Personal turning points aren’t necessarily the larger than life scenes of dramatic cinema. Sometimes they’re small, quiet moments when your mind is finally ready to see what your body already knew. Sometimes the moments are so mundane in appearance that it’s not till later that you realize how remarkable that seemingly ordinary moment was. Such was the case for me.
Before I set off across the world, I spent most of my time in my corner office in a smoggy industrial gray part of Los Angeles – most of my days, most of my nights, and far too many weekends. I toiled for years to get that office. First the title, then the waiting for someone more senior to vacate, then the petty argument with the Operations manager about putting up a white board so had enough writing space to chart my campaigns, then the bureaucracy to get a standing desk before I actually contracted carpal tunnel like so many of my coworkers and a doctors note required it, directing the handyman to place the photographs where I wanted them, move in the extra filing cabinet and wall mounted book shelf (yes I still own such things). It was a labor. But when it was finished I was proud of my office. It conveyed my stature, it displayed my accomplishments, it had good natural light.
Alone in my large office one late afternoon in March, the door shut, I hung up the phone with the Chief of Staff, and I knew I was done. I looked around the office that I had worked so hard to put together, my history in the organization sitting on every shelf, and hanging from every wall. I wanted to keep that office. I wanted to keep working with my staff. But I didn’t want to keep my job. I don’t remember what that particular discussion with the COS was about. He and I talked regularly. It wasn’t the time I hung up the phone with him after a particularly frustrating argument and immediately burst into tears. It wasn’t the time I walked out of the senior staff meeting thoroughly disgusted with the way the organization was demeaning and belittling accusations of sexual harassment that had surfaced on the heels of the #MeToo movement. And it wasn’t the time that I confronted our union president after one of his notorious tirades, this one directed at me for no particular reason, and told him, that he was abusive, that he had a drinking problem and that he needed professional help. Years of therapy crystallized in that moment as I realized I was still, in my 40’s, living with an abusive parental figure having merely transitioned from my step-father to my boss.
I stayed after all those incidents.
I told myself I wasn’t going to let a bully drive me out of an organization I had worked at long before he came along. I convinced myself that my staff, who I loved as if they were my own children, were counting on me to lead them through the serious work ahead. I reminded myself that I needed this job to pay my hefty mortgage. And I loved my house. My ex and I had taken a year to find our perfect house: one with a peaceful garden filled with song birds and butterflies, fifteen-foot birds of paradise that shaded the Spanish style roof, a large lanai enclosed by the sweet fragrance of night-blooming jasmine, located in a walk-able close knit community. When things had been better, I had groomed that house to be the perfect expression of a lifetime of dreams, spent thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours planting flowers and trimming trees. I decorated with rugs, and prints, and paintings, and pillows each one careful humped back from overseas travel. Every wall in every room was pregnant with the weight of memories from our life together, a time I had been happy.
So I had to manage some inappropriate behavior from a man who was almost universally hated. I spent as much time with people outside the organization as I did with people inside the organization, and in that arena I was an operative. I was respected, I even had fun doing my job on the not so rare occasion. If I could just endure another seven years, then I could retire with my full pension at fifty-two. Besides I was too tired now to get a different job. Too old to have to prove myself again. These thoughts churned through the washing machine of my mind on a daily basis, back and forth, never doing more than keeping me stuck.
On that particular late afternoon in March, none of those thoughts went through my mind. What went through my mind was that I was spending nearly all my waking hours working side by side with people I didn’t actually like very much, and working for people who I had long ago lost respect for. It wasn’t the work itself that had broken my spirit, it was the people. It was all the petty internal bickering about, and unnecessary bargaining for things that were supposed to be in our common organizational interest. It was the constant jockeying for power that went on between senior management, and the constant vigilance about who I needed to curry favor with on any particular week to get something accomplished that needed doing. And it was being in the position to have to repeatedly defend my boss against external critics for behavior that I didn’t actually think was defensible.
It wasn’t even a particularly contentious conversation with the COS that day in March. It might have even been one of our better conversations as of late. I hung up the phone and said to myself I can stay if I want to. I have a good staff willing to do as much work as I give them, a good salary, and a large office. I am free to stay. And if I am free to stay, then I am also free to leave.
It was the freedom itself that was the revelation. I had felt trapped for so long I just accepted it a stage of life I had to endure. If this was a movie, I would have boxed up my personal effects and walked out the door right then. But that isn’t how it happened. It still took me a long time, and a lot of conversations to figure out the timing, how I would extract myself with as little drama as possible, what I would have to say publicly, and what I would do about my finances. But as hard as it was, getting through the how didn’t take as much emotional labor as getting to the decision. On that afternoon I made the decision. If I can stay then I can leave; and I wanted to leave.
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Nearly a year later, after medical leave, after my resignation, after selling my house, and packing up the memories of a life I once lived, I flew to Malta. Malta was a place I had been fascinated by since I first devoured the Murakami book that introduced me to the tiny island nation’s existence. After the long journey of untangling myself from twenty years in the California labor movement, I was sitting in a bar with a new group of people. Most of them I had known for only a matter of hours, the oldest friend among them I had known for little more than a week. I liked these people. Most were Maltese, or of Maltese decent, but there were a token number of people from other European countries. They were funny and smart, educated and kind. How rare it had been in my former professional world to find smart and kind in the same person.
