Today is Thanksgiving in the United States. There are many Americans who look to this day as a national day of mourning, and for good reason. In my family, though, we recognize the holiday, and like many others, we try to center thankfulness and love and our relationships with each other. Over at the Guardian today I’m writing about the things I’m thankful for.
This Thanksgiving, I’m grateful for my church.
I’m grateful I have a space that offers moral guidance, that reflects and builds upon my values, that pushes me to be a kinder and more generous person and that offers me a sense of purpose. I’m grateful for the warmth and support of a like-minded community. I’m grateful my church is a space that is available to me every day, whenever I need it.
I’m grateful that, like so many other young, secular people across the globe, my church isn’t a religious institution or a hierarchy. It’s not even a church, technically. It’s the weekly dinner with the friends I’ve had for more than a decade. It’s the candle-lit yoga studio where I spend an hour every day quietly looking inward. It’s the comment section of my website, where a ragtag bunch of gender studies nerds, political junkies and social justice geeks have found each other, and where we argue and laugh and have a little reprieve from a real world where things are often ugly, painful and marginalizing – even while we talk about things that are ugly, painful and marginalizing.
The holiday that for me is the most spiritually rewarding, the one where I learn the most and reassess my path and give thanks and feel simultaneously peaceful and energized? It’s the annual New Years trip I take with my three closest friends, to somewhere new every year, with no boyfriends or partners allowed.
Almost all of us have a church. It just might not get a federal tax break.
You can read the whole thing here.
In the column, I include you all (awww) in the list of things I’m grateful for, and I include this space in the list of spaces where I find “my people,” and where I find reprieve, and where I grow. It feels silly, crediting The Internet or a blog with helping to shape you, but this has. Don’t get me wrong — y’all give me a giant headache sometimes too, and there are days (many days) when I want to throw my computer across the room, or when The Internet makes me so mad/sad/frustrated that I break down into tears like a big ‘ol baby. But this space has saved me more times than it’s hurt; this space has been, and continues to be, a landing pad and a cushion.
Four years ago I graduated from law school and started working at a big law firm. It was a weird turn; I never thought I’d be a corporate lawyer, but $200,000 in educational debt made firm work a financial necessity. I got lucky and worked in a place that was truly wonderful, at least as far as law firms go. I was given full leeway to continue blogging and writing and doing my activist work, and I made a concerted effort to draw a big bright line between work and writing. When internet trolls and long-time stalkers attempted to get me fired and interrupted my professional life, my colleagues were supportive. I got to do a lot of pro bono work, largely in the areas of asylum work for trans and lesbian women, domestic violence victims and FGM survivors, and housing rights for low-income people facing eviction.
But I was still a corporate lawyer, and even billing a ton of pro bono hours didn’t change that. And I was a corporate lawyer who moonlighted as a writer. I ran this space, I freelanced, I tried to do speaking gigs, I went to events. I was working one job where I had 10-16 hour days, and then a second one on top of that, which was what I really loved and wanted to do. I was exhausted and burned out before I really even started. I didn’t sleep much; I didn’t date much. For the first two years at my firm, I did pretty well. I worked hard, and I was stressed out and exhausted, and I let my work in this space slide, but work-work was good. I billed tons of hours. I went for weeks only sleeping three or four hours a night. I knew I wanted to leave eventually, but the money was nice — after three years of being the one broke one in my friend circle while I was in law school and they were all employed, it was especially nice not to be stressed about money all the time. I was deeply, fundamentally unhappy, but there were other benefits. And I wasn’t miserable, just stressed out and dissatisfied and a little lost.
And then, not this past summer but right at the beginning of the one before, I got sick.
“Sick” isn’t even the right word. At the time, it felt like my whole body was just failing me. It’s something I alluded to here once or twice, during some blog fight or another, where I had done something stupid and I just did not have it in me to deal with the fallout, and I felt like I was failing everyone; I said I was having “health problems.” And I was.
It started with my neck. I’ve had neck and shoulder issues since law school, mostly from stress. At one point when I was in school, the muscles cramped up so badly I couldn’t move my head, and walked myself, sobbing in pain, to the health center. I was given some shots of muscle relaxants and prescriptions for more, which I couldn’t really take because of final exams. That’s always been a painful area, and it acts up when I’m stressed. By year three of a law firm job, I could barely turn my head from side to side. I went to a few different doctors, finally ending up at a spinal specialist who sent me to get an MRI to see what was wrong with me.
Around the same time, I went in for my annual women’s health check-up, and my doctor found a lump in my breast. She also found something wrong with my uterus. She gave me referrals for sonograms.
Over the next month, I spent a lot of time in hospitals and doctor’s offices. I spent a lot of hours on my roof, drinking wine with my friends and trying to find a distraction. I didn’t tell anyone, at first. Finally, one evening after too much rose, it all came spilling out, and there are few things I hate more than crying in front of other people, but I sat on the roof and cried and my friends rubbed my back and told me everything would be fine.
Spoiler: Everything was. Eventually.
I got the MRI, and when I went back to the spinal doctor he informed me that at 27 I had spinal arthritis that would probably keep me in physical pain for the rest of my life, as well as two protruding discs in my neck that were responsible for the severe pain on my left side. To compensate, my left shoulder muscle was over-working, and the muscle tissue was damaged, causing more pain. He recommended against spinal surgery for someone my age, and instead prescribed physical therapy several times a week, and suggested I do yoga more regularly, since that seemed to help. Pain was just going to be a part of my life; I should figure out ways to manage it.
Unfortunately, when you work at a big law firm, daily yoga and an hour of PT several times a week isn’t exactly easy to schedule.
