Finding Optimism

In order to live the life that I do, you need a good dose of optimism; a belief that another adventure will come your way, and so will the means to fund it.  Optimism was not something I was born with.  It came to me after a trip I took when I was 15 years old.

My earth science teacher had posters all over his classroom of people rock climbing or dog sledding, and at the bottom were always the words “Outward Bound.”  This was long before the internet existed, so it wasn’t like I could just Google those words.  I can’t recall how it was that I ended up getting an Outward Bound catalog in the mail.  But I remember mom asking if I was interested in doing it, and we looked through the catalog.  Not being into anything that required physical strength or stamina, I picked a sailing course.  Good thing there was no physical effort needed – the mental part of this trip turned out to be more than I thought I could have handled.

One of the first things we did upon being dropped off at the Hurricane Island Outward Bound school was put up our tents.  Without directions.  I couldn’t believe they would leave four teenagers to put up a tent with no guidance or instruction.  Surprisingly, we did it.  We then had to take out everything in our suitcases and stuff it into duffel bags we were given.  We were told to leave in the suitcases books, walkmans, make-up, and watches.  Next, it was on to a ropes course.  We went forty feet up in the air to walk between the trees.  On seeing the course, I didn’t think it would be too hard.  But once I was up there looking down, all I could think was “no way!”  But this was all part of the teambuilding exercise.  So there were 29 teenagers below me screaming encouragement and support.  Maybe I got through it only to shut them up.

The next morning we were woken early to take down our tents and get in vans to drive to our starting point.  On the dock, staring at our boats, I realized I somehow missed the part in the brochure where they said we’d be living on a 30 foot cabin-less boat with 14 other people.  What had I gotten myself into?  Just that morning a model-looking waif with an English accent asked me to look up her nose to see that there were no boogers.  Really?  This is what concerns English teenagers?  Who on earth did she think would be looking up her nose?  Turns out both her parents were models.  Perhaps this is something model parents teach their children.  I also found out that English girl was on this trip as a punishment for doing drugs in school.  Actually, I discovered only half of us had signed up for this trip voluntarily.  The other half were forced into it.  If I wanted to deal with troublesome teenagers for two weeks, I could have just stayed home with my little sister.  But here I was.

Words That Made A Difference

I wasn’t always a very optimistic person.  In fact, I clearly remember a time in my life when my mother told me over and over to “look on the bright side.”  Mom tells me she doesn’t recall that.  Which reminds me of a little girl on Oprah whose mother had passed away.  The mother knew she was sick and so took her kids on all sorts of trips before she died.  Oprah asked the little girl what her favorite memory was of her mom.  The little girl said it was one night when the little girl couldn’t sleep, and she and mom went down to the kitchen and ate cheerios.  You never know what words or actions are going to have the most impact on another person.

I had a pleasant reminder of this a couple months ago.  I had a student who ended up dropping my course.  His mother works on the campus on which I teach.  I was talking to her one day and asked how her son was doing.  She told me how he was enjoying his courses and that even though he dropped my course, “He said you were a really good teacher.  And there’s one specific study technique that you showed him that he uses all the time.  I don’t understand it really – something about forming a picture in his head and following something.”  I laughed saying I can’t recall what I said either.  Then, a couple weeks later, I was in lab.  Each table of students had a box of bones.  I instructed them to find a space on the floor and reconstruct the skeleton.  When they finished, I explained, “You’ll know you know this stuff if you can picture the entire skeleton in your head, and be able to tell someone  each bone and as you go up the arm, be able to say which bones connect to the next one.  Then, do the same thing for your legs.  Then connect them to your trunk.”  Hmph.  There is was.   Picture it in your head, follow it along.  Who knew words that came to me so naturally, without much thought, could have such an impact?

Help From The Competition

Fear and mystery – those are the two things I felt when I first found out a professional organizer was sitting in the back of my first organizing class.  The fear dissipated as I continued my presentation and saw her nodding her head in encouragement.  The mystery was completely solved when I took her up on her offer to meet her for coffee after one of my classes.

