I posted Part I of this letter in July of 2016, following the shootings of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling. Now that the city of St. Anthony has reached a settlement with the Castile family, yet the officer who murdered Philando was acquitted, I’ve felt compelled to withdraw from it all. I want nothing to do with current events, news stories, social media, you name it, I want out…all the while knowing that I will never be truly able to retreat from the real issue – racism. See, I could not (and still cannot) imagine living in a country where a person who looks like me, can be murdered, simply because they look like me, and no one is held responsible…but here is nearly three million dollars to avoid “a federal civil rights lawsuit” as one article suggests.
So here is Part II of this letter, now that I’ve had a chance to reel in my thoughts from running on hyper drive.
Dear (if you’re my friend, and you’re White, insert your name here),
Because the answer to dismantling the racial tension we’re experiencing as a country is not to retreat to our individual racial and ethnic sides of the fence, and point fingers at the Others – on the opposite side of the fence, as if to say, you’re what’s wrong with this country – I am writing to continue the conversation.
Has it gotten any realer?
By that I mean the racial tension in this country that feels as thick and overbearing as the humidity on a scorching summer’s day. By that I mean the discomfort one ought feel at seeing a person get shot, the final moments of their life caught on a cell phone video. By that I mean hearing people proclaim, “go back to your country”.
See, social justice warriors would avow that during times like these, we shouldn’t worry ourselves with the feelings of the majority, but instead, with the rights of the minority. And while I believe in this idea on many levels, on one particular level – from my experience in helping bring under-represented groups to the figurative table (as a member of the dominant group you aren’t particularly under-represented, but just go with it) – these are the times when we should be engaging in dialogue with the dominant group. So again I ask, has it gotten any realer?
I’m hoping it has. If you’re my friend, that is, it probably has. It has to be tough knowing you are part of the larger group that has historically inflicted harm and marginalized other groups. And even though you do not participate in those inflictions, you still benefit from them, and the subsequent marginalizations. It’s similar to the bouts I face with my own privilege as a male. No matter how hard you try, you just cannot undo all of the atrocities committed by the group of which you’re a part. So, if you are my friend, you undoubtedly have inner conflict over the racial tension sweeping across our nation with flu-like quickness. I’m sure you’ve been scapegoated, and stared at, and had insulting remarks yelled in your direction because of the actions of some of the people who are in the dominant group to which you belong. So I’m writing because I’m wondering if it has gotten any releaser. See, those scapegoats, stars, and insulting remarks are what many of us face daily. But I realize they may be new for you, and unbeknownst to you, you’ve worked so hard at becoming, and remaining, an ally to people of color (as we’ll see below), that I’d hate for you to retreat because of the inner conflict you’re experiencing. I’m also writing because although I can’t tell you with any certainly that the inner conflict will subside, I can offer this: I’m glad you’re my friend.
In looking back on our friendship, I’m glad you laughed with me (and not at me) when I told stories of growing up Black, and poor, and fatherless. I stole a line from the “Fresh Prince of Bel Air” when I used to say, “I’m just a poor Black man trying to make it at Quinnipiac”. And even though you may not have fully understood what I meant, I appreciate that you were willing to try. Like listening listening to Tupac on full blast with me (remember those days?!) or engaging me in dialogue when I told you the reason I couldn’t swim – we don’t got pools in the hood. I’m glad we had those conversations and shared that laughter. Most times, the laughter was really was a cover for the pain. On the flip side, thanks for introducing me to Alanis Morrisette, drinking games (flip cup, anyone!), and how to take pictures without giving the finger.
It’s no surprise I still remember those deep talks we had – how your father left your mother for another woman, how there was only one Black kid in your high school graduating class, and how he got picked on to no end, how you always wanted to date another girl but couldn’t find the courage. How you had cancer in high school and how your brother was an unsupportive schmuck. Those talks helped me see the world through your eyes, and how you culture works. Those talks helped me connect with you in ways that could never be duplicated in a classroom or some diversity training. More than anything, those talks helped me see you as my friend first, and your racial and ethnic group second.
For me, those talks helped things get real – my connection to you, my connection to your world, my connection to everything I was not.
