Candid Confessions: Silver Linings in Failure and Tragedy

August 15, 2013 Kristance Harlow

I’m sure you’ve read one or more of these:

“In the middle of a difficulty lies opportunity.” – Albert Einstein
“Everything happens for a reason.” – Marilyn Monroe
“Remember that not getting what you want is sometimes a wonderful stroke of luck.” – His Holiness the Dalai Lama

Feeling like nothing is going your way? We’ve all be there, well I certainly have. Sometimes, when nothing seems to go right, all those inspirational songs and positive quotes do nothing but piss me off. Happens for a reason? I call bullshit. There was no rhyme or reason to my father’s untimely death. What sense is there in a home burning to the ground? Today I’m exploring my failures, because they are what made me who I am today. For me, without failure there is no success.

Struggling in College

I was still ridiculous at Mt Holyoke though.

I’ll take you back to my second year at university. I was a biology major and studying all the proper pre-med courses. I had wanted to be a doctor since I was a kid. I attended summer camp in high school to learn more about the profession and had been certified in CPR and first aid since I was 16. I had my blinders on and was going for gold. I was taking chemistry for the second time. I had taken it my first semester and gotten a D+. I had been attending the University of Vermont and moved to Mount Holyoke College after one semester as a Spring Admit. I may or may not be a bit of a perfectionist, so I wanted a higher grade for my medical school applications. I knew I was going to struggle in the course, so I took the proactive step of meeting with the professor on a weekly basis to get one-on-one help with my homework. I did poorly on the first few quizzes, but he assured me that I’d pass the upcoming exam.

When the time came to take the first exam of the term I panicked. My mind went blank, I couldn’t remember anything, the formulas looked like an alien language. Afterward I turned it into the proctor, I went straight to my professor’s office to discuss it with him. His mind apparently went blank too…he looked me dead in the eye and said, “If you were worried about failing you should have been coming here for help.” He didn’t know who I was, he argued with me that I hadn’t been there, “I’m not going to play the he-said-she-said game, but I don’t remember you. Maybe you should think of another profession than medicine.” I left his office and had a complete breakdown. Sobbing hysterically I called my mom and collapsed on a rock outside the chemistry building. I dropped the course, the major, and my dreams of becoming a doctor.

Seriously amazing ladies at Yangchen Choling.

It wasn’t long after that I moved into anthropology, and created a customized major in anthropology and writing. I wanted to be a travel writer but I didn’t think it could ever really happen, it was just an easier major in subjects I loved. I’d been a writer since I first read Harriet the Spy and watched the movie when I was 9 years old. Without that switch I never would have considered applying for an international internship teaching English in India. I would have never taken my second trip abroad that changed my life entirely.

I’ve described my last minute decision to apply for that internship in India. On an impulse I applied for the chance to teach at a Tibetan Buddhist Nunnery in India with the Jamyang Foundation. I was awarded the scholarship and spent the summer after my sophomore year in the Himalayas, with an amazing group of girls.

I moved back to the University of Vermont because Mount Holyoke just wasn’t the right fit for me. I struggled to fit in and find my place amongst the hallowed halls of the prestigious college. I didn’t know what I wanted and that experience with my chemistry professor put a sour taste in my mouth, I felt unsupported and lost. India gave me new wings and I needed a fresh start. I felt more at home at the University of Vermont, and finished up my last two years there. I ended with a Bachelor’s degree in Anthropology with a minor in English. I still was jumping from ambition to ambition though. I tried out all sorts of clubs from debate to the college newspaper to figure skating. I thought, I could see myself getting into anything, I just have to try it all out.

Then graduation came and I was back to square one…where to go from here?

Oregon and Back Again

Or-ih-ghin (HARD G) not Or-uh-gone.

I decided to move back to Oregon and try my hand at living in Portland (Ahem; it is pronounced “Or-ih-ghin” not “Or-uh-gone”). I spent the first 13 years of my life just outside of Portland, so I’ve always had a lot of family and friends out there. I went out in the fall after I graduated from college. I was applying to a lot of administrative jobs, jobs at non-profits, and gigs at high end retail stores. I’m not a high-end retail kinda girl, but I thought I could be. I thought I could be that woman in heels, getting dolled up for work in a front-end position in a corporate office. I’d get a job and an apartment and just live my life. I didn’t know what I really wanted to do, I was just trying to achieve what I thought I was supposed to obtain.

The beach + books = finding new inspiration.

I couldn’t find a job and was feeling really depressed, so I went to visit some family in Washington. That’s when my aunt gave me a book called When God Was A Woman by Merlin Stone. Written in 1978, Stone writes a compelling argument about Goddess cultures in prehistory. While the book is truly a bit of pseudo-science and pseudo-history, it is an inspiring nod to alternative histories and matriarchal societies. The book inspired me and made me want to learn about gender in the past, in archaeology. It was that book which launched my desire to study archaeology and pursue graduate school.

