The Good Work

I’m a slow learner. I’m an experiential learner – always have been. It takes me a long time to identify my feelings as a rich source of information, as legitimate. It is as if I’m standing in a field of sparkling gems, and all I see are dried up weeds that scratch my legs. I joke with friends that I’m a lapsed beginner, but jokes are truth seekers, and rather than hide behind levity, why not let leverage this moment as a source of agency? 

So, here is the truth as of November 13, 2020. I am on the cusp of turning 45, which means I am solidly midlife, and I see two things. 1. I’ve done an fantastic job of listening to my inner voice, making choices that steered me on a winding, wonder-filled path. 2. The price of this commitment to self is often feeling alone.  

Gloria Steinhem speaks about the lack of female role models paving the way ahead, showing that there are other possibilities of the Good Life for women. This rings a bell I forgot was there. 

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I remember visiting my high school therapist (yes, there was a therapist on site!) after I decided to take a year off before college.  She asked if I considered how I might feel about being out of sync with my peers since this would set my trajectory apart from them. Even in my 17-year-old naiveté, I trusted my own wisdom. I had no idea the years ahead would make a gap-year seem like a blip. 

My parents are proud of me and love me to the ends of the Earth, and I also know they would love nothing more if I were the president of something, the director of something – the best of something.  They certainly have been, and I am proud of them and their accomplishments.  (Also, Mom and Dad, I love you to the ends of the Earth.)  They instilled a service-mindset in their children, and this is a gift for which I’m grateful.  I also hope they see that service and excellence are not solely linked to a profession – that trusting your own voice often appears circuitous. I have different ambitions. As of this moment, I aspire to be excellent at knowing my place on this mountain, to hearing the voice of the forest in hopes I may be a better person.  Let me define further: mix one part resilience with two parts inquisitiveness and spontaneity. Add a pinch of impish glee for taste. 

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I love to walk aimlessly, to solve by walking, and, oh the miles long traveled, the long miles ahead.  I am nearly 45, and I recently walked away from my dream job. I made this choice with intention and clarity never felt before. I knew in my bones this was right because I was called to our home on Petit Jean Mountain – that through planning and happenstance, the stars were aligned to live my DREAM life. I knew what my blind spots would be, and I charted a course for confronting doubt on the inevitable difficult days. I wrote a letter to myself before leaving, reminding my future self why I was saying goodbye to Montana and why this decision checked all the boxes on my Good Life list. I began what has become an evolving Rule of Life, one that I imperfectly live out each day, relishing its perfect presence. 

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I was recently pitied for not having a job. This threw me because the person is a close friend, someone who “gets me.” Their pity felt like a chasm, and the divide struck a deep sense of loneliness.  Within this moment, my friend did not seem to see the contentment rooted in my new life, but rather, worried I might be adrift at sea, and even in my attempts to explain that not working is of no interest, at least for now, I still sounded defensive, therefore in denial, thus guilty of the charge against me. 

My life is the opposite of efficiency. I’ve known since my early-20s that traditional motherhood wasn’t a burning bush I longed to embrace. My LinkedIn page is way out of date. There are schisms on my resume. My Social Security will be a pittance.  

How do I explain that hours of tree-gazing, wandering these woods, paying attention, facing the blank page, or making a home bring me joy like no other? 

Yes, it sometimes feels like a crime that I veer from the trajectory of my peers – that I have chosen not to birth children, that I walked away from my dream job, that I listen to my heart and make choices often seen as baffling.  

And when, on rare occasions, the hardships of my past are also pitied, even this misguided support cuts with surgical precision. While I certainly have regrets, I don’t cast sorrow over the gold that emerged from my experiences, nor would I ask to be stripped of my freedom to make my own choices, a liberty unencumbered by projections of family and culture.  This is not the same as sticking a fondant bow on unfortunate events of my past.  It’s saying: Yes, risk always comes with honoring the values we hold dearest.  (Besides, that sugary decoration would be in my mouth in a nanosecond, so strong is my sweet tooth.)

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Pity is another form of othering, of disavowing a person’s autonomy. It is the opposite of saying, I see the integrity of your heart, and I respect you. 

Trusting my voice isn’t synonymous with certainty. It doesn’t mean I don’t have concerns or that anger never strikes. (In fact, the arrival of anger tells me I haven’t yet found a way to name and express a feeling, and once I do, there is mental flexibility to identify options, hence creative redemption.) Trusting my voice means stepping forward with the best intent that flows out of my being. It does not inoculate me from gross errors of judgment – the fact that I have to write this sentence makes me laugh out loud.

