love or a lesson learned

Areena Akhter
7 min readJan 11, 2023

ottawa, december 2022

At some point last year I came to the realization that I have spent my entire life falling in love with everything but myself. I noted that I had started both my first and third years in university in relationships that I was inexplicably pushing past their lifespans, even when it hurt me to do so. Interesting; to therapy I went. As I completed my homework of journaling about all the relationships I’ve had in life so far, I stopped to take stock of the many men and women whose characteristics and mannerisms and perspectives on life I had quietly became enamoured with, until I couldn’t quite pinpoint where their lives ended and mine began. When you’re young, it’s difficult to distinguish between desire, loneliness, and love. It feels like most of adult life is learning to oscillate between these states of being.

Over the course of this past year, I began to feel a palpable shift in the way my brain works. Is this what they call the development of your prefrontal cortex? It was as if for the first time in my life, I learned to choose myself, over and over again, even when I was drawn to ruminate over the past or overthink the future. In 2022, I was at once perpetually spontaneous and simultaneously learning to stop myself from doing things that might violate my boundaries. Your twenties are the “childhood” of becoming an adult. In that sense, I was one year old, all over again. At some point I read that depression comes from living in the past, while anxiety comes from overthinking the future. With this in mind, I tried to live moment by moment, without attachment to what may come or pass me by. Your twenties are supposed to be about yourself, and yet most twenty-one year olds I know spend their time chasing someone or something else. So what would you do if you were given the opportunity to remember how to be unattached to anyone or anything in the world?

oh, the places you’ll go
Last year, I packed and unpacked my life up a total of four times as I moved from Waterloo to San Francisco and back, basking in the lightness of a life that could be condensed down to two large suitcases. I went through an era where I said yes to everything, bouncing from post-work drinks in Mission Bay to a Barry’s class in Fidi to a rooftop pregame and then bars in the Marina. (Always followed by a street hot dog or fresh papusas from this one cart outside White Rabbit.) And then there was a period where I built a sanctuary out of my own bedroom in Waterloo, hitting a dab pen amongst dimly lit candles while listening to Fredagain’s Moderat Chanel remix, gua sha in hand.

This was the year that I finally had the balls to switch into CS, to see myself as a true software engineer at Uber, and interview with my dream company on the spot at GHC in Orlando. I experienced my first in-person college terms since I was 18 years old, slowly relearning the motions of being a student, of making friends over a drink or an especially hard problem set (or both.) Learning became a refuge for me, and I met people who felt the same way. I was a colleague’s “rubber duck” (my favourite programming metaphor), got unblocked many, many times by the kindest full time engineers at Uber, and got to start taking apart personalization algorithms, a realm I hope to explore in my early career. I wrote about algorithmic biases and the people who perpetuate them. For the first time, I had the headspace to truly ponder.

As I sat down to reflect on my year, I realized that it was better chronicled through the fragments of stories I’ve collected to one day share with my grandkids, organized by the seasons of life I experienced in 2022:

winter / spring, 3A in waterloo:
Lockdown in Ontario, courses on the ethics of AI, long discussions with Derek, and lots of contemplation. Medically-advised F45 classes, navigating family drama, and booking last minute flights to my old city. Experiencing the most unforgettable jazz concert I’ve ever been to, the way the morning light hits the water on the Charles as you cross the bridge on the T, new ear piercings and discovering Eataly in Boston. Feeling the rush of meeting new people, and the deep heartbreak of letting go of old ones. Finally remembering what I love after a long season of believing that might be impossible. My first time at Cafe Landwer with my best friend. Phoebe’s nonna giving me the best boy advice ever. Leaving Canada on my own, to a city where I didn’t know anybody.

