Past vs. Current Dreams: Discerning Which To Chase and Which To Leave Behind

Grapple is a great word. It’s kind of like a simple hybrid for “Granny Smith Apple,” like the whole word was just smashed together. Grapple.

Recently I’ve been grappling with letting go of past dreams to make room for new dreams. I feel like a juggler who bought a new set of juggling balls, but who refuses to let go of the old ones. I am juggling more than I can handle.

I toss around old and new questions, circling in the air around me. I want nothing more than to just put a few of the balls down, but then what kind of juggler would I be? Letting go of old dreams feels like regression to me.

I’ve recently been strongly considering pursuing a Masters in Social Work. And yet my brain screams in caution about academic degrees, What about your Masters in Public Health you’ve always dreamed of? What about pursuing an English degree? Couldn’t you just be a nurse practitioner and maximize use of your degree?

And too – it screams about cities to live in: What about Seattle? What if you go your whole life without living in Washington state? Can you ever forgive yourself? 

And also – it screams about leaving: What if you leave Milwaukee and feel lost? What if you get so homesick you can’t function? And the worst of all – What if you leave Milwaukee and never move back?

My brain has figured out that if I never leave, I never need to worry about being homesick because I’ll never have left. The anxious mind craves safety. In the screaming storms of anxiety, I have been appealing to my brain’s desire. It wants to be safe.

My brain screams about the thing’s I’ll miss – What if you leave and something happens to Terese? Or you don’t see your family for years. Or you want to visit your mother’s grave and you can’t because you are plane rides away. Or what if you relationship crumbles because you’ve moved away?

My brain juggles the past dreams of International Aid. What if you never become a Peace Corps volunteer? What if you never live abroad? And in the next breath it screams the opposite, Do you you really even want to go live abroad? You could be unsafe. You’d have little to no community. Are you doing this because you genuinely want to or because the past version of you wanted to? Are you forcing yourself to do something unnatural for you? Are you throwing away the stability you’ve worked so hard to create?

Anxiety is a beast, and it rages in the midst of discernment. My discernment process feels like walking forward in the middle of a Sahara desert sandstorm. The wind is my anxiety, pushing against me, pushing me back. My journey is forward, yet anxiety makes it radically difficult.

I believe I am destined for something great, and yet, I am so scared to take a step. I am terrified for what this life has in store for me and yet, I fear deeply not becoming my best self.

I have made brave choices in the past – at age 22, I solo traveled for eight months living in strangers homes and working in the dirt. At age 25, I flew alone across the globe with a broken cell phone and throngs of foreign people. I have stood on a stage in front of thousands of people to deliver a university commencement address. I have chosen to dive deeply into my emotions by admitting that I needed professional therapy. At age 17, I chose to keep showing up to my life after I watched my mother die.

If I am brave, why am I so scared? Am I scared because this is the biggest decision I’ve yet to make? Am I scared of my own potential? Or am I more scared of loss? Both I think.

I am terrified. Something is changing, and I do not know where it will lead me or what I will do in the aftermath. I do not know who I will become, and I do not know what I will lose along the way in getting there. Do I want a life of extremity? Or do I want a life of satisfying comfort?

I do not know yet. And I am trying to be gentle with myself in the process. I idealize extremity – why be average when I could be remarkable? Why settle when I could have it all? Perfectionism is fuel and also, shackles. Perfectionism is a train on a track, not a car on an open road with freedom to swerve and turn.

Anxiety wants me to be a train. My soul wants me to be a car.

Thank you, reader, for getting this far. My brain is energized and lost. So, so very lost. Do you have advice? Any/all is welcome.

Another Mary Oliver reflection to close:

“I want to be improbable, beautiful, and afraid of nothing, as though I had wings.”


4 Lessons Learned from My Key Ring

I slipped the silver key off of the metal ring. Then the one next to it. Then the one after. I wouldn’t need these anymore. I no longer lived in the homes they unlocked.

