A seven-month sabbatical
It's November and the sun pierces through the cold, sharp air of Brooklyn fall. Seven months ago was April, and the whole world turned upside down. Seven months ago I was back in Southern California cuddling with our puppy back home. Seven months ago was when things felt "normal." But when you do one thing for seven months, the several months of the previous thing don't feel so normal as they used to be.
I'm not the only one who feels this way. And yet it felt like I was climbing on some anonymous mountain no one climbs on. I told myself, and others too, I was a product designer: that I could "empathize" with the user; that my "experience & background make me a good fit"; that when things were "normal," I worked "cross-functionally." That I, too, was experiencing life just like any other tech worker currently: the work from home, the incessant delivery in place of cooking, the financial gains during nationwide unemployment, all while receiving a $180 check supplemented with another $600 each week.
For seven months I maintained a facade of camaraderie & resilience while struggling against the shame that comes with wandering for sanctuary. It's not your fault, I tell myself, it's no one's fault. And while the stocks of all these tech firms soared, and subsequently the already bewildering salaries of their employees, here I was acting cool as if I, too, was experiencing a ballooning in my company's stock. That company? More timeless & familiar than any brand could ever be, that company was none other than Reality itself*, its stock traded with a globally accepted currency called Suffering.
But seven months ago I started journaling again. The last entry I wrote was on April 25th, 2019. This year's first entry is dated April 26. An exact year plus one day brought me full circle. Here I was again surrendering myself to the written word, bringing to its altar my shame, my shortcomings, my heartache. In seven months the entries swelled, its contents in anarchy between the good & bad, the triumph & failure, the then & now.
They read like bygone texts from loved ones. Serendipitously you pick out the small memorable ones: I need to eat my vegetables, Give yourself a pat on the back, I'll see you tomorrow, Darin. But these written notes are addressed to me. There is no "wondering of what they're thinking." I know what "they" were thinking, and that makes these entries so painfully astonishing.
Here I felt my heart again dropping to my stomach, then rocketing back upward, bursting as it reached my face. I remember my half-conscious body, swollen red eyes, and fleeting breath. I also remember the severe Southern California summer midday and the creeping burn in my legs. My drenched body, heavy breath, and my residual thoughts struggling to keep pace.
And then there was the cool summer wind brushing against my ear as I sat on a fire escape along Orchard. Yellow Tail rushing through me, my heart surfaces up toward my throat and the hairs on my arms bristling. Slowly, our eyes close as I lean forward. The late morning sun leaks through the blinds as I tuck their hair behind the ears, our bodies contorted along each other.
Who was I? The bouts of sorrow & joy, the blur of desire, and glimmers of hope, all felt in one person, all in seven months. This was me. Yet it felt like I was reading about someone else. I'm a product designer! I keep saying, and here I was, accounts run negative, doing a morning run at noon, sleeping over on a weekday, groceries at 2 PM then delivery when I returned home, walking to Popeye's intoxicated together and returning soaked from the rain realizing they forgot our chicken sandwich.
No one said the past seven months were going to be "normal," but anything outside these seven months now seems unfamiliar. Am I really a product designer if I'm relying on assistance to keep me afloat? Am I really a product designer if I'm writing, feeling, running, escaping more than I am designing? Do I even want to be one while the world falls apart?
It was odd: heartbreak & despair coupled with patchwork confidence reaffirmed by multiple interviews & warm emails about my essay. People want to hear from an unemployed person?
In the past seven months I wrote more, ran more, felt more, learned more. I was doing everything I seemingly couldn't when I still had a day job, and perhaps gained more than I had previously, good and bad. But no one asks for suffering, and when it comes to you the most you can ask from it are lessons, and even that is a big ask. So while I received lessons conceived in pain, love, rage, passion, Suffering's temporary leave now puts the question onto me: am I really the same person I told everyone I was?
In this absolutely unpredictable, unprecedented, uncertain context, I can't give an answer. All I can say is that I've now returned to "normal," but even this homecoming will take time, and that's okay. I left myself a note in my journal when this time would come: A new day breaks tomorrow, and you deserve the world. Goodnight.
*Haruki Murakami & Philip Gabriel, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running: A Memoir (New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008), 145.
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