Most mornings I wake up and the absolute last thing I want do is run. With toddler-like protest, I claim I am absolutely not going to do run today, and I don’t press the issue. Instead, I go about my day walking the dog, journaling, and eating breakfast, and like a parent trying to woo said toddler to bed, if I just let it be, nature takes over. Within a few hours, I have an intense hunger to lace up my shoes and steal an hour outdoors.
Like most runners these days, I’ve had to change up my normal routes. Chicago’s two biggest paths—the Lakefront Trail and the 606—have been closed since, I don’t, maybe 2019? It’s hard to remember. Anyway, they are off limits, which means runners, walkers, and cyclists are forced onto the sidewalks. Summer in Chicago is an EVENT, and each year, the first nice day brings hoards of people outdoors to dust off winter crumbs, but without patio bars, farmer’s markets, beaching, and intramural leagues, all of that pent up energy can only be released with short walks and bike rides around the block. Meaning, more than ever, the sidewalks are busy and crowded. So, when I decided to run mid-morning or day, as opposed to 6:00 a.m. which is the time of most of my runs when I actually have places to be in the day, I have to avoid my tried-and-true paths.
This morning, when the urge to run was gnawing at me, I thought about which way I would go. It was only 9:30 a.m., but it was also above 50-degrees, which meant a decent amount of people out. Now, I run with a buff to cover my nose and mouth, and I always dive into grass and even the street to separate myself, but those actions are cumbersome when there are so many people out. I live about a mile from the Chicago-Evanston border, and most of my runs lead me north, past Lake Michigan, and up to Evanston’s running path, which is still open. Again, though, I knew there would be enough families on bikes, runners who wouldn’t bother themselves with moving over, and neighbors trying to walk together at a “safe” social distance that it would make me anxious and zap all of the joy from the run, which is really the only reason I run these days. Well, that and because, for me, running works better than antidepressants.
So, to go north, I would need to take another path, and I decided on well-traveled road that was far from the lake and with more stop lights but would most certainly contain less people. At first it was pretty loud, making it hard to hear my podcast, and my body nearly met the front of a Subaru crossing an intersection too quickly with a driver who didn’t see the runner before her (who, by the way, had the right of way). As I crossed into Evanston, traffic thinned out, and it became the most lovely run. There were gorgeous houses and interesting things to keep me entertained, like a stuffed bear sitting in a porch swing, flowers making their grand May entrance, and the quaintest green door that should be a painting in an art museum. The sun was giving me enough warmth for the most ideal conditions, and there were a limited amount of people out that it was easy to scoot to the curb for a safe pass. I was so so happy. And grateful.
Grateful to be outdoors.
Grateful to be running.
Grateful to have taken a chance and followed a new path.
This run is an appropriate metaphor for the uncertainty that we face. Things are scary and uncertain, but we are given a new path forward. We must take it, and even though we can grieve for the route we had planned to go on, we also have to open our hearts to the possibilities. It’s not ideal, but we have to keep going. And, if we take this new route, we will be led to incredible beauty that we might have missed otherwise.
One of my absolute favorite things is recommendations. I love reading, watching, listening to something, and then being reminded of someone. They will LOVE this. And then the next time I see them, I throw that show, book, movie, whatever into their face. About half the time, people will come back and say, “You were right, I really loved it.”
I don’t know about you all, but I am really struggling these days. I am tired and unmotivated. Depression, a blanket I know well, is starting its creep on me, and I try to combat it the best way that I can. In caring for myself, I’ve revisited some of my favorite pieces of entertainment, and so I thought I would share some of my all-time favorite movies, TV shows, podcasts, etc. My goal here is not to take out all the best, but the things that really bring out the tears of joy and the warm fuzzing feelings that maybe are humans OK. Pieces of work that uplifting and rooting at the same time. Also, this is not my extensive list of everything I love because they are darker, more intense entertainment I like (See Barry), but I wanted to keeper it to the things that I know will brighten people’s spirits during this time. So, if you are looking for recommendations for wholesome content, here is mine:
This pandemic is causing destruction that will be felt for decades, but some genuinely wonderful things have also come out of it. One such thing is John Krasinski’s Some Good News, or SGN. Each week, he produces a TV show about some of the best good news that happened recently. And, then he usually focuses on one story to bring even more joy. I have never not cried at these episodes. This week’s episode (see top), in which he marries a couple, had me cry/laughing. It was pure joy.
If you and I have talked recently, I have definitely brought this web series up to you. I started watching it a month, and I have watched almost every episode. This video series comes from the magazine, Bon Appetite, and features the divine pastry chef Claire Saffitz in her attempt to recreate popular snack foods. From Starburst to Pringles to Snicker Bars to Pizza Rolls, Claire uses her skills and expertise to reverse engineer these over-processed foods into something delicious. It’s incredibly satisfying to see someone who is smart and good at her job fail over and over. Sometimes she produces something infinitely better than the original and other times it’s just good enough. But, it’s incredibly human and binge worthy. Here she makes Combos:
First of all, I will watch pretty much anything with Mike Schur’s name attached to it (Parks and Recreation is probably my all-time favorite show), but this show is unlike any others. Mike came up with the concept for the show when he noticed that when he was at coffee shops and he moved to put change into the tip jar he only did so when the barista was facing him. He wondered why it was so important for him that the barista knew he was tiping him, and thus the show was created. It’s about the moral and ethical dilemmas we face as humans, and it is simply wonderful. It’s bright, funny, and makes you believe in the good. Also, the finale was simply perfect. My cheeks were not dry.
