It has been a rare part of my work life to work “alone.” I seem to choose jobs where working with or around other people is built into what I do. I have been a teacher with class sizes as small as 4 but as large as 39, a manager at the Children’s Museum, on a team of 4 with a staff of 9 and visitors by the thousands. As a young adult I worked in a restaurant, a convenience store and a movie theater where the constancy of customer contact could get overwhelming at times. I am now the operator of a café where it is rare to go an hour without some kind of customer contact.
The few jobs I have held that were solo positions do stand out for me. My first job was to cut grass for a neighbor’s auto parts business. My dad would drop me and mower off and then head off on some errand or two, leaving me to walk the path I had developed around the oddly L-shaped lot with the sloped corner. It was a time of focus on the small space in front of me (there was often a bit of trash in the lot) and it was a time of imagining since I really only had my own thoughts to listen to. I had tried to carry my transistor radio but the engine noise was too challenging. I developed routines and pacing. I set goals and limits. I was learning to manage myself as a worker.
During a year of part-time teaching, I picked up a writing position with a religious publisher. I edited and wrote curriculum materials on a project-by-project basis. It ended up filling a lot of my down time and even made me feel like I had a full time job at times. The truly “solo” feel of a writing job – given an assignment and a due date, but left on my own from that point - required me to learn how to structure my day to feel like I was “at work.” I set aside a place, developed rituals and created very tight schedules to keep me connected to my supervisors even though I rarely saw or spoke to them. A measure of self-discipline was put to use, along with lots of breakfast tea and graham crackers.
I recently filled out a form in which I needed to list myself as sole proprietor. This is true, but I am clear that I am not alone in my work. Still, I always have a hard time giving up control of some aspects of my work and I struggle with delegating tasks that I really shouldn’t be doing. Running a business is a team effort on many levels. The complexity of interdependence has me in awe.
This next phase of my business efforts seems to be built around a sense of team. In my earlier days, in a small compact shop, it was easier to run on the “just me” mentality. The transition into “team time” has not been particularly easy. Where I could once talk to myself, I now must communicate to several people who bring varying perspectives, roles and schedules. I have needed to focus on coordination of efforts to reduce duplication, system building to create consistency, and decision-making processes to keep the flow moving. It’s a whole new level of business management I’m learning, and this is creating a new feel of what going solo means to me.
And so I return again to the experience of an Outward Bound “solo” as my framework for understanding my new situation. Provided with a bit of food, a tarp and a quiet space separated from all the other members of my hiking group, I spent a 24 hour period in the woods of the Great Smoky Mountains, observing and reflecting on the backpacking, rock climbing and team building experience of the previous few days. There were long stretches of just sitting, noticing, thinking, imagining, and making mental connections that don’t form quickly or without dedicated space.
And there was the comforting sense of grounding to a small space on the earth, becoming more and more in tune to the sights and sounds around me. It wasn’t until many hours into the experience that I realized that there were birds watching me (the visitor) from their home above me. They had been there all along, I just needed the extra time and space to bring them into my realm.
If I don’t take the time to make space and be “solo” I tend to not be as aware of my environment. As we strive to build community here in south Minneapolis, it is clear to me that we all need the ability to make space for ourselves so that our connections to our neighbors can come into focus. May you have the blessing of a bit of solo time; be it a walk, a sit at a park, a dig in the garden, or even a ride on a bus, to help you grow your sense of dependence and interdependence along this green path.