Office Tales: What I Miss Most

I’ve been feeling out of sorts lately. Adjusting to retirement presents more challenges, sometimes, than I’d anticipated. I have so many hobbies and interests that I can always think of something fun and engaging to do. And with a home, a kitchen, and a garden, each day falls into a natural structure around useful activities that contribute to the health of our household.

And yet, I felt something missing. I read a lot of Eckhart Tolle and breathed and centered myself in the now, and I just felt off. I felt like I do when I don’t get enough exercise, only in my brain. Something was off in my form.

I also had this odd feeling of not being satisfied or fully engaged when doing something I loved–playing the piano, it was like I was holding back, going through the motions, but keeping myself from fully getting into it. I’d get fully into cello practice, but then it was over, and then what?

Did I always feel like this? Was my mental health off? What’s missing? What was wrong? I tried to be patient, gentle, realize that this is a transition, and transitions can be rough. I kept up good habits of eating, exercising, gardening, music, writing, and other activities I love.

I thought of abandoning this blog series, Office Tales. I couldn’t really imagine continuing to write it because I feared that in the writing, I’d change it. I’d spoon it into a narrative structure, make it a story, leave out bad parts, or focus too much on the bad parts, and the experience would change through the filter of the telling. So I just let it be.

My first few months after retirement, I processed the hard parts of the job: the stresses of overwork, especially this past year with the pandemic, but also the previous five years, as expectations had built and support had diminished; the difficulties I felt with a boss who misunderstood me, always casting what I did in the worst interpretation; a group of co-workers who excluded me, through their ageism and ableism, and who gossiped hurtfully about other employees, and, I’m sure, about me, too, for no one was excluded from gossip, excepting their own closed circle. I had been on the brink of autistic burnout, and retirement gave me a needed way out. So, while I was doing the mechanics of life and adjusting to this new life chapter, I was also processing all of that.

The other evening, with my brain feeling slushy and wanting a relaxing game to zen out to, I downloaded NeuroNation. I’ve been playing Lumosity for over a decade, and I love it–I’m also accustomed to it, so I wanted something different. Playing NeuroNation gave my neurons what they wanted! My mind sparked and felt good! So some of what I had been feeling was lack of mental exercise. Even though I’d played music and challenging video games, wrote daily poems in April for GloPoWriMo, and kept up with teaching activities, I still lacked the intensity and duration of mental activity I had while working.

This morning, I woke up happy, remembering a feature I’d loved about my workaday life: Every workday, I’d drive into the office and have 15 minutes in which I was completely alone. I could sing, laugh, cry, listen to music, prepare for the workday, and I could do so in complete solitude. Then, on lucky days, I would have the office to myself, at least for a few hours, and I could go into total concentration without interruption.

And most days, I could take a long walk, alone, in the middle of the afternoon.

This uninterrupted time of solitude, engagement, and alternating mental focus and relaxation provided me with an essential daily ingredient for 23 years of my life.

I’m not sure why remembering this makes me happy. Maybe it’s because, while I was processing all the hard parts, I’d begun to wonder what the job had offered me, and I felt, perhaps, like I’d wasted or misspent decades of my life in a situation that was harmful.

But it wasn’t always–It was often wonderful, and in addition to a salary that allowed us to purchase our home and that gives me a good pension for life, it also provided a day-to-day experience that I often loved.

And maybe I’m also happy because I’ve identified this feature, of immersion without interruption and time alone, and I know that I can find ways to work this into my life, even living with someone (for he loves his solitude and uninterrupted activities, too).

I remember that there were days at the office when it seemed unreal to me that I was getting paid to do this, for it felt like a privilege and a treat to sit at my computer and work on the website for hours at a time, and my mind thrilled with the detail of coding HTML and the pleasure of routine details to concentrate on. It was like oxygen for me.

I also loved my chair. (Yes, object attachment is a real thing for autistics!)

Anyway, remembering all of this, today, has brought me out of my funk. My life wasn’t a waste–it makes sense. Without discounting the hard times, remembering the things I loved and that were good and healthy for me brings me a feeling of wholeness and self-respect. I didn’t slave away at a job I hated, with people who disrespected me and treated me badly, for 23 years. I had some challenging times of overwork, too much change, too little accommodation, and co-workers and supervisors who didn’t get me. And I had a lot of really lovely, wonderful, exciting, engaging, rewarding, autonomous, structure-filled and freedom-laced moments, and hours, and days, and weeks, and months, and years, and even decades, when work was a joy. And it brought in a salary and, now, a pension.

It’s pretty miraculous, actually.

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Office Tales: A Wished-For Career

Looking inside the HR office

When I gazed inside the HR office, one late-summer morning, over 23 years ago, a wish shot up from deep within me: I want to work here.

I was dropping off my application packet. It contained my resume, transcripts, letters of reference, the application form, and a letter, in which I tried to express all the ways that my own particular experience, training, skills, and interests made me a good fit for this position. It felt like posing, but it also felt that, just maybe, it could be also be true.

