Wednesday, November 14, 2012

2012: A Retrospective

I saw signs. Hints. Yet every year, the holidays hit me like the surprising chill of water when diving from a dock. I know what’s coming, am running towards it arms open, but still am unprepared for the impact.

If the holidays are the triumphant moment of mid-air suspense, submersion and that first above-water breath is the new year.

December magazines are anticipating the splash with recaps and round-ups of defining events, “best of” lists, and most memorable moments.

Vanity Fair’s “The Year in 10 Objects” made me consider what I would encase in my own capsule, as representative of 2012. Initially, it seemed a relatively average year. I recalled a few significant experiences, but overall 2012 didn’t feel life-changing. Pausing for more than a superficial moment, I unearthed all that happened, month by month: responsibility. Reevaluation. Enterprise. Travel. Life. Death.

Suddenly, 2012 seemed significant.

Late in 2011 I joined an organization grounded in volunteerism as a way to consistently give back. I wanted to occupy my time less selfishly -- with something more than work and socializing. Involvement, though, came at a cost -- one I wasn’t financially ready to fund. I’m not a quitter, but withdrew membership in the first month of the year, recognizing my (well-intentioned) impulsiveness only in hindsight. You can’t always do it all, all at once. Look before you leap.

Having received money back in 2010, I expected a comparable tax return for 2011. I hadn’t planned to owe the government money, on top of what is cut from my humble paycheck every two weeks. On a getting-by budget, I had to piece together a large percentage of my direct deposit for Uncle Sam, grin, and bear the burden. Compared to some situations this hardship is small, but financial management is tricky – and self-sufficiency nothing to smirk at.

I’ve lost loved ones before, but experience doesn’t soften each new sting. The pain is sharper yet when death is cruel and unexpected – unfair. My body shook with the sobs of how unfair it all was, how guilty I felt for finding a second’s gratitude that it wasn’t my dad crippled by disease (though the closest it could be), how unfathomable – yet made gut-wrenchingly real – it is to imagine that last drink of water, last blink, last breath. For the first time I had to role-reverse and somehow console my parent, debilitated with grief as I’d never seen before. It was a difficult and unnatural exchange, but life isn’t always comfortable – we do what we have to, not what we want to.

I was lucky to spend the first week of April in Barcelona with my family. It was a charmed getaway of walking the streets with no particular place to go. We drank wine and tasted cava in the hazy Catalonian hills; we soaked in the architecture, landscape and people that make that small pocket of the world so pleasantly foreign from the one in which we live.

May marked the end of a three-month rollercoaster ride of interviews at work, none of which resulted in an offer. My dream job was so close, yet teasingly beyond my fingertips. The tough truth is that making a positive impression and having the right answers isn’t always enough. And, interestingly, the most qualified candidate isn’t always par for the part. This reality at first spun me in circles, but, really, everyone gets what they want too fast. I’ll take the curves, brave the loops, feel the stomach flips. The next thrilling peak may not be visible from your current vantage point.

For some ends, there are no shortcuts. This year, I desired the fruits for which I hadn’t really labored. Finally, motivated by internal and external pressure, it clicked. What started as a straightforward, impersonal endeavor gradually morphed into more. When you’re scared, start small. But start. A little risk can reap exponential reward; in my case, what I’d hoped and more.

I packed my possessions and moved for the third time in two years. I hadn’t planned for the most recent to come so soon, but there’s a contentedness now that hadn’t been before. It takes some shifting and rearranging, maybe more than you’d like, but sooner or later things fall into place.

We transferred my aging grandparents into assisted, apartment-style living. It was shattering not only to see what had always been so strong start to weaken, but to imagine never again driving down that familiar road to the house with the orange door. It wasn’t just their house of 30 years slipping away, but my second home. Over time, the fire pit and sandy shoreline disappeared, the boat sold, the dock no longer put in water. But what happened in March led to a gift in July, and by summer’s end my parents bought the property. One thing lost is another gained.

Just after Labor Day I secured the promotion that eluded me in spring. That alone felt an accomplishment, but the ensuing transition would be the bigger battle. No one likes to make mistakes. We want to be instant experts, craft connoisseurs, but give it time and practice patience. Running follows walking, and where you start isn’t where you’ll end.

I returned to Iowa, home of the Hawkeyes, with a group of girlfriends. Since graduation we’ve gone back each fall to relive a little of those four years. I didn’t enroll in the best university my test scores permitted – rather, the one that felt right. Admittedly, I’ve questioned that decision, but how hard it was to leave that October weekend is validation wrapped with a bow.

A week from tonight I’ll be driving home for Thanksgiving — that perfect point of anticipation when the best time of the year is just ahead. That moment we wish could freeze in time. If nothing else happened this month but that long holiday weekend at home, I'd be more than satisfied. This year my cousins' brand new babies will attend their first family gathering. Their presence will make the mashed potatoes and pies all the more delicious, for there's no sweeter sound on earth than newborn giggles.

The best is yet to come.

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