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At the risk of sounding preachy, I ask you to consider a different approach the next time you feel pity rise up in your throat. Why not adopt a posture of curiosity?  Rather than resting in confidence that you have a person figured out, why not be genuinely open about what they have to say?  This means asking questions and being open to surprise, and if you fake it, they’ll sniff your counterfeit out like a bloodhound. These are not my own insights. I take them from Krista Tippett on how to have a conversation

In truth, I inhabit tremendous privilege and security. I have health insurance and access to healthy food. I own my home on 11 mountaintop acres. I feel good in my skin, in my body. I know what I like and what brings me pleasure.  I dwell in the luxury of choice. I exist in the luxury of time – time to wonder, to write (as in, this very missive), to create, romp in the woods, to be curious, wear overalls everyday if I choose, to be still. I feel held by a faith tradition that’s always there for me even when I’m not always there for it. I am married to someone with a robust pension, someone who has been contributing to Social Security since he was 14, someone who believes in me and my abilities and makes me laugh and loves to have fun.  Dennis and I plan for our financial future. We love each other and delight in the great adventures ahead. With the exception of my student loan, I am debt free. I know that I can find a job if absolutely necessary or if it simply makes my heart sing.  Call it what you like: free spirit, unconventional, beat-of-her-own-drum. I call this way of living patient discernment. It hasn’t always been easy, but I worked like a dog to get where I am. 

10 thoughts on “The Good Work

  1. Dear Joanna,
    It only gets better as you go along! I turned 65 in August & have lived on my 10 acres on my mountain for 27 years this fall. Yes, Soc Sec IS a pittance, but I, too, am married to a man who believes in me and my art & our retirement seems to be fully funded. I also have no bodily children, but do have (and had) many cats, a couple of dogs, and acres of flora and fauna. Birds, squirrels & raccoons visit daily and I have a few dear and close human friends. I never thought I would be this happy and this blessed. Welcome to the world we make!
    Love to you and Dennis,
    Martha Ware Kiley

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Well said Joanna. I am so proud of you!! I have been retired now for sometime and for the first time in years am comfortable in my own skin!!! Love you!!!❤️

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Joanna, How interesting to read about how you have chosen what you want in life, and you made these choices early in life. I find this fascinating. I cannot imagine why anyone would pity you for the choices you made. Since becoming facebook friends, I have enjoyed reading what you write and your photographs, especially those on your mountain. I first became interested in your writing when you were living in Montana. I lived in Billings years ago and my son graduated from the U. Of Montana. I loved visiting him in Missoula and took every opportunity to see him.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Dear Joanna,
    Thank you for sharing your wisdom. It is helpful to hear validation, affirmation for what the heart desires. Would you recommend possible resources, disciplines, exercises or practices for entering into “patient discernment “ I am ready!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Maria, I can share what has worked for me, which involves time sitting or standing still outdoors without any sort of agenda, and then I also practice free writing. Those are the two big ones for me. I feel like I should say something like prayer, which I do practice (Noonday prayer and Compline from the Daily Office) but not very well in that sometimes I forget. Fail, fail again, fail better. If you count staring at trees as a form of prayer, well then, yes, I’m pretty good at that. I try to pay attention to my dreams, though those are all related to Covid anxiety lately. I try to maintain a daily gratitude list. Something my mom taught me early on is to listen to my body, to pay attention to how I’m feeling inside my body, so this is something I give a lot of attention – slowing down when I need to, pausing, resting, movement. Shaping all of this is the sense that I am loved and accepted by God just as I am, even on the days when I question my faith – there is this unshakeable support I feel – I have no idea where it comes from, but I’m so glad it’s there, and this sensation gives me the confidence to trust the process. And even if God isn’t in your vocabulary or your belief system, to know and feel that you are loved and accepted, that you are a beautiful human being with integrity and gifts and a heart the world longs to see is an inalienable right. Again, this is what I’ve found to be helpful, and maybe it looks different for you, and gosh, I’m still learning and stumbling along. I hope this helps!

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  5. Joanna! I’ve been a casual and silent follower of your updates on Facebook, but always engrossed in whatever it is you are sharing. I love, love this piece and for selfish reasons as I grapple with my own choices or paralysis at even making them for fear of following my heart. Thank you so much for sharing. You definitely helped at least one person today. We miss you out here but what a heavenly life you are living. Take good care ❤️

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