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“…and I am out with lanterns, looking for myself.” – Emily Dickinson 

(photo taken at Lake Gaston on my 20th birthday.)

20 years old felt like the beginning of burning out.

It felt like working 37 hours a week and taking 6 classes because free-time scared me. It felt like dropping out of a sorority and a boy ultimately choosing someone else. Like living on Hell Block in a small, dark loft-style room that couldn’t even fit my full-size bed–a space my friends lovingly deemed “Anne Frank’s Attic.” It felt like a lot of nights spent alone in my bed, eating nachos and drinking $2 red wine from Trader Joe’s, and wondering what the hell I was doing with my life. It felt like wanting to drop out of college and deciding to apply to study abroad instead. It felt like using my friend-of-a-friend’s fake ID for many months, like holding my breath each time as the waiter or the cashier or the bouncer studied my ID, then studied me, then gave me my drinks. Like deep, dark panic attacks in which I would drive myself to Patient First, convinced that this time I was really dying. It felt like writing this question in my journal: How can I be so young and already so tired?

21 years old felt like the south of France.

But at midnight on my birthday, it felt like 5 shots in 5 minutes followed by singing ‘London Bridge’ by Fergie at karaoke. 2 weeks later when I moved, it felt like showing up in a country where I didn’t know anyone, intending on staying for 4 months and instead delaying my college graduation by a year so I could stay for 6 more. It felt like the freest I’d ever been, the freest I could ever possibly be. Like fresh baguettes and rosé in the sun at noon and crêpe after Nutella-oozing crêpe. To learn another language deems it deeply necessary to learn a new way of thinking that far surpasses grammar and dives deep into culture, deep into the foundations upon which we live our lives. 21 felt like taking a closer look at everything I’d ever known to be true. It felt like traveling to 15 countries on a shoestring budget, only eating street food and drinking whatever was the cheapest in that part of the world and sleeping on trains and in creaky hostel bunk beds. Not caring, because we were in Berin and Prague and Lisbon and we were young and the world was absolutely and unconditionally ours. It felt like learning how very many lives we live within this one that we have. They are all both temporary and eternal.

22 years old felt like coming home in every sense of the word.

It also felt like leaving home. It felt like the house I grew up in being sold and reinhabited while I was gone. It felt like 100 years of reverse culture shock, relearning things I can’t believe one year in another country had erased from my memory: the streets of my hometown, my cell phone number, how to drive. How big everything is here–people, cars, coffee cups. 22 felt like moving into an apartment with my artist friend, Miriam, and her orange cat, Argonaut, and beginning my 5th and final year of college. It felt like taking my first creative writing class ever, and sitting in a small room of people feeling like I finally connected to something, like I finally belonged somewhere. It felt like alchemy. Like drinking a lot of Rolling Rock and Devil’s Backbone and merlot and bloody marys, and eating a lot of vegetable omelets for breakfast and nacho mountains for dinner. It felt like wondering what the fuck I was going to do when college was over; half-heartedly applying for things and being rejected and applying for new things. It felt like a hazy health crisis that left it difficult to eat or think clearly all summer. It felt like too many doctor’s appointments, too many unanswerable questions. It felt like deciding to move to another country anyway.

23 years old felt like Amsterdam–

an intricate spiderweb of winding streets and crooked houses and tiny revolutions. It felt like trying to understand how Family functions. It felt like trying to somehow fit into the one I was working for and living with, that I could never truly be a part of. It felt like teaching two small humans–ages 6 and 8–an entire language. Like trying to learn an entire other language myself. It felt like compromise. Patience, understanding, trying and trying and trying and trying and trying. It felt like sometimes looking up flights home. Like bicycling everywhere, cooking dinner in Celsius, sitting on the ground of the central train station for hours listening to travelers stop and play the piano that said, “Play Me.” So many people did. Sometimes a crowd would form around the music and everyone would sing. It felt like witnessing many miracles the size of a human palm. It felt like volunteering some nights at a storytelling space that obliterated my heart and made me feel more human every single time I left. It felt like spending Christmas in England and the 4th of July in Greece. 10 days in Greece, which felt like a lifetime of its own, falling in love with 60 people from all over the planet. A time too perfect to believe. It felt like seeing the midnight sun in Iceland while alone in my hotel room. 23 felt like going to museums and movies and bookstores alone. It felt like the first step to trying to be my own friend.

