The Stories We Tell Ourselves

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Part of my training in becoming a counselor is to learn about the different theoretical approaches and practice ones that align to my interpretations of therapy. One of my professors calls this “dating around,” but it hasn’t taken me long to zone in on one: narrative therapy.

As a writer, storyteller, and now soon-to-be therapist, narrative is a natural fit for me. In fact, a semester before I took the theories course a student further along in the program anticipated that this would be my theory of choice. She was right. Narrative centers on the idea that stories define a person’s experience in life and that these stories can be changed and altered to help empower a person to see their own strengths and build a life that they want. Narrative therapists believe that people are separate from their problems and that they are capable to externalize these issues and manage them in effective ways. Not only have I been exploring narrative therapy in practice counseling settings, but it’s become an added perspective in which to view my own life.

There are many stories I tell about myself and who I am as a person, and not all of them are steeped in reality. Rather, many are framed around expectations and comparisons and focused on what is missing. When I hit a snag in life, these stories of deficit consume me.

Last week, my husband was laid off due to COVID-19. It’s specifically upsetting because he had had this job a few months and has been mostly underemployed for about three years. This job was to be, finally, his fresh start, but then a global pandemic and national recession hit. Not only is he now back enduring the humility of a job search, but he is doing so with fewer job options and more competition. With me still in graduate school for another year, we are hovering right at the line of being OK and not. Also, we lose our health insurance at the end of the month … during a pandemic.

At first, I didn’t take the news well. I tried to keep it together in front of my husband, who was reeling from yet another professional setback, and finally had to go outside to cry. The emotion spilled out of me so ferociously and audibly that a woman living nearby came to check on me.

In that moment all I could think about was reverting back to the emotional distress and despair that haunted me for months. How I held my breath each time as the cashier scanned my items at the grocery store, wanting to indulge in simple pleasures but hoping the total was one our bank account could handle. Or, how shameful the situation sounded when we explained it to friends or new acquaintances. Or, how exhausted and irritated I felt after taking an extra shift because I wasn’t in a position to refuse an extra paycheck.

Mostly, I was terrified of going back to the idea that our lives were on hold, of going back to the pause. Without a steady, sufficient income, we can’t make big choices let alone a budget. Things like buying a home or taking a trip have to wait. We’ve been trying to have a baby for some time, but that is another thing that can’t happen until there is enough money coming in. As our friends and family travel through these big life events, we just watch, waiting for all the pieces to fall into place so that we can have them, too.

The story I told myself for so long was that we were undeserving. We couldn’t figure out the basics, so we didn’t get to spend Saturday mornings walking a stroller down the block to get coffee. We don’t get to try out that new restaurant or get tickets to see a beloved performer. We dislike our small apartment with the thin walls, but it’s what we get. Somewhere along the way we failed, and so we must suffer.

I couldn’t go through this heartbreak again. It took so much from me last time—testing not only our marriage but both of ours mental health—and I wasn’t sure I could survive again. I tried so hard to find solutions for us, controlling every aspect that I could, doing everything I thought a loving wife did, and yet here we are, in a similar place. How could we go through this struggle again, but this time a bit harder?

Then I wondered, what if my constant heartbreak isn’t the situation that life keeps handing me? What if it’s the expectations that I continue to hold myself to? The ideas of what I think life should be? My pain and sorrow are not what I don’t have and who I am falling behind but that I only see what isn’t there. Would it be possible to stop aspiring for perfection and accept my life for what is, even the very real, scary, and uncertain parts? Could we survive if I didn’t worry about it every day? If I didn’t match our downs to everyone else’s ups? What if instead of the one where I am waiting for life, I am living it? What if my story became that life isn’t perfect, but I don’t need it to be to enjoy the simple but beautiful everyday pieces? What if I decided that as long our necessities were met and we were together then contentment was achievable?

What would happen if I changed the story?

So, I did.

My new story is about enough. With a greater sense of reality, it reminds me that we have the money we need to pay our bills and enjoy an occasional night out, that my husband is a good, intelligent man who will find his way to a career that enriches him, that as a couple we are building a satisfying life with enormous potential, and that there are small but nourishing blessings all around me.

It’s only been a week, but this time is different. I don’t wake up stressed about money. Rather, I understand that the white privilege I hold allows me to be a bit better off than someone of color in a similar situation, and I refuse to take that for granted. At the grocery store, I get whatever I want because I know that I am careful with other spending and this is the only place that I do indulge. And, when I think about what is missing and how far I am behind, I ask myself, “Will that really make you happy? Or, can you be happy now?” Now is always the answer.

Our circumstances are not ideal, but we do not have to be victims of the situation. Even in a financially stressed time, there is so much beautify in our lives, and we also know it won’t last forever. Eventually, my husband will get a great job with benefits, and I will graduate next year and get my own consistent job. We’ll have more money for trips and luxury items, and that baby and house will come. But, I’ve come to understand that if we can’t be happy now, we never will be. If we can’t change our story about what we need and what we deserve, we will always be plagued by it. I refuse to continue let circumstances write my narrative. I write my own story, and it in, I am deserving and worthy.

White People, Do the Work

 

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**Over the last few days, two stories have been reported that highlight racism in American, including the unlawful and horrific murdering of George Floyd in Minneapolis. On all of my social media accounts, White people are questioning why and how, and I felt like now was a good time to remind my fellow White people that this has been happening for centuries, and there are things we can do besides just post about our sadness. We have to do the work of dismantling racism in America. I am not perfect in this work, nor do I want kuddos for trying, but below are things that I have done, have tried to do, and still need to do, from now and until I leave this Earth. So, if you are upset about another Black person being killed by police or the audacity of a White woman to use fear to cover up her racism, here are so my suggestions of what you can do:

Educate Yourself. This does not mean go to you Black friend and ask them to help you understand what is going on. This does not mean hopping into the comments section of Black activists and asking them to help you navigate your feelings. Go to Google, put in the search terms, and start reading. There is a ton of stuff out there. Read books, watch movies, take virtual lectures. And don’t assume just because you read one book you are good. I admit that I do this sometimes, but unraveling our whiteness and being allies is a constant process. So, start learning and don’t stop.

