Mom's Story

I tapped my foot against the tile floor, my knee occasionally making contact with the cafeteria table on the upswing. I was nervous: I had a math test today. I didn’t know why math tests made me so nervous. But they did, and I had one at 2pm.

I unzipped my lunch box and emptied its contents: a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, some pretzels, an apple, and about 8 pieces of computer paper stapled together. I took a bite of my sandwich, put my lunchbox aside, and whipped out a pencil. I examined the first page of my packet: my mom’s handwriting covered the page, and it immediately brought my anxiety level down.

“Find the area and perimeter of the below circle.” My eyes glanced down at the circle my mom had drawn beneath her prompt. It was pretty good considering her questionable drawing skills. Her equally-as-questionable handwriting was nestled within the circle to indicate the diameter across.

I went through all 10 questions and could feel my sixth-grade mind warming up. When I reached the end, I went through the answer key my mom had written and felt a wave of relief rush over me with each question I checked off as “correct.” I felt better.

My mom is a certified math nerd: when she was younger, she named stuffed animals after mathematicians. Yes, I’m talking stuffed animals named Pascal and Riemann. Whenever I was learning something new in math class, she would quite literally squeal with delight as she recalled the rules and laws of her beloved world of numbers.

Her excitement about math wasn’t what made me anxious, though; the finality of math is what made me anxious—the way little mistakes make final outcomes so blatantly and fundamentally wrong. It just always felt high-pressure to me in that way.

Despite my apprehension toward it, I felt committed to math because I wanted perfect grades. And that meant I had to be as perfect at math as I could be. I think my mom sensed my anxiety, and she did everything she could to make me feel more comfortable: countless nights of textbook reading, patient teaching, and mock-test making.

But that’s what my mom did with everything: she didn’t just make math better, she made my stomach better when it hurt, my heart better when it broke, my muscles better when they ached (she gives great back rubs).

And, she did all of that after working a tireless and high-pressure job all day; after sitting in an hour and a half of traffic on her way home every evening; after cooking us dinner every night.

She was the breadwinner in our family, and it made (and still makes) me damn proud. I remember perking up with excitement each day around 7pm upon hearing my mom’s heels “click-click”-ing through our kitchen. Before I knew it, she would be poking her head into my room: “Hi honey,” she’d say with a tired smile and her blazer draped over her arm. She was powerful, patient perfection standing there: qualities that made her an amazing business woman and an even more amazing mom.

The lunch bell was ringing; perfect timing. I felt ready. As I folded my packet up and put it back in my lunch box, I noticed a note I had missed. It had the familiar chicken scratch on it: “Good luck on your test! You will do great. Love, Mom.” Thank you, Mom, for loving and believing in me as faithfully as 2+2=4. For teaching me how to add, but for being there when life itself didn’t quite add up. And finally, for proving perhaps the most important equation of them all: the limit of love between a mother and daughter does not exist.

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Pause

Open, refresh, double click, swipe up. Open, refresh, double click, swipe up. Open, refresh…

I can’t even fathom the actual number of times I’ve repeated this cycle. Especially over the past year and a half. I open Instagram, refresh for likes and follower updates, double click my home button, and swipe up to close out of the app. And to be honest, the latter two steps are almost always done in vain, knowing I’ll begin the cycle over again in sometimes just a mere few seconds.

I knew I was developing a bad habit; a bad addiction to my Instagram. But it was so hard not to! Drawing and putting my doodles out there became addicting in a few ways:

I was addicted to the sense of accomplishment that posting every single day gave me. It felt good to be so committed to something, even if it was something small.

I was addicted to making connections through my doodles. It felt amazing to know I was making people smile, laugh, feel. Some of the messages I received would truly make my day.

But I was also addicted to the validation I got from likes and follower growth. Open, refresh, double click, swipe up. The happiness I felt when a post really connected with people and gained thousands of likes did not come without a harsh antagonist: the disappointment I felt when a post didn’t. I would try to talk myself out of the disappointment and realize that posting every day is not easy; coming up with something that connects with everyone every day is near impossible.

But, you know the drill: while you might be able to get Negativity to leave the front of the room, sit down, and stop shouting, he will then just simply take a seat in the back and subtly but persistently tap his foot in anticipation of the next opportunity for an outburst.

