The Great Without: Reclaiming a Life & Legacy amidst Recurrent Pregnancy Loss

October 15th is International Pregnancy & Infant Loss Remembrance Day. You might’ve also heard it called the Global Wave of Light.

On this date each calendar year, we honor lives lost too soon, and their surviving family members, by lighting a candle for an hour, starting at 7PM local time.

Want to help raise awareness? Post your shining candle with a statement of support and #WaveOfLight.

Not sure how to help after today? Keep reading. You being here is a great place to start.

Ryan Vale McGonigle | North by North Carolinian

Recurrent, unexplained loss. Though I could not name them until recently, these three words have come to define my life. This losing — of people, places, things — is completely devastating. It’s delivered more as a pummeling than a clean, repeated removal. It’s a bad dream, a cruel joke, a punch instead of a punchline. And it’s not something I’d wish on anyone, ever.

It’s a bad dream, a cruel joke, a punch instead of a punchline. And it’s not something I’d wish on anyone, ever. — Ryan Vale McGonigle

The worst part is that when you go through this type of loss, you learn to anticipate its return in a co-opted brand of disaster preparedness, one where it feels like all you can do is wait to be pummeled again. Who wants to live that way? Not me, but here I am and here we are. May as well do something useful!

I’m not here to discuss the broad reaches of my life. That’s work best suited to forms longer than personal essay. What I am here to do, in a month where it really matters, is discuss unexplained, recurrent pregnancy loss, and provide some tips on how to go about living with or supporting other “waiting” parents through it. I’m by no means an expert, but I do know a thing or two about what it feels like to miscarry repeatedly and without medical explanation, and that counts for something, right?

Our journey begins in 2017. For a year, my husband and I tried and failed to get pregnant, mostly because I was lightyears off about when I was ovulating. It’s no wonder we didn’t conceive. Fueled by frustration, we decided to take some “time off” … and then it happened. We were expecting!

That joy didn’t last long. In week eight, we found out that we would eventually miscarry, and by the tenth week, it was over. It took me months to recover physically, and in all honesty, people in these shoes can spend the rest of their lives healing emotionally and spiritually from that kind of loss.

Our struggles didn’t end there, though I wish they had. For the better part of the next two years, my husband and I had an unbelievable mix of highs and lows. Unlike hoping-to-expect couples, another “waiting” community, our challenge has never been expecting. Achieving pregnancy, thankfully, does not seem to be our burden. But then again, maybe it is.

For whatever reason — and perhaps there isn’t one at all — my body will not hold pregnancies through the first trimester. We’ve been close a few times, even allowed ourselves the indulgence of picked names, Pinterest-decorated nurseries, and imagined registries from our favorite stores. But in the end, our story always ends the same way: blood, tears, and calls back to the doctor.

[P]eople in these shoes can spend the rest of their lives healing emotionally and spiritually from that kind of loss.

Ryan Vale McGonigle | North by North Carolinian

In the beginning of this journey — that no one asks for, by the way — we believed our struggle would be short-lived. We honestly believed that with the right set of answers, a happier, biological-child-including future would materialize. So, we did a lot of the things that couples in our shoes tend to do. We prayed, we went to appointments, we took supplements, we tried new diet and lifestyle routines, we tried to get pregnant, we tried not trying to get pregnant, we tracked cycles and symptoms, and in the end, all we did was go mad. Mad with frustration, mad with envy over other friends’ and families’ happy announcements, mad with each other, mad with our God, mad at anything and everything that was — and sometimes wasn’t — related to our “ongoing situation.”

And that’s another thing. We need to talk about labels. We wouldn’t dare speak for anyone except ourselves, but for us, “unexplained, recurrent loss” is a label of what we’ve physically experienced, full stop. It says nothing about who we are, what we desire, or even what we have been through, after you remove the clinical list of happenings that get reported to OB/GYNs in appointments we wouldn’t wish on our worst enemies. No, to get an accurate read on our “ongoing situation,” you’d have to know that this experience, our experience, is more aptly named The Great Without.

By this, we mean not just our losses, past tense, but our grief, present and future, as well. We grieve the reality and idea of parenthood just as much as the children we never got to take home. This is an acute point, bordering on belabored for those in-the-know, but largely missing from the consciousness of some parenting and childless-by-choice people around us, so it bears repeating: this is an entire way of life that we grieve. Saying anything less fails to portray anything close to an accurate picture. We are devastated, short and simple.

And that’s another thing. We need to talk about labels. — Ryan Vale McGonigle

To be very clear, being not-quite-parents in a sea of responses ranging from “We’re pregnant!,” and “I can’t wait to have another!,” to “Someone please take this child,” or “I can’t wait to get rid of this pregnancy,” and “Thank God I’m childless,” is emotional labor Every. Single. Time. It’s exhausting, hidden work, and we both struggle with the knowledge that’s it’s a job from which we cannot simply resign every time we’re mad that another “coworker” gets “promoted” to (or within) the parenthood club. That really stinks to admit, but it’s the truth, and more people need to speak on it so it’s less stigmatized.

