Monday, January 30, 2017

Happy Place

Two years ago, I was just starting my yoga teacher training. I was still working at my corporate job and I had no idea how I was ever going to get out. Or if I was going to get out. I was in a miserable on and off relationship with my ex-boyfriend who was completely wrong for me. I wanted to be happy. That was really all I ever wanted, but at that time in my life I had no idea where or how I would find true happiness.

The more I got into my yoga teacher training, the more I started to see the light at the end of the tunnel. I was a part of something special. A supportive group of women who shared a common belief system and a desire to learn, grow and change. It was an amazing time in my life. And yet, as I was surrounded by this wonderful group of people, sharing our thoughts and ideas, most of the real work took place deep within myself, on both a physical and spiritual level. As I look back on where I am today, so much of what I have learned and incorporated into my worldview is rooted in those early days of yoga teacher training. 

My life today is incredibly different than it was back then. I found the happiness that I was so desperately seeking. I have my own business as a freelance writer and I get to work at home every day. I don't go to meetings or deal with difficult people. There are no unrealistic deadlines that I need to manage. Basically, I get to write and edit all day without interruption. While the first year of having my own business was a bit of a struggle financially, I have recently signed on two more clients, which means I can keep doing this full time. Finally, I don't feel like I need to look for a "real job" anymore. This is my real job.

And I found the love of my life with Mark Johnson. We are so very happy every day. And we are so grateful that somehow the universe found a way to bring us together. Life is so good in every way I had hoped for, and in ways I could never have imagined. We live a slow-paced life with very little drama and very few expectations. We like to read, write in our journals, meditate, cook dinner together, take long walks and plan for our next road trip. All of the things that people usually "run out of time" to do during their busy days. Those are the things we prioritize. The things that matter to us.

So, you might be wondering why I am writing this blog just to tell everyone how happy I am. It may even seem self-indulgent. But there is one thing I have been struggling with these past few months. Maybe you have been struggling with it too. It seems that as I have reached the peak of my happiness, the world we live in, and our country in particular, is on a path that is very destructive. 

Ever since the election, I have been feeling unsettled. At first it was a more indirect sense of worrying. The kind that comes along with not knowing what will happen next. But now it is a more concrete sense of fear, as I watch in horror at what is happening in our country.

I have made a conscious effort to turn off the news and try not to immerse myself in all of the negativity that is going on in the world. It started with a simple solution. Every day when I logged into my Yahoo account it would take me to the home page with all of the news of the day. Most of the time, the feature story would include a picture of Donald Trump's face and some sensational headline about what he did or was threatening to do. It was so disturbing to start off every morning that way, when really all I wanted to do was get into my e-mail.

So Mark Johnson set up my Yahoo e-mail as my home page, allowing me to bypass the news and the Trump photos every morning. That has made a huge difference. The next step was to reduce all of the other negative sources of information. I have friends and family members who share all sorts of articles and updates via e-mail. So I sent a note to everyone letting them know that I am trying to stay positive in 2017 and requesting a "no negative news" policy for any e-mails they send to me. And I try to stay off of Facebook.

I must say that on some level it is working. Aside from getting a few random tidbits from watching Stephen Colbert's monologue or maybe hearing a reference to something in casual conversation with one of my family members, I have mostly remained unaware of exactly how bad things have gotten in the first few weeks of the Trump presidency.

I have felt more centered and content without all of those negative inputs into my daily life. Yet, I also feel like my simple avoidance tactics are probably the equivalent of sticking my finger into a crack in a dam and hoping to stop all of the water from flowing out. There is so much happening that ultimately the dam is going to burst. 

Yesterday we were watching the SAG awards and there were a few really intense speeches, especially one from the cast of Stranger Things, which won the award for best ensemble cast. I mentioned to Mark Johnson that they really seemed fired up and he gingerly asked if I wanted to know why. He told me about Trump's latest immigration order and it literally blew my mind. All of these things are going on in the world, and I feel powerless to stop them. Whether or not I know about them and allow them to ruin my day, they are still happening.

