Leaning into the Lemons

Lemon: a person or thing that proves to be defective, imperfect, or unsatisfactory; dud”

I knew I shouldn’t send the email. I was on vacation, in Italy, and to her credit, my future boss had told me to disconnect.

But I’d told her I wasn’t going to completely. While I was set to explore the rugged beauty of the Amalfi Coast, my company owed delivery of a report that would drive the project I’d be directing over the next two years, and I wanted to make sure everything went off without a hitch.

Besides, this was fun! This was a project I’d been hand-picked to lead, offering an incredible career opportunity, not to mention the chance to move my pups and me to California for a couple years and explore a new and exciting state. Beyond that, I had a boss I admired and looked forward to learning from, and here was a way to make a great first impression.

What was a couple emails?

I clicked send and gathered my things to head down the coast for the day. Not surprisingly, she quickly replied “Thank you so much, now stop working!” So I did. Within 15 minutes, I was in a beach chair with a famed Amalfi “lemon spritz” in my hand, as confident and excited as I’d ever been about what was to come in my life.

Several months later, I noticed a piece of lemon soap at my desk, one of many souvenirs I’d brought back. On instinct, I lifted it to my nose and took a long, deep inhale of that citrusy aroma, desperate to go back to that trip… before my boss resigned midway through the project, before the customer decided to cancel the project all together and assign me to other key initiatives…

…before my niece was diagnosed with cancer on my very first day, resulting in my being 1000 miles away while my family helped a 6-month-old endure chemotherapy and life-saving surgery.

That sweet and sour smell reminded me of my optimism and hopefulness on that trip, yet the irony of what defines a “lemon” wasn’t lost on me. Everything good I’d planned on while surrounded by that bright yellow fruit had been anything but.

At the beginning of 2020, I began thinking about what I wanted to do after my contract ended that summer. I’d moved home now and wanted to stay put — my niece recovered and healthy, I was enjoying family time and didn’t want to miss out on even casual weeknight get-togethers. I also knew what parts of my job I liked and didn’t like, and wanted something again where I’d be responsible for directing teams to complex goals and working with high-level executives.

The pandemic’s arrival in early Spring didn’t change my mindset, and luckily, nor did it my prospects. In fact, with four weeks to go in my contract in June, I was offered what felt like a dream opportunity to get immersed in a new ‘start up’ environment, lead important initiatives, and again (it seemed), learn from a great boss. My first week on the job in July, my new boss even brought me a plant in a lemon-painted pot, inspiring optimism.

But like everything in 2020, the tides quickly shifted; the job required far lower-level work then had been described, and the work-life balance I’d been promised in the interview process was strikingly absent. I spent the first weekend glued to my computer, excited again to make that good first impression, but when it became clear that I’d need to continue to do so to maintain high regard with my boss, I got a feeling in the pit of my stomach.

I had a choice: I could stick it out, just like I’d stuck out my previous job through its ups and downs. But that meant working for something that didn’t necessarily come with a guarantee, giving up endless hours of my life again when my niece’s diagnosis and ultimate health had reminded me more than ever that work wasn’t life. So, despite not having anything else lined up, I made the difficult choice to cut my losses. I told my best friend “If I can’t learn from the last two years, then what’s the point of them? What’s the point of all that heartache?”

“It takes a little while to process your life and what has happened to you.” – Michelle Obama, “Becoming” Documentary

One of the most popular life quotes states “Make lemonade from lemons.” But you can’t always turn a bad experience into a good one. There’s no looking back on a 6-month-old and her family suffering through chemo, hospitalizations, and more and saying “I’m so thankful that happened since this happened because of it.” And I think that’s why it took me so long to figure out how to process it all. But with the coming and going of that job this summer and the chance to truly prove what I’d learned those two years, I realized it’s not about making lemonade from lemons.

It’s about leaning into their lessons.

20 years ago, December 13th, 2000, I faced a similar crossroads when the person I’d admired most the last 4 years became just the opposite. For months I’d been desperately trying to help a person I considered my friend; now, I realized my naivety as she revealed she’d been lying to me and pushing me away.

I was sick about it.

In the weeks following our conversation that fateful night, my mind swirled with a single question: How could I take something away from this terrible experience? Because if I couldn’t learn something; if I couldn’t find a way to make my efforts to help this person meaningful, then it was all wasted time.

In 2005, well into my journey at UNC-Chapel Hill so inspired by the takeaways from that experience — not settling, believing in myself — I grew reflective yet again. I had promising job options in several spots in the country, but looking back on my college tenure, I realized I didn’t want to start over again. In processing the different opportunities, so too, did I process the last four years. The outcome was a job in Madison, as well as the realization that such reflection would be a lifelong process.

5 years into an incredible experience at that job, I faced my first real disappointment. I was heartbroken not getting assigned the project I’d worked so hard for… until I realized what it meant. In not having to travel so much to that project, I’d be home more, giving me a chance to fulfill a lifelong dream:

I purchased a golden retriever puppy that weekend.

But the puppy wasn’t the takeaway in this case. The puppy was the lemonade, a way to make the best of not so good circumstances. The true magic came in leaning into the lesson from it. Mia taught me to slow down, that I had been putting way too much stock in my job and career, and that even though I was still single, love and family mattered most.

Losing Mia in June proved the worst part of 2020 for me. I’d been doing okay, getting by amidst the pandemic and its worldwide impact. But the loss of my very best friend hit me hard, and while I knew I’d add another puppy to my life shortly, I was determined to maintain her presence in my life somehow.

So I purchased a lemon tree.

No doubt 2020 could be considered the year of the lemon. Some people were able to make lemonade: stay home more and spend quality family time. Some couldn’t, losing a job… or even more. But every single person can look to the future and say what can I take away from this year? How can I apply its disappointments and tragedies to make the future better?

In 2015, I started writing my latest book, Girl Enlightened, and completed a blog post entitled The Chasm. My thoughts then weren’t full of questions or sadness; rather, that year felt like my best ever. I’d finally moved past the heartache from losing my dad in 2013, regained my strength after a 9-month injury kept me sidelined, and taken life by the horns with travel to exciting new destinations like Africa and Istanbul. I truly felt on the other side of what had been the worst pain and grief I’d ever experienced.

Which is exactly why I felt like I needed to write.

I didn’t want to just say “Woo hoo I made it! Back again!” I wanted those lemons to have a meaningful impact on my life going forward. Just like all of the difficult and unexpected experiences I’ve faced these past 20 years.

Discussions about 2021 already look similar to that “woo hoo!” moment. The news talks of life “getting back to normal,” by midway through the year, with the ability to do all the things we couldn’t for 12 months. But I hope people will take time to process all they went through in 2020; I hope their normal becomes a “new normal.” I hope that this year that defied every positive expectation imaginable, encourages people to truly reflect, learn, and live differently.

Because if we simply move on from it, what will it have meant?

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