By having those talks, I now see that we were able to correctly conclude that there’d been historical and institutional injustices committed against damn near every racial and ethnic groups. So when I spoke of injustices members of my family had faced, I could see in your eyes that you felt I wasn’t making it up. That validation has been important to our friendship. To be my friend, I’ve needed to know that you get it, that being Black brings about a certain level of burden. But it wasn’t just Black and White – yesterday it was the Irish, before them, Native Americans and African slaves. Now, it’s African Americans, the entire LGBT community, and our Latin brothers and sisters. Injustices have also afflicted Asians and Italians, Jews and Muslims. As Pastor Martin Niemöller famously wrote, “Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—Because I was not a Jew.” I think it’s safe to say they came for me, just as they came for you. And we’ve remained friends because we spoke up for each other.
I’m asking you now to speak up because it’s real.
I’m asking this of you because there is a certain level of emotional and psychological safety I feel in your midst. You have, and continue to allow me space to share my organic thoughts when it comes to issues of race. Like the soliloquy I crafted about whether I am truly an American, after the officer who killed Michael Brown was not indicted. Or like all of those times I quoted jokes from Chappelle Show. They weren’t White jokes any more than they were Black jokes. Instead, they were humorous analyses of our cultural differences, because sometimes using humor helps lessen the pain.
See, sometimes you just need a vent session, like when women get together for a Ladies Night. Nothing against men, sometimes women need a forum to share their thoughts and experiences with other women, without judgment, and without fear of offending anyone. Similarly, sometimes I wanted to admit that I didn’t understand how some White people could do (fill in the blank – whether it was kill a lion for sport or not season their vegetables), knowing that I love you and White people, too. I appreciate that you joined me in that space. Never one did I hear I was mentally weak or that my response is just a part of my narrative or rhetoric. Your response to my response told me that I was free to have my perspective in your midst, and that I could be my authentic self.
Along those same lines, I’m better off that you challenged me when I needed it. Whether it was calling me out for being am ableist, exhibiting male privilege, or reminding me that not all White people do (fill in the blank). Even though those were tough conversations, we were able to have them – and I was willing to listen – because you are my friend. We had those conversations because we got real with each other. Through I may have given you the finger a couple of times during those talks, I can honestly say I’m a better person because you’ve challenged me.
Thank you, as well, for celebrating my culture, focusing more on our similarities than our differences, and for not trying to define my Blackness for me (as you’ve seen, you can be Black and listen to Alanis Morrisette!). Most of all, thank you for learning with me. Calling me you brother from another mother was funny. But referring to me as your nigger wasn’t cool. I know I called you that word several times, and I referred to our mutual friend who’s also Black, as my nigga. And sure, we listened and dances to music, where the lyrics seemed to be nigga this and nigga that. Through all of that, I love that you understood my boundaries and respected them.
Within our friendship, we have been able to expose each other to new ideas, and push each other to extend our comfort zones. As I sit here empathizing with you during these times where racial injustices seem like they’re at an all-time high, I have to imagine you feel as if you’re part of the problem, simply because you’re White. While I can never give you a She’s Down card for other Black folks to see, I can let you know that you are an ally and that I value your friendship. When shit goes down, I know I can count on to help stand against the injustice, and for that, I’m proud that you’re my friend. For those, and countless other reason, thanks for being someone I can count on.
So this is your ally card. And with it, I am entrusting you to bear it responsibly. I’m also asking of you to speak up because it’s real. It’s real that a family member (though marriage) commented that if I don’t like the country and he and his brothers fight for, that I should leave. It’s real that I have to teach my children to embrace their dark skin because everything on TV tells them light (that is, White) skin is the best skin (try having that conversation with a five-year-old!). It’s real that Black and Brown people are being murdered by the same groups that’s supposed to protect and serve.
In order for your ally card to remain valid, I’m asking you to take another step — let it get real. And when it gets tough, and need someone to help you process the inner conflict, you know where to find me.
Because sometimes it feels that the career we love so much
Yes, I’m in love with my career. It’s my passion, one of them, anyway. It’s (probably) the one thing I am good at doing. How good I am at my career brings to mind the line from Good Will Hunting:
“Mozart, Beethoven. They saw it, they could just play. I can’t hit the ball out of Fenway and …. But when it came to stuff like that, I could always just play”.
