I sit on my back porch wrapped in a blanket I bought in Mexico on a college trip almost twenty years ago. It is 62 degrees; I have lived in Texas long enough that my skin goosebumps in a mildly cool breeze. My puppy plays frantically with her ball. The wind stirs the oak leaves in slow drifting circles across the planks of our deck. The local high school is having band practice and when the wind shifts, they are suddenly louder, the percussion section slightly offbeat because of the distance.
I wrap the blanket tightly around me and sit back. I do not feel sleepy. In fact, I am hungrily awake. My eyes follow the lights in the oak tree and I realize I am aware of everything. If I sit quietly enough, each sensation will play over me. My ponytail over the back of the Adirondack chair. The puppy’s nails clicking gently on the wood. The rhythmic shush-shush of the wind in the trees, the strains of music floating by.
All of it washes over me. I receive it. I breathe in and out. I feel the blanket on my skin, the air in my lungs, the wood under my feet.
I am newly born.
It has taken me longer than I expected to get over leaving my job. It was a job I worked tirelessly to achieve for years and years. When I began graduate school, I wasn’t sure a job in academia was my plan—in fact, I was pretty sure it wasn’t. But I have always been highly motivated by gold stars and gold stars were given to the students who followed the more typical paths and I began to find my plans adjusting to the strong motivations around me.
Actually, it’s more accurate to say I added those plans to the ones I had already made. I took nothing off. I just piled on more.
If life is a buffet table, I am the person with a large plate who wants to try everything. I am a gluttonous seeker of life.
There have been times in my life when this deep curiosity combined with an intense drive have been among my best traits. When I was in graduate school, my husband and our friend Caren and I started a non-profit working with Burmese refugee artisans. I learned to hone my willingness to learn new things into an ability to do whatever was needed to help our refugee friends. For example, I currently know how to order yarn for backstrap looms from Thailand using the correct terms: so many taklots, so many jai. I learned how to craft jewelry in order to teach artisans so they could make money for their families. For someone who hates sales, I have made more sales pitches on behalf of artisans than I can remember.
Whatever we needed, I committed myself to learning.
But I refused to sacrifice any of my plans.
This was me at the table of life:
Stay in my career? Absolutely.
Have children? I’ll take three, please. Also, we always planned on adopting, so we’ll do that too.
Be deeply involved in Austin’s refugee community? Yes!
Write about my experiences? Of course! I’m already behind on building a platform!
Be a gold-star student and teacher and administrator? Let’s go for it!
Take care of my children’s emotional, psychological, and educational needs? Done! Let’s add soccer and gymnastics and dance and piano. Maybe another language in there too. Why not?
Working out? Just a smidge of that, please. You have to give up on some things!
Keeping up on the latest news, blogs, books, ideas? Of course! Naturally!
Suddenly I was careening through life with a plate so explosively full I could not get through all of it in a decade, much less in a day.
It was all about to topple over, I think. I’m still not quite sure. I was too close to tell.
In May, I put my plate down.
The particular details about why I left my career when I did and not earlier, about this scenario and not others, are not for public consumption. In fact, I feel an increasing need in this age in which public oversharing is labeled “brave” and “authentic” to play my hand close. I actually don’t think it matters, in the end. It could have been another job in five more years or a realization seven years ago after my second child was born.
After years of soul-searching and agonizing conversations, my husband and I both decided we could no longer have plates as full as they had been. Our decision affected my job more than his, in part because our youngest daughter’s needs for me were different than her needs for him, but believe me, he has sacrificed as much as I have. We constantly adjust our family’s recipe of how much we need to live in what kind of house or how much time we spend in which activities or who we spend time with in which parts of town.
Our recipe is our own, but every person has tweaking to do. Living intentionally is hard work.
I hate universal blog posts in which people say, “I did this and you should too!” I will not say that. I definitely don’t think most people can or should quit their jobs. Believe me, I know what a privilege it is to have a spouse with a good job which allows me the space to sit on a lovely porch during preschool time and reflect on what it means to “have it all.”
This is not some prescription about what anyone should do other than me.
This is just my quiet moment in a day that was once filled with job and children and, least for this year, is now filled with mostly children (which is itself a difficult and complicated job).
This is my quiet breath in and out. This is the sun on my skin, one bright triangle ray dancing across my arm. This is me realizing I am alert to the world in a way I have not been for years.
Maybe I was sick and am now recovering.
Maybe I was an addict and am now detoxing.
Maybe I was asleep and am now waking up.
I have always hated the questions about whether women could or should “have it all” because they’re loaded and personal and complex. All I knew is I wanted my career—actually, let’s be honest, two or three careers simultaneously. I wanted children and a loving home life. I wanted a healthy body. I wanted meaning to it all. And I wanted to do it all dazzlingly.
At my core level, I think the truth is, I wanted to leave some sort of legacy. I wanted to prove that my existence had purpose. I wanted to show that the length of my life was not wasted.
I wanted to scratch deeply on the wall of the world, “Jessica was here. And she did something with her life.”
It took a hard adoption process and a series of deep griefs in my life for me to hold up everything on my plate and give it an honest look.
Only a handful of things were giving me the sustenance I needed. Only a handful of things could stay. Shoving the other things off of my plate might honestly have been among the hardest things I’ve ever done. I have raged and worried and wept over the rightness of my life choices.
And just recently, in the last few weeks, I have had the space to recognize a truth that has been there all along.
I don’t want to “have it all” anymore. I no longer want to do what other people think I should do or what other people view as successful or what other people think they mean when they say “it all.”
I’m consumed with the desire to be urgently present right here. I’m ravenously hungry for the space to do the good things in front of me today and tomorrow and every day for however long I am here.
Maybe I’ll go back to a similar job soon; maybe I’ve left that career path behind. Maybe I’ll start something new tomorrow; maybe I’ll sit in the sun for a few more days.
Maybe I’ll write my name on the wall of the world; more likely, it will just be the wall of my family’s lives and, in a generation or two, the writing will fade.
I realize as I sit here that I am the one who has changed, that I have taken my ability to learn new things and turned it upon myself, adjusted myself to the needs of my own wild and precious life.
Time alone in the sun for a woman who rarely sits still is so unexpected, I forget to beat myself up or put up any pretenses. I see the truth.
My life is both full of purpose and also meaningful only to me.
I am neither a failure nor a saint; I am a woman making the best choices in front of her.
I breathe in and out and find myself smiling, baby-like, at nothing in particular and for no one to see but the yard and my dog and me.