Monday, June 3, 2013

Full disclosure (or 'how does she do it?')

So today it begins! This is my first Monday off because from now on I won't have to work on Mondays anymore, or on Fridays for that matter. Tomorrow will be my first part time workday! I can't believe it's really happening (I believe I've said that before, but it's still true).

I wanted to talk to you a little bit about this decision, mostly because of a rather snarky response I got from somebody who was all "I couldn't do it with my expenses and living alone and all and I don't understand how you can!" and this from someone who makes many hundreds more than me and considering the fact I live alone too.

It's not so much what this person said as the tone it was said in. I recognized that tone. It's one I've been expressing myself quite often when I heard of somebody working less or taking sabbaticals and things like that, although I have never expressed it to anybody else thank god, because it feels yucky to be on the receiving end of that tone (Don't feel sorry for me though, every other person I've talked to has been absolutely marvelous about the whole thing!).
It's the tone of resentment and just a little petty jealousy. It's not that you don't want the other person to have what they have, it's just that you want something like that too and you don't know how to go about it and that's frustrating as hell. I know this, because I've been that person for years and years. It's easy to watch people get and do things you don't want, yay for them. It's hard to see them get and do things that you do want. Why do they have it so easy and why do you have it so hard?

So that's why I'm writing this post to give a bit of disclosure and also perspective on this whole working less thing. Because as often as we see somebody do this they never really tell us how it all happened, do they? And they certainly don't tell us what it's costing them. This is just my personal story and I may be telling it way too prematurely since I still have to figure out how this will all work out, but I just hate being misunderstood and want to clear some things up so there are no misconceptions. I know, I should probably get therapy for that or something. I always have this extreme need to explain myself. (Not to excuse myself, that's a different matter entirely, although I'm noticing a lot of people seem to think those two are the same. More than once people to whom I'm explaining something will go "It's okay,don't worry about it", like I'm asking for their forgiveness or something. Oh, I'm so digressing!).

Anyway, I got the feeling that snarky person thought I had a truck load of money lying somewhere or some priviliged thing going on because I could do this, or that I would end up regretting it in the future or something, because obviously no 'normal' person on her own would be able to do this.! Let me tell you exactly what happened and how it may very well affect my life from now on.

The person that first put the seed in my head to work less was the wonderful Mary Ann Moss. And no, she didn't do it in person or anything. She just wrote on her blog about taking a sabbatical. She's in the midst of that right now and if you want to see how she enjoys it (and she does) go check out her blog! You'll love her love for life. My first response was exactly like snarky person's. I was jealous and resentful as hell. Not so much of her personally, I want nothing but good stuff to happen to this woman as she is just marvelous, but as all jealousy it was more like "Why can't I do that?" and "How does she do it?" and I knew that I would never be able to take a sabbatical ever. And that is true, I can't.

Around the time she started her sabbatical I had my wonderful Christmas Vacation. Vacations to me are like heaven. My time is my own and I can fill it any way I want, and my wants aren't all that ambitious. You can read them on the sidebar under my profile. I like to read, I like to walk and I like to make stuff. It's as simple as that. After every vacation going back to work is like being a bird forced to go back into its cage. The cage is nice and warm and there's some fun other birds there (thank God!), but it's just not where I love to spend my time the most. My first love is and will always be around my personal passions of art, literature and nature.

I am however cursed with a terrible contradicting personality. That is to say: I have no desire whatsoever to turn my passions into my job. I've written about this before here if you're interested. If my passions become my job they become tainted. So to all those people that have suggested I start to make a living with my art so I could spend my days doing just that: that would not make me happy. It's the difference between reading for the love of it or reading because you work as a professional reviewer or some English professor who has to completely analyze the contents. It's the difference between painting commissions where someone else decides what you do or just painting because you feel like it and today you just happen to like the colour pink. It's the difference between getting teaching gigs to bring in an income or just sharing your techniques for the love of it on your blog. You get my point? This artsy stuff is a work of love and nothing else.

I'm telling you this, because for me this means there has to be another way to bring home the bacon and that means I need a job. I live alone, I have no sugar daddy or supportive husband or rich relatives or anything else. Nobody is going to pay me to just do what I love without any restrictions, so I need to make a living myself. And so I have. If things continue the way they do in my country I will be working at least until I'm seventy before I can retire. That thought alone could make me cry and last January it practically drove me up the wall. Working full time for almost thirty more years and having art as a just a little sideline in my life would surely drain me of all my will to live. I didn't like what it was doing to me. There needed to be a shift in something. But how?

