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Loving Working

“We clean to give space for Art.”
        Micaela Miranda, Freedom Theatre, Palestine

Work was a shining refuge when wind sank its tooth
into my mind. Everything we love is going away,
drifting – but you could sweep this stretch of floor,
this patio or porch, gather white stones in a bucket,
rake the patch for future planting, mop the counter
with a rag. Lovely wet gray rag, squeeze it hard
it does so much. Clear the yard of blowing bits of plastic.
The glory in the doing. The breath of the doing.
Sometimes the simplest move kept fear from
fragmenting into no energy at all, or sorrow from
multiplying, or sorrow from being the only person
living in the house.

April is National Poetry Month, and I am sharing poetry – with an emphasis on women of color – here on Fridays this month, as I do every year. 

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If they come in the night

Long ago on a night of danger and vigil
a friend said, why are you happy?
He explained (we lay together
on a cold hard floor) what prison
meant because he had done
time, and I talked of the death
of friends. Why are you happy
then, he asked, close to
angry.

I said, I like my life. If I
have to give it back, if they
take it from me, let me
not feel I wasted any, let me
not feel I forgot to love anyone
I meant to love, that I forgot
to give what I held in my hands,
that I forgot to do some little
piece of the work that wanted
to come through.

Sun and moonshine, starshine,
the muted light off the waters
of the bay at night, the white
light of the fog stealing in,
the first spears of morning
touching a face
I love. We all lose
everything. We lose
ourselves. We are lost.

Only what we manage to do
lasts, what love sculpts from us;
but what I count, my rubies, my
children, are those moments
wide open when I know clearly
who I am, who you are, what we
do, a marigold, an oakleaf, a meteor,
with all my senses hungry and filled
at once like a pitcher with light.

It has been a hard and heavy few weeks in the headlines, and this poem – found via Abby Rasminsky – made me think of Ukraine and also of my own life. I hope it moves you.

April is National Poetry Month, and I am sharing poetry – with an emphasis on women – here on Fridays this month, as I do every year. 

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March ended up being a very full month – it included a trip out west to see dear friends in Tucson, the L.A. suburbs and (again) San Diego. Plus a hiring process for a new colleague; lots of running (still building my stamina back after having COVID); both snow and spring flowers, as is normal for March; and dinners with a few friends I hadn’t seen in a long time. Whew.

April is here now, with its blustery winds, sharp spring light and budding tulips (!), and here’s what I learned in March:

  • Sometimes granola needs an extra 10 minutes in the oven. (Jenny’s recipe is my favorite.)
  • I tried this recipe for Thai butternut squash soup – a yummy, spicy alternative to my classic one.
  • Delays can be a chance to explore – as when my Amtrak train in CA was an hour late and I wandered the main street of Moorpark. (And picked up snacks and a yummy burrito!)
  • I might be a legwarmers kind of girl after all.
  • Write it down. You’d think I’d know this, but especially at work these days, if it doesn’t get written down, it flies right out of my brain.
  • I need a bit of margin in my week – especially salient now that the pace of life is picking back up.
  • Just ask. (Still and always working on this one.)

What did you learn in March?

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It has been a strange July: hot one minute, pouring rain the next. I’m still struggling to find a rhythm at my new job – I am enjoying it, but so much to absorb! Meanwhile, here’s what I have been reading:

A Deceptive Devotion, Iona Whishaw
Lane Winslow and Inspector Darling are finally engaged – but before they can get married, they have to solve a murder (naturally). This one involves an elderly Russian countess, a pair of hunters (and former friends), and a perhaps overeager new constable. I adore this series and this entry is so good.

A Most Clever Girl, Stephanie Marie Thornton
Double agent Elizabeth Bentley had a long career spying for the Soviet Union and then informing for the FBI. Thornton’s novel unravels her story in the form of a long conversation with Catherine Gray, a young woman who tracks Elizabeth down seeking answers about her own mother. The narrative – like Elizabeth – rambles a bit, but eventually picks up speed. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Sept. 14).