Looking inside the HR office

I had watched people, in suits and business dresses, walk into the building. They seemed professional but also relaxed, comfortable. They walked with an attitude of belonging, and I wanted to belong there, too.

Looking inside the HR office

I practiced their walk through the foyer, to the HR office, trying on that comfortable sense of being where I am supposed to be.

Looking inside the HR office

I tried the feeling on for size. That was always how I judged what schools, jobs, homes, even friendships were right for me. I tried on the feeling of belonging, and if it fit, or if it asked me to grow in a way that I wanted to, then I judged it right.

Six months before, I’d wished for a job like this. At the time, I was a full-time instructor at a community college. That had been a job I’d wished for, too, and one I’d worked hard to get. The competition was stiff–over 100 qualified applicants tried for the position I’d ended up getting. It was fulfilling, exhilarating, demanding, exhausting, draining, intensive. I pretty much figured I’d spend my career there, at that very college for the next twenty-five, thirty years. Somehow, I’d figure out a way not to get so drained every semester.

One spring day, walking to the office to make some photocopies, for this was back in the days when education was just beginning to go digital, and paper handouts were still a part of our face-to-face classes, I spotted a flier on the bulletin board.

Wanted: Webmaster for School Website

Looking inside the HR office

Hardly any schools had websites back then. I’d been developing webpages for my classes for the past year, but I was the only faculty member in our discipline who had a webpage. I lived and breathed HTML back then, having just learned it. This was HTML 2.0, and in all its simplicity, logic, and structure, it felt like a native language to me.

Even though I was in what I’d thought of as my dream job, even though I felt grateful every day to have been the one selected for that position, even though I figured that I’d find a way to make the job work in the long run, I still was stopped short when I spotted that flier. The school webmaster position barely paid anything, so I didn’t consider it seriously, but I did think, “Man, I would love to be a webmaster for a school.”

A few months later, I left my dream job. My boyfriend got accepted to the university which was in a different city, and though we could live apart while he earned his degree, we didn’t want to. Plus, there were reasons for leaving. I’d had a #MeToo encounter with a supervisor, which I decided to report to the sexual harassment ombudsperson, and that pretty much ensured that my extended tenure there would be a fight. In addition, the building was, literally, toxic. Housed in an old printshop, the fumes throughout our offices were strong enough to induce headaches on a daily basis. Not only that, but two faculty members had died, and three had contracted cancer in the past year. All these added up to more than a sign: It was time to go.

It always feels strange to me to leave jobs. I had loved this job. I’d loved every job I’d had, and most, I’d stayed at for several years. But I was young, the city we were moving to had a lot to offer, my boyfriend was excited and inspired to finish his degree, and I was eager to support him. We’d spent most of our lives together moving, shifting, following the currents to find the place where we could settle, and this felt like one more shift, one more moment of reading the signs and following the signals.

The decision to leave came too late for me to apply for a full-time position with the college in our new city, but I got a part-time position, teaching English composition on the Air Force base in the evenings. I’d read that it typically takes seven months to find a new job, so I wasn’t in a hurry to look for a full-time position. I spent the summer swimming, writing, playing video games, gardening, exploring the city with my boyfriend, and tasting the electric air of summer thunderstorms.

At summer’s end, I began looking for a full-time job. This was so long ago that newspaper listings were the best place to find job openings. I let myself be picky at first–I didn’t want to work for businesses. I wanted to work for nonprofits or educational institutions.

When I saw the listing for this position, my imagination jumped. I could imagine myself in that job! It was listed as a Technical Writer for the public school district, but it required knowledge of HTML and website construction, and one of the job duties would be to update and maintain the school district website. I remembered that wish I’d sent out when I’d seen that flier. Could this answer be in response to that wish?

There’s a kind of happy ache when you want something deeply.

I felt that after I turned in my application packet.

Looking inside the HR office

The woman I’d handed it to had been so nice. “Good luck!” she’d said. “Maybe I’ll be your co-worker soon!”

Oh, maybe! I hoped so. By the time I left the building, I could imagine myself there.

Looking inside the HR office

I felt I would be so lucky if I were to get that job. I wouldn’t need to keep it forever. Maybe for five years, just to get experience. And then, I could go back to teaching full-time at the community college here.

But wouldn’t it be an amazing five years? Wouldn’t it be something if I were to get that job?

Looking inside the HR office

I didn’t realize it then, but the school district takes an inordinate amount of time to fill empty positions. In fact, the position that I’ve left through my retirement is still not filled, though I notified my supervisor and HR of my retirement in October, three months ago.

So after I turned in the application, a month went by before I heard anything. I got worried, and our savings were becoming depleted, so I contacted a temp agency, who was lining up positions for me. One of them was with a missile company, and I knew I couldn’t accept it. I could not work for a company that made weapons for war. I travelled to visit my folks one weekend, figuring I should go before I was working full-time, and that weekend, I thought, well, when I get back, I’ll either hear from the school district, or I’ll have a temp job. Somehow, it will work out.

