Friends, a week away in the forests of the North Carolina mountains has been a balm for my mental health.
Well, that and the fact that I’m two steps away from securing a position that I will not only enjoy and be good at, but that will help secure my family’s financial stability and longterm financial goals.
It seemed a little risky to invest in a camping vacation right now; and yet, how could we not? Every week that went by of the 5 months since I lost my job have seen a decline in my emotional and mental health. How can I show-up to job interviews with enthusiasm and even coherent answers without my full mental faculties?
I couldn’t. And so we planned it last minute, praying it would all work out. And it did.
The Monday of the week we left, I was searching (once again, as I do each and every day) on LinkedIn and found a job that I was immediately interested in. The problem? 400 other people had already applied. I re-read the posting and decided I was still a strong candidate and I had nothing to lose. It was afer 5pm and I’d already done quite a few applications that day, but I went ahead and completed this one while it was fresh.
Tuesday morning someone from that company viewed my LinkedIn profile. By Tuesday evening the job had over 1000 applicants.
Wednesday morning I was invited to an interview.
I interviewed Friday morning. It went amazingly. Saturday morning we left for camping. They said they’d be taking 3 people on to the next round of interviews and that I’d hear likely between Wednesday and Friday of the following week.
On Tuesday, sitting outside the Biltmore Mansion in Asheville, North Carolina, immediately after concluding several hours of an in-depth audio tour, I got an email inviting me for the next round.
I informed them I was on vacation but that I’d be home on Friday and that day would work best for me, but if necessary I could make Wednesday work. They picked Wednesday, and so on vacation, I found wifi and interviewed for round 2. They said I’d hear by the end of the week for the final round.
On Friday evening I received that invitation.
Out of 1050 some odd applicants, I’m in the finals. It’s magic. Like. I can’t even.
Not only is this a major boost to my bruised self-esteem (I was getting rejected out of hand for entry level positions–likely because I’m overqualified but was trying to sidestep to related industries and was also having a hard time competing with people in my experience range who weren’t transitioning).
But, most importantly, it’s the best possible job at the best time. Something in me healed on this vacation. I’m ready. I’m excited. I want this job. It’s the best choice I’ve had in five months and one I can really see myself doing long term…like permanently.
I know I’m healed because I feel like cooking. I have the sudden capacity to care that I once did.
It may not be much, but yesterday I felt like cooking–A LOT. I made a cherry almond breakfast bread, reorganized the kitchen, and then I threw together a throw-back salad from my executive chef days (it was called Country French Salad back then), a loaf of deep and rich pumpernickel bread that felt appropriate for Autumn, and a giant cookie in the iron skillet. It felt good. It felt right. It was delicious and I knew immediately I wanted to share the good vibes with all of you.
Fall Harvest Salad Yield: 4 adult dinner servings
1 honeycrisp apple, cored and sliced thin 1 pear, cored and sliced thin 1 C chopped candied pecans (see below) 1/3 C crumbled goat cheese 4-8 strips thick applewood smoked bacon, cooked crisp and cut into pieces spring mix baby spinach honey-dijon vinaigrette (see below)
Assemble salads with the greens, bacon pieces, pecans, and goat cheese crumbles. Drizzle on the dressing then fan the apple and pear slices prettily on top (or just chunk it all together and toss!)
Candied Pecans 1 C chopped raw pecans 2 T powdered sugar 1/2 t olive oil 1/2 t sea salt
In a small bowl, combine all ingredients until pecans are thoroughly coated. Place pecans in a heated skillet over medium low heat. Allow pecan coating to begin to melt for 1 minute then begin stirring. Continue cooking and stirring for another 2-3 minutes, until all the coating has melted and thickened and pecans look darker. Remove to a parchment-lined plate and set aside (they will clump so a plate and parchment ensure that they won’t stick together as they cool. Conversely, if you like clumps of pecans–because clumps are delicious–you can dump them into a bowl. They’ll break apart easily enough as needed, maintaining some delightful clumps in the process).
Honey-Dijon Vinaigrette Yield: 1 cup of dressing
3 T dijon mustard 1/2 C white wine vinegar 1/2 – 2/3 C sugar (to taste) 1 t dried tarragon 1/4 t sea salt 1/4 t pepper 1/3 C olive oil
In a mason jar with a tight lid, combine all ingredients and shake vigorously for 3 minutes. Set aside, shaking lightly before pouring.
Pumpernickel Bread Yield: 2 small loaves
2 1/2 C AP flour 2 1/4 C whole wheat flour 3 T cocoa powder 2 T instant yeast 1/4 C sugar 1 T sea salt 1 1/2 C warm water (to around 100 degrees F) 1/2 C molasses 2 T avocado oil
Grease two 9×5 inch loaf pans and set aside.
Warm water and add yeast to dissolve, letting stand a few minutes to ensure yeast becomes bubbly and foamy.
Meanwhile, add all the dry ingredients to the bowl of a stand mixer and whisk well to combine.
To the water add the molasses and avocado oil then pour into the dry ingredients in the stand mixer.
Use a rubber scraper to combine it all and then, with the dough hook fitted, knead the dough for 3-5 minutes.
Transfer dough to a large container for proofing. Let rise 2 hours.
Lightly deflate the dough and shape into 2 loaves, then transfer each loaf to the prepared pan. Cover and let rise another hour.
Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Bake for about 40 minutes. Remove from the oven, cool, slice and then serve with salted Irish butter. Yum.
Big Skillet Chocolate Chip Cookie Yield: one 8-inch round cookie
1/2 C melted butter, barely browned 3/4 C brown sugar 3/4 C sugar 1 egg 2 t vanilla 2 1/2 C flour 1 t baking powder a shy 1 t sea salt 1 C semisweet chocolate chips
In a well-seasoned iron skillet, melt butter over medium heat. Allow the butter to brown ever so slightly and then pour into a mixing bowl, allowing some of the butter to stay behind in the skillet (this will help grease your pan and provide a browned butter crust to form on your cookie).
To the melted butter in the mixing bowl, add both sugars and whisk until they are fully dissolved and it incorporates into a caramel looking sauce. Add the vanilla and egg, whisking well.
Trade the whisk for a rubber spatula. Add the flour, baking powder, and sea salt and fold and stir until almost combind. Add the chocolate chips and fold in.
Move dough to the iron skillet, patting it down as needed to make an even surface.
Bake in a preheated 325 degree oven for 20-25 minutes. Remove, let cool, then slice into pie sections to eat.
I fought so hard for confidence. And in all honesty, even when I had more confidence I never had enough. It is both a source of continued strength—I am open to what I don’t know and eager to learn to fill the gap—and a source of weakness—I question what I know and often over-value others’ knowledge if they appear more confident than me. In either scenario I learn and grow, but the latter is infinitely less efficient and more difficult than the former.
I am not even a square peg trying to go into a round hole. I am not even a peg. I have never fit this world. I feel like I did in high school: an outsider looking in on everyone else who to be so much better at this life than I am. Why am I like this?
What little confidence I had has been decimated.
I get rejected for jobs I have had students I’ve mentored get.
I get told to accept entry level jobs on posts where I am literally explaining the response I get when I try to do entry level jobs—as if my own ego and sense of entitlement is preventing me from succeeding.
Once upon a time, I was a dishwasher. Then a line cook, head cook, baker, chef, then executive chef.
Once upon a time I was a receptionist, then an administrative assistant, executive assistant, then customer service manager.
Once upon a time I was an undergraduate student writing tutor, then a graduate student writing tutor, graduate assistant in the writing center, then an assistant director of the writing center and writing faculty member.