New Girl in Little Cove, Damhnait Monaghan
Reeling from her father’s death and a bad breakup, Rachel O’Brien takes a teaching position in rural Newfoundland. She’s greeted with equal parts welcome and suspicion – and this story of her first year there is completely delightful. The blurb compares it to Come From Away, which I adore, and that’s true – the island’s culture shines through. Found at the wonderful Excelsior Bay Books in Minneapolis.

Take Me Home Tonight, Morgan Matson
Best friends Kat and Stevie, both theater kids at a posh Connecticut high school, head into NYC for a night of adventure. Things quickly go wrong; the girls end up phoneless (with a Pomeranian in tow) and then get separated. But their individual escapades force both of them to reflect on their friendship and other parts of their lives. Funny and insightful.

Solo: How to Work Alone (and Not Lose Your Mind), Rebecca Seal
British journalist Seal has worked alone for years – it can be hard, and also rewarding. This warm, wise, insightful book dives into the pressures and joys of working alone. So helpful and validating as I’m working on a hybrid model after 18 months of profound isolation. I’m going to check out her podcast too.

A Scone of Contention, Lucy Burdette
Hayley Snow and her policeman husband are headed to Scotland for their honeymoon (with Hayley’s 80-something friend Miss Gloria in tow). Once they arrive, there’s plenty of family drama – and then murder – to go along with the scones. I love this cozy mystery series and it was fun to see Hayley in a different setting than her Key West home. I received an early copy; it’s out Aug. 10.

Most links (not affiliate links) are to my local faves Trident and Brookline Booksmith. Shop indie!

What are you reading?

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As the job hunt drags on (and despite several interviews lately, it seems endless), I keep turning this question over in my mind.

I am a firm believer in Joan Didion’s famous assertion that “we tell ourselves stories in order to live” – often without even realizing it. Over the last year, I have found myself telling a lot of stories about unemployment and the job hunt, to myself and other people. They range widely, from the socially acceptable (I’m grateful for unemployment benefits) to the plucky and determined (I’m sure I’ll find something soon) to the truly painful (there must be something wrong with me). I have tried and tried to make sense of not only my most recent layoff – which, frankly, is a little easier because the pandemic upended everything – but also of my struggle to find a stable, low-drama, creatively fulfilling communications job where I can stay for a while.

Here are a couple of facts: I have done communications work for almost 15 years. I have worked at four different universities, and never stayed in any one job for more than a couple of years (sometimes by choice, sometimes not). There are lots of stories to be told about this, too: massive shifts in the higher education industry; a couple of better opportunities that came along; a few toxic work situations I needed to get out of; a couple of temp gigs that always had an end date. And, of course, a couple of endings (including the latest one) that I did not choose.

I know so many people – in my industry and out of it – who have held the same jobs or done the same kind of work for many years. I keep thinking there must be something I’m missing, that I can’t seem to find a similar situation. I have always chased (and been taught to value) stability, and I have always believed (perhaps wrongly, it turns out) that hard work and dedication would get me there.

Earlier in my career, I worried less about moving around a lot, and expected to find a more stable situation eventually. But my mid-career years have coincided with several departmental reorgs, leadership changes at my workplaces, my divorce, and a global health crisis. That is a lot of upheaval, and sometimes I think it’s no wonder I have bounced around like a tennis ball for several years now. Other days I think the story must have something to do with me: some fundamental lack that makes me dispensable.

I don’t know, of course, how this latest chapter in my career saga is going to turn out. I have done a lot of wrestling and crying, writing and running, venting to friends (and here on the blog) along with a lot of combing job boards and writing cover letters and interviewing. I don’t know if the chapter will end with me finding a similar gig to the ones I’ve had in the past, or something similar in a different industry, or something out of left field that I never could have expected.

More broadly, I don’t know what kind of story this is: is it the kind where the heroine slogs along for a while and her hard work is rewarded? Or the kind where something or someone swoops in sideways to introduce an entirely new storyline? Or a different kind I haven’t thought of yet?