When it comes to providing education on sexual violence prevention, I could always just play.
I love what I do. Mostly because as a result of doing this work I am helping to make the world a better place. Like the camouflage-pants wearing guy, who approached me after a training because he wanted to shake my hand, and say thanks for presenting the material in such an engaging and non-threatening way. Or the dozens of young people (mostly women) who wanted me to tell me they knew someone who had been victimized, that they had been victimized, and wanted to know (more specifically) where they could turn to for help. Or the thank yous I receive from friends and family member who contribute when I ask for their support, who speak of the good work I’m doing. I should also mention the student who came up to me, to ask if the way her history teacher had been looking at her was wrong. (Yes, it was!)
These (along with countless others) have come to be my success stories. My very own personal motivational speeches. Reminding me of a job well done, especially on days that I need it most. That I am actually making a difference, on days when I cannot tell the difference.
So I love my career. But, lately, I’ve come to think that my career doesn’t love me.
No hyperbole here. This isn’t some haphazard comparison to abusive or toxic relationships. For, I’ve had far too many family members, friends, and clients experience abuse within their relationships to make some bullshit comparison. No, the empathy I have for survivors will not allow me to compare my career journey with the debilitating effects of abuse.
What this is about, however, is navigating this career while experiencing few strong leaders and mentors. I need only one hand, and indeed, just a couple of fingers, to count the number of strong supervisors I’ve had the pleasure of working under. Supervisors who knew how to lead a team and how to motivate each member of that team. Supervisors who empowered and engaged, instead of managed and micromanaged. Supervisors who actually cared what I thought, and did not tell me what I should know. (For that, thank you, GH.)
Being in this career knowing that adequate financial compensation is realistic…yet, my career will shell out thousands of dollars on expert so-and-so. Two separate points, though they are tied at the hip. On the one hand, my career pay is mediocre, at best. If I want to provide for my family – in the sense of affording family vacations, summer camp for the kids, and date nights for me and my wife, I would be better served working in some mindless job in the corporate world. With my career, I have to choose – family vacation or summer camp for the kids or regular date nights with my wife. Nothing extraordinary, just basic life pleasures. I can’t have it all, or so it seems, and that it disheartening.
On the other hand, if should my career (as a whole) ever finds itself in a good financial position, I don’t think those of us who work in this field, will see any of that compensation. To earn real money – the kind where you don’t have to choose between that family vacation or summer camps for the kids – you have to become an expert. What actually constitutes an expert is unknown, however. Does an expert have strong familiarity with all of the leading programs in their field? Or have almost a decade’s worth of experience? Or have provided education to over 10,000 students (middle school, high school, and college)? Does an expert do all of those things, and serve as a trustee for a state-wide agency? What about provide training for professionals? What about…, I could go on, but the point has already been made. Although I would rather not speak of my own successes, when I compare my accomplishments with those of expert so-and-so, not only do mine stack up well, but in some cases, they actually exceed the expert’s. I’m also finding that we bestow the label expert on those who have a following (a celebrity, if you will) who happens to speak up about these issues. So an actor will quickly become an expert, although the clinician who has worked with survivors for decades does the work, can speak to theory and trends, and (as my students would say) is about that life.
I do love my career. But my career doesn’t quite have a path, per say. No linear line of progression like most other careers. You’re an educator, a clinician, or a manager (and those skill sets are all vastly different). In most fields, one could expect to work as a clinician and then become a manager. But this doesn’t work that way. Most of the managers I’ve had, have just average management skills. Practically no supervisory abilities; big-picture thinking and planning are decent, at best; but they are people persons! They can check in (a term I’ve come to hate, by the way) though like nobody’s business. A hundred times per day, if necessary. They can chat your ear off about their thoughts on whatever topic. However, listening to, or being receptive to your feedback, is a skill that has seems to have evaded them.
I’ve seen high turnover in my career. Chewing people up, spitting them out. Co-workers turned friends often speak of the long hours, with little pay and no recognition, the lack of support, the ever-changing landscape (a funder once used the term, build the plane as we’re flying it, to express how their expectations would be fluctuating from year to year, hell even week to week). Wearing down our mental health and resilience, while we empower and celebrate the mental health and resilience of others whom we serve. As I write this, I accept that these traits of my career may be similar to others. That we all may have these same things in common.