I have worked my way up three different industry ladders. I know how this works, but after three climbs I am somehow tainted. Why is it a bad thing to be curious and adaptable enough to learn and master so many different things?
If I apply to any job that I feel qualified for and seems like a decent fit, I get chastised for not being focused enough in my job search.
If I am focused I get criticized for being elitist and entitled and not open.
I am over qualified for most everything I apply to, apparently, and yet still not qualified enough simultaneously. My experience both counts and doesn’t count. It’s a paradox of logic. Shroedingers resume.
I have decades of work experience, a lot of it management level. And I just don’t bloody understand why I am so undesirable an employee.
It’s enough to make me retreat even further. Back into a cocoon of isolation and healing. One where I don’t venture out or make waves or impressions of any kind. No one notice me. No one talk to me. I will sit in my house and garden and cook and think and write and read by myself.
Hide. I just want to hide.
No, correct that, I just want to work. Other people work all sorts of jobs. They earn a living wage, have enough time left over to volunteer for their kids’ activities, and enough money saved up to take a vacation.
Why is it so hard for me to have that?
What is wrong with me?
What is wrong with our system? Please let it be our system.
I am so very tired of blaming myself—me, a woman who encountered trauma and eventually emerged out the other side with a lot of life wisdom and a desire to know more, learn more, do more, and support others so they don’t have to.
That’s why I cooked.
It’s why I wrote.
It’s why I taught.
And it’s why I’m here right now.
There’s a magic in putting words onto the page. It’s how I have always transformed myself into someone who fits.
Writing and reading one another’s writing makes us all fit together, pegs or not.
Something in me broke last week. I don’t think it was a bad thing, actually. I think I had to acknowledge how I was feeling about leaving my position in higher education and about how my job search had been going (ahem decidedly not stellar).
The world inside the academy is institutional by design, and because of how we think about what it is to be educated and to embody “educated” as a person, there’s also a lot of gatekeeping that happens. It’s a system that reinforces ideals of hierarchy and of performance without reward. As a result, it’s also a system that reinforces notions of who belongs and who doesn’t and, tends to use people as either resources or commodities to sustain itself as a system.
This is not to say that the people who inhabit that system do any of this on purpose; that these people aren’t good, passionate educators themselves who may even offer insightful commentary on the system they inhabit. They’re simply not powerful enough to change the system, though. Like most systems, change is incremental at best unless it comes from the top down, and that’s likely not happening any time soon. It’s why there’s so many of us leaving right now (side note: extreme appreciation and solidarity to K-12 educators, too).
I have said again and again I never would have left that job of my own volition, and that is true. What is also true is that losing it has forced a reckoning of just how out of balance I have been as a person for years.
Last week was that reckoning.
There are some who thrive in that system. I am not one of those people and I never will be. My family dynamics, my own personality, and my identities make my participation in that system fraught. While I love what I did at my job, the students and people I collaborated with and supported, the work I did–important, good work with an important, purposed mission–I need to let it go.
Last week a job listing came up for a position at another university near(ish) doing exactly what my old job was. I jumped out of my chair, ready to immediately apply.
And then I paused.
The subconscious thought rolling in my head when forced into the light was not, “I get to do my job again!” with excitement. It was, “This is a job I know I can get and do well,” with defeat.
Trying to translate the nuanced and varied job duties of the titles I held at my one job in higher education (which was really three jobs in one job) into language that hiring managers can recognize and understand has been challenging. Heck, simply narrowing my focus was challenging: am I a senior-level manager, a teacher, a writer, an editor, a project leader, an HR professional? Each of these could be pulled out of my resume but there was too much for any one thing to shine with clarity.
And I don’t shine right now, either, quite frankly, as discussed in my more recent blog posts. I don’t shine and I’m not sure I can. I’m not sure I want to.
I want to be quiet. I want to write and think and read and walk and cook and garden and be. I don’t want to have to lead a team of dynamic individuals through complex, nuanced relational work right now. I don’t want to have to juggle and prioritize people’s emotional needs against professional needs against family needs against my needs. I don’t want to have to pivot to a million different things in a single day, spinning like the spinner on a gameboard between the three-in-one-job and my family. I don’t want to have to constantly argue for my right to exist–my worth– at a job no one understands. I don’t want my daily work life to be a reflection of how I do not belong in a system designed for people with my background not to belong. I need to let it go.
As I paused and thought-through all of this, the next thought was, “I’ve been searching for a position that replaces the one I lost without envisioning what I actually need or want right now.” And right now, I do not need or want to prove my value toanyone.
That’s important and so I’m just going to let it sink in and repeat it: I cannot, for my own well-being, be asked to prove my worth right now.
Yay me! That’s a great breakthrough. But, it also makes it impossible to land a job.
So, instead, I’m taking my power and control back. Instead, I’ve decided to strike-out as a freelance writer. I’ve decided I need to be my own boss for awhile.
Yesterday I completely redid my portfolio and resume, and then I applied to three different freelancing opportunities. And today? Today feels different. Good.
Today feels good.
I’m ready to return my focus to me, not to me as a function of a search for valid employment. I’m valid all on my own. I’m ready to share what I’m cooking again. I want to plan the garden. Heck, it’s Fall. I need to clean-up the yard or it’ll be bananas come Spring.
Most importantly, I want to wake-up each morning knowing I have a job to do, all on my own. I’m a writer. Always have been and always will be. I’m also a writer who just happens to love to cook. So let’s do this.
I now happily return this blog to its regular programming. ❤
I read an article the other day about how my generation is leaving Christianity. The way this was framed caught my attention.
I came of age in the height of the Evangelical movement. I had not been raised in an Evangelical church (I’m a confirmed ELCA Lutheran, thank goodness), and yet, most of my friends were attending these more “trendy” churches, so I was curious.
When I lived away from home, I got swept-up into these mega churches. I even got baptized (again) because I thought my infant baptism wasn’t right. And I participated in a Bible Study that continued to devalue women.
My experiences were so profoundly nauseating that I turned away from church for several years–but not Christianity. At home I read my Bible–all of it–and prayed daily. It wasn’t until we moved back home and I could once again return to an ELCA Lutheran church (where love is the message and everyone is welcome) that I started dipping my toes back into regular church attendance.
My experiences growing-up in a church were valuable to me. I loved my years in confirmation, of learning about the Bible deeply and within an appropriate historical and cultural framework. That time is why I found so many of the messages during my years away nauseating because they’re just plain wrong.
Many in my generation did this heel-turn. So I would argue that it isn’t Christianity we’re leaving, it’s the dominant form of Christianity being practiced in America. It’s what people associate with Christianity. It’s how we have to sneak we’re Christian into a conversation only once we’ve proven with our actions over time we’re not racist, homophobic, judgemental people.
But that isn’t really what this post is about. What triggered this moment of writing was the several (well-meaning) emails I received this week from people asking me if I’m going to be at church today.
You see, we haven’t attended in awhile. At first it was all of our time and attention going to finishing home renovations so we could put our house on the market. I still don’t think people fully understand 1) the extent of work we had to do and 2) yes, we HAD to do it because job insecurity for years and historically low wages from having entered the job market during The Great Recession combined with, well, life and all it kept throwing at us had made our financial situation quite dire. I’d been juggling living expenses across credit cards during the pandemic because Brian’s income was unstable (he had lost his job in Spring of 2019 and had tried to start a business. It was gaining traction until he got early COVID, landed in the ER, and then the world shut down). As a higher education teacher, I made $36,000 annually (but please tell me how I’m an educated elite).
