Friday, July 15, 2005

Funny how those moments come

It is one of life’s amusing little ironies that the tritest of phrases bring comfort. An elegantly turned phrase can provoke admiration, even stir the spirit, but for those glum days, it is the sound old chestnuts we want. In one of my phases—I can’t remember whether it was the jaw-jutting feminist phase or one of my rare record-buying periods, I had a record I played over and over, and my favorite song (which I can hardly tolerate now) started with these lines:

Funny how those moments come
It hits you, your life has changed
Again and again you learn the lesson
Something still remains

That second rhyme annoyed me even then, and the sentiment cloys. But still.

My horoscopes and my therapist chimed the same tune over the last year. “Big changes, you are undergoing big, big changes.” Well, okay. I packed up three years ago, and I moved out of New York City to rural Vermont. I made a bid for health and sanity. So I made a move; I have embraced change before and never—at least not yet—regretted my hard-won choices. I don’t make changes lightly, so maybe that explains why I am generally comfortable once I am launched. But I have moved before and changed jobs before—what makes this a transformation?

I am happier, my health has rebounded, and I have a firmer sense of myself than at any time in my life. I am stable and secure, as much as any of us can be in a willful universe, subject to the whims of fate. Compared to a year ago in Vermont or four years ago in New York, I am no less lonely. Independent self-reliance is important to me, and I have never been comfortable living with people with whom I shared no emotional ties. It took years after my divorce before I really believed that living alone was better than being in a bad marriage; now I have no doubt that any amount of loneliness is preferable to living in tangled, excessively emotional interdependence with manipulative people—my own private idea of hell.

I still work too much. I still take everything too seriously. Heck, that is who I am. I still hate being attacked for no reason. I still get into a big emotional mess any time I feel overly responsible for someone. I am terrified of public speaking and of performance reviews. Anyone whose opinion I value can raise an eyebrow and turn me to teary mush.

At the same time, I seem to have grown some sort of a skeleton, though whether spine or carapace, I don’t quite know. I am finding it easier to tolerate manipulative raids on my psyche, something about the imagined Lucite box with which I can now summon from my imagination. Or my vision of myself as a Vermont town with the ultimate in local control: “Ah, you have opinions about how I should behave…Let me see, do you have a vote in this town? No?...Thank you for your opinion!”

I have learned to ask for help in dealing with bullies or putting together complex proposals or learning how to deal with a harsh, unfamiliar climate. I have learned that lots of other people are willing to help me with my needs if I only ask, and that my help is valued. In short, I have found community in places I never expected to find it.

When I moved to Vermont, I feared it was an escape. I was weary of working with people who did not value my skills and my commitment. I certainly could have found other jobs in New York, but the overhead of high expense and daily stress was weighing on me, and I was old and beaten. I came to Vermont to recover.

I chose a small life. I have a house, it is true, the gift of all those years of stress, and that offers me stable housing costs, a huge benefit in this housing-strapped state. Aside from the mortgage, I am debt free, although a 12-year old car could challenge that status any day. I have a modest pension to look forward to—quite modest since I only worked two of the four decades it takes to earn a really good one in the few places where such things still exist. And I had (note change of verb tense) some savings that allowed me to take a job I loved for a couple of years.

Depending on the gruesome performance evaluation—did I mention I hate these? And that I seldom get through them without tears?—it may be necessary for me to restructure the income stream soon. But I have had the gift of two years doing something I love, working with people I respect, exercising my skills and recapturing my own respect for my work and interpersonal capabilities. If economic realities require that I start driving an hour to work and wearing suits again, I guess I can do that.

I know I can. It’s those residual fears of change kicking in, that’s all, and after all the really big changes I have accomplished, and all the rich, wonderful variety of opportunities that change brought, you would think I would know better than to let those fears creep in. At least the fears are not as debilitating as they would have been in years past.

In all my years of working in New York, although I loved my job and felt I was good at it, I was uncomfortably conscious that I didn’t know what I would do if I lost that job. On paper my skills were strong, but there wasn’t much to distinguish me from the hordes of other MBAs and CFAs. And interpersonally, I was shy, lacking confidence that I could possibly bring value to a discussion of multimillion, billion dollar issues. Objectively, I did consistently excellent work, and although my peers and my managers recognized that, my shyness kept me underpaid and staying too long with situations that no longer challenged me.