For whatever reason, when I’ve moved, I’ve kept the duplicate keys on the ring. Each time I moved, I left plenty of extra keys for the new renters, so I never thought to take mine off. Illegal probably, and hopelessly nostalgic. I always figured I’d take off the keys a few days after I moved – when I was ready.

The time for being ready never came naturally. In fact, it rarely does.

A couple of days ago I looked down at the key ring and it felt heavy. Physically, but also emotionally. I considered the possessions I carry with me every day. What does it mean if my keyring is overstuffed, if my wallet is overfilled with receipts and hair ties, if my purse contains unnecessary bags of tea and phone chargers and eight pens? What does that say about the other things I am carrying on a daily basis.

I recently moved to an new apartment, packing up all my little possessions on this Earth and carting them across town to a new space with new roommates. Though I downsized immensely, taking box after box to Goodwill, it still doesn’t feel like enough.

Once I started to pay attention to the extra things in my life, I now want to whittle it down as small as possible. Any additional weight feels immense. And so – the necessity of winnowing.

Today, I took one last look at those keys on my ring. The keys from my childhood home, which we sold last year. The keys from my first shanty 1-bedroom, the first time I lived alone. The keys from The Hostel, the cozy duplex I shared with three of the most incredible humans on the planet.

There is much to learn from the process:

  1. Holding possessions does not make the experiences linger, it makes us live in the past.
  2. Giving away those possessions does not mean I care less about those experiences; it means I care enough about the present to let them go.
  3. A key is a key, and it would be silly to keep them forever. Do I want to be 100 years old and have forty keys on my keychain? I think not.
  4. The process is necessary, but it still isn’t easy.

Even as I sit here, the keys now off the ring, laying strewn on the desk, I still have an urge to put them back on. Don’t let go of them yet, my brain pleads. Remember how much you love those places? Remember that time Katie tried to fix the fire alarm? Or how the floor slanted in the Meinecke Ave. apartment? Or how you’d open the door to the wafting smell of freshly baked zuchinni bread? Remember, remember, remember?

But then I remember the mission: this year is about letting go of what I can no longer carry. I will always remember those people, those homes that made my life so stunning.

That’s the beauty of memories – I do not need a key to unlock them. I do not need a key to call Kelsey on the phone, to remember the chatter of friend gathered around a table, to hear the whir of the coffee grinder rattling the kitchen countertop, to feel the calm of my south-facing window portraying the white-headed dandelions populating Kilbourn Park. I do not need a key to validate my experiences there.

Today, finally, I took the keys off. And also, I glued those memories in a little tighter. I repeated my mantra to myself:

Keep what is necessary.

Let go of what is not.

Today is one more step toward lightness.

A Bald Woman’s Guide to Unwanted Change

She was wearing a baseball cap when I came home. “I did it,” she said. “Today Mrs. K came over and shaved my head.” The moment’s rawness was palpable; she stood on the other side of a chasm with no way back – cancer was pushing her further than she had ever wanted.

Her hair had been falling out for weeks. She’d wake up in the morning to find long blonde strands on her pillow. She’d bend over the sink to spit out her toothpaste and the hair would gently float down, collecting in haphazard piles in the water before it swirl down the drain. She became like a golden retriever whose coat hasn’t been brushed in weeks – one touch of that hair to fabric, and the hair would cling to the fabric instead.

My mother had always had lush blonde curls, which sprung into spirals in the summer and relaxed into beachy waves in the winter. She grew up in the 1980s, an era that her voluminous hair was built for. I have the same hair as she, though unfortunately, I grew up in the age of flat irons and flawlessly straight hair. My flat ironed hair looks less like a silky smooth Rachel Green cut, and more like it belongs to a cocker spaniel. Our hair definitely belonged in the 80s.

In early 90s, my mom chopped her long curls to adapted to changing styles. She idolized Princess Di by adopting a sassy blonde bob, and soon after, a daringly short layered style. My mother used her hair as a form of expression. It was iconic for her.