My Negativity outburst came with one of the recent Instagram updates. I’m sure you’ve noticed it in your own feeds and have likely seen many artists posting about it, so I’ll make the long story short: Instagram now heavily filters people’s timelines so that they see more of the larger accounts that use paid promotion strategies. I feel a surge of anger when Instagram now gives me notifications: “Your post is doing 85% better than your other posts. Pay to promote it!”

No, I don’t want to pay to promote my post. No, I don’t want to tell all my followers to turn on my post notifications (who actually wants that??). But also no, I don’t want to feel so crappy when I lose 200 followers because of the limits Instagram now puts on discovery without promotion.

The paranoid conspiracy-theorist in me half-thinks that Instagram orchestrates and then manipulates the psychology they know is at play with social media. For all we know, Instagram could be influencing numbers and engagement reports so that dismayed users eventually do respond to the “Pay to promote it!” notification. I can’t help but wonder if that's true, especially as I look at the ghoulish photo of Zuckerberg on trial plastered on every news outlet.

All this is not to say that I feel as though Instagram is out to get me or that I deserve more—it’s simply to say that Instagram has beckoned Negativity to the front of the room for me, and I need some time to convince him to sit back down. There are far more important voices that should be standing in his place: genuine love for doodling, creative joy, internal validation; the list goes on. My plan is to sit with them for a while and convince them to step back up to the front when they’re ready. I’ll be back!

Lots of love, Decade2Doodles

 

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Her Story

Even though she couldn’t see it, she could feel it through the walls that separated her from it. Embarrassment radiated from it, sending a wave of warmth through the wall and down into the floor boards, seeping into her room and then up into her cheeks. She decided: I’m just going to take it down. She defiantly stood up from her bed and walked through the jack-and-jill bathroom to the guest room where the source of her flushed cheeks and anxiety was. She stared at it. She winced. 

It was her chubby, 7-year-old face staring back at her. Her dad had just hung a severely close-up photograph of her on a boat from a few summers back. Her bloated cheeks looked stuffed into the frame, her knotted hair practically flying off the glossy print. She was mortified. She took the picture down, quickly and quietly stashing it away in the closet. Her dad would never know, he almost never went in the guest room (except, apparently, for when he decided to frame and hang embarrassing photos of her). She shut the closet door and walked back into her room, breathing a sigh of relief. 

While the pre-teen deemed the closet an appropriate place for the framed memory, the 7-year-old in the photo would have said otherwise. In fact, when the photo was taken, she was probably actively posing for what she very likely viewed to be a photo shoot. Why? Because she saw no flaws in herself. She felt she was so central to the scene that she grew up calling home video footage “Stephie Videos” (even after her little sister was born). She thought she could (and did) beat all the boys in her elementary school class at arm wrestling. She was convinced she was the next pop star, the next great movie director, the next inventor, the next Picasso, and oh—she was going to be the first female president. 

But then she started growing up. And self-awareness began to appear every time she looked in the mirror, poking its head out over her shoulder a little further with every passing glance. It was partially a good thing: who would want to hang out with a girl as conceited as the “top model” on the boat? But it was also a crippling thing: the girl who had sung the Star Spangled Banner at her third grade Thanksgiving play in front of the whole gymnasium was now shaking as she held flashcards for a presentation in front of her seventh grade history class. The girl who was proud of her big-boned build and how it surged her through the water to nationally ranking swim times now thought her muscles looked a little too big. The girl who had always raised her hand to try something new now felt a rush of blood to her cheeks whenever she got called on in class. 

Confidence is anything but linear in this way. When you’re a kid, you’re willing to do and try anything because you’re convinced you’ll be great at it—life hasn’t proved otherwise. But once life has knocked you down a few times, you approach opportunities and challenges with more trepidation. 

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I believe confidence and the willingness to explore is tapping into your little-kid self for this very reason. It’s why I tell myself "Her Story" when my story turns to a new chapter. Every time I uneasily stare at a new, blank page, I think of the confidence in which she would have gripped a crayon, stuck her little tongue out in unbroken concentration, and gotten to work on “the next great thing.” 