After getting our food, we took a seat at the booths upstairs.  I couldn’t believe our similarities.  She had tried corporate America some time ago and disliked it just as much as I did.  She had once been a math teacher; I was a math tutor.  She was also a massage therapist; I was a non-practicing physical therapist.  She once again flooded me with compliments about my teaching abilities and my knowledge.  I confided to her my fears about starting this business I’d dreamed about for so long.  She listened and then explained them all away.

Our bond sealed, she told me her plan.  She was interested in teaching her organizing method (upon which she had written a book!).  You know how there are some people who could organize themselves if someone just gave them the basics on how to do it?  Well, that’s her method.  Her idea was to have a three hour one-on-one session with those folks: teach them her method, help them get started, and then leave them to use what they had just learned.  She explained that this will work great for some people but that there are others that will realize they need more help.  “At my age, I’ve realized there are things I don’t want to do, and so I’m not going to do them.  This course that you’re teaching?  They asked me to teach something like this a while back.  But I wasn’t interested, so I said no.  And I’m glad I did because they found you!  And you do such a good job!”  She explained that, similarly, she no longer wants to do long-term organizing projects.  “So if people need more help than just my initial session, I’d be happy to refer them to you.”

I couldn’t believe it.  She was actually going to refer people to me?  I hadn’t even really started yet, and already I had someone ready to send people my way.  Funny enough, this wasn’t the first time this had happened to me.  Sometime ago I’d moved to a new area and wanted to tutor students in math.  I called around to high school guidance offices, explained my services, and dropped off information packets.  One office referred me to the head of their parent group.  When I called and told her of my services she said, “Oh.  I tutor students in math.”  That shut me up quick – why on earth would she want to talk to me now?  But before I could doubt myself too long, she continued: “And I have many more calls than I have spaces for students.  Let’s meet for coffee and if it works out, I can refer to you the students I can’t fit in.”

You see, as Barbara Winter says, there’s more than enough business to go around.  And entrepreneurs generally want to help other entrepreneurs (if they don’t, they won’t be in business too long).  Thankfully, I’ve learned that lesson more than once.  And will be happy to pass it on in the future.

You Never Know Who’ll Show Up

With my first-ever organizing class just a few weeks away, I took off for my favorite place to do research:  the bookstore.  There are a ton of books about how to organize.  The problem is that when someone wants to get organized, the best way to un-motivate them is for them to see a 300 page book on how to do it.  That’s why people sign up for my class.

Here’s the thing though:  I really didn’t need to read those books.  Over the past ten years, I’d helped so many people pare down and read so many books on the topic that I had all the information in my head already.  The reason I needed a book was to remind me of how much I did know.

I pulled a few off the shelves that seemed to address my audience (retired folk looking to stop accumulating and start scaling down) and then was able to snag an overstuffed chair on which to sit while I assessed the value of each book.  I picked the one I liked best – a fairly thin volume that covered what I hoped to in my four week class – and bought it.

I must confess that, though I carried that book and a notebook everywhere I went, I still didn’t sit down to outline my course.  But down to the wire, with just a couple days until my first class,  I panicked.  To get talked off the ledge, I called the person I knew would calm my fears: my mother.  I can’t recall what she said.  Something along the lines of “Just sit down and do it.”  So I did. I put it all on paper.  I was ready.

On the first day of class, after my students settled themselves into their seats, I asked them to go around the room telling me what their reason was for taking this course.  The answers were what I expected: the collections they didn’t know what to do with, the piles of books and papers, a desire to move to a smaller space.  And then we got to a tiny lady in the back of the room.  She said she loves organizing and is just here to learn some new tips.  Her friend piped up, “It’s what she does – and she has a book.”

My smile hid my intense fear and dread as I said, “Oh, wonderful!”  My fear, though, quickly dissipated as I realized I would do the same exact thing she was doing.  No matter how much I think I know about organizing, I still pick up the magazines touting tips for organizing your kitchen cabinets.  And I, too, would sit in on a class on the topic because there’s always something new to learn.

The other thing that helped me get over my initial shock at having an actual experienced organizer in my class was that I knew that I had a great class planned.  My confidence pushed me through.  And I figured there was some reason that I was up here instead of her.

