Yeah, I stole that line from Piano Man, one of my favourite ever Billy Joel songs (I mean, isn’t it one of everyone’s favourite songs?), which is a song (if you are somehow unfamiliar with Billy Joel’s extensive and glorious lexicon) about people who have been deeply, profoundly, defeated by the trajectory of their own lives.
There’s a reason this song is a classic, and it’s not just Billy Joel’s buttery smooth Long Island croon or his damn near angelic piano playing (I’m a fan, okay??). It’s because nearly everyone can relate to that sense of being trapped in a life they never planned for and didn’t choose.
For some people, it’s just a little nagging in the back of their mind that is easily covered over with the small joys of life, that can be smothered with a weighted blanket and a glass of wine after work. When it wiggles up and taps you in the amygdala, you just take that soothing stroll around Target, drop $200 on toilet paper, organic bananas, and a cart full of unidentifiable absolute necessities, and that little voice gets left behind in the dregs of your grande vanilla latte.
That not quite right feeling might still be there, but life is generally satisfying enough to keep it at bay.
For others of us, though, that feeling that your life is just wrong somehow, is overwhelming. It settles at the base of your skull, in your chest right behind your sternum, something quivering and nervy that makes you forget to breathe sometimes. And it grows, becomes more solidified and real, until you feel as trapped in your own life as though you were being physically restrained.
I call acting on this impulse “blowing up your life.” It’s what I did when I was 35. Within the span of just a few months, I separated from my husband of 8 years, quit my job by just walking out and never coming back, and essentially destroyed everything I had been building for the previous decade. I had had this sense for so long that something was deeply wrong with the life I’d made for myself, but I was simply too scared for a long time to do anything about it.
When I did finally blow up my life, it was so worth it. I felt calm in my soul in way I hadn’t in my entire adulthood. A large part of that was the realization that I was really not, nor had I ever been, interested in relationships with men. Once I realized I was a lesbian, so much about my constant dissatisfaction with my marriage and my life made sense.
My sexuality wasn’t the only thing that changed. I felt awake for the first time in a decade, allowing myself to take up space in a way I never had. I stopped apologizing for existing, and came into myself more fully as a mother, as a human. I stopped living someone else’s narrative, and began living my own.
Now I’m there again with my profession. I have spent most of my 30’s working in higher education, building a resume that is solid if not exceptional, and creating a network of colleagues who respect my work and like me as a person. I have excelled in my current position, receiving three promotions in as many years, and doubling my salary. And yet.
I’m far from the first person to point out the soul deadening grind of office work. Excel spreadsheets and nubbly brown carpeting have driven generations of people to imbibe far too much booze at office Christmas parties and spend the weekend just clock watching and dreading Monday. It’s not exactly revelatory to say office work kinda really sucks.
But when it becomes something that you truly cannot bear, when it begins to weigh on your spirit in a way that feels unsustainable, when Piano Man comes on your Spotify daily mix and reduces you to choke-sobbing in the parking garage…is it time to blow up your life again and see if there’s maybe a whole different way to do this thing called a career?
I said to my wife the other day, “You think I could make a career out of being a yoga teacher and selling knitted goods on Etsy?”
“Do what makes you happy, babe,” she said.
Is it that easy, though? I can’t just do what makes me happy, because I’m the breadwinner. Because I have a house full of people who depend on me. Because we’re just now getting to the point where we might be able to fix our crumbling old rowhouse, where we are paying off some of our debts, where we don’t have to charge the groceries because we used all the actual money to pay bills. We are just now starting to get our financial footing solid, so. No. I can’t do what makes me happy because I can’t afford to take even a single penny’s decrease in my income.
I’ve been listening to a lot of podcasts lately about slow living. It seems like most of the people who were able to give up life in the big city and move to a yurt with chickens and sustainable farming and spend their days crafting, had an awful lot to start with. They’re leaving careers in investment, or engineering. Big money positions where they were able to build up thousands in savings or sell an expensive home to get them started on their slow living journey.
I’m just a girl from Baltimore who’s never made much money, and I don’t have that cushion. And I would imagine that a lot of us who sit around our offices all day dreaming of wood fireplaces and a loom sitting in the middle of an autumnal forest, don’t have a whole lot to fund that dream.
So what’s the future for us? Do we just work until we die, never achieving personal fulfillment, just always being a cog in the capitalist machine? Are we destined to just bury our misgivings about this way of life at the bottom of a Target cart?
I refuse to believe so.
For myself, I’m starting small. Putting down the phone and picking up my knitting needles. Saying no to that committee at work that will get me a nod of approval but little else. Spending the weekend doing things that really fulfill me, like baking with my children and working in my garden, instead of buying more shit and getting in more debt. I’m looking into a yoga teacher certification program, and though it’s still out of my price range for now, I know it’s something I’ll continue to work towards.
And these small steps, they make a difference. They make the life I live 8 hours a day inside this office building seem inconsequential in comparison to the life lived outside of these glass walls. They make me remember who I am. Those things allow me to push through, to keep going until I am able to make a big change without putting my family’s stability in jeopardy.
The wrong feeling housed in my chest doesn’t go away, but it shrinks a bit with every warm cake pulled from the oven, every stitch added to a new hat, each bulb planted for a spring garden.