My kids are back to school. Both of them there for seven hours each day. Four-year-old Sam, who weighs so very much when hanging off my neck as if I were a tree, wearing his too-big backpack, his little legs moving quickly to keep up with his big sis, to grow up and learn the ways of the world.
For the first time in over six years, I have a day at home, alone, with no sounds but some cicadas, a few unidentified birds, my A/C (it just cut on), the helicopters flying towards the Pentagon, a neighbor’s yard service, and the sound of acorns falling from the massive oak trees overhead, plummeting to the ground. They want to be the massive oaks of one hundred years from now, but most of them will be raked up, an inconvenience for the manicured lawns and yards, sent away with the leaves to be made into mulch for tidy gardens in the spring. Sitting outside (for my 10 minutes of sunshine a day), I hope none of them hit me square on the head. I try to remember physics: I know the mass of an acorn is small, and force = mass x velocity? I’m not sure that’s right. But they have that sharp little point at the end. I consider getting a hat or helmet. I decide to risk it.
Elsewhere, the world is on fire. The world is under water. But here it is blue-skied and mild. Elsewhere people with very slightly different DNA to mine, DNA that dictates that their skin has slightly more melanin, people whose ancestors primarily lived in South America, Africa, Asia, human beings whose kids have also just started school, they struggle with different fears, and then again probably a lot of the same fears, as me.
I am lost. I don’t know what to do with myself. I have financial obligations, and once the obligations are met, I have a wish list. The uncomfortable sofa. I feel guilty wanting a comfortable sofa. I think about the people with the different DNA, mothers and fathers with different circumstances. I think about the families I lived with in India who have no sofa.
But I had friends to my house yesterday and didn’t ask them to sit on the sofa. They weren’t my best friends, who know to get a pillow to prop you up and then it is okay. So we sat at the table and had a nice time. If I earned a bunch of money, I could have a different sofa, maybe I would ask more people over. Maybe I would feel different.
I used to travel to places like Rio, and Kyoto, and Poznan (no offense Poland, but that was not as exciting as some of the other trips). I got to sit in meetings in beautiful places all over the world with people who eventually became my friends because I didn’t spend time with any other people at times when I had energy (and I still love many of them, don’t get me wrong). Back then, people asked me what I did and I told them “I’m important” (paraphrase). “This company and this title validates that I’m something.”
Someone assigned me something to do. I did it. Then they said my name during a meeting with more people and mentioned that I was very useful. I blushed. That moment was over and I remembered the hundreds of hours of my life I had traded for it. Sometimes it felt worth it. Usually it felt a little bit less worth it than I thought it would.
Once I sat across a table from Harrison Ford and explained to him what my team was hoping to accomplish to save the world. He nodded. Once I drank tea with the Queen of Bhutan. We took a photo together. Once I sat with a group of older men in a West African village and explained why a group of people (mostly other older men, with very slightly different DNA from the villagers) were going to look at insects and birds in their forest. They nodded. But one of them said “This is why we should send our daughters to school.” That moment felt worth it. Another time, I cried in a hotel because I was scared to sleep in a tent in the middle of Africa for a month. My friends were comfortable on mattresses on another continent, they were not listening to convoys of Liberian militants drive by them as they slept.
And here I am now. No fancy job. No fancy title. No paycheck. Two kids whose little legs will get longer and longer until they are long enough to carry them to Africa, or Poland. I will be here to help those legs get longer and stronger and to hopefully point them in a good direction. But they will have less and less need for me.
So what will fill these long days? I think my sister thinks I should get another job. I think that because when I was telling her that I wanted to clear yet more of the clutter out of my house she said something like “Maybe it isn’t the clutter that is bothering you. Maybe it is that you need to get out of your house and maybe get another job” (paraphrase). I think what her loving, beautiful heart was saying was that she thinks I need something to do. Some structured something that I apply my mind towards.
So, I decided to start selling cosmetics and skin care. The clear solution to this dilemma.
I have to back up here, to when I was about four years old. Or maybe five. You start kindergarten. Someone tells you where to sit and what the rules are. And when you sit where they told you, and you demonstrate that you are willing and excited to follow the rules, they give you a certificate. I know this because I have at least 300 such certificates in my basement at this very moment. Little photocopied slips of paper—and when you do something they want you to do, they take out one of these little slips and put a star on it and your heart soars just a tiny bit and you take it home and your mom puts it in a box and saves it for you until you are 40.
I was very good at collecting certificates. My “personality type” (according to a test I took over the weekend at the recommendation of the beauty products company that I represent) is to be a “Helper.” When I carefully read the report about my type it explains that as a Type 2 (Helper) I believe that “I must be helpful and caring to survive.” Not, I enjoy being helpful, I feel value when I am helpful. To survive.
I’m pretty sure that selling cosmetics is not my purpose. There are some clear benefits to doing this at this point in time, and perhaps I will explain it in the future and perhaps I will just know that I have my reasons and be okay with that.
That said, I know there is other work for me to do. Work that I want to do. But I just can’t quite figure out exactly what it is. So at night, after a day of selling cosmetics, after feeding the kids and washing the dishes, I spend my screen-free time soul searching.
To more precisely locate and connect with my “soul,” I am reading a book called The Firestarter Sessions and it is about 20 different “sessions” where you think about your strengths, interests, allies (I can’t give you the full list, I’m still on the first session).
To be honest, I’m a bit stuck on session 1. There is a list of questions to think about and answer and I don’t know the answers.
Can you remember who you were before the world told you who you should be?
What I mostly remember is listening to the radio, to Casey Kasem’s top 40, to making up stories when no one was around, to dancing with my mom to Diana Ross and the Supremes, to watching rain fall off the roof with my brother and watching the pine bark floating, to making mud pies (more specifically, they were beignets), to my giant-sized map of Disney’s Magic Kingdom. I remember liking to play dress up, but that may not be as separate from the world’s influence on me as all the others.
I’m not sure how those memories point me in a direction.
What activities cause you to feel useful, vital, better than before?
I’m a Helper, so I can’t really focus on useful. It makes me feel useful to clean the toilet or to do whatever somebody asks me to do. I don’t think that’s what we’re looking for.
Making a bouquet of flowers.
I love to organize stuff. But that might just be self preservation in this overstuffed world.
I don’t know.
I don’t know.
I know that there are dishes when I wake up and more dishes when I go to sleep (duh, if you leave dishes when you go to sleep, they are going to be there when you wake up. That’s a lesson we all learned in Frog and Toad). I know there is dust on most everything and I haven’t changed the sheets in too long. I know there are dirty rivers and plastic in the ocean. I know there is a scourge of dehumanization in the ether and it needs fixing. I know the atmosphere cannot manage all of this extra heat energy in a way that is acceptable for human life.
I like to sing. My body feels good when I am making music. When I am moving.
I have financial obligations. And I would love a new sofa.
My kids just started school. I am selling cosmetics.
And I don’t know who I am apart from all of the certificates.
I like frogs. The tiny little tree frogs.
Now I’m going to go pick up my children and hug them as tight as they will let me. Except that they will probably be annoying the whole way home so maybe I’ll just threaten to send them to their rooms.
I can hear the cicadas. The wind is blowing. I’m alive. I’m confused. I’m okay.