A Life of Luxury: Choices, Trade offs, and the Benefits of Busyness.

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.

My alarm clock

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.

Hotel in Tokyo. For work.

For years.

A hotel in Vienna. For work.

Hotel in Paris? Maybe? (for work)

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.

Happy Valentines Day from yet, another hotel I went to for work.

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.

View from an office.

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.

Workplace.

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.

A productive day now.

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?

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20 thoughts on “A Life of Luxury: Choices, Trade offs, and the Benefits of Busyness.

  1. I love this post, BeZ, and I can’t even tell you how much I relate. In my former life as a dancer and yoga teacher, I spent my days (often literally) running around the city, from one class or client or rehearsal to another. I was exhausted all the time, but filled with a sense of myself as a busy and successful person. I was making something of myself. Then I got injured and I had to stop. It was a terrifying and sudden transition– like you, I stopped waking up to an alarm and had hours and hours before me, waiting to be filled. I often had to stop myself from feeling like a princess or a loser. Instead, I had to learn to just be a person living at a (necessarily) slower pace– for better or worse, or maybe for neither. Maybe just…because.

    There is a strong impulse, as you say, to put some sort of value of this– to one life being more or less meaningful than another, but this is too simple and never accurate because these things are fluid– you make one decision in reaction to another and then look over the fence and wonder. The worst thing we can do to ourselves– and I’ve been the victim of this over and over again– is to lampoon ourselves for our choices, or for a bit of luxury, or for a little bit of breathing room. In three months you’ll look back on this time and the last thing you’d want is to feel like it wasn’t of value. This is, in some ways, I would guess, one of the last times you’ll be able to just be on your own (kind of). There’s a beauty and power to that that’s worth sitting in, no?

    • I am glad that you were able to relate because I worried about that when writing the post, that the old life would just seem too alien for someone. I once wrote a short story for workshop based in that life, and the writers there were like ‘this person sounds like a robot. i’m scared.’. Insightful, perhaps? A princess or a loser. That is what I should have called this post! Because that is exactly the two extremes I work with. Like today, I’m fed up with waiting for husband to come home, he’s been away 7 weeks. I’ve been a trooper this past month and a half, staying busy, making plans, forcing myself out in the rain to get to yoga class. But I’m done. I just want him home. He’s back in 48 hours and it’s like I just want to sleep those away until he comes back. And so today I’ve have been a princess, doing nothing but shopping on line and sleeping and thinking and planning tomorrow’s big house clean. And of course because I basically sat in my pjs all day, I’m a loser too. But I guess, they cancel each other out.

      Thank you for reminding me about how scarce this time actually is. Because you are right. When I look back, I’m going to miss it. In fact, it even helps to know that this time is now limited. In some ways its more scary when you think it might be unlimited the hours stretching before you. So now I appreciate it more, because it’s scarce, because there is a deadline coming. So I sit. (or sleep) and enjoy.

  2. This is such a wonderful post–probably my favorite of yours. I love how you take a buzzy topic (the glorification of busyness) and show both sides in a very personal way. You’ve given words to a topic that not everyone is comfortable delving into. What does it mean to jump off of the hamster wheel? What’s luxurious about it, and what’s lonely?

    I can really relate to this because when I was involved in selling high end real estate, I was incredibly “busy” and stressed and overwhelmed. But there was also something about it that made me feel energized and powerful. Giving it up was the right choice for me but I have to admit that there was an addictive quality to the busyness. Now that I’m going down a different path, I have to redefine what makes a day worthwhile, what shapes and frames it and gives it meaning.

    This part is beautiful: “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.”

    That is the difference, in a nutshell. The pace changes and the way you see the world changes. But the people around you don’t. And I don’t know about you, but I sometimes crave that time lapse, just a little bit. Doing things mindfully isn’t always as luxurious as people think it is. But it does pay off, over time.

    I wish you lots of luck on your journey into motherhood! You’ll have so many interesting new experiences to write about, but maybe not quite as much time to do the writing. Perhaps that will be a good balance–adding just that little extra sense of urgency?

