Around this time of year, I always think about my layoff back in 2009. It didn’t happen until mid-June, but the rounds of cuts had been going on at my company since January. That and a breakup earlier in the year had spurred me to reconsider the path my life was taking. I remember May of that year being a pivotal time. I was thinking of and talking to other people about leaving my job and holing up in my mom’s house to write a book for a year (a literary agent had discovered my blogging on AOL and reached out to me. I’d even had a meeting with her in New York). I’d thought of moving to Manhattan. And I still wanted to try to move abroad at some point, but maybe not just then.
I recently had a conversation with a young woman who said she doesn’t know what she’s doing with her life. She isn’t sure of her job, her career trajectory or how her love life is going to progress.
“Just get out of here (here being New York City),” I told her.” Go to Australia. Go anywhere.”
“When did you go to Australia?” she asked.
“When I was 27.”
“That’s how old I am.” Then she signed and put her hands on my shoulders. “And you turned out OK.”
It was only partly said in jest. I was in her shoes, at her age, seven years ago. I understood the part about having put five years into a career she wasn’t sure was making her happy or was best utilizing her talents. The wondering whether her company, or any for that matter, would have her back. The worrying over ever finding love. The growing disillusionment with a city. And knowing there are a lot of choices that could be made, which is a privilege but also a source of confusion when you don’t really know where you want to end up.
(Photo courtesy amanda tipton)
I’m all about paying dues when you’re young. I made $23,400 out of college. Journalists come cheap. We start out with a fire that propels us to tell stories, even if they are about the latest zoning issue at a suburban civic meeting, and to connect with people. We want to unearth injustice and make communities better. I wrote all the time, for whoever would let me, working 12- to 14-hour days sometimes. I honed my craft, I freelanced, I wrote about a variety of topics. And the value of having done all that was supreme when I was left with no income and a lease I couldn’t get out of (never mind the condo I still technically co-owned with my ex) at 27.
You still have the ability to be incredibly scrappy in your mid-20s.
One night after my layoff, I mixed flour, salt and water in a bowl and fried it in a pan for dinner. It was sort of like naan. It was what I had. I rode my bike everywhere to avoid having to pay for public transit or a cab. A few scant grocery bags would hang off my handle bars, swaying as I pedaled, after an unemployment check came in.
Back then, life was all about signs.
I kept looking for signs, both before and after my layoff, of what I should do with myself. Everything could mean something. But nothing meant more than feeling empowered to make a decision. The first decision I made was to start a freelance career instead of going back to a 9-to-5. But there were other decisions to take care of in the weeks that followed.
I still felt so tied to Philadelphia. Or maybe weighted down is the better phrase.
One morning after meeting up with my ex to try to decide once and for all what to do with the condo we co-owned and not coming to a resolution, I propelled myself down the Schuylkill River bike trail for a 34-mile roundtrip. It was the longest bike ride I’ve ever taken in my life to this day. On the way down to Center City, I stopped at the river and cried. What the fuck happened? I kept sobbing to myself, hoping the water would give me an answer. This was certainly some shit I hadn’t signed up for.
(Photo courtesy Gary Reed)
And then my pity-party stopped, because you can also be incredibly resilient at 27. I got up and continued pedaling down to the end of the trail, and then back up to King of Prussia.
When I got home that night, I decided to treat myself: homemade sweet potato gnocchi with butter sauce. A labor of love with my hands after one with my legs. I ate it all and promptly passed out. I was finally learning how to take care of myself. Like really care for me. I wrote this blog post a few days later, on August 17, 2009:
After 27 years, I finally get that life’s not about running away but running toward where you’re meant to be, even if it’s going to be difficult and inconvenient getting there.
And then of course, this post, on August 31, 2009, announcing my adventure to Oz. I was inspired by at least a dozen people along the way who’d done similar crazy things. A few I’m friends with IRL today.
When I think back to 27, I was a goddamn wreck. But I was also one brave bitch.
It was scary as hell as I tried to figure it all out. But over the course of those initial seven weeks, I started to get it together. The facts were simple: The job I’d had, the person I’d been with and the city I’d lived in were no longer right for me. The universe had been trying to tell me that (see part on signs) but I’d ignored it for quite a while. And then when I couldn’t anymore, I made a choice and changed my life.
I look back now at that broke, lost 27-year-old and think, Thanks, girl. Much of what I have in my life now is owed to her grit and the daring to act upon a dream when she was left with nothing.
And I dare any other person, young or old, who’s in a soul-searching situation similar to the one I was in right around this time back in 2009 to do something bold.
Take a class on something you’ve always wanted to learn or a hobby you did as a kid but lost touch with when you grew up.
Book a plane ticket to a place you’ve never visited.
Chat up a stranger, anywhere.
Take yourself out to dinner solo.
Ask the coworker, best friend, guy/girl at the coffee shop you’ve had your eye on out to coffee/beer/gelato (but only if you’re both single, because cheaters are assholes).
If you absolutely hate your job or where you are in your life in general, find a quiet time and place to “sit in your own shit” as my friend Nicole likes to say. Stop ignoring it. Take the time to figure out your “what next,” whether that is quitting something, starting something, going somewhere else or staying put and sorting yourself out with therapy, nature, acupuncture, whatever it takes to get yourself right.
Just do something. I can promise you, from the other side, that it will be worth it.
(Photo courtesy Cathy McCray)