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Leaning In

Life is weird. If being an autonomous agent in this world teaches you anything, it’s that. You can plan and scheme and outline your entire future – or even just your morning – and everything can change without pomp or circumstance, without some clouds parting or an internal voice telling you “This is your moment.”

Things change. People change. We get older and more tired. But something that few of us leave behind fully is a taste for life, for the sweet, sometimes unexpected bits sprinkled into our daily existence like toppings over ice cream. And right as you’re squaring your jaw, drawing a hard line, you break into that bizarre, alien sweetness – an experience that, again, throws you off balance just enough to make you pivot and change course.

This past year has been full of heartache and changes. We’ve said gut-wrenching goodbyes, moved from a desert to FernGully, had plenty of hiccups, and started all over again.

As freeing as moving here and there can be, I’ve found myself waiting for that inevitable push elsewhere, using a bad day or passerby’s glare to fuel some choking ember into an inferno – raging and demanding change, being that ostensible evidence that I belong somewhere else.

Not long after we rooted in Seattle, we both started having misgivings. Perhaps we succumbed to Seattle’s permeating dampness, its seemingly impenetrable gray skies; or maybe we just needed something in the world around us to reflect our internal dialogue. So, yet again, we vowed that perpetual motion was the only way out of this overwhelming, emotionally draining welter. And where better to funnel our efforts than toward the place where we first met, where we first made a home together – on the other side of the country.

Returning to a place you consider home almost seems a given these days. Or maybe it’s just a product of getting older, realigning priorities – all of those revelatory moments you witness onscreen and never imagine actually taking hold in your own consciousness, made audible by your two lips and shaky vocal chords. And for a while, we began to pave our road back to Raleigh, imagine house-hunting around our old haunts, remembering all of the goodness we shared with family – genetic and chosen. But, as I’ve said, life happens.

***

A few minutes into my 90-day review, I know everything is about to change. My director is leaving the organization, and I know with the utmost certainty that it’s only a matter of weeks before the other member of our dwindling department raises anchor and sets sail too. I swallow. I smile. I say all the things a professional would – interjecting humor where necessary, blunting cynicism with sarcasm.

And so the shift begins. A week after she leaves, my other teammate departs, as I’d suspected he would. So, it’s down to me.

This is it. There’s no point investing my time or energy here. 

But the departmental chaos reveals a chance to propel up the ladder a few rungs faster than I’d imagined. Coupled with a few other wrenches that’ve been thrown our way, we have a lot to consider, more than a few decisions to make.

***

It’s easy to run away; it’s harder to stay, absorb, learn, grow as much as you can, and have confidence that, no matter what, you’re doing something because you want to – not because you have to, or because it’s what’s expected at this point in life.

So, we’re leaning in. We’re staying in Seattle – for now.

We’re acknowledging that where we are today is incredibly different from where we were in May, when we first set foot in the Pacific Northwest. And that’s a good thing. And we owe it to ourselves to keep making it as good as possible, to let the ink dry on this latest map we’ve scribbled down before wetting the quill again and drafting a new one.

For me, the scariest character in all of our conversations has been that familiar specter – the great and powerful Unknown, which gobbles up fear and optimism, dreams and nightmares. And we never know if what we entrust to it will ever manifest down the line in some guise – vindicating or damning us.

But at some point we have to look beyond the paths we see ahead of us and take stock of what encompasses them – limitless beauty and opportunity and, yes, that terrifying, ghoulish Unknown bathing in a soup of ambiguity.

Left, right, back, or none of the above?

You can yoke yourself to the trite saying “There’s a time and place for everything and everyone” – that when you hit some arbitrary number of years on this earth, you must fall in line.

Or, you can acknowledge that there’re lots of places, and time enough to do some exploring.

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Won’t You Be My Future?

I wholeheartedly assumed tonight was going to involve a tumbler, a few ice cubes, and a splash of Grey Goose. Then again, I must’ve misread the day’s ominous, plague-like signs: a mouse, a frog, a coworker crying over the phone to her mother.

Or maybe, just maybe, I’ve grown up a little.

That’s not to say ye olde after-work cocktail won’t occasionally be conjured out of a few bottles. Rather, it’s me acknowledging that, sometimes, it’s harder to whine and drink than it is to thicken my skin.

Life is messy, so I might as well get used to it.

Pollocked Facade

And adulthood is hard. Sometimes, it’s entirely overrated. But there’re times when I look around and think, “Huh, maybe I’m not such a lazy sack after all. Maybe I can do this.”

