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
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.