With a satisfying surge of empowerment not felt since that first day at the office, the words released; “I resign.”
Colleagues wrote their well wishes in a glib card. In hushed tones over an after work wine, office allies expressed their admiration and envy at the courage of my step into the unknown. For some reason the single women thought it was easier for a bread-winning mother of three to leave the security of a Government job, glumly commenting to the air how lucky I was to be able to follow my passion.
Only after the initial exhilaration had worn off did I pause to reflect on the difficulty of a life without the oppressive hierarchy, the wakeful nights, the incessant routine and the timed-to-the-minute morning tea breaks. It would take discipline, self-motivation and confidence to go it alone again. And it had only been eight months of regular paycheques. Perhaps a super hero costume would help…
These words were written after quitting a job that did not allow space for writing.
Throughout my life, writing has always been there with me, a quiet and loyal friend that sifts the compost and empties the garbage, picking out the recycling and occasionally revealing a treasure worth sharing with others.
Hand in hand with the discipline of writing work was the need for time in nature to inspire (breathe in) and unclutter the mind – bringing space for the incessant inner dialogue to find its form and be released.
Inspired by nature, it seemed plausible that I could find a new path of happiness in work as a protector of the environment.
In the first week, I was driven to an outdoor clothing shop to pick out an array of protective attire including solid hiking boots (which I’ve never luxuriated on before), a bright orange ill-fitting vest, bottles of hand steriliser and wet weather gear that swamped my size 8 body. My first week was great...
The job was cutting and pasting, editing, reading and summarising. Nature had been burdened by all manner of clichés and big words. Actually getting outdoors had to be meticulously planned and booked with a string of busy experts, and health and safety protocol had to be detailed at every turn.
Although fit to take on the harshest extremes that the Coromandel could sleet at me, I spent almost every day sitting at a grey desk, momentarily staring out to space then tapping away at the keyboard with the familiar sound associated with productivity.
A co-worker would tap tap behind me, sometimes faster, longer bursts that brought out the competitor in me. I would speed up, pulling out sections of another report and tap, tap them into my own rather than pause to control-A and control-P them into position. There’d be the familiar sound of a cursor, pulling back on the mis-typed words, and with that it was obvious I’d lost the race.
What had happened to the joy?
My workplace was so quiet. When in flow, I can shut out the noise of co-workers, children or gentle radio music. This was the kind of quiet that I dreaded when I walked into the office. Stepping in everyday, the papery smell was not an inviting library smell – the scent of creative endeavour and freedom to pause and relax – but that of printed documents, maps and reports that would likely only be read by those of us within these walls, probably not even our replacements.
Diligent scientific thinkers and project management title-holders had tapped away at these reports, and they sat on shelves and in cabinets, perfectly-formatted summaries of the declining state of the world outside. Was that all there was to it?
The titles sounded important because they were not easily understood by most people. Ecosystem goods and services, benthic fauna, coastal vegetation sequences. Phrases I could cut and paste easily to alienate most of the population, but which seemed to do nothing for the mauri of the natural world.
With a job title and a salary that was too low to give me any influence, I was charged with providing the solutions to environmental impact caused by human greed, ignorance, fear, laziness, habit and the need to feed the family. Like an Erin Brokovich or Xena Warrior Princess with a keyboard for a sword, I felt sure my journalistic past would make clear the hidden answer to deteriorating water quality and depleting shellfish stocks.
It could not.
It was just as difficult to ask the questions, as it was to work out the answers. Scientists were of little help. Their brains, so unlike my own, only saw more questions. “We can’t know this until we get a better understanding of that…”, they would explain in attempts-to-help-this-poor-girl emails.
Even with the aid of an emptied wine glass on Fridays, I found myself unable to explain what I’d just spent the last 40 hours summarising all week.
Must there be joy in the process in order for writing to be meaningful and to have impact? Science is not precise enough to give us what we need to make change for the good of our environment.
For over 40 hours a week, across eight months of a year, I summarised thousands of hours of scientific reports, poured over ugly spreadsheets, cajoled co-workers to invest some time explaining the dots on graphs and meaning of maps.
