A CHALLENGING YEAR

Rising up to meet the challenges of the past 365 days

2016 has been a real downer for most people. I totally get it.

In so many ways, it was a really rough year- both in terms of personal and global events. There was the election, of course. From my own vantage point, I did not like the outcome, or the months leading up to it, where my newsfeed and surrounding conversations just kept getting uglier and uglier.

And even if you were, by chance, pleased with some of the election outcomes, you can’t deny the numerous other bad headlines that emerged from this past year. Orlando. Aleppo. The alarming celebrity mortality rate.

Rough year, right?

I know I’m not alone because I’ve seen the memes, the good riddance Facebook posts, and the disbelief that the last week of the year could still claim George Michael and the mother-daughter combo of Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds. I’m not the only one who looks forward to this year just putting an end to itself.

Beyond all that stuff, though, there were a lot more personal struggles that hit even harder. I lost a couple of very treasured family members this year. There were times where I felt trapped by grad school and my position in life not giving me many opportunities to do anything in response to the hurting world around me. And there were episodes of setback and rejection that I had to deal with.

But, I don’t want to put the entire year under one blanket and say it was totally rotten. I’ve had a lot of friends get married, have children, and score some other huge personal victories this year. I also managed to accomplish a number of things that I’m proud of.

In some ways, it’s kind of invalidating to those who have had those sorts of victories to simply write this off as a bad year.

I know if people were as down on 2015 as they are on this year, I wouldn’t be too happy– I’d always remember it as my wedding year.

Anyways, I decided a while back that I was done looking at life as a binary of good or bad, depending on the things that happened to you. Instead, life is all about fullness.

I guess that same sort of thinking applies when looking back at an individual year.

For me, 2016 was both a bad year and a good year. But to sum it up in one, more descriptive word– it was a challenging year, and it lived up the everything that the word challenge implies.

On one hand, challenges can be exciting and fun. Some are easy to embrace, especially if you have my personality. Challenging myself to read 24 books this year was a lot more motivating than simply seeing how many I’d get through.

Some other challenges, however, are both hard and difficult. They take us away from our comfort and into pain. Grief is a challenging process. Health challenges are no fun.

The other thing about challenges, is that they make you grow as a person, and really, that’s where their value lies. While some of the things I took on this past year were really difficult, they were also ultimately worth it.

This was the year I couldn’t wait for 2017 to start.

When 2016 began, I kind of wish it was 2017 beginning instead. Weird, right? At that point we’d been living in Eugene for a year and a half and it still didn’t quite feel like home. We had a few friendships, but not a strong sense of community. I felt extremely hungry to be rooted somewhere I could be a part of building a community, and to have a job or at least some side-endeavors that contributed towards helping people.

But, I had a whole year ahead to remain in Oregon to finish up my program and make the most of it. It seemed like a large amount of time for the limited amount of things I could do while being limited to a location, to grad school, and to my teaching-stipend. I figured at the very least I could take advantage of living in Oregon as much as possible, since there was the possiblity that I’d move away next year.

I also made a 52-item list of things I wanted to teach myself how to cook. I figured it would be a fun little challenge that would make a much better chef out of me.

This was the year I went back to South Africa, and brought Deanna with me.

Shortly after the year began, Deanna and I got to go to one of the places most special to me: Johannesburg, South Africa. In particular, we got to visit 5Cees, the orphanage I volunteered at three years prior.

My “official” reason for being there in the first place was to conduct research for my thesis project for grad school. Of course the reason I made orphanages the topic of my thesis in the first place was because that would give me a chance to see the kids there again.

Seeing them all three years older than how I left them was a real trip. But I was thankful I was able to make the journey at just the right time, before they got any older. I also got to bring Deanna with me and introduce her to my South African world. It means a lot to me that she was able to see it.

Unfortunately, a mysterious illness that Deanna got months prior hadn’t gone away like we thought, it only went dormant. A combination of extensive travel, plus an allergic reaction to some medicine, got her really sick when we returned and her breathing scores dropped from a high 70’s to a mid-20’s. That’s a pretty severe and scary number- and one of our biggest challenges this year was coping with that. We spent our first married Valentine’s Day in the hospital while she was recovering.

It was right around this time where I thought God might be sending me the message that life was going to get challenging, but that I would have a lot to gain by rising to the challenges in store over the next few months. I chewed on that for a bit. Deanna got better, and we got to go home in a week.

This was the year I finished two Masters Programs.

One of the more challenging things for me was simply being in grad school. While at the beginning, the flexible schedules and being paid to ingest information was such a great fit for my lifestyle, I started to feel deprived of more hands-on experiences. I often doubted if my work was contributing to much, and thus I wanted to power through it and into the working world.

Deanna often reminded me that trying to take on two Masters simultaneously wasn’t exactly the same as doing nothing with my life. Later on, I found some more value in my role as a teaching assistant. In July, I successfully defended my thesis on Institutionalized Child Care in Urban South Africa, and after a fall term of me taking 19 units while teaching, I finished up in December.

This was the year we adopted Beignet.

In March, we decided that a fur-creature would be a helpful companion while I did so much work from home and felt a bit isolated. We went to the 1st Avenue Animal Shelter, met a lab mix named Zucchini, and took her home to rename her Beignet.

