Goodbye, Chicago

Chicago was a curve ball.

In the winter of 2014, after returning home from my Peace Corps service in Lesotho, I took a non-profit job in Washington, D.C., and relocated to the nation’s capital. As a wander lusting youth, I had long hoped to end up on the East Coast, and there I was, in the transient city of people trying to go up. It was less glamorous than I had pictured. Half of my monthly salary went to rent, and outside of the few fellow former volunteers I knew, it was hard to make friends. I couldn’t tell if it would just take time to adjust, or this wasn’t the place for me.

Not long after I started my new job, I received an email inviting me to apply for a public affairs position with the Peace Corps regional recruitment office in Chicago. They had used the non-complete list (which all returned volunteers are eligible for up to a year beyond service) to find former volunteers who also happened to have journalism experience. It was a short list, but my name was on it. I applied for it and didn’t hear much for weeks. As I was struggling to find a home in D.C. and get my footing at work, Chicago was a daydream. The city was bigger and closer to home. Not only was the job more aligned with my interests, but I was struggling with the transition home after service, and being close to the Peace Corps community, was alluring.

In talking with a friend over coffee in D.C., she said, “I think you just need to go somewhere and settle down.” I had lived in D.C. for a few months, and I could already tell that this was not the city I wanted to put down an anchor.

The offer for the Peace Corps job came, and in June 2014, I landed in Chicago with just two suitcases. A taxi took me from Midway Airport to my new apartment on the northside. As we snaked our way through rush-hour traffic on Lake Shore Drive, I stared out to Lake Michigan. I live here now.

Chicago was to be the setting in which I redefined my life, after having left home and gone into the Peace Corps. I came here hoping to build the life I always knew I was capable of. 

As a South Dakota native who grew up in a town of 13,000, it had long been my dream to live in a bustling city, and the urban life suited me. I spent my first year in Chicago mainly overwhelmed by the never-ending list of events and things to do. I started volunteering, went to a weekly meditation group, joined a book club, and said yes to any social invitations. I spent the weekends reading the Chicago Tribune and going to the beach. I went for runs along the Lake Shore Path. After work, I walked through downtown, taking in the big buildings, fast-moving crowds, and ever twinkling city lights.

While that first summer in Chicago involved a lot of cheap red wine and binging 30 Rock, by the second, I had made the city a home. I was no longer living with a roommate but on my own in a small studio. I had a budding social life (mostly friends made through my job at Peace Corps and other Peace Corps connections) and one of my best friends from Lesotho was moving back to the city. I was going to musicals and happy hour and concerts in Millennium Park. I was training for the Chicago Marathon and had gotten into storytelling on stage. And, I had recently started dating someone (non-Peace Corps), my first real relationship in eight years. When traveling or back home, pride rose to my voice when I said, “I live in Chicago.”

Throughout time, I changed jobs and eventually decided to leave the communications world to go back to school to become a therapist. I stayed on the northside, only living in two neighborhoods. I married that guy, and we adopted an anxious hound mix. I went to weddings, held babies, and attended goodbye parties. I learned to navigate parts of Chicago without Google’s help, and ran up and down some of the city’s main arteries. I could join conversations when people said, “Oh remember that café that you used to be on Thorndale and Kenmore?” Eventually, I clocked enough years in Chicago to out-pace any other place I had lived, outside of the town in which I grew up.

I had settled down, finally. I became a Chicagoan.

If my arrival to Chicago was unplanned, my departure was intentional. After struggling professionally for a few years, my husband wanted out of the city. He decided this not long after I started a three-year master’s program, so his hopes of leaving had to wait. But, once I graduated, we would go. I owed that to him.

At times, I didn’t want to go and wondered if I could convince him of staying. I couldn’t imagine giving up the long runs along the beach and the nights among the sparkling city lights. However, we’ve had a lot of setbacks the last few years, and it was easy to blame it on the city’s harshness. We struggled to stay afloat financially, and too many late-night trips on the CTA after class gave me severe anxiety when taking public transportation. When the pandemic came, we were stripped of all of the things that make city living enjoyable. Instead, we were paying gobs of money to live on top of other people. Chicago had been a home and had given me so much, but it was time to go.

For months, we had discussions about where we would go next and settled on Minnesota. It was close to family, and we could live in my brother’s basement until we were settled. My husband looked for jobs in the Twins City, but nothing materialized. I, too started, to look for positions but was overwhelmed. Something didn’t feel right.

Then, my husband heard about a job in Casper, Wyoming through a good friend. Because the job was in higher education, the hiring process moved slow. For months, we didn’t know when or where we were moving, only that our lease ended on July 31.

When the job offer in Wyoming came, everything fell into place quickly. I got a job, we found an apartment, and all the little pieces of moving lined up.  We moving to somewhere smaller with less hustle but also a place that was quieter and more affordable. After several years in the city, we both wanted a slower pace of life. Just like how everything came together when I moved to Chicago, this, too, felt right.

A few weeks ago, I went to The Loop to run errands. I hadn’t been down there in months because of the pandemic and spending the last year working and taking classes online. While many people are still working remotely, many have returned to the physical office, and downtown had a familiar, if lessened, buzz. I completed my tasks with a bit of time to spare before I needed to be at work. I used that time to wander, just like I often did after work when I first moved to the city. On my way to the Riverwalk, I walked past the first building where I worked, the one for that Peace Corps job that brought me to Chicago. Seeing that façade again made me cry. That job changed my life. It gave me many of things I have today.

