Minnesota State Capitol, Winter, 2018
In 1986, I watched a man burn a pile of money. The bills were suspended in bright flames like fruit in a holiday Jell-O. I called to my mother to make him stop. If he didn’t want the money, he should give it away. During the time my family lived in India, I’d seen kids with missing fingers lost to leprosy or cut away to improve their chances at begging.
“It is a spiritual act for him,” my mother said, and held me back from making pragmatic arguments in my schoolyard Hindi.
I didn’t understand, and the image solidified into a window. In my mind, I watch the scene over and over. I am looking through that window now, but this time, it is me lit up by dancing flames.
“I’m quitting,” I say, voice crackling with laryngitis. My husband Steven stands in the doorway. His face is obscured from above by a furry winter hat and from below by a parka. I’ve saved my voice all day for this announcement. My position as an advisor to the Governor is a dream job. My husband and kids’ lives revolve around my being on call twenty-four hours a day and seven days a week—whenever the Governor needs me.
Earlier in the day, I’d sent my new supervisor a quick note to let her know I was working from home. I’d been having laryngitis on an annual basis since my second child was born, and I had learned to accept not talking as the key treatment. She hadn’t met with me since she’d started a few weeks before, and she doesn’t know about our imminent deadline for flood negotiations with North Dakota, the precariously suspended court proceedings, or the anxiety of farmers, family members with loved ones in cemeteries, and local governments watching from across state and country borders. The Red River flows along the border between Minnesota and North Dakota, and northward to Lake Winnipeg in Canada. In spring, northern ice can dam the river, flooding the flat Red River Valley, what was once the bottom of an ancient lake.
While we always worked long hours and had to be available on a moment’s notice, my previous supervisor trusted us to manage our own time. She believed in each of us and saw us as the experts. She openly acknowledged our family responsibilities. We worked nights and weekends, but meetings were scheduled for after bedtime and during weekend nap times.
In response to my email, the new supervisor told me, “Going forward, I would appreciate if you asked, rather than tell me, if you want to work from home. There will be times when it’s not possible. I’d also like advance notice.”
I sat stunned with the humidifier puffing mist at me. I’d also like advance notice of laryngitis. With that slight tilt in the world, I no longer felt part of a team. I thought of our offices as an organism where I was one tentacle of the Governor’s octopus brain. What looked like striving before, now looked like depletion. What I’d thought of as getting absorbed in the greater purpose of my office now looked like disassociation.
As I wrote my apology email, jagged pieces of glass fell out between the click of my fingers on the keyboard. I held the shards up, and winter light shone through. They were the precipitate of an over-saturated solution: stress-induced insomnia, not knowing if I’d be home for dinner, answering the phone while putting kids to bed, sending work emails from playgrounds, sleeping in roadside hotels, getting sick in tiny planes, and plain old exhaustion.
There are two ways to deal with floods: accept that flood plains are wild, or build on them and try to control nature with concrete and steel. Minnesota had bought out houses along the Red River and restricted building in flood areas. This is so the water can do what it will without risking human life and property. North Dakota wants to build a high-hazard dam and a diversion channel to allow for the expansion of Fargo. The two states have opposing ideas of what it means to be in control.
The new supervisor responded to my email, “The fact of the matter is that the way your previous supervisor and others have handled time off is not my style...Things need to change...so there will be a shift and an adjustment by all...we should discuss connecting with HR RE: FMLA...” Family Medical Leave Act for laryngitis? I’d spent the rest of the day voicelessly quoting Amy Poehler,
Treat your career like a bad boyfriend. Here’s the thing. Your career won’t take care of you. It won’t call you back or introduce you to its parents. Your career will openly flirt with other people while you are around. It will forget your birthday and wreck your car. Your career will blow you off if you call it too much. It’s never leaving its wife. Your career is fucking other people and everyone knows but you. Your career will never marry you...If your career is a bad boyfriend, it is healthy to remember you can always leave and go sleep with somebody else.
The year before, a peer had been diagnosed with stage four cancer while his daughter was in the NICU. He died before her second birthday. Life is short. A mutual acquaintance, affected by the death, built the sauna he had always wanted because, what are we waiting for?
