Thursday, May 21, 2009

Today is the first day of the rest of your life

Like the song says: "To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose."

Well, chickadees the sun has set on the latest season of my life and the road is now calling my name to pound its freshly packed pavement. Today is my last day at work (*does a little dance in office chair*), and I have to say, I've never before felt that there was so much possibility on the horizon.

This feeling isn't only tethered to where my writing will take me, but is very much tied to the fact that my future is a wide, open canvas, beckoning me to paint on its clean, white surface and leave my mark in some way or another. The possiblities are endless and that alone is such a thrilling feeling. I feel free, I feel liberated. Taking a hold of my destiny has not only changed where I'm going in my career, it's also changed who I am as a person. I've never felt more at peace with myself. I have successfully blocked out my doubts and insecurities (which were sometimes the loudest voices), and have replaced them with a few stiff shots of strength and determination.

One of my favorite quotes of all time is: "Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose." (Thanks Janis Joplin.) In her drug-induced haze, I've always felt Janis had a point. It's quite an empowering feeling to know there really isn't anything left to lose. Maybe I feel this way because I basically have no debt. (Much thanks to my parents who paid for my college education.) No monthly car payments, or mortgages, or oppressive credit card bills under my belt, either. Although I have many wants (oh Burberry trench coat, how you elude me), I've learned to be happy living simply. This will make having fortunes in the future thatmuch better. For now though, I'm young and embracing the fact that I can take risks. And if you're thinking "Well, I'm not the spring chicken I once was, I'm old now", think again. It's never too late to change your path in life, no matter what age you are, if you know what you want. Life is not a dress rehearsal.

The muse has struck accordingly in the last few weeks, and I've been working on my writing as much as possible when I haven't been in the office or running errands. I've got a couple short stories nearly finished (one of which I really, really like), and I've been slowly and steadily working on my book. This blog's focus is quickly changing from being strictly personal finance-related, to one chronicling my journey and life. Money, of course, will inevitably rear its head as I traverse the unkept landscape, but (as I wrote in another blog post) I won't be focusing on it anymore.

Anyway, as I alluded to in the Byrds song earlier, there is not only a season to each of our lives, but also a purpose. I think everything happens for a reason, as cliche as that sounds. I don't look back on the last two years as a waste of time at all. They were what made me the person I am now: stronger and more focused and capable of doing things I would have only dreamed of doing when I was in sixth grade. I've learned to see the positive in everything (call it a recent form of enlightment), and there were many positives at my current job. For one, I made some fantastic friends here in DC that I will keep in touch with for the rest of my life. (Bob and Megan -- this is for you.) Two, I was able to support my husband through his first two years in law school.

It's of utmost importance to pull the positive from every situation. I know, I'm getting all Dalai Lama on you, but it's true. I'm reading Eat, Pray, Love right now and a passage I read today resonated with me. The author recollects a discussion she had with her friend, a psychologist who had volunteered to counsel a group of Cambodian refugees who had recently arrived in Philadelphia.

These Cambodians had suffered the worst of what humans can inflict on each other -- genocide, rape, torture, starvation, the murder of their relatives before their eyes, then long years in refugee camps and dangerous boat trips to the West where people died and corpses were fed to shares.
Surprisingly, though they had experienced such suffering, the only thing this group wanted to speak to the counselor about were situations that involved significant others who said they loved them, but that didn't act like it, or went off to marry someone else but still professed their love. What should they do? they asked the counselor.

The author's point is that is what we are like:
Collectively, as a species, this is our emotional landscape. ...There are only two questions that human beings have ever fought over, all through history: "How much do you love me?" And "Who's in charge?" Everything else is manageable. But these two questions of love and control undo us all, trip us up and cause war, grief and suffering. When I sit in my silence and look at my mind, it is only the questions of longing and control that emerge to agitate me, and this agitation is what keeps me from evolving forward.
So, are you in charge, or do you feel repressed because someone or something else has taken control? Does this make you feel helpless? In my case it did, which why today is my last day. It's time to regain control. In the book, another favorite quote of mine comes from a Texan man the author befriends during her time in India. His advice to her when she won't stop dwelling and complaining about her sorry state? "Your problem is you've got a wishbone where your backbone should be." Classic line that speaks for itself.

With that I'll be packing up my giant diamond ring paperweight and lime-green and brown paisley coffee cup as I bid my office a final arrividerci. I wish I could make a grand departure, like Debra Winger did from her job at the end of An Officer and a Gentleman when Richard Gere swept her off her feet, but I'll take this departure, too. In a way, I'm sweeping myself off of my own feet. :)

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

I did it. I quit my job.

Just breathe. Everything is going to be okay.

