Now we kill the computer, rip up the spreadsheets. Or whip off the apron, toss the hideous uniform hat into the trash. Our supervisor gapes. We smile. The words fall from our lips like gold coins.
My chance came a few years ago.
It wasn't that I hated my job. I worked in the children's room of a public library surrounded all day by books and kids, both of which I adore.
It was happy, purposeful work. Not counting the occasional toddler throwing up, it was clean work. I had been there more than a decade and had gotten pretty good at what I did. And let it hereby be declared: The world contains no bigger-hearted humans than my colleagues, children's librarians.
And yet I was dying to leave.
I'm a writer. Over the years, my many "real" jobs included waitressing, teaching, mothering (unpaid but most time-consuming of all) and now the library. I was accustomed to squeezing writing into any nook or cranny of time I could, but my daydream was to be a full-time writer. To write without one eye on the clock, one foot out the door.
And then I sold a book. Then, another one.
I've never been a risk-taker, except in my fiction. But the universe seemed to be trying to tell me something. I was 60-plus years old. I had to ask myself, If not now, when?
Followed immediately by, Wait! What are you thinking?
All the good things about my job suddenly became apparent to me. How could I detach myself from the "we" of work? We librarians shared everything, even the same desk. We always had each other's backs. When a patron asked about "that red book with the black dog on the cover," we put our collective heads together like detectives on the case. We knew whose kid was sick, whose boyfriend got a great new job, who had insomnia the night before.
We were comrades.
This we-ness extended beyond my fellow librarians to the custodian who let me leave my bike in the boiler room, the circulation worker who sent me cat videos, the security guard who loved New York City as much as I do, the tech guy who recommended a new microbrewery.
Walking into work each day, I felt known in a safe, comforting way. There were plenty of things we didn't know about each other — but that's true in real families too.
OK, so maybe I didn't love everybody I worked with. I wasn't forgetting the daily grind aspect of the job either. And yet.
With my new, be-careful-what-you-wish-for vision, I saw the benefits of having an identifiable enemy. If I became my own boss, who could I rail against and blame, except (gulp) myself? Without a time clock, how would I ever be sure I'd done a full day's work?
I thought about all the things I knew that would become useless knowledge: how to search for a pasta cookbook under "Cookery, Italian," or the final step in fixing a copier paper jam, the authoritative, don't-forget-who's-boss slam of the drawer. It had taken me — an introvert — a ridiculously long time to feel at ease with the constant give and take with library patrons.
Now I realized how much I'd miss it.
Those immensely satisfying encounters when I suggested a novel that made a reluctant reader's face light up or when I located the book a desperate student needed for a report due tomorrow? No way could the solitary life of a writer give me that feeling of connection.
There was also the small matter of a regular paycheck.
So I thought it over, for months and months. What I'd miss, what I'd gain.
People love to tell you to listen to your heart or your gut. My inner organs only broadcast static.
I've never been good at making choices. That probably comes with being a writer. No good story, fiction or true, is ever simple. Life tempts us this way and that, and as hard as we try to plot a rational, logical path, there's always an element of chance. We can't ever know for sure if we're taking the right direction.
One busy afternoon as I sat behind the library desk, it came to me that if I left, nothing here would really change. The great work of the place would go on — no matter what.
But my heart said, speaking clearly at last, I'd never get another chance to tell the stories I knew. The ones I was aching to tell. If not now, when? shouted my heart.
A couple of weeks later, I took off my name badge and set it in my mailbox. When I stepped outside, the air was cold and bright. It made me wince. But I took a deep breath and kept on going.