If I die now, I will have regrets. I am a writer who hasn’t made time for writing. I’ve been publishing short stories and essays since my second son was born. But taking on creative projects has been like having an affair. I steal, sneak, and secret away time. As a married woman with children working full time, I haven’t had time for that kind of passion. I have been shoving story ideas and lines of poetry into a locked chamber below my clavicle.
One day I would focus on my writing. But I didn’t know how that choice would show up, and it hadn’t. Besides, a jewel locked away is safe from any scratches.
Until a few months ago, it was not an option for me to not bring in a salary. Steven only recently got a job with health insurance. I know this is not a decision everyone can make, but I see an opening. We are healthy, we don’t have to support extended family, and Steven’s job, with changes in our spending, is enough for us to maintain the house and the car that we have.
Steven, still in winter gear, holds out his arms to me. I step back, anticipating him trying to pull me from the edge. He puts a hand on my shoulder. I want to rant, but I must be judicious with my voice. I say, “We won’t have money for Cluck’s daycare, he and I will hang out until kindergarten starts in the fall. We’ll take public transit and explore the city. I’m going to make us a playlist for the bus!” Steven still looks disturbed. I add, “It will be great. And once he starts school, I will write.” Fist to eye, I wipe a tear away. I’m not sure if it is one of frustration, sentiment, or relief.
This is not about leaning in or leaning out. If I walk into a room, I am going to sit at the table and speak. This is about doing something far more outrageous: I want to create. I want to pursue the vocation that persists in calling me, despite my having ignored all its voicemails.
Calling it back is humbling. I might not be good enough or lucky enough. I might pour myself into books that never get published. I might lose my external recognition. I will stop earning money, and if Steven loses his job, what will we do? That I feel at liberty to consider this choice is an aligning of stars and luck and a leap of faith.
“I thought you were going to launch into a well-paid job at the end of the Governor’s term. I thought we’d buy a bigger house.” Steven says this without emotion, like he’s assessing tomatoes at the store. He is not one to react strongly in the moment.
I think, I am good at whatever I do. Really good. As long as it’s for someone else. The thought is like a stone dropping through a pond and landing with certainty on the silty bottom.
Steven pulls me close. Why not do what I want? I feel the weight of that stone in my hand. “Fuck Carpe Diem,” I whisper shout.
“I don’t get it,” Steven pulls back. His eyebrows furrow.
“I don’t care about houses.”
“There isn’t room for the kids to play with friends when they come over,” he says.
“I don’t want to be infinitely energetic and productive. I don’t care about a fancy career and a well-paid job. I don’t care about power. Fuck Carpe Diem.”
“Ummmm, I still don’t get it,” he says.
“I just want to sleep well at night. I want to be present when I’m with the kids. I want to write,” I say.
“That sounds like Carpe Diem to me?”
“No. Carpe Diem is go big or go home, work hard and play hard, burn the candle at both ends, worry they are growing up so fast and have to catch every moment.” The more I try to shout, the more the words evaporate in my throat, but I can’t stop. “Carpe Diem is having career success and babies and staying fit and going out with friends and visiting family all over the world, and, and—it is too much!”
“Anna, will you please just think about it longer?” he asks.
“Fuck Carpe Diem is about appreciating the negative space. Music is the silence between the notes.” We met as geology majors, we are scientists who study time, how can he not see that I need time for myself? That our time is worth more than anything else.
“Think about it?” he says.
“Hmmfpf” I snort. My friend Natalie once told me she makes decisions by changing her mind. Fully decide, try it on, and then walk away. Toggle back and forth. I look up at him and nod.
While concrete and steel flood defenses provide real protection, they are also an illusion of control. Minnesota’s law to protect flood plains is based on having rebuilt the same flooded homes over and over and emergencies where human lives were at risk or lost. Allowing the river to be more organic, giving up some control is a kind of protection through relationship.
The Governor gives us each a proclamation for our birthday. My new supervisor reads mine aloud at a staff meeting.
