Monday, June 23, 2008

I Have Roots?

I've never understood the fascination with family history.

I guess that is to be expected, since my mother was raised in an orphanage, and my father pretty much disappeared after my parents divorced, leaving more questions than answers on his side of the family. My stepfather adopted me (hence his O'Neill surname is not really my own), but he passed away 12 years ago, taking any semblance of family with him. Today, my family consists of my mother and myself (and my dog, of course).

Given this muddy family history, it's always seemed prudent to be content not knowing too many details. I knew, for example, that my mother's father was a coal miner in Kentucky, and I'd sometimes trot this factoid out at dinner parties, but otherwise I never gave it much thought. Until recently.

As I might have mentioned in one or two of these blogs, I'm writing a book, and in pursuit of this cause, I've been researching my mother's childhood in the Appalachian Mountains of Eastern Kentucky.

I've discovered, among other things, that she lived in a three room "house" provided by the coal company (they called them coal camps, and shotgun houses) with no electricity or running water—with her parents and six brothers and sisters. That's a lot of people "per room…"

Suddenly I'm enthralled with sites like Kentucky Coal Miners: Where They Worked and Lived, and blogs like Appalachian History. I spent the entire day scrolling through images in the Kentuckiana Digital Library, and reading archived journals with titles like "Mountain Life and Work" from the 1940's.

This, I gather, is what can happen when you are on sabbatical and can free up the space to focus on something other than job, commute, and daily stress.

I've posted a tab on my website titled "My Kentucky Family History" to start highlighting some of the interesting tidbits I'm discovering. Check it out and let me know what you think.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

What's For Dinner?

I'm now halfway through my sabbatical, having spent the last two weeks writing, doing yoga, and even starting to meditate for the first time in my life (I'm sure I'll have more to say about that later). During this time, I've been increasingly drawn into a simpler plane of life, facilitated no doubt by the above activities. I've stopped the constant shopping for shoes and new clothes that I don't need, have cleaned out every single closet and gotten rid of accumulated things that I don't use regularly, and am even taking public transportation whenever I can.

Hardly radical actions, but for me a marked change from the frenzy of work and mindless accumulation. A conscious stripping down to a simpler, stiller, more contemplative core.

In pursuit of the simple, I've been frequenting the Alemany Farmers' Market for the last few weeks. We are so lucky to have access to so many wonderful farmers' markets in the Bay Area, and this is truly one of the best.

I would argue that many important life lessons can be gleaned during the simple act of walking from stall to stall while quietly contemplating: fresh cherries, green beans, the season's first figs, ripe, red organic strawberries and raspberries, bundles of basil with the roots still attached, an entire stall devoted to mushrooms (with a hand painted mural of a mushroom lady to match), and beautiful summer squash in green, white and yellow.

Simplicity. Stillness. A conscious decision about the kind of life I want to live, versus simply adapting to a life full of stress, unfulfilling work, and unhealthy choices necessitated by lack of time.


So, what's for dinner tonight?
-Farmers market salad with fresh greens, squash blossoms, Japanese cucumbers, and balsamic marinaded figs
-Grilled wild Alaskan salmon marinaded in ginger and soy
-Baby yellow squash, cooked whole with organic olive oil, sea salt, and some oregano from my backyard
-Fresh raspberries and peaches

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

An Unquiet Mind

Day six of my sabbatical, and I keep waiting to get down to business and start enjoying myself. Sink into relaxation. Feel a sense of inner peace. But, instead my mind is whirling with: plot ideas for the book I'm NOT working on, self-ministrations as to how exactly I should be spending this time off, annoyance for not feeling more relaxed, a mental to-do list which I couldn't possibly accomplish in just one month, and a sense of foreboding about that day about 3 weeks from now when I either have to go back to my job or NOT. Today at one point I was literally standing in my living room frozen for two hours wondering if I should garden, write, clean out the closet or just give up and have a glass of wine.

As I continue to berate myself for my seeming inability to just relax and enjoy, I am increasingly mindful of the difficulty of quieting all my inner voices, each vying to tell me what to do next.

Is it really surprising that stillness is hard to come by? Most of us are constantly on the go between jobs, commutes, errands, families (or dogs), and countless other pressures in the course of a day. To do a "full stop" on that life for a month is like suddenly coming to a standstill on a New York street during rush hour. Your feet may stop moving, but the crowd will continue to abruptly jostle you along, and many people will give you "strong verbal feedback" to indicate how they feel about your decision to stop moving.

