I just finished the first week of my first conservation job.
This was a long time coming — three years ago, on an aimless trip to Madrid, I stood in the Prado staring at the conservation labs, and immediately knew, just knew, that was where I needed to be.
Over the following months, I researched and applied for the Masters degree in Conservation at Melbourne University. They accepted me and I discovered the prohibitive cost of studying meant I would have to go part-time and find a job.
I started working as a lowly account manager in a telemarketing business. It was mind-numbing work, earning barely enough to support myself, so I started working extra hours on any admin or operations projects I could get close to. I worked 10-hour days, and studied in the evenings and on weekends, and when an opportunity arose I jumped and wriggled my way into a position that eventually became Operations Manager, and was salaried enough to pay for university.
For two years I worked so hard, spending 50+ hours a week at the office, whilst trying to console myself with the 8 weeks a year I got to spend at university. I am proud of myself for getting excellent marks all the way through that time (who can forget that 95 I got on my essay on conservation in areas of conflict? I certainly never will!), while simultaneously my diligence at work was increasingly recognised and rewarded.
But I was getting so sick. So anxious. So tired. My ulcerative colitis tripled in spread over those two years, and my doctors kept telling me to do less, work less, study less. I had to make a choice, and I thought the best thing to do would be to put university on hold for a year, negotiate a stiff raise, and save enough money to go back to school full time the following year.
That was a huge mistake, although even with hindsight I don’t know what else I could have done. Without my studies to keep the spark inside of me alive, I wilted. I burnt out. I went from being undeniably the hardest-working, most dedicated and capable person in our office, to someone who could hardly function. Of course, by most people’s standards, I continued to be a competent and reliable worker, but inside, I was boiling up with anxiety and anger and frustration and depression.
So I quit. I didn’t know how I would make things work without my big paycheck, but I knew I couldn’t go on, not even for a few more months. It took under 6 weeks (for 2 of which I was on holiday in Taiwan) to recruit and train my replacement, so I barely had time to gather my thoughts, when here I stood, unemployed, ready to apply for the dole for the first time in my almost-32 years.
My thoughts, when I gathered them, oscillated between terrified and relieved. I didn’t get to dwell on them for very long, however, as less than a week after leaving my job, I had been hired for a 2-week stint at the National Archives of Australia as a paper conservator, to clean 821 boxes of mould-covered books.
The night before I started my new job, my AirBnb hosts here in Sydney asked me if I was nervous. How could I be nervous? How could I be anything but elated? No, I was thrilled.
But the joy I felt before my job is nothing compared to the deep-seated happiness and satisfaction I am experiencing now I have my first week (and my first week’s paycheck!) under my belt. I knew this was my calling, so I am not surprised, but I am discovering how many ways this work is just made for me, I am made for it, and it is the most fulfilling occupation that I could ever conceive, no matter how humble the work at hand. It just fits. And even when it’s tedious, even when it’s physically exhausting, I will never take that for granted, thanks to the years spent in offices doing work I despised.
Tomorrow I am getting a police check finalised for my second job. On Monday I will be locking in dates for my third conservation position (a volunteer role). At the end of June I fly up to the northernmost tip of Arnhem Land to spend a week at an Indigenous community arts centre. I am spending my free time this month preparing a fellowship application to support research for my thesis next year. I look back at the past three years, where I was trapped waiting for my life to begin, and I am so happy to be where I am now, where everything I do is about conservation, there are no concessions to anything else. Of course, come August, I will probably have to get another full-time job with a real paycheck, that is not conservation-related, but at least I know now that I can do this, and it’s not for long, and I am already, at last, a conservator!