Then, I lost that low-paying, high-stress but VOCATIONAL job. It was what I had always wanted to do, what I’d been trained to do, what I’d spent years building-up to do, and I had no intention of leaving it, which is why I didn’t go searching for a higher paying job when Brian lost his. It just never even occurred to me, quite frankly. I lost the job I thought I’d retire from in the same month we sold our home of a decade after all the work that took and moved into a new home that was supposed to signal a fresh financial start. The new not-recession coincided, once again, so our interest rate jumped before we could close, upping our previous “top budget” monthly mortgage figure I’d carefully calculated out bu $300 a month and then Brian’s truck finally kicked the bucket, forcing us to cough-up our hard-earned equity that was supposed to be our nest egg (after we finished paying off all those credit cards, thank goodness) to buy a decent truck right at the moment used vehicle prices were RIDICULOUS. All in, we now need even more money per month as a result, not less. Super. I love trading debt for debt.
If you put Brian’s annual salary into an inflation calculator, he makes no more than he did a decade ago, despite all of his years of experience. I do not think this, or any of the experiences I’ve just shared, is singular to us. I think this is simply the reality of being our generation in America: we came of age post 9-11, we entered the workforce as the housing bubble burst and wages were super low, and we can’t seem to ever recover because wages have stayed super low even while the cost of a middle-class lifestyle has skyrocketed. We will never not be paycheck to paycheck despite all the scrimping and saving we do.
This places a lot of pressure on us. Brian is essentially working two jobs right now: his regular job and side jobs to help compensate for the loss of my income. He’s barely sleeping and yet still manages to chop firewood for our wood-burning fireplace for winter (after cutting down the tree in someone’s yard so he can get the wood for free), fixes our vehicles, and does home repairs (such as our foundation in our new-to-us home that required him to place heavy steel beams (free cast-offs from his work) into our crawl space one back-breaking Saturday.
Meanwhile, thanks to supply chain woes, I literally grocery shop almost every single day, spend an inordinate amount of effort meal-planning to maximize our dollar, am constantly shuffling kids to vaccine appointments (or so it feels) and testing for illness, while still trying to make their lives as normal as possible, or at least some version of “new normal” that allows them to be teenagers. They each have anxiety disorders that manifest in vastly different ways, and so there’s therapy appointments, 504 plans, guidance counselors, and just a lot of communicating I do on the daily to even keep them in school. There’s all the activities they want to do and need to do (and occasionally, because of anxiety, I have to “boot to butt” them to do), plus school work, which took some time to steady because they basically missed a year of instruction. Liam is obsessed with skipping a grade right now, so if he misses two questions on a test, he melts down.
I also am in charge of managing our budget, which as you may have guessed completely sucks. I use premium tools from trusted sources. I spend a great deal of effort and energy to plan our cash flow and make sure we can pay bills on time. It’s stressful because for a long time there wasn’t enough, and then there just *just enough* and now there’s way not enough. Without my monthly income and the jump in payments due to inflation, we currently experience a $3,000 monthly shortfall (but please, State of Indiana Unemployment, please do shame me for trying to draw unemployment to the tune of $900 per month. That was such an awful experience I stopped drawing it).
While I’m managing all the life stuff, I used to be working a full-time, demanding job with low pay. Now I work a full-time job trying to find a job. The amount of hoops and work it takes to find a job is pretty silly, to be honest (but I’m sure all jobless people are simply lazy who don’t want to work). The average amount of time it’s taking to find a job in 2022? 5-6 months, and that’s if you’re not switching industries, which a lot of us (ahem, educators) are. I’ve spent more than 40 hours per week on my job search for months now and still have things I could be doing better to increase my chances.
All of which is to say, my generation is completely tapped out. We have too much to do for too little pay with too little leisure time. Our leisure time is spent caring for our homes, running crazy amounts of errands to simply keep the household running, and trying to squeeze in some kind of family life in the cracks.
It isn’t that we don’t want to come to church and find community and fellowship, or that we don’t want to volunteer for that Habitat for Humanity build (because, my God, we super believe in providing housing for people who need it). It’s that we are so completely overwhelmed with life there is no more room.
When we receive well-meaning emails from people asking us if we’ll be in church or hoping to see us this Sunday in church, all it does is reflect back to us how little time and energy we have. It makes us feel bad and guilty. Church becomes a thing we should be doing–another thing on a very long, unmanageable list–instead of the thing that could help us most, because *that* is what Church is.
While these kinds of communications aren’t intended to have this effect, they do because they feel like we aren’t being understood from our perspective. It isn’t encouraging so much as signaling our lack of presence has been somehow noted and needs to be corrected. It isn’t “is everything ok?” It’s “why aren’t you here?” Those two phrases have different subtexts even while logically they say similar things.
My generation is tired of being made to feel bad for not being where our parents were at our ages. We’re tired of being mocked in the media and in some pervasive cultural narratives. But mostly we’re just plain tired. And right now, the only thing I can do is to continue to take care of myself because very few other people or systems are actually invested in taking care of me.
And today, I need a long walk and then time to do chores so I can regroup before I hit the job search again tomorrow and Brian is currently working.
I am watching a reality television show where artists compete for a big prize. Each week they are challenged to dig deeper for inspiration, to push their art further. Every week they are critiqued by judges–sometimes harshly–and then they put themselves back together again to create more and do more and show more for even more judgment, until, in the Finale, they must sell not just their art, but themselves as artists–their brand–what vision do they bring to the world that people would want to buy into? They’re amazingly resilient and flexible, using the good, bad, and ugly to push themselves into scary but amazing new places.
It feels quite similar to how the job search process goes, in all honesty, and I recognize this fire. I’ve had it before. That used to be me. But I do not have it now.
Right now I am a helium balloon that has deflated.
It happened so slowly over years that I didn’t even really notice. The not belonging, not being valued, not being understood at my job while also maintaining a high degree of emotional and personal investment in each student (that word vocation we always say we admire in educators). The nights–yes nights–I spent messaging or texting a student in crisis while juggling putting my kids to bed. Or the mornings I’d shift into support mode even before coffee. How can you have healthy work-life boundaries when a pandemic is raging around your students who are also your employees, needing to keep performing at a professional level? It was bonkers. Absolutely bonkers.
My therapist once told me I have the highest bandwidth in a person he’s ever seen. My plate is big. I can carry and do and take-on a lot.
And for 5 years I just put more and more and more onto my plate.
Until one day, I was terminated without much consideration. A lot of unnecessary drama ensued. I watched something I built through painstaking care and labor be burnt to the ground before I even knew it was on fire. And the slow leak became a steady stream as my balloon emptied and fell to the floor, wrinkled and spent.
I’m now in the position of needing to puff myself back up, to show-up in my job search with the same vocation I showed for years as an educator. It’s what people want–prove to me you’re an awesome person and you’ll get this job. Qualifications only get so far. We’re humans. We think with our emotions first.
Only, once a helium balloon deflates, if you go to fill it back up again with helium, it tends to pop easier.
That’s me. For 4 months I’ve tried everything to refill myself–to put myself up and out there and on fire in all my inspiring glory to land that next job–and I’m just not quite there. I don’t fly as high as I used to. I’m unevenly filled. My design still shows wrinkly and worn. And when I don’t get the job, I pop and fall back to the floor.
The job I had was the job I had dreamed of having. It was The Plan: go to grad school, see if I can find a way to stay in that place forever, doing the work that meant so much to me.
But leadership didn’t understand my job. Didn’t really take the time to understand. They didn’t realize when they auto-fired me that my job was the one they actually needed to keep (side note: I did, which is why I was so confused). Everything about how I was let go from that job reinforced the feelings I’d had and fought down for years: I don’t belong here. I’m not valued. No one understands what I do and why it matters. Be grateful you have a job at all. You could have it worse *points at the people one rung below me*. And I agreed, because it was true.
