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41 Things

One. Today is my birthday. I’m forty-one years old. That one’s for free, phishers.

Two. My first memory is walking down a street in Amsterdam with my parents. A cobbler’s sign with wooden clogs hangs high above us. On street level, I loop and soar my red plastic aeroplane. A bigger kid with round, Dutch cheeks snatches it out of my hands and runs off with it. I haven’t yet begun to speak, and I watch as he disappears, unable to tell my parents what has happened.

Three. I like “two truths and a lie”. It’s a party game. You declare three “facts” about you, two of which are true, and the other people playing the game have to guess the lie. I always include this: when I was a small child, Albanian seamstresses lined up to pinch my cheeks, while my parents stood helplessly despite my tears, unwilling to cause an international incident. That one’s true.

Four. When I was eleven years old, my family spent the year in Durham, North Carolina. We house-swapped with an abortion doctor - a beautiful home, which would sometimes be egged, backing onto a lake full of catfish. We weren’t allowed to hang out in the front rooms of the house, just in case.

Five. We lived in Vienna when I was seven, which was also the year that Chernobyl blew. The weather forecast included rain and fallout numbers. Austria’s radioactivity was always mysteriously lower than the countries around it. We ate a lot of food imported from countries that were further away, like canned tuna and kiwi juice.

Six. I realized the other day that I’ve lived in the United States continuously for longer than I’ve continuously lived anywhere at any other time in my life. I don’t know how I feel about that.

Seven. I’m lying. I know exactly how I feel about that. It’s weird.

Eight. I don’t want to feel tethered down. But not wanting to feel tethered down is its own kind of ideological prison. Does that make sense?

Nine. I’ve learned to hate the question “where are you from?”. I always hedge and say something like: “it’s complicated, but I grew up in England.” Even that isn’t completely true. I used to say “I’m from the internet” as both a joke and a deflection, but the internet is tainted now. There’s no accepted answer because I don’t fit into any of those boxes.

Ten. Where am I from? I’m from the experiences that made me. The relationships and joy and struggle of being human. I’m not from a place. The place is irrelevant. You might as well ask me where I last bought a sandwich.

Eleven. I have a piece of paper that tells me I’m an American, among other things. Administratively, that’s true.

Twelve. I don’t know if I qualify as a real third culture kid. TCKs are people who grew up in a culture that was not theirs nor either of their parents. The definition technically fits. But often, third culture kids grew up in military families or were the children of international businesspeople, moving throughout their entire childhoods. My parents were perpetual students, but we didn’t move all that much in comparison.

Thirteen. Still, the culture I grew up in was my family’s, not my country’s (or any country’s). I don’t know how different that is to everyone else. Maybe it’s not really any different at all. But some people seem to feel rooted in what they consider to be their country of origin. They’re proud of it, even.

Fourteen. For me, home is people. It’s not a place.

Fifteen. I last bought a sandwich in downtown San Francisco, near where I work, in the pouring rain. I took it back and ate it at my desk, against all my own advice, scooping crumbs from my desk as my jeans slowly dried.

Sixteen. I’ve decided not to celebrate my birthday this year. Last year I threw a big party: live bands and an open bar in downtown Oakland. A lot more people came than I was expecting. It carried me through most of the year. I realized I have a lot of people in my life who I care about, and who care about me. That’s a good feeling: a deep affirmation. But it’s also deeply vulnerable, in a way.

Seventeen. My sandwich was the same order I used to get in Oxford, and in Edinburgh, and in Berkeley. Roast turkey with salad, mayo, mustard. It’s not the same sandwich, but it is. The idea of the sandwich is the same, even if the ingredients are drawn from different places and assembled in different ways. It’s identifiably the same turkey sandwich I always get, but my order has been reflected through the context of my current location and the experiences of the person making it. It’s an expression of my memory, sculpted through my present, and it’s an expression of the constellation of people who made the ingredients and assembled it.

Eighteen. I may be overthinking my lunch. Bear with me.

Nineteen. People are home, but life is a journey. The people you meet and know change as your life changes. The intersection of context and experience is in flux. Home isn’t a static idea. It’s always moving.

Twenty. They say that the human body refreshes itself roughly every seven years. Old cells die; new cells replace them. In reality, every part of your body is on a different cycle. In some parts of the body, it’s a day or two. Others last as long as a decade. And some cells stay with you your entire life. You’re a changing combination of old and new cells every living moment of every day, but your old body is never completely gone.