24 years old feels slippery.

There are still 2 months of it. It has felt like a lot of things I don’t have words for or understanding of yet. It has felt like the end of the world several times: November, January, March. June. It has felt like cleaning out my mom’s storage unit, spreading all the drawings from my childhood on my dining room table. Saving a few. It has felt like writing classes and a job in an office and learning news ways to live in this city. It has felt like being honest. It has felt like many trips to the mountains, to the ocean, to the forests of Virginia, like cabins and camping and that tiny writer’s room an hour away. It has felt like meeting a lot of people that I didn’t know I needed to meet. It has felt serendipitous. It has felt like hiding and like staying. It has felt like not having a sip of alcohol for 84 days in a row. It has felt like spoonfuls of almond butter and cans of sparkling lemon water. Like handfuls of stones and wildflowers. Dreams of a big, black snake biting my left ankle. It has felt like I’ve had a chronic illness for 10 whole years now, because I have. Almost 11.

It feels like a lot has happened and that nothing has happened at all.

It feels bewildering and impossible and promising and intriguing.

It feels like I have no idea what I’m doing. But it also feels a lot like Thank You.

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Last week I wrote down everything I need right now.

Things I need to do, things I need to buy, things I need to plan for, things I need from other people, etc., etc. The list was–I am not kidding–two and a half full pages. In paragraph form. Because I didn’t want to make a *to-do list.* That would just overwhelm me and I knew I’d find myself adding a bunch of things I’d already done so I could get the high of crossing something off of said list. I didn’t need that. This wasn’t about getting anything done. It was about simply acknowledging everything swimming through my brain the past few weeks–all of it, how much of it, the sheer weight of it.

A list doesn’t pour the way a paragraph does, and what I needed more than anything was to pour.

Need can be tricky. The churning seas of Need and Want spill into each other and, because my mind works in a very All or Nothing sort of fashion, when I make a to-do list I often suddenly feel as if I NEED to do/have/receive all of these things immediately, right this very second, ready set go. My expectations for myself and for the way life works are highly unachievable.

A few days ago, I was sitting outside on a friend’s balcony, because I was house/cat-sitting for the week. I’d just gotten off work, had gone straight from work to my house to pick up some stuff I forgot (insulin, pretty important) and do a load of laundry. Then I went back to the friend’s house to maybe sit down for a second and also feed the cats. I’d been going, going, going all day, all week, all month.

From her balcony, I could see my car parked across the street. I started wondering to myself if my tires didn’t look a little flat, and remembered the check engine light that’s been dancing on and off lately, and that weird, semi-dramatic sound it’s been making when I accelerate. And so begun the spiral: I need to put air in my tires. And I need to get my car looked at ASAP (on Friday, my one day off of work per week.) And where am I going to live next year? And why haven’t I started looking into grad school? And I need to call my grandparents–I am the worst granddaughter in the world. And speaking of the world, what is my place in it? What am I even doing? How am I helping? What have I been doing for the past 24.5 years?

As you see, things can start to get a little out of hand.

In this particular moment, though, my thoughts started to slide through my mind like molasses, my eyes locked onto one particular fuschia plant for too long, and my hands started to tremble. Low blood sugar. Because in all of my working and laundrying and existential-crisising on the balcony, I’d forgotten to eat.

I went inside and grabbed a juice box and sat on the couch, drinking it and waiting for my mind and body to come back to me. 10, 15, 20 minutes… and all I could do was sit there until the sugar swam, until the weakness passed, until I was myself again.

I cannot emphasize this enough: if there is one thing in the world that can bring me back to reality–to the nature of real, true, life-or-death Need–it is low blood sugar. Nothing else matters, nothing else can matter, until I take the necessary steps to take care of myself.

By the time my blood sugar had risen to a functioning level, and I stood up off of the couch, I’d realized something. All I can focus on right now is taking care of myself, I thought. It is just the only thing right now.

You might be thinking, “This really isn’t some grand revelation. It is pretty basic shit, Sarah.” But for me (and for many people I’ve discussed it with endlessly), this is no small task.

