A Year

A year ago this week I started my job in Washington. We recently had our good-bye party where everyone congregated and we announced what we would be doing with our lives after Carnegie: where we would be going, what we would be doing. Several of my friends are going to graduate school, a few are working for other think tanks. One is pursuing a job that involves puppies (envious) and one is moving to Thailand. As I told everyone that I would be moving to India, I vividly flashed-back to our welcome party that had taken place in the same room twelve months ago. I recalled introducing myself for the first time. I recalled being so nervous that I forgot my boss’s last name when I said who I was going to be working with (Milan-if you ever read this, sorry). I recalled how the group of us stood awkwardly together, stiff strangers bonded by circumstance and mutual fear.
    This time we stood together calmly, comfortably. And as each of my friends said where life would be taking them in the coming weeks, I smiled at them proudly, sadly, and knowingly as I experienced the same sadness I did last June at graduation. Sometimes the hardest good-byes aren’t the ones with the people we love the most. We leave pieces of ourselves with them when we go and we miss them more when we are apart, but we will see them again because our lives are intertwined. Sometimes the hardest partings are the ones with people with which we have just barely scratched the surface: the ones we wish we had just a little bit more time with and don’t know if we will ever see again. I think I will, though. I hope I do.
    It’s rare to find a group of people who are remarkably intelligent, but not above getting a little too silly and throwing marshmallows at each other. I consider myself lucky to have gone from one community of compassionate, down-to-earth, curious kids to another. So thank you, Carleton and Carnegie.
    Never has a period of time gone by so quickly, nor have I been able to see a more profound change in myself when looking back to where I was at the same time the previous year: what I have done and what I am ready for, what I know about myself and how I see the world. Granted, transitions and life lessons are never actually neat and organized into calendar months, but looking back, there were many things I learned this year that both came to me gradually and hit me with a sudden and forceful push.


    I had lived in D.C. once before I moved here last August and—at the time—was desperate to get out of Northfield, Minnesota. For personal and professional reasons, I needed to escape the town of cows, colleges, and contentment and surround myself with more action. Carleton had a ‘study abroad’ program where students live in Washington D.C. while attending classes two days a week and working an internship for the other three. Having spent most of my life in small towns and suburbs, I threw myself into city life. And I didn’t just adopt the lifestyle of any city go-er: I was a D.C. dweller. Every weekend I was brunching (a very D.C. thing to do, I learned) and I saturated my calendar with ‘networking’ events and public lectures on various global subjects. I never stopped moving and loved every moment of it.
    The second time around was different though. I left Carleton with a heavy heart, spent my summer roaming the United States, and drove away from Texas realizing that that summer was probably the last time I would ever return home for any substantial period of time. I was an ‘adult’ now that would have to take vacation days for Christmas and no longer automatically rely on my old home as my place of refuge and return when I was transitioning. My heart had grown warm and young and slow in summer. The city—with its flashy restaurants, polished suits, and constant buzz—was too much. I was overwhelmed by the noises and people and pressures. And at work I was thrust into a world I knew nothing about, studying political histories and happenings of parties and places whose names I couldn’t pronounce. I spent my evenings playing catch up, trying to read and absorb as much as I could to appear competent at work, but no matter how hard I kicked, I felt like my head was always just barely above water.
    But after a few weeks, the political parties and acronyms no longer sounded like gibberish. A fog had lifted over my head I suddenly found myself making connections to things I previously wouldn’t have. I fell into step with those around me and didn’t come home at the end of the day exhausted by the residual hustle of the city. Lesson learned, just keep swimming.