So, I'm going to accept the swirling thoughts for now and stop trying to get to a place that I'm not yet fully ready to inhabit. I have faith that I will find my stillness eventually.

Those same New York streets are always quiet at 6am on Sunday morning...

Friday, June 6, 2008

What’s Next?

I was having dinner last night with some smart, amazing, highly successful women. They own their own thriving business, started a few years ago after reaching the pinnacle of their profession. As the wine flowed freely, the conversation turned to my sabbatical and the reasons behind it. I explained how dissatisfied I felt with my career, which was surprising to me given how hard I had worked to achieve professional success. Surely, I surmised to myself, it must be so empowering and energizing to work for yourself. To be your own boss. To be so personally invested in the work you do everyday.

But, to my surprise, I found adamant nods of sympathy as I described my feelings of ineptitude and boredom, despite the fact that my marketing jobs have become increasingly interesting and challenging over the years. Turns out that each of these women are in the exact same place that I am. Wanting some unnamed, intangible "more" that can't be articulated, and feeling ungrateful for being dissatisfied when we are the generation that is supposed to be having it all. Some are married, some are not. Some have children, some do not. So what is the common denominator leading to these feelings pressing down upon us all?

My generation of women (mid 30's to mid 40's or so) seems to be in a tight spot. We weren't the ones who had to crash through the glass ceiling like our mothers did. It was always assumed that if we wanted to have careers and families, or just careers, or just families – or neither – our choices were our own. Any choice we could conceive of was available to us. Ours for the taking. We rose quickly through the professional ranks, many of us achieving our definitions of success at younger ages than any generation of women before us. In my own case, I was an SVP by age 35…

So we find ourselves in the middle of these lives we've crafted, scratching our heads and saying to ourselves:

"OK. So now what? What's next?"

Add to that dilemma, a phenomenon which certainly isn't particular to women: our generation grew up with remote controls and hundreds of channels, we have short attention spans, high IQs, and the expectation that if we become bored (which we easily do), we are entitled to just change the channel. The expectation of changing the channel seems to have crossed over to our entire lives.

Staying in the same job for 25 years like our parents did seems like a death sentence. We need constant change.

Previous generations reached the pinnacle of their careers, and soon after it was time for retirement.

Achieving our goals is happening earlier and earlier in life. We are living longer, and able to be young and active for much longer. When my grandmother was 60, she had blue hair, wore orthopedic shoes and support hose, and walked with a shuffle. When I'm 60 I will still be wearing 4 inch heels, have a low percentage of body fat, and practice bikram yoga daily.

Maybe it is the new norm that the mid-life crisis happens not because we fear the aging process, but because we've achieved our goals early, our choices seem endless, and suddenly we are unsure what to do next.

What's next????

Today I don't know, but I look forward to figuring it out.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

The Gift of Time

Starting tomorrow, I will be taking a one month unpaid sabbatical from work to focus on my writing. It feels like such a generous gift to give myself. Even as someone who is relatively accustomed to self-love--whether at spas, shopping for shoes, or enjoying an enviable San Francisco dining experience with friends.


Judging from the reaction of friends and colleagues, the gift of time to focus on a neglected passion must be the most lavish and coveted gift of all. Over the past few weeks as I've mentioned at social gatherings that I'm taking a month off (or possibly longer) to write, many people got a faraway look in their eyes, lowered their voices, and leaned in to whisper conspiratorially about their fervent desire to step away from the day to day. To fulfill a lifelong dream of writing, traveling, doing nonprofit work, or just doing nothing.

Online friends have emailed me encouragement, or shared their own dreams of focusing on that long-neglected thing they know they'd be brilliant at – if only there were enough hours in the day.

For me, like so many others, there never have been enough hours in the day. Creative writing is always something I've wanted to do, but I've been on the career express train for the last 15 years, and it has taken up all of my creative energy. Now, I find myself at 39 wondering whether I want to arrive at the destination I set out toward when I boarded this train.

What does an alternate life look like? Can I really step away from the whirlwind pace of my life in high tech marketing to find some inner stillness that I think must be required to really write well?

Hopefully this month will be a step towards finding out, so stay tuned!