Thursday, August 02, 2012

The Guilt of Bliss and the Bliss of Letting It Go

by Zinta Aistars

My corner office at Z Acres
I hadn't had a vacation since May 2011, when my sister and I took our parents up to Michigan's Upper Peninsula to mark their 60th wedding anniversary. We all still talked about this trip; it was wonderful and memorable in every way.

But that was a respectable while ago, and I hadn't had a day off since. That included most holidays, as my last stint, working on a Great Place to Work application for a global company headquartered in Kalamazoo, Michigan (what turned out to be a 190-page bound book with a thumb drive loaded down with various supplements), was so intense and time-short that it required many of my evenings and weekends ... and holidays. When the rest of America was outside grilling up a barbecue storm on Memorial Day weekend and Independence Day, I was inside at my computer, working away on that application.
Indeed, moving from my previous job to this one happened within one day. I packed up and left my office where I had worked almost five years for a health care organization in Grand Rapids at 3 p.m. on a Friday, and by 4 p.m., I was home and on the phone, taking part in a conference to discuss that Great Place to Work project, which would hopefully rank the company for which I was at that point working (for all of one hour) as high as possible on the Fortune magazine's 100 Best Places to Work list.

It had been like that. And, mind you, even during all that, I continued my freelancing on those spare evenings and in-between weekends. After all, I didn't want that freelance network to go cold. I had a dream ...

... and now I was realizing that dream. It was my second day of working for myself, as creative director, as writer and editor, for Z Word. I had at long last established my own writing and editing business. Hurrah!

Okay, so now what?

The alarm did not go off this morning. I never set it. I was not a late sleeper, so at almost the precise same time that I would have normally gotten up to start a day at the corporate office ... I was up. Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. Ready to go.

Now, that felt different. I was actually ready to go. No resistance, no soft swearing under my breath, no moaning that here comes another work day. I nearly danced down the stairs to the kitchen to put water on to boil; I had discovered that with just a little more time in my morning, I preferred using a French press to make my cup of coffee rather than pushing a button on the automatic drip. I fed the critters, dog Guinnez and cat Jig, and still in my nightgown, headed outside.

Out here at Z Acres, my ten-acre farm deep in the country, I supposed I could even leave the nightgown behind. No one but the deer and the birds and the wild turkeys and the bullfrogs and the koi in the pond and the squirrels and the sand cranes and the two hawks circling high overhead and the occasional fox or pack of coyotes (although they tended to hang out more in the evening hours) would have seen me. And they probably would have taken no more notice than to have shrugged, eh, funny creature there with no fur or feathers!

I suddenly had the thought: was it okay to go wandering around my garden when it's a work day? After all, it was almost 8 a.m. Most everyone else I knew was at that moment booting up computers in cubes and offices, chatting at the office water cooler, sorting through files and morning to-do lists, checking schedules and calendars, listening to last night's voicemail ...

And I was not. I was peering up at the blue sky at that hawk, still circling, as if watching me watch him. I was checking the vegetable garden to see what had ripened since last evening, and I found reddening grape tomatoes, ripening heirloom chocolate tomatoes, rows of green bell peppers, and new zucchini and cucumber blossoms. My cat Jig walked with me through the garden aisles, mulched in hay.

I popped a grape tomato in my mouth, warm from morning sun, and checked the blackberry bushes. Fewer berries now, season coming to a close, but I had bowls and bags full in my kitchen, ready to be made into jam. Could I take time in my afternoon of writing and editing to make jam?

Who was I asking? Huh. That would be me. No one was looking over my shoulder. The boss was in the mirror.

I felt a tickle of guilt run through me.

Oh now, where had that come from? I straightened up in the garden and frowned, only no one saw that either. After all, if I had made any mistakes yet in starting my own business, it was that I had not scheduled myself a vacation. I did deserve one!


