Gratitude for what I have – and also for what I did not

Vintage Thanksgiving Day Postcard

This has been a year of big changes for me, most of them for the good. After three years of under and unemployment, I rejoined the workforce this September in a full-time job that, I’m happy to say, seems to be going quite well. While I miss the daily rural beauty of western Mass, I’m also deriving real (if surprising) pleasure from being back in a city. Plus friends and a weekly UMass Amherst teaching gig still draw me back on a regular basis.

My situation at this time last year was very different – as reflected in the title of last year’s holiday post: Thanksgiving in Plan B Nation (or how to be grateful when you don’t feel grateful). I had just started this blog – that post was its fifth – and was still having a hard time making sense of my life’s trajectory. I’m doing what? I’m living where? All that work, all those credentials, and I’ve ended up here?

This year, I have no trouble tapping into gratitude: Work, friends, writing, home – all of it, right at the moment, feels pretty good, a testament to how suddenly life can turn around.

But along with these obvious reasons, I’m grateful for something more: I’m grateful both for what I have now and for what I didn’t have then.

I’m grateful for how this time in the jobs wilderness forced me to expand my sense of who I am apart from my credentials.

I’m grateful for the ways it led me to become braver as a writer – to take risks that I likely wouldn’t otherwise have taken.

I’m grateful for this blog and other writing opportunities – for the intellectual sustenance, support, and friendships, connections that I am taking with me into this next stage of life.

I’m grateful for having had a chance to move to the country and deepen my ties to a part of the world I love.

I’m grateful for the ways this stretch of life fostered greater compassion for millions of people struggling for reasons that are often largely (or entirely) beyond their control.

And most of all, I’m grateful for the fact that I can feel grateful – for the fact that I had the resources to navigate these challenges without being crushed by them. In that, I was very, very lucky. Many, of course, are not.  As I look to the future in Plan B Nation, gratitude strikes me as an excellent foundation for thinking about how to change this.

Why some people have all the jobs

With careful Douglas training, women do accurate electrical assembly and installation work, Douglas Aircraft Company, Long Beach, Calif. (LOC)

“Some folks do all the marryin’ for the rest of us,” a single Southern friend once quipped, contemplating a twice-wed acquaintance preparing to tie the knot once again.

More and more, the same thing appears to be true of work. This thought first struck me a couple years back during my seemingly endless stretch of under and un-employment. A friend (who shall remain nameless since I know without asking that he – or she – would want it that way) was juggling four jobs at once: university teaching, a book contract, a weekly column for a national publication, and a public service post. By way of contrast, I at the time had none.

It didn’t make a lot of sense to me then, and it doesn’t now – even as I find myself suddenly switching roles. From no jobs, I’ve gone to having two: a full-time position in communications and a part-time teaching gig. My challenges are now the reverse of what they were before. I’ve gone from having no work at all to working all the time.

And apparently, I’m far from alone – in both experiences. Last week, I listened with grim fascination to a report on NPR’s On Point about America’s growing hordes of involuntary part-time workers. In recent years, the ratio of full to part-timers has been doing a flip-flop. Over just two decades many major retailers have gone from 70% or more full-timers to that percentage of part-timers, as the New York Times recently reported.

This wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing. But, as it happens, it is. Here’s why: Part-timers can’t support themselves on the $8.00 or $10 an hour they make – especially given that employers often limit their hours to 10 or 15 a week. 15 times $10? You do the math.

So why don’t they just get another job? Because they can’t. Retailers are increasingly requiring what’s known in the industry as “open availability.” You may work only 10 hours a week, but you’re still expected to be ready and waiting 24/7.

Behind this disturbing trend is increasingly sophisticated software that now enables companies to track customer flow by 15-minute increments, calling in part-timers for the brief windows, sometimes just a couple of hours, when their labor will contribute most to the company’s bottom line. What if you need to plan for childcare or you want to take a college class? The response is a simple one, just two words: Too bad.

Most appalling of all (at least to me) is the practice known as “on-call scheduling,” where employees are required to call in two hours before a shift would begin to find out if they’ll be working. Are they paid for blocking out this time? No, they are not.

