September 10, 2015: Pittsburgh, PA
I thought it would be smart to take an overnight bus from New York to Pittsburgh. And then to kill time for the day until Ali got off work. So at 7:30 am I’m lugging along my suitcase, with its semi-busted wheel, and my uncaffeinated cerebral cortex can’t seem to navigate Google maps correctly, which is additionally aggravating when you’re walking in shorts and sandals in the increasing rain. Oh, California – your lack of seasons led me to forget that water actually falls from the sky sometimes, that an umbrella could be a sound travel tool to pack and that one might actually want to consult a weather forecast periodically.
Fifteen soggy minutes later I’m at the Amtrak station to regroup and run the clock. I’m expecting something the size of a regional airport with ample space for me to tuck away; what we have is a glorified waiting room the size of a two bedroom apartment. Clearly not the best spot to relax or catch shut-eye. In the restroom I change out of wet clothes and contemplate where I can be warm and dry for the next…11 hours. I actively chose this schedule, so I can’t feel too bad about it. I expected to cavort around the city, take in the three rivers, bridges, cafes. But in the gray cold early morning, the travel lust has dried up and I just feel alone and worn.
I can’t help but think of a friend’s comment right before I left for New York again: “Wow, I want Megan’s life. You’re living the dream…” I didn’t stop to give her the full picture: yes, this sabbatical is fantastically free. And it can also be pretty uncomfortable. I’ve had more space than ever to think and feel, space that I previously filled with the world of success, accomplishments, progression. Prior adult working life was fairly comfortable and predictable; I had a forum for achievement, and something to fill the days. I don’t think I understood how much validation and worth I derived from my career until now that I’ve stripped it away. I didn’t know how it would feel to meet new people and worry they’d think I was lazy, aimless; to wish to reassure them that I’m usually responsible and hard-working. I didn’t know how it would feel to have so much time on my hands, time when I couldn’t easily ignore some questions in life that are more easily glossed over or swept under the rug of busyness: When will I be ready to go back to work? And where will that be? And how will I know when it’s time, or what to do? And when will I find someone to go through life’s adventure with? And if I do, will I be up to the task of truly loving them?
I slip into the empty restroom of the train station, sitting on my luggage against the wall to pull myself together. It doesn’t help that I choose this moment to call Bank Of America for a credit card payment. I missed the payment by two days and I’m kicking myself for it. Why didn’t I listen to everyone’s advice about auto payments? The service agent asks for my name and current employer. Apparently this is a security question I’ve never encountered, the tiniest twist of a knife to my current mood.
“Well, I don’t have a current employer, but here’s my former one.”
“Okay, I’ll update your status as unemployed.”
My pride wants to clarify, but I hold my tongue. She’s not wrong, I’m just being self-conscious about an imaginary scarlet U now pinned to my chest.
I know in a bit I’ll pack up and head out to the city to start the day, but right now, I’m not ready to be seen quite yet. Right now feels miles away from one of my finer moments. But it’s a moment nonetheless, and I’m trying to believe that though these times aren’t pleasant, they still have purpose.
Before this season, it was a bit easier to brush difficult feelings aside and move on to the next thing, because I was never far from “the next thing.” For better or worse, being freer on a sabbatical has meant more opportunity to pause and consider feelings instead of trying to hurry past them:
What do these moments teach us about what we need or want? What beliefs do they reveal about ourselves, life, God? Not that we need to perpetually dwell in sadness, just that there are things to be gained in the dark, in confusion or wandering or uncomfortable feelings. Although in a down moment, most of me just longs to feel better, to wave a wand and feel happy, strong, worthy.
I share this all to say: if this really is “the life,” it’s not all jetsetting and Central Park and lattes. But here at the Amtrak station, it seems like the most valuable thing to do is to sit with the discomfort just a bit longer, to not simply gloss over or numb. I still have a feeling that somehow, nothing is wasted, that there is movement and growth and meaning that aren’t always immediately visible, and that even discomfort can at times be a surprisingly good and sweet thing.