It’s 10:25 on Sunday evening. For the first time in years, I’m not watching the clock. There is nowhere I need to be in the morning. I have clean clothes, and my shoes are near the door where I always keep them. My keys are hooked onto my purse, but I will not need them as the sun is rising on the beginning of the week.
I had a panic attack today just before dinner. My stomach clenched in on itself like a knot, my hands began to shake, and I could feel my pulse begin to race. I was in free fall.
The story I’ve told myself for the majority of my adult life is that I’m not good at structure. I need outside structure in order to keep me productive. I need a time clock to punch, a schedule to be adhered to, an agenda to follow, or I will be useless. I need someone outside myself to tell me who I am, where I should be, what I want. I need someone to tell me how to feel and how to live.
My “job” for the next several weeks, outside of packing up and moving, is to clear my head. I need to get myself clear of this Stockholm syndrome that has taken over my life. I know this to be true, and yet for all the learning and growing I’ve done over the past few decades, I am at a loss at where to start.
I have been given an amazing gift, a gift so many people would kill for. I have time.
I have stolen silence from my life for so many years, edging peaceful moments in the nooks and crannies of my crazy world. And now, I’ve hit the jackpot, time-wise.
And I’m scared to death. That free time seems to spread before me endlessly, and yet at the same time I’m afraid I’ll blink and miss it. I’m afraid of wasting the gift, so I’m tempted to cram it full of tasks and activities and goals and lessons. Anything to avoid the aching, empty silence where my authentic voice can find me.
“Listen to that inner voice,” people always say. “Listen to your higher self.”
I’ve heard from my Inner Wise Self (IWS) before. But I don’t think this is the voice I’m looking for. I think this is a much deeper, more primal voice, one that has been stuffed so deeply inside of me I’d forgotten she ever existed. And she’s got a lot to say.
The conversation, I fear, will go something like this. “Who are you?” she will ask. “When did you become this person? When did you digest all this BS about who you are and who you should be? When did the act of making money become your sole criterion of self-worth? And what the hell are you going to do about it?”
I’d like to think that my authentic voice will be kind and patient with me as I go through the process of deprogramming my psyche. But I’m afraid she will not I’m afraid of her anger, and the anger that I’ve been swallowing for so many years. I’m afraid she’ll realize that it’s not society or religion that’s silenced her, but my own fear.
What havoc will she wreak when she finally lets loose? And will I be strong enough to weather the storm?
I’m in free fall right now. I don’t know where I’ll land or who I’ll be when the dust settles. But it’s okay. This is a gift. My authentic self is still where she has always been–waiting, more or less patiently, for me to shut up and listen for a change.
So I don’t have to worry about going to sleep tonight. The alarm is not set. I can wake when I choose and, aside from a list of moving-related tasks to accomplish, I have nothing at all I need to do. Nothing at all.
Wish me luck,
Background Music: Adiemus by Karl Jenkins
Today, I finished up my two weeks’ notice at the job I’ve held for almost nine years. I’ve always wondered about people who do and don’t work out their notice at jobs. I’ve known people who just said flip it and left after one day. Others didn’t give notice at all.
I worked my last day like any other Friday–actually, I was a bit more diligent than usual. I made sure all my email was tidied up. I followed up on issues I had been working on and made sure my replacements had all the reference documents they would need for a smooth transition. I said my goodbyes dutifully to both coworkers and customers, getting personal emails and cell numbers where appropriate. i cleaned out my desk and made sure to place all personal items in the canvas grocery bag I’d brought. I turned in my badge to the supervisor on duty.
When 5 o’clock arrived, however, I was struck with a sort of Stockholm syndrome. My feet dragged as i walked toward the reception area. I was actually afraid to walk out the front door. That feeling of euphoria I expected never materialized.
I drove home in silence, a mood of intense quiet filling every corner of the car until the windows practically rattled with it. i felt my hands shaking and, almost instinctively, my mind turned to safer ground. I began to review the slights of the day–the supervisor who never bothered to tell me she’d be on vacation my last day, thus denying me closure of an actual goodbye. The teammate who groused at me for sending “too many emails” to help her cope with my unruly account when I was gone.
It felt better. It felt safer. I understood bitching about work. I understood frustration and resentment. No matter how uncomfortable these things can be, they are a lot more familiar than this all-encompassing sense of now what? that was settling upon me in my nascent post-employment haze.
I got my first “real” job in college, and I’ve been working ever since. Despite all my efforts to fight it, I have been unable to avoid identifying with my job, defining myself by the work I do, basing my self-worth on how much I earn and what prestige I can garner from the status of my position. Every bit of introspection, every spiritual book read, every billable hour of therapy I’ve endured could not keep me from falling into this oldest of traps.
I am my job.
And for the next few weeks, at least, I am effectively unemployed.
This begs the question, of course, “Who the fuck am I now?”
Who am I without a job to go to? Who am I without a job to bitch about? Who am I without the bars around me?
