Sunday, August 25, 2013

An Extraordinary Life

Dear Reader: I write to better understand my experiences of life; I share with the hope that my words will touch something inside you, and together we will remember that we all walk through life with love and loss, joy and sorrow, hope and despair, faith and uncertainty.

NOTE: I will never write about upsetting details without a warning.

It’s something I always wanted, something I always expected. Perhaps it’s because my formative years were filled with images of the new Super Woman: “I can bring home the bacon; fry it up in a pan. And never, ever let you forget you’re a man.” This notion that women could have it all was crammed down our throats, and encouraged many of us to aspire to great achievements in both the home and business front. We could be everything, all at the same time, and succeed in all our endeavors.

During my young adulthood I became immersed in the New Age movement (an earlier iteration of the current “law of attraction”) that asserted, “Thought Manifests.” You could have the life you dreamed of simply by training your thoughts; eradicate negative, self-doubting, limiting thoughts and replace them with affirmations such as, “You can have it all,” or, “I now have my dream job with a plentiful salary and oodles of respect, plus my ideal life partner and a luxurious home on the beach; this or something better NOW!”

I threw myself into the program, probably because as a struggling, broke single mom my life sucked – and I was willing to immerse myself in a philosophy that promised that I could turn everything around with nothing more than the power of my thoughts.

I won’t go into the events leading to my break-up with the New Age movement. But the break-up was swift and complete. Several years later I embraced a softer spirituality, one that relied on concrete planning and effort in addition to “right thinking.” But my belief that I could create and live an extraordinary life persisted.

While raising my son I worked my way through college while holding down a job (this was not done entirely on my own, but largely so). And I made a deliberate career choice by moving into the nonprofit sector. I had no interest in jobs that did not directly help save the downtrodden, the animals, or the planet. Anything else seemed misguided and wasted effort. In addition to working and raising my son, I was always doing volunteer work and/or taking higher education courses in the hopes of improving my resume. My plan was to become the Executive Director of a nonprofit. That would be extraordinary! I could introduce myself as the woman at the top of an effort to eradicate homelessness, hunger, or environmental degradation.

When my son finished high school, I realized the timing was right to return to the bottom rung of a new career. Becoming a park ranger had always been my dream. I loved the idea of working outdoors, working in natural spaces, using my hands as well as my brain, and helping others to connect with the healing, spiritual powers of nature.

View of Astoria from the Astor Column
After a long search for my new home, I discovered Astoria Oregon. It captured my heart with the very first glimpse, driving along Highway 30 from Portland and seeing the mighty Columbia River off to my right and Coxcomb Hill off to the left, where most of the small city dwelled. Victorian-style homes of every imaginable color, size, quality of design, and state of disrepair marched up steep streets. The Astoria-Megler Bridge rose regally as it left Astoria, giving ample room for massive container ships to pass under, and then jetted across the river for four miles, barely skimming the surface until it met Washington State.

Astoria has an incredibly rich human history starting with the Clatsop Indians who resided there for thousands of years; Lewis and Clark's Corps of Discovery over-wintered here; soon afterwards Astoria became a fur-trading post; and later the canneries opened providing work for Scandinavians - primarily Finns - to come in droves to make Astoria their new home. Later early lighthouses were built to warn of the perilous sand bar at the river's mouth, and then came the military forts. Currently the U.S. Coast Guard uses the mouth of the Columbia River as a training area for helicopter rescue, rescue swimmers, and extreme-condition boating: Coasties from around the country come to train in one of the most treacherous river bars in the world, nicknamed "The Graveyard of the Pacific."  

The area surrounding Astoria had ample agencies that utilized park rangers: Oregon State Parks, Washington State Parks, U.S. Department of Natural Resources, U.S. Forest Service, County Forest, and City Parks. Timing and opportunity coincided across the river in Washington, where I started my career with parks. I spent two years living in the Astoria area, and when no permanent employment became available by the time I was interviewing for permanent ranger positions, I made the difficult choice to leave behind Astoria and move to a state park on the Olympic Peninsula.

Throughout my years with Washington Parks, I fought and struggled and persevered. Periodically I would ask myself, “is this what I wanted, what I hoped for? Is this my dream job? Is this the extraordinary job that will go with my extraordinary life?” For five years I could not answer that question, and chose to continue trying until I had my answer.

I am grateful that I chose to leave at a time when things were going well. I’d pushed myself through some horrendous experiences and hung on. Then I had the rewarding opportunity to manage the No Child Left Inside program, which gave grant funding throughout the state to nonprofits who provided environmental education programs to youth (the program was short-lived because of the budget crisis). From there I went to my last park with Washington State. There I was able to experience the bread-and-butter of state park rangering during the summer without any horrendous tragedies. I found myself brittle, chronically depleted and unable to rejuvenate, and constantly ready for a fight. It was during this relatively average time that I realized it was time to let go of the dream and walk away.