Replay of Sports
I know that many people are sad that we basically don’t have sports right now, but I’ve found this a wonderful time to back and watch some of my favorite sports moments. On Boston Marathon, the Olympic Channel played races from the last five years, and I watched nearly all day. I only took a break to hop over to the NBC Sports channel because they were recasting all of Michael Phelp’s gold medal wins in Beijing. It was so fun to rewatch those races, and I felt almost as nervous and excited as I did the first time. Sports run on a continuum, and rarely are we lacking something new to watch, but this pause in time has given us a chance to go back and relive some of those athletic triumphs:. It’s pretty special. Here are two of my favorites:
One of the most epic relay finishes in Olympic Swimming history:
This is the most charming, heartwarming podcast out there. Each episode, Jonathan Goldstein helps people go to a piece of their lives that they wish they could redo or re-explore, and he helps them make amends with who they became along the way. It’s a podcast that shows you that most people are good people, just trying to do their best.
Stand By Me by Ben E. King
I remember hearing this song for the first time during music class in the sixth grade, and since then, it has been my all-time favorite song. Even before I met my husband, I knew this would be the song I danced to at my wedding. Now, when I am sad, I listen to it and think of that gorgeous day in June.
There are LOTS of competition shows out there, but none are like Making It. First, it’s hosted by Amy Poeler and Nick Offerman, arguably the two best hosts on television. It invites crafters from all over the country who specialize in different mediums to make gorgeous beautiful things. Not only is everything they make done with incredible amounts of skill, precision, and talent, the contestants are genuinely good people who help each other out. It’s a hug for the heart. Plus, there are so many puns.
Let the Sunshine In
On Sundays when I am not working, I attend church with my friend Kera, and each year, the church holds an auction as part of its annual fundraising efforts. An item up for bid is to pick a song that the choir will play during its yearly music service. During the first time I attended this service, the winning bidder chose “Let the Sunshine In.” I had heard this song before, but to be in that gorgeous church with it’s floor-to-ceiling windows showcasing the blue sky, green trees, and passing birds brought a whole new way of listening. On bright sunny days, I listen to this song and dance as I walk to the train.
I can’t remember when I first discovered this column in The New York Times, but it’s always been a favorite of mine when I need reminding of the hope and love in the world. Each essay is different, and not all are written by professional authors, but the column reminds us that love is often complicated and messy and always worth it.
Sabli by Amadou and Mariam feat. Theophilius London.
This is a song we listened to a lot in Peace Corps Niger. It’s a remix of the Mali’ band, Amadou and Mariam, with an American-Trinidadian rapper. The sweet lyrics—”Avec toi cherie, la vie est belle)—always take me to a different place, and for that, this song will always be special.
Holocene, Instrumental Version
Bon Iver’s Holocene is my second favorite song of all time, right after “Stand By Me.” That album came out shortly after I returned home from Niger, and I listened to it on repeat as I pieced my life back together. I saw Bon Iver in concert a few months later, on a perfect September night in Nebraska, shortly before I left for Lesotho. Over the years, I’ve written thousands and thousands of words to this song on repeat, and when I was planning my wedding, I knew it had to be a part of the ceremony. We found this perfect instrumental version, and it played as I walked down the aisle.
Honorable Mentions for Things I Love but Didn’t get into Here:
Sheltering in place has brought out some weird behaviors. An example is puzzles. Four months ago I would have never done a puzzle, now I love them.
For some people, that strange new hobby, one they would have never ventured to before, is running. Running has become one of the last forms of exercise that we can do with gyms being closed and all team sports essentially cancelled until further notice. Sure, you can do workout videos in your home, but with the warming weather, running is an excuse to go outside.
I know that running is gaining in popularity by the sheer number of people I see outside. I run nearly every day. I’ve been running in this neighborhood for almost two years, and I know most of the faces of other local runners. In the last month, I’ve seen A LOT of new people out there.
This is great, of course. As a longtime runner who is extremely passionate about the sport, it’s wonderful that so many people are finding their way to this activity that is more than just good for your body. Running has been a lifeline for me, both in joyful and uncertain times, and I know the therapeutic effects that simply going out for a run can have on one’s soul.
That being said, the running world is incredibly intimidating. Running is branded as cruel; the sport other sports use as punishment, as the t-shirt saying goes. It comes with a complex stereotype of what you have to look like and barometers you have to reach to be considered “a real runner.” There is also so much information on where to start and what you need that it’s often too much to sift through. Also, running hurts. No matter if you are going out for your first mile or 20th marathon, at some point, it will be painful.
But it will also be glorious, and that’s why so many of us keep coming back.
Myself, I’ve been running for 23 years. I’ve completed two marathons and an ultra marathon, along with a handful of half marathons and 5Ks. I even work (or I did, but plan to go back to the store when I can) at a specialty running store fitting people for shoes and talking them through race nutrition, socks, and other things running. Throughout my running tenure, I’ve been more consistent, as I was this past winter when I ran 100 consecutive days. But, I’ve also taken breaks for months at a time, such as when I had hip surgery and expected to never run again. I’m not super fast nor do I have the thin yet muscular legs of many runners, but I run like real people do. I’ve run to lose weight, I’ve run to chase the pain away, I’ve run to celebrate, and I’ve run to understand my own strength.
With so many people now running, many new, I thought that I would share some of my running advice that I’ve learned over my years of running. I am no means a doctor or a running coach, but the below are things that I’ve learned and thought I would share in case you are thinking about running and had some questions.
How do I even start?
Go to your closet. Find comfortable shorts, a shirt (try to avoid cotton, if you can), some athletic shoes, socks, and a bra. They don’t have to match, and in fact it’s better if they don’t. They don’t have to be this brand or that, rather today we are starting with what we have. Put them on. Then go outside and try to run 10 minutes. If you can’t do that, try running for five minutes and walking for five. If it’s easy, add another 10. Don’t worry about pace or distance, just run. When you are done, stretch your legs using any of the moves you remember from high school P.E. You will be sore, and if you are extremely sore, rest the next day. If you feel good, try again tomorrow. Either way, go again. It’s easy to run once, but going a second, third, fourth, or fifth time is where the grit comes in. When you feel good, try running for 10 minutes, walking for five and then running another 10. Or, start with equal amounts walking and running or any amount that feels good to you. As you can, increase the time. There are lots of couch25K plans you can follow as well as walk-run programs. You can start with something simple and then look for a plan, or start with a plan. Just start.