Still, that doesn’t make me feel any better about being in a one-sided relationship, where you love your career, but apparently, your career doesn’t love you.
And though this feels like an abrupt ending…it’s actually symbolic of the abrupt breakups colleagues have had with our career. No personal, hand-written thank yous to co-workers…like we would send to presenters. No warm announcements of moving on to a different career field…like we get from clients once their sessions have ended. No get togethers to toast all of the successes and memories…like we always say we should. Instead, work a zillion hours today, and gone tomorrow. Abrupt.
Yet, for me, and I’m guessing for all of us, it is the impact on survivors or clients or the children or our patients that keeps up coming back. Those that we serve, both literally and figuratively.
This back and forth is precisely what it feels like to be in love with a career that doesn’t love you in return.
I attended an informal writing workshop, and found this nugget of wisdom. Imagine you’re on a beach (or some other land mass) and two people are looking for treasure. One person is looking using a metal detector, maneuvering it back and forth, covering great distances. That person is most likely to stumble across small nuggets of treasures (such as coins), only. Another person, takes an archeological approach, and digs deep. Instead of covering a wide surface, this person expends their energy digging further down into the land. This person is more likely to come across large, impactful treasures (such as fossils).
The one treasure hunter, using the metal detector, would use moments or stories to tell a tale. The other, using the archeological approach, would use ideas, concepts, or issues to tale their tale.
I’m not sure who authored this metaphor but it spoke to me! As a writer, the idea is to go deep — explore an idea, concept, or issue further than you ever have. Give it the full complement of your time, attention, and energies. That is what makes for impactful writing. Write like an archeologist. Write deep.
I logged into my Facebook account recently, and saw a notification that it was your birthday, Tashi Nicole King. I still remember saying Hi to you on graduation day – beaming that cheery smile, wearing that natural hair, as only Eryka Badu can, radiating with the lively, yet warm spirit for which you were known.
Sadly, the birthday reminder also let me know that you’re no longer with us. That you will never get to read the birthday messages posted on your wall or hear the constant dings on your computer. That you will not be able to attend the next QU reunion in the physical sense and watch Jen dance on the bar, or Euric crack yet another sexual joke. That you will never be able to read the countless letters of love from friends and family members, pouring out their hearts to you, hanging on their last memories.
Like the time we shoved a couch in the back of your old school Range Rover, bungee corded the door closed, with Jim and Stacey laying on the couch, laughing all the way down Mt. Carmel Ave. Or like the time you broke up a party my friends and I had, and I offered a wiseass remark at the sight of seeing the RAs, and your expression was priceless. It just said really, and that was one of my first lessons on accountability that year. Or like our graduation day…
Alas, I will never get to tell you that I looked to you as a role model during our college years. Not just because you were older than us traditional-aged students, but because you were comfortable in your own skin, being who you were and not who everyone may have wanted you to be – the smile, the hair, the spirit. I found that comfort, maybe 5 or 6 days out of the never ending week…but, I was mesmerized that you were Tashi all the time.
Much like our national or cultural icons, your name has come to have a particular meaning for me. Tashi. A frees spirit, like the bird Maya Angelou writes about, if it had been uncaged. A beautiful treasure, forget the Mona Lisa, you embodied a Bob Ross painting with its breathtaking baby blue skies and happy accidents.
And I won’t pretend to have been the best of your friends, but seeing your birthday moved me. How could you be gone so soon?
And though our paths crossed for but a brief period in time, I sit here wondering what you would have been doing at this very moment, had you still been with us…and I am reminded that maybe this world was not fit for your, that maybe, just maybe, you were meant to be in another world or another universe or another lifetime. There’s no other explanation for how or why you, of all people, could be gone so soon. But maybe that’s the point. To those who knew you, there were no words to adequately or accurately describe you…similarly there is no explanation for why you left us.
What is it about life that it would take the young? Those that had barely cemented their places in the world, and, by my account anyway, have more living to do. What is it about life that it would take the kind? Those who would offer the shirt off their backs (or whatever your cliché), those that were happy and gentle and kind even in spite of adversity. What is it about life that it would take Tashi? The smile, the hair, the spirited.
