This weekend we went to a jazz festival up north of Dallas, in Denton, near the University of North Texas. I attended this university for one out of my four years of college so I’m aware of its famous jazz program and the unbelievable talent that comes through those doors.
My husband and I found a small patch of grass amidst the endless lawn chairs and blankets, crowded by the people who’d been camped out since breakfast to absorb as much music as they could. My hat shaded my eyes (and sometimes impeded my view) as we sat down and clasped our knees under the branches of a sturdy, swirling tree that was blowing in the wind two stories up.
We relaxed and we listened to the UNT jazz ensemble on a tiny stage shrouded in green and white (university colors). I was captivated by the A Cappella sounds of a tune reminiscent of 1940s harmonies, which later transitioned into doo-wop, a piano and a cello. These were sounds that gave me goose bumps and that wrapped me with joy, but that also carried me back to an earlier time in my life that often feels buried in practicality.
The singers and musicians were between the ages of twenty-one and twenty-two, most of them about to graduate and step into the rest of their lives. And they reminded me of the person I used to be at that age. The person who was once in college and studying the arts (literature for me), with the whole world in front of me, with dreams brewing, and with a desire to do something out of the ordinary as I walked on this planet.
But then life hit and plans went askew, as often happens when we realize the idealism of our young minds isn’t actually the reality of our existence.
I think we remember our youth as we age but that we forget it, too. We may not forget the things we used to love but sometimes we forget how much we used to love them. And in doing so, we forget who we truly wanted to be before bills and life and responsibilities got in the way.
Many of us walked across that university stage and picked up our fake degree (the real one comes in the mail later) and we believed that the fervor would continue. That the love we had for our subject matter would land us in a job we'd love, doing something we love. That our life would be extraordinary and would continue along the same path we’d started forging.
I watched those college kids singing their hearts out and I knew they were churning the same idealistic thoughts. I saw the joy in their eyes and the real talent in their solar plexuses, and I couldn’t help but wonder if they’d get lost in the swirl of life like I did. If their music would dissolve into a mundane job that paid the bills and allowed them to take care of their homes or their kids or their cats. If their artistic gifts would fall back into the shadows, because our world is not one that supports the arts.
I’ve been in a good place recently where I’ve decided to grab my life and force it back in line with where I'd hoped it would be. I’ve been focusing on my personal creative work for the first time in a long while, and I’ve been demanding a creative path in my career endeavors.
This means I’m no longer allowing myself to fall into the grayness that is work I don’t want to be doing. Yes, I have bills that aren't going away and I do what I have to do. But no, I won’t accept the idea that gray work is all I’m allowed to do. I don’t care what anyone says or how many people get in my way.
Arriving in this place happened when things got bad earlier this year and I turned inward, listening to myself for an answer on which turn to take. And what I discovered was the college kid I’d lost touch with, sitting quietly in observation. The one with the hunger for stories and discourse, with the talent for the written word, with the professors who encouraged her to go to grad school (but she declined due to massive burnout).
I found that kid who wanted to do something meaningful and special with her life before everything got in the way.
I'd seen her from time to time because that part of yourself never leaves and, I think, always strives to break free from rational constriction. But I just hadn't paid much attention to her whispers because my life was so utterly full of turmoil for well over a decade. I couldn't hear anything but the loud noise of my mangled existence.
So this time when she started speaking again, I grabbed her. I snatched her. I held her close and I refused to let her fade into the background again. And I'm going to empower her with a voice (not a whisper) and urge her to step back into my world. To be heard. To participate. To thrive like she did in my younger days.
These writings are part of that process.
And I wonder how many of us have forgotten the person we truly are? I wonder how many of us ignore those whispers from our younger selves. The ones that float in when life feels off course, but that we ignore because of practicality?
I'd like to think that it doesn't take a catastrophe for us to listen to ourselves again, but maybe it does. Maybe that's what catastrophes are for. Maybe that's what life shifts are for. Maybe that's what turning points are for.