But isn’t bad to walk?
No. I know lots of people who walk-run marathons and walk as they need. Walking-running is a good way to ease into running, and it’s OK if you always need to walk a bit during your runs. The key is your moving your body and still getting the benefits from running. If someone is shaming you for walking, they are the foolish one.
Do I really need shoes that cost more than $40?
Yes. Most good running shoes will cost $100-$180, depending on support and cushion. I’ve seen a lot of people come in with bad ankles, knees, or whatever because they’ve been running in improper shoes. I promise you those Kohl-sale shoes are not doing your joints any favors. Especially, if they are old. A good set of running shoes last anywhere from 350-500 miles, so depending on how much you run and what else you use them for, that’s 6-9 months. You may get a year out of them, but then it’s time to replace the shoes. If your knees suddenly start to hurt, that might be an indication it’s time for a new pair (don’t quote me on that, though, I don’t got an MD).
What kind should I get then?
I recommend going to a run specialty store to get fit. They are going to tell you your size (which IS different than the size you wear for everyday shoes), how much you pronate, and what kind of shoe would not only fit your foot type but the activities you do. Most retail shops are closed, but Fleet Feet Chicago is doing virtual fittings. These are ALWAYS free, so even if you just want to see your options, it’s not costing you a cent.
But, Heather, I just want to know what brand to get. I don’t want to have talk to anyone.
I heard Nike is putting out these really amazing shoes that will make me faster like that guy who ran a marathon under two hours. I hoping to do a real fast 5K when I can race. Should I get them?
I really hate running and need music to listen to. Is that OK?
Yes. Do what you need to do to get through the run. I often listen to music or podcasts on my runs. But then there are times where I am really in the zone, and I prefer nothing at all except the songs of the birds and the beat of my breath. However, when I do have something in my ears, I try to be safe. Make sure you can hear your surroundings. Try one headphone in and one out. This is incredibly important, especially in a city where cars and bikers like to sneak up on you. I highly recommend AfterShokz, which sit on the outside of your ears and offer bone conduction sound.
Do I need any special clothing or gear?
For now, not really, especially for the warmer months. Stay away from cotton to avoid chaffing, but really anything that is comfortable works. I have lots of secondhand clothes for running that my mom picks up when she is at garage sales. One of my favorites is a used Under Armour turtle neck that is my favorite base layer for colder runs. If you decide to start training for a marathon, you will need gear to carry water and nutrition, and winter running requires more layers, and while I’ve done it in all Target-purchased pieces, quality (like wool over fleece) does make a bit of difference here. But don’t worry much about those things now. Just get yourself a good pair of running shoes and maybe some non-cotton socks, and you should be good. If you really want, put on a hat and some cool sunglasses.
Should I stretch?
OK, this is my dirty secret, I am terrible at stretching, but you shouldn’t be. Most experts recommend a dynamic workout before hand (think high knees and grape vines) and static stretching after.
What pace should I be aiming for?
Pace is irrelevant and is not nearly as important as you think it is. Go off how you feel. If you start entering races and want to achieve a specific time, then pace becomes more important. However, most people run easy runs way too hard, and that leads to injury and burnout. When I was training for my fall marathon, I was concerned about what pace all of my runs were and would get discouraged when an easy run was slower than I thought it should be. My marathon was terrible, and I bonked and ended up running about an hour slower than what I thought I was capable of. Then, I started running whatever pace I wanted to during most of my daily runs and tried not to care about pace. When I raced a half marathon three months later, I PRed by about eight minutes and hit a huge time goal. My easy runs (outside of workouts) were an average of 90 seconds to 2 minutes slower per mile than my race pace. So, yeah, pace isn’t everything.
I need to run alone now, but I want running friends. Where do I make them?
First, I will be your running friend. Second, join Strava. It’s like MapMyRun meets Instagram, and it tracks all of your runs. I’ve made a lot of running friends this way and have found different and fun places to run because of it. Then, when this is all over, find a local running club. I know, I know, you don’t like running with people, but give it a try. I used to think I was a solo runner, but then I started running with my neighborhood group and it forever changed my running. It’s way more fun, and I’ve made really good friends from it. Like people-who-will-go-out-of-their-way-to-do-really-nice-things-for-me friends.
So, I see neighbor out running and she is way faster than me. It sucks.
I know that I of all people shouldn’t be handing out advice on comparing oneself to others, but I promise you that is a quick way to end up hating running. Run for you. You will be much happier.
What kind of precautions should I take running with COVID-19?
When I get frustrated with lots of new runners out on the road, it’s because they aren’t thinking of others. Running is still something we can do, and to keep it that way, we all have to do our part. Run alone and at off-peak times if you can. I recommend a buff around the neck to pull over your face. I like this because when there aren’t as many people out, I can push it down. The one I have is super low-tech and something I got from a race, so you can probably find them online easy enough. Also, this is the big one, distance yourself six-feet from other runners and walkers. Yes, this may mean going into the street if it is safe to do so, onto the grass, or to the edge of the curb. If another runner is coming at you, and they can’t move any further on their side because there is a fence or wall, it’s your responsibility to move. Please don’t be the jerk who could move over but doesn’t.
It’s raining. I guess I can’t run today.
Running in the rain is the best kind of running. It’s cool, refreshing, and there are less people out. I run outside all year because a treadmill is slow-form torture, and I suggest you try running in the elements. Just once.
I think I really like this running. Where can I get more running inspiration?