    One of the biggest adjustments to my new life was being very aware that I was almost always alone. I sat eight feet away from people all day, but before 9am and after 5pm my life was mostly solitary. My roommate was spending ungodly hours in lab taking care of her pregnant mice or studying for the MCAT, which often made me feel like I was living alone—something I had never done. The friends I was slowly making all had their own lives and schedules and we weren’t at the level of comfort yet to just call each other on a whim and hang out. And so my time was mine. My weekends for the first several weeks fluctuated between solitary evenings in bed reading or watching X-Files and late (most likely drunken) nights with my new friends. But even when I did go out with friends, I came home alone (most often to watch Disney movies). Having all of this time to myself was foreign to me, both because I had lived five minutes away from my closest friends for four years and because I had recently gotten out of a long relationship (which had been preceded by more long relationships). I wasn’t used to the quiet. I wasn’t used to being my own source of company. As silly as it sounds, I wasn’t used to being alone with my thoughts because I had always had someone to share them with or to being the sole keeper of my time because I have always had to intimately accommodate another human’s schedule. Yet, instead of wallowing or being consumed by it, I thrived. I could choose to maintain the silence, organizing my thoughts. Or I could choose to fill the silence with music. My music. I spent so many evenings cooking and singing, playing the newest song I had fallen in love with on repeat for an hour and singing loudly in my tiny kitchen just because I could. Every decision I made was my own and that was a certain freedom I hadn’t had in a very long time. It was about time that I learned the truth that alone doesn’t have to be lonely.


    As much as I was enjoying the solitude of my new life, my best friend’s visit in October was much needed. Chantal came to D.C. for five days before leaving the country for two years with the Peace Corps. She was going to be stationed in Burkina Faso (a country I admit I knew nothing about) and I knew that—while I was intent on visiting her—I wouldn’t see her for a very, very long time. And any communication we had would be limited and probably infrequent. We explored the city a little bit, but mostly just took advantage of each other’s company. Her visit went by all too quickly and I sent her off with a teary goodbye. Shortly after she left I received some heartbreaking news. My grandma—who had just celebrated her 90th birthday—was in the hospital. I spoke to her once on the phone, but even her sharp tongue was worn. She died a few days after being admitted, surrounded by those she loved and a community of people who respected her greatly. To worsen the blow of losing a loved one, the funeral was going to take place that weekend, which meant I had to cancel a trip to Boston to see some of my closest friends from college for Halloween. There was no question that I would go to say goodbye to her and see my family, but I had been itching to see and hold my friends since June. My tears the night before I left for the funeral were for my grandma, but also for them because I missed them more than words.
    Despite the tearful goodbyes and the moments of intense missing, Chantal and I talk as frequently as we can. I got to see my friends recently for a reunion that felt like we had never been apart and I think of my grandma often. Some partings seem more permanent than others, but it’s never goodbye.


    One of the routines I had carved out almost immediately when I moved here was exercise. I have always had an on-again-off-again relationship with fitness. I know it is good for me and I do genuinely enjoy certain forms of it, but as a girl who spent her childhood in bed reading and did debate in high school, sports or any other kind of physical activity has never been a consistent part of my life. In the last two years, though, I have built up my athletic capabilities and started running, lifting weights, and dabbling in different kind of exercise. But it has never been anything particularly challenging or regular. So, it was equally as surprising to me as it was to my family and friends when I joined a boxing gym soon after moving and started going 4-5 times a week…at 5 in the morning. I somehow trained my body to wake up before the sun, run two miles to the gym, box for an hour, and run back. Lately I have been struggling to get out of bed at 7:45 and every time my alarm goes off and I groan at the clock in protest I think, how on earth did I ever get up at 5? Maybe one day I will have that kind of dedication again, but right now I am content to sleep.
    My ridiculous schedule had a wrench thrown in it when I hurt my heel. One morning on my run back from boxing, a sharp pain began to pinch at my right heel to the point where I had to stop and walk. When I got home I changed for work, but was unable to put on the shoes I normally do because any kind of pressure on my heel was too painful. For the next two months I iced my foot every evening and wore sandals to work (this look got even cooler when it was cold and I had to start wearing socks with them) to avoid any stiff surface rubbing against my swollen tendon. Having just adjusted to exercising so vigorously, I was going crazy over my inability to do so anymore. I tried yoga (a form of fitness that requires no shoes), but holding any position that strained my achilles was too painful. As the weeks went on I could feel my body changing in ways I didn’t like as a result of my idleness, and old insecurities began to bubble to the surface. I realized that most attempts to exercise were just aggravating my foot and denying it the chance to heal. What I needed to do was rest it completely and get over myself. I knew in the moment that this injury would soon be just a blip, a moment in my life that I wouldn’t remember. But that doesn’t change the fact that when unexpected things set you back, it is hard to focus on anything else. I reminded myself daily that my body was healthy, that at least I had a foot, and that my ‘problem’ paled in comparison to the challenges most people face every day. This attitude slowly permeated almost every other part of my life and I found myself responding more patiently to all frustrating situations (you know, the little things that can ruin your day if you let them). About two months later, I put on a shoe and remember skipping for joy and thinking to myself that the key to this kind of peace was to always have perspective.


