Monday, November 11, 2013

Equilibrium and Equanimity

There are days when “too much work” is exemplified in the moment the Spanx™ are peeled off in the work bathroom after the sun has set and the birds have begun their evening flutters in the hospital courtyard.    My epic day was, in fact, somewhat typical since returning from my writing retreat nearly a month ago.  

An early morning meeting with major donors and the VP from the states (hence a nice dress and tummy control), then diving into a 90 minute power-write into a proposal for a new TB case finding project (rebuilt ambulance for mobile chest x-ray into villages yeah!) while at the same time battling confusion around the baffling prevalence numbers from the national TB program.  A quick jaunt across the street for a the usual 75 cent lunch and visiting with international volunteers who were hanging out in the break room shortly after.  A coaching meeting with a colleague through the draft of his grant report (why does the word “has” come up every other sentence?), trotting over on my third trip across the street to the social enterprise clinic for a photo op with a Cambodian donor/patient and topping it all off with an all staff meeting where my close colleague was selected as Employee of the Month and the executive director announced his resignation.
The team decided to implement certificates instead of thank you notes for our Cambodian donors. The frame indicates a large gift.  This donor's son was trained at the hospital and she's been coming to us since 1999 for outpatient care for Type 2 diabetes.
Work is consuming my life; and for this I am resigned and a little resentful,  tired and hopeful, nostalgic for the days of yore and wondering how many times in my life I have to re-learn the same stress management lessons.   My job is a fantastic opportunity to advance an organization’s local capacity.  I’m getting paid reasonably well within the organization (but not within the market) and learning each day.  When the supervisor/colleague left in June, my position grew beyond project development, grant writing and grant management to encompass fundraising and communications, and overseeing 6 staff including a part-time western IT consultant working on an analysis of our medical record database. 

 Some work days are a roller coaster of  nagging, pervasive malaise and exhaustion, occasionally surging into an overwhelmed helplessness and moral indignation.  Other days dissipate back into a relatively manageable sense of being busy, productive, needed and appreciated.  This persistent problem of getting overly involved with work, sometimes leading to mental and physical breakdowns, has been a constant thread throughout my life.  Like the elbow of the blind masseuse that grinds into my cement shoulders to try and gain some flexibility, my pattern is that I often take drastic measures when my inner waters get too turbulent.
So little time...

I left an emotionally intense job doing social work on the streets of Boston in the beginnings of the AIDS epidemic to work my way around the country for seven years. I found peace in the great physical work of guiding on rivers, oceans and forests, and spent winters knitting beautiful hats while working at the front desk of hotels. I moved to Anchorage, bought a house and got my first real job. That involved the transition of two executive directors and an office move.   I fled to graduate school after turning around a failing consulting practice after the tragic death of a senior consultant from a brain tumor.  Eventually, although it took several years, I left for southeast Asia.  That radical departure was set in motion after managing an organization through a forced headquarters relocation that involved moving  50 staff who had been in the same building for 20 years, while designing and securing donations for the new space and preparing ground work for an ultimately successful capital campaign for a summer camp renovation.  (One summer at camp, we had problems with a pair of adolescent grizzly bears who wandered through periodically and thus I found myself thinking about shotguns and rubber bullets.)  After leaving that job at the advent of the great recession of 2008,  I supported myself with consulting projects and stressed over health insurance costs that equaled a monthly mortgage payment. A seemingly god-sent ultimate real job resulted in  a mystifying, byzantine power play and a pink slip. The dog died and my love affair with Alaska ended. 

So, now the challenge remains as I wind my way through yet another office job and organization in flux. I have only been in this position for nine months and thus,  for survival's sake, find a way to manage my stress and  find the balance between what I “should” do and the what would make me truly happy. Or at least identify how I want to spend my time here.

The “should do” category becomes a bit more looming after 50.  I’m at the place where financial planners dread. Living with diabetes has its expensive obligations of self-care. The life work I've chosen to do--standing beside the hurt, marginalized and vulnerable—has never paid exceptionally well.  I keep my expenses down, fastidiously saving for special things.   The reward of the stable monthly check in the bank account has its concurrent equally draining obligations.  Every day is a tornado of problems, needs, things to be written, budgeted, explained and the vast chasm between a far-reaching vision of what could be with the crushing reality of what is.  I have little spirit left for my creative self, and that makes me longing for imaginary greener pastures.
Heads of Hevajra and Four Dancing Yoginis, 
from the Metropolitan Museum of Art 
“God brought you to us,” my colleague said when she left in June.  “and you need to take care of yourself.  People like you, without a family, have a harder time setting the limits.”   The juggle of things that keep me awake at night coupled with the small agonies of living in a developing country and a very real lack of work support system does not make it easy here.  I'm laden with obligations given the substantial organizational investment in my salary; I work well past the time that my expat colleagues (Christian volunteers)  gather for their late afternoon carpool home.  I am the only staff person, besides the doctor on call for a very sick patient, who has non-negotiable deadlines for which failure to adhere has some  implications.  Hence the labor in the office after dark.

“Doing what it takes to get ‘er done”  has been my professional mantra of so many of my previous jobs.  Yet in a country where not accomplishing much in your desk job can be a national sport, being too stressed out among colleagues is definitely not culturally appropriate.   The wrist brace I've taken to wearing again to help with computer fatigue generates concern among staff, to which I have to reply- "really, it's just like a shoe for your hand!"  Clearly, some adjustments are needed; I started seeing a western physiotherapist last week.      

I'm finding that is the small shifts in perspective, repeated over and over again, that make a difference. Some of them, with the physio's help, need to be guided and repeated.   Adjust the posture at the work station. Hope for the best for the three giggly girls as they speed into incoming traffic. Have gratitude for the gifts of experience both positive and negative. Remember to smile at everyone.  Suck in the gut, lower the shoulders, and walk away from the keyboard.  Surround the listless baby in the begging women's arms at a major urban intersection with a fierce swath of virtual love and protection.   Reach out to a growing circle of friends and acquaintances.  Recuperate often. Breathe.

Every day is a new beginning, much like the newly emerged coconuts I saw on the motorbike taxi commute on Friday. In a swift lean in around the curve while seated sidesaddle in the fresh air of morning, I glimpsed it emerging from the top of a tall palm: tawny and rich with a hint of red, shiny with promise and potential of sweetness to come.  

Andy Goldsworthy, via Smithsonian