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Posts Tagged ‘uncertainty’

komorebi harvard yard tree sky

First, the leaving.

I knew it was a possibility for a long time: the job I signed on for, back in 2016, is of a type that comes up for renewal each fiscal year. This was my fourth job at Harvard, and I’d already weathered a layoff and two temp gigs – so I wasn’t all that surprised to learn, in April, that I’d have to leave at the end of June.

Even at Harvard, few things are set in stone: my time there has seen massive internal shifts, many of them for the better. This storied place, ancient and rooted, is also a place of constant movement and change.

I did my best, this spring, to soak up all the rhythms and traditions I love there: Morning PrayersCommencement, my daily walks to Darwin’s. I had about a thousand coffee dates and sent out so many emails telling people: This chapter is ending. I don’t know what’s next.

On my last day, I walked to Darwin’s mid-morning, then went back later for lunch with a girlfriend. We sat outside, leaning against the plate-glass windows, eating sandwiches and talking about change. She had just started a new job, and I had no idea what the summer held. We agreed: change is hard, even when it’s exciting. And uncertainty is a beast.

Later that afternoon, I slipped away for a walk with a friend, and then came back to the office for my own bittersweet Mary Tyler Moore moment: packing up my bags and switching off the lights for the last time.

Of course, as a friend reminded me, Harvard isn’t going anywhere: it has survived for nearly four centuries, and if I want to go back there sometime, there’s a good chance I can. But this chapter, this particular stretch of five years where the Square became my daily ground, has ended.

I don’t have a word to sum it up neatly: like so much of life, it is full of contradictions. But somewhere between all those emails and meetings, between the headlines and the phone calls and the student interviews, between Tuesdays at the farmers’ market and Thursday mornings on the sixth floor, between frequent trips to the florist and every single day at Darwin’s, Harvard Square became my home.

I’ve landed in a good place across the river. But I left part of my heart in Cambridge, and for now, I’m making a point to get back there as often as I can.

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memorial church memorial hall harvard university
I was left to my own devices
Many days fell away with nothing to show

And the walls kept tumbling down
In the city that we love
Great clouds roll over the hills
Bringing darkness from above

But if you close your eyes
Does it almost feel like nothing’s changed at all?
And if you close your eyes
Does it almost feel like you’ve been here before?

How am I gonna be an optimist about this?
How am I gonna be an optimist about this?

—Bastille, “Pompeii”

I fell in love with this song about a year ago, when my husband started performing it with his a cappella group, the Mass Whole Notes. (I know I’m a little late to the Bastille party. J is constantly discovering brand-new music, the way I am always finding new books. But my musical tastes skew several years behind the times.)

“Pompeii” entered J’s performance repertoire around the time I lost my job (which happened a year ago this week). I have found myself humming it often this year, because it captures perfectly the in-between state in which I find myself.

Some things – in fact, many important things – in my life have not changed since last May: I live in the same light-filled apartment. I go to the same tiny church. I call my mother once a week, text my sister about Friends lines and my nephews, talk about golf and movies with my dad. I read scads of books and write lots of reviews. I am married to the same generous, funny, understanding man.

I also spend my weekdays in the same neighborhood where I’ve worked for three years now. Every morning, I sling the same two bags over my shoulder and head for the Red Line subway platform near my house. I get off in Harvard Square, looking up at the same brick buildings and tall, gracious towers. I head to Darwin’s for a spicy chai latte before walking to my office.

If I close my eyes – though that is dangerous when navigating a Cambridge sidewalk – I can almost pretend that nothing has changed.

harvard yard autumn light leaves

And yet.

This spring finds me working in a sixth-floor office, with new colleagues, in a temporary role. This job is different both from the one I lost last spring and the other temp gig I held from Thanksgiving until mid-March. All three roles have been at Harvard, doing communications work, but there are varying duties and projects, distinctive office cultures to navigate, constantly shifting expectations. I am a person who likes to have a plan, and the past year has made that difficult.

I have been constantly surprised by how the job hunt has played havoc with my sense of self: as an individual, a writer, a career woman, a part of the Harvard community. Previously, I had never thought of myself as a person defined by her career. But the lack of a job, a title, a defined place in a working community, has made me question so many facets of my identity and the stories I tell myself. Also, inevitably, it has caused a shift in my relationships, most notably the ones with my former co-workers. I don’t blame anyone for that; it is simply what happens when things change.

On some days, the refrain of “Pompeii” thrums through my head in a depressing rhythm: How am I gonna be an optimist about this? That question is harder to answer when I’m struggling with (more) rejection, or simply having a tough day. I don’t always know how to be an optimist about this. I do remember, usually, how to keep going forward (make a cup of tea, write another paragraph, answer another email), so mostly, that’s what I do.

On some days, though, I am able to simply be grateful for what is now: this job, this office, this paycheck. This group of quirky, sarcastic, whip-smart colleagues. This routine, which still contains so many things and people I love. This neighborhood, with its uneven brick sidewalks and colorful local businesses and budding spring flowers, that has become a part of me. This chance to spend my days doing meaningful work – even if I don’t know quite where it will lead.

Some days I teeter on the edge of nostalgia, and it’s tempting to slip inside it, like a familiar cardigan. If I close my eyes and burrow down into it, I can pretend for a moment that nothing has changed at all. But the truth – the harsh, rich, complicated, often beautiful truth – is that things have changed, both in ways I can point to and in ways I still can’t quite articulate.

For now, although I’m sure I’ll keep humming this song, I’m adopting a slightly different approach. Because after this turbulent year, I am still here. I still get to walk through the city I love – dark clouds, tumbling walls and all. It’s not always easy, but I’m doing my best to keep my eyes wide open.