Another tickle of guilt. I grabbed the weed whacker from the toolshed, revved it up with a roar, and started whacking weeds. Actually, this was already part of my work day routine. Something very satisfying about starting the day clearing weeds from the garden, around the edging of rocks, along the perimeters of the barn, along the pathway to the back fields. I often started my day that way, and then plugged in the rechargeable battery, and then ended my day that way, too. This kind of acreage required a lot of weed whacking ... and I loved doing it.

Right about now, some of those once-colleagues were sitting in meetings. In conference rooms, taking notes, trying to look attentive, sweating to make a wise remark instead of a wise crack, sipping coffee to try to stay awake.

My guilt swirled together with some delicious pleasure, as if I was getting away with something decadent and sinful and rich.

Only there was nothing wrong with what I was doing. Not one thing. I had worked long years in those corporate offices, paid my dues, saved whatever I could to build a cushion and a dream, and now I was starting on it. Not one thing wrong with that.

Yet I felt like an escapee from the chain gang, and that both amused and irritated me. Work should not feel that way. Not for anyone, and I had to think there was something wrong with spending so much of our lives doing what didn't give back. Only I couldn't claim that I hadn't enjoyed the various jobs I'd held. I had. Almost all of them, most of the time, and I had learned valuable skills, and built a fat portfolio of writing and editing samples, by working in all those places. Indeed, I will be working for many of them again, picking up freelance work assignments from the very same places where I had once clocked in my Monday through Friday hours.

So why this itch of guilt? Or maybe it was something else? Maybe it was the shedding of a long-worn skin. It had become too tight, too constraining, and in these first days of Z Word, that old skin was splitting open, causing some itch and discomfort along the split lines, as I prepared to emerge into a new part of my life and my career.

My favorite meditation spot by the pond at Z Acres
That made sense. What also made sense was beginning my day with a stroll in the garden, doing a bit of lawn work to give me a physical workout, and even enjoying a meditative pause in my favorite spot to sit by the pond. So I settled in for a while, sipping that coffee, and watched the koi rise to the surface of the pond, making ripples in the water, circles that expanded and expanded and overlapped with each other and floated away.

Whereas a morning meeting in a conference room often had made me tense, perhaps annoyed at endless discussion of the same issues that had been discussed in a thousand prior meetings, gathering my thoughts now at pondside made me feel like something inside was settling into a soft hum, opening, opening, ready to reveal some secret held inside.

The guilt, if that's what it was, was gone.

Thoughts of corporate offices faded away. I thought instead about what I wanted to accomplish on this day. Next week would bring first meetings, first batch of assignments, even first deadlines. This week, what was left of the week, I had time to think about writing a business plan. What exactly were my goals? How did I plan to achieve them? How would I measure my success?

I needed a solid list of contacts, those with whom I was already in contact, and those I planned to yet contact. I also wanted to make a list of potential markets I wished to investigate more closely.

No less important, I needed to gather my first receipts for that accountant I would be meeting on Monday. A neat record of what I would do and how I would do it, how much I spend in the doing, miles I travel for meetings and interviews, and so on and so forth. I needed to get into some good habits of recordkeeping, and I needed to break the bad habit of letting receipts and other notes pile up on my desk before I finally get around to filing them. Recordkeeping would be crucial to my success.

Something else. Something important.

I had this other dream tucked inside of this overarching dream of Z Word ... that it would allow me some time for creative writing again. Not just the business writing and journalism, manuscript editing and radio author interviews that I would do ... but some time to write ... just for me.

Remember that neglected novel? And that novelle I supposedly had finished, first draft, last winter and then set aside? The poetry I had so long set on the highest shelf to collect dust?

Yeah, that.

I had new routines to develop. I had to find my way to routines that felt comfortable, healthy, balanced. Sound sleep, mornings in the garden, meditation by the pond, then solid hours at my desk, even if all I was doing at times was staring out the window. Staring into space is something writers do when creativity starts to bubble up underneath. Few bosses understood that ... but this one did.

It felt odd, and wonderful, and a little scary, and a bit itchy to be my own boss. But I could get used to this.

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