A girl and her cat say good-bye

Clarence

Clarence

He loved dried apri­cots, rotis­serie chicken, and sleep­ing in the sink. He detested other mem­bers of his species. He cost $70, shots included, and I acquired him back in 1996 while still work­ing in Man­hat­tan as a lawyer.

It wasn’t my idea to get a cat. The direc­tive came from two sep­a­rate friends, both exas­per­ated by my fail­ure to get over a not-so-recent breakup. They thought that a cat would be good for me. I sus­pect they hoped it would shut me up—or at least shift the conversation.

He came home with me in a taxi cra­dled in my blue Coach purse, hav­ing won release from a card­board box through piteous kit­ten mews. An antic feather-light ball of fluff, he devel­oped a dis­con­cert­ing habit of rac­ing through my Upper West Side apart­ment and hurtling off the bed, legs splayed in all direc­tions, noth­ing to break his fall. I named him Clarence—not for Clarence Dar­row, the most fre­quent of all first guesses, but for Clarence, the disheveled Angel Sec­ond Class who strug­gles to res­cue George Bai­ley from despair in the movie “It’s a Won­der­ful Life.” In time he grew regal and immense (“large-boned,” my father called him). “Such a small tongue—and so much kitty,” a boyfriend once observed, watch­ing the cat’s pro­longed and painstak­ing groom­ing process. “Clarence is a cer­e­mo­nial cat–not for every­day use.”

Sev­en­teen – almost 18 – years is a very long time, and we went through a lot together Mr. C and I. We moved from New York to west­ern Mass­a­chu­setts to Cam­bridge then back to west­ern Mass and finally to Brook­line. I quit law, pub­lished two nov­els, cycled through jobs and unem­ploy­ment. Through every chal­lenge, every dis­ap­point­ment, the cat was there beside me—splendidly furry and imper­vi­ous, purring and reassuring.

He’d been los­ing weight for more than a year, and it was clear some­thing was wrong.  Kid­ney fail­ure was one pos­si­bil­ity. Can­cer was another. Diag­nos­tic tests were incon­clu­sive. I began giv­ing him sub­cu­ta­neous flu­ids to help with hydra­tion, pills to stim­u­late his appetite. (“You … you are like a nurse for your cat!” sput­tered a courtly Latin gen­tle­man on hear­ing of my min­is­tra­tions.) Then, six weeks ago, with his appetite flag­ging, came another round of tests. The ver­dict: Late-stage can­cer, in both his abdomen and lungs. When I brought him home, groggy and weak, from the hated ani­mal hos­pi­tal, I whis­pered to him a promise that he’d never have to go back.

I knew that I wanted him to die at home, but that’s all I knew. I didn’t know what that would entail, or what I should do or when. Not sur­pris­ingly, it was one of those times when the Inter­net proves a god­send. With a bit of search­ing, I dis­cov­ered Har­bor Vet­eri­nary House Calls, which not only does home vis­its but also offers pet hos­pice care. As the lovely and kind Dr. Maija Mikkola Cur­tis explained on her first home visit, hos­pice care for animals—as for humans—is about qual­ity of life. She told me to think of her as a part­ner, to email her if I had any ques­tions at all about ongo­ing treat­ment or next steps.

The next weeks were pretty good ones for Clarence—lots and lots of rotis­serie chicken, tuna, and attention—but by the end of last week, he began a pre­cip­i­tous decline. He stopped eat­ing and took to retreat­ing to the dark­est reaches of a closet. Already frail, hav­ing dropped more than half of his weight in the course of the past 18 months, he grew even weaker and frailer. With a heavy heart, I con­tacted Maija, and she came out the next evening.

We watched Clarence for a while, Maija and I, as I reached a final deci­sion. “The spark has gone,” she said qui­etly. I had to agree. The process of euthana­sia was sim­ple and very peace­ful. I’d already been say­ing good-bye for a very long time, and I pet­ted and whis­pered my love to him as his life ebbed away.

Early last month—shortly after learn­ing how very sick Clarence was—I  hap­pened on an advice col­umn about a guy who was spend­ing thou­sands of dol­lars to keep his cat alive despite liv­ing on a dis­abil­ity pen­sion and, from the per­spec­tive of his best friend (the let­ter writer), hav­ing “no extra cash for lux­u­ries.” I loved the columnist’s response:

It may be that your friend’s rela­tion­ship with his cat is some­thing he truly can­not live with­out; it may be that he feels some­thing toward this cat that is beyond the under­stand­ing of out­siders and with­out the pro­tec­tion of social sanc­tion or nam­ing.… [P]erhaps even­tu­ally we will come to see that a man’s rela­tion­ship with a cat is not sim­ply that of a per­son to a lux­ury item, but some­thing else, some­thing sacred.  

I’m down with that.

The house is very quiet when I get home these days. “Where’s the boy?” I call. Not because I’ve for­got­ten but because it’s what I do. I’ve also taken to scrolling through Petfinder, gaz­ing at the pic­tures of the count­less cats wait­ing to find homes. There’s Glad who reminds me oh-so-much of Clarence. (Would that be strange or good?) There’s sweet-faced Her­man with his gor­geous coat and play­ful goof­ball Mr. Then I look at a photo of Clarence that Mon­ica took in April.  So present, so very there. He was—is—a beloved being. You are a beloved being.

