Difficult emotions, to say the least, in facing this past first week of the new year back at work. When you don’t like your job it’s always painful and dispiriting to return after a substantial break. Then there’s the fact that back in June I set myself a deadline‘for ending this craziness, for leaving the job. I’m setting it for the end of 2005. I don’t like deadlines. Self-imposed ones seem like pointless stress. But I have to make this solid and real, so I can believe in it, see it and touch it.’ Ha. So real and tangible did this turn out to be that it had no effect at all, and here I still am more than six months later in exactly the same place. If I was immortal, this degree of inertia might be excusable.
For the past several years, I’d escaped the Christmas/New Year binge and inevitable accompanying burst of self-pity for my family-less state by going to a Buddhist retreat. This time it was going to be a new Buddhist centre in South-West France. But the journey, just before Christmas, turned out to be so expensive and difficult – there didn’t seem to be any way I could get there in one day – that I ended up cancelling and staying at home. After a frantic round of socialising in December (well frantic for me, which I suppose is not actually all that frantic), things were very quiet over the 11-day break from work. Dinner with friends on Christmas Day and that was it, really. A time for lots of sleep, meditation, walking, reading and thinking.
If nothing else, this was physically hugely beneficial. After a week of it, gosh, I slept all night and woke up without a headache. Is it reasonable to find this shocking? Almost everyone I know has some kind of chronic pain or illness pretty certainly related to their chronically hyperactive and stressful lifestyle. Every one of them seems to feel it is there own fault and not indicative of generalised stupid social assumptions. I find it hard to agree, but perhaps my expectations are unfeasibly high. Perhaps, too, masochism is a fundamental, ineradicable human trait. Anyway, I stopped striving to be ‘normal’ a long time ago, didn’t I? If feeling lousy all the time is normal, it’s not a decision I can regret.
Oh dear, I don’t mean to sound such a misanthropic grouch. On the whole, though a somewhat introverted and prickly type, I do tend to like people and, looking at the strained faces and hearing the plaintive voices around me, I just wince with compassion and feel sad. And these, my friends and colleagues, are not poor or lonely or unsuccessful people; on the contrary.
One of my friends at work, for example, has not returned after the break. Not long before Christmas, her knee started seizing up, got steadily worse and now she can barely walk a few steps and is on extended sick leave pending probable surgery. I wouldn’t automatically attribute this to stress. But this time last year it was her neck. And the time before…, but the details are beside the point. I see a gentle, sensitive, talented person who works relentlessly long hours, undertakes a lot of international travel with no time to get over the jet-lag and socialises furiously at the behest of her restlessly sociable partner. Living at this pace suits some people, but not everybody. I see someone who, despite being successful and beloved, feels exhausted and victimised. I see her getting sick because it’s the only way she feels ‘allowed’ to stop. I find myself wanting to scream at her. Of course, I don’t scream at her. I’m calm and sympathetic and will only ever say any of this with caution and at a moment that seems appropriate (I hope).
No, obviously, I can’t change other people. Only myself. The only thing to do is to choose to live differently, to be something different - demonstrate it, not talk about it. Some of us, if we’re free to do so, not constrained by the financial or practical needs of dependents, can say: ‘I want to do less. My mind and body don’t thrive on hyperactivity and sleep-deprivation. This makes me hurt, it makes me tired and ill and eventually it’s probably going to kill me. I’m prepared to have less in order to do less’. It’s not easy. The social pressure and disapproval. The prevalent deeply internalised sense of obligation to keep doing and keep consuming. These are not negligible. They are, after all, how control is kept in our supposedly free society. No one’s going to tell me: ‘yes, it’s ok, you can stop’. But I can see that some people have stopped. And I could join them, become another visible marker of the alternative.