As I continued on, I thought about some of my favorite memories of living in Chicago: attending live tapings of “Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me!” in Millennium Park; running the Chicago Marathon and feeling the intense support of the crowd; walking in the Chicago Pride Parade days after the U.S. Supreme Court declared gay marriage legal in all 50 states; singing “Go Cubs Go” in Wrigley after a Cubby win; Chicago Architecture Foundation tours with friends and family; afternoons in the Chicago Art Institute’s members’ lounge; dinner parties with new and old friends in small, quaint apartments; summer night walks in tree-lined neighborhoods, trying to get glimpses of others’ décor styles from open windows; the first day of spring when the entire city comes out to celebrate winter’s passing; annual holiday trips with my mom, sisters-in-law, and other family; sunny afternoons at the beach; telling personal stories on stage; and countless nights that reminded me of how grateful I am to call this incredibly city home.

Then, I got to my favorite part of the city—a stretch on the Chicago Riverwalk that stares up to the Tribune Tower and the Wrigley Building. I thought about all the dreams and hopes I had when I first arrived, and all the amazing blessings I am leaving with. I spent seven important years here, and while I know it was time to go, I will miss this city. I will likely write love letters to Chicago for years, as it will take time to truly understand its imprint on my life. 

There, in my favorite spot, I could proudly confirm that here, in Chicago, I lived a very good life.

Goodbye, Chicago. You will always be home.

Mismatched Socks

Kids are my favorite types of humans. When in a room with adults and young children, I gravitate towards the little ones. In many social situations, I find that I often drink, eat, or talk too much because I am anxious. I am often afraid that I will say something stupid or be judged for my presentation. With kids, though, you aren’t the center of attention. They are. They want to show you things and tell you stories. They may get bored with you after five minutes, but it’s not person. There is something about their energy and approach that puts me at ease in a way adults do not.

A few weeks ago, my family met up to reconnect after a year of being apart due to the pandemic. I got to spend time with my nieces and nephews on that side of our family, watching them play with water and then chasing them throughout the yard. We also celebrated the baptism of my niece, E. She is a few months shy of two years old, but the pandemic had delayed this religious ceremony for her, so we turned it into a big event for her.

For mass, we all put on our Sunday best, clothes most of us had kept hidden in our closets for the last year. E, too big now for a traditional Christening dress, wore a backup dress that her mom had bought for her sister, N, to wear to our wedding three years ago. N wore a pink, sparkly number that she was given for her third birthday nine months prior. As we were getting shoes on, N’s mother told her to put on some sandals that would match her dress. Instead, she brought one pink unicorn sock for me to put on. I explained to her that she wouldn’t want to wear socks with sandals, and even if she did, she only had one. She went back to her room and brought out another sock. Again, pink, but a different shade. I still encouraged her to put the sandals on, and she insisted that she wanted to wear her sparkly strap-on shoes. I shrugged and put them on her. When her parents came out and saw that she was wearing the sneakers and mismatched socks, they tried one more time to convince her that the sandals were a better option for the dress. She pretended to not hear them.

All morning, she rocked her dress with sparkly tennis shoes and mismatched socks.

Watching N run around, I was in awe of her bravery, to do what she wanted and to not care about what others think. N did not care if her socks matched or that her sandals were a better look for her dress. Her choices were not harmful in anyway, but the perception of what she should do was dictated by adults and what would look better. She liked her pink socks and tennis shoes; the rest did not matter.

At what point in life do we lose that, do we succumb to expectations and others’ perceptions? At what age do we rank others’ opinions over our own wants?

Young children are great reminders of what we all used to be like before life hardened us. I am sure that I used to wear mismatched clothes all the time because it’s what I liked. At some point, I used to not care what other’s think about me. I used to put my own joy and wants first. Some of us are better at holding on to that piece of ourselves, to keeping our voice stronger than others, but many of us have learned to ignore it to the point we may not recognize it anymore.

N’s socks of two different shades of pink was an inspiration. I wondered if I looked hard enough under the layers of insecurity and doubt, I could find that version of myself again. What simple but deep desire was I denying myself because of how it would look to the world? I snapped the above picture of N’s socks on the way to the church as a reminder of the child I used to be, that we all used to be.

It’s hard, though, it let go of the voice that keeps reiterating what you should do. I’ve spent years listening to that voice of appropriateness and reasoning. It’s difficult to ignore it when it’s been my guide for so long.

The other day, I was going to a get together with some friends. I put on a nice shirt and shorts and then pulled out my Chacos. I love my Chacos, but I have long been ridiculed for them. Even my husband says they are ugly and he is slightly embarrassed when I wear them. I do not care, often because they are so comfortable. However, in this social situation, I wondered if I should put on a nice flat or slightly dressier sandal to match what others would be wearing.

N’s socks came to mind, and then I put on my Chacos and walked out the door. It didn’t matter how others would perceive me or if I would look a bit out of place. This is what I wanted.

It wasn’t a big defiance, but yet, it was practice. If I listen to that inner voice in small matters, I will be able to call on in it in bigger, more meaningful moments. I won’t be able to be as carefree as N in all matters (which is good probably), but I can relearn to be true to myself and how freeing that feels.

