Three and a half years ago I was gainfully employed. March 2, 2015 was the last time I worked as a full-time, permanent employee. But this is not about regret or bitterness. It’s not about what went wrong and how to right it. Nor is it about forgiveness. This is about the future.
I once wrote an unpublished book—not my intention—advising young women about finding a job and navigating the workplace. I likened this experience to all the mating rituals from first date to marriage, to divorce and finding love again. It was cunning, right to the chapter, Your Fired! I Quit!: Getting A Divorce. Prophetically, this remains yet unfinished. I hate the idea of divorce. I’m a romantic and I’m not that ambitious; divorce is a lot of work. But I did offer great advice. “Never give someone an opportunity to imagine life without you, when they are trying to imagine life without you.”
Actually, it was a perfect metaphor. Put in this context, three and a half years ago, I divorced. It wasn’t amicable. But I still had some pride so I walked out before I came home to find the locks changed. We went to court. I didn’t receive alimony. I’ve been dating ever since.
I’m currently 49 (and a little over a half) years old. Women are not supposed to mention their age in proximity to work. Halfway markers seem to take on less importance once we reach our teens and lurch toward adulthood. A half-year is just a throwback to preadolescence. But once we hit 40, a throwback can be very reassuring.
A job can provide purpose. But I’m not going to tell you how to find a job, how to keep the job you have, or how to get along with the boss. This doesn’t end with redemption. I feel nostalgic for what I had, that now eludes me. For three and a half years I have worked sporadically, I had a short-term, but fulfilling job, (I’ve come close to finding a soul mate, twice) and I’ve resuscitated something I once did for pleasure, writing. I now do it for pay as often as someone will pay me. You might call it my road less travelled.
I still seek a job because I can’t yet claim to earn a living. With each interview, healthcare, retirement and a sense of purpose and pride dangle like ephemera. Permanence slips further away. I think of Elon Musk’s Tesla Roadster, indecipherably, barreling through the galaxy, neither destination nor arrival known. I reach back to a future that’s impossibly passed me. Or is it past me?
There are times I feel meaningful employment is vanquished. I have done well to maintain a sort-of-living through nomadic work. I enjoy the mental stimulation of learning new things and becoming acquainted with the nuanced ethics of any business (My manager at a non-profit had me, more than once, retrieve an envelope from a casino.) That was cool. I may not have a consistent place to go nor cohorts to commune with, but somehow there is always a next something: a next job, a next paycheck, or a next opportunity to create or produce. I no longer deceive myself that one earns a promotion. Instead, I deceive myself that working for an asshole and equivocating between Jimmy John’s and Pot Belly is why I earned a master’s. It’s The New Hope. I have no career trajectory except to say it’s heading for the moon or perhaps Mars. I can’t see my way forward but I have blind faith it will circle back to Earth.
Admittedly, I have felt unnervingly despondent. There are days I don’t shower, nights I drink too much, binge watch T.V. as a participant, and put off work I do have until tomorrow. It is a luxury only a connoisseur of self-pity can understand. Did I mention I have a partner? I have a partner. Tomorrow we will have been together for 27 years. I know that’s the only reason this hasn’t broken me…yet. My partner and the next somethings have helped shade me from the noonday demon. They have helped me maintain my imposed humility in a house of mirrors. Periodically, my partner is the holder of those mirrors. This is how we got together, and it’s why we’re still together. She has an uncanny ability to tell me the darkest truth about myself, sip her soup, then provide a litany of tasks that may include figuring out where that smell in the dishwasher is coming from.
Throughout, the people around me, those closest to me, have had children, received promotions, earned advanced degrees, obtained book contracts, retired, left jobs and found new ones, and switched careers entirely—of their own accord. I don’t begrudge the successes. Most have remained ever stable in their lives and I’d wreak havoc for homeostasis.
I lament my failure(s). I believe I miserably failed the life I had, and the feeling is becoming insidious. People say failure doesn’t define someone. But when I was successful people always said, “failure is what defines a person.”
I can’t help think of the times when discipline was involuntary, dreams were a future planned, and I had a little grandiosity. Enough to know, “yes, I’m good…but not that good.” It reassures me to know there are people more knowledgeable in the world.
I take a serious look at my life, and wonder, “What will become of me?” “When does this end?” There’s no reason to assume it will. And “Why am I being tested?” I’m agnostic—why am I asking this question? My former self is now an enigma. The noblest things I do are get up, shower, look for work, hope for an email request for a phone interview with seven people, that leads to an open presentation with 50 people, and pray it happens soon. The truth is, I’m existentially desperate. Maybe it’s karma. When I was young I was desperately existential. It was romantic. Now I fear my fate and try and hide my shame for who I’ve become. How does one introduce herself to someone new? What’s the answer to the proverbial “What do you do?” I don’t go out much.
The way I experience time is directly related to ambition and the future. I have the feeling of being on a Merry-Go-Round and my perception of those not on it is that they are moving faster. How does one compete? If there is one thing, of the last three and a half years, for which I am mocked, it’s a chance to watch as my goals stand still as I senselessly run after them. The Merry-Go-Round doesn’t move. It has only ever been my perception.
I have someone who loves me, and we’re financially secure. Both have been quintessential to my unsustainable, sustained hopefulness. I have friends who are so supportive it redefines friendship. I have family and many caring people around me, even strangers, who want to help. Sometimes they can, many times they are unable. But all of it keeps me going because how can someone help you if you won’t help yourself. Like dragging stone, I imagine.
Writing this, I am keenly aware that I will, again, falter, put off something I can do today tomorrow and curate yet another binge-watching session in my pajamas. Thank you Rachel Maddow. But I also know I will have good days, learn interesting things, have a positive moment about a recent interview and think, “what a stupid question,” and then realize “this could be it!” One day it has to be.
Failure is what defines a person.
Maybe profound purpose will come out of nowhere. It won’t be anything I imagined (helping people find their soul in a book?), and I’ll work until I’m ready to quit on my terms.
Failure doesn’t define me.
My life is one part each: ennui, chaos, fantasy (there’s unclaimed money, after all). The life as I lived it, no longer exists. But it is something unexpected. Most of the time it’s something different, and it’s always something different from the time before that.
For the foreseeable months, I have daily work and I’m grateful. Ultimately, failure will define me but I’ve redefined success and my future is always today. I have so many half-years left.