It’s Always Darkest Before the Dawn

IMG_2203 2I view crisis in dollar signs.

An accident. A piece of bad news. A new pain. An unexpected challenge. They all ignite the same first thought: how much is this going to cost me?

When the reality of the COVID-19 pandemic started to sweep the U.S., I was lying on a beach in Mexico. I started to wonder how such a global health crisis would impact my husband and I financially, but I quickly shooed that thought away. When I get home, I will deal with that worry.

And slowly, the fear of a blow to our already strained finances started to grow. As more and more businesses closed and millions of Americans filed unemployment, I knew that we were not invincible. Not surprisingly, I was laid off (temporarily) from my retail job. Those checks paid my rent, but it was bearable because my husband still had his job. We would have to tighten our purse strings, but we would survive. It would be OK.

Then, on Friday, my husband was put on furlough. This was my exact worst fear. Losing our income was more terrifying to me than getting sick. I was naive to think I could beat the illness if I got it, but I was convinced that if this got ahold of us, it would ruin us financially. If we did have a means to pay our bills, what did we have?

I don’t have a great relationship with money. I have always been extremely stingy, to a point that is unappealing and drys up joy in life. Spending, even on things I need, gives me an intense guilt. I’ve spent most of career working in journalism and non-profits, so while I have had money coming in, it’s never been a lot. Many times in my life I’ve worked more than one job, and it wasn’t until my last job before I went to graduate school that I had a pretty decent income. Even so, I didn’t feel relaxed about money.

My anxiety with money intensified when, after I quit that good-paying job to follow a new passion, my husband lost his job about a year and half ago. He got a job a few months later, but it wasn’t brining in the money we needed, and eventually, the income dried up. I worked part-time and took every shift that I could in the fear that we would eventually run out of money. I ran myself ragged between school and two jobs, but I saw it as necessary. Money worries woke me early in the morning, and they hung on my shoulders throughout everything. I couldn’t enjoy a drink out with friends or a Saturday morning grocery shopping trip without the anxiety that I didn’t have the money to be doing whatever activity.

Then, in early 2020, we got a break when my husband got an offer for a great job. It would give him some good earning potential down the road, but the best part was that for the first time in almost a decade, he actually enjoyed what he was doing. I could finally relax a bit about money issues, even though we would still have to budget given that I was still in school and our savings accounts took a hit the year before. But, it finally felt like we were going to be OK.

Then the world fell apart.

I knew something was wrong when I went into the room where my husband was having a conference call and saw his face. It wasn’t somber or upset, but I knew something big was happening. And, then he told me, furloughed.

I cried. He had been at that job for a month, and now we were going back to white knuckling it through our bills each month. And this time, I couldn’t try to fix my worries with extra shifts or picking up side jobs to bring in money. We were just going to have outlast the storm, and hope that we can get enough money to pay the unrelenting bills.

A big regret that I had in the year that my husband was underemployed was the attitude I carried each day. I made everything about money. I screamed and cried and threw a fit at the circumstance I couldn’t change. And, I scrambled with fixes and tried to do anything to make it better. All I wanted was for the day to come when my husband got a constant-paying job that made him happy, and at times, it felt like it would never come. All of my joy was sucked dry because I linked my happiness to the amount of money coming in.

For reasons I will never know, I get another attempt at this attitude. I get the chance to make this not about money and to have faith and hope that we are are going to be OK. I have the opportunity to focus on what we do have, instead of what we don’t, and let that carry us to the dawn.

Even without paychecks, we have a lot to be thankful for. I will start receiving unemployment this week, and my husband’s application is now in as well. I am still making a few hundred dollars each month through my graduate assistantship (which I was offered to continue this summer), and we plan to use every penny of our stimulus checks (mostly for rent, and our checks combined won’t cover two months, because Welcome to Chicago, but we will take it). Because I’ve been stingy, or smart, I have an emergency savings that can hold us over, and both sets of parents have offered to help us. Plus, we still get to keep our health insurance, and my husband and I both will have jobs to return to when it is safe to do.

We are not alone. This situation is hurting many Americans, and honestly, while I don’t know many other people who are in our situation, I do believe there are people who are worse off. It feels like we don’t have a safety net given our last year and a half, but there are tons of hands around to catch us. We are not alone, and we never have been.

I spent most of yesterday feeling sorry for myself, like I can’t believe we are in this situation again, but it’s not the same situation and we are not the same people. We can get through this. We have the grift and the faith.

Even in a global health crisis, there is so much to be happy about, and none of it has to do with money. Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been able to catch up with so many friends, and I’ve had the time to write, run, bake, and do all the things that nourish me. People are rallying together to help each other, and there are hundreds of stories of people being their best.

Most important, all of my people are healthy. My husband and I have never been stronger in our relationship, and it’s been pure delight to actually spend time with him. We are healthy, we are together, and we are OK. No amount of money can beat that.

 

A Pep Talk

IMG_2078Let’s talk.

For me, the fog started Sunday. It yanked on my self-esteem, picked at all the things I should be doing, that I could be doing. It grew over the next few days, until I was doubting who I was and how I was letting everyone down. As it got darker, I started to hear from others. They had their own fogs, too. Maybe theirs looked like mine, dipped in anxiety, or their version had more fear or sadness. Either way, we were all feeling it.

It seemed like this was the week when all the emotions finally engulfed us, like a biting cold January day. The fear of leaving our house, the uncertainty of what’s next, the unending awful headlines, the loneliness, the grief, the growing numbers, and the continued injustices. No amount of binging TV, cleaning closets, snacking, or virtual happy hours could stop it. The emotions are too strong.

So, I thought I would come here to give us all a pep talk, or maybe just me a pep talk. Either way, I need to write the words I want to hear, and I prefer to share them will all of you. Grab a cup of something warm, and pretend that we are sitting on comfy couch in coffee shop with acoustic music in the background, a hazing afternoon sun streaming through the window, and plants nipping at our elbows.*

Friend,

March was a long month, I know, and there isn’t much hope for April. Your emotions are heavy bricks. They vary in size and color, but they sit on your throat, making it impossible to ignore. You are OK, you say; others have it worse, so you don’t want to complain.