Being Productive

In the weeks leading up to graduation, many of my classmates were interviewing and negotiating full-time jobs, for many their first salaried, benefited position. A few big life changes hung in the balance, and I couldn’t apply for anything until I knew what direction I was headed in. Plus, after three tough years and preparing for my licensure exams, I wasn’t ready to rush into a job.

This felt unorthodox. Shouldn’t I want to start paying off school loan debt and immediately get to work on earning my supervision hours for full licensure? Was it reckless to take a break? In a meeting with one of my professors, I told him that I was thinking about delaying my job search until mid-to-late summer because I wanted a break. He paused and half smiled, like he didn’t expect such a declaration from an anxious overachiever. “That’s actually a great idea,” he said. “I fully support that.”

It’s been about a month and a half and since I graduated, and I am still not working in counseling. In part because my husband and I are moving out of state soon, and the details of that move are not confirmed, and an additional circumstance may keep us in Chicago just a bit longer. We’ll know more at the end of this month, and we are for sure leaving by the end of July. Till then, I have to wait.

For now, my days are loose. I still work part-time at my retail job, which is fine but increasingly frustrating. I only work three to four times a week, so there are big gaps for me to do all that relaxing I dreamt about when I was working three jobs, going to school, and studying for my exams.

Occasionally, I leisure. I take naps and go to the beach. I’ve read a few books and booked social events. Other times, I clean the house or run errands, trying to cross off that “when I get to it” to-do list. I create little tasks that be pointed to as proof that I did something that day.

I also worry. A lot.

Who am I to think I can survive without a full-time job? Will there be any jobs when I start looking? Why do I think I deserve a break? My husband is also working retail at the moment, so it’s not like we are comfortably supported on one salary. I am scared that I will be behind others, that we will run out of money, that my laziness/selfishness is creating a colossal mistake that can’t be undone. I can’t help but compare myself to my peers, to think some how I’ve failed in wanting respite.

That anxiety, though, is rooted in narrative about being productive and finding our worth in work. Our entire culture sees work as success and not working as lazy, even if there are good and specific reasons one doesn’t work. If we aren’t working and making money, then what are we doing? One of the most critical and difficult jobs out there is motherhood, but because that isn’t paid labor we devalue it. I am not taking care of a child, rather, just pausing while I figure things out. Because there is no paycheck or specific accolades related to it, it seems unimportant. And foolish.

This morning, thinking about my day, I started to panic that there wasn’t enough to it. I had planned to run and do some mental health exercises, such as meditating and journaling, before going off to work for a few hours. However, I started scanning for other ways to fill my schedule. I needed more, something to prove that I was productive. I couldn’t read or watch a movie. I had too much leisure time already.

Yet, that wasn’t the point of this break. I didn’t decide to take a few months off so I could fill my schedule with low-priority task items just so I could feel less guilty about how I spent my days. No, I wanted to truly rest and find some joy. I wanted to soak in my accomplishments. I wanted to find balance before moving into that next phase.

But, I can’t do that if I am waking up anxious every morning that I am being too cavalier with my time and that I am going to run out of money?

Reality is, financially, I am fine. I can’t go six more months without work, but I am fine for now. And that’s all I need, fine.

It’s hard to shake these capitalistic values of work and earning money because they are so engrained into our culture, messages we’ve received our entire lifetime. However, they aren’t serving me anymore, and they are not the values I want to carry into work as a therapist. I aspire to help my clients find pleasure and relaxation because it will make them better people. Same for me. I wanted this break so I can take naps and walks at 2 p.m. with my husband. My body craved this time for beaching and reading. And, it’s a rare opportunity that we are give then the space to take these breaks, and I guess my foolishness would come out if I did not seize it.

Being productive can take on different meanings. For me, being productive now means writing or finishing a book. It means being silly and chasing after my dob. It means stopping and allowing myself rest, knowing I do deserve it and it will propel me to what’s next.

Suffering for Suffering’s Sake

A few weeks ago, I ran the Chicagoland Half Marathon. It was my first in-person race since January 2020, and I was not looking forward to it.

I had actually purchased the bib for the 2020 race, but because of COVID, the race had been cancelled, and participants were allowed to transfer to another race or save their spot for 2021. I deferred but forgot about the race. Because of my school schedule and preparing for my licensure exams, running slipped down my list of priorities. I ran a few times a week but never far and never fast.

Going into the race, I knew I would be undertrained. I could complete it, sure, but it was going to be sloooow. Also, I was going to do most of the running alone. For safety precautions, the race instituted staggered starts and those who I knew running the race were starting earlier. My start time wasn’t until 10:30 a.m. Additionally, the temperature was expected to be in the 80s by mid-morning with a high humidity. I was out of shape and alone on a very hot day. Not to mention that the course was an hour’s drive from my apartment. This was race was going to suck.

Even though I had already paid for the bib, I had mostly forgotten about the race up until a few months before and it wouldn’t have felt like too much of a financial loss had I not shown up to the run. I could have accepted that this was race was more hassle and struggle than it’s worth and slept in that day.

But, of course I did not. Even, when I thought about the idea of not running it, I couldn’t entertain it seriously.

I am a sufferer. I like to do hard things (while complaining about those hard things). I like to count up all the disadvantages against me and still go for it. I was going to run this race because it would be difficult and awful, and I would get a medal at the end to prove my ability to endure the tough conditions.

