Here and Now

Over the last few years, this blog has served as an asylum for my fears, insecurities, and regrets. I have written during periods of distress and confusion, often as a means of connecting with others and quelling my anxieties. I have written during periods of pain and sorrow, translating my heart’s weariness into words absorbed on pages just like this one. I have written during periods of joy and triumph, using this space as a vehicle by which my own momentary contentment could be capsuled and held as memories forever. And I have written during periods of apathy and irreverence, not quite knowing what the purpose was at all– perhaps hoping to stumble into one along the way.

Writing has served as a strategy for processing my grief, for understanding and working through my eating disorder, for sitting with my loneliness, for sitting with the trials of graduate school, and for meditating on the mountains and valleys of life. It has been a few months since I officially left my PhD program and now, after what has felt like an endless loop of reflection and reformation, I find myself compelled to articulate my thoughts once again. This time (and perhaps for the very first time), however, I am not motivated by a frantic, desperate desire to have my experiences validated. Nor am I inclined to choose my words so perfectly and eloquently that my every thought is understood and shared by those who choose to read them. Rather, I write this piece from a place of joy, fulfillment, and excitement for the future.

Most of all, I write this from a place of peace.

Over the recent months, I have felt the most profound shifts in my mind and in my life– ones that I truthfully never knew to be possible. I have allowed myself to scale back on my insatiable pursuits of academic (and other) achievements, I have chosen to value slowness and rest in a world that pushes us to be and do anything but, and I have attempted to seek and hold joy however possible.

All things I didn’t believe were meant to be a part of my life.

It has taken me almost an entire year to grapple with the simultaneous newness and staggering redirections I have seen since reorienting my life towards something freer, more open, and hopeful. I had to grow accustomed to living a life that wasn’t full of stress, anxiety, or fear, and I had to learn how to be a person who was okay with taking it slow.

For awhile, I resented it. Though I never went as far as to regret my decision, I spent countless days and nights wondering how I had convinced myself to give up– questioning why I ever thought it was okay to quit. As time passed and the distance between myself and the academic world I once called home (and work, and passion, and life) deepened, I found myself growing agitated. The newfound slowness and ease of my life upon leaving academia and entering the workforce started to become a source of immense discomfort for me.

I hated myself for slowing down. I didn’t know how to cope with the rising self-resentment I felt.

Had I become lazy? Did life become too easy? Shouldn’t I be working harder? Is this really what I wanted? How could it all be so simple?

I realize now, as I approach one year of choosing this redirection, that I had never known myself without chronic stress. That I had never known myself to be liberated, rested, or hopeful. Joyous.

I felt as if I had lost my entire identity because, in many ways, I DID. Life, alongside my own choices, had never given me the opportunity to discover who I was without it all– the anxiety, the plans, the to-do lists, the goals, the striving. I had never considered who I might be or what I was truly like apart from all of the things I thought made me excellent (that really only inhibited me).

Here is what I have learned so far. These are the gifts of slowness and grace:

  1. Ease and contentment are not shortcomings or dispositions calling for improvements to be made or speed to be increased– they are simply feelings to be enjoyed. Let them be enjoyed.
  2. Freedom and time are not innate attacks on drive, passion, or achievement. They only create space for creativity and joy in places they are needed.
  3. Rest is not lazy, nor is it a relinquishing of any goal. Rest is a service– to myself and to those around me.

I thought I was giving up, when really I was giving myself a chance.

I thought I was choosing wrong, when really I was choosing for the first time.

I thought I was sacrificing my joy, when really I was committing myself to chasing it eternally.

I thought I was building my own cage, when really I was setting myself free.

Life is not at all how I anticipated, and I’m hardly the person I expected to become. But maybe it’s okay that I’m not doing what I always expected of myself.

Above all, following the overwhelming shame + guilt I’ve carried since choosing to step away from where and who I thought I was meant to be, I have never felt more courageous.

I am learning to be proud of myself.

Because I am happy, and that can be the simple, final truth today. How ridiculous to poke and prod at such joy until it grays, until I feel unsettled. How about instead, I just feel it? How about instead, I share my happiness without disclaiming?

My tendency to explain, self-analyze and guilt myself into unhappiness still lingers. When will this joy end? This calm? I do not deserve it. I’m not doing enough.

