Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Life Doesn’t Get Better than This. Or Does It?

Delicate Purple 
I am somewhere over the continental United States heading towards Hawaii on vacation.  I’ve been traveling since 6:00 am this morning (EDT) and it’s 4:07 EDT.  I have been doing some work writing and so am wondering if a day spent on a plan primarily doing work really counts as a vacation day. Truth be told, planes are one of the few places these days where I find the peace and quiet I need to write – maybe I should fly to Hawaii more often.

Around me, people are sleeping peacefully in – I guess – something of a mid-day nap since it’s probably about that time in Hawaii.  Four hours to go on this flight and then the joy of being in paradise for the next two weeks.  Life doesn’t get better then this.

Or does it?

Recently, as I sat with two friends that I respect very much, the conversation turned away from work and towards the meaning of that work and what one may be giving up to do it. As my younger friend remarked, “when I am home, I see that kids are growing up, the lifestyle my family has, and I wonder what I am doing here.  On weekends, they play and I work. You guys work.”   My other friend smiled sagely having made a similar calculus a while back and decided to ratchet back his work life by going part-time next year.  In his new incarnation, he’ll be focusing his time on the thing that he most enjoys about work.  How glorious that he is in a place in his life that he can do that and that he can use this time wisely to plan for the future of the organization that he has built and led.  I envy him that freedom.
Sea Foam
And there I sat – both physically and mentally in the middle of the two.  At times, I wonder “what the heck I am doing” and look longingly over the fence to other lives.  In some instances these are lives that I’ve deliberately chosen to not have – wife/mother, just like girlfriend, probably would not have been easy roles for me.  I like the freedom of being the cool aunt – I can bond with my nieces and nephews and leave the parenting to those who know better.  Except when I need assistance with applying a band aid and Neosporin to the middle of my back (I’ve invented a new use for kitchen knives), I don’t particularly miss having a husband underfoot.  I am, at heart, a girl that is content to be alone.

For profit employee is also a path deliberately not chosen.  Yes, there were flirtations just as there were flirtations with that whole notion of wife and mother.  On one memorable occasion, I found myself sitting in a gentlemen’s club just off of Fifth Avenue with a father and his son – a finer pair of investment bankers one could never see.  In a moment of self-exploration (with nine months to do it), I had decided that I should not close investment banking jobs off and had gone for an interview.  This was back before monster.com when it took some newspaper reading and lo and behold my formal letter on nice stationary had produced a request that I come in to interview for some poorly defined assistant job.  Long story short, the coffee, the gentleman’s club – that was all about making me an offer that I could not refuse.  I remember the son gesticulating about how exciting it was to get in on a stock offering as his father nodded wisely with just a peak of his heavy, heavy gold cufflinks from under this jacket sleeve.  I remember trying to maintain a serious demeanor and respond that I would need to think about it.  And I most remember my immediate and quite visceral reaction – what the hell were you thinking?  It must have been oozing from my very pores because they knew that “I’ll get back to you” after such a fine employment offer was likely going to be a no.
Gathering Nectar (Shakespeare's Garden)
This was starkly different from my being offered an entry-level job at a small non-profit.  That job was the one that was available at the time that I needed a job. There was no grand plan to improve education of doctors on my part – I was just a recent college graduate in need of a job and my employer was just an organization in need of a coordinator.  The decision-making around my post-Masters job was quite similar to that early experience.  I wanted to move to New York City.  That was my goal – geographic relocation with no particular focus on the substance of what my day to day work would be.  But fundraising – all day every day just to get to New York?  When my staff asks me what is the one key thing I think everyone who wants a nonprofit career should know how to do – I say raise money.  I go on to tell them that doing it full time is a drag – it’s a skill they need but unless they love it, they shouldn’t do it full time.  Wish I had had that advice back in the day.

Water Pearls
My next job was a move uptown and up the university food chain to work as a center administrator.  Now, that was a long ride that job – I spent almost ten years doing a variety of tasks and learning, learning, learning.  I added mad budget skills (for an English major) and learned how to negotiate with all sorts of folks.  I managed projects and program that took me to India and to Italy.  And I learned to be somewhat fearless whether it was in defense of someone or something about which I care deeply or stepping outside of my comfort zone in Mumbai (then Bombay) to take a walk to a museum.  I remember it like it was yesterday.  I was staying at the Taj Hotel (yes, the one that was attacked a couple of years back) which was a cool oasis within the cacophony of Mumbai yet I ventured forth with a steely resolve that I did not know I possessed.  Along the way, I was importuned at every step by street vendors, and beggars.  Yet, I took that step filled with fear and trepidation and forced myself to take that walk.  I’ve never looked back.

And now I am here – working on an issue about which I care deeply while looking forward at the time I have left and the things that remain to be done.  And wondering – like my friend – if I will have the energy to stay the course?  Will I see change in my lifetime or am I just spinning my wheels.  The difference is that unlike those earlier jobs, this was my choice and I have never looked back.

Some of this thinking is no doubt sparked by my recently attending my 30th college reunion.  Much to my surprise and delight I enjoyed it.  I must admit that there was that one moment when the cool kids were standing around the dorm and I reverted to that freshman girl and gave them a wide berth.  I could tell myself that I was treasuring my found alone time on the beautiful green campus at the top of the hill overlooking Long Island Sound.  That would be a lie.  For that moment, I was that girl with no confidence in herself and they were those people with all the self-confidence in the world.  How easily we revert to who we once were. 
Daffodil (or some such flower)

Later that evening as we mixed and mingled, there was a lot of sharing about what we are doing.  Much to my surprise and delight – I easily responded that I was working on an issue that I care deeply about and that I felt fortunate to love the work that I do.  For sure, there are days when I hate my job and ask that question – is this all there is to life?  And there are days when I could topple over from sheer exhaustion – one simply can not have a major national member event AND move one’s office within a two week time period.  Or can one?  Did I – together with my team – do that?   For sure we did and I am proud of us (I’ll be even prouder when the conference room furniture arrives!).

So, does it get better than work that I love and yet still having time to see the world?  Not to mention the time to occasionally write (like right now) for the sheer joy of writing, time to wander aimlessly in the park with my camera and to edit those photos so that they please my eye.  And let’s not forget family and friend time which I fit in where and when I can given the far-flung nature of those folks.  And then there is the time to read, to putter around with Facebook games (I have progressed from farming to agri-business in less than two years in my online farming empire) and time to just sit and reflect. 

I see room to tweak my life around the edges.  A little more of this and a little less of that will likely make Nancy a more balanced girl but all in all I am content with my choices and with my life.  It doesn’t get better than that.

Taking Flight (Tanzania)