On kindness

Family & Friends, Me, Other Peoples' Writing

I have this Word document called “Things I read and liked,” and when I read something that speaks to me, I log it there for safekeeping. There are quotes about many things, but recently I have been thinking a lot about the meaning of kindness and forgiveness and compassion. We are all trying to figure out how to “do” life, and we are all human—and being human isn’t easy. I wanted to share some of the quotes I’ve saved on this subject below:

Someone I don’t know, a long time ago – the origin is argued over – said, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”

Pablo Neruda said, “Let us forget with generosity those who cannot love us.”

Joanna Goddard, blogger at Cup of Jo, once wrote that her mother often tells her, “Take gentle care of yourself.”

I have a friend who told me that you have to make your own sunshine, something she demonstrates every time I see her. “You’re capable,” she told me, and I think of that often.

To me, all the wisdom in these quotes comes down to being kind—to yourself and to others, and having some understanding and compassion for people. It is hard to be human, and even with the best intentions, you don’t always get it right. And occasionally even the most reasonable, the kindest people can act out of anger or selfishness or hurt. We can try to get closer to perfection, but to be human, I think, is to be imperfect—which makes kindness and compassion and forgiveness very useful skills.

As with most everything in my life, I have researched this—whatever “this” is: becoming the best version of yourself, happiness, enlightenment, self-actualization, whatever. I have done a lot of fieldwork on it too (i.e. living my life). Surfing, for instance, has humbled me; it has given me a greater ability to laugh at myself, to live in the moment, and to realize that you cannot fight the waves – literally or figuratively. I am a very small part of an enormous world and no matter how big my problems seem the ocean is still much larger and more powerful and could easily swallow me up, and some currents (literal or figurative) are very strong and you just have to figure out a way to ride them out without going under. But it seems to me that kindness can make it easier to ride those (literal or figurative) waves—when someone accidentally gets in someone else’s way, when someone unintentionally offends.

So yes, being forgiving, being kind to others, is a very wise and good thing to do, I think. But it’s also necessary to extend that kindness to yourself. (When I have to balance the two, however, is where I have trouble–but that is a struggle for another post.) And I like and believe in the idea that happiness comes from within. You cannot control what other people do; you can only control yourself, and decide how to react.

I am sure I have said this before on this blog, but every day I am living reinforces the fact that the only person I am with, and will be with, for the rest of my life, every waking moment, is Ann Kaiser. So it is not only necessary, but smart, to get to know her, and to try to like her. There are things in my life that I wish I’d have done differently, things I wish I had said or hadn’t said, but the only things I truly regret are the things I did knowing they were unkind or thoughtless.

In realizing this, I know now, for the most part, what I am about. And, as I have gotten to know myself, I have tried to make the woman I am match up to the woman I want to be. They’ve both changed over time, but they seem to be on a good trajectory, coming closer and closer together over the last 29.5 years. But they are not the same, and probably never will be, and some days I feel OK with that.

As I write this, though, I wonder if I have gotten a little too philosophical and if in aiming to be so “kind” and “forgiving” I am just avoiding having to actually deal with things. Maybe I’d get really bored if I was totally enlightened and had nothing to worry about. But then again, can so many philosophers, and poets, and mothers be wrong about this?

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RBG

Me, Other Peoples' Writing, Work

Last night I went to see RBG, the documentary about Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg. I knew she had a reputation for being a great dissenter, but I didn’t realize that she had been championing women’s rights since she started her law career over 60 years ago.

As a student at Harvard Law, she and her female classmates were asked by the Dean of the school how they could justify taking a spot that could have been filled by a qualified man. When she graduated from Columbia Law in 1959 (she had transferred there to be in New York), no law firm in New York City would hire her because she was a woman. Women were treated differently than men based solely on their gender, and there weren’t many (or maybe any) laws to protect them against this discrimination.

As I walked home from the movie, which I paid for with the money I made myself; an un-chaperoned woman wearing pants, it struck me that I take a lot of things for granted that the women who came before me worked very, very hard for. And in a way, wouldn’t they be happy about that? But on the other, it made me consider my place in history. There is still much left to do—how am I helping?

