I share the post below because it relates to another contrasting piece that is currently percolating and that I hope to have up in a few days. The post below was originally written a little over four years ago in early October 2012 while I was on a corporate business trip.
This morning I woke up in a hotel next to an airport, made a Styrofoam cup of coffee, and took a shuttle bus to an office building where I sat in meeting rooms and a drab, windowless cubicle. I worked on data integrity in claim evaluation, financial accuracy in commutation offers, and planning a “really creative” quarterly meeting. I talked about the workflow in STD (not that kind) and used terms like “loss leader” and “operating with a sense of urgency.”
On days like this, I know I should keep to the business at hand and stay focused until after the networking dinner, when I can escape to my hotel room. Instead I checked Facebook on the ride back to the hotel while the shuttle driver prattled on about the beautiful autumn weather. I cringed when I read the post from a fellow writer whose day job is writing (supplemented by some adjunct teaching). She just finished another chapter, the rain is falling on her windowsill, and she’s thinking about the reading she’s going to attend at a local bookstore later that night.
For a few minutes (an hour?) I hated that Facebook friend. I am so jealous of what I imagine her life to be, so angry at what mine is not, that my eyes actually watered. Spent the whole day writing, did she? Except maybe for her yoga break, and then a little trip to the kitchen, later, where she folded together an organic apple tart as a treat for herself and her spouse.
I wasn’t too far into that spiteful internal diatribe before the hate (which was never hate, really, she’s a fine person whom I don’t even know that well except through Facebook) opened up to something scarier than jealousy: a blinding fear that I have forever enslaved myself by creating a standard of living for me and my family that requires a steady, substantial income and a pension plan. That what trumps all else in my life is my need for a successful career (which writing can never promise to be, even if I define writing success differently), because it gives me something I don’t want to admit I crave—positive reinforcement for doing something well. My day job gives me good money, the promise of a secure retirement, and regular praise, and I use up my caches of available energy keeping the career wheel in motion.
Whether I cringe over a Facebook update or wake up in a panic at 3:12 a.m. wondering what I’m doing with my life, I am as powerless to change my life as I was when I felt so jealous of the stay at home moms who scheduled mid-afternoon play dates while my kids were at daycare. I couldn’t arrange play dates because I was sitting in a drab, windowless cubicle doing work that I had only planned to do until I found something that suited me better.
Which brings me to the tough truth: I never really wanted to be a stay-at-home mother. I felt like that was something I should have wanted, but I never did, and that produced a kind of guilt until one day when it didn’t. I preferred independence (income, hours in an office) to total availability to my children and home. I think the kids are turning out okay.
And the tougher truth: I don’t know if I could give up the things (material things, but also the visible markers and measures of success) that I get from my day job. I’m afraid that I am fundamentally wired to work for someone else’s approval (my boss, my employees, my peers). I keep finding myself mired in jealousy for the life I think I want, followed swiftly by disappointment that borders on guilt for the life I’ve chosen. Yes, I could change everything and redefine my priorities for myself, and, by necessary extension, for my family. But I haven’t managed to do that yet and I don’t know that I really want to.
Even as I write this—in that hotel room I mentioned earlier—I realize that carving out minutes and occasionally hours to write makes my own kind of writing life. Slowly, slowly, I am coming to realize that my dream of “the writing life” is about as foolish as accepting a Facebook snippet as proof that the life someone else has is something I want. I will define my own writing life just as I defined my role as a mother, a wife.
This hour, this day, this borrowed space—this is my writing life.
Note: A version of this musing was originally published in the now archived and unattainable “Another Loose Sally” blog on Hunger Mountain‘s website.