The Risk Management of Living

woman sitting on edge of rock formation
Photo by Jordan Benton on

I feel anxious, like, all of the time. Restless, empty, distracted, unmotivated. I feel tired and worn out.

But I don’t know if that is from a pandemic, motherhood, grief, politics, or all of the above.

I managed to stay in pretty good spirits since March, but lately I’m struggling to maintain a flicker of hope. I know in my head what must be done. Feeling stuck isn’t a new feeling for me. I know what I should and could do, yet hopelessness washes over me anyway, whispering what’s the point, there is nothing to look forward to.

My weariness feels small compared to what other people have gone through. George Floyd. Breonna Taylor. Ahmaud Arbery. Sandra Bland. Atatiana Jefferson. Eric Garner. Rekia Boyd. Tamir Rice. Aiyana Stanley-Jones. Philando Castile. Botham Jean. The list goes on and on and on of lives cut short. Lives riddled with pain and unfairness. I think about the loved ones they left behind, the unrealized hopes and dreams, the senselessness and toxicity that continues to bleed out of our institutions and people, poisoning the well of humanity.

I did not participate in the protests. Being a widowed single mother to young children is a constant risk calculation. I worried about wrangling my three kids alone in the middle of a pandemic. The youngest can’t keep a mask over his nose. I dithered. I felt guilty. We stayed home.

I don’t know what it feels like to be black.

I have a white dad and a Palestinian mother and managed to get enough features to enjoy white privilege. People are never really sure what I am. When I was in Ohio around my dad’s side of the family, I was told that I looked exotic. Apparently brown hair, brown eyes, and olive skin are from a different planet. Around my Arab relatives, I never quite fit in. I don’t look exactly like them and I don’t speak the language. I always felt like an outsider.

But being half-Palestinian affected my worldview growing up, even with my privilege and ability to weave in and out of cultures as I pleased. There is something about having the blood of people who have no legal homeland, who are considered expendable, discriminated against, labeled as terrorists, and who most people in the United States couldn’t even point to a map and tell you where they are from.

Later in life, I married a Japanese man and had three children with him. My Asian children are constant reminders of the beauty that can exist outside of our silos and prejudices. Hybrid vigor.

I am restless, because I know there is more I need to do to leverage my privilege. I need to be a better educator and do more intentional work in the classroom to dismantle racism. I need more training and education, and I know I likely will have to seek it out for myself in our current institutions. The next time I get told there is no room in the schedule for Ethnic Studies, I need to fight harder. There are changes I can make right now in my classes. I can’t stay the same.

Sometimes I think about the stories my husband told me about him growing up as one of the few Asians in what was then lily-white Orange County. I think about him recalling the way a junior high teacher called him a “Jap” in front of the class, and how women said they couldn’t date a “Jap.” To this day, black women and Asian men are the least sought out on dating sites. My husband carried that pain until he died. I know I need to do more to fight the ugly side of humanity. I think about the conversation I overheard between a Korean student in my class and other teenagers at the table. The student commented on how they didn’t know why black people were still complaining about slavery. A person of color didn’t know why black people were still complaining. I knew in the way that you get a sick feeling right in the pit of your stomach: there is so much more we need to do. So much more I need to do.

Maybe this restless despair I am feeling lately is transition. The anxiety from not knowing what the next chapter looks like. A daunting feeling about the amount of work that needs to be done. A sign that change is unfolding as we speak.

I’m talking about dismantling racism. I’m talking about surviving a pandemic, and also I’m talking about life in general.

I’ve been locked up with three kids since March as a single mother. There is nowhere to go. My children are sweet and funny, but I have to be honest. I’m sick of making dinner almost every night and washing dishes. I’m sick of cleaning all day. I’m sick of getting followed to the bathroom, and when I sit down to work, having a kid plop down next to me with their Netflix show playing too loud on their device. I’m honored that they want to be next to me all of the time, but I feel suffocated and unproductive. I’m sick of the lack of adult companionship and I am sick of not having the other parent to bounce ideas off of about the kids. I am tired and weary of being the only person in charge. The only parent who will worry themselves sick over the well-being of these children.

Recently I was called a good mother by three different people in the same week. That should be a good thing, right? Except while I appreciate the compliment, I am uncomfortable with the term. I have this nagging sense that it means “sacrifices everything for the good of the family.” That is certainly what it feels like I am doing as a “good mother.”

If good mother means a person who loses her womanhood to be a handmaid, do I want that?

I feel paralyzed by a dilemma. I wanted children. I want to do the job right. I am the kind of person who would have cried if I didn’t turn in an assignment in school. Settling for mediocre is not my style, and yet I am also someone who never thinks she is doing a good job. I am someone who wants more, and someone who feels guilty for wanting more. I find it difficult to gauge. What do I stop doing as a “good mother” to reclaim being a woman. What do I risk ruining in pursuit of prioritizing myself as a woman? Where are the lines drawn?

Therein lies the problem: this desire to seek perfection in an imperfect existence. It’s not just a motherhood problem.

I’ve spent many days standing in front of my mirror scoping out the state of my body. Turning in circles, pausing at certain angles, bending over to assess the folds, analyzing curves or lack thereof. Every. Single. Day. For as long as I remember. Don’t eat this. Feel guilty for that. Workout more. Deprive. Restrict. Bemoan this feature or that feature. There is balance, but the lines are blurry and difficult to discern. In any case, I am left unsatisfied. I could have done more. I could look better. Always falling short. Not good enough.