Don’t get me wrong. We support the people and families in our lives to whom these statements pertain. Truly and deeply, we do. But to write this essay pretending that it’s easy to be strong would be a gross disservice to us, others like us, and everyone else who supports us. We aren’t going to do that.

Instead, we’re starting with intimate, piercing awareness, because that’s the tool that inspires some of the most lasting change. Awareness of what? The Great Without, of course! The period of our lives that we hope is the last major “stop” before we become parents, though perhaps through creative means. But first, you’ll have to understand.

The Great Without, as we’ve come to call it, is like living in a hole way below ground. We watch everyone else above us live relatively freely in whatever child-related lifestyles they’ve chosen, but often feel forgotten amidst their celebrations, lamentations, and rightful sources of stress. The problem here is that the investment of time and interest in each other’s lives isn’t balanced, and that’s something we have been working on for the better part of a year.

Some individuals and families have already been heroic in their efforts to truly listen and appropriately respond, but there are (and always will be!) others who can’t be bothered to change. From them, there is no “how are you faring?,” nary a rope or ladder offered unless it benefits them. I know, that’s not okay. We’re also learning not to accept this selfish behavior anymore. It’s been a learning experience, whether or not we’ve wanted it.

Don’t mistake me. It hasn’t all been bad. One of our best discoveries, for example, has been that we are never truly alone, whether or not we’ve got strong in-person support. That’s because, for better and for worse, the infertility community has no choice but to be very vocal. Otherwise, we’d rarely be heard — or at least heard fully and well.

Some community members are vocal quite regularly. Others go a step further and encourage additional voices to share their experiences, rather than relying on their own, or on oft-repeated statistics and opinions of whatever expert the internet says we should believe on any given day.

And no matter their approach, these brave individuals are all to be commended. Their efforts to raise awareness and improve outcomes for not-quite-parents like us is Big Work, especially when you consider that many are already emotionally drained before they get working at all.

And no matter their approach, these brave individuals are all to be commended. Their efforts to raise awareness and improve outcomes for not-quite-parents like us is Big Work, especially when you consider that many are already emotionally drained before they get working at all.

Ryan Vale McGonigle | North by North Carolinian

Make no mistake, there is a large, giving community available to those who seek it. But somehow, lots of their stories still reference the feeling of walking alone. That reality makes painfully, publicly clear what many privately already know: we need more courageous voices to join this conversation.

For those of you saying, “We’ve come so far!,” you’re right, we have. But we still have so far left to go. Until the statistics of one-in-eight (U.S.-based couples facing infertility) and one-in-four (known pregnancies ending in miscarriage) come way down, and until more unaffected people understand them in the meantime, Big Work needs doing. Not just scientifically, or academically, or for large public awareness campaigns, but because at the end of the day, those statistics are people, and those people are hurting, and that should matter to you now if it didn’t already.

[A]t the end of the day, those statistics are people, and those people are hurting, and that should matter to you now if it didn’t already. — Ryan Vale McGonigle

There will also be those of you saying, “Exactly, and that’s why I’ve been doing X, Y, and Z for these affected communities.” And to that I’ve got to interject with a firm but loving, “No.” We don’t work for other people, we do work alongside them, as partners who are committed to the resolutions that those communities seek, not short-sighted answers that make your hearts feel better, if only for a minute.

As exhausting as it is to live with and through infertility and loss, whether once or routinely (as both can be), please let me assure you that it’s also exhausting to tell well-meaning individuals who believe they’re working “for us” what we really need … only to be ignored, our needs replaced with someone else’s desires, fears, or preferences.

Meaning well and doing good are very, very different things — and that’s a lesson for working with people impacted by infertility or loss, as well as many other social issues of the day, so please read that again. Meaning well and doing good are very, very different things, my loves.

I don’t know about you, but I’d like to be part of a world where difficult topics like pregnancy loss and infertility are easier to talk about and support others through, so I’m here to help. Not in a limitless, all-access kind of way, but in a “Hey, here’s someone who’s been through this thing you say you want to help with, so please listen for how to do that,” kind of way.

Part of knowing how to best support someone like me is being welcomed into a space where it’s safe to learn and make mistakes though, right? Somewhere you might eventually get it right, but where chances are, you’ll first get it very, very wrong. And where, in partnership, we can make a stronger, more supportive way forward.

Finally, to those asking “Why now?” I offer, “Why not?” It is always the right time to do the right thing. But this month that’s especially true. October is Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month.

I’d like to be part of a world where difficult topics like pregnancy loss and infertility are easier to talk about and support others through, so I’m here to help. — Ryan Vale McGonigle

With the immense disclaimer that each person or couple in the “waiting” community is best supported in the specific ways that they request, my husband and I have found our brand of peace by encouraging others to follow five concrete recommendations, listed below. We hope these “please don’t’s” and “please do’s” empower other bereaved or hopeful parents to set loving boundaries, and encourage supportive people in their orbit to truly listen to how to best support them:

(1) Please don’t privilege your personal discomfort over our lived experiences. If you are feeling uncomfortable discussing pregnancy, infant, or child loss with someone who has experienced that struggle, please tactfully say so, rather than sitting in unannounced silence or deflecting to another issue or conversation. Doing otherwise can sometimes read as a lack of understanding or concern, even if that is not your intention.

