Some work I miss. Some I don’t. I miss dragging up, sawing through and splitting stumps to pieces with my friend Ken all day, though I don’t miss twenty feet up a ladder leaned on a wobbly oak limb with a gurgling chainsaw. The work melted time. It hurled the sun up and over head. I remember, I can always tell three o clock sun. I could see it on his face we’d be finished soon.
I miss all the dogs. The big finicky Shepherds and dough eyed boxers and hear them screaming down the hall huskies. Giving one a bath was my first real test at the vet. She did great. They were surprised. I wasn’t. Which is probably why, our blue eyes were locked and I ran water over her for more than five minutes before a bit began to stick to that thick, greyscale coat. The old golden retrievers who seemed so out of place kenneled between a spastic one legged country mix and one of the doctor’s insane pit bull hybrids. Quiet. Stoic. Whose bark was nothing compared to his brown eyes, begging to be let out. I don’t miss most of the cats. Nothing against them. Just what they become when they visit the vet. I don’t miss being in the room helping to explain why someone’s best friend wouldn’t leave there with them. Some people had to pay for everything, make every arrangement, before the IV, before the slow groggy eye roll into everlasting sleep, so that the instant after goodbye, they could leave. It’d be first thing in the morning sometimes. Lit candles flicker in the waiting room. Each color coded doctor flag flung out in warning. The young staff begging to give a dying pup something inane like a cupcake. Pressing their limp paws in black ink and rolling them onto neon colored paper. I don’t miss that.
I miss riding fifty foot high porch swings up a mountain through a blizzard and leaning forward dreading that leap and goofy trot at the top, to sit in a heated box for an hour eating my Nature Valley bar and scribbling nasty, numb finger poetry in the palm of my hand. Slapping the switch and bringing the whole contraption to a halt when a nervous kid would neglect to lean forward and slide off. Teaching kids and old folks alike how to ride a lift I had never even authentically used myself. Wearing five coats. Jumping in place nonstop when it was fifteen below. No fewer than two pairs of everything, gloves, socks, hats. I don’t miss climbing a frozen ladder onto the frozen bullwheel that moves the cable with all those porch swings bolted to it, with a lit blow torch in my left hand, a full propane tank in my right. No kidding, I asked if he was kidding when I got to the top. I thought I was being pranked, or hazed. But no, I was earning my keep, proving my worth. Slow and unsure I melted every inch of the inch of ice that had coated that thing before I climbed down to the sarcastically scrunched look of ironic northern surprise. I miss being a living breathing novelty. I’m glad I lived to miss it.
I miss moving hundreds of yards of material in a single roll of fabric. I have never seen people more excited to purchase an almost never ending chore. The thrill they found in fabrication touched me in helping provide for it. I miss the excited look of kids wearing their favorite cartoon characters on clothes made by their favorite grandparents. You get to a certain age and you almost forget altogether how it feels to wear something you’re excited to sleep in. I remember the best boss I’ve ever had slapping a stack of multicolored polyester poplin and explaining to me how they were off to be made into fast food uniforms for some restaurant chain or other. Humble little store bought fireworks sizzling in my mind. Working in wholesale is like having x-ray vision. You get to see the skeleton of everything. The resources that get twisted and braided and heavily longarm stitched and embroidered into products. I don’t miss time clocks or cleaning bathrooms or having to handle often times caustic personnel issues. Infighting between the different shades of blue collars. Trying to explain that the beauty of work is what you get to leave at home. That you’re really being paid not to show up everyday. To be there, to lend your time and talents and bodily and customer service presence, but keep the you part safe and secure, no one will ever pay you enough for that. Leave it where it’s safe, employ it only for your dreams. Trust me, the money you take home will help, but those dreams won’t make it easy to make. A few hours a day off from being the true authentic you can be a beautiful thing. Can be being the optimal phrase in that sentiment. It takes practice. I miss the times I really had it honed and humming.
I miss arranging pink and blue piggy banks and flower vases shaped like Ford Mustang convertibles. I don’t miss knocking three glass shelves covered over in them completely to the floor in the glittering shattered cascade of sharp ceramic, clear blue shards and the broken up eyes and snouts of little pigs that were never even fed a penny.
I miss helping young women and their moms search for the right prom dress, and young men toward their first black suit, and older men nervous to tell me their true waist size even though I had already assessed it with my eyes. I remember helping one gentleman on and off with his shoes, and his wife thanked me for my help with tears on her cheeks. He was getting a suit for his sister’s funeral, he was a very big man, with a great many stories to tell, and I was honest to God happy to help. He reminded me of someone, but I never figured out who. Probably myself. I don’t miss the owner’s father, Pops, following me around like he thought I was going to steal something, condescending me because I cleaned the bathroom, which he referred to as ‘woman’s work’, and chastised me for slipping off a ladder even though he refused to steady it for me, or take the heavy box I was descending with from my hands. That was the only job I have ever walked off from in the middle of a shift. And three months later they begged me to come back to watch the store for them while they were out of town, and I never did. I would rather sweat through summers doing landscaping than to be treated like something I’m not. Dishonest.