For all my posturing about wisdom and spirituality, I have willingly put myself in a cage for the majority of my adult life. Bitching and moaning all the way, I embedded myself into the very jobs that were killing me. I became the jobs that raised my blood pressure to potentially stroke-inducing levels. I became the jobs that increased my stress levels and pummeled my self-esteem and shattered my ability to trust my own instincts. I became the jobs that, for all intents and purposes, were the work equivalent of an abusive spouse.
And now I look into the blinding glare of freedom, and I’m paralyzed by it. There is a lot to do. We have to pack up eight years of life in the next four weeks to prepare for our move cross country to Phoenix. I have to sign up for Obamacare and make sure I have enough medication to get me through the transition time.
But those things won’t take eight hours a day, plus two fifteen minute breaks and a one hour lunch. Those things won’t clock my time in and out, sending me nasty little reminders when I’m five minutes late in the morning or three minutes early coming back from lunch.
For the next five or six weeks, I am essentially a free agent. Unemployed. A ghost.
I have to resist the urge to start shoving things into the empty space. I am drawn to clutter, comforted by it, addicted to it. All this empty time and space is too frightening, too open and vulnerable to attack from self-doubt and backward thinking.
When I told people I was leaving my company, almost every single one of them asked me the same question, “What are you going to to?”
I asked Kathryn that same question, and do you know what she told me?
“You are going to putter. You are going to be. You are going to break free of the brainwashing that tells you your only value comes from the job you hold and the work you do. Because if you don’t, it won’t matter what kind of job you get when you get to Arizona. And if you do, it won’t matter what kind of job you get when you get to Arizona.”
So, dear souls, tonight I greet you as a caged bird no longer behind bars, held so long in captivity she’s almost forgotten that she can fly. But soon enough, I’m going to remember what those wings are for, and it’s gonna be an amazing flight.
Wish me luck–
Good night, dear souls.
Today I was brave. Today I was very brave. It’s not the time yet to talk about the details, but I have to say–brave is scary.
You know the old truism: “Bravery is not the lack of fear. Bravery is feeling the fear and moving forward anyway.” For the last few weeks, I’ve been fighting enormous fear. I’ve been fighting dread and self-doubt.
I’ve been hovering near the edge of the cliff, skittering back and forth like a scared animal.
Today, I jumped off the cliff.
I’ve jumped off that cliff before, and I flew. But over the past few years, I’ve become very comfortable. I’ve become very sedentary.
I’ve forgotten what I’m made of, and I’ve allowed other people to tell me who and what I am.
That ends today.
Still petrified. But at least I’m not stuck on the ledge anymore.
Keep watching this space for more details.
Sweet dreams, fellow travelers.
Background Music: Sara Bareilles – Brave
Writing this blog is, in some ways, one of the most frightening things I’ve ever done. I’ve set two challenges for myself with this project: (1) to say what is important, and (2) to speak the truth.
Saying what’s important requires a clarity of thought I don’t always pursue. Because speaking and writing have always come so easily to me, I can sometimes get lost in the mechanics without really focusing on the message I’m sending. Style without substance is something I need to be on guard against at all time. It doesn’t matter how cleverly you say something, if it’s not worth saying.
But the second part of that challenge, the speaking of truth, is by far the harder of the two for me. It’s not that I am inherently a liar (although my wife insists I’m a master of the well-spoken untruth). But telling the truth is not simply to avoid lying. Telling the truth involves risk. Telling the truth involves commitment. Telling the truth cuts off escape routes.
Without going into the dysfunction of my youth too deeply, let’s just say that I grew up in an environment where secrecy was encouraged. There is privacy, and then there is secrecy. There is discretion, and then there is paranoia.
One of the hardest parts of growing up for me was learning what was socially acceptable to talk about, and what was not. The social rules concerning this were (and remain) incomprehensible to me. It seemed that 99% of the trouble I got in as a child was because I spoke an embarrassing truth in front of the wrong person or persons. The trouble I got in was severe enough that I learned to guard myself fiercely, learned when to lie and how to do so eloquently and efficiently.
I internalized that the default setting on life was to hide the truth as deeply and carefully as possible, no matter how much you wanted to tell it, no matter how much better things would be if you did. Secrecy was the norm, and telling the truth was the aberration.
it took a long time for me to break out of that norm. I had to work hard to learn first how to recognize my truth and then how to safely speak it. it took a lot of pain and error and courage.
Recently, I’ve found myself in a space where I’m forced by circumstance back into that place of institutionalized secrecy and paranoia. And it’s eating me out from the inside. I’ve discovered that once I broke free of that type of life, I never ever wanted to go back to it. I’ve quit jobs to avoid it. I’ve ended friendships.
And here I am, back again in this space.
Sometimes, circumstance forces you to hold your tongue. But I will never hold my tongue on this blog. I will never hide my truth here. I am angry about my current circumstance, and I will get out of it. But I will keep this space honest, no matter what.
I thank you for reading, and I hope I earn your trust.
Peace and good dreams to you–
I keep thinking about strength and endurance. The song currently stuck in my head is What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Stronger by Kelly Clarkson. It’s a pretty empowering song, with a good beat (and you can dance to it).
