Tuesday, January 14, 2014

The hat with the purple feather

Last Sunday, a little incident concerning a hat with a purple feather came back to visit me, and it reminded me of how the most seemingly insignificant things can change a person's life. It's a scary thought, but also a great source of validation and inspiration.

These days, it takes a bit more effort for me to move from "isn't that an interesting thought" to actually logging on to the blog site and typing up a new blog entry. I'm building a freelance writing business, and writing that doesn't involve a paycheck and a deadline tends to get put off until some ambiguous "later". The hat incident converged with several other "interesting thoughts", and together, they pushed themselves up to the top of the do-list. So here's a new blog post.

I started this blog partly to keep my friends and family updated on my "reboot year" and partly to help me think my way through the process. In hindsight, I see that this was the "ground school" part of my flying lessons. I had originally intended to spend the first half of 2012 resting and recovering, the next six months a looking for a new job, and then get back to work sometime in 2013. Life had other plans for me.

The more I got into my 2012 reboot year, the more I realized that I would need the entire year to rethink my goals and priorities, train myself to think in new ways, and discover parts of my life that I had mistakenly left behind when I got all wrapped up in the work mentality that is typical of Washington DC. I thought a lot about what I wanted to do with what's left of my life, but I intentionally didn't look for specific job postings.

I spent the first half of 2013 doing career research, looking for opportunities, going on networking interviews, answering job ads, and generally gearing up to re-enter the workforce. I was having no luck at all in landing a new job. I suspect that I'm just too old and expensive for a lot of employers, and I'm not up on things like "user experience" and "search engine optimization".

2013 was the move out of the ground school classroom and into the cockpit. The place where the ideas and theories were put into practice and where I began to test things to see what actually worked and what didn't. I was starting to wonder if I would run out of fuel, crash, and burn. Again, life had other plans.

That summer, I went to a party celebrating a friend's 25th wedding anniversary. I had worked with Beth for several years when I first moved to the DC area, and we stayed in contact ever since. Toward the end of the party, Beth made a point to take me aside and talk to me. "Mike's looking for writers. Would you be interested?" Mike had been my boss when Beth and I worked together, and he was now freelancing for the website of the organization we all used to work for. In essence, I would be doing a small part of my old job, working for my former boss and with my former co-worker (Beth was freelancing for them, too). Luckily, my old job had been a very good experience, and so I was glad to say yes. I contacted Mike and offered my services. That little freelance gig now brings in enough money to pay my grocery bill every month, and it gives me a chance to browse around in all of the scientific journals published by the organization.

A few months later, Lori showed up at my religious community, and she liked it well enough to stay and become a member. Our Community Leader found out that Lori was working for the same organization where I had previously worked, and she introduced us and asked if we had worked together. Lori and I had been in different departments, but when she found out that I was a science writer, she asked if I would be interested in taking on some assignments for some projects that she was working on. Sure, I said, and now I'm writing career advice for college students. Some of what I write draws on resources and research tools that I have used for my own career development -- I'm getting paid for my own job search.

Shortly after that, Tom posted an ad with a professional society that I belong to, soliciting freelance writers for two ongoing assignments. I had written a feature article for his magazine about ten years earlier, when I was trying out freelance writing as a sideline to my full-time job. Back then, I had decided that I couldn't handle full-time work and large freelance assignments at the same time, but now that I'm not working full-time, I decided to respond to his ad. I mentioned my previous writing assignment with his magazine and explained my situation. A few days later, Tom contacted me and offered me the more advanced of the two assignments -- writing regular feature articles for the magazine. I recently submitted my first article, and the check is going to cover my mortgage payment and condo fees.

The point is that all these opportunities grew out of things I've been doing all along. I had no idea at the time that my friendships, my little experiments, and even my struggles would be the seeds of the work that is providing for my needs now. It wasn't my intention to become a freelancer -- the very idea terrified me. But now that I've decided to take this thing seriously, the opportunities are beginning to come. The seeds I planted unknowingly have taken root, grown tall, and started to bear fruit.

My "year off" was not a temporary break, after which I would return "once more into the fray". It was the first step in an evolutionary process that would lead me toward a new stage of my life, and the ripple effects of the things I did years ago have come back to find me.

Which brings me to the hat with the purple feather. Last Sunday, my friend Shirley said, "I have to tell you something. I don't think I've ever told you this before, but I have to tell you now." Several years ago, I facilitated an Artist's Way group at the Washington Ethical Society. To get people to sign up, I was asked to give a short pitch for the group at the Sunday meeting, and I walked up to the front of the room wearing a poet's hat -- a black felt beret with a big purple plume -- that I had bought at a Renaissance festival. The hat got a laugh, and it got people to listen to my short description of what we would be doing in the group.

Shirley was very new at WES, and she wasn't sure if she would continue to attend, but the hat with the purple feather piqued her curiosity. She signed up for the group, which inspired her to take her talents as a collage artist to a much higher level. She also got to know some of the other WES members through her participation in the group, and she decided to become a member herself. Through her participation, her daughter has now begun to attend WES, and she is now an active participant in several of the programs.

I wasn't trying to change anyone's life when I decided, almost on a whim, to wear that silly little hat. I just wanted people to sign up for my group. The ripple effects happened outside my awareness, without any effort on my part besides just showing up and doing what needed to be done. Facilitate a little group, write a little magazine article, make time for chatting with friends. Life takes care of the rest of it.


  1. SNAP Nancy...you never know do you?

  2. A few days ago I got a PM on my FaceBook page from a high school friend who was hanging out on his wife's page and saw my post.
    Fifty years ago, I invited him to a Sadie Hawkins Day Dance at our school. Because he was my date, I made him a corsage of a few posies and celery leaves wrapped in aluminum foil. Fifty years later he remembers it as one of his best nights in high school.
    A purple-feathered hat, a celery corsage--we never know.

  3. You had me right until the end, Nancy. Absolutely, one can never know how far the ripples of a good deed or a job done well will extend, or when they might pay dividends back to the do-er. But I'm not enough of an optimist to think that I can _count on_ those dividends coming back just when they're needed. My version of your last sentence would be, "Life takes care of the rest of it, except when it doesn't." That said, I'm not trying to change anybody's mind. Being able to accept your last sentence as is is probably conducive to greater happiness, so more power to those who can.

    1. I really should have put "and doing what needed to be done" in big red letters. But the part I really need to remind myself of is that I *don't* have to do it all myself. The farmer doesn't have to schedule the rain clouds and replicate the DNA in every little corn plant. The eagle doesn't have to breed and raise its own rabbits. As long as I do the part I'm suppose to do, life really does take care of the rest. If it didn't, I wouldn't be here.


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