A Sunday Morning Blog

Back To School

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Every August, as a kid, my mother would take my brothers and I to Aberdeen, where my grandmother lived, for some back-to-school shopping. Our little one-way mall didn’t have much, and while Aberdeen’s shopping options were fewer than Sioux Falls or Rapid City, it was a good excuse to see grandma and get the must-haves of the season. We went to stores like Foot Locker, the Buckle and Maurices, picking out that perfect first-day outfit. We’d also hit up Target and Shopko for folders, binders, pens, and, of course, a three-subject Five Star spiral notebook.

As I got older, and I jammed my schedule with activities, back to school was more gradual than the one-day event in elementary school. In high school, cross country and band practice began weeks before the doors opened. As a college student, the first issue of The Collegian, for which I was an editor, was in residence halls just in time for move-in day, and the start of classes was consider a break compared to putting out a newspaper. Then, when I was a teacher in Lesotho as a Peace Corps volunteer, the first day of school was more of a date suggestion, and the students spent the first week cleaning the school’s premise while the teachers groggily prepared lesson plans for the semester.

That back-to-school feeling never seems to leave us entirely, no matter how long it’s been since we were a student. For many of us, those shiny folders and packs of pencils call to us, even if we have no real use for them. We get our own children and can relive our own first days through them, which is why Facebook is often inundated with pictures of cute kids holding signs and wearing backpacks. Back to school is part of our annual cycle (and marketing cycles) like holidays, and it brings forward memories of years gone and reminders accompanied that fresh start of a new school year.

It’s been 12 years since my first day of school as a student (five as a teacher), but today I go back to school as a graduate student in clinical mental health counseling, and it doesn’t feel like any other back-to-school send off parties I’ve previously have had. I haven’t bought any new supplies – not books (at the suggestion of other students in the program), not pencils, not even a backpack. Part of that comes from my husband lovingly telling me it’s a waste to get anything until I know what I need, but he is right in that I don’t know what to expect today. My first class is two and half hours, and while I imagine there won’t a pop quiz on the first day, I doubt it will be like the hand-out-and-go-over-the-syllabus first days of college. I don’t know if I should bring my computer or a notebook, and do I dress comfortably or more business casual? I am in the wilderness here.

I am nervous this morning. A part of me wonders if I forgot how to be a student, if I will be one of those “old students” who gets unnecessarily anxious about small assignments, if I have the capacity to learn an entirely new field. I am scared that I have set up graduate school and this new career path as another “if only I could do this and then I will be happy” scenario. I was a good undergraduate student, and I did well in all my major-related classes (macroeconomics, though, yuck), but I had been training to be a journalist since I was 16. I know I am good at writing, editing, communications, all of that, but I don’t know if I am going to be good at mental health ethics or understanding substance abuse (two of my classes this fall).

And, yet, that hope and excitement is still here. In the two weeks since I’ve stopped working, I have sort of got my life back on track. At the end of my job, I was drinking, eating, and zoning out on social media in an effort to get from day to day. I was not living, just holding on. But, this transition has helped me find the joy back in my days. I’ve got to exercise, see friends, remember my goals and dreams. School will no doubt be difficult, but it’s a challenge I am want to take, not something I feel like I have to do because it’s part of societal orders. I feel more excited about my future and the year ahead of me than I have in a long time.

When I walk into my classroom this evening, my palms will likely be sweaty and my stomach a bit uneven, but I anticipate I will be smiling. From kindergarten to senior year of college, I went back to school 17 times because I was getting an education like I thought I was supposed. Today, though, I am choosing to go back. I start this first day of of my master’s degree having made sacrifices to be here, and not truly understanding how difficult it will be in the next three years. But, this is the path I want to be on, and so I go back to school because I am following a dream. It’s going to be a great first day.

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The End of Summer

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Tomorrow is my first day of school, and it’s nearly Labor Day weekend, which means summer is officially over. It was a good, but busy, summer. Between getting married, moving, quitting my job, and preparing for graduate school, I am a bit tired going into the next season.

To mark the end of the season, I wanted to look back at my Summer Bucket List and see what I did end up accomplishing.

  • Cook and bake: We got an ice cream maker for our wedding, and we have put it to good use. I really wanted to learn to make spaghetti from scratch, but that hasn’t happened. The fall and winter are better for baking anyway.
  • Go for a long bike ride and bike to work: I haven’t biked as much as I had hoped this summer. We moved further from the main biking routes in the city, and it became more of a pain. Still, I had a couple of longer rides – nothing to Indiana – but I am satisfied with how much I did ride.
  • Blog more: I have been avoiding writing lately. I have lots of writing ideas, but then I get it in my head that I need to pitch these pieces. I get scared and just never write them. I debate putting all of those pieces on to the blog, but then I wonder if it’s worth it for the six people who read the blog. What I am saying is that I am struggling with what is the purpose of writing and the joy it brings me. I am stuck in this cycle that if my writing isn’t going somewhere big it’s not worth it, but that isn’t the kind of writer I want to be. I am thinking about doing a 30-day blog challenge to just make myself write more. Stay tuned. IMG_0107.JPG
  • Day date with Ethan and Annie to Starved Rock: We did this, and it was wonderful. It was a hoooooottttt day, but Annie loved scaling up and down the trails and splashing in the waterfalls. We went early enough that we beat the crowds and were home for a snack and a nap.
  • Go camping: Haven’t done this yet, but a friend invited me to tag along on a camping trip to Michigan in September so I am planning on that. And, another friend and I are planning a bigger trip in 2019.
  • Read more: I may not have earned any Pizza Hut badges, but I did read a few books this summer. My favorites include Find A Way by Diana NyadKitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain, and Born a Crime by a Trevor Noah. (I really like memoirs, I guess).
  • Try Bumble Friends: I went on one friend date and talked to a few others, but no lasting connections. I think I am just going to invest more in my current friendships.
  • Take steps to start a podcast: Nope. Maybe someday.
  • Make kombucha: Yes! I took a class and have now made three or four batches. I love it, although I am not necessarily experimenting with flavors. I just love ginger so much.
  • Explore our new neighborhood: Rogers Park is taking some getting used to, but we are liking it so far. This weekend we had brunch at a divey diner that would be a great place for daily coffee and eggs, if I was the kind of person who had a breakfast at a diner ever morning.
  • Take the water taxi to Chinatown and then get dim sum: One Saturday my friend Katie and I were actually going to do this – I even bought the tickets – but it did not happen. Instead, we drank beers on my friend’s rooftop, which was highly enjoyable. It’s still on the list for the fall. IMG_1449
  • Swim: I have fallen back in love with swimming, and I actually did some swimming in Lake Michigan this summer. I am working on a piece about that that I hope to sell or share with you all one date.

