The unanswerable “how are you?”, or, on writing a blog post after not having done so in nine months

The other day a friend asked how I was doing. We hadn’t had a real conversation in months, maybe even a year, and when I asked her first, she paused a long time, thinking. But she gave a concise answer, alluding to larger events and themes we didn’t have time to discuss while supervising four children at a large park. (Three of them are hers!) When she posed the question to me, I said, “I’m doing well. I think. Yes. Well. I think.” She nodded and left me space to elaborate, but I didn’t know how to begin. 

For much of the past three years, it felt impossible to answer the how-are-you question because everything was so chaotic and overwhelming and, frequently, so bad on so many levels. But my January 2023 non-answer didn’t come from that place. Things are better for me in just about every possible way, and a lot of it’s better in a way that bodes well for the future, not just the current moment, which is maybe the best possible version of “better”. And I say that even though I started drafting this post through pain from an unexpected back spasm, my first in awhile. I really am doing well. And yet that doesn’t feel like an honest answer. Days later, a better one came to me while I was doing something else, I can’t remember what, chopping vegetables or some such: it’s layered.

At least two kinds of fungi on a fallen branch on the forest floor

There’s the easy, immediate layer, the one I would offer a casual friend: oh, things are going well, Owl likes school, I’m getting back into writing and painting, Erik is doing fine, our families are in good health, thank you. Depending on context, I might also offer some additional current-moment observations: we’ve had so much rain lately, here’s how I spent my day before seeing you, I had this really yummy food yesterday, aren’t the kids playing so nicely together? During a longer meetup, like a coffee date or a walk, I might dip into the thicker top layer, the things that have been on my mind over the past month: I started acupuncture and I didn’t know what to expect but I honestly feel like it’s shifting something important in my relationship to my body, I made a painting for a lunar wall calendar and I’m really proud of it, we’ve been switching up Owl’s extracurricular activities and I never imagined I’d be the kind of parent where they’re doing so many activities but somehow that happened, and also, first grade social dynamics are really different than in kindergarten! Or, maybe: we’ve been enjoying these shows (a serious one and a funny one), I read this thought-provoking/funny/super comforting book. To a good friend, if we had enough time, I would also complicate some of the immediate-layer items: Owl likes school but I’m concerned about ____, we’re all in good health although there’s also ______, I’m proud of my recent creative work but I’m also not so sure about ______. 

And then, at the core of all of the layers, is the thing: I think about my mortality every day. I’m in early middle age and my body offers up constant reminders, anxieties, questions, comments; my parents and in-laws are getting older (elderly, even, depending who you ask) and we spend less time with them than we used to; Owl is growing up, fast. Change is a fact, and how I feel about it doesn’t make it escapable. Actually, I can go even deeper into the core and admit that I don’t know how I feel about it, and I don’t know if I’m supposed to be living my life differently, carpe-ing all the diems, checking off a bucket list etc etc. But that’s an awfully direct “how are you?” answer. Tricky for a scattered asynchronous text thread or a tea break squeezed in between other appointments, even with a good friend. 

Two adults walk holding a child's hands on a sunny California trail

I did have the chance to go there, a couple weeks ago, over the course of a rare three-hour hangout with a friend I talk about this stuff with. It made sense because I know she thinks about this too, maybe just as often as I do, and our friendship has always been the kind where “thinking about mortality” is a completely equivalent how-are-you answer to “I lost it with the kids this morning” or “a wonderful thing happened this week”. I guess what I mean is it’s not a new conversation, it’s a continuation of one we’re always having. Shortly after we sat down to dinner she said, “Who knows how much time any of us has left?” 

I sighed and said, “I think about that all the time, and then I sit around on my phone all afternoon. Why? Why?? When there is NO TIME???” 

She said, “Weren’t you telling me you read a book about this?” (I read that book last June.) 

“Yes,” I said. “And it was such a good book. But I still don’t know how to bridge the gap between everything I want to do, and how tired I am.” 

“I know,” she said. “It’s so much, just getting through each day.” 

“And that is important work, too,” I added. 

“Well,” she said, “I think we start with this.” She gestured at the two of us getting together for the first time since I think last October (we live a mile and a half from each other), the delicious small spread of dumplings and fried chicken and fun drinks on the table, the lively crowd and friendly servers, the cuteness of the not-quite-year-old restaurant, the art supplies we’d brought to play with after dinner. 

“I think you’re right,” I said. 

