A Year of Giving Up

Dr. Sarah Marie Story
11 min readDec 6, 2022

Something happened at the end of 2021. The specifics don’t matter at this point, but the gist of it was a “dream” I almost got, had within reach, and then didn’t get. Everyone who knew about it consoled me. The weirdest part of all of it? I didn’t care.

All I could think was: there is no dream job. None of it matters. Not in a sad, nihilistic way, but in a freeing way that recognizes how small all of this life is and how insignificant we are in the grand scheme of things.

I’ve spent my whole career identifying who I was by what I did. I realized this dream job was exciting not because of what it was (excellent) but what it meant for my life and the people I love. Who was I apart from my title?

I used to claw and fight and WORK for happiness, and going into 2022, I decided that my New Year’s resolution was to give up. Instead of flailing and raging against the dying of the light, I let it happen gently. I threw my hands up and surrendered. 2022 was gonna be a big ‘ol shrug emoji. It’s not saying I didn’t actually work, or produce, or make things. It meant I was gonna take it all one week at a time — make my to-do lists, clean up my habits (hi, Dry January!), and see what happened.

Overplanning is a function of fear. Being so scared of the unknown, you feel this compulsion to have a 1-year plan, a 5-year plan, and a 10-year plan. I’ve had those, and NONE OF THEM HAPPENED. My dreams have been too small.

2022 was a year of surrender and the best year of my life. I got engaged, and I got married. Both things that I had tried to overplan and calculate since I started dating my now-husband. When will it happen? How will it happen? Will it even happen? Where are we going? After I gave up, it happened, and it was perfect and beautiful.

This year I started a new job, a job I didn’t see coming. But, I was open to the possibility, and now I have this fantastic opportunity with financial blessings. Most importantly, I literally get paid to write and create. This is a dream I didn’t even whisper for fear of looking stupid when it didn’t happen, or facing the opinions of others.

I learned to surf this year. I got baptized. I drink less. I laugh more. And this year, even with all the life things, I read more books than ever.

Reading has always been my solace. When I was a kid, feeling like I couldn’t relate to people but faking it all the same, books helped me escape. I was starving, and my imagination was wild. I read fast and focused. In the year of giving up, I decided to read 25 books by the end of 2022.

I just finished book 55.

Looking back on the list, I can see the twists and turns of the year. I gave up caring what others thought about my choices. I didn’t care if the book was “smart” or “important.” The only criteria were that it seemed fascinating and would make me feel something. Inspiration could come from the National Book Awards list or an Instagram ad. Both are valid.

So, here are some selections that reflect who I really am at the core. Two caveats:

  • This year I also decided to stop spending egregious amounts of money on books, so there aren’t too many new releases because 90% of these books are from the library.
  • Also, it’s just a sampling. If you want the whole list, check out my Goodreads. I’ve got nothing to be ashamed of. https://www.goodreads.com/review/list/116329049?ref=nav_mybooks

Five Things About Me, Via 2022’s Books

I love people’s stories.

I am a master eavesdropper. The other day I was eating brunch with my daughter, and I noticed we both had gone silent mid-conversation because we were both eavesdropping on the table next to us. She has inherited my skills. The couple was clearly romantically linked, but the dude was telling her that watching sports was when “his soul was happiest” and how sometimes it was all he thought about and wanted to do. Keep in mind, he was wearing a Yale sweatshirt, and this was in Palo Alto (Stanford territory), AND he was having brunch with his girlfriend. Still, he spent a full five minutes waxing poetic about watching sports. I caught my daughter’s eye, and it was all we could do not to burst into laughter or tears because I could feel the romantic attraction in his girlfriend’s heart withering the more he spoke lovingly about something that wasn’t her.

People tell me things. I don’t know why, but it might be because I am genuinely curious about the mundane details of strangers’ lives. As a kid, I used to stare into cars when stuck in traffic and make up all sorts of backstories about the people in the car next to us.

My love of memoirs reflects this. I don’t care what someone has done or how famous they are. I’ve never met a memoir I didn’t devour. This love affair is why I harbor resentment for Nick Lachey (Jessica Simpson’s memoir) and know an inordinate amount of information about the behind-the-scenes drama on the show ER (Julianna Margulies’ memoir).

This year’s favorite was hard to choose, but it’s gotta be a tie between Illegally Yours and Between Two Kingdoms. Also, notice that I read two memoirs with the word “Crying” in them, which also says a lot about me.

I’m stubborn to a fault sometimes.

Leaving a book unfinished will eat away at my soul. So even when I hate what I’m reading, I plod through. Sometimes it makes me feel physically ill or like my brain might explode. Still, I keep going because (1) I don’t want to be a quitter, and (2) I’m still waiting and hoping that the book might surprise me.

This happens with movies all the time — a movie is terrible or just mediocre. Then the last five minutes redeem it, and you walk away thinking, “that was the best movie ever.” So I keep thinking it will happen with books, but it rarely does. Some books you know might be garbage, but keep at it, and you aren’t really that disappointed because your expectations were so low. Others are critically acclaimed darlings you keep reading so that you know what everyone is talking about. Your expectations are high, and the fall from grace is steep and painful.

My LVP award (least valuable player) is a tie between Crossroads and Beautiful World, Where Are You. What these two books have in common are characters with little redeeming value and circumstances with no one to root for. It’s the same reason I’ve never been into the show Succession, even though I love an anti-hero. I don’t want to expose myself for hours to a situation where I don’t care what happens to anyone.

I feel very deeply.

