Jonathan Stephens

Chrysalis \ 'kri-se-les \
a stage of being or growth;

A Record, Reflection, and Story of 2020

§ An Introduction

Phew; what a year.

Time—from a non-linear, non-subjective viewpoint—is a big ball of wibbly wobbly, timey-wimey...stuff; though 2020 had more of a Jeremy Bearimy feel to it—absurdly loopty-loop when days felt like weeks; weeks like months; and months, years. It was an end of a decade that felt like a decade within itself. Yet, the Earth continues to spin, the sun rises and sets, even while encapsulated in the same space for eleven months; the universe moves—forward.

I’m fortunate enough to be able to write this in reflection, continuing to adventure through life, when so many others have not. It’s not something taken for granted or lightly felt. But, as my experience of time has ceased to mean much of anything, this is my record of what happened. I need it for myself, to remember. It's my sort of "origin story;" putting words to something that I also want to share, in hopes someone, somewhere, could learn something interesting and useful along the way.

I came into 2020 a caterpillar. I fed on an innate need to always be moving, doing, helping. As time past, the layers of global & personal life-changing events surged, flooding with change. Despite how it felt at the time, what kept me grounded was its relativity. What a human calls rain, a caterpillar calls flood. Through my pursuit of perspective—and metaphorically running headfirst into a brick wall—I finally started to accept my needs.

I entered a stage of fundamental & transformative change; filled with rest, recovery, and reflection.

In chrysalis.

§ The Before‑Times

At the start of the year, never would have thought I'd be where and who I am today. Few could.

After spending New Years in North Carolina, then heading straight to my first Three King’s Day in Barcelona with my girlfriend, we returned to Amsterdam for Booking.com's Annual Meeting. I started taking on new roles and responsibilities at work. In October 2019, I had been elected as an employee representative to the Dutch Works Council. To provide the mandated capacity for Works Council duties, I was taking a step back from my managerial role and creating a new position for myself, to individually contribute—laying the groundwork for departamental knowledge management, in some capacity. All the while, life's adventure filled season of holidays, a seed was beginning to sprout about a proposal sometime in 2020.

New Adventures 2020 |
Nottingham, England

I was lucky enough to attend my second New Adventures Conference in Nottingham, United Kingdom, hosted by Simon Collison. 2019’s conference prompted more personal responsibility to act and actively work to change things for the better—this eventually provided the inspiration that led to my involvement in the Works Council. From Jeremy Keith’s keynote, Building, to Ethan Marcotte’s impelling closing, The World Wide Work: there’s not a conference I’d recommend more.

While 2019’s NA Conf brought the “why & what needs to change,” 2020’s brought tools and voices that directly told everyone how. Because each speaker prompted so much internal reflection, their presentations are linked here, along with notes by Shane Hudson for quicker perusal:

After each morning & afternoon speaker sessions, Jeff Veen of the Presentable podcast hosted a live panel with the speakers of each:

I can’t say thank you enough to Simon, Geri, and the team that made this conference happen. Thank you to all the speakers for the wisdom, knowledge, and lessons y'all chose to share.

While it may feel like this conference was ages ago, it’s been an impactful highlight of my year that, all things considered, would be prescient of a year that exposed the world’s already broken systems & beliefs, revealing humanity's collective capacity to show care for other humans. We can do better.

§ Pandemic‑Times

There's a saying, how weather begins in March predicts how it will end. It either "comes in like a lion & out like a lamb" or "comes in like a lamb & out like a lion." This year, March came in like a pride of lions, devouring the flock of lambs that would have led towards some sense of spring.

That time when Earth went into quarantine.

Netherlands goes into lockdown;
now, work at home begins.

This meant focusing, full-time, on my Works Council responsibilities. Not many around the world are familiar with Works Councils and the power they provide employees, enabling collaboration with decision makers in specific circumstances. It's helpful to understand this is the standard way of doing business in the Netherlands, especially as an example of a direction the United States could make use of, especially in light of invigorated union-suppression and labor-organizing.

Below is a quick introduction to them. If you'd rather skip it, that's okay. You wouldn't miss anything...but some super cool legislation! It covers the basic understanding of what a Works Council is, the powers it holds, and how it can yield that power.

As Covid-19 spread towards a global pandemic, I quickly came to the realization that the Works Council would be instrumental in a possible restructure of the business. I sought help from a therapist to help me process that forecoming responsibility. Just processing that fact took more than a month.