As graceful as your entrance, so too was your exit. So thank you for blessing us with your presence, for making our worlds better and brighter. Thank you, Tashi, for being you, and helping us be better versions of ourselves.
Every day, I hear of adults failing the young people and teenagers in their lives. This is my letter to those adults:
Dear parents who told their daughter that she simply could not go away to college:
At this impressionable age, your daughter is bubbling over with ideas and ambitions, hope and dreams. One dream that she had was to go away to college. To be on her own, for the first time, and prove to herself, that she can make it. On her own. She wanted to go away to college, not as some sort of slight against you. But to better herself. Your decision to rid her of that college dream did more than just temporarily remove her desire to go to college. It also told her that she should not even dare to dream. She did not tell you, but you left her a broken mess. She no longer believes that she has the ability to pursue something greater than herself. You shattered that vision by insinuating it was okay to have low expectations and reach for mediocrity. Unbeknownst to you, you instilled in your daughter all sorts of self-doubt. You may as well have told her that she could not accomplish her goals, or that she did not have the capability to achieve all those aspirations she had been dreaming of since she was a little girl, or that she should not even dare to dream. Your message of mediocrity will not only affect your academic aspirations, it will also affect the relationships she makes, the people she choose to date, the career that she pursues. It will impact her life in all of these ways, and so much more. Please consider a change of heart. More than, please consider letting your little girl dream again.
The counselor who had to pick up the pieces.
If that girl were to write a letter to her parents, this is how I imagine it would read:
Dear mom and dad:
Growing up, your parental voices were seldom nurturing, and were more time authoritative screams – leaving your ears deaf to my cries. Your verbal scorchings have scarred my soul, and left me devoid of spirit, hope, or ambition. You turned your back and blockaded my every attempt at capturing your attention, when I only wanted your approval. My hopes began whole and were crushed into cubes, and then used to cool your ever distracting glass of lemonade. You became my adversarial force, incessantly ordering me to and fro, stop and go. And by ignoring me, you became parentally ignorant.
I grew lonely, and then became fed up with feeling all alone.
Your ignorance again reared its ugly head when you ignored me, taking little interest in my days at school, the teachers who belittled me in front of my classmates, and the sugary candy that made my teeth rot and my tummy ache. You sat me in front of the TV, VCR, video games, and other new technological advances, and wondered why I fell sullen and melancholic. And when I didn’t respond, I was assaulted with further tongue lashings and then, the back of your hand or your thick leather strap.
I used to fight with my brothers and sisters: the mythical standards you’ve set for us had caused me to grow ashamed, and in the process of masking my imperfections, I had in turn shamed others; both your biases and prejudices singed my soul, and left me afraid to love. But, I no longer feel alone. In my peers I now confide – though we are both as green as budding stems. I would have rather learn from their experiences than sip from your tainted glass. My soul was on the verge of dying, just as yours has already. Yet the passion and zeal of my youth just will not let me go gentle into that good night. That’s from a poem I read in English class. You know, the class I told you I loved so much and wanted to study in college. Only to hear you laugh in my face at how I would never become a writer or be able to support myself by majoring in English. Thanks for the encouragement.
This latest fiasco dealt me a major blow. By telling me that I could not go to college, you may as well have told me that I shouldn’t even dare to dream.
Your daughter who’s gone to pieces
“I want to show you something,” Amanda said, leading Ashleigh inside the brick castle that resembled a dungeon. In and out of small entries, and climbing steps that felt as if they would give out at any minute, they walked to the top of the castle, until they finally spilled onto the roof.
Ashleigh gasped. The view was breathtaking. Row upon rows of trees stretched as far as she could see, yet they felt so close that she could almost touch them. The foliage was the most brilliant shades of canary yellow, pumpkin orange, forest green, and scarlet red that Ashleigh ever remembered seeing. The view was beyond stunning, it was surreal. A view that you could only find on a postcard, or in a Bob Ross painting. Nestled in the mountains, in a small New England town, a small part of Ashleigh began to heal as she allowed herself to feel lost in the beauty and charm of what would be her home over the next four years.
