3 Apps to Help You Meditate, Unwind, and Fall Asleep

We’ve all been there. It’s midnight, and you can’t fall asleep, but you know you have to soon because you have an important day at work tomorrow. Or worse yet, it’s 3 a.m. and you’re wide awake, anxious about the impending alarm that will sound off in just a matter of hours. Before you know it, you’re stressing out about falling asleep, and any effort to catch some Zzz’s becomes counterproductive. What on earth can you do to still your mind and ultimately your body?

There are three apps I alternate among during such moments of panic. Here’s what I like about each of them: Continue reading


Four Lessons I’ve Learned from a Week with the Flu

It really did take me by surprise. I knew I was going at an accelerated pace since the start of the new year, but it wasn’t non-stop like it was before. There was that nice long break between Christmas Eve and the first working day of the new year; there was the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday and the day off for the presidential inauguration. So when I came down with a horrendous cough, sore throat, laryngitis and complete exhaustion, frustration was the first thing I felt.

I was frustrated that my ridiculous pace of life had been interrupted. I was frustrated by the fact that I didn’t recover after one day of working from home and even more frustrated when there was little improvement after a day working from home and a day at home not working and resting. Why wasn’t I getting better?

The fact of the matter was, one does not get better by simply working from home versus working in the office (because at the end of the day, work is work and your body is pretty much put through the same washer cycle no matter where your office is), nor is one day of complete rest enough to recover from the flu, even if you did get your flu shot. It finally hit me today, on Day 3 of Being Sick, that recovery requires complete dedication of the mind and body, in order to occur.

So as I have been confined to the bed with little energy to do more than watch BBC nature documentaries and nap, I have also learned four valuable lessons that I should transfer to my daily life, even during my healthy days: Continue reading

Try Everything

When I was preparing to leave the United States for two years to teach English in Central Asia as a Peace Corps volunteer, one thing my recruiter suggested I do to prepare myself for the technical skills involved with teaching was to become a certified Minnesota Literacy Council tutor and then volunteer at one of the many local English schools within the Twin Cities area. So I did, splitting my time between adult language learners at the Lao Family English School in St. Paul and the L.E.A.P. English Academy in Frog Town (now known as LEAP High School). Both were extremely rewarding experiences, but it was teaching adults at the Lao Family English School (which was open to all English learners but just happened to be named after the large number of Lao students that came through its doors) that I met a shining example of what it means to start over as an adult.

One of my students was a middle-aged man from an African nation I cannot recall. Looking back on it all, one can’t help but admire him for enrolling in these classes as the only African male in a class dominated by Lao and Hmong immigrants, mostly female. But oh my Lord, he was a voracious learner for not only was he learning to speak and comprehend English as an older adult, he was also learning how to read and write in a language that was not his own.

One day my fellow teachers and I took the students to the Minnesota Science Museum. It’s a great museum for students of all ages and levels because it is extremely interactive, yet combines many opportunities to read. While all the students seemed to enjoy the experience, this man in particular said one thing that I have never forgotten as even to this day, it makes me a little misty-eyed. I overhead him say to one of the teachers, “As soon as I improve my reading skills, I’m going to come back here on my own and take my time to read everything in this museum, and try everything that is here!”

I was a 22-year old college senior at the time. What did I know about having to learn how to speak, read and write in a new language, muchness learn how to live in a new country,  especially as an adult? What did I know about the vulnerable feeling that comes with such an experience? (Although I soon found out during my Peace Corps service!) Here was this man, older than his classmates, of another ethnicity and culture different from everyone else, including his teachers, and yet embracing the learning experience with his whole heart, mind and spirit—no visible inhibitions! He made it seem so easy and fun, although I can only imagine it was not like this for him everyday.

Anyway, I’ve thought of this student recently as I have realized that over the years that I too, have begun to “try everything,” ticking off experiences from my bucket list starting from my early 20s (backpacking through South Africa, joining the Peace Corps and living overseas) and continuing to this day (visiting the Grand Canyon and volunteering as a poll worker during this year’s presidential election). Although those are the fun things I have chosen to do. There have been situations where I have had no choice but to “try everything” in order to survive, much like my former student.

