Last night I had set out the chairs in the backyard, and in the distance above the treeline bordering on the service alley behind our fence, I could see storm clouds. My wife and I had made plans to see friends in the evening. We had taken to heart the idea that we could be 27 rue de Fleurus for our friends the way Gertrude Stein was to hers. Perhaps with an impulse for creative work, or the lack of any kind, spending time with people spurs on new ideas.
But the thunderstorm was drawing near. My wife asked Alexa if it was going to rain and she replied that, yes, it was going to rain in the next five minutes. I removed the cushions from the chairs and put them underneath the awning, in the hope that they would not be soaking wet.
The rain hit for the briefest of moments, no more than twenty minutes, and afterwards I went up and observed the sky, which had low lying clouds layered with others above, and the combination of the layered clouds and the light show from the thunderstorm produced some beautiful sensations. We decided to meet up anyway, and when everyone showed up, we talked of many things. We talked of politics and black lives matter, the rage machine that is Facebook, and our daunting task of education in the wake of coronavirus. But mostly we talked about ourselves, in as much as we can use the public sphere to say things about us. When one of us brings up the question of past traumas, we wish to find consolation in others. When we speak of our political views, we are secretly discussing our insecurities. And when we talk about hope for the future, we are speaking to our suffering in the present.
Our friends left a little past midnight, and by then the air had cooled and the clouds had vanished. This morning I woke up and could see the empty chairs in the backyard. Opening the blinds, I saw that the clouds had returned. I french press my coffee, so I went and got the bag to pour beans into the electric grinder. I listened to some music and then to some discussions on meditation.
And here I am.
This weekend is the end of payments from the previous school I’ve worked at, and I suppose more than at any point in the summer, this is the point where I feel it most.
What was more daunting was to realize, not that I was unemployed in the current moment, but that I had not been unemployed since 2009. In 2010 I took a job as a caterer at the university I went to, and from then on I have transitioned from job to job almost seamlessly. I have worked at a hardware store, as a caterer, and as various types of teacher. I have gone to college while working, gone to graduate school while working, gone to high school and done theater and plays…while working.
You get the idea.
But now the final check has come in, and as I watched my friends interact with work, as they debate the ins and outs of work, whether it is basic clerical work on the laptop at a distance, or whether it is web development, or whether it is teaching or instructional software design, listening to them discuss their headaches reminds me that, someday, I will have to return to that great land.
Yet I would be remiss if I did not take each opportunity for what it provides. As it says in Ecclesiastes, chapter 3:
To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:
And what I have created in these past few months is something I would like to share.
First, a disclaimer: I think one of the prevailing weaknesses of this blog post is that I come from such a fortunate background that for me to be unemployed is very different to the typical experience of the unemployed in the United States, where checks or benefits are low and have shrunk since the pandemic began. I have no intention of signing on for unemployment benefits because I do not really feel like those benefits are meant for me. Is it the case that unemployment benefits a zero sum game? Not necessarily, but I feel that to receive monthly checks while knowing that it could go somewhere else would be painful to my sense of integrity. In any case, my unemployment is a vicarious exploration, sort of a trip to Disneyland for dolefulness. It is not fair that my time being unemployed is so much more beneficial than others, but there you have it.
Truth is a Pathless Land
The first thing I have noticed is how obsessed people can quickly be with trivial things.
This is not so hard to imagine. Just draw up a list of things that you need to do today, and then take your hand and place it over your heart. Maybe your heart rate went up a couple of notches.
Leisure, long swaths of it, allows you to go to the outside of the pane of glass that keeps the rabble-raising public in. And when you look in, you find that all manner of people are driving like crazy on the road, leaving church and crossing things off checklists. Yes, happiness may be in the air, but it is of the kind that might be less sanguine and more delusional. The delusion is the power of habit.
I think for me it was easy to take paths and then follow them. Habits are incredibly important for building up the sort of person we would like to be. For discovering what is unique about ourselves.
I do not want to discredit all habits here.