Gaining wisdom and strength through adversity is all well and good, but it doesn’t have to be the only way we do it. I know people who purposely seek out difficult situations in the backward desire to prove their strength. If you’re doing this as a marathon runner, that’s awesome. But if you’re constantly putting yourself in the path of hostile or sick people just to prove your strength of character, you’re going about it the wrong way.
A friend of mine had a very abusive father. He would always berate her, call her names, tell her she was worthless. Occasionally, he would physical hit her. And when asked, he always offered the same reasoning for his behavior – he was hoping she would “grow a spine,” fight him, and gain strength from the experience.
What a crock!
Sometimes, what doesn’t kill you makes you weaker. What doesn’t kill you eats away at your core ability to trust yourself, saps your strength, and reduces your life to an ambulatory coma with no energy left for growth and exploration.
We all face adversity from time to time, and most of us have some serious scar tissue to show from it. But there are easier ways to gain strength: by standing up for yourself, by speaking out for others, by living your truth quietly and persistently. You don’t need a war to become a warrior, just a warrior’s soul and determination.
I hope that whatever adversity you face today makes you stronger instead of weaker. I hope that you find opportunities to strengthen yourself through love, compassion, and curiosity.
And I hope that you have a fantastic weekend and (in the U.S.) Labor Day holiday.
I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about this blog lately. While a huge part of me is inclined to leave it as is—a chaotic, unfocused reflection of my own daily experiences, another part of me wants Ten Thousand Soapboxes to be more than a glorified personal journal. The blogosphere has afforded us an unprecedented forum, giving previously unheard voices a chance to speak their wisdom (and foolishness) into the darkness…and be heard.
The difference between a good blog and a great blog can be summarized in one word, “value.” What value is this blog offering to my readers? What value am I receiving from the production of these posts? In order to find value, one has to first discover need—what is missing, what is broken, that must be filled if our lives are going to get better?
The Missing Factor
I’ve taken a bit of time for recollection and soul-searching on this topic. There are so many topics I love, so many passions that drive me and make my world a brighter and more interesting place.
But there is one topic which affects every other aspect of my life, a topic so huge and overriding that it cuts to the core of my essence.
That topic is work.
When I say work, I am not merely referring to the 9-to-5 job most of us do Monday-Friday, although that is a huge part of it. Our Day Jobs™ affect so much of what we do, how we do it, how we see ourselves, and how we interact with others. Our Day Jobs™ influence our health, our attitudes, our relationships, our finances, even our perspective on politics, society, and religion.
But there is more to work than The Day Job™.
Every one of us—each of us with a pulse and a brain—has wondered why we are here, what is our purpose? The more existential among us have wondered if there is any purpose at all? Is there any meaning to our lives besides production and consumption?
Work, true work, can be defined as “what we are here to do.” Why were your mind and your soul and your talents and your passions joined together and placed in a carbon-based body with opposable thumbs and the ability to communicate? Were you just born to eat and sleep and waste time until you die?
Or were you born for greater things?
The History of Work
To figure out the future of work, we need to look at the past. Working for profit is a relatively new thing. For the bulk of human existence, work has been simply a by-product of the need for survival. Humans were inclined to survive, and to do that they needed food, shelter, community—the basics. Since these things didn’t just randomly offer themselves up, our ancestors learned to work. We hunted, we farmed, we built shelters, we sewed clothing for protection against the elements. Inventive as our ancestors were, they came up with “fixes” to improve their odds of survival.
- Weapons to improve hunting.
- Tools to improve farming.
- Buildings to improve shelter against danger—both from the elements and from enemies, human and animal.
And with these fixes, our human ancestors found themselves with more time to think, more opportunity to grow and explore, to make better weapons, stronger tools, more impressive buildings.
We also learned to make art. We learned to enjoy pleasures and anticipate rewards.
When basic survival needs were met, we found we enjoyed the benefits of working. We liked the perks—comfortable homes, abundant food, music, art, colorful clothes, and the opportunity for peaceful interaction with others like ourselves.
Where It Went Wrong
Most of us have held a job at one point or more in our adult life. The majority of us did it for financial reasons—as a means to an end. But there’s more to it than just financial security. Anthropologist Michael Maccoby offered this insight in his 2010 editorial for The Washington Post:
Work ties us to a real world that tells us whether our ideas make sense; it demands that we discipline our talents and master our impulses. To realize our potentialities, we must focus them in a way that relates to the human community. We need to feel needed. And to feel needed, we must be evaluated by others in whatever coinage, tangible or not, culture employs. Our sense of dignity and self-worth depends on being recognized by others through our work. Without work, we deteriorate. We need to work.
So many of us focus on the “coinage” part, though, that we downplay our need to make sense, to discipline our talents, and to relate to the human community. In a world where jobs and resources are plentiful and affordable, this doesn’t cause too much trouble.
But we do not live in a world where jobs and resources are plentiful and affordable. We live in a world where, to our horror, we are struggling to make ends meet—despite “doing everything right,” at least according to the current rules of the game.
We go to school. We learn a trade. We create a resume, get a job, do our work, and don’t make trouble. We create value for our employers. We trade services for wages.