Humans are meaning-makers, as one of my college professors (a jovial redheaded man with a passion for medieval literature and an equal passion for mobile technology) used to remind us. I think readers, writers and storytellers – and I am all three – are especially inclined that way. So it’s no wonder I am spending so much time trying to wrest some meaning out of this story. But it’s not over yet – we haven’t even reached the next stopping place, or the next chapter climax. And of course, there’s often no way to tell you’ve reached the turning point until much later.

For now, I will keep doing the things: networking, interviewing, cover-letter-writing, requesting the unemployment benefits I still need. I will keep living the story, because that’s the other thing: you only get to know what kind of a story it is if you stick with it.

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Hello, friends. It’s been a year this week since I was furloughed (which seems both impossible and about right). The first few months were a different kind of limbo than the one I find myself in now, mostly because I was hoping to go back to my job at Berklee eventually.

As you know, that didn’t work out, so I’ve been hitting the job hunt hard every week (or what feels like all the time) for months now. And it’s exhausting.

I’ve always appreciated the boundaries of the 9-to-5 office job: I want to have a job where I can work hard, even occasionally go above and beyond, but then I want to leave work at work. I’ve never wanted a high-powered communications director job, because I’ve worked for those folks and I’ve seen what it entails: they are always on call, nights and weekends, especially in times of crisis. Similarly, I never really wanted an all-freelance life, because of the constant hustle it requires. You’re always looking for your next gig, even while you’re juggling the ones you’ve got. And if you swap applications and interviews for projects, the job hunt can feel exactly like that.

I get job alerts from several places in my inbox, so I see them at least once a day during the week. I’m always combing job boards, talking to friends and connections about the kind of work I want, working on cover letters, trying to imagine a different life. I’ve had several interviews lately (yay!) and those require both prep and follow-up, both of which I’m happy to do (and sometimes it’s even fun). But the cumulative effect feels like a lot of hustle for (so far) not much payoff.

Several of you readers have advised treating the job hunt like a 9-to-5, and I’m doing my best to limit the hours it dominates both my time and my brain. I generally take breaks on the weekends, and during the week when I need it or when there’s something special going on. I’m trying to remember that more effort doesn’t always equal more results. But I know I’ve got to keep hustling until I find my next gig.

I’m willing to put in the work, but for today I just wanted to say: the hustle is constant. And it can be tiring.

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computer tulips hpac

It’s the question at the heart of every application process: what if I get rejected?

What if I do all this work on a cover letter and my resume, and the HR person or hiring manager tosses aside my carefully polished materials? What if they pass me over without a second thought, or – almost worse – what if they take the time to interview me, and then decide I’m not who they are looking for?

It happens, of course – often multiple times in every job hunt. It happens in our lives, too: not getting picked for the team, getting dumped or brushed off by a potential partner, drifting apart from or being excluded by our friends. It’s easy for others, especially those we love, to say “it’s not about you” when a person or organization rejects you, and most of the time there’s some truth to that. But no matter the type of rejection, it still stings – even if you know there were other factors at work.

Real talk: some days the fear of rejection is enough to make me want to slam my laptop closed and just stop putting myself out there for employers to dismiss. Some days the form rejections from application portals slide off my back (this is rare; I’m a sponge, not a duck), but more often, they have a bite. And it’s always disappointing when you’ve made a connection with a real person or group of people and you get an email or a phone call beginning with, “I’m sorry…”

I’ve had to work hard (and am still working) to really believe – and remember – that while rejection stinks, getting turned down for a job doesn’t mean I am not qualified or experienced. It especially doesn’t reflect on my worth as a person (more on that in a future post). It’s also not the end of the world, as my mother would say, and it definitely is a signal that I need to keep going. Sometimes, repeated rejections or disappointments have even nudged me to consider new possibilities: as a girlfriend noted last week, rejection can be redirection. (Case in point: my string of layoffs and struggles working in higher ed communications are part of what prompted me to cast my job-search net wider this time around.)

Some days, though, as my friend Stephanie noted recently, rejection just sucks and there’s no silver lining. I think it’s important to name that, too. Rejection may push us in new directions, make us stronger or simply remind us that we can get through hard things. But sometimes it’s just that: hard.