Not everyone will be a trailblazer—many heroes (and heroines) are made because they were put in unacceptable circumstances, and they had to act. RBG didn’t start out trying to become a Supreme Court justice. She wasn’t even trying to raise hell. She saw that the way women were being treated was unfair, and wanted to give us equal rights, equal pay and equal opportunity. She is described as serious, and quiet, and shy. She didn’t go to marches or rallies. But when she was put in unacceptable circumstances, she could not not act.

I think that great leaders (and great dissenters) are made one decision at a time. You only have to decide to speak up when you see an injustice, even though it may be scary to. It is not easy—and perhaps especially for women, who are generally told to be nice. But then, once you flex that muscle once, maybe the second time is easier. And then maybe the third time, easier than the second.

I feel a deeper sense of responsibility now, in these times, to speak up. But it doesn’t always have to be speaking out against a huge injustice. I think change can be made in smaller ways: spending time mentoring a younger person, encouraging friends and colleagues to ask for more at work and at home. The community of women (and many, many men who see women as equals) is a powerful one–we just have to keep moving things forward, one day, one decision at a time.

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How to be happy (?)

Me, Other Peoples' Writing

There was a poster in my 4th grade classroom with this quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson, and at 9 years old, I thought it sounded pretty good:

“To laugh often and much; To win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; To earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; To appreciate beauty, to find the best in others; To leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition; To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.”

This quote has always been a favorite of mine. Maybe it’s because even as a 4th grader, I thought this seemed pretty attainable, like something anyone, even a kid, could do. I think it was probably the first quote that I wrote down, because it seemed important at the time. Over the years I have added many quotes to this list, but this one remains, almost 20 years later.

For the past few weeks, I have been taking an online course on the psychology of happiness. You may have read about it – it was given at Yale and became the most popular class ever offered at the University. When it became available for free online, I thought, well why not? (As I later learned, Curiosity is one of my top Character Strengths.) So far we’ve learned what doesn’t make you happier (money, marriage, a good job, the expensive cars and cocktails mentioned in popular music), but it seems to me that we’re going to learn that it’s “the little things” (to laugh often and much; a garden patch) that make for a better life long-term. (I’ll report back in a few weeks.)

One of our assignments for this week is to practice “savoring” (really being present and enjoying something–a hot shower, a good meal, a long walk) and “gratitude” (taking a moment each day to thing about what you are grateful for–your warm bed, your friends), which I suspect will make us happier. I have always felt very lucky that I seem to have been born pretty happy. But now, as I write this, I wonder if some of that came from the example of my parents, who do savor the little things, and who do practice gratitude. The joy I experience from things like opening the windows and letting in fresh air, or lingering over a cup of coffee, or taking a long walk–or you know when a sip of Coke tastes really, really good?–comes directly from their example (or maybe it’s hereditary?).

There are times, though, that I have to work at being happy. At this particular moment, it’s a little more up-and-down than usual. But as I write this, I am sitting in the window of a cafe with a cup of coffee, and I’m watching the families of Park Slope walk by, and some of them are bringing fresh air inside the cafe as they come and go, and I know everything is, and is going to be, just fine.

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Girl Power

Me

My sister Claire recently told me that I have curly hair. I have since become obsessed with this fact.

She has been on a “journey” to embrace and beautifully manage her own curly hair, and now I have joined her. I have probably spent 40% of my life since the initial reveal talking about, styling or researching products for my hair. (I should say though, that I love researching things before I buy them. Last month I spent many hours at Sephora, Bluemercury and this really upscale pharmacy in Brooklyn testing out cream blushes to find the perfect pink-but-kind-of-peachy, bright-so-you-look-healthy-but-not-so-bright-that-you-look-like-a-clown cheek color (RMS Lip2Cheek in “smile”)).

But anyway, the thing I wanted to tell you is that I have really been amazed and kind of moved by the number of people who go through the trouble of making YouTube videos or writing product reviews about their curly hair, so others don’t have to make the same mistakes they did. Now, you will say, Ann, they just want social media followers! And for DevaCurl to send them free hair products!

To you, I say, Most of them will never reach that level of influence, so I believe that it’s coming from a place of caring and helpfulness. And people are complicated and maybe it’s a little bit of both.

