Between Burnout and a Thriving Place

Between Burnout and a Thriving Place

“So Ashlee, what are your big plans for tonight?”

I was in the middle of working as a production assistant for a week-long writer’s workshop, and one of the writers tossed out the question as we were all packing up to leave the space for the evening.

It was simple small talk, but I didn’t have a good answer for it. That is, I didn’t have a cool answer for it. Back home, in college, it was a question nobody ever asked me, because pretty much everyone knew the answer would be a variation on one word: work. That’s who I established myself as, the girl who worked. Babysitting, rehearsal for a play or musical, teaching a class, working at a preschool, or a church, or in a nursery—if I ever had free time, it always snuck up on me, leaving me scrambling for plans because I rarely made them in advance, just in case an opportunity to pick up a class or do another show came up. If nothing else, there was always the library, where the staff knew me on a first name basis.

It was all in the service of getting here, here being New York City. The first of November marked my three-month anniversary of moving here to pursue a theatre career.

A life in the entertainment industry doesn’t come with a lot of stability or control, least of all at the beginning, and the way I’ve always dealt with that in the past has been to say “yes” to anything that came my way. Yes, I can direct that show. Yes, I can babysit. Yes, I can proof your paper. Yes, I can bring cookies to the first rehearsal.

My favorite blogger has written about how she reached a point in her life where she realized that all she had to talk about on a date was work. Which brings me back to that workshop.

In that moment, all I could do was cobble together some lame sentence about needing to…work.

“Cool, see you tomorrow.” He shouldered his bag and walked out the door.

And that was when I realized that if anyone were to ever ask me on a date, all I had to talk about was work.

“Beware: you can (and might) build an entire life out of fear. And that life can look deceivingly beautiful. And no one might ever question it. But a life built out of fear, and not love, is lonely.” Hannah Brencher

This whole 20s thing often feels like a race. A race to prove that you’re not wasting this decade our generation’s been given that our parents and grandparents spent getting married and raising children and settling into a neighborhood and building a community that had roots. And I’ve built a life around being so, so afraid that I would lose.

I’m from Tennessee, and a lot of people I know are following that spouse-house-baby blueprint laid out for us since the dawn of time. I think that’s beautiful, in a lot of ways; I think it sounds like security. We’ve built a lot of rituals and parties into having a significant other and starting a family. Whatever the other joys and benefits of deciding to go in a different direction, it isn’t standard practice for people to throw you a You’re Finding Yourself in Europe! Shower.

I also knew pretty early on that, for various reasons, I would not be a ring-by-spring gal. I say this without malice or bitterness. I am still pro-love, pro-Valentine’s Day, pro-weddings (seriously, if you want a complete stranger to show up at your wedding and cheer and cry like she’s known you since the hospital nursery, send me an e-mail), and for sure pro-romance. I just decided that I wanted to be a career-by-spring person, instead. So I worked, all the time.

And it turns out that you can’t control whether or not someone will give you the job you want, any more than you can control someone dropping down on one knee.

So what do you do in the in-between? When you realize that you want to keep going, but you’ve also walked through the neighborhood of burnout two too many times, and you know you don’t want to go back there?

I wish I had all the answers, and I don’t, but I think it begins with stepping back and letting yourself be a person. Foregoing a networking opportunity in favor of a pottery class. Giving yourself the freedom to have drinks with friends on a Tuesday every once in a while.

And, even though it’s become a trite statement, I think it looks like making stuff for yourself, because the only work that you can really control is the stuff that no one else is asking you to make.

The question of “can we have it all?”—especially for women—remains a well-trod one, but I think that, deep down, we all know the answer: you can have anything you want on paper, but the pie of your actual day will still consist of twenty-four hours.

If I’m being honest, the concept of having it all feels a little dated, a little left over from a time when strict gender roles prescribed that you had a certain job to do, and that was that.

I feel tired just thinking about the pioneers who began the good work of breaking us out of those shells. But how are we thanking them? How are we repaying the gift of having been born into a time when, more and more, we’re being asked to carve out unique lives and create our own niches? We’re coming of age at a time when the words “mother” and “executive” don’t feel like they belong oceans apart. And that still doesn’t change the fact that, sometimes, that means missing bedtime in favor of a meeting—or a girls’ night. What I hope will change, though, is the idea that those three examples should always have the same hierarchal structure, when our priorities shift, and needs change. You have to pick the chunks of the “all” that you want.

Ultimately, I think our best tool in the fight for balance between pounding the pavement and burning out is the ability to discern when to say yes, and when to say no. It’s both. And it will never look the same, person-to-person, because sometimes you need a trough of white wine for the table, and sometimes you need to be snuggled up reading Goodnight Moon for the seventh time in two days.

So, what are my big plans for tonight? Maybe snuggling up with white wine to read Goodnight Moon. I’ll let you know how it goes.

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[Photo by Julie Bloom.]

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