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upper west side view

Of all the late-nineties rom-coms featuring plucky heroines, adorable New York apartments and lives full of utter charm, You’ve Got Mail might be my favorite.

I saw it in the theater as a teenager, and have watched it countless times since – with my family, my girlfriends, by myself. I remember the days of dial-up AOL and the magic of finding new friends online before social media, though I am about 15 years younger than Kathleen Kelly. I once spent a weekend on the Upper West Side visiting some of the movie’s iconic locations: Cafe Lalo, Zabar’s, Gray’s Papaya, the 91st Street Garden in Riverside Park. (I did not see Joe and Brinkley, but you can bet I looked.) I still have the soundtrack on CD, and New York in the fall definitely makes me want to buy school supplies.

You’ve Got Mail continues to charm me for so many reasons: the witty, perfectly timed dialogue; the cozy bookshop packed with beloved children’s classics and kind employees; the epistolary love story (though I have thoughts, these days, about Joe Fox and his personal ethics). But the more time I spend with it, the more clearly I see what my friend Kari noted years ago: in addition to a classic romantic comedy, it is (in Kari’s words) “a moving portrait of a woman who is going through a crisis of vocation.”

Kathleen has always known she’d run The Shop Around the Corner; she started helping her mother there after school at age six, and never left. We don’t even know if she went to college, or entertained other dreams for her life. She has grown up shaped by this bookstore and this neighborhood, and she would happily go on selling children’s books there forever. But she is not given that choice: Fox Books moves in across the way, and its big-box appeal (coupled, no doubt, with rising rents and the lurking shadow of Amazon) forces Kathleen to make a decision she never foresaw: “Close. We’re going to close.”

I’ve thought about Kathleen a lot this past year, as the pandemic has upended so many of the jobs most of us believed would bring us stability and security. I was furloughed from my higher ed job last May, then finally laid off in January after months of waiting. This wasn’t the first time, though: my last few years in higher ed have been marked by uncertainty and change, including two previous layoffs and a few temp gigs. The thing I have been chasing – meaningful work that provided a steady paycheck and health insurance in an industry I thought was stable – has turned out not to be so reliable after all.

“What are you going to do now?” a customer asks Kathleen as she rings up books (and stuffs in a box of Kleenex) at the closing sale. She gives a vague but honest answer: she’s going to take some time. We see her doing just that in the last third of the movie: reading a thick novel at a coffee shop, buying plants and produce with Joe Fox, heating up a bowl of soup and sitting on the floor in her apartment to eat it and bask in the sunshine. I suspect she also must have done some grieving. She must have wondered – what now? Earlier in the film, she had wondered in an email if her life’s smallness meant it didn’t have value, or that she lacked courage. Now, that life is no longer available to her, and she has to figure out the next step on a road she never saw coming.

We don’t get a tidy resolution of Kathleen’s career story; we don’t get to see her take her next professional step, though she hints that she’s working on a children’s book. I hope that whatever she does next, it is rich and satisfying and allows her to use all that experience from decades of working at the store. I hope her previous life leads, in both good and surprising ways, to her next one. I hope she realizes how brave she truly is – as Birdie tells her, “You are daring to imagine that you could have a different life.” I hope she’s happy with Joe, of course, but more than that I hope she is fulfilled in her own skin and satisfied with the way she gets to spend her days.

My hopes for Kathleen, of course, are also my hopes for myself. (Isn’t that what we do with our heroines – see ourselves in them, and then project our own hopes onto them?) In the wake of an extremely difficult year, I am hoping – and searching – for a steady paycheck, for sure. But I am also hoping for work that gives me a rich, satisfying, joyful way to spend my days. I think Kathleen would approve.

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darwins scone stripe journal coffee shop table

One of the most exciting things about the job hunt is also one of the hardest: imagining a new, possible life both before and during the application process.

