It would take 641 miles in a rented gunmetal Toyota corolla, 57 miles on foot, and 127,170 very pensive steps to stitch up my heart after September 2022. Still recovering from the loss of a dear friend in a tragic accident just 90 days prior, I would lose my chosen brother, and a personal, intimate relationship I cherished in the span of two weeks. My brother would pass hours after I was able to say goodbye, while I was on stage as emcee of one of my favorite annual events (I finished the gig with “bravery and class” according to the audience). And the weekend after a torn heart, I would officiate the wedding of two of my best friends in front of 100 of their favorite people. Deathbed to stage. Breakup to alter. Life happens all at once; and fast.
I inadvertently have designed my life for these moments. I say inadvertently only because no one wants to design their life for sudden bereavement leave. But most of us do want to accommodate spontaneous adventure in our lives. Logistically, and ironically, these are one in the same. It’s designing space for flexibility in your work and personal life. Because you can’t spontaneously wander around Oahu for two weeks without some level of trust from colleagues, clients, family, and friends. Creating space for flexibility takes work, and it’s something I’ve prototyped for the last 6 ½ years as a stage personality and founder. It’s not just luck, it’s intentional. And it requires lots of iteration. But that’s not what this post is about.
This post is about saying no. And the importance of putting yourself first.
I remember when I first understood why adults were advised to put their own oxygen mask on before helping others. How can you save anyone else if you’re dead? I remind myself of this when I feel trapped and suffocated by the tasks at hand. Put your own oxygen mask on first, Savannah. You’ll think clearer if you can breathe.
I could barely breathe. My hand was shaking as I put my headphones in and dialed my mom from the San Diego airport. I had completed the first leg of my journey to what was still scheduled to be Auckland. Friends were texting me about our plans on the other side of the dateline. I had a suitcase full of wool.
Tears streamed down my cheeks silently as I whispered “I need you to give me permission to stop. To say no.” “Of course you can say no, honey. You have permission. You don’t have to go.” Mum affirmed.
I love New Zealand. It’s one of my favorite places on Earth, and I’ve designed my life to include a lot of it, too. But going to the Southern Hemisphere felt like running away from my grief. No one there knew my brother. No one there had met my lover.
And then it dawned on me that I was already en route to a place I go to heal. Hawaii. In the midst of my sadness and panic I overlooked the obvious. I could stay in Honolulu. I could cancel my gigs in Auckland and Wellington. And I could take a few days (or two weeks) to catch my breath. And I could do so in an archipelago I had both been to with my brother, and healed in historically. Serendipity not lost on me.
Shortly after arriving in Honolulu I pulled the rip chord on New Zealand and delivered the news. I rescheduled my Air New Zealand flight and held space for myself to book my return to the mainland. Over the next few days I took long swims and even longer walks. I hiked ridges and did yoga but mostly just stared at the sea. I read mindless beach thrillers to wash my mind of the complex decision matrices compressing my cortex the last few months. And I rinsed my skin fresh, repeatedly, until I felt ready to rise again.
Home now, I can sense how much of a difference just two weeks makes. Walking into my house, it’s clear the person who left was on the precipice of a mental breakdown. Returning, it was easier to finish sweeping the floor, do the dishes, and put the duvet on the comforter. I am packed days in advance of my next business trip, which is a real red herring. But I am still gripped, often unexpectedly, in the quiet moments. The familiar raw ache of an open wound, healing. I still cry, almost daily, but the tears fall softer. A memory stoked, still catches my breath. We never forget those who touch our hearts deeply, but we can stop long enough to acknowledge the impact they’ve had on our lives and the damage left in their wake.
It’s one thing to tell my teen students at Yale every summer to “prioritize mental health.” Or sit here and write our uplifting monthly newsletter. It’s another thing to clear my schedule and actually do the work. And that my friends, is a part of designing your life, too. So here’s to designing space in your life for whatever comes ahead.
If you need a moment, five reminders you may need to hear:
You don’t need a plan, you just have to stop, the plan takes shape after you stop
It’s human to say no, it’s what separates us from the machines
Honesty is the best policy – you don’t have to overshare, but people will surprise you with their empathy
The most important parts of and people in your life will still be there when you come back
You are worth taking care of, I promise
Hang in there. I believe in you.
Savvy (aka Savannah Peterson your community manager)