past and present selves

past and present selves

I think I’m experiencing grief.

I say “I think” because I’m not entirely certain what this feeling is. It’s sharp, deep in my chest, like a shard of rock lodged in my breastbone. It aches, too. A strange dragging sensation, a pulling down towards my gut, my feet, towards the floor, like a force wants to pull me underground.

I say “grief” because, quite simply, this pain is connected to sorrow. Sharp, surprising bouts of it, which then settle into a deeper melancholy.

What is triggering it? I’m still unraveling this, but I’ve noticed that this grief arises when I remember a fragment of my former self. My younger self. My pre-parent self. My early career self.

When I had an embarrassment of time to pursue whatever I wanted. (And I realize just how privileged I am, as a white, financially-secure woman, to even write that.) To fill notebooks with career ambitions and goals. To produce a podcast. To write for a witty blog on television and culture. To keep up with new TV series! To go to the movie theater. To have random Tuesday-night cocktails with my partner. To go for long walks that simply meandered with no set direction or destination. Hours upon hours spent perusing books at a bookstore, brushing spines with my fingertips, allowing print and ink to fill my soul and calm my anxieties. Sunday afternoons of baking and hot black tea. Naps. Road trips.

It isn’t as though I want to go back. I’ve earned a maturity over the past decade. I’ve traded in idealism for pragmatic activism. I’ve learned that I don’t need my job to be my passion; in fact, I don’t want to survive capitalism by brutalizing that which fills my heart with joy and purpose. (I could write an entire essay on how my shifting views on capitalism have radically altered my life’s outlook and priorities.) I was a feminist 10 years ago, but not an intersectional one. I’ve discovered that I’m a quakerwitch and stopped trying to resuscitate my old evangelical Christian faith, a courageous move that has brought radiant clarity and extraordinary freedom. I have practiced mindfulness for the past two years and witnessed the transformative power its had on my relationship with my partner, my friendships, and my own self-compassion and anxiety. I have brought a new human into this world, a change so transformative there aren’t adequate words. I am more grounded, more focused. I would not trade any of this to return to my overly ambitious, never satisfied, DINK life.

And yet. I still miss elements of that younger, former, childless life. It’s not that I can’t spend hours at a bookstore anymore; I just need to arrange childcare for that time. And “hours” becomes “hour,” and I’m learning to savor such experiences, so that the nourishment from those shorter, fewer experiences can carry me longer distances until the next one. I can still bake on Sunday afternoons, but it’s with a curious, active toddler that can’t quite hold the measuring cup for flour with his tiny hand, but we do it together anyway because he so wants to help and be involved. I still have career ambitions, but that ambition has evolved. Priorities evolve. I have a mortgage to pay; I provide health care for my family. And even beyond that, ambition in the workplace can look like many things. There is no “one” way. Our society’s definitions of success and purpose and meaning and ambition are deeply rooted in a patriarchal system. Do I want to take down the patriarchy, or simply occupy it?

Some days these shifts are easier to accept and love than others. The fact that I wouldn’t trade my new reality for my former life — and yet I still miss my former life — isn’t that what grief is? A journey of processing change and somehow still managing to move forward while something or someone is missing. Acute aching, a literal lack or absence of something that was (or still is) precious. 

Grief can be informative. It tells us what we hold important and dear. And I don’t think it ever fully goes away. It springs up at the most unexpected times, triggered by a smell or photo or song, and reminds you of what or who you no longer have. And it hurts. And that’s okay.

It’s okay to hurt. It’s okay for the pain to lessen over time. It’s okay to move forward, forge ahead and create your new. Whatever that new looks like, feels like. It’s okay for those two things — grief and forward movement — to coexist. For them to somehow find a way to peacefully live with one another, in the sacred shared space of your being.