Work-Life Balance

Thanks. by Liz Thorpe

Six years ago, a book and class called Mama Gena’s School of the Womanly Arts changed my life. Among many things, the experience gave me a toolbox to carry through life. The most profound tool in this box has been articulated gratitude.

Mama Gena likens gratitude to digestion after a meal– you can sit down and eat the most exquisite, savory, delicious feast but if you don’t digest that meal you will never have room in your belly for more goodness.

There’s only room for so much, and acknowledging the goodies makes space for more goodies to manifest.

I’ve discovered that there’s even more to gratitude.

Expressing gratitude makes you happier.

Expressing gratitude makes you more observant, which makes you more likely to see goodies for which to be grateful, the expression of which makes you happier. It’s the opposite of a vicious cycle.

This Thanksgiving, do yourself, your loved ones and the world a favor: give thanks for all that you have and are. Take 5 minutes. Stop what you’re doing. Be grateful.

Especially in these bitter days after Ferguson I am grateful for my child’s life and health. I am so grateful my people are whole and strong and well. I forget about illness and injury and how utterly derailing and devastating they can be.

I am grateful to be building a professional identity on my terms, based around my own projects, reporting to mine own self. I am grateful to be learning what I do and don’t love about this.

I am grateful to be living in a place where the sun shines in November, the air smells like wet, verdant plants and I can still wear shorts sometimes.

I am grateful for my friends, for the intimacy and familiarity of those relationships, regardless of time and space. I am grateful to recognize how important community is as I struggle to build a new one.

I am grateful for a house where my kid can ride her bike. Inside.

I’m grateful that I have the means to procure and enjoy wonderful, nourishing and beautiful foods. Kale right now is so green it’s practically black. Here, there are tiny, seedless oranges called satsumas. Gumbo is my new comfort food.

I’m grateful for technology. Washing machines and dryers are amazing. Ditto dishwashers. And audio systems that make music play out of the air for free. I’m grateful for Pandora.

I’m grateful to be contributing to my retirement savings this year, after not doing so for the past 2.

I’m grateful to be saying no to work that feels wrong. It’s so, so scary to turn down the money, the accolades, the acknowledgement, the external affirmation. But every time I do it, I feel better, I stand taller.

And so, the question goes: What are you grateful for?


Success: It’s All in Your Head by Liz Thorpe

I woke up this morning and wished I were sick. Not horribly sick, just bad-enough-cold-that-you-lie-in-bed-and-watch-movies sick. I wondered for a few minutes why I wanted this. I realized it’s because what I really wanted to do today was loaf around. The weather is beautiful.  I don’t feel like writing. I don’t feel like thinking strategically about my clients’ businesses. But just hanging out makes me feel guilty. If I’m sick I have an excuse but if I’m well I’m being lazy.

Looking back on the past 20 years being sick has been a massively important escape hatch for me. In college, after midterms. In my 20s during career upheaval and holiday insanity. I’ve barely been sick at all in 2+ years. Life is good. I’m healthy. I haven’t needed the out. But I wanted it today. Successful people, I thought, get out of bed and go…succeed. They don’t wander around in their pajamas watering the basil plants. This led me to Google “how to define success” which led me to Forbes.

It’s a pretty annoying article, the upshot of which is: men and women aren’t as different as you might think, we all want money, and women tend to answer surveys with what they think they are expected to want rather than what they actually want.

So, what did I do today (since I’m not sick) that leads to feeling successful while, essentially, hanging out?

  1.  I went running this morning. Again, that weather. Exercise makes me (and anyone) feel better. Any exercise. Walking. It produces chemicals in your brain that make you happy. This is true. Also, I listen to crappy hip hop while I run and don’t think about anything except Taio Cruz lyrics.
  2.  I worked from home. It’s prettier here. I had lunch with my kid. I made tea when I felt like it. I stayed in my running clothes.
  3. I redefined “work” for the day. I talked on the phone with people. A cheese maker from Georgia, about his farm. A web site developer, about how to present an event I produce. A cheese maker from Vermont, about his 2015 budgets. My neighbor, about the area. I basically gossiped with people for 4 hours about their dreams, their goals, their industries. All that gossiping is actually very important and valuable information. But I’m not going to synthesize it today.
  4. I did write, but I wrote this instead of my book. This is different writing, about whatever I want. But writing is a habit, a muscle that atrophies if unused.
  5. I deposited checks and looked at my bank statements. Feel, acknowledge and count your money. Direct deposit and debit cards are great conveniences but they distance us from what we earn. I feel more excited about my money when I take the time to realize it’s there.

