"Life isn’t terrible but I sure haven’t jumped for joy in a while." Art by Gica Tam
Culture Spotlight

My #tenyearchallenge: how I got over my fear of happiness

A decade ago, Celine Lopez experienced a ‘fluke’ time in her life. It was filled with comfort and contentment. Looking back, she's better off where she is now.
Celine Lopez | Feb 03 2019

The year 2009 was the best year ever.

It started with an exotic trip to India. With a bold move to meet up with someone I met in a wedding a few months earlier. We were constantly in touch and it seemed like a great idea after all the phone calls, hundreds of BBMs (how I miss Blackberry messenger) and emails to come visit for two weeks.

As I boarded the plane I thought to myself, “I’m crazy.”

Little did I know then how this incredible country would touch my life forever.

With friends Marco and Jackie in India.

He wasn’t a total stranger; we shared best friends and when you’re crazy like me its easier to suss out sane people. After a reasonable nine hours, I landed in Delhi and immediately fell in love with the manic beauty of India. It was so detached from everything I knew. I was a Pinay in love with the western part of the world. I’m also the worst traveler. I don’t sight see, or do tours. I lived in New York and I still haven’t seen the Statue of Liberty and I only really went up the Eiffel tower at the age of 30 by force. This privilege of travel is completely wasted on me. Instead, I tell myself I’d like to live like a local. Which is an arrogant way of saying I’ll be by the pool with an iced tea by my side.

For the first few days, my lazy habits led me to enjoy India like a modern British colonizer. I had my English breakfast at the Imperial, my dinners at Morimoto, and my shopping at the mall. I was insulting the beauty and depth of a country steeped in old traditions and rich in history. Little by little, by the forceful hand of my new friend, I began to explore the country not as a tourist but as a lucky human being. By the end of my two-week stay, I had gone to the Himalayas, dug my toes in the golden sand of the beaches in Goa, and had Chai tea by the busy streets of Delhi as my new daily happy hour activity.

I was in the best place in my life. I had not had a drink for two years. My work at the newspaper was flourishing and my family was solid and happy. My new friend, as time went by, proved to become one of the most beautiful examples of a human being as we slowly fell in love. Life was so good.

"Little did I know then how this incredible country would touch my life forever."

I began going to India more frequently. I found a way to fulfill my job requirements and still fly off to Delhi on a regular basis. I started living like a local, this time for real. I went to the wet market daily to buy food for dinner; wet markets in India are way intense, but once you get the hang of it, it becomes a daily adventure. I met a crystal healer who became my only friend in Delhi. I ate delicious meals on tin plates and, when a special occasion would arise, silver. I had my regular cashmere contact who created blankets as soft as clouds and as cheap as burlap. I collected blankets like stamps. I learned how to haggle and negotiate like a pro. I immersed myself in my surroundings wearing kurtas, and doused myself in rose water. I even tried yoga, which was probably my only failure in going semi-native. It was also fun because my boyfriend at that time was also experiencing India for the first time. He was Indian, yes, but born and bred in the east coast of the United States. To experience the magic of this wonderful country with the most wonderful man was bliss. We were both out of our comfort zones and it felt like life with all its intended promises.

When he came to Manila to visit shortly after my first trip to Delhi, my mother welcomed him with, funnily enough, an Indian dinner for all 30 of our friends. They loved him, which was rare. Also, Obama just won the presidential elections in America, and it was a beautiful and inspiring moment for all of humanity. Even my dad—who when you mention the group Black Panther thinks of a squad of the animal black panthers—was moved by Obama. He shook my then boyfriend’s hand and said, “Congratulations to your people.” I was like, “Daddy he’s Indian, not African American.” Oh well, at least he tried.

What I relished most was being alone. My boyfriend worked crazy hours because he was a boy genius, so I was left on my own most of the time. The fragrant air of India was the best potion for me to think deeply in what I wanted to do with my life. I was turning 30 and I still had the brain of a teenager. I had a nagging sense of fear. I couldn’t imagine such happiness could exist. I didn’t deserve it. The world was so still and wonderful I wanted to put it all in a bottle and keep it there forever.

Of course here’s the part where Celine becomes Celine. Let’s just say I screwed it up.

I don’t know why I do this to myself. I’m constantly testing the world and those around me. My fear of losing this happiness was the only poison. I was my own Lady Macbeth.

"What I relished most was being alone."

The boy genius was accepted to Harvard Business School. We jumped for joy for a couple of days. Then as our feet fell on dry land, thanks to the gravitational power of reality, I came to see that our time in India was numbered. That safe and beautiful bubble was going to pop. Women approaching the age of 30 always feel an array of challenges and pressure. That con of the white picket fence and the burden of getting it together can either make you wiser or really stupid. Guess what I was?

Things quickly derailed from there. If I moved to Boston it would mean a lot of commitment and expectations from my partner who was really just starting out in life. He was younger than me. He was in no place to start hammering that white picket fence. Because let’s not be fooled, I am not easygoing. Beneath that happy hippie façade was a Type A control freak. The relationship ended with heartbreak. My Eat, Pray, Love story quickly turned into a turn of the century Russian romance novel.

So here I am ten years later.

I’m listening to Trump having a conversation about “global waming” and I have become a certified dog lady. I know that 2009 was a fluke. That little tease. Life isn’t terrible but I sure haven’t jumped for joy in a while. I’m also turning 40, which simply means more pressure. Jerome, my editor, asked me to write about my life a decade ago as a nod to that viral phenomenon, the #tenyear challenge. It’s when you post a photo on social media of yourself a decade ago alongside a photo of your current self. I posted a photo of myself doing a risqué (well, it was, for me) photo shoot that I dared myself to do and a photo of myself for Southern Living magazine in a button down shirt and pants with no shoes shot a few months ago. Classic me. I saw everyone else’s post and I must say that a majority of them look better today. Some wear and tear can add allure for sure.

My 10 year challenge post. In 2008, on the cover of Uno Magazine. In 2018, on the cover of Southern Living.

Revisiting that amazing fluke year made me realize I didn’t need India, or a perfect boy genius, or sipping seltzers to be happy. Today on dry solid ground I’ve come to know and accept myself. It’s all about making the right choices even if it sucks, to accept myself flaws and all, and to be okay with just being okay.

That’s what I love about getting older. Things become simple. Puccini isn’t swelling in the background, but I am here all by myself making things happen. The con of the white picket fence has been exposed, and the well-lived life is something you work at each and every day.

In another ten years, as I approach 50, I’d be really interested in looking back at this upcoming decade. But right now, I may be less romantic and more practical but, hell, I’m a lot stronger than I could ever imagine. When my friends ask me why I choose to be so transparent when I write my articles, I tell them it’s the only way I know now how to write. I’m living my truth. I’m paying for my mistakes. And I’m no longer afraid of a little happiness here and there. I like me.

I guess challenge accepted.

 

 

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