And yet, our lives don’t get better.
Our hearts don’t get stronger, our relationships don’t get more meaningful, our bodies don’t get more energized.
We simply get worn out.
The Future of Work
With the future of traditional work getting dimmer and dimmer, a lot of us in the workforce are realizing a change needs to come. And that change is not going to come from our bosses or HR or the government. The change is going to have to come from us. We, as individuals and as a society, are going to have to take a long, hard look at ourselves and figure out why we’re working, how we’re working, and how we’re going to move towards the future (rather than dying out like the dinosaurs).
Net guru Seth Godin, in his Time article, “The Last Days of the Cubicle“, put it fairly succinctly.
The job of the future will have very little to do with processing words or numbers (the Internet can do that now). Nor will we need many people to act as placeholders, errand runners or receptionists. Instead, there’s going to be a huge focus on finding the essential people and outsourcing the rest.
My Moment of Essential
A while back, I wrote a series of blog posts called Joy in the Workplace, in which I explored ways to make the experience of doing your job more meaningful and joyful. Over the course of the next few months, I would like to dig deeper into that theme.
It’s not enough to get a job anymore. We must look inside, find our strengths, find our joys and passions, and find our value as human beings. Then we need to look without, and find areas where those strengths, joys, passions, and values are needed.
There are many areas to choose from.
- According to the Institute for Research on Poverty, “16.4 million children in the United States, 22.0 percent of all children, lived in poverty in 2010. More than six million of these children were under six years old. Of the 16.4 million poor children, nearly half, 7.4 million, lived in extreme poverty, which is defined as an annual income of less than half the official poverty line (i.e., $11,157 for a family of four).”
- A 2005 United Nations Report estimated there are approximately 100 million homeless people on the planet.
- Like to read? 14% (about 1 in 7) of U.S. adults don’t know how.
- In 2002, almost 11 million people died of infection diseases around the world.
- Approximately 57.7 million Americans—1 in 4—experience serious mental illness, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, while fewer than one-third of adults and one-half of children with a diagnosable mental disorder receive mental health services in a given year.
- The Daily Green reports that “according to the National Academy of Sciences, on average there are 27 oil spills every day somewhere in the waters of the worlds, and the (Exxon) Valdez spill doesn’t even make the list of the top 30 all-time largest.”
And this list doesn’t even begin to cover it.
Where to Now?
So it’s obvious there is no lack of work to be done in the world. There’s so much work, in fact, that no one should be jobless.
And yet, we are jobless. 12.7 million of us are jobless in America alone.
We’re all looking to Washington, whether from the red side or the blue, asking “Where are the jobs?”
I ask you—where are the jobs? We’ve established there’s work to be done, so why are we waiting on the government to tell us what to do? When did we, as human beings, need permission from authority figures to do the work that needed to be done? When did we need permission to fix things, solve problems, make improvements?
No, we are born to fix things. It’s in our blood, our DNA, our brain structure. We’ve just forgotten how. More importantly, we’ve forgotten we’re supposed to know how.
What I would like to do over the course of the next few months is explore this idea more fully.
- How to assess our talents
- How to find areas of need
- How to fill those areas of need while earning a fair compensation
- How to bring the best of us to our work, creating value as well as personal satisfaction
I will not lie to you—I am struggling like the rest of you. I am looking in the mirror of my worklife and asking, “Am I a dinosaur?” That being said, I won’t go down without a fight. It may take a while, but I fully intend to figure this out.
I hope you will join me on this journey. If you have any suggestions for topics to be covered in this series, I would be happy to hear from you.
I have read What Color is Your Parachute? four times. It’s not something I’m proud of. As a Gemini and a borderline Gen-Xer, I seem to have gotten a double-dose of “What do I wanna be when I grow up”-itis. In the ten thousand years that have passed since high school, I’ve gone through a coterie of dreams, some realistic, some absurd, some barely coherent.
About ten years ago, I decided to just give up. The idea of finding a career, even settling on something that I like enough to pursue, had just become too overwhelming to even consider anymore. The decision to give up was simpler than I would have liked to admit. I went to work, got good at my job, earned my paycheck. I wrote and sang and pursued art for fun. My time was divided into two succinct, separate entities—work and life.
So it comes as more of a surprise to me than to anyone else that, here on the brink of my 46th birthday, the idea of career has come back to me with a vengeance.
The Day Job™
I joke a lot about The Day Job™ here and elsewhere. I don’t make a secret of the fact that I’ve spent the last 25 years as a corporate drone. File rooms, call centers, office work—when it comes to Customer Service, you name it, I’ve done it. It’s not where I planned to be when I was in school, but it’s where I am.
And you know what? I’m damned good at it. I’m fiercely good at it.
It’s a matter of pride to me. It matters to me on a deep soul level that I give the absolute best I can when I’m at work, provide the best service I can, and be the best employee I can be.
And while it’s not the end-all, be-all of my soul’s ambition, customer service is a passion of mine. I think it stands at the dead center of the solution to so many problems we now face as a culture. Customer service comprises so many qualities that are sorely in need today—accountability, excellence, respect, courtesy, honesty, just to name a few. I am convinced that these skills learned in sometimes menial jobs are of more value to me in some ways than my college education.