When the waves of layoffs started coming to financial services in the nineties, I was a strong enough performer to survive four or five of them. As weaker colleagues went off to find fame and fortune, I was intrigued by their success, but not enough to break loose of the security of that paycheck and pension. Not even when it was clear that I could have done better elsewhere. It was the risk I couldn’t handle, but when the 1998 layoff wave swept me away, I was ready.

The Chattanooga solution didn’t work long term for me, nor did an effort to go to Europe, nor yet a return to New York. But I learned something from each attempt, and I count each an adventure and a success, so much so that in 2002 I negotiated a second layoff from the same firm in preparation for moving to Vermont.

My life has changed. I have stability and community and health and a sense of myself and work skills and interpersonal skills. I have a home and really good dogs. Vermont still seems a good choice for me. Trained analyst that I am, I know that sitting still is a choice, and I hope to keep choosing Vermont.

Those economic realities are going to need a little attention, though. Vermont variety nay-sayers point to a lower wage scale and shake their heads. They don’t know I have been underpaid all my life! Embracing change starts with knowing when you really can’t afford the luxury of sitting still, then moves on through a relentless planning stage in which you create as many attractive options as possible until you are ready to leap. I don’t want to look for a different job, but I am confident that I can find all sorts of interesting and profitable opportunities. Perhaps in my critical life work of learning to let go, I may be making a little progress.

In the last week I have moved from "my life is changing" to "my life has changed for the better." The big changes have happened. In the words of my horoscope, the transformation is complete. So what if I have to change jobs?


carlakeet said...

I relate to your blog SO much, having recently left New York City to live in the country. Here's a line from a novel I'm now reading, Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro, that reminds me of how I felt about my old job, nasty bosses, the city, stress, and strain and what prompted my husband and me to change our lives.

"I remember a huge tiredness coming over me, a kind of lethargy in the face of the tangled mess before me. It was like being given a maths problem when your brain's exhausted, and you know there's some far-off solution, but you can't work up the energy even to give it a go. Something in me just gave up.... It wasn't that I thought I'd burst into tears or lose my temper or anything like that. But I decided just to turn and go..."

Anyway, if I'm reading your post right, are you SURE you're going to get a bad performance evaluation? How could you if (as you say) you enjoy your job so much and are doing good work, getting on with others, etc. I hope it's just a case of your being too hard on yourself, and that it will turn out fine, and that you won't have to go through another change. Unless, of course, you really want to.

carlakeet said...

Sorry, what I meant to say about the Ishiguro quote (and why I mention it at all) is that I thought you would relate to it too.


Karen said...

Thank you for the quote. I do like it very much.

It's not that I expect a bad performance review--I don't--but my pay appears to be well below market, and it is not clear to me that the increase I need will be forthcoming. I can still hope, but mental health requires that I brace myself for having to leave.

It would be sad, but if I can't afford to stay, I will have to make other choices.

Karen said...

Oh, yes, and for me, there is no such thing as a good performance review. It's kind of in the same league as a good root canal, a good pelvic exam.

The best you can say is that you remembered to breathe while it was going on, and that it is over.

zhoen said...

I worked in Surgery, and one year because of the inspection from Jacho, the supervisor just did our evals and said if we wanted to talk to her, she would, but otherwise consider them done. Morale was amazingly high, as far as I know, no one went to get their evaluation.

I always cry, the formal sitting down to be examined is humiliating, even when mostly positive. Frustrating and helpless feeling. I wonder how much productivity is lost due to stress from this torturous process of poking at good employees, and trying to be kindly correcting of folks who will never be decent at their jobs.

No spouse is far better than a bad spouse. Grow, become, enjoy. Achieve freedom, it is worth the pain.

Karen said...

Okay, don't laugh, but I thought I was the ONLY person in the world who ALWAYS cries in performance reviews. Do you think there is a drug that would prevent it?

zhoenw, you always have something good to say!