What is also true is I will not land a new job if I cannot refill my balloon. And yet, the entire process of finding a new job continues to take and take and take from what is already empty.
We have an income gap I need to fill. We need health benefits. There’s a part-time job at our local library. I would love that job. I love to read. They want programming development and support. I have a million ideas.
But the pay is atrocious. Like, worse than I was making at my old job, which didn’t pay me enough and–not sure if anyone else is aware–but inflation is really super bad right now. If you put my husband’s salary into an inflation calculator backwards 10 years, he’s not making any more now than he did then, despite having 10 more years of experience under his belt. Our generation’s wages will never outpace inflation. We’ll never be just not barely getting by, I guess. (But, please, do tell me how my avocado toast is to blame).
So I can’t take the simple job that would let me heal and give me time to grieve and to refill. I have to keep trying to puff myself up with nothing but determination and the simple fact that I have to for my family and hope like hell some hiring manager recognizes what I’m going through and trusts my experience and recommendations, which are all fucking glowing, forgiving my lack of shine in the moment of the interview.
I can’t shine right now. I can barely set-off a spark. But I promise, if you hire me and value me and let me do good work, that spark can be nurtured and stoked into a flame once again.
I promise I’ll return to my usual posts about gardens and food and family life soon. I crave that, actually, but between moving away from our homestead of 10 years in the beginning of May and losing my job later in May (combined with historic inflation), there has been no bandwidth to plan the new homestead, let alone to actually grow anything. I miss it all terribly, but I cannot even focus on that right now. My entire being is fixated on What Comes Next. What have I learned in the past 5 years at my previous employer. What do I want to take with me in the future? What do I want to leave behind? Where do I fit outside of academia?
My previous post was raw and vulnerable, which makes it potent and true, at least to that moment in time. It encapsulates me coming to some kind of end and searching for a new path forward. As years of scholarship and experience have taught me, however, no story is ever completely finished while we’re living it, meaning that “truth” is a lot messier than we like to believe. One of my favorite quotes of all time comes from Neil DeGrasse Tyson. He said it live during the Q&A portion of a lecture I attended at the University of Indianapolis several years ago, and I found it so perfectly stated and relevant to my scholarship I wrote it down: “Allow something to be more than one thing at a time, and the nuances of the universe will be yours.”
So today, I thought I’d complicate my previous post a little by offering broader perspectives with more specific insights and sources. My post served a useful purpose of allowing me a safe space to express what I was feeling, so this is not to say no one should ever just be where they’re at emotionally and vent, but now that I’ve had some time to reflect, I’m ready to move forward into a more complicated space–perhaps, even, to find some possible solutions that could help. And in so doing, continue to figure out What Comes Next.
The main point of my previous post was to illustrate that the hiring process is inherently biased. All people are inherently biased–this is not new information nor is it some kind of assignment of a character flaw, merely a statement of fact. Our brains are constantly looking for shortcuts to lessen the cognitive load so we can get more stuff done. It’s a lighter cognitive load to make decisions and judgments based on previous information and experiences, which come loaded with culture norms and feelings (and even hormones!), and thus, bias. We all do it. (For a much more in-depth discussion on how we behave as a function of biology, please read Robert Sapolsky’s Behave, a wildly accessible yet also incredibly detailed explanation about why we do the things we do).
Psychologists report hiring biases occur based on whether they perceive someone is a “natural,” their gender (unsurprisingly, women are judged against more criteria than men, including appearance and perceived likability), and any other identity category such as race, socio-economic status, neurodivergence, disability, and political leanings, and other “flawed” personality traits such as “introversion.” Indeed, it’s even been proven that hiring managers have a difficult time assigning context to a prospective employee’s previous experience (which circles back to my complaint that the entire process is too general to be effective), meaning that the most qualified person isn’t getting the job but the person who performed the best quantitative metrics.
“John and Dave are applying for a senior management position at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX). John works at the Oakland International Airport (OAK), and David works at San Francisco International (SFO). They offer comparable experience. One key measure of performance for the LAX job is the percentage of flights that leave on time at the applicant’s airport. SFO is considered to be the more difficult airport to land planes, in part because it has more overcast days and only two of four runways in use. Therefore SFO rates lower in on-time departures, and John from OAK gets the job.”
John was not necessarily more qualified than Dave for this position. It’s honestly hard to judge based on this information who should have gotten the job because all we have is one metric–we need more context ourselves to make that determination. Dave has probably landed more planes in dangerous and difficult conditions than John. Which is more valuable to LAX? We don’t know. What’s interesting here is that Dave was automatically excluded from being considered the best candidate based on the metric alone.
These biases are inherent only because they are unconscious. Thus, if you make a bias conscious, it’s much easier to move beyond it. There are two ways to accomplish this, and I contend they both need to happen in the hiring process. The first is quite simple and obvious: make bias a part of the process.
In a study linking “beauty bias” to “perceived masculine jobs” for women, when women made the bias a part of the conversation, the interviewer was more able to focus on her qualifications. Now, this study is disturbing, in all honesty. Setting aside the fact that there is a legitimate psychological study on how a woman’s level of perceived attractiveness is an obstacle she must navigate during the hiring process, let’s focus more on the fact that the solution is for the woman to bring her attractiveness out into the open to placate the interviewer. In other words, this is proving true my claim, “You don’t recognize your own inherent biases to judge how I’m “a good fit” are largely based on how comfortable I make you feel while I’m experiencing extreme discomfort,” in my previous post. In this scenario, the responsibility is on the woman to somehow interpret the male interviewer’s – what? His body language? His discomfort? His lack of focus? What exactly clues her in to proclaim something to the effect of, “I know I’m beautiful, but let’s focus on my experience?”
Placing the responsibility on the subject of bias reminds me of the article titled “How Can Introverts Overcome the Barriers to Employment” in Forbes which claims, “Unlike disability status, race or gender, shyness is not a protected class.” (Also) Setting aside how scientifically invalid it is to equate introversion with shyness, let’s focus on the purpose of the claim, which is essentially saying we only overcome bias because we’re told we have to. It has nothing to do with the fact that you’re not getting an accurate picture of the candidate, nor are you hiring the best candidate for the job.
I. . . I just. . .
Thank you, Forbes,for illustrating so perfectly why we need to make bias conscious and conversely how difficult it can be to actually undo and overcome our inherent biases.
In the most academic of terms, overcoming biases is called “delinking,” and the most effective method for delinking is to orient ourselves as humans as always being “in relation to.” (For more on this see an article I co-authored titled “Listening Across”).
In less academic terms, this means that we enter into any human interaction needing to understand:
1. Our position–who are we to the people we’re interacting with and in the purpose of the interaction. This includes things like titles, roles, and identities.
2. Our orientation–how we understand the purpose of the interaction and our own experiences and feelings about it. This includes things like past experiences and emotions.
3. Our relationality–How our position and orientation relates to others’ position and orientation. This includes not just tangible relationships between people but to ideas, events, things, etc. . .
It sounds obvious and simple, but I can assure you, learning to pause to interrogate ingrained norms is uncomfortable, messy, and difficult–which is why a lot of us simply don’t do it. It’s how the study about beautiful women I cited above could still be about the women and not the invisible male gaze on those women. The male interviewers were not asked to stop and ponder their own discomfort or distraction and to bring the bias appropriately into the conversation–that responsibility lied solely on the women. This is where the male should have used orienting, positioning, and relationality to help move the bias to the conscious.