If you want to buy me a fancy-schmancy coffee one day, we can sit down and discuss my theory about how every human on Earth should be required to do some sort of customer service job for at least three years. Kind of like mandatory military service to teach people how to not be douchebags. And whether you go on to become a doctor, lawyer, ditch-digger or radio psychic, the skills you learn in service to others will help improve your performance in whatever field you choose.
The Dreams that Never Go Away
I’m now going to reveal a secret to you. I did not choose my college major because I wanted to. I went three years towards a Journalism degree. In my third year, I had a run-in with a professor, a misogynistic, drunken fellow who blocked my path to all upper level journalism classes. Since it was a core class, I needed a C or above to move on to the junior level classes. (I had enough credits to be a senior, except in this branch of journalism.) And no matter what I did, how hard I worked, I could never please him. Since all his grading was subjective, I was at his mercy. And he didn’t like me one bit. The pretty girl in front of me who turned in stories filled with one-sentence paragraphs got As, but I got slammed.
I dropped his class twice (he was the only one who taught the class and it was a prerequisite for everything else in that particular discipline). The third time, I was determined not to drop out, no matter what, no matter how insulting he was, no matter how unfair his subjective grading methods were. I was going to stick it out and do my very best.
I got a D.
Now, I was not a D student. There were so many A’s on my report cards that it was silly. A sprinkling of Bs and the occasional C, but never in my entire career had I ever gotten a D as a final grade.
I remember it very clearly, the night I gave up on my dream of being a journalist. I was in my mother’s home. It was raining, and she was out of town so I was by myself in the house. I was in hysterics, because I knew I was never going to get through this guy’s class and consequently would never get my degree. The idea of quitting without my degree was unthinkable, but I was well and truly stuck.
As a Communications major, I took a lot of production classes. Radio and television workshops required massive amounts of time outside of lectures, from news-gathering to editing to hosting my own show on the campus radio station. To combat the stress of these classes, I used to take English classes for fun. After a week of putting together news programs using equipment that was a decade out of date and with coworkers who had varying degrees of skill and dedication, my idea of relaxation was attending lectures, taking tests and writing a couple of papers.
On that awful night when my whole future seemed to be collapsing around me, inspiration appeared in the form of my college handbook. It was there that I realized that all those English classes were providing my way out. Apparently, I’d earned enough credit from those “relaxation” classes that I could graduate in two semesters if I changed majors. In a heartbeat, my dreams of being a journalist were shelved and I was headed for an English degree.
Mind you, I had no idea what to do with an English degree. I didn’t want to teach and I had no interest in Grad school (I was deep in the throes of burnout by that time). But a degree in hand is better than no degree in hand, and I fully believed that if you had to have a meaningless degree, it’s better to have it in the liberal arts. At least you’re trainable.
Food for Thought
I’ve looked back at that decision many times in my life. And, depending on my level of mental health at the time, it’s occurred to me that I never once considered fighting the grade. Considering the teacher’s alcoholism (he showed up in class drunk or hung-over several times) and his obvious misogyny (the comments in class were offensive and discouraging), it wouldn’t have been hard to find a case against him. I remember at the time there were people who suggested I do such a thing.
But I didn’t. I was tired. I was discouraged. I knew it would be better to just give up than to fight, because at the time I didn’t have the strength to stand up for myself. I didn’t believe in myself, much less my right to resist unfair treatment by authority figures.
The secret to self-growth is to recognize patterns. And one of the recurring patterns in my life is this—I can stand up to adversity, I can stand up to ignorance, I can stand up to overwhelming odds. But when authority is held in the grasp of the undeserving or cruel, I tend to fold and walk away rather than fight for myself. I can’t tell you the jobs I’ve had, the bosses I’ve had, the stupid situations I got myself into, all because I couldn’t find it in myself to stand up to bullies with more control than self-control.
I’ve given up things that really mattered to me—jobs, friends, relationships. All because I didn’t think I was worth fighting for.
Where does that level of low self-esteem come from? How does a person who has so much on the ball, so much skill, so much talent and natural drive, develop the default reaction of running away rather than standing up for herself?
And now, with the 46th birthday looming ever nearer, I’ve come to an astonishing realization:
It doesn’t matter where it comes from. I don’t need hours of Freudian analysis to tell me this refusal to stand up for myself is hurting me. That’s obvious when I look at where I am in comparison to what I want. It hurts me when it causes me to superimpose the expectations of others over my own goals, obscuring my own vision and discounting my own inner wisdom.
Chasing the Wrong Rainbow
I considered myself a failure because I couldn’t sell a novel (even though I don’t even read novels very much anymore).
I considered myself a failure because I couldn’t sell a short story (I read them even less than I read novels).
But the first time I tried to sell a non-fiction article, I sold it. And I sold the next one, and the next one. Some 22 years after walking down the aisle to get that Bachelor’s Degree in English, I have come full circle back to journalism. What I wanted to do from the start.
