I have been lost since I graduated college. Adult life has been a mystery to me. School made sense. Classes were laid out, routines were in place, expectations were clear. At the end of that road was an award of sorts, a degree. What I was going to do with it wasn’t really the point. The point was I would earn it, I would have it, and somehow I was then certified to be an adult whatever that meant.
I liked school. I have been pleasantly afflicted with a deep love for learning. There is almost nothing I like better than to understand how things are connected, how they work. The minute details of events at the molecular level fascinate me. Oh the intricate mechanisms of a chemical reaction. The personality of particle behaviors and the psychology of an atom. Why does an electron move from vibrating around one nucleus to another? To understand this even in part feeds my soul as well as my brain. Learning these facts is like a tasting a particularly delicious piece of candy. Maybe a skittle or a dark chocolate truffle. But also profoundly moving like a hymn, or a prayer. Science is my spirituality.
My bachelor degree is in biology and chemistry. I chose to study those subjects without any desire to work in a scientific field. As moronic as that statement and the following one may sound both are true. I went to college because I loved school, because I received a full ride for running, and also, because what the hell else was I going to do? It was the natural next step but not because I had a career in mind. I had no plans beyond learning botany or biochemistry for pleasure and qualifying for nationals every season.
But May 2004 arrived. A diploma was earned and suddenly I was displaced. I had my first real job in a lab in South Bend, Indiana. I got my first apartment. And I entered depression almost immediately. College, school, all my life experience had prepared me in no real way to live outside of a system of highly structured learning.
I was adrift for over ten years. During that time I was married and divorced then married again. I wore many hats and none of them fit comfortably. Lab jobs especially were an abysmal failure. It’s almost hilarious how painfully blind I was to my own inner compass. I hated working in labs for most of my college science classes. Every Tuesday and Thursday I endured the torture of being stuck in a soulless room filled with humming machinery while I crunched numbers and prepared samples. I was in hell if that process took any longer than three hours. Four hours or longer frazzled my nerves and brought out the profanity in me.
How on earth did I expect to find satisfaction in a lab job working forty hours a week under those exact same conditions? The unfortunate truth for many of us is we have been taught emotionally to do what is expected of us or what seems practical instead of listening to and trusting our internal compass. Most of us are not taught introspection or to give value to the input from our emotional minds. I was taught by example to value practicality over preference and I felt a degree in science made the most sense. I loved learning about scientific subjects so that must mean something right? Also I knew I would have no problem landing a job with a degree in science. It never occurred to me whether or not I would want to keep it once I had it.
I returned to school after the whole lab thing didn’t pan out. I earned a teaching certificate in hopes that I might somehow use my original degree, thereby validating the four years I spent earning it. To be fair, I believe I was very good at teaching. I am organized, creative, compassionate, and at times, I love to be the center of attention. I enjoyed the personalities of all of my students and I was able to predict a lot of the hang-ups they might encounter learning a difficult concept. I prepared stepping stones to understanding whereby I led minds carefully to each idea that eventually linked to the larger picture. First the trees and then the forest. I made space in my mind and in my classroom for students to be liked for who they were. I did everything I could to be as good at teaching as I could be. It was not sustainable.
I now recognize that I am unchangeably introverted. Navigating my internal world consumes most of my life energy. Thinking about and interacting with other people all day was a slow drowning. I tried so beautifully hard to make it as a teacher. Why could I not be like everyone else? Why did going to work feel like it was killing me a little bit each day? I felt like a failure for so long. Why could I not adapt to what most of the population is able to do easily? Why was a forty hour work week so punishing for me that I could hardly convince myself to keep living?
I was not prepared to fail. No part of my training had prepared me for this scenario. That I might not succeed at having a normal career never occurred to me. Yet here I was, with all the correct qualifications and skills to be a teacher, or a lab tech, or a case worker or whatever and no matter what I did I was miserable. I wanted so badly to understand what was wrong with me so I could fix it and move the fuck on with my life but there was no simple answer. I was utterly lost. I had literally come to the end of a rope. I had no understanding, no inkling of how to behave or what to think. I could not proceed as I was and I could not imagine how to proceed differently.
What does one do when one finds oneself an outlier to the mathematical question of life? My answer was to fight to be included, to force my sweet soul towards alteration. I ripped myself in places where the pattern required an opening and sutured and silenced the openings where a seam was dictated. I injured myself to be acceptable. I am not exaggerating when I say I became suicidal. Life as I made it was worse than annihilation. If I were not, at least then, at LEAST then, I would be at peace.
But there is another way my love. There is another way and I could not have seen the path for me because there was no path. All my short years I had been shown a paved road. Sign-posts in friendly bright colors at expected intervals met me, reassuring me that I was heading in the correct direction. I graduated college and the pavement abruptly ended and I stood terrified at the perimeter of the woods of my own being in the vehicle of my beliefs and education . All that I owned, all that I was was either inside or about that car and suddenly I could no longer use it.
I took a chainsaw to the wood to make space for the car and I felt every felled tree like an incision in my skin. As I lay mourning, choking on the sawdust of my own raped soul, not even a quarter of a mile into this unruly wild, I knew with everything in me that I would rather expire than go forward as I was. Let my atoms return to the larger universe and perhaps be reorganized into something more successful. I whispered kindly to the fallen how deeply sorry I was for their massacre. I explained humbly that I had to try. I had to know beyond all doubt that I was unable to drive through this. Then I accepted that I must abandon what I used to believe I had to be and find out what I really was.
It’s an attractive idea – a calling. The notion that if we listen in the correct direction there is an instructional lyric on the wind, a purpose-filled melody vibrating through the universe waiting for us to tune in and finally understand what our life is supposed to be about. I can not connect with the idea of a calling that can be translated perfectly into a paycheck, a position, or a fixed identity associated with something I do.
If I have one, my vocation is to be alive, to listen quite literally to my body and its rhythms – Every. Single. Moment. And to honor and trust what I find there. And to understand and learn about what I find there without asking it to mutate into something more acceptable. My career is learning about being this human and how to connect with, nurture, celebrate, accept, and love other humans. I earn money by working part-time doing what is livable to me to provide just enough for me to live modestly. I don’t care about status and I don’t equate acquiring with success. I am lucky enough to have a husband who is comfortable with being the primary provider. I am deeply, timelessly grateful for this gift. I must say that even if I lived alone, I would work just enough to provide for myself so that I could live as I do now with many hours to dedicate to wandering with kind inquisitiveness through my own personal existence.
All of us come to the wilderness. It may be a through a loss of a loved one or the loss of a skill we associate closely with our identity. It might be a change in employment or simply ageing that brings you here. We all, invariably, come up against the unbearably unknown through loss and change. There will be plenty of people who have a prescription for this situation. You may find what you need or part of what you need in the words and experience of others. To those of you for whom no advice has yet helped, I offer you perfect permission to abandon all instruction.
You can neither know this place nor navigate it as you have your past life.
No one else has gone before you here – your internal universe is private with large and subtle variations from everyone else’s so there is no path and no correct answer.
To survive and to thrive, into your own mind you must go.
Go gently as a respectful observer.
You will know what to do when you are able to truly face what you find inside of yourself
even if it is only what you must do at this moment on this day.
In this wilderness, this lost place, you are safe dear one. You are safe and exactly where you should be although you did not plan it. Relax and breathe and as you are able to, explore this place honestly. It may hurt profoundly at times and that’s okay too. The key is to be honest with yourself, to embrace what you are even if it doesn’t fit what you think you want or what you expected or prepared to find. Peace is found in accepting and working with what is. Here, in your own new world, to know the forest, you must first be brave enough to see the trees.