For example, during the 2008 recession, I spent more than a year unemployed, desperately looking for work. This forced me to “try everything,” including things I was afraid of doing, such as networking with strangers and starting an entry-level job at the age of 33. I learned some valuable lessons from that humbling experience. Perhaps it was sort of like that for my former student.

I have noticed though, that I continue to voluntarily and involuntarily experience new things. And now that I am older and more experienced, I appreciate much more the situation my student was going through, as well as the opportunities that are before me. Sometimes I have a choice: I can try everything—even the difficult things—or I can refrain but stop growing. Even though it sounds like an easy choice, it isn’t always. And sometimes I have made the wrong decision.

But with perhaps one or two exceptions to that philosophy (which I will save for another blog post), I feel I have best lived my life according to Cameron Diaz who once said, “Your regrets aren’t what you did but what you didn’t do, so I take every opportunity.” I only pray that like my student almost twenty years ago, I will never let age drain this spirit from me for that will be the day I truly die.


Why the China is on the table and not in the closet

Finally, fall has come to Wyndham Circle and life is glorious on this easy-going Sunday afternoon. I have the balcony doors wide open and a cool, dry air is circulating throughout the condo. I’m sitting in my favorite comfy armchair with my laptop on my lap and a Spotify acoustic mix softly playing in the background. It’s just me and Soju the Cat, and both of us are enjoying the rare peace of a clean, quiet home.

As I recently turned 39, I’ve noticed my values changing. I spend more money on making my home a warmer, more tranquil place rather than going out to eat or having cocktails with friends. I’m using my vacation days at work and I’m rarely checking email over the weekend. I take the bus to the office, a longer commute than the metro but a more relaxing experience to start my day, and I’ve found a hobby that has kept me occupied, challenged, learning and creative all at the same time.

I have also come to realize that time passes by way too quickly. Last night I took advantage of a dining set sale at World Market and purchased a collection of plates I have been eyeballing for a few years now. Upon seeing my latest purchase, J. Miguel commented that now we have dinnerware for special occasions. I think my response surprised him a bit. “These are not for special occasions,” I told him in all seriousness. “These are our daily use. Life is too short to keep such beautiful dishes in storage until ‘just the right time.'” And I meant it.


While there is a sentimental sense of “sweetness” to saving precious things for just the right moment, there is also the tragic reality that by doing so, we are denying ourselves simple pleasures during our short time on this earth. Why do we only wear our best clothes to church? Why do we only put fresh flowers in our homes when guests come over? Why do we use the nice dinnerware on holidays and special occasions? Why can’t every day be filled with little joys?

I understand such traditions are what make certain moments even more special. They are indeed what made my childhood so magical. But I also realize the world is different now from how it was when I was a child, and that we can’t take everything for granted. And for this reason, I am not saving my best dinnerware for special occasions or my nicest clothes for church. I am going to embrace each day as much as I can, even through the tiniest acts, because tomorrow is not promised to any of us.


Un Año Más

For the past 15 years, I have not celebrated my birthday on my actual birth day—September 11. And it’s been okay. For many people, the sting of that day fades as the years go by, and ideally, that’s how it should be. I am convinced the dead do not want us to mourn forever. They want us to move on. To smile and eventually be able to celebrate life on a day that will often be known as one full of death.

But for me, it seems like time only brings more somberness to the day, what has become the legacy of 9/11. At first I refrained from throwing parties on this day because people found it too hard to be festive, despite their feelings for me as friends. Then it became more out of a habit of respect and before I knew it, Fate brought into my life someone who actually lost her mother in one of the planes that crashed into the Twin Towers. It’s like Life has continued to remind me again and again that my birth date is a difficult anniversary for many of us in this world. And that I should never forget that fact.

