March had been a long, gruelling month. I wrote about my friend Natalie, what it means to grieve and how optimism is a choice.
I spent the past weekend hiking, running through the forest, painting washes of indigo and trying to understand how someone so young and bright can disappear so suddenly. When I chatted with Natalie in December, mere weeks before she passed, we connected over passages in Ocean Vuong's book – On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous – about survival. How ironic.
We met at a conference in 2015, right after I quit my comfy full time job and packed my belongings to travel the world. Her creative energy was infectious, and I knew right away she was going to be someone I would stay in touch with no matter where in the world I ended up. Over the next year, Natalie was diagnosed with breast cancer. During this time she produced Texting with Cancer. To call it an art project is an understatement, Texting with Cancer is touchingly courageous, funny and oh so Natalie. Give it a read:
Even though she lived in another city, our entrepreneurial and artistic interests intersected. We met up at the same conference a year later where Natalie was a speaker and I was photographing the event. At night, we drank wine and spilled our life stories over a tiny kitchen table in the Airbnb we shared. "I'm always a call away if you need someone to talk to" she said the last time I saw her in person. I was in awe of Natalie's ability to bring interesting people together, and the way her creative energy lit them up. Her talk on Texting with Cancer inspired me to give my own talk about photography and human connection.
Processing her passing and the months leading up to it has been nothing short of confusing. Before I heard the news from her family, I thought that she reached a career epiphany and left her place as an art business owner to pursue a peaceful life on a farm. Even now, I can't help but wonder if she kept her condition private so that people around her wouldn't worry. Did she start writing about her childhood in hoping to leave behind more pieces of herself? She shared so much, and yet, there was a world inside her that we didn't get to see, and will never see again.
I wish I could reach out and ask what she was thinking, if parts of her were afraid or at peace, if there was more that her friends could do. Yet the Chinese part of me understands that sometimes, the act of caring is shielding grief from the people around you. The artist in me knows that choosing to see what's beautiful is sometimes the only way move through what's difficult. And perhaps, as I'm reading and re-reading her messages from these last few months, I could relate to her relentless optimism in a heartbreaking way.
A mutual friend reached out and we took some time this weekend to chat about her disappearance and how much we miss Natalie.
"It’s weird huh, we kind of assume people are always going to be there any time, chat with them on the internet, always available. And then one day they are just gone permanently. Can’t sent them dumb memes, can’t go to meet ups with them. Can’t chat with them."
When I think of bidding farewell, I'm reminded of our tradition in my father's hometown in 广西 (GuangXi is a southern Chinese province bordering Vietnam). In the villages, mourning is allowed to be seen and heard on the streets and carried up into the mountains. Grief is surrounded by music, offerings, and physical presence of loved ones. I'm angry that the world is in such an isolated state that makes grieving feel like struggling against the cruel confines of my mind. But I'm comforted that at the very least, I'm not alone. Natalie has so many friends across the world who miss her dearly. She will always be remembered lovingly by the lives she touched.
Rest in power, Natalie. I miss you.
“Sometimes, when I’m careless, I think survival is easy: you just keep moving forward with what you have, or what’s left of what you were given, until something changes—or you realize, at last, that you can change without disappearing, that all you had to do was wait until the storm passes you over and you find that—yes—your name is still attached to a living thing.”
― Ocean Vuong, On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous