For the last few weeks, I have tried to write an essay entitled “Waiting for Now.” It would be a veiled attempt to discuss my desire to leave my job and dedicate myself, full-time, to a freelance writing career. I planned to use a cleverly crafted metaphor that somehow revolved around my displeasure of waking up in the morning and always waiting until 8:05 a.m. to get out of bed—the “now” moment for waking up and making it to work on time.
You can see why writing this has been difficult.
I’ve been somewhat frustrated about not being able to find this essay. As it turns out, life found the essay before I did when one week ago I told my boss that I was leaving my job to pursue a freelance writing career.
The moment was prompted by an error. It wasn’t the kind of error that one loses one’s job over. It was the week of the July 4th holiday, which this year fell on a Wednesday. Our CEO chose to close the office at 2:00 p.m. the Tuesday before we were to enjoy the day off. Earlier that day my boss, who works in New York, asked me to send him some information for a meeting he was to have on Thursday of that week. Eager to take full advantage of the holiday’s head start, I left the office forgetting to send him the information. He wasn’t pleased and expressed as much in an email that Thursday morning. I brushed it off at first, acknowledging that I had screwed up but also that no one was going to die over the situation.
But then my mind began to go down the path of mistakes past, stacking all of my screw-ups on top of one another. They appeared to have increased in the most recent months. My mind ran over all the emails that I had lately opened with “I’m sorry” or “I need more time” or “I’m almost done.” “I’m horrible at my job,” I thought. “I’m not focused on it and I want to be somewhere else…so maybe I should be.”
I’m probably not describing this scene accurately. I’m probably failing to paint the clearest picture so you can know how one curt email from my boss sent me into a tailspin and ended with me telling him I was leaving. Have you ever picked a fight with someone about something really small just so you can have a fight about something infinitely bigger—a resentment you’ve been holding, waiting for the right opportunity to let that person know how they’ve wronged you? In this case, I held no personal grievance against my boss, but I did have resentment. I resented the fact that I had these words inside me with nowhere to place them, no energy to develop them, no room for them to lead me. There was no one to blame for this feeling, no one with whom to pick a fight. Yet, I needed to have a fight.
I needed a moment to say the words out loud to someone for whom they weren’t just fanciful thoughts but they were real and held tangible consequences.
I exhausted myself with worry that day, but I decided I would not let anyone else know. I went about doing normal, worker-like things. I answered emails. I walked back and forth to the kitchen filling cups with water and coffee. I printed things and held pieces of paper in my hand. I didn’t know what was on those pieces of paper, but I needed something to occupy the space in front of my eyes so I didn’t sit and stare, painting imaginary canvases with my fear over and over.
I wasn’t hungry, but I nibbled on the trail mix and fruit that I had packed for my lunch. I ate a frozen burrito that afternoon so I wouldn’t need to buy food at the baseball game. There was a baseball game. I had accepted a free ticket to see Washington D.C.’s professional baseball team, the Nationals, play that evening. It was a suite ticket. The only thing I wanted to do at the end of that day was go home and crawl into bed, but not showing up would be rude and indicate that something was wrong, an indication I didn’t want to make. So I went to the baseball game. I sat in the brutally muggy Washington, D.C. heat (I don’t know why I chose to sit outside and not in the air-conditioned suite, which is the entire point of being in one). The person to whom I directly report was there also. I sat next to her struggling to find small talk. I am no good at small talk in general, but I thought on this particular day I might be granted some topics for inconsequential conversation. I wasn’t. I sat there, responding when she asked me questions but seldom else talking. Finally the game was over, the Nationals won, and I could go home. I could finally crawl into bed. I could temporarily turn off the worry.
The next day I awoke to my stomach in knots. I knew the conversation I had to have, the words I needed to say. I wasn’t completely sure whether I was going to say them on that day. When I got to work I would decide. When I sat in my seat and turned on my computer and opened my email and started composing a new message, I would decide if I was going to broach the subject or swallow the lump in my throat that had made its way up from my stomach. I started typing.
Subject: “Do you have time for a quick call this afternoon?”
I sent the email at 1:41 p.m. We set a time to talk for 4:15. I had 2 ½ hours to spin. I didn’t know what his reaction would be. I didn’t know if he was still irritated by my gaffe the day before. I didn’t know if he would tell me to leave that day. I prepared. I cleaned up my office and packed personal items into my purse—a canister of tea, a small bag full of pain medicine, bobby pins, band aids, and other such items that I read smart young professional women should keep handy in their office. I threw away papers I no longer needed. I put my HR handbook in my bag to consult later when I needed to call and ask about staying on the company’s insurance through COBRA. I was prepared to walk away.
Walk away and do what? A perfectly rational question, the answer to which was not all that affirming so I chose not to focus on it. I had a plan, but it wasn’t as far along as it should’ve been. I was close to my savings goal, but I was also spending more than I needed to lately. I hadn’t met with an accountant or created a website or ordered business cards. I was preparing myself to walk away into nothing—no new job, no new start date, no new direct-deposit forms to fill out. People don’t do this. People don’t walk away from health insurance and 401K matches and paid vacations in the middle of a recession. People don’t walk away from security in favor of nothing.
“I’m leaving,” I said. I had practiced my speech. I wrote it down. “This isn’t a reaction to yesterday, although yesterday gave me a moment to pause and reflect on where my focus is, and it isn’t here.”
“What are you going to do?” he asked.
“I am going to pursue a freelance writing career.”
He told me he understood. He had, in fact, lived as a freelance writer some time ago, and it was really, really hard. I remember that phrase “really, really hard” because he repeated it a few times. He repeated it five days after our initial conversation and after he had talked with HR about a possible part-time arrangement—a suggestion he made when I first told him I was leaving—which might afford me some income while I pursued writing. He repeated the phrase after explaining it now seems to make more sense just to hire a full-time person to replace me, and maybe there would be money for part-time work down the line or the communications department might hire me as a freelance writer, or maybe I didn’t need to leave at all but could stay and carve out some hours during the day to write and he would be very supportive of that as long as I got my other work done. It would be easier, after all, to pursue writing with cash coming in, because “I’ve done this,” he repeated, and “it’s really, really hard.”
His offer was generous. The generosity was not lost on me. I fully get how lucky I am to have someone want me to stay in a place that much that they are willing to find some compromise.
People don’t walk away from generous offers.
But after about the third time hearing how “really, really hard” leaving to become a freelance writer would be, I start to think, question, wonder if I have what it takes to do this really, really hard thing. And then I hear a drum.
A call to my self.
A call to that place so deep inside that I don’t know where or how it exists. But it exists. I hear a response saying, “You were prepared to walk away on Friday. Today is Wednesday, and you are still prepared. You are prepared to do this really, really hard thing to find out what you are made of. You owe it to yourself to leave this earth knowing what you are made of.”
And so I heed the call. I walk away. I take the hard way out.