Career, Change, Choices

81. Things I Can Celebrate: Five Years

Anniversary Bed

August 23, 2010: first day on the job. This was another shift in the surge between a tidal wave of beginnings and a fierce undertow of endings. Landing a position at a university — one that had deigned to give me a graduate degree before I took off on a fateful, cross-country marriage odyssey — meant more than compelling work with college students. It meant benefits and a way to rebuild a gutted financial base. At a time when the best I dared hope for was chalk dust, this was gold.

So many things whirled and roiled to push me onto the metro that morning in August. Selling everything, leaving a home in the mountains, separation and divorce, going back to work, single parenthood. . . Every stroke felt like the last one I could possibly take. Then I took another, just as grueling. And another.

I wish I could tell my sisters that the other side of divorce is less of a slog. Isn’t that the line? “It gets easier.” Much like what my boss has been telling me every time the pace picks up at work. “Things will slow down soon.”

Five years, they still only ramp up.
Five years, single motherhood is still a steep ascent.

That said, the frantic anxiety about how to make it all work has quieted. When I press the gas on my work week each Monday morning, my mind leaves much of the domestic uncertainty behind. Eventually, my boy and I did manage to buy a home. We know our neighbors. He is rocking the classroom at school. We have a rhythm to our days, plenty of eggs and veggies in the fridge, a little cash in the college fund, a little more in the 401K. Within the few realms we control, we are doing as well as we can. Truthfully, we are faring far better than I ever imagined.

This relative peace at home allows for full presence at the office. I have attention to tackle the new set of pressures and commitments that greets me each Monday. Change keeps churning, wicked as whitewater. Like many universities, mine is trying to grow its influence under suffocating pressure to shrink its operating budget. Resourcefulness is as important as a bold voice; careful consideration as necessary as high-octane exertion. Most critical of all lately? Blind faith in the germination of sloppily but copiously scattered seeds.

I nourish and water. I pray to an absent god.

At this milestone, I can see and even feel what has broken the surface. Sturdy roots, infant limbs. Promotions and raises, geographic flexibility, new projects. People making decisions include me in conversations about the direction of our school.

All of this has meant growing up hard and fast. Five years is really just a blink. I understand now that maturity — at least “maturity” as it takes shape here at the 40+ year chapter in the story — involves going after more and more of the hardest stuff even when presented with the option to coast. This is a tough lesson to learn and a tougher habit to establish, especially when the young adult tendency is to dabble and blame, to shift responsibility and do a good-enough job. To hold out vague hope for something better down the line.

Growing up means understanding that “down the line” is stamped on the ticket I already bought and the miles I’ve already covered. My choices on Monday morning, on every morning, forge my destination.

I am learning to take on creative and difficult tasks that I’ve long assumed were the domain of people with talents and capacities entirely different from mine. I would sooner imagine myself capable of learning Mandarin than write computer code or keep tabs on a several million dollar research budget. But here I am.

This all comes at a cost, though, and it is a cost I still struggle with accepting. My days increasingly belong to tasks I would rather leave to someone else. The work I most love is crammed into the spaces between. My body is weary, my mind is sapped, and my sense of pleasure in just about everything is so far beyond reach it may as well be dandelion fluff in the last gust of summer.

So I celebrate in the least celebratory way imaginable.

I sleep.

This one weekend on the 5-year anniversary of life catapulting me into a foreign land, I finally let myself rest. Two nights ago, I clocked a solid eight hours. Yesterday, I took two naps. Last night, I managed 10-1/2 hours, and today, another nap. I dream long and luscious stories about dusty road trips and strange mountain men in dapper white suits. I wake up exhausted, walk the dog, and go back to sleep.

Tomorrow is Monday morning and I head back to the office. I’m excited to kick off the next half of this decade refreshed and restored. If the first half has taught me anything, I’ll need all the fuel I can get.

Career, Learning, Things I Can

9. Things I Can Forgo: Lunch

Lunch is an hour. And it’s a break.

Sacred cows no more.

Lunch hour goes.

(Not the food part. I’m too fond of my fuel.)

Today the forecast was 47 degrees and wet. I trotted off to work in a thin sheath of a raincoat. At 5:30, I stepped out into wind that cut like knives. My neck shrieked. The puddles had turned to ice. Each dark step to the metro scoured my skin.

