Sunday, 18 February 2007

"Mid Life" published February 18

“I just had to ring you to tell you I’m making breadcrumbs,” came the excited voice on the other end of the phone.
“Did you toast the bread first?” was my immediate if insensitive reply, knowing very well that the voice on the other end of the phone belonged to a woman who would need all the help she could get. The breadcrumbs were just the first phase of a very common affliction.
For me it was making my own laundry detergent, bottling it and distributing it to my friends who placed it gingerly in their designer handbags before phoning my husband to check on my mental health. .
Home made breadcrumbs and laundry detergent may be part and parcel for a woman living in Nelson, who crafts bead ear-rings to sell at the local cafe. But for the two of us, Auckland born and immersed for the past 20 years in busy and relentless careers, nothing could be more frightening to behold.
Just yesterday (in the 90s) we were shoulder padded to our eyeballs strutting around with stern looks and strong words. We were working girls, and proud of it, every day fulfilling the feminist movement’s expectation of a good keen woman. Earning good money, working long hours, marrying a good man and raising healthy children. At least on the surface. Underneath we were exhausted most of the time, we each lost a marriage, and when our 40th birthdays rolled around the nagging sense of loss took hold. Had we missed out on something? Like making breadcrumbs? Were we validating ourselves by what we did at the office?
And there it was. The longing for a life of simplicity, a life where your time is your own to spend working if you want, or planting potatoes.
Post Career Joy is most often experienced by women past 40, and sometimes by men of the same age. It happens when we leave full time employment, sit around at home for a while pondering our working-from-home options and discover the Aunt Daisy lurking in all of us. And for women who have worked all their life, it comes as a shocking but ultimately pleasant surprise to find that when one has the time, the kitchen becomes a fascinating place not the mere giver of heat for convenience food. And there’s this lump of ground outside which would make a very nice potager garden. And did I just spend an hour talking to my kids about life instead or nagging them to clean their rooms?
In the three years of Post Career Joy, I have baked bread and shaped intricate parcels of delicious ravioli, cooked bits of meat for 10 hours, you get the picture. Cooking with time. I’ve also grown my own lettuce and herbs, planted potatoes in the rain and cleaned the house with nothing but baking soda and vinegar.
My friend has now moved onto stuffing poultry. But Post Career Joy is not all bread and potatoes.
She hasn’t got a tattoo, which is next. Just a small one, no dragons or anything like that. Or written a book. Or priced solar power options for her home. Or bought a caravan in a remote location and spent hours there listening to the sea and doing all the thinking she never had time to do when she worked full time. Those things will come. As will picking up a bit of work she likes doing and not minding how much it pays.
Meanwhile those around us wait for our real selves to return. The women they have known for the past 20 years. Bursting with energy, vital and fascinating, always ready with a funny story from work. But she’s disappeared without warning, didn’t even leave a note. Only now, after three years, has my family become used to what they refer to as the “new” Wendyl. Every so often one of them will ask in a careful voice if I’d ever consider going back.
“Going back where darling?” comes my vague reply as I spray the roses. So lost to me is the memory of hard work and middle management arseholes.
The very relieved child trots off, but not before reminding me he’ll be home for dinner.
“Home made tortellini with salad from the garden!” comes my delighted response.
My friend on the other hand has some way to go before her former life leaves her to find a better home. She’s officially on Post Career Joy watch until she’s made it to six months without giving into upper management arsholes and returning to a job. But her garden is waiting and I’ll be there with my shovel. If only to bury the breadcrumbs that didn’t quite work.

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