Whereas Dr. Anna has brought an immense range of technical, practical, and public policy expertise to the Governor’s Office, and…
Now Therefore, I, Mark Dayton, Governor of Minnesota, do hereby proclaim Saturday…as Anna…Day.
When she finishes reading, she laughs, “Anna, you have a PhD?”
“That is the most hilarious thing I’ve heard,” my supervisor says.
The new supervisor’s email pings on our computers and then there are the soft thuds and clicks as office doors close. She outlines her policies: be at your desk from nine-to-five, aka, if you have offsite meetings with agencies or stakeholders, you are sick, your kid has an emergency, you worked fifteen hours the day before and want to come in late—it is her call. We creep from office to office like children sneaking out of bed. I’m relieved that it is no longer a personal attack.
“I’m going to quit,” I hiss to a colleague.
“Before or during the legislative session?”
“Shit,” I sigh. Session starts in only a few weeks. “It would have to be before to make it worth it.” The image of flames licking the air is superimposed on one of my sitting with Cluck on a city bus with headphone splitters.
Before, most of my conversations with colleagues were about a particular legislator or stakeholder. Now we talk about our supervisor and what she has said to whom, can you believe it? We pause to ask, are you okay? We linger. We talk about our families, a decision to not drink for Lent, a favorite book, and a dream of summer tulips. Out of bitterness comes the surprise and sweetness of getting to know each other as people.
The Governor goes for my idea to require testing of well water when a home is sold to ensure residents are aware of contamination. It is something I can do to protect public health. I have been given a charge: I must stay.
My colleague is rebuked for leaving early in a snowstorm...You didn’t ask my permission...I decide to quit.
I go back and forth. I see how it feels.
I no longer come in at seven or eight in the morning. I pull back. To seek permission, to explain each meeting, to need to justify doing my work—I’ve been demoted, and the constraints of my job now conflict with my ability to care for myself and my children.
Minnesota had denied North Dakota’s permit to build the high hazard dam for flood protection, but North Dakota and the Army Corps claim that the federal government could override state law. They signed contracts to start construction. Minnesota sued, a court stayed construction, and North Dakota has been paying contractors to do nothing ever since.
When Minnesota won the court case, Governor Dayton flew to talk with residents along the Red River. It was our win, but he only used the win as leverage to create a transparent process. He quoted the late Minnesota Senator Paul Wellstone, We all do better when we all do better. I hadn’t worked on the issue before, but I began flying to Fargo every week in a soda can. For hours after our flights the world spun and my skin was tinged green.
“Do you have a moment to speak privately?” I ask.
The Chief of Staff, my former supervisor, looks at me with concern. My voice and body tremble. This is someone I don’t just like, but admire. I don’t want to be the troublemaker. Also, if I say it out loud, it will all be true: I no longer feel safe here. “I want to talk to you about the new office policies.” I have cut out as few words as possible from my internal tirade and fit them together without glue or nails or staples.
While we deal in daily confrontations and pushing boundaries, these are usually with forces outside our office. With fascination and horror, I watch red blotches bloom on the Chief’s face. She scrambles to let me know she hears me, makes no promise, gives nothing away. It is the way we respond to lobbyists.
Effective supervisors, leaders, know that you are the expert. They serve as guardrails. You walk into their office, download your progress, concerns, and plans. They say, forget this; sounds great, and make sure you do that. As in, I walked into this woman’s office, laid the weight of my burden on her, and I walked out free to do my work. This changes nothing and everything.
No policies change, but asserting my humanity lets me set aside frustration. I consider my future not as a reaction, but in the broader context of my life.
In Fargo, I sat at a table with a Task Force, people vehemently opposed to flood control, people in full support, people from cities, and people from farm communities. Half were from North Dakota; half were from Minnesota. The only thing they all had in common were stories of flood fighting. Everyone had a line drawn in the sand. They were dug in. Everything took place in front of cameras and the people who came to watch.
Between meetings I sat with engineers and traced maps with my finger. I touched the homes, cemeteries, and farms that the plans would protect, and the ones it would flood. I called and answered calls from members of communities in both states. Sometimes they raged for a long time. I listened and I waited for the clearing.
