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

Volunteering Again: The Definition of My Insanity

On my fridge, I have a magnet with the picture of a housewife saying “Stop me before I volunteer again.”

A wise-ass friend mailed it to me after one particularly long gripe about how much I hated parent volunteer meetings. And every year I think this magnet is hysterically funny – after the fact. By the time I remember it, I’ve lost my marbles trying to do everything for everyone.

This is my oath before the start of every school year: “This year, I will focus on developing a business/career, getting home renovations done and getting in the best physical shape of my life.” Two months later, I’m cutting out Frankenstein heads for Halloween bingo at a school party, manically humming the Monster Mash.

My daughter’s school has a high percentage of reduced lunches (Read: economically challenged, overworked parents and understaffed classrooms). My guilt about working part-time from home means volunteer recruiters love me. I rarely say no. We’re made for each other.

So here I am again, chairing a fundraiser and preparing to organize classrooms of Halloween parties. I’m presenting art lessons in the spring, doing admin work in the classroom and chauffeuring field trips in between.  It doesn’t earn me a paycheck, provide me a network of career contacts or even give me much in the way of personal kudos. Multitasking is second nature. Saying “no” is apparently third or fourth.

Six years ago, Montessori daycare moved my two year old into a chaotic toddler room. The transition coincided with a time when my less-than-stellar people skills had gotten me into hot water at work. I talked it over with my husband and we decided to change our family plan. We wouldn’t carpool to our downtown jobs together anymore. He’d bus and I’d stay home with our daughter. We withdrew her from daycare. I resigned from my job.

For the first six months I wallowed. I cried a lot. I skipped showers on occasion. I got into fights with my husband about little things. I was frustrated and depressed, feeling like dead weight. And while people go on and on about the most important job in the world being a parent, most of us are more than the custodians of our progeny. I was watching bits and pieces of my identity disappear. I’d worked at one job or another since I was 10 – and full time employment since becoming an adult.

In a fortunate turn of events, my former employers asked for help transitioning between managers and eventually hired me part-time in my old job. This has allowed me to work from a home office, which I’ve been doing for the last five years. I’ve tried to turn this time into an opportunity to pursue writing, since that seems like such a solid long term career. I just can’t seem to wrap my head around a plan. In its absence, I say “yes” to whatever comes my way.

It isn’t that volunteering doesn’t have value, it’s just never been part of my values, since I was always working. It is really not in my skill set. Usually my goal is to not alienate people when I volunteer alongside them. That means no eye-rolling, swear words, snorting in contempt or using my drill sergeant voice to get things done. “Come on, you bunch of blabbering cupcakes, get a move on with the juice boxes!”

When I’m feeling soft and cuddly (usually for about 15 minutes on Tuesdays or during the full moon), I am glad that I have the time and luxury of being able to help at my daughter’s school. Eventually she’ll  pretend she doesn’t know me when I see her at school. Now, she’s delighted when I go on field trips and come to her classroom. Her classmates holler happy hellos to me in the hallways and her teachers are always appreciative. It’s the only performance review I get these days.

If balance is key to contentment, I haven’t found it yet. Perhaps I hope that if I juggle a job, volunteering, working out and writing, that somehow in the end, it will all even out. Until then, put me on the list. I’m sure I’m available.

Uncommitted: Being Jack

In high school, we were forced to take an assessment called the Career Occupational Preference Survey (COPS). It was supposed to define the possible kinds of work you might enjoy doing, based on your interests. I was directed towards engineering, public relations or education career clusters.

Nothing I do today remotely relates to any of those careers. My dream jobs run like this, in chronological order of when I thought “it would be awesome to be that when I grow up”: librarian, writer, English teacher, writer, architect, writer, spy, writer, accountant, writer, personal trainer, writer….you see where I’m going with this. Yes, I love to write. Will I be able to squeeze a career out of it? I can’t predict that, but writing does the thing that nothing else does. It allows me to be a little bit of everything, while justifying reading for hours on end as “career development”.

I recently re-read parts of Margaret Lobenstine’s The Renaissance Soul: Life Design for People with Too Many Passions to Pick Just One. I read it several years ago and it was an epiphany. If I had not read this book, my next step would be to have myself evaluated for ADD. Friends were being promoted in careers, finishing advanced degrees, building stable floors under their feet. I was still struggling to figure out what I wanted to do. I was seeing my desire for constant change as a weakness, because I seemed so wishy-washy compared to the solid citizens around me.

Over the years, I’ve halfheartedly committed to the writing life, but like a restricted diet, I assumed that the career of a writer had a formula and if I didn’t follow it, then it was my failure. You get an English or Journalism degree. You hang out with other writers in salons, exchanging bon mots and bed partners. You spill coffee on yourself while running to get the big story. You sit hour after hour plodding away at a typewriter, with a bin nearby overflowing with rejected copy. You write erotic prose after feeding your 500 cats, a neighborhood eccentric in a big floral hat. Or my personal favorite: you spend all your time brooding and drinking and smoking, while snarling angrily at publishers and readers alike. But they put up with you, because on paper, you’re genius.

After reading tons of “how to write”, “when to write” and “what to wear when you’re writing” bits of advice, I’m more convinced than ever that this is a way of life for me. No writer is consistent except that they write. Whether it’s after they’ve finished a triathlon or while they’re laying around in their underwear at 3p.m. nursing a hangover. You can know a little bit about everything or a lot about one thing. It doesn’t matter.

I still argue with myself whether I should get an MFA or set a timer on my desk so that I’m locked into writing time, but that’s just insecurity rearing its ugly head. I’m writing and I’m writing more consistently than I ever have in my life. I’m a jack of many trades and master of none, which is to say that I don’t know much about anything, but whatever I do know, I’ll be sure to write about it.