Books! I love running books, and here are a few favorites:
I stayed up late reading article after article, and then worry aroused me before my alarm. My mind drifted during class or while I was trying to finish homework assignments. I fretted over what to do next and if I had a mistake so grave, I couldn’t undo.
The world is in complete disarray, with death counts climbing every day, corporations squeezing as much money as possible out of vulnerable people, and those who typically oppressed are naturally being hit worse during this pandemic.
However, the source of my current anxiety is a jar of flour and water that sits on my countertop. It’s not rising, and I cannot figure out why.
Like many people, I’ve used this time in isolation to dust off hobbies that I thought the perfect version of me would inhibit if I had more time and resources, such as writing poetry, learning Italian, or adopting a dog. My magical fix-it wand is baking. Now, I know I am not alone in this idea to use these extra holes in my schedule to bake as evident by the number of social media photos of items fresh out the oven, the onslaught of think pieces about baking during a pandemic, or that it took visits to five separate grocery stores before I found yeast. However, for the past few weeks, I’ve dirtied, clean, and dirtied my pots, baking sheets, and measuring spoons more times than I can count. Using Pinterest recipes, I’ve made, from scratch, quiche, mini apple pies, cookies, vanilla ice cream as well as a chocolate custard, bagels, a rustic bread birthed in a Dutch oven, strawberry scones, banana oatmeal muffins, and buttercream frosted cupcakes. All of these turned out rather tasty, and I started to build an ego that suggested I could tackle a baked item with more chemistry, which led me to the mecca of baking: sourdough.
Maybe it’s the rise of stress baking or just getting older, but tinkering in the kitchen has become one of my anxiety antidotes, earning it’s place with writing and running in my mental health toolbox. It started when I was in the Peace Corps and forced to make almost all of my food from scratch, but with hours upon hours of free time, it was a nice way to keep my hands and mind busy. Back in the U.S., I had access to a real oven, a plethora of ingredients, and a refrigerator, and I found my ultimate taste tester who will eat pretty much anything I put in front of him. Often, it was a good way to end the day, cooking up a meal for E and I, or spending a Sunday shaping and boiling pretzels. Then graduate school started, and almost all of my hobbies got lost like greeting cards shoved into a dusty shoebox. I often daydream about making gnocchi from scratch or French baguettes, but either I never get the block of time to take on such projects or any energy I had to do so is long gone when there is a free block in my schedule.
For a few years, I’ve wanted to try making my own sourdough starter. I’ve made some really fantastic rustic breads, but I wanted to up my bread game with sourdough loaves. Of course, I didn’t have time to do that with school and two jobs, but when we were put on lock down, I knew that this was finally the time to create my own starter. I probably wasn’t going to work on that novel or clean out the closet, but this is one of those long put-off projects I wouldn’t let myself ignore. It was now or never.
For the first few weeks, I browsed different recipes, looking for one that seemed authentic but doable. Five to seven days, it said. That’s all I need to incorporate enough wild yeast from the air into a flour-water mixture to create a heavenly rise in my bread. The motivation came after a pity party I threw myself in which I played my favorite game: comparing myself to both friends and strangers. I couldn’t have a baby, buy a house, or travel to Peru, but I could make a starter. I pulled out an old glass jar, measured equal parts water and flower, mixed it all up and covered the white goo with a tea towel that my great grandmother embroidered for me when I was a child.
Each day, I woke up to attend to all the living beings in my house that weren’t me (or my husband, although I often made the coffee for both of us). I fed and walked the dog. Watered the plant and moved her to the sunny part of the ledge. And then, fed my starter by dumping more than half of it out and adding equal parts water and flower. After a few days, I noticed a liquid on top, which I read is hooch and a sign that my start is hungry, so I upped my feedings to twice a day.
The process seems so quaint and simple, just flour and water, but it’s wasteful and messing. Streaks of dried flour coated most surfaces in our kitchen refrigerator handle, the inside walls of the sink, even the buttons on the coffee maker. My husband would go to make lunch and groan. I didn’t have to ask. I know what this verbal frustration was about.
I had my own irritation with starter. While little bubbles were spreading across the top, it wasn’t growing as much as it should. A ripe starter should double in size after a feeding, but mine wouldn’t move half an inch. More Googling brought me to several articles and videos, and all of them said that it was so easy to make your own. But, they also said, based on how mine was rising, it likely wouldn’t be strong enough to support a bread rise.
For days, I wondered out loud about whether I should attempt to use the starter in a bread or toss it. One more day, I kept telling myself, only to have no changes in results after two more rounds of feedings. My husband was getting very tired of hearing about it, and in fact, after one unrelated fight, he said, “You either have to bake the bread or give it up.” The starter was stressing me so much that I even had dreams about it.
Of course, this is sourdough starter is not just about bread. The starter represents a complicated task that takes skill, patience, and knowledge. With so much of our lives flipped upside down, we need the little wins more than ever. We need to feel accomplished and productive and that we can do hard things, even if they aren’t meaningful.
It’s also about who I think I really am. We all like to believe that there is a better version of ourselves hiding within, someone who is just waiting for more money, time, love, or whatever to water us so that we can bloom into the people we know we truly are. The better me only shops from sustainable, ethical businesses, lives in an apartment overrun with plants, and bakes her own bread, if not daily then weekly. This is my time to find that version of me, and if I let go of the starter, then I am afraid I will never find her, that she isn’t as real as I long for her to be.
But more, it’s about the anger and lack of control I feel right now. Sure, my husband and I both lost our incomes, but I am more frustrated about the deficiency of a national paid sick leave policy and affordable healthcare, that big businesses are putting low wage employees on to the front lines and shrugging their shoulders when they die, that certain leaders refuse to admit the gravity of this situation and would rather play to their party than protect their citizens, that people of color are disproportionally affected by this disease and all of us with white privilege don’t get why, and that this never had to be this bad. Also, I miss my people, and I really want to hug them. Right now, I feel so helpless, and every time, I try to think about what more I can do, my anxiety immobilizes me.