Other fun things I got to do this summer that were not on the bucket list:

  • A weekend at a lake house in Wisconsin that included a lot of cheese curds, boating and, of course, Spotted Cow. Annie fell in love with the lake, and now it’s my life goal to have a vacation home in Wisconsin.
  • Lots of quiet nights with my husband. I made a conscious effort a few months ago to thin my schedule, and I’ve really enjoyed having lazy evenings in which we watch TV and eat homemade ice cream.
  • A long road trip to South Dakota and Minnesota. I found myself with two free weeks between ending work and starting graduate school, so Annie and I decided to drive to South Dakota. We did the first leg – 13 hours – in one day. In Pierre, I hung out with my nephews, had a mini wedding celebration, enjoyed the quietness of the Rushmore State. I drove to the Twin Cities for a few days where I watched way too much trashy TV and was a live-in nannie for my niece. It was a great break and good family time.

This was a really good summer for me. I didn’t do everything I set out to do, but I am OK with that. Fall is my favorite season, and I will likely have a new bucket list, but I get to go into September with lots of good summer memories. How was your summer? What was your favorite thing about it?

The Leap: Beginning A New Chapter

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“You want to jump over to the other tube?” my friend asked me.

I shook my head. I was fine just where I was. She shrugged her shoulders, and then as the boat pulled us behind it, she effortlessly moved from one flotation device to the other, a stream of water underneath her.

Recently, I went tubing for the first time in years, maybe decades, while spending the week at a friend’s lake house in Wisconsin. While I was eager to get on the tube, I didn’t have the bravery for anything other than gripping the handles. There were two tubes with two riders a piece, and to add an extra level of excitement, the other three passengers lily-frog leaped from tube to tube. Again, they asked me if I wanted to hop to the other side, but I said no. My body has lost much of its resilience since the last time I tubbed, and I was afraid it wouldn’t make it.

The more we rode and the more comfortable I got on the tube, I realized I probably could make that jump. And, if I fell, the pontoon wasn’t going that fast and I would likely be OK. So, when asked a third time if I wanted to jump to the other tube, I said yes. I hoisted myself up over the other rider on my flotation device, aimed for the handles, and leapt.

This is something I’ve learned about myself: it may take me a bit longer to leap, but in the end, I usually do it. This is true of big life events, like the Peace Corps. I talked about applying for the Peace Corps for nearly two and half years before I finally departed. Also, I had bragged about living in a big city since I was 14, only to actually move to one when I was 29. 

Now, I am making another leap. This fall, I am enrolled in a clinical mental health counseling program at Roosevelt University in Chicago and am starting down the path to become a therapist.

And like many of my big jumps in life, it’s taken me a long time to get to this point. Just recently I met up with a friend from high school, someone I hadn’t seen in about nine years, and when I told her I was going back to school, she said, “You’ve been talking about that for forever.” It’s true. When I was 10, I told people I was going to be a psychologist. During my first job, as an reporter, I called a woman who had been a counselor and then became a sports editor and asked her what I should do. And, a few years ago at a career planning session, I stated getting a counseling degree as one of my life goals. For the last threes, I’ve spent time researching and plotting about what it would take to get that masters. I went back and forth on what I wanted to study and if it was the right investment. I talked to everyone I knew who was a practicing counselor, whether they had earned a degree in counseling, social work, psychology or marriage and family therapy. I looked at programs in and out of Chicago. And still, I couldn’t make a decision, until last winter.

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My new school!

It wasn’t the best time for Ethan and I. He had been unemployed for months and his savings was dwindling each week. Me, I was recovering from hip surgery and continuously unhappy in my job. One cold morning, as I walking down our stairs on my way to work, it hit me that I was wasting my days. I was just trying to get from day to day and there was no fulfillment and joy. Something had to give.

Over the holiday break, I thought long and hard about what to do next, and thought that maybe I should finally pursue a graduate degree. It seemed like too big of a jump from my current life – to return to school 11 years after I finished my undergraduate degree and completely change my career – so, I did what Mother Oprah recommends and I looked what is the next right step. From there, I took it piece by piece, never fully committing to the idea. I made a spreadsheet of schools, attended information sessions, asked former supervisors to be references, wrote applications essays, and submitted application to two schools. The first acceptance came in and I didn’t tell my husband until hours later, but when the second one came, to my top school, a big grin spread across my face. This was right. It was later confirmed when I was offered a graduate assistantship that would cover my full tuition.

Last Friday was my final day at work, and I have about two weeks before I begin classes and my GA position. This new path hasn’t come without doubt and fear, but there have also been little signs along the way that indicate I am where I am supposed to be. Like when I tell people what I am going back to school for and they say, “Oh wow, you are going to good at that.” Or the excitement I get when one of my professors has posted the textbook list for the semester’s course.