Still, it’s scary. This is an unprecedented time, meaning there is no playbook on what to do or what to feel. Outside of staying at home, especially if we are sick, and washing our hands for two rounds of Happy Birthday, there are no tips or tricks. There was before this event, and there is now. We don’t know what after looks like yet, but it’s so far away that we can’t even see its outline.

We cope with scrolling, ingesting, numbing. We apologize for our tears, our irritable moods, and our lack of productivity. We make fun of ourselves for too much sleeping, TV, and eating.  We pretend that if we aren’t hit in the hardest of ways—with illness, death, loss of income or resources—then we should be OK.

But, we aren’t OK. We don’t have to be.

I don’t know what’s going to happen. I can’t predict how we will come out of this, but what I do know is that the human spirit is threaded with resilience. We are all capable of resilience, and it will look different for each us, as we face different obstacles, but it’s a tool we’ve been given.

Like almost all things in life, most of what is happening in the world is beyond our grasp, and the only thing we can control in this situation is ourselves and our reaction. That’s our focus for now. And the absolute greatest thing we can do during this time is to be gentle with ourselves, which allows us to be gentle with others.

So, friend, I ask you to take care of yourself. Give yourself the space to feel your emotions. Know that they are just and valid. As they stretch around you, comfort yourself. Use that warm voice you have when speaking to a friend. Do whatever you need in the moment, making sure no “should” enter into this sacred space.

Let go of expectation. You do not need to work on that passion project or tick off every item on your to-do list. Move your body only because it brings you peace. Eat without regards to weight. Sleep, watch TV, learn a language, read a book – do the things that bring your soul harmony, and only those things. This is not a time for pushing and punishing. Talk to friends and family but know that’s OK to take a day or a couple to hide under the covers. Ask for help, if you need it.

When the fog hits, be extra gentle to yourself. Take whatever time you need to usher yourself through the emotions, making sure you don’t numb them out but feel them and understand their purpose.

Because, one day, it will be clearer. The situation might not be over, but you will feel hopeful and renewed. These emotions are waves, and so when you are on the top, someone else will be on the bottom. If you have done the work of caring for yourself, only then will you be able to reach out to those with their own fog and give them a guiding light through it. Then, when you are down, others will be your light. That’s the way we get through this, with gentleness to ourselves and kindness to others.

It’s OK to be wherever you are in this journey as one bright spot in this devastating global crisis is that we are all in this together. We have each other, and because of that, we will endure.

Be safe. Be kind.

Love,

Heather

*(Sioux Falls friends, think Michelle’s, circa 2009.)

 

 

 

Finding Delight

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I changed my background to black because all the cool younger people I know do it

Weeks ago, back when all of my conversations didn’t start with “How are you holding up?”, I started a file in my Notes app called, “Things That Delight Me.”

The concept came to mind after a writing group meeting in January in which I had shared an essay on writing that I drafted out of haste and peer pressure to produce something for others to review. This writing group sprouted years ago from a creative writing class I took, and a few of us decided to keep sharing words together. The group has morphed as some have gone on to earn MFAs and others have had their focus change with new babies. Now it stands at two original members, myself and a lovely woman who could describe a pile of garbage in a way that would entice you to learn more, and a newcomer. While we were reviewing my piece, which included both praise and helpful critiques, the new guy mentioned that the piece was lacking any joy or playfulness.

Huh. I had never heard that about my writing before, but it made sense. I am not a perfect writer, but I can draw out emotion, and sometimes, I’m even eloquent. But, I am rarely playful in my writing.

Not much later, I heard this episode of This American Life about delight, and one guest was an expert of delight who makes opportunities for these simply sparkly moments daily. An example he gave was carrying a tomato plant on to an airplane and how the other passengers and crew were so enthralled with this idea that they all made charming comments about the plant and was concerned that it was having a safe flight.

This made me think how delight and silliness is often not at the center of my life. Instead, I wake up with a list of worries that I should attend to, and then I get started going grudgingly from activity to activity. Even when I am having fun, I am rarely actually enjoying myself.

So, I started the note on my phone in order to record these smiley moments so that I would have them when life became hard and dark.

Welcome to March 2020.

This week, I was laid off (with intention to rehire) from my part-time job, which is inconvenient because rent is due next week, along with a $3,000 bill for classes later in April, and taxes sometime before July 15. And, we are the lucky ones. We don’t have children, my husband finally has a good job, and we’ve spent the last year living on a lean budget so there is breathing room. Many people are losing their jobs, and more layoffs are expected as much of the economy has come to a complete halt. Worse, the infected rate drastically climbs every day, and our dedicated healthcare workers are in the fight of their careers. There is no end in our sight, and our government has completely let us down in their preparation and reaction to this pandemic.

It’s scary. I am scared. Every day, fear wakes me up, and I have to remember for a second that this is not a bad dream but our reality.

However, even in this unprecedented, uncertain, and troubling time, delight is around. It’s peaking out when you aren’t noticing it. It’s waiting for you to see it. It’s small but mighty. It’s there.

Because we all need some positivity, I thought I would share parts of my “Things That Delight Me List” as well as general things that I am thankful for at this time. I want a record of this list so I can remember all the good that was side-by-side with all the worry. I want to review this list as a break from the onslaught of terrifying news and social media posts. And, I want to share this in the hopes that you will also share some of things that delight you. For now, enjoy.

Things That Delight Me:

  • Sunny days, even if the air is so cold my fingers hurt. At least the sun is there to make me believe it will be ok.

