An Anniversary . . . of Sorts

Today is an anniversary for me: exactly one year ago today I lost my full-time job, laid off from a position I was successful at and loved. The last twelve months have been both rewarding and rough. As you can imagine it’s not easy for my husband and me to make ends meet on one salary, especially in tech-happy and expensive Seattle. And if you’re over 45 or 50 years old, it’s incredibly tough to find work no matter your skills, experience, or connections.

For now I’m piecing together an “interesting” professional life, working part-time at a lovely and creative local shop, picking up freelance copy writing and editing projects when possible, and launching my photography business by setting up shop on Etsy. Just to add a dash more excitement and complexity to my calendar, I am also volunteering with several organizations and professional groups. All joking aside, I am grateful to be able to have these volunteer opportunities.

By now you might be asking, “What’s so rewarding about a major job loss and a year of unemployment?” Here are a few of the things I’ve learned about, or at least had reinforced for me, over the last year:

Always trust your gut. Always. Call it intuition, a sixth sense, just a feeling, whatever—it’s trying to tell you something important and you ignore it at your own risk. If I’d listened to my gut two years ago, to what were at first quiet murmurs and later on urgent cries for attention, I might have made some decisions earlier that could have saved me from a world of hurt.

Ask for help, not just a shoulder to cry on. It’s taken me most of my adult life to learn how to lean—appropriately—on others. People want to help, but they need to hear from you specifically how they can be most useful. I have found that taking time to figure out what I need helps me to be proactive and positive, rather than just using a willing friend or family member as an outlet for venting. (A certain amount of venting is necessary and cathartic, but the longer you spend there the less able you are to move forward, and the more weary your friends will grow of listening to you.)

Deploy your very own personal pit crew. I have surrounded myself with a group of people who provide me with honest feedback, help by asking me the tough questions, and just generally keep me tuned up and ready to go. They also remind me how strong I am when I’m having days full of self-doubt or anxiety. These are the people who will have your back and give you advice you can trust.

Know the value of your work, skills, and experience, and be able to speak strongly and clearly about it. This is a tough one, particularly if you’re someone who doesn’t easily talk about your accomplishments or demurs when complimented. It may not be comfortable, but you need to be able to speak about the contributions you (and not your team) bring to the world and not depend on others to do this for you. There are a couple of ways to tease out what you bring to the table:

  • Make an exhaustive list of every accomplishment you’ve had professionally or while volunteering over the last 10–15 years. Quantify how you’ve benefited others.
  • Take note of every technical skill you have including ones you think everyone knows (like Microsoft Word or Outlook).
  • Ask present/former colleagues, supervisors, teachers, friends, and others what they see as your greatest strengths and contributions.
  • Revisit old letters of recommendations, job reviews, report cards, greeting cards, etc. Gather these together and put into a file or notebook and when you’re feeling like you’ve nothing to contribute to anyone, reread them. Consider this stash as your own personal affirmation savings account.

If you’re like me, you’ll start seeing some themes popping up over and over. Pay attention to these! As you identify strengths, talk about them. Out loud. To others. I repeatedly put myself into networking situations where I will have to introduce myself and talk about my me and my work. The more I practice the more natural it gets, and it’s specific, honest, and succinct and doesn’t come off as “braggy.”

Reach out to others who need your help. Being grateful means helping bring others along too. I’ve met so many wonderful, highly skilled people that I would be happy to work alongside. I can’t wave a wand and magically create jobs for them, but I can introduce them to others who might also help, I can offer constructive edits on resumes and cover letters, and I can lend an ear and some hope when they’re having a rough day. Effectively, what you put out into the world comes back to you at some point, so invest in making a positive difference.

Virtually Known

I read a great piece today written by Michael Waters about the validity of online friendships. He said, “In the five years that I’ve been active online, I have never viewed the Internet as an alternative to my in-person world, but rather as an extension of it.”