The how question has driven me crazy for years and years, because believe me, this was not the first time I thought about these things. It was just the first time that I couldn't let them go. I. Just. Could. Not. I had been thinking before about working less, but had always decided against it for the most obvious reason: working less means less money. And it's not like I was making all that much to begin with. I decided however to seriously explore the option this time. My ideal was 27 hours, which I was pretty sure would be impossible, and my compromise was 32 hours, although I would have been seriously disappointed with that option.
You see, it's a matter of balance. Until today the job always made up the bigger part of the week. Five days of work, two days of play. What I wanted was to tip the scale in the other direction: more play days than work days. And with 32 hours I'd still have four days of work and three days of play and work would still win. It's a  psychological thing really.

So I got together my finances and started adding and subtracting. The question was no longer: how much do I want to make, but: how much do I really need to get by? This of course being followed by: what do I need to get by?, as in what things make life worth living and what things can I do without?
I figured the absolute minimum I would need to survive and still be happy for me would be around 1200 euro's (after taxes and such). Until now I've made almost 1700. I knew it would mean letting go of a lot of luxuries, but I figured I could make it work. The other thing I realized is that people on welfare and such get by with even less and they aren't living on the street eating from garbage cans, so maybe less was possible, but I didn't want to go there. 1200 was my limit, still a really low income in this country.

I decided not to decide anything yet, until I knew the exact consequences of my choice and so I got together with the human resources person at work and asked her to calculate some options for me. What would a 27 hour work week really pay, and a 32 hour work week? After that I would worry about talking to my boss and how it would affect the work I do. It took a week before I received any response and I was pleasantly surprised. Turns out a 27 hour work week would pay me about 1330 euros after taxes a month! This made the decision so easy, I didn't even bother with the 32 hour option anymore. I now knew what I wanted and that theoretically I could afford it.

Now came the nerve wrecking task to speak to my boss, to figure out which tasks I could let go off and which I needed to keep and who would take on those things I could no longer do. Here's where it helps if people know what your passions are, because the minute I started talking to people about wanting to work less they all knew it was because of my love for the artsy stuff! My boss was a little surprised, but also very supportive, but still it took a while before everything was really taken care off. But we managed it. Turns out that my working less now makes it possible for a coworker who really wanted this to work more! How's that for coincidences? I won't go into all of the details of who does what, but I want to tell you I was amazed at how possible the impossible all of a sudden became. The rest, as they say, is history.

Well...not really. Because besides talking about how I came to the decision I want to tell you about the costs and consequences. Especially if you are a snarky person like I sometimes can be. This is the thing I think where it often goes wrong when you really want something. We think things are impossible, but the truth is that we are not willing to pay the costs, or just not able to. When it comes to a sabbatical for instance I really am not able to pay the costs. But when it comes to a 27 hour work week I was for the longest time not willing to pay the costs. In short, I was just not ready.

Here's the thing I'm learning as I get a bit older and wiser (only a bit mind you). You can have what you want, but you can't have everything you want and you definitely cannot have it the exact way you want it. And nothing you want ever comes for free. I'm not talking about just money, although in this case it obviously plays a big part. Everything you want also comes with it's own set of brand new problems and challenges. And also: one choice takes out a lot of other options you might also have liked.

Let's go back ten years in time. I was working at a library in a school for visual arts on the main land and one of my biggest dreams was to live by the sea. I saw no way whatsoever to make this happen within the next ten lifetimes, but life is funny and sometimes it throws you a bone when you least expect it. It was by pure coincidence that I spotted the job opening for the job I now have in a national newspaper (a newspaper I never read) and the only reason it caught my attention is because the logo of my employer is a bit unusual in its lettering. I was all like "What does it say there?" and only later spotted the job itself. My heart started pounding like crazy. A job on an island that I was actually qualified for! The possibilities! After that I can say came the four most nerve wrecking months of my life as I sent in an application, went through several interviews and waited for the final verdict to be picked from what I heard later were over a hundred applicants.
You'd think after that all was peachy. Think again! Well, I sure was happy to have gotten the job and see my dream of living near the sea come true in the most unexpected way, but of course the real  challenge had not even started. Basically I had to leave everything I knew and everyone I loved behind to start in a place where I knew no one at a job in a field I had never worked in before (local government). I did not yet have a permanent place to live and half of my stuff needed to be stored until I did. It took fourteen months before I had my current house and since I'm not one of those outgoing spontaneaous easy talking people, it took me a long time to feel at home in this place I now love so much.
And there are other prices to be paid. I'm away from the main land, which means wherever I go it takes about a full day of my time if not more than that. The travel this place sometimes demands can be exhausting. I can never just visit my family or friends, it's always an 'event' of several days. I miss big supermarkets and outdoor markets, I miss big bookstores and museums. There's no hospital here and the dentist only comes once a week. In a real emergency there's an actual helicopter to take you to the main land. Our house doctor is also a vet for emergencies with your pets. The real vet comes once every four to six weeks. I hate the summer holidays, when it's so busy here with tourists that I could gladly throw some of them in the ocean if I thought it would help.
What I'm trying to say is: life here has it's limitations. I'm not bothered by them much, but that doesn't mean that they are not there. It only means I have accepted them to be able to live in this incredible place with all its beauty and nature. It's a matter of priorities and which way the balance tips for you personally.