(2) Please don’t offer your hopes, vibes, or prayers for our future pregnancy success. Instead, take your cues from our stated comfort levels, needs, and desires. Responses that affirm the current situation, and feelings that surround it, along with statements of your genuine support, are a great place to start. Un-promised futures don’t need to be introduced into the mix when someone is having difficulty in the present moment. That’s not fair to either of you.

(3) Please do check in with us. Making sure we are “okay” after receiving emotionally complicated news (other pregnancy and birth announcements, for example) is laudable. Most people get that part right. What’s easier to forget is that we are people outside these struggles, and we don’t want to be reduced to our parenthood status any more than others do. So, check in with us in other moments, using your best judgement for social distancing and emotional availability.

(4) Please do educate yourselves on the issues surrounding childless lifestyles. There is a large difference between individuals and couples who have chosen to be childless, and those who have not. At the same time, these communities share an important commonality: we are both able to find happiness, joy, and fulfillment outside of parenthood. Spend time developing or further nuancing your understandings of these lifestyles, lest you unwittingly believe or falsely profess that we are first and foremost victims.

and finally

(5) Please do be patient with yourselves as you grow in your abilities to support us. We understand that occasionally you will make honest mistakes (so do we!). Making them is far better than the alternative, and as long as you’ve tried your best to listen, incorporate information, and grow, lots of us in the “waiting” or childless communities will be able to honor your efforts with grace and love.

That love brings me back to today, to my home with a loving spouse and the dog in charge of us both. Over the past three years, our family has been on a harrowing journey. None of us would’ve chosen it, but even in The Great Without — our purgatorial waiting place of not-quite-parenthood — we’ve managed to make peace with these boundaries and a future that may or may not include biological children.

We consider this a miraculous transformation in its in own right. Perhaps one day we’ll write more about it. But then again, maybe another courageous soul will rise to that occasion or another of their choosing. This story is one that both includes and transcends us, and we are keenly aware of that reality.

As our family continues to move through this very personal struggle, and as our nation and the world face gargantuan struggles of their own, we are here to offer a message of hope, a moment of radical humanity, and some sentience above all the unfeeling noise.

[W]e are here to offer a message of hope, a moment of radical humanity, and some sentience above all the unfeeling noise. — Ryan Vale McGonigle

Are you ready?

You are not alone. Your Great Without, whatever it is — childless or not, coupled or not, employed or not, housed or not, fed or not, adequately represented or not (VOTE!!!), everything you’ve ever wanted or not — is valid. You are cared for. You are seen. You are loved.

How do we know this?

There are at least two humans and a dog somewhere other than where you currently are, who without even knowing you, are rooting for you to succeed, find happiness, retain safety, and know true and lasting peace. That’d be us and we don’t plan on stopping anytime soon, because there’s too much positive upswing at stake.

We hope these “please don’t’s” and “please do’s” empower other bereaved or hopeful parents to set loving boundaries, and encourage supportive people in their orbit to truly listen to how to best support them.

Ryan Vale McGonigle | North by North Carolinian

You see, these moments of unexpected, radical connection are what create the most profound changes in people and societies. We firmly believe that there should be more of them, available to more people, in all times — but especially in times like these.

In our collective hour of need, it is our deepest desire that this knowledge will carry you forward. For us that means stepping forward in love to serve this village, even though we have no child. That’s what reclaiming our story looks like. It looks like hope. Pass it on.

That’s what reclaiming our story looks like. It looks like hope. Pass it on. — Ryan Vale McGonigle

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ADDITIONAL RESOURCES:

Re-posted (and addended) from the end of a previous blog post, Finding My New Thankful:

Is someone you know struggling with pregnancy loss or the passing of a child? Are you struggling with how to best support someone in this position? Here’s a starter kit, but please, please, please, #dothework and do some research on your own. I promise, while many women feel better talking about their losses, not all of them do, and either way, the last thing they want to be is your encyclopedia.

Three Links of Interest:

How to Support Someone Going through Pregnancy Loss (HuffPo)

Dealing with Grief after the Death of Your Baby (March of Dimes)

*NEW* RESOLVE: The National Infertility Association *NEW*

xoxo,

Ryan

North by North Carolinian

Full concept and content by Ryan Vale McGonigle

October 2020 LibraRYAN Reading Group Pick/s & Updates on What to Expect from Here

Friends,

It took some time to figure out what our next group assignment should be.

On the one hand, I wanted to lean in to the election-year “PERSON X VERSUS DEMOCRACY” messaging that pervades our collective consciousness. On the other, I wanted to run — far, far away from it. I don’t know about you, but I tend to make better decisions after I learn from my fear rather than avoiding it. So, in the spirit of that acknowledgement, this month I’d like us to read one or both of the following:

1) Alexis de Tocqueville’s 19th-century masterpiece, Democracy in America. Find a translation that works for you. Mine is from Harper Perennial, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, and edited by J.P. Mayer (1969). If this is also your version, do yourself a favor and read the Forwards for an interesting bit of historical context — for then, and sadly, for now.

and

2) Tim Marshall’s A Flag Worth Dying For: The Power and Politics of National Symbols (July 2016). This book was published by Scribner, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, just prior to our last presidential election. That we are reading it this month is absolutely by design. I trust this is not lost on you. And I hope you find more than one way to think about things a little differently before we have the responsibility of voting again.