    60548134472__621FBC31-2843-4C55-975A-D2ED96354F59
    So it’s not cold in this photo, but it sure is sunny and beautiful.
  • At night my husband pretends to hug me but then pushes me on to the bed. Giggles squeak out of me as he lays on top of me like a weight blanket. We do this every night, and it is never not endearing.
  • A friend reaching out just to see if I need a streaming password. It was the smallest of gestures, but it came with the utmost sincerity.
  • This video clip of the Cubs winning the World Series. I watch it every year. The Cubs are a good reminder that, even though dark times may last awhile, they can’t last forever. And, when victory comes, it will be better than you imagined it.
  • Virtual happy hours/brunches/afternoon teas. It’s amazing. Why didn’t we do this earlier? I get to catch up with good people and not leave my house.
  • The musical bridge of Vampire Weekend’s The Unbelievers. It’s like walking through an instrumental forest.
  • For the last three semesters, I’ve had a late class. All of the courses in my program are in the evening and split into two block: the early class (5-7:30 pm) and the late class (7:40 pm – 10:10). When my class gets out past 10, I am not home until 11, which means I am on public transportation a little later than I feel comfortable. However, with only online classes, I no longer have to make those stressful commutes home. It’s incredible to close my laptop and be home.
  • My two-year-old niece is my daily hero. She knows that they key to happiness is sitting around in your underwear and eating your favorite snack. She is downright jolly after ingesting ice cream, and she loves to call me just to ask to see my dog. My nephew, who is nearly three, is an expert at launching himself off of things and scarfing down donuts. Neither one of them give a crap about what anyone else thinks. I adore them.
  • Harry Styles’ Tiny Desk Concert. And, really, his whole new album.
  • My husband often stands up and open his arms real wide. In response, my dog jumps up to him, her version of a hug. He laughs. Her tail wiggles. This is how an animal and a human show love.
  • I made cookies one day just because I felt like it. I baked a dozen and froze the rest of the dough in balls with the intention of baking them at another time. Instead, each day I pull one out and pop it in my mouth. It’s a naughty act. A child would get reprehended for the such disregard to health. A disordered eating victim would punish herself physically and emotionally. I am an adult in recovery so I can simply enjoy the frozen goo.
  • Falling into a bed with freshly cleaned sheets.
  • Finishing a long run, sweaty and dirty, and then washing down the smug the feeling of superiority to anyone who didn’t spend their Saturday morning thrusting their body forward for 15 miles with whatever salty food I want.
  • Wandering the aisles of Trader Joe’s.
  • Fresh flowers.
  • Naps with Annie. She is the best cuddler.IMG_1557 2
  • Finding a new-to-me recipe and examining it like a puzzle, wandering through the discomfort of not really knowing what I am doing. Then, when my husband sinks his teeth into it, reassuring me I nailed it by going for a second bite.
  • When one some asks for my advice. I tend to think I am excellent advice giver, and their request proves this to be true.
  • Waking up from a three-hour nap in which I was transported to a long street that makes up a series of bars from early 20s. For a few minutes, I plan to revisit those places again, order just one more tall Boulevard and dreamingly stumble into the street, like I was drunk on ambition and naïveté. Then I decide that those places are best store in my dreams and that it’s better for emotional health to make new memories instead of exploring past ones. They aren’t the same, and neither am I.
  • Taking a walk at dusk with my husband and dog. Between work and school, I am almost never home between the hours of 1 pm – 8 pm, and so to enjoy the 5 o’clock hour at home is absolute treat.
  • Ice cream. Everything is better with ice cream.
  • Date nights at home. Even if we can’t go out, I will still do full makeup and put on that sparkly dress.
  • To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before and To All the Boys P.S. I Still Love you Sure, these are teen romance movies, but they make me downright giddy. I absolutely loved the first one, and it’s one of the only movies I will watch over and over again. And, I knew there was a second one, but before this, I rarely had two hours to sit down and watch something. Well, thanks to shelter in place, I could finally watch it. I was far from disappointed.
  • Being on a boat. You forget pretty much all of your worries, should’ves and could’ves when you are skimming across water’s surface.IMG_1999

That’s all for now, but I will keep looking for delight, and I hope you do, too, because between that, hope, and each other, it’s all we got.

Dispatches from Social Distancing

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Why would I leave this for social distancing?

A week ago Friday, I woke up to a bright Mexican sun. The night before, my mother and I had taken a boat ride to another part of the coast, sipping margaritas along the way, to have dinner under a canopy of lush forest with sparkling lanterns and plenty of wine and then enjoyed a circus show that embodied shear defiance of gravity and the limits of the human body. We could have slept in that morning, but our time in Puerto Vallarta was drawing near, so we threw on suits and walked along the beach, letting the ocean wash across our feet and snapping photos of the rising sun. Then, we parked ourselves in front of the pool, under the sun, where we had spent most of the previous four days,  for a few more hours of reading and just one more margarita. We had taken this mother-daughter trip to celebrate my mother’s 60th birthday (her first time out of the country_ and as a much needed break for both of us. However, it was time to return to the U.S. and back to real life.

Except, that isn’t what we came home to, rather, it felt like an entire different country. And, in some ways, it was.

In the week my mother and I were on vacation, COVID-19 took a stronghold of our nation, like many others before us, and a panicked, different set of being settled across the U.S.

All week long, we had heard news reports and stories from family about what was happening back at home. It was an odd thing to watch from afar. OK so Coachella is cancelled, but now so is the NBA? Then, I received noticed that my school was postponing classes for a week and then would resume online only until further notice. Even in South Dakota, a state that is more isolated and less congested than Chicago, was starting to take precaution. By the time we left Mexico, both of us had been given an extra week off from work and school, which at the time felt like a cool bonus vacation.

After I texted him that I made it to the airport, my husband joked, “Have fun flying back into hell.”

It’s been a surreal ever since. Each day brings more news, more cancellations, more worry. More than one friend has remarked, “What a time to be alive.” Yes, this is definitely historic.

During a recent episode of “Keep It”, Louis Virtel said that he realized this pandemic was serious when they cancelled the release of the new James Bond movie. The other hosts made fun of him for this, but it made me think about how most of us probably have a time when they thought, “oh wow, this is really big.” It’s probably related to something that is important to them, something that affects not just their daily life but a foundational part of who they are as a human. For example, for many of my running friends, it was likely the postponement of the Boston Marathon. Yes, a lot of races have been cancelled or reschedule, but Marathon Monday is the biggest day for runners, whether you are racing it or not. In 123 years, this race has never been cancelled, so you can imagine that only something so serious as a global health crisis would be the reason to make this difficult decision.

For me, this moment came Monday evening when I received a message from a friend who works at Peace Corps: the entire Peace Corps global operation was being suspended, meaning thousands of volunteers were coming home. This is huge. This event made me think about when I was serving in Lesotho and the government was on extended shutdown. There was talk about whether or not we would have to go home, but because volunteers are considered essential employees, we stayed at site. Plus, our staff told us, it would be too costly to send everyone home. Now, I know that this decision wasn’t taken lightly, but evacuations are devastating not only to volunteers but their host communities. These volunteers have to return home to no jobs, no housing, and little money while their communities wonder if they did something wrong. Having gone through an evacuation myself, one that still has emotional ramifications nine years later, my heart goes out to them. While I knew that this was serious, it was then that I started to understand that this pandemic is bigger than just Chicago or the U.S., but really a global emergency.