The biggest sign of reassurance thought is how different I feel. My body is lighter, my mood is calmer. It reminds me of the weeks leading up to my Peace Corps service. I was noticeably happier, and people told me as much. I’ve heard the same thing this time around. “You seem much more at peace,” they tell me. They are actually a lot of similarities between the decision to go back to school and the decision to go into the Peace Corps, and since that was one of the best things I ever did with my life, I know I am headed in the right direction.

It may have taken me some time to finally make this leap, follow this dream of mine, but the timing feels perfect. Everything up until this point in my life has led me here and given me the tools to be successful. I am beyond excited to be a student again, to learn about things that are truly interesting to me, and to see parts of myself that have yet to be discovered. It will be hard and a long journey at three years, but I am ready for it.

 

A Dog’s Life

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Annie, taken by our dog walker, Norma

I did not want a dog for the same reason I don’t want sturdy, worth-your-money furniture. Both require costly up keep and make it harder to maintain a transient lifestyle for, what I could tell is, little benefit. No, I would stick to second-hand items off Craigslist and a dog-free life.

In general, I like dogs. In fact, I had a dog before I had a sibling as my parents owned a beagle named Candy when they had me. My baby book states that Candy was my favorite toy, and I have a flash memory of sadness when we gave Candy away because we were moving to another town.

A few years later, when my brothers and I were a bit older, we adopted Kirby, a bichon poodle. We had looked at several dogs, but the choice on which one was bestowed on my youngest brother who was scared of dogs. There was one pup who I adored but my brother ran from the animal crying, so that one was not to be ours. He decided on Kirby because he was calm and quite, which not two characteristics I remember about the dog we had for 12 years.

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Kirby and I

Kirby’s favorite game was to escape out the front door and wait for you to chase him. When you would get close – less than a finger tip’s distance from grabbing him – he would jet off. He hated baths, but loved table scraps. Kirby lived a good, long life before age took its toll. We got him when my brother was in kindergarten, and he passed away when my brother was a senior in college. I loved Kirby, but I didn’t have the same connection to him that my youngest brother did.

While I was abroad, in the Peace Corps, my parents adopted another dog. His name was Oreo at first, because of his black and white fur, but I made half-joke that this dog should also be named after a Twins player, like Michael Cuddyer. It was mostly a jab at my dad who is not a huge fan of the former Twins All Star, but my mom liked the name and it stuck. I met Cuddy when I returned home, and we spent the days together as I applied for jobs and he got used to another human in the house. Cuddy, a springer spaniel/heeler mix, was young and wanted to play and tear my tights and I wanted him to go away. He is a sweet dog, and I wasn’t always as nice to him. I decidedly did not want a dog as an adult. Pet ownership seemed like more of nuisance than a joy.

That’s not how Ethan felt about it. He did not grow up with dogs (they did have a few outside cats), but the romantics of dog ownership called to him. When he was a young TV reporter in Kentucky, he adopted a dog for two days before his landlord changed his mind about having pets in the apartment. Ethan had to return the dog.

When Ethan and I started to build our live’s together, he was clear about his intentions to adopt a dog one day, even suggesting we look at only dog-friendly housing. We had an inside joke that whenever we saw someone walking a cute dog that we would try to steal it from that person. Ethan was so excited to meet my brother’s dog, Winnie, a lab-mix, and was thoroughly disappointed when Winnie had absolutely no interest in him. I was less enthusiastic about getting a dog, knowing full well that that dog would need to be walked during the Chiberia months and early on Saturday mornings. But Ethan’s persistence wore on me. One day, Ethan and I walked to the dog beach along Lake Michigan and watched pups wrestle in the sand and gallop into the water. Ethan’s eyes held a genuine happiness, but also a longing. I loved Ethan so much that I wanted to help fulfill that missing piece.

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Cuddy

“Let’s just go look,” I told Ethan. A few weeks earlier, we had gone to visit a few animal shelters in the city to see what kind of dogs they had and inquire about the adoption process. Most places didn’t have much for dogs, but at least we became familiar with the shelters. We really enjoyed one of them, Felines and Canines, and Ethan started following them on Facebook, which is how he learned that they had just received a new batch of dogs from Kentucky who were looking from homes. They posted pictures of these dogs, along with their names. We awed at each one.

This was not a good time for us to get at dog. Ethan had just been laid off the month before, and while we hoped he would only be unemployed for a couple of months, max, we didn’t know that for sure. Adopting and owning a pet is not cheap, so it didn’t make financial sense to get at dog at this juncture. Still, those doggy faces in that Facebook album egged us on. We were going to just look.

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The day we adopted Annalise/Annie.

I insisted that we get there early, to be there as soon as the doors open. While we were “just looking” we did have our eyes on a beagle named Jordan. Ethan liked the coloring of beagles, and they are the perfect size for our small two-bedroom city apartment. We were the first ones at the shelter, just as I had planned, and asked to meet Jordan. The dogs had arrived only two days before and spent the previous day getting necessary shots and entered into systems. It had been a long journey for these dogs, and some were feeling it more than others, including Jordan. They brought him into a special meet-and-greet area, and he immediately soiled a blanket. He did it again 10 minutes later. We took him out for a walk, and it was clear he was experiencing some physical anxiety. He seemed like a nice dog, but so scared.

The volunteer helping us asked if we wanted to meet another dog, and from the Facebook photos, I remembered a black dog with brown eyebrows. Annalise. She smiled. “Annalise is so sweet.”