Then, about the second half of this post’s title: where we go from here.

No, I don’t mean the country — though believe me when I say that this is very much on my mind and heart — I mean this group. It has been a huge honor to lead our small collection of readers through the first six months of a little book club I launched at the height of a pandemic. I intend to keep our momentum going. But, as with any responsible leader, I must also recognize when things don’t serve us well anymore, and make plans to adapt. So let’s talk structure, shall we?

I’ve been thinking for awhile that the structure of this little group isn’t serving all of us as well as it could. While I’d like to leave ample room for folks to have and continue conversations, both on- and offline, I am not convinced that we need my guided responses at the end of each month. Unless someone has another idea, what I’d like to propose is this:

  1. In the first week of each month, I will still post our books and themes for the month ahead. So, we are in the first week of October now, and I have just shared our October reads in this post. Hopefully that part is self-evident.
  2. In the last week, I will post my much-abridged responses and/or questions as comments to that original post, probably from my other blog account, liftingthevale. This will replace the separate response posts I had been sharing, for several reasons. First, because I grow tired of hearing myself speak (that was never the intention here, and I already know what my own thoughts are); second, because separate responses clutter up the category and tags (web site management is also crucial for what I do); and third, they make it harder to be in true conversation with dedicated readers like you, who are currently asked to respond in a democratic, but messily non-centralized fashion. This can be much improved. I am hopeful the changes I propose will encourage greater, still democratic, engagement for all us.

Again, if someone has another idea for how to make this work, I’m all ears. Can I ask a small favor, though? Let’s deliver feedback about the structure of this group as comments below. It’s good practice for the end of the month anyway, when we’ll meet again to discuss our thoughts on the reads we’ve just picked up. That way, we can make a use-informed decision about how it works (or doesn’t) for the months ahead. Sound like a plan? Great! I’ll see y’all back here in the last week of October. Much love — and bravery — until then. Lord knows we need it.

xoxo,

Ryan

North by North Carolinian

Full concept and content by Ryan Vale McGonigle

Of Everyday Formality: A Table Teaches Me a Thing or Two about Life

Catch-all.

Writer’s desk.

Life-size vision board.

Supper-seater for eight.

I’m talking about our dining room table.

But I’m getting ahead of myself…

When Hubs and I first got married, we moved to a tiny apartment in Queens. In that home, we built the beginnings of our life together around a drop-leaf table that once belonged to my great grandfather, then my grandfather, then my mother, and now me (us). It’s not that we’re sentimental, though this is also true. It’s more that one of us (me) is Southern, and my breed of Southern abhors throwaway culture of any and all kinds.

When Mom offered the table to us — something that must have been hard for her on many levels — doing anything else besides graciously accepting it was out of the question. And some years later, when we relocated to our suburban abode, welcoming it into our next phase of life was simply assumed. It’s now sitting pretty (and better protected) in another space. One day I hope we have the occasion to pass it down anew, making this table a five-generation veteran of life. What a treasure.

That said, relocating our treasure left us in need of what I’d then considered the bastion of all “made it” purchases: a formal table for our formal dining room. This may come as a surprise to those who know me. Generally speaking, my tastes lean more modern and minimalist. But — see above — I’m also Southern. And Good Southern Girls have dining tables, formal or not. So, the very minute we could afford to purchase one, we did. Afford of course being relative because HOLY STICKER SHOCK.

If we didn’t love the table, we mightn’t’ve bought it… but we did, so we did. Since then, it’s been the setting for large holiday gatherings, work-night dinner dates, a conversation spot, a landing zone, and a desk before I had another. Lately, its uses have only expanded. Drafting table, social-distancer, reading spot, craft area, and dog den are only a few. If anything, being routinely quarantined at home has made me appreciate the everyday formality of our space and this investment. And I’m here for it.

We’re living in (through?) an age where, I imagine, more folks will start to have realizations like this. Perhaps not about their dining rooms, but about some other thing or idea or person or place that, prior to this mess, they failed to fully embrace. For me it’s the table, but also the idea of tradition, of heritage, of ways of life that, while changed, are learning to survive forward. And is that so bad? I think not.

Then again, my great grandpa could have told me that. Also my grandpa. Also my mom. I know this because they already have. They have through sharing that drop-leaf table we’ve come to cherish, even though these days we dine on something else. Turns out furniture really does reflect more than generational design tastes (she says as someone formerly of the decorative arts museum world who should’ve known better).

For those of us willing to receive it, there’s a lesson here about how we choose to structure our lives — or, perhaps stated a little differently, what and whom we choose to build ourselves around. When we make any kind of decision, whether we like it or not, we’re communicating a lot about who we are, what we value, what we stand for, and what we hope to see in the future. And that goes for interior design of both the house and soul varieties… and then of course, everything in between.