Because. There was a lot of work to do. The travel industry was at a standstill and it would be Booking.com’s first exercise in downsizing, after years of exponential growth. We'd be spending a significant amount of time learning together—as a Works Council and Business—the collaborative and exhaustive process for restructuring in the Netherlands.

Across the world, humanity was asked to step up, in whatever & however way we could. It was, and continues to be, a time to take heed of science and to continued responsibility to care for fellow humans; not to put their health and lives at even more risk. As a leading travel company, and a connecting link between businesses and their customers, there was an additional responsibility to continue business while respecting local & global limitations; doing what we could, as we could.

In April, I was elected as the Executive Committee Co-Chair. With that new position, second in legal responsibility for the Works Council’s proceedings, I grew to understand the extremely unique position to bring positive change at a scale I hadn’t thought possible. We could—spoiler: would & did—do some very good things. We would be setting up future Works Councils to be in a better relationship with the Business, while building in more open employee collaboration and consultation into Booking.com’s standard operating processes.

I took these duties, as most things, seriously; and with hope.

Less an idea, more a plan

By April, we had been at working from home for a month. Covid-19's impact continued to rise around the world. These were poignant times, with daily reminders of how precious and short life is. So. I set a date—June.

Now that I had the timing, I had to make sure our expectations of a life well lived were aligned enough to figure out how to ask the grand question: want to partner up and adventure for life? Anyone who knows anything about me knows this: when facing big decisions, I do my research. Good experiences take good planning; be prepared.

We started having some of the deepest, rawest conversations I've ever had. They continued to nourish the sprouting seed, discovering an oak tree. Imagining what future life could be—also brought on by reality bombarding both of us at once—helped.

...that and Animal Crossing.

Between all responsibility at work, conversations of future lives, and the pandemic...All of a sudden, I felt all-growed-up, almost like an "adult." I was hopping between all sorts of different worlds while, in the between-times, sketching and starting to move towards a world I wanted to create; together.

Setting my fairy tale in motion

I had rummaged through my "gonna use someday" art supplies: found nice handmade paper, watercolor paints, book binding thread, and thin hemp string. I had sketched out and planned long enough, June wasn't too far away. Enough planning with pen & paper, time to start painting a future.

Both my partner and I are fond of stories, quickly connecting through magic, princesses, animation, and books. With everything available, and how we've travelled together to experience good storytelling, this felt right: I began painting a fairy tale; our fairy tale.

I painted our relationship, small snapshots for remembering, smiling, and re-living our story. Page by page, water cup by water cup. It took 11 days to paint, practice, and finally bind my Fairy Tale Proposal book. It was ready!

3 days before proposing.

We're going on an adventure!

Throughout the week, I had been testing the waters, seeing if she thought anything was afoot. Luckily, we were already planning a celebration that day, providing some good cover. Side note: the ring actually hadn't arrived yet; had to improvise.

We woke up to croissants & coffee with mimosas & magical Scrabble. I decidedly lost both 'bouts...unintentionally and disappointed. Hehe, we're both a bit competive...anyways. The day moved on—for her: pampered and relaxing, oblivious. For me: anything but.

We had a special night planned. We walked outside together, first since the pandemic began, to pick up a five-course prepped meal that we'd be cooking at home. It came with everything we needed! Including video tutorials (in Dutch and English) and a music playlist while cooking & eating!

Before dessert, I prepared my gift. I retrieved it from the other room; pausing with a deep breath before I re-entered. I had her close her eyes before I left: so I came back in, sat back into my seat across the table. Knowing myself, I wasn't going to set myself up and miss the moment by trying to figure out how to unsuspiciously get down on one knee.

She opened her eyes, with the book in hand. A Fairy Tale of Past, Present, & Possible Futures. Flipping through for the first time, she began to realize it was watercolored paintings of our adventures. I had divided the book into chapters, based on my Family Tree Rings tattoo. The same way a tree's age is measured in rings, as I age, rings would be added to it:

  • Black for family;
  • Yellow for my married partner; and
  • Cyan & Magenta intertwined, for future children.

Arriving to the page with the bright yellow band and "The Present" painted in the page, that tattoo association was missed. She went to the next page: a gold interrobang taking up the page. "Huh?"

Flipping to the next chapter, Possible Futures, seeing an aisle—apprehension dawned. I took off the ring I've worn since University began, hoping all the words would come out right. Then?

She said yes!

Nothing changed and everything changed at the same time.

She saw me, embracing all of me; and I her. If she can accept me for what I hope is a long life, why shouldn't I accept me for me?

