BY: Michelle Mach
Time is an illusion, lunchtime doubly so.
I clutched a yogurt in one hand as I tried to eat and catch up on customer e-mail during the noon hour. Even fifteen minutes in the employee lunchroom seemed too much of a luxury. My company, like many companies, had cut costs by not replacing people as they left. The survivors were expected to take up the slack.
For me, this meant no lunch hour, plus taking work home in the evening or on the weekends. I didn't feel I worked at a job; I felt I was my job. I wanted to quit, but given the economy, I felt I couldn't until I had another job in hand. Nice in theory, but given how cranky all the extra hours made me feel, it was difficult to convince potential employers to hire me. I felt trapped. Then a chance conversation with a stranger's six-year-old daughter changed my outlook. The young girl was positively bouncy, standing in line with her mom at the grocery store.
"Good day at school?" I asked.
"What's your favorite subject?"
I smiled at the answer. I remembered when that had been my answer. At lunch, there were no adults to tell you what to do and when to do it. You could sit and talk with your friends or play an exuberant game of four-square. You could draw pictures or swing on the monkey bars. The time was yours to do whatever you wanted. Sometimes we planned our time, bringing stickers to trade or Chinese jacks for a weeklong tournament. Sometimes we were more spontaneous, only deciding what to do while we were eating our peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and slurping our little paper cartons of milk.
That brief encounter left me wondering: What had happened to lunch?
I knew that by law I was entitled to a lunch break at work. So I decided to simply start taking it. The office was located in the downtown area of a small town and I set out to explore it. A few blocks away was a local art museum with free admission. At the end of another street, I was startled to discover some horses grazing in a field. A cute gift boutique made for pleasant and sometimes humorous browsing, particularly looking through the leftover holiday items and laughing at the sometimes funny things, like jack-o'-lantern sunglasses and temporary Santa tattoos that no one had the foresight to buy.
When the weather turned cold, I visited the used bookstore or public library. Near the library was a small man-made pond that attracted ducks and small children with their parents, all of whom provided much amusement as they demanded to be fed. Even running errands at lunch to the bank or the post office brought me a small measure of joy. Doing those errands during the week freed up some time on the weekends for fun activities.
When I decided to take back my lunch hour, I braced myself for catty remarks or stares from my co-workers, but they never materialized. In fact, I watched in amazement as some of my co-workers started to drift away occasionally from their own desks during lunch. We started inviting each other out for walks during good weather and discovered that we had other topics of conversation beyond the now common complaints about work.
I'm still looking for a new position, but with less stressed-out urgency than before. You can't always change your circumstances, but you can always change your perspective.