    • Rian! I am always so happy when you come visit us here at Mother Sugar. And I know I am not the only MS writer who thinks of Truth and Cake as a kind of extended family member.

      I am a busy addict, absolutely. It’s like I know if I go into that maelstrom there’s going to be buzz. So it’s odd to live a life without it, in fact, avoiding it in many ways. And yes, I do miss that ‘time lapse’ every now and then. Because it makes me appreciate the slow and the fast.

      So, how have you redefined the meaning and value of a day, down this new road? I’d be interested. I have this ideal that somehow it would be easier for me to do in Vancouver than here where, because of language, I can’t integrate as fully as I might do in Canada. But maybe that’s just a myth too.

      I think when the little person comes, writing is going to feel more like a job (in the best possible way) than ever. I think you’re right, mother nature is going to structure a sense of urgency around it, and in continuing to write, I think, is a continued statement to say- see, I haven’t dissapeared into mommyland entirely. I’m still someone. Which is a fear I have. Alice Munro wrote short stories and not novels because she would write while the kids napped. She didn’t have the time to commit to a novel. So, we shall see.

  3. THIS: “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?”

    Whether I like to admit it or not, I have chosen to define myself by my work. I spend hours on planes thinking about this. I think I know why… because something with more “meaning” would mean facing the tough questions in life, and it’s far easier to create a reality of complex distractions than it is to face them.

    Or so I tell myself.

    And that’s why, after this luxurious 15 mins of reading and writing, I drag myself out of my hotel room bed in Istanbul, Turkey, and contemplate the gym, before my breakfast meeting at 7:00. Poor little rich girl….

    • Pavlova! We miss you! So, we find you in Istanbul, at least at the time of this comment. Perhaps now it is in Australia?
      Do you really think you’ve made a choice for a life of distractions? Because choosing to define one by one’s work- people like to say you shouldn’t do that, but often it’s because they are afraid or unable to, or don’t like what that means for themselves. But if you can stand by that, if it feeds you, it’s no less valuable than anything else. In the Middle East, it’s a given every woman defines herself by her womanhood, her children, her motherhood- to a point, that if you want an alternative life, it can get pretty problematic. There, a woman who defines her life by her work is exceptional- and a woman that typically I really enjoy spending time with.
      So, don’t be too hard on yourself. Respect what you do, it’s on equal footing with everything else. Besides, I think the tougher choices in life are still lying in wait, no matter how many airplanes you transit through…

  4. Wonderful post, beautifully written. I just read an article in the NY times about it (http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/06/30/the-busy-trap/) yesterday, you might want to check it out. I love how you managed to make your post so personal, yet universal. You’re telling the truth about your former life (busy was actually exciting) and about your new life (not busy can be tough)- I think it’s courageous to be able to say “I’m actually not that busy”. I hope you finish writing your book, I’d love to read it 🙂

    • Thank you Cecile! Believe that first line: I am not a busy person. I stared at that long and hard. Tried to find reasons to change it, to repeal it.
      I’ve read that busy trap article too. I can related. And I know a lot people who do it- busy for busy sake. A kind of social career climbing in a way.

      I WILL finish the book! At least a first draft by the time we get our special delivery. One must have some deadlines in life, no? I hope you will get to read it too one day!

  5. Goodness, what a very real and pressing topic. I’ve been thinking quite a lot lately about how I got to be where I am, and whether I like it, and whether it’s good for me. I certainly feel much more useful to the world when I’m busy– not because I think it’s true, but more so because it tends to keep me afloat, keep me distracted. I like to feel like I’ve been productive, that I’ve accomplished something measurable by the outside world. I like to still be busy enough at 4pm that my mid-afternoon unease can’t quite take hold. I also like to have that feeling you describe of being on the front lines, of riding out ahead of the wave rather than being tossed about by it.

    In my previous life, I liked showing up to an office with my name on the door, where people would knock and stick their heads in to ask a question that only I could answer. I liked then going home after work and feeling justified in reading a magazine in the bath.