When I took those English classes, I didn’t realize I was packing my parachute for when pursuing a Journalism degree became untenable. And when I was reading articles, doing online research, studying how others wrote by reading their work (and pretty much anything I could find about the craft of writing), I didn’t realize I was packing my parachute (no matter the color!) for a mid-life return to a dream I thought completely forgotten.
I won’t lie to you. I do not fully have a clue what I’m doing here. There’s a lot more to freelance writing than just knowing stuff (and how to put it into readable sentences). I am sure I will find out some things along the way as I stumble through this. I may even find some disappointments. But the joy of being able to pursue a dream again, one that isn’t just a reflection of other people’s ambitions, is worth the uncertainty.
As for The Day Job™, I’m still there. I am still fiercely determined to do the best I possibly can every day at work. And sometimes, I have to accept that the stress and demands of The Day Job™ are going to make pursuing my writing extremely difficult.
But not impossible.
I don’t think I believe in impossible anymore.
Recently a Canadian friend broke one of her own rules and suggested it might be best for me to consider moving north to Canada with my partner. In Canada, she said, not only could I legally marry my partner of 10+ years, but I’d have access to universal healthcare and Social Security that actually means something. In addition to the legal and financial benefits, I’d be out of this insanity that seems to have gripped my home country by the throat.
I have to admit, the thought is alluring (especially when she assured me Canada is not all ice and snow, 365 days a year). I’m currently a resident of my third U.S. state, and I still haven’t managed to live anywhere “blue.” I went from conservative Catholic country to conservative Mormon country, only to land up most recently in conservative Baptist country. And despite the various differences between the three groups, they all seem to be agreed on one general belief: people like me are dangerous, offensive, and definitely going to hell.
Then there is the matter of corporate takeover of our entire way of life, from government to the quality of our food to the music we listen to on the radio. There are the increases in crime and decreases in income to consider. Bigotry against minorities, erosion of educational standards, pollution and a crumbling infrastructure–oh, my!
Let’s face it–the United States of America in 2011 is a freaky kind of place. And my Canadian friend is not the first person to suggest I might be better off leaving America for a more stable, rational locale.
It Wasn’t Always Like This (Was It?)
I was born in the mid-Sixties, just as the Movement Generation started gearing up in earnest. The Civil Rights Movement, the Women’s Movement, and the GLBT Equality Movements were the soundtrack of my formative years. My earliest lessons were about how you shouldn’t exploit the migrant workers, how girls should have the same opportunities as boys, how we were here, queer, and everybody should just get over it. Gloria Steinem, Sally Ride, and Joan Baez were placed before me as the Feminine Ideal. Sesame Street was my summer home, that glorious rainbow of education, kindness, and creativity.
Somewhere, though, it all started changing. Somewhere the peaceful voices singing folk tunes switched to greedy songs of misogyny and racism, hatred and aggression. Somewhere the idea of saving the world turned to dreams of owning the world, and everything in it. Politics became meaner, society became harsher, and that American dream we all were taught to believe in started looking more like a drug-induced nightmare.
Maybe I Should Leave
In the wired up world, it’s become more and more clear to me that America is not exactly like the rest of the world. This craziness of hatred and financial devastation may exist in many countries, but not all of them. There are places in the world that are not overrun by this rabid, polarized ideological zeitgeist that continues to rip my country to shreds.
Some places are better. Safer, for people like me. Some places seem very much like a haven, a refuge for the weary American worn out by the fighting and the drama and the fear pushed on us by individuals and institutions that prosper from chaos and terror.
It’s hard to say no to the chance at a peaceful existence, where half the population doesn’t consider me a sinner, a pervert, or a nutcase.
It’s Really That Simple
When I look around at the state of my country, the promise of democracy, “the greatest country on Earth,” as we were taught in school, I want to weep. In the richest country on Earth, over 43 million people live in poverty, with a third of them under the age of 18. In 2009, according to Feeding America statistics, over 50 million Americans lived in what they call “food insecure” households. As of September 2010, over 50 million Americans did not have health insurance. One in four American women has experienced domestic violence in her life time, and there were over 6,600 hate crimes in 2009, based on race, religion or sexual orientation.
This is not the America I love. This is not the America I believe in. This is some Mirror Universe America, where the bad guys win, hate is the order of the day, and people just get stupider every year.
At the bottom of it all, though, no matter how much greener the grass may look in Canada or the UK or other countries, I am an American. I was born here. I grew up here. I get the jokes. I know the terrain. I understand the people–at least, I think I do. And I know that we are not seeing the best of America. I know that within this cauldron of diversity and conflict we can find an amazingly complex and potent combination of values and ideas–if only we have the courage to move beyond our fear and prejudice.
As long as I’m here, paying my taxes, casting my vote, contributing to society, I have a voice and the right to use that voice to speak up. I cannot fight the good fight from the outside. Once I leave this country, I leave it for good. I’m no longer “one of us.” My voice will lose its potency, dimmed by the fact that “I turned tail when the going got tough.”