Follow Your Heart 2.0

Big Heart of Art - 1000 Visual Mashups

In 1998, I walked away from a six-figure job prac­tic­ing law to write a novel. I had never writ­ten a novel before and had, what is in ret­ro­spect, a laugh­ably (or rather fright­en­ingly) small cush­ion of sav­ings. A year later, I had a lucra­tive deal with a major pub­lisher.  My first novel was a Peo­ple mag­a­zine Page-Turner of the Week. We sold tons of for­eign rights.

Do what you love, and the money will fol­low. Along with being the title of a pop­u­lar self-help book, it sums up a dis­tinc­tive ethos of a dis­tinc­tive time in Amer­i­can history—an Oprah-fied vision of pos­si­bil­i­ties where the only lim­its were the bound­aries of our dreams.

Times have changed.

Look­ing back, the Fol­low Your Heart love fest was a reflection—you might say a symptom—of an econ­omy in over­drive. The wide­spread fail­ure to see this link was a sig­nif­i­cant if not sur­pris­ing ves­tige of ways of think­ing that have deep roots in west­ern cul­ture. It is the same point made by any num­ber of char­ac­ters in Jane Austen’s nov­els and stated with par­tic­u­lar clar­ity in E.M. Forster’s Howards End. “You and I and the Wilcoxes stand upon money as upon islands,” Mar­garet Schlegel tells her aunt. “It is so firm beneath our feet that we for­get its existence.”

The dan­ger of such for­get­ful­ness is now appar­ent from any num­ber of cau­tion­ary tales, most recently Eliz­a­beth Wurtzel’s melt­down in the pages of New York mag­a­zine. “I was alone in a lonely apart­ment with only a stalker to show for my accom­plish­ments and my years,” writes the best­selling author of Prozac Nation and grad­u­ate of Yale Law School, now in her mid-40s. “I have no hus­band, no chil­dren, no real estate, no stocks, no bonds, no invest­ments, no 401(k), no CDs, no IRAs, no emer­gency fund—I don’t even have a sav­ings account. It’s not that I have not planned for the future; I have not planned for the present.”

And should this exam­ple not be suf­fi­ciently chill­ing, we also have the object lessons of once high-flying Oprah-endorsed celebri­ties brought low by finan­cial mis­steps. Most vis­i­ble among these is Sarah Ban Breath­nach, author of the block­buster Sim­ple Abun­dance: A Day­book of Com­fort and Joy, Oprah’s favorite book of the year for 1996. After mak­ing a for­tune pro­claim­ing the joys of sim­ple liv­ing, Breath­nach went on a spend­ing spree, with pur­chases includ­ing Sir Isaac Newton’s “chapel” in Eng­land and Mar­i­lyn Monroe’s furs. She ended up with noth­ing. (While Sim­ple Abun­dance spent years on best­seller lists, her Decem­ber 2010 come­back effort—Peace and Plenty: Find­ing Your Way to Finan­cial Seren­ity—is ranked 396,776 on Amazon.com as of this writing.)

My own story lacks both the highs and the lows of either Wurtzel’s or Breathnach’s— after pub­lish­ing two books and strug­gling with a third, I ulti­mately made my way back into the paid workforce—but look­ing back, I see a sim­i­lar thread. I too had a ten­dency to see the present as pre­lude, to live as if suc­cess, once achieved, laid the ground­work for the future. (Which is true to some extent and in some ways but not to the extent or in the ways that some of us seemed to assume.)

All of which goes to explain my inter­est in a trend that I’ve taken to call­ing Fol­low Your Heart 2.0. In this iter­a­tion, we no longer have a stark dichotomy between ide­al­ism and prac­ti­cal­ity. Rather, the new model rec­og­nizes that con­tent­ment gen­er­ally requires sta­bil­ity as well as pas­sion. It’s Fol­low Your Heart remixed for the 21st century.

An espe­cially clear for­mu­la­tion of what I’m talk­ing about appears in The Start-up of You, a book by LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoff­man and co-author Ben Cas­nocha. The pair urge their read­ers to con­sider three inter­lock­ing pieces when mak­ing work-related deci­sions: Assets, aspi­ra­tions and val­ues, and mar­ket real­i­ties. Assets are the resources we bring to the table—our tal­ents, edu­ca­tion, and skills, as well as our bank accounts. The other two cat­e­gories are pretty much what they sound like.

Sig­nif­i­cantly, the authors aren’t telling read­ers to for­get about their dreams. Rather, they’re say­ing that dreams exist within a larger frame­work. Depend­ing on your goals–and depend­ing on your needs–context, includ­ing the mar­ket, may be crit­i­cally impor­tant. “Of course, it’s worth men­tion­ing that [her] pas­sion is mobile pay­ment sys­tems,” Work Stew blog­ger Kate Gace Wal­ton remarked dryly of one suc­cess­ful entre­pre­neur. All dreams are not cre­ated equal.

For those of us with ample stocks of edu­ca­tion and social cap­i­tal, the late 90s econ­omy was for­giv­ing and often fun. Risks were not so risky. You could always get a job. The econ­omy circa 2013 is a very dif­fer­ent place. “$100,000 is the new $300,000,” one lit­er­ary agent remarked to me, shortly after the Great Reces­sion began. Five years later, it seems increas­ingly unlikely that we’re ever going back.