I kept repeating this mantra as I made my way to my CEO's office on Monday to officially resign. I suppose the first thing you'd think I felt when I walked into his office was triumph and relief. Something akin to the French liberation during WWII, but on a much smaller scale, of course. There I was, after all, taking my destiny into my own hands and carpe diem-ing. But for a few fleeting minutes, I felt quite the opposite. I was terrified. I knew I was going to do it, there was no question of that, but I liken the whole experience to skydiving. When push comes to shove and you take the final jump off that airplane, there are a few moments (which I may relive during the next few months or years of my life) where you're terrified your parachute won't open and you'll land, splat, in a field of cow dung, with those around you muttering "told you so." Walking in and quitting yesterday was that jump off my plane.

And guess what? After shutting his door, taking a seat and telling him I was officially, well, out of there, I knew deep down that everything really was going to be okay. I just needed to push off that plane with the force I had mustered in the last few months and not look back. So I did, and the feeling of being so in control of my fate and future felt (and still feels) fabulous.

I was terrified of cutting loose the security and comfort that comes with having a salary but the reality of my situation -- of all of your situations, actually -- is that money comes and goes. It's like water through your fingers. Keep what you need in a canteen at your side, enough so that you'll never go thirsty, and then go forth and work hard at what you love. There will always be more water, and there will always be more money. And if you feel like it may take a while to get to that next stream to refill, than learn how to make your water -- or dollars -- stretch until you get there. Just don't let your fear or uncertainty be what extinguishes you ever taking risks in the first place. Don't get stuck setting up shop near that first river you come upon, failing to ever go forward and see what other, bigger rivers lie on the horizon. Believe me, that first river can be mighty comfortable, but I think sometimes it takes "uncomfort" to shape who you are and make you stronger, more resilient and ultimately, more happy.

Will times get tough at least through this next year? You bet. There will be days I'm sure will feel excruciating, days when I'll feel like I have no money at all, days I'll wonder what the hell I'm doing up and quitting my cush job in This Economy, days I might actually consider buying one-ply instead of two-ply bathroom tissue just to save money. But I will always remind myself of what the suffocating alternative is. I may not have a lot of money in the near future, but I'm going to have the freedom to pursue what I want to make happen, not what anybody else's vision or dream is. And that's important to remember. No one said taking risks was easy -- that's why they're risks, after all. If they were a piece of cake, then everyone would want a slice.

But don't think that it was easy walking away from my job, my paycheck, security, stability and all those other rooted tendrils that ensnared me for the last two years in a web of oblivious complacency.

All my life I've followed a conventional path: I graduated with good grades from high school, went to college, grad school and got a job that steadily allowed me to pay rent, bills, shop and save. All those fun "life" necessities. I know a few people who don't and/or didn't enjoy being college students. Well let me rephrase that: They enjoyed the parties and "good times", but didn't enjoy the studying and the classes. They feel disappointed in themselves for following the structure traditionally set up for them. For me, it wasn't structure that made me go to college or grad school. At the risk of sounding nerdy, I loved being a student and debating with professors, going to class, studying, and writing pages and pages of lit analysis.

But I don't love holding down a job just to have a job. That's where I whipped around and looked Structure straight in the face. "What if you're not for me? What if I'm confident that I can make a damn good living without you?" I asked it during the summer of last year. It laughed at my naivety, telling me to stick it out for another year at work. So I doubted myself, and followed its advice. And now, a year later, I've caught up to Structure and told it I don't want it leading me around anymore. I'd step off its track and venture out into the forest to forge my own, unknown way. My success and earnings will now rest solely on my shoulders and the effort I put forth. From here on out, I will not get paid to "just show up." That fact alone is one of the most empowering feelings I have ever experienced.

Talk about judgment. It's palpable on the faces of some of my friends and even family. I can see it. After all, it's cute and all that I want to an be author, but what am I going to do about my real job? At first facing judgment from those I cared about, even if they tried to hide it, both hurt and stung. I quickly got over it though, and I harbor no ill feelings or dislike for those that don't understand. Three years ago, I probably wouldn't have understood either. It's important to remember that people are always at different points in their lives. It's somewhat of a miracle when an individual can truly empathize with the perspective of an another, so I've accepted being judged as not a flaw in the judger, but as human nature, and I've refused to allow it to ding my confidence anymore. The only person who can make me happy is myself. People will always judge your actions, opinions and beliefs, but if you are happy with your decisions at the end of every day, I think that's all that matters. Life is too short to pacify the barrage of judgment around you.

That's not to say I'm an eternal optimist. If anything, I'm too much of a realist.

It would be naive to assume that every dream pays off, that every hope not reached in the end wouldn't be laden with some form of regret for what was given up. But I'm willing to accept the consequences. I firmly believe that each one of us is in charge of our own destiny. Fate alone only takes you so far.

Friday, May 8, 2009

A week feels like a year in blog years

My apologies for being missing in action during this last week. Actually, nix that. No apologies! I've been in the midst of a fabulous life change. I have been writing, though it's been on stories and not PF, and it feels good.