Immediately, the pup plopped into our laps. She sniffed our ears and licked our necks. We had just met her, but she was cuddling with us as if we had always known her. We took her for a walk and her affection didn’t let up. She pounced through the neighborhood, her ears flopping. I liked Annalise, but I knew Ethan really wanted a beagle, so when we returned to the animal shelter, we asked to see Jordan again. We took him on another walk, but that spark wasn’t there, kind of like an OK first day.

After they put Jordan back in his kennel, I looked at Ethan. I couldn’t tell if he wanted Jordan or if it was just best for us to leave. He was also unsure of where I stood. “Honestly,” he said. “I like Annalise.” I agreed, and we asked to see her one more time.

On our second walk, I thought about how stupid it was to get a dog at that point. It was a cost that we didn’t need. Also, while I was fairly sure of our relationship, we were not yet engaged and adopting a dog while dating seemed a bit reckless. I texted my mom about what to do, and she suggested maybe we think about it overnight and then come back the next day if we really wanted her, but I knew that if we didn’t adopt her that day that another family likely would. I couldn’t live with that. I looked at this hound mix with a natural mohawk who I had only met 30 minutes prior and already there was this deep, persistent affection. I was in love with her, and I knew that I couldn’t I leave that shelter without her. Ethan felt the same way, so we walked in and expressed our intention to adopt Annalise. AsI predicted, as we were filling out the paperwork, another family came in wanting to meet her, but she was ours. Annie, we would call her.

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Cuddy, Winnie and Annie, all not happy about wearing sweaters but waiting for their treats.

Those first few months were not easy. Annie warmed up to Ethan right away because the two of them spent all day together, and she was unsure of me. She nibbled at my hand and feet and did not like when I got too close to Ethan. She wined during the night and barked at strangers. Hundreds of dollars left our bank account to cover her adoption fees, vaccines, toys, food, etc. We left her with friends for a weekend while we attended a wedding out state, and Annie’s wining started a months-long fight with their neighbors. We also did not make friends with our neighbors who complained about her jumping and separation anxiety when we were not at home.

However, it did not take us long to get addicted to puppy cuddles and the joy of watching her chase a ball. She was a fun companion on road trips and nights at home watching movies. I was eager to introduce her to our family, to buy her a Christmas present, to integrate her into my life. That first week, I would fall asleep thinking about how they are now three heart beats under our roof. We were a little team, Annie, Ethan and I.

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Photo by Wes Eisenhauer

Today marks one year since we met and adopted Annie. She is a much better behaved dog, not minding at all when we leave her home alone. She only barks when she is scared, which really isn’t that much, she doesn’t bite or chew items other than her toys and she now sleeps in her own bed. Besides the mounds of dog hair she leaves in every corner of our apartment, she is a great dog.

Our lives did lose a bit of freedom when we got Annie. Just this weekend we had to leave a really fun gathering of friends because it was late and Annie needed to be fed. We have yet to get to a concert in the park at Millennium this summer because we must rush home after work to let our dog out. And, we must think about who will take Annie and how much that will cost any time we want to take a vacation.

But Annie has brought more joy into our lives than I ever though possible. Coming home after a long day to see her waiting for me is one of the purest forms of love I have ever experienced. She makes every experience better, like last weekend when we went to a lake house and we were able to take her swimming and out for a boat ride. I love how much my friends love her, including those that want to come over just to see her or bring her treats. A normally high-strung, anxiety-ridden person, Annie has calmed me. She forces me to get outside each day and to find simple pleasures. Sometimes Ethan and I joke about what a pain she is, but our love for her is deep. At the lake house, she went running off, which we were fine with, but when she didn’t come back after a few minutes, both of our heart rates accelerated.

Ethan was unemployed for another six months after we adopted Annie, which was way longer than we had anticipated. It was not an easy time for either us, but the lay off really affected Ethan. What helped him get through those long days of job applying, rejection letters, and doubting his abilities, he told me, was Annie. She sat next to him day after day, offering cuddles when he needed a break. She depended on him when he felt alone. She helped him through a dark time, gave him enough to get to the other side.

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Photo by Jon Beskin

While having a dog is a sacrifice, it’s worth it. I would never have imagined how much better my life would be, but here I am 2,000 words into this post and I could keep writing (I know see why dogs make great novel inspiration). When I vowed to build a family with Ethan, Annie was apart of that. She is our family.

My favorite place to be is on the couch, cuddled up next to Ethan with Annie sprawled out on our laps. She likes to make sure she is touching both of us, that she can feel us incase we move. Our three hearts, all within inches of each other, beating.

 

What Would You Do With Two Weeks?

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What would you do, if unexpectedly, you found two free weeks on your calendar? No work. No major obligations. Nothing but the time.

This is my current predicament. For reasons I will explain soon, I have two open weeks in the middle of August. This is a surprise, as I was originally planning on just a week. So, that now I have two, I feel like I need to make the most of it.

There are a few caveats. I have three appointments during the first week that I need to make, but then my schedule is completely clear. Also, while I have some cash, I am on a budget and so anything that will cost more than a few hundred dollars, such as a last-minute vacation to a resort in Mexico, is likely not going to happen. I want to spend much of the time enjoying summer and being outside. Here are a few ideas so far:

  • Be a tourist in my own city and tick-off some bucket list items; such as kayaking in the Chicago River, the Garfield Conservatory and biking all of the Lake Shore Path
  • Spend a full day binging Netflix
  • Write in coffee shops across the city
  • Take Annie out to some trails in the suburbs
  • Daily swims in my gym’s rooftop pool and the Lake
  • Convince Ethan to go camping for a weekend in Wisconsin
  • Make pasta from scratch
  • Take a day trip to Milwaukee
  • Take my dog on a road trip to visit family in Minnesota and South Dakota
  • Cash in some credit card points for a four-day solo trip to Portland
  • Decorate and settle into my new apartment

Now I want to hear about you. What would you do with an extra two weeks?