Someday I will share on this blog my 9/11 experience, which took place less than 100 miles north of Afghanistan where I was doing my Peace Corps service. I will one day tell the story  of I how I spent an entire day traveling across the region, sharing the US Embassy’s safety message to volunteers without telephones, televisions or any other means of communications. Of how unprepared I was for the wide range of reactions I witnessed as I shared the news: how one volunteer went into a frightening rage against President Bush, temporarily unable to separate me from the person he blamed most for these attacks; how another had a full-blown panic attack when I told her the news, her voice rising into a shrill shriek of fear as I explained to her the situation as I heard it from the embassy and how another volunteer, before I even had a chance to share the news with her, melted to her knees in tears at the sight of me suddenly in her village, knowing that my presence at her site was only the sign of bad news (as my role as the Peace Corps safety warden for the North of the country). Someday, dear readers, I will share the story of the Peace Corps’ overnight evacuation from our country of service, which included a police escort to the Kyrgyzstan-Kazakstan border and the helpless feeling of not completely understanding what the hell just happened in our home country so many miles and continents away. Eventually I will be able to explain how it was one year later at a music store in South Korea that I finally got the full account of what happened on 9/11 in New York, DC and Pennsylvania and how I then experienced a delayed sense of shock, horror and sorrow that I did not fully feel before due to the isolation of where I was living in Central Asia at the time of the attacks. Yes, someday, dear readers, I will be able to share all that with you.

But for now, I will say that September 11 simply marks for me just another year of life. And I’m truly okay with that. In fact, this past weekend at the 25th anniversary celebration between Kyrgyzstan and the United States here in DC, I was reunited with a few Peace Corps volunteers I served with in Kyrgyzstan back in the day. And I found myself saying to them that how as the years go by, I have less of a desire to celebrate my birthday in any big way. To my surprise, some agreed with my sentiment. I don’t know if it was because we have similar personalities or if we’re truly getting old, but all of us no longer felt the desire to make a big deal out of a day where we would truly be justified in making a “big deal.” So while I truly do appreciate the cards and gifts, the calls and birthday wishes (for they really are what make the day special),  I have also learned to see my birthday as being less about me and more about the world and how it has changed since that fateful day in 2001. Strangely, it doesn’t bother me at all that my perspective has altered on this. I have, after all, had 15 years to think about it.

So while all of this may not make much sense to anyone reading, don’t worry—I get it. It’s kind of an abstract concept—not caring if the one day of the year truly dedicated to you is really spent celebrating your existence or not. And maybe it is a sign of aging, of growing dull and fading into the woodwork,  but I honestly do think it is a collective effect of experiences I have had since September 11, 2001. The world has changed since that day, and it will never be the same for many of us, ever again. In that sense, it really is only un año más. Just another year. And again, I’m really okay with that.

How to Waste (or Live) a Life

It happens every year in the late summer or early fall…a desire to create, to make beauty, to design something, whether it is for the home, my wardrobe or workspace. And for the past two years, I have had little luck scratching that itch. For a while it was acrylic painting, but when J. Miguel moved in, there was suddenly no room for my easels, canvases, brushes, paints and supplies. Then it was coloring, and while it did temporarily fill a void, I never felt like I was actually creating something. Anyone can color between the lines and yes, some can create incredible pictures using special techniques, but for whatever reason, it left me unfulfilled.

So I started doing some research and discovered the wonderful world of jewelry making. Soon, I found myself learning an entirely new language. Words with meanings I never knew existed before have crept into my vocabulary: findings, crimps, round nose pliers, side cutters, crimpers, clasps, Czech glass beads, seed beads, filler beads, .018 mm wire, jump rings, charms, etc., etc. It’s been an exhilarating kind of feeling filled with ideas, intimidation and an overwhelming discovery of what one can do to create beautiful pieces of jewelry—pieces I would actually wear to work!

With guidance from a friend who has done this type of craft for years, yesterday I learned how to use all the new hardware I purchased (free of charge with my credit card points). And I spent a modest amount of money yesterday building up my bead and findings inventory thanks to a 70% off Labor Day sale at Michael’s, guaranteeing me hours of creativity and design. It’s safe to say now I’m addicted. I could spend hours designing and making necklaces and bracelets, and once I improve my skills, I’ll experiment with earrings and rings.

