Baking in the Time of Isolation

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For most of last week, I was on edge.

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.

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Rustic, no-knead Dutch oven bread.

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.

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Bagels, deliciousness. 

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.

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Pale, dense, but tasty. 

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.

 

A Pep Talk

IMG_2078Let’s talk.

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

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

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

Friend,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Be safe. Be kind.

Love,

Heather

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

 

 

 

December 13, 2018

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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?

The Price of Peace of Mind

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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.

The Leap: Beginning A New Chapter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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My new school!

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

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

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

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

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

 

A Stack of Rejection Letters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Road Map for Malaise

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Photo from here

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

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

You are fat.

You are wasting away your potential.

No one likes you.

Your life is going nowhere.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Kind of Person I Want to Be

“Did you get the offer?” the woman said.

I noticed her because her jacket was not zipped. Having secured myself a seat on the Red Line at rush hour, at each stop, I glanced around to see who was standing in front of me. I like to do this to make sure I am not the jerk who is keeping a pregnant woman or an elderly person from sitting. She held her phone to her left ear, her jacket ajar and letting in the bitter January air.

“Oh, so you did not NOT get the offer?”

I looked at her again. Her head was thrown back, tears twinkling at the corner of her eyes.

She continued with her conversation, and I, completely ignoring my book, glanced up every few seconds. The tears were gone, but there was worry on her face as she tried to understand the person on the phone.

This put me at a crossroads. I could pretend I didn’t notice her emotion and keep reading, or I could say something. It’s easiest to ignore, right? It’s none of my business. I don’t know her. I really don’t know what’s going on.

She ended the call, saying they would discuss it further when she got home, and with one hand, began jabbing at her phone. She lifted her the device to her head again, as if she was calling someone to repeat what she had just heard. My moment to inject had passed.

There is the Bing commercial from years ago featuring brave women – Gabby Gifford, Malala Yousafzai, Margaret Thatcher – but the part that always makes me cry, even now when I rewatched, is the highlight of Antionette Tuff. When a gunman with a AK-47 and 500 rounds of ammunition walked into a school, Antionette was able to talk him down. Not a single person was injured that day. I often think about the bravery and empathy Antionette has, how there was likely a voice telling her to not get involved but she did and it saved hundreds of people’s lives.

Now, I am not sure that I have that kind of courage, but I do know that when presented with an opportunity to engage in ripe humanity and empathy, I want to be the kind of person who embraces it. I want to be the kind of person who is polite to the cashier. I want to be the person who brings you food even though you said you were fine. And, I want to be the person who comforts a stranger who is crying on the train.

A couple of conversations this past week have made me look hard at what it is that I really want in my life. I was told to name the specifics of my life three years from now: the kind of house I would own, the types of books I would write, and the joy I would embrace from being my best self. It was scary and stressing and afterwards I hunted for chocolate to ease the uncomfort.

But when that woman on the train did not enter into another conversation, the person on the other end not picking up, I knew I was given a second chance to either say something or ignore. There are times when I have not acted like the person I wanted to be, leaving friends and strangers alike alone, and I know I can’t always be there for everyone, but this moment was fresh and it was an opportunity.

“Excused me,” I said, setting my book down in my lap. “I don’t mean to be forward but are you OK?”

“Yes.

“Yes. Yes. Yes.

Yes.”

“OK,” I nodded and smiled. She paused for a second and then told me that her girlfriend was soon going to be offered a job in another city.

“It’s a good thing, but it’s also sad.”

“It is,” I replied.

Our exchanged last a few more seconds as she got off at the next top and I wished her well.

I share this story not to brag, but to remind myself of what it feels like to ignore that throbbing NO and invite the small yes into existence. I share this to remind myself that, in this way and in all ways, I have the power to be who I want to be.

You Don’t Belong

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“Can I wear this to the opera?” I lifted up my arms and looked down at my own body, dressed in black leggings and a plaid shirt underneath a green sweater. My co-worker, who goes to the opera frequently with her husband, nodded slowly before we both broke out into laughter. The answer was not really.

A few weeks ago, a staff member for the mentoring program I volunteer sent an email offering discounted tickets for mentors to take their mentees to a show in mid-December. I scanned the email and assumed, based on the season, it was some kind of Christmas play, so I signed my mentee and I up to go. The day of the show, though, I read the description more carefully and realized that it wasn’t a play and it was not holiday themed. Rather, it was an opera at the prestigious Lyric Opera House. I was in a hurry to get to work that morning, but I contemplated throwing a dress in my bag and ultimately decided against knowing my mentee would be coming from schools and likely wearing jeans.

I didn’t give my dress much thought until the end of the day, when making conversation with my co-worker. I had never been to the opera or the Lyric before, and now I had a small worry that  would be undressed and out of place.

When we arrived to the theater, a large man in a top coat and cape ushering us in from the cold, we both immediately noticed the dress of those around us. Men wearing suit jackets, leather shoes, and large gold and silver watches. Women were doned in sequined slim fitting dresses and large silk skirts. At one point, a woman in a fur coat rushed past me, and I could feel the straps of my cheap backpack (which had a small stain of dill cucumber sauce from my lunch) get tighter. There were other patrons in more casual dress, but not as many as those who put in the extra effort to look different for the show than they did, say, for biology class. As we moved through the lobby, I felt eyes on my stocking cap and backpack. We most certainly stood out.

Taking our seats was a relief from the awkwardness. As we waited for the show to begin, I ruminated on how I did not belong there. I did not have the wealth or refined tastes for a woman who goes to the opera. I do not know the difference between Bellini and Puccini. And, I do not own a gown. I was faking it by being in this beautiful opera house, and not well.