Like most people, we are social distancing in our small two-bedroom apartment in Chicago’s far north side. My husband is working remotely, and I will start virtual classes next week. Both situations are beyond ideal, but nothing right now is perfect. My part-time job suspended their in-store operations and are limited to only pick ups. They have minimized staff so really only those who are salaried are working, while the rest of us part-time employees are staying home. Thankfully, because we live paycheck-to-paycheck, I am being paid for my regular amount of hours for the next two weeks. We leave the house to walk the dog and go to the grocery store as needed, and I still continue to run outside, but that’s it. 

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Super delicious quiche I made, from scratch, will of my extra baking time.

This is weird for us for many reasons, but mostly because I am never at home this much. Like never. Before I went to Mexico, the most time I had at home, other than sleeping, was like three or four hours Saturday afternoons, between errands and social appointments. My class schedule and two jobs has me on the go, and I am often rushing from one thing to the next. This isn’t great, and I’ve been pretty burned out lately. Honestly, some forced social distancing is probably as good for my physical health as my mental health.

On the other hand, part of the reason I schedule myself to the brim (besides lack of strong boundaries) is because I get restless. I don’t know how to relax well, and I don’t think I have ever been bored because I can always find something to do. Staying at home for a night is my dream, but I am not sure how to handle weeks of them.

Additionally, I am scared. I worry because my husband just started this new job after being underemployed for a year, and if they have to make cuts, he was the last in. If my part-time job can’t go back to regular business after two weeks, will I still get paid? If not, I am not sure how I will afford rent, groceries, and other bills. What if this pandemic causes an economic crisis that will take years to recover from? We are lucky that we can get by, for now, but we are incredibly vulnerable. Also, we are getting fairly decent insurance under my husband’s job, but that doesn’t start until April, and our plan now is awful. Sure, we can get tested for free, but what if we need medical treatment? The uncertainty of what will happen and how long this will last is unnerving and produces daily anxiety.

That being said, I’ve been trying to incorporate some de-stressers and self-care practices to help me endure. Since we are all going through this, and because I just wanted to write in this space again, I thought I would share some of them with you:

Running: Being able to go outside and get some fresh air while moving my body has been crucial in keeping me sane over the last week. It helps that Chicago is showing signs of spring. It’s honestly the only hour I get out of my house and get to be by myself. Running continues to be safe as long as we practice appropriate social distancing guidelines, which is so helpful.

Open communication: Living in a small space, I’ve realized that my husband and I need to have daily conversations about what we both need. This might include him going for a long drive or us hanging out in different rooms, but if we are going to be in close proximity together, which we rarely are, honestly, we got keep adjusting and making sure we are asking for what we need. This is my secrete to staying married during social distancing. Tune in six months to see if it worked.

Checking in with friends: I often say that I should reach out to so and so, but then I forget or just come up with a reason not to. Now, though, knowing we are all in this together no matter where we are, when someone pops in my mind, I just text them. It’s been fun to reconnect with some old friends this way but also feel like I have some kind of social life. Also, a few friends and I’ve had or are planning on video chats. The first one I had last night was with two good friends from college, and it was wonderful. Hit me up if you want to video chat!

A Tidy Space: Cleaning has always been therapeutic for me, and it’s something that doesn’t happen much in my busy schedule. So, the other day, I did a thorough cleaning of our apartment, and it makes me downright giddy to go to bed knowing that all the dust bunnies are gone and the dishes are put away.

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Trying to make our small apartment feel zen.

Baking: This is another thing I don’t normally have time for in my schedule, so I am taking advantage of some wedding gifts I haven’t had the chance to use. So far, I made St. Patrick’s day cupcakes and a quiche, but I’ve got big plans for scones, cookies, and multiple loaves of bread. However, most of the city also has this idea because baking essentials, such as flour and yeast, are hard to come by.

Entertainment: Like everyone, I reading and streaming as I can. I just finished Becoming by Michelle Obama and Maybe You Should Take to Someone by Lori Gottlieb. Both were wonderful. Glennon Doyle Melton’s newest book, Untamed, should be at the library for me tomorrow or Saturday, and I can’t wait to devour it. At the moment, I am reading this story about Des Linden, who made a huge announcement that she was going to run the Olympic Trials and the Boston Marathon, but didn’t the make the Olympic team and now can’t run Boston (p.s. this is why I started drinking bourbon). For TV, we loved “McMillions”on HBO, and I enjoyed “Hillary”. Other things we love include “Brooklyn Nine Nine”and “Schitt’s Creek.”  For trashy, I really love “Very Cavallari”, because Jay Cutler is the best reality star on TV, hands down. Also, if you have never watched “The Good Place” do it now. It’s the most wholesome, reassuring television show out there. Now might be a good time to stream Tiny Desk Concerts, which I can do while doing literally anything else. For podcasts, I recommend Heavyweight, The Dropout, and Slowburn. Plus, some of my weekly favs, like Lovett or Leave It, are doing some fun things in this time of no studio audiences.

Naps: As a friend from graduate school recently said, there isn’t much a good nap can’t cure. But, also, this is hard and anxiety makes me sleepy.

On the other hand,  there a couple of things I want to do more of during this time:

Homework: I am the kind of student that does all of my reading and gets all of my homework done a week ahead of time, but with my schedule, a lot of it is hurry up and submit. I sometimes feel like I am not absorbing it. So, I really want to use this time to feel like I am getting a good grasp on this before I start my internship this fall. I downloaded a few books that are specific to my theory and am planning to do some off-syllabus reading.

Writing: No promises, but I hope to be more active here during social distancing. Maybe even finally submit some pieces I’ve been working on for awhile.

Limiting social media and news in general: I am terrible at this. I refresh my social media every few minutes like a drug I need more of. And, I’ve been trying to really be careful about what rumors I believe and what news I take in. For now, it’s just a few daily roundup podcasts, which is more than enough. I hope to make it less and less. I want to be informed but also understand the more information I have the more the anxiety fire roars.

