Katie Li: Human


I started this year, wanting to remember how to be human.

Last January, with the Somewhere In Between launch coming to an end, I shared that I realized it’s not enough to publish a book. With all my goal-setting, list-making, big-dreaming ambition, I had forgotten that the point of writing was not just to produce a book, but to share something honest with the reader.

To be a writer—a good writer—you need to be human.

I had been so busy working that I forgot what it was like to be a wife or a friend, or even just a girl with her own hobbies and interests separate from her work and the people she loved. I had forgotten about the little tactile details—the simple triumph of cooking a new recipe or the excitement of waiting for a text or returning home at 3am when the streets are dark and cold and empty after a night of drinking and laughing with friends —that would enrich my writing and my life.

This year, my goal was to remember who I am when I’m not driven by ambition or entrenched in tasks that will help me get to “the next thing.” I wanted to live vulnerably and unapologetically and have the courage to share my thoughts and observations in my writing.  

2016 was a strange, if not fitting, year to set that goal.

This year, I left my hometown. Kyle and I dismantled the little life we had built for ourselves in Jamaica Plain, packed it in boxes and loaded it on a truck. We watched in the rearview mirror as we put distance between ourselves and the familiar. I knew when we decided to leave that, not only was I giving up a place, but part of my self.

I was the girl from Boston.

I lived in every corner of that city—trudging through the fens to get to school and breaking up under the clock on North Bennet Street or the trial by fire way I learned how to parallel park or late nights in Eastie, retreating to an apartment for movies and video games with the Tobin bridge looming and twinkling in the distance.

I could go to meet-ups and social gatherings with a feeling of confidence. I had things to talk about. I could be helpful, sharing my resources and connecting people with each other. If they were looking for a job, I had a lead. If they needed a chiropractor, I knew the best. If their in-laws were coming into town, I could recommend the most authentic, least touristy restaurants.  

I was a concierge, unstoppable with my knowledge.

I hardly know anything in Kansas City.

Six months later and I still have a feeling of uncertainty as I get into my car. I don’t have the confidence that I used to have. I recognize street names but not places. I don’t always know where I am going.

When I meet new people, I become a receptacle for their recommendations of bars and book stores and bakeries. I soak in what I can about the local history, but also know that this rote knowledge will never compare to the depth and complexity of my understanding of Boston, where the city’s history was part of my history.

Being an out-of-state transplant has disarmed me. It’s a little bit more difficult to make Katie Li: Human a priority over the consistent comfort of Katie Li: Writer, who has travelled with me ever since elementary school—through heartbreak and hope—across Massachusetts and around the globe.

But, even with writing, 2016 was hard.

As I was reflecting on this year before sitting down to write this post, I remembered a story idea that I had jotted down back in Boston. On a piece of yellow lined paper, I had the prompt to write a story about—

“When love isn’t enough”

I saw the note, over and over, but didn’t know how to turn it into a story. I eventually recycled it—not realizing that I was watching it unfold in real life.

We watched from our phones as our heroes died—
as fellow citizens were murdered by police—
as lives were lost in dance clubs and art houses—
as an ancient city was eviscerated—
as a spray tanned megalomaniac became leader of the free world.
My phone’s overly optimistic chime alerted me week after week to atrocities that knocked the wind out of me. There have been more days this year that I’ve found myself speechless, dismayed and without words, than ever before. There have been times when I wished that I wasn’t a writer, because it would be easier to not have to find the words. I wouldn’t feel the same burden of responsibility to speak out, the way I do now.

I wouldn’t have the same feeling of regret that I didn’t do more.

There was so much this year that needed to be said—and sometimes I lacked the courage to say it.

I would watch as my newsfeed filled with other writers and activists and friends, sharing posts and speaking out and articulating injustice and rage—and I felt a pang of shame for not doing more. I recognized my silence as cowardice. But I reassured myself, “It’s okay. You can be flawed. You’re only human.”

I have since decided that reassurance—that our flaws make us human—is a load of crap.

We can see the damaging results of letting our flaws define our humanity.

So many of us had put our faith in good over evil, that love would prevail.
Because that’s what all the stories had told us.
That’s how all the movies end.
The better part of our humanity could conquer the most twisted of our flaws.

We felt the impact of that naiveté after the Election, and we were reminded of it in waves each time Trump announced the nominees for his contrary and dangerous cabinet. With this crew, the endless loops of Trump’s conflicts of interest, and this “post-truth” landscape, I am not fooling myself into believing that we will find any “out with the old, in with the new” relief in 2017.

Next year will be hard.

When I think back to last January and my goals for 2016—“be authentic” “be vulnerable” “be human”—I shake my head at how reductive these ambitions were. I wasn’t just setting a goal with action steps that could be checked off a to do list, accomplished by the end of the year and forgotten by the beginning of the next—it was a task for a lifetime. Within the goal I set to improve my life was the very flaw that I had hoped to change.

I’ve decided that, what makes us human, is the impulse and resilience to do better despite our flaws.

Maybe it is still naive to take on tasks as big as save the world, stop the violence, smash the patriarchy, to end the diseases, the wars, the hunger, or to fight injustice, to protect the bees and the ocean and the rainforest and our water supplies and our healthcare system and our schools. Maybe the odds are stacked more against us with each passing year, and it feels like there are more problems than solutions, and we are tired or hopeless—

But we are compelled to try anyway.

And that is what makes us human.