Here is a great collection of resources that I plan to work through, but a couple of recommendations I highly suggest are “Me and White Supremacy: Combat Racism, Change the World, and Become a Good Ancestor” by Layla F. Saad and “White Fragility: Why it’s so Hard for White People to Talk about Racism” by Robin DiAngelo

Me and White Supremacy: Combat Racism, Change the World, and ...

Additionally, learn about the Black men and women who are dying. Hear their stories. These are people. Their lives deserve to be remembered.

Pay for your Education and Support Black Activists. There are a lot of great free resources out there on social media, but behind many of those accounts are people of color who spending hours putting together that content. Pay them. Find their Cash App, Venmo, or Patreon, and send them what you can. You can also make donations to organizations that specifically support and hold up people from marginalized and historically oppressed communities, but you can also send money to an activists who are having a hard time getting groceries because the work they do pays so very little. Only recently have I started making donations to groups when these stories hit, and I am angered. Here are two I’ve recently donated, and I happy to provide others for your consideration:

Chicago Community Bond Fund

The Loveland Foundation– to help fund therapy for Black women and girls.

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Listen more than talk. When these events happen, as they do every day, before you go posting, listen. Take the time to visit reputable news sites and social media accounts of activists and take in their perspectives before you go off sprouting your own. You are not absorbing the weight of a situation if you need to react first. If you feel the need to intervene with a comment or question during your education, ask yourself why. Are you trying to make this about your or genuinely curious? Also, is your comment cloaked in white fragility? If so, work on that first.

Find the actionable items and do it. All activism comes with action items.

Stop Sharing the Videos. Akilah Hughes had an extremely moving speech in this morning’s What A Day Podcast about how traumatizing it is to Black people to be bombarded with these horrific videos of murder. We do not do this for white deaths. Stop sharing the videos. Do not watch them. Even if they are in a news clip. Skip over that piece of the report, and maybe @ the news organization that these videos are unnecessary to the reporting. It is inhumane, and we can be just as outraged without having to watch the video or hear a recording of the sound. Speaking of videos,

Remember that this has been happening for a loooooooong time. Don’t think that just because we see videos around that racism is new or these acts are unprecedented. The video cameras are new. That’s it.

Don’t expect a gold star or a pat on the back. Just because you read a book or shared a resource, you are not entitled to any kind of applause, so don’t expect it. You are doing the work. Black people are dying. Your efforts here are not notable, but you definitely need to be doing them. As Layla Saad says, this is the bare minimum of work you should be doing to be a good ancestor. Also, if you are going to share stuff on social media, make for damn sure it is not about the likes.

Even as I write this, I have had to hold the back to the urge to tell you all about the things have done. I want you to know this because I am insecure and what to be known for doing the work. That is not helpful. I need to get over myself, because I am not at the center of this.

Stop being worried about making a mistake or being called a racist. White people are so scared about being labeled a racist that they are quick to point that they are not one, or they just don’t say anything. And know, if you do the work, and you should, you will make a mistake. That’s part of the process. You are not allowed to cry about that mistake and ask a Black person to comfort you and remind you that you are not a racist. Rather, if a Black person calls you out on your actions or words, listen to what they have to say, reflect on it, talk to your White friends about what you did, and learn from it so you don’t do it again. Now, if a White person comes at you about reverse racism, whatever. That’s not a thing. Or, how they were breaking the law, blah, blah. None of these acts deserve death as a punishment. None of them.

Talk about this with your communities. This part is hard. We don’t like to call our families or friends or acquaintances out for their racism. We just ignore it and move on. Oh, how many times I’ve done that. But, just because we don’t do anything, it doesn’t mean nothing happens. Instead, this kind of behavior is allowed to linger and be present. It can fester and lead to things like a woman believing she has the right to make up a story about a Black man threatening her because he had the audacity to tell her to follow the rules and leash up her dog. We have to talk to our White communities. And not just once. Over and over. It’s hard but not so much as dying because you are Black.

Get comfortable with being uncomfortable. This work of dismantling racism and acknowledging our own white privilege and biases is uncomfortable. But, your small discomfort is not more than the trauma Black Americans experience every day. Get over it.

Utilize your voice. This list is a great start. Use Google to find others.

Please know that this list is not exhaustive, nor perfect, and I welcome any additional suggestions and resources. White friends, we can no longer just be outraged. We must do the work.

**This post has been updated to include the capitalization of Black and White. A reader sent me this article about capitalization of Black, and after some research and consideration, I decided to follow suit. 

I Don’t Want to go Back to Normal

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It’s long been an aspiration of mine to have a morning routine. You know, like the one influencers and entrepreneurs claim to have: workout for an hour, meditate for an hour, read for an hour, answer no less than 60 emails, drink an organic smoothie with 12 types of seeds, and then affirmation myself to all the success I could want – all before 8 a.m. Really, though, I’ve desired a slower start to my mornings, one that involves enrichment and reflection, rather than rushing through the necessary tasks to get me dressed, fed, and out the door. I’ve attempted these zen-like beginnings, but life’s swell of activities and must-dos made it challenging for anything to become a habit.

Sheltering in place has given me the time to develop not just a morning routine but a relaxed approach to the entire day. Having no place to be, and no commute time, I’ve had the precious gift of an easy-paced and well intentioned day. Most mornings begin with feeding and walking the dog, filling out a gratitude list, 10 minutes of meditation, and then journaling. After that, I might work on other writing or go for a run before putting in a few hours at summer job (my program hired me to help with massive project that has a July deadline). Or, if I am feeling anxious or out of sorts, I just go back to bed for a few hours, and then I’m refreshed and ready to start my day.

Once my work is done, if I haven’t run, I do that, or I might read a book or take a nap. Later, my husband and I do a puzzle while listening to songs that were popular when we were in high school, or we play our favorite game—Zillowing houses in cities we might live in one day. Or, I go to my computer and instantly I catch up with friends, both old and new. There wasn’t much time for reminiscing before, but now it brings a comfort so warm and cozy, like a heavy blanket on a cold night.

I fall asleep easy and begin again the next day.

Illinois is in under shelter-in-place orders until the end of the month, but news reports suggest that the state will move into the next phase of reopening in June. Dentists and pet groomers are operating, and restaurants will open for outdoor dining. I’ve been contacted by my retail job about possibly returning soon. More people are out and about with the desire to “return to normal” buzzing above.

