Not With a Bang, But With a Whimper

I don’t read T.S. Eliot—beyond the usual suspects required in my high school English classes—but over the last few weeks I haven’t been able to get the following lines from his poem “The Hollow Men” out of my head:

This is the way the world ends

Not with a bang but with a whimper.

I know. Uplifting, right? But please, stay with me.

Since I moved back to DC after eight months away, most of them spent in the south of Spain, I’ve been figuring a lot out. Getting my shit together, if you will. There have been health scares, long hours at work, friendships lost and gained, new and old connections made and remade many times over. I started a new job at my old workplace. I’ve spent a lot of time in therapy and eating the vegan dumplings some hippie company sells at the natural grocery store near my office, because I ate them on a really bad day in October 2017 and now my brain registers those sticky, sour-delicious mouthfuls as The Thing I Eat when I’m sad/mad/tired/confused. I’ve been back for seven months now, nearly as long as I was away, and I still feel like I’m wading through everything that last year churned up. That’s not a bad thing.

When I was abroad, I felt like I needed to document every single day of my life. I needed to write down the details of my hours, post them on this blog or on Instagram for other people to see. My compulsion to record had many motives, not least of which was staying connected to friends and family back in the States. Posterity certainly played a role. But I think the most fundamental reason I shared so much publicly was to prove to myself that I was there, living in the world; I documented to prove to myself that who I was as a person remained a constant in my life, even as that person changed and grew so much from those experiences that she came back unrecognizable to some.

Since coming back, I’ve been doing the work of understanding myself better. It is work that I was doing all along, but it happens in a very different way when you’re shuffling through snow to a midday therapy appointment or yelling at Comcast over the phone than it does when you’re tipsily clapping compás in a cramped flamenco bar. Both ways of understanding myself are good. Both are important. Both are necessary. But, to be entirely honest, one makes appetizing material for public consumption, and the other does not. I have been spending a lot of time in the mud and mess of who I am. I’m not ashamed of that—to the contrary, I’m proud of myself for doing it, or at least that’s what I tell myself as I wait for my damn reimbursement check from the health insurance company—but the process required space. Breathing room. I could barely catch a break from my own head, let alone the Internet. So, I became far less active on social media, dialed back my blogging, and then stopped writing publicly altogether. That’s okay.

My job here in DC is helping people access health insurance and public benefits programs. Open enrollment for plans sold through the Affordable Care Act (also known either affectionately or hatefully as Obamacare, depending on who you ask) is November 1 through January 31 here in DC. This year, the open enrollment period was extended by a week, to February 6. I started my new job on November 1, the same day that my industry’s busiest time of year kicks off. I love my work at a community health center, and it’s a big part of why I returned from Spain when I did. I was over the moon to be offered a new job opportunity on my team. When I say the season is busy, though, I mean that it’s a lot of hard work. Emotionally draining work. Helping people navigate the confusing behemoth that is healthcare in the United States is equal parts maddening and rewarding. Mostly, by February 6, I was just exhausted. I still am, to be honest, two weeks later.

As my team crawled across the finish line that was the extended deadline, I joked that our toughest season of work ended not with a bang, but with a whimper. I felt victorious but mostly tired. And the reason I haven’t been able to get those words out of my head since, I think, is because that’s how I feel in life right now. Like I have accomplished so much, but the achievements have taken so much out of me, too. Negotiating that tradeoff of sweat and tears (no blood yet) for progress has been a private process for me that necessitated a break from writing.

I’m far from finished, but I finally feel ready to sit back down at the proverbial typewriter and actually share some of the thoughts that have been tumbling around in my head. I signed up for a French class. I’m seeing a new psychiatrist this week. I mostly take my frustrations out on a literal punching bag, rather than my longstanding favorite metaphorical one: me. So, I’m coming back. I don’t feel particularly victorious, probably because I’m still in the thick of so much painful growth. I can’t wait until that feeling comes to start writing again, though, because then my words would be (1) way less interesting for you and (2) in all likelihood, nonexistent. A bang may never come. Besides, the real treasures of life, the good stuff, live in the in-between.

So fuck you, T.S. Eliot. This is not the way the world ends. This is the way the world starts. Not with a bang, but with a whimper.