It’s also reminded me how nice – and necessary – it is to be connected to other people, to exchange information and give and get support. You never know what someone else will have to tell you. You never know who might have that nugget of information that suddenly makes everything else “click.” And I have often been surprised at the number of people who have made time to chat with me or share with me. And it’s often the people at the top – those who you would think didn’t have the time – who have responded the fastest and opened up their schedules.

I am going to make a general statement that you may disagree with: Women do this more than men. In my experience, women at every level of power are more generous with their time and advice, and more genuine in giving it, than men – in general. I will forever remember going to the Women’s March in Washington DC. All of those women, packed together on the streets of DC, and there was no fighting, no pushing or tripping. There were groups helping other groups move through the crowd without losing each other. There were groups singing peaceful, joyful songs. I am tearing up just writing this down, and I don’t care if I sound crunchy.

The longer I am alive – maybe it’s as you get older – the more I see that it’s hard to be human. There is no right answer. Nobody knows what they’re doing. And the older you get, the more you kind of figure this out – and I think it makes you a little more inclined to help someone else out. I believe that most people want to pay it forward, and save you from making their mistake – whether it’s using a shampoo with sulfates (a HUGE mistake for “curly girls” I have learned) or a million other things.

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“The Writing Year”

Me

Hello again.

I’m sure you’ll all be very happy to know that I have indeed been writing since I last posted. The problem is that what I have written has mostly been unpolished scribblings of me sorting through small private problems – in a word, “unpublishable.” But I have decided that 2018 will be “The Writing Year” for me, because I love writing, and also because when I do it, I find I am a more focused, calmer person, and this allows me to be kinder and more patient with everyone around me. So, in an effort to just get on with it, I am abandoning originality and doing the same post everyone is doing – a list of my “resolutions.”

Let me preface this by saying that all of the things on this list are pieces of the larger goal of becoming “the woman I want to be.” When I think of her, the ideal Ann, I think of myself sitting in a café, in a white button-down shirt, with very clear skin, tapping away at my laptop – alternately thinking through and sorting out problems, and publishing other work in Vanity Fair. This Ann is happy, she is hydrated, she is kind and gentle and patient with people, she is smart and funny but polite, and she owns exactly the right clothes for every occasion and not one stitch extra; she is adventurous and she reads and writes constantly. She is, essentially, full of life, and totally alive. And so to that end, to become this lovely, lively version of myself, I have made these resolutions for 2018:

  • Prioritize getting 8 hours of sleep (most nights)
  • Submit essays somewhere
  • Take care of your back
  • Don’t buy any new clothes — you do not need them
  • Use up the lipsticks, lip balms, lotions and potions you already have
  • Get dressed for the day – you feel nicer when you look nice
  • Travel
    • Possible solo trip?
    • London in May
  • Address work stress √
  • Continue skincare routine
  • Continue saying no to things that do not make you happy
  • Continue swing dancing education
  • Continue surfing

Overall, I want to continue getting rid of things that don’t make me happy, and continue doing things that do make me happy. In the last couple of months, I have done a social media purge and unfollowed people and deleted apps that either distract or deplete me. I have ruthlessly cleaned out my closet and gotten rid of all the clothes that I never wear or never want to wear (and I did make a little bit of money consigning them!). I want to get rid of all the little distractions that take away from what I really want to be doing – writing, reading, really living in the world and having technology-free evenings with friends and family.

Life is happening RIGHT NOW. I don’t want to look back on this year and realize I spent 20% of it on my phone, browsing the J. Crew website for clothes I don’t need, or looking at Facebook pages of people I haven’t spoken to in 5 years. I think the key to this is to give myself the time to sleep, to write, to stretch, so I can be a kinder, more patient person. And I want to do all of this wearing one of the three button-down shirts I just brought to the cleaners to get all crisped up. I can learn to iron in 2019.

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Would You Send Me Your Favorite Quotes?

Other Peoples' Writing

I haven’t posted in months, but it is not for lack of trying! I’ve started handful of posts, but nothing is really coming together.

But I have had an idea – I turn 29 next Tuesday, and I want this year to be one full of writing. I wonder if my readers could send me their favorite quotes (about anything – aging, friendship, love, work, loss) in the hope that the words of other writers will unlock something in my head.

You can email me or leave them in the comments – I will appreciate every single one!

In the meantime, have a great weekend!