But, I don’t want to go back to the way it was. I am not ready to return to my old life.

This pandemic has been traumatizing and horrific for many many people, and even though states are looking to reopen, the devastation is not done and it may be years before we truly recuperate. My husband and I are lucky ones. We both lost our jobs, but thanks to unemployment and the federal assistance, we haven’t been hit too hard financially.

In some ways, I am grateful for the shelter-in-place order, and the privilege I hold in being able to say that is not lost on me. Above all else, it’s kept my husband and I, along with many of our friends, safe and healthy, but it’s also allowed me the opportunity to slow down. Since high school, my auto setting is to jam my schedule with as many activities, social outings, and chores as possible, partly because I am a perfectionist with anxiety and partly because I have (undiagnosed) ADHD and need constant stimuli. However, this way of living is no longer serving me, and I’m often exhausted, stressed, cynical, and unsatisfied in most areas of my life. I shouldn’t be so stressed to have coffee with a friend or watch a movie, but because my days pre-pandemic were scheduled out to the hour, that’s how I was. However, staying at home for the last two months has given me the opportunity to question what I do and to really examine if these activities are bringing me joy. I’m not obliged to say yes to the happy hour I don’t want to go to or take on extra hours at work, rather I’m forced to stay at home and focus on what I need to take care of myself during this time. In doing so, I’ve become more relaxed, present, and kinder to myself.

Even, as I write this, it’s Sunday morning, and I am sipping coffee and listening to birds sing. I have no where to be, and not one thing needs my immediate attention. I would never have a weekend morning like this three months ago, but now it’s my blessing to cherish.

With my state and the country reopening, I am afraid that I will lose this gentler-paced life, and that I will resort back to a frustrated and stressed version of myself. Even if I try to hold on to these quieter habits, I am afraid that the rest of the world will pick up such speed that I will have no choice but to be swept up with the current.

Our society is built on busyness. The busier we are, the more important we are. The more money we will make. The more successful we will be. We sacrifice our relationships, our health, and our own joy just to be busy. And that includes social engagements, trips, hobbies, and other things that are supposed to be fun. We pack so much into life that we forget to enjoy it.

But for the first time in our lives, most of us (and I do acknowledge that not everyone got this privilege because of their jobs) were offered a chance to slow down, the chance to cut out the things that didn’t matter as much. Instead, we were able to focus on what did. Families have dinner together every night, old friends using new technology to catch up, people diving into interests they long held but never the time to pursue. Babies were born, new loves were started, relationships rekindled. We’ve learned to take care of ourselves, to allow ourselves the space to grieve, to feel the range of emotions, to lean on others. When we stopped moving, we remembered that what makes us human is enough to help us endure.

While I am excited to hug my friends again and travel to see my family, I am not ready for this time to end. I don’t want to go back to a culture that puts money and business over human connection and human life. I don’t want to return to normal where we pay those considered “essential” workers, like grocery store clerks and delivery personnel, minimum wage because we have warped values on work. I don’t want to go back to a world that treats healthcare and paid parental leave as luxuries for those who can afford them. I don’t want to go back to a society that puts an individual above the collective group. And, I really don’t want to reopen to a culture that expects those in lower paying jobs (all service industry workers) to put their health at risks to serve others who are just tired of being at home.

Many of us our lucky enough that we didn’t get sick, that we sheltered in place and we were able to take that pressure of healthcare system. However, I think there is more we can gleam from this time. We are better people to each other and ourselves when we slow down, when we remember that people are more important than dollar signs. And for a short time in 2020, we all remembered that. How beautiful. And, I hope that we can use that as our guiding light as we go back to an uncertain world.

For me, it will be incredibly essential to remember how much more content I was when I refused to listen to external influences on how I should spend my time and took life at a pace that made more sense to me. When I slow down, I am a better person to myself and to the world, and that’s who I want to be in the post-pandemic new normal.

Going Back to School

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I couldn’t figure out what photo to include for this blog, so here is a picture I took of my instructor’s notes on informed consent.  

In the fall of 2017, I had surgery to repair torn tissue in my hip, and the recovery involved hours of laying on the couch and in my bed. To pass the time, I called old friends to see what they had been up to the last two or three years. One call was to a friend who I spent hours upon hours dreaming and scheming life plans with over tall glasses of amber beer in poorly lit Brookings and Sioux Falls bars. Even though we rarely talked anymore, our conversation quickly became existential and thought-provoking. I was newly engaged, and he was planning to move to another state to be with his girlfriend, and both of us had OK jobs that weren’t striking any purposeful cords. He told me that he had developed a mission statement for the career he wanted, and he asked me if I had one. I had never thought about the idea before, but I blurted out, “To make people feel less alone.”

Before this, for years, I had contemplated going back to graduate school, but I wasn’t exactly sure for what. I visited with faculty from the international relations program at DePaul, attended a health communications class at Northwestern, and went to social work information sessions at Loyola and University of Chicago-Illinois, but nothing felt right. Additionally, I was pitching assignments to editors, hoping I could veer into a freelance career, but I received zero replies (to which I was thankful, because I didn’t really want to write those pieces). After the call with my friend, I repeated those words back to myself. To make people feel less alone. To make people feel less alone. To make people feel less alone.

Suddenly, it all made sense, what I had to do. I began researching programs, filled out applications, attended interviews, and by the next fall, I was a master’s student in the clinical mental health program at Roosevelt University in Chicago.

With five semesters behind me, I am just one year away from graduation. The expected day of our hooding ceremony, May 6, 2021, is already scheduled in my calendar. This time next year I will be getting my initial licensure and looking for my first therapy job.

Becoming a therapist is an ambition that has long lingered. When I was tempted away from my career trajectory at the time—journalism/communications/marketing—it was an idyllic alternative. A cute office with plants and a comfortable couch. I would still get to talk to people and learn about their lives, but without having to use their story for some other gain. A dream job I once had was to replicate an old Kleenex commercial, where I sit on a couch in a crowded city and just talk to people about whatever ails them. Plus, counseling had made an impact on my own life, as I started therapy when I was 18, and I thought maybe I could bring some good to other people. However, whenever I investigated making a career change, it felt like I had to give up too much of my current life and so I stayed put.

