Part 3 of a 4 part non-fiction essay entitled, "Seasons," by Ellen Chen
It’s hard to know that you love something (like, really love it) and reconcile the fact that your day job isn’t directly or even indirectly related to that very special something. There’s a lot of pressure to abandon a more predictable professional trajectory in pursuit of a career that reflects your individuality.
Despite popular opinion, monetizing your gifts is not a requisite for honoring them. Your job doesn’t have to be the main source of your personal fulfillment — it’s really not for a lot of people.
A great career empowers you to create opportunities to truly enjoy the people, interests, travels and creative pursuits that make you happy. Sometimes that looks like a more conventional job where you’re not necessarily ‘inspired’ every second.
Each Saturday, I invite people to share how they exercise their creativity in a way that works with their lifestyle.
This week’s Saturday Creative brings back the very first contributor, Ellen Chen. Ellen is sharing part 3 of her 4 part non-fiction essay entitled, Seasons.
In no particular order, Ellen is a proud mama, a Vice President at Goldman Sachs and a loving wifey. She also happens to be an immensely talented writer.
I ask every contributor for The Saturday Creative how they find time to be creative. Not surprisingly, Ellen had a perfect answer:
At the moment, I don’t have the time anymore to set aside structured time for creative endeavors like writing or visual art. What I can do each day are acts of love. It’s my belief that anything that is done from a place of love is tapping into the same lifeline as what fuels creativity. And so my plan is to continue to act in love as much as possible until I have a more structured platform upon which to unleash my creativity in a way that makes me feel more actualized professionally… I hope to get there one day. I’m working on it.
Thank you so much to Ellen for sharing this special work. I know you’ll love reading it (below), particularly during this special time of year when everything seems possible all over again.
There are few things I love more than seeing the way people channel their own unique creativity — do you have a creative way of cooking something, styling something, writing, painting, getting your kids to brush their teeth…there are endless ways to be creative, and the world is unequivocally a better place when those gifts are shared. If you’d like to contribute to The Saturday Creative, just send me an email with the subject line, “CONTRIBUTOR.”
Now, without further adieu:
Hope Springs Eternal
She always gives herself too little, and so it didn’t surprise me when my sister
told me that she was taking the Greyhound bus from DC to New York to visit me
for Easter. I had actually expected her to go a notch further down and take the
Chinatown bus, which had broken down on me the summer I took it after college.
Nicole’s insistence on discount travel made me think of the scene in the Joy Luck
Club where June’s mother finally tells June that of course she sees June’s style,
that she knows that June takes the worst-quality crab at dinner because June
has the best-quality heart. And yes, while I still mist over watching that scene,
I nevertheless wanted to see my own sister put an end to her acts of everyday
martyrdom and take the train.
Nicole was working at the time for a Christian non-profit based in DC and tasked
with abolishing human trafficking. I meanwhile had just moved back to New
York to start my second marriage with investment banking, so she was coming
to town to help me settle in. While we expected pleasant weather in the city for
the Easter weekend, Nicole would still be missing out on the peak of the cherry
blossoms in DC, and cherry blossoms are just her kind of thing.
Growing up Chinese women we generally felt guilty liking anything Japanese too
much, given the cultural rivalry and the Rape of Nanking. That said, my sister’s
personality, so given to extremes of childlike whimsy and monastic self-discipline,
was basically made for all things Japanese. She couldn’t help herself but
become the expert on which side of the sushi to pat in the soy sauce, and where
to find the best teddy-bear-in-a-squirrel-suit mobile phone charm, and when to
catch the abrupt bloom of Sakura Matsuri heralding spring on the Potomac.
I’m pretty sure it all began when she was in high school, and I was in junior
high, and our lives were dictated by the daily emotional warfare of our parents’
marriage ripping apart in the middle of our suburban home. While I showed the
world how I felt by losing one third of my body weight, Nicole instead retreated
to the inside, staring for hours at the television set in our family room while my
mother drove me to the psychologist and the nutritionist. Where once we had
spent our afternoons together singing duets from Les Misérables in preparation
for our careers on Broadway, now Nicole self-medicated with marathons of the
anime series Ranma 1⁄2 while I pored over the appendix of Food Cop: Yolanda,
Tell Us What to Eat, memorizing calories.
Sixteen years later, we sat together on the wood floor of my empty apartment
in the West Village, our laptops propped up on cardboard boxes, searching for
a couch. Since arriving in the city I had spent every weekend on a furniture-
finding mission, looking for pieces that would accurately channel the mid-century
spirit of my quirky apartment. So far I had the glass architect table and the
persimmon dining chairs, but the couch remained elusive. Everything I had seen
so far had been ghastly – overstuffed, multi-thousand dollar behemoths styled
for the Tuscan aspirations of mob wives, their acrylic fingernails clicking against
oversized wine glasses filled with Chardonnay and ice.
“How about this?” Nicole chirped helpfully from her cardboard box.
My eyes shifted slowly in her direction, expectations low for her design acumen
given the fact that the woman was still using the sheet set that had been issued
to her Freshman year at the dorms. But there it was on her Samsung minitop, a
vision in sand Belgian linen tucked and buttoned with such urbane flair around
the shape of a classic Chesterfield. I turned my astonished face to my sister who
was sitting cross-legged in a ruffled dress that clashed flagrantly with her hiking
sneakers and Cal hoodie. Where had this eye of hers been tucked away all this
“How did you find that?”
“I don’t know. You just said you wanted so I knew,” she shrugged, starting to
enjoy my surprise.
Could it be that I was seeing June’s style at last?