As predicted, this race sucked. It was hot and sticky and the first and last three miles were on a concrete road adjacent to major highway. I started slow, and only got slower, finishing the rase with my worst recorded time in the half. I got passed by a lot of people, some who likely had less running experience than me. The last mile and a half felt like five, and once I reached the Finish line, I couldn’t go a step further

During the race, I wondered why I default to hard. For most of my life, I have chosen or found my way to the bumpiest road. If I can do this really hard thing that most people would not want to do, and later talk about it, I will have proved my worthiness.

Sometimes I have earned grit and strength along the way and reached a level I couldn’t have on an easier path, however, there are also times when I just suffer for suffering’s sake. As many writers and philosophers, including the Dalai Lama and Haruki Murakami, have said: Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional. Many, many times, I have specifically chosen to suffer.

That might have been a coping mechanism for a younger version of myself, but I am not sure that it serves me anymore. I don’t have to take the most challenging road just to prove something to myself; I can find value in other ways. Instead, what if I lean into pleasure and joy? What if those are my motivating factors from now on?

In the end, I am glad I ran that race because it will likely be my last in Chicago as a resident. However, I will think twice about what I am willing to endure and for what reasons. Just for a story and to prove that I am capable of suffering are no longer good reasons. Whether in running, my career, my relationships, I no longer want to do things just because they are hard. I want more joy.

A Person Who Watches Sunrises

When we moved to our apartment two blocks from the beach, I envisioned that I would get up many mornings and watch the fiery sun rise above Lake Michigan. Maybe do some yoga, maybe meditate. Just take in the calm, zen moment before rushing into another busy day.

Well, we’ve lived in this apartment three years, and I had yet to catch that daily sunrise until today.

Now, I’ve seen the blazing pinks, oranges, and yellows sparkle across the still lake in the early morning many times, and I’ve also seen 5 a.m. on several Sundays, but always because I’ve been running, often during a long run before the humidity settles in.

However, I am taking a break right now from running for health reasons, and the mornings are mine to do with what I please. Sometimes I write, sometimes I read, most often I sleep until I need to get up for the day.

Last night, as I was getting ready for bed, I thought to set my alarm for 4:45 a.m. Maybe I will get up and watch the sunrise, I thought before sling-shotting myself back to reality with, but I will probably just hit snooze and go back to bed. When my alarm went off, I was half-awake from a recent trip to the bathroom and my head was buzzing, trying to decide what one thing I should worry about at that specific hour. I turned the alarm off, thought for two minutes about blowing off this loose plan of watching the sunrise, but knowing my brain was likely going to find a reason to keep me up, I rolled out of bed.

It wasn’t unbearably hot yet when I walked outside at 4:50 a.m. My block was deceivingly quiet; there was not another person around. In the city, very rarely is there not another human within hearing distance or eyesight, but scanning the block, it was just me and the birds. However, once I got to the beach, there was more life. Cars going in and out of the beach parking lot, groups of young adults who were burning off the last remnants of the night before, couples sitting shoulder-to-shoulder on the rocky sand, and lone persons, like myself, who abandoned their soft, comfortable beds to watch Mother Nature do her thing.

I found a nice seat at the end of a cement structure that stretched 100 feet into the water. The show had started with hints of pink and yellow peeking out from the clouds. The lake shivered small ripples but was mostly calm as a gaggle of black birds dove in and out of the water, trying to catch breakfast. The colors intensified as the the day began to stretch but without any shape. They were the warm up act, preparing us for the star who was a bit behind. Soon enough, a finger nail sliver of bright light emerged from the surface. It expanded into a half-moon and then a full circle. Bright. Defined. Consistent.

What a simple thing to do in order to have a beautiful, soothing experience—waking up early to watch the sunrise. For a moment, I tell myself I am going to do this more often, and yet, I know that is not true.

In Gretchen Rubin’s book, The Happiness Project, she decided to optimize her life in small ways in order to acquire more general happiness. In this experiment, she gets honest with herself about the type of person that she is and is not. For example, she always thought she could be the type of person who goes to the opera regularly. She could have a favorite piece and study the different singers and directors. She didn’t know much about the opera, and had maybe been once or twice, but it was the idea that she could be an opera lover that she held on to. However, in honing on what truly brings her joy in her life, she had to let go of the person she thought “could be.” She was never going to get into the opera, but that was OK. By accepting that, she could lean into what she did enjoy.

I am notorious for collecting things that I could be. A gardener. A kombucha brewer. A jazz enthusiast. A baker. A painter. A hiker. A nomad. A French speaker. A knitter. An ocean swimmer. A daily meditator. A yogi. And, a person who gets up daily to watch the sun. I feel like I have to be all of this and do all of these things to live the life I want, or the life I am supposed to want. Sometimes, I am so bogged down by the things that I think I could be doing, or should be doing, that I forget to enjoy the things I am actually doing, or worse, end up doing nothing at all.

A lot of us are like that. We have big dreams and aspirations to be different versions of ourselves, and it becomes a disappointment, even a failure, when we aren’t them. We live in the shadow of the person who is X or does X. We ridicule ourselves for not being more. We wonder why we can’t just be that person, that something is wrong with us.

We aren’t broken, though. We can’t do it all, or be it all. And sometimes we let too much external influences define our lives. By accepting who we are, and letting go of who we are not, we give ourselves permission to be. We focus on what truly makes us who we are and shed the rest.