After the decision – that one so many former drop-outs and hippies and radicals took in the late 70s – to join the mainstream, work for the political opposition, try to make changes slowly from within, after doing all that for years and years, and achieving nothing but a social environment of unprecedented cynicism, here I am back with what we preached as youthful subversives: the politics of prefigurative forms. Go out and create something different, on however small a scale, all by yourself if necessary. That’s all you can do. Be quieter and poorer and kinder yourself, and hope it may be contagious.
Yes, I want OUT. I have nothing to lose: no partner, no family, no professional status, minimal financial security. Probably not all the way out, but quite a long way out. I can certainly envisage living in a fairly minimal structure (be specific – alright, caravan? yurt?), consuming much less, buying only second-hand, reducing requirements enough to be able to work quite a lot less. I’m entirely serious and realistic about this – old enough to have few illusions, which is all to the good.
This is what I believe, but not what I do. What I do is think about it and long for it and keep on working and commuting and consuming and getting exhausted and getting up each day and doing it all again. And think about it and long for it…
And yet, I don’t quite rise and bang my head on the wall at this point. Perhaps this isn’t all. I avidly follow the accounts of people who chuck it all in and look for something else. And, as well as successful migrations to new places and livelihoods, I see the repeated story of the poor soul who escapes from everything only to be shocked by the realisation that you can’t escape from yourself. Any journey that doesn’t begin with this firmly in mind is not worth undertaking. Any journey that doesn’t begin from a place where you’re basically okay already is not going to lead anywhere fruitful.
So this is how I feel at this point, what I’ve been pondering in the quiet Christmas and New Year’s break: I haven’t been doing nothing all these months. I’ve been looking for a steadier place inside myself, for ways to be okay right here and now. And only then can I leave with the tools, with half a chance at trying to live differently. I cannot leave until I’m really here. And becoming ‘really here’ is a long journey in itself because as far back as I can remember I’ve been withdrawing, protecting myself, trying to pretend I wasn’t here. No wonder it’s been difficult. Writing, taking photographs, establishing a stable meditation practice, cultivating habits of more exercise, better eating, better energy flow, and above all of greater calm and kindness: perhaps these have been not putting off the journey, but the beginning of the journey.
This may be an entirely self-deceiving optimism. But on good days I think it isn’t and look forward, somewhat shakily but determinedly, to the next step.
¶ 11:39 am
Sounds to me like you are laying a solid groundwork for change.
I slept most of the few days off I had over the holidays. I know my job is hard on my body, so I take time to rest whenever I can. Human beings did not evolve for a life of ease- life leaves it's scars, work takes it's toll.
Thank you for sharing these intimate reflections, Jean. While reading it, I kept asking myself the same question you must ask yourself all the time: "Should she leave -- should she drop out -- or shouldn't she?" No certain answer came, of course, and I hardly know you well enough to give one. But it felt right and true when I came to your concluding paragraphs. The meditiation practice, the blogging, etc., are surely the beginning of something, whether or not you physically change your circumstances.
I think your optimism is more likely to be self-fulfilling than self-deceiving.
And though I feel myself becoming more and more disenchanted with the old counterculture values these days, one lasting benefit of the Sixties is that society now gives us all permission to make our own individual paths in life. Which is a contradiction, I know -- if we're free individuals, we don't need permission -- but in practice helpful to those who aren't groundbreaking pioneers: those who have the ordinary ambivalences and insecurities and doubts.
Jean, the saying I've heard is "wherever I go I take me with me" and I think that what you have written here is so true. Sometimes our destiny, dharma, unconscious, higher self, soul, whatever you want to call it works to a different agenda to our conscious mind, and if we don't achieve the goals the latter sets it is generally because another part of us judges that the time is not yet right.
I am in a similar place to you. I have set a timetable to make a big life change next year, but the events of the last couple of weeks and my reactions to them have made it very clear to me that there is work to be done, here, now, in the present moment - with the assistance of others where necessary - if I am to be able to do so as an adult who is present, conscious and aware and. hopefully, less afraid of life. I cannot leave until I am really here, as you so eloquently say.
Thank you for a perceptive, helpful and thoughful post. I appreciate it very much.