Maybe because I’m an introvert and a somewhat gregarious one (yes, you CAN be both introverted and NOT shy), I am completely on-board with Waters’ view of online relationships. It’s often easier for me to virtually put pen-to-paper than mouth-and-ear-to-phone. I find that keeping in touch with my far-flung friends and family is mostly enhanced by connecting with them through Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, LinkedIn and other social media.

It might also be that as a writer and photographer, I find what people write and post to be an additional way of gaining insight into others. Hardly anyone writes snail mail anymore, and so sites like Facebook provide me with details and updates I wouldn’t have otherwise. In several instances, friendly acquaintances have become unexpected and treasured friends because we’ve discovered common interests or shared takes on the world.

I say kudos for you if you’re making social media work for you. By all means, give all your on- and off-line commitments serious thought, but in the end, do what works for you and those you care about. Figure out what’s best in getting to know others and in being knowable yourself, and don’t allow others to sit in judgement of your thoughtful and personal choices.

Birthdays

I vividly remember walking into church on my 30th birthday and having an older—and much wiser—friend ask me how I was doing. I looked her in the eye and said, “It’s my 30th birthday.” She held my gaze for a few seconds then held out her arms and said, “Oh, I’m so sorry. Come here and have a good cry.” And so I did.

To this day I can’t really explain why I was upset, but she just knew I wasn’t in the mood to celebrate.

A decade later, as I approached 40, I decided that I would never feel badly about a birthday again. If I’d made it through another year, then I was going to celebrate—all month! And for each successive decade I’d do something really grand.

So today I celebrate another year. Another year of mistakes and growth and learning. Another year of learning about love and joy, pain and sadness. What’s done is done and there’s still a lifetime ahead of me to understand and accept the old and embrace leaping out into the unknown new.

How Will You Be Remembered?

I went to a memorial service today for the former husband of a dear friend I’ve known for about 20 years now. His death came as a shock to everyone, especially one of his daughters who will be married in just a few weeks.

As I sat in the church and listened to his family and friends speak about the ways that he shared his life with others, it struck me how little I really knew of him. He reached so many people with his work, writing, volunteerism, faith. It was remarkable really, that one many who was not famous or well-known could have touched so many lives.

I wonder if any of us mere mortals will ever truly know the impact our lives have upon others? Sometimes, if we’re really lucky, we have people in our lives who share how we’ve influenced or helped them, but mostly we just move together through this world. Unfortunately, it’s not until we’re gone that those who knew us will tell our story, and friends, family, colleagues, and others will come together and finally put us more fully into context.

At dinner tonight another dear friend of ours asked me What do you think people will remember about you when you’re gone? I couldn’t answer her, but it was exactly what I was mulling over. Perhaps, for a brief time this afternoon, we were all brought together by our friend one final time so that we could stop and consider our own time among the living and how we can make it more meaningful. I still can’t answer the question, but I know that we’ve been given a gift in the midst of our grief.

Searching . . . and Finding

A few months into last year I made the difficult decision to leave a great job, feeling it was time for a change professionally. I spent most of the spring and summer volunteering with four different organizations and came away from these feeling rested, renewed and ready for heading down a new path professionally.

Conducting a job search is an odd thing—you find yourself in the necessary and awkward position of singing your own praises. It feels a bit like being a politician I suppose, trying to sell yourself in the most glowing terms while downplaying your deficits. Ugh. I don’t think there are many of us who enjoy this. I am truly tired of hearing my elevator speech and being in my own head.

On the flip side, it’s both humbling and empowering to learn how others see you. I’m lucky enough to have good friends who are honest about my skills and temperament. They ask me the hard questions and hold me accountable. And they also remind me I’m not only extremely competent in my work, but creative, helpful and kind. There are more days than I care to admit that I really need to hear this message from others I trust.

So here’s to the people in our lives who surround and support us, with honesty and positiveness, and give us resilience.