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green leaves snow spring winter

I looked out the window on Palm Sunday evening to see a streak of gold sunset against grey, lowering, heavy clouds. That morning at church, most of us hadn’t had enough sleep (or caffeine) to muster up a lot of enthusiasm, but we passed out the palm fronds anyway. My husband, fighting a sinus infection, led the procession around the sanctuary, kids and adults singing “Hosanna” and “Salvation Belongs to Our God.”

The next morning, we woke up to swirling, blowing snow: an inversion of the recent weather pattern that has coaxed the crocuses and some early daffodils and tulips out of the ground. I pulled on my snow boots and trudged toward the subway, dreading the biting wind. But by lunchtime, the storm had blown itself out, and scraps of blue sky peeked out from clouds grown suddenly fluffy. I walked down to my favorite cafe for a bowl of soup, snapping photos of green leaves sticking out of fresh snow.

We are days away from Easter, and it’s technically spring: we have turned the clocks forward, observed the vernal equinox. But it all feels topsy-turvy: we are squinting in the bright sunlight even as we dig out the down coats again, then exchange them for umbrellas. I am grateful not to be fighting the deep snowbanks of last winter, but this season keeps catching me off balance. I don’t know what to make of these up-and-down days, their refusal to form a linear progression. It does not feel like a measured journey toward something new.

I started a new temp gig last week, across the street from the one I’ve held for the last four months. The people in both offices are kind, and the work is similar: the kind of university communication that has paid my bills for years. But I haven’t settled into my new routine yet, and everything feels off-kilter. The sunlight slants at an unfamiliar angle across my new desk, and I’m still learning the contours of this place. And I don’t know, yet, what will happen next. (This is the constant refrain of the past year.)

I haven’t paid much attention to Lent this year: my energy has been focused on getting through each day. The broader arc of the season has been difficult to see. But it strikes me that this is how the disciples must have felt during the first Holy Week, especially toward the end of it. The events right in front of them – dramatic and heartbreaking and also deeply mundane – demanded much of their attention. They couldn’t see the pattern until later. And the light, when it broke through, caught them completely off guard.

This season, while difficult, has been full of unexpected beauty: crocuses poking up through the hard earth, acts of kindness that have carried me through some tough days. It has been hard in the ways that waiting and uncertainty are hard. But there has also been sharp light and sudden joy.

As I do every year during Holy Week, I am humming songs from long-ago Easter pageants, making plans for Easter Sunday. I am trusting that these mixed-up days, these tangled weather patterns, will eventually lead us to spring. I am doing my best to pay attention, to notice the small gifts of each day, and to hold on to the promise that something new is coming. Even if I can’t see it yet.

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I’ve got a whole crop of friends who graduated from college this year. Many of them are part of our beloved small group from our Abilene church; they are smart, capable, kind, funny, utterly wonderful people. Some of them have plans, but a few are still waiting, sending out job applications, bunking with friends or family or staying in college houses for a while, crossing their fingers and worrying and hoping. And even those who have plans – for grad school or a first job or internships – aren’t entirely sure what’s around the next bend.

And I want to say to them, and to you, if you’re there: I remember how that feels.

I remember the last few weeks in my college house, after the flurry of tearful post-graduation good-byes, packing books and dishes and furniture, trying to keep Bethany laughing as we worked so neither of us would cry. I remember sending out dozens (which felt like hundreds) of job applications, to places like New York and Nashville and Austin, and walking every day to my student job on campus, because they were keeping me on for the summer, and I sure didn’t know what else to do.

I remember watching Bethany drive away in her yellow moving truck, so tiny in the huge high cab, back to Longview to stay with her folks while she job-hunted. I went into the house and sat in the empty living room and cried. And then I called my friend Stephen, and we went for a Cajun cone, and I tried to drown my sorrows in shaved ice with raspberry syrup.

I remember the tentative first few weeks in my sister’s house, living with one of her roommates and assorted other girls who stayed for a week or a month, and the unexpected joy of Bethany moving back to live with us for the summer, and the two of us relishing our “borrowed time” together. (With Leigh Anne, the roommate mentioned above, whom we quickly came to adore.) We did a lot of worrying and some weeping that summer, but we did far more laughing – and we watched movies and hung out at coffee shops and borrowed each other’s clothes, and held each other in that tender space of not knowing, of in between.

At the end of the summer, I moved in with friends – because I didn’t want to go home (which felt like admitting failure), and I still had no “real” job. I kept sending out applications, including one to a job on campus at ACU, even though I thought I didn’t want to stay in Abilene.

As fate, or God, or something would have it, I got offered that job, accepted it, and spent a very happy year working in the Bible department at ACU, living in my own apartment for the first time in my life, making the odd transition from student worker to grown-up colleague, and laughing at the antics and witty comments of the faculty members I worked with.

It wasn’t the job I wanted to do forever. (I’ve never yet had a job that fitted that description – unless it was being a barista at the Ground Floor.) It wasn’t technically “in my field,” and it certainly wasn’t what I expected. But it was good. So good. And it gave me a year to grow up a little, to stretch my wings in the safe confines of Abilene, to breathe a little and get my feet under me before embarking on the next phase of my life and career (which turned out to be graduate school in Oxford). And the next phase, too, was good.

So to all new graduates, or others, who are feeling unsteady, like you don’t have a clue how to navigate this new grown-up world or use that shiny new degree: I know how you feel. Five years ago, I was there. (A little secret: I’ve been there many times since – and I’ve spent a lot of time there this year.)

But it’s all worked out okay for me, at least so far. I have a job, a wonderful husband, dear friends and family in multiple cities on two continents, and I still get to play with words all the time. Not bad, really, for an English major who spent a whole summer terrified that some or all of those things might not work out.

Where were you five years ago? Is it radically different from where you are today?

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