How painful it was to watch chemo attack that integral part of her – the last part of her that looked healthy. When her skin appeared burned from radiation and her muscles melted into atonic strings of tissues and her eyes sunk further into her gaunt head, at least her hair had been the same – the anchor through a diagnosis. Her body began to change before she was ready, and gradually her hair began to change too.

So instead of participating in the slow parade of watching the hair fall out, she did something bold – she chose to shave her head. She made the decision to change actively, before her life changed passively around her. It is the difference between swimming parallel with the riptides and being submerged by the undertow.

Sometimes life assigns us this difficult choice: Do you want to change or do you want to let change happen to you? Active or passive?

My mother chose active change, to choose to remove her hair instead of watching it slowly fall away from her while she sat on the sidelines. She chose to take an unfortunate circumstance and turn it into a choice. And when she did, among the mix of anger, sadness, unfairness, worry, anxiety, defeat, she felt something new – empowered.

Choose is an empowering word. Choose connotes freedom. My mother never wanted to be bald, but she soon adopted her baldness into a source of pride. It became the sign of a warrior, of someone who acknowledged the suffering around them, of someone who was choosing to fight.


The Winnowing Process

Winnowing begins with a mess.

It begins with a jumble of seeds and husks and dust particles, laying broken and haphazard in a sorry burlap sack. These plants have been threshed – gathered together in a sack and beaten with a stick or smacked against the ground until any semblance of order among the grains and husks is destroyed. Winnowing begins with destruction.

Sometimes we too have been threshed. We have been emotionally broken, beaten, defeated, smashed to pieces. The structure of our lives looks nothing like it once was. We have faced change, either intentional or not. Sometimes, before we realize it, our schedules, worldviews, families, homes, lifescapes look so different than what they were, they feel schismatic. Our little life on this planet has changed, and we are left holding fragments of a life in our hands. How do we make sense of the newness? How do we move on from the oldness? How do we find order after destruction?

In the process of agricultural seed saving, there are two ways to glean seeds from the mess: (1) You can pick out the seeds by hand, a time-consuming and ineffectual process in which your bleeding fingers pick through the abundant jumble of grainy skeletons or (2) You can shake the mess into the wind, letting the unnecessary components blow away as you let the seeds fall cleanly around you. Option (2) is called winnowing.

One of my favorite parts about the word winnowing is that is has the word “wing” right in its name, as if begging us to stretch out our arms and take off into the air. The o and w’s are soft, and harken to familiar, soothing words: willow, spring, sparrow. The name winnowing is inviting, and if we look at the etymology, it derives from the word wind. There is much to unpack in a word.

And too, there has been much to unpack about this year. It has been a year filled with constant change – career, home, family structure, romantic relationships, friendships, worldview, self. That last one’s the real kicker: self. I am changing – quietly, internally, constantly, more than ever.

Constantly, I feel myself tugged between change and familiarity. Like a burr stuck on soft denim jeans, I cling to the past, hooking myself into the fabric of my life and clinging until something rips me away. Logically, it makes no sense to hold to the past as we try to move forward. We cannot complete the monkeybars until we let go of the first wrung, no matter how far we stretch out our other arm. Emotionally, letting go is so much more than that. It is a deep undoing of our emotional selves, of our framework of being.

Winnowing is equally a process and more importantly, winnowing is a lifestyle. It is a practice we adopt, like hygge or vegetarianism or minimalism, a broad worldview made of many tiny choices. Winnowing is a way of being.

And so, The Winnowing Year is a space dedicated to that – the process of learning to letting go. Winnowing is a practice of honoring the things we hold in our hearts and of setting aside the rest. It is a space for change, but more importantly, it is a space for sorting – for learning what to keep and what to let go.

Winnow: “to separate the heavier and lighter with a current of air.” – Wiktionary