Don't get me wrong, I'm more coupon-obsessed than ever, and I'm not out charging my life away on my Nordstrom's credit card, but in this week of reevaluation of my life thus far, I am sick and tired of obsessing over money. I love my blog dearly (it's what got me through my second year of living in DC after I thought I'd have a nervous breakdown in the first), and I'll continue to be your faithful scribe on cheap fashion and intriguing finance stories that catch my eye, but as for money as a whole, I'm not going to let it rule my life anymore.

"But Crystal," you might point out, "it never seemed like money ruled your life that much in the first place. Wasn't it you, a PF blogger no less, who spent $400 on a Dooney handbag?" Yes, that was me. I realize this is a cardinal sin in PF-dom, but money (after you've put some aside, of course) is meant to be enjoyed. Wring all you can out of sales, coupons and clearances, make sure you have your bills paid off, some savings in place, and then...well, enjoy yourself. You want a steak for dinner? Eat it happily, and don't think about its cost. You earned it. Life is too short for constant, back-of-your-mind fretting. You'd be allowing your money to own you.

Which was the epiphany that hit me earlier this week, as I pummeled a punching bag in my kickboxing class. I'm always surprised at how clear my mind becomes and how easily the answers seem as I'm kickboxing, sweating to Britney's "Circus" remix blaring from speakers near the wall of windows. I got to thinking about how much I love coming to this class and how much weight I've lost in the last couple years (working a desk job after college took me from a sz. 4 up to a sz. 10, and now, I'm elated to report, back to a sz. 6 and dropping). Thing is though, the classes are expensive. Like, lots-of-money-upfront expensive. So what allows me to attend these (what I can even admit are) rip-off classes? My full-time job, of course. Which I might add I used to love, keywords being "used to." (That's another post to come.)

So why I have stayed? Well it funds my kickboxing habit, first off, but more than that it's a security thing. You'd be hard-pressed to find a person who doesn't like getting a steady paycheck every two weeks, especially if that person is married to a student and is covering all rent, food and other vital necessities solo until graduation. Don't get me wrong, I'm more than happy to do this. What I'm not happy about is going to work everyday, dreading my commute in. And dreading sitting behind a desk for eight hours a day doing inane tasks, asking myself (sometimes even out loud in the fifth-floor bathroom), what I'm doing there. I've even found myself standing to the right on the metro escalator, fervently delaying the inevitable time spent in the office by a scant few minutes as others push past me on the left, eager to clock in.

For the directionless who simply just want a job, this situation would be perfect. I make more money than I probably should, work under lax deadlines, and can generally buy whatever I want. For someone with a deep love for something else, though, it's all excruciatingly suffocating. So naturally your next suggestion would be to follow that love, but what if it lies in something that could not (at least for the foreseeable future) pay bills properly?

When I was young, I wanted to be a writer. (Well, first I actually wanted to be a smurf, but that was before I realized that "What do you want to be when you grow up" was not the same as "What do you want to be for Halloween".) I began reading voraciously before most of my classmates, was always bought a steady stream of books by my parents, and someday imagined myself penning a classic and maybe even winning a Pulitzer. (Hey, no one said youth was delusion-free.) Then high school rolled around and I realized, at least from what I was told, that it was virtually impossible to make a living as a writer. And when I say writer, I mean novelist. So I cast off my novelist dreams as childish and unsustainable, and decided to follow my second passion: journalism. I figured I could parlay my love for researching and telling stories into short-form, and I would even get paid regularly to do it (I was -- and still am -- willing to work for a pittance). I majored in English and went on to grad school and then ... journalism as a field collapsed. I worked as an editor for a while at a Bay Area newspaper, lived through what working for conglomerate MediaNews was like, and ended up in DC, where I am now. If you had told me back in high school that I would be where I am now, I would have laughed and mumbled something about selling out.

But here I am. A sell out. Slave to the secure paycheck. And all I really want to do is pull that comfortable ripcord and write books. Which brings me back to my kickboxing class. As I pummeled the bag, I got angrier with every jab and kick. "Who are you?" I thought. Punch. "When did you decide that money was worth more than giving up on what you love?" Kick. "You say life is short all the time, so why do you play it so safe?" Punch, punch, kick. "You're talented and you've got potential. That talent won't take you anywhere, that potential won't ever be reached, as long as you're working for someone else." Roundhouse kick to the bag's head.

And after class, as I toweled the warm, dripping sweat from my face, I resolved to not let money rule my life anymore. To not let security or my job rule my time. It's mine, after all, and it can't be bought. Sure I love this kickboxing class, but I love my creative freedom more. There's no question which one I'd give up. No one ever got anywhere by playing it safe, and I'm tired of walking that beaten path.
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