Twenty-one. The chromosomes in a cell are protected by their tips, which are called telomeres. Every time a cell divides, your telomeres get shorter. When they get too short, the cell enters a state called senescence, in which it can no longer divide. Eventually it stops functioning. 

Twenty-two. The ribonucleoprotein telomerase helps to protect your telomeres as your cells divide. In people with conditions that affect production of telomerase, their telomeres aren’t protected, and parts of their body where the cells refresh faster enter senescence sooner.

Twenty-three. Like, for example, my mother’s lungs.

Twenty-four. Most of my cells were made since I moved to California. Most of the body I had when I lived my life in England, and in Scotland, is gone.

Twenty-five. But some of it was with me when that boy stole my plane on the streets of Amsterdam, and when Chernobyl melted down, and when I had my first meaningful kiss, and when I thought I was going to die young.

Twenty-six. I’d say I’m not going to die young, but who really knows? The medical science today doesn’t think so. They have a theory about a genetic variant, which I was tested for, and don’t have. But the medical science tomorrow might disagree. 

Twenty-seven. And at any rate, there’s nothing to say that I won’t be hit by a bus, or contract a different terminal disease, or be caught in a freak accident. These things happen all the time. It would be wrong to cower in fear worrying about them, but it would also be wrong to put off all the joy and beauty of living until later. What I’ve learned is: you don’t know what’s going to happen. So while you can, live.

Twenty-eight. Deciding how to live is hard. There is more than one kind of sandwich.

Twenty-nine. What does it mean to live? People talk about living up to your potential, but how do you know what your potential is? Why do you have just one potential, instead of a galaxy of parallel potentials, or none? And who says you have to live up to any of them? It seems like a kind of trap: try and realize an externally-imposed vision of your life, in the process ignoring your own happiness and the beautiful serendipity of being human.

Thirty. I don’t want to adhere to someone else’s expectations of who I should be. I don’t want to put those same kinds of expectations on anyone else.

Thirty-one. I was never good at joining things. My friends were part of the Sea Scouts, and I didn’t want to be a part of it because they all wore a uniform, literally and figuratively. Another friend’s dad ran a children’s theater group, which I should have loved, but I was scared of it. In retrospect, I think I was scared of not fitting in, and of people laughing at me because I was different. There was precedent.

Thirty-two. Sometimes we do terrible things to each other, whether we want to or not. The best we can do is to be mindful, and to resist.

Thirty-three. I wish I could be braver, sometimes. I’m trying.

Thirty-four. Someone once told me that not wanting to be like everybody else was arrogance. By rejecting conformity, I was saying that those values weren’t good enough for me, and that I was saying I was better than people who chose to assimilate. I think about that a lot. I think about it differently: I just don’t think I’m very good at assimilation. And I don’t think anyone should have to be.

Thirty-five. I’m drawn to people who are unafraid to be themselves. Often they’re LGBTQIA+ and conformity would mean denying a fundamental truth about who they are. Or they’re a third culture kid who’s trying to find their own way. There are many other boxes to not fit into. It always takes bravery. It shouldn’t have to. But like I said, sometimes we do terrible things to each other.

Thirty-six. I value allyship more than anything. Home is people. Safe spaces are people, too. Not all people. But the right ones.

Thirty-seven. Just as cells divide, our lives and the essence of who we are are driven by change and flux. Just as my cells from a decade ago have been replaced, I’m a different person. My experiences, fears, loves, and values have refreshed, even if the core of me has been there my entire life.

Thirty-eight. We’re asked to make money, to collect material goods, to assimilate. Who is that in the interests of?

Thirty-nine. Home and safety are love are not to be found in your potential, or in conformity to what other people say you should aspire to. And we are not the same as the people in our memories. Telomerase protects cells as they refresh. Community - your family, your friends, your allies - protect the essence of who you are. 

Forty. Condos and Teslas and conspicuous consumption aren’t success. Wealth isn’t success. Safety is success, but more than that, success is happiness in your own skin, embracing life’s constant change and flux, and having a community that inspires and encourages you even when times are hard. As I turn forty-one, I’m grateful to have those things.

Forty-one. I love life. I love you. Onwards.