Recently, E and I’ve experienced some setbacks that have changed our finances, and every day I am accosted by the things I can’t have because we can’t afford it. A membership at a nice gym, tickets to a live taping of one of our favorite podcasts, a dog trainer to help Annie with some of her separation anxieties. The other opera attenders were more representations of things I am not allowed because of money. I assumed they all had nice condos in Lincoln Park and took yearly vacations to somewhere tropical. They didn’t have to worry about shopping between the cheap and more expensive grocery story. They could go out to eat before the opera and not give it another thought. These people were not me.

The opera started and immediately I was enamored with the story, the flowing vocals and dream-like instrumentals. The music hung in the air like a thick fog, and I sat on the edge of my seat for most of the first act.

At intermission, I got up to use the restroom and was again self-conscious about my clothes. I watched women with designer blouses and skirts wash their hands, assuming they were judging me (even though I am not sure if they noticed me). That voice—the one screaming “You don’t belong here”—started up again, but this time I challenged it. Where was this idea coming from? Who says that I belong or do not belong at this opera? No one has pulled me assigned and said, “Miss, your leggings are atrocious, and you need to leave.”

No, I am telling myself I don’t belong and the interesting part is that I also get to tell myself that I do belong. I get to say that I belong not just at the opera but also on stage with those other remarkable storytellers or in my writing group or that party with fascinating people. I am the one who decides that I belong, not anyone else, and I am really tired of not belonging in nearly every place I go.

So, that was that. I belonged. I washed my hands, returned to my seat, and loved every minute of the rest of the show. Thoughts of feeling out of place did not plague me for the rest of the night.

You Don’t Like Me, And That’s OK

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On Friday night, Ethan and I met up with friends for dinner and a show, and it was really special to me because I haven’t been out of the house much in the last six weeks. I was so excited for the evening that I put on a dress and heels. The food and show were wonderful, but the best part of the evening was laughing and catching up with our friends. Walking up to our apartment at midnight, I had a big smile on my face until I saw Ethan stop at the door. He threw is head back and said, “You have to be kidding me.”

I’ve expected this for some time, to be honest. Maybe it was really a matter of time or maybe I manifested this action with my worry, but it happened. Taped to our door was a very passive aggressive note from an unsigned neighbor and an article about separation anxiety in dogs.

Our puppy, Annie, is a wonderful, friendly dog, but she does not like being left alone in the house. She whimpers and barks, occasionally destroying whatever is in the kennel with he, like a blanket or toy. Ethan and I know this is a problem, and it really does stress us out, but we’ve been unsure how to handle it. The situation has gotten worse because, since my surgery, both Ethan and I have been home with her all day every day for six weeks. She loves us, but she erupts into anxiety when we are gone. We’ve tried music on in the background, keeping her in a room instead of the kennel, and giving her enough treats to forget that we are gone. None of it truly works. We’ve figured that it takes about 20 minutes for her to calm down, and then she is OK. It’s not ideal, but we have to be able to leave our house, so we leave with her crying and hoping she’ll calm down soon.

Well, apparently our neighbors are not a fan of her barking. My guess is that she cried for some time on Friday, calmed down, and then started again for a few minutes at a pretty late hour. This prompted the passive aggressive note and a deep panic for Ethan and I.

Ethan and I have had some big life setbacks the last few months, and while we are trying to work through them, our emotions are a bit high. This note made both of our minds run wild. Our neighbor could report us to the landlord, who might say we need to get rid of the dog or we move out. We are not in a position to move right now, but Annie is our family so we can’t imagine getting rid of her. While we completely understand where are neighbors are coming from, this felt like yet another blow in a series of tough events.

The next day, we started making a plan to how we were going to handle Annie, in both the short-term and long-term. We made promises to each other and already started to do some exercises with her. Even so, neither one of us could stop thinking about that note. I ended up throwing it away, but I have it memorized. Because I do not know the sender, I can’t have a conversation with the person so I have no idea if their words were a polite suggestion or angry and spiteful. I don’t know the tone or the intentions behind it, just that someone in our building doesn’t like us.

Even if we curb Annie’s barking (which she only does when she is alone), our relationship with our neighbors will likely always be strained. It’s kind of what happens when people live in close quarters and don’t actually have a relationship with each other. The opposite is true of another neighbor whose dog we found roaming in the back alley and brought into our place until she got home—that neighbor and us we’ll have a general positive relationship until we move out.

Knowing that someone doesn’t like me is my greatest agony. Throughout the entire day, I kept telling myself, “If they only knew what what we were going through” and I jumped back and forth from wanting to defend myself to hating them. I thought that if I could give my side of the story we could patch tensions between us. The truth is, though, even if we were able to talk to the neighbors, they likely wouldn’t magically be upset at us for having a barking dog that disturbs them. We are just their neighbors, not close friends or family, so they don’t owe use that slack. They could be understanding, but maybe their patience is worn too far. Just like they don’t know what’s going on in our lives, we don’t know what stresses and pain they are experiencing.

While I think it is good to do what you can to repair relationships around you, there are times when people will just dislike you. Ethan and I may be the neighbors that this person (or persons) complains about with friends on social media, and I have to be OK with that. It’s not that I want to be disliked, but I think far too often I spend good energy trying to patch things over with people that don’t matter. I can work with my dog to make her a quieter neighbor, but making her less anxious when I am not around is more important to me.

This may seem like a selfish attitude, but my obsession with pleasing other people and getting them to like me has left me empty and wasted. I never want anyone to be mad at me, but I also can’t control how people react to me and my actions. I’d much rather put more effort and bravery into resolving a conflict with a co-worker or friend, than I would someone I don’t know. I can still try my best to be a good neighbor, but I can’t make everyone like me. So, I have to move through the world knowing that someone doesn’t like me and try not to desperately fix it.

It’s OK for me not to be liked by everyone. That is not an indication of who I am as a person, just that I am human.