    As intent as I was on being single for my year in D.C., I ended up dating someone a few months after I arrived. We met through a mutual friend and started seeing each other fairly regularly. Though I was opposed to making a commitment so quickly, he was very kind and funny and a good partner with which to explore a new city. It was a lot of fun, as most relationships are at the beginning, and full of newness and intrigue. By December, though, things felt differently. My motivation at work was lacking, as was my excitement about my relationship. The enthusiasm I had felt when I first started both my job and relationship was gone and I felt like I was going through the motions in every aspect of my life. While home for Christmas, the distance and time to reflect allowed me to start being honest with myself about things I had refused to see before, lost in the throes of a new job and romance: maybe research wasn’t for me and maybe this relationship wasn’t either. Thus ensued the classic conflict between a head that tells you that you should want what is in front of you and a heart that is saying—while everything may be perfect on paper—it isn’t what you want. This job was everything I could have asked for in my first position after college: prestigious, well-paid, full of connections. I was learning so much and my boss was fabulous. I thought it was what I wanted. And after a long turbulent relationship, I thought all I wanted was something easy with someone kind. I had lost hope (at least for the time being) of finding something more, something magical. I should have been happier, but something was missing. Having always been one to stick things out, to make the best of what is in front of me, to work things out for the benefit of others above myself, I was finally ready to admit that I was in a rut in my relationship and in my life. I needed to change something, to try something.  Most of all, I needed to listen to my gut and never settle.


    The new year brought the change I needed. I started taking Hindi at a local language school around the corner from my office and, shortly after, started a class on how to teach English to non-native speakers. Hindi was Monday nights for three hours after work and English class was Saturdays and Sundays, 8-5pm, for three weeks. I was essentially working seven days a week, in addition to taking Hindi Monday nights, tutoring Tuesday nights, and finding time to do homework on the other three. I was busy, sure, but I’ve learned that it isn’t business that burns me out. It is too much of the same thing. These classes were just what I needed: some structure, a challenge, a chance to be social, a break from an aimless routine, and a source of instant accomplishment. Flashcards are boring, but I could look at the letters and words I learned every night and know that I was more knowledgeable than I had been a few hours before. Within two weeks I was reading words in Hindi (I only knew what a handful of them meant, but that is besides the point). Doing homework every night was tedious, but I craved the progress. As much as I thought sacrificing my weekends was going to be difficult, I loved my English teaching course. I left every class with a renewed sense of motivation and direction. I hadn’t felt so excited about something in a very long time and I felt my recent suspicions confirmed: I needed to work with people. More specifically, children. Learning new teaching methods and theories, practicing activities, and reflecting on all of the jobs I have had working with tiny humans ignited something inside of me; a flame I knew I needed to follow. I was sad to see it go when the three weeks was up, but even though it was over, it had done its job. If you feel unmotivated, like something is lacking…dare to do something.