She clinked her IPA against my can of sparkling guava rose probiotic something or other, and we ate grilled mochi and talked about our kids’ teachers and whether we like them, our upbringings and how they still affect us, and the importance of honoring our needs — before circling back to mortality, over and over throughout the evening. 

A stack of about two dozen notebooks and journals in different colors and materials, with different bindings

Thinking about it now, I realize that my blog posts are basically also an answer to “how are you?” Except this time my articulations will go out to lovely, cherished friends as well as to total strangers, and perhaps most importantly, to myself of the future, and all of that is its own challenge. 

Again, we start with this: I am well. There’s a conversation I had with my therapist in December, in which she pointed out that for the first time in a long while, my cup was full. I realized she was right. From a place of exhausted depletion (thanks to parenting and the pandemic and just like… being the kind of person I am), I’ve been clawing myself up and out, and I’m lucky to have fewer roadblocks than most people. And now I’m actually not burned out all the time (at least not more than is a given under late-stage capitalism). I have everything I need, and quite a lot of what I want. That’s huge.

And yet my intentions for 2023 were to take better care of myself and not get as overwhelmed, because looking back on 2022, I recognize that I constantly felt like I was behind on everything — which doesn’t make any sense because I don’t have a paid job, my classroom volunteering takes two hours a week, and my one child is remarkably self-sufficient. I don’t even own a house. What do I have to feel behind about? I was thinking it’s just me, because I make projects out of nothing and process everything so intensively and put so much effort into all of my commitments. But after reading old posts and Facebook updates it occurs to me that this is likely also a pandemic/Trump post-traumatic brain space, where I’m struggling to relax the (sometimes life-or-death) vigilance of three years: why should anything feel easy or uncomplicated, like it could just be okay, like I don’t have to work continuously to offset the impact (since the problems themselves feel unfixable)? Even the early parts of the post-vax pandemic, when we would say to each other, “We’re all going to be at least a little traumatized by this,” feel like so long ago it’s almost as if those people’s predictions have nothing to do with the people we now are. But we are those people. And the pandemic isn’t over, even if it’s supposedly no longer a world health emergency. Racism isn’t over; the climate crisis isn’t over; civilization is crumbling in so many places. Against a backdrop like that, where do my own needs and desires fit? Or the day-to-day concerns of parenting? 

I’m also realizing, having left this post for a couple of days and read some delightful fiction about 20- and 30-somethings in the meantime, there’s another reason I find blogging harder than I used to, and that’s my privacy. I do not want to say that my concerns were less complicated in my 20s and 30s; that’s disrespectful to the real worries younger people have. But I find it harder now to reveal so much about myself in public (even as I have less embarrassment in general; I mean, I shared my birth story). Some of that’s the way the Internet has changed since I first started blogging: the way social media has exploded into a force that can take down governments, the degree of scrutiny and perpetuity (and vitriol) we can apply to anyone who dares post anything, the saturation of information and opinion and misinformation and just plain whatever, all the tracking and surveillance, our growing understanding of where all of this could go (or has gone, already). A couple dozen (at most) readers of my LiveJournal was one thing, and often very sweet. But I don’t want the current version of the internet to know my deepest thoughts, all collected in one place for anyone to mine as they will. 

And also, I just… don’t owe anyone those thoughts. It felt meaningful, as a younger person, to explore who I was becoming in a way that other people could witness. I don’t feel like that anymore (and I don’t feel that our internet is a good witness). I have insights with 41 years of experience behind them; those are precious, and I deserve to choose with whom I share them. That also means the things that trouble, fascinate, and confuse me are conundrums that 41 years of living can’t offer easy answers to, and why should I offer those up freely either? Writing about oneself for other people’s eyes requires a careful balance of vulnerability and self-protection, and the more vulnerable you allow yourself to be, the more you need the armor.

I still want to do it, though. In fact, writing my current self is a counter-action to the looming mortality and its baggage. It says, “Here I am, now,” and when I go back and reread my posts at some later date, they say, “And I was there, then.” It forces me to pay attention (this is also why it’s hard). And as my yoga teacher said once, all we have in this life is our attention. We are what we observe. Or, perhaps more accurately, what we observe shapes who we become, and so, in blogging my thoughts, year after year, I write my future self into being. And then I get the gift of having documented it.

Chinese ink and Western watercolor landscape of a seaside cliff, with a handwritten character for summer (Hsia) and a name seal stamped in the corner, by Lisa Hsia