My class went fabulously well.  I did some interactive activities, had a short video that made people laugh, dispelled some myths and felt like we’d made progress.  I knew that was so when many of my students sought me out at the end of the class to tell me how much they enjoyed it.  Including the organizer.  She asked about my interest in the topic and I quietly told her my dream and how I thought this was a good way to start.  She said I did a great job.  She gave me her card and her book and offered that if I would like to meet with her sometime to talk about how to get started, she would be happy to do that.

Wait a minute.  What about this idea of competition?  Why would she want to help me – someone who could potentially take business from her (if I ever got this idea off the ground)?  Then I thought back to something Barbara Winter once said to me: there is plenty of business to go around.  And smart entrepreneurs realize this and befriend their would-be competitors.  Had this woman known this tip?  I then thought about how many potential math tutors had asked me about how they could get started – sheepishly at first.  I am always encouraging and supportive.  First because I’m such a fan of having work in which you’re your own boss – and if I can help someone else see the joys of that, all the better.  And secondly because there are a lot of kids out there that need math help.  More than I can tutor.  And my goal is to help kids.  Encouraging others to become tutors fits in with that goal perfectly.

I was still a little mystified as to why this woman would want to help me, though.  But I took her information and told her my next few weeks were a bit busy but that I would love to talk to her.  It’s true, my next few weeks were busy.  But here was God putting this wonderful resource right in my lap – who was I to turn it down?  So I e-mailed her a week later and set up to have coffee with her after our next class.  Little did I know what a wonderful idea this was.

Another Reason to Dine Alone

I much prefer eating with company than all alone.  But sometimes I want to go out to eat and there’s not a soul available to join me.

Such was the case tonight.  I was between activities and needed some nourishment.  I get quite moody when I’m hungry.  Think of that movie with the Gremlins.  You weren’t supposed to feed them after midnight or they went nuts.  Well, it’s just the opposite with me – if you don’t feed me, I go a little crazy.  I’m not a fast-food kind of person.  In fact, I’m a big fan of the Slow Food movement, but that’s another story.  Needless-to-say, I wanted something quick (as I had another appointment to get to) but light and healthy and delicious.  My first choice was closed, so I went to a Japanese place I’d wanted to try for quite some time.  I tried to open what I thought was the main door.  It was locked even though the sign indicated they were open.  I was a little mystified until a woman came around the corner and told me the entrance was a little further along and to follow her.  She complimented my outfit, I lamented about the rain, we laughed at my confusion about the side door.  The warm greeting she received when we walked in told me she’d been to this place before.  Our hostess eagerly told us about the specials before we even sat down.  As she went to take her seat, I asked if she was alone.  She said she was and we decided to join each other.

She said this wasn’t the first time she’d done this.  It wasn’t mine either.  She had just come back from a trip to Sante Fe where she paired up with a single woman in line behind her at a restaurant.  I once sat down at my favorite restaurant in Boston and started chatting with the single girl at the table next to me.  After a few minutes, she joined me.  I’ve also met plenty of interesting people while eating alone on consulting trips and while traveling around Europe.

We bonded over our notion that just because you have no one to dine with doesn’t mean you should not go out.  We talked about how you meet a lot of interesting people when you do things alone.  She said when she first saw me she thought I was coming to meet a blind date.  This made sense when she told me about her most recent on-line dating experiences – the modern-day version of a blind date.  She knew much more about Japanese food than I did and recommended the best dish I’ve ever had in such a place.  Our gracious and bubbly hostess offered us a free appetizer, but our food arrived just as she made the offer to us.

My new friend is a self-employed graphic designer.  Oh how I love meeting other folks working for themselves.  She’s been at it for four years, and shared some words of wisdom with me.

I was disappointed I didn’t have more time to spend with her.  We exchanged cards, though, and I have a feeling we’ll meet again.

I must admit that I was not prepared for my 7pm engagement tonight.  I had debated about spending the hour before it preparing, but wisely opted to fill my stomach instead.  And it definitely was the right choice.  I got to my 7pm appointment only to realize I was more prepared than I thought I was.  It’s taken a while, but I’ve learned that when in doubt feeding a hunger is better than feeding your stress.  As usual, God provided:  good food, a new friend, and a wonderful evening.