And then I arrived back to my heart.
The answers were not as complicated as policy makers may think, and now, after my writing hiatus, I’ve been able to reflect on how we can take care of ourselves and the fellow inhabitants of the part of our earth that we feel most connected to. I have been able to summarise eight months of cutting and pasting from scientific reports and data, here, in the last paragraph.
It is the people, it is the people, it is the people. It is the joy and the connectedness that people feel with a place and the creatures and plants that they share it with. It arises from treasured memories of time spent in your turangawaewae – your place to stand - with the people we’ve loved and the new people we’re going to meet. This is how we will come to love a place enough to make personal sacrifices for it.
writing has always been there with me, a quiet and loyal friend that sifts the compost and empties the garbage
l find more moments of inspiration and clarity from a regular dose of nature, but something else important happens.
It’s a habit for me to swing toward the pointed edge of the land on which we live, and check the beach like it’s at risk of going somewhere without me. Best be sure.
This turn to nowhere, a comma separating pressing responsibilities. It is only 30 seconds and besides, how neglectful to drive past when it is the ocean that keeps me in this little town.
Usually I allow myself just the pause here, never turning the engine off and not feeling bad about taking the carpark reserved for the disabled (I won’t stay long, I have much too much to do, and besides, I think selfishly, why would they put the disabled car park at the best vantage for surfers?).
Light is silver here at nine in the morning after I drop the kids to school. It softens into a copper gold where the sand takes over. It is a canvas that changes daily but always welcomes me with its familiar beauty.
I’ll scrutinise the form of the waves as if we are on a speed date. They must prove themselves worthy or I’m off, rounding the corners of the carpark and forcing my gaze away so as not to crash into a cheap campervan or the truck of a Council worker on a pie break.
The lines of ocean energy don’t keep that sort of time. I know it, but I do it because there are more pressing commitments in my day, or so the inner dialogue rants at me. I have more productive, less guilty ways to spend the middle of the week. I should work. I should get things done. I should work.
I watch as a black shape paddles a trail through the silver sea. From his position lying on the board and the first smooth duck dive, I know he can adequately test the waves out there for me. My focus zooms and the distraction of work begins to fade.
If I try now, I’ll find piles of washing or dishes beckoning; the long blades of grass in the lawn will glare at me, a disorderly cupboard will demand to be sorted, I will stop to smell the salt on the air and check the tips of trees for wind strength. It is no good. I need to surf.
People often say they need the regularity of an office because they could never be disciplined enough to work from home. This works for them so that’s fine. It doesn’t work for me, but I am guilty of guilt talk too. When checking the surf during office hours, I label it a distraction, which really isn’t fair.
l find more moments of inspiration and clarity from a regular dose of nature, but something else important happens. It is only because of a sense that I have spent valuable time surfing that I maximise the time that remains; I can commit to work afterward, inspired.
Mirror-like with a transparency through which the light moves from morning to midday, the waves are calling now. Already the sea beyond has goose bumps from a slow rising sea breeze. I may have blown it.
Few moments are as urgent as the race home to grab a wetsuit and board when the onshore is rising. Once out, I must make up for lost time. After 10 waves, calmness descends and then clarity. Ideas are formed, small problems fade, solutions crystalize, the light around me has a different effect.
I wonder what revelations Einstein would have had, had he been fortunate enough to be a surfer?
What are the guiding principles that you have discovered in your life? If you need a little coaxing to think about it, take a look at the list of 10 that sprung to mind for me, as I considered such things as relationships, work and maintaining balance...
Keep a pair of jandals outside all main entrances to your home
Make time for your partner and insist that you both continue to do the things that make you feel sexy
It’s positive to get lost in your work but negative to hide in it
There is always a sun-filled day of glassy peeling waves ahead
Love is a good thing
Continually work on your skills of listening
Always try to eat something with your coffee
Smiling is a free gift that rewards yourself and others
We are made of energy, as are all things around us
If you're spending a lot of your day in bare feet, then chances are you have found the kind of balance that Hook & Arrow writer Alison Smith has found in life.