By the time I was eating normally again, Nicole was off to UC Berkeley where
electrical engineering and computer science majors, the Anime Expo, and
The New Church awaited her. At the time of her departure our family was still
getting it back together in the wake of our recent traumas, and I recall her high
school graduation dinner consisting of us eating leftovers out of Styrofoam
containers. It’s no wonder that she ran from our house and into the open arms of
a charismatic young programmer with a dashing ICQ username. When he broke
her heart, she then ran into the arms of Jesus, and never looked back.
“OH MY GOSH Ellen I am SO EXCITED that you are going to be seeing Tim
Keller preach for the first time!” she gushed, squeezing my arm and erupting into
manic giggles. “I downloaded all of his sermons and the last time I saw him, I
went up to him and told him how awesome he is… I’m like, a total fan-girl!”
The one big selfish part of Nicole’s trip to New York, her one Must, was that we
attend Easter service at Redeemer Presbyterian on the Upper East Side, where
their celebrity pastor Tim Keller would be giving the sermon. I hadn’t been to
church in a long time, and certainly not since I’d moved to New York, so I was
stunned to walk into Hunter College and see not a depressing auditorium but
rather a full tuxedoed orchestra behind enormous bouquets of flowers, the whole
thing pulled together like Carnegie Hall on gala night.
I also saw what looked like nice Christian men glancing in Nicole’s direction and
considered pointing this out to her, but decided against it. The topic of boyfriends
had become a sore subject since that first breakup so long ago had left her
heart fragile. Since then it seemed that she had decided to let God deal with the
messy affair of determining her lifetime companionship, which in my mind was
not a great approach. But seeing as how I had left off with Christianity where she
had begun, in her mind what did I know about God’s will? Then again, what did
she know about couches?
The orchestra wrapped up their symphonic Call to Worship, and then Tim Keller
stepped onstage to speak about The Resurrection.
When overcoming an eating disorder, it’s common for a person with one illness
to swing in the opposite direction, that is, for an anorexic to begin to compulsively
overeat. One evening, after I had sat alone in the kitchen for fifteen minutes
feeding myself one cracker after another until I had finished a second box, I
hauled myself upstairs to the bathroom, considered throwing up, decided not
to, and instead propped myself up on the counter so that I could inspect my
Nicole happened to walk by at that moment and poked her head in to ask what I
was doing sitting on the counter with my head against the mirror.
“I just binged Nicole. I ate two boxes of crackers downstairs.”
Still acclimating to the fact that at least I was now eating, I could tell that she was
apprehensive about saying anything that would imply that I shouldn’t be eating.
“Oh, rice crackers? That’s nothing. I’m sure it’s not so bad.”
“Look at me,” I said, lifting my T-shirt. “I’m so full I’m in pain.”
She couldn’t hide her grimace at the sight of my bony body with its localized rice
cracker lump. I looked like an emaciated snake that had swallowed a gerbil.
“Mmmm, well… Yes. You do look all full of food,” she admitted, letting out a sad
I tried to join in but felt like I couldn’t lift the weight of my face to form a smile.
The past year had taught me that the popularity I had enjoyed my entire life had
been a sham. It turned out that when I had lost as much weight as I had, when
a cavity had appeared in the center of my chest where no hole should be, when
I looked this clinically depressed, suddenly nobody in the world wanted to be my
friend. It was enough to make a thirteen-year-old girl feel pretty pessimistic. I
decided to confide in Nicole what I was afraid of. I knew that unlike my parents I
could trust her to neither over-react nor under-react, but just to listen and give me
her honest opinion.
“Nicole, I don’t think I can laugh anymore.”
“It’s just… nothing to me is funny anymore. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to laugh
I looked at her face in the mirror, waiting for the verdict. She seemed thoughtful,
pondering what I had been going through and what we had been going through
as a family.
Then suddenly without warning she tucked her hands into her armpits and
started flapping her wings and wobbling her legs, strutting up and down the
bathroom chanting, “I feel like Chicken Tonight! Like Chicken Tonight! CHICKEN
I remember thinking as I watched her that such a ridiculous joke was not really
that funny, but I was so caught by surprise, so taken aback by the commitment
with which she was flapping her wings and spinning her legs up and out like a
frog, that it was just too much to take. The laugh broke over me like a tidal wave.
I was wailing, howling, tears streaming down my face, crumpled over my cracker-
distended stomach, shaking with unbridled, life-affirming, soul-sustaining laugher.
“What’s so funny?” Nicole asked, watching me snort into my teacup. Usually I’m
the one having to snap her out of her daydreams during a meal. After church, we
had walked down Lex, which was blooming with spring, and sat down for brunch
at Alice’s Tea Cup. A perfect breeze had lifted the blossoms from the trees and
snowed down upon us petals of pink and white.
“I was just thinking about the chicken dance you did for me, remember? When I
thought that I would never laugh again?”
“Oh God, when you were anorexic? That was horrible,” she said, grimacing once
again, shaking off the image of the snake that had swallowed the gerbil.
“But I knew that you would laugh again.”
Just like I know that you will love again, I thought.
But how was I going to demonstrate that to her now? Now that a sea of doctrine
further separated two siblings who had already grown apart from the process of
adulthood. I wondered how could I show her that if she would only open herself
to the world, with all its ugliness and disappointments, that she would eventually
receive the best-quality love, because she has the best-quality heart.
Later that afternoon, I put my sister in a cab headed for the Greyhound bus
terminal. I watched the taxi stream away down 7th Avenue, joining the sea of
yellow cabs flashing in the sun like a school of sardines.
The thing about the spring is the mystery of its timing. I really don’t know when
the cherry blossoms will bloom in DC, and I don’t know when my sister will bloom
either, but I do know that whether early or late, the bloom is sure to be exquisite.
I would give my sister anything, but if I had to choose one thing, I would give her
what she gave me, a hope that springs eternal.–