In that same period of time, I went in for sonograms of my uterus and my breast. The uterine sonogram looked normal, and the rest of that particular health story is for another time. A few days later I was back for the breast sonogram.
When my doctor found the lump weeks earlier, I called my mom. She went into Nurse Mode and calmly and matter-of-factly talked me through what was going to transpire. “Your aunt used to get breast lumps,” she said. “It is probably nothing serious. And if it is something serious, there’s nothing worrying will do, so don’t get yourself in a tizzy. We will get through this.”
“Are you getting a mammogram?” she asked.
“I… think so?” I said.
“Do you know what a mammogram is?” she asked.
“I… think so?” I said.
“Ok,” she said. “Picture a garage door. Now picture it coming down and squeezing your breast until it’s flat as a pancake, flatter than you ever imagined a breast could possible get.”
“Oh god,” I said.
“Yeah,” she said. “It sucks.”
I’m not sure if this is a New York thing or just a hospitals-are-shitty thing, but god, the waiting. I showed up on time for a 10am appointment, scared and nervous about the garage door machine that was about to come down and squash my boob. And… I waited. When they finally did the exam, it was blessedly a sonogram and not a mammogram, so there was no garage door — just a big thing that looked a little like a Hitachi Magic Wand jamming into the side of my boob. Then I waited some more, until a doctor brought me into a room and told me that yes, there is a tumor in there and they can’t tell what it is. So wait a little longer and we’ll see if someone can do a biopsy today.
I waited longer.
A middle-aged male doctor came in with a younger male resident. The doctor was nice, and having them touch my boob was significantly less weird than I thought it would be. They felt around the tumor — which hurts, by the way, when it’s squeezed and prodded — and the doctor said he’d take a biopsy and look at it under the microscope to tell me right away if I needed to keep worrying. They took turns jabbing needles into the lump — when they take a biopsy of a breast lump, they apparently have to get a good “sample,” and the only way to do that is to forcefully jerk the needle around inside the lump to get a bunch of cells — and then disappeared. I sat in a little white room by myself for what felt like hours, although it was probably about 40 minutes. By that point it was about 4pm. I hadn’t eaten all day. I had been in that fluorescent-lit hospital for hours. I bit back tears. I kept checking my blackberry, responding to work emails. I made the kind of promises to God that one makes when one is scared. And I promised myself that whatever happened, I would treat myself better, and take care of my health, and focus on what I found sustaining and nourishing, even if it meant being less financially secure. I promised to put my own needs ahead of work; I decided that I had a year left in me, and then it was time to go. I told God that if this all worked out, I wouldn’t compromise my health like this again. I’d do better. I wouldn’t ask for anything else.
The doctor came back in and said, “It’s not cancerous.”
It was a tumor, he said, but a benign one. If it bothered me I could have surgery to have it removed, but otherwise we could leave it. “Ok,” I said. “Thank you.”
I walked to the subway, hungry and dazed, and called my mom to tell her the good news. She was relieved. So was I, but I didn’t have the rush of lightness I had expected. I decided to go home for the day.
Even then, I was grateful I had health insurance — and fancy law firm health insurance that paid for most of my medical costs.
The next week I started going to physical therapy. I started doing yoga regularly. I left work by 7 every night, sometimes earlier. I took vacation. I took sick days. I went out with friends. I went on dates. I said no to projects I couldn’t fit in. For the last year of my employment at the law firm, I had what all the women’s groups call “work-life balance.”
Except, of course, by law firm standards I was no longer an ideal employee, or even a very good one.
I made a choice, but it came at a cost. I worry, still, that some folks I worked with at the end of my time at the firm thought I was lazy or unmotivated — and comparatively, I suppose, I was. The truth is that I did stop working as hard, and it was intentional.
This past May, a full year after The Summer My Body Broke, I left the firm.
Leaving a well-paid, stable law job and becoming a freelance writer while still in six-figure debt and without much of a safety net is on its face one of the stupidest and most reckless decisions I have ever made. It is also one of the best.
Maybe I’ll be singing a different tune in a few years. But right now, my only responsibilities are myself and a cat — when better to take a big leap? When better to decide that I can actually survive on spoons full of peanut butter and an apple for dinner, if everything else in my life is feeding me?
This Thanksgiving, I am particularly grateful that my life is what it is right now. I am grateful to know that, as a generally risk-averse person (what other kind goes to law school?), I can thrive in instability. I am grateful to know that I am still capable of taking big risks. I am grateful that there are actually people out there who want to pay me money to write things.
I am grateful for my health, even though it’s not perfect. I am grateful that I have learned how to care for my body and manage my pain, even though my body still hurts a lot. I am grateful that, after a lifetime of body-image issues, I have been given the tools to reimagine myself as a complex ecosystem that I need to care for, and that will serve me best when I treat it with kindness and forgiveness, instead of a thing that seats its value in its aesthetic appeal to others.
I am grateful, really and truly, that throughout this process I had this space. It was the distraction I needed. It gave me a sense of doing something bigger. It was food for my mind and my soul when law school was awful, and then when my day job was thoroughly unfulfilling. And, more practically, it has been a platform off of which to launch a second career. Established writers always tell wannabe-writers that the best thing they can do is “just write” and “write every day.” This has, for almost a decade, been my place to just write, to write every day.
I am grateful I have a space to just write, every day. I am especially grateful that my writing space is public, and comes with a community of smart, engaged people talking and responding (yes, I am grateful even when I feel like people in this space are being jerks, and even when there’s push-back. I could live without the trolls and some of the pedantry, but nothing in life is perfect, is it?).
So thank you, for making this place what it is, and for making this little corner of the internet feel like home.
Happy Thanksgiving to those who celebrate today.
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