Every year, I do an annual reflection where I write a letter to my past self looking back on my theme for the year and setting an intention for a new theme moving forward. Last year, I took on motion as a theme.
I’ve been caught in various spirals over the past few months. Questions around my worth, the importance of my work, and the strength of my love for the world. When I spiral, I don’t move. I’m stopped up, trapped, motionless. I lost the motion I intended to cultivate because I lost control. I wanted to be free, but I landed in quicksand. It still feels like I’m emerging these days.
In 2024, I’m channeling this spiraling energy as an active pursuit rather than a passive predicament. I’m continuing my theme of motion from last year by sharpening it into an instinct for perpetual motion. I’m crystalizing its energy into an institution—a vehicle for my creative practice.
moving in 2023
Dear 2023 Spencer,
This year is a strange one to reflect on. Your “unemployed” journey started almost exactly at the start of this year, which means, this reflection is really a reflection of this new chapter of your life, jolted from your corporate job into the independent researcher/artist/designer life that you yearned to try for so long.
To be honest, you’re scared of writing this letter. You’ve been in conflict over the past few months over how much you’ve really done this year. I think you’re still struggling to value your self-worth in the absence of some prestigious and income-stabilizing job. You preemptively worry about what other people will think, even if you know that what you get to say now sounds way truer (and likely cooler) than your prior struggle of explaining your day job and side projects separately. You judge yourself more than ever—your time being solely your time, with only yourself to blame and suffer from your actions. You compare yourself to people with day jobs and try to extrapolate a linearly increasing rate of output given your full devotion. You compare yourself to people who have embraced the independent journey for a long time and berate yourself for not having more things figured out by now. You tell yourself that everyone’s just making it up as they go, but it doesn’t comfort you. You still yearn to make faster, go further, manifest larger.
You wonder if you really deserve to focus full-time on your passions. You wonder if you are worthy, if your passion is strong enough. You wonder what the end game is (you don’t know what the end game is1). You try to speculate, to strategize, to manifest—but you waffle on the hard decisions. You worry that you don’t know what you actually want, that you’re just drifting in the wind like a blade of glass2. You don’t know why you think it’s bad to drift, to move with the motion you feel, to react to the world as you encounter it.
You overvalue proactivity. You prize the creation of new things. But why can’t your act of self-preservation be just as valuable—just as sacred? Why can’t you internalize that your maintenance is part of the work, too? Why can’t you give yourself permission to do all the things that you’ve always wanted to do—slowly and purposefully—regardless of how deserved.
You’re reading last year’s reflection and worrying that nothing has changed. You’re looking at your reflection in the glass of the plane, and you can tell that much is the same. You love full moon nights and making your own coffee and an excessive amount of peanut butter. You still haven’t figured out how to negotiate a good regular sleeping schedule and the urgency that occasionally summons you late at night.
But perhaps you’re not looking close enough. In many ways, your perception is sharper, your sensibilities deeper, your attention calmer. You notice the moon in unexpected places more often these days. You pick out birds perched on phone lines and nestled in the nooks of trees. You find the eyes of strangers in the shifting reflections of subway windows. Your fits have become more textured. You can let natural curiosity lead with people for longer before becoming self-conscious. You can craft art concepts that sound cohesive. You can talk about the things you care about at length, with a fire and clarity that discloses the depth to which you care.
You have come so far in a year, even if it isn’t obvious. Looking inward, you feel more powerful. This year, you contended with the most doubt of your life. At the same time, the you from years ago wouldn’t have thought it possible to make it to where you are.
Your word for 2023 was motion, and you really didn’t stop once the year began. It flew by like a flash, felt like living 3 lives in the span of 1. You embraced your multitude of selves, with all their conflicts and differing desires—the artist, the designer, the programmer, the life enjoyer, the Taiwanese, the researcher, the poet—all of you.
You’ll explore new mediums for creativity for the right reasons, out of honoring and curiosity rather than the expected reception: ceramic structures, a shrine for a dear visitor, unexpected bags from clothing, foraged bouquets, and a latte for a cafe owner in Taiwan.
You’ll read 3 artist memoirs and visit countless more museums to discover what you want your art to do and who you are as an artist. You’ll tour the SF dump, learn how to properly barista, scooter down the side of Taiwan, see old vintage computers at the annual fair, watch John Wick 4 at 1pm: all things that if you were working a traditional job, you wouldn’t have been able to experience.
You’ll be confronted with the extremes of human possibility—cleaning up after hurtful acts you didn’t think possible and shocked into dumb wonder at the love that strangers can show each other. You learned firsthand about the toil of maintenance and working in service to others, what it means to devote yourself to the care of someone else. You’re confronted with the sanctity of life, how stubborn we are even when it feels like there’s no hope left.
cultivating my spiral
I’ve been listening to more instrumental music lately. One, in particular, that has been on repeat is Memories by Joe Hisaishi from Miyazaki’s latest film The Boy and the Heron (or, as I prefer, How Do You Live, which is the literal translation of the original Japanese title).
Memories begins slow and hesitant. Single piano notes herald a tentative chorus of strings. Then, it begins to pick up the pace, a continuous dance between the strings and the keys. Then the horns come in. Then the drums. Then the trumpets. And suddenly, it feels as if the entire world is playing in your ear. Every time I hear the ending, I feel my body filled with sensation, a simultaneous lightness of being and the gravity of responsibility.
