Monday 10 November 2008

Job Loss, Part III

Two months have now passed since my ex-boss shocked me to the roots with the unexpected announcement that I was being laid off. (See here and here) In the first few days or weeks I felt that my life had been completely blown off course. To borrow from Wilde, I felt like a ship without a rudder in a night without a star. Since then, while I have failed to find a route to a new World, I have had a rather interesting journey.

I made one very informative physical journey - to Brussels, where, over a couple of days I met a range of senior officials, MEPs, and the Irish Commissioner. For most people the notion of such a journey would draw groans of boredom, but for me, an EU anorak, it was almost fascinating. I've written a little about this particular visit elsewhere, so I'll spare the details here.

The important journey these past two months has been internal. I have used the time and space to push back the hurry of the world and try to let life happen at its own pace. Until now my professional life, and therefore my real life, has been like paddling upriver against a stubborn current. You were expected - and expected yourself - to keep pulling on the oars no matter what. It was imperative to edge upstream towards some notional destination. These past weeks, however, I've allowed myself to dissolve into the current, to meander back, drinking the wonder of life around me on the banks.

It seems strange that it was only after I became unhooked from the yoke of work that I fully realised its immense burden. Before I lost my job, I couldn't notice the solemn commuters, crammed in carriages, the tired silence in their bellies, the strained brows, the laptop bags loaded with pressure. Instead I saw copies of myself, happy in the inevitability of it all. But now I began to notice nuances that I had missed, or perhaps refused to see. I saw how a delay of single minute at a tram stop magnified the anxiety on the face of a young woman. Perhaps she had outsourced the care of her children to a creche and was running late. The precious minutes between tram and pillow were ticking away.

In town, a hurried suit, umbrella in one hand, a case in the other, darted to catch the dying flashes of a little orange man on a traffic light. A woman lugging a laptop emerged from the crowd, walking briskly, her eyes misty with distance. In an office block near Charlemont a random constellation of lights shimmered, remote signals of work that never ends. At six pm, everywhere I look, I see the penalty of work, its cruel toll etched into the very fabric of our lives.

Being out of work has turned the week upside down. Even when work was particularly interesting, I had always looked forward to the weekend. It was like coming up for air - essential and delightful. A form of temporary release. The downside was the Tyranny of weekend shopping. Sadly, the entire infrastructure of urban living is designed to just about cope with the surge of weekend demand. Now however, I can wallow in the vast spaces of mid week shopping. Streetscapes and shopping centres are open, brighter, calmer, pumped with oxygen. Shop assistants wear a smile and have a chance to provide, well, assistance. The man in the coffee shop has time to mention the weather, and I have time to learn his name is Alessandro. I imagine that as we approach Christmas the contrast between these two worlds - week and weekend - will fold into a single, frenzied madness, but it was pleasure to have enjoyed the difference for a while at least.

There have been dozens of little things that I had wanted to do but couldn't get around to. I started using my handful of books on cooking again. Basically this meant looking up and then buying ingredients. This is a break with the workaday routine of rushing to the supermarket and collecting the essentials in well worn sweep of known shelves: a pasta sauce here and packet of rice there. Instead, I now try to pick out at least one solid culinary adventure per week. And then go out in search of ingredients at a leisurely pace.

Before, dinner was simply a matter of throwing the basics into pots and willing them to be ready. At the cooker now, however, I can take my time, plan a bit, experiment, hover casually, listen to radio, sing along.

There have been other odd jobs too. A trip to the national archives here, and an afternoon of DIY there.

One superb joy of being out of work is having more time with my 15 month old son. He is still in creche much of the time, but I take him out for days at a time, and even when he's in there, I often leave him in late or take him out early. He is an addiction. He is a sponge for affection, and hoovers up kisses and mad, sustained hugs.

My time off has also allowed me to return to literature. For me this has meant leaping back into the two forms I most enjoy - the personal essay and short fiction. In short fiction I have returned to my heroes - Richard Ford, Tobias Wolff, John Cheever, Vladimir Nabokov. And I have found new treasures - like the marvellous "Dog Heaven", by Stephanie Vaughan, a truly wonderful example of the short story. I found this in audio form on the New Yorker Fiction website. I have listened to it three or four times, each time discovering more nuances and connections in this complex, inventive, and delightful tale.

I came across a personal essay that struck so many inner chords that I must have chimed for several minutes. It was "For my Brothers and Sisters in the Failure Business" by Seymour Krim. He says a lot about work, and even more about the notion of failure, all of which is just right for a person in my position. Krim wrote "It is still your work or role that finally gives your definition in our society, and the thousands of people who I believe are like me are those who have never found the professional skin to fit the riot in their souls".

Over these last few weeks, the state of my soul could hardly be described as a riot, but there certainly was some kind of ruction. For the moment, I have sought to let it rage, for no doubt I will have to call it off soon enough.

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