Very early in Heidi Barr’s new book, What Comes Next: Between Beauty and Destruction, I felt a shiver as I read about a phone call she received. “Hello, Heidi,” her supervisor said one morning. “Thanks for taking this call today. We regret to inform you that as of December 2nd, your position is being eliminated.”
What follows that early scene is the story of how Heidi dived head first into a season of discernment, pondering productivity and worth, privilege and what ifs, and success and meaning.
Reading an advance copy of Heidi’s book (she’s a fellow author with Homebound Publications), brought back memories of my own job loss in 1993. After nearly twenty years as a nurse, most of them in public health, I had wanted to try my hand at management. When the communicable disease supervisor position at the health department opened, I applied and was promoted.
While I had felt competent as a staff nurse in the maternal-child health division, I was once again a novice, driven to learn about childhood and travel immunizations, communicable disease outbreaks, and staff management. After 18 months of challenges with an E. coli outbreak, a potential measles outbreak, and conflicts with upper management, I couldn’t quiet my doubts about my abilities.
It was those doubts that flooded me when the county council mandated a cut in middle management, and my position was combined with another supervisor role. As the most recently hired, I was bumped out of my post. Fortunately, my union contract required that I be offered another position, and there was a staff nurse opening in my department. While I still had a job and was grateful for it, it was not one I would have chosen.
I’d never “lost” a job. Even though my director assured me it wasn’t because of my ability, I couldn’t shake the belief that I was downgraded because I had failed as a supervisor. And failure was an unfamiliar experience for me.
I had assumed I would work as a nurse all my life, in fact, that I was a nurse to my very core. When peers talked about living for their days off when they could do what they really loved, I felt deep gratitude I’d been led to a career that was so much more than a job to me. I treasured the ways it sated my curiosity about anatomy, physiology, and pathophysiology at the same time it offered an outlet for my compassion for others. My work and my desire to serve had coalesced.
The demotion, though, coupled with dissatisfaction in my new staff nurse position, opened me to consider the possibility I was being called to different work and service. To be honest, it wasn’t so much following an opening as being pushed. At the height of my frustration with the position I hadn’t chosen (and, I had to admit, disappointment with the many changes in health care and nursing), my family vacationed in Stehekin, a tiny, remote village in Washington’s North Cascades. Its name is a Coast Salish word that means “the way through.” We’d visited Stehekin annually for ten years and always spent some of that time fantasizing about living there, only to talk ourselves out of the idea by the end of our stay. That year of my job loss, though, during a time of solitude and silence, the draw to a different way of life pulled and wouldn’t let go.
After months of discernment, my husband, our two kids, and I reached clarity to move to Stehekin. I chronicle that decision, which turned into a two-year family sabbatical (and my work as a baker at Stehekin Pastry Company), in my memoir, Hiking Naked: A Quaker Woman’s Search for Balance. Like Heidi, I drew on the wisdom of writers, poets, trusted friends, and the natural world to yield, rather than fight, to let life’s purpose in.
Spoiler alert for What Comes Next: Heidi found new strength after receiving a pink slip. She did it in her own way, in a place that spoke to her. As she writes in What Comes Next, “There is beauty and there is destruction, and they are existing side by side. This is not new—it’s been happening since the dawn of time. It will keep happening for the rest of my human lifetime. So my plan is to take the beauty that I find wherever I am, whatever my employment status, whatever life decides to dish out next, and use it to fuel myself with active hope.”
Spoiler alert for Hiking Naked: I don’t live in Stehekin anymore. But it lives in me in the memories of black bears playing in the yard, forest fires, record-breaking floods, day hikes and cross-country skiing in the backcountry, star-filled skies, and the kind of quiet you only find far from traffic-filled highways. I remember laughing, crying, waving to, dancing and singing with, and being fed by the people in the Stehekin Valley. People who many times generously shared their knowledge, skills, and kindness, as well as trucks, chainsaws, and pushes out of the snow.
What lives on the most is what was not in Stehekin —the drive to always move faster and the unrelenting press to consume. It was the absences—of television, phones, shopping malls, high-speed highways—that encouraged, and sometimes forced me to look inward. I reclaimed the joys of reading, letter-writing, listening to and playing music, face-to-face conversations with neighbors, hanging laundry on the line, walking and bicycling, and baking bread. Far from feeling deprived, I found over and over again the riches of attending to what’s truly important. Here on Lopez Island, I continue to seek—not escape, but my own way through, as I learned to do in those times of nakedness in Stehekin.
Congratulations and thank you, Heidi, for your wondrous new book; it’s a lovely accompaniment to your previous book from Homebound, Woodland Manitou. Your recognition that “…beauty is best uncovered in the rubble of destruction” is a balm in unsettled times—whether they involve a pink slip or some other challenge.