What I can do, though, is practice a centuries old tradition of growing a starter, or so I thought. It was easy for me to funnel all of my anxiety and despair into this one activity because I thought I could actually make this work. That if I just kept pushing through the challenges, and gave it enough patience, my sourdough starter would eventually grow. I could feel a sense of triumph in the little things and maybe that could lead to hope for the big things.
After about 10 days, when it should have been ripe and ready to use, my starter was still fairly flat, but I decided to attempt bread anyway. I made the autolyze, and let it rise overnight. It should have been fluffy enough that if I picked off a piece it would float. It did not, so I put some instant yeast into the dough, kneaded it a bit, and let it rise again. It still didn’t go much further, but I baked it anyway.
With some research, I realized that likely my biggest problem was that my proportions were off. For most baking, but specifically bread baking, weight is more accurate than volume, and I was using measuring cups. I probably didn’t have equal amounts.
As the bread was baking, I decided to dump the starter. It wasn’t where it should be, and I knew that I could buy one from a local bakery and feed that to keep in the back of my fridge for whenever I wanted a loaf. Plus, I would have likely need to buy another thing of flour to keep it alive, and it didn’t seem worth it.
The sourdough was, to my surprise, tasty. It was incredibly dense, and Paul Hollywood would NOT have shaken my hand, but it was good enough for my husband and I, so much that I regretted throwing out the starter (when I said as much my husband replied, “Stop.”) But, instead, I will support a local business and get a really healthy starter that I know will give me those big lofty holes in my bread.
Even though the starter didn’t last, and it won’t be something I pass along to my children, (“Kids, I started this back in the pandemic of 2020”), I still made the bread, and that is an accomplishment. But, it also showed me that I can still win, and while I can’t control everything, I still can control me. That night, I made a few small donations to local charities and vowed to do more as I am able and to quit complaining about money and what I don’t have. Also, I am going to keep making bread, because both the baking and the eating of it make happy. I may not be able to save the world, but if I can make myself happy, I have at doing some good in the world.
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.*
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.
*(Sioux Falls friends, think Michelle’s, circa 2009.)
December 13, 2017, was another day at the office. Not a particularly bad day, but also not a good one. I didn’t have many good days anymore, just slow, uninspired days, sometimes with bright spots. For weeks, the dread of going to a job that was unfulfilling flattened me. I felt it every morning as I quickly scanned my emails, before I was even dressed, to anticipate what fires may erupt when I got to the office, and every Sunday when I wondered if everyone else felt so stuck in their careers. And, I felt it in this moment, sitting at my desk, between morning meetings and sending out holiday-themed pitches.
I opened up the journal that I take almost everywhere with me. I hoped that a few minutes of writing could snap me out of my fog so I could focus on finishing my tasks. When the pen reached the paper, I did not exactly what words it would produce but the pen moved quickly.
I promise, my scratchy writing read, that by December 13, 2018, I will no longer be in this job.
It’s not like me to make such bold predictions, and on the surface it seemed foolish, but deep down I wanted it to be true. I maybe even believed that it could be. I didn’t know how or why or where, but I had the ambition to start searching for those answers, and I guess that was enough.
Well, it’s December 13, 2018, and I am not sitting in an office that is too cold responding to work emails. Rather, I am on my couch, with my dog at my feet, and enjoying the site of my small Christmas tree. Not a terrible place to be at 10 a.m. on a weekday morning.
One year ago, I didn’t have a specific plan to apply for schools, but the desire to become a therapist had been brewing for about 10 years. That little note was a permission slip to take a chance on a dream and myself, to make big sweeping changes for a shot at being happy. Over the next few months, I began doing little tasks that lead me to where I am now, a graduate student in clinical mental health counseling.
My first semester of graduate school was, simply, wonderful, and life as a student comes with some nice perks, like a six-week holiday break. My classes pushed me to levels of uncomfortable that are necessary for professional and personal growth, and I started to my swim in an identity outside of the one as a communications professional. Many times, specifically when I was practicing my counseling skills, I felt a deep reassurance that I made the right decision, that I was going to be a good counselor someday.
However, leaving my job has not come without repercussions. We’ve endured some setbacks this fall that did make me think for a second that this dream chasing was foolish, that maybe I should return to the 9-5 with stable paychecks and benefits. I could suffer through a job I didn’t like if it meant that I didn’t have to worry as much.
Except, I couldn’t. I worried a lot back then too, so not do what I want and just try to keep the worrying at bay? I tried that, and a year ago I vowed to never let myself get that stuck again. Even though I love being a graduate student and working towards becoming a therapist, things are not perfect, but they never will be. Instead, I have to focus on all the good that I have, and when I look back at where I was last year, I feel so grateful. I took a risk on myself, and it was worth it.
A new year is coming, what permission slip will you write for yourself?
There are many reasons I am lucky to have my husband and his unending support while I am pursing my master’s degree, but one nice perk of marriage is shared health insurance. Obviously, I lost my health insurance when I quit my job, but because Ethan and I had recently gotten married, I could be added to his plan. This is a big blessing because my university does not offer health insurance for students not living on campus, and many of my classmates hold full-time jobs for the insurance.
Recently, Ethan’s company made a change to their plans, so all employees had to re-enroll. While there was one option for coverage, now there were two. (Side note, I can’t believe how expensive it is to add a spouse or a child. It’s like the health insurance industry doesn’t care about humans.) One had a higher premium and a lower deductible, while the other premium was $87 more a month with a deductible that was five times higher. Do we save money month to month and hope we don’t have any major medical expenses? Or, do we figure out how to deal without that extra money in our daily savings and not cringe every time a medical bill comes in the mail?