But one dangerous assumption about the public sphere, about the working life in its routine, is how paths can be placed in front of you for you to walk on which you may or may not have designed for yourself. And then, at some point, you begin to believe that these are your paths. You take ownership. And when the paths turn out to be painful to you, when they have rocks that strike your feet as you walk, the feeling of betrayal feels personal, when really the path was never yours to begin with.
Perhaps I am like Marcel Proust, who claimed that the enemy to thought was “habit.” These habits are the kind that the world encourages you to take. What I worry about as I get older is that I take advantage of habits in order to not pay attention.
Writing and meditating and reading has reminded me that there are so many more important things than work. Teaching is the path par excellence when it comes to callings. Few people feel as good about what they do as teachers do. And that has been used to great detriment on the time and value of teachers by school districts in the United States. In service of mantras like, “it’s for the kids” or “we’re a family,” teachers have given over themselves to either the point of demoralization or burnout. Half of all teachers leave the profession entirely in the first five years. In these first five years there lies a condition: “Are you going to take these paths up as habits? Or will you reject them?” These habits make you forget what you went into education for…
Truth takes time, and for each of us, truth also takes some figuring out for ourselves. It may be difficult to realize that even the best conversations and arguments cannot change a person’s opinion, but let them read a book that they became interested in, that they picked themselves and read, and suddenly the world opens up. Discovering these truths about the world cannot be top-down. We must form our own paths and choose our own habits.
Work is Overrated
For a society so hellbent on productivity, we seem obsessed with coupling that with work. As a generation that is more productive than ever before, people think that is because of the amount we work, when really it is the rise in knowledge and technological prowess.
People tote around the idea of a four day work week because we also seem trapped in the notion that being at work is just as powerful as working.
Being away from work helped me to realize just how much time was wasted at work for meetings that did not need to take place, for keeping children in rooms for hours on end that could have been broken up by smaller sessions and more time outside, and, most importantly, I have been chastising myself for how much work I brought home. Work away from work…
The rat race of work has us thinking that productivity and work are a 1:1 relationship, and I am here to tell you that I have learned more about myself in these months since March than at any point in my life. And all I did was write every day, meditate every day, and do at least a little reading.
To realize that we could bring that to each child, and relatively quickly, and then to look out and see a country which is so dedicated to bringing back “normal” at all costs, even when that normal did terrible damage to our psychological state, is nothing short of an enlightenment.
There will always be more work. What there will not be as much of is the opportunity to sit in a room quietly to yourself and become comfortable with your own thoughts.
There will always be more work. But if there was a moment where my wife wanted to be with me and I rejected it because I had more work, that is a betrayal of its own that I cannot get back.
The Best Things in Life Are Free…or Really Cheap
I think the world tried to convince me that I needed many things, when really, I can do with so little.
Books can be gotten with a library card and an app on my smartphone.
I can buy pens and pencils and paper at a cheap price.
From there I have the tools now to meditate and generally make a mess of things in twenty minutes, but I feel an altered state of calm, and I am mentally training my mind in a way I could never do before.
Shelter, clothes, food, are things I either already have or find easy to come by.
Which means that my overhead is covered. The American Dream would say no to that. The American Dream is this every expanding cycle, call it a spiral, where we make more and accumulate more.
But I think the new generations of young people are going to reject this notion, especially considering we expend more carbon emissions per person than any other nation.
Instead, sustainability is all about a circle, rather than a spiral. I do not really have any desire to grow in wealth, only to maintain. I do not want to buy a motorcycle! Or a boat!
This will be my last recommendation. The previous points were about supply, to some extent. The world supplies you with ideas, and its up to you to accept them or reject them, and being unemployed gives you time to play around with them.
But another side is the demand side of desire, and it can easily burn through savings if you are not careful.
Whether we like it or not, generations from millenials onward will have to come to terms with austerity economics. It is not something of our making, but we should take up the call with a profound sense of the social contract.
Being unemployed has helped me see just what civilization looks like, and by and large it consists of a bunch of people maneuvering through a maze they had no idea they were in.
Do not be afraid of unemployment. Embrace it! Hold it tight. And then when you find yourself ready to return to the world with a better sense of integrity, as well as a lowered desire for crap, get on out there.
I hope this helps.