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.

Butterflies in Waiting

Monarch Butterfly Numbers Rise Dramatically - Texas A&M Today
Photo cred.

A butcher’s knife met the edge of my middle finger last night and left a fleshy wound.

I was cutting sweet potatoes with a blade that probably wasn’t sharp enough for the job (or maybe it wasn’t the right kind of knife, I don’t know, I always say I will eventually learn how to properly cut vegetables), and it slipped from under the orange vegetable, catching a piece of my finger. Home alone, I winced in pain as I tried to get it to stop bleeding enough to bandage it up.

It was a small cut. Deep, sure, but not unlike others my body has seen in its 36 years of life. Even though I would recover, and my finger would go back to normal, I was still annoyed. It wouldn’t prevent me from engaging in daily activities, but it would make things harder, like untangling my hair in the shower, typing notes, or doing the dishes. This morning the finger throbbed having developed its on pulse-like beat.

Yet, there wasn’t much I could do. I would only have nine fully functional fingers until time and the human’s reparative system did their job of growing new skin to close the gape. Till then, I wait.

Waiting is an essential part of being human, but it doesn’t come to us easily, especially since technology has programmed us to need everything as soon as possible. We can get food, dates, and air fryer within hours. We are sold on the idea that waiting is for losers, and throw enough money at something, and you won’t become one.

There are some things that take time, though. We can’t rush them or press the 15-seconds forward button. We have to let the process go on, no matter how long it takes.

I am stuck in a perpetual wait. OK, perpetual is a strong word, but sometimes waiting feels endless. You are so deep into the time between that you can no longer see either the beginning nor the end. It’s a void without an exit. Waiting is worse when combined with uncertainty. It’s not nearly as tough waiting for a pizza to arrive as it is for results from blood work.

For me, it’s not just one thing I am waiting on, but several big, life-changing things that have no specific answer . What my husband and I will be doing for work, where we will be living, what our family will look like. These waits are ones I’ve endured for two and half years, since we got married, I started school, and my husband suffered an unexpected job loss. I’ve held my breath month-to-month, waiting for some kind of relief to come in, for things to be easier, and that has yet to happen. We had a small bit of relief last winter but a pandemic swiped away that safety net before we could unroll and hang it up.

However, the tide is changing. I am eight weeks away from graduation and 10 from finishing my internship; with a master’s and being eligible for licensure, I am finally to embark on my new career, finding a job that pays more than $0. Our lease expires in July, and we’ll not be renewing. We chip away at our other big goals, identify plans (costly ones at that) and send out as much intention and interest as we can, hoping something will come our way.

This all should be exciting, but rather I am a burned-out stress ball. One person should not be on the precipice of this many life changes, specifically not a person who is working three jobs, two months away from graduation, and preparing for two comprehensive exams next month.

Not to make another running metaphor, but it really does feel like mile 18 of a marathon. I’ve come so far in this journey, but the hardest parts—the truest tests of grit and strength—are still to come. The only difference is that in the marathon, if you keep putting one foot in front of another, you’ll eventually get to the finish line. Nothing here though is guaranteed, not even my degree (although something would have to go terribly wrong for me to not graduate, and even my anxious brain won’t entertain that worry).

And, so I wait. Then, I breakdown. I numb with crappy TV. I return to a calm-ish state. Breakdown again. And keep waiting.

A friend stopped into the retail store where I work the other day. In seven minutes, I blurted out a quick life update, listing all the big things hanging in the balance. It was probably a lot for a short, casual visit, but I was just so happy, and hungry, to see a real-life friend that it all came tumbling out of me. Later in the evening, I texted her how refreshing it was to see her, and she responded saying the same and that I was going to emerge as a butterfly with all of our upcoming changes.

What a beautiful sentiment, and it made me wonder if caterpillars know what’s in store for them. Do they know when they’ll shed their cocoons? Do they know they’ll be restored with magnificent wings?

The thought of butterflies made me want to rethink my strategy of waiting. Instead of refreshing social media accounts to compare myself to others, religiously scouring horoscopes for some kind of sign, or waking up each morning remembering what I am still missing, I let the wait be the journey. I take each day of the unknown and make it special. What if I learn to savor and enjoy the wait, no matter how unsettling or painful, and understand that most of life is waiting and if I can’t stay present with it then it’s wasted?

Waiting isn’t my favorite thing, but it’s the journey I am on. Either I can continue to resent it and break down, or accept it and see the magic that is here. It’s easier for me to type that than to act it out, but I need relief. I can’t control when the answers will come or what they will be, but I can change my attitude as I wait.

My pretty wings will come, until then, I’ll revel in the prettiness of the cocoon.