When I was signing up for health insurance at my last job, I also had the decision between two plans: one with a higher premium but covered more or lower premiums and higher out-of-pocket stuff. At the time, I was pretty healthy, but I really hated that feeling of going to the doctor and being more worried about how much it was going to cost compared to getting better. I went with the more expensive plan, and considering I needed major surgery a year later, it was a good choice.
We can’t predict the future. We may get pregnant in the next year, we may not. My other hip may give out, it may not. One of us may get in accident, we may not. We are still young and relatively healthy, but that doesn’t meant that could change in any moment. Money is tight for us, and a major medical bill could wipe us out. That wasn’t something I was willing to risk, so we decided to go with the higher premium, lower deductible plan. In the end, the premium wasn’t that much more expensive to have a deductible that was thousands of dollars lower.
It was a peace of mind purchase. Now, either one of us can go to the doctor without fear of it coming with a bill we can’t pay. To us, $87 a month was worth it.
I made another peace of mind decision this week and decided to take a second job. As I’ve written before, money is tight for us now that we are down to one income, and while we have a budget and a plan that’s working for us, it hasn’t stopped me from worrying about every purchase. The other day, I spent an extra $4 dollars at Walgreens and worried about it for hours. I love having dinner and drinks with my friends, but fret over how much we can afford to spend for days leading up to the event. I avoid using my credit cards by making my own coffee at home, always taking the CTA, and packing enough snacks to get me through the day. I don’t mind living frugally – it’s what I know – but it would be nice to have a bit of extra cash so that I can have dinner with friends or buy a needed item without the extra pressure.
One day, when I was having a standard panic attack about money, I stopped into a market near my house. It’s a cute healthy foods store, kind of like a co-op. They sell quinoa, essential oils, kombucha from the tab – even bottled pickle juice. I asked the woman at the counter if they were hiring, and she said they actually may need a person to do a shift or two a week, a filler. They called me for an interview this past Monday, and then offered me the job Wednesday. I start Saturday.
Immediately after I accepted the job, I was a bit panicked. Do I really have time for a second job (in addition to my graduate assistantship)? Shouldn’t I be focusing on finding some freelance work to keep my marketing and communication skills fresh? Was the standard retail pay worth the time and energy?
Yes, because it will reduce some of my stress about money. Oh, I will still worry, but the new job is an extra paycheck and that brings a bit of peace of mind. I also couldn’t ask for something more idea: two blocks from my house, nothing too taxing that will deplete my energy to do school work, and I finally get to work in health foods store like I’ve always wanted.
Sometimes we make choices because of the peace of mind it will bring us. We see there may be extra challenges, but go that route anyway because, in the long run, we will feel better about whatever ails us. And, I think that’s a very vaild reason to make a decision. For me, my quality of life will increase because my financial pressures are just a bit lower, both with the new job and the better health insurance. And I value peace of mind, so I am willing to work a little bit harder for it.
“You want to jump over to the other tube?” my friend asked me.
I shook my head. I was fine just where I was. She shrugged her shoulders, and then as the boat pulled us behind it, she effortlessly moved from one flotation device to the other, a stream of water underneath her.
Recently, I went tubing for the first time in years, maybe decades, while spending the week at a friend’s lake house in Wisconsin. While I was eager to get on the tube, I didn’t have the bravery for anything other than gripping the handles. There were two tubes with two riders a piece, and to add an extra level of excitement, the other three passengers lily-frog leaped from tube to tube. Again, they asked me if I wanted to hop to the other side, but I said no. My body has lost much of its resilience since the last time I tubbed, and I was afraid it wouldn’t make it.
The more we rode and the more comfortable I got on the tube, I realized I probably could make that jump. And, if I fell, the pontoon wasn’t going that fast and I would likely be OK. So, when asked a third time if I wanted to jump to the other tube, I said yes. I hoisted myself up over the other rider on my flotation device, aimed for the handles, and leapt.
This is something I’ve learned about myself: it may take me a bit longer to leap, but in the end, I usually do it. This is true of big life events, like the Peace Corps. I talked about applying for the Peace Corps for nearly two and half years before I finally departed. Also, I had bragged about living in a big city since I was 14, only to actually move to one when I was 29.
Now, I am making another leap. This fall, I am enrolled in a clinical mental health counseling program at Roosevelt University in Chicago and am starting down the path to become a therapist.
And like many of my big jumps in life, it’s taken me a long time to get to this point. Just recently I met up with a friend from high school, someone I hadn’t seen in about nine years, and when I told her I was going back to school, she said, “You’ve been talking about that for forever.” It’s true. When I was 10, I told people I was going to be a psychologist. During my first job, as an reporter, I called a woman who had been a counselor and then became a sports editor and asked her what I should do. And, a few years ago at a career planning session, I stated getting a counseling degree as one of my life goals. For the last threes, I’ve spent time researching and plotting about what it would take to get that masters. I went back and forth on what I wanted to study and if it was the right investment. I talked to everyone I knew who was a practicing counselor, whether they had earned a degree in counseling, social work, psychology or marriage and family therapy. I looked at programs in and out of Chicago. And still, I couldn’t make a decision, until last winter.
It wasn’t the best time for Ethan and I. He had been unemployed for months and his savings was dwindling each week. Me, I was recovering from hip surgery and continuously unhappy in my job. One cold morning, as I walking down our stairs on my way to work, it hit me that I was wasting my days. I was just trying to get from day to day and there was no fulfillment and joy. Something had to give.
Over the holiday break, I thought long and hard about what to do next, and thought that maybe I should finally pursue a graduate degree. It seemed like too big of a jump from my current life – to return to school 11 years after I finished my undergraduate degree and completely change my career – so, I did what Mother Oprah recommends and I looked what is the next right step. From there, I took it piece by piece, never fully committing to the idea. I made a spreadsheet of schools, attended information sessions, asked former supervisors to be references, wrote applications essays, and submitted application to two schools. The first acceptance came in and I didn’t tell my husband until hours later, but when the second one came, to my top school, a big grin spread across my face. This was right. It was later confirmed when I was offered a graduate assistantship that would cover my full tuition.
