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I’m coming down to the nitty gritty end of a six-month-long project right now, and my entire life has been more or less thrown over. Freelancing is a lot like being in college, with long stretches of time during which I more or less do what I want (aka the last year), followed by intense weeks or months of total concentration and flat-out effort, when everything else falls by the wayside.

When most people think of freelancing, they dream of the flexible schedule and home office, and don’t realize that it takes a hell of a lot of motivation and discipline to actually make it work. Even I forget how much work it is during the down times.

Right now, I’m remembering. Full force.

Being a professor, Gabe works in a similar way. Most of the time, he’s flexible and can work from anywhere. Sometimes, it’s all out, nose to the grindstone, no messing around. And sometimes, as with the past month, it happens to both of us at the same time. While I’ve been finishing this project, he’s been preparing for classes, which start today. When this happens, and thankfully it’s rare, we become a single-minded household. We still spend time with each other and our families, of course, but housework? Forget about it. Social life? Not so much. Sleeping? Well, that’s hit or miss.

This time, the evidence of our concentration is made painfully obvious by a cursory glance at our house. As soon as we had the office set up last month, we both abandoned the moving process and started working. There are still pictures propped against the walls, waiting to be hung up. Our ketuba sits in the office, still wrapped in its protective layers of paper and cardboard. And the garden… oh, the garden. I have to close my eyes and run to my car every time I go out, so as to avoid looking at the bleak destruction that was once a front lawn.

Three more weeks, and I can expand my focus again. And yes, that does include writing some more. And maybe even cleaning the house.


Pleased to report that for the past two days, I’ve actually been getting some work done. With all the traveling we’ve been doing lately, then my cold, my responsibilities (such as they are) have been sorely neglected. And I’m acutely aware that once we go to Sweden later in the month, there won’t be much time for working again until, oh, September.

So now that I’m feeling better, we are home and no visitors are here, there are no longer any excuses. Nor do I need them, as it turns out I love my job, especially on days when I find out that a book I’ve helped promote ends up on the New York Times bestseller list (yippee!), and my office looks like this:

Or this:

And yes, that is a couple of guys sitting in the park playing a trumpet and a guitar. They weren’t bad, either, other than when the trumpeting individual with long dreadlocks (where are we again? Santa Cruz?) was making hooting noises into the guitar’s soundbox, I guess to tune it. That, not so nice.

Yeah. Life is good.

Back to real life here in Lisbon. Yesterday was a nice break — as much a break as a day of working out, laundry, and catching up on news and email can be. Sundays are always dead here, which I’m starting to relish as a mutually agreed upon day of rest. But today is Monday, and the street outside is already busy with people going about their business.

So it’s back to real life, for them and for us… or in our case, back to creating a real life. Between my cold, Gabe’s medical emergency, our anniversary, and our trip, it’s been two and a half weeks since I did any kind of work or study. Since we’ve only been living here for six weeks, that’s a rather large portion of our time here!

Before all this happened, I was trying to establish some kind of routine or habit for myself, finding a place where I can go to work or study, hopefully meeting new people, etc. Now I’m trying to remember where I was in that process, and it’s proving difficult, especially since my mind is already turning to our trip home next month. I’m hoping this won’t be the pattern for our entire year abroad, just hovering here in between having visitors and taking trips elsewhere.

For now though, I’m finally caught up on reading both industry and world news and replying to most of my emails. The fridge is full, the first round of laundry is done and hung up, and now perhaps the decks are clear enough for me to start figuring out what to do next. Perhaps.

… I learned from jumping rope.

In the final few weeks of my kick ass pilates class, we were subjected to… er… privileged enough to have regular intervals of jumprope. Turned out I was not the only person in that small class who hadn’t picked up a jumprope in fifteen years, because there were a couple of us who could not keep it turning for longer than a few seconds.

The biggest problem was that we were doing it barefoot. Let me tell you, a thick plastic jumprope (or even a thin one, for that matter) smacking against your bare toes at high speeds is really unpleasant. Even worse is when it smacks you on the head on the way back up, which the shorter jumpropes did for me. Between the two, my reacquaintance with this diabolically simple (yet so very difficult!) piece of exercise equipment had a steep and very painful learning curve.

My biggest downfall on the jumprope, however, was not my bare feet. It was my brain. As usual, the anticipation of hitting my toes was far worse than the actuality of it, and tended to hasten the very event I was dreading. Just as I’d get up a good pace, I would start thinking about messing up, then thinking I shouldn’t think about it, then thinking that thinking about it would definitely bring it about, only now I was really thinking about it, and… OUCH! There goes the toes. Or the head. Or both, if I was feeling particularly talented.

The only way I could get around this trap was if I just went for it, without fearing the jumprope as it whizzed past my ears or anticipating the smack of it entangling itself in my feet. I couldn’t think about those things, I just had to do it, no thought involved. By the end of class, I was getting up towards thirty seconds at a time without flinching, and even then, I had finally learned how to lift my toes enough to deflect the punishing slap down towards the soles of my feet.

