Leap and the net will appear. — Anonymous
In 2013, on the Friday before the MLK holiday weekend, I was quietly working out of the haven of my home office where I toiled unless I had to drive into the office for a meeting. The phone rang early that morning and a woman asked for me. She told me she was the wife of a beloved friend from high school. He had always called her his “catalyst for change” and he adored her. She knew that our friendship stretched over forty years and she wanted me to know that he had dropped dead from a heart attack the previous morning. He was 60. I could hear the loss, the terror, and the anger in her voice. Along with finding the body of her husband of thirty years, she had also learned in the hours that followed that they were in financial trouble. He had always boasted about his shrewd financial dealings. Now she was faced with navigating a funeral, a business, rental properties, an uncertain financial future and two adult sons, one of whom is a bit of a slacker, the other who is disabled.
I was shaken to my core and wanted to take the rest of the day off, but had too many deadlines to wallow in deep grief. I tried to push back the feeling of doom that had been plaguing me for months. In spite of doing work that I loved, I did not love the people who ran the non-profit where I worked. My own health had been deteriorating for over a year, and my soul had been sucked to the marrow. I feared that the stress was going to kill me, and the shock of Tommy’s death made me wonder just how long before I keeled over.
That same afternoon, as I dutifully ticked off projects before the long weekend, the phone rang again. It was my supervisor.
“Where are you?” she hissed.
I had been off-kilter since the news earlier that morning. “What do you mean?” I asked, immediately on guard.
“You were supposed to be here for your performance review,” she indicted.
“I got a cancellation notice,” I stumbled, quickly checking my online calendar. Sure enough, the email that I had “accepted” canceling the meeting had auto-removed it from my office calendar. I switched over to her calendar and the CEO’s calendar. The meeting was still on their schedules. Paranoia and panic set in as my mind raced trying to figure out who was trying to sabotage me.
I told her there was no way I could get to the office (I live in an adjoining state) before the end of the work day. “I’ll phone you back,” she hissed again.
Moments later she ordered me to be at the office at 8:00 am on the following Tuesday. A command performance review.
By the end of the workday, my beautiful mind was seeing shadowy figures in dark places. I’d been thinking about quitting for months, but the uncertainty of the economy, my limited savings, my advancing years and my innate self-doubt were a toxic poison that kept me paralyzed with fear—and on the job.
I wrote a short and gracious resignation letter, all the while knowing that it wasn’t prudent to quit my job this week any more than it had been the other zillion times I’d considered doing so.
I phoned two friends for their wise counsel. One was an attorney, one had previously headed the human resources department of a large insurance company. I also phoned my therapist who could hear the panic in my voice and scheduled me to come in that Sunday afternoon.
I read them each my letter. They all agreed that it was elegantly written and they each advised that I should, instead, list EVERY grievance and instance of the hostile workplace environment. I spent The MLK holiday writing it all down. I knew it wouldn’t change my time there, but I valiantly hoped it would make things better for my co-workers.
As I drove to the office on Tuesday, I still didn’t know whether or not I was going to quit. Nor had I decided which letter I was going to deliver if I did muster the gumption to search for greener pastures.
I arrived for my performance review and nervously sat at the conference table across from two stacks of papers. When my supervisor and the CEO arrived and exchanged niceties, I said, with a lump in my throat, “Before you get started, there is something I need to say.”
I told them that their demand that I start working in the office every day—and driving from another state in the middle of a northwest winter (which they had told me I had to do by the end of January) would ensure my demise. I questioned the rationale when I had successfully handled four websites and produced all of the marketing collateral for nearly four years, including a successful multi-million dollar capital campaign. I then turned to my boss and cited a memo she had sent out the week before patting herself on the back for how much more efficient things had become since her tenure began the previous winter. I listed all the ways in which things had bogged down. The dam broke and I let my supervisor have it –unmercifully. Oddly, it was not satisfying. I was heartbroken. Forty-five minutes later, I handed them each an envelope with seven pages of single-spaced typed grievances. I gave a third letter to the dear man in HR and headed back home to get a month’s worth of work done in two weeks.
As the end drew near, I worked from early Thursday morning until 4:30 am the next day, my final Friday, After sleeping for a few hours, I was back at the grind at 9:00 am. I gathered the collected paper and digital files of my prolific work life together for my final trip to the office.
I had $1000 in the bank and a final paycheck and vacation pay to come. And my trusty fear and self-doubt. That was it. I have walked the high wire of uncertainty many times, but it was unsettling to do this seemingly crazy thing just months before my 60th birthday. I was suffering from a severe case of the Scarlett O’Hara syndrome and decided that I would figure out what came next when I recovered from the workplace angst that had started in August 2009.
At 9:15 the phone rang. It was my friend Betsey. Hearing the fatigue weighing down my “hello,” she asked, “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine,” I said. “Just exhausted. I worked all night. I quit my job. Today is my last day.”
“Oh!” she said as if she had just discovered a vein of gold.
“Are you okay?” I asked, alarmed by her excitement.
“The reason I’m calling you is we have a designer that isn’t working out and Elizabeth wanted to know if you had any availability. I can send you a project today!”
“I am too exhausted, Betz. I need a few days, at least, to recover before I can take on any work.”
I was too overwhelmed to fully comprehend the life preserver I’d just been thrown. By day’s end, the job I was escaping asked if they could hire me as a consultant for a month while they were in transition. I told them I would have to think about it. I felt like Alice free-falling down the rabbit hole. The world was on tilt and I was too weary to make sense out of any it. But I was keenly aware that Divine Intervention had waived Its loving hand over me and the bills would get paid. I slept for days. Deeply.
The following Thursday I signed two letters of agreement: one with a communications firm in Los Angeles, and one—at a much higher hourly rate—with my old employer—on my terms. That month turned into seven.
Life is uncertain at best. We never know when we will take our final breath, say our last good-bye to a loved one, or have God’s hands pluck us from the edge of despair and instill in us a seemingly unreasonable sense of courage and calm. Our job is just to do the right thing, speak our truth and boldly leap into the wild blue and trust that it will all work out. Somehow, it always does.
WRITING 101, day 3, uncertainty