I am not a busy person. I wake up without an alarm, spend a good portion of time in bed checking Pinterest, shower the dog with morning cuddles, talk to the bump, before slowly (more slowly each week) rolling out of bed. Then we walk, have breakfast. I can linger over tea while I figure out what happens next. I am a writer (or trying to be one), so that’s what I do on good days. I am a pregnant lady in waiting too though, so what happens next might just be going back to bed.
I go where I need to by bicycle, partly because I hate driving, partly because the car is a standard. I tell myself its good exercise and best for the environment. And kind of romantic. In a given day, my social interactions happen largely online, as I live in a forest. On days when I ride into town, there might be a brief look or smile with an old Flemish lady, an approving glance by an old man in a beret who is impressed at how well trained the dog appears to be, or the wink of a waiter at the one café in our town who is cute, but too young for me. On exciting days, there’s a minor altercation with a Belgian who considers himself to have a little job, who then must expand it to be a big one: the train conductor who is a stickler for the rules and demands to see my doctor’s proof I am pregnant; the swimming pool supervisor who acts as if I‘ve committed treason when I ask for an extra minute before getting out of the pool. What’s really heart racing is when I have to make a phone call and speak in my now (second) tongue. Because bereft of body language and my Asian face people talk too fast and I can’t understand a word.
This is a luxury life, I know that. But it isn’t perfect. People like to tell you they are busy, because that denotes some kind of importance to what we do in our lives. Busy implies meaning, value, worth. Not busy sounds like idleness, being spoiled, possibly useless? Not being busy means I’m too often aware of the raised eyebrow that means, how can you afford to live like this? Must be nice. And I won’t lie, it is.
It wasn’t always this way. Used to be, my average work week was 80 hours. I used to leave the house when it was dark, return when it was darker, after having packed myself into the cattle like herd of the London Underground. Before phones got really smart, I used to carry two mobiles and a blackberry to cover several different geographies. I would be on a plane, transatlantic, at least every two or three weeks.
I used to spend 30 minutes cramming as much info as I could in a 1 minute voicemail at midnight. I had a secretary who would bring me lunch because I barely had time to go to the bathroom, let alone eat. I’ll never forget the day after we held a big conference. My team sent me home early. At six, I didn’t know what to do with myself. I saw kids coming off a school bus. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d seen children. Guess I’d always thought London didn’t have that many of them.
I was busy.
Here is the part where I am supposed to complain about that life, to express my relief at having left it. But I don’t. I chose it, and frankly, I loved it. It was stimulating to be pushed to be your best, to work with very smart (and sometimes difficult) people, to feel that you were on the edge of some huge forward momentum. The exposure to the world was incredible, the extent to which I learned I could stretch and grow was shocking. It was a very real world to be a part of, a world where you could follow what was happening in the news, and feel like you had some kind of context, insight, that it wasn’t some event outside of you.
Not that it wasn’t perfect either. My natural impatience was left to blossom. I spoke too quickly for even my mother to understand. I was always listening to figure out ‘the point’. I did not have tons of time for family and friends, and I’m pretty sure I let them know it. And there were effects on my health, weight, and adrenaline. But then again, isn’t that what everyone writes and complains about- isn’t that part of being in the world? Friends used to feel sorry for the pace of my life, and yes there was much to complain about: travel, time, work, commitments. And it was de rigeur to indulge that complaining. But let’s face it. The pity was pointless. I knew what I had signed up for; I was hardly a victim. It was in fact, a whole other kind of luxury life.
I left that world reluctantly with a lot of misgivings for who I would become without the pillar of my career behind me. I would be a nobody. I would be earning nothing. I would be worth nothing. I left mostly because of circumstance, partly because I had doubts about what was next, partly because I’d started so young I was curious what else might be out there.
It’s been three years now. The transition was slow. Swinging to the other extreme of the pendulum I first ‘got busy’ going back to school in pursuit of the writing art, where I learned that the mark of working in corporateville had marked me for good, that I still looked for ‘the point’, that I liked to be busy, and check things off lists, be of value to someone. Of course, in writing you can forget about any of that. If they teach you anything in an MFA program it’s that affirmation is rare, closure impossible.
And now here I am, school done, book not done. Not busy.
In this unbusy world there are struggles too. Without outside constraints, it’s quite difficult to structure your own time and make the most of it. My boss used to say I could expand the day to fit in everything I wanted. Nowadays, if I’m not careful, I can make the day very small, I can do very little and be rather disappointed with the results. Busy is now less a mark of distinction than a discipline that I could make a bit more use of! Do I worry about my greater contribution to the world? Yes. Do I know everything that’s going on in the other world? Not in the same way. I feel more connected to what’s close to me, but more distant from the great forces that subtly shift us around.
I like to compare how I thought about my old life and the one I’m living now. Compare and then chide myself a little. Because I didn’t fall like a house of cards once the career rug was pulled out under my feet. In fact, it’s been gratifying to find old parts of myself and to learn what characteristics from my ten years of work have stuck. The world I’m in now is just as real as before. It’s a world where trees turn color, not suddenly on that rare Saturday you take a walk, but slowly, bit by bit, dappled by cold sunlight, coaxed off their branches by bullying gusts of wind. Where the point is not always in what is being said but in how it’s being said, or that it’s trying to be said. Where you have to listen for a lot more than words. Where there is time not only to live your life but to get a glimpse at how someone else is living theirs. Where happiness and excitement are not always synonymous.
But just as it would be naïve to say my former life was some kind of hopeless torture, I think it’s folly to say that my current life is of more or less value than my old one. It’s all about the trade off. We often say we don’t have choices, but we do, however reluctant we are to admit it. Maybe not as many as someone else, maybe not easy ones, but if we make ourselves the victims of our own lives, what kind of life is that?
Truth is, I’m a strange hybrid of my worlds. I oscillate a lot between loving one and missing another on any given day. I struggle with either/or. I may go back to work one day. I may yet finish this book and learn the anxious ease of an artist.
But not yet.
In about three months, there will be another life in this house, one that doesn’t know (or yet care) about what I did before, or how I spend my days now. Everything I’ve just written becomes moot. One of the godmothers of this impending arrival sent me a book called The Boss Baby, and well yes, all signs indicate that I’m going to be busy with the toughest engagement yet, that the tasks will be challenging, relentless, and the perks possibly far and in between.
A lot of women face the challenge of balancing work, baby, self. I always thought that would be me too, I always wondered how I’d be up to the challenge, if I could pull it off. But I assumed there would be outside input, constraints- a job that you must return to, or want to return to, that wanted you to return. Some factor of busyness.
But I won’t have this. I can’t rely on the outside world to help me balance this trifecta; it’s all going to be what I decide in the absence of something to push against. Add to that, this little person is bringing in a whole new kind of busyness that I haven’t even begun to fathom or define.
Depending on how you look at it, this might be the ultimate luxury.
Or the toughest, most real world challenge yet.
How have you navigated the choices for the life you live now? For those of you with family commitments (eldercare, children), thoughts to share?