This was my catalyst towards chrysalis.

Discovering and naming my magic

I've always been interested in stories: stories of magic; stories from people long passed; stories of how now just came to be.

In my life and career, I've grown by finding routes and strategies to use and facilitate my strengths, and make up where I falter. I've learned to recognize my emotions, listening to address them. I've developed strategies to help with my prioritisation, using calendars, and planning ahead.

Yet—

I've always had this constant feeling of difference. No matter where I searched, I couldn't find the right words, the label, grasping at something just out of reach. While this Friday started off like many others, it was the day I finally found the right words:

Aha! I’m ADHD!

After a friend’s post lit the spark, I went to my first places to start investigating a new interesting topic: Reddit. Sometimes, I'm lucky, and there's an active, respectful, engaged, and moderated community that's an invaluable resource. r/ADHD didn't let me down. Their wiki sent me to a video of Russell Barkley—a clinical psychologist who’s spent most of his scientific career researching and communicating about ADHD—that explains what ADHD really is.

I was on the couch as I watched; in happy, ugly tears. I had never felt so seen.

It's like every story of a character approached by a magical entity where they're told, for the first time, of their powers. They reflect at the strange, random things that happened in their life; those that just didn't add up. It was like lightning hit the sand of my brain, crystalizing into fulguritic clarity.

I continued my dive down the ADHD Rabbit Hole and found a thriving community, my people. They were sharing their ADHD experiences, describing their lives, and I continued to see how it aligned so much with mine. I had never seen my life laid bare with such clarity and consistency.

Thank you to all the people communicating the science, life, and experiences of ADHD with words, voices, and art. Some of the #adhdsquad that were specifically helpful, and again <3: How to ADHD by Jessica McCabe, The ADHD Good Life by Sandra Coral, Webcomic, ADHD Alien by Pina, Webcomics, ADHDDD by Dani Donovan, Coach Dusty Chipura, and Black Girl Lost Keys by Reneé Brooks.

That afternoon, I had a therapy session; I couldn’t wait to go and share my epiphany. I had begun working with this therapist as the pandemic began, to prepare for the expected challenges of the Works Council responsibilities and, well, the pandemic. I hadn’t expected such a revelation, but so very grateful I had this support when I did.

For the whole session, I shared just what had come up, what I was learning, and how I knew this was right. She sent me tests they had at the time, not specializing in ADHD but had resources available to help guide me. After taking the tests, they were clear as well: I’m ADHD.

Learning this has constructed a more solid frame, gifting clearer lenses to look through and see some of the why of my life...but, it hasn’t magically made anything “better” per-se. It’s not that I can “fix” or “grow out of.” Some liken it to having super powers, it's not the metaphor for me. Superpowers tend to be born of extraordinary events, creating people with extraordinary talents that feel a responsibility because of the great power. ADHD is a condition when things others consider "ordinary" become extraordinary. I liken ADHD more to magic. It's something that's fundamental to the collective human experience, stories across time and place have stories of humans:

Q: Why?
A: Because magic.

Most magicks are powered and influenced by an individual's affinity or unique trait. It's one that's recurring, again, and again, throughout life. It's part of the good—tenacity, impulsivity, curiosity, insatiety. It's part of the bad—lack of awareness, accidents, relationships lost, opportunities missed, moments forgotten, fines paid. There's always a give and take when performing magic, whether it be your own energies or inadvertant costs; magic has a price.

Unaware, I've experienced my plenty of the good, and far more of the bad than I had realized. Understanding is one thing, but accepting ADHD as a disability has been a mountain I'm still trekking. The more I do accept that this magic has a cost, and it is a disability, the smaller this particular hurdle’s gotten. Disability's not a bad word. It's helped give myself permission to ask for help, because I really do need it.

We all do.

§  End of Part 1

Part 2: July — December
Coming soon, to a screen near you

This 2020 story, Chrysalis is completed in Part 2. The first half ended with two large, life changing, non-eventful events of revelatory nature. In the second half, I'll find a leaf, protection from the torrential downpour. Once there, the skin of caterpillar-Jonathan will shed. A new skin will grow in it's placed, harder and encasing. Safer and more secure, everything that made caterpillar-Jonathan a caterpillar will dissolve...into goop.

Read Chrysalis: Part 2, as I go into chrysalis.


If you want to be notified when the final parts are published, there are a few ways!

Thank you for reading.

Be safe; take care,
Jonathan