The Girl at the Desk

I made it through the first half of The Girl on the Train book on Wednesday. I started reading during my lunch break and was immediately miffed that one of the main characters is named Rachel and makes up stories about the strangers she sees every day. I do this regularly. I've even been known to make up stories about the squirrels in my backyard. And since I already share too many mannerisms (and a favorite tea) with Ana from the Fifty Shades series, I complained to my boyfriend that my life is being stolen without my permission.

"I can't help it if you are a living, breathing, fictional character stereotype," he said.

I replied with a very melodramatic "Why me?" image from Bitmoji. "Maybe I should write about the people I spy on from work."

"The girl at the desk."

So here we are.

When I first moved to rural Tennessee, I knew that finding a job would be hard. The town I live in is predominately a retirement community, most available positions are part-time and pay minimum wage with no benefits, and oh right, I have PTSD after nearly a decade of abuse at my last job. It took me months to get a full-time position, and by the time I was standing outside the office, waiting to start my first day, I was in full panic mode. What if I end up in another abusive work environment? What if the work is grueling and my boss is relentless? What if my coworkers hate me?

Turns out™: it's a great job! I work for great people, from my boss to his boss and everyone on up the chain. They're the kind of people who offer to drive you home if you need to leave work early for illness. They buy you a breakfast sandwich if you are eating pathetic crackers at your desk. They patiently explain to you a hundred times how to calculate this, file that, and pronounce "tornado" like a native. (In the South, it's "ter-NAY-duh.")

In fact, the only complaint I've ever had is that the job is not particularly demanding. There are two administrative assistants in the office, and we were both hired on the same day. The previous assistant quit because there often wasn't enough work for one person. So whole days go by where Christy and I sit up front and do nothing but gossip, knit scarves, and make quilts. Sometimes, we even complain about the pain in our hips or lower back. We're two rocking chairs away from getting gobbled up by the retirement community we live in.

My mother used to tell me that I had an overactive imagination; Tom said that, too. I can't help it.

When we run out of things to share from our personal lives, we make up stories about the people who walk in front of the office's large front window.

Methy Mary was the first one to get a nickname. She would walk by early in the morning; we could hear her before we saw her. She'd take a few steps and pause, shouting into the sky and waving her hands, before walking a bit farther. We were sure she was on drugs. Now, she has a scooter, so she flies by on the sidewalk in silence. Sometimes, we can only recognize her by her signature red backpack.

One of my all-time favorites is Tall Sock Tom, who walks his two tiny dogs every morning and every afternoon. When the weather is nice enough, he wears a short-sleeved jersey with basketball shorts, sandals, and mismatched socks—one tall, one short. The tall sock is always on the same leg. We have seen him without socks, so we cannot figure out the value or meaning of the lone tall sock, but the mystery never gets old.

The minor characters are just as wonderful:

  • Pelvis Pete: struts across the parking lot with his pelvis thrust forward in the most comedic and exaggerated way
  • Silver Fox: has the most beautiful, long white hair
  • Ella Ella: walks by in the afternoon with a baby strapped to her back and an umbrella for a parasol
  • Napkin Nate: works for the apartment complex and (as far as we can tell) gets paid exclusively for wandering around the parking lot, picking up the same three napkins every morning
  • Coked-up Carl: a one-time visitor who was acting very suspiciously at a very early hour and was kind enough to get arrested in full view of our office
  • Doped-up Doug: spent twenty minutes violently shooting imaginary arrows into the pavement with an imaginary bow before the police were called; to our great disappointment, he was not arrested

Our most beloved character, though, is Discman Dave. I have been known to audibly gasp when I see his silhouette out of the corner of my eye. This young man is a music enthusiast—in a way that seems completely authentic and pure, not as some kind of affectation. He carries an honest-to-goodness Discman with him wherever he goes, and he sings and dances with reckless abandon. It is unbelievably endearing. Christy and I love debating what he might be listening to that would inspire such passion: BeyoncĂ©? Evanescence? Linkin Park? Miley Cyrus? Whatever it is, I hope it never ends because his unbridled enthusiasm and fierce dance moves bring us so much joy.

Anyway, in the two days that I've been putting together this blog post, I also managed to finish the book. I no longer relate to the Rachel on the train very much, but I do like our imaginary friends and their imaginary stories. Don't you dare tell me why that one sock is so tall.

