Los Angeles, Work

18 Months and Counting

It’s April. Spring showers, wildflowers, coming out of dormancy, beginning again. It’s also the 18-month anniversary of my return to corporate America, and the date by which my younger sister told me I’d better be out of it again.

I have always been better at doing what I was told, than determining what I would do. I have dreams, but I view them as the things I can’t wait to do when they pop up right in front of my face, not things I go out and make happen.   It’s an approach that explains why my decision to travel around the world petrified me: I had made a statement of intent, and now I must follow through. It was exactly the opposite of what I was used to.

During the first week of this trip, I was terrified.  I tried to be patient, but any forgiveness I happily show another person isn’t a generosity I bestow on myself. In calls home to family, an ‘auntie’ said to me, “you know you can always come home.”

This struck me as possibly the most ridiculous thing anyone had ever said to me. Of course I would not go home. Face-saving aside, who takes three steps forward into a dream and then turns around? Not THIS chick. And saving face isn’t an aside. I was not going to give up – not on the trip, and definitely not on myself. I had come this far. It was only the beginning, but it was still pretty far.

This wasn’t the first time someone had said such a thing to me. In grad school, out of my element, in a new town decidedly more conservative than any I’d been used to, in a program that forced me so far out of my comfort zone I began to drink regularly for the first time in my life (at the age of 30), I sought counsel from a mentor back in Seattle. She said a very similar thing, “if you are this miserable, why don’t you quit?”

When my auntie told me I could just go home, the first thing I heard was, “if you’re miserable, why don’t you quit?” It was ridiculous, and a revelation, and true: I could quit. I could go home, and no one would be bothered by it. Except for me. As much as I was out of my element in trying to catch the Transmilenio in Bogota, as much a failure as I felt for not having conquered the world three days into seeing it, I just needed to know there was an out, in order to find the ability to continue.

And so, last July, when I showed up for a family vacation 10 months into my new job and six months into literally dreading every single day of it, into waking in the night riddled with the buckshot of anxiety that tore up my confidence, into driving to the office and sitting in the parking lot willing myself to open the door and go into the building, I was slightly more prepared for someone to ask exactly what one sister did.

“You know you can quit, right? It sounds miserable.”

This time, I knew. And because I knew, I had started working through what the plan should be. How to turn the three steps forward into ten, into 20, into, potentially, a path to the door.

The project that was making me miserable was more out of my comfort zone than foreign transportation. It was amorphous, relied on resources who were poorly managed and had no people skills, and required the involvement of literally every area of the operation. I couldn’t articulate it, let alone lead it. I had no guidance, no mentorship. I was bogged down.

But here is what I knew: I don’t like to give up. I hated what I was doing, but I didn’t want to let it get the better of me. I had, by July, outlined the most significant milestones, the release dates and deliverables, and put regular routines in place to track them. I had found a mentor who could help keep me out of the weeds. I had taken three steps forward, and was continuing to put one foot in front of the other.

No one wants to see a resume with a job that lasts under a year, so I wouldn’t leave before October. I had a significant deliverable by Sept 30th, and I was requesting permission to work remotely for a month. I would wrap up the first and if I got the second, I would stick around a little longer. I had my out, so I could continue to work.

I delivered the first, they delivered the second. And during October, from my remote work escape to the Pacific Northwest, I had my mid-year review, during which I was told something that caught me by surprise: I was knocking it out of the park.

How could I be this miserable, and successful? Because the metrics by which these things are measured are vastly separate. Delivery despite the cost it takes on my self is workplace success, but not a personal success. Unlike delivering myself successfully around the world, which was almost pure joy, where each fear conquered was a gift to the person I had once been and was becoming again, each milestone conquered at work was another little weight on the scale tipping in a direction way from who I am. I will pull the scale back into balance, but only by hanging off the edge of it and pulling it back down.

So here we are: April. Month 19. A time for growth, for rebirth, for new buds and sweet smells in the sun coming out. A time, perhaps for coming out of the cocoon as a butterfly and flying away. Only time will tell.

South America

The Do-Over

 

I’m back in a place that pulls the rug out from under me while simultaneously tugging at my heartstrings.

The last time I was here, I was terrified, overwhelmed by the known unknown. The mental space to contemplate the unknown unknown came later. I’d landed in Bogota with bad Spanish, a 6 year old copy of South America on a Shoestring, a 4-night reservation in a hostel, and two weeks to get to Bolivia.

It sounds like the beginning of a great adventure, and it was. It was also the start of a 4-day panic attack that I mistook for altitude sickness: difficulty breathing, upset stomach, lack of appetite. I was frozen by fear of the vast openness of my life. I had no commitments, save a few meet ups, for months. I had no place to be. There were endless details to be addressed – where to sleep, to eat, to go, and how to get there (and what language was spoken or currency used once I did) – but no requirements, other than those I created for myself.

