Joy, The Odyssey: Pandemic Tales
“Letting go gives rise to joy and happiness. We need to sit down with a piece of paper and write down the things we can let go of. We’re still caught in many things. We’re not happy and joyful, because we haven’t been able to let go.”
— Thich Nhat Hanh, “How to Relax”
Thich Nhat Hanh’s treatise on relaxing, concisely named “How to Relax,” soothes its readers into the assurance that relaxation is attainable, at this very moment, even as we labor collectively under the toils of an apparently-unceasing strife. Within the book, in a short vignette titled “Relaxing Where We Are,” he describes one friend inviting another on a trip to the countryside, away from the continuous motion and interminable noise of the city. Initially, the friend sorely in need of time away declines the invitation, spurning the retreat in favor of patterns and repetitions that no longer serve him. Eventually, the weary friend relents and accepts the invitation. As they drive away from the city, the open expanse of the emerging countryside begins to take its effect and the friend begins to let go.
For much of our lives we cling obstinately and firmly to people, situations, patterns, and other familiarities that would seem to create a sense of stability or normalcy. We believe them to be our peace and our balance. We disregard that the familiar can also be disruptive, that conventions can impede us, and that satisfaction could cause us to overlook propitious opportunities. What joy would we find if, in life and work, we disentangled ourselves from the web of patterns and fear that have bound us in place? What if we relaxed and allowed ourselves to fall freely and blithely into the expansive universe of possibilities awaiting us?
By February of 2017, I had been in, then summarily out of, what must have been -hyperbolically- my fiftieth attempt at long-lasting commitment! We, like all the other circumstances before, were two poles charged the same, thus repelling one another. By the end, we fought like feral animals, each of whom had wandered into the other’s territory. There were more days of arguments and distrust than there were of peace and accord. Even our friends were exhausted. Our destructive similarities were stubbornness and a penchant for trying to prove even our best wisdom wrong. I carried this negative charge into an interview for a Project Management position in eDiscovery.
My thoughts were disorganized, my focus aimless. I gave voluble answers to simple questions, and felt encased like pressed sausage in a suit that fit well in happier times. I did not deserve that job, but was offered a second interview. I, confusingly, had grown attached to the first interviewer and avowed our “natural rapport”; perhaps it was her high tolerance for my inane garrulousness! This second now panel of interviewers seemed bemused at my stubborn insistence that the first interviewer and I would be world beaters as a team. I hardly knew her, and was so unfocused that I missed my figurative exit from my foolish attachment when asked, “Do you believe you could work equally well with others at our company?” The second interview was by phone. I chose to sit in my car in the sweltering afternoon heat. I sweat. My brain perspired. My answers digressed. I offered little in the way of useful information about my candidacy, although there were moments of sharpness. I was not offered the job. My general sense of joylessness, emotional fatigue, and mental fogginess had now pervaded every component of my life. In the end, breaking up was the beginning.
A year later, I set course for Jacksonville, Florida and began laying plans for a final, permanent move there. (Or so I thought!) A friend and colleague, Wendi, had quite generously included me in private contract work she secured based on her own exceptional reputation within the South Florida legal community. We completed private litigation reviews from the first loaded document to the last produced document, and carried on this way for the better part of two years. I went to Wendi for rain, and she poured generously from her abundance. We were on a much-needed break when the pandemic exploded like a comet crashing to Earth. We each agreed to focus on health and to re-approach our work in two months.
Wendi became highly involved in caring for her husband’s parents, and I chose to give her space to settle into her new life, disregarding our two-month mark when it came and went. In short, I did not reapproach my friend and colleague about our work. I also allowed other less-than-great-but-gainful opportunities to come and go. I was deep in the ocean alone; but when the lifeboats came, I chose to cut the engine and stay on my sinking ship. My work with private citizens simply did not suffice to keep the proverbial lights on at my small consultancy. Private citizens pay when they can afford it. Even in the face of these truths, I repeatedly sent the life boats away. I was waiting for Wendi. She would have work for my monocrop economy.
Days folded into weeks; weeks developed into months. All of it, at one point, moving too fast for me to notice that my stubborn insistence on waiting had begun to consume time, lots of it. The offers for work suddenly were less frequent and even less abounding. Nonetheless, I refused to abandon ship on my struggling consultancy. Instead, I battened down the hatches, moved into the cabin, and mustered by bravest face; I tried to weather the storm alone, even though I had help. I was the very meaning of obstinate.
At some point, I decided to add extended walks (four or five miles) to my routine of obsessively checking emails and to the many hours of daily webinars I attended. In fact, based on my stellar attendance, I achieved multiple “Unlimited Access” statuses for Bright Talk’s webinar offerings and earned a masters certification in data privacy from Exterro. No one can take knowledge once you have acquired it, and I devoured lengthy sessions of quality industry insights and revelations, for free, sometimes waking at 5:00 am Florida hours to attend a webinar being hosted in the UK at 10:00 am regarding GDPR, sustainable development goals, and ESG standards. It might have been the greatest and only reward of my refusal to let go.
On my walks, I listened to music and allowed my imagination to transport me away from my troubles: the severe lack of work, the pandemic, the social unrest, the senseless deaths and murders. The more I walked, the more relaxed I felt. I could sense every aspect of my being: the thump of my heart, the rhythm of my breathing, the loose dirt under my feet, the thud of my heavy pace. I noticed tiny frogs bathing in the moonlight on wet concrete and lizards, both dead and alive. I saw paths in woods I had not noticed from my truck. I worked through years of trauma related to being the nerdy, gangly runt of the litter during my childhood. I healed very old wounds, battle scars visited on me in heated exchanges with ex-lovers, who made incisive criticisms of my personality and person. And, for the first time in twenty years I felt fully alive, fully focused, fully aware, and fully relaxed. I found joy, in the middle of the storm that was 2020. I was finally ready to let go.
I reached out to new friends who connected me with their friend, and their friend wanted to help me. I accepted. I climbed out of my troubled vessel into what might have been the final lifeboat to come along before my ship sank. The contract pay was not ideal, but the work steady and welcomed! I could spare what was left of my savings. And, that work, over time, expanded into more than even I allowed myself to imagine on my walks. Eventually my private clients could pay, and I surprisingly got a message from Wendi! I thanked her. I was fine. I already had work. As I returned the phone to its charger, I recalled a quote I had read and it was rather apropos, “Leap and the net will appear.”