More and more, I’m see­ing Fol­low Your Heart 2.0 infuse the pop­u­lar conversation—and I think that’s a very good thing. It’s appar­ent in Marci Alboher’s excel­lent new Encore Career Hand­book, which acknowl­edges the crit­i­cal role that finances play in mak­ing a tran­si­tion to more mean­ing­ful work in the sec­ond half of life. It’s also cen­tral to Cal Newport’s So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Pas­sion in the Quest for Work You Love, which makes the case that pas­sion most often fol­lows hard work and suc­cess, not the reverse.

As for me, I’m older and wiser (I think), but I still have a strong inner sense of direc­tion, and I strug­gle when cir­cum­stances chan­nel my ener­gies into other things. For many of us, work that feels mean­ing­ful is a big part of what makes life worth­while, and there may be times when pur­su­ing that is worth almost any sac­ri­fice.  But today, the stakes are dif­fer­ent, maybe higher, for many of us. Happy end­ings are harder to come by. Uncer­tainty is guaranteed.

Purpose. Passion. Paycheck. (Plus a book giveaway.)

Encore Career HandbookI first encoun­tered the remark­able Judy Cock­er­ton when she spoke at Har­vard Law School, where I was work­ing at the time. Her topic was Tree­house, the inno­v­a­tive com­mu­nity she founded in East­hamp­ton, Mass., where fam­i­lies adopt­ing kids from fos­ter care live side by side in a neigh­bor­hood set­ting with peo­ple over 55 who serve as hon­orary grandparents.

My first thought: “This is ter­rific! I want to work with her.” (Which, years later, I did, tak­ing on sev­eral small projects as a vol­un­teer. I also wrote this.)

That reac­tion has been widespread—and this year Judy (now my friend), was one of five peo­ple to receive the $100,000 Pur­pose Prize for 2012, an award for social entre­pre­neurs over the age of 60. For me, as for so many oth­ers, her vision, com­mit­ment, and deter­mi­na­tion to “rein­vent fos­ter care” are ongo­ing inspi­ra­tions, and I’m thrilled that she’s get­ting the recog­ni­tion she so deserves.

But if Judy is unique—and she most cer­tainly is—her broader aspi­ra­tions are not. Behind the high-profile Pur­pose Prize is a larger trend, as grow­ing num­bers of baby boomers seek work that is both per­son­ally mean­ing­ful and serves a larger good. Pro­mot­ing this trend is the goal of Encore.org, the non­profit that awards the Pur­pose Prize, and the topic of an end­lessly use­ful new book by Encore.org Vice Pres­i­dent (and for­mer New York Times colum­nist) Marci Alboher.

Marci Alboher

Marci Albo­her

Being some­thing of an encore careerist myself—as well as a fan of Marci’s pre­vi­ous book on “slash” careers that com­bine two vocations—I couldn’t wait to get my hands The Encore Career Hand­book: How To Make a Liv­ing and a Dif­fer­ence in the Sec­ond Half of Life, out just this month. I wasn’t disappointed.

First and fore­most, the book is jam-packed with excel­lent prac­ti­cal guid­ance. Here are three big-picture sug­ges­tions that espe­cially res­onated with me:

Get com­fort­able with uncer­tainty:  Uncer­tainty is part of any transition—and mov­ing into an Encore career is a tran­si­tion. The good news is you’ve likely already had some expe­ri­ence, tran­si­tions being a hall­mark of life in Plan B Nation. I think about this a lot (as you know if you read this blog). I’ve writ­ten about tran­si­tions here. And here and here and here.

Get con­nected:  In the end, it’s all about the peo­ple you know—and those you meet. If you’re lucky, you (like me) will find this a lot of fun. Marci sug­gests a num­ber of spe­cific ways to engage your friends and oth­ers in the encore career change process. Strate­gies include using oth­ers as a sound­ing board (akin to the idea of hav­ing a per­sonal board of direc­tors), work­ing with career coaches, join­ing a group or tak­ing a class, vol­un­teer­ing as a way to try on a job or sec­tor, and build­ing vibrant net­works (both vir­tual and real-life). I’ve long been a big believer in always erring in favor of con­nec­tion, and there are some great ideas here about how to go about that.

Get a han­dle on your finances: An encore career search means seek­ing “pur­pose, pas­sion, and a pay­check,” as Marci puts it. But exactly what that pay­check needs to look like will depend on your sit­u­a­tion. Encore careers often—though not always—pay less than the jobs they fol­low. What kind of trade-offs are you will­ing to make? What is your risk tol­er­ance? Can you think of cre­ative ways to bring in extra cash or, con­versely, to reduce expenses? (The book offers many suggestions.)

There is also lots of excel­lent nuts-and-bolts stuff: How to go about prepar­ing encore career resumes and cover let­ters (along with sam­ples), exten­sive resource and read­ing lists, basic busi­ness plan­ning guid­ance, and an appen­dix of promis­ing encore jobs.

Once you start pay­ing atten­tion, encore careers are every­where. In my own office at Har­vard School of Pub­lic Health, my col­league Patti came out of the world of hedge funds. “I didn’t want to die hav­ing only been a banker,” she said wryly over a recent lunch. My col­league Chris, like me, spent time in cor­po­rate law.

