The two of us sit at opposite ends of a long table in the dining room of a flat-roofed house that juts out from the steep slope at the southern end of Skaneateles Lake. Aside from the gentle lapping of the waves, an occasional acorn dropping on the roof, or the crunch of one of our cats eating, it is silent.
The glass that wraps around the front and sides of the building gives us a 180-degree view of the Finger Lake we spend a week living beside every fall. When we pause in our work we take a moment to look out at the iridescent blue-green water before returning to our respective laptops where I am writing a memoir and my husband is composing music.
He sits across from me wearing a headset and listening to a piece he is arranging for a mixed quintet of classical and jazz musicians. He nods in time to music I can not hear, mutters to himself when things aren’t going right, smiles when he likes what he hears.
On the other side of the table, I sit with a clipboard of notes on random scraps of paper, the raw material I collect for new pieces when I don’t have time to sit down and write. In the past year, I’ve been successful at feeding my writing practice in this way because it allows me to play with an idea before I decide to make it into a project I have to work on and complete. In other words, I ease in.
We are exactly were we want be and doing what we want to do.
We live in absurd times—what should be natural has become unusual and what was once taken for granted is touted as exceptional.
I’ve been aware of this trend for some time, but it came into clear focus recently when I read the words “Farm Raised” in bold print on the front of a carton of organic milk.
Having grown up in an era when the New England countryside had more dairy farms than shopping malls, my first thought was, “Where else?” But sadly I know enough about how the “food-industrial complex” works to understand that most of the milk in the dairy case comes from places that are a lot more like factories than farms.
It’s taken me a long time to accept that the signs of spring—green grass, purple crocuses, yellow forsythia—can’t always be counted on to appear on schedule where I live on Cape Cod. More often than not, the dominant color of April is brown and you have to bundle up to take a walk just as you did in February.
But I’m a daily walker and the other day I donned my wool coat and hat to go out right after reading an article in the Boston Globe that said nearly four million people have been out of work for a year or more. Before the recession, 10% of the total unemployment number represented the long-term unemployed. Now it’s almost 30%. There’s no spring for these work-seekers either.
According to the article, long-term unemployment is the “most intractable” consequence of the last recession and because of a lack of political will, despite all the talk about creating jobs in the last election, few resources are being directed toward it. The problem, the Globe said, is “chronic.” They make it sound like an illness.
During the first week of spring, the temperature dipped into the twenties, the daffodils lay prostrate on the walk, and I devoted an entire day to cleaning out my files.
I usually purge them in January to get a fresh start on the year, but I had failed to do so, not only this past January, but also in January of 2011.
So it was time—past time. Too much paper never sorts itself out. The trivial and the important were jammed together, both in the cabinet and in my head.
I soon realized that my neglect to use organization as a strategic planning tool (see Wildly Organized) was symbolic of an ambivalence about where I am in my professional life.
Sometimes it comes on gradually—the pressure you feel to find work, get your business in the black again, or restore stability to your financial future accumulates, causing sleepless nights or mornings when you sit at your desk not knowing what to do next.
Or there may be a trigger—one rejection too many, a bill you can't pay, or a depressing headline saps your belief in yourself and better days ahead, and you have that sinking sensation of fear taking you over for a few days or a week or longer.
Fear is a natural reaction to change, and you can expect it to be particularly active when your work-life, that part of your existence that provides sustenance, purpose and identity, has been shaken like a snow globe.
At the Daily Grind coffee shop in Cortland, New York, I watched a steady stream of farmers in overalls, contractors in flannel shirts, and 9-to-5 employees in business dress, and I thought about how every town or neighborhood has a hub like this. Find a Daily Grind, full of regulars who stop in on their way to work, and you've found the heart of the work life of a city.
Listening to what was being said there, it became clear to me that the Cortlanders whose daily ritual I was observing were trying to make a living in a place where that is not always an easy thing to do—the town has an 11% unemployment rate and negative job growth.
People usually go about about dealing with work being hard to find in three distinct ways.
Raise a glass half full to 2010!” said the headline.
Whenever I thumb through one of those women’s magazines, the kind with a photograph of a triple-layer chocolate mousse cake on the cover with a caption promising twelve effortless ways of slimming down, I usually forget what I’ve read as soon as I’ve read it, but the idea of toasting the new year with a glass half full resonated with me because it is both realistic and hopeful. Realistic because it acknowledges what isn’t there as well as what is. Hopeful because it offers the choice of where to put your energy with a more complete understanding of what’s missing.
Negativity being inherent in the human condition, most of us don’t have any trouble seeing what’s wrong or missing in our lives. But how do we, particularly in times like these, learn to “accentuate the positive,” as the Johnny Mercer song says?
Have you ever watched a movie you really liked for the third or fourth time and all of a sudden seen something there you never saw before? It happened to me the other night watching The Insider.
On previous viewings, I'd been so caught up in the drama I didn't realize that The Insider is really about a man in a career transition—abrupt and brutal, to be sure, but also transformational.
The Insider is based on true incidents in the life of a Ph.D. chemist named Jeffrey Wigand who worked as vice-president of R&D for Brown & Williamson tobacco company and was fired by them because he knew that the company was adding carcinogenic substances to the nicotine in their cigarettes. The action of the film is driven by Wigand's decision to go public with first-hand knowledge of how the tobacco industry uses chemical compounds to promote addiction.
How far will Big Tobacco go to shut him up? Will this bright, responsible, somewhat confused, man be able to hold up under intimidation by his former employer, on the one hand, and, on the other, pressure from a 60 Minutes producer to blow the whistle by doing an interview on national television?
When unemployment figures are announced, the media takes up the challenge of trying to show what x% of joblessness looks like in human terms, and the images they choose are predictable—long lines of applicants trying to get into job fairs, rows of jobseekers at computers in job centers busily scanning listings.
These pictures reinforce the message that the right, indeed the only, way to find work is to apply for a job, wait for a response, and hope you get lucky.
Rarely does an alternative approach get noticed, and when it does it is treated as something new and foreign. Take for example a recent story I heard on NPR about a laid-off architect.
Instead of wasting his time standing in line somewhere, John Morefield is making his expertise visible at a booth he has set up at a farmer's market in Seattle. Sandwiched between a fish market and a store that offers locally grown honey, he sells advice to homeowners who are thinking about remodeling—for 5 cents!
He got the idea from Lucy's "5¢ Psychiatric Help" stand in Peanuts, and he is using it to do the best possible thing he can do with potential customers—engage them in conversation about problems they want to solve.
As we were leaving, one of the guests turned to me and said, " hope I don't have to use your services!" I felt as if someone had just thrown a bucket of ice water on me. It was the first time I had ever had anyone talk about dreading the prospect of coming to see me as a client. I have always viewed what I do as helping people to enrich their lives, and it had never occurred to me that someone would see it as inseparable from the painful possibility of losing their job.
But these are not ordinary times, and the woman who made the remark works in an industry which is shrinking. She is dealing not only with anxiety over a lost livelihood, but also a life's work she had dreamed of following ever since she was a child. Who could blame her for thinking of me a bit like the undertaker?