So I am grateful. I left on my terms, not because someone else decided I couldn’t cut it. I left during a good time, rather than in defeat during the tough times.

And yet… this was my dream, and I’d fought so very hard for it – harder than I’ve ever fought for anything. After leaving I was aimless and drifting, and the only thing I knew was that my compass was pointing once again to Astoria.

During the next two years in Astoria my life started to unravel: I found myself unable to hold down a job, my “nerve” and self-discipline were gone, I found interpersonal struggles overwhelming, crowds brought unbearable chaos, and my anxiety started to permeate.

So what does someone do, who has believed that all her dreams could be achieved with hard work and perseverance, after giving everything she could (after giving too much) just to walk away? What does someone do who has no more direction, who keeps trying job after job only to leave discouraged and even more anxious? It had been seven years since I left behind my son to go on my grand adventure; I expected to have arrived by now. I expected that my career would have solidified and filled me with great satisfaction, and that I would have immersed myself in a community of friends and even found my life partner. I expected that seven years would have been ample time to find extraordinary.

Train tracks along riverfront
A friend invited me to a presentation given by two sisters, both Finnish, both born and raised in Astoria. They told the story of their mother who had come to American from Finland in her early 20’s with a girlfriend, and eventually made her way across the country to Astoria, Oregon. After finding her place in this rough canning town, she opened a restaurant on the river.

Her restaurant was known for being a simple place with good, simple food. What it was also known for was that no one ever left hungry. She was known not just for providing large portions to hungry cannery workers and fishermen, but also to the hobos who would ride the train into Astoria. She never turned anyone away.

I found the story incredibly moving. This was not the kind of life achievement that would make headlines. Running a restaurant that provided basic nourishment was not glamorous. One could not introduce oneself as a restaurant owner and expect admiration and envy. This surely was not an extraordinary way for her to spend her life. And yet… it was extraordinary. It was simple and honest and extraordinary. She became known for providing nourishment to anyone who wanted or needed. This sounded like a beautiful way to dedicate a life. No glory, only simplicity and lots of hard work.

Hearing this story moved me, and I couldn’t stop thinking about it. When I wished for my extraordinary job within my extraordinary life, wasn’t there some Ego there? I not only wanted to do something that made me proud, I wanted to do something that made others take notice and admire me. In fact I’d had that as a park ranger. Yes there are many park visitors who detest government employees, anyone in a uniform, and particularly law enforcement officers. But lots of people admire park rangers. Many folks harbor a secret desire to become a park ranger. I had much of the prestige and mystique and respect I’d hoped for; but I was a miserable wreck. Perhaps I’d been going about this all wrong. Perhaps having an extraordinary life didn’t have to capture headlines. Perhaps having an extraordinary life was not at all what I’d assumed it was. Perhaps raising children (or not), loving well, and finding a simple job is extraordinary in that you participate fully in life and do your best. Perhaps grandiosity is not everyone’s path to extraordinary.

I still wrestle with these questions: what kind of life do I want to have now? Do I still hope for headline-variety extraordinary? Do I still believe that someday I can and will have It All? But for right now I have completely changed my priorities. My son and his partner have taken on a greater importance in my life. They are young and discovering and creating, and it is a beautiful thing to witness and share in. And there is something else that has taken on great importance in my life: healing.

In some ways my focus has always been on Me. But it used to be on the Me that wanted others’ respect and admiration. Now the Me I focus on is the part that was overshadowed for all those years: my health, deep connections with others, inner peace.  For now I’ve moved to Portland where I’m working as a Temp, the only job I’ve found so far where I’m paid to go in and work for eight hours; nothing more, nothing less. I don’t get embroiled in office politics, gossip or power plays. I am not expected to put in unpaid overtime, or bring my work home, or in any way worry about work after I walk out the doors. It is not grand, I am not saving the planet, and it does not prompt people to say, “Oh, how exciting – I’ve always wanted to do that!” But I give an honest day’s work in exchange for my paycheck; and this job allows me to go home every evening and turn my focus to my family and working through my PTSD. It provides easier opportunities to learn to manage my anxiety. I no longer feel overwhelmed and depleted.

Simple Bluebells

I can’t predict what jobs lay ahead. I can’t predict what my life will look like. All I can manage is one day at a time. A few years ago, my days were frenetic and distressing. Today, most of my days are OK. And sometimes they’re really good. Will my days ever be extraordinary? I’m not sure. But being healthy, happy, and loved are more important to me than answering that question. And I’m working on that, every day.

Dear Reader, please consider posting your comments and questions below. I would love to hear from you! Please let your friends know about my blog. And thank you for visiting!

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