When I said those words though, to make people feel less alone, I realized that if I wasn’t doing that in my current job then I was wasting my time. The job I currently had was fine. I made a decent salary, especially for a non-profit. Also, I wasn’t contributing to the world in a way that made me proud of the work I did each day, and that left me hollow. I had two options: move to the private sector where I could earn more money in order to fulfill that mission or change careers.

I chose the latter.

At 35, I feel a bit behind friends and family who are or near my age. Most of them have already received their master’s degrees and are setting up their lives nicely. They have kids, homes they own, and steady jobs with benefits. My life hit pause when I went back to school; I am back in debt, and things like buying a home and having a baby have to wait until the diploma is in my hand. Sometimes it feels so frustrating that I spend my Saturdays working at a retail store (a job I truly do like) and then doing homework while my friends are out shopping for antique furniture or I am at class when they are having happy hour at trendy bars. I am bitter that once I graduate it will be several years before I am fully licensed and have the salary, freedom, and expertise that I had in my old career before I left.

Sometimes I wonder, was my old life that bad? Couldn’t I have just been OK with the job I had and worked toward moving up that ladder? Was it necessary to really it give it all up and start over?

Yes.

No.

And, yes.

Because I am not just getting a graduate degree, rather I am rebuilding myself. A key component of my program is self-reflection, and I’ve spent the last two years really rummaging through my experiences, culture, values, and beliefs and recognizing how they color my perceptions of the world. I’ve had to look my biases straight in the face, acknowledge the privilege I hold, notice how my white fragility manifests itself, and find ways to keep it out of the therapy room as best I can. More than once, I wrote about why I want to be a counselor, digging deeper than “I want to help people.” Also, I’ve had to examine the relationships I hold and what role I play in them. For one class this semester, I interviewed my parents for two hours about the dynamics of our family and recognized my anxiety and perfectionist tendencies are part of a larger pattern. Throughout the program, we’ve treaded through so much of ourselves in order to identify triggers now so that we aren’t caught off guard when a client comes through our door with those exact triggers. For example, I had an eating disorder for many years, and I feel fairly confident that I could treat a patient with an eating disorder without letting my own experiences cloud the therapeutic relationship because I have done a lot of work on this area of my life. However, having a client who is a vet may be harder. As a teenager, I had a boyfriend who was deployed to Iraq while we were dating, and although I long ago moved past the relationship, stories from veterans still bring up a grief and sorrow in me that I must work through to ensure I do not harm my client. It’s a constant evolution, one that I know will continue throughout my career.

I am still young in my counseling ability, but each time I am in a mock session, using my skills, it feels like I’ve always met to do this. I’ve always been meant to hear people stories, and instead of writing about them, I will help clients reauthor their stories to show them that they are strong and capable of the building the life they want.

As I grow, I’ve come to see more and more the oppression, injustices, and broken systems that define our society. When my anger fires up at another news story of black person wrongfully and ruefully shot or how Jeff Bezos has more money than he knows what to do with but Amazon employees don’t have basic rights or how we are separating families at our borders not because they are coming into our country illegally but because of what country they are coming from or how too many Americans can’t get proper healthcare coverage or how technology and screens are poisoning the human connection or how capitalism is killing us and we don’t care because we were told that to be happy we need stuff, I ask myself what will I do in this big gnarly fight for our humanness and I think: I will make people feel less alone.

My role in all of this is to be the listening ear. To help people survive. To help them find their own reckoning. To be the person that shows them empathy. To be the person that leads them to hope.

Even though I have just one year left of school, it will be the hardest. In August, I will begin my (unpaid) internship at a community college on the far north side, and I will see clients from a wide range of backgrounds and with variety of presenting issues. Earlier this year, I sent out a dozen or so applications and did a handful of interviews, but this community college program was my top choice. In college, counseling was a lifeline for me, and I knew that a college setting would provide me a plethora of experiences in which to build my career on. I won’t know what I am doing at first, and I will certainly make mistakes, but I will be there and I will try.

After graduation, I will take my initial licensure exam (TBD on which state) and then will work with a supervisor for two to three years (again, depending on which state we live in). My ultimate goal is to open my own practice and work with a variety of individuals, couples, and families. It is essential to somehow intertwine writing into my work as a therapist (potentially like Lori Gottlieb), and I like the idea of working with runners and offering some kind of run therapy.

Right now, though, I am the thick of graduate school. Mile of 20 with the last six miles being the most excruciating. It will be emotionally frustrating and tiresome as I find my legs as a therapist, but I won’t regret my decision to follow this path one bit. It was a great leap to do something different, and I am glad that I did. Because when I am out there, practicing my skills, sitting in front of a client, I feel at home.

A New Path Forward

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Most mornings I wake up and the absolute last thing I want do is run. With toddler-like protest, I claim I am absolutely not going to do run today, and I don’t press the issue. Instead, I go about my day walking the dog, journaling, and eating breakfast, and like a parent trying to woo said toddler to bed, if I just let it be, nature takes over. Within a few hours, I have an intense hunger to lace up my shoes and steal an hour outdoors.

Like most runners these days, I’ve had to change up my normal routes. Chicago’s two biggest paths—the Lakefront Trail and the 606—have been closed since, I don’t, maybe 2019? It’s hard to remember. Anyway, they are off limits, which means runners, walkers, and cyclists are forced onto the sidewalks. Summer in Chicago is an EVENT, and each year, the first nice day brings hoards of people outdoors to dust off winter crumbs, but without patio bars, farmer’s markets, beaching, and intramural leagues, all of that pent up energy can only be released with short walks and bike rides around the block. Meaning, more than ever, the sidewalks are busy and crowded. So, when I decided to run mid-morning or day, as opposed to 6:00 a.m. which is the time of most of my runs when I actually have places to be in the day, I have to avoid my tried-and-true paths.

This morning, when the urge to run was gnawing at me, I thought about which way I would go.  It was only 9:30 a.m., but it was also above 50-degrees, which meant a decent amount of people out. Now, I run with a buff to cover my nose and mouth, and I always dive into grass and even the street to separate myself, but those actions are cumbersome when there are so many people out. I live about a mile from the Chicago-Evanston border, and most of my runs lead me north, past Lake Michigan, and up to Evanston’s running path, which is still open. Again, though, I knew there would be enough families on bikes, runners who wouldn’t bother themselves with moving over, and neighbors trying to walk together at a “safe” social distance that it would make me anxious and zap all of the joy from the run, which is really the only reason I run these days. Well, that and because, for me, running works better than antidepressants.