Home, Sweet Roger’s Park Home

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When I first moved to Chicago, I had absolutely no idea where to live. I knew that I couldn’t afford to live downtown, that I wanted to be in the city, and that there was a neighborhood called Wicker Park (thanks to 2004 Josh Hartnett movie). It made the most sense to search the roommates wanted section of Craiglist’s, but the options for neighborhoods were overwhelming. So, I messaged the two people who I knew who lived in the city – a friend from Peace Corps Niger and another from South Dakota – to get their recommendations.

The one from South Dakota suggested Edgewater. It’s affordable, close to the beach, and you get all the fun perks of city living, she said. It was actually close to where the Peace Corps friend lived. I narrowed my search to Edgewater and found a woman about my age looking for a roommate.

I have been in Edgewater ever since. When my year-lease with the roommate was up, I moved less than a mile south to a studio, where I also stayed for a year before moving three blocks into a two-bedroom with Ethan. My entire Chicago experience has been in Edgewater. My dentist is here, along with my favorite coffee shop, sushi restaurant, and salon. Many of my friends live here. I know the intersections and streets. It’s my place in this big city.

Ethan and I love our current apartment. It’s right next to a charming neighborhood with tree-lined streets and single family homes with wrap around porches and backyard fountains. It’s two blocks to the train, a 10-minute walk to the beach, and a quick jaunt to Andersonville, the adult version of Wrigleyville. We love it here, but as our rent steadily increases year by year, we realized it was time to find something more affordable. We went back and forth on it for months, and even got an extension on our lease as it was originally up two days before our wedding (I would have turned into a puddle had I been forced to plan a wedding and move at the same time). I was so close to giving into resigning, but in the end we decided to vacate.

Apartment searching in any metropolitan area is a nightmare, and Chicago is no exception (although, from what I have heard from friends, it is not as hellish as New York). I ended up with my studio only after the rental property company showed me another unit and I applied only to find it was already rented out. They just happened to have the studio open up, which was of course more expensive. For the apartment Ethan and I are now, I saw the ad on Saturday night, received a text to view it the next day, and was the first of five or six couples to look at it. We only got it because we were the first and willing to put $500 down on the spot. Things go fast and you can’t never trust the ads. I’ve seen some very rank and shoe-box apartments. So, when we were contemplating moving, I was not eager to go through that search again.

This time was infinitely harder because of Annie. One would think that dog-friendly housing would be ample in a city plump with dog beaches and dog cupcake trucks, but it is not. Our options were cut to almost a third because we now needed to find somewhere that excepted dogs. Annie’s size also makes it tricky. She is about 35 pounds, so less than 50 but she is not considered a small dog, which is often the only size some places will take..

After a few weeks of passing links back and forth, and touring one of the most disgusting living dwellings I’ve seen, we found a nice two-bedroom, pet friendly apartment in Rogers Park, the neighborhood north of Edgewater. Our current apartment has everything – two bedrooms, in-unit laundry, central air – and we figured we would need to let go one of those amenities this time around, most likely the bedrooms or laundry. This apartment had it all, though, and it was nearly $300 cheaper. We toured it, and while it is a bit smaller than our current place, it was everything we were looking for, including an open floor plan. From there it was simple – application, references, lease signed. Our landlords are a property management company, but the building is a condominium, which means the building will be better cared for than if operated by a company.

We get the keys on Tuesday and the movers come Wednesday (This was an odd concept for me, as a native of South Dakota, where you just get a friend with a pick up to help you. In the city, though, it’s worth every penny to hire a mover, mostly because they know more than you do about hauling furniture up and down narrow passageways and blocking alleys). Most of our belongings are in boxes and bags, and now it’s just a matter of moving things out.

I am sad to say goodbye to Edgewater. Just this morning I was thinking about checking out a new bakery that moved into a coffee shop I liked, and I realized this weekend was my last chance (well, I can still go there, it just be a three block-walk). Like I said, a lot of my friends live here, and while they will still be close, it will require a bit more effort to and from. And, this will be the farthest away I lived from my South Dakota friend, which won’t impact us seeing each other but still.

At the same time, I am ready for new. This is the summer of new beginnings, and I am eager to find that community in Rogers Park that I did in Edgewater. It feels like starting over somewhere new without actually living the city. There is a lovely market nearby along with a theater and a cafe with kombucha on tap. I will get a new favorite cafe and salon, while knowing the others are a short train ride away. We now even closer to the beach.

We also have this new home to build, the apartment where we will live during our first year of marriage. It feels sort of right that we are moving now, to start this year completely fresh. We’ll finally get to unpack our wedding gifts, and add all the little touches that will make this our place.

Sometimes it is hard to move on, but the new and the chance to make the unknown familiar have brought life to me. I am ready for you, Rogers Park.

A Stack of Rejection Letters

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There are dozens of them in my email – some I have deleted and others I meant to delete but didn’t for one reason or another. Many of them have the same stock phrases,  such as “not the right fit” and “we wish you the best.” They are from agents, magazines, literary journals, and websites, and they all the same thing – no, we will not publish this.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to be a writer. Whenever I make a life-long goals list, it’s at the top. I went into journalism because I loved writing, but transitioned into communications to keep writing but do so without getting reader hate mail. This blog exists because writing is how I process my emotions and feelings.

I know that I have some skill at writing; it’s part of the reason I enjoy it. At every job I’ve had, my superiors have commented on what a strong writer I am, and through this blog, many people have reached out only to tell me how much they enjoy my writing. But I’ve always doubted how strong that talent really is and if it could make me a real writer. There are shortcomings – my copy is often messy, my descriptions are shallow, I pander to easy themes and language. My mom likes my blog, but could I write something that people would be willing to pay for?

