Take a trip to Farmington, New Mexico this summer and you might encounter a bumper crop of carrots planted by this week’s Millennial voice: Debbie. A 22 year-old New Jersey native, writer-at-heart, and gardening guru, Debbie went west for a liberal arts college education in 2008. Following graduation, she arranged to spend two years in Africa completing agricultural projects for the Peace Corps. But her plans were derailed by a crushing double-diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis and thyroid cancer. Shattered – but determined to rebuild her life with what means she had – Debbie embarked upon an affirming journey that took her to Buddhist chants, a rugged all-girls summer camp in rural Vermont, ukulele lessons, and finally, back to the desert, where she now arranges mentoring partnerships for multiage children. This spring, she hopes to create a community garden for her young peers.
This is Debbie’s story.
Let’s start with what you’re doing right now. What does a sketch of your current life look like?
Well, at the moment, I coordinate after-school mentoring programs for kids in the 6-18 age range – which is something I’ve never done before! It’s a pretty exciting learning experience for me. I’m overseeing about 280 kids, each of whom get paired with multidisciplinary mentors at club I work at for one-on-one meetings once a week. Basically, I need to make sure that grants are fulfilled, that our donors are recognized, and that mentors are paired with the right kids each week.
I’m also working to design and build a community garden at the club. I met up with landscape architect who works for the city of Santa Fe, who’s been eying this empty lot near my workplace. We’ve drawn up a design and budget already, so now it’s being circulated for approval by the club president and directors. Even if we can’t build a community garden, we’re going to have gardening be an aspect of the summer programming. We can at least get a few pots of tomatoes going and I can build a curriculum around gardening and nutrition.
Sounds like the agrarian childhood many of us wish we had.
It’s so fulfilling to be able to put ideas that you have into action. Back in college, I studied philosophy, which requires abstract thinking, and doesn’t always translate to reality. But now I’m in a position where I can propose ideas like, “What if I brought the kids on a field trip to look at a college greenhouse,” and actually make them happen!
So how did you come to land in New Mexico after growing up in New Jersey?
Honestly, moving west was like a dream come true. At 17, I’d become very frustrated with my high school classmates, my parents, and I was bored: I remember fantasizing about going somewhere else. So one day, I actually decided to do it. I found a college I could go to, told my teachers I wanted to graduate, and to me, it was like revenge on everything I’d been angry about. It felt like the biggest adventure. I went from living in my parents’ house one week and suddenly, the next week, I was in another part of the country, going to parties, getting to meet all kind of students, stay out until 4 AM, and studying Ancient Greek – which nobody I knew around home had done.
But Ancient Greek didn’t become your only focus.
Well, when I first went to college I’d actually been sure I wanted to study creative writing. That was how I presented myself. As a writer. People thought of me as a writer – friends, parents. But I decided to study liberal arts instead, and it was because I thought that would make me a better writer. To have a creative life first.
Now fast-forward three years to graduation…how were you feeling about your decision?
The funny thing is, when I started senior year, I became overwhelmed by the thought of graduation, and getting a job. I’d spent the summer working at the Georgia O’Keefe museum doing art education – keeping with the whole creative life idea. But one day, I found this journal I’d been writing during my first weeks of college. Typical girl thing to do. I’d sketched out a projected timeline of my life from 2008 to 2011. And within it, I’d written, “I’m gonna go to the peace corps after I graduate.”
At first, it seemed like a joke to me but the more I thought about it, I realized this felt like the perfect plan! I felt it was exactly what I was meant to do. I wanted to do an agricultural assignment in Africa, learn traditional farming techniques, and to write about it while I was there. Then come back and work for the USDA. So I applied, and the Peace Corps accepted me. I packed up, and moved to Brooklyn to stay with a friend for the interim. Just to have some fun while I was waiting for my deployment. But then, I started having severe pain in my feet…
And this was right around this time, you were diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis and thyroid cancer – within a very short period of time.
Yes, and it was hell! It was extremely hard. It’s been almost year since my thyroid surgery and I was thinking this week about how I’ve done so much since then and hardly had a minute to rest. I don’t think it’s something I’ve completely come to terms with. I mean, when I got diagnosed with cancer, I already felt so shell-shocked over the arthritis. I wasn’t even that surprised. The attitude I had was, “Of course I fucking have cancer.” Things were so bad they seemed laughable. I told an ex-boyfriend recently that during that period of time, I felt like I was walking on top of a black hole.
How did this terrible news alter your daily life at first?