So, to go north, I would need to take another path, and I decided on well-traveled road that was far from the lake and with more stop lights but would most certainly contain less people. At first it was pretty loud, making it hard to hear my podcast, and my body nearly met the front of a Subaru crossing an intersection too quickly with a driver who didn’t see the runner before her (who, by the way, had the right of way). As I crossed into Evanston, traffic thinned out, and it became the most lovely run. There were gorgeous houses and interesting things to keep me entertained, like a stuffed bear sitting in a porch swing, flowers making their grand May entrance, and the quaintest green door that should be a painting in an art museum. The sun was giving me enough warmth for the most ideal conditions, and there were a limited amount of people out that it was easy to scoot to the curb for a safe pass. I was so so happy. And grateful.

Grateful to be outdoors.

Grateful to be running.

Grateful to have taken a chance and followed a new path.

This run is an appropriate metaphor for the uncertainty that we face. Things are scary and uncertain, but we are given a new path forward. We must take it, and even though we can grieve for the route we had planned to go on, we also have to open our hearts to the possibilities. It’s not ideal, but we have to keep going. And, if we take this new route, we will be led to incredible beauty that we might have missed otherwise.

Wholesome Content

Hi, friends,

One of my absolute favorite things is recommendations. I love reading, watching, listening to something, and then being reminded of someone. They will LOVE this. And then the next time I see them, I throw that show, book, movie, whatever into their face. About half the time, people will come back and say, “You were right, I really loved it.”

I don’t know about you all, but I am really struggling these days. I am tired and unmotivated. Depression, a blanket I know well, is starting its creep on me, and I try to combat it the best way that I can. In caring for myself, I’ve revisited some of my favorite pieces of entertainment, and so I thought I would share some of my all-time favorite movies, TV shows, podcasts, etc. My goal here is not to take out all the best, but the things that really bring out the tears of joy and the warm fuzzing feelings that maybe are humans OK. Pieces of work that uplifting and rooting at the same time. Also, this is not my extensive list of everything I love because they are darker, more intense entertainment I like (See Barry), but I wanted to keeper it to the things that I know will brighten people’s spirits during this time. So, if you are looking for recommendations for wholesome content, here is mine:

SomeGoodNews

This pandemic is causing destruction that will be felt for decades, but some genuinely wonderful things have also come out of it. One such thing is John Krasinski’s Some Good News, or SGN. Each week, he produces a TV show about some of the best good news that happened recently. And, then he usually focuses on one story to bring even more joy. I have never not cried at these episodes. This week’s episode (see top), in which he marries a couple, had me cry/laughing. It was pure joy.

Gourmet Makes

If you and I have talked recently, I have definitely brought this web series up to you. I started watching it a month, and I have watched almost every episode. This video series comes from the magazine, Bon Appetite, and features the divine pastry chef Claire Saffitz in her attempt to recreate popular snack foods. From Starburst to Pringles to Snicker Bars to Pizza Rolls, Claire uses her skills and expertise to reverse engineer these over-processed foods into something delicious. It’s incredibly satisfying to see someone who is smart and good at her job fail over and over. Sometimes she produces something infinitely better than the original and other times it’s just good enough. But, it’s incredibly human and binge worthy. Here she makes Combos:

The Good Place

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First of all, I will watch pretty much anything with Mike Schur’s name attached to it (Parks and Recreation is probably my all-time favorite show), but this show is unlike any others. Mike came up with the concept for the show when he noticed that when he was at coffee shops and he moved to put change into the tip jar he only did so when the barista was facing him. He wondered why it was so important for him that the barista knew he was tiping him, and thus the show was created. It’s about the moral and ethical dilemmas we face as humans, and it is simply wonderful. It’s bright, funny, and makes you believe in the good. Also, the finale was simply perfect. My cheeks were not dry.

Replay of Sports

I know that many people are sad that we basically don’t have sports right now, but I’ve found this a wonderful time to back and watch some of my favorite sports moments. On Boston Marathon, the Olympic Channel played races from the last five years, and I watched nearly all day. I only took a break to hop over to the NBC Sports channel because they were recasting all of Michael Phelp’s gold medal wins in Beijing. It was so fun to rewatch those races, and I felt almost as nervous and excited as I did the first time. Sports run on a continuum, and rarely are we lacking something new to watch, but this pause in time has given us a chance to go back and relive some of those athletic triumphs:. It’s pretty special. Here are two of my favorites:

One of the most epic relay finishes in Olympic Swimming history:

A championship 108 years in the making:

Heavyweight

This is the most charming, heartwarming podcast out there. Each episode, Jonathan Goldstein helps people go to a piece of their lives that they wish they could redo or re-explore, and he helps them make amends with who they became along the way. It’s a podcast that shows you that most people are good people, just trying to do their best.

Stand By Me by Ben E. King

I remember hearing this song for the first time during music class in the sixth grade, and since then, it has been my all-time favorite song. Even before I met my husband, I knew this would be the song I danced to at my wedding. Now, when I am sad, I listen to it and think of that gorgeous day in June.

Making It

There are LOTS of competition shows out there, but none are like Making It. First, it’s hosted by Amy Poeler and Nick Offerman, arguably the two best hosts on television. It invites crafters from all over the country who specialize in different mediums to make gorgeous beautiful things. Not only is everything they make done with incredible amounts of skill, precision, and talent, the contestants are genuinely good people who help each other out. It’s a hug for the heart. Plus, there are so many puns.

Let the Sunshine In

On Sundays when I am not working, I attend church with my friend Kera, and each year, the church holds an auction as part of its annual fundraising efforts. An item up for bid is to pick a song that the choir will play during its yearly music service. During the first time I attended this service, the winning bidder chose “Let the Sunshine In.” I had heard this song before, but to be in that gorgeous church with it’s floor-to-ceiling windows showcasing the blue sky, green trees, and passing birds brought a whole new way of listening. On bright sunny days, I listen to this song and dance as I walk to the train.

Modern Love

I can’t remember when I first discovered this column in The New York Times, but it’s always been a favorite of mine when I need reminding of the hope and love in the world. Each essay is different, and not all are written by professional authors, but the column reminds us that love is often complicated and messy and always worth it.