I was so fickle back then…ok let me rephrase that…I am so fickle. I don’t like to commit to being in one location for long periods of time. So, I really didn’t want to commit to a two year graduate school program. Through the magic of Google I discovered Study Across the Pond. I found out that Masters programs in Britain were almost always only one year in duration, most you could apply to for free, you didn’t need to take the GREs, and Study Across the Pond could provide a personal adviser to help you complete your applications. I was sold. I started my applications immediately and was quickly accepted into several programs. While I was mulling over which one to attend, I jumped on a plane home to live with my parents, work, and save money for graduate school.

Graduate School, England, and Scotland

Living in Britain was quite the experience. Graduate school was challenging, and full of hard work and lots of papers. I loved it though, I made lifelong friends and took amazing trips around Europe. After graduate school though, I struggled again. My father passed away unexpectedly just after Christmas, and I felt like my world had collapsed and there was no safety net anymore.

View of Edinburgh from Calton Hill.
Scotland was cool, and I did my pose there too.

I tried living in Scotland and could not find steady work. I was actually asked at a job interview in Glasgow, “You’re American, how do I know you won’t just take off to go back without notice?” I was being discriminated against for my immigration status. I did a short gig with the Royal Botanic Gardens as a research assistant. After that, I was working for Supermums filling in at various daycares and nurseries around Edinburgh, but there was no guarantee of hours and they could vary dramatically week to week. I got a job at a shop on the Royal Mile, but it was the worst job I’ve ever had, they were absolutely taking advantage of me for being a foreigner. They didn’t want to pay me and would constantly text me when I was on my way to work to say they had too many people on and didn’t need me. I even got a job working for Glasgow University as a postgraduate tutor, but it was only a couple hours a week, I couldn’t afford to live on it. I was in an unhealthy and abusive relationship at the time and couldn’t find my way out of the darkness that was consuming my life. I had a graduate degree from one of the best universities in the United Kingdom and a lot of experience under my belt, I knew I had a lot to offer but I didn’t know where to offer it. I applied to every job even remotely related to any skills or knowledge I had. When asked where I saw myself in 5 years, I could only answer, “Happy and working for an organization I can commit myself to.” I had no idea what I wanted to do. I didn’t think I could decide, I thought I had to be open to every opportunity because otherwise I wouldn’t find the right opportunity.

Winter was coming near and I had finally had enough. I packed my things and gave away everything that didn’t fit in my two suitcases. Then I hopped on a one way flight back to Vermont, leaving my painful past behind in Scotland.

Vermont, Fires, and Hope

Reunited in T-Minus 7 days.

I came back to Vermont, and you can check out my past post to find out more about what happened when I got back here. Just a month and a half after I moved in with my aunt, uncle, cousin, and brother our house burnt to the ground. I barely escaped with my life, saved only by serendipity, my brave brother, and my heroic boyfriend (who I had only known for a month when the fire happened). I had a really hard time dealing after the fire because I almost didn’t escape the house, and kept having flashbacks to the terrible fear that had overcome me. If you’ve ever had a time in your life when you were sure you were going to die, but survived, you know what I mean. I sought help to get over my post-traumatic stress. For a long time I couldn’t be near even campfires, but my last night I spent at home we built a campfire and cooked over it and I had a blast and no fear. It was empowering.

The fire turned life upside down again, but it didn’t destroy it. I’ll be starting my new travels in Argentina in less than a week, thanks to a small check from insurance for the stuff I lost in the fire. All this time, these failures, heartache, loss, and tragedy…all of it has been part of my journey as a wandering nomad exploring the world. I know what I want now, I want to see the world and write about it. I want to share my experiences. I am a travel writer now, and have never been more sure of myself.

I would do anything to bring my dad back, but you can’t change the past. We all have to try and be gracious for our failures because they are what make us who we are. Without each and every loss, and each and every tragedy, I would not be the strong and confident person I am today. I wouldn’t be able to inspire others to push through the hard times. I wouldn’t be able to tell you that it does get better. I wouldn’t be able to tell you that you will make it through your dark times. Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, you can come out of tragedy stronger than when you went into it.

No one ever accomplished anything seriously badass without failing a few times first. Don’t be ashamed of your hardships, embrace them because they are the battle scars that hold you together.

“Never stop just because you feel defeated. 

The journey to the other side is attainable only after great suffering.”

[Santosh Kalwar]

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  1. Rose L on August 16, 2013 at 1:19 am

    Difficulties in life can make or break you…it all depends on you. I have had my share and thought I would not get through them, but I did and have grown. (mplanck can tell ya-she knows me!)

  2. mplanck on August 15, 2013 at 3:36 pm

    An amazing post detailing your past uncertainties and "failures"…and of course, surviving the tragedies that we have no control over. I love the last line where you say our hardships leave the battle scars that hold us together. Wishing you all success and wisdom to see that the process is part of the dream.

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