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.

And vs. Or

Resurrection

Shortly after I launched this blog, a friend suggested that I feature stories about people who lost their jobs but ended up triumphant, which got me to thinking about this seductive and increasingly iconic Great Recession storyline.

The appetite for such stories is easy to understand. They’re a welcome antidote to the anxious uncertainty that pervades our times. They fuel our optimism, calm our fears. They tell us that no matter how bleak things may seem they’re still likely to end well. “This is a series about people who stared down the Great Recession—and reinvented themselves along the way,” is how the online magazine Salon describes its series “My Brilliant Second Career.”

But for all this narrative’s compelling appeal, I’ve found myself balking at it, uneasy with the vision of a fantasy future squared off against the past. In particular, I worry that in our eager rush towards happier times, we risk losing sight of what these years have had to teach us—that we’ll come to view this era’s difficulties as things that “shouldn’t  have happened to me” rather than as a shared experience that shaped and transformed our lives.

Our individualist culture thrives on hierarchies and dichotomies. Good vs. Bad. Success vs. Failure. Winner vs. Loser.  It’s easy to fixate on securing a spot on the right side of the divide. When we come to the end of a challenging stretch, we often heave a sigh of relief and do our best to forget.  That was then. This is now. I am not that person anymore. (Thank God, I am not that person!)

But there’s another way through such transitions, one that involves expanding to encompass even the hardest parts of our pasts. I thought of this recently when reading my friend Allegra Jordan’s beautiful guest post on how the abrupt end of her marriage, which also coincided with a job loss, led her to launch her public-spirited Innovation Abbey consulting firm. What I especially loved about his piece was its recognition—and acceptance—of the ways in which past and present necessarily coexist.  As William Faulkner famously wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

Why does this matter? Because once we accept that our lives are inherently messy, imperfect, and informed by a past we didn’t choose, we can start to let go of the futile notion that life should be an endless progression upwards.  We can be kinder to ourselves—and kinder to each other. We can start to understand—really understand—that we are not good or bad, successes or failures, winners or losers. We are all of these things, many times over, and many more besides.