oh god it’s wonderful
to get out of bed
and drink too much coffee
and smoke too many cigarettes
and love you so much
Excerpt from “Steps” by Frank O’Hara
These past few months have been ripe with realizations, some of which have been long and slow-coming, floating in and out of my comprehension, and others have been abrupt and heavy. I’ve learned that it’s supremely easy to feel lost. The hardest thing to feel is as though I have not only a place but a purpose in everything that I do: intentional living. Oftentimes, without a concrete list or path in front of me, I feel adrift. Just three months ago, I would struggle against that feeling until I was frustrated and exhausted, resisting ever experiencing the feeling of a potential free fall into the unknown.
For me, the path always seemed more or less predefined: go to school, get good grades, graduate from high school, go to a Very Prestigious University, get a Very Prestigious Degree, move on to a Very Prestigious Job, lead Prestigious Life, be Happy. And that’s fine because in many ways, I have been following this path very closely. Studying and persistently working did in fact, lead to good grades, which lead me to be Valedictorian of my high school, which, in turn, enabled me to get into a well respected college as part of a well respected university, more hard word, more good grades, more acknowledgement of hard word (read: highest honors in the forms of Phi Beta Kappa, Summa Cum Laude, pass with distinction for my thesis, departmental honors), more self satisfaction that I was doing exactly what was expected of me. But then that’s where my life expected trajectory faltered. Post graduation, I did not, and still do not, have a job packaged neatly waiting in front of me. And at first this let me down. I was accustomed to more, more, more.
I felt as though I had failed, in my mind, my lack of a creative, challenging, well paid job nullified all of the hard work I had put into my studies and somehow rendered me invalidated, lesser than the people who had secured office jobs in legal firms, creative jobs in big white studios with lots of sunlight filtering through in their Instagram photos of their clean desk outfitted just-so with table top accessories: the monochromatic filing folders, the pencil cup that matched the seat cushion, a notebook open full of sketches and drafts; the people who had been accepted into medical school, pictures of their white coat ceremonies popping up in my Facebook newsfeed, the people who wore power suits to their investment banking jobs, humble-bragging about their late nights and big-perks. And yet, post-graduation, I didn’t know “what I wanted to be.” My work uniform has been a t-shirt and jean shorts, standing with olive oil dripping down my calves, flour dust sticking to the soles of my shoes, a notepad in hand as I eagerly bring trays of water and take orders, asking people how the food is, and could I recommend another beer?
Between running up and down the stairs carrying bins of dirty dishes; holding big, burning plates on the tips of my fingers, plates stacked along my arms; maneuvering between crowds of people on Saturday nights while carrying twelve glasses filled to the brim, and mopping the wooden floors after midnight when the last customer has left, I felt convinced myself that I felt empty simply because I didn’t know what this new feeling was. On first thought, it felt like what I was doing didn’t have a place or a purpose in the larger schema. Yet, I walked away each night with a large wad of cash and tired feet, and though I didn’t even want to admit it to myself, a general calmness inside of me, a quiet kind of satisfaction. A very different satisfaction from printing my 50 page thesis I had completed just a few weeks prior. A different satisfaction from seeing a row of A’s on my transcript. A different kind of satisfaction that seemed to come from a deeper place inside of me, something that wasn’t recognized by other people, because what kind of “very educated” person chooses to work at a restaurant? For once, I hadn’t listened to expectations — not mine, and not anyone else’s — and I still felt accomplished.
There was something about an empty restaurant with four other people who had worked just as hard, smiling and laughing, mopping floors at two in the morning, discussing religion and wars, beer and healthcare, heartbreaks and aspirations, dreams and duties. I know I won’t be there forever, and I know that I wouldn’t be satisfied if I remained a waitress for the rest of my life, but I’ve learned to enjoy this diversion. There is something viscerally wonderful about letting myself feel a small lull in life, an unexpected side-step instead of the much anticipated/expected “forward” step, that insatiable desire to always top my last accomplishment. I will never forget what one of the other waiters said to me when he had finally decided to move back to his hometown so that he could finish his college degree: he had learned that “a step back is not always a step backwards.”
A step back is not always a step backwards.
If anything, taking three months post graduation to continue working in a restaurant has taught me many things about myself and about other people. A humility that I would not have truly grasped as readily before. A feeling of contentedness with where I am instead of where I will be. A better understanding of the context of how and why I have succeed, and where and how I need to improve. It’s exhausting constantly expecting something of ourselves, but it is necessary. Sometimes it’s just that our frame of expectations needs to shift. I was caught in the more-more-more mindset of always wanting, always feeling as though I had to justify something to myself. I realized that the feeling I was afraid of, that “unknown adrift” feeling was in fact just the feeling of being itself. It’s scary to sit and to just be.
In all of this process, I’ve learned to truly appreciate those tiny little things that I never had much time or thought to appreciate before because I was so caught up in moving onto the next item on my to-do list. So, here is a new list, of little and perhaps inconsequential things that are joyful to me, but that in the end, surprisingly are what create those elusive moments of happiness I was searching for in all of that hard work:
- A well poured latte
- Stiff foam that I have finally perfected to make a cappuccino
- Lying in bed for thirty minutes after I’ve woken up, staring at the patterns of light and shadow, meditating
- Long walks to no where in particular with my puppy
- Chopping onions into very even slices
- Waiting one whole week for the next episode of Breaking Bad, which has become a (short lived) tradition with Keith
- Picking green beans that we grew this season.
- Cutting the stems of flowers before putting them in a vase
- Eating long, late dinners with good company
- Using the ice-cream man’s jingle as an alarm clock for my nap (he comes at the same time every single day which frustrated me at first, but makes me happy now. I grew up in a very secluded suburb so ice cream trucks were never a part of my childhood. I remember it drove down our street one time, and my oldest brother Marc stared out the window and yelled to the three of us — his younger siblings — that the ice cream man was here, and he grabbed some money and we ran out the door, but the truck was already gone. I’ll always remember that).
Here’s to happiness in unexpected places, to the long, silent mornings, and the unexpected breaks.