I felt like I had no stability anymore. My body was unwell, I had no job, no money, and because of my illness and doctors, I had to stay in New York City – an arrangement that was supposed to be temporary. I had no stable place to live, my relationships in life got rocky, I took on new diets, medications that messed up my immune system. I remember: my concept of self was completely shattered. I had no idea what would happen in the future.
How did you manage to create stability for yourself, with so much uncertainty and pain in your daily life?
In college, several friends of mine were studying eastern philosophy. My boyfriend was translating Sanskrit. And I’d gone to the college Zen Center and meditated before, which introduced me to Buddhism. Though I wouldn’t have called myself a Buddhist by any means. But on New Years Day 2012, in New York, I decided to go to Buddhist ceremony in the morning, meditating and offering incense; a vow for compassion. Later that day, my dad and younger brother came into Brooklyn to help me move out of my friend’s living room to a more permanent place I’d found in Washington Heights, near Harlem. One of Dad’s closest friends since he was young – Barry – is Buddhist who happened to live in Washington Heights. And that day, I found out that Barry was hosting a toso.
It’s a chant that lasts at least one hour. And this came as such a coincidence. I wasn’t able to make it to Barry’s toso, but after I finished moving, my dad, brother and I all went to the after-party: a whole bunch of Buddhists hanging out after four hours of chanting. I’m a naturally inquisitive person, so I talked to the people there about chanting. Within weeks, I was chanting every day. It didn’t spring from a rational place, or help me draw deep conclusions about the universe, but it felt good.
I can imagine – I think a lot of people would like the sound of chanting – just “letting it all out” – for an hour each day.
The great thing about this form of Buddhism is that you can chant with other people or by yourself. Anytime during the day. And it’s not formal, so you don’t have to stress about dress, posture, breathing, etc. My first time, I went home to my apartment, I was sitting on my bed, and I just said “I’m gonna chant now.” It was freeing, exhilarating, I felt like I wanted to laugh.
With chanting, you can be whoever you are, wherever you are, and put your heart into chant. I knew I needed to open up my own heart and I wanted spiritual practice that wasn’t coming from any sense of obligation or fear. My mother’s family is Jewish, and I’ve done some Jewish forms of praying, but in those moment, I’d often think, “Am I doing this right? Pronouncing this properly like the Rabbi told me?” Now, I can have spirituality that isn’t given to me by anyone else.
You also mentioned to me that following your diagnosis, you felt an urge to start singing again – something you hadn’t done since childhood.
So strange, and right after my throat surgery too. I mean, my voice was hoarse, and I had scars all over my throat, but this was another thing that didn’t come rationally. I thought, “I used to do this all the time as a kid, so why don’t I do it anymore?” At the time, my boyfriend was teaching himself to play guitar, and he’d sometimes play for me. So I sang. The initial experience was painful and mortifying because I wanted to sing for him but I sounded so awkward, having not practiced for ages. But I realized the desire was still there. I’d left that part of me diminished.
I went out, and I bought a ukulele. I needed the instrument to sing for me. Keep in mind, I was still broke and could barely afford most things – and the ukulele was a cheap instrument. I didn’t even buy a case or tuner. After the surgery I was tired, and working as a tutor in the evening. So when I wasn’t going out with friends, I’d sit around the apartment and teach myself to play.
What happened when crunch-time finally arrived? When you had to find a job to support yourself?
That was a big drama! By April last year, I seeing my doctors less often. A part of me wanted to stay in New York because I have friends there but I didn’t know how I’d pay my rent. So I sat down and thought “Alright, I need a job, a place to live, but also, a place to heal.” I recalled that my young cousins had attended this very respected wilderness camp for girls in Vermont, and I decided to apply for job there. And sure enough, I was hired to be a hiking instructor, which I was thrilled about! I loved hiking during college and I’d soon be leading 12-year-old girls on overnight backpacking trips. How awesome is that?
The problem was, I needed my doctor to sign a form saying I was healthy enough to take the job and he wouldn’t sign it. He said “You can’t be hiking!” I actually broke down in his office, and started crying because I felt panicked, like this needed to happen. If I couldn’t get out of NYC and take this job, I wouldn’t have a place to live. And my doctor just wanted to put me on antidepressants because I started crying in his office!
How did you find a way to circumvent such a frustrating situation?
Well, I was able to hold it together, and I just told the camp director the whole matter. And she offered me a different job. First, I was supposed to be head of the canoeing department which was funny because I don’t know much about canoeing! When I actually got to the camp, I was switched to farm and gardening. It turned out to be the best thing I could have done.