Maybe that's what everything I've been through is for?
These days I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time talking on the phone. I do this in my quest to find some sort of employment because we’re going to be in quite the pickle by the summer if I don’t.
Every time I get another request for “a chat” via LinkedIn, I heave an audible sigh before responding with my most chipper affirmative answer:
“Sure! I’d love to chat. What day works best for you?”
And I don’t sigh because I dread the prospect of talking to someone who I might enjoy talking to, or because this someone might later be able to find me work. I sigh because 75 percent of these phone calls don’t seem to be doing all that much to change my situation. And the energy I have to exert to complete them is more than I want to give some days.
I’m quite introverted by nature, although I can surely fake it when I need to. I was the Student Body President in high school (and somehow gave a speech in a coliseum at graduation), I’ve been a corporate trainer and a yoga teacher, and I’ve run a business that included managing other people. I think being conversational is a learned skill that all humans have to figure out if they want to participate in society.
But when I was growing up, I was painfully shy and it carried all the way into my twenties. In fact, my first boss out of college told me in a performance review that I needed to speak more because I never talked to anyone around me. Up until then, I’d thought I just blended into the paint on the walls. I didn’t realize that I actually stuck out like a misplaced nail.
I am an INFJ personality type, which is apparently the rarest in the world. This Myers-Briggs code is supposed to translate to a high degree of personal integrity and the desire to help others—which it does—but the “Introversion” part is strong for me. I am energized by alone time and drained by constant interaction.
I’ve already got heavy demands on my energy levels every day without the extra phone calls added in. Most of my energy is sapped by getting out of bed and trying to participate in life (chronic diseases do that to you), but lately it’s also sapped by the never-ending need to be “on.” To answer messages, to respond to comments, to generate new content, to scour job boards, to write cover letters, to tweak resumes. And after all of that, there are simply days when talking to someone besides my husband or my cats is the last thing I want to do.
So when someone random asks for a phone chat via a social network, I want to say to them, “Is this in reference to an active job or an active need? And do you have money to pay me right now? Because I only have so much time to devote to phone calls that can’t help me out of my current financial plight. I have serious business to tend to because my mortgage and prescriptions won’t pay for themselves. “
But I haven’t said this to anyone even on my most frustrated days. So far I still take every call, and I’ll continue to take every call, because not doing so would be short-sighted and stupid. And here’s how I came to this conclusion.
Yesterday I took a stroll around a pond in my neighborhood. The grass was green after a period of heavy rainfall, the air was refreshingly cool but thick with lingering humidity, and deep gray clouds still painted the sky in swirls and splotches that blotted the sun. I was walking because I was frustrated with my inability to make any forward progress in my job search despite valiant efforts. I was also walking because it was a day where I had the energy to walk, and I like to take advantage of those.
As part of the silent discussion in my head, I reminded myself that when you plant a garden it takes a while to reap the bounty. That gardens do grow once the elements are correct: once the soil is just right, once it’s warm enough to support tender shoots, once the sun is shining at just the right intensity. Gardens do grow with proper care.
And what I’m attempting right now is to grow a garden, of sorts. Every call I’m accepting is a seed in my garden. Those seeds sit next to all of the other seeds that come in the form of answering messages and replying to comments and posting content.
And not every seed in a garden sprouts, but eventually many of them do. And eventually mine will sprout, too, when all of the elements are just right. I just have to be patient and keep sowing. Keep tending. Keep watering.
So the next time someone asks me, “Do you have some time to chat?” I’ll respond with enthusiasm, as I always do, and I’ll again summon up extra energy from somewhere in my being. I’ll approach the call as if I’m fertilizing fallow soil that will blossom into something beautiful later. And I’ll just keep tending this garden until something finally pushes through the soil and into the light.
Maybe it’ll be a big, strong oak tree that I can grasp onto as it reaches toward the sky.
I turned on the AC today for the first time in a while because the temperature hit 87 degrees here in Texas. And when I did so, a grinding sound permeated the walls of my house and shot straight across the living room.