As I sat at my worktable last night working on a teal green and gold bracelet, I realized the value of having a hobby and why people are willing to invest time and money into an activity that brings them joy and learning. Now that I’ve experienced the excitement of this new activity, I can’t wait to spend every non-working waking hour dedicated to this!

Just the other day I saw someone post a WSJ article on Facebook with the headline, “Why 4 a.m. is the Most Productive Hour,” an article that basically praised the likes of Tim Cook and Michelle Obama who wake up at 4 a.m. to catch up on emails and get an early head start to their busy days. It went on to interview other “powerhouses” who agreed that the most productive part of their days is the 4 a.m. to 6 a.m. timeframe. What a sad existence. And why are we praising these people?

How is sacrificing on sleep (and free time for those who do this on weekends and holidays) being productive? How is this being praised as working efficiently? Why is a reputable newspaper like the Wall Street Journal glorifying this ridiculous practice? If you can’t get done what you need to get done during normal waking hours, you are anything but efficient or productive. If you can’t manage your time, prioritize, and delegate during the course of your day, something is wrong with your work style. There is absolutely no need to get up at 4 a.m. to catch up on emails, especially if you are Tim Cook or Michelle Obama with the money and resources to delegate. Honestly, I feel something is wrong with your life if that’s considered the most productive time of your day.

If you ask me, life is too short. The world will not fall apart if we get an extra two hours of sleep from our already sleep-deprived lives. And while society likes to tell us the super stars of today make time for emails, the gym or work  at 4 a.m., I believe the true super stars get their work done and still make time for rest, relaxation and hobbies that challenge and enlighten them, without sacrificing on sleep. Think about what you will regret the most at the end of your life. Not getting up at 4 a.m. to check your emails or not re-arranging your life so you can enjoy simple joys like hobbies and people who bring you happiness. If you ask me, the choice is simple. Screw society and newspapers telling us otherwise. If you are struggling to get things done, re-evaluate your work style and ask for help before resorting to a 4 a.m. daily wake-up call. Life is simply too damn short.

Reflections During the Waning Dog Days of Summer

Life has started to slow down here on Wyndham Circle. While tiny signs of fall have struggled to emerge, they have been quickly stomped out by summer’s jealous heat and humidity. The DC area is a former swamp, after all.

Today I am indulging in a day off from work. Part of the reason is because my new accent chair was to be delivered today, but the biggest reason is that I simply needed a break. Time is precious. Work is important but so is free time to do what I want, even if it is nothing at all.

I have a colleague at work with ties to North Africa and Italy. He works in the peace building space with a focus on Libya and North Africa and the roles Europe and the United States play in the efforts to relieve the political turmoil taking place in that part of the world. Yesterday he told me about a friend of his who like him, is also an Italian working on the ground in areas of strife and unrest. This particular friend of his survived the war and violence of Afghanistan, the dangerous environment of North Africa, and the ferociousness of much of the Middle East only to come home to Italy after working in these areas of tumult so he could be killed in his own bed under his own roof during one of the strongest earthquakes Italy has seen in recent history. “Death has a strange sense of humor,” my colleague told me somberly.

My office for today is my small, but comfortable home. My company is my cat and the friends I am calling who I have not spoken to in months. I am reminded that days like this should be treasured.

I remember his words on my day off work, during these waning dog days of summer; a day when I have peace and quiet, calmness and contentment and not the stress and exhaustion that is part of my daily job. I am spending this day in my small but beautiful home, enjoying my time on this earth and the simple pleasures that come with it. I am calling friends I have not seen or spoken to in ages. I am eating healthy food that also brings me delight. I am thinking how wonderful it is that I have been blessed to enjoy days like this when there are so many people in this world who are truly suffering. I am remembering that life is like the Wheel of Fortune. Some days/months/years are good and happy ones and some are difficult, depressing and severe, but that nothing—except death—is permanent. And for that reason, nothing should be taken for granted.

Enjoy the simple pleasures in your life. Tomorrow is not guaranteed.