Thank you for writing with such an honest, open, caring... and that you are loving yourself. Don't ever feel that you have to make the massive change only because you've talked about it enough. That's not the point. The point is your own happiness. Your work and your home provide stability, and you are obviously an amazing editor, and have given invaluable aid to writers, whether it be dissertations or books, and so this all counts too. The journey is always inward, to finding inner joy. The bohemian lifestyle you describe sounds like it might work, on the other hand, now that I'm living it, it's, well, it can be hard in its own ways too. Can you perhaps take a year's leave of absence, sublet your apartment, and take the plunge? Try it, but leave yourself a way to get back if it isn't what you are looking for? I mean, I can see you writing, Jean, serious writing, but even that's going to take some months to establish as a daily and habitual pattern once you have shed the work world and the city. Your muse, though, may be calling, and that is something I have struggled with long and hard, and, yes, always listen to your muse... if you're longing to have the time and freedom of mind to write, do it. xo
.. just to add too that I believe that you deserve a peaceful and happy life wherever is best for you, simple though it may be, and my support and encouragement are with you as you make this present in your life day by day, minute by minute. I have no doubt at all that it is possible.
Brenda's suggestion of a trial for a year seems a good one. I have friends who have taken similar breaks and have returned to their old lives feeling quite different and much more settled. Have you considered a volunteer job overseas with all living expenses paid and a small wage?
I'm not sure I can add much, other than to say I've managed to have pretty much dropped out of the rat race and continue to survive. After a couple of years I got used to having less and can't imagine how much money I spent on things that seemed so important at one time. Now I see friends spend hours shopping for just the right thingie for their house and I think what a waste of time and energy! What does it matter? I'm lucky; I do work, but from home, on my own schedule for the most part. So I still have income, just not a lot.
Anyway, I hope you find an opportunity to break out of what you're doing and taste your freedom. Maybe Brenda has a point. I also have a friend who took a sabbatical from her job, but never went back. There's no riches like time of your own.
Jean: This is me, too. Absolutely. A decade spent on a PhD... Want a new start, a change of scenery, a different life, sunshine. Have no ties to make me stay. Nothing holding me back - except myself who has done nothing to make this change come about but has spent years reading (with wist and mounting frustration) the acccounts of others who have upped and gone (usually successfully).
But, I too have begun thinking now more positively about these past years: yes, I have been making changes/ improvements (nutrition, walking, yoga, meditation) and yes, maybe these are the fashioning of our new wings, preparing for flight...
This all makes sense. HOW to move. Very hard - it helps to be lazy and go with it. Difficult if you've got a heavy job..can't just say ditch it. Poverty isn't so great either - and worse if you're older. Good luck anyway. (Oh that Christmas /New Year period when you're single. I'm not sure I ever dealt with that as well as you seemed to have.) Good luck.
Jean, I've been thinking about this, which is why I'm slow to respond. I hear in this a core of strength and truth.
I sometimes think my effort to understand myself gets in my own way — I desire change, know something is wrong, want to take action, and don't exactly know how or what, and haven't the patience to wait and see, and haven't the intuition to know what direction to move in. And yet, when changes do happen beautifully, as they sometimes do, or the path becomes visible clearly, as it sometimes does, it's been when I am moving through life without resistance, or dire effort.
How to articulate this sense I have? It's been through small steps. It starts by meeting small needs. It's been a result of living in a rhythm with my self (no easy task for me). I don't know how to describe it, nor always how to recapture it. But I'm learning (after how many years now?) that to fully flower, it has to somehow come from a point of centeredness and positiveness. Given that this is my experience, your post makes absolute sense. And I'm grateful for a chance to remind myself of these things.
I think sometimes I panic and forget that interstices serve a purpose (not unlike Ruth's Qarrtsiluni article?) — fallow fields are a part of the growth/harvest cycle.
Thanks for sharing your inner thoughts. I can only add that I "left" to remove myself from the madding crowd of London - it was not easy and after 3 years it is still difficult. But was it worth it? yes! most definately.