I tried to hold on to that feeling of belonging that I had when I left after submitting my application. I tried to breathe that mix of longing, confidence, and faith, that life has you, that life will hold you, that it will all work out, and there will be a place for you, a place where you can contribute, a place where you belong.

Looking inside the HR office

Authors note: Office Tales is a new autobiographical work I’m writing in which I reflect on my career as a web editor at a large urban school district. I retired three weeks ago, and it feels unreal to me, unfinished somehow, that I’ve left this career. I retired during the pandemic–because of the pandemic–while working at home, so there was no retirement party, only an awkward Zoom meeting with my department early one Monday morning. I emailed those I worked closely with, but I forgot a few. And so many of those faces–and all those lovely office spaces–that I haven’t seen since March and didn’t get to say goodbye to. For closure, and to integrate that experience that I had there, I’m writing this series. I know that writing and telling stories changes things: we select scenes, people, memories, we reshape them, we tease out the significance, and we create something that wasn’t quite what it was, but is, instead, our interpretation of it. But I feel I need this interpretation in order to move into my new life, my life without this full-time job. Writing this is a way, too, to honor and to share love. It’s also a way to come to terms with some of the complexities and some of the challenges and hardships. I’m not sure if this will be interesting to read, but I am completely sure that writing it will be a significant act for me. It will be an act of integration, and right now, I need this wholeness.

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Sea Change

Participant Veteran January 2021 - Monthly SimLit Short Story Challenge

This is my entry for the January 2021 Monthly SimLit Short Story Challenge, hosted by LisaBee. Please check the official January 2021 Challenge webpage to find all the month’s entries, as well as a poll where you can select your top three “Readers’ Choice” entries. Happy reading!

Clarissa standing in the dark

Clarissa Thalassa had been given a choice: she could be made redundant and collect unemployment or she could retire early and collect a pension. She chose the pension.

It wasn’t much, by hometown standards, but it was enough to support her if she moved to someplace less cosmopolitan. She found a beachside community, not yet fashionable with eco-tourists, where she could rent a tiny off-the-grid home for a quarter of her monthly pension.

Clarissa reading in a small room

The cabin wasn’t much more than a kitchen with a divider to mark off the tiny study and sleeping nook. But every wall held a window and every window held a view.

Clarissa at the table by the window

The hardest part had been leaving without proper goodbyes. Before her network account was closed, she emailed everyone she’d worked with closely, those who would notice when they emailed her with a task and received, instead of confirmation of task complete, a message-undeliverable error.

She felt canceled.

Her mind had all these synapses that no longer had a function. Thursday: she should be preparing to post the agenda for the Board meeting. Every tag needs an end-tag. PDFs must be accessible; videos closed-captioned. Don’t forget the alt tag for every image.

But now, none of this was her responsibility, and her mind, instead of buzzing, held gaps of quiet space.

She filled the gaps by repairing things–or trying to: the old tub beside the out-house; the rickety railings on the stairs to the roof-top deck; the pump for the well.

Clarissa fixing the bathtub

It didn’t really work. Things stayed broken.

Her mind still felt busy. She had an odd sense of guilt, too. She wasn’t working twelve-hour days. She wasn’t working at all. Her efforts, what efforts she could think up, didn’t really benefit anyone. They just filled time.

Clarissa digging in the sand

She could dig through every pile of sand on the beach, and there would still be more piles, and none of it will have made a difference, like her career, which had ended, and all the tasks that now fell to someone else.

She gave up trying to make sense of her days, trying to fill them with something productive. She let sleeping synapses lie. She felt the stillness of her mind.

Sometimes, she swam in the bay, and though she’d swum competitively back oh-so-many lifetimes ago, she seemed to swim faster now, as if the energy previously used by all those now dormant synapses charged, instead, through her muscles, propelling her like a fish or a dolphin.

Clarissa swimming

Somehow, days passed. The patterns in the sand began to make sense, and she could read the passages of turtles, seabirds, and tides in them. She learned where to dig for shells, which estuaries accumulated trash after a storm, so she could go and clean them up, and what the scents in the air meant–what it smelled like when the tide was coming in, when a storm approached from the south, when the frangipani bloomed.

One night, the air thrummed with electricity and orange smoke rose from the volcano across the bay.

The volcano at night with firey clouds

She dreamt of swimming that night.

Clarissa with a mermaid tale

She felt more free in the water than ever.

Clarissa the mermaid leaps out of the water

A high whistle, and her heart soared, like you feel when you see your beloved. A blue dolphin swam directly to her and nuzzled her.

In dreams, you can experience a love that is as close as two souls can get: that is how she and the dream-dolphin felt.

Clarissa the mermaid talking with a dolphin

The volcano sat quietly the next morning, and the sky shone clear in the dawn.

Her old world continued on, as if she didn’t exist. And the new world spread its bays and beaches before her, welcoming.

Clarissa painting

Different days, different shores, different mind. She didn’t belong in the old world, anymore.

She belonged, if anywhere, here.

Clarissa looking over the horizon