To help us continue to move biases to the conscious, we can spend time in self-reflection, especially in writing so that we can gain distance and perspective. Reading others’ self-reflections and comparing them to your own is even more useful. In other words, write and share your story and listen to others’ stories, and instead of figuring out who’s right/wrong, valid/invalid, allow something to be more than one thing at a time. Both can be true. (For a more thorough explanation on this, you can read my graduate thesis titled “Wayward Stories.”)
A benefit of orienting and positioning is it helps create context, which not only helps us delink from bias, but it makes everything more purposed and specific. One of my loudest complaints in my previous post was about how vague the questions are in most hiring interactions. You may think your question is clear and specific, but a prospective hire has very limited knowledge of your company and what the job entails, especially if, like me, the prospective hire is shifting from one industry to another.
Seeking a deep understanding of the metrics and the job description is useful in making hiring more equitable and accessible. Ask for the exact materials you will actually engage with in the job description. If you require a cover letter, tell me, but also give me parameters so I know what you’re expecting–is it no more than a paragraph? A page? If you hate cover letters and won’t read them, then why am I writing a cover letter? Tell me where in the materials I should give you my argument for the position, instead. Do you want a concise, bulleted resume of no more than a page, or do you prefer specifics with lots of impact examples? How are we supposed to know what magic formula each hiring manager wants (because they vary wildly) if they aren’t specific and clear in the document that even begins the conversation?
Define your terms in the job description. How do you define “culture fit?” Be specific and write it down, then review the list. How does someone prove they are these specifics? And then, do these specifics exclude or disqualify certain kinds of people? For example, if you say someone needs to be a team-player, you might ascertain that a prospective hire can demonstrate this through both qualitative means–perhaps an example–or quantitative–how many team projects have they been assigned and successfully completed? However, remember that successful completion does not really explicate whether the prospective hire was a team-player; they could have been controlling and condescending to teammates, or even the opposite, someone else could have done most of the work. Quantitative data gets valued more than qualitative because it is seen as objective, however you can’t understand the quantitative data without the context of the qualitative, just like our example from John and Dave.
Likewise, the prompt, “Tell me about a time you were a team player,” does little to help me as a prospective hire understand how to answer the question with enough specifics to help the hiring manager recognize the metrics necessary for me to land the job. Much like acknowledging and even talking about our biases can help us better overcome them, the second way we can improve the hiring process is: transparency. If the interview truly is a conversation, then transparency is the only way to even the power dynamics and establish reciprocity. I need to know the metrics, otherwise I’ll guess and feel like I’m leaving important things out or saying too much, or some odd mixture of both as I try to estimate based on body language from the hiring manager whether I’m taking too long to answer.
My preferred question format for maximum transparency is:
1. Reference a bulleted item on the job description.
2. Expand on the bullet–give necessary specifics for context.
3. Why do we need to know this? Provide the answer to the question–what am I looking for in asking this?
4. Ask the question in two ways and allow room to respond in between, one that is more conditional and abstract and another that requires concrete thinking through example. The conditional and abstract must come first because it primes the respondent to provide a high-quality concrete example.
Returning to our example of being a team-player, it would look something like this: “On the job description it says we’re looking for someone who is a team-player. This position will work on teams of 5 that are project-based, meaning your team will shift with each project, so we’re interested in understanding how you understand and operate in this type of flexible group dynamic. How do you think you might navigate team dynamics when team membership is fluid? Can you share with me an example from your experience that you think illustrates your approach?”
From this question, I, as a prospective hire, can determine the hiring manager needs to understand how I can manage effective team relationships that are temporary and fluid but that are likely to be intense due to the high degree of focus required to complete the project. I am more able to provide a successful answer that meets the required metric. Furthermore, I am more able to provide two ways to respond, strengthening my answer and the hiring manager’s understanding of my answer.
Which brings me to my final, albeit “unofficial” point: if the interview really is a conversation, then why is the onus on prospective hires to physically practice ahead of the conversation? Prospective employees are told to review potential interview questions ahead of time and rehearse answers. Does this not sound like a performance rather than a conversation? If it was a conversation, there would be more shared responsibility for carrying the conversation forward to its objective, which is why the hiring manager needs to bear equal presence.
My suggestions have turned common interview advice around back onto the hiring manager not because I wish to demonize these people (who are humans, probably tired, may be distracted by family life, etc. . . ) but simply because we have taken the care to call what we do in the hiring process a conversation. If it isn’t to be a conversation, then none of this truly matters and it is a performance. In which case, it most definitely privileges a certain kind of person, especially if I am to show-up and perform without prepared comments–a script. How we label what it is we do in this process matters to our understanding of how we show-up and interact and communicate and make-meaning together. And it takes two to have a conversation.
I’ll leave you with a final word about human behavioral biology, bias, and the system we’ve designed to hire people. I’ve been seeing a lot of wise and worthy calls on LinkedIn from recruiters, jobseekers, and content creators for hiring managers to “screen in” instead of “screening out.” This isn’t just hyperbole, but biology. When our brains label someone as “out” or “them” or “not in,” our brains go to work in all sorts of unconscious ways that impact everything from how we feel to how we make decisions about that person (see, again, Robert Sapolsky’s Behave). If you’re screening for “culture fit,” and screening out, you will only ever screen in the people who are most like you, whether that’s race, gender, class, or any other identity or category marker.
If we’re humanizing the process by undoing our inherent biases through creating context and transparency, then we’re also asking how this person fits instead of how they don’t. In a healthier hiring process, we understand our own biases and the relationship we have to the work and the people. We understand our definition of who fits and who doesn’t and are transparent about our expectations. In a healthy hiring process, we work hard to try to bring people in instead of keeping them out.
A few months ago, when I last updated, I dropped how I’d lost my long-time (what I thought was my) forever job in a surprising flash into a post about how Charles had gone missing. Those two events overlapped, causing me to be in a Not Very Good Place for a few weeks. Charles returned home, I managed a recipe blog post and promised more, and then . . . nothing. It’s been crickets.
Which is not to say I haven’t been cooking or doing anything; rather, I have been on a grief journey that at times energizes me with possibilities and potential and all the “be-positive-speak” one encounters endlessly on LinkedIn and at other times breaks me. To have to come out of May, limping through the finish line of another academic year in the trenches of budget cuts, scant resources, and increased pressure and responsibility to “make it work” and “be impactful!” and “basically be all the things to students because you’re on the front lines!” but “we can’t pay you a living wage, sorry not sorry” only to be told there’s not enough money for me to retain that job . . . *sighs*
So into the job search I went. I spent hours reading about resumes and cover letters and trying different templates and comparing with other people on LinkedIn. I created a professional portfolio website here on WordPress. I tried to make the LinkedIn algorithm work by interacting meaningfully on posts and “creating content!” so that employers could know what I was about. I applied and applied and applied and wrote and wrote and wrote: cover letters that are unique and speak to the bullets listed in the job description, resumes tailored for each position–“don’t make recruiters go searching for why you’re a good fit!” (but isn’t that their job?!), message recruiters on LinkedIn, but only this way and not that way and most of them won’t respond but you also have to network! Networking will get you a job! But it takes me all day every day to fill out an application because I have to link to my LinkedIn, upload my resume, and then fill in each individual blank that requires all the exact same information on LinkedIn and resume, but won’t autopopulate. So, I guess I network in the evenings and on weekends now? (hashtag: social saturday!)
I sent out 100 resumes at first and got very minimal response.
“You’re not optimizing your resume for keywords.”
Yes. Larger companies run resumes through a software program searching for keywords and auto-reject resumes that don’t meet their standards. So it doesn’t matter what I’m applying to, we all have to metatag our resumes now.
Weeks go by and I throw more resumes into the ocean, disappearing beneath waves never to be heard from again. I land a few first-round interviews where I learn to “be authentic and personable; this is a conversation!” but also, and I’m being 100% serious, “dance, motherf*cker, dance!”