Letting go of expectations: There is this lingering voice above me that says I have to use this time to do all things. I need to get back to writing and find a way to make it a part of my future psychotherapy practice. I must pick up mediation. I should learn Spanish. Should. Should. Should. I mentioned all the expectations I have for this break on a video call with friends the other night, and one said, “Yeah, that sounds so like you.” I guess I do this a lot. But you know, a lot of things are going on and I kind of just need to watch old episodes of “Parks and Recreation” and bake scones. That’s OK. It’s all OK. I don’t have to do anything specific, other than just keep myself happy and safe.

Alright, so Dispatch #1 was a bit lengthy, but I want to know: What are you doing to keep sane? Send me your movie, books, TV shows, and podcasts recommendations. And, let’s chat if you are up for it!

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Sound advice

The Decade That Was

A few days ago, I had a breakdown, the kind of breakdown in which you can’t stop crying for hours, your body trembles, and when you’re finally calm, your eyes are so puffy that they are nearly closed shut. At the end of 2018, I had asked God, the universe, any magical entity that would listen to give me two specific things, and a few days from the year running out, the realization that I wasn’t any closer to have those wishes, I collapsed. When I could stand again, I turned to my Spotify, for musical relief, and found a newly cultivated list for me: Best of the Decade.

It wasn’t just the end of another 365 days, but 10 sets of them. And because I am a sucker for reminiscing, I couldn’t let but look back at the decade that was and how all those little and big events lined up to put me where I am today.

When I say 2010, it doesn’t seem that long ago, but I’ve shoved a lot of life into the last 10 years. The end of 2009 was challenging. I had gone out on a limb to start my own creative venture, and it was falling short of expectations. To do this, I went part-time at my job, and it stung my bank account. I had strong feelings for someone who did not return them. Come New Year’s Eve, as we moved forward into a new decade, I prayed that the next year, or at least the next 10, would give me what I longed for the most—love, adventure, success, happiness.

Six months later, I received a big blue envelope in the mail that changed my life. It was, of course, my invitation to serve in the Peace Corps. By the end of 2010, I rang in the New Year at a bar in Zinder, Niger, that was playing club music on the inside and “The Devil Wears Prada” on the outside. I couldn’t have been happier.

If you know my story, you know then that just weeks later Peace Corps suspended its program, and I was forced to return home to South Dakota. I wallowed a bit, still lonely and unsure of my place in the world, but by the end of that year, I was again in Africa, this time in Lesotho.

Shortly before 2013 dwindled out, I returned home to start anew. The last two and half years had been amazing and had busted my perceptions of the world wide open, but it was time to get back to the real world. As soon as January 1 hit, I knew I would have to start applying for jobs and rebuild my life. I wasn’t sure where I wanted to be next, but I wanted to finally fulfill a life-long desire of living in a big city. Also, that place should also be where I find my future husband.

It wasn’t long into the new year before I packed my bags and moved again to Washington, D.C. It was the first place to offer me a job, so I took it, thinking I could be happy in our nation’s capital. D.C. was fine but not exhilarating. I would just need to get used to it, I thought, but before I could, another life-changing invitation came my way, again on Peace Corps letterhead. This one was to encourage me to apply to a communications and writing position at the regional office in Chicago. It was a lengthy process, which is true to Peace Corps, and while I tried to make a life in Washington, including dating, I couldn’t settle in. Turns out, I wasn’t supposed to, because just a few months after moving, right at the moment my lease in D.C. was up, I was offered the job in Chicago. My belongings were shoved into boxes once again, and the first night in Chicago felt more comfortable than any in D.C. ever did. This was the big city home I always wanted and needed.

It’s incredible to think that I have lived in Chicago for more than half of this decade, especially given all the moving around I did in the other four and half years, but the Windy City has been my longest home outside of Pierre. Those first few months were fantastically lonely, spending more nights than I should drinking red wine and watching Netflix. Eventually, I formed social circles, mostly with people that had some kind of Peace Corps connection, whether I served with them, met them through the alumni network, or worked with them at the regional office. Honestly, if it wasn’t for Peace Corps, I wouldn’t have had many friends the last five years.

The move to Chicago was meant to jumpstart my career, refill my bank account, and most of all, lead me to love. I hadn’t been in relationship since I graduate college, or since Obama took office. After striking out trying to meet men in the real world, I went to the apps, which was disastrous. I once went on five dates in five days, with no luck in finding a guy that I liked and one that liked me back. Each rejection allowed me more room to criticize myself and point to my faults. Both of my younger brothers married before me, and at the wedding of my youngest, in 2015, I vowed to give it all up. I had a date lined up that week, but after that, I was done.

As you probably might have predicted, that date was with the man who is now my husband. We met almost a year after I moved to Chicago, on June 2, 2015. Three years to the day, we married in a small ceremony on his parents’ land in rural Tennessee. Sometimes it bothers me that I had to wait so long to find my love, but when I look at all the trials and tribulations life has handed us in our short marriage, I am thankful that I’ve had the maturity and life experience to look into his brown eyes, grab his hand, and continue to walk through the storm. Had we met as previous versions of ourselves, I can’t guarantee we would have had the same perseverance.

Professionally, in the last decade, I’ve struggled to find my purpose. My job at Peace Corps was a fine one, but after two years, I realized I had gone as far as I could go in Chicago and began looking for better, higher-paying opportunities. I wanted to continue to write and work in the non-profit sector, and I found another job fairly easily. Again, it was fine, but I wasn’t in love. I was promoted and allowed to do more creative work, but by then, I knew it was time to try something else.

In the meantime, I wrote a book and pitched it, along with other stories, in an effort to spread my name across the country. Just like my dating attempts a few years early, I was met with a lot of rejection, and even more silence. Only one agent wanted to see my book (and she eventually passed) while no editors grabbed the ideas I pitched. Even so, I wrote. I joined writing groups, submitted stories, and found relief in blank Word docs. At one time, I had hoped to build a freelance career, but all the effort and anxiety around that didn’t feel worth it. Maybe I could still write on my own but find another career worth pursuing, I decided.

