99: Ripe for a Change

99: Ripe for a Change

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Find Your Happiness

Ripe for a Change

Find a job you like and you add five days to every week.

~H. Jackson Browne

For my fortieth birthday, my daughter gave me an empty glass jar on which she had written the word Happiness. “When you find what makes you happy, you can put it in here so you don’t lose it!” she explained.

The gift nicely summed up the vast majority of my life: a search for happiness. I certainly was happy as a boy; I can’t tell you how many times I’ve relived boyhood games in my mind. I reminisced about childhood so much that my wife even called me “Peter Pan.” Even young adulthood was fun: I loved working at the grocery store, setting up the produce stand, helping customers select the perfect level of ripeness. It was relaxing and I loved interacting with the people I helped. If the real world hadn’t beckoned, I could have worked there forever.

But when I became an adult, it seemed that everyone around me had found their correct life, and more importantly, had found happiness in that life. I always felt like I was still searching. I took a job in banking to support my family, but what really made me happy were my two young daughters. When they started growing up, however, I felt lonely and pointless again. My job and the long commute seemed absurd. Pushing papers and meeting deadlines without interacting with clients felt pointless; I’d come home and the girls would be at their friends, or at practice or rehearsal. And I wasn’t there to see it.

Thinking about my job consumed more and more of my free time. Over the years, the banking industry had been heartless, and various mergers and acquisitions always left me questioning — and sometimes losing — my job security.

“Just leave work at work,” my wife advised. “Come home, find something that makes you happy, and get absorbed in it.”

Easy for her to say. She finds happiness in anything — reading, gardening, talking, cooking. In fact, there isn’t much she doesn’t find joy in — except for watching me mope around the house, miserable.

When the girls moved out, a new bank acquisition sent me away from the stress of New York City into the quiet cities of the South. At first we thought it was a blessing — and it was. My wife and I were now closer to where our daughters had moved. I had a shorter commute. And for a few weeks, I was happy.

But soon the doldrums came again, and my wife declared with frustration, “As long as you’re working, you’re never going to be happy, Peter Pan!”

A blessing in disguise closed the office, and the company offered to move us back to New York. My wife was horrified that I might accept the offer and frightened about what might happen if I didn’t. We considered it carefully, and we decided we didn’t need a lot of money anymore: our home was nearly paid off and our girls were out on their own. We could settle for a modest salary, health insurance, and proximity to our daughters.

I declined the offer.

I loved the first few months of being jobless. It was everything I ever thought I wanted. I repaired every problem with the house. I pruned the trees. I created built-in shelves in all the basement storage areas. Crown molding, recessed lighting... I did it all.

Once the adrenaline wore off, however, that tiny seed of worry sprouted in my soul. Why hadn’t I gotten any calls from sending out my résumé? I knew the economy was bad, but I expected a handful of interviews by now.

“All the jobs are in New York,” my wife sighed one night.

“I won’t move back there,” I insisted.

My wife understood, and she was glad for the decision, but she was starting to worry. She watched our checkbook carefully. She started cutting corners at the grocery store, buying store brands and skimping on her favorite treats.

Two years went by, and although my wife wouldn’t say it, I knew what she was thinking: she wondered whether finally, now that I didn’t have to work a job I hated, I was happy. I saw the anger growing in her face as she left for work each day and glared at me as I sat on the couch sipping coffee and watching television. I wanted to tell her that the joy of it had worn off after a matter of months. That I only continued repairing our home so that I’d have something to do. That now I felt useless and old. I had run out of job prospects and home-improvement projects, and the days blended together.

I wanted to work.

I wanted to be happy.

It took two years of résumé revisions, of unemployment workshops, of promising interviews that for one reason or another just “didn’t pan out.” My cover letters were lackluster. I realized the drive that had helped me through my early career had been my desire to provide for my family. Now, they were provided for. My epiphany came when I realized that, for the first time in my life since childhood, I could worry about ME.

One day at breakfast, my wife eyed me over her coffee. “You know,” she said, “when we were younger, you always used to tell me that your favorite job was working at that grocery store, stocking produce. A few times you even mentioned that, money aside, that would be the only job that would make you happy. Do you remember?”

I smiled. “Of course I do. I can still see those lettuce heads, those glistening apples. I still remember the particular weight of a cantaloupe just begging to be sliced and enjoyed, the feel of a tomato that will be ripe in time for dinner. Helping people instead of pushing paper...”

My wife smiled. It was a relaxed smile, a smile I hadn’t seen in a few years.

“What made you remember that?” I asked.

“I saw they’re opening up a new supermarket in the next town over. It just made me think of — well,” she said, trying not to be too blunt, “I saw an advertisement for a produce department manager. I just thought —”

But she was too late. I had already retrieved a cover letter and résumé from the kitchen desk. “I sent this in three weeks ago,” I said. “I’ve already had a phone interview with the store manager, and he says there are a few positions he’d like to see me fill. My interview is next Tuesday.”

Weeks later, happily in my new position, I gazed at the “happiness” jar on my dresser. It was now filled with all my favorite snapshots from my life, from the birth of our daughters to their graduations and weddings.

I may have lost it, but I found it once again. “The love of family,” I think to myself each night before bed. “That is what my happiness has always been.”

And tomatoes.

~Martin Walters

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