All of this, these mental reframes, and lots of gratitude. Consciously, every day. For the fact that I *get* to do this, for the people I’ve surrounded myself with that continue to encourage my joy, creativity, and excitement. Gratitude for my health. For time. For my life, the beauty that surrounds me, the giddy feeling that is genuine passion, and for the family and friends who make my everyday feel like a deep breath.

For a long time I stopped believing a mind or life like this was possible for me. One where I’m not contemplating my mental health incessantly. One where I naturally crave connection over isolation, joy over pain. One where I’m not yearning to improve or change. One where eating, body image, and my recovery is not the central focus of my life, but an underlying force that allows me to explore it wholeheartedly.

It all feels foreign to me still. I’ve been recovering from my eating disorder for almost 5 years. It’s been such a slow roll. And even at the strongest points of my recovery in the past, I still held on so tightly to it, identifying with it completely.

I feared that if I let go I would break. But I finally did when I couldn’t hold on any longer, stepping away from a life dedicated to academic pursuits, goal-setting & simultaneous mental health treatment and stepping into what I truly love. And I’ve discovered the opposite to be true. I am not broken, I am not my disorders or my hardest days, and I am not my recovery. I am *me.*

I’m trusting this and myself despite how different it seems, how wrong it feels at times. Remembering what once served me so fiercely, mourning the fact that it no longer does, and settling into change. Honoring instead of living in my past. Discovering and embracing who I am, how I feel, and what I love outside of it all.

These days, I am thinking of Mary Oliver, who said, “To pay attention– this is our endless and proper work.”

I am working to become more like Mary. To be a woman who, in spite of the world, stands in a meadow and chooses to open her eyes, to feel the sunlight, to speak every truth, and to find artistry in every thing.

Knowing that I am paying attention.

Knowing that I am here.

And knowing that that is enough.

I have no idea what I’m doing.

The Question

The day is Saturday, January 15, 2022.

I’m sitting in my desk chair, staring into the lifeless void of Zoom for yet another session.

I think about cancelling. Just like I always do.

“No,” I say to myself. I already rescheduled yesterday.

Maybe I could say I’ve come down with something. That’ll be sure to prevent any further questioning.

Then, a slow and methodical, “How was your week, Kamryn?”

The line I’ve heard a million times and yet still elicits no particular feeling inside. I must have experienced a lapse in judgment and logged on in the midst of my race to avert this meeting.

I never quite know how to answer this question, and I’ve always been unsure of what to tell her when she asks how I am. Since this all started, I think I’ve become accustomed to treating these sessions like some strange version of a coffee date with a friend. Though, I suppose, if that were the case and if I were really doing as well as I try to convince her when answering her opening question, I wouldn’t need to spend an hour staring at her into my computer screen every week.

I feel the sudden panic over what will come out of my mouth.

Which route shall I take today?

The “I’m good! My week was okay, just the usual. Glad it’s the weekend. How are you?”

or…

I decide to be honest.

The result of 3 seconds of bravery, I guess. Or stupidity. It’s impossible to tell the difference most days.

Now that I’ve made it through and am reflecting on the 45 minutes I just had, I think I’ll go with bravery.

The Answer

“My week was hard,” I say. “I’ve had a few panic attacks, and I’ve been more anxious than I’ve felt in a long time. Since I left school.” She asks me why I think this might be.

I hesitate once more.

I warn her about the length and depth of what it is I have racing through my mind.

She reassures me, and bravery leads to honesty once more.

I tell her that I feel I’ve become enveloped in waves of immense overwhelm, perhaps best explained by a sense that I am experiencing my past, present and future simultaneously. As I reflect on my past self/life, and project my goals and dreams into my future self/life, I am struggling to be my present self and to live this life— here and now.

I am honest with her about how saddening and frustrating this intense anxiety has been for me, because everything in my external world (beautiful friendships, a loving relationship, an amazing new job that I enjoy) points towards nothing but peace and contentment, while my inner world continues to lead me into tumult and disarray.

I explain to her that I have made soft, deliberate choices to get myself to this place here and now— one of peace, joy, and relentless, growing hope.

Still, as joyous and peaceful my soul feels, a strange anxious sadness has risen up in me. How can I be more at peace than I have ever been, and yet…

What part of it— this beautiful and evolving life I am working to create— doesn’t feel right?