Sabli by Amadou and Mariam feat. Theophilius London.

This is a song we listened to a lot in Peace Corps Niger. It’s a remix of the Mali’ band, Amadou and Mariam, with an American-Trinidadian rapper. The sweet lyrics—”Avec toi cherie, la vie est belle)—always take me to a different place, and for that, this song will always be special.

Holocene, Instrumental Version

Bon Iver’s Holocene is my second favorite song of all time, right after “Stand By Me.” That album came out shortly after I returned home from Niger, and I listened to it on repeat as I pieced my life back together. I saw Bon Iver in concert a few months later, on a perfect September night in Nebraska, shortly before I left for Lesotho. Over the years, I’ve written thousands and thousands of words to this song on repeat, and when I was planning my wedding, I knew it had to be a part of the ceremony. We found this perfect instrumental version, and it played as I walked down the aisle.

Honorable Mentions for Things I Love but Didn’t get into Here:

Schitt’s Creek

Brooklyn Nine Nine

Parks and Recreation (anyone else cry super hard at the reunion show?)

The Great British Baking Show

This American Life, specifically “Rest Stop.”

In My Life by the Beatles

Things You can’t Binge but are Still Wonderful and Wholesome:

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Cheering on Friends as They Find a Way to Run Their Race Anyway

Playing with Face Filters with my Nieces and Nephews 

Friends who Deliver Baked Treats/Delivering Baked Treats to Friends

Games over Zoom/House Party

 

 

We Are All Runners Now

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Don’t let that smile fool you; I was trying not to die at this moment.

Sheltering in place has brought out some weird behaviors. An example is puzzles. Four months ago I would have never done a puzzle, now I love them.

For some people, that strange new hobby, one they would have never ventured to before, is running. Running has become one of the last forms of exercise that we can do with gyms being closed and all team sports essentially cancelled until further notice. Sure, you can do workout videos in your home, but with the warming weather, running is an excuse to go outside.

I know that running is gaining in popularity by the sheer number of people I see outside. I run nearly every day. I’ve been running in this neighborhood for almost two years, and I know most of the faces of other local runners. In the last month, I’ve seen A LOT of new people out there.

This is great, of course. As a longtime runner who is extremely passionate about the sport, it’s wonderful that so many people are finding their way to this activity that is more than just good for your body. Running has been a lifeline for me, both in joyful and uncertain times, and I know the therapeutic effects that simply going out for a run can have on one’s soul.

That being said, the running world is incredibly intimidating. Running is branded as cruel; the sport other sports use as punishment, as the t-shirt saying goes. It comes with a complex stereotype of what you have to look like and barometers you have to reach to be considered “a real runner.” There is also so much information on where to start and what you need that it’s often too much to sift through. Also, running hurts. No matter if you are going out for your first mile or 20th marathon, at some point, it will be painful.

But it will also be glorious, and that’s why so many of us keep coming back.

Myself, I’ve been running for 23 years. I’ve completed two marathons and an ultra marathon, along with a handful of half marathons and 5Ks. I even work (or I did, but plan to go back to the store when I can) at a specialty running store fitting people for shoes and talking them through race nutrition, socks, and other things running.  Throughout my running tenure, I’ve been more consistent, as I was this past winter when I ran 100 consecutive days. But, I’ve also taken breaks for months at a time, such as when I had hip surgery and expected to never run again. I’m not super fast nor do I have the thin yet muscular legs of many runners, but I run like real people do. I’ve run to lose weight, I’ve run to chase the pain away, I’ve run to celebrate, and I’ve run to understand my own strength.

With so many people now running, many new, I thought that I would share some of my running advice that I’ve learned over my years of running. I am no means a doctor or a running coach, but the below are things that I’ve learned and thought I would share in case you are thinking about running and had some questions.

How do I even start?

Go to your closet. Find comfortable shorts, a shirt (try to avoid cotton, if you can), some athletic shoes, socks, and a bra. They don’t have to match, and in fact it’s better if they don’t. They don’t have to be this brand or that, rather today we are starting with what we have. Put them on. Then go outside and try to run 10 minutes. If you can’t do that, try running for five minutes and walking for five. If it’s easy, add another 10. Don’t worry about pace or distance, just run. When you are done, stretch your legs using any of the moves you remember from high school P.E. You will be sore, and if you are extremely sore, rest the next day. If you feel good, try again tomorrow. Either way, go again. It’s easy to run once, but going a second, third, fourth, or fifth time is where the grit comes in. When you feel good, try running for 10 minutes, walking for five and then running another 10. Or, start with equal amounts walking and running or any amount that feels good to you. As you can, increase the time. There are lots of couch25K plans you can follow as well as walk-run programs. You can start with something simple and then look for a plan, or start with a plan. Just start.

But isn’t bad to walk? 

No. I know lots of people who walk-run marathons and walk as they need. Walking-running is a good way to ease into running, and it’s OK if you always need to walk a bit during your runs. The key is your moving your body and still getting the benefits from running. If someone is shaming you for walking, they are the foolish one.

Do I really need shoes that cost more than $40? 

Yes. Most good running shoes will cost $100-$180, depending on support and cushion. I’ve seen a lot of people come in with bad ankles, knees, or whatever because they’ve been running in improper shoes. I promise you those Kohl-sale shoes are not doing your joints any favors. Especially, if they are old. A good set of running shoes last anywhere from 350-500 miles, so depending on how much you run and what else you use them for, that’s 6-9 months. You may get a year out of them, but then it’s time to replace the shoes. If your knees suddenly start to hurt, that might be an indication it’s time for a new pair (don’t quote me on that, though, I don’t got an MD).

What kind should I get then?

I recommend going to a run specialty store to get fit. They are going to tell you your size (which IS different than the size you wear for everyday shoes), how much you pronate, and what kind of shoe would not only fit your foot type but the activities you do. Most retail shops are closed, but Fleet Feet Chicago is doing virtual fittings. These are ALWAYS free, so even if you just want to see your options, it’s not costing you a cent.

But, Heather, I just want to know what brand to get. I don’t want to have talk to anyone. 

Fine. Brooks is my favorite. New Balance is also good.

