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life is sweet

In my mid-20s, I went to see the former Lone Justice lead singer Maria McKee in concert in Philadelphia. She had just released her second solo album, “You Gotta Sin to Get Saved”, and I thought it was brilliant.

At the concert, some fans called out to Maria to sing some Lone Justice songs. She shook her head left to right and said something along the lines of, “That’s not me. You’ve got the wrong girl.” Those words have been a solace to me ever since.
Whether she meant “that’s no longer me” or “that was never me”, I can’t say. What I understood immediately, however, was that she knew herself and she didn’t need to meet the expectations of others. She had moved on, redrawn her boundaries – expanded them even, and wouldn’t be pinned down. It called to mind the Walt Whitman lines from Song of Myself: “I am large. I contain multitudes.”

I’ve had to invoke the spirit of Maria on many occasions. After working for a management consulting firm for a number of years, my health was suffering from frequent back-to-back cross-country flights. More deeply, I also harbored soul-level dissatisfaction with corporate goals that sought “shareholder return” at any cost. I needed to make the leap to a desk job and the best options for my family were local – and lateral. I wouldn’t be moving up the corporate ladder, no dancing on the shattered remains of a glass ceiling.

As with all sadness, whether because of disappointments or loss or misunderstandings, I’ve learned to embrace the messy grieving process. Is there any consolation better than tearjerker movies and sad songs and angry journaling? There was a period in my life where I could put on pretty much any Merchant Ivory production or Sinead O’Connor song and feel better. Railing to friends has also been a balm, letting my rage and ramblings dissipate as they are spoken aloud. After a bad breakup with a boyfriend in high school, one of my best friends cried with me (even though she despised the guy). Wherever you are Erin, thank you for the empathy that sped along the healing process – I felt heard and comforted.

And likewise, at the time of this career change, feeling worn out and dispirited, a friend said, “Here’s to you, Crystal! Giving it to the man!” Her perspective altered how I thought about my situation. I had only seen an ending and was wallowing in the detritus of my executive dreams. But, as she saw it, I was snubbing my nose at a system that I was not well-suited for. And couldn’t this be a new beginning? Wasn’t I ready to do things differently? Further, maybe those dreams had been castles in the air: I couldn’t really say why I was pursuing those C-suite ambitions and they certainly weren’t making me happy.

A few months ago, I listened to a great conversation on the Kelly Corrigan Wonders podcast between Kelly and her guest, author / comedian / Lutheran minister Nadia Balz-Weber. They discussed the cliche ‘Never Give Up’ and how misguided this advice can be. Kelly and Nadia point out that it is natural for things to end, for seasons to give way, for businesses and relationships to finish their cycles. There may not be a clean and tidy closure, all wrapped up and neatly tucked away Marie Kondo-style. When there are messy loose ends, I will work through the change with waterfalls of tears and chocolate and retail therapy as often as I need to in lieu of acting ladylike, sucking it up or holding back the tears. And I will be there for my friends experiencing loss: I will cry with them, rampage at the unfairness of it all, and shred images of the offending party. What I will not do is rush through anger and grief, which are by nature, wavelike conditions. Experience has taught me that through that process, I can then find a new outlook.

The silver linings did eventually emerge for me, albeit they seemed to trickle in like a weak faucet. Despite an acquaintance telling me I was a quitter, despite a large reduction in salary, despite the slog of trying to figure out my next move, I listened to Joseph Campbell who urges us to let go of the life we’ve planned in order to accept the one that is waiting for us. I eventually found meaningful work as an administrator at a nonprofit preschool that was grateful for my skills. At the end of every day, I feel proud that my work contributes to the well-being of a number of families in my town. My job gives me more time at home with my husband and teenager and dog, permits me time to enjoy my hobbies like cooking and reading, and I’ve finally had the chance to get to know my neighbors. Instead of being stressed out all the time by travel fiascos, rough clients and round the clock assignments, my days are slower with a lot less drama. I savor the sweetness of each day: I get to wake up my son, ensure he has a good breakfast and is on time for school, interact with preschool children who are full of wonder and joy, and come home to play with our dog.

I don’t know what the future holds for me. Occasionally I hear from old colleagues and some of them may have fancy titles with great big offices and I suppose correspondingly big salaries. And I can’t help but feel that little itch of ambition, wondering if I should try my hand at a corporate gig again. I imagine that I could boast of a bigger bank account and an impressive title, which would lead to a bigger house and … At this point in my life, it’s easy to stop myself right there because I know now that’s not me. None of those pursuits ever made me happy. I never triumphed when we helped a client trim two weeks off of their design schedule or saved $0.02 on their packaging costs. Like Maria McKee, I’ve redrawn my lines to reflect my priorities. And I agree with Maria who titled her third solo album Life is Sweet.

Crystal Mangahas had two wishes recently fulfilled: a lemon tree that won’t stop producing and co-hosting the “Music +” podcast series with Intern Steve.

main photo credit: Denise Iwamoto, @denisetakespics

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