I don’t know about you, but as for me, I hope the message I’m communicating is one that sounds like: Here, take something of me with you, so that you’ll never forget what it is to be home out in the world, and what it is to be out in the world, right here at home. It’s the lesson of the table, of my family, of our ever-changing reality. What we build should be designed to last, sure; but it should also be given ample space to grow and change. I wonder what would happen if more of us lived this way — and not just for ourselves.

xoxo,

Ryan

North by North Carolinian

Full concept and content by Ryan Vale McGonigle

No More Green Lights: Or, How to Avoid the False Promise of an Idealized Future and Stand a Chance at Making Real Change

I hesitate to say Southern Women do it best, but damn…. sometimes the truth is just the truth, y’all.

I first found Stephanie Powell Watts’ work when I was homesick for North Carolina, living somewhere south of “The Eggs” that F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote about in The Great Gatsby. At the time, I missed everything about my home and felt terribly out-of-place among the elites around me — especially those who insisted they weren’t elite at all.

My first read of Powell Watts was uncomfortable. It hit way too close to home, both in ways I anticipated and in those I did not. But aren’t the best books challenging in some way? If they don’t make you think or feel, what have they really done? For me, the answer is clear: nothing. If I haven’t walked away thinking and feeling, I can’t recommend the book, period, end of story. And I do love a good story.

The challenge I had with this particular novel wasn’t whether there was a compelling story (there was), or whether the author delivered it well (she did). No, for me, it was another sort of discomfort that arose from reading Powell Watts’ masterful debut — a certain “differently similar otherness” that I recognized, clearly and fully for the first time, as a White North Carolinian Woman living on Long Island. Whereas I had sought the book out to deliver a dose of home, what it ended up gifting me was a dose of reality about the places I live and the places I am from — physical and otherwise.

We’ve talked a lot over the past few months about loss, returns, and visioning a way forward. Given the world around us, anything else would have been irresponsible. So, I’m curious: who are we? Daisys and Avas, stalwart, hurting beauties preserved in amber for examination? Jay and JJ, undeterred by this unmovable boundary around our beloveds, to a naive and pitiable fault? Or Nicks and other unnamed narrators, brave cowards of lookers-on, perched in the enviable position of being able to walk away, no one ever knowing who we are — because what, after all, did we really have to lose by commentating while the worlds around us collapsed?

Maybe your answer is that we’re none of these things… and honestly? I hope that is true. But, what we think of ourselves is ever only half the picture. What others think of us, as both Fitzgerald and Powell Watts make so painfully clear, is the other — sometimes more devastating, more motivating — half. And in awareness of that half, what room do we have for “green lights?”

None. The answer is none. Because no one is coming to save us. That’s a burden and distinction we must bear ourselves. Whether residing in nouveau-riche island harbors or in job-deserted foothills, we are the ones we must count on to make a future that is both borne of and wisened by the past, without necessarily repeating it.

In place of guided questions, this month I’m sharing some links worth clicking.

Click them:

Washington Post’s Book Review from March 2017

NPR’s Story from April 2017

Stephanie Powell Watts’ Response to The Great Gatsby, Published in April 2017 via Literary Hub

Literary Hub’s May 2017 Interview with Stephanie Powell Watts

Reading Women Podcast’s October 2017 Interview with Stephanie Powell Watts

Writer Mag’s September 2018 Interview with Stephanie Powell Watts

Stephanie Powell Watts’ Web Site

xoxo,

Ryan

North by North Carolinian

Full concept and content by Ryan Vale McGonigle

September 2020 LibraRYAN Reading Group Pick/s

Friends,

I dislike some folks’ comparisons to Fitzgerald for this month’s read. Not because there aren’t parallels, not because I believe we shouldn’t let books — and people — be in conversation with each other, but because I generally take issue with assigning “debut” novelists “a great” to whom they seem to harken back, as if lending legitimacy to their work is somehow necessary. Especially given the lessons and themes of these novels. Keep reading if you’re curious as to why.

Writers are writers. Their voices are their voices. Their stories are their stories. And that should be enough. That said, if you’ve read The Great Gatsby, I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on whether this literary parallel holds value. So many have made it. And if you haven’t read that American classic, I suggest you carve out time to do so. After all, September 2020’s author inscription mentions the “green light,” and in a world where we all need a beacon of hope to some degree or other, I’ll invite you to imagine what significance it might have — both now and in the future.

But first, here is your task, should you choose to accept it:

Please join me in reading one of my very favorite pieces of modern American literature, Stephanie Powell Watts’ No One is Coming to Save Us, which was published in 2017 by Ecco Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. If you finish early, read or re-read Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. For several reasons, considering these books side-by-side may prove a worthy exercise — just not for the reasons I take issue with above.