    However. These days, I only wake up to an alarm when I have a flight to catch. I do work quite a lot, but mostly on my own schedule. I am sick today with a sinus infection, still in bed, without needing to call my boss to say I won’t make it ‘in.’ I can work at a coffee shop or on my couch or from New York at Christmastime. These things–the luxuries of owning a business, which I never ever thought I’d do– are quite nice. They seem perfectly conducive to this whole business of being a writer. And they also are overwhelming. Without the structure of a ‘work day,’ I find myself working too much and too late into the night. I feel guilty for taking a day off to walk around in the fall leaves and maybe read a magazine in the bath. I don’t give myself enough time to write, to do the less measurable (I reduced my unread wedding emails from 47 to 22!) and more fruitful things.

    I very much like your idea that one life is not superior to the other. I also like the way you posed the question as to how we’ve navigated the choices that have lead to our lives now. I think I still have lots of work to do in seeing my choices through, in holding myself accountable to the reasons behind the choices I’ve made to be doing what I am. Like taking more advantage of my freedom, going on a hike every now and again, sitting down at my desk and stringing together a few sentences. Appreciating the luxury a bit.

    And yes, will be so interested to hear how the babe does and doesn’t change all this for you!

    • “whether I like it, and whether it’s good for me.” One would think these go together, right? But sometimes I find they do not. Maybe I come from some kind of odd protestant stock somewhere, but a little pain, a little effort is often good for me, I think. And too much pleasure, does that mean I’m losing an edge, letting something go?? Does pleasure need to be so justified? (i have no answer)

      Towards the latter half of my working life, I was able to get a lot of autonomy and flexibility. A lot of work from home, a lot of working from wherever. I loved that. I loved the control I had over my own life, and I’m not sure if I went back to work I could give that up. BUT, as you so rightly discovered, it means it’s so much harder to give yourself permission to stop. I would work when I wasn’t supposed to and dream of playing hooky when I need to crack down. That’s when the lines blur between work and play. And maybe that’s my problem now, the line is entirely invisible. But it is there, even if the ‘work’ doesn’t garner income or profit. And I have to find that line. Perhaps I spend too time on the side of idleness, and I need to find the boundary for work (whatever that is) and you have to do the opposite. And I can imagine it’s hard when you love your work as you do.

      But I know you will have a slower season coming, so I expect some indulgence on your part, totally justified after the summer you’ve had!

  6. Before I respond to this can I just sputter with genuine indignant incredulity – the train conductor asked to see proof that you were pregnant?! Humph!!! The gall!!

    I loved this post too. It is definitely one of my favourites of yours. Like the others, I enjoyed that it was both universal and personal, wise but intimate too. I feel like I am hearing from the real you, about your genuine dilemmas, which you approach with wise tenderness and curiosity and a very refreshing disregard for “the point”. I like this part of you. Your 80-hour-a-week life was exciting and I loved living vicariously your excitement and drive and sense of contribution. I was so proud of you. But I’m proud of this you too. Just as much.

    “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.”

    If there is a conclusion to be drawn in this universal dilemma you’ve so artfully illustrated, I think this is it. This is it exactly. Like LZ, holding myself accountable for those choices rather than being the victim of them is hard but informative and empowering. Saffron Twist talked about this in her recent post too and it fascinates me how these choices define us. When I think about it, if I wanted to write my life story I could write a bullet list of my significant choices and, without penning a single line about my interior life, I could probably have created a more nuanced and 3-dimensional image of me than I could in 10,000 words describing myself.

    Mit Schlag said, “things are fluid– you make one decision in reaction to another and then look over the fence and wonder.” This reminds me of Alice in Wonderland in the labyrinth. You make a choice. If you go back, the choices aren’t the same the second time as they were the first time. So you look over the fence and try going somewhere else. Sometimes it works out and other times you end up right back where you started. There’s the rub. I’ve decided that the only measuring stick I have for my decisions is how I feel about them right now – not how they measure up to what might of been. I have no idea whether some other decision would produce a preferable outcome. Different, yes. Preferrable? Who knows.