As California has fast-tracked their way through the stages of reopening the economy, and as COVID-19 cases continue to surge, it feels difficult to be caught in the middle of a society where science and data are pitted against the pleasures of the people.

Some people are great at ignoring reality.

Some people dwell too much on the facts (me).

Some people are great at risk management, and this is not just a COVID-19 thing. They know there is risk, but they make a decision, do what they can to reduce the risk, and go for it. I’d like to be more in this category. Right now, those of us who are overly cautious are being forced into this category.

Everything I’ve been reading lately points to risk management. It’s just not natural to lock ourselves in a home and have no contact with the rest of the world. We’re not evolutionarily designed to do that, irregardless of the economic implications. This is uncharted waters. Something we don’t have all of the answers for. No experience to lean into.

And I’m stuck living amongst too many people who prefer the bury-your-head-in-the-sand approach. This kills those of us who value information and data and knowing all of our worst-case scenarios.

In an interview I read with infectious disease epidemiologist Dr. Michael Osterholm, he talks about there being two guardrails. One side is a complete lockdown for 18-months until a vaccine is found. The other rail is to do nothing and resume life as normal with no precautions. He cautions that we need to “thread the rope through the needle in the middle…We have to learn not only how to die with this virus…but we also have to learn how to live with it.”

I’ve always struggled with this. How to be a good mother and a good woman. How to take care of my body and still be kind to my body. How to deal with the unknown. I’m great at precautions. I’m not good with risk.

Lately my 5-year-old son has been looking for anything owned by his dead father. He digs through boxes in the garage, finding broken walkmans, pictures, notebooks. He carries them around and asks me questions, trying to piece together the existence of a man he never knew.

“Did Daddy ever get fired from a job?”

“Would Daddy like this song?”

“I wish my Dad could see me all growed up.”

“Maybe my dad just left,” he speculated.

I remind him that no, his father didn’t just leave. But I know why he wishes this to be true. That would be the easiest path to maintaining hope.

As Peter Jack turned restlessly in bed one night, somehow we found videos to watch from his father’s funeral. People were filmed sharing their memories for the children. I’ve never watched these videos before. Peter giggled as unknown people addressed him in the future and talked about their experiences with his mysterious father. I imagine Peter felt the same way I do in these moments: grateful for the confirmation that the dead were once alive.

Peter fell asleep mid-video, and I went on to re-watch the funeral service. I’ve never watched it either. In the overwhelming rawness of grief, I don’t remember a lot of what happened that day at the funeral. I didn’t remember what our reverend said at the end of the service, but re-watching his message 4-years later resonated with my life right now. He gave my husband a Buddhist name: Sen Gaku. It means to teach and learn. Sen Gaku also means “to teach learning.” The spirit of learning. The virtue of learning. Being open to learning new things. This is what my husband and most of us teachers aspire to do in our classrooms. We want our students to love learning, be curious, and develop critical thinking skills so they can navigate a barrage of information for themselves and seek out more information.

Reverend Harada talked about how in the Buddhist tradition, anyone and anything can be your teacher. He said, “But you have to have the mind and heart that wants to learn, that wants to receive teachings, in order to find such teachers in your life all around you.”

It’s not what we learn, but how we learn that matters the most. If we want to learn, everything in the world becomes our teachers. A pandemic. A police officer putting his knee on a man’s neck. Your annoying neighbors. A conversation with a stranger. We have to open our eyes and reflect deeply. Then, we must apply our knowledge.

In his talk, Reverend Harada pointed out that Kenneth was still teaching us about “living this one life in the most meaningful way that we can because we never know when this fragile life will be taken from us.”

The trauma of Kenneth’s unexpected death continues to influence our lives. My greatest teacher.

I closed my laptop and stared at Peter’s cherubic cheeks as he slept next to me. Even in the depth of loneliness since Kenneth’s passing, I can’t say I would have changed anything. And even when I sometimes feel like I am not where I want to be, I have to remind myself that this is probably just part of my journey. Maybe this is our next chapter. Maybe I’m still waiting for our next chapter. Maybe our lives are one neverending transition.

During a time of transition, risk management seems like a good strategy to deal with our discomfort. Playing it too safe won’t lead to change or progress or opportunity. Reckless disregard and denial won’t lead to progress either. In fact, it will perpetuate the status quo and/or inevitably make a situation worse. But intentionality during unknown times– that could be the answer.

By definition, risk management is identifying, evaluating, and prioritizing risks. Getting comfortable with being uncomfortable. Continuing to learn and be open to learning. Recalibrating. Striving to do better, without letting ourselves get stuck in one place. Embracing our suffering, learning from it, observing, reflecting, and doing better when we have more information.

I think this is how we grow.

In the words of the talented Anthony Bourdain: “Travel isn’t always pretty. It isn’t always comfortable. Sometimes it hurts, it even breaks your heart. But that’s okay. The journey changes you; it should change you. It leaves marks on your memory, on your consciousness, on your heart, and on your body. You take something with you. Hopefully, you leave something good behind.”

I live and breathe for traveling. I would have been in Japan and Thailand this summer on a grand adventure right now if we weren’t knee-deep in a pandemic. But even though I can’t travel right now, I am most definitely on a journey. Our lives are a journey, whether we get on an airplane or not. Right now is a journey. I have to remind myself of that every single day.

Kenneth used to quote Buckaroo Bonzai: No matter where you go, there you are.

Right now is our moment to leave something good behind– what will our legacy be? If we nurture a learning mindset and strive to do better, embracing the people we can become in the midst of struggle and turmoil, we can and will change the world. One person at a time, through our own personal growth.

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