I am not going to be a person who gets up every morning to meditate as the sun rises. That’s OK. I can get up some mornings to run or write, or I just sleep in and give my body rest. I don’t have to be one thing or the other. All of those things can be good for me, and yet none of them define me. I am not less of a person because I do not watch the sun rise every morning.

Once I abandoned that idea of having to get up at 4:45 a.m. every day to watch the sun because it will lead me closer to the life that I think I should be living, I was able to enjoy the moment, to actually watch the sparkling colors and absorb the tranquility of this everyday act. It lost the expectation and became something special. I got up to watch the sun enter into the day, and I may not do that every day, but I did today, and it was pretty wonderful.

Surrendering

Chicago drivers waste 73 hours each year in traffic, study says - Curbed  Chicago
Photo from here

The other day, I was headed downtown for an appointment. I go to this clinic frequently, and I have my route down to a science. I know to start in the inside lane and when to switch to the outer lane. I know which lane I need to be in to make the correct turn. I often take the earliest appointments that I can because I need to be back at my house by 9 a.m. to start seeing clients. Often, I leave early so that I can check into my appointment 15 minutes early with the hope of getting seen a bit sooner.

As I was making my way downtown, I started to see the traffic thickening. Red tail lights ahead of me forced me to stop, and soon I was completely surrounded by other stopped cars. As the minutes passed by, we slowly inched forward. I thought about trying to get into the outer lane to get off the highway, but I was still my miles from my destination and managing through blocks of stop signs and red lights likely wouldn’t speed up my trip. I had given myself plenty of time to get to the appointment, but my buffer was shortening. The clinic wouldn’t care if I was late, but I was more concerned with getting home in time for my client. Maybe I could reschedule (which I hate doing) or meet her a few minutes late.

At that moment, I realized there was nothing I could do. I couldn’t fix this situation, rather, I would have to live through it. I would have to let myself just be in traffic. I wouldn’t yet call my supervisor to discuss rescheduling the client, rather I would not meddle in the situation at all. I would just be, and then figure it out.

I recently read Michael Singer’s The Surrender Experiment in which he talks about his path to enlightenment and his insistency on surrendering to whatever life presents him. It’s a fairly good read, if you can get over the fact that much of the good that comes to him is less about the universe and more due to his privilege as a white male. The main point is that Singer gives up preference and embraces what’s been given to him. When someone moves on to his property that he isn’t thrilled about, instead of fighting them he helps build the house. When he is given work that he doesn’t think he can handle, he hires more people. He leans into the situation instead of forcing the option he would prefer.

My preference was to make my appointment on time, but I live in a large U.S. city and so traffic like this will happen. I can stress and worry about it for the next 20 minutes, or I can claim back my time. Maybe enjoy this forced break.

Sitting in the bumper-to-bumper traffic, I wondered where else in my life could I use to just give in and not fight the situation so hard. Part of the disappointment in life is wanting what isn’t ours—love, money, jobs, adventure. We are so embedded in our preferences of how we want things to work out that we waist hours, days, weeks with worry and stress. If we could just let things be, maybe our hearts wouldn’t be so heavy?

Within 15 minutes, the traffic cleared. I made my appointment on time, and I was able to get home to see my client. So, it worked out, however, that’s not what I took from this. By surrendering to the moment, I let go of stress and worry, and rather than a frantic and aggravating morning, and I was able to carry this calm moment throughout the day.

Running Through Graduate School

Back when I was applying to graduate schools and cautiously taking the next step to becoming a therapist, I attended a group interview for the program, in which I would ultimately enroll. During a small group, one of the professors reiterated the hardships of graduate. “You are going to have to make sacrifices throughout this program—with work, your friends, family. Think about it for a minute, what are you willing to give up to be in this program?”

I was already planning to give up my job with the decent salary and good benefits, but I am the type of person always wanting to give more. “I am willing to sacrifice my leisure time,” I said in hopes this will earn me good marks on the interview scoring sheet. “I will probably not see friends and family as much, and I will not spend as much time with my hobbies. Like, I might not run a marathon while in graduate school.”

At that point in time, running a marathon was a farse anyway. I was still recovering from hip surgery five months prior and running 20 minutes, let alone 20 miles, was strenuous. Yet, I assumed that if I could get healthy enough to run regularly, I would likely only be able to run here and there for fitness.

I was accepted into the program, and by the time I started, I could run three to five miles without pain.

At the beginning, graduate school was less work than I had anticipated, so without a fulltime job, I found myself with more time, specifically day hours as my classes were in the evening. Running was a good time filler. I could run mid-morning, before heading off to school for the day, and on the weekends. My endurance was elongating, and I was re-falling in love with running. My injury had kept me sidelined for more than a year, and it was incredibly painful at times to think I might not run again, but that seemed to not be in the case. Six weeks into graduate school, I celebrated one year since my surgery with an eight-mile run.  

I bought these shoes on discount, and they were terrible. Get fir for proper shoes.

Things were going great—I really liked my classes, I had picked up a part-time job at an organic foods store, and I was running again. Then, in November, my husband lost his job, and our financial safety net was ripped away. I was angry and scared and unsure of how we would survive. The night after, I ran five miles to see a friend and cry. I could have driven or taken the train, but I needed to unleash the tornado of emotions inside of me, and running presented that opportunity.

