“I’m just saying! ‘New Tea, New Me. Numi.’ It’s got rhymes, alliteration, and word play. I’d buy it just for that slogan.”

This ingenious conversation is just one snippet of the many memories I have from my freshman year of college, seated with my friends in the Rachel Carson/Oakes Dining Hall, enjoying our 10:45 p.m. Numi-brand tea. 

It was my favorite weekday ritual for a quarter and a half, until it ended abruptly in March 2020. 

Three years later, my graduation from UC Santa Cruz is staring me right in my still-masked face. 

The pandemic changed access to material resources and to enriching experiences on a local to global level, but I’ve felt it lingering most in my access to my deepest sense of self. 

At my core, I am lively; I enjoy the outdoors and playing sports and games of all kinds. I love to create art of all kinds. But, there has never been anything more important to me than spending time with people. 

I’ve had the privilege of enjoying a life filled with belly-laughs and love, and it was from these intimacies that I always sourced most of my energy. 

Culinary spaces can be especially intimate. Dining halls, restaurants, kitchens. You can put your senses to heightened use in a kitchen. “What smells so good?” *Sizzle* “Well, I heard she went…” *Chop-chop-chop* “My uncle always adds a tablespoon of…”  Food gives people something to talk over, to delight in, and to learn through. All my favorite things rolled into one. 

So, when I developed a chronic illness that restricted what I could eat and increased my risk of disease complications, the pandemic proved to be the straw that broke the camel’s back.

My relationship with illness, both acquired and potential, has shifted constantly these past few years, but I’ve always had to remain more cautious than most of my young and seemingly invincible peers. 

I can’t hang. 

Physical exertion comes on more quickly, it’s nearly impossible to find food I can safely eat when I’m out and about, and I am the only person wearing a mask in most classes. Even if I push myself into spending time around people, I’m rarely able to relax and be myself. I’m left asking, who even is that self?

I realized I had to dig a little deeper to find out.

We are bound to lose access to some things, whether that be with age or societal circumstance. I just didn’t know I could lose access to people. Through this, I’ve learned how much my sense of self relied on others, in both natural and admittedly unhealthy ways.

There is great distress in reckoning with unhealthy dependence, while grappling with the loss of healthy and nourishing attachments. And I wasn’t asking for much. I could live without parties, I just wanted to share a meal with people I love. What do you do when your most basic of experiences have to look different? 

Okay, I had to dig a lot deeper.

There’s a piece of me (my conscience, my higher-self, intuition, whatever you believe in) that comforts me in moments of great exhaustion, in periods of prolonged anxiety. She is calm and strong, sees with pronounced clarity, and acts with exceptional love for me and others. 

The rest of me is too often preoccupied and stressed these days, mourning the time in my life where I felt abundant certainty and safety, the time I may never see returned to me. More and more, though, that brave and hopeful piece of me makes her voice heard. 

I’m learning to do things that scare me. I’m learning to fail. I’m learning to adjust what success looks like. I’m learning to be more vulnerable. I’m learning to listen. I’m learning to reach my goals in completely new ways. 

It’s about getting to the nugget of what fulfills me. How can I find the rush of a packed party on a long walk? Or the giddiness of ice cream in my midnight oatmeal? How do I find the fun in quiet moments as well as boisterous ones, and intimacy in experiences both solo and accompanied? 

How can I show up for myself and for others in the ways needed when my capacity to show up at all has changed?

It’s an ongoing process. I’m trying to see these changes less as an exchange and more as an expansion. I’m trying to see this as accessing more ways to live life, and not as settling for a second-best version because of restrictions. 

So the self I have, or whatever idea I have of it anyways, gets to expand too. Viewing this necessary shift in my life as having a culminating effect, and not as a source of lacking, seems to be the only way forward. 

There’s no Rachel Carson/Oakes Dining Hall to go back to, even if I wanted to. I’ve got four others to choose from, but they won’t serve me with the same company, just Allergen-Free Halal Chicken. 

Besides remembering to be grateful to have had those late-night tea sessions in the first place, I’ve got to remember to stop trying to recreate them.

I’ve got my own kitchen now. No dining hall, but a nice wooden table in the living room. 

I choose the people with whom I spend my time with more intention now. No random dorm-floormates, but fun, loving, creative, and funny friends nonetheless. And they’re here for whatever “self” I have to bear at this stage… sometimes, still sipping on a cup of hot Moroccan Mint (shoutout Numi).