The trick to moving forward was first letting the emotions take up space. Only after this could we discuss specific details. Only then could we talk about letting the river rise higher in the cities, adding structures and expenses that reduced how much land the dam would flood. There was no unanimous consensus, but everyone gave a little. Extremes fell away. Like all negotiations, the resulting plan satisfied no one, but it was a way to move forward. A compromise.
Forgiveness is not about liking my supervisor or feeling good about how she treats me. It’s a trick of perspective. It is seeing the smallness and vulnerability in both her and me. It is seeing the true limits of her powers so that she can no longer walk through my office walls and peer over my shoulder.
Forgiveness is also loving her bright blue and orange eyeshadow. It is delighting in her dog photoshopped into vacation pictures.
I can’t say if her rules give her a sense of control, or if they make her happy. But I do know that each time I break them, it gives me pleasure. Like with a river, no matter how much force is used to control it, it will only ever be what it is. Through small acts of subversion, I slip back into a kind of normal. I grant myself permission to do what needs to get done.
My initial shock turns to anger, and anger to excitement. The problem is not just my supervisor. The problem is that I have been sucking my marrow dry. Things need to change. My life is not in balance. Or the effort to keep balance has been too violent. It is physically painful to rip myself away from the lull of children eating breakfast and imagining dinosaurs in the Mariana Trench. A thin thread connects my body to them, and when I walk out the door, that thread stretches beyond the breaking point. At the end of the workday, I tear myself from an urgent tangle of memos, strategies, and negotiations. Like an alcoholic gone dry, I’m left slightly shaky. I’ve been in a cycle of burnout and recovery with the recovery never lasting long enough.
The demands of my career have armed me with a shield I use to avoid looking into the abyss. But, maybe there is something to peering into dark depths. To not being tired and busy all the time.
I decide to jump, but to plan my jump. I make a commitment to stay through the end of the Administration, eleven more months. Our legislative session will last till summer, and then we will have seven months to implement our programs and laws. To make sure what we have done cannot be undone. I hold myself back a little each day, test out saving more of myself for myself. On Sunday afternoons I go to the library to write and I turn off my Blackberry.
In college, I’d set myself to pursuing goals with the idea that work was my life. When I had a baby, my idea of successful motherhood was that nothing would change—work would still be my life. I thought that was what it meant to seize the day. Carpe Diem. But I can’t just do more things in the same amount of time. I have to make choices. With the privilege of not having external forces entirely define me, I am defined by my choices. Anger is my gift of clarity. It forces me to take stock.
To make this choice, Steven and I calculate our expenses and make cuts until the numbers add up to live on one salary. We had enjoyed the time freed by paying someone to clean our house, but that is the first thing we cross off. It gives me pause to choose to shop at Goodwill again like I did in graduate school, but it is nothing compared to my angst about what it means as a woman to step out of a career track.
A friend who left her job as a corporate VP tells me how she wished she could have enjoyed the break before finding her next job. She was too worried about losing everything she had fought so hard for. If her story is meant as a warning, a reminder of how precarious it is for women in the professional world, it works. I know that if I want to come back, it won’t be through the same door through which I left. But being controlled by fear is no way to answer the poet Mary Oliver’s question, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?
I’m excited to match my work to the rhythm of my children’s school day. I want time with them. But if my writing doesn’t bring in money, will I be defined as a stay-at-home mom? My career has been my identity. That I am a writer mostly exists in my head. What some people would call a fantasy. I am afraid my days will be taken up by shuttling children across town and cleaning the house.
While Steven has come around to my plan, my circle of support doesn’t go beyond him. I don’t know how to explain myself to colleagues. When I tell my father, his reaction reminds me of coming-out stories. He doesn’t ask questions or express concern. He simply refuses to hear me. I can’t decide: am I taking control of my life or giving up my relevance?
No one is going to give me a permission slip.
I make a choice to take myself seriously, to welcome my creative ideas. It is my most ambitious and risky career move yet, though to some it may look like green bills reaching skyward in dancing flames. But this is not a practical matter. It is a spiritual one.