I frame this as a question, though I intend to follow the paths of my own mind to lead me to something resembling an answer, for I know that only I can navigate these storms.

Time.

I continue on, telling her that I’ve spent so much of my life (all of it, perhaps) working tirelessly. Taking the most difficult roads, and consequently priding myself on them. Choosing the hard thing, scorning at anything that came easily or felt anywhere close to freeing. Feeling the need to push myself past my limits, to seek more intense challenges, and to complicate life.

Somewhere along the way, I learned to define myself by the difficulty of it all.

  • By the seemingly impossible goals I could set.
  • By those I could achieve and reset. And reset.
  • By the sports and hobbies I forced myself to excel in.
  • By academics.
  • By time.

At many points, I say, I even believed that if life wasn’t painful or I wasn’t being punished, that I thought myself to be inadequate; that that meant I was doing something wrong, for life was not designed to be easy.

“For years, I punished myself,” I admit to her.

I begin to cry.

I explain to her that for the first time, life has allowed for the necessary space and time for proper rest (and thereby) proper reflection. And it is now that I am beginning to realize just how harrowing things have been.

Through tears, I tell her that I feel as if my heart is growing heavy in the present with sadness and regret over my past. That I am thinking back to my old self and all those years I spent believing I deserved for things to be so very difficult. I tell her that I’ve only now come to realize how many years passed me by. Ones that I spent hating myself and pushing my mind and body far beyond any expectations I or anyone else could set.

  • The late nights into early morning hours I spent every day of my grade school years staying up completing homework, sure that I would never make it anywhere if I didn’t find a way to maintain the #1 spot.
  • The many years of my childhood I spent overtraining for my athletics, certain that my potential and talent rested solely on the performances my body could muster.
  • The years I spent throughout college (and even now) restricting my food and counting every calorie, weighing myself 6x a day and measuring my wrists, believing that my beauty and capacity to be in control of my life depended on the presentation and desirability of my body.

I tell her that I am realizing that the expansion of my life and self has, in many ways, forced me to grow into newer and realer versions of myself. That I am discovering things I never knew about myself whilst reimagining familiar things that have never left me.

And yet, I find myself grappling with the truth that even amidst the mountains of positive change, that change is never unaccompanied by valleys of loss; deaths of the past deserving of mourning, movements away from that which is known, and wandering amongst blurry visions of who and what used to be.

“I wonder if I’ve lost the parts of myself I used to love. Even amongst all the layers I have been so happy to see fall away.”

Is life too easy now?

Surely, something is bound to come up and complicate it all.

Do I deserve this joy?

Surely, I’m underserving somehow.

Am I still a hard worker?

I must wonder— who am I without the hardship?

Time.

I fear I’ve wasted so much of it.

I explain to her that I’ve spent much of my life embedded in works of literature and enmeshed in the world of characters, those which I most deeply identify defined by a type of nostalgic reminiscence— those who spent so much of their lives preparing themselves for their futures, worrying about making the right choices, and living their lives “correctly” (whatever that may mean), only to reach a point of deepened reflection and come to find that in the midst of oscillating between memories of the past and visions of the future, that their present had been lost.

That even though they vowed to live with intention and to live an examined life, that the pressure and constance of the examination had taken away from life.

“I’m worried I’ve become them,” I tell her.

I strive, I achieve, I reflect, and I hope against hope everyday that the choices I’ve made will lead me to flourishing and that the reflections I ultimately come to do not illuminate my deepest, most sincere fear— that I have done it all wrong.

The Lesson

This period of my life is, above all, defined by space. I refrain from calling it emptiness, for I feel anything but. I am perhaps happier than I’ve ever been, and yet, the peace I am experiencing is not without a bit of uneasiness.

I fear I may be aimlessly wandering.

I have no idea what I’m doing.

I know that I am not alone in this, and I also know that such is the truth of life: no one knows what they’re doing, and we all do our best with what we have to make the life we believe ourselves to desire.

We build castles out of things that are important to us, and the paths our hearts lead us through bring us the meaning we’re searching for.

The hard part? Sometimes we don’t know what we’re searching for. And other times, the aim of our insatiable searches change along the course.

