In this series apprentice, Imari Berry selects essays from Jessica Conoley’s archives. Imari shares why the essay resonates with her as a newer creative, & Jessica’s original essay follows.
I chose this essay because: I don’t even know where to start with this essay. As a person who recently left a job they hated this essay screams at me. It makes me feel seen and validated in so many ways.
Initial publication date: 11/10/2015
When you retire at thirty-five the world has a lot to say. The cab driver who took me home from my libation-filled retirement party told me, “You’re too young to retire.” My girlfriend was quite adamant I had not retired, telling me “I’ll let you tell people you’re retired until the end of the summer.” My father told people I was in the middle of a “career change.” When I told my investment advisor I would take six months to myself, he said, “You think you’ll last that long?”
At first, retirement was frantic. Full of projects and adventures, my calendar stuffed to the brim. I created productivity schedules, basing my day upon an obscure interweb article about Scandinavian school children. The article said these Nordic creatures spent three-quarters-of-an hour in class followed by a quarter-of-an-hour of free time. Allegedly, the intense concentration on the former, followed by the complete freedom of the latter, led to better focus and higher test scores. Because I know the interweb never leads me astray, I set about designating work of import into forty-five minute quadrants followed by fifteen minutes allotted to physical activity. Unless I completed X-number of blocks, I was a failure—wasting the greatest opportunity I had ever been given.
Twenty years of corporate training kept me running like a mouse in a maze. I started office work when I was fifteen, corporate careers when I was eighteen—a significant portion of my life was spent in a culture where tangible results equaled success. Now, here I was completely free to make my own rules, but I felt like I was failing. I hadn’t been trained for freedom.
At the end of the first thirty days, the euphoria of escaping a job I loathed subsided to a manageable level of being pleased with my decision. However, I wondered how the last thirty days had gone so fast.
Something was wrong—my measurable results of stories written did not corroborate the copious amounts of time spent in the tiny blocks I had boxed my life in to. My iCal revealed my time had been spent on other people, in meetings and lunches, appointments and obligations. The world at large thought I now had unlimited time. These same people thought I should invest my newly freed time in them. It’s not that I didn’t want to hang out with (some of) those people. It’s always nice to feel included and wanted, but it seemed like everyone else thought his or her needs were more important than mine.
It was time say no. Time to figure out what (and who) was really important to me.
Forty-five days into retirement the world gave me a swift reminder of where my real priorities lay. My grandfather was admitted to the hospital.
I had no qualms cancelling invitations. No hesitation putting off work. No trouble narrowing my circle of support to the people who I found comfort in. A magnifying glass caught the sun just right and burned a hole through everything I didn’t need.
After that first scary hospital week—the one where the family takes turns staying up all night at his bedside, my real retirement started. I disappeared into my bedroom and parceled out my words via text, annoyed at anyone who had the audacity to invade my solitude with a brazen phone call.
I shut down.
The self-imposed rule that I must leave the house once a day became more of a suggestion. When my phone rang I hit decline. When my email dinged I opened the mail for .5 seconds to make the red visual alarm leave my phone. I didn’t like it nagging me. I then closed said e-mail without glancing at the content.
I watched all twelve, hour-long episodes, of the entire five seasons of The Wire in six days without guilt. I sat in the sunshine with my cats and listened to the sound of their footprints in my carpet. I worked my way through a tea sampler box learning I preferred the tea that smelled exactly like yellow birthday cake.
One morning, I sat on my crushed-velvet-gold couch, drinking my birthday-cake-flavored tea, watching the sun cross my balcony and I realized something was missing. My cat picked his way across the back of the couch. He settled into my lap and rolled over to show me his belly. His purrs let me know he had extra fur per-square-inch in that territory, meaning extra softness and a duty on my end to appreciate his generous offering. I obliged, and in that moment I realized it wasn’t that I missed something.
I had found a vacancy.
The buzzing in my brain was gone—the furious pace of corporate anxiety and imminent failure had been chased away.
For the first time in twenty years I had space in my head to fill and the time to figure out how I wanted to fill it.
By Jessica Conoley