July 10, 2011

From the Department of Life

Three years ago, I watched fireworks from the front lawn of the U.S. Capitol, blocks away from my summer stint at a youth policy non-profit. They shot through the sky and burst above the Washington monument. Electrified, I held my chin up to the night. Their spider legs reached down for us until they faded into smoke trails and eventually disappeared into the dark sky. We walked home through the humidity and fell into a content sleep to the hum of the air conditioner. 

Two years ago, I sat home alone on their grandmother's old couch surrounded by stacks of blue BarBri books and a borrowed novel. My muscles stiff from trying to hold it together and my eyes strained from black print and gray, penciled-in bubbles. I turned the lights off, the television on, and stretched out across the couch. From states away, I watched the fireworks shoot through the sky and burst above the Washington monument. Then I watched a lightening bug blink on our covered porch, waiting for the rain to let up. It never did. My phone buzzed, "coming from the fireworks & walking by your old place!" I sat up, turned on the light, and reached for the novel.

In an effort to save her life, the main character quit her job as a corporate attorney and, in the last few pages, became a writer.

At 1am, I put the book down and cried. Hard.

I shut myself in the bathroom, because I didn't want my landlady upstairs to hear, and went through half a box of tissues. If I had a flare for the dramatic, I would have climbed into the antique, claw-foot bathtub. Instead, I turned on the sink water, sank to the floor in front of it and didn't move for 45 minutes. 

The book wasn't that good. I wasn't reacting to the book. I was reacting to my life.

1. the condition that distinguishes organisms from inorganic objects and dead organisms, being manifested by growth through metabolism, reproduction, and the power of adaptation to environment through changes originating internally.

If only it was that simple.

I started dividing my life into distinct areas sometime during my first semester of law school - professional life, personal life, social life, family life. Which ironic, because that is precisely when I started to dedicated every breath I took to my professional life. At the expense of a personal life, social life, and family life. At the end of three years, I had to take inventory. Family and friends stood by, but I had to find out, how much of me is left?

I began to write again. Slowly, clumsily, terribly. But I wrote anyway. Its loyalty is unfailing; it always rescues me.

I am a professional at the intersection of public policy, advocacy, and positive youth development. I work in the non-profit sector. The term "non-profit" is misleading. There are profits; there are profits we keep. I believe in the work I do. 

The hours in this sector are long. There is too much to do and never enough resources or people to get it all done. The issues are complex and thorny. Shareholder wallets obsolete, this sector has to ask: what serves the greater good? I could eat, breath, and sleep this work. But this is not Life. This is a professional life.

I am so much better at a professional life than Life. But I know what happens when I confuse the two. I will not define myself by my profession. That declaration has become a personal mantra. Still, I often I feel myself slipping.

I have devoured books recently. Work travel gave me permission to spend time reading, and I didn't stop when I arrived back. I have consumed books at a rate my wallet hates, but my personal life loves. I negotiate sleeping hours to read and then to write. I found a book that has been on my list for years at a used book store: On Writing, by Stephen King. The perfect combination and the perfect timing. Recommended years ago, time and time again, but only now can I really appreciate every word, every punctuation mark, every lesson. "Am I a writer? Is that the key to my Life?" loops its way through my thoughts as I turn the pages.

Midway through, Stephen King writes: "Life isn't a support system for art. It's the other way around."

My theory shatters. I will not define myself by my profession holds up better under strict scrutiny. 

I am a professional. I am a writer. I am a friend. I am a family member. And I am so much more. As I move farther away from what once consumed my days (training to be an attorney in the private sector), I feel more like myself. Less often do I have to take inventory, how much of me is left? It's all still there, just buried. Some days I have to dig farther than others to find it. On Saturday afternoons it bubbles up and overflows. I drink it up and my cup runneth over. But on Wednesday mornings, I am parched. I am finding out that Life isn't a balancing act between a professional life and personal life (family life and social life). Rather, I think it's something unto itself that forms at the core. These different "divisions" of life are stirred and mixed and perhaps even baked to form something more than all its ingredient. And from this core, the rest rises. That's the Life I hope to create.


  1. Kiersten McMonagleJuly 11, 2011 at 12:11 AM

    Emily, your writing is always beautiful.  In a way, you encourage me to write, because I want to believe that my writing can be that good.  
    I know what you mean about confusing life and work.  Of course, I'm still only going into my second year of college so I don't have a career yet.  But I've always had trouble figuring out what I actually WANT to do - deciphering the difference between what I love and will be happy doing, and what I think I'm supposed to want to do because it's more "practical".  
    And I have trouble remembering to stop worrying about things like this, and grades, and what other people think, and so on, and to take the time to enjoy myself and my life and my friends.  
    I think it's absolutely wonderful that you love your job - it's my goal in life to find the thing that I love doing and will be happy being involved in for the rest of my life.  
    Wonderful post - thank you for writing it!
    <3 Kiersten

  2. Thank you, Kiersten - that means so much to me. In college I thought I would become an American Lit professor and thought about getting my PhD in Comparative Literature. I loved, loved, loved my classes and learned so much that I still use today, even though I'm in a different field. I took the approach that I would take the classes I loved and have faith that the rest would work itself out. I think it more or less did. =)  And I agree with you, enjoy your time and your friends in college - they are still some of my favorite years and closest friends!