Life’s obvious lessons or it’s amazing what you can get done when…

I’m writing because I told myself to write this morning. After all, I’m between full-time gigs and was supposed to use January and February to 1.) finish my novel; 2.) surf every day; 3.) whip the yard and garden into shape; 4.) do all the house projects that I’ve been too busy to do while working 40-plus hours per week. And read and work out and go for hikes and make sure I’m carving out enough family time and couple time and maybe take that tango class we’ve been promising ourselves we’d take for years.

Yeah, sometimes I tend to overestimate my ability to accomplish – although to be fair, the days when I am disciplined about my time often end with a small glow of satisfaction warming my brain. One of my favorite scenes in Spike Lee’s Mo’ Better Blues was when Denzel Washington’s character, Bleek Gilliam, explains to one of his girlfriends that you have to do the same thing at the same time each day because that’s how shit gets done. (At least, that’s how I remember it.) Less exciting forms of research reinforce that concept: Routine is good for accomplishment.

The other key, courtesy of my friend Niki Bezzant and a mantra I’ve uttered approximately one gazillion times over the past decade (including on this blog, I’m sure), is this: “It’s amazing what you can get done when you don’t arse around.” (Or as we say in America, “… when you don’t fuck around.”)

So here I am, writing because I told myself I should write first thing in the morning while the house is quiet and the sky is too dark for a surf adventure. Sure, I’m running behind already – the sun came up an hour ago – and the house’s silence has been broken by my husband clomping downstairs and into the kitchen where he’s putting water on for coffee – the water whooshes out of the faucet, the gas clicks on, the kettle clanks down, the flame whooshes to life like I wish my imagination would. Nonetheless, I persevere. (If you’re reading this, I can’t promise it will get any better. Please feel free to go admire my lovely rainbow photo on Facebook instead – none of the thousand or so words I will write here will come close to matching the beauty of that moment. If only perfect prose was as easy to stumble upon as the right combination of sun and rain.)

Now my husband is blowing his nose and I want to kill him. It is hell being married to a writer. Or a wannabe writer. Or maybe just me.

What I thought I would write about going in was transition. And value. Transition because the past several months have encompassed so much change and value because that was the concurrent theme.

I’m now wondering if I can lift the rest of the post up from the preceding deadening sentence.

It’s not that I didn’t know the job would come to an end. But my coworker and I had just found out our funders planned to continue supporting our work. We’d high-fived at a conference in Southern California – “Havin’ a job! Yeah!” – which made the call from my boss a week later surprising. Regret tinged her voice as she went down the list of talking points concerning the organizational layoffs, which included the elimination of my position (and my coworker’s). She sounded sad enough that I made a joke in an attempt to reassure her I was okay. After we hung up, tears came. This job had been the palace ball and I’d been Cinderella – except, this being real life, no Prince Charming would be swooping in to collect me (and pay my bills) after the fact*. On the upside, I had six months to figure out a next step. On the downside, even when you know it’s not personal, being told you’re no longer valuable enough to the organization to be kept on can mess up a person’s self-perception.

Looking outside of Humboldt reinforced what I already knew: I have neither the educational background nor the big world experience to score a serious job. This triggered a lot of what-the-hell-have-I-done-with-my-life thinking. For a while I couldn’t imagine being hired by anyone for anything. Maybe waitressing. At some point, I’m embarrassed to say, a certain bitterness settled in. I am good at some things, damn it. But, my thinking went, those things aren’t valued by the stupid people in this stupid world that we live in. Why isn’t the ability to put words together in a semi-pleasing way with a minimum of typos a job that pays a living wage? Why isn’t being able to get along and find commonality with all different folks an existing job I could apply for? Why do incompetent douchebaggery types still have jobs and I don’t? How come people don’t come courting me if I’m as rich in talent as my performance reviews – and supportive friends – suggest?