In those months, running became less about fitness and staying in shape and more about survival. It was the one constant in my life. I could control running. I could turn to it when I needed to, and or skip it if staying in bed and crying was more useful. Running was an escape from everything else going on in my life.

With a solid base and higher weekly mileage, races began to tempt me. I probably should have started with a 5K or a half, but my sights went straight to the marathon. I had planned to run the Chicago Marathon in 2017 but was derailed with my hip injury and then the subsequent surgery. I wanted another go at 26.2 miles, plus I wanted to feel accomplished. My husband was struggling to find work, and while I liked school, I was starting to doubt my decision to quit my cushy, if not boring, job. Running a marathon may have seemed ridiculous and unnecessary, but I needed the distraction. So, I signed up for the Twin Cities Marathon, and then to make it fun along with the way, the Chicagoland Spring Half Marathon and the Shamrock Shuffle, which I ran with friends.

By the end of my first year in graduate school, I was running five days a week and fully engaged in running. I had hope to break two hours in the half marathon but started a bit too quick and bonked in miles 9 and 10. It was disappointing, even though I still PR’ed, I turned to the marathon. When friends asked me what I was doing that summer, I replied with, “running.” I took a new part-time job at a running store in attempts to center myself more into the running community in Chicago. I also found a neighborhood running group and began meeting with them for early-morning track workouts and Saturday long runs.

That summer, I did run and run. I did 800s on the track and hill repeats. I ran in the early morning to avoid the heat and spent my weekends consumed with preparing for the long run and then recovery from it. I also worked and went to class, but mostly I ran.

First summer running with Rogers Park Running Club

Going into my second year of the graduate program, I was worried about the first few weeks of school as these were my big build-up weeks. I needed to be going to class, working my job at school and my retail job, and putting in 55-mile weeks. To make it all work, I made an hour-by-hour schedule that included time for showering and taking the train.

The marathon ended up not being my day. I got in my head too much and ended up struggling more than I anticipated. I finished about 30 minutes slower than my C-Goal and an hour from my A-Goal. I was devastated for weeks as I had put so much work into the race, and I was afraid that I would give up running. I had trained so hard but ended up with two lackluster races, and I was nervous that I would be too disappointed to start again.

Four days later, I ran to celebrate my birthday. Within a week, I was running normally again.

Throughout the rest of graduate school, running was a mainstay. The November after the marathon, I started a streak and ending up going for 100 days. I raced another half this marathon a few months later, and this time, I broke two hours. Having a solid group of running friends from my neighborhood kept me motivated during the icy Chicago winter and the hellish humidity. As I got deeper into my program, leaning more about theories and counseling mechanics, and preparing for my clinical internship, running shifted to an accessory to this program. I no longer needed the distraction of racing but the companionship of running.

F3 Half Marathon

Halfway through my second semester, right after I ended my streak, the pandemic hit. I could no longer go to school, work, or run with my friends, but I still had running. With extra time back in my schedule, I was able to wade into the waters of “running just for running.” Running was the only time I got out of my house, and because my usual routes were either closed or congested with people, running allowed me to explore my city. I ran deep into the heart of downtown and out west to neighborhoods I rarely frequented. I zig-zagged up and down streets, examining houses and wondering what the people inside them were doing. Running, again, became a comfort when everything felt uncertain.

Going into my final year of graduate school, I knew that running really would need to be put on the back burner during my internship and preparing for my licensure exams. So, before the semester really took off, I ran 30 miles in a park with friends on Labor Day weekend. Our running group always hosts this holiday 5K, but some of us started early to see how many extra loops we could get in. It was slow with plenty of walk breaks but running with friends is always a good way to spend a Sunday.

Running slipped in my life with fewer runs per week. I still tried to do a longer run on the weekends and had contemplated running 36 miles on my 36th birthday but decided that I would rather run 13 and use the rest of the day to hang out with friends on a back porch. However, I was running enough to convince me that I could do a 50K with some friends in early January, during winter break. I was completely unprepared for the 50K, but again, with plenty of walk breaks and good friends, it wasn’t terrible. In fact, all the breaks allowed my legs to heal up just fine.

Virtual Frozen Gnome 50K

After that 50K, though, studying for my licensure exams became my focus. I swapped morning runs for study sessions, and instead of long runs on Saturdays, I was doing practice quizzes and making note cards. Running slipped to a minor role, if best, but it was there when I needed a break or a way to get to work.

On my graduation day, I got up a little earlier so I could go for a quick run. Nothing special, just three miles, but I wanted to run to mark that special day. Running had been a major part in my graduate school experience; I had run through it all. Preparing for tests or while in the midst of writing papers. It was my constant, a thing that always made sense when nothing else did. Running through my graduate program reminded me a lot of running through my Peace Corps service. The entire experience was more accentuated, more lived, because of running.

Could I have finished my program without running so much? Of course, but I am not sure that I would have wanted to. Running two back-to-back years of more than 1,500 miles was the self-care I needed, not just to endure graduate school, but for the process of changing into a new version of myself. It also showed me that, when I am going through big things, running is there. When I need running the most, I will find a way to run more than ever.  

Celebratory Runs

Around this time two years ago, I was consumed with planning my upcoming June wedding. I was tracking last-minute RSVPS, obsessively checking the weather report, crying over tents and ice, and emailing my seamstress almost daily to see if she had finally finished my dress. The day was going to be perfect, and it truly was, but one thing was missing—running.