I love each and every one of you. And I’ll see you back here the week we welcome fall.

xoxo,

Ryan

North by North Carolinian

Full concept and content by Ryan Vale McGonigle

HOME-ISH: Rebuilding a Time-Honored Concept for the Modern Age

Some years ago, I looked into the blank-eyed stare of someone who had no idea what they were doing. I don’t just mean relative to the action they were about to take. I also mean how they were functioning in the interim, uncomfortable moments of change between what’s-now and what’s-next, which is to say, how they were adjusting to an idea they had supposedly undertaken with great confidence.

In fairness, it is quite impossible to know how your life will change when you leave home for the first time. Even after you leave, and have been away awhile, you still don’t really know. It takes a long, long, long time to understand. And even then, as anyone who has been away longer will tell you, you still haven’t got it except for maybe by a thread. And even that grip is tenuous.

This is a lesson we are all learning now, in a time of immense cultural, political, and yes, also necessarily personal change. We must address them — all of them — and we must do so closer to us, not further away, at least not at first. There is no more room or time for work-avoiding beliefs that look, sound, and act like any of the following: “If there’s a problem, it is over there,” or “If there is a failing, it must be someone else’s,” or “If there is a grievance, surely another individual will make it right.” Each of these statements, though perhaps momentarily pacifying, are not in anyone’s long-term interest, so we shouldn’t tolerate them in the short-term.

It should be noted that this is not the same thing as acknowledging shared plights or shared sins. If anything, right now we are called to acknowledge the great expanse of things long-overdue for our attention. But we cannot do this — or, we cannot do this well — if we are unwilling to acknowledge our roles in the care and keeping of that great expanse.

At first, this might make you feel alienated. The current political and cultural climate has unsettled many time-honored ideas in favor of reimagining a way forward that is more inclusive, and this is something we should celebrate. However, it is alright if, for a moment or fifty, you need to grieve what it is you had no idea you were losing until it was lost. This is especially true if you’re the type of person who usually notices the fabric of your life in distress only after overt, theatrical rips at the seams, instead of, say, small threadbare corners that become larger and larger over hours, and days, and weeks, and months and OH MY GOD HOW THE HELL DID WE GET HERE? It’s okay. Sometimes that’s me, too.

Even for seasoned folks, life can be overwhelming. We all struggle, we all fall down, we all have moments where we’re overcome with exhaustion, where we’re running on fumes. We’re all human. That is to be expected. And! We must still choose to stay committed, honoring our selves by first getting to know ourselves — yes, so that we know what we have to give, but also yes, so we know what we have to lose.

When I’ve said in The LibraRYAN Reading Group posts that you shouldn’t rely on my response to get started on your part of the assignments we’ve all been handed (many times, not just recently), I’ve meant it. Me sharing this context is in support of that statement, not in argument with it. Especially because I want to leave enough space for folks who are striving towards being better in new ways. In lots of places, I see messaging that essentially says “sink or swim,” and I don’t know about you, but that ideology is part of what got us here, no? As a result, I won’t be operating by or with it. Good, glad we cleared that up.

I am in the business of sharing things I’ve learned along my journey, in case they might be of service to anyone else. Therefore, with the seriously immense disclaimer that I am not an expert in anything, that I am a relative nobody, and that just like you, I have, do, and will get life very wrong on more than one occasion, here is one take on a starting place, from someone who gives a $#@^ about you — yes really, you the person, not you in general. That’s the entire point.

How to Plan a Stronger Home in Five Steps (and then a lot more):

(1) Accept responsibility for the fact that you, personally, are responsible for the marks you leave on yourself, on others, on your homes, on others’ homes, and on the world.

(2) After you fight me (yourself!) on that, seriously, accept responsibility for the things that happen (and have happened) on your watch, under your leadership, and in your presence or company. This is a lesson we learn in early years and then conveniently forget while in pursuit of whatever lofty goals we acquire “on our ways home.”

(3) Still struggling? It’s ok. Another way to look at this is to look back at your past (start more recently, then work backwards). See if you can find an example of something you’ve done, willfully or not, to fundamentally harm someone. If you can’t find an example, look closer and/or go back further. Then keep going. Finding more than one example certainly won’t get you a sticker, but you might learn something, and that should be enough.

(4) Ah! Now you’ve got the hang of it! It’s going to get a little harder, though. Are you ready? Once you’ve located those memories, sit with them for a minute. Think not just about how they changed the other person/s, but also how they fundamentally changed you (and they did, I promise).

(5) Now, here’s where the Big Work starts. While I regret to inform you that you cannot go back and un-do whatever nastiness you discovered, you can absolutely move forward in a new spirit of just-as-broken-as-the-rest-of-us-ness, and resolve to do better each and every “Next Time” you’re gifted (none of us ever deserve second chances, but we get them, and what we do with them matters).

Again, this is only your starting place. My hope is that you’ll start from a place that is open to the kinds of work that need to be done, and that when you make mistakes, you know you can come back to this home base and rest, re-learn, and get going again.

In the meantime, know that if it takes you longer than others to get through these steps, that’s ok. If it takes you less time and then you need to go back and re-take this course of action, that’s ok. Falling down, messing up, taking your time, these are all ok. The most important thing to remember is that we have a million moments to do the right thing, and in as many of those moments as possible, we should.

xoxo,

Ryan

North by North Carolinian

P.S. I’ve written about the concept of “home” many times, but here are a few that might resonate in new ways. I’d love to hear how your thoughts on “home” have evolved over the years, too!