Three years ago, when I was working for Peace Corps, a career coach led a professional development session and we were all asked to come up with goals. From there, we were supposed to identify the thing we really wanted to do in life and find ways to work toward it. I was lost; I didn’t know what my dream was. Since then, that question of what should I do has plagued me. As other parts of my life have started to fall in place – meeting Ethan, settling in Chicago – I felt very unsure of my career and whatever path I was on. This led me to look at graduate schools without exactly identifying what I wanted to study.

For months, I looked at programs in international development, social work, journalism, non-profit management and on and on. All of them seemed great, but none of them felt like that one big thing I should do. After one information session for a master’s in health communications, I was talking with Ethan, trying to decide if it was something I wanted to pursue. Ethan, who is always a good counterbalance to my internal doubt, asked what I would be giving up if I did the program. It was only a year, at a prestigious university that would definitely lend itself to career opportunities down the road. Stunning both him and myself with harsh honesty, I said that I wouldn’t be able to write as much, that I would be giving up my ambitions of being a writer if I did that program or any other that wasn’t focused on writing. Isn’t writing always what I wanted to do? Why wasn’t I doing that instead of shooting a dart at other ideas, hoping one of them will make me as happy as I knew writing could? So, I decided to take a year to try and make it as a writer, to become a real writer.

Currently, I get paid to write at my job. I get paid to do a lot of other things, but I do write quite a bit, from video scripts to magazine articles to social media posts to blogs to whatever it is they need from me. I write, but I want to be the kind of writer you envision when someone says, “Oh, she is a writer.” I want to see my books in airports, have my name in national distributed newspapers and magazines, and I want to write about the things I am passionate about.

To me, the biggest reason I hadn’t become a real writer was because I was too afraid to try. I have written two drafts for two different books, but they were hidden in my hard drive. Fear of failure kept me from attempting. I didn’t have any rejection letters because I never gave anyone the opportunity to reject me. More than publishing a book or writing a viral story, I wanted to know I at least tried.

About a year after the professional development seminar, I opened one of those book drafts, which I wrote while in the Peace Corps, and started rewriting. I enrolled in a creative writing class, joined writing groups, and met with people who were full-time freelances for advice on breaking through. For the novel, I asked for beta readers and hired an editor to go through the first three chapters so I could start querying. In a Writer’s Digest book,  I highlighted every single agent I thought would be interested in my book and noted literary agencies mentioned in the acknowledgement section of some of my favorite novels.

And, I wrote. I woke up at 5 a.m. to write. I wrote on my lunch break. I bailed on plans with friends to write. I wrote blog posts, short stories, personal essays, and three additional drafts of the book.

Then it was time to put that writing into the world. I submitted my fictional pieces to literary journals and pitched reported story ideas and essays to editors across the country. Also, I queried every literary agency in my spreadsheet.

Sometimes I never heard back, even with follow up, other times I received a formulaic sorry-but-we’re-passing note. I did not, though, receive any acceptances.

There were pieces that I only pitched because I thought needed to, as a real writer. My book was one of them. I had one agent ask to read more pages, which is not nothing, but she ultimately passed. I asked several friends to read the book, and none of them finished it, which is a good inclination that it was probably not good and they didn’t have the heart to tell me. I’ve been writing long enough to know when something has potential, and I didn’t get that feeling with the book. It had themes and ideas that I do believe are strong, but really I was pushing through because I wanted validation from someone else that I am a good writer, even if my heart wasn’t in the piece. When the last rejection for representation came, I put the book back in the corners of my computer.

However, there were also pieces I really believed in, that I knew were good, that didn’t get picked up. I don’t write a lot of fiction, but I did work on a short story that I thought was unique with a salient message. No one wanted it. I also spent months working on an 8,000-word personal essay, pouring my heart and soul into, that can’t seem to find a home. These kinds of rejections are harder to swallow.

After hearing no so many times, I stopped writing. All the nasty things I’ve said to myself and the criticism I’ve received had validation. I was an OK writer for this blog, but I was simply not good enough for a larger platform. My goal was to be a real writer, and I failed. 

Except that I didn’t fail, because that wasn’t my goal. What I really wanted to do was try, to collect those stack of rejection letters as proof that maybe I won’t get published but not because for a lack of trying. I can live with someone else telling me no, but it excruciating to tell myself no before I even started.

In the last month or so, I’ve been writing more. I missed it. I needed it. Coming back to the blog has reminded me why I love writing, and I am thankful for the 50 people who read each post. So, some of my writing didn’t get published, but that doesn’t mean it never will, unless I stop trying. The desire to write still boils in my blood, and it’s my duty to answer it and let whatever I create be what it is. As Anne Lamott says, the only way to be a writer is to put your butt in the seat and write.

So, I will write and I will fail, because rejection is the only way to become a REAL writer.

Starspangled

Chicago
Photo from here. 

Nine years ago, I spent Independence Day riding a bus from Dallas, Texas, to Sioux Falls, South Dakota. A college friend and her husband had just relocated to the south for his job, and they asked me – the single-always-up-for-an-adventure one – to make the drive down there. On the return, I purchased a Greyhound ticket that would transport me five states north, with a seven-hour lay over in Kansas City. Not only was it cheaper to travel on the holiday, but it relieved some of the pressure to have a big red, white and blue blowout.

Where I grew up, in a small town along the Missouri River, the Fourth of July is a big deal, so big that many who have left for college or bigger cities come back and bring their friends. There is a parade and band concert, but the real party, everyone knows, is on the river. Pontoon boats, jet skis, speed boats pulling giant tubes. There are cases of cheap light beer, clothing made of American flags, parties hosted on patches of sand. It’s the celebration that all Americans should have.