Running has been a staple in my life since I was 12. There are months or years when I am more consistent with my running compared to other times when I may venture out once a week, if that. Yet, running seems to show up at the big moments. I was on a run when I made the decision which college I wanted to attend. Before I accepted a new job, I went for a run. I made homes in unfamiliar locations by running through them. Running was my medicine during heartbreaks and setbacks, but it was also my celebration for accomplishments and life moving in the right direction.

It had always been my goal to run on my wedding day. In part to offset the festivity’s calories, but also to absorb the momentous day. Running would make me present, would force me to forget about the weather and if we needed that tent or not, and give me a moment of solitude to inhale the fact that I was about to marry the love of my life.

Yet, at that time in my life, I couldn’t run. About seven months prior, I had had surgery to repair a tear in my right hip. The procedure itself went marvelously but the recovery was painful and slow. I had been making progress early that winter, running in small chunks, with several stints of physical therapy a week, but somehow, I torqued my hip, likely through yoga, and my progress had been derailed. I had to completely stop running with the idea I might never be able to return to it.

Not being able to run on my wedding day was a loss I hadn’t anticipated. I cried for weeks, often bringing it up to my therapist who politely listened but was likely trying to figure out what this emotion was truly about. When the morning of my wedding arrived, I had made peace with this fact, and instead wrote in my journal and sipped coffee on the porch of our rental so excited about becoming a wife.

Three months after the wedding, I quit my full-time job (the one with the good health insurance package that paid for most of the expensive hip surgery) and started a master’s program in mental health counseling. As I began this journey to a new career and discovering a new side of myself, I was easing back into running. Before my insurance ran out, my PT had ramped up my treatment with dry needling, which worked wonders and was enough to bring the pain down. I started with three minutes of running/two minutes of walking and slowly worked my way up to one mile of consistent running, then two, and then three. By October, four months after my wedding, I was able to celebrate my 34th birthday, marking nearly one year since the surgery, with an eight-mile run.

It wasn’t long before running was a consistent force in my life again. I started training for races, adding hill repeats and track workouts into my run, and making more running friends. I didn’t run every day, but I ran most days. There was a time in the summer of 2018 when I thought I wouldn’t be a runner again, and now that I was, I was fiercely holding on to that identity.

I’ve had May 6, 2021, in my calendar for nearly three years as that was my scheduled graduation date. It was my goalpost during long nights of class, marathon paper-writing sessions, and unyielding doubts about my ability as a clinician. It was the big red FINISH line tape, and each day, I took one step closer to it.

My graduation day was not the same spectacle as my wedding, but it felt just as significant. This was a huge turning point in my life, and it noted a great deal of work and commitment. I wanted this day to be perfect, my crowning accomplishment.

Unlike my wedding day, my graduation was far from perfect. The pandemic limited celebrations and some unforeseen issues with our car derailed some of the day’s plans. However, the one thing I did get to do on my graduation day was run.

It was a short one, up and down the lake, listening to “Pomp and Circumstance” because, of course. I just wanted the few minutes to myself to take in this triumph. Running, on this day, I felt the strength pulsing through me, even on a slower run. I had come so far in three years, not just with running, but in life, as a human.

Later in the day, I got to hug classmates and professors, most of whom I had not seen in more than a year, and I took lots of photos with my loved ones. I gave a speech thanking the big players in my life, and a black hood, with fabrics of blue, green, and white underneath it, was clocked over my head to recognize my educational achievement. It was a lovely celebration, and the day was marked with that lovely but necessary morning run.

The Aftermath

“It’s like heaven to hear your voice,” my friend J said, “but
to know that you are at the beach, it’s even better.”

It was Tuesday afternoon, or actually Wednesday. I don’t really remember the
days anymore. My only scheduled items are a few shifts at my part-time job and
the occasional social engagement. I had already done some writing, cleaning,
and reading that day, whatever day it was, so I decided to head to the beach
and call my friend. We talked for an hour or so as I told her about my recent
graduation and lack of plans for what’s next and she regaled me with her recent
dating stories. We hung up so she could finish her bike ride and get ready for
a date, and then I turned on some Billie Eilish and watched the clouds spin
through the sky.

There are few times in life when we are actually allowed to pause, but in
modern American society, we are terrible at taking the built-in break. We rush
to the next thing because we financially have to or because we were afraid that
if we stop, we’ll be behind. Leading up to my graduation, I knew that I wanted
to take some time off before launching into my new career, but even before I
got to this point, I was scared. I even applied to a few jobs out of fear that
I couldn’t let myself take a break, that I would do irreparable damage if I
stopped. When a job offer came, the screaming need to rest was louder, and I
turned it down.

Sitting on that beach though, listening to Bilie’s echoy
voice, I realized this time off had been the right decision. When we go through
transitions, whether is graduating or moving to another city or job or a big
break up, we owe it to ourselves to stand still for a minute. We need to absorb
the emotions and experiences we just had. We need to steady our breath and plant
our feet. We need to be proud of how far we’ve come and acknowledge the magic
ahead.

I understand that I am incredibly lucky to not have to get a
job right away. I am still working part-time to cover my rent, and I worked so
hard throughout graduate school that I have some savings to fall back on before
I am again a salaried employee. And because I have that privilege, I would be
silly not to use it. Also, I would be silly to not know that I am a better
person and more in tune with myself when I do slow down and reconnect to the
things that make me whole, like writing, nature, and good friends.