New Year, New Habits

I tend to resist going along just to get along. I typically need a solid reason for pursuing something and so I’m not comfortable doing something just because someone else says too, or to follow the herd, so to speak. This probably sounds rebellious, though for me it’s more about seeing the big picture of things and knowing the context. Learning these things is essential and helps me to get behind ideas or tasks wholeheartedly. I think I do some of my best work under these conditions.

January arrived and everyone around me seems to be making resolutions because that’s “what one does” this month, but I’m a little dubious. I do believe that most people really do want to keep their resolutions, but research tells us that the majority of them are broken and then abandoned just a few weeks or months into the new year.

So this year, instead of abandoning the positive aspects of making a resolution, I’m trying to figure out what I can do to set some healthy goals for the year and what it’s going to take for me to be successful. I’m beginning with reading Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives by Gretchen Rubin and writing down the discoveries I make about myself and how I best learn and stick to new habits. Stay tuned and I promise to share a bit about what happens throughout this year.

December Dis-Ease

After a couple of weeks of unusually cold, clear days and nights, mid-December came roaring in with blustery weather and drenching rain. I usually welcome our late fall storms that blow in off the Pacific, but this year seems different.

I swing between wanting to hunker down inside, listening to the storm rage beyond my windows and wanting to bundle up and run headlong into the wind.

I think this has been a year in which hope is hard to come by, when (already) deep divisions have widened even more between people. Yes, I think this is the root of my dis-ease in the world right now. And rather than retreating before the powerful storm, I think I’d rather confront it, on my own terms.

Blustery Day

It’s a blustery, overcast day and we have high-wind warnings here in Puget Sound. Sixty mph gusts? Bring it on. We’re used to this sort of storm up here and after a long cold snap I’m more than ready to welcome a change in the weather. Don’t get me wrong, the bright sunny days with intensely blue skies was pretty great, but it gets a little cold sitting at my desk on these types of days.

I got out a bit with my husband and we wandered through our local botanical garden with cameras in hand. This time of year you often take your beauty where you can find it. The colorful gold and coppery red leaves have been swept away by breezy fall storms and now we’re in a time of limbo, a few weeks away from the season of deeply hued evergreens and mossy lawns covered by blindingly white drifts of snow.

So I turned my lens on the wispy barbed tendrils of grass going to seed and scarlet red rose hips clinging to leafless branches. Sometimes it takes a bit of rooting around to find treasure, but it’s there, even in the waning, decaying days of autumn.

Putting the Garden to Bed

I have finally put my garden to bed for the long rainy winter ahead, raking the fallen leaves from my Japanese leaf maple over the delicate Quinault strawberries and (I fervently hope) hardy herbs. Probably the hardest task was cutting back the remaining flowers like the rudbeckia, this year’s standout in an unusually long, hot summer.

I feel a bit of sadness wash over me doing these fall chores. It’s a bit like saying goodbye to stalwart friends who were always up for a bit of fun when I needed cheering up. But then I remind myself that much like snowbirds, my older neighbors who flee before the cold and rain to sunnier southern climes, they’ll be back again in late spring, carrying their stored warmth with them.

In the meantime, I will console myself by fully embracing the seasons in-between: long dark nights to cozy up with a book and mug of coffee . . . gray rainy days when the best place to be is inside at my desk, writing.

Dew Drops

I was walking through our local community garden with my camera one crisp, fall morning and noticed the beauty of dew drops pooling at the center of large, deep green nasturtium leaves. The drops of water magnified the silvery veins of the leaves and reflected the feathery outline of the cedar trees overhead. How many times before this morning had I missed this detail?

Whenever I have my camera in-hand I seem to notice my surroundings with more depth. I suppose in looking for interesting shots I have opened my eyes, so to speak, more fully to the world around me. It’s a bit like putting on new prescription glasses: before you thought you could see just fine, but now—now—you suddenly realize just how much you’ve missed. You spy things you’ve never seen before like the shiny metallic of tiny orchard mason bees or the delicate curves of a newborn’s tiny ear.

The world hasn’t changed, but rather the veil over my eyes has been lifted and I am fully open to the wonder of seeing things anew.