You see, these “conversations” where I’m supposed to be authentic are anything but–they are performances, plain and simple. You don’t want authenticity, you want me to perform “culture fit” or “team player” in a way that you can easily recognize and interpret. You don’t recognize the power you have over me. You don’t recognize how your questions are personally invasive and/or so incredibly general and vague but somehow you want specific answers that conform using specific methodology (“use the STAR method! Be impactful!”). You don’t recognize your own inherent biases to judge how I’m “a good fit” are largely based on how comfortable I make you feel while I’m experiencing extreme discomfort (“but relax! Remember, you’re interviewing them as much as they are you!”) Yeah, whatever. I need to be able to keep my house and feed my family, so while I’d love to be all choosey, I really can’t afford to.
It doesn’t matter that for every interview I take the job description point by point and write a response that includes examples and specifics of how I have accomplished this point in previous positions and plan to pursue it in this position. No interview ever asks me for that. Instead it’s stuff like, “So why do you want to work here?” You don’t want to hear how I desperate I am. How tired. How completely burnt out and overwhelmed and I just want a living wage for a job I can do well without it eating my life and wellbeing like my last one. No. I have to tell you specifics, which means I have gone to your website and researched your company to pull out values and mission statements and culture clues. And yet you sit there READING MY RESUME WHILE WE TALK (“I see here you have experience doing . . . “) Didn’t YOU prep before hand?
“Tell me about yourself,” without you telling me anything about you.
“What’s something interesting about you?” without you telling me something about yourself.
Again. That’s not how conversations work. It’s a one-act, one-person performance with you as the audience, director, and critic.
Round 2 may or may not be in the hands of the person interviewing me for Round 1. They take notes and then some person who hasn’t talked to me and likely passes over my materials vaguely looking for keywords of interest makes that decision. I don’t make it in, despite having almost a decade of experience doing this thing, only in a different context. They can’t see it. Somehow that’s my fault. If only I’d tried harder!
If Round 2 is in the hands of the same person from Round 1, I’m judged based on how successfully I extroverted in Round 1.
In Round 2, a panel of people will interview me. The last interview I went on a panel of people interviewed me first, then another panel of people interviewed me directly after, then I delivered a prepared 20-minute presentation on a general prompt, before another person interviewed me. Back-to-back-to-back-to-back.
Automated email rejection. (But please tell ME to be more personable.)
I’m an introvert. I also have an anxiety disorder. Can we talk about how this process in no way helps you understand how I might actually interact with people on a daily basis, you know, when I’m not completely overwhelmed by constant performative bullsh*t?No one and I mean NO ONE seems willing to actually consider the specificity and individuality of the bodies interacting here. The interviewer is seen as objective (they’re not). The interviewee is told to be relaxed but impactful, conversational but be specific and thorough! (I’m reminded of the “leading lady sketch” from BBC Comedy where they want the female lead to be “curvy but skinny!” and “innocent but a total sex goddess!”) And there is not reciprocity. Sure I can ask the interviewer questions–after they’ve grilled me for 30 minutes and I’m exhausted.
Using notes is frowned upon–“be spontaneous and personable!”–and so your ability to judge whether or not I’m a “good fit” for this position resides on my ability to perform intelligent, coherent, personable, relaxed, competent for however many rounds of “conversational” interviews where I field the same somewhat vague questions over and over and over again from different and sometimes the same people (but with additional people) just waiting to see if I trip up.
I’m exhausted. I’m not an extrovert and never will be. I will never be able to relax because I, unlike you, am KEENLY AWARE of the power dynamics and emotions circulating through the interview–the ones you’re trying to ignore because “it’s just a conversation!”
If I could write an essay for each interview, I guarantee you I’d have a job by now. But that’s not how it’s done, is it? It’s done this way, which privileges certain kinds of people who think and act and perform “competent, culture fit” a certain way.
Yes, I do struggle to answer some of your questions because they’re general. I’m a big picture person who zooms down to the impact of that picture on bodies and situations, but I always have the big picture in my head. There’s a veritable constellation of experiences, people, events, ideas, problems, solutions, impacts, and dynamics going on in my head for every. single. question I get asked. How do you want me to respond? My brain swirls with the sheer complexity of what you’ve asked but you seem to not be able to see. Most often, you want the simple sound byte, like the headline news without the actual evidence. And so then I work hard to meet you where you’re at–I simplify, erasing bits and pieces of information I deem necessary just so I can fit the answer into the time and format allotted. And I’m tired of it. So tired.
I’m actually super personable. I have built a career on kindness and relationship-building. I’ve written papers and book chapters and delivered conference presentations on connection, empathy, and community. But I can’t do it meaningfully in this format. Nothing about it is authentic, empathetic, or reciprocal. Nothing about it is accurate to the complex, messy humans we all are.
The job search is a generalized, inherently biased, impossibly impersonable system masquerading as being all about meeting and networking with people. It’s broken. And I’m just so, so tired of it.
To update everyone from my last post, Charles–our beloved kitty–found his way home. YAY!! After a week of prayers and me bushwhacking through dense forest, he wound up at our sliding glass door at 11:30pm one evening, meowing frantically to be let inside. He didn’t leave my side or let me leave his sight for the next three days. Our poor boy definitely did not mean to be gone that long and likely had gotten really confused and turned around. I’m beyond grateful for his safe return and for everyone who helped, whether through helping us search or through prayers.
With Charles home safe and sound, I have finally been able to turn my attention back to normal life–or at least as normal as life is going to get right now. I’m still reeling from the shock of no longer having the job of my dreams and also feeling a growing anxiety of having just moved and spent a bunch of money, seeing how much groceries and gas are costing us alongside moving expenses, and knowing I’m technically without an income. It’s. . . not my favorite feeling.
I’ve been job hunting and have some solid choices–a few, even, that I’m *really* excited about, and so I’m praying for phone calls for interviews soon. In the meantime, I’m pressing forward with the lessons learned from losing Charles–be hopeful and have faith–and focusing on establishing life in our new home.
Everything about this home is an upgrade from our last house–there’s 2 bathrooms! One inside our bedroom! A Main Suite just for us grown-ups! Be still my heart. There’s room for a spacious and private office, a separate living area from the family room, and bigger–much bigger–bedrooms. The garage, too, is ginormous!
The thing that isn’t an upgrade? The kitchen. Oh my. We think it’s why this house hadn’t sold for 60 days. In this market? Please.
It’s teeny weeny and there’s no good span of counter space to be had. (And let’s not even discuss the leathered black granite with the gray glass mosaic backsplash that is in no way in keeping with the vibe and aesthetic of the house. . . ugh). We planned to renovate immediately, but with inflation and interest rate hikes, we’ve wisely decided to wait for now. So, what’s a girl to do but be like Tim Gunn and make it work! I’m embracing the idea that it’s a cottage kitchen–cozy and cluttered (ok a very dark, masculine cottage from outer space, but go with me on this).
In what was the formal dining room, I’ve allocated space for my office on one side and the rest of the kitchen on the other.
It may not be beautiful, but it’s working. Last night I was finally able to not only make a homemade meal from scratch but actually enjoy the process, which I think is a huge victory. In fact, I’m feeling so victorious that I’m here blogging (huzzah!) and sharing the recipe! Excited! I’ll be doing a more official New Home Reveal post soon once I unpack the last box (we are so. very. close). For now, I hope you enjoy this dinner as much as we did!
