The Phoenix Moment

Aubrey Blanche, The Mathpath
6 min readMar 31, 2015

Sometimes, when things come together just right, people say that the stars aligned for them. That all of the elements they needed to really become themselves or grab professional success were like puzzle pieces, just waiting to be put together in the right configuration. That sounds pretty awesome.

But it’s definitely not my story.

My story is a bit like the worst-case scenario from an episode of Hoarders. One of those gas cans that the old man has been keeping in his living room since the early eighties spontaneously bursts into flames. Pretty soon, the bric-a-brac collection is all ablaze, and the owner and cameras can only look on in horror. The producer is probably standing by, trying to figure out whether TLC can legally promote or air this footage as the “Most epic episode OF ALL TIME”.

That’s my story over the last year. Or, it would be, if the fire served to cut out the inessentials, leaving just the charred remains of the couple of things that I really needed anyway.

Last Year
Not to be uncharitable to anyone with whom I had some good times, but 2014 sucked. I’m pretty sure Mercury was in retrograde the entire time or something, and majorly affected Virgos like myself. Or at least, I find that a more satisfying justification than the fact that sometimes life just doesn’t give a shit about you, your problems, or how throwing an incredible handful on you at the same time will affect you.

January. The year started with the death of my best friend’s mom, which was both a relief, a celebration, and a good helping of heartache. Death is hard, and allowing it to be complicated by the fact that you can’t think of anything truly kind to say about the person can be overwhelming. Fight snowstorms. Fly across the country. Sing at funeral. Work furiously between events because writing statements of work is easier than dealing with difficult emotions.

March. My grandmother slipped and fell at some point this month, was hospitalized, and eventually passed away from pneumonia. My grandmother, who had lived with my immediate family since I was a pre-teen, smiled with her entire face whenever anyone she loved walked into a room, and was always ready with a bony hug for anyone who would get close enough. She also made it to 99 1/2, and we swear she went out just to avoid ending up on that Smucker’s jar on the Today show. The purest example of love I can imagine isn’t sitting in that easy chair at my parents’ house anymore. Fly across the country. Sing at funeral before bawling uncontrollably. Copy edit an RFP response because that’s easier than feeling the loss.

April. Yearly exam comes back “abnormal”. Secondary biopsy comes back “concerning”, and “could either be early-stage cervical cancer or just pre-cancerous lesions”. So it turns out that if your rapist gives you HPV before you finish Gardisil and you’ve tested negative for the virus for more than four years, you can still get cancer. Scheduled procedure. Had the bottom of my cervix removed. Worked all weekend, because laying out documents in InDesign is easier than rage.

September. It’s been 13 months since I woke up with mysteriously swollen ankles that made it excruciating to walk, and 7 months since my forarms decided to get in on the party. Massage therapy, no-alcohol and no-gluten diets, physical therapy, and “just resting” haven’t really done anything. The specialist spends 10 minutes chatting, and just says, “This sounds like a case of peripheral spondyloarthritis,” and hands me some literature. On the bright side, the ankylosing type fuses your vertebrae together, so thank Al Gore it’s not that kind.

November? December? A friend who couldn’t be considered close in many senses, but with whom I spent hours on the internet discussing her struggles with mental illness, loses her battle. I found out via text message and spent the rest of the day frantically searching the internet for more information that could explain what happened. We had just talked two weeks prior. Things were great. Future looked bright. Until it didn’t. Fly to DC. Lock yourself in a conference room. Work on the biggest project anyone’s ever been foolish enough to trust you with, because lack of sleep and endlessly writing about enterprise software is easier than grief. Break down to 80% of your team in the work bathroom. Assume your eyes are just going to be red and puffy from now on.

December. A wallop for the end of the year. Grandma passes after a long, slow decline from various health problems and kidney failure. My partner, who stood by and supported through all of this (and frankly a boatload more) mentally checks out, because that’s basically the only rational response to the year I’ve had. Fly across the country three times. Sing at the funeral. Have relatively calm discussion and agree you’re “taking a break” for the next month. No contact. Agree that this needs to be a permenant break.

Surrounded by Ashes
Over the course of about 12 months, I lost two grandmothers, a friend, a partner, and my health. I overworked myself, and basically destroyed my average work quality. Everything I was terrified of — that I would lose everything I thought was important — happened.

I took a look around, and realized that basically everything that could have happened already did, and that I had to torch the last piece of stability in my life: my job. Now, don’t get my wrong. I enjoyed the work, and frankly adore the people on that team probably more than is healthy. But it wasn’t my purpose. That’s an easy judgment when you work side-by-side with Dana Cass. There’s somebody who has found their purpose. (Don’t believe me? I dare you to read just one piece of her writing. was probably Lewis Carroll’s inspiration for the rabbithole.)

I met with the head of our People team, and proposed a radical solution: create a new role focused exclusively on diversity, and give it to me. There were disucssions. There was a six-page proposal with definitions, a statement of work, and a gantt chart. And you know what? They said yes. Now I spend my time writing, organizing, meeting, and generally trying to create opportunities for deserving people so that they can change the world.

Phoenix Rising
It turns out, when people get your value, they come out of the woodwork to help you. It can be a potential boss who champions your work; a friend who will demand that you sit on the couch, cry, and hug her because she knows you need to; or a colleague who reminds you that everything falling apart was really just the most efficient method for putting everything back together; or the confidante who will probably tell me that I’m an asshole for using semicolons here.

Nowadays, I get up and know exactly what I need to do with my day. I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing, surrounded by one of the most amazing groups of people I could have imaged surrounding myself with. And you know what? It’s infectious. I’ve had more interesting conversations, opportunities, and interactions in the last two months than the last two years combined. I’ve absolutely changed my company — my work family — for the better, and there’s still so much for me to contribute.

I am overwhelmed with tears constantly right now. Some days, my gratitude is so abundant that it just overflows into rivers down my face. That’s cool. Just cryin’ over here, being blissful.

The next stage is make sure that I’m in the kind of person who brings other people to grateful tears. Game on.

I’m certainly older, maybe a little wiser, and hopefully a lot funnier. Because I wouldn’t want you to finish this without giving you something useful, I thought I would leave you with a few pearls of wisdom I’ve picked up along the way (your mileage may vary), from the wonderful people and places I’ve been.

  1. The work you do while you procrastinate is probably the work you should be doing for the rest of your life. -Jessica Hirsche
  2. The mountain does not care about you.
  3. Sometimes, semi-destructive things like dyeing your hair blonde are the right level of self-sabotage.
  4. Lie about your job title. Be truthful about what you know.
  5. Never compromise on “I love you”. Tell everyone in your life it applies to until they are sick of hearing it, and accept nothing less for yourself.

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Aubrey Blanche, The Mathpath

Equitable Design & Impact @CultureAmp. Advisor, investor. Mathpath = (Math Nerd + Empath). Queer dog mom, Latina. Your contribution matters. She/her.