Home

Hiraeth: A Movement in Three Household Things

Sometimes I Feel Like Celia Foote

In the Middle with You

We’re All a Little North by North Carolinian

Reading Words: Last Ride to Graceland

Reading Words: TIME’s Special Issue on the American South

Full content and concept by Ryan Vale McGonigle

Once More unto the Cubicle, Dear Friends: A Pseudo-Shakespearian Response to the Dying American Office

First of all, in order to understand the reference I’m making, you’ll need to have read a famous speech from Shakespeare’s Henry V, which I’ll link here via Poetry Foundation. Now that we’ve crossed that item off our collective to-do lists, and potentially had flashbacks to high school English exams *shudder*, we can get right to the point — which, as any “good” businessperson will tell you, is “good.”

Long before the age of COVID-19, but long after the age of King Henry V, and later, Ferris’ setting of the dot-com bust, the American workplace began a-changin’. A catalyst? The “open office.” Contrary to its name, this structured work environment has in fact led to very expensive closures. Closures of minds, of jobs, of work in general. Here’s why: it’s a carefully orchestrated mirage, an unhealthy illusion of progress that takes time, energy, and resources away from making meaningful change where it actually matters, which is to say, in the workplace itself.

If you’ve worked in an “open office” for any length of time, you already know. Capital K, know. You know that removing walls doesn’t encourage collaboration. It takes people to do that. You know that removing cubicles doesn’t suddenly un-silo entire business lines. It takes people to do that. You know that creating shared work/play spaces doesn’t lead to greater inclusion, better job performance, or even bolstered company morale, because yep, you guessed it, it takes people to do that. And more often than not, if the places you work for struggle with these issues, it’s people who are the problem, not walls or rooms or any other architectural or design element. Hiding behind expensive space or hierarchy retrofits is like sooooo two decades ago. Now it’s twenty-freaking-twenty and “the office,” however closed or open, has never been a more fluid concept. It’s high time we spoke clearly about what we’ve seen clearly for a long, long time.

BUT WHOA THERE, WAIT A MINUTE!

I see your passion, it’s just that we’ve got to get ready before we rally the troops! And a significant part of those preparations is being able to honestly evaluate ourselves FULLY, FIRST. Why? Because as any real leader will tell you, NO ONE WHO REFUSES TO DO THEMSELVES WHAT THEY ASK OTHERS TO DO AS WELL IS WORTHY OF LEADING, EVER, ANYWHERE. If someone around you in a “leadership position” isn’t a leader, then welcome to the American workplace. And also, you can still show them how it’s done, but that brings me back to my earlier point. We’ve got work to do first.

STILL WITH ME? Good. But hold on real tight because this partnership’s gonna get much worse MORE VULNERABLE before it gets any better CLOSER TO COMFORTABLE. And we’re gonna start by answering some questions. Both of us, believe me.

With the lens of your own experience and after reading Joshua Ferris’ Then We Came to the End:

  1. How would you describe your pre-COVID role in the American workplace? I don’t mean your job title or accomplishments. When I say “role,” I mean your over-arching contribution to the culture of work in America. Great if you come up with a few positive “marks,” but you’re doing it wrong if you can’t also come up with at least one devastating moment of oppression. That’s step one. Step two is to make both things right. Relative to the successes you claimed, turn around and directly thank the person or people who helped you achieve them. Meaningfully. And relative to your lapses in judgment, carry out an appropriate atonement, recognizing that the person/people/places you’ve hurt owe you exactly nothing, and may actually prefer that you make amends by doing work on yourself to avoid becoming or remaining a repeat oppressor.
  2. How would you describe your during-COVID role in the American workplace? Same parameters as above, but pay attention to where your answer shifted and/or stayed the same in this new time and set of social norms.
  3. What do you desire for your post-COVID role in the American workplace? Understand, of course, that if we weren’t in control of our destinies before this year, we are even less so now, which is why I asked about your desires instead of your expectations.
  4. Spend some additional time unpacking your reaction to that last statement, however you might have reacted to it. No, seriously. Spend some time thinking about the fact that you are most definitely not in complete control. How does that change the nature of what you expect to happen for/to/around you?
  5. Relatedly, what are you prepared to lose, and what are you unwilling to accept losing, in the future of the American workplace? How have your changing (or unchanging) roles affected or inspired those things? Would anything be different if your roles were?
  6. And finally, having now owned more of your personal impact on the past, present, and future of others around you, what would you like to see change in the American workplace moving forward? Dream as big as you can, for as long as you can. That’s YOUR list and that’s great. Here’s the deal though. You’re just one person. There are LOTS of other people out there with lists of mountains they’d like to see moved. Choose one person, choose an area of need that they’ve shared with you, and bless them by fulfilling that need where/when you are able. Don’t presume you know these needs or solutions, and don’t solicit them, either. Just listen. Close your mouth, open your mind and heart, and listen. That’s where the true work starts, no matter what the office of tomorrow looks like.

xoxo,

Ryan

North by North Carolinian

Full content and concept by Ryan Vale McGonigle

August 2020 LibraRYAN Reading Group Pick/s

Friends of The LibraRYAN,

Welcome back! I hope whatever efforts you undertook to examine your homes and your roles within them were productive. I also hope you’ve come to appreciate why a guided response from me at the end of July might have interrupted or overly influenced that important work. Either way, thank you for showing back up to continue this journey with me.