    That teaching class in January not only revitalized my drive and sense of purpose, it introduced me to someone incredibly special. I noticed a handsome brown-eyed man the first day of class, having caught my eye only a few minutes after I walked in. He was sitting on the opposite side of the room, but I quickly learned his name when we went around and introduced ourselves: Justin. Throughout the day we did exercises in groups, sometimes numbering ourselves off and jumbling the seating arrangement to sit with those of our same number so that we weren’t stuck only talking to the people to our left and right. At the very end of day one I ended up sitting next to him and stuck up a conversation. He yawned and I said, ‘Wake up’. It was genius. The following week I snagged his phone number under the guise of working on our lesson plans. Also genius. The final week of class I made a move, got a smooch (the most genius of all), and a week later we had our first date. From the very beginning I knew it was special and I knew he knew it too.
    The only problem with dating someone you meet in a class on how to teach English abroad is that odds are both of your futures will soon diverge in different directions across the globe. He was thinking about going to China or South Korea, I wanted to go to India, and neither of us had the guts to defy social norms outright and make a commitment to one another that far in advance and for that long after such a short amount of time. About six weeks went by and we were approaching two pathways. One was personal: we had reached the point in our relationship where we felt comfortable making plans with each other a few months in advance. But none of those plans went past July, which was where the second pathway came into play. We needed to start applying for teaching jobs if we wanted a start date in the fall. With uncertain eyes, but quite certain hearts, we figured that while it could end up being a huge mistake, it would be an even bigger one to throw something so amazing away. You have to take a chance on someone at some point, right? So we decided to travel together—closing our eyes and crossing our fingers—and have been kicking it ever since. I’ll spare you the mushy details (because I could write pages about this man), but this is the best relationship I have ever been in. The first few weeks seemed like a dream and sometimes I needed to shut my eyes, take a breath and think: Yes, you can be this happy.


    When the weather started getting a little warmer, I realized that my time in D.C. was already two thirds of the way up and panicked a little. Despite the fact that my plate was full with Hindi, tutoring, work, studying for the GRE, and life, I felt like I wasn’t doing enough: exercising enough, studying enough, reading enough, exploring enough, spending enough time with my friends, etc. In trying to do everything extraordinarily, I was doing nothing sufficiently. No matter how much I read at work, I felt as though I was always still behind. I grew frustrated with myself when I couldn’t recall details about the things I had worked on the week before, but instead of attributing this to the fact that the constant inundation of new information was jumbling the facts and figures in my head, I told myself that I should have been better than that. When a tutoring session went poorly, I questioned my ability as a teacher instead of reminding myself that teaching is difficult and requires constant practice and then moving on to plan the next lesson plan and make it better than the week before. Whenever I stared at my Hindi homework and only saw gibberish, I told myself that I should have mastered more by now instead of thinking about the fact that I had never studied a language with a different script before and the fact that I knew what I did in a matter of weeks was an accomplishment itself. And then on top of all of this, I felt guilty that I hadn’t been spending enough time with my friends, running the miles I told myself I would, plowing through the stack of books on my bed-side table, or blogging as frequently as I wanted to. I felt like I was doing something every hour of every day, but still seemingly unable to finish anything.
    During a particularly stressful term at Carleton, in the midst of final papers, a senior thesis, and job interviews, a professor asked me how much time I spent organizing my to-do list. I hadn’t ever thought about it, but when I took a moment to answer, I realized that I spent an inordinate amount of time planning when I was going to get my assignments done instead of actually starting them. He told me that often in the time you spend worrying about when you are going to do something, you could have already done it. Or at least started it. Yes, sometimes forward thinking and planning is necessary with a busy schedule. But oftentimes the planning is just another form of delaying the frustrating feeling of starting something and feeling like it will never be finished. Instead of worrying about when I was going to do all of the things I wanted to do, I just needed to take a breath, appreciate what I had already accomplished, start whatever task it is I was stressing about, and always remember that progress is steady.