That said, encore careers often don’t come easy, even for those with excel­lent cre­den­tials will­ing to take a pay cut. In his sear­ingly hon­est Diary of a Com­pany Man: Los­ing a Job, Find­ing a Life, for­mer Time Warner exec­u­tive James Kunen describes his uncer­tain path to ulti­mately ful­fill­ing work teach­ing Eng­lish as a sec­ond lan­guage. “Every­one loves doing something—I love read­ing at the beach—but not every­body loves doing some­thing that you can get paid for,” he reflects at one point. Closer to home, my friend Kenny—whom I met when I inter­viewed him for a Psy­chol­ogy Today piece on career choices—had a hard time find­ing pub­lic school teach­ing work after com­plet­ing Teach for Amer­ica train­ing in his 50s.

But just because some­thing is hard doesn’t mean it’s impossible—or that it’s the wrong thing to do. And thanks to Marci Alboher’s excel­lent book, it’s now eas­ier than it was.

Want to win a copy of The Encore Career Hand­book? Thanks to Work­man Pub­lish­ing, I have two to give away. Tweet a link to this story with the hash­tag #encore­book­win. I’ll pick the win­ners next weekend.

The why is the how

So yes, I am grate­ful to be so busy: I am grate­ful for my job (or rather, jobs), grate­ful for my many friends, grate­ful for the oppor­tu­ni­ties of this vibrant and entic­ing city.

But I am also frustrated.

In recent weeks, I’ve strug­gled to get back to a reg­u­lar writ­ing sched­ule. One or two posts to this blog each week seems like a rea­son­able goal. But rea­son­able though it may be, it hasn’t been hap­pen­ing. Two weeks ago, I forced myself to the key­board in the chilly dark­ness of Mon­day at 4 am. (No time for writ­ing over the week­end? See how you like this!)  And, yes, I did get the post done, but I was semi-conscious at work.

The fact is, most writ­ers also have other jobs. It’s the nature of the beast. So how do peo­ple do it? Where do they find the time?

For answers, I turned to friends who have impressed me with their bal­anc­ing acts.

First to come to mind was Car­olyn Edgar, a law school class­mate who seems to do the impos­si­ble on pretty much a daily basis. The 2012 recip­i­ent of the Cor­po­rate Coun­sel of the Year Award from New York City’s Black Bar Asso­ci­a­tion, she serves as VP of a For­tune 500 company—not exactly your typ­i­cal low-key slacker day job. Out­side of work, she’s a sin­gle mom and also man­ages to put in reg­u­lar time on the yoga mat. And then, there’s the writ­ing: Along with her own very active blog, she writes about rela­tion­ships, pol­i­tics, and par­ent­ing for sites includ­ing Huff­in­g­ton Post and CNN.com. Oh, and last month—just for fun—she com­pleted the marathon NaNoW­riMo, a chal­lenge that I’d find daunt­ing even with no job at all.

She how do you do it? I asked her. I really wanted to know. She got back to me the fol­low­ing day, bring­ing to mind the old adage that, if you really want some­thing done, you should ask the busiest person.

I’ve been giv­ing a lot of thought to your ques­tion. I ask myself all the time, why do I do this—especially when I’ve stayed up until 3 am edit­ing and for­mat­ting a blog post, drag­ging into the office the next day, and see­ing only 3 com­ments on the post or 4 retweets of the link on Twit­ter. And then I remember—I do this because I love writ­ing. I blog, even though I have two kids and a demand­ing, full-time career—because I am a writer. I feel more com­plete when I write than I do when I don’t.The writ­ing fits into the tiny inter­sti­tial spaces in my life, between the con­fer­ence calls and the draft­ing, between super­vis­ing home­work and get­ting the kids off to bed. It often sup­plants sleep, but see­ing peo­ple engage with the thoughts and ideas I share ener­gizes me in lieu of sleep (that is, until my body says enough and shuts down, as it has this weekend). 

Inter­est­ing, I thought. All of that res­onates. But while I under­stand the why, I still don’t get the how.

Mean­while, I heard back from Kate Gace Wal­ton, another mother of two. Along with  full-time employ­ment, Kate launched and edits Work Stew, a fas­ci­nat­ing blog about the hows and whys of all things work-related. Who bet­ter to ask about jug­gling writ­ing with a demand­ing job? Here’s what she had to say:

Being an insom­niac really helps! I’m at work from about 8 to 5 Mon­day through Fri­day and my evenings are spent wran­gling the kids, ages 5 and 3. (My hus­band has a long com­mute and trav­els a lot, so unfor­tu­nately he’s not around to do much evening wran­gling.) But some­time between 8 and 9 the house finally falls quiet, and from then until the wee hours, I focus on Work Stew—writing, post­ing, review­ing essays from con­trib­u­tors, and edit­ing pod­casts. Also, and this is huge for me: every Tues­day night, the kids stay at my par­ents’ house. That gives me a free evening to record inter­views with­out any shriek­ing in the background—and to catch up on var­i­ous other tasks. I do a lit­tle bit on Work Stew over the week­ends, but for the most part I try to unplug from it—partly so that my fam­ily can have a break from see­ing me attached to a screen and also so that I can think about where it should go next … and by “next” I mean in the next week or so.

And then, like Car­olyn, she headed straight for the whys:

Two rea­sons: 1) I love it and 2) it helps me. To elab­o­rate on point one: the three things I want from life are Con­nec­tion, Flow, and Won­der. Work Stew allows me to con­nect with won­der­ful peo­ple in mean­ing­ful ways. Writ­ing and edit­ing are very reli­able sources of Flow for me. And the chance to learn how all these dif­fer­ent peo­ple are grap­pling with arguably the most fun­da­men­tal and uni­ver­sal of questions—What should I do with my life?—well that’s  this heathen’s ver­sion of church! Truly, I’m filled with a deep sense of won­der when I think through the 100+ sto­ries the con­trib­u­tors have told in essays or interviews. 

