by J. Webster, Chief of the Folk
Part 1: Nights 0-2
Night 0: Preparation
In the same way that any point on the universe can be designated as its center because the universe extends infinitely in all directions, I’d suggest that any point in our lives can be declared as the beginning of a narrative. Any step can be the first step of a new story, a new exploration, a new adventure or goal. Here we stand, at that threshold, holding in our hearts and hands the spark of inspiration, of intention, the catalyst that has the potential to light our path and carry us forward. In any given moment, we have only to set an intention, to take that first step, and our journey may begin.
I’ve been looking forward to these videos, but I know they will raise some complicated feelings. I know that I will be tempted to dwell on all the times that I have failed to take initiative to pursue the things I’ve wanted in life, all the times I have refused to even begin a journey. I know I will have to fight off regret for all the time I’ll decide I’ve “wasted.” It is easy to imagine that if I were only hard enough on myself, if I could only find the right cruel thoughts and words to inflict upon myself as punishment for my “failings,” I would finally do all I need to do to become a better person.
But it doesn’t work. Years of self-punishment have failed to effectively deter all of my flaws and mistakes. And if I want to be the vicious pragmatist that I claim to be, I should abandon this ineffective strategy. I owe it to myself to be gentle with my mind and feelings, guiding them away from self-criticism and self-harm. Instead, I owe it to myself to experience what is here, what is happening in the moment, and when appropriate, to make decisions about what is just ahead of me.
Therefore, I wholeheartedly accept the agreements we have been asked to make before we begin. I agree to be honest with myself in this process, and to give myself the gift of these written entries, the gift of an honest travelogue of my experiences over the next twelve days. I agree to reflect upon each step of this arc, engaging with these lessons and applying them to my life. And I agree, with humility and trepidation, to declare myself as the protagonist of my own story for the next twelve days. I agree to accept the role of “hero” in my own life, to be invested in my own success, and to grant myself the same attention, confidence, and compassion I would a heroine in a favorite book.
These are my intentions. Now, let’s begin.
Night 1: The Ordinary World
On this longest night, I reflect on where I am in my life and in the world. I reflect on my present, my status quo, this stagnant foundation from which the first steps of this journey will be taken. And in this moment, I feel like my entire “ordinary world” can be crystalized into a single image: my fracking desk at work. I have spent three years sitting at that desk, stagnating in its silent white walls, even my eyes unable to focus more than 10 feet away. Hours bleed by there as page after forgettable page scrolls past on my computer screen. Weeks have passed without even making eye contact with my co-workers, when my only social interaction all day has been my husband. This picture of my Ordinary World has dominated more hours of my life than any other image, and this part of my life has me hungry for change. This self-imposed prison cell of silence and stillness I hope to shatter with a total upheaval of my routine life, with movement and initiative. I accept that this is where I am right now, and I see that I am ready to leave this part of my Ordinary World behind.
But my Ordinary World had brightness and warmth as well. I have built a strong and beautiful life here, a home and a community. I have the hard-won foundations of a reliable job, a safe home, a supportive marriage, and rewarding, enriching friendships. Colorado was slow to warm to me, but has welcomed me thoroughly and has supported me as I rebuilt myself. She has welcomed and protected my roots, allowing me to grow upright and strong.
I accept that I must leave this place, that I am about to be uprooted from my Ordinary World to reestablish a life and home in a new place and a new community, both alien to me in so many ways. But those are thoughts for another night. For now, for this longest night, I will nestle into the cocoon of a life I have built here in my Ordinary World, appreciating the comfort of the safety and stability we have worked to build. I will curl up in bed and drink in all the beauty in the little banalities of my peaceful present moment that I so often ignore: the familiar shape and sounds of my sleeping husband beside me, the padding footfalls of our cat as he walks across me and the soft weight as he carefully tucks himself between us, the weight of the blankets I have crocheted to keep my softly purring family warm, and the gentle motion of my own breaths, all so often taken for granted. And if my shame arises for too often ignoring these beautiful moments in favor of dwelling on my regrets of the past or my anxieties for the future, I will forgive myself, and gently, kindly, return my awareness to the present.
For tonight, I will remember that one must build a house to have a home. I have done that work, because in this moment, tonight, I am Home, body and soul.
I will also remember that the present moment is always here, and I always have the strength and skill within me to make myself present, and to make the present Home, again.
Night 2: Call to Adventure
Last night, I put aside my feelings about my office and my job. I wanted to focus on the good and the warmth of my Ordinary World, the comfort I have found in the life I have built. I wanted to focus on my appreciation and gratitude for my present moment. But tonight, I think I have to face those white walls head on.
In many ways, my office is my seed. My office is a shell of safety that I earned after a terrifying and demoralizing job hunt. It was the reward for all my fearful efforts, a reward that proved I had found stability and I would be able to use my incredibly expensive degree to contribute my share to rent. Those white walls confirmed that the legal community had decided that my talents and labors made me worthy of trusting with complex tasks, and most importantly at the time, worthy of a salary. I equated my job with my “value,” taking it as proof at last that I was a competent, functioning adult.
Like the shell of a seed in winter, that office protected me from the self-loathing and fear that had defined my unemployment, giving me a safe space to grow and heal. But my growth in that room has stagnated. My eyes ache to focus beyond its featureless drywall, and my back and hips ache from sitting at that damned desk. I feel trapped there, my eyes roving from corner to corner as my thoughts fires frantically from task to task—not with the urgency of a deadline, but more often with the desperation of a caged animal gnawing at its own fur.
The work still presents some challenges, but more often than not, the most challenging part of my job is the emotional labor of effectively answering student questions while de-escalating students in crisis. Unfortunately, these are students whose egos (not unlike mine) are tightly bound to their ability to be correct without my help. Students who often resort to aggression and veiled personal attacks to avoid facing the possibility that they have misunderstood a rule of law. And to help them learn, I first have to help them accept that they may be wrong.
I’m good at it. Very good at it. But I’m good at it because I once believed I had to be good at it. Day in and day out, I use the same de-escalation skills that I mastered in moments of fear for my physical safety to write appeasing emails to angry future lawyers. Sometimes, I am forced to intersperse the content they need to understand with pandering, apologies, and groveling, seasoning it with enough of my humility for them to be able to accept the correct substantive law without spitting it back in my face. But it hurts. It hurts to know that my skill in this part of my job comes from my long history of a willingness to sacrifice my dignity for someone else’s comfort.
This part of my job is familiar. These are skills I implement well. But this work reinforces fears and habits that no longer serve me, fears and habits that keep me small and meek. And this emotional exhaustion is no longer helping me grow.
It is safe and familiar in this seed. This seed protected me against the winter. But I feel the discomfort of this seed. I feel myself pressing against its walls, bruising myself against this restrictive space. There are so many protective systems in place in my life—the walls of my office, the complacent stagnancy of my routines, the deference in my voice—that no longer serve me in the way they once did.
I am a seed, and I am almost ready to sprout. My growth, and perhaps even my survival, depend upon it.