I heard Nike is putting out these really amazing shoes that will make me faster like that guy who ran a marathon under two hours. I hoping to do a real fast 5K when I can race. Should I get them?

No.

I really hate running and need music to listen to. Is that OK?

Yes. Do what you need to do to get through the run. I often listen to music or podcasts on my runs. But then there are times where I am really in the zone, and I prefer nothing at all except the songs of the birds and the beat of my breath. However, when I do have something in my ears, I try to be safe. Make sure you can hear your surroundings. Try one headphone in and one out. This is incredibly important, especially in a city where cars and bikers like to sneak up on you. I highly recommend AfterShokz, which sit on the outside of your ears and offer bone conduction sound.

Do I need any special clothing or gear?

For now, not really, especially for the warmer months. Stay away from cotton to avoid chaffing, but really anything that is comfortable works. I have lots of secondhand clothes for running that my mom picks up when she is at garage sales. One of my favorites is a used Under Armour turtle neck that is my favorite base layer for colder runs. If you decide to start training for a marathon, you will need gear to carry water and nutrition, and winter running requires more layers, and while I’ve done it in all Target-purchased pieces, quality (like wool over fleece) does make a bit of difference here. But don’t worry much about those things now. Just get yourself a good pair of running shoes and maybe some non-cotton socks, and you should be good. If you really want, put on a hat and some cool sunglasses.

Should I stretch?

OK, this is my dirty secret, I am terrible at stretching, but you shouldn’t be. Most experts recommend a dynamic workout before hand (think high knees and grape vines) and static stretching after.

What pace should I be aiming for? 

Pace is irrelevant and is not nearly as important as you think it is. Go off how you feel. If you start entering races and want to achieve a specific time, then pace becomes more important. However, most people run easy runs way too hard, and that leads to injury and burnout. When I was training for my fall marathon, I was concerned about what pace all of my runs were and would get discouraged when an easy run was slower than I thought it should be. My marathon was terrible, and I bonked and ended up running about an hour slower than what I thought I was capable of. Then, I started running whatever pace I wanted to during most of my daily runs and tried not to care about pace. When I raced a half marathon three months later, I PRed by about eight minutes and hit a huge time goal. My easy runs (outside of workouts) were an average of 90 seconds to 2 minutes slower per mile than my race pace. So, yeah, pace isn’t everything.

I need to run alone now, but I want running friends. Where do I make them? 

First, I will be your running friend. Second, join Strava. It’s like MapMyRun meets Instagram, and it tracks all of your runs. I’ve made a lot of running friends this way and have found different and fun places to run because of it. Then, when this is all over, find a local running club. I know, I know, you don’t like running with people, but give it a try. I used to think I was a solo runner, but then I started running with my neighborhood group and it forever changed my running. It’s way more fun, and I’ve made really good friends from it. Like people-who-will-go-out-of-their-way-to-do-really-nice-things-for-me friends.

So, I see neighbor out running and she is way faster than me. It sucks. 

I know that I of all people shouldn’t be handing out advice on comparing oneself to others, but I promise you that is a quick way to end up hating running. Run for you. You will be much happier.

What kind of precautions should I take running with COVID-19?

When I get frustrated with lots of new runners out on the road, it’s because they aren’t thinking of others. Running is still something we can do, and to keep it that way, we all have to do our part. Run alone and at off-peak times if you can. I recommend a buff around the neck to pull over your face. I like this because when there aren’t as many people out, I can push it down. The one I have is super low-tech and something I got from a race, so you can probably find them online easy enough. Also, this is the big one, distance yourself six-feet from other runners and walkers. Yes, this may mean going into the street if it is safe to do so, onto the grass, or to the edge of the curb. If another runner is coming at you, and they can’t move any further on their side because there is a fence or wall, it’s your responsibility to move. Please don’t be the jerk who could move over but doesn’t.

It’s raining. I guess I can’t run today. 

Running in the rain is the best kind of running. It’s cool, refreshing, and there are less people out. I run outside all year because a treadmill is slow-form torture, and I suggest you try running in the elements. Just once.

I think I really like this running. Where can I get more running inspiration? 

Books! I love running books, and here are a few favorites:

Let Your Mind Run: A Memoir of Thinking My Way To Victory by Deena Kastor

Eat & Run by Scott Jurek

Born To Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, And The Greatest Race The World Has Never Seen by Christopher McDougall.

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami

The Incomplete Book of Running by Peter Sagal 

26 Marathons: What I’ve Learned About Faith, Identity, Running, And Life From Each Marathon I’ve Run by Meb Keflezighi

Hansons Marathon Method: Run Your Fastest Marathon the Hansons Way

Strong: A Confidence Journal For Runners And All Brave Women by Kara Goucher

Podcasts are also big, and honestly, unless you follow the sport of running and know the major players, they may not be as interesting. But, here are a couple that I like are: I’ll Have Another With Lindsey Hein,Ali On The Run Show, and C Tolle Run.

And, watch some fabulous race finishes. Some that are incredibly inspiring are:

Meb – 2014 Boston Marathon

Shalane Flanagan – 2017 New York

Des Linden – 2018 Boston Marathon

Eliud Kiphchoge – Fastest Marathon at 1:59:40

You’ve written almost 2,500 words and I STILL have questions. 

Great! Leave a comment with your question, and I promise to respond!

Le Weekend

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As part of the application process for my master’s program, I had to attend a group interview conducted by the faculty and a handful of graduate assistants. They split us into groups and asked us questions to gauge what kind of fit we would be in the program. One such question was, “What are you going to give up for the program?” It wasn’t a probe to see who would be willing to sacrifice the most but one to encourage us to explore what might be lost in the long and exhausting pursuit of a graduate degree.

I knew I would I have to quite my job, and therefore forfeiting my steady income and health insurance. There would be less happy hours, social outings, and hours dedicated to writing, running, and other hobbies. And, with all of that, my neat schedule of 8-5 Monday through Friday would soon become a luxurious memory.

For the last two years, I have not had real weekends. My Saturdays and Sundays have been stuffed with part-time work and homework. Even when I did have a day off, it was usually used up with grocery shopping, laundry, cleaning, meal prepping, and last summer and early fall, marathon training. Most of my weekend days were spent on the go, from one activity to another with little time to rest and recuperate. I would try to squeeze in an hour or two for some relaxation but my worrying mind had me convinced I wouldn’t get the next task done, so off I went to complete a never-ending to-do list.