I’ve come to find that we change as life changes. And as difficult as this truth is to grapple with (for it consequently means that who and what matters to us changes), there is beauty there.

That we get to make choices about things and people and lives that matter to us. Everyday.

And though we may arrive at these thresholds of reflection and realize that we have made mistakes, that we have built castles out of the wrong things, and that we have outgrown what was once meaningful to us, our corrigibility allows us to make tomorrow different.

We have the opportunity to say, “Maybe now.”

The gift of hindsight has granted me the perspective I once needed, and it has illuminated the holes that lacked the grace and kindness I always wanted.

That I will never fully figure it out, and that maybe it’s all going to be okay anyway.

That perhaps will be nothing more than a cycle of action, evaluation, and reflection, and that at the beginning and end of each cycle, I may very well be a different person than I imagined myself to be.

That I will continue to make choices in accordance with what I find meaningful and beautiful, here and now, with the knowledge that there is no guaranteeing these same sources of meaning and beauty forever.

That there is no telling what change will come, for I will evolve alongside the world.

And that the risk of life is choosing to believe in it all anyways.

To believe in the things that matter to me, here and now.

To believe that I deserve the love, joy, and peace I am experiencing.

To believe in the love that those who surround me are offering me so limitlessly.

To believe in both today and in tomorrow, whatever change may come.

On Grief: A Lost Love

I don’t talk about my mother’s death much because it makes people uncomfortable to hear about grief—particularly young people’s parent loss. It it a topic most people avoid in any and every way possible. And I get it. If I had the choice, I would avoid it, too.

But I don’t. And I want to talk about something.

I want to talk about how frequent and acute the waves of grief have been since beginning to feel the lightness and joy return to my life in recent months. How I have fallen in love, felt more myself, and have welcomed back large parts of my heart that I never thought could return to me, but how there never comes a day where these times and feelings are not tainted by pangs of loss; aches reminding me that there was once more to the story, and holes in my life and in my heart widening to remind me of the space that will forever be vacant.

This juxtaposition —that of tremendous joy and utter grief— has led to several otherwise wonderful days and nights ending in tears. Including tonight.

When I delivered my mom’s eulogy 5 years ago, I alluded to an abstract, anticipatory sadness about her absence at my future wedding; at my graduations, job promotions, and even births. But it is not just the big moments where her absence sears through my heart. It’s also the collection of small, beautiful experiences everyday that I will never share with her.

It’s finally saying “I love you” and wishing I could call her and let her know.

It’s introducing my boyfriend to my friends and family, and wishing more than anything that my mom could meet the person who makes my everyday bright and full of joy.

It’s knowing that she would love him almost as much as I do.

It’s facing tremendously hard seasons of life, and only wishing there was a way for me to seek her advice— the kind that always allowed my world to continue spinning.

It’s failing time and time again, and hoping each time to see an encouraging text message appear on my phone.

It’s needing a hug, but knowing that no one’s embrace is quite as warm and inviting as hers.

It’s making difficult decisions that feel life-changing, and making them without the person who provided you the gift of life.

It’s having a birthday come and go, and realizing that another year has passed in which she didn’t sing to your phone’s voicemail.

It’s receiving good news and not quite knowing who to share it with, because the first person on your list can’t receive your calls.

It’s learning and growing every moment of everyday, all without a significant piece of your heart and who you are.

Now I know that the sadness I once spoke of is not abstract. It is here, and it is so very real. On the heaviest of days, I can feel it entering my body demanding to be felt, desperately looking for a home within me.

The tragedy of it all is this: that my happiness cannot come without simultaneous sadness. That everything I experience is felt through the realities of loss; a grief that only reflects a deep, undying love with nowhere to go.

A lost love that knows it can never fully return home or be felt in the way it once did.

I am reminded with every moment of joy, that as life grows fuller and more beautiful, my yearning grows ever deeper.

I am growing into more and more parts of who I am, without the presence or guidance of the one who made me. The challenges of this never fade. This is forever.

I wish we prepared young, bereaved women for the reality of motherless life. I wish we had a language to speak about these experiences without shame or guilt, or without the fear that others would be made uncomfortable. I wish we had a better network of motherless daughters to hold one another’s pain.

If you are here, I am here.

I am holding your pain with mine.

Your grief beats alongside mine; it is home here.

Never lost.