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Working on Leisure

It's been an awfully long time since I posted. Truthfully I don't have a clear vision for this blog going forward. What began mostly as a public training log, a means for sharing my love for running with others, for connecting with those I don't see in my day-to-day life, has become a thing of dread. Not because I don't love running, don't still train, don't still want to connect; rather, the thought of writing as an obligation had become the turnoff. 

I've recently cleansed myself of all "outside" obligations--freelance editing projects, unsatisfying school work--things I no longer feel are necessary or fulfilling for me. One motivating factor behind this cleanse was to make room for things I do enjoy, do find gratifying. But I wasn't sure what those things would be. I've spent most of my adult life working full time, plus always something on the side. School, extra work, sometimes both. I haven't quite known how to let go; hyper-productivity has felt like part of my identity. If I'm not filing my time with goal-driven activities, what do I do? What do other people do? How do I embrace leisure time?

In case I've fooled anyone into thinking I don't rest, let me clarify. I spent hours upon hours of consuming content (mostly TV shows, sometimes podcasts and music) each week. This is how I "relax." I tune the world out. But it's the space between productivity and mind numbing that I'm seeking to enter, to breathe comfortably in. This slower-paced, quieter space that scares me. A space where I have to hear the thoughts in my mind and be at peace with them. Magically. After a virtual lifetime of trying to push thoughts out, bury them, cover them up with work and obligations.  

Just over a month ago, I ended my last freelance project, and I felt free. For a moment. That feeling was fleeting, as all beautiful and happy things are. Too soon the panic of "what's next?" set in. Even though I was still technically enrolled in a master's program (still am, in fact), I had taken the summer off to "consider my options." In my mind, though, I was done with school. It wasn't the fulfilling thing I was looking for. So I decided to sign up for adult beginner piano lessons, in a small group setting. I'd wanted to know how to play the piano for as long I could remember, but the learning had always gotten in the way of my knowing. I never felt I had the time, money, means to pursue it. Now, at the age of 35, I'm realizing the learning part is hard, and I'm wishing I'd somehow just found those means to do it earlier in life, when it might have been easier. And while it's a gratifying pursuit, it's a slow one. I want to already be able to hear a song on [music-playing app] and be able to translate it through my fingers and onto the keyboard. But I'm not there yet--unless "Mary Had a Little Lamb" happens to comes across one of my Pandora stations (I can play that shit like a pro). 

So just when I felt I was sliding into this new leisure space, though uncomfortably and still with structure and goals (old habits), I was presented with a new and, at the time, exciting opportunity. Through a new work contact, I was invited to apply to an executive MBA program at a great university that happened to not be in or near where I live. But the full-time, 21-month program only required in-person attendance once per month, so it seemed doable to me. Never mind the fact that I'd never before considered an MBA for myself, or that I had no idea how I'd use the degree, or that I'd all but quit the master's program I was enrolled in and that was applicable to my field so I could clear my plate of obligations; this was an OPPORTUNITY. How could I pass it up? Tuition would be fully paid. I would meet new people, visit a new town, learn new skills. So much newness was to be gained. By the very act of doing the degree, meaning would descend upon my life. Sure, I would be busier than I'd ever been and would have to work harder than I'd ever worked before, but I was doubting my new and barely executed philosophy that opening up space for leisure would make me happier. Who has patience for that? And what if nothing good came of it?

I was 90 percent ready to jump on this opportunity, even though I hadn't done the apply-and-get-accepted part, I hadn't discussed any of it with my boss--who would have to approve my leave one Friday per month, and the assistantship details that would allow for my tuition payment hadn't actually been approved (which, by the way, would require more work on top of full-time classes and my full-time job). My decision would have to wait. I had a vacation to attend with family I hadn't seen in many years. 

For four days, I stayed in a house on the beach with my sister's family and her in-laws--people I'd come to love over the decade and a half they'd been in my life, as well as hers. I thought about the leisure I was able to partake in, quiet moments alone by the pool or on the beach, less quiet but certainly no less rewarding time with five beautiful young children full of zest for life and simple love for the family that surrounded them. I thought about how I had the space, mentally, to appreciate this time. I wasn't overburdened with obligations that would nag at me the second I returned home. I didn't have to bring work with me. I had the freedom to enjoy this break. And I needed it.  So what would happen to life if I decided to take on the MBA program? Would I just have to wait 21 months before I could unwind like this again? It seemed that my decision came down to (1) knowing my current needs and (2) honoring those needs. At this particular stage in my life, was it more important for me to have new experiences and gain new skills that could eventually lead to something good for my future, or was it more important for me to keep the space I'd created for myself and intentionally try not to fill it with obligations, to allow leisure to be a regular part of my life? It had to really think about the things that had made me happy, and even unhappy, in recent years, and use those things as a gauge for moving forward. 

I returned to work with a heavy mind. I had a regular meeting to talk with my boss, and I was curious to know his thoughts about my potentially taking on a full-time MBA. But before I could bring it up, he wanted to know my thoughts on something else. A coworker I'd worked relatively close with had left, and we were trying to figure out how the responsibilities of that position would be covered, in the short term until we could find a replacement, and perhaps also in the long term. He asked how I felt about taking on a specific project, part of which would involve traveling to conferences. We talked it through a bit, and I felt excited to have the new opportunity. And perhaps this new endeavor would help cure my restlessness. So by the time we got to talking about my thing, I pretty much knew where I stood. But my boss--who has always supported my continued education--seemed to think I'd be taking on too much. My decision was made.

In the few weeks that have passed since declining the MBA opportunity, I've become increasingly busy at work and have had opportunities to help take care of my nieces. These are the things that make me happy lately, aside from running and swimming and generally being active. I'm finally at a place where I enjoy my work and find meaning in it, and I can't think of anything more important than helping to raise my nieces; I feel incredibly lucky to be in a place--physically and mentally--to do it. As far as the space that exists between all of those activities, I'm keeping it open. I don't have a plan for it, and maybe that's the point. 


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