Last Friday was my final day at work, and I have about two weeks before I begin classes and my GA position. This new path hasn’t come without doubt and fear, but there have also been little signs along the way that indicate I am where I am supposed to be. Like when I tell people what I am going back to school for and they say, “Oh wow, you are going to good at that.” Or the excitement I get when one of my professors has posted the textbook list for the semester’s course.
The biggest sign of reassurance thought is how different I feel. My body is lighter, my mood is calmer. It reminds me of the weeks leading up to my Peace Corps service. I was noticeably happier, and people told me as much. I’ve heard the same thing this time around. “You seem much more at peace,” they tell me. They are actually a lot of similarities between the decision to go back to school and the decision to go into the Peace Corps, and since that was one of the best things I ever did with my life, I know I am headed in the right direction.
It may have taken me some time to finally make this leap, follow this dream of mine, but the timing feels perfect. Everything up until this point in my life has led me here and given me the tools to be successful. I am beyond excited to be a student again, to learn about things that are truly interesting to me, and to see parts of myself that have yet to be discovered. It will be hard and a long journey at three years, but I am ready for it.
There are dozens of them in my email – some I have deleted and others I meant to delete but didn’t for one reason or another. Many of them have the same stock phrases, such as “not the right fit” and “we wish you the best.” They are from agents, magazines, literary journals, and websites, and they all the same thing – no, we will not publish this.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to be a writer. Whenever I make a life-long goals list, it’s at the top. I went into journalism because I loved writing, but transitioned into communications to keep writing but do so without getting reader hate mail. This blog exists because writing is how I process my emotions and feelings.
I know that I have some skill at writing; it’s part of the reason I enjoy it. At every job I’ve had, my superiors have commented on what a strong writer I am, and through this blog, many people have reached out only to tell me how much they enjoy my writing. But I’ve always doubted how strong that talent really is and if it could make me a real writer. There are shortcomings – my copy is often messy, my descriptions are shallow, I pander to easy themes and language. My mom likes my blog, but could I write something that people would be willing to pay for?
Three years ago, when I was working for Peace Corps, a career coach led a professional development session and we were all asked to come up with goals. From there, we were supposed to identify the thing we really wanted to do in life and find ways to work toward it. I was lost; I didn’t know what my dream was. Since then, that question of what should I do has plagued me. As other parts of my life have started to fall in place – meeting Ethan, settling in Chicago – I felt very unsure of my career and whatever path I was on. This led me to look at graduate schools without exactly identifying what I wanted to study.
For months, I looked at programs in international development, social work, journalism, non-profit management and on and on. All of them seemed great, but none of them felt like that one big thing I should do. After one information session for a master’s in health communications, I was talking with Ethan, trying to decide if it was something I wanted to pursue. Ethan, who is always a good counterbalance to my internal doubt, asked what I would be giving up if I did the program. It was only a year, at a prestigious university that would definitely lend itself to career opportunities down the road. Stunning both him and myself with harsh honesty, I said that I wouldn’t be able to write as much, that I would be giving up my ambitions of being a writer if I did that program or any other that wasn’t focused on writing. Isn’t writing always what I wanted to do? Why wasn’t I doing that instead of shooting a dart at other ideas, hoping one of them will make me as happy as I knew writing could? So, I decided to take a year to try and make it as a writer, to become a real writer.
Currently, I get paid to write at my job. I get paid to do a lot of other things, but I do write quite a bit, from video scripts to magazine articles to social media posts to blogs to whatever it is they need from me. I write, but I want to be the kind of writer you envision when someone says, “Oh, she is a writer.” I want to see my books in airports, have my name in national distributed newspapers and magazines, and I want to write about the things I am passionate about.
To me, the biggest reason I hadn’t become a real writer was because I was too afraid to try. I have written two drafts for two different books, but they were hidden in my hard drive. Fear of failure kept me from attempting. I didn’t have any rejection letters because I never gave anyone the opportunity to reject me. More than publishing a book or writing a viral story, I wanted to know I at least tried.
About a year after the professional development seminar, I opened one of those book drafts, which I wrote while in the Peace Corps, and started rewriting. I enrolled in a creative writing class, joined writing groups, and met with people who were full-time freelances for advice on breaking through. For the novel, I asked for beta readers and hired an editor to go through the first three chapters so I could start querying. In a Writer’s Digest book, I highlighted every single agent I thought would be interested in my book and noted literary agencies mentioned in the acknowledgement section of some of my favorite novels.
And, I wrote. I woke up at 5 a.m. to write. I wrote on my lunch break. I bailed on plans with friends to write. I wrote blog posts, short stories, personal essays, and three additional drafts of the book.
Then it was time to put that writing into the world. I submitted my fictional pieces to literary journals and pitched reported story ideas and essays to editors across the country. Also, I queried every literary agency in my spreadsheet.
Sometimes I never heard back, even with follow up, other times I received a formulaic sorry-but-we’re-passing note. I did not, though, receive any acceptances.
There were pieces that I only pitched because I thought needed to, as a real writer. My book was one of them. I had one agent ask to read more pages, which is not nothing, but she ultimately passed. I asked several friends to read the book, and none of them finished it, which is a good inclination that it was probably not good and they didn’t have the heart to tell me. I’ve been writing long enough to know when something has potential, and I didn’t get that feeling with the book. It had themes and ideas that I do believe are strong, but really I was pushing through because I wanted validation from someone else that I am a good writer, even if my heart wasn’t in the piece. When the last rejection for representation came, I put the book back in the corners of my computer.
