Maybe it’s all the advertising or the lull of Bing Crosby’s voice, but doesn’t this time of year just beg us to slow down? Somewhere amid the sugar crashes and extra blankets, sleeping in seems more delicious than it does in any other season, and quiet nights at home feel like utter luxury. When it’s cold outside, I just want to curl up and do nothing and enjoy every delectable second. Don’t you?
I heard a phrase used in a radio ad not long ago that gave me pause, and then alarm. It had something to do with a traffic app, and the announcer used the term “up-to-the-second,” as if “up-to-the-minute” wasn’t current enough. Hey, 9-to-5ers, remember when “cutting edge” was too old-school, so it became “leading edge” and then what I think started out as a joke somehow turned into an actual thing — namely, “bleeding edge”? Yeah. That. This reminded me of that, and I had to roll my eyes. I realize I’m about to sound like I’m a hundred, and that’s okay, because I mean it: when did we all get into such a big damn hurry?
Last month, I caught a nasty cold and lost my voice completely. It was one of those I’m-so-weak-and-tired-I-have-to-plan-trips-to-the-refrigerator-in-advance-and-gear-myself-up-to-change-the-channel kinds of bugs, and I ended up in bed for a solid 72 hours. Even looking at my computer screen made me dizzy. So, I took an uninterrupted break from the world outside and let the television distract me from my coughing in the scant hours I was actually awake. Aside from developing what I thought was going to be a minor addiction to American Horror Story (I’ve since kicked the habit… but maybe I’ll pick it back up in a marathon over the holidays?), a weird thing happened: I actually had time to think.
Not frantically try to mentally file ideas from links flickering before my eyes at a million miles an hour; just enjoy some good old-fashioned thoughts, floating gently through the air and taking root in my brain instead of shooting right through it 140 characters at a time and dissipating into nothing. I ended up spending a good deal of my Nyquil-flavored haze evaluating how this first year of freelancing has gone… how insane I was to have jumped into it the way I did (i.e., without a cushion or much of a real plan other than “Hit it hard, don’t give in and do not f*ck up because failure is not an option; coincidentally, neither are rent and electricity”)… and how fortunate I am to do something I love, even though it scares the tar out of me sometimes (read: all the time).
For what I believe to be the first time in my life, I handed back a chunk of work to a client recently and politely explained I couldn’t do it justice. I’m not used to saying “no” to the people who sign my paychecks, or in this case, respond to my invoices. I’ve made a career out of being the boss’s right hand, taking on whatever might be needed to get the job done, and anyone who’s ever worked in public relations (my old gig) understands that negativity is not allowed; “no” is the ultimate negative, even when it’s not. But I was depleting myself of creative ideas, working myself to the bone. So, when I realized over the summer that I had to lighten my load to stop phoning some of it in, it felt foreign. I’m a people-pleaser; it’s in my DNA to nod and smile even if I think something’s terrifically stupid and feel like punching someone in the face. “On it,” I chirp, just like we’ve all been trained to do. Push through. Make it work. Get it done.
But this time, I was literally running out of words and sounding like a broken record in half of the work I was churning out. I’d hit a point where I’d taken on so many responsibilities, there wasn’t as much joy anymore in something that had started out as fun. Now, listen — I know life isn’t a big bowl of Jelly Bellys. Work’s called work for a reason. But I’d bitten off more than I could handle and my flame was starting to go out. For anyone who works in a creative field, it’s like an athlete’s muscles refusing to cooperate or a surgeon’s hands losing sensation — in a word: terrifying. For a freelancer, having too full a plate is just about the best problem in the world to have — far preferable to its alternative — and the idea of turning away work is counterintuitive to survival. But still, I had to ask: if we only get one shot at being human, isn’t it important to actually let ourselves be human sometimes? And if I only get one shot at being an honest-to-god writer, shouldn’t I be a good one?
Slow your roll, I told myself. (Yes, indeed, I’m southern.)
Breathe. In and out. Again.
There’s no need to go on an anti-internet rant; I can’t hate on something that allows me to have this life. I know I wouldn’t have the job I do if it weren’t for the advent of blogs and social media and, quite frankly, the recession itself; it forced companies to slim down their marketing teams, edged entrepreneurs into action and created this odd and amazing little space in which freelance writers can actually do what we love for a living while playing by our own rules. On top of that, I get to keep in touch with the people I love who are in an entirely different time zone; political rants aside (and thank GOD that’s over and done with), I actually love seeing what they’re eating for lunch… the art their kids brought home from school today… the random little observations they make about the world around them. I’ll never get tired of that stuff… it keeps us connected in some small but significant way, and although some may pretend to be too cool to care, I’m onto you. You’re not.
I love that I got to virtually walk around downtown Austin with Google Maps’ street view before I ever set foot in it, just to get a sense of what it would be like to live here. I’d handpicked coffee shops and restaurants and bookstores and gyms to check out before I even bought a plane ticket, and when I got here, poof: there they were in the flesh for me to explore. The web makes the unfamiliar familiar, and for that I couldn’t be more thankful. I was talking with someone not long ago about how our parents never really cared to travel all that much, yet one generation later, the two of us have an insatiable need to get on every plane, devour every dish, and conquer every continent — it probably has something to do with the immediate availablility of everything, all the time, we reasoned. I’ll always be a proponent of libraries, but back in the day, if you were curious about Barcelona, for example, you had to go to the travel section on the third floor and stand on a step stool and select enormous tomes to lug around with you. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but today if I decide I’m curious about Barcelona, I hit “save” on this blog post and I’m exactly two clicks away from up-to-the-minute… oh, excuse me: up-to-the-second… bloggers’ reviews, tourists’ Instagrams, daily deals, and satellite images. If I’m feeling super ambitious, I can keep typing this sentence with one hand while using my iPhone to log onto Fodor’s in the other. It’s insane.
You know that Louis C.K. bit, “Everything Is So Amazing and Nobody Is Happy“? That completely sums up the way I feel about life. I’m that person sitting on the plane going “OH MY GOD WE”RE FLYINGGGGGGGGGG” and I hope I always will be. But sometimes — sometimes — we forget ourselves and act like brats. I’m ashamed of that, really. Who cares if the TSA line takes a while? YOU’RE FLYING LIKE A BIRD WHILE DRINKING GINGER ALE.
In all honesty, who do we think we are? We’re itsy little specs on a fairly tiny planet, yet my god, there’s so much to discover. It makes sense that we’re always in a hurry, but are we in a hurry about the right things, or do we rush around in circles just because? I like the sound of taking a breath. I believe in quality over quantity. I think I’ll take a minute — a whole one — to ruminate on where this is all taking me and why, without letting the buzz of my phone or the flicker of my laptop get in the way. I love technology and the conveniences it affords us, but it’s time to start using it on my own terms and unplug when I just need to think. To paraphrase Prince or Aristotle or some such crazy scribe:
Tonight I’m gonna focus like it’s 1999.