Back to the Beginning

canstockphoto21954338Once upon a time, I had a business card with a job title. Over the years, I’ve saved each job’s business card, a potpourri of assistants and coordinators and managers. For a good portion of my working life, I did not have a business card and it felt meaningful when that first box arrived at my desk.

After my daughter was born, I spent two years trotting my wiggly baby to a daycare each morning and commuting downtown with my husband to a many-storied building of glass and metal. One year of hauling a breast pump and hunching over in the corner of a windowed conference room. And a breaking point – my misery seeping into the office. I left the job, got my baby, and came home.

I’ve been home ever since, spending some of the best and worst moments of my life without a business card. It was easy to justify. My husband has a decent job which has survived multiple layoffs. We have health insurance. The house and car are paid for. It didn’t make sense to pay child care, which had become increasingly worrisome with each developmental stage. I also had the big dream of establishing a writing career.

My daughter is 12 now and shaking off the yoke of an attentive parent. A writing career would be a surprise, given my work habits. And while I’m still chugging away at it, I’m not counting on it. I have a business card that says I’m a writer and every once in a while, I dust off the box, open it and then close it again. The genie stays in.

Today, I start a volunteer job. I volunteered twofold – to tutor high school English language learners and to help in the volunteer program office. Part of me dreaded the idea of data entry and filing, but I’m good at those things. I’ll have a boss and a system to learn. I’m sure there will be jargon and acronyms. Every job has them.

For a moment, I felt a twinge of despair. What had I gained by all these years at home? I volunteered, threw complex birthday parties (treasure hunts and crime mysteries – holy shit, what was wrong with me?). I grew gardens and taught my daughter the words to canstockphoto24937827Elvis songs and how to draw cats. She remembers very little of those years. All that effort and awkwardly conscientious parenting, just a figment of my imagination.

I talked not too long ago with a mother at the school where I’d been PTO president. All those hours planning fundraisers and staffing book fairs. Of talking with teachers and parents and doing assembly presentations. My name occasionally shows up on old documents, to be replaced by someone else. I was the uber-volunteer until I burnt myself to the ground.

canstockphoto1854942For years, I’ve helped take care of my mother-in-law. She lived two blocks and one phone call away. Running her to doctor appointments, taking her grocery shopping, writing note after note as her memory failed. Guiding her through daily physical therapy exercises. Doing her taxes and paperwork. Sitting with her until the paramedics came. Now she is in a nursing home. And no one, especially her, remembers all the years before.

My resume has a canyon in it. A vast expanse of about a decade, filled with dirty diapers and strollers and wheelchairs. Silly songs about dinosaurs, patient and impatient answers to questions about the remote control and the telephone. A filling in the sandwich generation.

When I interviewed for the volunteer job, I put on the only dress pants I own, Talbot suits long gone to consignment shops. I talked too much and laughed at weird times. I tried too hard. I realized that I’d been away from things too long, that I feel uncomfortable with small talk and I have to make a conscious effort not to use swear words.

Self-pity was in order. And boy, did I ever feel it. All of it was for nothing. There was nothing to show for my efforts, my time, my love, my exhaustion. Not even a business card.

As with all self-pity, my reasoning was severely flawed. My daughter is this amazing person – loved and loving, kind and funny. She fills our home with music and light. She may not remember how many times I sang silly songs to her, but her heart does. My mother-in-law spent many years in her own apartment, the last few only because she was protected and cared for and loved. She doesn’t remember my name sometimes now, but her face always lights up with recognition when she sees me.

As for all the school volunteering, well, the very nature of it is transitory. I did some good things, like filing for nonprofit status, which will lead to corporate donations. But it’s all like so much smoke, evaporating and invisible.

canstockphoto3210183This morning, I sat on my cushion and prepared to meditate. I’d been feeling a tad smug that I’ve managed this practice for the last few weeks, without fail, building up from 5 minutes to a shiny 13. As I settled in, our tom cat began his caterwauling. I focused on my breath. He yowled louder. I kept my focus, feeling a little proud that I’d managed to let go of my sensory irritation. Then I realized that I had forgotten to set the timer.

My perfectionist self was tempted to start over, but I decided to continue for a bit longer.  With a laugh, my eyes popped open. It was all about humility. A messed up meditation. Love without recognition. Not having a good answer to what do you do?

When it was all gone, when there was no money, no accolades and no title, I still sought a sense of importance, even in the most mundane activities. To learn humility is to be grateful for the gift of starting over again. And again. And again.

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.

Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind

25 Comments on “Back to the Beginning

  1. Starting over keeps life interesting. Enjoy your volunteering — and remember that unimportant as it may seem to you, you are making a difference and that’s very important.

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    • The thing that I’ve really been thinking about is this need to feel important in the first place. That my insecurity has been so rooted in what job title or power I had. Realizing this makes me feel a tad disappointed in myself, but it’s something to mull over.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I think there is a point in all our lives when we need to feel important. Validation? Pay back for years of school and sacrifice? There’s a myriad of reasons. And then one day you just stop caring about all that crap. And then you’re liberated. It’s a great feeling!

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      • I had a very wise teacher in high school that told me, “So many people define themselves by their job or career. Your job and career are what you do for money, they are not who you ARE.” I never forgot that, and while I have a fairly interesting job in an interesting field, I still try not to ask people at parties, “So, what do you do?” because it’s not as important as who they are. 🙂

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        • It’s an odd little world we live in – we constantly see and hear memes about being ethical and decent and divesting ourselves of the need for money and power, but we live in a world that, on its face, seems only to value and recognize those things. It makes it harder to see true value, right down to how we make small talk. This year I’m going to answer all those well-meaning relatives’ questions with “I’m saving the world one act at time.” It will be a great conversation killer.