Since then, I’ve started to see how the jumprope principle applies to the rest of my life. If I let myself fear the stinging repercussions of an action, they will most likely come to pass. Witness my recent bout of insomnia — the more I anticipated not sleeping, the more likely it was that I would not be able to sleep. The brain is certainly a marvelous and insidious thing.

I thought about all this a lot yesterday, primarily while on a trail run with my brother. On the flatter portions of the trail, I could keep pace with him fairly easily. But when it came to traversing the downhills, I balked every time. I know how badly it hurts to roll my ankle, and I know that it puts me out of commission for at least a couple days afterwards. So I tend to slow way down on the descents, allowing my brother to pull far ahead of me. (I also slow down on the ascents, but that’s more to do with the fact that I can’t breathe.)

As I was picking my way down a particularly long stretch of downhill slope, it occurred to me that it was like jumping rope — the more I thought about rolling my ankle, the more likely I was to bring it about. Witness my brother, far ahead, who just throws his body down the hill and trusts his feet to find the proper footholds. Sometimes he rolls his ankle, yes, and in fact he has even been known to sprawl face down on the trail, then pick himself up and continue running. He doesn’t let the fear of falling stop him, he just barges right ahead. Why can’t I be more like that, in my running and in my life? Why do I have to be such a scaredy cat?

This issue is even more relevant than usual these days. I recently got a new job, one that scares the crap out of me with how perfect it seems to be for my life, both immediately and in the long-term. I am so excited to have this job, and yet so scared to mess it up and squander this opportunity. For a long time, I preferred to make the safer, less challenging options in my career because I knew that I had less to lose if I didn’t do the job right. But this time, the stakes are much higher. And this time, I know that I can’t let my fear of falling carry me on down the hill. My feet led me here in the first place, so I need to trust them to carry me further without incident.

So what’s the takeaway here, be it in jumping rope, sleeping, running, or working? Don’t let your head get in the way of your feet. It’ll only trip you up.

Yesterday afternoon, I arrived home after a day of errands, unpacked the grocery bags, looked around our newly cleaned house, and breathed a deep sigh of contentment.

Much to my surprise, I am discovering a deep satisfaction in providing for myself, my house, and most of all, my loved ones. A well-stocked fridge, a clean floor (even if I wasn’t the one who cleaned it!), new clothes for myself and my husband, a new hairstyle on my head and red polish on my toes… at that moment, I was the picture of a happy housewife. Who would’ve thought?

Since quitting my job, it has been an almost daily struggle to find new ways of defining myself. Am I a caretaker? A gardener/landscaper? A homemaker? Or perhaps “just” a wife and daughter, devoting myself to all the myriad duties those roles entail? As I have increasingly come to define myself in relation to others, my biggest struggle has been to avoid losing my own identity. In other words, where do I fit into my own life?

My therapist keeps telling me that I have made by far the harder decision in choosing not to work during this difficult time in my life. She’s right — in some ways, it would be a lot easier to have to get up and go to the office every day, without thinking about how best to use my time, without even having the possibility of letting my grief drag me back down under the covers. Some days, I do let myself succumb to that temptation, writing it off to a mental health day. But those times are few and far between. Most of the time, I succeed in getting myself out of bed and filling my daytime hours with productive activity.

Strangely enough, I am finding that I am happiest when I devote that activity to taking care of others. Last night, standing in my kitchen and surveying my housewife’s handiwork, I felt a greater fulfillment than at just about any other time in my life. Even three years ago, I would have scoffed at these small measures of achievement. But now, today, they feel immensely good.

Turns out I’m not alone. I’ve been reading The Geography of Bliss, by Eric Weiner, picking it up either in between novels or before bed. Last night I found out that in a survey of happiness amongst various professions, the ones with the highest level of career satisfaction were not those who made a ton of money, but rather those who devoted themselves to serving others, i.e. firemen, nurses, doctors, etc.

So go figure. After pursuing a career in academia for almost ten years, then working as an administrative specialist (aka secretary) for two more, turns out that the greatest happiness was to be found right in my own home. True, I’m not making any money, and that new haircut put quite a dent in my savings. But I am spending my days making life more productive and fulfilling for the people I love — doing the grocery shopping so my husband doesn’t have to, taking care of my dad for a full day so that his regular caretakers (both paid and familial) can have the day off, etc.

I realize that none of this will pay my bills, or put food on the table. I know that I am very, very lucky to afford to be a housewife at all. But it does allow me to walk in my front door and feel as though I have accomplished a great deal with my day, even if I’ll never get a paycheck for my efforts.

Eventually, my world and my career will expand once again. For right now though, you can just call me Susie.

Not having a job kind of makes me feel like I’m cheating at life. I know I’m supposed to be doing things industriously, earning money somewhere, and I’m not. Weird.

It’s well known that the first thing most Americans ask when they meet you is, “So what do you do?” We ‘Mericans tend to define ourselves by our work, figuring that what we do with ourselves all day long eventually becomes who we are. Thus it tends to make people very uncomfortable when you don’t DO anything. Having been a student for so much of my life, employment has usually been more of an enabler to my academic addiction rather than a defining goal in and of itself. I am fully comfortable with slipping in and out of regular employment, tightening my belt when I need to and saving up when I can.