I do miss cutting grass, all day chasing a self-propelled push mower and coming back through like a barber with a razor scraping the warm shaving cream of soft green grass off the edges of sidewalks and wiping them clean with a leaf blower. I worked for myself, for a few houses, and a church in Shelby. One day I had to do the job in the rain and I broke the bolt that held the blade on the mower deck three times, going to the hardware store to replace it, three times, before I finished the job. Knowing if I did not make it home with that check, well, that was not an option, at that time. I don’t miss finding I had hit a snake, or a toad in the grass. Or that I had taken an extra twist and nicked the heads off someone’s lemon yellow daffodils or candy pink tulip lips. I don’t miss being overworked and overtired and still poor. Or when it would start raining and not stop for six, seven, eight days sometimes just pouring. That’s a good word for those times. Pooring. Equipment sitting cold in the bed of my overworked, overtired Jeep.
If not for my chickens and for my gardens those times would have pushed past hard and actually frozen solid as ice in the dead center of summertime. You can ask my sister. I’d eat ten, eleven ears of corn and call it dinner. Leave the house with three hardboiled eggs in the morning, and no lie, pick dandelion heads and free pears and scavenged blackberries on the properties I worked. I was so terribly free and pinballish those two years. Almost everyone who loved me was afraid for me. But I wasn’t though. Too busy.
Which is how I discovered my own personal secret to sustain sustaining. Busyness. Work. Walking. Responsibilities. Caring for animals. Caring for people. Neglecting myself.
I learned a critical lesson, and I will share it with you here to sum up and finish this piece that is likely to go on ten, maybe even fifteen more years at this pace.
If you can’t be okay all the time, then start walking it back. What makes you okay for, let’s say, a day. If you can’t be okay for a day. Keep walking. What can you do to be okay for an hour. If you can’t manage that yet, how about half an hour, fifteen minutes. Don’t lose heart. Fifteen minutes of being okay can be really really hard. Back up to a minute. Is there anything at all that you can do and for just about one minute not fixate on your problems, your hangups, fears, your lack of motivation, anxiety, depression, innate invisible suffering no one in the world may know about but you.
You’ll find it. It’s there. For me, it was work, and walking, with my dogs, hiking, being outside. But work mostly, for other people, for myself, on my farm, in my notebook. I found I could choose one of these activities and be okay for a minute, and if I got a little momentum, two, then five. A good long walk, losing track of the dogs as they bound up ahead of me after a deer they’ll never catch, or a bird that isn’t actually there, fifteen minutes, then forty five. At the end of it, all of it would come back and hit me like an ocean wind. So I’d do it again, and again. A nice, breathtaking, sun drenching, sweat dripping shift, I’d get five, six hours in before something worse than exhaustion would catch up to me. I practiced those a while, and soon enough, I could get through a day, at the end of which I’d be beat, inside and out, upside and down. All the energy I had left to do anything with was required to carry my butt to bed. I’d get up with all these thoughts, ideas, lists, agendas, chores, filling my head. No room for the other stuff.
I got real good at going two or three days. Which was great, I could more than feel, but see my progress. Next thing I knew, I’d have my weeks mapped out all the way until I had to call them months. And honest to God, honest to you, it has been years, actual years now, since I’ve revisited the bottom of that pit my thoughts dug out for me so long ago.
And that’s the secret, my secret at least. Start small. Start with the seed. The here and now. And don’t even take a second to think about minutes until those seconds are something you can sustain. Until for a few seconds, you can be okay. Don’t dwell on hours, if you have to, pretend there’s no such thing as days. Build your happiness brick by brick, minute by minute. Without much more strain and wracking your brain, you’ll have a wall, four walls, a roof, without any more thought than it takes to slap down a little mortar and sandwich it tight in between two red rectangles.
I think a lot of depression and anxiety are actually offshoots of our impressive imaginations. Our understanding of, and longing for, wide, intricate blue-printed designs and multi-layered, textural maps, and the expectations of our friends and families and the pressures we put on ourselves to think in five year plans and knowing our lifetime career goals before we’ve even held down a simple summer gig, or a year or two of odd jobs and the hungry, gut-wrenching process of self discovery and finding out our own beautiful, hardfought points of exhaustion.
Essentially, try not to get ahead of yourself. Try not to plan too much until you have some pretty decent milestones in the rearview. Once you have a few mountains behind you, you’ll see the vast range of powder blue ridges stretched out before you differently. You’ll see them with your feet, and with your back. You’ll learn to distrust your eyes, just enough so that you can hear the beating of your heart.
You’ll learn the greatest fear you’ll ever feel is for the things you’ve already been through.
No matter what obstacles are set out in front of you, they all have one incredible, optimistic aspect in common.