summer, interning in sf:
Monroe’s, Barry’s, Ocean beach bonfires. The only brown girls in SF, endless summer nights and lazy morning walks to debrief over a croissant in Dolores Park. Spending the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend at temple SF, taking family photos at Ghiradelli square and the smell of fresh carnitas burritos in Haight Ashbury. The thrifting. Tuesday night hot tubs at Alex’s after Uber leg days, with dinner from Spark Social along the way. 11pm work calls to India and mid-day kombucha breaks with the interns from six, and seven, and eleven. Muir Woods, Santa Cruz, day after day of drinking in a 26-person Airbnb in the middle of an Olympic village. The 50 person party boat at sunset in Tahoe with the captain’s wife as our bartender, and Raifah driving the boat. Long leg days at Fitness SF in Fidi and the day I went to AT&T to replace my phone and accidentally witnessed the crash that ended a 30-block car chase. That was the day I learned that some AT&T employees happen to have EMS training. The sunset behind the Golden Gate Bridge at Chrissy Fields beach on my first Friday in the city, and early morning views view of the Bay Bridge on what I now know won’t be my last season in this city.

fall, my first semester in CS, 3B in loo:
A pit stop in Toronto to spend late nights tipsy biking thorough the city for blueberry bagels, accidentally ending up in Brampton on the way to Waterloo and then all of my furniture getting stolen when I finally somehow made it there. The start of my fourth fall in Waterloo, a city that once felt big but now feels small enough that I can map it on the back of my hand. Running home from a night out on King street with a slice of pizza from Fratelli’s in hand, dancing around the city from the syde parties to hosting my own, chaotic and hectic 21st birthday. The best AYCE sushi ever with my roommates, watching Love Life and White Lotus and gossiping about our lives over a plate of extremely soft cookies. More leg days at PAC and spin classes at Hustl and long walks with Layla. Learning about big data and AI and search retrieval and writing so much code, as well as stories about my sister. Getting treated to Beertown by Meta and lobster mac and cheese by DeepMind. Fulfilling every dream I’ve ever had for myself. Learning to love Waterloo again, on my own.

hello, me
Around this time last year, I decided to start writing again. I rediscovered how it felt to be up at 4am, struck by a bolt of inspiration that led me to build a collection of phrases that could one day blossom into real essays. As the world reopened and I got to immerse myself in the motions of life, I sat, watched, and wrote. I wrote in a literal hole in the wall Mexican restaurant on Newbury Street with the best Birria tacos I’ve ever had, and I wrote on the beach at Santa Cruz on one of the only warm days of the summer in Northern California. I also wrote about the strong people I had the opportunity to meet this year: people who are always smiling, even when I know they are facing challenges that I couldn’t ever imagine being able to handle. If you became my friend this year, I appreciate what you have brought into my life. I may have even written about you, whether you liked it or not (you would probably like it.) Writing has quietly become a form of reconnecting to my inner child that has replaced some of the ways I’ve sabotaged myself in the past. It has helped me sift through my memories like a detective detangling the threads of my past until I can make sense of them. I love writing, and I’m so grateful that I am doing something I love again.

expect nothing, appreciate everything
Growing up is strange. You are so occupied with chasing after some intangible future that you end up abandoning who you were before the world told you that you were behind to begin with. This past year gave me the freedom and independence to finally make peace with some of my past selves. I experienced both loss and loneliness, but because of that I’ve never felt gratitude and self-sufficiency this strongly before. I am so grateful to myself for finally deciding that I could change. That my whole life could change, if I wanted it badly enough. Sometimes I think about the person I was at the start of 2022, and wish that I could call her up and tell her about everything that will change in the year to come. But that’s the point — I could have never known, and no amount of planning or stressing would have changed that. Maybe adulthood is about facing this reality, and learning healthier ways to cope with it. Year one is in the books: thank you 2022, for teaching me to expect nothing and appreciate everything. I am peacefully awaiting whatever comes next.

things i love about sf: the flowers outside bi-rite market

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Areena Akhter

thinking about people, computers, and the space in between them 💭 computer science @ uwaterloo, she/her