I've recently experienced what might be called a false start. Back in October, I decided that at the end of 2015 I would leave my secure, full-time job with benefits to become a freelance writer. As I prepared to leave, I planned to build up freelance writing clients in my spare time, but instead focused solely on completing the first draft of my novel on deadline for my first reader. So, while I had initially planned to get a part-time job in January to help structure my day and provide steady income, I currently find myself juggling two part-time jobs, one as the coordinator for a catering company, the other as a cashier at a fancy grocery store because bills still need to be paid, while also taking on freelance assignments and revising my novel draft.
Artists tend to struggle a lot with authenticity. It's no wonder, when there's so much rejection and so little validation. Then there's the fact that the practice of empathy necessary to create and convey the lives of different characters in fiction so often takes me outside of myself that I seem to engage in a lot of inadvertent self-appraisal. In this current state, I worry about what I do or don't have to show for myself.
My first day cashiering, the instrumental music playing through the speakers is a jarring combination of familiar and yet completely out of place, and I realize it is the instrumental grocery store cover of Natalie Imbruglia's "Torn." I smile over this oddity and go to sleep dreaming of PLU codes. 4011 for bananas, 49 for baking potatoes. On the morning before my second 8-hour shift, I sit on the couch with my calf balanced on an ice pack. Eight years of sitting in an office has made my body soft. There's definitely a learning curve, too, and I keep hearing that line from Home Alone buzzing in my brain: "You're what the French call 'les incompetents.'" I learn not to roll up my sleeves as I flatten the bottom of paper bags or risk paper cuts to the inner elbow. And one day I learn not to grab full self-serve bags of jelly beans in the middle when my bagger plucks a plump one like this off the scale and the air explodes in beautiful color. For a moment time is suspended within the unified gasp of everyone around us and the clicking of jelly beans on tile. My co-worker and I cannot make eye contact without laughing the rest of the night. We continue to find stray jelly beans on the floor throughout our shift.
I happened to choose this store only a few blocks from my old office and am happy when my former co-workers come through my line because they know who I am outside of this job. They know I am not just a cashier, just as I know my new co-workers are not just cashiers. They are parents, caregivers, students, cancer survivors, some also juggling second jobs, some also with their own creative projects, one of them renovating an old barn by herself. The man who approaches my counter carrying a case of wine in his hands, bobbing his head at me even after his hands are free to insist that I pull the printed wine order from between his teeth, may think I am just a cashier. But then later that same evening, a woman I recognize shows up in my check-out line and after a beat I realize she is the therapist I sought out 5 years ago when I couldn't handle my anger and anxiety on my own. She asks how I am and I tell her I married the man she told me to back when I was afraid of marriage. And I imagine her later reviewing her notes on me to refresh her memory, because there is something so reassuring about being known, and being seen.
It is nearly a month since I left my old job. As a local newspaper has given me some fun and interesting assignments, I ask my department supervisor to cut back my hours at the store. Then in a moment of doubt, I think about texting him to take it all back, worrying that I won't be able to make up the money even with my job at the catering company. My husband reminds me he has confidence in me, and so do other people. He reminds me to breathe. And I think about this phrase, "false start." An unsuccessful attempt to begin something. Beginning anything is the hardest part. Nothing yet on this path has felt as difficult as committing, finally, to leaving my secure job and not look back. Since then, I've taken small steps, conferencing with other freelance writers and researching writing markets, bolstering my spirits by talking to one of my sisters who picked up everything to move to her dream home and start a business, watching and supporting as another sister raises funds to build her dream, too.
Beginnings can take longer than you imagine, and failure can be so much a part of them. A friend and I have been emailing almost daily for several months to support each other as we try to make healthy choices. Whenever we have a day when we slip from our goals, get too little sleep, ignore our bodies and binge, or choose not to strengthen ourselves through exercise, we remind each other: be gentle with yourself. We are grown people still learning that failure is part of the process.
*"But in the unlikely story that is America, there has never been anything false about hope."
- Barack Obama