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A Job That Nourishes The Soul, If Not The Wallet

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A Job That Nourishes The Soul, If Not The Wallet
The lawyer was in his mid-20s. He narrowed his eyes, peered at me from behind his cluttered desk and said, "So, why are you quitting?"

It was 2000, and I'd been working as a receptionist at his corporate law office, a satellite of a larger, urban firm, for just a few months. Our building was in a small, Southern downtown laden with Spanish moss. Unlike other local lawyers, my boss didn't favor seersuckers. He often came in with his heavy suit jacket hung over his arm, and I could make out concert T-shirts through his pressed, white button-ups. He unwittingly revealed his music preferences through the tiny dancing logo of the Dave Matthews Band and the emblems of Hootie and the Blowfish.

The receptionist gig was my first out of college. I'd attended a state school, and I'd graduated aimless, with no professional connections and a self-designed major that incorporated courses with names like African Dance and the History of Women in Southeast Asia. Since high school, I'd been working at small-town restaurants - in waitstaff jobs that involved clogged sinks, deep-fat fryers and sweet-tea dispensers in my home county, one of the poorest in North Carolina.

My job at the law firm was the first that my ambitious parents - both first-generation college graduates - had ever been truly proud to hear about.

It was also, by far, the worst I'd ever had.

"I'm leaving because this isn't how I want to spend my days," I told him. "This isn't what I want to do."

During my time at the firm, I was mostly a lady in waiting. I waited for the phone to ring, waited for papers to copy, waited for things to get interesting. I waited until my desperation for health insurance was finally outweighed by my desperation to avoid sinking into work-related depression. I was done sporadically answering phones at the front desk - with a singsong list of partner names that still, occasionally, haunts my dreams. I was finished filing and doing the other, too-occasional tasks that made me feel as though my soul was being sucked from my body, slowly, via paper cuts.

I still have collections of emails I sent friends during my stint as a receptionist. They're mostly detailed accounts of feeding birds during my lunch breaks and the 15 sun-soaked minutes it took me to walk to the post office each day - timed, to the second, by an administrative assistant, who chided me if I "lollygagged."

At stoplights, when apron-wearing men approached my car window to peddle newspapers, I'd started thinking I'd rather join their ranks than continue being what was, basically, a boxed-in office figurehead. Quitting my job was going to have consequences. I had no idea what I would do next, or how I was going to make the following month's rent. But I knew I'd rather be serving food to hungry people on restaurant patios or cleaning toilets at a state park - at least then I would be doing something that let me feel the sun on my face for more than 15 minutes a day.

When the lawyer learned that I was quitting without another job lined up, he actually laughed at me. "So, what do you think you're going to do to support yourself?" he asked, kicking back and crossing his arms.

I admitted that I wasn't sure. He digested this for a moment. "Sometimes, we have to do things we don't want to do. That's just life. That's how you make money," he said. "You think you're going to go out there and find some job you enjoy? You think you're going to find a job that's going to make you happy? Grow up!"

Heat rose in my cheeks. My eyes started to sting. I knew, at that point in my life, that my normally supportive but increasingly worried parents were going to say similar things. I wanted to run off to the staff refrigerator and cry into a cup of yogurt. But the lawyer wasn't done.

"You think I want to do this?" he said. "You think I want to be here?"

He didn't seem to realize that, with this, he had revealed too much. I knew from past conversations that he was a third-generation lawyer. But I hadn't realized, until that moment, what that meant for him. Instead of taking advantage of this privileged legacy in ways that would fulfill him in nonfinancial ways, he had been carrying it as a personal burden. Almost immediately, I forgave his tone.

I left exactly two weeks after giving my notice, and I dearly hope that my young boss ended up leaving, too. I hope - even if he failed at becoming the music industry's go-to legal counsel, a Dave Matthews roadie, or whatever sort of work he might have enjoyed - that he ultimately found a job he did not resent. That, somehow, his definition of work evolved into something that did not immediately equate with being unhappy and unfulfilled.

The week after I quit, I found a temporary position in a gift shop, just two blocks from the lobby where I'd once spent whole days looking forward to the joyous human interaction of a UPS delivery. In retail, I made half of what I'd made, per hour, as a receptionist. I had no health insurance, much less a 401(k). But there were plenty of benefits.

I spent my days among shelves of stained-glass kaleidoscopes. I chatted with a roving cast of locals and tourists, immersed in an environment of handcrafted beauty, each artwork representative of someone who'd taken a nontraditional career path - a painter who'd left her job in the insurance industry, a sculptor who did auto body work on the side. Similarly inspiring was the shopkeeper, a gray-haired woman who squirreled away funds during the high season and traveled the world, hostel hopping, for the rest of the year.

My favorite pieces in the store were blown-glass paperweights made to look like constellations. They were heavy in my hand, orbs the size of whole-palm marbles. They encapsulated the awe of ringed planets and entire universes.

They were also, like everything else I sold as a store clerk, far outside of my budget.

When I wiped the cases that held those tiny treasures, I would watch comet-tail streaks of glass cleaner fade - admiring each of the starry objects, considering how nice it would be to take one home, to own for personal display. But I was slowly realizing that - after securing food and shelter - enjoying what I did with my days was far more precious than collecting material things.

One night, after closing the shop, I decided to walk the long route home, past a waterside park. It was turning cold, and the sky was clear. My eyes scanned constellations and got caught on the pinprick outline of Orion, the hunter who heralds North America's winter. In that moment, I realized that one of my favorite paperweights was modeled after that very seasonal, celestial scene - one that would, depending on cloud cover, be visible from anywhere in town, every night, for months to come. I smiled at the realization as I walked home, marveling over the cosmos while swinging my dangerously thin purse.

Finding work that I enjoyed wouldn't always be possible, and it would seldom be easy. But that lawyer's unexpected lecture helped me understand that I had a choice with each career move I made: I could fixate on finding jobs that would help me afford beautiful universes small enough to hold in my hand. Or I could seek out work that would remind me that I was, wondrously, living inside of one.
© 2016, The New York Times News Service


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