Except, I never did.

As a teenager, I spent most Independence Days working, which was great for the time and a half, but it also meant no sandbar parties for me. Which didn’t matter anyway because I was never really invited to those kind of get togethers. I only knew a few people with boats, and most of them had other plans for that day. So, I stayed on the shore, played “Stars & Stripes Forever” with the city band and couldn’t help but feel like I was missing out on the real way to celebrate the Fourth of July.

I had FOMO even before social media existed.

As I got older and moved away from home, these emotions morphed into a patriotic fear of spending Independence Day, alone. Weeks before the holiday, panic would set in as I realized I hadn’t made any plans nor had any BBQ invitations come my way. I harbored a deep belief that if I spent July 4 alone, not eating strawberry and blueberry popsicles in front of a body of water, then there was something inherently wrong with me. Somewhere in my life I had messed up so bad that no one wanted me around on this holiday that is marketed as the ultimate summer hangout with your besties.

This is a real worry for me, so much that, without solid plans for this Fourth, I brought up my fears with my therapist. I explained to him that I am already dreading the internal degrading I will face if I am not at a picnic on the lake or sipping something out of red plastic cup from a boat.

He asked me if there was the possibility that I could spend the Fourth alone, without a big party, and yet still be OK? Furthermore, could I see other people having these grand celebrations and know that it has nothing to do with what kind of person I am?

I am not sure, but I know I want to try.

For this Independence, I have a few low key plans – nothing that screams big Americana party. I am OK with this. I have a lovely day ahead. Still, my internal demons will come and try to tell me that whatever I have is not enough because I am not enough, and I am going to try to stop him this time

The thing is, I have had lots of wonderful Fourth of Julys, like the year of the aforementioned picnic. Or when I first moved to Chicago and an old friend invited me to a BBQ, giving us the chance to reconnect. Or, when my parents came last year and we went to a concert at Millennium. Independence Day is like every other holiday – some years they will be special and some they will not. That’s fine, that’s life.

The goal, for me, though is to not believe that my self-worth is tied to whether or not my holiday looked like the one others are having, and to not even compare them in the first place. Of course, this fear is tied to something bigger within me, but I think I can start by taking this holiday and knowing that no matter how or with whom I spend it, I will still be a good, love-able person.

 

Chicago, Chicago

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Four years ago, I was in a cab headed north on Lake Shore Drive. Rather, stuck in evening commute traffic headed north. The television in the car was on a loop, playing the same half dozen videos every 10 minutes. One was a news report about the pothole situation in the city, another an ad for Jewel Osco. Maybe I will shop at Jewel or be irritated by the potholes, I thought. I looked at the window on to Lake Michigan, This is my home now.

I have been a Chicagoan for four years now – the same length it took me to earn a bachelor’s degree in Brookings. Next to that city (I lived there for a bit after college) and Pierre (my hometown), it’s the longest place I have lived. In fact, I haven’t gone this long without moving as an adult.

Chicago was never a location I expected to be in, although I have long been determined to live in a city. New York had always been the ideal location, but Seattle, Washington, D.C., Boston, Denver and Portland were contenders at one time or another. It wasn’t until after I returned from the Peace Corps that I finally brought my youthful dream of urban living to a reality.

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The net I cast for a job after Peace Corps was wide, not wanting to limit myself, and while I ended up in D.C., the first job I applied to was in Chicago. It was at a non-profit with a mission I can’t quit remember now, but I was more excited about the prospect of living in the Windy City than the job itself. I started looking at other jobs, thinking maybe I will narrow my search to Chicago, and but eventually I landed in D.C.

Washington was not right for me from the beginning. I was still transitioning from Peace Corps, which means I was weird. I knew a lot of people in the city, but I had no intentions to stay there long. D.C. is great if you want to climb the career ladder in a profession that is rooted in the district, but my ambitions were unclear. It wasn’t really Chicago that took me away from D.C., rather a better fitting job, but immediately I kept seeing Chicago show up in random places. In signs, street corners, on beer glasses in Minneapolis restaurants. I felt reassurance that Chicago was part of my plan, and so I left Washington without doubt or remorse.

The first thing I noticed about Chicago is that people love it here. That’s not the case in the D.C., where most of the people I had met moved there because of career opportunities. People chose to be here, or they chose not to leave. It’s not a pretentious city (well, mostly), but it’s prideful. It recognizes its divide and yet does little to bridge it. It has the urban amenities of New York and L.A., but the Midwest charm of Iowa and Wisconsin. It’s the city I never understood I belonged to until I did.

“You wake up in Chicago, pull back the curtain and you KNOW where you are. You could be nowhere else. You are in a big, brash, muscular, broad-shouldered motherfuckin’ city. A metropolis, completely non-neurotic, ever-moving, big-hearted but cold-blooded machine with millions of moving parts — a beast that will, if disrespected or not taken seriously, roll over you without remorse.” – Anthony Bourdain

Four years have elapsed quickly. I’ve held two different jobs, will move into my fourth city apartment next month, ventured into new hobbies, adopted a dog, traveled to four different countries, seen nearly all of the city’s top tourist destinations, made great friends, entered into 30s, wrote a book, met and married my husband, and blossomed into the person all of the other places I’ve lived prepared me to be. Chicago isn’t just where I live, but it’s as much of home to me as South Dakota and Lesotho.

My favorite Chicago moments include running the 2015 marathon, singing “Go Cubs Go” as the white W flag is hoisted above Wrigley, seeing my idol perform a storytelling/dance show, the awe I feel at the sight of downtown anytime I bike or drive into the Loop, the night we went to the circus followed by dinner at Eataly and then a show with The Neo-Futurists, every Christmas, watching my favorite band perform, summer nights at Millennium, the long bike ride to the burbs, my bachelorette party and on and on and on.