And then there was the city. Nestled into a lovely colonial, though basic, hostel in la Candelaria, I was surrounded by colorful two-story buildings with tile roofs and travelers. I could walk easily to many museums and the funicular, to the transmillenio to explore farther. But Bogota is as imposing as it is welcoming, and the security admonitions abounded.

My feet were cemented by my fear. Each day, I set a new target – a museum or sight just a tiny bit beyond my comfort zone (a relative statement, since cities have never been my thing) and eventually I found my way. It took more than one town, more than that first week, but I was soon able to balance unfettered glee with rational fear, for months on end.

Back in Bogota just over three years since I first arrived, and with only a day to play before moving on, I was nostalgically endeared to my poor, terrified self from that October. It’s a huge city, and exploring a new part of it with Spanish that seems to have completely escaped me, the challenges are real and many – language, altitude, safety. Aside from the arrivals hall in the airport, nothing is recognizable, and that fear comes back. When I set out to explore, the sky intermittently dumping water on my plans, air chocked by exhaust, there is much to be reckoned with. So I think back to what it is that tempers the fear: a manageable, bit-sized goal. Find just this one church, if there is time add just this one museum, and get back before dark. Sticking to that plan, the fear is gone.

It turns out the church isn’t so amazing, and I give up on the museum, as it is farther than I thought, and not walkable, and the altitude had given me a headache. But I have, once again, found my travel legs, my giddy love of the ridiculous impediments chance throws in our path and the encounters we greet in surmounting them. They are all little chips off this giant gem of life that gleams before us, and one by one we collect them, piece them together and make our own valuable stone.

 

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United States

Democracy is Not a Spectator Sport

I’ve started losing things. Little things that mean a lot, and I’m having trouble letting go.

In the past ten days, I’ve lost a leather bound book in which I’ve tracked almost two decades of road trip expenses (likely on the ground of an Oregon rest stop, having fallen out the car door pocket); a drawstring bag with a couple favorite pair of earrings (mysteriously disappeared between Washington and LA, not a trace to be found); and all hope for the future of the USA.

This last one fled sometime around 7 pm PDT on Tuesday, November 8th, and I’m genuinely not sure where it went or how to get it back.

I woke up Wednesday disheartened, and fearful; in a state of disbelief but not wonder. I couldn’t listen to the news. I made one facebook post and haven’t looked since. After all, what spewed forth was predictable: finger pointing, intellectualist blame-naming, mostly directed at the nameless “them” in the middle of the country. It’s where we go (“we,” the liberal, intellectual-elite, coastal inhabitants) when we want to call out what is broken and whose fault it is, whose responsibility to fix it. How were the polls wrong? How did we miss this?

We missed it the way “we” always do: by ignoring an ugliness we aren’t sure how to handle. Democracy is not about the “I.” It is – more than almost any other thing we have – it is about the, “we.” WE the people. We all bear responsibility for what happened this year, in some shape or form.

So please don’t turn to a fellow who voted for a third party candidate and say, “this is your fault.” It isn’t. That person did precisely what that person is meant to do: voted for the candidate that best spoke to his or her needs or ideals, who made him feel heard and represented in a political system that makes most of us feel ignored.

Please don’t ask, “where did these hateful people come from,” as if they have been on another planet and just landed on earth in time to register and vote. If you do not know where this faction of voters comes from, you have been surrounding yourself only by those who agree with you, and ignoring all uncomfortable hard evidence that this hatred has been brewing for decades.

After all, this is America. We had institutionalized slavery until 150 years ago. We’ve yet to hit a century of women having the legal right to vote. It’s not been 50 years since we sprayed our citizens with fire hoses and beat them with clubs for nothing other than the color of their skin, an epidemic of violence “we” justified with fake science and mislead religious order. We still seem to shoot a similar cohort regularly, with no cause, and hold no one accountable.

We all bear responsibility. When you have ignored those who feel dispossessed, excommunicated, robbed of a power they were raised to believe was their right, they will find a way to take it back. When you ask how this hasn’t happened to our many communities of color, the answer is: because they haven’t had that power yet, here. The fight for power in the first place is a different fight than the one tinged with revenge – the fight to get back what you feel has been ‘taken’ from you.

I am not validating the behavior. I am not accommodating the revenge. Not aligning with the bigotry and selfishness that characterize the candidate who has become our president-elect, or the small minded hatred of those who brought him to office. I am merely saying this: please don’t move to Canada. We need you to help us fix this.

Please don’t move to Canada. Move closer to your neighbor. Find someone to hug if that helps. When the news dies down, find a cause, and dig in. This is OUR country. Democracy, as they say, is not a spectator sport. When you are ready to join in, let us stand together, roll up our sleeves, and do the important work of rebuilding this democracy so that the dispossessed we left out in the first place are empowered. Let us rebuild ourselves more graceful, more welcoming than we were before, and let us do it together in the face of this adversity. When someone looks in your direction and says, “love it or leave it,” smile and say, “I love it, so I fix it.”