Zuchinni-Asparagus Fritters Yield: 6 fritters (most of us could only eat one)
1 medium zucchini, shredded with a box grater or very lightly steamed and cut into pieces (if you don’t have a box grater) 1/2 bunch of asparagus, very lightly steamed 1 egg 1 t ground rosemary or 1 T fresh 1/2 t garlic powder sea salt and fresh pepper to taste, but don’t be stingy 1/2 t calabrian chilies (or more to taste) 1 t nutritional yeast (it adds a savory flavor to vegetarian dishes and is awesome for you) 1 T lemon zest 1/4 C parmesan/romano/or other favorite italian cheese, grated 1/2 to 1 C of AP flour (will vary based on water content of your vegetables and your texture preferences) Panko bread crumbs olive oil for pan frying
In a mixing bowl, beat egg with all the seasonings and spices. Add the grated zucchini. Chop the lightly steamed asparagus into smaller pieces and add the asparagus. Add the cheese and flour and work the mixture together with a rubber scraper. Start with less flour at first and work your way up. I wanted mine thick, so I used enough flour to form a thick mixture that could be scooped with an ice cream scoop. With less flour, you’ll have more pancake-like fritters. Both are tasty and really depend on what you’re craving–thick and with a chewy-crunchy texture or thin and crispy. Since this was our main entree, I wanted something thick and patty-like.
Heat a few turns of the pan of olive oil over medium heat in a wide bottom skillet. Pour a panko bread crumbs to coat a dinner plate. Scoop your fritter mixture into the panko and then use your fingers to pick up panko and sprinkle it over the top to coat it evenly. If you made very thick fritters, you’ll be able to turn and rotate them in the panko. If you made thinner fritters (even thinner than mine) this step might be exceedingly messy. You can skip it, honestly, and your fritters will still be very delicious. Mine were just able to hold their shape when scooped but not able to be turned over to coat.
Pan-fry each fritter in the hot oil until golden brown on each side, about 2-3 minutes per side. Drain on a towel and keep warm in an oven until ready to serve. Serve warm with the pesto yogurt sauce. Serve the couscous and salad on the side.
Pesto Yogurt Sauce Yield: about 1 cup
1 garlic clove 1/2 C fresh basil 1/2 C baby spinach 2 T fresh parsley sea salt and fresh pepper 3 T red wine vinegar 1/4 C roasted pistachios 2 T parmesan cheese 1/3 C good olive oil 2 T nonfat Greek yogurt
Place everything into a blender and blend until smooth. Keep refrigerated until ready to serve.
Porcini Lemon Couscous Yield: 4 servings
1 C water the juice of one lemon 1/4 C white wine vinegar 1 t olive oil sea salt 1/2 t porcini mushroom powder (I love this ingredient to add meaty umami flavor to vegetarian dishes) 1 C couscous
In a small saucepan over medium-high heat, boil the water, lemon juice, white wine veingar, olive oil, sea salt, and porcini mushroom powder together. When mixture is at a boil, remove from the heat and pour in couscous without stirring. Place the lid on the pot and let set for 10 minutes. After 10 minutes, fluff the couscous with a fork and serve warm.
Tomato Spinach Salad
Fresh spinach Fresh sliced tomatoes (I used cherry tomatoes) plenty of sea salt and fresh pepper good aged balsamic vinegar good olive oil
In a salad bowl, add the balsamic vinegar (I used an aged balsamic from my local olive oil shop), a good olive oil (mine was actually a gremolata-flavored olive oil from the same store). Add the sliced tomatoes and spinach, then sea salt and fresh pepper. Toss with tongs and serve immediately.
So much has happened and is happening since my last update about maple syrup there is no reasonable way to include it all in this post. I have had very good reasons for not being able to update that I will gloss over by simply saying we had to finish all of our projects on our homestead so that we could put it on the market and sell it. We had a contingent offer on a new homestead we love and I’ll write about soon. We then successfully sold our homestead and moved and have been trying to settle in now for a month.
In that month, we learned that the kids would be going to Disney World in February with their band, and so we began organizing fundraising and payment schedules and even deciding to add a grown-up vacation for Brian and I and then meeting up as a family for a few days after the band trip was over.
A week later I learned I was officially terminated from my job–essentially they didn’t elect to renew my contract for another academic year and so “termination” refers to the action required in the university system to initiate the actions necessary to process the fact that I’m not returning. I learned about that two days after the second-worst school shooting in our nation’s history.
My termination is shocking. People were flabbergasted and confused and unsure. So I was unsure. I’m hired for part-time over the summer. Am I really out of a job?
I don’t do well with uncertainty. I can live with ambiguity and I’m relatively tolerant of uncertainty for things outside of my control. But jobs generally feel like something I have a part in. Except I don’t in this case. And that’s why everyone’s so confused. I’m an excellent scholar, teacher, and administrator. I’m well-liked by students and colleagues. I do good work. Surely all that effort matters to whether I deserve to keep my job?
But it doesn’t. I guess?
This past Sunday it was race day here in central Indiana. I was sitting outside in the sun as the flyover jetted towards the track. My own personal flyover.
My anxiety was elevated. Very elevated. I’ve been transparent that I have an anxiety disorder. I do not take a prescription drug for it and have been just fine with my coping mechanisms and self-care routine. I have less good days. I even have bad days periodically, but I’m “high functioning” so most of the time I’m able to perform “normal” and even “excellent.”
We came home from my parents house for a Memorial Day cookout and Charles had been outside all day. I’d been worried about him in the back of my mind. He hadn’t returned before we left the house and I was worried about him in the heat, consoling myself all day that he would have gone into the forest. It’s shady. There’s a creek. It’s so much bigger than our old forest at our old homestead.
I sat in our adirondack chairs facing the forest and I waited. He’ll come home. He always does. I got nervous waiting, but I knew he’d return. He wouldn’t choose not to return home. And sure enough, out he burst from the forest, running towards me.
He and I have a special bond. He has, over the past two and half years, become almost like an emotional support animal for me. As a teacher, mother, wife to someone on the autism spectrum, and overall empathetic person who moves through life trying to help, support, and encourage everyone else, having an animal that offers *me* unconditional support and love when I need it has been a breakthrough for my mental health.
Don’t get me wrong–I love Kali.
She’s the absolute sweetest cat in the world. I love her to pieces. But she NEEDS ME to keep her safe, protected, and snuggled at all times. Charles is independent but social and loving out of choice. He’s adventurous and mischevious, but makes sure to snuggle in bed with me every night, announcing his arrival with our routine of a head butt and a pat before he goes to his spot and settles in. He might even “make biscuits” by kneading the blanket and suckling like a kitten.
He’ll follow me on a trail and if he gets sidetracked and wanders for a bit, he does this cute eye squinty face with these little meows as he runs back towards me once he sees me again.
At night, if I’m restless and can’t sleep, I can curl up at the end of the bed with him and he’ll put a paw on me and purr until I fall asleep. If he gets up and leaves in the middle of the night, he’s sure to be back again before I wake up.
He checks on me–he’ll look at me and “brrrr?” and then I’ll smile or say something that indicates I’m good, and he’ll relax and go about his business. Or we’ll chat. I’ll talk. He’ll talk back. I don’t know what we’re talking about and I’m sure he doesn’t, either, but I know it feels companionable and good.
Two nights after Sunday, after that fleeting moment of fear–the “what if he didn’t return?”, he darted out the door.
The cats are not allowed out after 6pm. It was 7:30pm. Liam had gone outside as is his habit periodically to walk and think. Charles had darted out. I was distracted with the drama and uncertainty over my job, handling something at my desk. I clearly remember now Liam saying Charles had gotten out. I muttered something in return. Liam did not work to get him back inside.
And that’s the last time I saw him.
I stayed up. I went into the forest calling and calling. I saw little owls and oppossums. But not Charles.
