Leaning In or Falling Over?

June 28, 2013

Well, Sheryl Sandberg, it seemed as if I was leaning in. So far, in fact, that I fell over.

It was the end of a long Tuesday, the one day a week I work in an office, not from my computer at home. My youngest had graduated from elementary school the night before and I was still reeling from the hasty passage of time. I was so irrationally moved by the experience that I cried when the graduating class sang the High School Musical finale.

To be fair, a major project deadline loomed. I’d been eating/drinking/sleeping the writing, research, and gathering of archival documents required to get things done. Laundry dunes dispensed with all pretense of order in our house. The boys had been eating nachos for dinner on a regular basis and I kept pretending not to notice. I was just too tired, both physically and mentally.

But by early evening last Tuesday, my caffeine stores were depleted and I sank to a new level of exhaustion. It was time to head home after a ten-hour workday when I discovered the absence of two archival images from my chapter five files. Thankfully, they were copies, not originals. Still, they’d taken a lot of digging to find and I had no easy way of tracking them down again.

Luck had blessedly put them in my hands. Alas, luck giveth and luck taketh away.

As panic set in, my Aunt Bea’s voice rang in my head, reminding me to breathe. I retraced my steps and began to search frantically through my folders chapter by chapter, hoping the AWOLs would turn up. It eventually occurred to me that in my daily effort to organize the overwhelming stacks of paper related to this project, I may have accidentally thrown out the documents after a meeting with my boss.

That limited my search to three separate recycling haystacks. However, Mila from the building’s housekeeping service had already gathered the dailies from the bins and was making her way down another corridor. When she overheard my humbling admission to my boss about the missing images, she put the brakes on her cart and pronounced in her lovely Slavic accent, “We are going to find this for you!”
The recycling bags were especially full that day because the retiring chief of accounting had been clearing off his shelves. He’d also tossed in his almost, but not quite, empty coffee cup.

Before I knew it, I was on the ground with my head deep inside the recycling bag. My boss fished out a handful of documents that could’ve been, but weren’t the missing ones. We quickly ruled out accounting manuals and budgetary spreadsheets until her carpool beckoned and she left for home. I kept looking, ignoring the fact that I now smelled of someone else’s coffee.

Two colleagues passed by, one kind enough to recognize that I was in a desperate pinch, that I was perhaps singularly devoted in that moment to my career. Another chuckled and asked a snarky question about whether I do my grocery shopping in the same manner. I was too busy to offer a dignified response, so I kept my mouth shut.

Nearly a half hour into my futile search, I conceded defeat, but Mila kept at it. She emptied each of the massive bags onto the floor and sifted through the piles to find anything that resembled what I described. Eventually, she too abandoned all hope and proceeded to clear the rest of the office.

The sun had by then begun to set. For the first time since the morning, I checked my phone. I’d missed a handful of calls. Most were from home: the boys ringing to report their grades on finals and what they’d found at the bottom of their lockers, my husband asking which train I’d be taking and whether I wanted to watch an episode of “Downton Abbey.”

None of it seemed to matter as I weighed my imminent professional demise.

A fellow colleague – also a wise friend – suggested that I just head home. Enough leaning in, she implied. Turn your focus back to where it belongs.

Frankly, I hadn’t really been leaning in. Instead, I’d been grasping at straws all over the place and, therefore, grasping at nothing. Responsibilities – laundry, healthful dinners, good G-d even my children – were falling through the cracks, along with important documents upon which an entire project hinged. I felt spun about in circles, unsure where exactly my focus should be directed.

In a last ditch effort to salvage some thread of my life, I checked the one folder I’d not touched all day. And of course, both documents were right there: misfiled, mislaid, but suddenly back in my arms.

So I brushed myself off and went to find Mila, who was relieved to hear that I was back on track at work. Thanks to her nurturing at my moment of near crisis, I was reminded of my other half – the part that knows where my heart needs to be at the end of a long day, even when I’m on the office floor with my face in a recycling bin.

Constitutionally – for now anyway – I cannot lean in without tipping over. But at least my bins are better sorted, even if my laundry is not.