While talking to an old friend one day in 2017, he asked me if I had a mission statement for my career. I had never thought of it before, but I blurted out, “To help people feel less alone.” And, in that second, I finally had an answer to all the wondering and pondering about my next career move. When I knew what to do next, it wasn’t long before all the pieces fell into place, and within five months, I was enrolled at Roosevelt University to begin a master’s program in clinical mental health counseling.

At 33, when I started graduate school, most of my friends already had their advanced degrees, and now as they are making big moves in their careers, I often feel behind and ridicule myself for waiting years do something I’ve wanted to do for a long time. But, just like the timing of meeting my husband, I needed all that time behind me. Graduate school is very hard, and I can now count on multiple breakdowns in the middle and at the end of the semester, but I have no doubts about being on this path. My favorite is when we are role playing, practicing our counseling skills, and I am listening to the client before me. The world around me screams “Yes! This! This is what you are meant to do!” I gave up a lot to be in graduate school, but I would have had life-long regret had I chosen to play it safe and not follow this path.

In reliving this decade, I went back through old Facebook photos, trying to remember the nights that seemed mundane but were actually magical now that they are long gone. It broke my heart to see so many faces in those photos who I am no longer in touch with. A heartbreaking fact is that we continue living and our relationships change with time and distance, and sometimes relationships just run their course. When I was younger, I thought of friendships as currency and the more you had the richer you were. However, in the last few years, I realized I can no longer pour energy into those relationships that are not fulfilling, and I’ve had to step away from friendships that were one-sided or were more exhausting than rewarding. It still hurts to remember people whom I once loved furiously are no longer in my life, for whatever reason, but letting go comes with its own gift of self-love.

On the flipside, though, I’ve learned to nurture those relationships that add to my life, and in the last decade, I’ve had many of those. From friends who I can write with to those who are willing to wake up at 5 a.m. to run with me to those who I don’t see often but can pick back up with in a matter of seconds to those who will talk me through the breakdowns to those who I just want to be around because they carry a light that I want to bask in. I have less friends at the end of this decade, but they mean more.

2019 was a trying year at times, and this spring my mental health went to a scary and dark place, but I worked myself out of it. I went to therapy, I ran more miles than I ever have, talked to new and old friends, and relied on my husband. But the one thing that pulled me out the most was remembering that while not everything in my current life is perfect, that at one point, I pined for everything I have now. I ended so many years wanting a new life in a big city with a career I am passionate and a husband to share it with. So, yes, I didn’t get the two specific things I wanted, and I held some temporary sadness for that fact, but there is much, much more to celebrate.

Sometimes we don’t come as far as we want in a year, but it’s only a single year. For me, big things take time, and as I look toward not just to the next year but the following nine, I know life will bring me heartbreak and joy and love and triumph and challenges and miracles. The last decade was monumental, and I have no doubt that the next one will be as well. The things I want now will come, and if not, something better will. My responsibility in the next decade is to look around at what I do have and cherish it. If I could, I would go back to that girl in 2009, wanting life to be so different, and tell her to be grateful for the people she is with and that time because they won’t always be there. I would tell her to see that what she currently holds is leading her to the next thing and that she will get what she wants, so be patient and find the joy in now.

My life is not perfect, and things are at times hard, but it’s part of my journey. I can’t wait to see where it brings me in the next year and the next decade. For now, my goal is to enjoy all that I have, remember how hard I worked to get here, and keeping moving forward with gratitude and optimism that it will all be OK.

New Blog and Instagram!

Hi, friends!

I know that this blog has been quiet for sometime, and that’s because I am blogging elsewhere. I have really loved my time here, but the posts became infrequent and quite erratic. I didn’t want to give up blogging, but rather focus it around theme. So, meet the Running Therapist!

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This blog contains posts about running, mental health, and the life lessons that come with running. I am not sure if running is therapy, but in my experience, the movement does wonders for my mental health.

The Running Therapist will be less personal than this blog, but posts will contain many of the same themes. Yes, it is focused on running, but it’s really for anyone. I’ve already written posts about comparisons, living in the moment, and the courage start.

You can find read and subscribe to the blog here: https://therunningtherapist.health.blog/

Also, I created a brand new Instagram account. Again, more running focused, but mostly me. Find and follow me here: https://www.instagram.com/therunningtherapistblog/

Whether you are a runner or not, I hope you follow along and I would love to hear from you!

 

Choosing happiness

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When I left my 9-5 career last summer to go back to school, I figured that at some point I would pick up some kind of work, whether it be a part-time job or freelancing, in addition to my graduate assistantship. Since then, I’ve done both, picking up odd writing jobs when I can (I am available for hire!) and working at weekends shifts. These part-time jobs were supposed to be stress-free and complimentary to my school work with a small income to cover some monthly expenses.

I started working at the market attached to Heartland, and when that closed at the end of the year, I picked up a job at a bakery. It seemed quaint, right? Who hasn’t thought of working at a bakery with fresh cookies and breads coming out of the oven? My job was to take orders and make coffee drinks, but maybe eventually I could do some baking. It would be a decent gig, with delicious benefits.

And, at first, it was. The bakery was very welcoming and everyone was friendly and willing to help me learn the ropes. I really liked the owner and my co-workers, and it was fun to walk in every day and see what creations they were dreaming up.

The semester ramped up, though, and I started to dread the shifts. I often worked Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, in addition to spending 10-11 hours at school Tuesday-Thursday. I often couldn’t sleep Friday evenings thinking about all the things I needed to do at the bakery Saturday morning to prepare for the weekend rush. Work worries started to seep into my school life, and I became a stressed out mess, even royally screwing up an assignment that nearly cost me my overall grade. Before my shifts, I was usually in such a foul mood that I was mean to both Ethan and the dog, and overtime, that mood didn’t just start in the hour or two leading to my shift but a day or two before.

It was clear to my husband and close friends that I needed to leave my part-time job, but I had a hard time coming to that conclusion on my own. Like I said, I liked my co-workers and the owner, so what was it? The work wasn’t hard, but I wasn’t particularly good at it, especially as the business expanded its food and drink menu and there was more for me to prepare. Most of the customers were pleasant enough, and I started to build relationships with the regulars. The mornings were early, but really not that much. There was nothing super specifically terrible about the job, so why was I so unhappy when I was at work?

