent her holidays in soup kitchens or making sandwiches to donate to the homeless. She was talented, funny, and kind – she played ukelele with a ear to ear grin, and she patiently taught me how to surf my first time out.  She was really the girl every girl wanted to be and every guy wanted to be with.

I fell out of contact with her in recent years, but I think about her sometimes when I’m trying to decide how I want to behave towards a certain situation. I also think about my friend Birju, the most mysterious Yoda-like figure who describes his work as “finding ways to serve others.” I think about all the friends I’ve stayed with over this trip, and the generosity they’ve shown me by hosting me. I think about my family friends, who’ve taken me in like their own daughter and stuffed me full of food and love and interesting thoughts.

My Facebook feed is full of friends doing things in fascinating places, following their dreams and being rewarded by a satisfied life. Everyone’s willing to work hard, and even though it might be stressful at times, everyone understands the need to prioritize and plan and strive for a goal. I’m surrounded by future lawyers, neuroscientists, Nobel Peace Prize recipients, ambassadors, conservationalists, Peace Corps workers, presidents, and the movers and shakers of tomorrow and today. I’m in the company of people who care about the world, and about their impact on it, and who seek to improve life for themselves and others in the way that best utilizes their skills and talents.

A friend was once chastising herself for not “going anywhere” in her life; she felt that everyone else had a plan and a direction and were hurtling further and further from her. But I reminded her what I am reminded of myself now: we surround ourselves by people who reflect us. If we’re surrounded by people who are doing things, then it’s very likely that they see something in us that indicates we’re in the same trajectory, which means staying in contact with successful people is an investment in ourselves. It means that we believe ourselves to be worthy of these people’s attention, and sometimes we forget that that goes the other way around as well.

Tübingen, Germany – Shrisha and Sumit, amidst the first snowball fight following the first snowfall of the season. Possibly my favorite photo of my entire trip thus far. 🙂

4. The Milieu That Make Me Smile

I can’t describe everything that I’m thankful for – this post is long enough as is, and I’m too happy of a person to list what is infinite anyway. At my core, I’m pretty easy to please – good music, good people, good food, good weather..

I like the relaxation of warm showers and laying in cold grass on a hot day. I like long conversations over satisfying dinners about subjects of deep personal relevance. I like seeing people I love smile, and I love being the one to make them laugh. I like knowing where my life is going, but I also like knowing that there is a certain degree of unpredictability that the spices up the ingredients of my personality. I like vivid colors, and I like sleek black. I like thoughtful movies and videos that combine feeling with seeing and make you believe; I like songs that feel like they’re written for you, and that you empathize with.

I like that my friend wrote, in relation to the incident of carrying me up eight flights of stairs in his arms as part of a silly bet, that:

“It is odd to me that you really are my standard reference for something that is ~100 lbs…I will often find myself thinking, “150 lbs! My word…that dog is about one-and-a-half Vidyas! I intuitively understand what that means!””

I like that I didn’t give up on some friends, even though I should have at times. I like that they sometimes turn around and send me messages like this:

“Dear friend, Just want to let you know how inspiring you are. I don’t take that adjective for granted, in fact I doubt I ever used it to describe anyone. But as I’m wallowing in my lack of purpose and a time wasting routine, I realized you are truly bold and will likely never settle upon anything less than you deserve. What I’m trying to say is you are, next to Hemingway, my hero. ps(1): Napoleon froze his ass off in Russia, not Sweden. ps(2): I also always admired the shape you’re in; ever since you kicked my ass in tennis.”

I like not spending too much money or energy, but I don’t mind it when I have experiences like the Voyage. I like when my friends care enough to check my blog, and I love it when they tell me how much they liked it. I like being able to let people go, and knowing that they’ll return… or not; it’s all happening for a reason. I like learning new languages, piercing into the heart of what allows humans to communicate in such a diverse way. I like that my life has meaning, but at the same time is so superficial in its complaints. I like having opportunity, and I like what I’ve done with it. I like who I am, and I like where I’m going.

Now substitute “I like” for “I’m thankful for,” and there’s a short list of the things I appreciate this year. Thank you for reading this far – “I like” you too. 🙂

Copenhagen, Denmark – Very informative, and well-worth the not too expensive ticket, boat tour around Copenhagen’s many bridges.