This morning I proudly walked the downtown streets of Montpelier, VT in bright red, patent leather pumps, fitted Express suit pants, and a fitted, collared, button-down, black and white ‘career top’. My hair was up in a bun—and freshly washed, I might add. (I only get to shower once a week). Red lips. Pearl earrings.
I was carrying 8-inch, all-leather, reinforced-toe, waterproof work boots in my right hand, and brown Arborware workpants and a flannel in the other. En route to harvest grapes at a vineyard in Grand Isle, VT.
There were stares. Lots of them.
I don’t blame them. Vermont is full of the farmer and outdoor laborer type. Most people here don’t wear makeup at all and most people certainly do not roam around town in candy-apple red, patent leather pumps.
But most especially—people do not usually roam the streets in both. Either you are a career woman in leather pumps, or you are a laborer in loggers. You cannot be both.
I am both.
Maybe it is because I am an attention-craving, adventure-seeking, middle child or maybe it is because I am a textbook ENFP and have exhausted all career options that every personality test told me I should be: teacher, social worker, writer, film producer, humanitarian.
My life since returning from South Korea in 2013 after teaching English as a second language has been quite ridiculous. My time in St. Louis consisted of living with my parents in white, middle-class suburbia, waiting tables and substitute teaching, freelance photography, and too many sazeracs. But mostly—it was a time of rejection. 152 resumes and only a handful of interviews, mostly for minimum wage, no-degree-required jobs. My mother calls about once a week to remind me that I should be ‘home.’ She calls to whisper/yell into my ear that there are plenty of jobs in Missouri. The conversation always ends the same:
“Missouri doesn’t want to hire me, Mom. We’ve been over this. Remember the 152 resumes?”
And now? I live in the woods. I live in a tent in the woods and all that I own is packed quite tightly and without any sense of order into my 2003 Toyota Corrolla, Ethel. I woke up this morning under the stars and had breakfast in the forest and drove to a barn where I changed out of jeans and layers and hiking boots into career attire and patent leather pumps. I am in between jobs and spend my time working on an organic farm and applying for jobs and kayaking and hiking and blogging and having art parties and breakfast parties in the parking lot of the VYCC headquarters.
My biggest fear since returning to the States after teaching abroad has been that I would ‘give in’ to returning to the Social Work field. Yes, I have a Psychology degree and years of experience in mental health. But the last job I held in that field I loathed. I swore I would never go back. Not ever. Not even if there were no other option. Not even if it meant unemployment.
I also swore I would never live with my parents again. Or move back to St. Louis. Or still be roaming at age 30.
Here is the Truth.
The most meaningful job I’ve ever held in my entire life was my first job right out of college. I worked as a Live-in Youth Care Specialist at the Missouri Baptist Children’s Home. I was essentially a ‘house mom’ to eight teenage girls. I lived with them. I took them to school. I scheduled their appointments. I dried their tears. I laughed with them. And I went on a million and one random adventures that no one will every fully understand except those of us that were there. . . in Butler, MO. . . with the mysterious giant mushroom.
That job paid me the highest salary I have ever made. It provided the best health benefits. It was the most challenging, and the most rewarding. It was going into my room every night for the first month, falling to my knees, and sobbing for what seemed like forever after hearing my girls’ stories of abuse, neglect, rape and loss. I still talk to my girls. Not all of them, but some. Six years later, I was Jean’s bridesmaid. I was in her delivery room visiting on the day of her firstborn’s birth. I was the one Leah called when she needed advice. I was the inspiration behind Tina’s decision to go to school for Psychology.
Life is a mess. If it’s not, then you’re probably not living it very fully. It’s not supposed to be pretty all the time. I don’t think it’s even supposed to be pretty most of the time. I think it is supposed to be hard—if you’re doing it right. And right now, it’s not. It’s easy. It’s roaming and living in a tent and crashing couches and eating PB&J and exploring and wondering and building trail and in all honesty, not really being challenged at all.
I read a blog recently that posed “seven questions that will help show you your life purpose.” There were a few that stuck out:
1. What struggle or sacrifice are you willing to tolerate?
I am willing to tolerate pain. Emotional pain. I am willing to take on the heartache and loss of others. To empathize with them to a point that their pain becomes my own. Because I’m good at it. And because it hurts and it sucks and it’s draining but in the end it makes a difference in someone’s life. And it’s worth it to see.
2. What is true about you today that would make your 8 year old self cry?
I live out of my car. It’s kind of fun. . . but for the most part, it’s really not. I live out of my car because I haven’t ‘settled down.’ And that is okay for a while. But to be entirely honest—it’s getting old. People often ask me when I’ll stop. When I’ll stay. My response is both pathetic and true to middle-child syndrome—incredibly dramatic—“I like wandering. When you are always the one leaving, no one can leave you behind.” But I’m tired. As exciting and invigorating as starting over is, I’m tired of it. I want a community that lasts more than six months. I want people to stop emailing me and asking me where in the world I currently am because I am actually staying in one place for more than a year. I want to make my 8-year-old self happy.
3. How do you want to be remembered?
I want to be remembered as someone who tried. Some of my efforts have been better than others. Namely, my humanitarian efforts. But the last few years I have given in to the lie that I have to do something BIG. Like change the world. I thought that meant I had to work for some sort of worldwide, humanitarian aid, 501c3. I thought it meant I couldn’t live in the US. Or if I did, it had to be for an organization that allowed me to continue being a world-traveller. I thought it meant Peace Corps or Americorps or any job that backdoorjobs.com offered.
But the reality is that the world is changed by everyone in it. Even the ‘small’ people. It is changed by the garbage man and the postal service worker and the waitress just as much at it is changed by the corporate investment analyst and the stay-at-home-mom.
Pride has killed my passion.
When I drilled a well in Uganda, in El Salvador, in Haiti. . . when I wrote a book. . . when I volunteered to rebuild Moore, OK after the tornado. . . when I did freelance photography and loved it and met all kinds of people. . . I was in social work. The group home was wonderful and the day treatment facility I worked at later on was the worst job of my life—but the point is, I was doing something. I had a full-time job with benefits and a place to call home and community to pick me up when I needed. The things I am most proud of in life—my humanitarian efforts, my writing, my art. All of these things I accomplished when I was a social worker.
But being a social worker isn’t something I can brag about.
I can’t post pictures of my adventures with clients on facebook because of HIPPA(privacy) laws. I don’t get to write blogs about the temples and mountains and sites of Korea. And I don’t get to live in the woods and look #hardcorps and build trail and feel like a badass about it. I just get to do what I do best—and that is invest in people. Broken people.
I like to be the one that my friends live vicariously through. I like to be told to adventure on. And most of all, I like to be told that what I’m doing in life is awesome.
People do not think that social work is awesome. They know that it’s awful and that turnover is high and that pay is horrible and that no sane person would ever choose to do it. It’s not glorious and it’s not something that anyone will envy in any way—much unlike teaching ESL, drilling wells all over the world, or living in the forest.
But it seems to be the thing I was best at. And the thing that allowed me to do what makes me feel most alive.
So here’s a farewell to pride.
Here’s to recognizing the small people.
Here’s to changing the world one raging teenager at a time :)