I am alone in my house, unwashed, with 2 hours left in the “work day” and I feel totally successful. That’s how I define success—by how I feel. No matter how much money you have, you always want a little more. When you get accolades from everyone you meet, the conspicuous silence of that one holdout is the loudest voice. Being successful is figuring out what makes you feel good, and how you can incorporate those things into your life so that you, in fact, feel good.

I gotta go water some basil plants.

I Have Fear. But I Don’t Have a Business Card. [Part 2] by Liz Thorpe

For me, for a week, speeding across the narrow, winding roads of Emilia Romagna, I embraced having no agenda. I celebrated having no duties. I enjoyed the luxury of being open. And so...

I met a guardian. A small, myopic man appeared. He chastised me for not appearing to like food very much. His belly would greatly overshadow Santa’s bowl full of jelly. Supporting his wide girth with the thump of two palms he suggested that, together, we might do some work on “feeding the baby.” (I wasn't pregnant then. He meant to fatten me up to a fraction of the apparent triplets he had already grown). When undertaking a gustatory adventure, or, actually, even when not, this is a good kind of man to know.

I found a bit of what I'd lost. To pursue food for the pure pleasure of learning about it, and only secondarily to eat it, and, distantly, in 10th or 20th place, because it might be strategic, wasn’t something I’d done in a long time. And oh, I realized, how I missed it. How I used to delight in stuffing my head with stories, historical oddities, funny facts, the names of wizened, animal-milking men. That was my great delight. And somewhere along the way, I lost it. I think the story I'd told myself was that I was bored, but really I see now that I had brilliantly boxed myself in. I had created a job and a professional identity in which I had efficiently replaced these little trinkets of thought with the practical, the strategic, the challenging-for-the-sake-of-challenge.

Oh, to be free to go where I pleased, and with whom I pleased, for no better reason than my gut told me I would enjoy it, and might learn something. To feast to ridiculous excess-- three hour lunches that began with Franciacorta, palely yellow with a tiny, fine bubble and light green apple finish; swaths of the local white cheese, Stracchino, said to be made from the rich, day-end milk of tired bovines who’d walked the mountain foothills, drizzled with the black syrup that is real balsamic vinegar and has made the town of Modena famous; feathery drapes of Culatello di Zibello so sweet and luscious it makes Prosciutto seem like an overtanned Jerseyite. And then pastas, two or three, electric yellow with egg yolks and swabbed in cream-softened Bolognese, or stuffed with a mash of potato, slippery-slick with sage butter. The desserts that I never really care for at home but that, in Italy, seem criminally rude to decline. And all the while, my barrel-shaped host regaling me with the history of pre-War Reggio Emilia, and all the economic and cultural reasons why one cheese wound up the way it did, because of what its people were living through.

In short, naming my fear and choosing instead an adventure led me back to myself, and to the small, beating heart of the work I really desire.

I Have Fear. But I Don’t Have a Business Card. [Part 1] by Liz Thorpe

My last visit to Italy was also my first unattached trip into the professional world. I'd left my job less than three weeks before. Few people in the industry knew that, after ten years, I was a newly free agent. I boarded for Milan feeling deeply satisfied, ready to present myself solely as the spokesperson of Me.

Italy is like balm for my body and soul. Its charms and delights are too numerous to list, but in particular I am at ease because Italian is the only language (aside from English) I can speak even a fleck of, and the ability to communicate makes all the difference. In France or Spain I'm constantly low-grade anxious, wondering how adept I can be at spotting bathrooms in public areas, lest I have to try and ask for one.

One of the brilliancies of Italian is the literal owning of emotion. In English, we say "I'm scared." Our actual language is to take a state of being and modify the verb "I am", or "To be." It's a clumsy formation, and not a terribly accurate one, because it negates all complexity and depth of feeling. One is never Scared. There might be a current of fear or a wall of a terror, but alongside, beneath and around it are countless other nuances. I've never bungee-jumped, but I imagine I would be scared, and exhilarated, and, upon successful jump completion plucky as a rooster. What's so groovy about Italian is that the language is structured to accommodate this complexity. So, to be scared is "to have fear." In Italian, even when you're afraid, you own it. You don't become it. I imagine these emotional and physical states hanging in a closet that one opens and dresses from. There's an implication of choice. Am I going to wear fear today? Or am I going to put that sack back because I don't like how I look in it?