One of the things I found myself considering in July was what — if anything — of the pre-pandemic, pre-uprising past we might be returning to in the months and years ahead. As our nation and the world begins to grapple more closely with the idea of these “returns,” I imagine that more things will be reinvented than simply reinstated, and that includes the American workplace.

For those of you who’d like one last return to the water cooler as we knew it, I offer our August 2020 Reading Group pick: Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris, which was published in 2007 by Hachette Book Group USA of Little, Brown and Company.

Good luck out there, wherever you are and whatever you’re doing.

xoxo,

Ryan

North by North Carolinian

Full content and concept by Ryan Vale McGonigle

Design in the Age of “For Now, Forever”

It’s no secret that this isn’t a buyer’s market. As a result, you might be considering staying put for awhile. We certainly are. Why? Because as much as hot seller’s markets help maximize profits, they can also put homes you were previously eyeing just out of reach. This is before you address monthly costs that will never go away, no matter the market or your personal finances. Diamonds might be forever, but so are taxes and utilities. Remember that.

Don’t get me wrong. We love our current home, so the momentary decision to stay isn’t “settling,” and it’s also not taken without deep awareness of other, favorable alternatives. Hubs and I are ultimately pragmatists who’ve learned not to get too attached to anyone or anything else around us — and with good reason. It’s simple: the most powerful levers in anyone’s life, jobs and real estate, are finicky as heck, and no one has the control they’d like to believe they have over either of them.

The good news is that even in this reality, we do have some power over what happens. By this I mean that if we make the right choices, we can protect the future kinds of decisions we’ll make, no matter what circumstances surround us.

Relative to building a life in the places we call home, this means we can decide to love things… for now. We can decide to fix things… for now. We can decide to stay… for now. And if things change, however suddenly, we can decide to leave… you guessed it, for now. The strict dichotomy of “love it” or “list it” just isn’t fair or true. Someone better tell HGTV.

Which brings us back to the current market. What’s a homeowner to do — about homes, about life — in a wildly unpredictable time like this? Well, the honest answer is that I have absolutely no idea, but here’s one possiblity: strike a delicate balance between what strikes your fancy, and what might strike the fancy of the most number of others.

Yes, that’s as difficult as it sounds. Luckily, purchasing and living through the renovations of a charming suburban fixer has prepared us well for this way of life. It’s been a humbling, but ultimately love-filled experience. We do something, we take stock, we do something else, we take stock again. Nothing is forever, but everything could be. The reality of our “for now, forever” life is that we are both tethered and free, both kept and wild, both at home and away. It’s strife and success all wrapped up in one. And we love it.

Meanwhile, if you’re looking for ways to apply this strangely freeing mindset to your life or abode, here are some “current” ideas I’ve long-since loved, being someone who grew up in a place where these things are less often branded as “new and fashionable,” and more often beloved as “tried and true:”

(1) Color! More “traditional” colors, like greens (my favorite, favorite, favorite), yellows, blues, terra cottas, deep charcoals, and wispy creams are shoving “greige” out where it belongs, which is to say, in the fashion rearview. From pastels to super-saturated and more stately or refined, colors of all kinds are making a serious comeback and I! am! here! for! it!

(2) Texture! Ok, so I’d be lying if I said that my more minimalist self didn’t love part of the industrialist look that was oh-so au courant through the mid-late 2010’s. But it would never cut it as a lasting and intentional design aesthetic, at least not for me. Instead, give me all the textured carpets, textured window coverings, textured seating options! They demonstrate there’s more to life than stark urbanity, as defined by bare white walls, exposed beams and A/C ducts, and “dimensional wall art,” whatever that was…

(3) Nature! I’ve always been someone who’s wanted to bring the outdoors, in. As a child I preferred to play outside over anywhere else, and I try hard to honor the spirit of that girl as much as possible in my adult life. One of the ways I do this is by keeping little moments of nature tucked in surprising places, which is a technique that’s worked wonders everywhere from my first studio apartment to our current suburban sprawl. Give it a try!

Alright, those are my top three design picks for the age of “for now, forever.” Beyond the specificity of those choices, what makes me most excited about changing public tastes is the return to what I’ll call “natural joy.” Sure, I mean to the world of design, but I also mean to the world at-large. We’ve whitewashed, stripped, and quieted too many things in the name of “style” over the years. It’s about time more of us stepped up to fix that. And guess what, you already know how. You just have to make your home for yourselves, and keep doing that for as long as you want. After all, at least for now, it’s yours and no one else’s.

Welcome home, My Loves. For now and forever, welcome home.

xoxo,

Ryan

North by North Carolinian

Full content and concept by Ryan Vale McGonigle