It’s time to put pen (or, for that matter, crayon!) to paper as I begin a new chapter this month. I’m starting a new job in a few weeks and am getting ready to tap into my little-kid self. I can feel the smile of the chubby girl hanging back up on the guest room wall (my dad always did sneak back in to re-hang it) in my parents' New Jersey home. I can feel it radiating confidence, sending a wave of warmth through the wall and down into the floor boards, seeping across state lines and up into my heart. 

Our Story

One sheep. Two sheep. Three sheep, four. Normally I’m tired enough every day where I fall asleep not too long after my head touches the pillow, but tonight was one of those nights where my brain wouldn’t allow for it. So instead, I rolled over and (resentfully) watched you sleep peacefully next to me.

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A memory dawned on me while I watched you lay there, and I couldn’t help but smile (this scene I’ve painted makes me look a little maniacal, doesn’t it?).

I closed my eyes and thought about all of the nights we spent sleeping next to each other in our Harvard dorm rooms (sorry Mom and Dad) in those merciless twin beds. I practically burst out laughing just thinking about it: me plastered up against the wall adjacent to the bed, trying to give your broad swimmer shoulders the room they needed (and consequently squishing my own, arguably broader swimmer shoulders). I remember trying to coax myself into sleep, anxiously watching the clock count down the minutes until 6:30 AM practice. And try as I did to fall asleep, I couldn’t. I was too excited to be next to you...and let’s be honest, I was sleeping in what was essentially the wall’s butt crack.

As brutal as those sleeping arrangements were, I loved being an undergraduate with you. I guess it helped that we “upgraded” to a queen bed your senior year (my junior year). That’s code for: we pushed two twin beds together, slapped a queen sheet set on them, and called it a day. I loved being an undergraduate with you so much that when you graduated, I pathetically found a spot in Harvard Yard and cried by myself. Not because I thought we weren’t going to make it as a couple—I mean, you found a job and an apartment that were both miraculously half a mile away from my dorm—but because I was going to miss the couple that was us. The us that did a crossword puzzle in the dining hall to distract us from finals, the us that took post-morning-swim-practice naps, the us that put way too many toppings on our dining hall “Sunday Sundaes” every week. It felt like a break up, even though it wasn’t.

It actually ended up being more like a break-in. Real life creeped its way into our relationship, stealthily sneaking in through the side door. It took your swimming career, and shortly thereafter took mine. It emptied our drawers and turned things inside out, forcing us to take inventory of what remained and to ask ourselves: who were we now?

Well, it felt like we were a couple who fought…a lot. We often found ourselves stepping around the clutter left from the break-in, occasionally lashing out over the untidiness we now found ourselves in.

It wasn’t (and isn’t) easy, but I’ve learned a lot from the break-in. I learned that love cleans up. Love restores order and fixes broken locks and picks up shattered glass. It certainly doesn’t do so without some frustration and a sore back, but in the end, love does the job.

How do I know this? Because every Sunday morning you go grocery shopping and make sure I have enough “emergency chocolate” for the week. Because you rub my back despite the fact I annoyingly ask you every single night. Because you immediately drove to pick me up when I was stranded on the road during a run plagued by blistering shin splints. Because you drew me a terrible doodle of yourself apologizing to me after a fight. Because when I couldn’t sleep when I was sick you sleepily turned over, hugged me, and said “I’m here for you.”

Love cleans up.

I rolled back over, appreciating every inch of my side of our queen bed, and my eyes fluttered shut. The Story of Us danced on the backs of my eyelids like a vintage film, and I drifted off to sleep. Thank you for being my favorite story, Danny.

 

My Story

The End

An all too familiar feeling took over my legs; arms; heart. My legs ached with each motion forward, pain pulsating through them like lightning. My arms felt as though claws were gripped around them, tightening their hold with each push onward. And my heart: my heart was full. About to burst, really. About to burst with the exhaustion of pumping blood to those tiring limbs, but also about to burst with the pride and camaraderie that had made its way into my bloodstream over the past four years.

And then I touched the wall. And it was over.

The pain in my limbs settled, but the feeling in my heart grew. I looked over at my teammates on the side of the pool, proud and supportive, and my heart did in fact burst. I exploded into tears, a few drops of salt water mixing with the many drops of chlorine. The last race of my collegiate swimming career was over, and my emotions were as fluid as the water I had floated through for so many years.