I didn’t sleep that night.
By 5am I had reported him as lost. By 8am I had posted all over social media. By 9am I had made flyers.
A week ago I had ordered him a special collar, a tag with his name and my phone number, and then I’d opted at the last minute to throw-in an AirTag. Why not? It’s big and clunky and he might hate it, but this forest is so big. If he wandered, we’d know right where he was.
The collar and the AirTag arrived that morning. I keep asking myself “what if it had arrived the morning before?”
We’re on Day 6. Everyone assures me this is normal. We just moved, he’s likely confused about his territory. This forest connects to our old forest. He’ll have to cross a road, but it isn’t too busy. Kindly neighbors are looking. Friend and family came to help look and hand out flyers. Others are reassuring me with their own stories. Cats who took a week to return to old homes 2 miles away (about the distance Charles would have to navigate). Other cats who went on walkabouts and returned 2 weeks later.
I appreciate all of this kindness so much.
I have gone out every day to bushwhack through. I’m positive I’m trespassing on private land and that makes me feel bad, but I’m desperate. There’s no trails. It’s dense. So dense I actually got within 4 feet of a blue herron and I didn’t see it and it didn’t see me and I scared it so much it flew-rushed at me in a *whoosh* that had me shaking a little after.
I’ve forded creeks, climbed a few trees, picked thorns and ticks and spiders off me. I’ve sat in fields and called and called and called.
And I just keep coming back to the first night he was lost. Chloe and I returned to the forest behind our old homestead. It was too early for him to be there–there’s no way he could have traversed that distance even if he knew exactly where he was going–but still we went. That forest is still “ours” in a way–a secret trail hidden in the woods that very few people even know about let alone traverse.
The trail isn’t being maintained, which isn’t surprising because we were the ones to maintain it, but it’s still passable and I made sure to help clear a few things while I was there. We walked the loop, smiling and crying as I saw ghosts of Charles darting in and out after me, or paused at the tree he once found himself stuck in after chasing something up. As we exited, there was a double rainbow–a double promise from God that Charles is not only safe but that he will return home eventually.
Even with this promise. Even with prayer and listening and getting the same answer over and over again: “be hopeful; have faith,” I still have bad days.
Yesterday was one of them. We had to drive to northern Indiana to drop Chloe off a camp. Liam begged to stay home, which made me very nervous but he’s also at an age now that he should be able to do this just fine. I think it was the idea that my family was splitting even more. My anxiety just shot through the roof and I found myself having a meltdown by the time I got home.
Returning home is the hardest for me right now. There’s no Charles to greet me as I drive-up or as I open the door to the house.
So I prayed some more last night. I dreamt he came home. And this morning, I choose hope. We’re on Day 6. He’s out there, hunting for food (he’s an excellent hunter), drinking from the creek that he can follow all the way home, staying the shade and safety of the undergrowth of the forest, and maybe, just maybe, he’ll make it back to our old house today. In the meantime, I’m going to clean our new home, focus on cooking a meal, get Liam to his first day of summer tennis, and probably even do a little work, despite whatever is happening with my job.
On Valentine’s Day 8 years ago, Brian and I had a date at our local nature center to learn all about maple tree tapping from an expert. That may not be everyone’s idea of a fantastic Valentine’s Day, but for us it was magic. Our mutual dream of homesteading helped bring us together–Brian had penned me a love letter with the phrase, “land,home, farm, family, life: you and me doing all of this”– and so it was important time for us as a couple. Every year since, right around Valentine’s Day, we tap our trees, and each time it reinvogrates us as a couple, as a team, and as a family. There’s a mindfulness in the rhythym of the seasons and in the activity of working alonside them, of the reminder each year of where we started, how far we’ve come, and where we still want to go.
Syrup season heralds spring. It’s the first early spring food, a sweet reward for making it through another cold and gray winter, arriving with those first bursts of 50 degree, sunny days, just when the forest feels like it’s coming back to life. Sap flows when it’s freezing at night, forcing the tree to take in more water and nutrients from the ground and then around 45-50 degrees during the day. It needs to be just warm enough to unfreeze those nutrients on the inside of the tree, but not so warm that the tree starts to bud, generally speaking at least 42 degrees. Here in Indiana, as a result, the season lenth varies greatly each year–sometimes giving us a heady month, and others, just a few short days.
Each Valentine’s Day marks the time when I start checking the long-range forecast in earnest and tracking planting outlooks across the Midwest. Some years we’ve tapped as early as Valentine’s Day, others not until March. There are some years we’ve been tempted into tapping in January, but the yield wasn’t high and the season so sporadic we tend to wait.
I love making making maple syrup. The whole process reminds me of when Jesus turned water into wine–it’s miraculous! The sap flows out of the tree, clear at first and then turning yellow to gold to brown as the season comes to end (this is why maple syrup is graded). It doesn’t taste like much, honestly, but sap fresh from the tree is high in nutrients and electrolytes, so you can ingest it like an energy drink.
All it requires is a spile (you can purchase tree tapping spiles sets), a drill, and a hammer. You drill a hole whatever the diameter of the spile is, for us it’s about a half-inch, and then use the hammer to fit the spile into the hole. It’s not complicated, but is important to get a good seal or else your sap will be dropping from the hole and around your spile, not through it. Once your spiles are secured, you hang a food safe bucket off the hook and wait for those first few drops to appear. Sometimes your spiles might have some wood shavings blocking it, so if sap doesn’t appear (and it’s the right temperature for it to be flowing), you might need to unblock the spile to see some sap.
In our yard we have two silver maples, which will produce maple syrup, just not as concentrated as the syrup from a sugar maple. In the forest, we are so fortunate that someone a long time ago planted a sugar bush, or a grouping of sugar maples either naturally occuring or deliberately planted, as is the case with this one, and so we could tap as many as 14 trees each spring if we desired. We haven’t ever tapped that many. The average yield per tree in a good season is 30 gallons of sap. We tend to stick to no more than 5 because I struggle to keep up with the boiling on the stovetop, but if we had a sugar shack (an outdoor area for boiling), I think it’d be easier and quicker.
To get syrup, you first strain the collected sap–I use a fine mesh strainer–to filter out any bugs (yes bugs love sap!) and other solid particles. The buckets are outside and sap is nutrient dense for all living things, so you will likely be sharing sap collecting space with a wide variety of creatures. Once strained, boil the clear liquid sap down and down and down some more, being patient and watchful. Towards the end, most of it will have disappeared and you’ll think you’ve done it wrong until you notice your remaining liquid is thickening and browning and tastes sweet and delicious.
A larger surface area will boil down the liquid faster, so I tend to use a restaurant hotel pan over two burners to get the sap reduced to a caramel color, and then pour the nearly finished sap into a regular stock pot to finish off in batches. It can go from “not quite done,” to “oops I made maple sugar!” or even “oops I’ve burnt my maple sugar beyond recognition!” pretty quickly towards the end. So perhaps hours of labor can be wasted in the span of just a few minutes if you’re not careful. Investing in a good thermometer with an alarm is helpful. The sap needs to reach 220 degrees to magically transform into syrup, and once there, it can be strained again through some cheesecloth to remove any fine particles and placed in clean mason jars. There’s no need to pressure or water bath can them. I just fill them, secure the lids, and turn them upside down to cool. The lids will seal and the sugar content is so high (and the liquid already so hot) that the seals are secure and firm and the syrup safe.
In the meantime, your whole house will be filled with an intoxicating scent of tree and earth and sugar and secrets as the sap vaporizes. I wish Yankee Candle made a “boiling sap” scent because it’s hard to describe until you’ve smelled it. To me, it is the scent of re-awakening.