Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Take a letter

Thoth, from AncientNearEast.net

I drifted into being a secretary as an aimless young woman, and to my surprise became quite good at it. But I am over-conscientious and easily stressed and do not flourish in offices with unreasonable deadlines and pressures, so when I really started growing up in mid-life I looked around for something else to do. I trained in various types of massage, loved it, and now have a handful of clients.

It takes a long time to build up a massage practice however, and I've needed to keep up temporary secretarial work in order to have a steady income. Plus, if I'm honest, I've become institutionalised. I'm used to the structure of my life as a salaried employee, even if I often don't like it. I've never worked for myself full-time and up till now I've found the prospect too daunting to take the plunge.

I met a woman socially sometime ago, a therapist with a Jungian bent. She was probably about 60, plump, a kind face, long grey hair, long flowing dress. The usual getting-to-know-you chat followed.

"And what do you do?" she said.

So I launched into my standard massage speech, and added the usual rushed couple of sentences at the end. "... and to pay all the bills I work as a temporary secretary". I get faster and faster at this point, gabbling my words, wanting to switch the focus of the conversation onto the person I'm talking to and away from being a temp.

She wouldn't let me.

"You know, you must remember your archetype," she said.

I looked at her. Then she started to tell me about Thoth. That in Egyptian mythology he was the secretary and counsellor to Ra, and sat beside him in his chariot as the Sun God made his journey across the heavens. He was a major league player, in other words. The god of wisdom and magic, of the written word, of transcribing one's own words and also those of others. The secretarial archetype, she said.

She told me, nicely, that I needed to respect what I do, and my skills. That the ability to use, and to transcribe the written word, wasn't something to be ashamed of. In Ancient Egypt, writing and communication, being a scribe, was reverenced, and I needed to accord similar value to this part of my work life, and to ignore any messages to the contrary from society as a whole.

Something of what she said has stuck. I can respect what I do even if others don't. Temporary secretary, massage therapist - one isn't intrinsically superior to the other.

Taking it a step further, it's always the same lesson, of course, it always comes back to staying fully aware and focussed on what I am doing at all times - massage, typing, whatever - and not being distracted by my perceptions and preconceptions of the task in hand. It doesn't mean that I have to carry on doing the same thing for the rest of my life, only for this moment, this hour, this day.

And yet, and yet, the feelings about it all don't go away. I'm seeing a massage client tomorrow and my next temporary secretarial job begins in a few days time. I'm really looking forward to one and would prefer not to have to do the other, even though I'm grateful to have the work. New assignments are frightening at first. But this is not important. What matters - in both situations - is to show up, accept, do my best, breathe, smile.


Blogger leslee said...

When I was first working years ago, at a high tech company, the secretaries wielded all the power. You couldn't get done what you needed them to do, couldn't access their bosses, etc., unless you were very nice to them! But I know it's different in many/most places.

Do you not like the work itself, or the way you're treated (or perceived) or both? Anyway, it sounds like you enjoy the massage work better. Still, not bad to have both as you build up your clientele. Good luck with the new job.

2:13 pm  
Blogger Mary said...

Hi Leslee, thanks for your comment.

I've had secretarial jobs that I've enjoyed and I've huge respect for people who make this a career choice and do it well. With me, it was a sense of guilt that I drifted into it by default because I couldn't get a fix on what I really wanted to do.

Partly too, quite wrongly, I pick up on and am defensive about the less than complimentary attitudes that do exist about the secretarial role ..and my reported conversation was an example of how I can react to that. This lady therefore taught me a useful lesson

I'm grateful to have the skills, though, they're very useful in other areas of life too. But you're right, in ten years time, say, I'd hope to be doing much more massage than secretarial work ...

2:20 pm  
Blogger LJ said...

There's a satisfaction in secretarial work, I think. I've done a lot of it,sometimes grudgingly, mixed in with things I feel more called to...
Very feeling people, I suspect, often are grounded by working inside a predictable structure. And goodness knows that predictable pay cheque is reassuring. The value of a good secretary is so underrated. Where I work, one secretary is holding a whole department together - and (this is nice)all the professers she works for know it.
I'm guessing you are pretty sensitive to the energy of others...and that's a gift you use in massage. But because energy exchange is so direct & powerful in massage, perhaps it's good to begin slowly? I say this, leaning on the experience of a close friend who does Healing Touch and finds she has to be very careful not to overdo.
And PS - what a lovely thing that woman told you about (one of) your archetypes!

3:07 pm  
Blogger Mary said...

Hi lj: Really helpful, thanks!

I definitely wasn't looking to insult the secretarial role in general when I wrote this piece and I hope this isn't what has come across. And as you say I think a lot of us do it ".. sometimes grudgingly mixed in things [we] feel more called to do". And I agree, the very structuredness of it is immensely reassuring which is why I am probably still clinging on ..

And when a secretarial job works well between manager and secretary it can be really nice. Interestingly I had phone call last night from my most recent temp boss whom I worked with for 8 months just checking I was OK and was everything going well. I was really touched.

And I think, as you have surmised, there is probably a very good reason why I haven't been able to plunge straight into massage .. it's rare that I see more than 2 massage clients a day at the moment and I will definitely need to work up to doing it more frequently.

And yes that lady carried a good message!

3:23 pm  
Blogger MB said...

Ah, what a good friend she was to you in that conversation!

There are ways in which I can relate to your predicament... having a steady job that is of less interest to me than the things I most prefer to do, but it's a steady paycheck, and provides some structure... I both appreciate it (it's really a pretty good job) and feel it isn't completely ideal. But in balance, it works for me. And I appreciate what lj said about very feeling people being grounded in predictable structure; I think that can be true.

