Photo credit: Lena Lindell on Pixabay
When you’re self-employed, a lull in the flow of work can be terrifying: OMG! This is it—the end! I’ll never get another project or make another sale! I’ll have to get a job where I say things like “Paper or plastic?” or “Would you like fries with that?” No more independence or freedom to make my own schedule! I’ll have to wear a suit or a uniform and commute to work in somebody else’s office or store! And I’ll have to ask permission to take time off to take the cats to the vet or leave early if I have dinner plans with a friend!
Then, you go through all your bank accounts, and you check your accounts receivable to see if anybody still owes you money, and if they do, you send them a very nice email to follow up and nudge them into paying their bill. You evaluate your expenses to see what you can reduce or eliminate. (True story: on my third day of self-employment, when I’d finished all the projects on my desk, I reviewed my bills to see where I could cut back. Only one option presented itself, and so I cancelled my subscription to TV Guide to save $10.) If you’re like me, you pull out the Sermon on the Mount and reread the part where Jesus talks about not worrying about tomorrow and how the bird are fed and the flowers are clothed and how people are of more value and God will provide. (Matthew 6:25-34) After that, you check the basket in the kitchen drawer for loose change that you meant to roll and take to the bank, and you check the garage for bottles you can return for 5 cents each.
Yes, I’ve done all these things. To this day, when people give me gift cards, I hold onto them against the day when I’m out of cash and need to buy cat food or a gift for someone else.
Which is why it’s so interesting that this lull is not panicking me.
Last autumn was an insanely busy time, with work and rehearsals and writing and all the stuff that goes with regular life. In November, right after the concert, I shifted into high gear in search of holiday markets where I could sell books. My efforts bore fruit: for four weekends, Thanksgiving through mid-December, I had at least two events per weekend.
While my schedule was productive, it was also exhausting. I decided that I’d take off several days at the holidays. I planned to close at midday on the 21st of December and reopen after New Year’s. A real break, I thought. Time to rest and write, to take long walks and visit museums, to clean up and clean out so I could greet the new year refreshed and energized.
What I didn’t bargain on was covid.
On the 16th, I attended a client’s holiday party. It was a small gathering, about 20 people. I missed last year’s party due to illness (not covid); the year before was 2020, and nobody was having parties. So I looked forward to seeing everyone after three years.
On Sunday night, December 18, I suddenly began to feel as if I were coming down with something. When chills started, the dread grew: almost every time I’ve gotten a covid vaccine or booster, it’s been followed by a bout of chills. So I pulled out a home test, and fifteen minutes later, there were the two bright lines.
After dodging the bullet for nearly three years, I had covid. (So, as it turned out, did others in attendance. In the end, 9 out of 20 attendees tested positive in the days following the party.)
Promptly at 8:00 the next morning, I called my pulmonologist and said, “I want that drug.” (Couldn’t remember the name.) Later that morning, I took my first dose of paxlovid. By that evening, my chills were gone and my other symptoms were noticeably milder.
So instead of working, billing, going to the theater, and doing Christmas errands, I spent the week leading up to Christmas—Week #1—on the sofa. I watched television and I read, but mostly, I slept. Since this Christmas—the first without Dad—was already not going to be a normal family holiday, staying home didn’t bother me.
At the beginning of Week #2, the cough settled in. Still exhausted, I opted for rest, rest, and more rest. I spent a couple afternoons working on the book, but mainly, I lived on the sofa and coughed my brains out through New Year’s.
New Year’s Day ushered in Week #3. The day after New Year’s, I took Christmas presents over to Mom’s. Both of us were masked as we sat at opposite ends of her kitchen island. I was still testing positive, but I’d been told this—and the cough—could go on for weeks. A few days later—Day 18—I finally tested negative.
I reopened the office on January 3, albeit for limited hours. Since conversations triggered coughing fits, nobody really wanted to talk with me for long anyway. I still rested as much as I could manage, but gradually, I was able to do more, thanks in large part to the cough medications I was able to get. (Fun fact: here in Connecticut, neither CVS nor Walgreens will fill a prescription for cough medicine with codeine. The Walgreens pharmacist tried to tell me there was a law against it, which there’s not, so she dropped back to “it’s an opioid, and a lot of people have died from those.” As if pharmacists don’t routinely dispense controlled substances which, if misused, can lead to death? CVS just said they won’t do it. I finally got the medicine from the Stop & Shop pharmacy, where the pharmacist told me that this is the most-faked prescription they get and she routinely has to call the police about the fakes.)
During Week #4, slow progress continued. I worked a few more hours than the prior week. I probably spent more time on my book than on billable projects. I also took a lot of naps during the day, which is another benefit of working at home.
Now, on the eve of Week #5, anything involving substantial effort—grocery shopping, a visit to the cat shelter, a handful of errands (all fully masked, of course)—still leaves me exhausted. The cough has lessened, but it still wakes me up at night, and it still interferes with most attempts at conversation. My idea of exercise is going out to the mailbox at the end of my driveway. And even if I could work a 40-hour week this week, I don’t have enough billable work to fit the bill.
Notably, I didn’t plan on this work lull. Back in early December, when I entertained myself with the notion that I could actually plan–well, anything–I expected that I’d carve out my tiny period of rest, and then January would burst onto the scene as it has in the past, chock-full of so many new briefs and motions and research projects that I’d have to set firm boundaries about deadlines. Instead, work has eased in as the post-covid symptoms have eased out in much the same way you let up on the clutch as you apply the gas.
A part of me wonders whether my current situation is what it’s like to be semi-retired. I have a target number of hours per month I need to bill, but I don’t know at this point whether there will be enough work to meet that target—and what will happen if I fall short. Obviously, fiction writing doesn’t bring in nearly enough to pick up the slack. Maybe I’ll need to research other options, whether they involve writing or something else. (True confession: I waited tables for one summer as a candy striper in 1974, and I was flat-out terrible at it. Among other things, a customer asked for skim milk, and because I’d never heard of it, I poured her a glass of half-and-half, which I’d also never heard of. So waiting tables will not be on the list of options.)
Curiously, I’m not panicked about this lull, at least not yet. Maybe it’s because so many of my friends have retired, albeit intentionally and with their financial plans in place. Maybe, after nearly 26 years of freelancing, I’ve finally begun to trust that work flow is indeed cyclical and that it will pick up again. In the meantime, instead of freaking out about returning plastic bottles and buying cat food with a Visa gift card, I’m taking advantage of the quiet to devote more time to Draft #2 which, I’ve decided, is due by January 31 because why not?
I know, of course, that lulls can turn into permanent ends of businesses. (See, e.g., Blockbuster Video.) I may be overly optimistic, but I don’t think this is that kind of lull. If it turns out that I’m wrong, I’ll let you know. I know that 26 years is a respectable run, but the mortgage still needs to be paid, the electric bill is about to skyrocket, and my senior cats need more vet care than ever. So fingers crossed that as my energy returns, so will work on which to use that energy, and this much-needed lull will draw to a graceful close.