Sounds pretty intensive though – how laborious was your new life as a counselor?
It was a 24-hour job. We lived in Boy Scout style tents – myself and three girls. I was their mom for eight weeks. I slept in the tent with them, and there was no privacy. We couldn’t have the flaps of our tent down. Had to keep them up at all times! From the second I woke up, I made sure the girls were awake, dressed, I served them food and cleaned their plates at breakfast. (The girls aren’t allowed to serve themselves.) And the whole time, I’d make conversation, funny jokes, and ask questions. We’d return to the tent, I’d have the girls clean up their spaces and then we’d plan our day. The camp was built on a philosophy where the girls choose what they want to do each day.
You mean the campers get to design the whole curriculum?
Well, the counselors help them make the best choices to feel most positive about themselves, as in “Oh, I noticed you tried waterskiing yesterday and it didn’t work out for you, but don’t you think it might be fun to try it again?” But I’d spend a portion of each day with the girls working in the farm and garden. We’d be milking goats, taking care of pigs, chickens, making cheese, planting vegetables, and tackling barn tasks. And by the time we were done, the day would only be half-over! With a 9 PM bedtime, we were always working!
When you think back to the days before you graduated college and your expectations then, how does life now compare?
When I was approaching graduation, part of why I wanted to join the peace corps was that I couldn’t imagine daily life: what it must be like to have a job, live in one place. I was frightened by the thought of arbitrary work. I couldn’t picture myself getting up each day, going to work, coming home to an apartment – all those decisions to be made were completely overwhelming. It actually sounded easier to go live in the jungle! But now, I feel so immersed in my daily life, taking pleasure in tasks I might have shied away from back in college. Health is a huge aspect of why I’ve had this shift. Now it’s important to me that I make sure I’m not stressed, that I have time for activities like writing, gardening, music. I need to make time for these every day to stay sane.
Editorial Note: before our interview, Debbie revealed to me that shortly after her move back to New Mexico in November of 2012, her mother was diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer. She is currently receiving hospice care in Maine. When I asked Debbie if she wanted to discuss the matter further, her answer was yes.
At what point last year did you learn of your mother’s diagnosis?
My mom got was diagnosed with lung cancer a few weeks after I moved to New Mexico. I had just finished building this Buddhist altar I’d been meaning to assemble for months – it’s in my room now, and I chant to it. Think of it as a mirror of my own life, something that I guard – a very profound thing. The day after I built my altar, my mom was admitted to ER, as the cancer had spread to her brain. It’s bizarre…it’s like I’m still trying to figure out why these are the cards that are being dealt to me. I don’t understand.
How did you find it within yourself to reconcile the news?
I write a lot of letters to my mom. I struggled to know what to do at first, because she’s so far away. Now we talk on the phone every day. She does have some memory problems – short term – so it can be disturbing for me. Her letters are a way for her to know that I’m thinking of her – and I realized this made me feel better. I write to a lot of other friends too. And on the side, I’ve finally started taking ukulele lessons. This morning, my teacher and I decided to work on “After Hours” by the Velvet Underground.
Looking ahead, Debbie…in the next five to ten years, what do you hope to be doing with your life?
I really want to be able to control my arthritis without taking medication. I don’t know whether or not I can do that, because serious drugs that are commonly used to treat the symptoms tend to mess with your body and immune system. So I’m trying to stay healthy in other ways. I watched documentary about [American painter] Chuck Close recently and I felt like I need to think about making art again, in the near future.
Final question: much has been said about the Millennial generation, and not all of it good. Drawing from your own experiences – and those of your peers – how do you identify with the label “Millennial?”
I’m only 22 years old, and I don’t think I can really formulate a specific statement, but I mean…I’m scared about the future. I’m lucky to have health insurance at least. I met someone in Maine who lives in my mom’s hospice who’s now 27 and when he was 21, he got testicular cancer. Now he’s thousands of dollars in debt. Where I’m at now – I get my salary from the government, and while it’s set at the poverty level, I get an education stipend at the end of the year if I finish my assignment. I know I’m not making much money and I definitely feel an enormous amount of pressure. My grandfather has been sending me emails saying “You need to figure out how to make 200K a year so you can take care of yourself and have something left over for charity” Pressuring me on how to get back into school, saying I should study biology at Stanford, that sort of thing. And yes, I’ve only been in my current job for three months. But where was I six months ago? A year ago? I’ve come so far…
My sincerest thanks to Debbie for adding her voice to Drive All Night. Check back next weekend for more Millennial voices. And as always, thank you for reading!