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Can Good Things Get Away?

Boys, Family & Friends, Other Peoples' Writing, Work

I often reread a letter John Steinbeck wrote to his son. The line that stays with me: “Nothing good gets away.”

Last week I cracked open a fortune cookie: “Don’t wait for your ship to come in, swim out to it.” I kind of liked that too.

Can both sentences be true? At first they seemed at odds, but now I think they may be two parts of the same story. Maybe nothing good gets away, but you still have to throw your hat in the ring, don’t you — for the job, for the guy, for the record deal? Good things can get away, maybe, if you don’t go after them. There are lots of fish in the sea, yes — but you have to throw a line.

Sometimes I wonder if I’m not swimming hard enough. Should I be submitting these essays somewhere? Should I be saving more diligently? Should I be looking harder for Mr. Right? Should I be backpacking around the world instead of doing the 9-to-5 thing?

But I’ve now and then examined and appraised each alternative version of my life, and decided, “No, not right now,” and put each back in the top drawer, closed it up until the next bad day at work, the next important birthday, the next reminder of my mortality, when I pull them out to reexamine and reassess. The truth is that nothing is stopping me from quitting my job and hopping the next plane to Bogotá. If I wanted to, I could make it my project to get married in the next year. I could be submitting pieces all over town. But I guess I don’t really want to do any of those things right now. That’s what I come back to, I just don’t want any of that bad enough.

Anyone familiar with my particular configuration of neuroses knows that when I really want something, I’m obsessive. I swim (thrash) out to it. I am historically quite relentless in my pursuit of what I really, really want. (This may be why I feel a certain masochistic delight in paddling out with my surfboard through a set of waves that keep holding me back, pushing me under—ha ha, waves! I know I’m going to get beyond the break, even if I get warped for 15 minutes. Once I have decided to do something, I am doing it.)

I don’t want to regret not going for it, whatever ‘it’ is. In my youth (This is still funny right? Because I’m still in my youth, right?), I spent a lot of time worrying about “what other people would think.” And while I was worrying about what the other seventh graders thought of my dance moves, maybe I did let good things get away. Happiness doesn’t just appear; you create the circumstances, don’t you? And sometimes good things do just show up, but you’ve still got to smile at them, don’t you?

I think you have to swim out to your ship, but that’s only half of the story. If what you’re swimming to is right, it will stick — a job, a friend, a partner, a flattering style of dress, a number-one radio single.

Sometimes, maybe you’ll mistake someone else’s ship for your own. In that case, even if it feels almost right, let it get away. The Good ship (Lollipop?), your ship (mine is surely called The Good Ship Lollipop) is probably just beyond the break.

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Getting Noticed

Boys

I’ve discovered something recently: I think I value thoughtfulness most in people, and to have someone in your life who not only tries to avoid doing things that will make you unhappy, but who actively tries to make you happy, is an extraordinary thing.

Although in a romantic partner I think it becomes even more important, it has been the thoughtful actions of friends that have revealed this to me. I’ll give you an example of what I mean: Once, I had invited people over for dinner, but got caught up at work and was running really late. My roommate texted: “I cut up all the ingredients for dinner and preheated the oven. I know you’re running late and you’re going to be stressed.” Almost cried I was so relieved.

Another: I had lunch with two friends, and realized upon sitting down at their nearby apartment that I’d forgotten my umbrella at the restaurant. One of them wordlessly laced her shoes back up and dashed out of the apartment to retrieve it.

It’s someone noticing you’re uncomfortable at a party, and coming over to stand next to you. It’s someone noticing that you keep reaching across the table for the butter, and pushing it toward you. It’s someone remembering that you like HAIM, and adding it to his playlist when you’re around. It’s someone really listening to you, really paying attention.

It’s nothing big, ever. But I think it’s the accumulation of little kindnesses that, for me, solidify friendships, and I wonder if it’s been the lack of them (on my part or the suitor in question) that has halted budding romances.

As I have only recently put my finger on this quality, it’s hard to say whether it’s been a deal-breaker with previous dates, but I have started to notice that many people who are close to me have it, and many others who have passed through and out of my life do not.

