: Joy Soldier
More regular writing updates will come in the new year. I’ll be living in Barcelona permanently starting mid-January and will be very focused on writing.
Your feedback and responses to these essays bring me so much joy. Please know that I read every single one (and screenshot them into my “wins” folder!), even if I don’t respond.
Lots of love,
p.s. will be sending my 2021 book round-up next week <3 watch your email!
Location / Time: 1pm ET in Brighton, Michigan, from my childhood bedroom
What I’m Eating: an abnormal amount of peanut butter Perfect Bars (getting my fix because they don’t have distribution in Europe)
What I’m Reading: Atomic Habits, Attached, The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo
What I’m Celebrating: my first essay will be published in a national publication in Jan (will share more once it’s published, don’t want to jinx anything!)
word count: Some 20,000 words and one pretty good chapter
current draft: SFD (shitty first draft, getting words on paper)
“How’d class go for ya?” The voice rips me out of my phone.
I look up. The Australian yoga teacher, a former ballerina with arms wrapped in tattoos, is staring. I realize she’s talking to me.
“So good!” I say. “Sorry, I have a bunch of work emails.”
“On a Saturday?”
I nod without looking up. I know I’m being rude, but I’m terrified I missed something in the hour I was away from my phone.
“You know, I had a friend who had a job like yours and then he quit. He’s a writer now and leads workshops. He’s super happy.”
I shove my phone into my bag, pulling the beanie over my wet hair. I haven’t stopped sweating yet, despite the shower. I’m dreading putting on my winter parka.
“That’s my dream,” I say. “I’d love to do something like that.”
“You can. You don’t have to live like this.”
She’s one of the few people who know exactly how I’m living. I’ve been coming to her classes ever since I moved to New York after college. This yoga studio is the one place in my life where I can come completely undone.
I’ve run into the studio in a suit, late for class, sweating and swearing. Other days, I’ve been tipsy trying to get through the poses, having left a work happy hour early. She has seen me walk out in the middle of a class because I was so anxious that if I didn’t check my work email, I’d physically rip in two.
“Yeah, yeah. Once I do a few years in this job and save up enough money, I’m out.” I say.
As the words leave my mouth, I can’t help but wonder when that would be. Two years? Five? How long is enough? Will it ever be enough?
My exit doesn’t seem to be coming any sooner. I work on Wall Street, but somehow live paycheck to paycheck. I spend all the money I make before it hits my bank account.
The $20 salads I eat at my desk, the workout classes, therapy, coffee. It all adds up. When the time comes each month to pay my credit card bill, I barely cover what I’ve spent. Seldom is there enough leftover to make a dent in the $10,000 balance I built up when I was a student.
I feel trapped, because I’m not sure I can do this job without these things. I’ve tried to save money, I have. But it feels silly to pack my lunch for work, and then spend $40 on an Uber to get there because I’m running late.
Even when I do save, shaving off a few hundred bucks each month has little impact. Really, the only way I’ll be able to get out of the debt is to make more money. Stay for my next bonus, my next promotion. Once I get those, then I’ll really be able to save. Then I can leave.
She’s talking again. I completely tuned her out, spiraling in my personal finance nightmare.
“Sorry, what did you say?”
She starts over.
“That’s how my friend described it. A screaming caterpillar. He was suffocated by his life and couldn’t get out of it. So he sucked it up. But it kept getting tighter and tighter. Unbearable.”
I look up. She has my attention now.
“He started to scream, because he had no other choice. Wailing. Begging his life to stop, because it was going to kill him.”
It’s suddenly cold in the packed locker room.
“He tore down everything. Quit it all. He destroyed the life he thought he couldn’t live without. Like a butterfly, you know?”
I nod. The room is too small. I need to get outside.
“You’ll get there, I think. I just hope it's sooner rather than later.”
“Me too,” I say. I mean it. I want to talk to her more but the room is emptying out.
I glance at my phone and my heart drops. I’ve lost track of time and I owe my boss a huge work assignment by noon. It’s 11:15. It’s almost done, but it can’t be late.
“Thanks for sharing that. Screaming caterpillar. Really resonates,” I say, forcing a small laugh as I shove my clothes into my bag.
I zip up my parka, feeling it close around my body like a cocoon.