I want to do and be everything all the time, for myself and for everyone else. I want my to-do list to be all scratched out at the end of each day. I want to say Yes to every invitation and to never have to ask for anyone’s help. This is how I have lived a lot of my life: saying Yes when I really felt No, because it is easier to just get through it rather than explain to someone why I can’t or don’t want to.  And then there is… the not asking for help. My fear and horror of possibly becoming a burden or an inconvenience to someone else often sends me running for the hills, to my own small world of one, before I’ve even reached out a hand. But I’m working on it.

“You can’t possibly foresee what other people can or cannot handle,” someone told me recently. “Reach out for help if you need it. Just ask. And if they can’t, I promise you someone else can.”

According to my aforementioned 2.5 page letter, I need A WHOLE LOT of things.

But when I really scale it down to the things I need in order to take care of myself these days, a few things are concrete and I can walk away from the rest, at least for now. This blog, for example, I have mostly stepped away from during the past few months, yet it is still here waiting for me when I have a little free time on a Sunday afternoon. The invitations I’ve declined may have disappointed a few people, but I’ve been honest, and like true friends, they understand.­­­­ So maybe I should write down all the things I don’t need to work myself up about doing right this very second. That list–who knew?–could go on and on.

Right now I need to truly, painstakingly slow down and take care of myself.

Let the people who can, help me do it.

 

There are times when I need to keep diabetes at arm’s length.

The past few months, and still now, honestly, have been a time like this.

The funny thing about chronic illness is that it never goes away. (Wait, that’s actually not funny. Anyway.) Even when our life is a tornado of 500mph winds, chronic illness is there as the furniture whirls around us. It is there as the walls crumble, as our roof tears away and we are left shelterless in the rubble, and it is there at our feet when the dust settles.

It’s actually kind of unbelievable how THERE it always is. How there it will always be. Sometimes we need a break so badly from these heavy demands, this weight, and the truth is that we simply do not get that.

But sometimes I push diabetes as far away as I can bear. As far away as I can get from something that exists solely and overwhelmingly inside of my body.

This is to say… I cannot ever get very far away from it.

But sometimes I can keep it at arm’s length… still acknowledging it, tending to it, but not dwelling or overanalyzing or agonizing over it. I did enough of that these past winter months. I really did.

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I took this at Gallery 5 during March First Fridays. I wish I knew who to credit it to.

This past fall/winter was a difficult one for me. I moved back to Richmond in August with the intention to “heal.” Originally, I thought I’d go straight from Amsterdam to Portland or Austin or wherever the wind took me, but then decided another year in Richmond wouldn’t kill me (and that another year of avoiding things might.) I knew I was standing on an ever-weakening foundation as far as my health (and life) management went, and I thought one more year (just one! I consoled myself often!) in my sweet, dirty, artsy college city surrounded by my best friends would be good for me.

I imagined myself moving into a beautiful house in the Fan, finding a great, reliable, inspiring, full-time job immediately, seamlessly getting health insurance in the US again, going to the million doctors appointments I’d skipped over while living in Europe, saving piles and piles of money, etc. I imagined–and I am not exaggerating–that I would have all of this wrapped up by Christmas. And that then, I could take my racked-up savings and deeply-cared-for body and get the hell out of town, back to all those beautiful faraway places. But in a better place, physically and mentally. Me, but so much better.

How it really went down, in a condensed version, is something like this: I ended up working a part time job that I hated, paying $300 a month for health insurance until I could not afford it any longer (this didn’t take long) and was forced to drop it entirely in October. This quickly dashed my plans of doctors appointments I hadn’t  even made yet and money-saving and the smooth grand piano idea I had of what “healing” would look like. My reality unraveled me. It is a very scary and dangerous place to be, to live with a chronic illness–a life-threatening illness–and to not have the safety net of health insurance, or the funds to go to the doctor or even buy The Medicine You Need In Order To Live. Or… to buy groceries, for that matter. These days were very dark for me. I wrote about them a bit as they were happening (here, for example) but honestly, I’m going to skim past them right now. You understand.