When The Timing Is Right…

I would often beat myself up over my fear of starting an organizing business.  But over the last couple of years, I’ve come to believe that when the timing is right, things will happen.  One of the things about “the right timing” is that you can’t really predict when that will be.  Which I think makes it more exciting when the time does finally arrive.

A few members of my writing group were attending a course at a local adult education center on writing memoir.  These were women who had traditionally focused on other writing forms – fiction and poetry mostly – so they were excited to discover the talents they had in this other arena.  Each time they came to writers group, they would rave about the instructor and the assignments they had been given.

Their excitement did two things for me: it caused me to reminisce about my own first memoir writing experience at the John C. Campbell Folk School and it also stirred in me some curiosity about this adult education program.

A few months earlier I had come back from a conference for those of us with a business idea that are “stuck.”  While there, someone helped me to come up with a fabulous title for an organizing class I could teach at an adult education center.  We were encouraged to teach at places like this because you can test out your ideas on a group of people and build your confidence in your knowledge of your subject matter.

So when my fellow writers raved about their memoir course and other courses they had taken at this place, I went on the web site to see what it would take to teach there.  I was thrilled to see that you didn’t have to submit a course proposal – you could just call them with your idea.  I wasn’t a fan of blindly submitting an idea – get me talking, though, and people love me.  So I called and left a message saying I had an idea for a course.

When I was called back the next day, the woman asked me about my idea.  Then, she asked my experience.  Here’s the thing: I’d only ever been paid to help someone organize once.  But “experience” does not always mean “paid.”  So I told her honestly about my background.  Then she asked about my teaching experience.  On this, I was golden.  I’d taught in adult ed programs before, and I was teaching a college course at that very moment.

She loved my idea, but then said, “The committee that decides on courses for the spring meets tomorrow.  There’s a form you’d have to fill out.   If I e-mail it to you tonight, can you get it back to me by tomorrow morning?”  Ah, a deadline.  “No problem,” I said.

I titled my class, “You Can’t Take It With You….And Your Kids Don’t Want It Either.”  My description started with, “You may have an empty nest, but does your house still look like the entire flock lives there?  Is every closet filled, but you’re not sure with what?”  I had a grand time filling out the form, and I sent it off.

The woman called me back the next day and said, “When I read about your course, everyone on the committee was either laughing or sighing because they all know they need to take it.”  I was in!

When the course calendar arrived a couple months later, I saw my words in print.  Oh how exciting!

There was only one problem: I had a course to teach in a few weeks, and had yet to plan out what I would tell these folks.

You Get What You Ask For

For years I have wanted to become a professional organizer.  Friends and family have heard me talk with great excitement about helping people declutter their houses to the point that one, each time I bring it up, says, “Do you hear how excited you are talking about this?  Get out there and do it!”  For a girl who usually just “gets out and does” a lot more things in a year than most do in a lifetime, it was a mystery to me why this one was so hard to tackle.  I knew it was fear, on some level.  But fear of what?  And then a couple years ago a spiritual director I was seeing got it out of me.  It was a fear of failure.

I don’t mind “failing” in general.  In fact, I see it as part of life.  To the point where, when people ask about my failures, I struggle to think of any as I view them all as what was meant to happen.  I view them from an angle at which I can see that, without them, I wouldn’t be where I am.  Failure has such a negative connotation, so I don’t use it that much.  Things others would consider “failures” I don’t see very negatively at all.

But when it came to starting an organizing business, the idea of failure paralyzed me.  Here’s why:  I had been dreaming of doing this for years.  If I failed at it, what would I do then? I would have no more “What I really want to do….” because I would have tried it and failed.  This idea had always been on the horizon.  If I failed at it, what would be on my horizon now?  This is really a poor argument from a girl who finds new things to do nearly every month, if not every day.  My spiritual director then wondered if I fill my life with all this variety in order to avoid doing that which I’d really love to do.  Hmm.  It’s a thought, but honestly I think the variety is just who I am.  And this organizing idea could fit right into it.