But I don’t think people are even consciously doing these thoughtful things most of the time. In romances, I think “it” is there or it’s not, and if “it” is, you naturally do nice things for one another. You remember so-and-so likes this author, or wanted to try that restaurant, or loves carousels or sunsets or whatever, and you’re delighted to delight them by making plans around what they like. Am I simplifying? Someone tell me. I’m really asking.

Many of us have rehashed and analyzed and tried to figure out “where it all went wrong” upon receiving the standard breakup text about the lack of “connection,” (or about being “very busy the next few weeks” or just not being “ready for a relationship right now”), but it’s a waste of time (though I like to brood for 24 hours when sloughed off by a love interest – then, onto the next). I don’t think there’s a moment where you could have said something different and changed the entire trajectory of the relationship. I think if someone doesn’t want to see you again, it probably just wasn’t there. And there’s literally nothing you can do about it. And isn’t that actually kind of a comfort? So take a moment, weep for what was never, ever going to be, and then move on.

No one can control to whom they are magnetized, and this should also be a comfort after a fledgling relationship dissolves. Proof: Haven’t we all overlooked the mediocre table manners of someone we really liked, but been much harsher on the new haircut of someone we didn’t? Haven’t you rearranged your schedule to make plans with someone you were interested in? No? You’re lying.

I think this is a healthy attitude to carry into the new season: Summer’s just begun. Possibility is in the air. There’s so much jilting ahead. So — come at me, (thoughtful) bros.

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My Fifth Grade “Manifesto”

Family & Friends, Me


AK 10-ish

The “shady lady” herself


In cleaning out my closet “back home” last weekend, I discovered an 18-year-old school assignment in a red binder, an “autobiography” I produced when I was ten years old. The girl-writer considered herself a “semi-athlete” and imagined herself working as a fashion designer in London when she grew up, but in the present, well, let me just give you some of the best lines:

In describing my sister, Claire, then 9 years old:
“She has many friends, (but to tell you the truth, I don’t know how she keeps them all, with her attitude.)”

In response to the prompt: I’d like to tell my teacher…
“that we all have lives to[o]. We don’t go home to paradise. It’s not just adults that are stressed out, kids are too.”

In describing my mother, likened to an object (I guess this was part of the assignment):
“My mom is like a picture on a mantle. Very neat and never does anything wrong. You never know she there but she’s watching from the mantle. She’s always carefully watching you, and will find out what you don’t tell from another sibling, who is mad at you.”

I was also keen to tell my friends that, “I can be serious too. Some of them still don’t know that, so sometimes I get treated unfairly and not nicely and I’m usually left out of the serious conversation because I’m too silly…I am a human being. Not a doll that you can do whatever you want with, or hit. No, I’m not those things. I’m Ann Kaiser, and I’m registered as an American citizen, so I’d like to be treated that way.” [Editor’s note: What the hell was going on in the fifth grade that year?]

I was, of course, hysterical, as was the rest of my family, as I read them selections of one of my earliest works, basically a Burn Book in which they featured prominently.

I sometimes remember myself as a sweet, sort of shy child, existing in a misty goodness and vague undeveloped personality, but as evidenced by the slanderous illustrated work of non-fiction that I constructed–and boldly handed in to a teacher–as a 10-year-old, I was kind of a bitch. And honestly I feel a little good about it–like, definitely embarrassed, but also like, hey this chick is weird and individual and insecure but demands some goddamn respect. 

But the core of “me” really hasn’t changed, I just understand myself better now. I see myself in context. I’m not measuring myself against siblings or classmates or friends, and the slights and opinions of other people don’t make dents in me in the way they did 18 years ago. Really I just care a lot less if people think I am silly or dumb or untalented or un-athletic or whatever it is.

But I remember it all. I remember feeling misunderstood, I remember being on the fringes of popularity. I remember being the only girl in the class not invited to a pool party around that time, and I remember crying in the family mini-van after school when one of my teacher’s made fun of me in front of the whole class after I mixed up a presentation on the valves of the heart. I remember wanting long hair very badly because mine was short and people told me it looked liked a boy’s, and I remember being told I wasn’t good at math, and I remember trying to find an identity–was I a pretty girl, an athlete, a musician, a smart girl? I remember being called silly and people thinking I was stupid because I giggled a lot. I remember being called “nice” and not really liking the implication of that. I remember it all because the girl who wrote that book is still in here somewhere, and although I have grown up and into a thicker skin, of course I sometimes still care what other people think. The difference is that now, I’ve got a hard candy shell off which most insults and criticisms bounce (a few can crack it, though). I see now that adults don’t have all the answers–they’re just people!–and kids have even fewer. Now, I give more weight to the opinions of people I admire, who I think are good and fair and can see me, and much less weight to the type of person who would still exclude one classmate from her pool party, if given the chance (where were her parents!, that’s what I think now). I see how much I value kindness now, and compassion, and the feeling that someone “gets” me.