And on point two: I find other people’s sto­ries not only won­drous, but help­ful. On a very prac­ti­cal level, Work Stew has helped me to think more cre­atively about my own (decades-old) work conun­drums. I still stew, of course, but more pro­duc­tively and pleas­antly than ever before. 

As I read this, some­thing clicked into place. We can talk about time man­age­ment and pri­or­i­ties and hours of sleep, but in the end, the bot­tom line: There isn’t really a “how.” There isn’t enough time, but you do it any­way.  You write because not writ­ing sim­ply isn’t a viable option.

By far, the hard­est time dur­ing my long stretch of unem­ploy­ment was early on when there wasn’t a sin­gle soli­tary thing that I really wanted to do. Noth­ing called to me. I didn’t have a why. In ret­ro­spect, I can see that this was just part of my tran­si­tion, but at the time, I felt myself veer­ing towards hopelessness.

There needs to be a why. There always needs to be a why. And when the why is strong enough, it pro­pels us into the how.

My Plan B Nation story — and ours

rock climbing is fun!

There are times you look back and say: “Why was I so freaked out? That wasn’t such a big deal.”

And there are times you look back and say: “I can’t believe I did that.”

The past few months put me squarely in the lat­ter camp. I feel a bit as if I’ve doggedly scaled a steep and treach­er­ous incline. Peer­ing down from the sum­mit, my stom­ach flips as I gauge the pre­cip­i­tous drop, the jagged rocks below.

Metaphors aside, here are the facts: Over the course of about six weeks – mid-August to late Sep­tem­ber – I applied for and accepted a full-time job, packed up my two-bedroom-with-basement rental in west­ern Mass, found a new apart­ment in Boston (and this was in Sep­tem­ber when, as real­tors repeat­edly told me, EVERYTHING is gone), moved, and started the afore­men­tioned job. Oh, and I also defended a case in hous­ing court and began teach­ing a weekly sem­i­nar at UMass Amherst, a solid four-hour roundtrip from where I now live. Not sur­pris­ingly, I’ve yet to unpack, and my apart­ment resem­bles a cross between a pre-renovation Bram­ford (shout-out to Rosemary’s Baby fans) and a hoarder’s stor­age unit.

Given the level of ambi­ent chaos, it’s also not sur­pris­ing that this blog went silent in early Sep­tem­ber. I was last heard from on Sep­tem­ber 9, when I wrote about los­ing 20 pounds on the stress-induced Blow-Up-Your-Life Diet. And as I’ve stum­bled through the early stages of life in a new neigh­bor­hood – How do I reg­is­ter to vote? Where is the clos­est dry cleaner? And, per­haps most impor­tantly, where do I get good cof­fee? – I’ve felt that I sim­ply don’t have the band­width to blog as well.

I say “felt” because it recently struck me that there’s more to it than this. It’s not just that I’ve been crazy busy, though that’s cer­tainly true. It’s also that I’ve lost my sto­ry­line, the iden­tity that’s defined me.

Hard as unem­ploy­ment was (and it was plenty hard), it ulti­mately launched me into a new life – and a new iden­tity. As I chron­i­cled my expe­ri­ence of the Great Reces­sion, first in Salon here and here and later on this blog, I found new sources of mean­ing and new sources of pride.The per­son I became was braver and stronger than the per­son I’d been. She was also a more con­fi­dent writer and a more com­pas­sion­ate per­son. “I’m the poster girl for fail­ure!” I quipped to a friend some months back. But by then I didn’t mean fail­ure as fail­ure: I meant fail­ure as a kind of suc­cess – fail­ure as the path to a life no less rich for hav­ing been unchosen.

Last month, in a piece on the New York Times Moth­er­lode blog, K.J. Dell’Antonia reflected on the chal­lenges of stay-at-home par­ents seek­ing to return to the work­force. Not hav­ing kids myself, it’s some­thing I likely wouldn’t have read, except for the fact that K.J. kindly pointed read­ers to this blog, sug­gest­ing that they might ben­e­fit from think­ing about work issues in a broader con­text. To par­ents feel­ing regret for deci­sions made years ear­lier, she offered these wise words: “It’s not just that ‘what’s done is done,’ but that the way you really feel about your years and choices is col­ored by your cur­rent discouragement.”

I can think of no more impor­tant reminder. Where we are now is not where we’ll be in a week or a month or a year. Even when changes are mostly pos­i­tive, as mine have been lately, find­ing the new story takes time. In any big tran­si­tion – and being on my sec­ond in the past four years and my [insert large num­ber here] since col­lege, I feel I can speak with some author­ity – a crit­i­cal piece involves mak­ing sense of the unfold­ing plot­line. Who am I, now that I’m no longer the Har­vard grad-turned-chronicler-of-unemployment? Who am I, now that I’m back in the work­force and trans­planted back to Boston? I am the per­son I was before, plus the per­son I became dur­ing those years, plus the per­son I’m becom­ing. What is her story?

That’s what I’m fig­ur­ing out now.