    In April I decided to do a little spring cleaning, ready for a challenge and a slight counteraction to the let’s-eat-pancakes-all-day-in-bed mentality of a new relationship. I didn’t have the money or the patience for the Whole30 diet (no bread is one thing, but no beans?) so I decided to stick with eliminating wheat, added sugar, and dairy from my diet. Dairy was easy enough, wheat was tricky but do-able, but sugar is everywhere. I had never noticed how many items in your pantry (even the ‘healthy’ ones with pictures of contoured runners on them) that are in no-way considered ‘sweet’ have so much sugar.
   I wrote a much longer post about my 30-day experiment, but the short story is that I did well by my goals for the most part and then my mom came to visit and I dove head-first into a swimming pool of cheesecake, coming out looking worse for wear. The awful sugar withdrawal that followed was a stark reminder that what you put into your body is one of the most important lifestyle choices you can make for your health and happiness. This month, more than any other time in my life, I really started to think about food—what it is, how it works, what role it plays in social settings, what it does to your body, the economics of food, and what food different people have access to and how it shapes their lives. I became much more aware about food justice issues, the health crisis our nation is facing, and certainly re-evaluated the way I look at food and nutrition. On a personal level, I realized that a life of temptation, disappointment, separation, and guilt is no way to live. It is about moderation, not elimination.


    Something I have struggled with the past few years is learning when to focus on myself and when to prioritize others. After a string of uneven relationships that continually prioritized my preferences and needs under those of another (which left me feeling completely spent, emotionally drained, and detached from myself) I told myself that my year in D.C. was going to be just that: my year. For the first time in years I was going to focus on what I waned to do and be the sole owner of my schedule. And when I first arrived in Washington, I felt very liberated in regards to my social obligations. Because my friends were new and we all had our independent lives, I didn’t feel the same social pressures to to stay out late drinking on a Friday night if I was tired. I went on runs or stayed in bed and read instead of going to happy hour or a party. I had ingrained so vigorously into my brain that this year was about me—and only me—that I was retreating into the old habit of isolating myself and not prioritizing the thing that makes life worthwhile: people. Every weekend in May was hectic, whether it was with Justin’s friends in Virginia, my friends in D.C., Justin’s family, or my friends and family in Minnesota.
    Initially I was so preoccupied with the books I wasn’t reading, photoshop tutorials I wasn’t watching, blog posts I wasn’t writing, GRE practice tests I wasn’t taking (OK—that one probably should have happened more), but then I had a moment where I just said ‘no’. This is too important and I am having too much fun. There is a time and a place to focus on those things, the little tasks of personal betterment and productivity. But as someone who had always sacrificed relationship and fun for school or work, I was done missing out on the more important things just because I have—like we all have—been trained to be busy and ‘productive’. I was done feeling as though I was wasting my time when I was with people all day because time spent building relationships with people is time well spent.


    While somewhat contradictory to the lesson learned in May, June reminded me of the importance of quiet. Not that I had any quiet—I just sorely missed it. The first weekend I was in Philadelphia for a conference, the second was the GRE, the third I was in New York with Justin’s family, and the fourth was spent gearing up for a move (all of this after a month that was also full to the brim). A lot of people have been talking recently about introverts and extroverts: what it means to be one or the other, which one is better, how life is so much harder for one or the other. While I think hard and fast categories are a little silly (aren’t we all a mix of both, falling somewhere on the spectrum?), personality types have always been very interesting to me. As someone who is conventionally considered and introvert (both by myself and others), I have always thought the feature that makes an introvert to be shyness. Therefore, I always assumed I was one. But then, in a good majority of social situations I am not shy. Not at all. Often when I don’t talk, it isn’t because I feel as though I can’t participate. I just choose not to, feeling as though nothing of value will be added to the conversation if I speak. What distinguishes introverts from extroverts–the internet tells me–is the source of our energy. Do we feel re-charged after an evening with people or an evening alone? Do social situations invigorate us or leave us feeling drained? Having always been one to prefer an intimate evening to a large one and to love my evenings in bed alone with a book a little too much, I am definitely more firmly rooted in the introvert camp. There are many other areas of introversion vs. extroversion where the boundaries are much more muddled for me, but that’s another story. The point is, I thought I was finding the balance between being self-centered and prioritizing people. But it is ok to say no. In fact, it is important to say no. For me, the difficult part has always been figuring out where to draw that line. When I was being flexible and when I was being a pushover. When I was being justifiably selfish or when I was just being lazy. It is ok and even necessary to enjoy the quiet and remember to sleep.