“After everything I’ve been through with your father,” Amanda whispered, as she stood next to her daughter, taking in the view of Quinnipiac. “I’m not going to tell you to not let this affect you, or tell you that time heals all wounds, or something bullshit like that.”
“Thanks mom,” Ashleigh said, leaning her head on her mother’s shoulder. She loved that her mother cursed. It showed that her mother was chill, and actually gave a shit, unlike most parents who were caught up in their image and what people think of them.
“But, I brought you up here today, Ash, because I found this on the Quinnipiac website, and thought you might like to see how beautiful this place is.” A single tear rolled down Amanda’s face. In a few months, Amanda knew she would be losing her pumpkin, her pride and joy, the only reason she left her abusive, ex-husband.
“I know you’re into landscapes and stuff like that,” Amanda continued. “So I thought you’d appreciate this view.”
“It’s fucking unbelievable,” Ashleigh whispered.
Amanda didn’t mind that her daughter cursed. For her, it was the one vice Ashleigh was allowed to have. Besides, she told herself. I can’t really get mad at her when I curse like a sailor. And sometimes, saying fuck makes everything feel better.
“I thought you’d like it,” Amanda added. “I also wanted you to see,” she continued. “That life can get better. I know it may not seem like it now. With everything that you’ve just went through, I know it may feel like life hates you. But it doesn’t,” she reassured her daughter. “I can’t tell you why this happened to you, all I can do is be there for you. And I’ll always be there.”
Ashleigh found a comfortable spot in her mother’s arms, and wept. Amanda kissed her daughter on the top of the head, the way she did when Ashleigh was a little girl.
“I just want you to know that I’m here for you,” Amanda said. “Day or night, whether I’m at work or,” she stopped, searching her mind for the most mundane task to complete her analogy. “Or I’m cleaning the bathroom. And you know how much I love cleaning the bathroom.”
They both giggled. Amanda’s aversion to cleaning the bathroom meant Ashleigh and Kevin were constantly on bathroom duty.
“I’m here for you pumpkin, whenever you need to call, I’m here for you. And I know it doesn’t seem like it right now, but there is beauty in life, and you’re going to be attending the most beautiful school in the world.”
Ashleigh took out her cell phone, and snapped a picture of the view. Then she put her arm around her mother’s neck, and took a selfie.
“I don’t want you to let what happened to you, stop you from following your dreams and pursuing your goals,” Amanda said.
“No one can make you feel inferior without your consent,” Ashleigh whispered.
“That’s right pumpkin,” Amanda said, giving her daughter another kiss.
“What if I said I wanted to study English,” Ashleigh asked. Part of her knew this wasn’t the right time to bring up her a change in career plans, the other part of her knew there would never be an opportune time.
“Then study English,” Amanda said. “Don’t think you have to study social work for me, and don’t think you have to study occupational therapy because you volunteered with grandma. I just want you to be happy, and if studying English makes you happy, study the hell out of it.”
Ashleigh laughed. It was surprising and reassuring to hear her mother’s approval.
“You can accomplish anything you put your mind to,” Amanda continued. “Don’t let some asshole stop you from following your dreams. Do so, in spite of him. In the words of my favorite movie,” Amanda said.
“Cause fuck him, that’s why,” they both said, and Amanda smiled.
Dug into my writing jar this morning, and found the word Expansion. Here’s a brief interpretation of Expansion, and what it could mean to one person.
Expansion, as in expanding one’s mind, one’s perspective, or one’s value system.
Theresa took stock of her current state. She could feel her hands and fingers intact. She could breathe – at least she felt as though she were breathing. She could open her eyes, and when she did, he was no longer there.
There in her apartment, in Hoboken, New Jersey. A floor above the guy she saw everyday on her morning run. An apartment shared with her college roommate, her best friend in the entire world. There in her apartment, she hoped she was alone; it was the first time she remembered ever feeling this way – wanting to be alone. Before he came along, she had always associated wanting to be alone with, well, loners – kids at her school she and her friends joked were socially awkward, or weirdos, what the hell is his problem.
It was a tough way for Theresa to learn about expansion. But now, underneath the covers in her bed, all alone in her apartment, wishing to God he had left, she had become one of those kids. Someone she knew someone else would say what the hell is her problem when she was in their midst.
After what he did to her, Theresa felt herself expand.