During the intervening 8-1/2 hours walled in by steel and focus, temperatures plummeted and dragged the sky down with them. I had no idea. Despite a window that can carry my gaze to where the National Cathedral rises on the hill, I didn’t see the dimming light. Despite a city outside my door where I can walk for miles through parks and neighborhoods, I didn’t feel the creeping frost.

This ignorance is the price of determination.

I shouldn’t be proud of giving up my lunch hour. An earlier me would have tsk-tsked today’s me for misplacing priorities and neglecting health. For the four years I’ve held this job, lunch hour meant walking, no matter the weather. My credenza drawer hides an iPod, running clothes, both sunhat and umbrella, both towel and soap (you never know). These feet memorized miles of concrete. Co-workers praised my dedication to fitness.

Truth is, lunch hour walks were my secret recipe for sanity.

All that walking was a way of holding on to my center while the world rushed and tilted around me. It’s easier to sprint across the wire, especially if you don’t look down. First was our imploding family and livelihood, then moving here, then divorce, then working and all that comes with doing that as a single mom trying to establish a home and a way forward. A leaden fear of financial and familial ruin saturated every moment. So I kept moving, walking, and peering anywhere but right here.

Meanwhile, something changed. Like that weather rolling in when I was facing the other way, the very world shifted into a new alignment.

The daily work — the professional this-and-that of making ends meet — began to propagate. Seeds I didn’t know had been germinating started to push through the surface.

Lunch hour used to be for air and breath and body. It was a standing date with my very own self.

Now lunch hour is for asking the next question.

(Which question, you ask? That one. The one dancing just out of reach. The one that barely has a shape yet.)

An opportunity emerged during a team meeting. My department needed someone to teach. I resisted until my Mister reminded me that I do, in fact, have most of what it takes and the resourcefulness to go find the stuff I don’t. So I agreed to it, and it ate up all my time, and I was exhausted, and the extra pay didn’t even begin to cover the hours committed.

I loved it, loved the exchange of ideas, loved making it up as we went.

Before the final class, an opportunity popped up on my voicemail. This one was even more impossible than the last. In a windowless classroom with a sputtering overhead projector — the kind that uses actual transparencies — someone had to guide the learning of 27 visiting faculty who could barely speak English.

With guidance from the dear ones, I agreed to it, and it ate up all my time, and I was exhausted, and the extra pay didn’t even begin to cover the hours committed.

I loved it, loved the students, loved the tangled and unmapped journey.

Before the final class, another opportunity strolled into my office. This was a role supporting our school’s search for a new dean. It would be a politically delicate, thankless, administrative nightmare on an accelerated timeline. I considered it, negotiating right up front with the school leadership while doing so.

I took it, or rather, it took me: It eats up all my time, and I’m exhausted, and the extra pay doesn’t even begin to cover the hours committed.

And I love it, insanity and all.

Something is growing here.

Maybe it’s just a calcification of the soul-jarring careerism that infects the Washington DC region. Maybe I’m turning into yet another stressed and stretched professional Director of (Insert Abstract Administrative Jargon Here) who’s just wearing the same grooves a little deeper into the city sidewalks.

Or maybe it’s the Powers That Be taking advantage of a semi-competent masochist with something to prove.

Secretly, though, I think it’s something else.

Whatever it is, it’s growing right here, in the place this woman inhabits.

Despite all my foolishness and self-inflicted handicaps, novel ways emerge to apply the skills I’ve been accumulating. Even though the tough spots make my head throb and my heart race, it’s thrilling to come upon a problem I simply cannot solve, yet I must solve it, and I somehow know I will solve it, even if it comes to jury-rigging a fix.

Every time I figure out some new mix of tools and techniques, new places to apply them appear. The marvel of this chapter in my too-much-of-a-life is that I keep bumbling into the outer limit of my talents and capabilities, only to find that it’s a membrane and I can push right through.

For the first time in years, I have more in my sights than just getting through the day upright.

Now I want to know what these hands can really do.

Lunch hour is a standing date with possibility.

Lunch hour is one more wide-open chance to ask the next question.

(What are the Things I Can?)

Where the unknown is unnamed, give it voice.

Where answers are missing, reach.