If I could go back and tell that girl-writer how things would turn out, I wouldn’t. She figures it out, and taking her sweet time in doing it has made the lessons stick. Some of the things she was insecure about are what this woman-writer loves most about her: I do laugh a lot, but I love to laugh! I love a boy-cut haircut now, and have chosen to wear one at different times even though I’m a girl. What do you think of that?

To look back on a ten-year-old’s version of my life is funny, but humbling–I know I wrote this, and you don’t grow up and become someone completely different; you don’t, at age 18, cast off all doubt and insecurities and suddenly become the complete, “finished” adult version of yourself. You are never finished–but I think you can get better with age.

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Decisions, Decisions

Me

I was talking to a friend recently about this idea that any one decision could set your life on a completely different course. She was very worried about making the “wrong” choices, but how can you really ever know what’s wrong or right? You’ll never get to go back and choose the other way. You can only make a decision with the information you have at the time.

It made me think of a couple of books on writing I’ve been reading over the last couple of months. All of them say the same thing about developing the story: Get to know your characters, let them reveal themselves to you, and let them go. Don’t try to contrive a plot – it will be obvious if you’re trying to fit a square peg in a round hole. Just let the characters tell you what they want to do, and let everything shake out how it wants to.

To me, that seems a pretty good road map for the real story of one’s life: Get to know the characters – most importantly, the main one, yourself – and then see how it all shakes out. You can’t control the other characters, you can only discover what decisions you make in each moment, and let the rest unfold. Every choice I make is just building this wonderful story that is just mine, maybe the only thing that belongs just to me.

It really cuts down on worrying, when you think of it this way. (Plus everyone knows that the stuff that’s really worth worrying about is the stuff that sucker punches you out of the blue, the stuff you never could have foreseen.)

But if bad things can happen without warning, so can really good things. Planning everything out – I will get X job, I will fall in love at X age with X type of person, and then we’ll get married in Savannah in June and have X number of kids and then in X years move to the suburbs – that seems a little boring, doesn’t it? Aren’t the best stories the ones with twists? (And in most stories, they’re coming, whether you like it or not.) Isn’t truth stranger than fiction sometimes, and how exciting is that!? I’d like to get to 50 and 70 and 95 and think, geez I never saw half of that coming, what a life.

Sometimes, I think back to “this time last year” and catalog of all the things I had no idea were coming my way, good and bad, and I have to say, I wouldn’t go back and change much (and there’s really no point rehashing – many an author has cringed about lines in an already-published book, but once it’s printed, there’s no more editing). I am kind of tickled to know that there was a time when I didn’t know my closest friends, a time before I discovered J.D. Salinger’s stories about the Glass family, a time before I even dreamed of living in New York. On January 1, 2016, I didn’t even know I’d be going to South Africa that summer, had not even a twinkle of an idea that I’d be flying to Oslo a few months afterward. (I also didn’t know that a cut of meat the waitress just called “gland” was considered a “very good cut” in Stockholm, and had I known, I would not have ordered the sliders there – but you win some, you lose some.)

You can only make decisions with the information you have at that moment, and I just try to make decisions that will make me happy (and, hopefully, make other people happy too). I don’t know if I’ll regret anything down the line. I don’t know if I’ll wish I had done X, Y, or Z now, when I am 38 or 48 (except I am sure I would regret not wearing sunblock – so I do, all the time). How can I know? At age 18, I had no idea what I’d be like or what my life would be like at 28 – but I think Ann-at-18 would have been thrilled. I can never go back and ask myself, though. Ann-at-38 won’t be able to ask of her previous iterations either. Who knows where she’ll be? Who knows who she’ll be? I just hope I can keep writing and find out.

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