To be of use, again

In December 2017, I left a full-time job as a communications executive. I loved that organization, its mission, and my colleagues, and in many ways, I still do (I stayed on as a donor). But I was burned out; I was losing the characteristics I had come to know as essential to my core character: resilience, optimism, productivity. I was mired in anxiety and anger and struggling with mysterious physical ailments, like a rash that wouldn’t go away.

I left with the intention of setting up my own consulting practice, which I both did and didn’t do. I gave a lot of mentoring and counseling time to friends and former colleagues; I also continued with my own coaching sessions, as a way of healing and learning from my collective work experiences. I wrote on this blog, which I loved, loved, loved doing beyond measure. I picked up a few clients, one who was an utter delight. And I bid on several RFPs and did not get a single one (that’s a subject for a much longer blog post I will write someday, as soon as I can find a way to rein in the snark).

I have much to say about why I didn’t take to the consulting life, and why it didn’t take to me, but the easiest way of saying it now is that it felt like I was in dating mode when I am essentially a serial monogamist, when it comes to work. I like belonging to a team. I like routine. I am fundamentally oriented to work full-time, in a work-like setting, and found it odd and lonely to work on projects in my home office. Don’t get me wrong: I loved the hours and hours of solitude during the past year and a half, and also got used to a near-empty inbox and the feeling that no one cared about my whereabouts except for my immediate family. But I didn’t like solitude while working. That was the critical difference.

[As an aside: I hope that at no point during this blog post do I come off as de-valuing the work that many women do without pay, in their roles within their families and as volunteers in their communities. This piece is entirely based on my own experiences of work, which I am hard-wired to understand as a job outside the home, where I don’t have to buy my own printer paper and pens.]

However, my sabbatical was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had, in large part because it was so blissfully mundane. My days became expansive and open and full of possibilities. I went to see movies on weekdays, and then last winter I took a bus up to Lake Tahoe one day and spent an entire day skiing by myself, on a near-deserted mountain. I hiked miles and miles with my dog. I picked plums off of our tree, and persimmons off of my neighbor’s tree, and made jam and baked goods out of the harvest. My cooking achieved new heights: familiar dishes became better-seasoned, as I remembered to subtly layer in spices and seasonings in the correct order and in the correct amounts.

Aside from finding joy in the familiar and unfamiliar, I would say that the best outcomes from my sabbatical are the following:

A STRONGER MENTAL FORTRESS: I think there has been too much written about the terrible behaviors of Trump and the Republicans, and not enough said about the mental toll of living in these political times. At my last job, our purpose had suddenly, as of November 2016, become about fighting back and holding the line against a President and a Congress determined to destroy every value many of us hold dear, and gleefully profit while doing so. While I felt strength of purpose in having the work be so all-consuming and critical, I also felt long stretches of fatigue and anguish.

When I left full-time work, I was able to build better fortifications within myself to withstand the news of the day. I remember experiencing moments of sudden clarity after feeling choked with rage by the family separation policies and the Kavanaugh confirmation; moments when I was able to say to myself: THIS, and by “this,” I mean, this endless vortex of rage and despair you’ve been sucked into, is not doing ANYONE any good. You are not saving anyone’s life by feeling these feelings to this extent and you are certainly not helping yourself. Give money, show up as an ally, program news blackouts for yourself, and live to fight for another, and better, day.

A RENEWED VALUING OF WORK: When clients praised me for work I had done for them, I was, no lie, thrilled for days afterwards. Clearly, I get off not just on doing a thing well, but also in having someone else notice. As pathetic as that might make me sound, I think I chalk it up as a win in the self-awareness/know thyself column.

TIME TO THINK, REFLECT, AND SHARE: I had space and freedom to reflect on the things I’ve learned from work, and have shared some of those reflections on this blog.

UNRAVELING COMPLICATED FEELINGS ABOUT RACISM AND EQUITY: I think that we are living in a peculiar era where people who subscribe to old-style, out-there racist and intolerant views are feeling emboldened to GO BIG. Number one, it feels scary to be living in such times, and I have experienced more incidents of racism and sexism in the last two and a half years than I have in the decades preceding. And number two, now that our enemy has grown so bold, so shameless, I feel as if we have collectively lost the energy and goodwill to work through the tangles of learning and conflict which inevitably will occur in such a multi-cultural and diverse society.

Conflict in work and in personal lives has become more confusing and in the past few years, I’ve gotten into interpersonal conflicts with other people of color when I can’t remember having experienced such a thing before. If they challenge me on a racial/equity/bias issue, I feel it’s my obligation to a) listen respectfully and with an open heart and mind as to whether there is foundation for such a judgment and b) be an active ally and partner in understanding and learning where I can do better and c) hold my heart and mind open for such understanding, while still having the strength of mind to call bullshit! and enough! when such conversations become toxic and debilitating for me and others.

To do all that—during a time when I, myself, have felt vulnerable and threatened as a woman of color—has been, to put it mildly, challenging. And I was really only able to sort through these different steps and thought processes once I had the time and the space to do so. Time and space spawned greater levels of compassion and understanding. Go figure.

And finally:

HEY, SELF-CARE REALLY IS A THING: I am beyond grateful to my family for their support in allowing me to take this time off, and I realize that many others in the working world long for and would greatly benefit from a sabbatical, but their companies and/or their family situations do not allow them to take one. I recognize this enormous privilege I’ve been granted and all I can say is, I hope and pray that others get to do the same. That more companies will include sabbatical programs; that funders and donors will support rest and renewal for the warriors fighting on the front lines for the causes they care so fervently about. It is a lovely thing, when work has meaning again, because you and I have found the space to bring our best selves to it.

Which leads me to conclude with: one of my favorite poems of all time, Marge Piercy’s “To Be of Use,” because I’ve always felt so aligned with what it expresses and I’m so glad to be able to feel these work feels again, as I take up the reins at a new job.

The people I love the best,

Jump into work head first

Without dallying in the shadows

and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.

They seem to become natives of that element,

the black sleek heads of seals

bouncing like half-submerged balls.


I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,

who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,

who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,

who do what has to be done, again and again.


I want to be with people who submerge

in the task, who go into the fields to harvest

and work in a row and pass the bags along,

who are not parlor generals and field deserters

but move in a common rhythm

when the food must come in or the fire be put out.


The work of the world is common as mud.

Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.

But the thing worth doing well done

has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.

Greek amphoras for wine or oil,

Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums

but you know they were made to be used.

The pitcher cries for water to carry

and a person for work that is real.