My first week in Malta was difficult. Every day was cold, and wet, the sky turned dark by 5:30. It was still winter. I knew this before going. But after fifteen years in Los Angeles, winter was something I didn’t often need to account for. And traveling around the world for six months with only carry-on luggage meant I economized on everything, including warm clothes. The townhouse I rented in Malta lacked proper heating or enough hot water for a decent shower. On most days I explored the cities despite the weather, navigating the bus line to a new part of town, straining to decipher which words were a neighborhood or a street, getting lost through the maze of streets in the fading sunlight, bored with wearing the single pair of long paints and one light sweater I brought with me. At the end of the day I would return home to the unheated townhouse wrap myself in a blanket and turn on the oven until I felt warm. It wasn’t at all the way I imagined my adventure would begin.
There was no escape from the ache in my bones. One of the days I just stayed in bed. I was having side effects from the yellow fever vaccine administered among the flurry of vaccines I got in my final days. Or maybe I just caught a cold from going outside under-dressed. Or maybe I just didn’t want to struggle so hard on my first week of the epic vacation I planned as a dramatic escape from work. The romantic fantasy of traveling alone for six months with only a carry-on so I could be mobile at all times, crashed headlong into the reality of being alone in places where I didn’t know a soul, without enough of what I needed. Every night I thought about lying on my sheepskin rug in front of my gas fireplace in Los Angeles curled up with my cat. The weeks after I quit my job and before I left California had been good. And now I was living like some early twentieth century immigrant in a tenement building, shivering in front of an open oven door in a cold and rainy corner of the world, where I didn’t speak the language, and didn’t know a soul. Everything about this trip felt overwhelming. Why had I thought this would be a good idea?
And then I met Alex. Looking back it really was that simple. Even the weather was good the day he drove me around the island. The heavens must have known I needed a break. Alex is tall with sandy blond hair and fleshy jowls. He had this lighthearted sarcastic wit that put a smile on my face every time he interrupted himself to curse the drivers around us. He smoked these miniature cigarettes the size of my pinky finger. He smoked a lot of them, and I wondered why he didn’t buy larger cigarettes. Having recently been through his own six month work detox, he and I bonded easily over the major life changes we were each currently wrestling. Alex drove me to see the island’s megalithic temples, Ħaġar Qim, among the oldest religious sites in the world.
I stared open-mouthed at the massive limestone ruins, overlooking the deep blue Mediterranean Sea. How could something so beautiful, and so old remain so unknown outside of the Maltese Islands. Alex took me to his mother’s house for lunch, which would have been generous enough in any scenario, but his mother, it turned out, is a professional chef who has published two cookbooks on Maltese cooking. A homemade meal of fish and pasta and home brewed blood orange liquor was a salve for my travel weary soul. An afternoon turned into a full day. One day turned into several. It took a few days before I stopped wondering what he could possibly want from me. Was he touring me around Malta out of loyalty to the mutual friend who introduced us via Instagram? Did he want to sleep with me? I had grown so accustomed to the transactional set of relationships that passed for my social life in California.
Prior to quitting my job, my social life largely consisted of mandatory work parties on weekend evenings after marathon work on weekend days. There was networking lunches, fundraiser happy hours, Sunday parade breakfasts, and expensive dinners out with people looking to tap some of the resources I controlled. The most egoist among them were they people claiming to do the most good for the world. It was exhausting. And demoralizing. I became cynical, dismissing my long held belief in the power of ordinary individuals to do extraordinary things as youthful ignorance. My other personal relationships, friendships I had with people unrelated to work, had largely become anemic, sacrificed to the gods of workaholism. There were only a small handful of people I could even tolerate for longer than a short meal, people I had know long before work became so unbearable. Before I left the country I made a point of spending time with people I care most about, but it’s notable that spending time with friends was for me a special occasion.
But Alex didn’t know about any of that. And before long it became clear that he didn’t want anything from me more complicated than our simple friendship. Even through his sarcastic personal style I could see the generosity at his core. In the days that followed, he took me out for meals, and to the pub with his friends. We laughed and shared stories. Through his network I made other friends, a petite woman with a boy’s name who always wore flowy ankle length skirts which made her appear as if she had just descended a spiral staircase out of a 1940’s Hollywood movie into the current scene. Slowly, I started to remember what it was like to have people around whose company I enjoyed. Smart people, creative and educated people with funny stories and interesting life experiences. I remembered what it was like to do things simply for the fun of doing them. To spend time with people that wasn’t consumed by complaining about our jobs. I spent my days marveling at the rich history and beauty in Malta, and my nights marveling at all the beauty in people. People. It had been a long time since I had very much positive to say about people. But there they were – kind interesting, smart, generous.
For the second time in a year I realized how profound the small moments in life can be. Sitting at a set of rickety cocktail tables huddled together in a bar on a particularly cold Maltese winter night, I remembered how important it is to have good people in my life just for the pleasure of it. And in that moment something in me softened.
In the weeks that followed, I would meet so many more kind, interesting, smart, generous people. In Gozo, a hunched over old woman would walk me to my destination because she didn’t speak enough English to give me directions. In Sicily another traveler would make dinner for the two of us to share on the first night we met. In the Zanzibar airport a passenger bought me a bottle of water as I had run out of shillings. And each time my steely exterior melted a bit more. And after each experience I would in turn greet the next stranger with renewed openness and generosity. Instead of dreading meeting new people I now look forward to it.
That last week in Malta has made the rest of this trip possible, not merely as a fabulous whirl around the globe, but as an exploration of what this world is, and a curiosity about who we are that live in it. I have greeted every new acquaintance with the same warmth and generosity that was shown to me. And I continue to grow more hopeful about the potential of people to love and care for one another.
But sitting at the bar that night in Malta I didn’t yet know any of this. I only knew that having a community of people was healing a cynical old wound. I looked around the tables at the faces of new friends who had no idea what an impact their kindness was having on me. I leaned against the rickety cocktail table and took another sip of my drink.
photo credit: California poppy superbloom by Anton Foltin