A certain amount of this is necessary, of course. Before I apply – before I invest the time into combing an organization’s website and writing a cover letter – it makes sense to consider whether the job is a good fit. Am I qualified? Does it sound interesting? Would the commute (when we go back to office life) be workable? Does the organization seem like a place I would want to work? The answer to all these questions has to be “yes,” or at least “maybe/probably,” before I even open up a new Word doc and start trying to find the name of the hiring manager.

For me, it’s sometimes tougher after I’ve applied – or in that strange limbo period between a first-round interview and whatever happens next. Sometimes I try to picture what a day or a week in that job would look like. I always go on Google Maps to check and double-check the potential commute. If it’s an organization where I know someone, you can bet I ask them what it’s like to work there. But all of this is purely hypothetical at this stage. And it can require a lot of emotional effort.

When Kathleen Kelly has to close her bookstore in You’ve Got Mail (more on this in a future #romcomrewatch post), Birdie invites her and Christina over for tea. “Closing the store is the brave thing to do,” Birdie declares over Earl Grey and scones. “You are daring to imagine that you could have a different life!”

Kathleen is disinclined to believe her, at that moment (and I don’t blame her), but Birdie’s words have come back to me in many contexts over the years. Going to grad school, changing jobs time and again, moving to Boston, getting married, deciding to get divorced, starting a new relationship – in all of these instances, I have dared (sometimes still am daring) to imagine that my life can look different than it did. Sometimes that’s exciting. Sometimes it’s daunting. More often than not, it’s both.

It can be a real bummer to invest time and energy into applying for a job and then imagining how that life might look, only to find out you didn’t get it. (This has, obviously, happened to me more than once.) But I don’t want to stop imagining potential lives, because the alternative is to just apply mindlessly – or settle – for whatever comes my way. And I don’t think that’s the answer. I have to believe (despite the evidence, some days) that a thoughtful, curious search for a new job is better than a robotic one. I want to go toward work that interests me, even delights me, or at least has the potential to do so. And that only happens, I think, with a bit of imagination (and a lot of Internet searching/letting friends know I’m looking/pounding out cover letters).

So, at least for now, I’ll keep daydreaming a bit about possible lives as I keep tweaking cover letters and scouring job boards. Hey, at least daydreaming is fun.

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cafe lalo table berries teacup

It’s no secret I love a good romantic comedy, and there are a handful from the ’90s and early 2000s that are particularly close to my heart. Nora Ephron’s films did more than anything else to shape my early visions of New York City. (I once spent an entire solo weekend on the Upper West Side pretending to be Kathleen Kelly.)

During the pandemic, I’ve revisited a few of my favorites, and here’s the thing: I find myself less interested in the love stories these days than in the other elements of these women’s lives.

Part of it is simple familiarity: I’ve seen You’ve Got Mail dozens of times. I can pinpoint the exact moments when sparks fly between Julia Roberts and Richard Gere in Runaway Bride. I know just how Miles, that sweet film composer played by Jack Black, charms Iris (Kate Winslet) without even meaning to in The Holiday. And my entire family can quote the “leaning” scene (along with the hilarious family dinner dialogue) from While You Were Sleeping.

I don’t have to wonder whether or how these characters are going to fall in love. (Though I have to admit my 2021 self cringes a little bit at the sheer arrogance of a few male romantic leads.) But I am interested, now more than ever, in these women as real people: not only in their romantic adventures, but the struggles they face in the rest of their lives.

I want to know what Kathleen Kelly ended up doing after she had to close The Shop Around the Corner. I want to see photos from Lucy and Jack’s honeymoon in Florence, but then I want to know about their life together: future family holidays, the next step in Lucy’s career. I wonder if Maggie Carpenter was content running the family hardware store for the rest of her life, or if the edgy lamps she sold in NYC – and her love affair with a New York writer – catapulted her into a different career. And I hope – so much – that Iris, buoyed by Miles’ love and Arthur’s friendship and the gumption of a thousand Old Hollywood heroines, never let any man dim her brilliance ever again.

It’s a new month, and I need a new blog series, so for the next few Mondays, I’ll be diving into some of the films I adore, and musing on the other parts of these heroines’ stories: work and career, family and identity. I hope you’ll join me. It’s going to be fun.

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