This was all part of it, I told myself, part of the sacrifice of being a student. Eventually, my schedule would calm down, and I would once have a weekend again (or makeshift one as many therapists see patients on Saturdays). Even so, I longed to spend a Sunday afternoon sipping mimosas or watching movings in my PJs. Just for one day.

Then, the world pressed paused. My school went online, I lost my job, and I suddenly had nowhere to be. At first, trying to keep school work to normal weekday hours, I designated the weekend for big projects, both fun and productive, such as putting up our tent in the living room or cleaning out closets.

However, as the weeks have wore on, my mental health has started to decline. Motivation is hard to find, and doing my school and GA work takes more energy than when I was working two jobs, balancing four classes, and spending a minimum of two hours on the train each day. I take frequent naps, turn to social media and food to numb my emotions, and often wake in a fog, unsure how to approach the day in front of me. I’m irritable, over sensitive, and insecure. I’ve been here before; I know this is my old friends anxiety and depression making an untimely visit.

Lately, instead of making big grand plans to bake three different kinds of bread or run 20 miles, I’ve tried to not put expectations on my weekend. Rather, I decide to rest in whatever manner suits me at the time. You see, even though there is incredible amount of devastation happening around me, and some in my own life, this is a gift. Not only do I not have to be here or there, but because I am home all the other days, chores can be reassigned to a Tuesday afternoon or a Wednesday evening. My weekends now are truly for rest.

And, that’s what I’ve done. This weekend, I’ve slept in both days but still managed peaceful runs, including a 13-miler in the rain along the Chicago River. Technology allowed us to talk to all of our nieces and nephews on both sides of the family, and play virtual games with old Peace Corps friends. I wrote, read, watched documentaries, and drank a beer in the afternoon just because it felt a little untamed. It was the truest of weekends I’ve had in sometime.

This splendid and relaxing weekend has made me see that with the hard and awful there is also fractions of light. They often co-exist amongst each other, but it’s difficult to see the good, and it may not be enough, when you are drowning in heartbreak and trauma. However, for many of us, this time is a reset. It’s a chance to examine who we are, what are priorities are, and what we want the future to look like. We now see what systems weren’t working before, and when a crisis comes, what strength we have when we come together. For me, I’ve been given a chance to stop, to learn to relax, and to examine why I push myself so hard. While things could be so much worse for my family, the situation is also incredibly scary and uncertain and I do more harm if I ignore rather than acknowledge. Still, I can see the pieces of hope and opportunity and goodness peaking through. I get to hang out at my apartment with my husband and my dog, and yes things are not perfect, but its helps me to notice the blessings of time and stillness.

Someday, we will go back to our daily lives. We’ll have work and social appointments, and it’ll be easy to fill our schedules back up to the brim. However, I hope I don’t. I hope that I took the lessons from this time and know that it’s OK to make a little less money if it means I am taking care of myself and spending time not only with my family but alone. I hope that I put presence and gratitude above fear and worry. And, I hope I know that I made the most of this time by stoping, relaxing, and taking care of me.

 

 

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.

 

Easter Sunday

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I’ve long believed that Sundays determine who you are, and mine have looked different throughout the various seasons of my life.

Some Sundays I spent in a lifeguard chair, whether in a densely heated indoor pool or under the bright Midwest sun. Others, I slept until 11 a.m., hoping the hangover wouldn’t bed too bad when I woke up and attempted to write the paper that was due the next morning.

Some Sundays I spent in cathedrals, absorbing hymn music and fixated on stain glass patterns that portrayed the stations of the cross. Others, I ran through forests, parks, trails, and streets; the “church of the long run” they call it.

Some Sundays I strolled through farmers market, wishing to buy bricks of cheese, ripe fruits, and handfuls of flowers. Others, I’ve sipped coffee and read the Sunday edition of the paper.

To me, the perfect Sunday has been almost all of those things rolled into one: sleeping in, worshiping, running, coffee, fresh bread, water, reading, and on and on. If I could prefect my Sundays, I thought, then I could prefect my life.

For the past two years, my Sundays have been spent working at whatever part-time job I held at the time. I was either scanning gluten-free crackers, making a double shot caramel latte, or fitting someone for running shoes, and while the latter is by far the better job, for me, working isn’t how I want to spend the last day of the week. Because, as soon as I get home, I am meal prepping, finishing homework, and already worrying about the busy week ahead. There is no rest and relaxation.

However, there is also little calm and ease when I am trying to jam my Sunday into being the greatest ever. I remember one weekend nearing tears because I was stressed about having to get to the beach because I thought beach time was a necessity for Sunday.

While going through some of my old writing recently, I realized I keep coming back to this picture of “my ideal life.” It includes plants and morning coffee and farmers market and organic produce, and at times when my life is extra chaotic, such as during graduate school, I hang on to this idea life, pining for it to come. But, I have spent years waiting for everything to be perfect, and it never quite gets there because I am single or I don’t have enough money or I live in the wrong city or I am 10 pounds or whatever. There is always a reason I can’t make it to that ideal life. 

Lately, though, I’ve experimenting with a new thought pattern. Whatever if I could incorporate as much of that ideal life as I could and it still be wonderful and fulfilling? To do so, I would have to let go of what is missing.

Today, though, on Easter Sunday, I took my dog for a walk, made baguettes, watched church on livestream, read on the couch, video chatted with my family, took a nap, talked to a friend, and then went on another walk with my dog. This day certainly had elements of those perfect Sundays, but not entirely. Yet, it was everything I needed.

Our lives are far from perfect right now, and while we face challenges, I can’t kept help but see the gifts I’ve been given. This is my chance to slow down, be grateful, and recognize that everything I have is more than enough. An old friend and long-time reader of this blog who is now living with cancer said that she often asks herself, “Do I have enough for today?” and if the answer is yes, then she puts the worry aside.

I do not know what the future holds. I can’t predict how my family and I will come out of this physically, emotionally, or financially. But, I do know that as of today, I have more than enough, and because it’s Easter Sunday, my hope is brimming.

P.S.

As I wrote this, I listened to this gorgeous live performance, stopping to watch the last song without distraction. It’s incredibly reassuring that the people who have such talent are giving us all the best of them during this time.