Now what photo

A large cardboard box, with all its sides wrapped in an unnecessarily generous amount of packing tape, was dropped at my door yesterday. The predictable Amazon logo that usually decorates all of my deliveries, indicating another impulse buy, was surprisingly absent from this mysterious parcel. Still, that familiar jolt of anticipated excitement rested in my chest as I held my breath in suspended wonder ─ it looked like a misplaced Smithsonian artifact or the Holy Grail itself had found its way to my apartment.

Not quite.

“It’s from your old work,” she said. The apartment concierge, and my trusted friend, carefully set the puzzling package down at the same time her impeccably shaped eyebrows formed an incredulous peak at the center of her forehead. Following suit, her deep brown eyes – widening with skepticism – studied my face, trying hard to sense my feelings from her declaration.

“Should I open it, or throw it away? I’ll do whatever you want,” she promised.

A puff of anxious air escaped my lips, releasing only an inch of tension from my rigid body. “Open it,” I said slowly, with the inflection of a question and not an assertion. I nervously chewed a manicured nail as scissor blades tore through the box’s taped seal; I wasn’t prepared for how much it felt like reopening a wound that had barely begun to heal.

I watched my fearless friend dig around to find old notepads and scraps of paper, frayed and forgotten. They once held onto the hurried penmanship of a woman desperately trying to capture important details of her day, but now they were nothing more than meaningless reminders of a purposeful past. There were piles of newsletter articles and fundraising appeals expertly written; the fruits of my way-too-early mornings and even later nights. There were too many of those nights, when the sweet escape of sleep was stolen by nagging stress of encroaching deadlines or pending projects.

Suddenly, this cardboard crate holding the promise of unexpected treasure became a capsule of memories shoved away and a holding place for every could’ve and should’ve. I should’ve worked harder. I could’ve done more. But the wasteful practice of should’ing on myself won’t ever change hard facts. And this one is the hardest I’ve faced in a while: I got fired.

I remember the words, “your employment has been terminated,” sounding slow and garbled, like they were stuck in my former supervisor’s throat, too afraid to fall onto her shy tongue and make their way into my unsuspecting ears. I got dizzy, and I was glad to be sitting down. It became unnervingly quiet, except for the rhythmic pounding of my heart against my chest, where all my body’s heat had settled and began to rise and pool in the center of my cheeks. Tears stung my eyes and I did my best to blink them away before the chaos of uncertainty began to swell and steal my air. My chest constricted and my pulse quickened.  Through tear-stained eyes, I could see my veins, tiny blue ribbons jumping under my thin skin, working hard to break free from the vessel they help power.

The sensation of being acutely aware of ourselves in the midst of chaos happens so that when trauma disrupts the flow of our lives, we can know the truth. We’re alive. We’re still here. We matter greatly. That is reason enough to never give up. But first, it’s okay to break down.

I screamed. I ugly cried. I yelled, “Fuck! Shit!” as loud as I could more times than I can count. I cried some more. I screamed into a pillow and threw it across my living room. Eventually I exhausted myself and found the bathroom and a washcloth to cool my face. I looked in the mirror, my reflection disappointed and dejected. I asked myself one, loaded question whose answer I still don’t know: Now What?

Nearly a decade ago, I started my post-college career with this job as a copywriter for a local nonprofit. It was a privilege affording me unique opportunities to meet hundreds of people, invite myself into their lives and tell their brilliant stories of strength and survival. I bore witness to fearless acceptance of the growth that comes with change and steadfast dedication to self-work that can be difficult and challenging. Now that job is gone, and it’s my turn to do the life-affirming work I once wrote about. I will draw strength and inspiration from the people whose lives intersected with mine. I will take hold of fresh experiences and take in new feelings; gems of perspective and understanding, like ornaments illuminating an uncharted path.

Though I know it’s temporary, I’m terrified to travel this fog-laden pathway leading to every answer I seek.

I wish I were stronger against the sinking pull of fear and doubt. I wish I could see the future for what it is: a hazy daydream. Full of wantings and wonderings. That perspective is exciting, but I’ve always been nervous.  The kind of person who comes unhinged, unraveled too easily.  So I set expectations – careful directions to map out the course of my life.  But like the yellowed edges of a forgotten blueprint hidden in a tumbledown attic, the carefully calculated design of my life grows fainter under the weighted passage of time. The meticulous lines drawn to help guide each step I take bleed and fade as the landscape of my life takes new shape, unexpected.

I certainly never expected to be here in this new space, unemployed with no map pointing me in the right direction.

Change is more manageable and less insurmountable when it’s on my terms. Sometimes, the universe has other plans. I’ve learned life is richer, dare I say a little easier, when we give ourselves up to the fact that many of the things that happen in our lives are outside any real control we have. Our control is in how we respond and react to the moments that stop us dead in our tracks and force us to ask, Now What?

So far, I’ve only responded to this question with self-loathing and doubt. I’ve questioned my value and my worth and pondered whether my chosen vocation, what I believe to be my life’s purpose, is a calling I want to expend energy cultivating.

Then I remember the reason I became a writer. I’m also a curious student of humanity.  My most profound learning is that in wild rebellion of natural emotion, instability and strength are fluid sensations moving through each of us; these two states of being, no matter how extreme, can exist together in chaotic harmony.

But that only works when we feel safe, loved and like our uniqueness matters to someone, somewhere.

The answer to Now What comes louder and clearer when we surround ourselves with people who lift us up, make us feel good and remind us that we’re doing something right.

If you’re on the side of instability: I see you. I hear you. We got this. If you’re on the side of strength, use it for good and hold other people up. Remind them that even when unexpected trauma disrupts the flow of their lives: You’re alive. You’re still here. You matter greatly.

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