Talk about challenging,

This dog came with so much energy, a fear of stairs, and so much energy. Her first few nights at home were crazy ones. Bit by bit, though, she got better. Her behavior gradually improved there were some proud parenting moments when she started to get over her phobia of our apartment stairs.

We also really, really bonded with her. Her eccentric behavior, 300-pound-trucker burps, and odd habits paid for her rent in belly laughs. She also turned out to be the perfect road-trip companion, which was perfect for all the places we ended up going together.

This was the year I ran a half-marathon. Really.

 In the past, I’d considered myself a resolute non-runner. Whenever I played sports, I hated running for conditioning and saw it as a necessary evil in order to play the game. I didn’t understand running because I thought it was basically sports without the fun of the game.

Turns out marathons are like the perfect metaphor for challenges, even when they’re divided in half. They’re difficult. They’re painful, especially after ten miles. And yet, people sign up for them all the time– usually to prove something to themselves, for the good feeling of accomplishment, or because their marathon-running wives talk them into it. Like many challenges, they feel really good to overcome.

I got that feeling in May when crossing the finish line at the Eugene Half Marathon, right on the historic Hayward Field. I chugged the chocolate milk a volunteer handed to me and felt so physically good and terrible at the very same time.

I was also surprised to discover how much I liked distance running in general. Beating my times regularly. Zoning out and listening to podcasts. Taking Beignet along and draining her puppy energy. Also, Deanna ran the half-marathon with me. Considering she was in the hospital months before, it was a moment to be thankful for.

This was the year I doubled down on my cooking skills. 

As the weeks went on, I kept crossing item after item from my list. Some of them were really difficult and frustrating (gorgonzola ravioli and chestnut bisque, I’m lookin’ at you) but others were such a success that I surprised myself (yay, macarons and chicken inasal). Being able to work with my hands more while in grad school was a nice change of pace, and I do think I hit my broader goal of being a better cook.

This was the year I loved living in Oregon.

Over time, life in Oregon grew on me. After living in Eugene for a couple years, we found a church that was a great fit and met new friends there. We also got closer to some of the friends we already had at the beginning of the year.

In addition to having Oregon feel a little more like home in terms of community, we also loved it for its obvious natural gorgeousness. This year, we got to visit all Seven Wonders of Oregon– while also enjoying some weekend trips to Bend, Astoria, the Rogue River, Thor’s Well, and Orcas Island in Washington. We climbed (most of) Mount Hood and encircled Smith Rock with Beignet the weekend after adopting her.

This was the year we lost some great people

The hardest thing for me on a personal level, this year, was the loss of a couple dear family family members.

In July, I learned that my grandma, Lola, passed away on the same week as her 98th birthday. Lola was such a bedrock in our family that it was difficult to grasp the fact that she wasn’t with us anymore. I spent four days in an airplane just to be in the Philippines for two days for her memorial, but it was well worth it.

I also lost my Dad’s older brother, Kuya. He was my last uncle on that side of the family and he was a great one. He specifically wanted the first signed copy when I wrote my first book last year. Losing my older relatives is easily my least favorite part of being my age.

This was the year I was reminded to celebrate everything.

One lesson from those losses, and the other hard things to happen this year was not to take life for granted and to enjoy the simple times you get with other people in your life.

With how many unfortunate things there are that can happen in life, it’s important not to miss the opportunities to celebrate when those are around.

Speaking of reasons to celebrate, when we went for a doctor’s checkup in October to see how Deanna was doing and found her breathing scores to be back up to 80– even higher than before she got sick.

When we were in the hospital in February, a doctor told us that after a drop as drastic as the one we saw, it wasn’t uncommon for patients to return to their old levels. We definitely celebrated that moment with a Johnnyswim concert the next day.

This was the year we celebrated with everyone, everywhere.

Speaking of celebrating, we saw so many friends and family get married, have kids, or accomplish other major life events this year. This led us to do a lot of traveling to celebrate with them, but of course, that was all worth it.

We went to San Francisco, Salt Lake City, Austin, the Quad Cities, Kona, and Portland, all for the sake of anniversaries, engagements, weddings, and visiting newborns. See… the year wasn’t all bad!

This year, I took on cooking challenges and reading challenges. I took on the challenges of losing family members and health scares, of trying to train a fully energetic rescue puppy, of finishing up grad school, and of running my first-ever half marathon. What I gained was well worth the effort. I gained a greater appreciation for life and loved ones, a pretty tight bond with our fur creature, a pair of masters degrees, and a deeper awareness of how to rise up to challenges.

Those will be valuable building blocks for the year ahead.

This upcoming year, I’ll be figuring out life after grad school. I’d like to drop a heavy anchor in a new hometown with plans to stay longer, to build a community, and to find ways to contribute towards society and all.

2017 brings with it a world that’s still in a pretty bad shape of unrest. There will undoubtedly be more awful headlines alongside the other highlights. It’s a challenge, really.

How will you bring more joy to a constantly aggravated world?

How will I build a community that serves as a refuge in the middle of that world?

Where will I find a new job, a new home, and all those other building blocks for the life I’d like to live? I’ll be trying to do all that in the next twelve months.

To me, these sound like challenges, and I’m glad I’ve had a good year of learning how to rise up.

Philippe Lazaro2016