The idea for this business didn’t just come out of the blue.  I’ve moved ten times in ten years and my favorite part is getting rid of all the stuff I don’t need anymore before I move.  I also absolutely love helping other people pack and unpack, figuring out what they need to take with them to the new place and, once they get there, where to put it all so they can find it again.  My closest friends call me with their move date knowing what joy it brings me to help them.  But it’s not just friends and family I like helping.  I can walk into a strangers house and if they happen to mention in conversation something about a spare room that’s unusable because it’s a collection spot for who knows what, my first reaction is to go in there and help them clean it out.

There’s always more to learn.  I’ve read about the psychology behind why we keep what we keep, the processes by which one is able (or not) to part with things.  I’ve watched the organizing shows on the home channels and I want to be the one going in there to help those folks!

So I’ve been in a limbo state with this idea for quite some time.  The entire plan sits in my head.  And if someone asks me about it – how much would you charge, how would you find customers, could this idea really work – I’ve got all the answers.

I’ve said before that some of my ideas I act on immediately, and some percolate for a while.  This one percolated and sometimes the idea would bubble to the surface and I would take some sort of action.  Well, those actions finally got somewhere.  And that’s what I’ll be writing about over the next couple of posts.

(For those of you wanting to know the rest of the “How I Got Here” story, I’ll get back to it sometime!)

Letting go of the past

This wasn’t the first time I’d moved to a town where I knew next to no one.  There was a certain thrill of being in a brand new in a place.  The idea of starting over, of letting go of the past and moving full force into an unknown future.  I’m aware that not everyone feels this way.  Some people cling to their past as if to a life raft; if they just let go they’d find they won’t drown at all – the water’s shallow enough to stand up, and they can walk into their future unencumbered.

Anyway, that’s what I did.  My life as a physical therapist was getting pushed further into my past.  In July 2000, I moved to Boston to start my year of service as an Americorps VISTA with Massachusetts Campus Compact.

I was given a furnished four room apartment in one of the dorms on the campus where I would be based.  It wasn’t as lavish as it sounds: one of the rooms was a bathroom with no shower, another was a kitchen with no stove that you could walk the length of in two steps (or one really long step).  But I loved that little place.  I took showers in a community bathroom next door to my room – me and the other 20 or so girls who lived on my floor.  I brought two hot plates into the kitchen and, though highly illegal in a college dorm room, I cooked some spectacular meals with just two burners and no oven.

Perhaps it was this experience that really got me thinking about how little we really need to be happy.  I did miss baking brownies, but an oven wasn’t imperative for a happy life.  Yes, I would have loved not to have to wear flip-flops to take a shower, but I’d been on a two week sailing trip with no showers at all, so this wasn’t really that bad.  Here I was living in a place with everything I could want within walking distance, in an apartment I didn’t have to pay for, about to start a job I was sure I would love.  Do you really  need much more than that?

I Think I’ll Go to Boston…

It took a long time to learn, but what they say is true:  Mom is usually right.  This lesson is often earned only after going completely against her advice numerous times.  On rare occasions though, a child triumphs and gets to say, “Ha!  I was right!”  It doesn’t happen that often, so when it does it’s a memorable occasion.  My move to Boston was just that.

During my senior year in college, I bowed out of the senior formal in favor of a trip to Boston with two non-senior friends.  I was an RA at the time, and my traveling partners were my Resident Director and another RA in my building.  We drove out to the Irish Embassy Youth Hostel.  At the front desk, an adorable guy with a melt-your-heart Irish accent explained that parking in Boston was a nightmare and directed me to his grandmother’s neighborhood across the river where I could park my car free of charge.  To grandmother’s neighborhood we went, taking the T back to the hostel.  Tim was woken up each morning by his Irish roommates getting up at 5Am for their construction jobs.  Christina and I tried to fall asleep each night to the beat of the music from the bar below.  During the day, we followed the Freedom Trail and eventually dubbed our walk “The Church and Bookstore Tour of Boston” because – you guessed it – we stopped in every church and bookstore we saw.  Once inside, we went in three separate directions, never deciding on a time to meet back.  Instead, when enough time had passed we’d eventually find each other and move on.

