Finding Connection Through the Chaos

Every day I walked. Every day my body felt heavier. Every day I got slower. Finally, I started sitting on the meditation benches more than walking—but I was outside, breathing fresh air.

Finding Connection Through the Chaos
If the only prayer you said in your life was "thank you," that would be enough. Meister Eckhart (1260-1328)

In preparation for my first review in my new role as a Healthy Building Materials Specialist at Integrated Eco Strategy, I received a self-evaluation form to complete and return. Unlike previous evaluations I'd experienced, this was a tool for conversation so my new employer could learn more about me and my skill set, and for me to learn about other roles for which I might be suited. When I opened the document, I went blank—before feeling a tinge of panic. I stared at the first question without an inkling of where to begin. Finally, I closed my eyes and took a long, deep breath to center myself. I knew how to answer these questions. Or at least, I used to know. I exhaled, realizing I felt like a completely different person than I was two and a half years ago. A few humbling blows and copious quiet time during the pandemic changed me.

In the winter of 2019, my partner and I began discussing our next professional moves without a clue how much our lives would change over the next couple of years.

Laureen and I moved to the Berkshires in 2011 when the print house I worked for allowed me to go remote, opening the door for me to work anywhere. Laureen was a therapist with a private practice. She could build a new practice if she chose. We felt fortunate to have this freedom in our lives. Though moving always comes with stress, we knew this was the right time.

Most of my close friends had already relocated to more picturesque communities or sweeping pastoral locales in the north- and southeast. Now was our time to simplify life by stepping away from the hectic and overcrowded environment surrounding us on Long Island. We'd had enough of sitting in idling cars on roads so congested that a 12-mile car ride could take an hour. We wanted a better quality of life, more free time, and different stresses. (Since we all experience stress, it seems we really ought to give more thought to the kinds of stress we invite into our lives. But that's a different blog for another day.)

Opening Day May 2013. We started with 20 artists and represented more than 50 by 2018.

In 2013, we opened a gift shop of artisan-made wares called Mutability in Motion. The name was both a reference to our willingness to change and the shop's ever-changing selection of art offerings. We joined committees for the Stockbridge Chamber of Commerce, and I eventually accepted a seat on the Board of Directors. Then I lost my full-time remote job as more printers struggled financially with the trend toward digital marketing. It was stressful but also exciting as we pieced together whatever small jobs we could find that allowed the shop to keep regular, daily hours. We became Airbnb hosts for a few years.

The shop grew steadily over the years. But like so many who've walked this walk before us, retail burnout hit as year six ended and seven began. At that point, we had about two years left on the lease. So we started talking about our desires for change, and by late summer, we put our shop up for sale.

There were few bites, and no one made an offer through the end of the year. We still had some time, but sitting in life's in-between moments can be difficult. After some misguided thinking on my part and encouragement from a Realtor-friend who secured me a position with her agency, I decided real estate would be my next move. I found a reputable realty school in Boston that offered live online courses and pre-recorded learning modules. I signed up and had a year to complete the coursework at my pace. We had the start of a plan.

There is a Yiddish proverb most people can relate to on some level, "We plan, God laughs." And so it went.

On March 15th, 2020, Governor Charlie Baker ordered all non-essential businesses to shutter due to COVID-19 until further advised. Five days prior, I stood in the courtyard outside our shop with other business owners discussing the news of "the novel Coronavirus." Those who did not have employees decided to close for a couple of weeks while this "blows over." Those with employees dependent on them for an income chose to remain open. After the 15th, it didn't matter. We were all closed.

A few days later, my symptoms started. We understood so little about what was happening, and the news we read was redundant and terrifying. Daily reports were little more than the growing number of infections and the climbing death toll. So while I suspected I had this virus, I also couldn't fathom having it. The heaviness growing in my chest was worrisome.

I started walking a couple of hours a day in a nearby meditation garden, hoping to break up any congestion and keep what was being called COVID-pneumonia or COVID-lungs at bay. Initially, I told no one. If I had it, Laureen would already have it; we were the only two in our household. I didn't want to worry her over something I didn't know for sure. And somehow, despite everything I was experiencing physically, my brain kept telling me it was just the stress that currently engulfed us all.

Every day I walked. Every day my body felt heavier. Every day I got slower. Finally, I started sitting on the meditation benches more than walking—but I was outside, breathing fresh air.

One morning I was unable to get out of bed. My body wouldn't move. The fatigue was beyond anything I'd ever known as I lay in bed with my eyes fluttering from time to time, unable to open them fully. I answered questions with a quiet yes or a no, if at all. Laureen kept juice and water on my bedside table and stayed nearby for days. I know more about my illness from her recollection than from my own. Then, as I recovered, a completely different manifestation of the virus flattened her. And I stayed nearby feeling as helpless as she had when I became ill.

Watching the pandemic unfold, we investigated our financial options and ultimately decided to move forward with the changes already in motion. By the end of 2020, we each had recovered from COVID-19; we closed our shop and liquidated our inventory; I passed the Massachusetts Real Estate License exam and became a sales agent for a worldwide brokerage; Laureen's father died; my father entered the hospital. We kept looking at each other and saying, "it's a lot."

On December 31st, shortly after I made a glib joke about "good riddance to 2020," the telephone rang. I fully expected to hear my father's voice on this New Year's Eve. Instead, it was my aunt. She told me my father had fallen, sustained a head wound, and was in the hospital. He and I spoke just once. That was before he tried to escape the hospital in a state of delirium, was relocated to a room near the nurses' station, and became unresponsive. My father hadn't just taken a fall. Because he wasn't getting enough oxygen, he passed out and then fell. Weeks later, he died of COVID-19.

