Current Occupation: Communications Manager
Former Occupation: Journalist
Contact Information: Julie A. Jacob is a writer who lives in Wisconsin.
Journey Between the Years
“Are you going to take the job?”
It was three days before the winter solstice. My father’s question hung in the air as we enjoyed dinner at an Irish pub in downtown Milwaukee. My niece had just graduated from college and we were celebrating with my sister’s family.
“Yes, I think so …” I hesitated. Of course I should take the public relations job I had been offered at a university. I had been sending out resumes for more than a year. My formerly engrossing work in my current job had changed, following a change in management, to mind-numbing routine punctuated by coworkers’ withering criticism.
The job I had been offered was closer to home, paid a little more and had a better title. My organization’s retired CEO had written a sterling letter of recommendation. And yet … the position was almost identical to what I had been doing for eight years. It would be more of the same, but harder and under greater pressure. The person who had held the job previously had been fired, and I worried about meeting the high expectations of the person who would be my boss. I didn’t like the remote suburban location, lacking even a Starbucks, which was so different from the vibrancy of downtown Chicago.
In an economy as cold as that December night, with newspapers and websites filled day after day with stories of the jobless and pictures of sad-eyed people staring blankly into the camera, I was afraid or uncertain, I wasn’t sure which, of making the move.
“You should think seriously about that job,” my father said. His advice was wise, based on his own 40 years of experience as an engineer in the white-collar jungle. He was right. I should take the job. It was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up, one that was unlikely to come along again.
I had dragged out the interview process as long I could. An offer was on the table, and now I had to go forward or withdraw.
I kept turning over and over in my mind the Mary Oliver poem, “The Journey,” the one where the narrator breaks free of the voices “shouting their bad advice” and strides out into the night on her own path. I loved that poem. I used to think that the voices represented the admonishments of family and friends who, with the best intentions, say, “stick to the tried-and-true path,” “it’s too risky,” and “what if you fail”? But after re-reading the poems many times, it dawned on me that maybe those voices were every person’s own self-critic, the inner voice that whispers “I’m afraid to change, “I’ll fail,” and “I’m a fraud.”
Was I hesitating because I badly wanted the job, but was stymied by my inner critic murmuring, “you’re so going to fail”? Or was I frozen in indecision because I wanted to strike out on a different career path, one with more writing and less meetings, more creativity and less politicsbut couldn’t shake off my inner critic telling me that I was a fool to walk away from the offer? After all, when would an opportunity like that come along again, especially in this grim economy, for a woman over 40? Like the narrator in “The Journey” I I had to turn my back to my doubts and head out into the nightbut should I be striding toward the job or away from it?
I had no idea. So I sipped my spicy, steaming tomato soup and toasted my niece and her boyfriendtwo sweet, bright young people impatient to begin the journey of their own careers. It was their time and I kept my doubts to myself.
That night I composed an e-mail, fingers poised over the keyboard, took a deep breath and hit “send.”
“So how come you didn’t take the job”? Michael, my friend, asked on the winter solstice. We were sipping warm gluhwein at the ChristKindll Market in downtown Chicago. The cup warmed my chilled hands. The night was cold and clear. An enormous evergreen, decorated with oversized, candy-colored lights, towered majestically over Daley Plaza. The aromas of roasted nuts, chocolate and hot cider scented the crisp air. Strings of white lights illuminated wooden stalls selling candles, nutcrackers and ornaments. The occasional clanging of a cowbell could be heard over the laughter and music, signaling that someone had left a tip. It was a charming scene, but I was distracted by doubt.
I shrugged. “It didn’t seem like the right fit. Too much focus on marketing and … ”
My words trailed off. I had no good reason why I had turned down the job. Had I been scared or had I not wanted it? Had I been afraid of failing or justifiably concerned that a demanding new job with a fancier title and more responsibility would distract me from what I really wanted to do, which was to write and teach? Did I feel guilty about accepting a good job when I already had one and millions of talented people with college degrees were unemployed and desperate? Did a person even have the right to dream in a brutal economy? I thought again of Oliver’s poem. Was I still trapped in that damn house, surrounded by the voices of doubt, or had I walked shakily into the night toward some yet unknown job that I really wanted?
I didn’t know.
Michael looked puzzled, for I had confided my fears to him a few weeks earlier, and he had assured me that I could do it. “Everyone feels like a fraud when they start a new job,” he said.
He kindly changed the subject.
“Do you work tomorrow?
“No, I’m off from tomorrow until Jan 4. I love having that week off between Christmas and New Year.”
He nodded. “In Germany everyone gets off the week between Christmas and New Year’s. It’s called zwischen den Jahren. Between the years.”
Zwischen den Jahren. I knew some German, but had never heard that phrase. I instantly loved it. It was the perfect name for that peaceful week suspended between the years, balanced between the year not quite done and the one not yet started. I thought of it as a week with all worries and fears erased, or at least dusted over with a soft, powdery snow of holiday cheer. Every year I took vacation during that time and happily did a lot of not much: reading, watching old movies, having lunch with my dad, and visiting my sister and her family.
During zwischen den Jahren, the decision to decline the job felt like the right one. I had been wise not to take the job, I told myself. I would find something else, eventually, a position where I could write more and go to meetings less at a place that was quirkier and more vibrant, located in a bustling downtown. Yes, it had been the best choice.
The New Year came and went. The decorations were packed away. On a gray January day, I rode a packed train filled with grumpy commuters and returned to work. My boss came back from vacation. Nothing had changed. I thought about that job every time the train passed the suburb where I would have worked, and I began to feel an ache of regret at what might have been.
One Saturday afternoon, no longer able to resist my curiosity, I checked the website of the university where I had been offered the job. A new name was listed in the position. I felt a pinch of remorse so sharp I caught my breath. My name could have been listed there.
I looked out the living room window at the dirty snow, cloud-smeared sky, and black, bony trees. Nothing stirred. Would I have excelled or failed at the job? Loved or loathed it? No answers were to be found in that mute, frozen tableau. There was nothing else to be done, nothing else I could do, but to turn away from the window and write.