It’s the end of the summer. Kids are going back to school. Teachers are going back to work.
I’m on a different calendar.
For sure, I am preparing for the Jewish new year, 5776, which begins in less than three weeks (!). But for the first time in 20 years, neither of my daughters is beginning a new year as a student. And I, having quit my job in July, am not heading back to work.
That feels odd. I am beginning to feel stirrings of when-will-this-experiment-in-voluntary-unemployment end, and what-will-I-do-next, and when-will-I-start-making-some-money. These stirrings are unsettling and unwelcome, because they don’t come from my heart or my gut, from a feeling that I’m ready to move onto the next thing. They come from my mind, specifically the voice in my head that tells me I’m not good enough. That in everything I do, I should do more of it, and better. That I am what I do—if I’m doing not much to speak of, then that’s what I am.
“Not much to speak of” is one way to speak of what I’m doing these days. It’s a harsh characterization, and it’s not really true. I have a few activities to record in my productivity ledger. But that’s not the point. I didn’t decide to leave my job so that I could clean up my never-ending list of household projects, or even so that I could set myself a marvelous schedule of self-fulfillment: daily yoga, journal-writing, walking in the woods, blogging, heart-opening conversations with friends and family.
In fact, I am doing all those things, though not every day and not on much of a schedule. When the voice in my head asks: “What kind of work are you going to do next?” I need to answer: “I am working. I’m working on myself.”
That phrase sounds self-centered and New Age-y to my ear, but there it is. I’m working on myself. It’s a major renovation project. I am trying to create—or discover—the blueprint for the second half of my adult life.
I wish I didn’t feel the need to justify it to myself this way. But that’s a big part of the project: overcoming the critical voice that always demands that I do more and better. I guess you could call that the demolition phase. Anybody got a psychological Dumpster to spare?
The truth is that I need this time and this space in my life. It’s not just pleasant and enjoyable vacation time. (In fact, sometimes it’s neither pleasant nor enjoyable. There have been days when the demolition goes awry and a pipe breaks and the toolbox gets lost and the house is filled with broken plaster and rodent skeletons.) This time off, this mental and emotional space, are a genuine need that I have.
Acknowledging that need is very difficult because a) I’m not supposed to have needs, and b) lots of other people probably have the same need and don’t get the same opportunity, so why should I deserve this time for myself? And c), while we’re at it, I should be able to find the space within myself and carry it with me through a busy day.
Well, okay, that is a goal. But I’m not there. I don’t yet have that ability to find myself, to stay connected to who I am and what I need, in the context of work and chores and other outwardly directed activities.
What I do have is this time. It’s a gift—a gift from my husband, who first suggested it and is amazingly encouraging, and a gift from myself. You could say I’m incredibly lucky. You could say it’s a gift from the universe. You could say I’ve earned it through 30-plus years of hard work and good decisions. The first statement is definitely true, and maybe the second and third are as well. In any case, it is a gift.
Early this month I attended a workshop called “Crafting Your Kavanah (Intention) for the Year.” The idea was to choose a word to guide one’s intentions in the coming Jewish year, translate it into Hebrew, and then derive meaning from the etymological roots.
Without hesitation, I chose “self-acceptance,” which the workshop leader translated as hitkablut atzmit. Hitkablut, acceptance, comes from a root that means “receiving.” (Kabbalah, a form of Jewish mysticism, has the same root.) Atzmit is from a root that means “self” or “essence.” It also means “bone.”
When someone gives me a compliment, I fight my impulse to argue or explain or diminish the thing they’re praising. I try to simply receive the compliment with a smile and a “thank you.”
I need to receive the gift of my time off the same way. Instead of defending myself against imaginary critics, I need to smile, say “thank you,” and absorb this gift into myself, my essence. I need to feel it in my bones.
What is the Mary Oliver Challenge? Glad you asked! You can read about it here.