“I find the great thing in this world is not so much where we stand, as in what direction we are moving. To reach the port of heaven, we must sail sometimes with the wind and sometimes against it, but we must sail and not drift, nor lie at anchor.” -Oliver Wendell Holmes
I found this (of all places) on Rosie O'Donnell's blog just after reading yours tonight.
Wow, I really appreciate your long and thoughtful comments!
Difficult to reply briefly, but I'll try.
Zhoen, hard work has been a hugely positive thing for me and I don't mean for a minute to decry it, especially demanding and difficult and vital work like yours (go and look at Zhoen's blog if you don't know what she does) - I agree that it's one of the things most people need for a fulfilled life. I'd nonetheless both distinguish between hard work and the many of the stresses of 21st century working life which are not really directly part of the work, and cry out for more people to demand saner limits - that working hours are going up and up again, after the great victories of the early 20th century on this, is just crazy.
Richard, don't imagine, will you, that I literally want to be a reborn 1960s hippie? - I don't think fulltime chilling out and smoking dope would suit me at all :-)
Mary and Tamar, just hugs - I'm so glad to know you both!!
Brenda and Jude, yes, I have thought of subletting my home, taking a sabbatical rather than chucking things in once and for all, and might well do that, though I can't see myself ever wanting to return to London, at least.
And, Jude, yes I have thought a lot about a volunteer job, especialy the peace brigades (protective accompaniment of human rights activists in countries where this is a dangerouos thing to be - but often not so dangerous if you're a foreigner). What has held me back is my susceptibility to very severe migraines - no good in such circumstances if you're suddenly out of action for several days - but I'm working on these and do have some hope...
Kenju, Oliver Wendell Holmes is wonderful, I think - thank you!
Anna, great to see you here! (I presume you're the same Anna from 100 days meditation blog?)
And Owukori too! I've just discovered your blog via Teju Cole.
And everyone else, thank you. I value your words and the example of your lives enormously.
I'm NOT about to rush off immediately and build myself a yurt somewhere isolated, with no source of income. But do think it would be feasible for me to move somewhere simple, live much more cheaply, get some freelance work editing and translating (which I already do successfully alongside my fulltime job), plus whatever other source of income might be available locally, plus some (very modest)capital from sale of present home to fall back. What I'd miss if I went somewhere too isolated is not running water etc, but my broadband connection... I think if I went somewhere very quiet I would want to hold on to the internet and all of you, for company and connection, as well as for work. I have many ideas to explore and think one or other of them will turn out to be feasible. That's not the problem. The problem is getting off the current treadmill and doing it!
Hi jean, I just wanna say two things that no one else has said: 1) i like the picture, and 2) Life without broadband isn't so bad. You can still blog, read email, etc., it just slows you down a bit. (O.K., a lot.) It's a small sacrifice to make for sanity.
Thanks, Dave. You're right, I'm sure I could do without Broadband.. I meant without the Internet, really (and I'm sure I could do without that too, but it might be a shame - I think I'd want to communicate about where I was, if it was somewhere beautiful and interesting)
I can sympathise re the headaches - mine can wipe out 2-3 days each month. Can I recommend again the book I mentioned elsewhere - it's by David Buchholz - 'Heal your Headache - The 1.2.3 Program' and has a no drugs approach.
Jean, I'm late to the party. Such a wonderful post!
You've expressed exactly and vividly what I've vaguely and dimly conceived myself to be doing the past couple years -- learning to be here, so I can leave.
They are the same thing, really, I think. Our confinement actually consists of our unwillingness to be where we are. (Which is not to say that moving into a yurt is a bad idea -- it's a quite good one. But it's not really the point.)
Having "gotten off the treadmill" myself I can promise you it's worth the struggle you're going through. As an understanding stranger put it to me, "You will be taking your life into your own hands." For a risk-averse person as I was, it became a liberating experience. Be warned: some people will find it threatening.