    I have always been the giver, the provider, the fixer. I hate to ask people for things and usually give people easy outs on simple requests, things for which I shouldn’t have to apologize for asking. But in July–having not heeded the warning signs of exhaustion that were flashing the month before—I got sick. I woke up on my last morning in Iowa with an itching throat and a cough that stung. My flight was delayed and, as a result, I missed my connection and had to spend the night in Detroit. A stiff mattress, disappointing continental breakfast, and short flight later, I was finally home, but in bad shape. My head was pounding, cough debilitating, and nose unstoppable. The biggest indicator that I was sick, however, was when I told Justin I didn’t want dinner. That is when he knew something was wrong—I am always hungry. After two days in bed with no improvement, I asked Justin to stay home from work and take me to the doctor. Not having to navigate public transit (or, walk, in my case because the doctor’s office was right around the corner from my apartment) is a blessing when all you want to do is be in bed. My body reacted not so favorably to the antibiotics for the sinus infection, which led to another week of crawling into bed after work because I didn’t feel well enough to do anything else. Aside from the cooking (both breakfast and dinner), cleaning, and errand running, presence is an important thing and Justin didn’t leave my side the entire time. He enthusiastically watched 24 with me every single evening, content to hold drop his plans and hold my hand. Even just knowing he was there (playing video games) while I slept was comfort enough.
    I think between the constant aches and pains, the sadness of having had so many goodbyes in the previous weeks and of leaving work so soon, the stress of getting everything ready for the move back to Texas and then to India…I stopped feeling like I had to say ‘no, I’m ok’ when he asked if I wanted anything. It was honestly the first time I can remember asking someone (who wasn’t my parent) to do so many things for me for such an extended period of time. I’ve been around people who will drop anything to help you and people who make you feel like everything you ask is a burden, no matter how small a request it is. I think we are trained to not impose upon people and be seen as ‘needy’ or ‘annoying’, to be self-sufficient and therefore ‘strong’, and to mask any signs of needing help lest it be seen as ‘weakness’. I remembered this post I read a while back on one of my favorite blogs about how good people can be if you let them help. I decided to stop feeling guilty and let people take care of you.


    Last Thursday was my last day of work and Friday morning, August 1st, I woke up feeling as though something should have been different. Similarly to how you feel on the morning of a monumental birthday. The anticipation has been building, you’ve thought about how your life is going to be different afterwards, everyone has been making such a big deal about it, but you end up waking up the same way you do every other day. You feel the same, but different. Or at least you feel like you are supposed to feel different, but really the only times it hits you is when you have to fill out a form that says how old you are (or in my case, a form asking what my occupation was and pausing for a moment before writing ‘unemployed’).
    Yes, it was strange and sad to see my bare desk, reminiscent of every empty dorm room, every empty locker. It was strange to be reminded once again that all the spaces that had once been mine—spaces in which I have nestled and made countless memories—now belong to someone else. Last weekend I packed up all of my belongings in the contents of three suitcases and two boxes. Yesterday we loaded them in the car, putting my whole life on wheels. And in 10 days I will have (hopefully) condensed these belongings into a suitcase and a backpack and will be half way around the world. I’ve changed dramatically from last year to this year, subtly from month to month, and many gradations in between. Yet no matter the magnitude, I’ve come to learn, change is sudden and it doesn’t wait for you to be ready.

Let’s see what September brings.

Mall Sunrise

Sunrise on the National Mall. It’s been real, D.C.

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  1. Danielle, this made me tear up a little bit. There are so many lessons learned in the first year out! Beautifully written. Really looking forward to following your next step!

    • Thanks, Kenzie 🙂 The feeling is mutual–I have been so inspired by your blog (both your photography and storytelling) and I can’t wait to keep reading.

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