Don’t Get Too Comfortable

hibernationI think that there’s a reason that most animals hibernate during the dead of winter. After the holiday merriment and the whirlwind of celebrations and obligations, January stretches out before us like a vast polar plain, and it doesn’t look that bad. It’s a time to unplug all that brightly blinking gaiety; lay on the couch; slip directly from your TV coma into bed; and just enjoy being a load.

Yet while the idea of a long period with little to do sounds great when you are busy and stressed out, living it can actually be scary. Maybe it’s just January, but I’ve been brooding. I’m wondering if anyone else goes through the same thing in winter, especially those who don’t work full time.  Does January’s emptiness always bring a creative funk?

Until 18 months ago I always had work, school and/or small children to order my day. At times it was brutally stressful, especially when I was a single mother in a demanding corporate job and had to give up time with my kids and ask other people for favors I could never return. During my last career, as an editor of two weekly newspapers, I had a wonderful boss and more control over my time, but I still felt stressed. Poor pay, new demands (more record-keeping, less writing and more parsing of canned information between print and the web) and other factors all made the job frustrating and not worth it.

So I left full time work in July of 2011 for the uncertain life of a freelancer. I was fortunate that my husband’s business was doing well so I could do this. And as someone who always worked from young adulthood through my 50s, even when my children were small, I felt I had earned it. My unfettered life stretched out before me, as ripe with possibility as a three-week jaunt to Italy. I had lots of plans to create just the life I wanted – I would finally write wonderful features, become a better piano player, learn Spanish, help Bob with his business, have more time for hobbies and friends, visit my children and siblings more often, blog.

But putting those dreams into action has been hard. It takes even more discipline than waking up at 5:30 to get the kids and house in order before going off to work. It takes being a self-starter, being organized and strategic, and being able to sell yourself…better not suck at any of these. The idea of unlimited free time – of being able to chart your own course — is as tantalizing as the idea of a tropical vacation, but unless you are very focused and deliberate it is as scary as being in the wilderness.

I see many people in jobs that sap their spirit, even people who could probably afford to retire or at least go part-time, who stay in there because they are not sure what they would do otherwise. I know of a few people – my mom included – who’ve retired comfortably and miss work every single day.

How do you carve your own path when up until now something else always carved it for you? You woke up, showered, had breakfast and knew where you had to be at 9 a.m. You did your best and pleased who you had to please. Sometimes you grumbled; sometimes you resented it; but you at least had your work cut out for you.

I still go through stressed-out days when I am grateful that my freelance status ensures I can take a breather later. I enjoy occasional periods of indolence that consist of little more than making coffee, cleaning up after breakfast, reading the New York Times, phoning my mom or a friend, taking a walk, planning dinner. But after a few days of this I feel restless and bored and start to brood. Then I panic as I worry about losing my creative mojo.

So now I look forward to digging into a freelance work project with the same thrill of anticipation I felt when a vacation neared. I’m happiest when I have a problem to solve: editing a 12,000-word interview into a succinct 1500-word article, helping my husband find business insurance or figuring out the programming for our Roku box. Being on your own means constantly looking for opportunities to test and prove your competence; to keep your skills burnished; to stay useful and relevant; to matter. Striking the right balance between comforting routine and discomfiting challenge is very hard, but you feel such a sense of well-being when you achieve it. Every day the pendulum can swing between being bored and being overwhelmed. At my happiest it swings gently back and forth in a small arc, with carefully-calibrated measures of stimulation, challenge and relaxation.

One of my favorite bloggers “On the Homefront and Beyond” tackles the subject of whether predictable routines are comforting or constraining. “Like many of you, I am ready to get back to work, ready to take on the day, ready to return to routine. But not the routine of the rote or boring, but the routine that keeps chaos at bay,” she writes. She says the best days “allow for a little magic and miracles.”

January, a time to keep warm and get comfortable, is when I’m the least comfy. Do you ever feel the same?