A couple of weeks after the holidays, and after my sixteen-year employment at Big-Ass Consulting came to a surprisingly abrupt—but not unwelcome—end, I attended the retirement party of one of my oldest work buddies. Enjoying the company of the office OGs (one of whom I had become), I traded holiday chatter with my friends. “How was your break? What’ve you been up to?” “Oh, nothing really, just resting, hanging out at home,” I answered, feeling two different things. One, a smidgen gloaty over the indulgence of being able to totally relax. Two, somewhat abashed over my apparent idleness – or as the consulting lingo has it, lack of impact. “Just resting, and cooking, and going on long walks with my dog, and reading.”
A short time later, I realized that my self-deprecation didn’t sit right. My days had in fact been replete with good things. I was cooking and eating food I really liked; I’ve hardly mustered up for cooking in years. My daily neighborhood dog-walks were becoming near-daily (longer) woodland walks, and while out in the woods I was observing intentionally and actively, studying things I wanted to learn more about (lichen, for instance). I’d rejoined the gym. I was singing in two different choirs. I was calling and lunching with my friends. Sooner than I expected, my brain de-fogged, and I was already having ideas, and reading whole books – fiction and non-fiction! – and now, ipso facto, writing.
On one of my woods-walk days, passing Mackerel Hill where the redtails live, I saw a pair soaring high over the trees. One glided off to the south. The other slowed and seemed to anchor on a point in the air, hovering for a while as I breathed and watched and wondered what delicious morsel he might be spying. It was an illusion of immobility, but in the buffeting wind he had to be exercising a very subtle set of movements to stay in place. It was a very active stillness. A good metaphor for what I’m doing now – maintaining position, surveying the lay of the land.
So what maybe looks like inertia, feels like discovery. What’s the shape of my life – its scope and contours – without my job? What do I feel like without my job? Even though I’ve long rejected self-identifying with my employment – which so many of us do, wittingly or unwittingly – , for so long I’ve channeled my energies mainly into work that most other delights and curiosities fell by the wayside. Now I have the chance to explore my own free choices. I recognize how very fortunate I am for that.
I’m sleeping. Unlike many of my former colleagues, overwork wasn’t keeping me from sufficient sleep, since I’d scaled back to merely full-time a few years ago. But worry, mental exhaustion, and stress were in the way, either via straight-up insomnia or the alcohol-assisted kind.
I’m resting and recovering. Not just my body, but my spirit. I’m recovering from years of feeling judged and probably found wanting, of constant worry, of approval-seeking, of “meritocratic” precarity. Of having to invent busyness. Of pretending to give a fuck when I really didn’t, because I knew someone else thought I should.
I’m taking care of myself. Eating vegetables and legumes. Getting outside, in nature. Getting stronger.
I’ve often wondered if my job itself was preventing me from being “well,” as they say, and from actually taking care of myself. Of course I dismissed the thought as self-exculpatory and indulgent – people gotta have jobs, and people are responsible for their own well-being, right? We just have to make time. Grow a pair and stop whining. (I think back to an old Weight Watchers chestnut, “we always have time for the thing we put first.” Ha! When I was spewing that nonsense as a meeting leader in my single early thirties, I’m surprised some of the older, wiser ladies didn’t slap me upside the head, as I deserved.) But what with the job and caring for kids I was always so tired, mentally and physically. Working full-time may have been too much, but it was the only game in town. Big-Ass Consulting was an edge case, but most jobs are structured the same way.
Now that I’m free, I’m coming at this from the standpoint of conducting an experiment. I can play with re-engineering my life. I can observe how—how much better?—I feel when I live differently. I’m hoping this will prove to be a real case of less is more. I’ll learn what I can live with, and what I can live without.
As another friend summed up, “Not working isn’t nothing.” So yeah—I’m not doing anything newsworthy, but it’s something profound.