When the wind had picked up and the clouds had covered the
sun, I walked to my apartment, still enchanted by Billie. A usual five-minute
walk took me 15. Leaves swirled from branches to the ground and cool temps were
satisfying as ice water on a hot day. My legs moved so slowly to preserve the moment.
I smiled. Often, I think in order to enjoy these moments, everything needs to
be perfect, but here I was, loving every second with so many unknowns and hurdles
in front of me. It was as if I had stopped fighting life and allowing each uncertainty
to a painful prick. Rather, I gave into the swirls of the wind and clouds and
life.

And, it was calming.

Embracing Uncertainty

I took the call in the main part of the Student Union. It was a Tuesday afternoon, so I was going to spend the next 10 hours in The Collegian office, which had terrible cell service, editing and revising the latest issue. The call came in, and I rushed up stairs to take it.

“We would like to offer you the job,” the voice on the other end said. It’s been nearly 14 years since that phone call, so I can’t remember if I accepted the job on the spot or pretended that I needed another day to think about it and formally accepted through email. I do remember getting off the phone and sitting there on the blue and yellow cushioned seating.

I have a job. I. HAVE. A. JOB.

Leading up to that moment, I was frantically sending out applications, setting up informational meetings with editors, and trying to determine my next step. A piece of me wanted to spend the summer working at a church camp in Montana, but a more reasonable voice said that I needed to start my career now. I couldn’t waste another moment. This job actually found me, when I had posted my résumé on a journalism jobs website. It wasn’t perfect but it could lead to good places.

A few weeks later, I walked across the stage in Frost Arena (is it weird that I teared up typing those words? A place I knew but might not recognize now) and grabbed my diploma knowing I had a job lined up. Not many of my classmates had their next step planned out, but I did. My life was beginning.

Not quite seven years later, and I was starting again. I had just returned home from Peace Corps, and after finally completing a dream years in the making, I needed to find a new direction. While my colleagues applied for graduate school from Lesotho, I was adamant that I would enjoy the remaining time in my village, have a great holiday at home with my family, and then begin putting together the pieces of my life post-Peace Corps. It had been barely two weeks back in the U.S., and I started obsessing over job applications. I was convinced it would take me months to find a job and that my life couldn’t restart until that piece was put into place. Each day I walked through a fog thinking I wouldn’t figure it out, that something was wrong with me because I did not have that job yet. I returned home in mid-December, and by the end of February, and I had accepted a job on the other side of the country and was packing my things into two suitcases and a couple of boxes.

When I graduated college and returned home from the Peace Corps, I had entertained the thought of not rushing into a job, maybe giving myself some space to take in the experience I just had and then move forward. Maybe it was that camp counselor job in Montana or buying a car with a Peace Corps and driving through the West to visit friends. Yet, in both instances, America’s capitalism and sense that you aren’t successful unless you are working overtook me. I fell trap to the idea that I needed a job and that I wasn’t worth much without a job, that a job was everything.

These specific moments of my life have been on my mind recently because I am roughly a month from graduating with my master’s degree. I am about to set out on another beginning, a new career, a new life post a gnarly, challenging, emotional experience. Many of my classmates have already secured jobs for after graduation, but I am resisting the urge to start my job search just yet.

Those first jobs after college and Peace Corps? I left both of them within months. They turned about to be the wrong jobs in the wrong place. Both of them did eventually lead to something better, but I am 36. I am done with false start, and I am done denying myself what I really want.

Truth is, I am not rushing into the job search right now because I need a break. Graduate school has been tough, and my husband and I have had several disappointments and setbacks since I started my program. Just this past month, we have been so close to our ambitions only to have the ripped away before they were in our hands. Between my internship, school, two jobs, studying for my licensure exams, and some personal challenges, (not to mention that we are still in a pandemic), I am fried. I need to reset before I go into a rewarding but challenging career.

My future is uncertain, and that’s not a place I like to live. I am a planner, and I need control. But, there is so much beyond my control right now, like my husband’s career path and our fertility, that I have no choice but to give into what I don’t know. Rushing into a job right now, for me, doesn’t feel right. Instead, I have to give into the uncertainty. I have to listen to my gut this time that says no. Instead of feeling like I am on the right path because I following the “should” voice, I am going to listen to my gut this time.

What I am going to do? I don’t know. Eventually, I will get a job, and until I am independently licensed, I am not concerned with getting “the perfect job.” Now, though, I am embracing uncertainty. I am gonna hang out in the unknown for a bit. In so many of areas of my life, I am forced to give up control and to be uncertain. Now, though, I am choosing it. And when I feel like I need to apply for all the jobs, I will ask myself why. Is it because I want this job? Or because I feel like I need a job? I’ve worked really hard the last three years, and I’ve gone through some dark moments to get here, so I am gonna enjoy the top of the mountain before I start on a next one. I am gonna take the time I didn’t after undergrad and Peace Corps to really assess who I’ve become and where I want to go. No restarts this time.

Sometimes, when I am really unsure about life, I like to read some of my old blog posts. What a gift these 10 years of posts are, to allow me to dip back into my mindset at a specific moment of time. I found one from February 2014, right before I accepted my first job after Peace Corps. It included something a friend had texted me during a panicked moment that I wouldn’t find a job. “You are Heather Mangan, you’ll land on your feet.”

I did then, and I will this time.