This is what transitions look like

Over the last cou­ple of months, I’ve lost more than 20 pounds on what my friend Molly refers to as the Blow-Up-Your-Life Diet. I’ve been apart­ment search­ing in Boston, pack­ing to move, prepar­ing to start a new full-time job after three-plus years on my own, and start­ing to lead a sem­i­nar at UMass Amherst enti­tled, iron­i­cally enough, “Liv­ing Strate­gi­cally.” (I taught my first class last week by the way. Let it be said: I love my stu­dents. And I love teaching.)

On sec­ond thought, “liv­ing strate­gi­cally” isn’t so ironic after all. If not for the strate­gies I’ve learned, prac­ticed – and blogged about here – over the past few years, I’d undoubt­edly be in far worse shape than I am today.  Hard as things are right now – and they are pretty hard – I have tools and perspective.

That is when I remem­ber to use them.

Last week, I was going through an espe­cially dif­fi­cult patch. I’d made the two-hour drive into Boston from west­ern Mass based on a realtor’s promise to show me four to seven apart­ments only to dis­cover on arrival that none of them accepted cats, despite my hav­ing clearly indi­cated that one would be com­ing with me. I start my Boston job a week from tomor­row. I still have no place to live, and once I find one, I’ll still have to move. It all began to seem utterly over­whelm­ing. Was this whole thing a mis­take? What had I been thinking?

And then, just in time, I remem­bered: This is what tran­si­tions look like. Not in every spe­cific, of course, but in the experience.

In life coach Martha Beck’s Change Cycle model of tran­si­tions, I’m right on track, smack dab in the mid­dle of Square 1 (Death and Rebirth). “The bizarre, form­less, zero-identity nether­world of Square One is what anthro­pol­o­gists call a “lim­i­nal period,” Beck writes in Find­ing Your Own North Star, describ­ing such a time as one “where you’re on the thresh­old between iden­ti­ties, nei­ther inside nor out, nei­ther one thing nor the other.”

She con­tin­ues: “Dur­ing most of Square One, you’ll prob­a­bly feel pan­icky, ground­less, and des­per­ate. Prob­lems and com­pli­ca­tions seem to attack from all sides: big ones, lit­tle ones, strange and unfa­mil­iar ones. You rush around in fren­zied activ­ity but feel as though you’re get­ting absolutely noth­ing done.”

Yes! And yes and yes. That is exactly how I’ve been feeling.

For his part, tran­si­tions guru William Bridges describes this uncom­fort­able stretch as “the neu­tral zone,” a “period of con­fu­sion and dis­tress” that fol­lows an end­ing and pre­cedes a new begin­ning. He devotes an entire chap­ter of Tran­si­tions to this dif­fi­cult time, includ­ing a num­ber of sug­ges­tions to ease the way.

The first of these: Sur­ren­der — we must “give in to the empti­ness and stop strug­gling to escape it,” he counsels.

If you’re caught in a rip­tide, you’re sup­posed to stop fight­ing and let your­self drift. If you’re fac­ing an angry bear, you should lie still, pre­tend­ing to be dead. (At least, this is what I’ve always heard; in the inter­ests of full dis­clo­sure, I’ve tested nei­ther of these.) Both of these responses would seem to go against our basic sur­vival instincts. I imag­ine that, in the instant, knowl­edge is often a poor match for adrenaline-powered impulse.

But, as I know from long expe­ri­ence, the first impulse isn’t always the right one.  As I con­tinue through this month of dra­matic change and uproot­ing, I’ll be call­ing on the col­lec­tive wis­dom of all who have gone before me (and here, I include not only oth­ers but also my own past selves.) While sur­ren­der doesn’t come nat­u­rally, it’s nonethe­less what’s called for.

Life Exper­i­ment #9:  “The present moment is the mother of the future. Take care of the mother, and the mother will take care of the child.” I love this line from one of my Bud­dhist teach­ers. The focus of this month is sur­ren­der­ing to – and car­ing for – the present moment, the only thing we ever have to work with.

On stress. And coping. Plus a housing court update.

NIGHT

There’s a famous study show­ing that when stress­ful life events pile up, ill­ness is more likely. This is true whether the events are good are bad. Among the 43 life events stud­ied, mar­riage and out­stand­ing achieve­ment take their place along with divorce and job loss.

I don’t even want to think about how I’d score on this test right now (though feel free to test your­self.)  Over the next month, I start two new jobs – along with my new full­time job at the Har­vard School of Pub­lic Health, I’ll be teach­ing one night a week at UMass Amherst. I’m thrilled about both of these. But man, it is a lot. On top of that, I need to find a place to live in Boston, pack up my Northamp­ton apart­ment, and move. My cat’s been sick. There have been fam­ily prob­lems. Also: I’m exhausted.

The course I’ll be teach­ing is called “Liv­ing Strate­gi­cally,” and it con­sid­ers ways to thrive amidst the chal­lenges that come our way. Talk about teach­ing what you need to learn! For obvi­ous rea­sons, this is a topic that deeply inter­ests me, and one that I never tire of explor­ing in this blog among other places. There. Are. Tools. This is the core insight.

These days, one idea is prov­ing espe­cially help­ful, and I’m doing my best to remem­ber it at every oppor­tu­nity: Feel­ings and thoughts are not facts. They are sim­ply thoughts and feel­ings. It helps to repeat this when I’m hit by over­whelm, when I can’t imag­ine how I’ll ever get through all that needs to get done. I think about my friend Molly, who made a sim­i­lar tran­si­tion last year. If she could do it, I can do it. I will do it.