I hesitated leaving because I was afraid that I would be unhappy wherever I went. Before I went back to school, I had had a pretty decent career, but I haven’t stayed at any job for longer than two years. I get restless and want to find something that will finally fill this lingering void. I wondered if I could just hold out for the summer, save some money, and then quit when the fall semester began. That became my plan until the mere thought of working there a few more months made me physically sick.

One day I was scrolling through my Strava app (the only social media account I have), and a singular post stood out. It was from a woman in South Dakota who mentioned a group run at 605 Running Company. At that point, I was running quite a bit and just loving running again. I wanted to spend my weekend nights going for group runs and Saturday morning doing long runs, but my work schedule didn’t allow for that. It made me think about how I wasn’t really a part of the running community in Chicago, but I wanted to change that.

Then, one day, I was in my career counseling class, and we were doing partner activities to practice advising someone who is making a career change. We were to think about issues with our current jobs and present them to our counselor, and when it was my turn, I just blurted out that I wanted to quit my job and start working at a local running store. From there, I kept saying that to other people until I decided to make it a reality. It made sense. Running makes me really happy, and I love talking about it with other people. If I had to have a part-time job, why not have one that is centered on one of my passions?

When I got the job offer, I didn’t accept it right away. I know that seems weird, because obviously I wanted the running store gig and needed to get away from the bakery, but it felt like I was running away from hardships yet again. I have this pattern of jumping from thing to thing in order to find happiness, but ignoring the fact that these are external changes and if I really want to be at peace the work needs to happen internally. Couldn’t I just make it work at the bakery? What if I am not any happier, not just at the running store but eventually as a counselor? It also didn’t help that the running store wage was lower than the bakery, and I wasn’t sure if the pay cut was worth being a bit happier each day, especially if that ended up not being the case.

Eventually, I did take the job, and I actually have my first day today. I know that this job won’t automatically make me happier, but I actually feel a bit lighter since I left the bakery a few days ago. I feel more relaxed, and even hopeful. I still need to do internal work, but this is just a part-time job. Yes, I am doing it for the cash, but I also just want to be around running more. I am excited about working at the running store through the summer, and I could see myself keeping this job through graduate school and even beyond. It will be up to me to not let it become stressful, because it doesn’t have to be, but I also deserve to have a job that doesn’t make me miserable every day I have to work.

This time, I chose happiness. Maybe that’s me running away, or maybe it’s me making my happiness and mental health a priority. In the end, it’s still just a job, which is what I need the most right now.

 

The Summer of Self Care

I only listen to country music when I miss South Dakota.

Usually, I start to long for my home state in the fall with those fiery early autumn sunsets and those brisk nights that are so endearing that you forget about the six months of winter they prelude.

This year, though, the start of summer is causing flashbacks of home. I think about the smell of freshly mowed lawn in Steamboat Park or the sound of gravel road under my tires on the way out to Farm Island or how the entire town smells like a campfire for 12 weeks. For years I longed to be in a city, and now that I am, I am a bit heartbroken each night because I can’t see the sun setting between the tall buildings. So, instead I listen to country playlists on Spotify because music is the closest thing we have to a time machine.

We live just a block from Lake Michigan, and on slower mornings, I will walk the dog over to the beach. This morning, she scampered through the sand looking for anything edible and I watch the soft waves lap against the shore. For months, that lake has raged as if it was the ocean, but today it was quiet. Water is centering. Its gentleness is reassuring that maybe I am OK, and today as it was trying to wash out the demons living in me, I laughed. Lately, I’ve been longing for forests and to disappear into the trees, but here the water was welcoming me. It was funny because I have had forests before and I wanted water.

I’ve always wanted what I don’t have.

As I’ve written about lately, I am constantly haunted by what’s missing, and thinking about all that I don’t have brought me into a deep depression for the first half of the year. I tried combating it with self care and gratitude lists, but it’s not an easy voice to stop.

The summer is bringing a pause in my schedule. I am only taking one class and working one job, and I want to use this simpler schedule to really attend to myself and my needs. The summer of self care, I am calling it. I want to try and get to know myself better, follow curiosity instead of anxiety, and find more joy. I want to address my perfection, my resistance to vulnerability, and my commitment to other’s opinions. I hope to drink less, spend more time away from screens, and honor my own desires and wants. I know that I can’t completely fix myself over a summer, but I have to get back to me before I head back into another full semester. If I don’t, I am not sure I will make it.

Mostly, I just want to enjoy where I am with what I have. I want to stop longing, or at least try to stop. Because I worked really hard for what I have, and I should be able to enjoy it, and I can do that while being grateful for what led me here.

Happy Not A Mother’s Day

Bakeries are busy on Mother’s Day. Dads and their kids come in looking for a cake or pie to take home to mother, or families out for brunch decide to stop in and get something extra for the main woman of the house. As people poured through the door at the bakery where I work, my colleagues and I greeted them with Happy Mother’s Day, and people returned the offering to me.

To me. As if I deserved it.

The next day, I stopped in a floral shop and the owner asked how my Mother’s Day was like I had been showered with homemade cards and breakfasts in bed. “Just fine,” I replied.

It was startling how many strangers assumed that I was a participant in Mother’s Day, that I was a mother and should be honored for raising a human. Did they wish me well out of habit, like how we say Happy Holidays to nearly everyone we encounter in December? Or, did it seem plausible, most likely accurate, that I, a married woman in my mid-30s, would have offspring? I wonder if my husband will receive the same kind of attention on Father’s Day, or if that connection between a man being married and at the right to having children is less easy to make.

Truthfully, this bothered me. Partly because one shouldn’t assume that a woman my age, married or not, has or even wants children, and they risk enflaming wounds of possible infertility. Also, mothers aren’t always women who give birth and women who give birth aren’t always mothers. But also because I do want children, and it feels like my husband are in am impossible place to have them right now. I know that there is really no great time to have children, but without a steady income and me being in school for the next two years, babies are far from ideal. And, as I’ve stated here before, my mental health is not in the best of places at the moment. However, that longing desire to have kids still lingers each day, and I feel sad knowing how impractical it would be for us and frustrated not knowing what to do with that want.

