This month I turned 30. The big three-oh.
And to commemorate, I decided it was time to visit the States, since I hadn’t gone back in 2.5 years. I took two weeks off, printed and filed all my French documents (and negative covid-19 tests) just in case I had issues at the French border, and set off. As part of my homecoming and time off, I expected to write and find some time to refocus and push new energy into the various writing projects I’ve been working on simultaneously. Instead, I sat on the couch most of the time eating long-forgotten and well-missed junk food. I was taking care of my nephew a lot of the time, however. And as any working parent will tell you, I should cut myself a little slack regarding my lack of productivity.
My brother-in-law, nephew and me celebrating my 30th with good ol' fashioned New York pizza in Times Square
I hadn’t visited the house that my sister passed away in for five years. Which wouldn't be a problem, except that this happened to be the house where my brother-in-law and my nephew still lived in. And they could only fly out to California or god-knows-where I was at the moment for so many times. So I went back. And I slept in the same room where I saw her pass away in front me. It wasn’t as painful as I expected; more like, pressing down on a scar and feeling the rough edges and tough skin that had built up.
Something that’s there but you don’t know how to define it.
I was relieved my brother-in-law’s New Jersey home no longer gave me PTSD, but instead a sort of unfamiliar numbness crept in. One that was linked with apathy. I had taken two weeks off to spend with my family, but I was also planning on working my writing projects as well. Instead, I just sat on the couch and stuffed my face with long-anticipated American junk food that I hadn’t had for two years. As if it was the prohibition era and New Jersey was my speakeasy.
Grabbing brunch at Turning Point in Hoboken, New Jersey
The writer’s block didn’t break until the morning of my departure flight, when my brother-in-law and I went through a suitcase my sister Yulia had left behind five years ago full of Dora’s things. It was like opening a coffin, as all these clothes and mementos of my late sister had been folded and zipped away for half a decade. So we unzipped it, belongings spilling out on the kitchen tiles like a joggled soda can. A flood of dark, rich fabrics and decadent shoes flooded the floor. In the array, a turquoise Kate Spade box popped out. I opened it, expecting a pair of jeweled sandals. Instead, Dora’s cut-off pony tail had been placed gingerly inside, untouched.
That's something nobody teaches you about in school—what do you do with the physical things our loved ones leave behind when they’re gone? Nobody tells you how much you’d have to keep, or throw away, and how jarring each spring cleaning would be.
It was in this numb, unpleasant moment that my writer’s block broke.
My brother-in-law, being nostalgic as he is, often likes to ponder what causes us to get where we are today. “And to think, if your dad hadn’t died, if your sister hadn’t died, you’d probably just be living a normal life married to some dude with kids, instead of having traveled the world like you have, and ended up in Paris with aspirations to be a full-time writer.” It is true that had I not been faced with such tragedies, I would have been geared toward a more conventional lifestyle, forgoing the mental break I had that led me to abandon a tenured career to move halfway across the world to finish writing a novel. Because I had a story to write. A story that shaped me; that shaped how I got here.
Because stories shape us.
The view of the New York City skyline from Pier 1 Brooklyn Bridge park
And that’s the most important, connecting thing about life and writing: stories. shape. us. The stories that life hurls at us, the stories that unravel in our lives, the stories that spill out on our kitchen tiles—those mold and craft who we are and change our histories. And from that, the stories that we write down and tell others—these stories inspire, and challenge, and impact. It was this realization that broke my writers block and forced me to put pen to paper again.
That I have the power to change lives with my story, just by writing it down.
What stories do you plan on sharing with others this year?