The same is true for my choice to work less. And I think 'choice' is a key word here. It comes at some costs: 
  • A literal one of course of a little over 350 euro's a month. 
  • The three work days I now have left are pretty darn long. Nine hours, or ten if you count the lunch breaks. 
  • As a none morning person I will have to get up even more early then I already reluctantly did. Six am instead of 6.45.  (Only a night person can truly understand, my morning person sister would snort at this, haha.).
  • I can no longer do the chores around the house before work. (I had a whole system for this, haha.)
  • On my workdays I no longer have time to write in my journal.
  • I am giving up television, both digital and cable.
  • I am giving up my regular phone line.
  • I am giving up my credit card.
  • I am giving up some subscriptions I really like.
  • I am cashing in my life insurance (which will cost me some money I invested in it) to go into this completely debt free as in pay off my credit card, stop my ability to be in overdraft, and finish up one of those monthly payment plans which were never a problem for me. Don't get me wrong I'm not behind on any of these, but I just can't afford the monthly costs anymore of these kinds of extra's. I want them out of the way.
  • I will have to be a lot more conscious of what I buy and save more for a bigger investment. Until now if I saw a book I liked I bought it. If I saw art supplies I wanted I bought them. If I wanted to go somewhere I could (within limits, but still). And there always were a lot of luxury items in my groceries. Nothing too fancy or expensive, but I could afford those little luxuries that give life that little extra oomph. I do realize however that because I didn't need to think about them I never really did and so I could have made better and cheaper choices. Now I will have to.
  • I am even giving up some of my favorite charities that I support financially. Right now I am my favorite charity! ;-)
  • Basically I will have to downshift my life in order to be able to afford it. I have to set clearer boundaries and priorities. Before I didn't really have to, so I never did.
I am right now in the middle of reading up on all sorts of tactics and ways to save money, to do more with less and all those kinds of things. Luckily I have never really cared for really expensive stuff, luckily I don't drive a car, and also luckily I have invested in some very good materials and supplies over the past years. Almost like subconsciously I knew this day would come I have hoarded the good stuff.
I have now a lot of things to see me through the coming times. My last big investment was a new computer, because I felt I really needed it and my old one was starting to have problems and is now slowly dying on me.  And I need one (need of course being a relative term) to keep up my online blogsy existence. ;-) That and my camera are the big luxuries I will allow myself to hold onto.

Because these things are new I will hopefully have some time to save up for replacements for when that time comes. And fortunately I'm not one of those people that needs a new gadget every year, so that should be okay.

All these things are the price I am willing to pay for working less and playing more. But I will have to learn to adjust to this new lifestyle and I'm sure there will be times when I will go "What the hell was I thinking?". Still, just like with the move to this island that came with its own challenges, I don't think I will ever be sorry for making this choice. There were times in the first months when I lived here that I cried because I felt like such an incredible outsider, but never once did it occur to me to move back to where I came from. You have to stick with your choices for a while. You can't decide if they are wrong for you if you do not give things time to settle. The same will be true for this new challenge and opportunity in my life. I will struggle to make ends meet. I will curse my paycheck and I will wish I could go on a major shopping spree just because I feel like it. I will hate sometimes that every purchase I will do from now on will have to be more thought out and deliberate. These things may seem trivial, but they are changes in my life I need to adjust to. That's okay.
Also I will need to find a new balance in my week. Already I'm wondering how to fill in this extra time and make the most of it. Again things will take time to settle into a new rythm.

Why am I telling you all this in such detail with numbers and all? I think because there were times that I wish somebody explained them to me. It's easy to look on the outside and think these things come easy to other people. I'm guilty of that myself. But the thing is that they don't. They are wonderful, but they are complicated too. I cannot explain why after all these years I finally felt ready to take this step, but I'm thinking the reason is the same as in this quote a friend gave to me when I decided to move to the island.

The day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud 
was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.
- Ana├»s Nin 

Wishing you all a wonderful and artsy week!