Alice in Workland: Because the Life You Live Will Be Your Own - Part One

I got my first job at 16. I worked at a shoe store at Gurnee Mills Mall, then lovingly known as the outlet shopping hotspot of the greater Chicagoland area. The positions I've held gave me an education I couldn't have gotten at home or in the classroom. I'd like to share a sliver of what I picked up at every step in my work history with you. So, sit back, relax, and prepare yourself for the escapades of my workplace wonderland:

1. Shoe Store Jockey - Gurnee, IL location (2002-2004): People steal. People will attempt to lifehack the crap out of store promotions and expired coupons. Be it the Fourth of July or Black Friday, a holiday will swoop in like the screeching banshee it is and undo all of your careful organizing...leaving piles of mismatched shoes like demon droppings in its wake. While the pittance you work for won't afford you Rockefeller status, you will earn enough to replace the gas in your aunt's car, buy frappuccinos, and get your nails done. You'll learn the value of listening to customers, order and precision when running others' credit cards. You'll come to value standing in a huddle behind the cash wrap while eating snacks and swapping stories with coworkers. You'll relish the opportunity to use your hard earned dollars to buy snazzy accessories from your employer (at a 40% discount, of course).

Lesson Learned: There is more weight to money than how many baubles it can give you...you'll learn its relationship to hard work. Camaraderie is unparalled. When the power goes out, you'll need to know how to do two things: change typewriter ribbon and use a manual credit card machine. I have a PhD in both.

2. Shoe Store Jockey - Chicago Lincoln Park location (2004-2005):People still steal. I asked to be transferred to my employer's Chicago location in Lincoln Park after graduating from high school* because I knew that my university wouldn't pay for me to get my nails done. I was not prepared to cease living in the manner to which I became accustomed and quickly grew tired of taking the EL in freezing temperatures to get to work from Albany Park (I had a car in the suburbs). I wanted to associate Lincoln Park with shopping...my shopping. Filled with little boutiques and coffeeshops, Lincoln Park has always been a favorite neighborhood of mine. As a young'un riding the train during thattwo hour high school commute, I imagined myself as an adorable twentysomething nursing a latte and ruminating over vegan pursemaking practices. This was the first time I made a move connected to a life I envisioned for myself.

Lesson Learned: Part of being a successful employee (and sojourner in the workforce) is knowing when to say goodbye. While all movement ain't progress, change can provide us with the gift we didn't know we needed...like wool socks during a Chicago winter.

3. Front Desk Human Sitter Person at My University's Dorms (2005-2006): One could say that this is where I first started being the Rayshauna that my friends came to know and love. I used this opportunity to shine a spotlight on my Night Owl powers by starting conversations with fellow North Parkers that lasted until 6 or 7am, after which I would either head over to the cafeteria for breakfast (to continue said conversation) or retire to the common lounge to watch Xena. I call my alma mater a ritual space - while it was a predominately white Christian university in my hometown (that came with quite the set of theological baggage), I established relationships there that have become the ones I value most.

Lesson Learned: There can be intense meaning in the seemingly mundane. The attributes that make me "me" have always been there, waiting in the wings. My college friends and I now live all over the world. Some of us are heads of houses of worship, some of us are professors, some are navel-gazing aficionados of turning a phrase like myself, but we are all marked with the shadow of having been there. We sat in community in pairs, in larger groups with our narratives in tow. We negotiated our worldviews and brought to the table the culmination of our families' indoctrination...and went away better for it.

The skills, propensities, and experiences you've dismissed can prove to be the makings of something great...and more important, something meaningful.

4. Summer Camp Counselor (Summer 2006): This opportunity was 2000 miles from home. I had never spent a birthday away from family. I'd never heard the call of the Lord on my life...and never intended to. I worked for a summer at a predominately white church in California's Bay Area - and it is a summer I'll never forget. Daily excursions with some of the most adorable chickadees this side of heaven opened my eyes to how complex (and demanding) childcare is. I am still convinced that parenthood's a ministry in and of itself (to which most humans aren't and should never think they're called). My immediate supervisor recognized this and graciously had me placed in the church office to do admin work...which I adored. While I no longer identify as a Christian, I'll never forget the language for care and love that I picked up in this position. Intentional, radical community (not tethered to race or social circumstance) never struck me as necessary...now I can't imagine my worldview without capacity for it.

Lesson Learned: You are not cut out for every position. While every position you hold will not thrill you endlessly, it is important to assume roles that will not make you want to cleave your flesh from your bones. Growing up in a Christian church does not mean automatic kinship with other Christians. You will go bald and hoarse attempting to teach people who've never sung Black Gospel music or stepped...to sing Black Gospel music and step. You will be horrified by the sight of dozens of white teens in dark face paint playing whatever game you've forgotten the name of for the sake of everyone's safety. You will need to understand what sunscreen is...and what to do when you discover you're allergic to most of it. No, the sound of earthquakes is not the sound of Jesus coming back.

Most important of all, you will learn to appreciate the majestic beauty of mountains and come to find kinship with the Pacific Ocean. You will learn that, much like the played out saying, sometimes you've gotta go away to find yourself.

5. International Student Dorm Sheriff (Summer 2007): I got a taste of California and couldn't get enough. I scoured Craigslist for positions after deciding that LA was next on my list. I found a job helping to run a few floors of a dorm on UCLA's campus. I discovered the glories that are tacos in LA and settling into one's sunscreen regimen. I accompanied my international students on jaunts around the city (mostly shopping under the guise of language learning), and gazed into the abyss that is the Pacific Ocean at Venice Beach.

Lessons Learned: LA was still using bus tokens in 2007. It is wise to avert your gaze when you see Suge Knight in public. Borrowing a coworker's run over shoes and going dancing in West LA can be more freeing than anything you might've imagined. Also, most of the brave things you do will arise from simply daring yourself. I didn't have money to get to LA from Chicago. I had my employer provide the one way airfare (taken out of my first check), flew to LAX with $24 in my pocket, and spent my first night at a motel on The Stroll because the dorm wasn't ready when I arrived. After this position ended, l mustered up the courage to drive up the Pacific Coast Highway, though I was Midwestern girl who'd never driven in the mountains after dark with no guard rails. I took a train to San Luis Obispo, got grossed out by Bubble Gum Alley, rented a car and drove to Berkeley after stopping by Hearst Castle. I stood in the circle of demonstration lore and channeled my inner Mario Savio. I shopped on Telegraph road. I ate the world's most perfect sandwich in Sausalito and wept at the joy and newness of it all.

I soon learned that I would only experience what I put myself in spaces to experience. I would only have what I help create. The world is out there...and it calls us to venture toward it.

*Zion-Benton Township High School's Class of 2004. ZeeBees, stand up! :)