This is not a productive way to think – and I am all about productive – but pulling up from the self-esteem nosedive isn’t easy. Because some truth exists to it, right? If the question asked is, “Why don’t people want me?” then potential answers inevitably include, “Because you suck.” This is where I started getting hung up on value, predominantly my own worth (as measured by what people were willing to pay me to do), but also what I elevate to importance in my own life and how that relates to the greater world.

As all this was happening, my youngest kid graduated high school, my middle kid moved away to Santa Cruz, my oldest continued her own adult life down in Long Beach. With only one kid in the house, my husband and I took over the upstairs – the master bedroom and a small room I’ve turned into a walk-in closet/project space. Although I worry as much (or more) than ever, our hands-on parenting days are over. For a couple that never lived together before having kids, this new chapter is without precedent and raises a whole bunch of questions. If parenting is inherently valuable and we’ve focused on that to the detriment of our careers, what happens now? Who will we be without parental obligations defining us? How will we relate to each other without the children’s needs being the center around which we revolved? With the breathing room to consider the future, what did we see? And, more importantly, did we see it together?

Here are some things I learned, in no particular order because time is short and the keyboard battery is low:

  • You can’t make people value you. Your kids, your coworkers, the people you wish would hire you, the people you wish would love you. All you can do is do what you love doing, work hard, strive to do it well. Maybe someone will pay you to do this thing for a living someday. Maybe someone you look up to will turn to you and say, “Hey, this is real good.” But you have to do it for the love of doing it, because you believe in the fundamental value of what you’re doing. If you build it, they might come – but if they don’t, you sure as hell better enjoy stretching out in the sunshine admiring the clear, blue sky.
  • Life isn’t fair – hardly a new concept, sure, but still, a hard one to swallow when you’re considering unemployment while people who are obviously far more horrible than you are whistling while they work. The problem with brooding on the world’s unfairness is twofold: you might forget all the ways in which you yourself have been lucky and you put yourself at risk for turning into a grudge-bearing asshole. I’ve been guilty on both counts in the past. (But I have SO MUCH character at this point!)
  • Booze does not help. It’s the worst in fact.
  • How to get over yourself: Express appreciation, daily, to people you love and admire, especially those who’ve tolerated your self-pitying behavior. Distract yourself from freaking out about your life by engaging in it. Take the goddamn tango class with your spouse already. Invite those gracious, kind, fun friends of yours over for brunch. Read books that take your brain to another place. Go new places, whether restaurants or hiking trails, together or alone. Get the fuck away from the computer.
  • Take more walks on the beach and fling yourself more often into the ocean (metaphorically if necessary). Nothing – and I mean nothing – like being out in the fresh air in this place of beauty to give you perspective and kick you into a more positive gear. Bitter? Insecure? Hike or bike until your legs give out. Rent a kayak and paddle the hell out of the bay. Whatever. Push yourself physically until your mind turns that corner.

Which is a good note upon which to end. It’s another (drought-riddled) glorious day out there and I’ve got a beach calling.

*The way things went, the folks who fund my conservation work still wanted to fund it, enabling me to find a job with a different environmental organization, thus making them a suitable stand-in for the prince. Rejoicing commenced.

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1 Comment

  1. Lew Buckner

     /  February 1, 2014

    Jennifer,
    I always enjoy your writing and especially when you make it so personal. This particular piece touched me on so many levels for I have had many of the same experiences. I don’t know if this will mean anything but I can tell you that your writing stays with me for days and jump starts both my creative process and my introspective feelings. You feel undervalued in a society that idolizes those who fail to either create or give back (the “K” sisters, for example) and you’re right on target. I believe that you will stay the course and continue to produce work that IS appreciated by more people than you believe. It may not prove to be lucrative financially but it does have an impact on those around you.
    If I haven’t said so before, thank you for opening up to us and sharing the moments and thoughts in your very interesting life.
    BTW, on a lighter note: I loved the comments about spousal interruptions. I nearly fell out of my chair laughing.
    Have a great day and keep the musings coming!

    Lew

    Reply

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