Never Say Never

Posted on September 7, 2023

Cover of Justin Bieber's Never Say Never DVD.

Today’s Morning Buzz is brought to you by Dr. Sarah Story. Find her on LinkedIn, Medium, or Instagram

What I’m reading: Demon Copperhead. After a few pure-entertainment books, I am back in the Pulitzer Prize saddle. Although I am always one step behind on popular books (because I vowed this year to use our digital library almost exclusively), I am still hungry to join a book club, if only for the sole purpose of talking through my feelings about this book. 

What I’m eating: I finally caved to the endless barrage of internet ads and am trying out Huel. I’ve been known to strike out often on fitness-focused/plant-based powdered food and drink trends (the great MUD/WTR debacle of 2020 is still fresh in my family’s mind), so check in with me in two weeks and I’ll let you know how it’s going. I’m hoping that dehydrated mac and “cheese” is going to be the key to my productivity. 

What I’m listening to: Silence. The kids are back in school. I have the house to myself. All I can hear is the click of the Instant Pot switching to pressure-cook mode, the constant hum of the hard-working air conditioner, and the dramatic sigh of my dog. Heaven. 


Do you recall that the theatrical release of the classic film Never Say Never was available in 3D? I remember it well. The year was 2011. I took my daughter, who was about five at the time, and we had opening day tickets. We would also, some time around that, get to see Justin in concert. A core memory: the screams we both emitted during the show when the unmistakable first BUM…BUH-DUM (whoa-oooh-whoa–ooh-whoa–ooh-whoaaa) hit at the beginning of “Baby.” The way her little round face looked up at me with a look of pure, fanatic, crazy JOY. 

I don’t remember much of the movie. I still don’t entirely understand why the Justin Bieber movie was in 3D to begin with. But I do remember being wrecked at the end, afraid of the lights going up and my daughter and the rest of the moviegoers seeing my tear-swollen eyes beneath my 3D glasses. Clearly this tale of a random child plucked from obscurity and becoming the world’s biggest teen popstar struck a chord with me. I think I was sad for him. I felt protective of him, as if he was my own child. (The crying in this movie was nothing compared to the more recent sobbing I did throughout the Barbie movie… but that’s a whole other essay for another day.)

Social media screenshot with a photo of Margot Robbie as Barbie, crying. Text says, "Boss: you free for a quick chat? Me: sure."

Fast forward 12 years later, and still when I hear the phrase, “Never Say Never” I can’t help but sing it in my head (or out loud, depending on the audience). It’s muscle memory. The phrase, “Never Say Never” is legitimate, though. For example, here is a list of things I said I’d NEVER do:

  • Date someone younger than me 
  • Date someone who is a “creative”
  • Get remarried
  • Own a dog
  • If I did own a dog, treat said dog like a child
  • Run a marathon
  • Write a PhD dissertation 
  • Go back to church
  • Work in government again 

Here I am, September 2023, celebrating my one-year marriage anniversary to a creative younger man who is a worship leader at our church. I am training for my second marathon. I am looking down at my 3-year-old dog-child, whose food I purchase from the artisan butcher shop or get delivered from a dog food startup packed in dry ice. I dress her up for her birthday and every major holiday for a photo shoot. I am a Dr. with a PhD. 

And now, I also work in government again.  

Years ago my first ELGL essay was an, “it’s not you, it’s me, but it’s also you” breakup letter to local government. In that public declaration, I kept the door cracked open for a return. But privately? I claimed that door was shut tight. The scars were too fresh. I leaned in to my new private-sector identity, and I had a great time doing it. I learned a ton of amazing lessons, met great people, and got to use words like “circle back” and “touch base” with a straight face. 

Over time I realized that (1) there is no perfect workplace, (2) no one sector has a monopoly on social change, (3) my own shortcomings needed addressing, and I needed to do some serious heart-work, (4) my job is not my identity, and most importantly, (5) I really really love government

But would government take me back? Turns out, they would. And it turns out that’s exactly where I wanted to be. For years I had felt called to go back, and I would ignore the little voice in my head. That voice got a lot louder during the pandemic – it was a full-on soul scream. I’m so grateful I didn’t jump back in any earlier. I still had a lot of work to do on myself, and I am most thankful for the world’s best therapist and Eye Movement Desensitizing and Reprocessing (EMDR). I needed to learn how to listen, how to be more thoughtful and less rash. I needed to learn how to love my work without dying for it. 

I am a couple weeks into my new position as the Executive Director of the Jefferson County, Colorado Health Department. It is still very surreal. I look outside my office window and see the Rocky Mountains (at least, I think they’re the Rocky Mountains… my geography is not great, but I do know I’m facing west.) After work on day two, I swung by a great running trail and did a short loop as the sun set, before I made my way home to the Hampton Inn. While I braced myself for the stereotypical shortcomings of public sector onboarding (cue: IT and HR mishaps and 100-page policy documents), I was instead met with a smooth, gentle first few days filled with homemade breakfast burritos and a computer that worked flawlessly (!!!). 

There is a special sort of feeling coming back home, even when it’s a place you’ve never lived. Maybe you’ve felt it when you first kissed the love of your life, or when you held your newborn child. For me, it was the feeling of seeing a Del Taco next to my hotel in Colorado my first night there – a California staple of my childhood. It was the sense of responsibility to every person I encountered, from the young man who rang me up at Whole Foods while I was buying my sad-lady dinner of a frozen entrée and a single wine can, to the middle-aged hotel clerk who gave me pointers about what part of the county is best to avoid rattlesnakes and scorpions. In a small, humble way, our lives are now intertwined. 

The list of things I’ll never do is very short. In fact, right now I can think of only a couple. Skydiving, for one. Own an Android phone, for two. Beyond that, the only thing I can be entirely confident about is what I will strive to do: 

  • Be kind(er)
  • Be honest about how I’m feeling
  • Love fully
  • Lead humbly
  • Listen before reacting
  • Ask tough questions, accept tough answers
  • Get more dogs

There doesn’t seem to be a poignant way to end this essay. So, I’ll leave you with some words of wisdom from Justin Bieber himself:

See I never thought that I

Could walk through fire

I never thought that I

Could take the burn

I never had the strength

To take it higher

Until I reached the point

Of no return

And there’s just no turning back

When your heart’s under attack

Gonna give everything I have

It’s my destiny

Open wooden door with name plate that says Dr. Sarah Story.

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