January was the first month since I finished teaching that I felt genuinely overwhelmed, and I can’t help but be thankful that I had these particular stories with me (even if this new feeling caused me to read a lot less than I was last year; only two books read this month compared to the four I was averaging last year). At least so far, very few experiences have compared to the chaos, turmoil, and exhaustion that my two years with Teach for America brought me, so situations that may have once seemed strenuous to me now strike me as much more manageable. And that’s the mindset that has guided me these past six months of post-classroom life as I moved (twice), started a new career, took new steps in my relationship, traveled to an illegal country, and encountered other milestones and tribulations.
But as January began, I took on some bigger projects at work, begun my annual extracurricular work at a conference, embraced some of the chores and challenges of living with a romantic partner, and of course started some of the New Year’s Eve resolution tasks of working out, cooking more, and pondering my life’s purpose and the plan that’ll bring my existence meaning. You know, normal stuff that’ll make you batshit bonkers.
So, I found solace in The Taliban Shuffle,and You Shall Know Our Velocity. These stories of thriving and floundering in the pandemonium of extraordinary circumstances and everyday troubles were the equivalent of commiserating about a shitty coworker at happy hour with your work BFF. And while I enjoy a good complaint session paired with a margarita, reading these books were perhaps just slightly more appropriate to do at my desk during lunch, or in doctor’s office waiting rooms–which is where a lot these pages were read.
In The Taliban Shuffle, Kim Barker finds happiness and fulfillment in Afghanistan–a place that constantly challenges her and that most people would not describe as an ideal home. She loves, appreciates, and learns from her experiences in Afghanistan and Pakistan–even when they destroyed her personal life, exposed her to unthinkable violence, and inconvenienced her in the remarkable ways only the developing world can. And while even my active imagination recognizes that it’s more than a stretch to compare my teaching experiences to Barker’s tenure as a journalist in the war-torn Middle East, I do think these chapters of our lives fill similar roles in our professional and personal development. Both were difficult displacements that changed us as people, and have thus informed many of our decisions moving forward from those struggles.
Lately, I’ve been contemplating my life’s purpose (as any, caffeine-fueled, Type A twenty-something is bound to do 3-4 times a day), and wondering if I’m contributing to humanity enough. Teaching was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and there were many things about it that I hated–but I did feel like I was working to help others (though most of the time I felt like a failure who couldn’t even help myself get my shirt on right side out in the morning). So even though I cried more in those two years than I have since infancy and I sacrificed many important activities like dating, eating healthy,and not working on the weekends, the idea of returning to teaching has crossed my mind these past few weeks. And while I haven’t completely ruled out the idea of heading back to the classroom, Kim’s story was a necessary message of using those cherished and brutal experiences to move forward in my life, to use those skills to continue to grow.
Then, of course, the way the protagonists’ in You Shall Know our Velocity hapless global mission to do good resonated with me was nearly eerie. As I alluded to above, my main prerogative in life is to help others, to make a difference–however, especially as of late, it is unclear exactly how I want to do this. And when Will and Hand, develop a plan to spend a large sum of money benevolently, the challenges in impacting other people’s lives in a positive way arise. Their quest leads them to evaluate their senses of self and their purposes, feelings I’ve often encountered on the road and ones that I’ve been experiencing as I work on building a career and exploring new roles in my life.
Overall, these were great books to help me usher in a new year, a new chapter, and a new reading challenge. While not necessarily my favorite books or protagonists of all time, they were undoubtedly relatable characters in search of purpose and belonging–and who doesn’t need that from time to time?