The Good of 2020

In January 2011, I was evacuated from my first Peace Corps country of service, Niger, due to terrorism activity. We were at a training in a village outside the capital when the decision came in from D.C., and a day later I was on United Nations plane back to the region where I lived and driven out to my village with about an hour to pack as many belongings as I could. From there, I went to Morocco with the other Niger volunteers to decide what was next. My fate changed several times within in the span of three days, and eventually I decided to travel to Egypt and back home, where I would reapply for the Peace Corps and give this long-held dream another attempt.  

On one of the many airplane rides I took during those whirlwind weeks, I listened to a podcast story about Katherine Russell Rich, who lived with stage IV breast cancer for 18 years. This far exceeded medical predictions. Each year, she returned to an online forum for those living with breast cancer, and wrote, “I am still here.” The story ended with The Mountain Goats, “This Year.” I am going to make it through this year if it kills me, the song goes. That song became my anthem for 2011, a year that was a pause, a gap, a line to get from one phase of my life to the next. It was frustrating, heartbreaking, and everlasting, but when it finally ended, I was settled into another Peace Corps service in a different part of Africa.  

Several weeks ago, someone on my social media feed posted a link to “This Year”, which prompted me to play it on repeat for an hour. Hearing those guitar strums and that proclamation of perseverance reminded me that not only did I make it through 2011, the challenges of that year, now practically a decade old, seemed distant and not so hefty. Of course I made it through, I thought, it wasn’t all bad.

So much can happen in a year. It can be a year that brings you some of the greatest joy you may ever know, or one that shows you the truest of suffering. Sometimes, it’s both. However, it’s never all joy or all sadness, and it’s the mixture of two that makes humanity so complicated. Because even in a downright terrible, painful, excruciating year, there is still happiness and goodness.

Yes, 2020 sucked, and it took a lot from all of us. People lost jobs, homes, communities, businesses, marriages, and their safety. Concerts, travel, parties, and any kind of big gathering vanished overnight. We lost friends and families to our opinions and values. We lost our belief and faith in others. People like Breonna Taylor, Asia Jynae Foster, Ahmaud Arbery, and so many others not named in the headlines were needlessly and brutally murdered. And, we lost too many lives to a vicious disease that could’ve been stopped.

But, it wasn’t all bad. I was reminded of that notion last week when The Daily, a podcast of The New York Times, published its piece, “The Year in Good News.” After an invitation to do so, more than 700 people sent audio messages to The Daily describing good things that happened in a year filled with grief. People fell in love, they had babies, they discovered new hobbies, and they reconnected with lost friends and family. These things happen every year, but in this year these joys meant so much more. They were the light in the storm, what kept us going when we weren’t sure we could. Next to heartbreak and pain, we learned to savor them more than ever.

Listening to this episode, while walking my dog, I began to cry. This year was hard for me personally, but there was still so so much good. As 2020 dwindles to a close, I’ve been thinking about all the bright, joyful spots, and I want to put them here so that they have lasting power. Yes, 2020 will be known for its hardships, but I refuse to forget all the good that came to me in the last 12 months.

Here is my year in good news:

  • Even though travel was cutoff for most of the year, I still managed to squeeze in two trips at the beginning of 2020: the first to California to visit one of my dearest and truest friends and the second to Mexico with my mother on her first trip out of the country.
  • The world began shutting down when my mom and I were Mexico, which was surreal to hear stories about the NBA cancelling its season while I am drinking a margarita near the pool. However, not only we were incredibly lucky to make it home without issue, but my school decided to cancel classes an extra week after spring break, giving me the ultimate dream of a vacation after a vacation.
  • I started my clinical counseling internship, and I was accepted at my first choice of sites. It’s been a learning process, especially since all the therapy I do is online, but I truly enjoy my new profession.
  • I started my third and final year of graduate school. The end is near.
  • My husband and I went camping in July in remote Wisconsin woods. It was the first time that I went camping without someone much more experienced at setting up tents, building a fire, and cooking meals over the flame. It was a nice break from the city and current events.
  • I’ve spent more time in the kitchen than ever. From roasts to mini-apple pies, I’ve been able to tick off things on my baking/cooking list, including sourdough bread. I am still working on bettering my technique, but I am elated to officially call myself a bread baker.
  • At the beginning of this year, I had zero plants, mostly because I often kill them. Now, I have four, all of which were gifted to me. As of today, I am happy to report they are all still living.
  • This pandemic has made it a lot easier to reach out to people who’ve I long lost touch with, for whatever reason. It’s been nice to reconnect with people I haven’t talk to in years, and with that, reconnecting to a long-forgotten piece of myself.
  • This was the first holiday season that I spent entirely in Chicago, and it was a bit strange, yet sweet, to experience the quiet city on Christmas morning. It was also the first holidays that my husband and I spent just the two of us.
  • I often don’t spend much money on myself or splurge, but I’ve treated myself more this year. It’s hard enough without my internal shame, so I go for whatever it is that I want. I recently bought a running jacket that is perfect for the wind and moisture of winter running.  
  • When I accepted my internship, although I was excited, it was a bit of gamble. My commute would have been two hours one way via public transportation or 40 minutes in a car. Then there was the commute from my internship site down to school. I was going to spend a good amount of time getting from one point to the next, I knew, but it seemed like a worthy sacrifice. However, with the commute time gone for both my internship and school, I get so much more of my day back. Rushing to and from the train has calmed my schedule, and me. Not having to be on the train at 11 p.m. at night after class is one of the biggest silver linings in this year for me.
  • For a good chunk of the year, the only time I left this house was to run. Running has been one of my true refuges this year, and to avoid well-populated paths, I did many miles on the streets of Chicago, going to places I rarely do not on my runs. Additionally, with masks and distancing, running was still a social outlet for me. One Sunday, a few friends and I ran for six hours in the park, and I recorded my longest run, of 30 miles, since 2012. As the clear closes, I will hit a new yearly mileage record at 1600 miles (that is, after my commute to and from work).
  • After I lost my part-time job in the spring, I was rehired when the store opened in May. I am lucky to have had that job and that the unemployment I received was sufficient to keep my bills paid. My husband also lost his job this year, one he just started in February, and while it’s been hard finding full-time, benefited work, he is working. Our bills are paid. We can afford groceries and other small luxuries. We are beyond lucky.
  • This time has forced me to slow down. Even with school, work, and my internship, I can’t do as much as I once did, and that’s a good thing. I’ve learned to prioritize and be more intentional with my time. Still not great at setting boundaries but getting better.
  • And, finally, I am so thankful for my marriage. I am incredibly grateful that I have had someone during this time of isolation and loneliness, and I thankful that we still love and support one another even after all this time together in our small apartment. We had our moments of tension and frustration, but we survived. I am up for whatever next year brings as long as he is by my side.

If you are reading this, here you are, at the end of 2020. You did it. You made it through this awful, horrific year. I can’t predict if 2021 will be much better, but we are still here, and that’s something to celebrate.

Thanksgiving in 2020

How Americans plan to celebrate Thanksgiving this year | YouGov

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. It’s the day we get to wear earth-toned sweaters, eat a bunch of deeply satisfying and comforting foods, drink wine at 11 a.m., and take multiple naps throughout the day. It’s the kickoff to the festive season, but it comes with no obligations. Just gathering, indulging, and giving thanks. Every year, I am bombarded with nostalgia for turkey days gone, whether it’s being young and spending the day with family friends or assembling an ad-hoc meal from the best available ingredients in a rural African village. As my life has metamorphosized from year to year, so has my Thanksgivings.

2020 was supposed to be a Thanksgivmas year. Since I met my husband five years ago, we have traded off Christmas and Thanksgiving between our families. We travel West to my family for one holiday and south to his for the other. Since we spent Christmas in South Dakota last year, we intended to celebrate the December holiday in Tennessee this year. That meant, Thanksgiving with my family, but we like to hit check off both holidays in a weekend.

We typically start planning for our holidays about a month in advance. We start a Google Doc with what meals we’ll have when and what snacks are necessary. We’ll also have an agenda of holiday-themed activities to do with the kids. The plan is to celebrate Thanksgiving fully on Thursday, have a transition day, and then celebrate Christmas Saturday with presents and full decorations. Because it’s a shorter stay than at Christmas, we have declared my brother’s house in Minnesota good meeting ground for my parents and eldest brother’s family coming from South Dakota and my husband and I traveling from Chicago. It’s a chaotic, rushed time, but I love it, specifically since my nieces and nephews are getting older and more involved in the celebrating.

Something was different this year. In our family group text, none of us had mentioned the upcoming holiday, other than a few scheduling changes. No one started a Google Doc or declared WE MUST DO THIS ACTIVITY. We didn’t talk about presents or plotting the cooking schedule.

Because we knew.

We knew a choice had to be made, and for a long time, none of us wanted to make it. We wanted to pretend that it would be OK, that we could celebrate Thanksgiving like it was any year. But, at some point, we could no longer ignore the blaring headlines or the CDC recommendations. COVID-19 cases were ravaging our country and celebrating Thanksgiving with people you don’t live with was an incredible risk. Then, one day in our family group text, we called it.

We cancelled our Thanksgivmas due to the surge in COVID-19 cases. We’d all stay home and try to have the best holiday we could over Zoom.