Other people, however, are decidedly less comfortable with such fluidity. So far, the most common immediate reaction to my recent change in employment goes something like, “Oh wow, that’s very admirable of you to quit your job for your family. So… what are you going to do next?” My reply is usually something along the lines of, “Um… nothing?” When even this doesn’t satisfy people, eventually I have to do what I was avoiding all along and drop the “C” word, explaining my dad’s condition and why work doesn’t really seem all that important at this point in my life.

I have to admit though, even I am having some adjustment pains this time around. Having been steadily employed for the past two years now, I keep asking myself what I’m doing next. Maybe I’ll take a class, or find someone to help me design the garden. Ooh, what about doing both? And there’s always the bathrooms, which really need redoing… etc. Today I cleaned the house, all day long, and am now taking a break to write and go running.

Yeah, I’m definitely not one of those people who deals well with inactivity. What a weirdo.

But I am enjoying it. A lot. Not because I’m not working — trust me, I would gladly work every single day for the next year rather than do the job I’ve elected to do. No, I’m enjoying this time because there is nothing better for me right now than solitude, and a lot of it. I can already feel myself starting to heal from the rollercoaster of the past year, and more importantly, gaining at least some of the emotional capital needed to get myself through the one that’s coming. So no matter how many times I have to clean the toilets, or do five loads of laundry, or measure the bathroom walls — it’s all going to be worth it in the end.

And as for what’s next, well… perhaps I’ll just wait for a while to decide, if you don’t mind.

This morning, I put on my layers, stepped out into the cold, breath-condensing air, and I ran. I saw the sun come out defiantly from behind the clouds, I saw surfers getting in their first (or perhaps second or third) set of the day, and grinned as a flock of pigeons took off around me and momentarily included me in their flight.

What made this morning’s run special was that it all took place around the time I would normally have been leaving for work. Instead of walking to the bus stop slowly, relishing those few minutes spent outside, I reveled in a whole half hour of gloriously cold air hitting my face and an early jolt of endorphins to start the day. Suddenly, the transitions of the past week didn’t seem quite as scary any more.

I have spent most of that week adjusting to two new realities: a renewed awareness of my father’s mortality, and the bittersweet realization that I needed to quit my job in order to spend more time with him. The latter development has come about rather more quickly than I had anticipated, which is how I find myself at home on a Monday morning after an early run, finishing my coffee two hours later than usual.

This is the first time in almost five years that I will be without a regular vocation, be it work or school. The last time was when I traveled for three months in between college and grad school, and even then I had something concrete to do (i.e. getting from place to place, on time and in one piece.) This time, it is truly unstructured. There is something frightening about having that much freedom, and I feel a faint sense of unease, as if there are alarm bells going off in whatever place I’m really supposed to be right now. I am slowly getting reacquainted with the concept, but I can say that if all mornings start off the way this one did, I might get used to it a lot faster.

Over the holidays, my husband was telling me about an article he read in defense of the absent-minded professor. Apparently, since professors are always pondering such big, weighty things all the time, it’s no wonder they forget to do such rudimentary tasks as make a dentist appointment, or check when exactly their lunch meeting is set to take place the next day. That’s why they need to rely on other people to take care of the “administrivia,” to free them up to think about the truly important things in life.

As a professional administriviatrix, I took deep offense to this remark. I agree with the underlying sentiment wholeheartedly. But by calling it “trivia,” you quite literally trivialize how crucial these every day tasks are to the overall running of an institution, whether it be a huge university or a single household. I put up a spirited defense for myself and my colleagues, and finally got my husband to retract his use of the offending word. This conversation has since become something of a joke between us, as I often refer to the “administrivia” of running the household when my beloved overlooks some minor but crucial task.

I had occasion to reflect on this conversation again today when I was leaving the office. I ran into a friend of mine who works just down the hall, and we agreed that we should have lunch this week. Instead of turning to our computers or datebooks, both of us stood there in the hallway with that trademark look on our faces: eyes unfocused and rolled upwards, face scrunched, mouth pursed. Both of us were consulting a calendar that we hold in our heads, dancing just in front of our eyes. Chances are, if you asked either of us to do so, we could tell you all about our bosses’ calendars for the rest of the week as well. As for next week, well, hold on, I’d have to check.

After working in office environments for a number of years now, I know that an ability like this to handle so-called administrivia is a true talent. Almost every day, I stop for a second to marvel at the sheer volume of tasks and facts that the people I work with can hold in their heads and complete at any given time. We are all constantly juggling overlapping tasks, calling one person while emailing another, answering a second call while receiving a fax that needs to be sent back signed in three places NOW, etc etc etc. And when our boss stops by to check on the results, we can instantly lay our hands (mental or physical) on the relevant information within seconds. It really is quite amazing, and I’m sorry, but no number of rocket scientists or computer geeks could ever figure out how to duplicate that talent in a machine.

So while absent-minded professors may make the earthshaking discoveries, it is their assistants who really make the world go round. I am an administriviatrix, and dammit, I am proud.

“Treat history as a springboard, not as an anchor.”

- General John G. Medaris

When I Wrote It

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