Just like no American has the right to bitch about the government if they don’t bother to vote, I don’t have the right to bitch about what’s going wrong in the country if I move away. (It may not seem logical, but it’s an American thing.) If I want to have a voice in the future of my country, the country where my nieces and nephews will grow to adults, I need to stay here. I need to stick it out, no matter how unwelcome my fellow Americans sometimes make me feel.
The Thorn in the Paw
America, my home, my beloved country, will never pull itself out of this self-destructive quagmire until its citizens stand up and speak clearly. Until voices of reason and compassion rise up to drown out the hatred and propaganda that threatens the true values of America–freedom, integrity, and justice–the fight will not be done. Until human life has more value than corporate profits, and respect trumps hatred, I can’t leave the United States of America.
To my friends in other countries, I love you. I thank you for your concern, and for considering that I might be an asset to your homes. You can’t know how honored I am to know that you would welcome me, were I to turn up on your borders. You don’t know how grateful I am, when I turn on the television and see yet another story on how things are going to hell in a hand basket, to know that the entire world hasn’t gone mad.
But this is America, and I am American. This is an amazing country, filled with beautiful, amazing people. I am a citizen of the world, yes, but this is my home. This is where my family is, where my memories were made, where my values were formed. I won’t abandon it now, when it needs me the most.
When I was a kid, I was afraid of everything. My own shadow, my own voice, my power, my weakness. I was afraid of being right. I was afraid of being wrong. I was afraid of speaking up, and even more of remaining silent. I believe my entire life has been a series of lessons trying to teach me for once and for all to be brave.
Most people who did not know me as a child find it hard to believe how frightened I was when I was younger. I’ve sort of made a reputation at work as the gal who will say what everybody else is thinking, but doesn’t dare say out loud. Believe me when I tell you, that attitude did not come quickly or easily.
When I was younger, I bought very much into the Myth of Expertise. Teachers knew about learning. Parents knew about living. The nuns knew about God, and the guy on the news knew about everything else. There was always some point, somewhere in the fuzzy future, where one acquires the education and life experience to call themselves an expert. These people have a superior knowledge of All Things and must be listened to and obeyed at all cost.
From birth, it seems, we are trained out of our own intuition, our own internal sense of right and wrong. Some of us learn the lesson very well, and refuse to think, feel, or act without the prior approval of Someone Who Knows Better. Others are born rebels, going out of their way to resist any form of guidance or instruction in favor of what they know is true.
Self-Confidence as a Form of Rebellion
Back in school, there were a few people I practically idolized amongst my school mates. There was one guy who dared discuss Buddhism with the Brothers in religion class, and bucked the dress code at prom by wearing high tops with his tux years before that fad came and went. There was the girl who wore blue streaks in her hair and spiked leather bracelets at school, no matter how often Sister Barbara Nell glared at her in the halls. And then there was that rare, precious teacher who dared get real with us. The one who spoke about religion in its historical context, acknowledging the inconsistencies and challenging us to find our faith amidst the chaos of paradox that was the Catholic religion.
All of these people had a couple of things in common—they knew their mind and wouldn’t be pressured into silence or conformity. They expressed themselves articulately and with confidence in a way that never made their rebellion feel like childishness or stubbornness. And mostly, they forced me to think, to open my mind and really question my beliefs and values.
Be the Change You Want to See in the World
Growing from sullen teen to disappointed adult gave me ample opportunity to voice my disgust with people and The State of Things. On any given day, I could find myself complaining about one thing or another—conservatives, conformists, preppies, jocks—all those people who didn’t fit into my narrow little tunnel of correctness. (Oh, and don’t forget people who listened to Country Music and anyone associated with nighttime soap operas.) My music was true, my thoughts were authentic, and everybody who disagreed with me obviously fell into the category of idiot, poser, or wannabe. (Okay, we didn’t have the terms poser and wannabe in the 80s, but you get my drift.)
And all the while, as I silently judged everyone and everything around me, I was conforming. I went to a job I didn’t like, in an industry I strongly disapproved of, working among people with whom I had nothing in common. I went home and watched TV and dreamed of a life where I could be true, but did nothing at all to make it happen.
Sometimes Courage Comes When You Have Nowhere Left to Fall
In 1993, I got laid off from my job in That Horrible Industry. I packed two boxes and a duffel bag and got on a plane to Phoenix, Arizona, leaving behind everything I knew for a place on a friend’s couch and a job in a bread factory that I didn’t exactly want. I arrived in Phoenix, went to my job, and quit after one eight hour shift.
I did not move halfway across the country to kill my soul in another dead-end job.
I was very lucky. I had wonderful friends who let me crash with them until I could afford a place of my own, and I was brave (or stupid) enough to think I could make it on my own working temp jobs.
And I did. Somehow, despite very low wages and almost no practical job experience, I managed to scrape through.
Courageh is a Choice
Along with my new desert life and my friends and my inconsistent job situation, I made a conscious decision to go out on a limb in my personal life. My first point of business was to expand the mind that had grown horribly closed (or at least narrow) in the first twenty-something years of my life.
Each month, I took a bit of my salary and went to Best Buy. I would go to the world music section and purchase a CD from a country I knew nothing about. That’s how I discovered the Bulgarian Women’s Choir.