    Thank you for this post, BZ. So simple, yet so much to reflect upon.

    • For me, I think my measuring stick is not allowed to be brought out until a safe period of time has passed. This is what I have learned. I’m panicky by nature, so I like to evaluate and judge the outcome far too soon. I did when I worked and I did when I stopped. With this post, this is the first time I think I’ve given it all a fair assessment, and it’s taken years of treading in the waves to get here, and years of being away from my career. Forest for the trees, or whatever we want to call it. Maybe it’s just because by then I have distance, that it all feels less raw, and the idea of any outcome being preferable just gets harder to stick. Or maybe it’s because living out here in the forest, I’m influenced less by an outside world that thinks x or y is the norm. I am no longer surrounded by my career gals who wonder what the heck I’m going to do next, nor am I (yet) surrounded by people who think I ought to y next. In the isolation, there’s a kind of clarity. If you can stand the isolation that is, which is a whole other trade off in itself. but perhaps you are less reactive than me.

      One thing I did not say in my post, but know very well, is that the friends and family I’ve had throughout it all, they never cared either way I went. Funnily that came as a surprise. I remember when I got married, that was when I first realized that my parents and my friends, nobody really gave a poop who I worked for or what I did. And somehow I latently thought they did. I sure did. And that was really great. And by the same token now, they don’t give a poop who I don’t work for. Of course, that’s also because I have one experience to put against the other (if I’d stayed in my pjs for the last 20 years you all might be a bit concerned). And you’ve reminded me of that, and I’ve been grateful for it all along. Because I’m forced then to realize it’s just myself, just mean old me being so critical- and like I’ve mentioned, we have to deal with the consequence of our own actions (and ideas).

      We should all do that bullet point list of choices. God, what portraits we would draw. Could be a fun game (or a future MS question!).

      • I really love your point about isolation. It does provide clarity. It can be brutally lonely but clarity it does afford. I long for that freedom from my family’s hopes and expectations for me and at the same time I am also deeply grateful that they care enough to have them. I know it doesn’t matter to them what the outcome looks like as long as it makes me happy. But I am fascinated by that point, in my life and others’ lives, when finding self-fulfilment requires doing the unexpected or even the inadvisable. Where does that impulse come from to risk the known for the unknown and a great big maybe? Maybe that is the definition of growth – risking the known for the unknown. Reminds me of an article you shared once about life’s trapeze.

  7. I definitely relate to this. I used to define myself by the career I was building and it has been a struggle to redefine my identity without it. But who I am now feels more complete and more “me” than before. And, like you, I have more time now to stop and bake the muffins. Well, maybe not quite yet, but soon, very soon. 🙂

    • I am thrilled you feel more ‘you’. I remember when you stopped with your first career- I had vicarious trauma with you. Mostly because you were living something I wish I’d been brave enough to do, and the idea that you should ever want to change… It wasn’t that I feared we’d lose you as we know you, it was purely selfishness on my part. But, so many years later, I still (and will always) think of you in a creative and artistic light, you will always be a director to me (waving a crucifix!), but you have become to me so much more as well. Which is not to say that you weren’t those other things, just that possibly you’ve been forced to reckon with those other parts of you more publicly in your new path. And maybe because I stopped and slowed down, I’ve had a chance to look and see all the complexities that perhaps weren’t as obvious before too.

      Confession- those muffins came from a box!!! Ha! Considering my cake post, it’s a bit embarrassing, no? I will say it was an expensive prebaked mix. Boutique. And worth every convenience.

  8. I’m so happy for this post! I work(ed) in the film industry for 7 years in Los Angeles + the 18 hour work days + money driven pressured environment was really starting to get to me. I’m trying to ease out of that world + find a niche of my own in Vancouver. It’s kind of an uncomfortable feeling of being ok with having a life that you really want. It feels selfish. I know it’s not, but I still have a guilt complex about it. So reading your post was very calming! Thanks for sharing!

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