Oh no, I thought in utter dismay. There’s something wrong with the AC.
This newest development is one in a long line of terribly timed developments that have occurred since I lost my job in February—the night before we moved into this (our first) house. It’s been a vortex of bills, emergencies, obligations and inconveniences that have derailed our finances and caused us to dip into our emergency savings for the first time.
It’s felt pretty awful.
The thing is, I’m terrified of unemployment. And I’m terrified not because of some abstract idea about how it might feel or how my life might play out if I can’t find a job for six or 10 or 15 months. I’m terrified because I’ve actually been in this situation before.
Last year it was for eight months and it was one of the darkest times in my life. Between 2009 and 2010, it was for 14 months, and it was again one of the blackest moments in my existence. Right now I’m swiftly moving into month three, and although I haven’t fallen into that extra dark place just yet, I really don’t want to get there again and I'm doing everything I can to beat it out of my psyche.
My feelings of terror really go deeper than those specific experiences, though, because life is a complex ball of emotions that pulls from different moments in time. I’ve also lost everything more than once (and because of long-term unemployment), and it’s an awful thing to put your remaining possessions in a tiny storage unit and transport yourself and your two cats into a small bedroom that doesn’t belong to you.
Being helplessly dependent on the kindness of someone else for food and shelter is infinitely humbling.
My terror also goes back to my memories of growing up poor. I remember tallying up my mother’s groceries on a calculator so that we didn’t arrive at the checkout with a bigger bill than we could pay. I remember too-tight shoes and holes in my jeans, because there was simply no money to upgrade.
I also remember eating ramen noodles for the last week of the month as a young adult, because the funds had run out and we didn’t get paid again for another week. It’s like living in a perpetual state of wanting.
So today I panicked a bit when I realized this noise would translate to another bill we had to pay out of an account that was already in deficit. It would just be $75 (I hoped), because we have a home warranty program, but $75 is a lot of money for us right now.
Seventy-five dollars is money I can’t replace because I haven’t found a source of income yet. Seventy-five dollars would buy a week of groceries. Seventy-five dollars here, and seventy-five dollars there, adds up to a whole lot more than seventy-five dollars.
If you’ve ever been long-term unemployed and have watched your bank account dwindle down to zero like water going down a shower drain, then you understand what it means to think that you might end up there again. That your finances will be ruined, that your home will be gone, that your life savings will evaporate.
And I share my own story and fears because I know so many others who are walking with me in this experience. I know people who have had to move, who have drained their retirement accounts, who have declared bankruptcy, and who even are on the verge of homelessness.
I know so many people.
So if you’re one of those people, I want to tell you that I understand how you feel and that you are not alone in your plight—or in your terror. Because there are others who are wearing the same shoes.
But I also have a new strategy to share that helps me manage my terror so that it doesn’t bury me (literally and metaphorically) in six feet of heavy dirt. The thing I'm doing now, and that I did today, was to just throw my hands up and say:
Okay. I can’t control everything and I can’t control this. I’m trying my very best. I’m networking, I’m applying, I’m putting good energy into the world and I’m helping people when I can. And I just can’t control the outcome. I can’t control the broken AC. I can’t control the $75. So why spend my time overcome with terror when everything could change tomorrow? Or next week? Or next month?
It’s a classic cognitive-behavioral technique that I’m still working to master.
Living in the present is really hard to do when you’re terrified, but it’s the only way to go if you want to find peace. Because you know what? Maybe you’ll lose everything tomorrow (although you probably won’t), but right now you have food. Right now you have shelter. Right now the grass is green and the sun is shining.
Right now you are still alive, and right now there is still hope of a better tomorrow because it hasn't unfolded yet.
And if the very worst happens? If you lose all of your money and if you have to sell your home and your jewelry or if <insert worst thing ever here>? Then you’ll start over. You’ll pick up the pieces and you’ll just start over.
Simple as that.
The Big Pause