Today we had a snow day, which gave us both a chance to extend our weekend and work at home together. At one point, I looked out the balcony window and saw one of our neighbors, a man in his eighties, down on his knees in the snow. At first I thought he might be trying to pick something up off the ground but it soon became clear that he was stuck. We put our boots on and opened up the door just in time to hear another neighbor call out to his wife to let her know that he had just fallen down in the snow. 

We rushed downstairs and it took three of us to help lift him up and get him back into his apartment. When we got back inside, Mark Johnson and I hugged each other and talked about how hard it must be for people who are getting old to accept help from others. This man was well over six feet tall and probably could have done anything he wanted back when he was younger, but now he was so vulnerable. Under other circumstances, he could have been out there in the snow for hours instead of minutes before someone noticed him.

As we sat down to meditate later this afternoon, the older man was on my mind. And I couldn't help but think about Trump and all of the people he is going to hurt with his short-sighted and heartless policies. I sat and watched the colors start to form in the dark space behind my eyes and I asked the universe what I should be doing. How I could help in this time of struggle. But nothing came to me. Then, I started to hear a mantra in my head:

Stay where you are. 
Be where you are. 
Live your life. 
Do what you do.

Over and over, I heard that same mantra in my head. At the end of my meditation I opened my eyes and laid my head on Mark Johnson's shoulder. As I told him about my meditation and the mantra that came to me, I said that I had hoped for another answer. I had hoped that there was something I could do to help. But ultimately, I know that there isn't. 

I have mentioned before that one of my archetypes is Shiva, the Hindu God of destruction. Shiva is special in that he does not destroy things merely for the sake of destruction. His purpose is to destroy to create. As I look back on these past few years, I can see that my life as I knew it had to fall apart in order to create something better. And I think the same thing may be happening to our country. 

I can't help all of the people who are being displaced by Trump's immigration policies. And reading about it on the internet or internalizing angry rants on Facebook will not change that. The only person I can help is the person who is right in front of me. Today it was our neighbor who fell down in the snow. Who knows what situation may arise tomorrow.

I just hope that when the time comes, we all have the strength to rebuild what he is destroying.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Borrowed Time

Most of us are probably familiar with the phrase "living on borrowed time." It is typically used to describe a person who has lived beyond their life expectancy. In other words, they are borrowing time from the universe. People who live on borrowed time feel like every day is a gift, because they know that they may not have much longer to spend on this earth.

Lately, I have started to develop a new framework around the idea of borrowing time. I think a lot of the people I care about are borrowing time, but not from the universe. They are borrowing time from their employers. Asking for time off to go to their child's soccer game, take a vacation, or even to allow themselves to be sick for a day or two.

And its more than that. The employer also defines how you spend your days, including the hours you work and when you have to stay late. They choose the people you spend your time with each day, whether it is your boss, your co-workers, your customers, and any other people you may encounter. Even if these people make you miserable, there is very little you can do about it except to leave and hope to start over again somewhere else.

It seems like this is something that people just take for granted as "the way things are." It is so ingrained in our culture that this is just what we have to do. It never occurs to us that there is something wrong with this picture. That the rules we play by don't make any sense.

I was talking to my brother who works a lot of hours at his job and he seems to hate every minute of it. It has been that way for years, and it is even worse right now because he is going through a job transition. He worked most of this weekend and he worked today, even though it was a company holiday and the offices were closed.

When I asked why he was working so much, he said that he has no choice. He is starting a new job in a few weeks, so he has to be ready.

"They can't expect you to just walk into your new job on Day 1 and know how to do everything," I said, assuming that he was just being too hard on himself and trying to do more than was expected.

"Oh, yes they do!" He exclaimed. "That is how it works with internal transfers. The person who is leaving the job trains you and then you take over and start doing it on your own when they move to their new job."