I loved that Boston was such a walkable city.  Though we were doing a touristy activity (walking the Freedom Trail) I felt like it wasn’t just tourists that we were seeing.  It felt like the people that worked in this city actually lived in it too.  I had long ago decided I’d never live in a city because my only reference point was NYC, and that city was entirely too big and messy for my tastes.  But here was a city that you could walk in a day, with plenty of green space, and friendly people.  Hmm….

My next trip to Boston was when a friend invited me to join him for his company Christmas party – a very formal occasion in a ballroom in one of the big hotels downtown.  By day I took us a National Historic Site I wanted to see (that of Frederick Law Olmsted).  By night, we were schmoozing it up and swing dancing the night away, falling into bed in our hotel room overlooking the Charles River.

It was sometime after that trip that I started to think about moving to Boston (and no, it wasn’t because of aforementioned guy).  My mother predicted that there was no way I could afford to live in a city like Boston unless I took a job as a physical therapist.  “But I don’t want to be a physical therapist!” I protested.  “Well, you’ll need someway to earn money.  What are you going to do?”  I didn’t have an answer.

But at the same time I was thinking back to an idea I had in college – that of doing a year of volunteer work.  I wanted to go international, but found that most international programs required you to commit for two years.  Having spent the last 3.5 years in a major I didn’t like made me think that a two year commitment to anything was more than I could handle.

But now I thought perhaps I’d look at doing a year of service in the US. And so I started to center my search for a year-long volunteer stint on Boston.   I followed all sorts of links and one day ended up on the web site for Massachusetts Campus Compact.  I read the job description and loved everything about it.  I would be placed on a college campus and charged with coordinating community service projects involving students in the communities around their campuses.

The funny thing about this was that a few months before I was in a Barnes and Noble paging through one of those find-work-you-love books and came across an exercise that piqued my interest.  It asked you to write down what your ideal day would look like.  I took out the notebook I had with me (I was on a research mission, so had the necessary tools at hand) and wrote away.  From the moment I woke up until the moment I sat down to dinner, I had every detail.  What was I doing for work?  I was working on a college campus meeting with students who wanted to do volunteer work.  I was helping them find places to volunteer, holding meetings with them on upcoming group projects, planning Spring Break Service trips.  In short, the job I described was the exact one I found on the Massachusetts Campus Compact web site.

By the way, I have done this exercise a couple times since then and it works spectacularly well….

So I applied and was accepted into the program as an Americorps VISTA (Volunteer In Service To America).  Here’s the catch: they could place me on any one of thirty campuses in the state of Massachusetts, so I might not be in Boston but in a small town in the middle of nowhere.  I could request where I wanted to be, but they made no promises.  I requested Boston telling them my car was on the fritz and I’d prefer a placement where I didn’t need one.  I also asked that I be placed at a religiously affiliated school.  I graduated from a Jesuit institution and couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but knew I wanted to be on a campus with some sort of religious slant.

Turns out, they had a placement at a religiously-affiliated all women’s school in Boston.  It could have been a tricky place to put someone as my boss was to be the Director of Campus Ministry and we, as volunteers with a federally funded program, had limits on what we could do that was religiously affiliated.  But everyone’s prayers were answered.  I got to work on a campus in Boston and Sr. Pat got a VISTA who had a background in doing service work at religious institutions.

The best part?  Mom said there was no way I could afford to live in Boston unless I was a physical therapist.  But in July of 2000 I found myself living happily in Boston without a paying job. How did I afford to do that?  Well, I also happened to get placed on a campus that gave me an apartment and partial board.  No rent, no utilities, no phone bill, and barely any money needed for food.  I was given a stipend each month at the poverty level which was able to cover any other expenses I had.

Some might argue this was luck.  Some might say coincidence.  I say it was me figuring out what I wanted and asking for it.  Sometimes what you want is what you get.  Sometimes you don’t get what you want, but instead get what you didn’t know you needed.  But that’s another story.

