Burning Out and Hugging Trees

A week ago I made the trek from the Big Island to Eleuthera and, basically without incident, arrived home. Deep down roots home on this little slice of Bahamian heaven. Sounds, smells, smiles… all the same. And they immediately brought me peace.

This spring was a wild ride. Despite a rich, powerful dip into the spirituality zone (Spirituality and The Unknown), my mind took an even stronger grip on my being, bobbing and weaving through professional angst, working overtime to prevent my unhappiness from knocking me too far down or burying me. Culminating with an immobilizing back issue, the universe was giving me all the signs that it was time to find my way back into my heart. So, here I luxuriate in the solitude of this precious paradise, in what’s become an annual pilgrimage to regroup, refocus, recharge, and find my way out of my head.

The irony doesn’t escape me that it was the experience of connecting with the spiritual world of my mother and family that unearthed a level of intellectual honesty that I’d never really felt able – or compelled – to accept until just around contract renewal time at HPA. When contemplating signing on for another year of advancement work, I wanted to cry. I felt tired. Like I didn’t want to play. Like I was a fraud and wasn’t paying enough attention to be good anymore. As someone who relies on the glory of activity to feed her, this complete lack of interest – much less motivation – felt deadly. Like in the, “please don’t make me have to work anymore” kind of deadly.

My brain was exhausted from being nimble, staying nimble, and looking for solutions, all the while trying not to lose my shit over the small stuff. All this was magnified by the fact that was surrounded by an amazing team of professionals whose reflexes were strong, instincts were spot on, and – above all else – desire to make a difference in our little world had grown to surpass mine. No longer did I make any sense there.

I was officially burned out.

Of course, there have been burnouts and mental sojourns throughout my 25+ years’ raising money, but vacations or projects or an inspirational colleague or loved one usually set me back on course. Not this time. I felt done. Finished incessantly thinking about the all of the moving parts, the chaos of associated alumni class years, the students’ names and their grades and their parents’ issues du jour. But most of all, I felt overwhelmingly discouraged by what I was beginning to see as FACT; none of what I was trying to do was making one wit of difference. Certainly not in a “See that? THAT’s why I do what I do” kind of way. Even the paycheck didn’t feel worth it.

What is the point of it all anyway? Is this it? Is this my purpose in life? Do I now just start to slide unceremoniously down the other side of the structure I’d been building physically, emotionally, and professionally over these last decades? Ugh. It’s just so stark and depressing.

And yet, I had to face that this was my new reality, even convincing myself that not taking the ride would be like lining up all those dominos just to let someone else enjoy felling the first one. Or like spending hours assembling the perfect mousetrap, only to hand over control of that stainless ball. The trip down was the second half of life, pathetic as that seemed.

When my smoldering flame sent me into what was definitely the throes of depression, the idea of eating bons-bons and reading dime novels became increasingly alluring. Sleeping all day, binge-watching whatever, and meandering through the hours spending more on Amazon prime than a lack of income would ever bear. Shit. It’s all I felt I had left in me anyway. I truly had resigned myself to the fact that I would be content fading into the background of my life. More than that. I couldn’t see how things could be any different, and so I was convinced that I didn’t want them to be.

And so I resigned. Jumped ship. Quit. Effective June 30. And I started devoting my energy to finding a way to move permanently to our tiny off-grid house, overlooking the expansive Pacific Ocean. No one would need me there. And certainly no one would have to witness my slip into obscurity and irrelevance. Well, except Jim. Poor guy.

As I started to let things go over a couple very long and anxiety filled months, I felt little bits of pleasure as I set up a consulting LLC and perused remote and telecommuting job sites. In fact, it was kind of fun feeling the windows open after I’d slammed my professional door. I liked ticking things off the list and imagining myself contributing to different companies in new ways. and I really enjoyed crafting cover letters to potential employers that connected who I am and what they were trying to achieve. I even fell in love with the last vestiges of my work at HPA. Curiosity started to bubble back up inside of me, and I liked reading job postings and saying to myself, “I would be good at that.”

I was resistant, of course, as we are prone to be when we are fully committed to feeling down. But I couldn’t ignore that my mind was starting to move again. Starting to feel creative and purposeful. Even reveling a bit in the vulnerability of the not-yet-known. You know when you are in a bad place with someone, and you can’t imagine refilling the gap in trust or love that’s been created? And yet somehow it does? You usually can’t tell you’ve recovered until you are ready to see that have. Until you really want to feel that trust and love again.

Apparently, I was ready. Or, maybe I never really wasn’t.

My last project at work before I crashed and burned was helping to earn HPA a grant to develop a Sustainability Plan for the school. We pushed and pulled and twisted to put together a proposal that responded to an alumnus’s query, “what would it take for HPA to become the most environmentally conscious school in the country?” First, we said, we need to plan. I mean seriously plan. For a year. And the alumnus agreed. So, I spent my last couple of months digging deep into planning the planning process for what surely would be a transformative time in the school’s history.

At the risk of being indulgent of my work, it’s worth mentioning that all schools – and especially independent ones – work hard to distinguish themselves and their student outcomes, and HPA is no exception. One could argue that just being in Hawai‘i is enough to set it apart, and for some that’s true. Truth be told, though, that actually works more against the school than for it. After all, what kind of an education can you get in a place where people drink out of coconut shells and do the hula and where the state is consistently ranked the number one place to honeymoon? You go to Hawai‘i to escape and relax not to work or study, right?

What can you learn from being the most remote landmass in the world? From having almost every climate within a 100 miles? From a Polynesian culture with such respect for and spiritual connection to the land, for its provisions of shelter, food, protection, and purpose for generations and generations? From the core belief that it is your kuleana – your responsibility – to steward that which you have been gifted?

I’ll tell you what I think and what that wise alumnus already knows. You can learn everything you ever needed to know to be a good human: one that not only believes in leaving the world a better place than you found it but who also one knows how to do so.

As the distractions of responsibility faded away with my looming retirement, a new passion emerged: a passion that transcends my individual purpose and gives a place for the little structure I’d been constructing all my life: contributing in a real and measurable way to a better world.

Dang. Too bad I just quit. Told the place that was being given the educational opportunity of a lifetime that “I just can’t do it anymore.” Stupid, stupid me.

Now, it’s not that I would be the first person anyone would think of when it comes to developing a sustainability plan. I mean, I know very little about the massive topic in general, other than what I’ve learned by osmosis. But what I do know is how to plan. And I know how to adhere to a timeline and how to bring the right people together to get shit done. And I certainly know how to ask the questions to get a conversation going in a productive direction.

And you know what? HPA apparently agrees. They’ve asked me to sign on for another year to lead the development of its Sustainability Plan. Against all odds and despite the declarations of my being done, they want me. Of course I said YES, without a moment’s hesitation. I want them! So, my friends, you’re looking at HPA’s Sustainability Team Leader, and I couldn’t be more excited, more honored, or more ready to go!

From burnout to evangelist in the blink of an eye. Okay, so it was a long, slow, twitchy, uncertain blink, but a blink nonetheless in the grand scheme of things. And to all of those people that tolerated my twisted face, sour puss, and many, many tears… thank you. You delivered me to this moment, and I am eternally grateful.

I’m going to go hug a tree for each and every one of you.