In January, I managed to get health insurance again. I was able to see an endocrinologist and make other appointments I needed. I was able to see that I had some very necessary changes to make, though actually making the changes is a very-much-still-unfolding story of its own. In March, I got a job that I am very grateful to have, that I enjoy going to and love learning from. I joined a weekly writing class that I adore. I got off the waitlist for a writing workshop in California in June–a vast bright light and adventure to look forward to.

The weather warms. I’m finally making the self-care space to feel better that I’d truly believed would begin when I snapped my fingers last August, and would be wrapped up painlessly in a tidy bow after a few months, when I’d decided I was done with it. But shit, these things take time. And work.

I’m learning a lot these days, and most of it has nothing to do with diabetes. Which is to say, it also has everything to do with diabetes, because illness is entwined so intricately into my daily life. How very There it always is.

Nothing looks like I thought it would at this point, but I kind of have to trust that I am in the right place, where I need to be in this moment. Breaking myself open, staying put in this city, my home, even longer now. Everything feels uncomfortable, often. It feels vulnerable and thick and complicated. And necessary. When our foundation can no longer hold us, we have to get down close to it, onto our knees, and build it back up with our bare hands.

The path is not linear and life is unimaginable, which is not a bad thing.

This is where I find myself these days.

 

One of my dearest friends, Rachel, has a pretty little card on her refrigerator that has stopped me in my tracks on more than one occasion. On the front it simply says, “Take care of each other.” It’s small but stunning, a reminder of the significance of a hug, a Thinking Of You, a listening ear, a coffee bought. A This Reminded Me Of You. A ride home, a fifteen minute phone call, a place to stay the night. A hand to hold, an umbrella to borrow. A tissue, a bowl of homemade soup, a poem, a Do You Need Anything? a shared bottle of wine, a shared sorrow, a plant-watering, a going-out-of-your-way. A laugh. A Thank You. I’ve stood in front of that little card so often and thought to myself, Oh, yeah… what could possibly matter more?

It’s Thanksgiving night.

I’ve been running around all day, happy to see my family who I so often don’t, all day hugging, eating, talking, thinking, this is important. On the two-hour drive back from my hometown to the city I live in tonight, I passed a very recent, bad car accident on the interstate. I knew it was coming because of the state troopers speeding by in the far left lane, blue lights blazing. By the time I was passing it, there were at least 15 cop cars and an ambulance surrounding a car whose entire front half looked like a beer can, crushed. There were people lying on the ground, paramedics kneeling beside them. And then the traffic flowed and it was out of my sight. Now I’m home safe and others aren’t. I’m thankful to be here; how often do I take that for granted?

Language isn’t enough for all the things I’m grateful for, although I will say far beyond anything else, it is the people in my life that fill me up; the ones who I sometimes take care of and the ones who sometimes take care of me.

My family, far and wide and kind and mine, I love you so much.

My friend-family (Framily)… the truest people of my world. I can’t even believe we all exist together sometimes; how did we get so very lucky? I carry your hearts in my heart, always. And together, we’ll laugh til we die.

And… this year brought so many brilliant new people into my life, from Amsterdam to Patmos to my own sweet city in Virginia. I learn from you, constantly. You change everything. Thank you.

Thank you, thank you, thank you.

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edit:// Wow, my beautiful cousin in Oregon just posted this and it made my heart swell all over again. Thank you so much, Christina. <3 <3 <3

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I’ve been back in America for two months now.

People are already asking me, “Now that you’re back, what’s NEXT?” because for the past few years, or maybe forever, I’ve gone and gone and gone and gone and done. It’s been a fast and wild and sometimes reckless ride. To be completely honest, I’m kind of worn down right now. I need some time to refuel.

Lately, I’m trying to focus on creating my space here in Richmond again. I’m turning my focus to making homemade soup and unpacking and making enough money to pay my rent. I’m catching up on exorbitant medical bills, making doctors appointments, spending time with the people I love most in the world. I’m going to the library, drinking coffee on my porch and hiking mountains on Fridays with my roommate.

Traveling around all the time has been romantic and huge and so exciting. But this time around, working in Amsterdam as an au pair, living with a family, also turned out to often be draining and isolating. I’ve had many enchanted moments in lots of countries, and I plan to have many more. Just not yet. Now, there are things I need to stay put for, things I have to work through, things I want to focus on.

