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When "I Don't Know" Is The Only Answer You Need

by Debbie Ann Hagen

When someone asks me "What do you do?" I find it difficult to know how to answer them.

For many years it was easy. I was a mom, I was a nurse, I was a business woman, I was a shop keeper, I was a store clerk. A few words of explanation and the question was answered. It was easy to define myself by tasks, by job description, by the work I did.

A year ago, all those easy answers changed.

I closed the business I had built, nurtured and grown over a decade. Suddenly, everything I had done, all the tasks, all the descriptions (some simple, some more complex) were gone.

There were no plans, there were no tasks. There was nothing, just empty days, a very disconnected resume, and huge questions.

Without a clear answer of what I did, I suddenly had no answers, even for myself, of what I wanted to do next.

While on one side there were endless possibilities to create new plans and independent positions, on the other was the balance of my age (64), my lack of current skills, my being out of touch with the realistic Cape Cod job market, and worst of all, my feeling of failure, my guilt at being in debt, and my fear of not being able to eradicate the debt and losing my savings, my retirement, and maybe even my home.

In a few weeks I went from self-assured business owner to grieving, depressed, panic–filled older woman.

From a 24/7 business, I was left with endless days and nothing to fill them. When anyone asked me what was I doing now, the ugly words "I don't know" would come out of my mouth and stab me in the gut as I recoiled from how hateful they sounded.

How could I not know what I wanted to do? I've been working since I was eight years old. I couldn't remember a time when I wasn't working, doing something, and now I was doing nothing, with no sense of direction where I even wanted to begin.

"Go to the job center," I was told."They will help you with your resume. Then you can apply for openings."

So I did, only to find that the computer-based application process didn't want any skills that were more than 10 years old, and there was no easy way to define the decade spent growing my business. I had skills that ranged from janitor, to bookkeeper, to CEO, yet none of the skills were transferable to a position that needed job descriptions and references.

The job counselor suggested that I needed to "decide what I wanted to do" before trying to complete my resume or on-line applications. She didn't understand that if I knew what I wanted to do I wouldn't need her services.

Into the middle of this quagmire dropped two friends who offered work. One wanted me to fill a one-overnight-per-week private duty nursing case. Nursing? I hadn't been in the nursing field for fifteen years. I wasn't sure I could even do it any more, but she had faith in me so I gave it a try.

The work was not difficult, but staying awake all night was a killer. For every night I was scheduled to work, I worried all day before, stayed awake all night, then slept much of the day after. It wasn't pretty but it did fill some of the empty days. I still didn't know what I wanted to do, but this job was a way to pay some of the bills and that was enough to quell the panic.

Every week I worried about the job one day, worked overnight, and then slept the next day.

A few months after I started the overnight job, another friend, knowing I had closed the store, called and asked, "What are you doing now?"

Again, the words "I don't know" tasted bitter in my mouth as I agreed to meet with him. Through a strange quirk of circumstances, he offered me a job as a clerk in his store, where I had worked before starting my own shop. In fact, working for him so many years ago was the training that propelled me into opening my own business. Could I go back and start again?

It's amazing what you agree to do when there is a paycheck involved, so I said yes. Again, it wasn't easy, but it filled another two (later three) days a week. Between the two jobs, I was busy 3-4 days every week, which filled most of the time, and allowed me to spend time with my husband on the weekend days he was off.

Having two days off in the summer on Cape Cod was a treat I hadn't experienced. Ever.

Every position I'd ever had required all weekends to be filled, especially in the summer season. Learning how to relax and enjoy a Cape summer was the easiest of any job I had.

Now when someone asked me, "What are you doing?" I could answer with any one of the three "jobs." Even though I still didn't know what was happening next, I could at least feel as if I was "doing" something to fill the days.

And then it hit me. I didn't know what I was doing or what my future plans were, but it no longer mattered to me (or anyone else) if I said, "I don't know."

In fact, when I stopped being upset about "I don't know," I realized that no one (other than myself) really thought that I needed to know.

As the months passed, I settled into a routine with the part-time jobs. After the season ended and I worked less at the store, I thought, "Now, I'll have direction. Now I'll have time to decide what to do."

Yet, the direction, the desire, and the planning just didn't come. Instead of needing to fill the days with work, I expanded my relaxation activities. I learned to do crafts, to take yoga classes, to spend more time in nature, and I learned to accept Being instead of Doing.

In short, I've now learned that there is a balance to my life that had been missing for many years. Now when I am asked, "What are you doing?" I say "I don't know" without any negativity.

I take each day as a set of hours to fill and I find a balanced way to fill them. If I'm scheduled to work at either job, that work becomes the focus of the day. If there is no work focus, I find another activity. I no longer worry about where I'm going. Instead, I'm enjoying the journey.

No one criticizes me, including myself. Without the pressure to know what I'm doing, ideas and plans are starting to take their own form. Released from the negative, the positive is emerging. I still work overnight but I have adjusted to the hours. I work when I am needed and I balance the time needed with taking extra care of myself. In short, I now have a life with more balance than it ever had before.

How long will it last? I don't know. And that's okay.

Debbie Hagen

Debbie Hagen is currently a woman in transition, learning to value the other aspects of Life besides work, which has been a much-too-consuming aspect.

She is a nurse, a teacher, a toy store clerk, and wife, trying to balance all these roles with her most important job of learning who she is inside.

Although she loves to write (as a form of talking and creating), this is her first published article since high school. She is the former owner of deborah ann's rainbow, a holistic gift shop, which she hopes to re-open online this spring as part of her new business, Rainbow Balance.

Debbie has lived on Cape Cod for the past 60 years and currently resides in South Chatham.