I went to the Ventura County Fair last weekend. Haven’t been to a fair or carnival or amusement park in probably 20 years, if not longer — never been my thing. But I’m staying in Ventura and the fair was in town, so that’s what you do.
I rode the Ferris wheel and watched eight-year-olds, who were braver than I, ride things that shot them up into the air and then dropped them back down again. I pet a goat and watched two prize-winning pigs – Spanky and Oreo - loll in their pen. I ate a caramel apple and a deep-fried bacon-wrapped pickle. I would eat the former every day if my teeth wouldn’t fall out… the latter, I don’t recommend anyone eat, ever. Never. It is a salt-lick that tastes delicious and terrible at the same time and you will pay for it the next day. But that’s what happens after the fair.
This month marks two years since I left my job without knowing what to do next. I’ve described that period as a roller coaster. I lurched from project to project, emotion to emotion, feeling unmoored and scared and freed and delighted, sometimes all within the same day. I let go and raised my hands in the air every once in a while, only to grab onto the safety bar as soon as the ride started to feel a little too swervy.
At the fair, I realized I’ve finally gotten off the roller coaster. Now I’m on the Ferris wheel. I’m not lurching anymore, and it feels like things have slowed down, calmed down, somewhat.
But on a Ferris wheel, the highs are even higher, and the lows are lower.
Just in the last few months, I’ve been at the top… several times. I returned to the national airwaves, backup anchoring Weekend All things Considered, the show I didn’t get last year; I had applause and great success at an event in New Orleans where I put old talents to a new use; I finished writing a book (!!!); and just this past week, I wrote a post for The Guardian about feminism and money that seems to have struck a chord on social media. These were all so exciting! They were all things I most likely would never have done were I still in my old job. They were the proof I crave — almost daily — that I did the right thing two years ago.
The lows, though? They’re awful.
And they mostly come now when someone asks me “So, now that you’re done with the book, what’s next?” First of all, that process is just beginning. The editing could be brutal — I have no idea what to expect. And it turns out that when a book contract says your second advance payment is “upon manuscript acceptance,” that doesn’t mean the day you hand it in and they accept it into their email inbox. No, “acceptance” means something else in publishing, which is when it’s been through the entire editing process and they decide it is, after all, good enough to publish. That could be six months from now. No one explained this to me ahead of time, so it was a big and nasty surprise to our budget.
People also seem to think that now that the book is “done” — promoting it will become my career. Except it isn’t out for another year. And I’m not even sure I want to become the “quitting” lady — make this whole leaping thing into The Thing That I Do with online classes and handbooks and speeches and all that. I really don’t want to become The Industry of Me.
“Oh you’ll just get another book contract!” goes the other response. Yes, in fact they were handing them out at the fair! I’m not even sure I’ll want to write another one. One tilt-a-whirl was probably enough.
So the worst part is that I still don’t know what I want to do next. The book was a long respite from having to figure it out. But now I have to get a job. I’ve had two years to think about it and I still can’t get my shit together. I try not to be too hard on myself about that, but the inner critic is loud.
What I do know is that absence has made my heart grow fonder, and I miss the microphone every time I’m away from it. I miss the newsroom. But I’m very picky about what I want on that front, and my expectations are probably unrealistic. I have to figure out what I’m willing to settle for after hosting my own national show. I talked about doing a podcast, but I’m having second thoughts because a. as already noted, I don’t want to become The Industry of Me and do something that focuses on one subject like quitting and careers (I’m much more of a covering-the-waterfront gal who needs variety in her work diet), and b. pushing through the noise of the podcasting world is next to impossible. Yes, a lot of people know who I am, but a lot of people don’t know who I am. Plus… working for free is something I’ve tried to swear off doing. And a good podcast is pretty much all work and no pay.
Do I leave journalism? Every time I go on air or see my byline it seems absurd to take that joy away from myself. Do I go to law school? After all the interviews I conducted with lawyer-quitters in the process of writing the book — that answer is NO, even I’ve always been interested in the law, and have thought many times about switching to that path. Do I teach? Maybe. Do I go work for a nonprofit? It’s appealing. Why can’t I figure this out? What the hell is the problem, woman? Just go after something!
I really, really hate that I don’t have an answer to these questions, yet. It feels like I should. Especially since I’ve been so very fortunate all the way along. Maybe I just keep assuming that the right thing will present itself. I’ll wander the midway until I win the coke bottle ring toss and the perfect prize appears. Maybe I’m just not listening closely enough to what this indecision is telling me.
So… what’s next? Um…
Ok what’s next is that I’m trying to give myself a 10-day sabbatical from having to think about it. I’m back on Weekend All Things Considered for a week starting Aug 20th, and until then, I get a break. A break from the future. A break from mental self-flagellation. A break from having to feel productive. I’m doing nothing. Except going to the fair and walking on the beach and wandering through farmers markets. That’s it.
I gently chastised a friend this week for being too hard on himself when he was feeling lazy and unproductive. Fer pete’s sake, I said, you just finished and published a book! “I say there is absolutely nothing wrong with taking a few days… weeks… hell, even months… to decompress and enjoy your accomplishments without worrying about having something to do,” I told him.
I’m going to write that same note to myself… and then I’m going to get back on the Ferris wheel and enjoy the view. Without the pickles.