I also tried my hand at songwriting. That’s how I discovered filk.
(My song is beautifully recorded here by the Harmony Heifers on their self-titled album from Mystic Fig Music.)
Yes, I wrote that, along with about two more albums full of music and parodies. I performed with some friends at SciFi conventions from Phoenix to Baltimore during the 90s.
For a long time, I was getting myself out there, out on a limb, having fun and being creative.
And Then What Happened?
Somewhere along the line, I got scared again. Somewhere along the line, I silenced my voice again. While I still took time to be creative and have fun, more often than not (especially in the work arena), I found myself stifling again.
I suppose you could blame the economy. The 90s were very good to me financially. I eventually got a great job with a software company doing work I loved. I was surrounded by intelligent, open-minded people. I had good friends and a cozy little apartment and as the new millennium rolled around, I found myself in an incredible relationship. And then…well, lots happened.
And Then What Happened Next?
2001 took the wind out of most Americans. Suddenly, fear was a national pastime, complete with paranoia and suspicion at its side. It was not the time for difference, or for courage of individuality. Instead of focusing on expansion, we as a culture contracted emotionally and intellectually.
I found myself in a world not exactly suitable to me. I found myself in the very real experience of being jobless—on food stamps at one point, going to the local food bank once a week with my hat in my hands. Fey and I supported ourselves and her mother on her SSI check for an entire summer while I looked for work—in fact, in 2005 my gross personal annual income was $2500. (No, that was not a typo.)
There’s something about lack—of opportunity, of freedom, of mobility—that transforms a person. You start to appreciate things you took for granted before. You also don’t ever, ever want to find yourself in that place again.
Capitalizing on Fear
There are a lot of people and institutions that thrive on fear. Fear keeps people docile, and fear keeps people humble, and fear makes people tolerate things they’d never abide by otherwise.
As we grow older, we often sacrifice our dreams and our fun for safety—or at least the illusion thereof. We forget about that book we wanted to write, or the play we wanted to try out for. We put away the paint brushes and woodworking tools and resign ourselves to going to work for someone else and marking the rest of time with television or alcohol or mindless entertainment.
Fear kills passion. It also kills hope.
Finding the Strength
Somewhere, in the past few years, I made a pact with myself not to make decisions based on fear. It took a long time, because I had so much to be afraid of.
Discovering my truth. How can you speak your truth when you don’t know what it is? Before I could reclaim my dreams and my courage, I had to really stop and figure out what my truth was. What did I believe in? What values and traits did I want to promote in the world? How could I make the world a better place through my actions and words?
Living my truth. It’s hard to be truly afraid when you’re living an honest life. In order to dispel fear, I had to clean up my own back yard, clean out those skeletons that might someday come back to haunt me. I’m not talking about murder or corruption—I’m talking about silly things that seem so huge to me (and trivial to other people).
Making my peace. So many of my fears and insecurities have been rooted in experiences from my childhood. People who were cruel to me, mistakes I made that humiliated me, fears and doubts that plagued me. Never being good enough. Never fitting in. Before I could live my truth and be the courageous person I wanted to be, I had to find the grace to let go. Not forgive. Not forget. Just let go. Of the past. Of my disappointments. Of my anger and desire for revenge. Just let go, and make life about today.
So Now You’re Perfect?
Hardly. I still have my fears and doubts and insecurities. I still have days when I fear I will be outed as a complete fraud, mocked and humiliated by my coworkers, and cast out onto the street by my employers.
But I’m getting better. Each day, I make a conscious effort to do the absolute best work I can do. Not for my boss, not for a promotion, not for fame and fortune. I do it because it is the only thing I can tolerate from myself. Not perfection or grandiosity, simply the best I can do. Each day, I want to leave work knowing I worked hard, didn’t slack off, didn’t shove things under the carpet, and didn’t betray my values.
Each day, I come home to my partner of ten years and give her the best I can. I am honest and respectful. I am patience and generous. I still have my three-year-old moments (we both do), but Fey and I both go to sleep each night knowing we did our best.
And How’s That Working for Ya?
Oddly enough, when I started cleaning up my own house, I discovered the return of my courageous, plucky self. I found that I could speak up at work, in a respectful tone (when I remembered) without fear of retaliation. I found that I could begin to ask for what I wanted without feeling guilty. And I discovered, to my utter amazement, that all those friends I thought I had lost when I was going through my Long Dark Teatime of the Soul were still out there—older, wiser, and still very much the people I once loved.
By giving up on fear as motivation, I found opportunities peaking their heads through the window again. Maybe not in massive droves, like in the 90s, but more and more frequently. I found inspiration to write again—not just fan fiction (where I had made sort of a name for myself), but original work.
And at work, I found peace again. I may lose my job tomorrow, and that would suck. But I will know that I did everything I could do to be the best I could be. And I will know that the universe is not scary and paranoid and horrible like the post-9/11 fear-mongers wanted us to believe. The universe is abundant. The universe is exciting. The universe is full of adventures, just waiting to be had.
And I’m ready for a few new adventures. What about you?