“Listen – are you breathing just a little, and calling it a life?”
– Mary Oliver
“Your book has a birthday. You don’t know what it is yet.”
The decision to leave a wonderful position with a delightful company where I do meaningful work alongside kindhearted coworkers is not one I take lightly. I’ve lost more sleep over more nights than I can count. I’ve poured myself into oversized containers of ice cream, buckets of popcorn, and bottles of wine, abandoning the healthier coping strategies I’ve learned in years of therapy. I’ve spent hours sitting in the darkness, alone in my living room, dreading what I’m about to do.
My boss has been both a friend and mother figure to me. My coworkers have been my cheerleaders. The residents at the retirement center where I work have changed my perspective; they’ve transformed the way I look at aging, love, resilience and mortality. I fell in love with a community of people in their 80s, 90s and 100s — people who offered me an endless and unconditional supply of hugs, wisdom and warmth.
I have to leave, though, and this is why: There is a book inside of me. Or rather, there’s a series of ideas, thoughts, and feelings that I think will lead up to a book. This collection of thoughts — this beast — is nestled between my heart and lungs. It catches on my breaths; it pulls me to the ground. I’m crouched on my feet, wrestling against this thing. I keep trying to press it down, but it wants out.
Regular paychecks and health insurance and free lunches are no match for this thing inside of me. The days I’m putting into my job no longer feel like hours I’m putting in; they feel like hours I’m giving up. The more I give up, the heavier the beast gets. This book keeps pushing against me, jabbing into my core, asking me to take notice.
I tried to be sensible. I’ll only pay attention to the beast at night. On weekends. In my spare moments. I’ll politely ask the beast to be calm during the day, to keep quiet, to stop calling me.
It didn’t stop. It only got louder. I would try to focus on my work — if I only stare at this computer long enough, if I just repeat what that resident said one more time — in an effort to distract myself. This, I would tell myself. This is what normal people do. They work normal jobs like this. They help other people. They sometimes get bored. They laugh with their coworkers. They look at the clock. They think about dinner. They ache when they hear someone new is on hospice. They stoically attend memorial services. They sometimes go home and weep for someone who has died. They often go home and worry about those who are living, those who are facing dementia and disease and the unfathomable loss of a spouse after sixty years of marriage. They carry their feelings and they feel exhausted and they don’t write — not now, Book Beast — and then they wake up the next day and do it all over again.
I can’t do it anymore.
I can’t do it anymore because a book is pushing against me and I can’t release it until I walk away from what’s causing it. This time I’ve spent with people who are 92, 97, 102: it’s made me who I am. It’s helped me to form my story and colored the way I view the world. But I cannot write about it – I cannot sit down and focus my energy on it or anything else – until I walk away.
The best I can do now, while working here full-time, is to come home and fall asleep at 8 p.m., an occurrence that happens with frequency. The best I can do now is to sit in my exhaustion and fret about the things I can’t control, to put off my writing until I’m less tired, less drained. Put it off for another day, and then another, and then another.
I have to leave. I have to leave so I can get in my car and drive. I have to leave so I can visit different friends in different states. I have to leave so I can sit in my grandma’s abandoned house on the other side of the country — the one beyond the reach of internet and cell service — and write. I have to leave so I can write and write and write, free from the interruption of going to work for nine-hour increments followed by hours of sitting numbly at home, feeling too much, thinking about my residents, missing my grandma, worrying about the end of life, until I go to bed and repeat it all the next day. I have to leave so I can take these big, messy feelings and put them down on the page and write and rewrite and rewrite until they make some sense. Until they tell my story.
It’s not an easy thing to explain to anyone. I will have no source of income. I will have nothing, really, except my car and my mind and my bag full of dreams. Does this sound logical to anyone? Does this sound practical?
Is it logical for someone to stay in a relationship long after she’s fallen out of love?
Is it practical for someone to stay at a job if she feels like she’s suffocating?
Is it okay to suppress everything inside of me in an attempt to fit in with the normal way normal people do normal things?
This is no longer a story of Normal. This is the story of a Book Beast, a road trip, a lonely house, and a plan that defies logic. The plan goes like this: Write, write, write, write, write. There is no room in this plan to drive residents to medical appointments. There is no room to edit a newsletter or update a Facebook page or listen patiently when someone tells the same story again. There is no room for letting my compassion for my coworkers override my need to do something for myself. There is no room for letting the moments and days and years go by, waiting for things to arrange themselves differently, waiting for something to present itself to me, waiting.
This is no longer a story of Waiting. This is a story about making a difficult decision — one that I feel in my gut with an immensity that scares me — and standing behind it. People leave horrible jobs and situations all the time, but I am not one of those people. I am leaving a wonderful position with a delightful company where I do meaningful work alongside kindhearted coworkers. I’m leaving my friends and family and apartment and job and everything I know and love.
This is why I have to leave. That book lodged inside my organs? Someday I’m going to let it out. But first I have to get to it. I have to chip away at it. I have to remove the layers of fat that cushion it. I have to peel back the debris and clutter until the beast is all that’s left. And then I have to release it.