I Lost the Plot

I have been trying to make sense of the world and failing. I lost the plot sometime long before the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic turned everything upside down. Even before the political, cultural and spiritual nightmare of the 2016 election, I was finding it hard to keep tied the worn narrative threads I had used to explain what the world is, how it worked and my place in it.

My priorities changed. I took less and less satisfaction in the work of my twenty year long professional career. The culture of my workplace had become psychologically treacherous, toxic, though the poisons hid themselves well behind a veneer of being “like a family”.

I was sad, stressed out, and anxious but couldn’t figure out how to articulate why. I began working with a therapist who quickly diagnosed mid-life ennui. It was easy enough to spot the symptoms of existential dread, a sense of impending loss and a generalized confusion that lay like a blanket across most everything.

Never a big taker of meds, my therapist prescribed poetry and a few books on mid-life. I came to understand my journey as mostly spiritual, an urge to grow larger on the inside than I was on the outside. Kinder. Simpler. More generous. I am learning to treat my anxiety like a compass, which can be used to navigate my way toward a better sense of balance, a sense of purpose and, perhaps someday, clarity.

In May 2020, I left my job for a better work situation. This was a time when millions of other people were losing jobs due to the pandemic. I wanted to write about my year-long job search experience because it was so surreal, dispiriting at times yet also fascinating. But writing about my successful career shift seemed wrong at at time when so many others had just been tossed out of theirs without a similar degree of agency.

And then, the challenges of joining a new work team while working entirely remote. This was also an experience I thought I might write to share what I was learning. But I had just recently stood in a crowd at the local Black Lives Matter rally, all of us masked against the contagion of virus. I felt a sense of solidarity and belonging, but I also felt the disconnect between the modest upsets of my most recent challenges and the generational fears of people whose worries went so much deeper — would they work, would their kids have housing and food, would they get killed for walking through a neighborhood or park or shot by police while reaching into the car glove box for license and registration.

Nobody should care what I had to say about career changes and joining a new work team.

I have come to think about the sustained existential collapse of recent years as a collapse of privilege. I am a white guy — 47 years old, college educated and fairly affluent. I was taught to expect to understand the world and that, most of the time, the world’s self-interests would align with my own. I came to believe that I could do the most good by not making trouble, by being agreeable and friendly which, it turns out, is not quite the same thing as being kind or useful.

Being kind and useful require making trouble sometimes. Being kind and useful means being disagreeable and, when required, unfriendly.

All of this is to say I am trying to understand what is required of me in this moment. What have I taken as true that is untrue? Where has the fear of being thought unkind become mortar to patch and preserve the crumbling status quo? Where has privilege taught me to expect I deserve the equilibrium of comfort, ease and unending entertainment?

What is this world and what is my place in it? What do I wish it might become?

And then, how do I stop myself from living in the world as it is and start myself living in the world as I wish it might become?

Lost For Words

This year I’ve been lost for words. Quite literally. Which is peculiar timing. At the beginning of pandemic pandemonium, I imagined myself chronicling the day to day experience of our lives pushed suddenly into upheaval, a kind of contemporary Samuel Pepys, but with Twitter and WordPress. It hasn’t worked out that way.

I’ve spent most of this year feeling mentally paralyzed, my mind reving like a car engine stuck in neutral. Ready to go somewhere, anywhere, but never quite grabbing the gear. There’s been too much to say and, I should admit, better people to say it.

When my year began, I was deep in job search, seeking professional change from my twenty year career that no longer fit me. I had changed. My work had changed. I no longer fit. Being a piece that no longer fits becomes incredibly uncomfortable, lonely. So, I set myself the challenge of finding somewhere else to fit.

In good times, economically healthy times, the job search process can be a trial of absurdities. The work of distilling a successful 20 year career down into two pages (one’s better) so that someone, or some machine, might actually read it and give you a call. No one called for months. And then the few times they did, it was an awkward, embarrassing affair. You can’t blog about a job search while you are in the midst of a job search. The doesn’t go well. You are meant to keep these things private until you are ready to make the jump. At the time, I imagined myself blogging about it all afterward in a kind of congratulatory hindsight. I would write about the time a colleague I had mentored landed an interview for a job for which I thought I might be asked to interview. The time I called an HR recruiter at the appointed hour only to sit on hold for 15 minutes while the robot receptionist told me over and over, “You have successfully joined the call, but you are the only one here.” So much sadness and regret in that automated voice loop.

Happily, months of casting letters and resumes into the void paid off. I found and accepted my new work in March. I started in May. By then I was, like so many others, working entirely from home, trying to figure out how to perform my core responsibilities online and guide my team through a series of disorienting transitions. We did it. We built a model for providing quality library service to our students and college staff during a pandemic. And then, I told this team for which I cared so much that I was leaving. I told them on a Zoom call and then set myself to the work of gathering and organizing 20 years of experience and lessons learned to keep them on a productive path. When the time came we said goodbye on another Zoom call.

I joined my new team in remote status. Seven months later, we have yet to meet in person. I am enjoying the work very much and my colleagues are terrific — smart, committed, and passionate about supporting scientific discovery. Like so many others around the world, I made my office in my living room and have no idea when/if I can expect to work onsite. I had thought I might write about the challenges of midlife career change and joining a remote work team, but the idea of writing about my own successful, intentional transition at a time when so many others had suddenly lost their work to the pandemic seemed somehow wrong. Bragging about it seemed an uncomfortable blast of middle-class, knowledge worker privilege.

And then, George Floyd. We were already locked into a summer of death from the pandemic, when the violence known by Black Americans as daily life washed across all my screens. Twitter, Facebook, the news. The violence of anti-Black America showed up everywhere, seemingly all at once. It showed up in police forces. It showed up in so-called leaders across the state and country. It showed up in conversation with people I had considered friends. And I felt powerless, which is a feeling, I see now, that people like me rarely feel.

And so, I became truly at a loss for words. I began to notice how all the basic underpinnings of my life — my safety, my finance, my work opportunities, my leisure — were all shaped by privilege. It is privilege I did not ask for and, I think, it is privilege I cannot escape. And so, faced with the sudden vision of how grossly lucky I have been and how grossly unlucky others have been, I felt I had nothing useful in the moment to say. So, I tried to be quiet and listen to other voices, voices I might normally not hear.

All of this is to say that I have been profoundly disoriented and am trying to find new ways to reorient myself. This blog has long been a space where I can work out my own thoughts with myself. I have appreciated the kindness, affirmation and occasional challenge of those who have taken time to read this mess as I sort my way through. It has been a strange, challenging year. My family and I remain healthy and safe. I have work that I enjoy that is connected to meaningful purpose. My daughter is growing into her own person, a person I like very much. I enjoy being stuck in my house with my wife and daughter.

This is all to say, things are going well for me. Despite the pandemic scourge. Despite the brokenness of American mythology. Despite all the uncertainties.

I want to be useful. It isn’t enough to sit and weather the storm. I need to make something useful from all of this. It is time I start finding my words. I seem to have found a few here. I expect to keep searching until I find more.