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  2. I can completely relate. I’m part of the “sandwich” generation. I take care of my elderly mom and my two young kids. I was a stay-at-home mom for over a decade. I find myself having to “start over” many times in recent years. It’s daunting at my age, for sure. I keep reminding myself that it’s not a job title that you remember when you’re on your death bed, or the money you made. It’s the love you gave and received and the connections you made when helping others.Sounds trite but it’s true!

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    • I’m greedy enough to want a sense of fulfillment now. I imagine on my deathbed all I’ll be thinking is “my feet are cold”. I’ve read about finding the sacred in the every day and I like that idea – being able to recognize that what you’re doing matters in the moment, since that’s all we have. That might require a little more complex thinking than I’m capable of. Because all I’m thinking now is “my feet are cold”.

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  3. Your post brought this to mind: “Enjoy the little things, for one day you may look back and realize they were the big things.” ~ Robert Brault ….. Can’t second guess ourselves (sometimes I look and think, should I not have worked full-time? I made time for volunteering — and also felt completely fried by the time my oldest graduated from high school a couple years ago, juggling both sets of schedules … but honestly not sure I would have done it any differently … I have two boys who have hopefully successfully launched to college, appreciate music, kindness, diversity of interests and views .. but may not remember Mom was up until 2 am before Boo at the Zoo trying to finish up costumes 🙂 …. you’ve done good, Michelle, and now it’s time for you, and that will fill in soon enough too and become clear.

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  4. Michelle, you did the important things! You were the cook, the boo-boo kisser, the care-giver, the volunteer, the helper, the singer of songs, the gardener and landscape architect,the art instructor and so much more. I relate because I stayed home and gardened and volunteered and traveled back and forth across the country when Dad was sick and then across the driveway after he died and Mom moved out here with me. And I had no children to mother. When people ask me what I do, (or did, because of age!) there is always a sense of shame, and I too recently interviewed for a real job and felt totally out of place. Yet there are people who have to work full time who would give their two front teeth to be able to be home and be there more for their loved ones like we were. Think about how much you learned as a Mother and a caregiver and a volunteer that will translate into your writing. Sometimes I think about how if I had been working full time I would have never been able to sit on the edge of the bath tub while my mother was on the toilet, waiting for her to finish so I could help her clean up and give her a sponge bath. We talked about everything in those moments. That was my life. It was real, and hard and we dug deeper than I could have with any co worker or client, and I had no regrets when Mom was gone, as I know you have none about caring for your MIL and daughter so carefully. What you did mattered so much in real time, in the moments you were doing it. You may not be able to measure the import of it easily, until you look into your heart and see how much is in there that might not be had you been distracted by the demands of a career. And you still have time to write.. and you are a writer Michelle, this I know.

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    • Thanks, Ilona. I do feel gratitude that I was able to make a choice. So many people don’t have that choice. What I have been thinking about is the humbling nature of service, this ephemeral, unrecognized thing. I like that as a lesson and not just a rationalization. Humility in a world that overpraises and over-rewards notoriety and wealth, is a gift in itself.

      Liked by 1 person

      • You certainly have a way of atomizing complex truths within an economic literary style. That last sentence of your response is perfect. I couldn’t have said it better myself–Damn it! (HEHE)

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  5. People (all of them) underestimate the value of staying home to parent your children. I always said I wanted at least 2 years, I ended up with about 6 (school is free daycare right?) I was always used to making my own money so the lack of income drove me nuts a little, but otherwise, I wouldn’t have traded it for the world!!

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    • I was fortunate to be able to do some at-home paid work for a few years, but the blurring of lines between professional and personal really got to me, like I was never at rest.

      Our family life is better when one of us is anchored at home – especially when it came to caregiving, which is never an “after work hours” issue. I experienced a great deal of depression after leaving my job and a lot of it was the “having my own money” issue. I’d been working since I was young, so it was a tough adjustment. My husband was never a jerk about it, so that made a huge difference. I think we made the right choice for our family, but we had the option.

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      • I think someone who has never stayed at home tends to underestimate the sheer volume of work to be done to run a household. I’m still not sure how some people pull it off (you know the single parents with 3 kids, full-time jobs, and going to school to boot!)

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  6. Michelle, I really enjoyed this article. Oh,how you captured so many of the things I’ve experienced and the way you worded them –like that canyon on my resume. No wonder you have over 15,000 followers. I’m at a similar point in my life as you… (I even attempted a failed five minute meditation this morning –this is only my third day and I’m off to a bad start) my children are at the same age and I’m taking stock of my life and forging forward with a start-up boutique French tour company. I’ve only just begun blogging this week. I was hoping to have followers like you -insightful, successful women- who could help push me in the right direction as I stumble along the path of starting my own business. Could I humbly ask you to take a peek at my blog and follow me? I’d love to have your comments along my route! I’ll be following you. 🙂

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    • Welcome to blogland, Lisa. I’m constantly starting over and working hard to stay out of this mindset that a mistake is failure. Sometimes a mistake is just a reminder to adjust our goals and expectations. Meditation has been an uneven ride for me, but I’m now in the habit of doing it, even if I give up halfway and decide to write a to-do list instead.
      I wish you the best in your endeavors!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I read a few of your blogs and am impressed with your honesty. We are all on a path. You seem to have made Good choices for your family. I’m just starting to blog and enjoy finding true and interesting people to share with.

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