Walking home, my feet drag in the gray slush. My throat is stuffed with cotton. I’m overwhelmed. The sun bouncing off the snow is blinding. The cars next to me are laying on their horns, which normally I wouldn’t notice, but today it’s all I can hear.
My phone vibrates. An email from my boss asking where the powerpoint is.
I fire an email back and raise my hand to grab a cab. I’m only a twenty-minute walk from home, but if I get in the car, I can get there in five and finish the assignment. It’s worth it to pay for the car. I’m constantly buying my time.
Over the next year, I forget about the yoga class, but the image of the screaming caterpillar never leaves me. My tiny bedroom feels even smaller. The spanx I wear to work feel especially tight. I am claustrophobic in this enormous city.
So I distract myself. I make more plans. I work later.
The more I work, the more work asks of me. I drink eight cups of coffee a day to keep up and get really drunk on the weekend to slow down. I’m drowning myself in noise so I can ignore anything that sounds like a signal.
Until I can’t.
One Sunday, I can’t get out of bed. I bawl from morning until night, uncontrollable and inconsolable. It doesn’t let up. I go to bed and pray that the mood will pass. It doesn’t. I take a sick day on Monday. I book a flight home to Michigan for the next weekend. I need to see my parents. I need to get out of the city for some air. It’s the end of February 2020.
I plan to stay for the weekend, but it’s now March 2020 and all employees are sent home for two weeks. In my childhood room, I work the same hours I did in New York. Sometimes I don’t even say a word to my parents, far away in the same house. I snap at them when we do talk. I’m stressed, can’t they see how hard I’m working?
Time passes. The work doesn’t let up.
In my small hometown away from the noise of New York, it’s hard to feel that this job is really that important. My chair at the dinner table sits empty most nights, my parents eating while I sit in my room. They don’t say anything, but I hear their unasked question. Is it really worth it?
It’s quiet in Michigan, jarringly empty compared to New York. It feels good to hide. My unsaid prayer to disappear is met. I sit in the quiet.
In the stillness, I hear a whisper.
You can’t go on like this.
It grows louder. Each time I jump up from the table to respond to an email, or cut my mom off to answer my phone, it gains strength.
You can’t go on like this.
There’s no clear timeline to when I’ll go back to New York, no one has any certain answer as to when the pandemic will end. The weeks stretch, I move my flight back. Six changed flights later, I cancel it completely. I don’t want to admit it, but I actually don’t want to go.
You can’t go on like this.
Like an angry drum beat, this truth pounds on my chest. Begging to be listened to, it becomes a boulder in my gut. With each day, it swells like a balloon.
I go back to New York, albeit a different city than the one I left. It’s emptier, storefronts boarded, neighbors moved out. We wear masks, we don’t make eye contact. The fear is tangible, a thick blanket of soot over everything.
My job goes on, business as usual. They encourage us to come back into the office, the pandemic far from over.
It’s a Wednesday, normal as any other, when something breaks. I’m sitting on my computer, making edits to a presentation when I hear the voice again.
No longer a whisper, it’s loud. Certain. Urgent.
You can’t go on like this.
I try to inhale, but there’s no space. My eyes are welling with tears, so I squeeze them shut. A prayer.
Only then, do I start to scream.
I can’t go on like this.
“Hello, earth to Sarah? Are you even listening?”
My friend is staring at me across the table. We haven’t seen each other since I left my job a year ago to join a startup and move to Spain. I landed back in the US last night, home for the holidays.
“I said, why’d you get a tattoo?”
I look down at my wrist. It’s still red, the thin, black lines puffy from the stick and poke needle that made the doodle permanent two days ago. I felt an urgency to get the tattoo before I came back to the US.
From tip to tip, the two wings are smaller than a penny. The woman who did it asked me to point to the drawing I wanted before she started.
The screaming caterpillar. I wanted it right on my wrist, so that every time I started typing on my computer, I’d see it. So that I would never go back to how things were.
“You want the butterfly, right?” she said.
I nodded. It’s a butterfly.
Now, faced with my friend’s question, I know I have a choice. I could tell him the whole background, explain how trapped I used to feel. But I am tired of breathing life into that old story.
He’s waiting. I inhale.
“There’s no story,” I say. “It’s just a butterfly.”
I have nothing to scream about anymore.