The shape, the mask, the music. Everything about the movie “Halloween”, used to scare the shit out of me. Back when I was a kid. Who saw shadows even in the darkness. Who heard noises and never knew that houses settled. Who ran from the boogeyman as soon as the lights went out, terrified that he might do to me what he did to them.
All grown up now, I no longer believe in the boogeyman. Not that boogeyman at least. Not the one that wheels a large kitchen knife or has an appetite for blood. No, this boogeyman is different.
I remember telling myself that work – a profession or even a career – was just an entity that helped earn an income. That it didn’t have any other value besides that. Until this past summer, when I began to feel him following me.
I’ve been a stay-at-home dad for a little over 5 months. It’s a never-ending job, really. One that cannot be quantified in the typical 9-5pm time frame…knows no boundaries (my daughter regularly bursts in the door when I am using the bathroom)…and does not allow you to take sick days or go on a break. Sure, it doesn’t produce income in the traditional sense; but it does produce years of nurturance and emotional connection. Priceless memories that I will cherish forever. Teaching my son how to swing from monkey bars. Basking in my daughter’s laughter as she chases bubbles.
And yet, because I have not been acquiring income in the traditional sense, I saw a silhouette of his figure behind every bush. Reminding me that I should be working.
Work. That entity that most of my employed friends tell me they wished they were doing differently. My best friend from college is a veterinarian but wishes he raced cars. Another friend in the corporate world longs for a career making and selling her own wine. Not exempt, in my previous job, I wanted to be an author and leadership trainer. All craving a different life. Or, at least, a different part of life. Even when we have it, we want something different. The boogeyman, feasting on our hopes and dreams, until they become the nightmares scaring us to death.
I try tell myself work shouldn’t define me this much, knowing it’s not the truth. Everything piece of academic and intellectual fruit I’ve eaten since my days as an undergrad tells me differently. That everything I did in college and beyond was for work – so that I could have a job, and always have access to a job. That while work does not have to define you, it should be a strong part of you. That if you’re not working, it had better be for a good damn reason; otherwise, you are the issue – it’s not work’s fault you’re unemployed. That as a man, you have but a few purposes in life, and work is one of them, if the primary one.
That’s when the bone-chilling music runs through me. When I know I cannot escape the thoughts. I. Should. Be. Working. Looking for relief, I step into the next room, and stop. He’s staring right at me. Expressionless mask. Blue jumpsuit. Fingers wrapped around a kitchen knife. Shit, I better run.
I had a conversation with a friend recently, and he admitted he was in a rut. He’s in his mid-twenties, has a great career (he’s a lawyer, for god sakes!), lives on his own, is single and ready to mingle, and is your typical bachelor. But, still, he’s stuck in a rut.
He wasn’t the only friend who professed this to me. Another friend who lives in Boston (well, just outside of Boston, really, like most people who live in Boston) and is ready to party as soon as his phone starts to buzz. He is a manager at his job and by all means is successful. Yet, he feels stuck.
Another one of my friends lives in Connecticut also feels their pain. She is unhappy, but not miserable at work – which only means she doesn’t really like her job, and it’s not what she wants to do (although she doesn’t really know what she actually wants to do); but her job is not terrible enough to make her quit. Beyond work, she’s out partying every Saturday, at Happy Hour every Friday, and has Girls Nights about once a month. She vacations with her girl friends and has heart-to-hearts anytime she needs. Despite that, something’s missing.
If that wasn’t enough, another friend from New Hampshire, who is married, has two children, and makes six figures (which makes my puny paycheck look like crap!), wishes he could go back. He loves his life now — his wife, his children, dog, white-picket fence, and all that nuclear family jazz – but every now and then, he talks about the way things used to be.
And then there’s me.
We’re all afflicted by it. The life that was. What’s haunting us can’t be found in the DSM, and can’t be cured with a pill. We have no physiological deficits, and we’re not suffering from PTSD.
Our problem is we have already frolicked through the fields of heaven, so the circumstances we’re going through now simply feel like purgatory. We’re all wishing we could somehow fuse our lives now with our lives from back then. We all wish we could return to a life that was.
We’re all going through the quarter-life crisis, in our own way. Here’s how my quarter-life crisis started.