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By most standards, I am a Chicagoan. I avoid The Loop on the weekends, understand that one festival is enough for the season, never eat Deep Dish unless visitors are in town, contemplated a tattoo of five red stars, and get downright giddy when summer finally decides to show up. My identity with this city shows up in other ways. Sometimes the feeling comes when I am riding my bike through the neighborhoods right before dark or walking home from the train or leaving a party with good friends. It’s this rush of love and gratitude and wonder and astonishment. A kid-like voice pops up, I live here. I get to live here.

We may not live here forever. We have adult aspirations of a family and buying a home, things that are not unheard of but harder to do in the city. We may go closer to family. We aren’t sure. But, what I do know, is that Chicago is in my bones. It’s woven into my heart in ways that I don’t yet comprehend, and in 20 years I will likely have the mental capacity and stability, along with clarity, to write essays and essays about this gritty loveable city. Right now, though, I just love it and thank it for all it’s given me.

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A Road Map for Malaise

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Photo from here

I don’t like to call it depression. I suppose that some would, but it’s not a term I use to describe these somber phases. A malaise, sadness, rough emotions. They eventually pass, and I feel like myself again, but when I am in them, it feels like walking through a dark room of cobwebs. I’ve had them all my life; anything can prompt them, and sometimes they stay for a few hours and at other times weeks. I can’t rid myself of them, rather I have to ride their waves.

This recent phase started after our wedding. The month before had been filled with of joy and love leading to this one day, and then almost immediately after it was a hard crash back to reality. It felt similar to when I trained for and ran the Two Oceans Ultra Marathon; I spent months focusing on just that one event that once I crossed the finish line, in happy tears, I didn’t know what else to do. In that first week, as a married woman, my attention and evenings were free to use how I pleased. All of my friends and family returned to their normal lives. Even Ethan was busy nearly every night. The spotlight was no longer on me, and I was left with a bones-deep loneliness. I numbed myself with alcohol, junk food, scrolling, and streaming. I tried so hard to block out the voices that come in these somber times, but they were strong and confident.

You are fat.

You are wasting away your potential.

No one likes you.

Your life is going nowhere.

When I am far into these moments, I believe this voice. I don’t challenge it with facts and reality. And, the truth is, I don’t want to. It’s a dark space, but it’s a familiar one. My friend, Pity, joins me and we wallow, agreeing that I belong and live in this sadness. But, that isn’t true. At my core, I am a friendly, outgoing, bubbly individual and sometimes I just get a bit off track,. And, I have a map to get back to myself. I do know what to do in these moments, and I just have to find the energy and courage to follow the path, which is not always easy – for any of us.

Since this world can be lonely and dark for each of us, I thought I would share some of my known tricks to get me back to myself when a malise has overcome me.

Tell myself the opposite.
Whenever I am in these moods, I pick apart one aspect of my life. My ability to write, my body, my relationships. My therapist and I have spent a ton of time talking about introducing new narratives to the conversation. If I am telling myself, I have no friends, it is not rooted in truth (I do have friends, many wonderful people). Instead, I tell myself, I have the right amount of friends and I am enough. Maybe it’s a stretch to automatically accept that as truth, but I can entertain the idea. Then, that voice hurling insults is weaker.

Reach out
I am not very good at asking for help, and so this step is really really hard for me. I want to fix everything myself, or hole myself up in my house until I feel better, but I know that doesn’t work. If I am feeling lonely and insecure about my relationships, I know that the best solution is to have dinner with a friend or plan a social activity. Friendships as an adult are hard – everyone is so busy and spur-of-the-moment get-togethers are unheard of – but I have to be vulnerable and risk hearing no because I always feel better after time spent in the company of someone I enjoy.

Move
It’s amazing to how much better I feel when I go for a bike ride or swim when I am in these funks. Running used to be my go to, and so still not being able to run, I throw a bit of tantrum and don’t want to do anything. When I stop resisting, and do something that moves my body, I feel incredible.

Get off the Internet
The Internet is full of things that make me sad about myself. With every up stroke of the thumb, I am presented with a fresh opportunity to feel inferior or not enough. That person has a better career than me. That person has more friends. That person is thinner. My solution? Get off the Internet. I typically don’t keep Instagram on my phone. I re-download it a lot to post my own stuff, but anytime I log on to just browse, without fail, I feel worse about myself in about five minutes. For nearly half a day, I was in a funk based on a photo I saw from a friend that, get this, HAD ABSOLUTELY NOTHING TO DO WITH ME. But, that’s what happens when you are in one of these phases. It’s like when you are stressed and exhausted and you get a cold because your immune system is already compromised. My mental health isn’t that stable during a malaise so even the smallest of things can send me into a flutter. That’s why it’s just best to avoid social media during these times.

Do something that isn’t about you
The only thing that lifted my spirits after that Instagram photo was calling my representatives about the what’s currently happening at our southern borders and make a donation to a worthy non-profit. Like most people, this whole situation makes me sick and I just needed to do something, even if little. That 20 minutes getting out of my own head was enough to put me in a good mood for the rest of the day. Imagine that. 

Remember it’s all cyclical
My friend Sabia often says, “Everything is changing and temporary.” Life operates in circles and what is bad now will eventually be good. I find that to be true about most of my sad points, no matter how painful at the time. Also, about whatever non-truth I am telling myself. If I feel like failure at my job one day, I might still fee like I am crushing it the next. It’s the beauty, and heartbreak, of life.

The fog is still present, but I am strong enough to beat it, and using these tips, eventually I will get out and find myself again. I always do.