Mom now tells this story to mothers who also have children with grand ideas and seemingly no idea how they’ll accomplish them.  She says that she learned never to tell me I couldn’t do something.  Now she simply asks all sorts of questions to make sure I’ve thought of every angle.  In fact, mom no longer really gives her opinion when I propose a new idea.  And she surely never tells me it can’t be done.  She asks questions, and then tells us that we’re adults now and can make our own decisions.  Sometimes I just want her to take the pressure off and say, “Here’s what you should do.”  But she’s smarter than that.  She knows how important it is for a child to make her own decisions and live with the consequences.  It’s much better than going through life blaming it all on someone else’s advice.

The Census

A gentleman commented on my car the other day.  This happens all the time.  When you own a newer version of a car that everyone over a certain age seemed to have had at one point in their lives, they want to tell you their story.  I’ve heard a lot of VW Bug stories.

I noticed he was carrying a Census bag.  I asked about it and then mentioned that I worked on the 2000 Census.  He knitted his eyebrows together and stared at me.  “You were old enough to work during the last census?”

Turns out I was.  It wasn’t something I ever thought I’d actually do.  But when I was working as a Park Ranger in the Fall of 1999, a guy came to the ticket desk and asked if we could post the sign he was holding.  The sign advertised Census jobs and the number to call to take the test.  One hung in our back room where the seasonal employees would see it.  I’m figuring someone knew that most Park Rangers are seasonal employees and would be looking for work after their term was up (like me).  I stared at that poster as it hung in the back room.  When my term was up at the end of the year I knew I was going to Europe for a month, but hadn’t any clue what I was doing after that.  Though I didn’t really think I’d need it, I took down the number.

When I came back from Europe at the end of January, 2000, I started scouring want ads trying to find something that would spark my interest.  Nothing did.  I traveled up to Vermont where my uncle suggested I could use my clinical experience (minimal though it was) and my computer experience to get a job at a medical software company up there.  I never did apply for that job.

I spent most of February 2000 wondering how I was ever going to find that “one thing” that I’d want to do for the rest of my life.  I had not yet learned that it was possible to not have to pick one thing at all.

Getting desperate, I thought I’d take the census test.  At least it would be something to fill my time while job searching.  I aced the test and was called a couple weeks later to come in for the training.  I went through a week of learning how the government goes about counting the population of the entire country and why it’s so important.  Then I took an oath promising to protect the country “against all enemies foreign and domestic.”  This may sound odd for a census taker, but I had to take the same oath when I worked for the park service, so it didn’t phase me anymore.

At the end of the class, the instructor (who was to be our boss) asked if I would like to be his assistant instead of walking door-to-door.  He told me what it would entail, and I agreed.  So I never ended up knocking on doors asking people who had yet to turn in their census to fill it out with me.  Instead, I would travel around meeting up with people who were doing just that – my fellow classmates.  I would take all the paperwork they had completed that day, review it, and help them problem-solve any issues they were having.  Then, I’d go meet with my boss and the other assistant at a local diner where we would gather all our paperwork and bring to him any problems we couldn’t resolve.

This was also the first and only job where I’ve ever had to fire people.  If employees were not following procedures or seemed to be claiming more hours than their work showed, it was my job to ask them to account for their time and warn them of what we were seeing.  If they didn’t shape up, I was the one to tell they we were letting them go – and then fill out a bunch of forms explaining why.

At one point in my census term a trainer was unable to do one of his scheduled trainings.  I can’t recall how it was that I came to get that job, but one week I found myself conducting the training that I myself had been through just a couple months earlier.  I was a mere 23 and most if not all of my students were older than me, but that didn’t really bother me.  I knew I knew what I was talking about and felt confident in my ability to speak in front of groups.  I had been a tour guide on my college campus, and then as a park ranger – I knew I loved to train and teach but didn’t yet realize what a gift that truly was.

The census has a bunch of different phases.  Official “Census Day” was April 1, 2000.  Prior to that day, we were in a “mapping” phase, where we would go around looking at the maps the previous phase had come up with and working on editing them – drawing in new developments, new houses – making sure every dwelling was on our map.  After April 1, anyone who hadn’t yet turned in their census got a knock on their door.

I can’t recall how many phases of which I was part.  I left my census job at the end of June – about to do something my mother had a few months earlier tried to convince me would never happen.  I was about to prove her wrong.