So, this is the next thing. This: being here, in the same state I was born, in the same city I attended college, in a teal house filled with books and candles and friends. I’m taking a step back to figure some shit out before I move on to the next billion things of life. Things pile up, don’t they? We can’t carry them all, all the time in our minds and in our arms. I don’t want so many things. They make moving forward difficult.

Not surprisingly, none of this is proving to be easy. I’m hardwired to be in a constant forward motion–fast-paced and relentless and bigger and better and brighter all the time. I require so many pep talks with myself these days to avoid stumbling into that dark abyss of comparison and anxiety and restlessness.

Sarah, it is okay to be doing this; to be slowing down at a time when it feels like everyone else is accelerating.

Sarah, it is okay to work the same less-than-inspiring job that you worked all through college. It means you can pay your health insurance and also have the time to focus on yourself at a time when it is very necessary.

Sarah, nothing is permanent, but everything also doesn’t have to be so transient, so exceptionally temporary that you forget what home is, what it feels like to sit down.

Doing the work of healing old wounds or changing habits is painful and slow. It requires a lot of patience and, you guessed it, pep talks with self. Also, talks with others–those are invaluable.

“Taking stock of your life requires some effort. You actually have to slow down. You have to take a step back. And you have to be really honest with yourself about how you are living and why. That process is hard for a lot of people. We don’t want to slow down… that seems weak. We don’t want to have to stop what we’re doing to think about it. And more than anything else being honest with ourselves sucks because it means we’re going to have to own up to our own shit. We’re going to have to look in the mirror and admit that in some aspects of our lives we’re off track.” –Clark Patrick

The underside of everything I’m saying is, the past two months back in the USA have been completely crazy. I hit the American ground running. On the way home from the airport, having just been in Iceland several hours before, and Amsterdam several hours before that, having been in America for all of 75 minutes in the past year, my dad and I made a pit-stop at my new apartment in Richmond so I could sign my lease and pick up the keys. I then bought the previous tenant’s piano for $60. Two days later, I left for a week long beach vacation in North Carolina with 15 of my friends. The next week, I moved into my new apartment in Richmond with my same suitcases still packed from Amsterdam. The next week I turned 24, was hired for 3 separate part-time jobs (all of which I accepted), and then, in a moment of clarity, said to myself, What the fuck am I doing? and swiftly quit 2 of them. The next week I began working, and then drove home for a few days to help my mother clean out her storage unit. I hashed through my childhood belongings, let go of most of them, clung to some. I also booked a trip to Portland (which I just postponed because of everything I’m talking about in this post) and a weekend with my friends in the Virginia mountains (this, I can 100% do, and can’t wait.) I’ve changed health insurance plans, eating habits, hair colors. I’m halfway through an 8-week writing class. And I have the nerve to sit here and say, “Guys, I’m really just taking it slow these days!”

Yeah, well, I don’t know what to say about that. Life demands it or I do, I’m not sure. Maybe both. I’m working on it. That’s the whole point of everything I’m saying. It has taken this much time for me to settle into the beginning of the idea of settling in. Now, I think I can begin to ground myself. I dream of renting a cabin in some blue mountains and living there alone for a few months and actually taking is slow, doing the work, writing, unplugging for a while, but that’s not really possible right now. I’m working on doing what I can. Part of this means I’m hiding a bit more… I’m so lucky to have armfuls and armfuls of amazing people in my life; I could fill every minute of every day for the rest of my days with people that I love. Except, I also can’t. I’m an introvert. Solitude is sacred and sustaining to me, and I think I ignore that too often. Listening to myself is a big part of all of this. Perhaps the biggest part. So, hide I will, when I want to.

“There is a season for wildness and a season for settledness, and this is neither. This season is about becoming.”

— Shauna Niequist

I’m glad to be here, right where I am. Home. Staying is a new adventure for me; staying isn’t something I’ve often done. I have to keep reminding myself that staying doesn’t mean settling. It doesn’t mean giving up on all the big things I want to see and do. It means taking the time to acknowledge and honor some foundational needs: stability, companionship, nourishment. It means taking the time to care for myself.

Yes, it feels good, to walk this familiar ground in a different direction.