4:00 pm  
Anonymous ginkgo said...

This is a wonderful meditation, and I love the archetype idea. It's amazing the power wielded by secretaries/administrative assistant in any complex organization--power which largely goes uncredited but hopefully not unappreciated. And I think, too, of the role played in the development of Western religious culture by the priestly scribes of ancient Israel, or by the monks of the medieval church. We may never fully know their influence, but it's safe to say it was enormous.

Now when can I schedule an appointment?

4:40 pm  
Blogger LJ said...

Just a note. No you didn't come across as insulting the secretarial role...but it's underappreciated generally and those of us doing it often feel like it isn't "real" work somehow.
I just loved the encounter with the Jungian. What an eye opener.
Much like running into the man who told you where God lived.
Lovely synchronicity.

8:27 pm  
Blogger Dale said...

Yeah, this resonates with me. I've framed off huge sections of my life as, for one reason or another, not quite real, or not counting. My entire work life, for one thing. The time I spend with my kids. Blogging. Most of what I do for some reason or other isn't real and doesn't count. I guess the past few weeks I've been trying really hard to unframe all these things. If they're not real, nothing is.

9:27 pm  
Blogger rdl said...

nice philosophy!

10:22 pm  
Blogger zhoen said...

I do secretarial jobs in my work as what is perceived by outsiders as a kind of altruistic, noble profession. I keep the chart in order, I document, I take phone calls and send messages.

On the plus side, I wipe bottoms and mop and drag garbage and other lofty work.

But if every job is done with will, with cheer, to be done well because it must be done, it takes the chore out of it. Sometimes I comfort, diagnose, position. Sometimes I move beds and stamp papers. When it is all part of a whole, it all gives back satisfaction, pride, and even humor.

11:32 pm  
Blogger g said...

Sometimes the way we make money is a refection of who were are and what we like to do, and at other times, it is just a job.

Either way, it is nice to look forward to going to work.

When I are not looking forward to going to work, I think it is time to look at making some changes.

1:14 am  
Anonymous Jess said...

Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this, Mary. Much of what you said resonates with me, and it's always a comfort to know I'm not the only one trying to figure out these issues.

2:51 am  
Blogger Patry Francis said...

show up, do your best, breathe, smile...good advice for any situation. Thank you, Mary.

4:22 am  
Blogger Mary said...

MB: Yes, she was a good friend. And as you say if, on balance, jobs like this work I think that can be OK, ...a good enough job, not a perfect job.

Ginkgo:i'm no expert at all on archetypes - but the scribes and monks you mention absolutely carried on that same energy at different times and in different contexts. A great service.

lj: you know, one of the great pleasures of blogging has been the ability to share these out of the ordinary meetings with others who can appreciate them as much as I do. This was one I particularly wanted to write about.

Dale: Thank you for understanding so well what I'm trying to say.

Rdl: :-).

Zhoen: the first and last sentences of your last para hold much of the answer I think.

G: Yes, if the dissatisfaction goes on continually over a period it's probably not good for mind and body alike ....

Jess: And I too am glad to know I'm not alone with this. Thank you.

Patry: It isn't always as easy to do as I've made it sound :-)

9:28 pm  
Blogger Michael Manning said...

You are to be admired. A thankless job that would draw the business world to a standstill and stall many high career chiefs if secretary's didn't exist. Sorry for being so absent due to my computer woes. I'm on a borrowed one right now. I may be mistaken, but I think you asked me about a Gould performance I liked. If so, Bizet's Variations Chromatiques (de concert) which Glenn used a lot to open his concerts. He considered Prokofiev the most important composer in post war Russia and the Sonata No. 7 was great. Hope you have a great weekend!

11:30 pm  
Blogger Sky said...

wonderful story you have told about a sensitive and kind woman who brought you a very meaningful message. :)

as someone who had a secretary for many years, i can tell you that when i had one who did not do her job well, my job sucked. when i had one who was exemplary, my job was much easier and more productive. a good secretary can bring life to an office, organization to chaos, and oil to the mechanics of the engine.

i am glad many are now called executive or program assistants - for they are assistants. i also agree with another reader - these are some of the most valuable staff in any business. entire offices would shut down without these staff, production would come to a halt, and many managers would be clueless about a variety of production issues.

this is a profession which is valuable beyond description, sometimes (and often, i am sad to say) not compensated accordingly.

good luck with your massage therapy practice.

1:39 am  
Blogger Mary said...

Michael: thanks!

Sky: Welcome and thank you for your kind and thoughtful words. Very much appreciated ....

3:27 pm  
Blogger Gemma Grace said...

Excellent discussion! Here's a thought... Mary, one of the best services I 'instituted' at a company I once owned for 10 years was Massage Day. I hired the services of one of my friends (a Massage Therapist) to come one morning a week and give a half-hour massage to anyone interested. It was wonderful... really wonderful! At first, 'everybody' thought I was a little crazy but it didn't take long before 'every body' loved it! It made a huge difference to our working environment. It was also great for my friend because she had a regular income she could depend upon.

5:24 am  
Blogger Tamar said...

I can really relate to this post. As an early childhood educator I have suffered from people looking down on my profession all my life. Most people think that working with young children is just "a bunch of women watching a bunch of kids." It took years for me to realize what a noble and worthwhile profession it is.

I so love those moments of truth when we meet an "angel" along the way who opens our eyes and hearts to a different perspective.

A beautiful post! And great Egyptian picture.

12:14 pm  
Blogger Mary said...

Gemma Grace: What a great idea ... and one to keep at the back of my mind.

Tamar: It's amazing how easy it is to let others' perceptions influence our own sense of self worth. And I love those "angel" moments too. Thank you.

7:42 am  

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