Basically, during this transition my brother is expected to do his current job, while teaching another person to take over his job, and also while learning his new job. And the other people involved in this situation are doing the same thing. Which means all of them are working nights and weekends just to keep up, because that is what's expected.

"So it's like a domino effect, with everyone stuck working all of these extra hours," I said, shaking my head in disbelief.

"Well, that's what they are paying me for," he said matter of factly.

"I am not sure that's true," I said. "They are paying you a salary that is based on 40 hours a week. That doesn't include nights and weekends."

My brother and sister both looked at each other and shook their heads, exchanging a glance that said It's ok, she just doesn't understand our world.

"Well, I made 50 bucks today, so what do I know," I said, trying to laugh it off, even though I felt like they were somehow implying that they are wiser or more mature than I am. It has been that way ever since I left my corporate job and started freelancing. Everyone seems to think that what I am doing is all fine and good, but it's not how the "real world" works.

And I guess they are right. I don't understand their world. And I don't understand why anyone would want to put up with it. Being one of those people who used to work long hours and give so much at the office that I had nothing left for myself, I feel like I have the license to say that enough is enough.

The idea behind a salary is that the employer is paying you a standard amount of money for a certain time commitment. They are buying time from you in exchange for a fee. And your salary is generally based on a 40-hour work week. There may be times when you are asked to work a little more, or maybe you even choose to work a little more to get something done. But that should be the exception and not the rule.

Somewhere along the line, this idea of a salary translated from 40 hours per week to an unlimited amount of time. And yet the salaries remained the same. Everyone is expected to do more with less. People leave and their work is divided among the people that are left, instead of filling the open position. Employees are given laptops, cell phones and other devices to help them connect at all times. And people feel like they can't get away.

A few weeks ago France passed a law suggesting that all employers with over 50 employees create policies that allow their employees to disconnect. That means setting aside times where the employer cannot call or send emails or texts, whether it is on weekends, holidays, or even after a certain time in the evening. There was a wonderful quote in one of the articles that summarized the issue perfectly:
"Employees physically leave the office, but they do not leave their work. They remain attached by a kind of electronic leash - like a dog. The texts, the messages, the emails - they colonize the life of the individual to the point where he or she eventually breaks down."
I think it is a sad commentary that we need a law telling people that it is ok to disconnect from their jobs, but if that is what it takes, then I fully support it. Employers buy a limited amount of our time. They do not own all of it. They don't own us. And until we start to recognize our own power and start to say no to unreasonable demands, they will not stop asking (or telling) us what we have to do.

Of course, no one wants to be the first person to stand up to their employer - especially not my brother. He is convinced that if he refuses to do something, they will just fire him and fill his slot with someone else who is willing to make those sacrifices. And maybe he is right, although I seriously doubt they would fire him.

It is all about expectations. If you come in and work all of those extra hours, then your employer will expect you to do it. And if you don't, then they won't. I know it may sound like I am oversimplifying the situation, but it's true. When I got sick, I stopped working nights and weekends and limited myself to only eight hours a day. And no one said a word about it.

I made it clear that I wasn't going to pick up the extra slack and they simply moved on to someone else who would. In fact, once I stopped doing all of that extra work, things started breaking down. Soon they began to see how much work there really was and they brought in at least three more contractors to help finish the project. No one fired me. There really weren't any negative consequences to me at all. Maybe at some higher levels of the company, my name was quietly removed from the promotion list. But that isn't really a list I wanted to be on anyway.

While I can understand why people are afraid, I also know that nothing will change unless we start to speak up. It may not be a full-on revolution. It may start by just taking a stand on one small issue or injustice. But whatever it is, we need to start somewhere. No one should have to borrow time from their employer to live their life.

If any of us were truly living on borrowed time, in the traditional sense of the word, then I have to imagine that work would be one of our lowest priorities. I hope everyone out there who is working too hard can find a way to put work in its proper place.