I’m also doing my best to lean into the good.  To remem­ber that the stress – while intense right now – is far from the whole story. For one thing, I’m going back to work! This is a great thing. And while the changes under way feel over­whelm­ing, they are not as extreme as they might be. I’m mov­ing back to an area where I’ve lived before. I’ll even be work­ing for the same insti­tu­tion, just at a dif­fer­ent school. I’ll still be an easy day trip from the lovely place where I’ve been liv­ing and love. (Some brave souls even do a daily com­mute, though I find this hard to imagine.)

Also good: The evic­tion saga is over; hous­ing court is behind me. I got what I needed – time to pack and move – and can focus on the future.

While chronic stres­sors often pre­dict ill­ness, it’s not inevitable, as shown by research explor­ing the topic of stress har­di­ness.  There. Are. Tools. There are strate­gies. I doubt that I’ll ever remem­ber these weeks with any spe­cial fond­ness. But in 60 days this will all be behind me. That is my new mantra.

Notice to Quit

Two days ago, I arrived home to find two mis­sives stuck in my front door. The first was a lovely mes­sage from neigh­bors invit­ing me for drinks before a book­store read­ing that night. The sec­ond was not so lovely: I’d been served with a 30-day Notice to Quit, the first stage of evic­tion proceedings.

The legal notice wasn’t alto­gether unex­pected –  for var­i­ous (good) rea­sons, I’ve been unwill­ing to sign a lease for the upcom­ing year, and I knew that the own­ers weren’t happy that I’d opted to go month-to-month.

But “not unex­pected” isn’t the same as “totally fine.”  I could feel my whole body clench­ing as I thought about what came next.

By the time we got to the book­store, I’d calmed down a bit, bol­stered by my neigh­bors’ warmth and con­cern, as well as their canapés. Still, I was feel­ing no small dis­tress when I bumped into my writer friend Cathi (on break from her own author tour for her ter­rific new novel Gone).

That’s great for your blog!” was her wry response, after my story spilled out.

The words caught me by sur­prise — and the sur­prise itself sur­prised me. She’d reminded me of some­thing I already knew. Why hadn’t I thought of that?

If you’ve been read­ing this blog, you know that I’ve been giv­ing a lot of thought to the power of writ­ing to trans­form painful expe­ri­ences. I’ve writ­ten about it here and also here and here. It’s not a goal I set out to achieve but some­thing I’ve sim­ply watched hap­pen. A won­der­ful and mys­te­ri­ous cre­ative alchemy.

But this time, that go-to strat­egy had totally eluded me. I couldn’t help being curi­ous about why that was.

We grow through stretch-not-break chal­lenges. That was one of the first thoughts that came to mind, an idea gleaned some years back in an adult psy­chol­ogy class. Too few chal­lenges? We stag­nate. Too many? We get overwhelmed.

Legal pro­ceed­ings are stress­ful in the best of cir­cum­stances, and for me the push to move tops off a num­ber of other stres­sors. A sick cat. Sick me. An ongo­ing search for work. The more I thought about this, the more things fell into place. That I’d stall out when con­fronted with another big chal­lenge makes total sense.

Accept­ing – mak­ing peace with – this fact feels like a first step for­ward. Stress is hard. Stress takes a toll. That’s a fact of life. Feel­ing unmoored and being slow on the uptake, is sim­ply cause and effect. So that’s what I’m sit­ting with, this sense of how things are. I have no idea what comes next, but this is where it starts.

Becoming the sun

Sun and Leaves

A decade or so back, dur­ing a strange and dif­fi­cult time, I paid a visit to a ther­a­pist who came well-recommended by friends. While I remem­ber very lit­tle of the ses­sion a sin­gle line from our con­ver­sa­tion has haunted me for years. “You’re like the moon, and you need to be like the sun!” His voice car­ried both urgency and what struck me as exas­per­a­tion, and at the time, it left me reel­ing, baf­fled, and not a lit­tle chastened.

You need to be like the sun. What was he talk­ing about? It was all that I could do at the time sim­ply to keep afloat.

I left the office feel­ing over­whelmed. I never went back. Still, the fiercely spo­ken words some­how stayed with me. Over time, they came to serve as a sort of koan in times of dis­tress and doubt. Over time, I began to lis­ten, to ask what they have to teach me.

The moon takes on reflected light. The sun gives out its own. That was the first and most obvi­ous asso­ci­a­tion. Often the image rises up as I pon­der a rela­tion­ship, espe­cially as I make (not always suc­cess­ful) efforts to choose more wisely.  What am I hop­ing to draw from another that I might become the source of? And this becoming-the-source-of, how might, I go about that?

I’ve been in a bit of a slump dur­ing the past week, hard to say exactly why. There are rea­sons — there are always rea­sons  – but some­times they fade to the back­ground, while at oth­ers (now for exam­ple), they take cen­ter stage.  Maybe it’s the heat wave of the past few days. Or com­ing to the end of a big project, with space open­ing up on the other side, yet to be filled. Maybe it’s the fact that I need to move house and have yet to fig­ure out where. Maybe it’s a cer­tain kind of alone­ness that’s been weigh­ing on me lately, cou­pled with a sad­ness around sev­eral friend­ships appar­ently on the wane. Most likely it’s a com­bi­na­tion of these things and likely oth­ers too.

You’re like the moon, and you need to be like the sun. Yes, it’s about giv­ing off light but also, I find myself think­ing now, about occu­py­ing the cen­ter, not revolv­ing around. I’m at the cen­ter of my own life. The sun is at the center.