Then I rally for a short time, conquer some menial task peripherally related to this, and veg on the couch, assuming I’ve somehow convinced the universe—or at least my gullible self—that I deserve some downtime, a reprieve from the work I’ve accomplished.

But winching my wagon to a dream, and pulling it out of its current rutted path, isn’t going to be easy. And I’ll never experience a cathartic payoff if I don’t take the first steps to change my course. Unless I want to continue hitchhiking along the Bitter-Bitchy-Catty-Queen Highway, arriving everywhere but my desired destination.  

I’ve always succeeded in psyching myself out of going for the proverbial it. After all, it’s been easier to fall back on an anxiety-stuffed, disconcertingly comfy emotional cushion instead of failing hard and busting my coccyx.

Then again, the fall might not be as painfully hard as I think, and failure often has an annoyingly silver lining.

Plus, I might not fall at all.

But the only way for me to know is to stop circling the “Maybe” on the mentally-scrawled, sixth grade-style “Will You Be My Future?” note that arrives in my frontal lobe after every temper tantrum.

Better yet, I should stop writing it in the first place.

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The Great Unknown

The irreverent wrapper-crinkling garnered a glance from a nearby conference-goer. Seconds later, mid-way through my foodgasmic rendition of an Herbal Essences commercial, I got more than a few consternated stares and even more furrowed brows.

So maybe a church wasn’t the best place to indulge my slightly sordid, truffle-inspired culinary ecstasy. Still, it wasn’t my fault that the little blobs of joy were eyes-rolling-back-in-my-head good.

Plus, the whole venue was a little repressive, and the guy on the cross was a major buzzkill.

While my sweet, sweet sacrilege left the more pious in the crowd exasperated, my taste buds thanked me. Actually, if they had little knees, they’d probably get down and praise the cacao gods.

Alright, enough religiosity. I’m beginning to have flashbacks to my altar boy years.

And we don’t want that.

***

The night before—somewhere between eating part of a Playboy Roll and realizing I was having a really, really good hair day—I found myself banging on a parking garage pay machine, yelling, “Where the fuck is my money?!”

That is, until I looked down and realized the dispensed change was peppered with Sacajawea dollars. (Yes, they’re still used as legal tender. Who knew?) So, that particular anger mismanagement moment was wholly unnecessary. Especially since it caused the Prius driver behind me to lock her doors. Then again, if I’d reserved a room at a downtown hotel, I wouldn’t have had to accost machines and demand their papery tribute.

Or scare eco-conscious drivers.

Instead, I ended up at a quality establishment approximately 500 miles away. There, along with my room keys, I received a handout listing area attractions. And there it was, directly beneath Biltmore Estate: Super Walmart.

Because when you go to Asheville, you go not for the Smoky Mountains National Park or the revitalized historic downtown, but the quintessential marker of American consumerist consumption.

You decide to which I’m referring.

***

Regardless of my far-flung accommodations, I made the most of it. Because when a conference is held in a trendy, historic area, there’s no shortage of foodie places for hanging out and getting bombed. I mean, er, networking.

And while the pumpkin-spice tortellini and chocolate crème brûlée and champagne-bookstore were amazing, the most poignant moment came at the end.

And isn’t that always the way? Right when you think you can mentally pack your bags and hit “Shuffle,” something smacks you across the face and shakes your shoulders.

Like a random, passing statement between two strangers.

“It’s very frightening to me, the whole unknown of it.”

I know, I know. What’s the big deal? It wasn’t some ad hoc sonnet or poem–nothing earth-shattering. 

But isn’t it bizarrely beautiful? And with such perfect delivery.

In her mid-forties, the woman sat on a stairway in a tailored suit, one hand massaging her neck and the other gesturing—her fingers entertaining a nearly spent cigarette–to a tall man in a worn tweed suit and tie. Her eyes sparkled, yet conveyed defeat. The sun beamed, and the air carried a chill, along with a few withered, colored leaves.

Albeit fleeting, the exchange jarred me to such a degree that, after I passed by, I pulled out my journal and jotted everything down, along with the time: 4:35 PM.

And why is the time important, you might wonder? Well, it’s not.

At least not right now.

But when I’m flipping back through my journal years into the future, years into the unknown, I can know that, at that particular place and time on September 20, a stranger reminded me that I’m constantly flirting with the future.

And I’ll never know what relationship I’ll have with it, nor how it will curl around my life’s edges like wind around leaves–coloring it with experience, carrying it along a new path.