I woke up one Thursday morning in the spring of last year the same way I do almost every morning -- to big brown eyes and a wet nose impatiently reminding me that I slept in later than I should have and it's time for a walk. I'm disheveled and I barely bother to hide it as I grab Mishti's leash and trudge out of the open garage after her curly white tail.
I cover up my PJs with my NU sweatpants and a hoodie and tell myself that my neighbors won't recognize me through my nest of hair and my hood shield in the early morning light.
I have a ritual on mornings like this: I run through everything I have to worry about for the rest of the day. "I still haven't paid the bill for my doctor's appointment six weeks ago -- how long can I put that off before it affects my credit score?" "I was supposed to email my students the video from their dance class last week. What are the chances that they haven't noticed yet?"
I recount them all, time and again, just to make sure that every bad feeling and discouraging thought is accounted for. But I'm interrupted by a fellow early morning dog walker. It's the neighbor whose home marks the farthest end of our trail. I tend to pass by and, in my typical morning antisocial-ness, pray he's not walking his dog at the same time.
But alas, I've been spotted. I pull down my hood, smooth down my mane and try to return his greeting as sincerely as I can. My voice cracks a little, and I can only hope that it's not as apparent as it feels that I've not yet washed my face.
"You're up early!" he says with the big friendly smile he's worn every single time I've seen him. He's already dressed for work in smart slacks and a dark button down, his salt and pepper hair neatly combed and his tiny unleashed terrier quietly circling our feet. He looks more put together than I usually feel after getting ready for the day. "What are you up to now?"
I'd seen him around, but it hit me that I hadn't actually caught up with him since I left for college. I play with my hair self-consciously and prepare to convince him that I'm not actually the unwashed loser I appear to be.
"I'm back in the Bay," I say, "I always planned to come back here after school." It's okay to be 22 and living in the suburbs if that was all part of the plan, right?
He wants to know what's keeping me busy these days. Not a lot, I say. My internship in San Francisco recently turned into an entry-level position, and I'm putting my journalism degree to some use, so I feel pretty lucky.
I'm somewhat dismissive, knowing I've far from "made it" -- but he's clearly more impressed with me than I am. It's really something that I'm following my dream, he says. He tells me he was so excited when I decided to go to Northwestern and that he always knew I'd do great things -- something that never crossed my mind except to fill me with dread.
We talk a bit more and I tell him I'm also teaching dance on the weekends. I complain that I never really get to sleep in anymore because of classes and rehearsals with my dance company. Again, he's so awed to hear about the life that I thought of as little more than a source of worry five minutes ago.
Watching his face light up, I could see that he was truly happy for me. So why wasn't I? Even though I considered my so-called achievements to be half-finished at best, he was still genuinely admiring where I had gotten to in life.
Those few moments with my lovely neighbor helped me see myself with new, kinder eyes. I had been so preoccupied with the day to day of living my life that I'd completely forgotten to take a step back and appreciate how far I'd come and the many blessings I enjoyed each day. I was 22 and already on the path towards my dream career, not long after graduating from a great school. Being back at home brought immeasurable comfort, and it allowed me to pursue my passion for dance in a more fulfilling way than I ever thought would be possible after college. I might be behind here and there, but I was actually not far from where I'd hoped to be less than a year out of university.
"This might sound weird, but I'm so proud of you and everything you're doing," he said. And in that moment, when I let myself stop feeling unkempt and behind schedule and not successful enough and sleep deprived and mediocre -- I was pretty proud of me, too.