As a growing number of critics like this one are noting, this essentially amounts to corporate welfare. In shifting the costs to employees, businesses are pushing many of them into poverty. The rest of us pay for food stamps and emergency room visits to compensate for business refusal to pay a living wage – or even to allow their employees a chance to pick up hours elsewhere. (And this issue isn’t just limited to part-timers either – ongoing contract negotiations in Cincinnati are bringing attention to the fact that many of the city’s full-time janitors qualify for programs such as food stamps, Medicaid, and housing assistance, as the Nation described last week.) Romney’s 47% have nothing on Wal-Mart and Abercrombie & Fitch.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the spectrum, high-end salaried workers – where added hours mean added profits for employers without added costs – are seeing their hours shoot through the roof. Within days of hearing the NPR report on involuntary part-timers, I also read an essay by a mom who’d just given up her corporate law job, finding it impossible to balance the demands of work with the other demands of life.

My own situation is, of course, quite different. For one thing, I don’t have kids (though I do have other interests that also take time). For another, the hours of my full-time job have been entirely reasonable. It’s adding another job on top of it that’s made things hard to manage. But like many workers laid-off during the Great Recession, I returned to the workforce in a position that pays substantially less than my former. Yes, I love teaching, but I can also use the money.

This morning I snapped wide awake at 4:30 am. This was a frequent occurrence during the turbo-charged stress of my job search, but this is the first time it’s happened since being re-employed. At first, I was mystified about what lay behind it. But two hours later, it’s come to me: There was something I needed to say.

My Plan B Nation story — and ours

rock climbing is fun!

There are times you look back and say: “Why was I so freaked out? That wasn’t such a big deal.”

And there are times you look back and say: “I can’t believe I did that.”

The past few months put me squarely in the latter camp. I feel a bit as if I’ve doggedly scaled a steep and treacherous incline. Peering down from the summit, my stomach flips as I gauge the precipitous drop, the jagged rocks below.

Metaphors aside, here are the facts: Over the course of about six weeks – mid-August to late September – I applied for and accepted a full-time job, packed up my two-bedroom-with-basement rental in western Mass, found a new apartment in Boston (and this was in September when, as realtors repeatedly told me, EVERYTHING is gone), moved, and started the aforementioned job. Oh, and I also defended a case in housing court and began teaching a weekly seminar at UMass Amherst, a solid four-hour roundtrip from where I now live. Not surprisingly, I’ve yet to unpack, and my apartment resembles a cross between a pre-renovation Bramford (shout-out to Rosemary’s Baby fans) and a hoarder’s storage unit.

Given the level of ambient chaos, it’s also not surprising that this blog went silent in early September. I was last heard from on September 9, when I wrote about losing 20 pounds on the stress-induced Blow-Up-Your-Life Diet. And as I’ve stumbled through the early stages of life in a new neighborhood – How do I register to vote? Where is the closest dry cleaner? And, perhaps most importantly, where do I get good coffee? – I’ve felt that I simply don’t have the bandwidth to blog as well.

I say “felt” because it recently struck me that there’s more to it than this. It’s not just that I’ve been crazy busy, though that’s certainly true. It’s also that I’ve lost my storyline, the identity that’s defined me.

Hard as unemployment was (and it was plenty hard), it ultimately launched me into a new life – and a new identity. As I chronicled my experience of the Great Recession, first in Salon here and here and later on this blog, I found new sources of meaning and new sources of pride.The person I became was braver and stronger than the person I’d been. She was also a more confident writer and a more compassionate person. “I’m the poster girl for failure!” I quipped to a friend some months back. But by then I didn’t mean failure as failure: I meant failure as a kind of success – failure as the path to a life no less rich for having been unchosen.

Last month, in a piece on the New York Times Motherlode blog, K.J. Dell’Antonia reflected on the challenges of stay-at-home parents seeking to return to the workforce. Not having kids myself, it’s something I likely wouldn’t have read, except for the fact that K.J. kindly pointed readers to this blog, suggesting that they might benefit from thinking about work issues in a broader context. To parents feeling regret for decisions made years earlier, she offered these wise words: “It’s not just that ‘what’s done is done,’ but that the way you really feel about your years and choices is colored by your current discouragement.”

I can think of no more important reminder. Where we are now is not where we’ll be in a week or a month or a year. Even when changes are mostly positive, as mine have been lately, finding the new story takes time. In any big transition – and being on my second in the past four years and my [insert large number here] since college, I feel I can speak with some authority – a critical piece involves making sense of the unfolding plotline. Who am I, now that I’m no longer the Harvard grad-turned-chronicler-of-unemployment? Who am I, now that I’m back in the workforce and transplanted back to Boston? I am the person I was before, plus the person I became during those years, plus the person I’m becoming. What is her story?

That’s what I’m figuring out now.