Back to School Shopping
Having taken leave of my own employment I set out to impress myself with my perceived capacity for succeeding at something more carefree and romantic. In the summer of 1997 Cheryl and I gathered with my soon-to-be-former office staff at a nice restaurant adjacent to the Seattle Convention Center to celebrate parting ways. We were attending the state dental conference as a team for the final time.
I had tried all the respectful deceptions I knew to avoid conversation about deserting these fine and loyal people to another dentist so I could become someone else. Having kept the office sale on the down-low for months, I told myself it was best for everyone. Whether they shared that sentiment or not, I believed them when they supported me in following my dream.
The next day I drove the floating bridge across Lake Washington to a Bellevue hotel where I registered for my second convention of the weekend. I paid a year’s dues and an enrollment fee for the Northwest Writers Association annual meeting and took my seat and a deep breath. My lungs filled with the air of anonymity and possibility. No more ‘just one way’ of doing things. No more ‘standard of care’. No one spitting on my fingers. No more Friday night phone calls. Just me and the notion that we all are no more or less than what we pretend to be. And I wanted to pretend to be something else.
Being a dentist is a fine and rewarding career. There’s a lot to be said for the respect, lessons and character-building that come with the job of being a teacher, a practitioner and a business owner. I mastered skills, managed challenges — sometimes well, often not — and gained perspective and empathy through humbling experiences. At the same time I always felt hanging onto one’s job/career/profession as your sole identity wouldn’t check off enough boxes when the final exam came.
Unsettled, middle-aged, and–as if I felt it important–left-handed, I granted myself the keys to the kingdom where, if you could put some effort into getting over yourself, the only choices left are to cultivate the soul and live life like you mean it.
I still recall the late summer day I signed the papers, gave the new owner the code to the door and went home to write a letter to our patients saying farewell. Then I put the top down, bought a six-pack, found a lake and jumped in. Possibly without a swimsuit. I would spend the coming weeks entertaining visions of the greatness I could achieve as I wrote out my homemade guidebook of dreams and dares. Having stumbled into the most wonderful of marriages, I had my wife’s blessings. She was taking a masters degree career counseling class at the time and oddly enough this all made sense to her.
It sounds so noble and confidently directed now. But it soon became apparent that following my bliss was going to be anything but easy. Eventually, we try and fail at enough to know ourselves literally inside out. My guideposts were the moments alone in stressless serene emptiness. No worldly distractions, just the opportunity to be free and at peace with nothing.
I read books. Whatever fell to my open hands, heart, and hopes. I read Thoreau, Castenada, Joseph Campbell and Ram Dass. Pop Psych, New Age, Quit Lit, Crime Fiction, Travel Essays, and occasional Cookbooks. One of those, “Manifold Destiny”, taught me the unique and ancient art of cooking full meals on your car engine. Never learned that in dental school.
I gathered answers and inspiration from titles like, “The Purpose of Your Life,” “The Artist’s Way,” “Callings,” “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Universe,” “Blue Highways,” and, while sipping cheap whiskey, Hank Williams’ biography.
I took a weekend workshop in Marin County on becoming a Life Coach, and everyone but me was truly woo-woo weird. That opinion came the minute they asked us to pair up, hold hands, and make 90 seconds of continuous eye contact with a total stranger. That night I also got rousted in my van and kicked out of the host hotel parking lot. Living the dream, I was.
I set out to run a half-marathon, and settled on a 10K. I built a desk in my van, printed up business cards that declared my reinvention as a freelance travel writer. I bought a primitive laptop for my on-the-road ‘dashtop publishing’ career. I would roam the backroads looking for my true identity and climb hills to raise my consciousness. I would become ‘authentic.’ I would write flowery inspirational and timeless phrases. Of this I was certain.
I joined the Northwest Earth Institute which led me to the The New Roadmap Foundation. I studied their book, “Your Money Or Your Life.” I joined the speakers bureau and held trainings on ‘financial intelligence, financial integrity and financial responsibility.’ Where once I burned my draft card (well, after I was excused from military service), now I was cutting up my credit cards. I hugged trees in the spring and felled them for firewood in the fall to save money on nonrenewable heating oil.
I was notoriously good at pinching pennies. In the past I had dated a wonderful woman for over three years who learned to always bring her wallet. She deserved better. There’s a four-letter word that begins with “J” and ends with “K”, and it’s not “John”.
Time: Time is finite. Money and luxury are not. I got it. By now I was determined to purchase Time by un-spending the Money that I chose not to have. What I now wanted to be and where I now wanted to go required relatively little: Food, clothing, shelter, an old camper van, and a pair of rose-colored glasses would do it.
I soon realized I was far less than expert or enviable. I went back to my ‘day job’ on a limited basis and that fit just fine. For the next twenty years I would be a freelance part time ‘drill for hire.’ I needed better balance (and cash flow), and it worked out nicely.
The Final Word
Transcendence is inevitable. You choose it, or you pass away and it chooses you. All too often all too soon. I was certainly no prodigy or prophet. I just ducked and dodged when parents, society, banks, or women (even quite attractive women) invited me to get in line, tow the line, fall for their line, or sign on the dotted line.
You need quality time to find the truth about who you are. And, as I learned by watching society and the obituaries, that time is elusive for many. In re-engineering retirement you can grab a handful of remaining youth with still enough deftness, sassy and madness to learn to ‘live inside out’ with power and relevance.
It takes time for us slow learners to realize our job is not to change the world but to change ourselves for the sake of the world. This is what makes time so precious. You don’t have to work your butt off to ‘have it all’, you just have to have enough. And a Calling. We all have one. And if you’re not following your calling, whose life are you living?!