Sometimes good people get fired. Or laid off. Or lose their jobs. It’s happened to me and to people I love, including one of the most talented writers I know. Twice. The city I live in is prone to economic highs and lows, and when those lows hit (like now) the axe falls.
It’s an uncertain time and interestingly, a time of strange freedom. You wake up that first morning and think “So what do I do today?” A door has closed, a window is opening, and you are face to face with “if only”.
If only I did not have to work, what would I do?
What would that be? What would you really want to do if you could do anything?
We have all asked that question at different times in our lives, whether we’ve been fired or are simply contemplating a move. And it is a scary question…requiring answers that may bring up stuff. Your own stuff.
You know what I’m talking about.
I am here to tell you that I know a few people, real regular people, who are doing their “if only” thing. And for the most part, it seems to be working.
Exhibit A: I have a friend who bought a sailboat and works his computer technology company from Honduras. He Skype’s clients when needed, and works remotely. When he is not available to his North American clients, he is off on his motorbike, riding the mountain roads looking for adventure. He also spends considerable time repairing his boat, negotiating internet access with the marina, keeping things safe in a country where ex pats don’t have the rights we take for granted. And he’s spent a long time looking for love in all the wrong places. And then, suddenly, the right place. I don’t imagine his life is perfect, and not for everybody, but he asked the question and then listened to the answer.
Exhibit B: I have a colleague who moved to The Grenadines to start a fresh juice business. She and her partner sold everything to start anew. For a while she was able to work remotely, maintaining a large contract with a national company. This spring though she found herself, like hundreds of others, set adrift in the midst of an energy downturn. And yet, I don’t sense she’s got the blues. Always a bright light, she seems to actually be shining brighter, she with no “real” job and the very real and entire nest egg invested in a fruit based startup. (In a country that does not adhere to a North American work ethic).
Both of these very real and lovely people must struggle with being the new kid on the block, the new business in the country. Both come from humble beginnings (he: a vegetarian from a Northern Meat Eating family, she an East Coast optimist). Both are creative and bright and both asked the “what if…” question during an existential career crisis.
There are so few moments when we can ask the questions about purpose and career. I am watching my daughter start to ponder those as she approaches Grade 9, when decisions begin about High School, University, and The Future. It seems good decisions today result in many open doors tomorrow.
Doors that, once you hit 40, are often harder to open.
Life moves us quickly after graduation, we walk through different doors. We get a job, make friends, get a new job, and perhaps more education. We add a few kids or not, a spouse or not.
We make decisions that demand more decisions. And most of us work really hard. Suddenly we are running as fast as we can (usually the decade between 30-40), grabbing opportunities, the dry-cleaning, dinners and the kids from their day home.
What fuels us, besides white wine and adrenalin, is the idea that we are moving forward on that path we charted years ago, making our way, creating and caring for. It is exhilarating and exhausting and then, whether we retire or are packaged off, it is quite suddenly, over.
No matter where you go, there you are.
It was only this month that I realized those days are behind me. And frankly am amazed that I could do it at all. The race was continuous and demanding. It required discipline that I did not know I had. Projects and billing and meetings and taxes and interviews and dance lessons and doctors appointments and nutritious lunches. Calendar quantum physics. How to split the time atom and wedge in a hair appointment or a conversation with a friend. A conversation without a defined outcome or related to the billing cycle.
We do amazing things with the time we are given. We mourn the loss of our pets, our parents, our youth. We laugh so hard we cry. We decide what is important to us and bend time to ensure these things get done. We race and rejoice, bandage scraped knees and broken hearts. We are mightier than we ever realize, never marveling at what we are able to accomplish in an hour, a day a year.
Exhibit C: My bookclub.
So when we find a time in our life, a breathing space to ask “what if…”, why shy away from exploring the answer? We are capable of great things. Remember that.
We’ll all find ourselves at the edge of personal re invention, a re think, a retirement, whether it is our choice or not. (There will also be a point in one’s life when you are offered the senior discount, but that is for another day).
To quote David Byrne, you will ask yourself “How did I get here?”
And then, “If I could do anything, what would it be?”
Whether it is something sensational, like a sailboat in Honduras, or Juice Factory in the Grenadines. Or something more ordinary, like spending the day upstairs staring at a computer screen, there is an answer. The key is finding the opportunity that speaks to who you are. (Trust me, sailboats are not for everyone). As you start to ponder the question, don’t be surprised if you discover a few well place clues.
There are a couple of breadcrumbs that have been thrown my way. The first, a school project from Grade 8 discovered while cleaning out my Mom’s basement. It was called “A Career: Journalism” and in it, the 13 year old me spelled out all the reasons why this was going to be My Career. Of course the title page is illustrated with a quill pen and inkpot (perhaps the Mary Shelley of the reporting world?)…but the gist is there. Maybe I could write stories.
The second was at a rare dinner with my cousin. She’s a musician; luminous, outgoing and a beautiful singer, who has long walked the creative path.
She turned to me and said, “I think it is great you are writing! You used to always say you wanted to be a writer!”.
“I did?” (awkward pause)
“Oh yes!, as she laughs and raises her glass, “ It was all you used to talk about.”
Hmmm…. it’s been many years since she and I would have chatted, on the Boxing Day gatherings of the Penney clan. Our fathers would be pouring more cocktails and getting louder in the kitchen while we would make awkward “I see you once a year and we are about the same age, what on earth do we have in common?” conversations in the living room.
But there you have it, a witness.
And maybe, if you find yourself wondering what you would do if you could, maybe there are witnesses, or breadcrumbs marking your life path. Photos, journals, an old friend or charming cousin who reminds you of who you once wanted to be.
So, if you find yourself between -a job, a marriage, a deadline- ask “What would I do if I could do anything? If you look, you may find kernels of truth, a clue, a resonance of purpose. Maybe a different way of being, if only you could.
And you can.