With the pandemic still in full swing, 2021 started with parental homes in two other states to be emptied and sold; estates settled. Though I'd had a couple of small real estate transactions by this time, working with an excellent Realtor to sell my father's house made it clear that I did not belong in that line of work. I was grateful for her low-key "I'll get it done" personality because nothing went quite as it "should." And I was learning that my perception of the industry before becoming a Realtor had little to do with the day-to-day reality of the profession. It wasn't for me. I felt on the verge of an existential crisis, knowing I had to start over again. But that's what I did since it was the only way forward.

And yet, here's the thing. In the months of lockdown, I found a new level of connection with the natural world and the life around me despite the hardships—or maybe because of them. Laureen and I followed Carolyn Myss' guidance for a 9-Day in-home, semi-silent retreat. We took a Zoom class on breathwork with the Art of Living Foundation and revisited an uplifting and elevating 5-part series from FMTV called Transcendence. We learned about tapping as a form of stress relief. I started practicing Reiki again. And my meditation practice advanced to new depths, helping to ease my mind, which opened me to new possibilities.

Friendships were rekindled thanks to our lack of schedules and ease of Zoom communication. In the evening, we devoured all forms of the arts through online streaming platforms and followed live-streaming tour guides through the streets of Europe. Then, I picked up my camera again and delved back into photography and writing. And, we read voraciously.

We chose veganism years ago because of the horrors of modern animal agriculture and that industry's polluting of the planet, which is having a disastrous impact on climate change. During lockdown, my love of cooking took on new purpose. The act of cooking was meditative for me, and the food we ate was colorful, energizing, nutritious, and flavorful. We started shopping almost exclusively at a local, year-round farm stand and prepared nearly all of our meals at home. As a result, our diet was cleaner than ever, and we have maintained it.

Even with the grief, losses, and practical tasks that ensued, we saw this time as an opportunity for growth. So on walks in the woods, Laureen and I talked endlessly about what we were learning and experiencing and how it affected us. We tried to take life moment by moment. I fantasized and sometimes spoke of building an off-the-grid, sustainable Earthship. I mentioned it one day to an old friend who had a friend of hers send me his thesis on Earthships. Through all of the stress of the pandemic, we experienced a burgeoning and palpable connection to—well, everything.

While many expressed a desire to return to "normal," that felt like going back to me; the map in my head no longer reflected the landscape in front of me. It was time to let go of the old map while moving forward into the unknown; some days, that was freeing, and some days it was disorienting.

I signed up with a couple of employment websites, uploaded my résumé, filled out forms, took various competency tests, and started reading job alerts. My inbox became filled with "based on your résumé" recommendations that had little or nothing to do with my résumé. Days turned into weeks, then months, and all I'd found was frustration in this area of life.

Sometime in November, while reading Sonia Choquette's memoir Walking Home: A Pilgrimage from Humbled to Healed, I reached out to Mindy Miraglia, founder of Berkshire Camino. I loved the mission of this tour operation, offering "hiking at the speed of curiosity" with guides who share practical mindfulness tools and practices along with a bit of local history and happenings. And I hoped there was a role for me to play at Berkshire Camino. So on my birthday, we met at Stockbridge Coffee and Tea, chatting about our lives and the business for over an hour. For me, the connection was immediate to both Mindy and the work of being a mindful hiking lead. But on a practical level, Mindy was still assessing the season that had ended and mulling over decisions about the coming year. Though I left that day without knowing for sure if there would be a role for me in the Spring, I said yes. I felt certain about my new direction and never doubted I'd start training in the Spring. And that's how it went.

Interestingly, when I told my aunt and a couple of friends about this new gig, they each looked at me, nodded their heads, and said some version of "Yeah. I can see you doing that." I honestly thought they'd tell me I was crazy.

Getting paid to share fellowship in the woods was a good start, but being seasonal and part-time, wasn't enough of an income. So I returned to the employment websites even though the process felt disconnected. Every day my inbox filled up with more or less the same job offerings that I perused and quickly deleted.

And then, one day, there it was—Healthy Building Material Specialist, a research position for a consulting firm that offered training and a flexible schedule. It got my attention. I visited the company website and read about Integrated Eco Strategy's mission. "We support project teams as they pursue the most challenging green building design standards by facilitating sustainable and regenerative building design, renovation, and construction." Yes! IES was precisely what I didn't know I was looking for: an opportunity to work with others, sharing my desire for a healthier planet through accountable actions. I applied.

I spent time perusing the website to learn more about Red2Green, the company's materials research and management platform. I read about healthy building materials, sustainability, and the Living Building Challenge, and I got excited.

Hiking Guide. Healthy Building Materials Specialist. Both require respect for nature within the environs we call home. Working for IES would be an opportunity to positively impact our world as we look toward greener, more sustainable options for building the structures that support our lives. This resonated deeply.

I never got more than a "thank you for your submission," if that, from other companies. IES was different. The hiring team was proactive. I got an email within a few days acknowledging my interest and explaining their time frame. I received updates on the hiring process every step of the way and responded each time. They offered me an interview. I ran around the house like an excited five-year-old to find Laureen and share the news.

My interview happened via Zoom—three of us in different towns. It was the most easygoing interview I'd ever experienced. I felt good afterward and thought, "Well, at least I was just me and not someone performing to score a job." Happily, I was offered the position—more running through the house exuberantly like a five-year-old.

As I write this, I'm still unsure how to answer those self-evaluation questions, but in a recent conversation with a team member, I was reminded of a sort of motto for IES: It's good enough for today. In other words, today, we do our best with the knowledge we have. Tomorrow we may discover new facts, and then we'll make more informed decisions. And so, as it goes at IES, it also goes in life. I'm finding my way through the moments of not-knowing by being "good enough for today" and discovering a bit of magic in the unfolding of a new chapter of my work and personal evolution, packed with potential.