Needless to say, "ho paura," having fear, isn't typical for me in Italy. That trip to Parma changed the status quo. Being the spokesperson of Me was deeply uncomfortable. The first question everyone asks, is "Who are you?" And what they mean is, "What company do you work for, what do you do, and, perhaps, how can you be of use to me?" I didn't have a company. I'm wasn't sure (I'm still not) what I want to do next. Ultimate transgressor that I am, I was at an international conference and I had no business card. I might as well have been the Invisible (Wo)Man. That's how it felt.

Boarding the plane, my narrative was wobbly but promising. Upon arrival, I opened my Italian closet and donned a coordinated outfit of fear, complete with hat, handbag and matching shoes:

I am alone, and lonely...I don’t deserve to be here, and tricked people to get here, and am bad for doing so...Ho paura, ma non ho un biglietto da visita. I'm Scared, and I don't have a business card.

One early evening, alone sipping Campari, that radical, brilliant red, deeply bitter acid-trip of a drink I had a conversation with myself. There was no one having a drink with me, who else was I to talk with?

No one here knows me. No one knows what my job was—who I was—and no one knows what my job might be, and what I am capable of. I am a blank slate for these people. That can be the blank slate of ill-use and irrelevance. Or, that can be the blank slate of possibility. Perhaps I know exactly what I'm doing, and why I'm here. No one need know whether I know. It's all in how I wear it. There is an adventure to be had here.

I came to understand a fundamental thing. A thing I thought I knew about but really knew nothing about. Fear is a choice. I'm not saying you can choose to be unafraid, or that ignoring it, or pretending it doesn't exist will make it go away. But you can Be fear, or you can Have fear. One consumes and identifies you. The other is merely part of you. A part. Of a greater whole. I can pursue the adventure, or I can carry fear instead of a calling card.

Like  choosing to manifest , or choosing to see the great good in your life and acknowledge it with gratitude, or having faith in what you can't see (even when it feels murky and maybe even impossible) the outcome shifts when you tell yourself a different story. And, of course, they are both stories: I am a fraud, or, I am on an adventure. They are equally true and equally untrue and equally incomplete.

In Part 2, the things I said yes to that opened doors on that Italy trip, and made it what it was meant to be: a hell of a good time, with some pretty spectacular meals.


When the Dream Job Just Isn’t Dreamy Enough by Liz Thorpe

When I was 23 years old I walked away from the structure and predictability of a familiar career path and decided that I wanted to learn about cheese. I wondered if it might be possible to make a career out of something simply because I found it intriguing and inspiring and delicious.

I didn’t really understand what I was doing, but I knew there was an insistence I couldn’t ignore. A repetitive whispering, a core of assurance that kept poking me, an older, wiser piece of myself who knew that I was deeply unhappy and that my only shot was to reach for a thing for no other, no better, reason than because I desired it.

I wanted to know about cheese. That was my desire. I thought it was fascinating. There were so many choices. A rainbow of colors, a veritable Benetton ad of shapes and sizes. Looking back, I can see that it was more than just the cheese, though. What I wanted was a job, a career, a life’s work that thrilled me. Something I did every day that I cared about, that I constantly learned from, that actually inspired me and perhaps even the people I met at the odd cocktail party.

And you know what? Cheese stuck. It became my career. And over the years, that first little shop I worked in morphed and evolved and became my life.

You are a more creative thinker than I if you can imagine what it felt like, then, after many years and many successes and indeed, what many (including me!) called a “dream job”, to begin once again to feel the uncomfortable poke of my inner whomever. That daring, visionary, wiser risk taker who held my hand and pulled me into cheese in the first place was once again extending a finger. Crooked toward a big, dark, expanse of The Unknown my gut started suggesting lewd, unimaginable things.

What If…there could be more than my dream job? What If I could keep the parts I loved and ditch the parts I didn’t? What If I could rediscover the parts that I’d cast off, that were dying from neglect, that used to make me giddy with pleasure? What If I could stretch myself, my imagination, my brain, and invent a Dream Job that was even better than the one I had? What would that even look like?

So, finally, after years of debate with my crooked finger, come-hither whisperer, I did the (semi) unthinkable. I quit my job, nearly ten years to the day after I started. I walked away from a place I loved, a place I shaped and was deeply shaped by. I left with no plan, no next step and no intention but this: to follow the part of myself who seems to know where we’re going, on the path to an integrated life of work that is play, and play that enriches my soul.

Oh, and as a major part of that, to rediscover the sheer joy that fed me in the first place.