I’ve finished writing a memoir about the Reschool Yourself project and am currently looking for representation. Below is the book’s first chapter.
Chapter 1: Beginnings
It wasn’t until I saw some photos of myself one November afternoon that I realized that my life was heading in the wrong direction.
I came across the photos while putting together a graduation slideshow for Spark, the youth program that I’d co-founded three years before. On that sunny California day, my middle school students were bantering and giggling as they worked on their presentations about the apprenticeships they’d done that semester.
Scrolling through the pictures on my laptop, I separated out the ones that captured the best moments of the program. Laura, an energetic twelve-year-old, grinned as she showed off her new dog-training skills. Thirteen-year-old Eduardo and his mentor, a police officer named Jesse, beamed as they stood next to Jesse’s patrol car.
Then I saw a photo of me. In contrast to the kids, I wasn’t looking at the camera with excitement and delight. I was pressing my phone tightly to my ear and furrowing my brow, as if I were talking through a crisis.
That was a rough day, I thought. Surely there’s a better shot of me in here somewhere.
I kept paging through the photos. More happy, goofy kids. Then another picture of me on my cell phone, my face pinched with stress. My clothing was different, but my expression was the same. Alarmed now, I began to scroll more quickly, searching through a few dozen other photos for one of me smiling, but I didn’t see a single one. It just didn’t exist.
I looked across the room at my students, whom I’d grown to care very much about. They were the ones who had taken most of the photos. Was this the way I looked to them? I didn’t want them to think that growing up meant becoming bitter and joyless. Even more, I didn’t want to be the person in those pictures.
Until that moment, I hadn’t realized that my tendency to push myself to the limit had reached threat level orange. Not that there weren’t signs. In the mirror every morning, I’d seen my clenched jaw and the dark hollows deepening under my eyes. My growing list of health complaints included a stomach twisted in knots, painfully tense muscles, and the feeling that I was a rubber band stretched to its limit, ready to snap at any moment. Because I didn’t leave any spare time in my schedule, I didn’t attend to things like clearing spam from my inbox or managing my money. When I remembered to check my bank account, I was shocked by how quickly I’d depleted it, while at the same time my credit card bills were mounting.
On some days, I’d stay at the office until nine p.m., seeing the sky darken outside my window, then drive straight to the gym and not get home until ten. The next morning, I’d start the routine all over again. My co-workers could hear the tension in my voice when I spoke with them. Hell, they could feel it when I walked into the room. They noticed my nervous nail biting and gum chewing. They saw the plastic grocery bags under my desk stuffed with junk mail and pages of yellow pad notes that I didn’t take the time to file or discard.
I tried to do better, but I couldn’t seem to break myself out of the cycle of clutter and self-neglect. My friends would occasionally ask, “Have you thought about leaving Spark?” and I would brush off the suggestion out of hand. I’d invested too much in building the organization to even consider it.
But seeing the photos of myself felt like someone had taken me by the shoulders and shaken me into awareness.
I’m not happy, I thought. Something needs to change.
I couldn’t forget the image of my scowling face as I drove home that evening, or as I lay in bed with my mind whirring.
I can’t keep going like this, I thought. If I did, I could imagine seeing similar photos before the next program graduation, and the one after that. Thinking about running in place indefinitely, worn out and dispirited, terrified me.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way, I thought. I was supposed to be happy by now.
I’d been pushing myself since my early days in school, believing that if I followed the rules and worked hard, I would see some kind of reward in the end.
Oh God, I thought. The payoff isn’t coming.
Seeing the pictures of myself had woken me up to reality: I was almost thirty, and I was living paycheck-to-paycheck doing a job that was burning me out. Happiness and financial stability weren’t suddenly going to drop out of the sky and into my lap.
I thought back to all of the times in school when I chose studying over having fun, holing up in the library instead of spending time with my friends. There were too many to count. I felt like I’d been lied to, like I’d wasted the last two decades of my life chasing a delusion.
I couldn’t sleep much that night. I didn’t know where to go from here.
My only comfort was that Spark’s graduation marked the beginning of the holidays, which gave me two weeks off to think through my next steps. I would be getting out of San Francisco and going home to Sonoma, where my parents had lived long before our town would become known for its wine and food. I couldn’t wait to be inside the safe haven of my childhood bedroom, and to feel the warm reassurance of my family’s holiday traditions.
But this time being home made me feel even worse. Nothing—not even decorating the Christmas tree, baking buttery cookies, and opening presents with my family—could lift my spirits. I just felt numb. I sat on my bedroom floor and listened through the door to my mom and my sister laughing in the kitchen. Normally I’d walk down the hall and ask them to let me in on the joke, but this time I knew I would just dampen the mood. When I’d struggled with depression in high school, this is what it had felt like. I stared into space, at a loss for what to do.
After Christmas, you need to get away from everything, I told myself. Go somewhere and clear your head.
I had dreamed for a long time of taking what I thought of as a reading retreat, just me and my books and no distractions. Now seemed like the time to do it, at a moment when everything else seemed to be making me miserable.
I pulled out my laptop and started searching for places nearby that were inexpensive and close to nature. Within the hour, I’d booked two nights at a hostel in Point Montara, on the coast of Half Moon Bay. The San Francisco Chronicle had described it as “perched dramatically on the cliffs, offering a vista that you will be hard pressed to find in any five-star hotel.” This sounded like just what I needed. I didn’t know it at the time, but I would come out of this retreat with exactly what I was searching for: a clear path into the next chapter of my life.
If you’d like to read more, please subscribe for updates and follow me on social.
Cover design by Darren Schwindaman