It feels like I’m entirely captured by the song, each tiny movement and gesture, yet I’m still aware of my attention and my body. I’m simultaneously immersed in the song and myself.
It’s the same feeling I get in the heat and afterglow of dancing. There’s an aura of power that radiates off my body. Everywhere I go, the air feels full of possibility. I feel unstoppable.
These are the closest comparisons to the moments of creation that have felt magical to me this year. It’s not quite the same as “flow,” although my body is certainly in a continuous, rhythmic motion. The “flow” I’m used to comes with a loss of control; I feel an urgency to devour my challenges as quickly as possible.
Instead, this “dance” feels like I’m moving with the natural motion of the universe and my body. In each moment, the immediate next steps become clear without thinking about what comes next. I’m aware of my actions and can tune them in response to my surroundings and my inner feelings. I’m moving constantly, but I’m in control. I’m light. I feel free.
In November, underneath the stars on a cloudless night in Northern California, I shared a dance circle with a new friend who told me that my movements looked like waterbending. Like water, I flowed in a single motion, sometimes gentle like a stream, and other times, crashing like a waterfall.
I’ve found that I can’t sit still. My inertia biases towards movement. Even on the days that I want to do nothing, I find myself grabbing for something to fiddle with, something to engage my mind. I seem to want to find a current no matter where I go.
Last month, as my mind was consumed with searching for this year’s theme, watery forms kept coming to my mind. I think of the way water moves when it encounters obstacles, how it simply finds a different way past. I think of how water moves according to nature’s laws, changing in response to the environment while still abiding to those laws. Water does not change itself for anyone else. It moves purposefully, yet flexibly—constantly, yet calmly.
“She was a quiet mover,” said Burns. “Like water moving over a rock.”
— a statement about Ruth Asawa from her biography, Everything She Touched
Moving slowly, but steadily in alignment with my purpose. That’s how I want to bring things into the world. That’s how I want to move through the world. More like water than fire. More like the tides than an airplane. More like a hurricane than an eruption.
Yesterday, among the occasional firework from Super Bowl celebrations and the hum of revelers, I sat on the curb and sobbed for a good hour. I had been trying to make dinner, and the power kept going out to stop me before I could finish, and it triggered this release of emotion I had been holding onto. I felt all the unprocessed anxiety, urgency, and grief from the past year pass through me—the loss of innocence in the departure from my job, personal betrayals, and the weight of holding each day with exacting precision to my standard of meaning and joy.
Let me be weightless. Let me change. Let me be water, unmoored and unbound.
I said that I was building a spine for a lifetime and I’ll do so by following my natural movements. R replied that this metaphor reminded them of lentils simmering, and the more I simmer on this comparison, the more it resonates. A stew never dies; it sustains and simmer and starts over again.
“I start every day with two empty hands” — Ocean Vuong
This was my mantra for last year. It was a reminder to never satisfy myself with what I had done, to constantly push past my expectations and the easy questions to explore new avenues.
All I have to do every day is to take one step towards the things I love, to notice one more detail about the world, to give a little bit more to my community. Just one step at a time.
The word I’ve landed upon feels like a combination of my past several words: gambling (2021), mutualism (2022), motion (2023). I want to bet on my daily steps to become a force of nature, one linked with my loved ones and extended community. I want all of our spirals to envelop and intertwine, to rupture and repair and expand to new spaces.
“In the center of any spiral is the calm core through which man passes to eternity.”
– Jill Purce (sourced from https://thecreativeindependent.com/notes/spiral/)
From the eye of a storm, it looks like nothing is moving, but someday, all those steps will become a cyclone. A spiral expanding day after day. A dance that spins again and again and again.
- all my poeticomp friends, especially Katherine, Lesley, and Henry for making and maintaining a soft and gentle space for sharing
- Victoria for starting our lovely letter exchange and giving me something to look forward to every month
- Kristoffer for the endless generosity and support and fierce dedication to creating space for the quiet, the gentle, and the overlooked.
- Jacky for helping nurture and push little seedlings of ideas and the collaborations that always manage to surprise with delight
- Alice, Mark, and Max (and my classmates in Solidarity Infrastructures) for teaching me about how to move in concert with others, to create space for others, and to be in service of
- Jess for weaving a force of care and whimsical wonder, for the silliness to picking up a door off the street and carrying it across SF hills.
- Riley for being my Taiwan buddy and always creating a space for laughter and joy
- Raymond for always believing in me and providing a calm space to evaluate
- Ameesh for being the 赤 to my 青
- JW for showing me how to bring people together
- Rishi for reminding me of the power we hold in ourselves
- Matt for being a gentle thought partner
- Jamie for always holding a safe space for feeling overwhelmed
- Sabrina for being a constant source of joy, love, and hope
I suppose it is to simply find a sustainable container for working on all the things you do now. To work on infrastructure, environments, instruments for us to craft an internet that believes in us. To reshape our relationship with computing into one of possibility, connection, and solidarity. I suppose it means being able to work with many different people doing different work in this space, to dedicate myself to the questions that won’t get raised otherwise, to provoke deep-seated expectations about the ways we’re allowed to relate to one another in digital spaces, to fight for the humanity that all of the internet represents. ↩︎
a reference to 牆頭草 (literally “wall head grass”), a Chinese proverb referring to the grass that grows on top of walls, whose head flies whichever way the wind goes. ↩︎