Travels in Plan B Nation: 3 years, 5 lessons

[Bint.3♥♪♫]

Last month—April 10, to be exact—marked the third anniver­sary of my exit from the salaried work­force and my entry into what I’ve taken to call­ing Plan B Nation. After four-plus years at Har­vard Law School, where I’d han­dled speeches and other behind-the-scenes writ­ing for then-Dean (now U.S. Supreme Court Jus­tice) Elena Kagan, she decamped for Wash­ing­ton, D.C., and I decamped for parts unknown at the peak of the Great Recession.

It was, to put it diplo­mat­i­cally, not an easy time. The econ­omy was in free fall, plus I had no idea what to do next. Which maybe wasn’t such a bad thing because, had I known what I wanted to do, I likely couldn’t have done it. (Did I men­tion the Great Reces­sion?) Floun­der­ing in spring 2009 put me in excel­lent com­pany. Yes, I was freaked out and unem­ployed, but I cer­tainly wasn’t alone.

In recent weeks, I’ve been think­ing a lot about the road I’ve trav­eled since those anxiety-ridden days and feel­ing a lot of com­pas­sion for the me who so stolidly trudged through them. I’ve also been think­ing about what I’ve learned and what might be worth shar­ing. Here are five of the biggest lessons that I still carry with me.

1.  Tran­si­tions take a long time.  

I’ve writ­ten about this before, and it’s a really impor­tant point.  In New Pas­sages, best­selling author Gail Sheehy ball­parks two years as the min­i­mum time needed to sta­bi­lize fol­low­ing a lay­off or other “life acci­dent.”  Five to seven years is com­mon.  A related point: Tran­si­tions tend to meander—to be less like lad­ders and more like the clas­sic labyrinth, where you wind your way slowly towards the cen­ter, almost arrive, and then sud­denly find your­self on the outer rim, and then, just as unpre­dictably, back at the cen­ter again. I often find it help­ful to remind myself that this is just the nature of the beast.     

2.  Some­times the grass is greener because it’s greener.  

I put off leav­ing the Boston area for more than a year on the the­ory that wher­ever you go, there you are. Could mov­ing to another place really make me hap­pier? I’m happy to say that the answer is an unequiv­o­cal Yes. Indeed, I’d go so far as to say that mov­ing to an area that I love is prob­a­bly the sin­gle most impor­tant step I’ve taken to move my life for­ward.  In par­tic­u­lar, mov­ing to a place where I have a strong net­work of friends has made every­thing far easier—as well as a lot more fun.

3.  If you don’t know what to do for sure, start mov­ing anyway.

Tran­si­tions, by their nature, gen­er­ally involve a tem­po­rary loss of clear inner direc­tion.  That was cer­tainly the case for me: I was search­ing with­out really know­ing what I was look­ing for (which, not sur­pris­ingly, made it really hard to find).

Look­ing back, one of the most use­ful things I did dur­ing this time was to take action even if noth­ing felt quite right—to exper­i­ment, try things out. That’s how I came (lack­adaisi­cally, glumly) to write my very first per­sonal essay—which led to a blog on Huff­in­g­ton Post, which led to writ­ing for Salon, which led to this blog, which led to writ­ing for Sec­on­dAct (includ­ing Notes from Plan B Nation, my new monthly col­umn), Psy­chol­ogy Today, and a bunch of other stuff, which, remark­ably enough, actu­ally does feel right and for which I feel really grateful.

And you don’t need to take my word for it: I’ve since come across sim­i­lar advice in books by career guru Bar­bara Sher and LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoff­man. “You won’t encounter acci­den­tal good fortune—you won’t stum­ble on oppor­tu­ni­ties that rocket your career forward—if you’re lying in bed,” Hoff­man writes in The Start-Up of You. “When you do some­thing you stir the pot and intro­duce the pos­si­bil­ity that seem­ingly ran­dom ideas, peo­ple, and places will col­lide and form new com­bi­na­tions and oppor­tu­ni­ties.” I couldn’t agree more.

4.  Be kind to yourself.

We’ve all heard a lot about mind­ful­ness by now, but this qual­ity doesn’t really get you very far unless it’s paired with self-compassion. Psy­chol­ogy pro­fes­sor Kristin Neff is a pio­neer­ing researcher on this topic, and her book Self Com­pas­sion: Stop Beat­ing Your­self Up and Leave Inse­cu­rity Behind is geared to a pop­u­lar audi­ence and pro­vides an excel­lent roadmap for fur­ther exploration.

5.  Let your­self be surprised.

The biggest dif­fer­ence between lucky and unlucky peo­ple may be that lucky peo­ple are open to see­ing the unex­pected. (For more on this, check out this reported research.)  Expand­ing your periph­eral vision can do a lot to expand your oppor­tu­ni­ties.  I’ve found it to be useful—as well as fun—to con­sciously expect the unex­pected. (Most recent exam­ple: I’m about to go off to look at a poten­tial new home that I dis­cov­ered last night on Facebook.)

Strangely enough, my Plan B Nation life has turned out to suit me far bet­ter than the life I had before. I’m finally doing work that feels both mean­ing­ful and cre­ative. I have a great com­mu­nity in a place where I love liv­ing. The road I’ve trav­eled to get here was pretty remark­ably hard, but that doesn’t tell me I did some­thing wrong. It sim­ply tells me that I’m human.