It is the safe, smart choice. Almost three-fours of the country is on the Chicago travel ban list, and Chicago is dangerously close to another lockdown. South Dakota is ground zero for COVID-19 spread, along with most of the Upper Midwest. Both Minnesota and South Dakota are red states on Chicago’s travel list, meaning we would have to quarantine for 14-days after our trip. My husband and I both work retail jobs and live paycheck-to-paycheck, so quarantining was not an option for us. Same for some of my family in South Dakota, where the governor has refused to order any kind of restrictions and they continue to have to work in public spaces. We not only risked spreading the virus to each other but also to the people that we see every day at our jobs. We could also be potentially fined for not quarantining after traveling to a state on the list.

There was a moment when I denied the risk because being able to spend the holiday with my family was too dear to me. No one would really know, and honestly, who is keeping track? We wouldn’t go anywhere outside our family’s house. We’d be an exception. We’d be fine.

But, I knew in my gut that I was being hypocritical. If I couldn’t quarantine before AND after, wouldn’t I be part of the problem? Wouldn’t I be practicing the same exceptionalism that has allowed this virus to range on? How could I think that just because it’s family that we would be immune? I knew that this was one of those moments that will have two historical sides, and I knew deep down that in order to be on the right side, I would have to give up something incredibly dear to me. It wasn’t just about keeping my family safe, but everyone around me, including people I do not or will ever know.

Still, I am not happy about it. I am heartbroken not to see my family for the holiday, but also to know I will go the entire festive season without seeing them. My mom won’t be coming to Chicago for her annual Christmas trip, I won’t get to see my little humans open their presents, I won’t be able to quote the West Wing’s Thanksgiving episode with my dad, I won’t stay up late doing puzzles with my brothers and sisters-in-law. Also, because of the great risk, we’ve cancelled our Christmas plans to visit my in-laws, whom we haven’t seen in more than a year and desperately miss. Most of my favorite Christmas traditions have been cancelled or altered, and I’ve been relegated to spend the holiday season in my small apartment with an incredibly loud upstairs neighbor.

Above all else, what I am struggling with the most is searing judgement and anger. I am so enraged that it has come to this. One of the few times I see family throughout the year has been taken away. What infuriates me the most, though, is to know that even with the CDC and expert recommendations and the countless reports, people will still ignore it. They will still travel. They will still come together with family or friends they do not live with. They will think they are fine, that they have calculated the risks, and they will come out OK. But it’s that kind of thinking that has allowed the virus to rage on like a wildfire, which will continue to put us all at even more risk. More lockdowns will come. More people will lose their jobs or be evicted. And more lives will be lost.

This situation is nuanced, and I am trying to find and give empathy where it’s needed. I know people who have decided to travel or have family travel to them. Some of them are taking the utmost precautions and have very valid reasons to see family outside of their home. There are others, though, who I think are being careless. It’s hard to say what will happen, but I have a feeling that things will be much worse come Christmas. I don’t want to come off as righteous and judgmental, but even more so than the people who are flat out denying the realities of a disease that has rocked the entire globe for a year, I feel conflicted with those who are taking risks and are taking precautions that fall short of truly being able to stop a spread. This is hard for me because my husband and I work in retail places, so we could easily be exposed by someone who thought they would be OK and were not. A lot of this is under pinned by only seeing situations from the outside, jealously, and a deep longing to see my family. All of it is mixed together in one big pile of suckiness suck. From all angles, this sucks. It sucks to know that I made a big sacrifice and others have chosen not to do the same, so this virus will continue to roar, further threatening my physical, mental, and financial health. It sucks to have become a person with so much vitriol who casts judgement without knowing the full story. It sucks to not know when this will end.

The only thing I can do now is grab on to gratitude and hope and hold on. I am thankful to have my husband and that my family and I are all safe. I am grateful for a fridge full of food that I will cook and enjoy no matter what. I am blessed to have a family that knows this is just one holiday and missing it will be worth it if we stay healthy and do not spread the virus to those around us.

I am hopeful that it will just be one holiday, that even though it will get worse before it gets better, it will get better. I’ve spent Thanksgivings alone, with roommates that were nothing more, families of boyfriends, and friends, and they’ve all meant something special in their own way. And while I love my Thanksgivings with my ever-expanding family and those little humans who continue to make me belly laugh, I know there will be more. Many, many more.

This will be a quieter holiday, and maybe that is OK. I was sad at first, then angry, but now I am at peace with our decision. It’s the first holiday that my husband and I will spend just the two of us, which in of itself is special. It’s not a typical year, so we will have an atypical Thanksgiving. We’ll eat out food, we’ll wear our comfy sweaters, we’ll Zoom with family, and we’ll know we did our part.