Sunshine and Walks

"Tell me what to write," I said.

"About sunshine and walks," he said.

So here we are.

I recently celebrated the first anniversary of moving to Tennessee and living on my own. This time last year, I was just starting to find a good rhythm with my grandparents—a happy balance of enjoying their company and helping them in small, everyday ways. I was in a blind panic to find a job before my parents' generosity expired. I was already loving the warmer weather, the extra sunshine in the longer days, and the freedom of spending most those days however I wanted to.

As the days and months passed by, I developed my own routines. Routines became habits, habits became myth, and for two and a half thousand years, the Ring passed out of all knowledge. (I promise I'll update the @LOTR account before I hit my two-year anniversary in Tennessee.)

But the traditions I've developed here really have become some of my favorite memories.

I love Saturdays with my grandparents. We share breakfast and do crossword puzzles while my laundry spins in the background. I drive my grandparents to the grocery store and treat myself to a drink at Starbucks while I wait. Back at their house, I fill pill boxes with medicines and vitamins for the week before driving home with my clean laundry, happy tummy, and joyful heart.

The rest of the week is no less magical. I spend Friday nights on the phone with my mom, continuing our decade-long tradition of binge-eating, watching Gilmore Girls, and decompressing before the weekend. Every Sunday morning, my grandpa (whose dementia was compounded by a stroke last year) compliments me on how I find a good parking spot in the so-early-it's-still-empty church parking lot. Twice a week, I sit in a waiting room and read a book for twenty minutes while I wait to see if my body will have a wild reaction to my allergy shots. On weekdays, I wake up at the crack of dawn to make sure the posts for Stories from the Trenches are ready to publish before I set about making coffee and breakfast, picking out an outfit, and getting ready (at my new vanity!) for my day job. At night, I clean or dance or do yoga or read books or pester my boyfriend for blog post ideas.

And on very warm and very sunny days like today, I set out for a walk in the park behind my house. There is a beautifully maintained walking trail throughout the park, and my favorite bit winds through the woods and alongside a river. (Bonus features: tiny waterfall, tiny bridge, Tolkien-esque ruins of a stone dam.) It's the perfect excuse to close those dang activity rings on my Apple Watch and work my way through a major backlog of podcast episodes. It's also the perfect time to think about how grateful I am to have routines that bring me closer to people I love, that allow me to do things I love, and that leave me with filled with joy.

Learning to Say No

Every August, I sign up to participate in VEDA (Vlog Every Day in August) as part of a wonderful community of YouTube friends. I never find the time to finish more than ten videos, but I sign up and do my best every year because I enjoy the opportunity to share in a crazy, creative adventure with people I adore. Plus, I get to hoodwink my brother into helping me catch up on any topics/prompts I missed from the previous year, and those catch-up videos are the silliest and the best.

But by the third day, I realized that I just couldn't participate in VEDA on any level this year. My days are filled with work, my afternoons are reserved for my grandparents, and the few hours I have to myself in the evening are increasingly valuable to me. I'd like to think that I could live without Netflix, books, and naps for a month, but it turns out that I need those things in my life to keep me from losing my cool when seven different people try to drive the wrong way through the grocery store parking lot at the same time. (I'm pretty sure only six other people live in my town, so I'm not even sure how this is possible. BUT IT HAPPENS EVERY WEEK.)

Still, it took me a day or two of being consumed by shame before I was finally able to send a message to the group organizers and let them know that I'd be withdrawing from the project. And that is insane. I should not feel ashamed that my life doesn't have room for everything all at once.

I knew that was crazy, and I knew I had a book that would help me navigate all the gross feelings I was struggling with. So I picked up Brené Brown's Daring Greatly and started angry-reading. FIX MY PROBLEMS FASTER, BOOK.

Turns out™: setting boundaries is an important part of being a loving, vulnerable, wholehearted person who is "shame-resilient," as Brené puts it.

We have to believe we are enough in order to say, "Enough!" For women, setting boundaries is difficult because the shame gremlins are quick to weigh in: "Careful saying no. You'll really disappoint these folks. Don't let them down. Be a good girl. Make everyone happy." For men, the gremlins whisper, "Man up. A real guy could take this on and then some. Is the little mama's boy just too tired?"

So I'm working on my boundaries. Again. And while the yarnheads in the grocery store parking lot might not ever appreciate it, I sure do.