Being wished a Happy Mother’s Day was also heartbreaking because it was a clear indication of where society thinks I should be in life and what I should be doing. I am terrible at deciphering my own wants from that of what other people want for me, and so I put value in this summarization of my life. At 34, shouldn’t I already be a mother to at least one kid? And why I am not?

I feel this not just with kids, but also with my career. Currently, as a graduate student, most of my classmates are a decade younger than me, just starting out their lives beyond undergraduate school, where as most of my other friends are fairly established in their careers. And then there is me. I have some work experience, but not enough to land a big role somewhere (if I wanted), and I am pursing another career, which will likely come with a starting salary that is half of what I was making at the job I left for graduate school. On top of it, the little bit of writing I do do and submit is still getting rejections. Professionally, I am not doing anything worthwhile, or that’s how it feels at the moment.

Sometimes, usually on Sunday mornings when I work at the bakery and serve friends catching up over coffee, writers working on their latest drafts, and families popping in after church for a cinnamon role, I wonder how I got to this place. 34, childless, working at a bakery. Didn’t I work hard in school and my career? Wasn’t I a good person? Shouldn’t I have more of my life figured out?

Obviously, I do, and I have a lot more things going for me (newly married, working on my graduate degree, good friends and family, a fairly worn passport) that I chose not to include in the list above because it’s always easier to focus on what’s missing. There is also beauty in being in this place that may seem unconventional for a woman my age, like typing this out on a Tuesday morning from my couch. There is no hungry human demanding my attention or a slew of work emails waiting to be answered. This may not be where I anticipated being at 34, but quiet Tuesdays are a lovely perk.

The thing I keep forgetting is that life is fluid and everyone’s path is a bit different. My path has never been like others, and I am not sure why I expect it to be now. My big career and children will likely come, just at a time that makes sense for my journey. It’s hard to remember that when you see everyone with what you want (which I remember when most of my friends were getting married), but there is a lot I have now that I won’t always have. This is all part of my path, and I just have to have the faith that I am exactly where I should be.

Grad School Hangover

Hi. It’s been awhile, hasn’t it? I’ve got a ton of excuses as to why, but none of them are truly good ones. Plain and simple, I just couldn’t find the time or motivation to be here, so I just wasn’t.

This semester of school was like a terrible wind storm. It blew hard and faster in ways I never knew the air could spin. I held on as tight as I could, thinking that any more moment it would calm and there would be peace, but the storm raged. When it did finally stop, pieces of branches scattered the terrain, marking a new normal.

Last week, I finished up my spring semester of graduate school, and now I am constantly refreshing my Blackboard app to see my final grades (I messed up royally on submitting one paper, and I am praying that my professor will grant me some leniency and give me the points I need to secure the A). I thought once I finally reached this week, I would feel relaxed and eager for a restful and easy summer (despite one class). Instead, I feel like I am managing a seven-day hangover. I have no motivation for anything, except sleeping, drinking white wine, and eating frosting from the can. I have nearly quit every run I’ve attempted this week, I am mean to my dog and my husband, I don’t feel like seeing people, and I certainly don’t want to work or do anything that resembles it.

It was a rough semester. Most people know this by now, but right at the tail end of the fall semester, my husband lost his job. And because I left my good-paying job to go to school knowing that he had solid employment, this was devastating. For months, I waited and prayed for this trial to be over, for him to get another job and for us to continue on with our lives. But, that didn’t happen. E is working now, but his job doesn’t include a steady income or any benefits, like health insurance. We’ve been able to keep our heads above water, but only because we’ve been treading like hell under the surface. My part-time job has helped, along with both of our savings and parents who’ve picked up a few of our bills, but this set back has cost us. Our marriage has been tested, and between working at school and at the bakery, I’ve morphed into someone I do not want to be. I am irritable, angry, emotional, and constantly stressed. And all of this on top of being a graduate student with a history of anxiety and depression. I have lost a great deal of sleep thinking how one big emergency could wipe us out, or how our luck just might suddenly stop and we can’t make rent one month. The feeling that we are on borrowed time gnaws at me every day.

This week, my emotions frazzled and my energy all dried up, I’ve been craving to be somewhere else, to be someone else. I want trees and quiet nights. I want bright Saturday mornings among flowers. I want cappuccinos in place where I don’t know the language.

This feeling, though, it’s familiar. So comfortable that it is home. These emotions make me think of my first summer out of college, when I moved to Idaho to work at a mid-sized daily. Or in those few months that I lived in D.C. and rode my bike through Logan Circle on Saturdays past bars full of people day drinking. Or, when I came to Chicago and wishing I had some place to be other than in my bed, drinking bottles of wine by myself and watching “30 Rock.” It’s loneliness, it’s wondering if I will be ever enough, it’s wanting everything but what I have.

Throughout this semester, I kept thinking that the stress and sadness would go away if I could just get to the other side. Of this assignment. Of this shift. Of this hardship with Ethan’s job. Of this semester. But, life isn’t that easy. You don’t find joy and peace when you tick off boxes. Rather, they are mixed in with the fear, despair, and hardship, and you can only enjoy them if you pick them out and choose to honor them. I lived my whole life waiting for this or that to happen to finally be happy, and I am only starting to realize that maybe that calm I so desperately dream of in a different life is already within me.

Tonight, I made dinner. Because of my schedule, and the crushing exhaustion at the end of the day, I don’t do that often anymore, but tonight I wanted to use up some veggies we had in the fridge. As the frying pans sizzled and Annie snooped around my feet looking for whatever scraps I inevitably would drop, I got this sense that we were going to be OK.  This happens from time to time. I don’t know how, and I have no explanations, but relief settles in for a minute and I know that we’ll be fine.

When I have a hangover, I know to let myself rest, eat some Jimmy Johns, and drink lots of water. With this emotional hangover, I need to take care of myself. So far, I’ve started by quitting my part-time job at the bakery and getting another at a running store, which I think will be a better fit. I also know I need to find a way to get back to therapy, health insurance be damned. And, I have to do other things that lift me, like taking those slow days and making the time to write. The truth is, unless I really start to address some of my mental health issues, I will continue to long for what I don’t have, and in that find loneliness and unfulfillment.

Tonight was a good start. I looked around at E and our dog and our little dinner, and for a brief second, I wanted to be no where but here.