However, there were also pieces I really believed in, that I knew were good, that didn’t get picked up. I don’t write a lot of fiction, but I did work on a short story that I thought was unique with a salient message. No one wanted it. I also spent months working on an 8,000-word personal essay, pouring my heart and soul into, that can’t seem to find a home. These kinds of rejections are harder to swallow.
After hearing no so many times, I stopped writing. All the nasty things I’ve said to myself and the criticism I’ve received had validation. I was an OK writer for this blog, but I was simply not good enough for a larger platform. My goal was to be a real writer, and I failed.
Except that I didn’t fail, because that wasn’t my goal. What I really wanted to do was try, to collect those stack of rejection letters as proof that maybe I won’t get published but not because for a lack of trying. I can live with someone else telling me no, but it excruciating to tell myself no before I even started.
In the last month or so, I’ve been writing more. I missed it. I needed it. Coming back to the blog has reminded me why I love writing, and I am thankful for the 50 people who read each post. So, some of my writing didn’t get published, but that doesn’t mean it never will, unless I stop trying. The desire to write still boils in my blood, and it’s my duty to answer it and let whatever I create be what it is. As Anne Lamott says, the only way to be a writer is to put your butt in the seat and write.
So, I will write and I will fail, because rejection is the only way to become a REAL writer.
I don’t like to call it depression. I suppose that some would, but it’s not a term I use to describe these somber phases. A malaise, sadness, rough emotions. They eventually pass, and I feel like myself again, but when I am in them, it feels like walking through a dark room of cobwebs. I’ve had them all my life; anything can prompt them, and sometimes they stay for a few hours and at other times weeks. I can’t rid myself of them, rather I have to ride their waves.
This recent phase started after our wedding. The month before had been filled with of joy and love leading to this one day, and then almost immediately after it was a hard crash back to reality. It felt similar to when I trained for and ran the Two Oceans Ultra Marathon; I spent months focusing on just that one event that once I crossed the finish line, in happy tears, I didn’t know what else to do. In that first week, as a married woman, my attention and evenings were free to use how I pleased. All of my friends and family returned to their normal lives. Even Ethan was busy nearly every night. The spotlight was no longer on me, and I was left with a bones-deep loneliness. I numbed myself with alcohol, junk food, scrolling, and streaming. I tried so hard to block out the voices that come in these somber times, but they were strong and confident.
You are fat.
You are wasting away your potential.
No one likes you.
Your life is going nowhere.
When I am far into these moments, I believe this voice. I don’t challenge it with facts and reality. And, the truth is, I don’t want to. It’s a dark space, but it’s a familiar one. My friend, Pity, joins me and we wallow, agreeing that I belong and live in this sadness. But, that isn’t true. At my core, I am a friendly, outgoing, bubbly individual and sometimes I just get a bit off track,. And, I have a map to get back to myself. I do know what to do in these moments, and I just have to find the energy and courage to follow the path, which is not always easy – for any of us.
Since this world can be lonely and dark for each of us, I thought I would share some of my known tricks to get me back to myself when a malise has overcome me.
Tell myself the opposite. Whenever I am in these moods, I pick apart one aspect of my life. My ability to write, my body, my relationships. My therapist and I have spent a ton of time talking about introducing new narratives to the conversation. If I am telling myself, I have no friends, it is not rooted in truth (I do have friends, many wonderful people). Instead, I tell myself, I have the right amount of friends and I am enough. Maybe it’s a stretch to automatically accept that as truth, but I can entertain the idea. Then, that voice hurling insults is weaker.
Reach out I am not very good at asking for help, and so this step is really really hard for me. I want to fix everything myself, or hole myself up in my house until I feel better, but I know that doesn’t work. If I am feeling lonely and insecure about my relationships, I know that the best solution is to have dinner with a friend or plan a social activity. Friendships as an adult are hard – everyone is so busy and spur-of-the-moment get-togethers are unheard of – but I have to be vulnerable and risk hearing no because I always feel better after time spent in the company of someone I enjoy.
Move It’s amazing to how much better I feel when I go for a bike ride or swim when I am in these funks. Running used to be my go to, and so still not being able to run, I throw a bit of tantrum and don’t want to do anything. When I stop resisting, and do something that moves my body, I feel incredible.
Get off the Internet The Internet is full of things that make me sad about myself. With every up stroke of the thumb, I am presented with a fresh opportunity to feel inferior or not enough. That person has a better career than me. That person has more friends. That person is thinner. My solution? Get off the Internet. I typically don’t keep Instagram on my phone. I re-download it a lot to post my own stuff, but anytime I log on to just browse, without fail, I feel worse about myself in about five minutes. For nearly half a day, I was in a funk based on a photo I saw from a friend that, get this, HAD ABSOLUTELY NOTHING TO DO WITH ME. But, that’s what happens when you are in one of these phases. It’s like when you are stressed and exhausted and you get a cold because your immune system is already compromised. My mental health isn’t that stable during a malaise so even the smallest of things can send me into a flutter. That’s why it’s just best to avoid social media during these times.
Do something that isn’t about you The only thing that lifted my spirits after that Instagram photo was calling my representatives about the what’s currently happening at our southern borders and make a donation to a worthy non-profit. Like most people, this whole situation makes me sick and I just needed to do something, even if little. That 20 minutes getting out of my own head was enough to put me in a good mood for the rest of the day. Imagine that.
Remember it’s all cyclical My friend Sabia often says, “Everything is changing and temporary.” Life operates in circles and what is bad now will eventually be good. I find that to be true about most of my sad points, no matter how painful at the time. Also, about whatever non-truth I am telling myself. If I feel like failure at my job one day, I might still fee like I am crushing it the next. It’s the beauty, and heartbreak, of life.
The fog is still present, but I am strong enough to beat it, and using these tips, eventually I will get out and find myself again. I always do.