Essays
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What We Learn in Calm and Storm.

By: Jen Shoop

A few years ago, I wrote an essay in response to Zora Neale Hurston’s quote: “There are years that ask questions, and years that answer.” I was in the middle of a string of years asking enormous questions, and I was straining for solid footing. It occurs to me now — how fortunate, how improbably lucky! I was to have met that Hurston quote when I did, because it offered me a perch I needed: the awareness that some seasons of life feel open-ended, hewn, jagged, as though tectonic plates are crashing and crumbling against one another, and others feel familiar, fruit-bearing, and if not serene, at least knowable.

Are you in a year that is asking or answering?

If you are in a year that is asking, I have a little cherry pit of thought that might bring you comfort today:

Willa Cather wrote: “Some things you learn best in calm, and others in storm.”

If you’re seeking friendlier seas, at least know that in the interim, you are learning how to tack and gybe under pressure — a skill you’d never have picked up in quieter years. My husband and I talk often about the things we carry with us from the leaner, meaner times. Today, I am thinking specifically of the day I was supposed to deliver a presentation in front of an audience of 200, and I’d just endured an emotional tragedy and a serious health scare earlier in the week. And yet I somehow found myself backstage, mic’ed up, dressed and ready. It did not occur to me that I could have backed out. I remember that my body was trembling with nerves and the intensity of that particular week, but I called to mind the advice of a mentor, who said: “If you’re shaky before a big presentation, just know it’s your body’s way of telling you that you’re ready. Your body is preparing you to go on.” This was probably a kind of trick, a way to neuter the nervous energy, but I remember shivering in the wings, telling myself: “This is just your body saying you’re ready to go. Let’s do this! Let’s do this!”

I went on stage, took a big breath, and absolutely nailed it.

Mr. Magpie had been in the audience even though he had nothing to do with the event — I had wanted him there because the week had split me in two — and afterward he hugged me and pinched my shoulder and had trouble speaking, his eyes wet and his voice refusing to clear, and I knew he saw what I did:

That we’d been in a violent storm together, and yet we were somehow now standing on dry earth, and it had required guts and determination I didn’t know I had to get there. I saw in his silence the steely inner coil that had willed me through that morning. It was as though I’d clanked my shovel against metal I hadn’t known was buried there. I have taken great comfort in that visual on countless trying days since: that corkscrewing strength, ready when needed.

One of my bosses once told me (paraphrasing, and probably botching) that when you think you’ve given 100%, you’re actually only 60% there — that you have more reserve fuel than you think.

I draw these learnings together as though a string of pearls. The tempest, the shocking clank of unearthing my own reserve, the awareness that we can do more than we think with less than we want.

Post-Scripts.

+Onward!

+Enjoying the shade.

+On the disorientation of attending a high school reunion.

+On getting over a failed friendship.

Shopping Break.

+URGENT: my current favorite swimsuit is 40% off. I own in this exact color and it makes me look tan even when I’m pale! Really comfortable and flattering IMO. I love the dainty straps/neckline.

+I love this tangerine-colored dress so much. Looks like a style from Ciao Lucia.

+Meant to include this strappy tank in yesterday’s roundup of fitness finds — on sale!

+The internet is losing its mind over these hair “vitamins” — you do not eat them; you just break the capsules onto your hair like a serum/oil. These tend to sell out really fast whenever restocked.

+Just ordered my kids a fresh set of markers for the summer – they LOVE to color/draw and we recently moved a ream of paper down to their drawing cabinet so that they can draw whenever they please. I also keep this carrier case of markers in my bag when we’re going out to dinner.

+I just found the cutest source for designer bolster pillows for your bed: The Little Co. I ordered this one. I love that they list their sizes by bed size so you really know the appropriate size bolster for your room! Also love this one and this one.

+This is in my cart for the Fourth!

+I also just ordered my first pair of Birks. Ah! Who am I? Dad sandals were a gateway drug?

+Love this Zara mini caftan.

+Have been hearing such good things about this $35 bikini. More of a one-piece gal myself but tempted by the price tag!

+I have a couple of dresses from Mirth I’ve been getting a ton of wear out of. They are all designed to be so soft, floaty, ethereal! Love this one and this one from their new collection.

+Really angry at myself for not acting more quickly on this gingham Doen dress before it sold out in my size. I love the neckline and vintage feel. Also love this solid navy dress — I own it in a different pattern already but so fetching in the navy.

+The chicest cooler I’ve ever seen.

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4 thoughts on “What We Learn in Calm and Storm.

  1. Oh you did it AGAIN. Your writing is so powerful in such a short amount of space. I really look forward to reading your blog everyday.

    I’m not sure if the question is this a year that is asking or answering? Or is this the month of asking or answering? I often relate my life to a roller coaster. I have weeks of ups and then, BAM I’m down in the dark valleys. I wish it were not that way, but those are the cards I was dealt and I must continue to play the hand! I often look at my friends and think (not wish) what their day to day life is like. As I prepare myself, I too find myself shaking inside. Most often its from the tension of why others won’t do their jobs and the work falls back on me. It’s usually my son who will pay the price if it’s not done so as a mother I cannot let that happen.

    If I’m shaking before a conversation, I usually end up with a shaking voice trying to communicate my point and I hate that! I know its because I’m a mother who cares, but I so wish I could and would overcome it. (Actually I’d like to think I would outgrow it but since I’m already older that’s not going to happen). It was good to read this today and try to go forward boldly. Thank you for your thoughtful and insightful writings.

    Your number one fan!

    PS: Dad sandals yes
    Birks- NO!
    Remember Audrey Hepburn wouldn’t be caught dead in Birks! Haha!

    1. I love these notes – thank you for your candor and vulnerability. I agree that sometimes “answering vs asking” can feel like a monthly or daily toggle. I certainly feel that way with parenting. I’ll be in a good groove for a few days and then something new pops up and I’m back to scrambling, figuring things out, etc. I totally know about the shaky voice! I hate how emotional I get — hard for me to get through tough or even tense conversations without crying! — but it’s just who I am. I know I’ll never maneuver out of it! Right there with you.

      Going boldly into this week!!

      xx

  2. Thank you for this great reflection to start my day. I’m definitely deep in an asking year, mid-storm, as I recover from hip surgery #1 and prepare for hip surgery #2 in 3 weeks. The past couple weeks of initial recovery have felt approximately 7 years long, and yet it’s merely the warmup to a very long recovery timeline. I’m somewhat worried about keeping my head above water for the months to come, but your “reserve fuel” anecdote is a useful one. I’m definitely going to need to dig deep, and for a long time. Thank you for always providing such rich reflective material in your posts.

    1. Anna – I’m so glad this struck a chord and so sorry to hear about your surgeries. That sounds incredibly challenging. From my perspective, the fact that you’re already assessing how you’re feeling, considering the timeline, etc, shows you have a lot of emotional awareness and resilience. I know you will get through this! Yes, even when you feel you’re at capacity, there’s still room. Will be sending you lots of love and good vibes. You got this.

      xx

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