When someone asks me, “what kind of books do you like to read?” I have a hard time capturing the genre. I might say, “you know… books with generations of trauma, joy, reconciliation… probably in the South, maybe in 15th-century France, or the Central Valley of California in 1990. Usually, there are mother/daughter challenges and lots of descriptions of vegetation. There are probably queer characters, but not always, and there is probably a mystical element in it, but it’s not fantasy.”

Then the person who asked the question backs up slowly and regrets asking.

The best word to describe this type of book–my favorite–is lush. Verdant with descriptions, nuanced characters, love, and fear. It’s not a coincidence that so many of these types of books are written by authors from oppressed communities. These are the types of books that free us. These are the books we get lost in.

It’s hard to pick a favorite from this pile, so I won’t. But I will urge anyone who has made it this far in this essay to honor the memory of Anthony Veasma So and pick up a copy of Afterparties. Sadly, So passed away shortly after the publication of the book. I didn’t know this when I started reading it–I was only singularly focused on finally reading a modern book about where I grew up. When I found out afterward about the tragic epilogue, I grieved. But this book is a beautiful legacy, and I loved it thoroughly.

I get mad when I’m confused.

I think I’m pretty smart, so I hate feeling dumb. The thing about these books, though — they’re great, I know that. I understand at the heart level that I’m reading something important. I can recognize it as such, but my head spins, and I get irritated. It’s too hard to even describe either of these books’ plots, but they’re both award-winning and fabulous, even if I felt humbled reading them.

And finally, I have a soft spot for fast food.

The most crucial election I’ve voted in recently wasn’t to choose a politician; it was to determine which Taco Bell item would make it out of the food-morgue. I don’t eat fast food often–maybe a couple of times a month–but I’ll be damned if anything other than the Enchirito was going to win. I grew up in the self-proclaimed “Fast Food Capital” of the world — the place where all the beta testing of new items started. I scrounged lunch money in high school to pay for Enchiritos with loose change, having probably spent all my actual lunch money on cigarettes we bought illegally from the one store on our side of town that never asked for ID.

As I got older and more “refined,” I pretended to be disgusted by fast food. Then, a year or so ago, I transitioned to a predominantly plant-based diet during marathon training and found it worked really well for my body. I felt stronger, my energy levels were steadier, and I was less puffy. I also try not to stock Diet Coke in the house anymore, and I suck water down these days like a parched man in the desert.

However.

Suppose it’s 6 am, I’m driving in the middle of nowhere, and the Golden Arches appear at an off-ramp. In that case, I’m getting a Sausage McMuffin meal AND a duo of breakfast burritos. Suppose it’s 2 am, and I’m out and about for some ungodly reason. In that case, I’m getting that Enchirito with extra onions and two Doritos Locos Tacos. I might eat them in my car and then go to the car wash the next day to vacuum up the tiny shards of petrified shredded cheese. And if I had a stressful day and didn’t have time to eat a quinoa bowl or drink a kelp smoothie, sometimes all I need is a slice of gas station pizza or a hot-roller tube of food, and I’m content.

I unapologetically read many Enchirito books this year. My consumption peaked during the wedding-planning season. The time between ring-on-finger and walking down the aisle was three months + three weeks. That’s 111 days to figure out who’s coming (not many people), what they are eating (the world’s best charcuterie), and what I’m wearing (an 80-dollar dress and a 20-dollar veil). So when I wasn’t making spreadsheets, I was reading stories about wellness influencers and teenage actresses. I was hungry for empty calories and only wanted to be immediately satisfied without one care about nutrition. I was here for a good time, not a long time.

There is nothing wrong with liking what you like. You can enjoy National Book Award winners and “Glossier’s Pick of the Month.” You can love a gorgeous homemade pasta dish with heirloom beans, sexy vegetables, and herbs from your garden. You can weep with joy over how beautiful a watermelon radish looks. You can drink lemon water every morning with bright green essential oil drops that may or may not be poisonous and swear it’s working. But you can also love sitting in the Taco Bell parking lot with your best friend, singing along to old Mariah Carey, spilling Fire sauce down the side of your arm. You can swoon at that first sip of a McDonald’s Diet Coke (we all know it just hits different). You can count out $1.07 to get two Jack in the Box tacos and apologize to no one.

It’s hard to choose a favorite, but I’d say the Enchirito-Book-Award this year goes to Famous in Love — the first in a two-book series about a girl plucked from obscurity who becomes famous. This one gets extra points because I read both books back-to-back in one day and then found out there was a streaming series (which I am saving for the holiday break).

Bonus Thing — even if I gave up, I still really care about something.

Giving up control isn’t giving in. Let me rephrase for those who like to hear things two different ways:

Just because you open yourself up to all the possibilities doesn’t mean you don’t need to care.

Going into this year, I wanted to feel heartbreak again. I needed to remember what my north star was and which way my life was oriented. I know the direction I’m going, and I know the destination, but I don’t know what the journey will look like. This book reminded me who I am, what matters, and what I work towards.

I didn’t read this book and think, “that’s it, I’m going to be a housing director” or “I’m now going to be an NYT journalist.” Instead, I thought, “this is what breaks my heart and the person I am–now and always–knows that this is wrong.”

How I play a part in fixing it, I’m not sure. I used to think I knew, but now I’m delighted I don’t. However it happens–for me and for you–it will be exciting. Who doesn’t like surprises?

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Dr. Sarah Marie Story

Lover of politics, data viz, storytelling, tech, and oversharing. Public Health champion, Policy PhD, reader/writer/runner/eater