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I literally and figuratively hit a wall that day. I hit the pool wall to signal a stop to the clock tracking the speed of my 200 yard breaststroke, which read 2 minutes and 15 seconds. But I also hit a more figurative wall, which signaled a stop to the clock tracking my identity as a proud, strong swimmer. That clock read 13 years. And that wall was the wall that knocked me down.

So many college athletes feel this way as they transition out of their sport: a loss of identity, of meaning, of purpose. Throughout my life, I considered myself a “swimmer.” I wore the title proudly, and even more proudly when I became a “Harvard swimmer.” While I always thought I had been honest with myself about knowing my sport would come to an end and that swimming did not define me, it sure did feel as though a big part of “me” had sunk straight to the bottom of the pool as I climbed out of it for the last time.

What was I supposed to do now, with this burst, deflated heart?

The Beginning

I graduated, I said goodbye to my best friends and teammates, and I “moved on.” I rented an apartment with my boyfriend. I started a job.

But life became old just as quickly as it had become new. And I had never felt more homesick.

I had never missed my parents and my New Jersey home as much as I did when I was packing my lunch for another 8 hour day in an office. I had never missed them as much as I did than on my hour long commutes into work. Or when my boyfriend and I fought over sleeping with the fan on or off in our small apartment.

I think it was because I felt like I didn’t have a home. I had an immediate home at Harvard: Blodgett pool. And, I had an immediate family: the swim team. I never really had a moment in college where I ever felt truly homesick. But now, that was gone. In fact, one day at work I accidentally called my apartment my “hotel” to a coworker (to be fair, we lived in an apartment complex that had a very “hotel” feel, but still…).

All of a sudden, my twenties felt very hard. Harder than the classes I took at Harvard, and even harder than the threshold swim practices that brought me to the point of vomiting without fail. I remember commuting in on the Red Line one day, looking at my reflection in the dirty MBTA window, and watching tears well up in my eyes. I didn’t want to go to work. I didn’t want to work out alone. I didn't want to go home to my "hotel." I didn’t want to feel so lost.

I wanted to have an outlet; I missed having the pool as a channel for my emotions. I wanted to find humor in tough moments and make others laugh; I missed making my teammates laugh in the locker room before practice. I wanted to appreciate my relationships; I missed supporting my teammates every day and feeling supported by them in return.

I returned to my phone, a habit of my generation that I wish I could rid myself of, and I opened Instagram. I had just started following @ScribblesbyNicole after first following @ByMariAndrew, and seeing their posts made me smile. I thought for a second: maybe I could do that. Maybe I could draw simple things every day as a way to journal my thoughts and feelings. Maybe, I could even have others feel along with me.

So, truly on a whim, I gathered some old colored pencils and markers I had lying around my apartment. I purchased a small $10 sketchbook. Then, I uploaded some very poor doodles that were captured in some very poor light to my brand new Instagram: Decade2Doodles. And with every doodle, my deflated heart felt as though it had something pumping through it again: a bit of passion. 

The Middle

I’ve grown tremendously since starting this adventure of drawing and posting every day for a year, and I’m so happy to have been able to catalogue so many of those moments through Decade2Doodles. I have learned to live peacefully with my boyfriend (in case you were wondering, we put the fan on "low"), have made incredible friends at work (hi, Randi and Vanessa!), and have stayed connected to those I love more than anything (I hope they don't mind all my tags). Perhaps most importantly, I have been able to express my creativity in a way I didn't even fully realize I was missing. 

Decade2Doodles has reminded me that there are wonderful people out there, all feeling and sharing and hoping and living. It has taught me that you don't have to be perfect to start something or be understood (I mean, did you see my first few posts?!). 

In September I turned 25, which technically marks the middle of my “defining decade.” Through this experience, though, I've realized that I'm in an infinite middle of defining my "new" me. With many thanks to Decade2Doodles and the incredible support system that has grown from it, the "me" that had sunk to the bottom of the pool has since floated up to the surface, buoyant and breathing some new life. And I'm incredibly grateful to you all for that.